Psycho, Killer, Bigot, or Saint? Christians in the Movies in 2008.

It’s 2008, and I’m still waiting to see if any brave filmmakers out there will dare to introduce a Christian character who isn’t a mass murderer or a psychopath.

No, I’m not looking for a “Christian movie” with an altar call at the end. God forbid. I would just like to see a few films that take Christian characters seriously.

In my life among Christians, I ‘ve met three or four I’ve met who are actually dangerous in in their misguided beliefs and convictions. (And I’ve met a handful of unbelievers who qualify as dangerous for their own views.) I’ve met quite a few who are frightfully naive. (And I’ve met quite a few unbelievers of similarly dismaying ignorance.) The ratio of frightening Christians to frightening non-Christians is really not so different. There are extremists and lunkheads in any community, I suspect.

But most Christians I’ve known in my life within Christian communities have been decent, enjoyable, neighborly folks whose lives have been strengthened by faith, and who were probably kinder and gentler and more compassionate than they would have been without that faith. They’ve had the most of the same problems as unbelievers, the same strengths, and the same struggles.

There have been some memorable recent portrayals of Christians who actually seemed like human beings. But for the most part, it’s been business as usual: The Christian character is usually a wacko screaming for hellfire and brimstone, resorting to sensational violence, or a sour-faced prude.

Once in a while, these not-so-flattering portrayals point out destructive tendencies in human behavior that are worth taking seriously. I’m hearing that Snow Angels might qualify as a good film about a mixed-up Christian. And I found the pyschotic religious zealot in There Will Be Blood to be a fascinating character (although I don’t think he was a Christian. He claimed to be a prophet for something called “the Third Revelation” that gave him some kind of healing power. And he did not seem interested in preaching the gospel.)

But most of the time, movies that portray Christians as monsters do more to betray the screenwriter’s own ignorance or bigotry than to shed any light on the nature of faith. I’m convinced that someone could hold an annual “Christians are Psychotic and Insane” film festival, and keep the screens busy with qualified motion pictures each year.

So, I’m marking this as a Post In Progress. Over the course of this year, let’s observe how Christians are portrayed on the big screen, for the purposes of celebrating those artists that dare to portray Christians in an honest, thoughtful fashion. I’m not saying we should complain whenever a Christian is portrayed as misbehaving. But let’s applaud those rare thoughtful portrayals, and call those paper-thin portrayals of prejudice exactly what they are.

Last year, I was especially impressed by portrayals of Christians in Amazing Grace, Longford, and Lars and the Real Girl. These characters had strengths, weaknesses, and complexity.

Where have you seen Christians on the big screen in 2008?

Looks like we have an interesting case on the way:

Via Cinematical, here’s the summary for an upcoming film called From Within starring Adam Goldberg. (I’ve bolded a little detail that caught my eye.)

“The small, serene community of Grovetown is shaken by the dual suicide of a young couple. When more suicides quickly follow, people in the evangelical town turn a blind eye and cling firmly to their deep-seated beliefs. Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice), a local student and girlfriend of the pastor’s son, is not so dismissive. She begins to prod deeper into the mystery and befriends Aidan (Thomas Dekker), a non-believer whose family has stirred controversy before. Lindsay soon discovers that something evil and indescribable is at work, moving parasitically from victim to victim. As the frightened locals begin looking for revenge, Lindsay is convinced she will be the next to die and realizes that Aidan may be the only hope of eradicating the suicidal plague.”

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • facesunveiled

    I just wrote some thoughts on There Will Be Blood on my blog. I’d agree that Eli Sunday isn’t really a believer, though I do go in some different directions in trying to find the spirituality/morality in the film. (I compare it to a Flannery O’Connor story, for one thing.)

  • judg

    Amazing Grace was indeed amazing. Seeing as Wilberforce is one of my personal heroes, I found it very refreshing to see that portrayal.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Randy,

    Reilly’s character is one of my favorite portrayals of a Christian in recent years. I’m pretty sure he’s on the list that I linked to in this post. That’s one of the reasons I disagreed with those who attacked Paul Thomas Anderson for “anti-Christian bigotry” in There Will Be Blood. I believe Anderson’s much more careful about his portrayals than that, and he made a Christian one of the most endearing characters in a film about people who are lost and despairing.

  • http://www.gohope.net Randy Greenwald

    I know it’s ten years old, but my favorite Christian character of all time is the police officer in Magnolia played by John C. Reilly. Perhaps since I am relatively new to this blog, you have had discussions of his character. If so, I’d love to be directed to the archive of that discussion. I’m fascinated that in a movie in which every character’s life is falling apart, the one whose life is most together is the man whose first appearance on screen shows him in prayer before a crucifix.


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