Change We Can Believe In… At the Movies

The Passion of the Christ inspired speculation—in Christian and mainstream media—that things might be changing for Christians in Hollywood. Some used stronger language, declaring that the gate of Hollywood were swinging open wide for faith-focused filmmakers. Some Christians began to speak with an Obama-level fever for CHANGE in Hollywood.

So, here we are a few years later. What have we seen happen?

We’ve debated the merits of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Bella, and Facing the Giants. We’ve noted powerful figures of faith in movies from non-Christian filmmakers (best example: Sophie Scholl). We’ve pondered whether Expelled should be described as a “Christian movie.” And we’ve observed the subtle de-emphasizing of C.S. Lewis’s Christian convictions in both Narnia films.

We’ve seen a bunch of films from Walden Media, heralded as a promising surge of “family friendly” filmmaking, but criticized for consistent mediocrity.

We’ve seen a growing crowd of Christian film critics offer a wide range of perspectives on box office hits. More and more began recommending ways in which Christians can cleverly engage the culture with art and entertainment. Some dug in their heels and stuck to their “We must clean up Hollywood!” speaking points. They praised movies that blatantly glorify Christianity and America, and condemned those that portray sinful Christians or misguided Americans.

One organization went so far as to declare an intention to eliminate all R-rated, and even PG-13-rated “content.” And yet, many argue that artists are working in an R-rated world, and that meaningful art will often reflect R-rated realities.

Some argued that the box office success of G-rated family fare should point us in the right direction. Others answered that box office success and excellence have very little in common, and that money should not have much influence over the decisions of artists… especially those who are creative in the name of Christ. And other Christians in the industry just kept doing their jobs, striving for excellence on whatever movie they’d been hired to craft.

There’s been a lot of talk. A lot of activity. But do you think that The Passion really improved things? Or did it just spark increasingly divisive debates? Has it prompted a more volatile “culture war,” or a fruitful cultural dialogue? (Or both?) What difference, ultimately, did it make?

Those are some of the questions I’ll be discussing with Dick Staub and others at a live edition of The Kindlings Muse tomorrow night. But I’m interested in your thoughts:

  • Did The Passion really open the door for good things?
  • Or has all the sound and fury represented what is really just more of the same?
  • Or are things worse all around?

Bonus questions: Are you hoping things will change at the movies? What kind of change are you hoping for? A “cleaner” big screen? More “religious” filmmaking, and if so, what kind? More documentaries representing different worldviews? What movie would you hold up as an example that could inspire Christians in filmmaking to bring us better movies in the future?

Your thoughtful reply might end up on tomorrow night’s live show.

  • Facebook
  • http://solshine7.blogspot.com solshine7

    We’ve made some strides in Hollywood but the race is far from being finished. A film as poignant as Mel Gibson’s The Passion isn’t something easy to be topped and I don’t think it ever will unless it’s something as bold and is centered around an aspect of Jesus or the early church.

    http://www.thinkvirtue.com

  • petertchattaway

    But at least the political or religious ends were not trotted out as excuses for bad art.

    Perhaps not, but “badness” is sometimes in the eye of the beholder; I remember telling a friend of mine about how Francis Schaeffer, I think, cited a famous statue of the emperor Constantine as an example of how artistic standards had declined over the course of the Roman Empire, and my friend, who is Orthodox (I wasn’t at the time) replied that Schaeffer was missing the point of what the not-so-”realistic” artwork was intended for.

    And then there is the old expression: “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” In other words, if it’s a choice between doing something badly and doing nothing at all, is doing nothing really the better option? Filmmakers, like all artists, have to start somewhere, and Facing the Giants was definitely the work of “amateurs” — and I mean that in the best possible sense of the word, i.e. people who weren’t professionals but they had a definite love and enthusiasm for what they were doing. Hopefully they will get better over time, but for now, given their experience and given their intentions, I’m inclined to cut them quite a bit of slack.

    For example, I have grown weary of all the hype over Bella as a movie that has saved babies.

    Ah, well, no argument there. But I think the hype around that movie was problematic for a number of reasons.

  • http://www.doxaweb.com claytone

    It seems to me that a lot of the art that has survived down to our present time — possibly even most of it — was created for political or religious purposes.

    Very true.

    But at least the political or religious ends were not trotted out as excuses for bad art. For example, I have grown weary of all the hype over Bella as a movie that has saved babies.

    I immediately think of two quotes from Flannery O’Connor:

    “For many writers it is easier to assume a universal responsibility for souls than it is to produce a work of art, and it is considered better to save the world than to save the work.” (from The Church and the Fiction Writer)

    “Poorly written novels — no matter how edifying the behavior of the characters — are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying…. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.” (from Catholic Novelists)

  • petertchattaway

    claytone wrote:
    It seems to me that — traditionally — art has been considered good for its own sake, and not because of some external result it was supposed to achieve.

    Has it? Traditionally, I mean? It seems to me that a lot of the art that has survived down to our present time — possibly even most of it — was created for political or religious purposes. Religious icons, statues of emperors, and so forth.

    I don’t know if I would say that all such art is “utilitarian”. But I do think it is possible to make a film as an act of prayer, just as “writing” an icon — the Orthodox term for painting an icon — is typically seen as an act of worship akin to prayer.

    I don’t know if the people creating these icons do so with the intent of “achieving” an “external result”, per se, but there is something deeper going on than creating pure entertainment for people’s enjoyment.

    jenzug wrote:
    Secondly, I’m not really comfortable with black and white distinctions between “Christian” films and “non-Christian” films.

    Me neither, but I am comfortable with shades of grey, and with the notion that some things — including some works of art — are more “Christian” or “sacred” than others.

  • jenzug

    First of all, I’m not really comfortable with Christians “legislating morality,” so to speak, within Hollywood.

    Secondly, I’m not really comfortable with black and white distinctions between “Christian” films and “non-Christian” films. I think stories of sin, redemption, and reconciliation can be seen in many films, mostly because set-up, upset, reset is a common story-telling element, as well as a part of real life. We can still learn from something that doesn’t have the Jesus label on it.

    I agree with the point that Mel Gibson had something to say, so he made a movie. I don’t think we should hold that movie up as the poster boy example of how to spread the Gospel in Hollywood. It’s art, and art is created because God created us to be sub-creators. We create because we were made in the image of God, though not everyone acknowledges Christ.

    In a perfect world, I would love to see Christians use their minds to thoughtfully discern what is useful for spiritual growth and inspiration, and simply chalk up the rest to “not applicable.” I grow weary of Christians who judge without understanding, who dictate morality for the rest of us, who try to put God in a box.

    Bryan came a across this great scripture in Proverbs the other day: He who answers before listening – that is his folly and shame (18:13). I think a lot of this debate over Christian/non-christian, moral/non-moral, appropriate/inappropriate – particularly in the Sex and the City debate – stems from people judging in foolishness before listening to what’s there.

  • http://www.doxaweb.com claytone

    If a film is produced specifically as an act of “ministry”, more than as an act of entertainment, should the film perhaps be judged according to different criteria than we normally use?

    Good question.

    I am a bit concerned by the trend among Christians to put the emphasis on using film as a tool to some external end… It seems to me that — traditionally — art has been considered good for its own sake, and not because of some external result it was supposed to achieve. Is our concept of film becoming more utilitarian, as are other aspects of our lives?

  • petertchattaway

    Just wondering: What does it mean to ask if a film is “any good as a movie”? Is there only one kind of “movie”? If a film is produced specifically as an act of “ministry”, more than as an act of entertainment, should the film perhaps be judged according to different criteria than we normally use? Etc., etc.

  • http://www.doxaweb.com claytone

    I find it interesting that we spend a lot of time talking about how much movies make / how many people see them. This seems to me a question for the bean counters, but not really a germane consideration for the artist or the audience.

    Facing The Giants may have made a lot of money, but was it any good as a movie? I felt it was painfully bad storytelling…

  • chessncoffee

    “For what it‚Äôs worth, I would argue that The Nativity Story and Evan Almighty failed to tap into the religious market all that well because they played things too safe, too inclusive, too non-controversial…Christians of a certain stripe, I think, tend to be mobilized towards seeing a movie when they feel it is ‚Äúunder attack‚Äù.”

    Exactly. I would also say that the lack of controversy surrounding those films kept non-Christians away as well as Christians. If they considered a film to be just a “Christian” movie, made and marketed for Christians, then they probably wouldn’t go see it, but with such a fuss surrounding the Passion, I think a lot of non-Christians did go see the film because of that.

  • petertchattaway

    nkleszcz wrote:
    A case can be made that it’s because the above mentioned movies weren’t all that good.

    For what it’s worth, I would argue that The Nativity Story and Evan Almighty failed to tap into the religious market all that well because they played things too safe, too inclusive, too non-controversial. I was on the junket for both films, and the filmmakers in both cases took pains to say that their films were different from The Passion of the Christ because their films were trying to “include” everybody.

    What everyone seems to miss is the fact that The Passion of the Christ was successful precisely because it stirred sh*t up. It was divisive and wasn’t afraid to make its divisiveness a selling point (albeit only to a point; while Mel Gibson excoriated the “liberal” media and pandered to the “grassroots”, “red state” audience members, he did not make an issue of his traditionalist brand of Catholicism; you could say that Gibson separated the sheep from the goats but did not separate the white sheep from the black sheep, as it were).

    And this, I think, also partly explains why Facing the Giants was as big a hit as it was (certainly any movie that costs $100,000 to make and grosses $10,000,000 at the box office has to be considered a hit; that’s $100 earned for every $1 invested, which is better than The Passion did!). Facing the Giants attracted nationwide attention — and threats of government intervention in the MPAA’s ratings procedures — largely because of the controversy over its PG rating.

    It’s not just that controversy sells. Christians of a certain stripe, I think, tend to be mobilized towards seeing a movie when they feel it is “under attack”. That was certainly the case with The Passion, and I think that may have been the case with Facing the Giants — but that certainly wasn’t a selling point for either The Nativity Story or Evan Almighty.

  • PeregrinJoe

    One of my issues with the Passion is that I didn’t know of a single person who did not known Christ who went to see it and yet it was heralded as a great evangelism tool.

    I feel like Mel Gibson and his ilk manipulate the Christian community for cash because we want so desperately to be seen as culturally relevant that we will throw our money and support behind anything that appears to be coming from a godly motive.

    That being said, I fear that The Passion may have opened a door for a lot of really bad films being produced by Christians with sincere motives, and/or a bunch of burned Christians who are tempted to abandon Hollywood altogether.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com noneuclidean

    Aslanfrodo,

    I just watched the trailer for Fireproof. sigh….

  • aslanfrodo

    My wife and I were just talking about similar issues yesterday upon seeing an article for Fireproof (from the makers of Facing the Giants). We somehow hope that Christians can tell excellent stories in film, and I worry that movies like the above two just aren’t cutting it. How about Lars and the Real Girl? When is the last time anyone has seen the church portrayed as a truly loving community, as in that film?

  • nkleszcz

    I fear the examples you gave really don’t count.

    Hollywood, as I see it, made two very serious attempts to court The Passion’s audience. The Nativity Story was buzzed about and promoted heavily, and yet it received a tepid response. Evan Almighty is currently the title-holder for the most expensive comedy of all time, and while it crossed the $100-mil line, it will go down as one of the biggest money-losers of all time.

    A case can be made that it’s because the above mentioned movies weren’t all that good. And, for many people, they weren’t. But with Adam Sandler films and ho-hum TV-to-movie adaptations and mediocre sequels and predictable rom-coms continually being made (collecting huge profits), a case hasn’t been made that The Passion audience really exists. An audience exists if that audience actually goes out of their way to see a film, even if it looks mediocre.

    And in case I am misunderstood, in no way am I endorsing mediocrity… I just recognize that one can’t hit one out the gate each and every time.

  • claytone

    I don’t think Mel Gibson intended to initiate a new epoch of Christian filmmaking. He just had something to say and he said it with the considerable filmmaking skill at his disposal.

    Did The Passion change anything? I’m not sure. It demonstrated that excellence can sell, but not necessarily that it will sell… or that executives will distribute excellent product. (For example, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford didn’t receive adequate distribution, although it achieved excellence in several ways.)

    Did The Passion give some Christian moviemakers the impression that there were “Passion dollars” to be made? Yes. Did it lead to better filmmaking among Christians who are actually getting projects made? There’s been less evidence of this.

    On the contrary, some Christians have adopted the guerilla marketing techniques of The Passion without having the goods to deliver, taking advantage of the good will of Christians who want to have an impact on popular culture. I think this is problematic given the Christian principle of ends not justifying means.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com noneuclidean

    Jeffrey,

    I wonder what “organization” you are referring to. ;-)

    But seriously, this is a great question and I’m looking forward to hearing the dialogue. Kindlings Muse is always an interesting listen.

    I fall into the thinking that the Passion has only really helped fuel an unfruitful cultural battle that has more in common with marketing campaigns than it does evangelism or Truth. In many ways, I think such films have just helped move the conversation between Christian and nonchristians towards cheerleading and away from real dialogue. Bill Maher’s “Religulous” is a counter-cheer to Expelled.

    I actually dealt with this very issue, as it pertains to the phrase, “voting with your dollars,” a few weeks ago:

    Should we “Vote with our dollars” Part 1

    Should we “Vote with our dollars” Part 2

    The second part deals more specifically with the common motivation behind supporting/making “Christian” films.

    Anyway, I look forward to hearing the new episode.

    -alan

  • http://grapesky.blogspot.com joonitree

    Some of the “talk” you mention has been going on since film making began. The church has historically always been making or involved in making film. I think what Gibson did more than anyone else was to spend money on a film about Christ In return, he made money on it. I really think this gave hope to some other film makers to try to make films with Christian themes and actually be successful at the box office. I am not sure if the Passion really improved things, because it just seems like more of the same that has been going on since the beginning of Hollywood. However, there is definitely a shift in film makers spending more money on Christian films and receiving some profits from their efforts. Whether this is good or bad, I do not know if we can yet tell.

  • longpauses

    I’m genuinely curious to hear your discussion of this topic, Jeffrey. I’m hopeful that some good has come of it, but, frankly, I’m terribly cynical about Gibson’s film. It was, as far as I’m concerned, a massive success in that it more than achieved its primary (only?) function: it sold millions of movie tickets, DVDs, posters, books, magazines, calendars, t-shirts, newspapers, commercials, sterling silver and solid gold nail pendants, CDs, Bible study guides, and hundreds of hours of network, cable, and radio broadcasting all dedicated to “covering the controversy.” It was a money-making media sensation rivaled only by superheroes and Star Wars.

  • petertchattaway

    I think Time magazine was on to something when they suggested making Mel Gibson and Michael Moore fellow “Men of the Year” (or “Persons of the Year”, whatever) because they both made politically and culturally divisive films that raked in the big bucks and generated lots and lots of debate. Just as many Christians said The Passion of the Christ was going to change things for religious film, so too a lot of documentary buffs said Fahrenheit 9/11 might change things for documentaries. But the impression I get is that documentaries have been struggling since then, despite a few modest successes, just as Christian-themed films have been struggling since then, despite a few modest successes. So perhaps there was just something “in the air” in 2004 — something that both Gibson and Moore tapped into.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X