Tomorrow’s Film Forum May Catch Angry CT Movies Readers By Surprise.

Tomorrow’s Film Forum May Catch Angry CT Movies Readers By Surprise. October 4, 2006

Some Christianity Today Movies readers have sent in some very angry mail in response to Josh Hurst‘s review of Facing the Giants. They’re saying things like (and I quote…)

Shame, shame, shame on you for giving Facing the Giants a bad review! I’ve heard that Christianity Today is anti-Christian. Now, I believe it!

Yep. “Anti-Christian.” Christianity Today is “anti-Christian” because a guy wrote that there are some flaws in a movie made by Christians.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think God’s a fellow who cares about excellence. Grace, yes. Love, yes. Being salt and light in the world, yes. But excellence too, last I checked.

Wait until tomorrow, when Film Forum reveals that the majority of the Christian film critics who saw the film are finding fault with the film, to some degree or another. Sure, some of them like it better than Josh did. But most of them are willing to voice what they perceived as flaws.

Will CT readers then decide that they’re witnessing an “anti-Christian” conspiracy?
Here’s the line I still can’t get out of my head:

I think your reviewer needs to be more in touch with the average Christian rather than set themselves up as a movie critic.

Let’s try translating this comment into a few different contexts:

“I think your plumber needs to be less-adept at plumbing, more like the common person who doesn’t know how to fix broken pipes, rather than set himself up as a plumber.”

“I think the doctor needs to be more in touch with the average patient rather than set himself up as… oh… a doctor. After all, my sister feels fine, and she’s happy, so how DARE he say that she needs to have surgery?”

I just don’t get this perspective.

“We’re Christians. We make Christian art. We don’t need ‘critics.’ We’ve got Jesus, and so anything we do is beyond criticism.”

Man, I’ve been accused of a lot of things. But I certainly hope I’m never guilty of aiming to be like the “average” anything.

There are many things to admire about Facing the Giants, and we can all be impressed with how much the filmmakers accomplished with so few resources, supported by volunteers. Compared to other low-budget, Christian-produced films, well, it’s certainly better than the norm. But does it stand up to the great films of movie history? Should we excuse it for its weaknesses just because it was made by Christians?

If we do that, we set the bar pretty low for other Christian artists, telling them there’s really no reason to aim higher.

Just because a film has an inspiring story about how it was made… and just because the story that the film tells is inspiring… does not mean that the film is flawless or somehow excused from critique. It’s like football. If you want to play in the big leagues, you have to step up and play big-league ball, and take big-league criticism.

Your whole team may be made up of Chrsitians, but that doesn’t give you the right to say it’s “anti-Christian” when someone throws a penalty flag against your team.

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15 responses to “Tomorrow’s Film Forum May Catch Angry CT Movies Readers By Surprise.”

  1. Did you ever write a review for Click? Finally saw it last night…derivative, sometimes crude, but has three very good things going for it.

    Christopher Walken
    and Kate Beckinsale.

  2. Looks like it’s time to watch Brick again, Jeff. :)

    I liked Lazrescu. It was interesting, but didn’t wow me in any way. I guess this is the thing: it was flawless at what it did, but what it set out to do was so minor in the first place. Definitely worth seeing, but I’d never watch it again.

  3. Perhaps it would be more Christian to simply do away any kind of rating scale entirely, single or multiple.

    Yes, I completely agree, not only as a Christian but as a critic in general. Labeling a film–a product which so many individuals have invested time, energy, and sometimes heart into–with something as simplistic as a star rating is not the best way to go about reviewing it, morally or intellectually. As you said, it encourages readers to skip the text and move right to the rating, thus destroying any potential for meaningful discussion. So yes, I think you are absolutely right here.

    As for McLuhan, I was just applying his famous “medium is the message” quote to the art of filmmaking and didn’t really mean to say film was his main focus. His Understanding Media does have a very interesting chapter on film, however, that I think any fan of the medium would benefit in reading. David Cronenberg also explores the McLuhan-to-entertainment connection in his amazing film Videodrome, which is worth checking out.

  4. Facing The Giants stinks; plain & simple it is not a B movie but a DMinus film ..preachy & well intentioned but a poorly done dud.The theology is also rancid :come to Jesus & your football team will win; your wife will conceive for you shall no longer fire blanks;you will receive a 25% raise and the LORD will give ya brand nyoo truck..hallelujah!!! What kind of gospel is this ?? Not the one I see in the pages of the New Testament

  5. j. caution…

    Thanks for your reponse and thoughtful insights. I would agree with you in principle that all the aspects represented in the three scales I suggested are interrelated. However, I still feel that a “one star” rating on a single scale is by its nature an elitist measure–it is the equivalent of the reviewer proclaiming that he is sure the film is not only a waste of time and money, but that it is worthy of scorn and perhaps even mockery (though he may not say that or mean it, that’s what a “one star” rating communicates to the average person). A multiple scale rating is a protection from the elitism inherent in a single scale rating.

    My gut biblical view would be that a truly “Christian” approach to film review and rating should be different from how the world does things. Perhaps it would be more Christian to simply do away any kind of rating scale entirely, single or multiple. That would do the “least harm” and force people to read the entire review to form an opinion. The one-scale rating is simply far too subjective to be truly meaningful. If being a “Christian” film critic is about more than just reaching a demographic, then I think the rating paradigm needs a rethinking.

    As to Marshall McLuhan, in my understanding he was all about how the actual, physical medium (TV, film, print, etc.) affects the perception of the message transmitted on that medium. The classic expample being the reduction of the war in Viet Nam to a screen-sized event. He wasn’t talking about the quality of what was presented on that medium at all. In the case of FTG, I would say that perhaps the filmmakers have connected with their audiences in some way through the medium of film in a way that actually transcends the issue of craftsmanship. They have made the medium part of their message, so that the things that critics howl about (acting, script) actually enhance the film experience for the common man who feels like one of the people on the screen rather than a dispassionate observer. Or not, but it’s an interesting thought.

    Just some random ponderings. Thanks for your comments and insights.

  6. To Passer-by:

    I think breaking up a film’s review into craftsmanship, content, and spirit ignores the fact that these three aspects of a film are (and should) be connected. From my experience watching films, the spirit of a film will definitely be more effective if the craft and especially content is excellent. Film is a medium used to convey information, and if the film is poorly-made, the message (however noble) will suffer as a result.

    I don’t want to pull a Marshall McLuhan on you (I’m afraid Woody Allen might pull him out and tell me I have no idea what I’m talking about), but as he puts it, the medium is the message itself. You can’t simply divide a film into three categories and evaluate them separately, because a good film will effectively use all of them toward a common, noble goal.

  7. Anonymous…

    Your unchecked criticism and sarcasm add nothing to this discussion. Your negative and cynical comments are just as offensive as the judgmentalism of the “CT is anti-Christian” writer. You’re just the other end of the spectrum. Jeff’s comments in his thoughtful post are measured and constrained, while yours just seem mean-spirited. True “dialogue,” if you’re ever really interested, requires humility and grace. Without those, it’s all just competing monologues.

  8. Hurst! Chattaway! Overstreet! You ignorant blaggards in league with the Dark Lord himself! How dare you apply intelligence, taste and discernment when reviewing Christian films! The born again collective doesn’t won’t like it. That ghastly old cliche of christians eating themselves by playing the man and not the ball-not “Gee let’s LISTEN to the critique and DIALOGUE about it-and maybe even improve next time” it’s the sad old herd menatility of “How dare you criticise!!”
    Most Christian films are made under pretense reaching the unsaved. But really many (not all) are simply made to please (or not offend) other christians. I’m imaginging that the ‘real world’ (if they even care) would be looking at this whole debate and chuckle-all thier cliched perceptions & prejudices of Christians and the films they make happily confirmed. Wake up to yourselves. Now exscuse me-I’m urgently required on the palnet earth….

  9. Interesting. But isn’t calling CT “anti-Christian” because of one film review a little like, well, calling Facing the Giants a one-star film because of one area of critique? I think this little mini-debate underscores a fundamental flaw in “Christian” film critique. Using only one standard of “rating” for a film (stars, hearts, thumbs, whatever) is like someone saying Dwight Moody was a one-heart Christian because he smoked cigars and was a glutton.

    It seems to me, as a film consumer and not a critic, that FTG (and all films for that matter) should be rated by a “Christian” reviewer on at least three scales: craftsmanship, content, and spirit. So, maybe this film truly does deserve a one-star for craftsmanship (acting, cinematography, editing). Fine, but then maybe the film’s content (script, storyline, plot) deserves two stars or more, and its spirit (inspiration, Christian message, character development) may be four stars. For a Christian reviewer to give FTG only one star to represent all those aspects of the film is, to me anyway, fundamentally unfair. A single scale rating judges the relative merits of the entire film by what is perceived to be only the world’s standard of “excellence,” which is presumed to be excellence of “craftsmanship.”

    And here’s where I’ll be a bit provocative, I’m sure. I do not see that Scripture ever calls or expects Christians to be excellent in relation to the world. The biblical language of “excellence” in both Hebrew and Greek is consistently in reference to moral and spiritual excellence. As mature Christians, and as artists, we should always be driven to express our artistic gifts to the best of our abilities because we honor God by the use and stewardship of our gifts and talents. But God does not condemn the gifted individual whose purely motivated efforts (their “first fruits”) are less than some arbitrary standard of “excellence” defined by extra-biblical standards (ie, who gets to determine what is “excellent” and what is not if God has not done that?). I would suggest that God would not judge a film “excellent” by comparing it with the world’s ideas of excellence. Rather, He would judge based on content and spirit, which is how the Scripture says He judges excellence.

    So, if a film is a theatrical release, does that mean a Christian reviewer, in order to be relevant and acceptable in the industry, must judge and “rate” a film only, or predominantly, on how it compares with films in the “big leagues”? Or, does the Christian film critic have a responsibility both to review and to rate a film by a different standard? If a film is not great, but it inspires and has a well-crafted message, should the Christian film critic rate the film only by the world’s standard? Giving FTG a one-star rating says, “I have judged this movie to be substandard. It’s a waste of time and money.” Giving it a one/two/four-star rating, though, would send a completely different, and I would submit fairer, message. In the one-dimensional secular world, perhaps a single rating scale is fine. But Christian film critics, it seems to me, should be multi-dimensional, representing the “spirit and truth” of a film that the world will not (cannot) see, and reflecting those spiritual dimensions in the rating scale used.

    It’s one thing to be a film critic who is a Christian and to seek to be acceptable in the “world” of film criticism, but it is quite another to assume the mantle of “Christian film critic”. I think if one wears the latter, then it assumes a higher responsibility and a different standard. And please don’t read “lower standard” into that sentence–it is a different standard in the same way we as Christians are called to be a “peculiar people” and be distinct from the world.

    Sorry this has been so long. I’m not trying to “challenge” your views, Jeff, but just respond to the discussion. I’m also not interested in deciding who is a “film critic and Christian” and who is a “Christian film critic”. And, yes, I too condemn the bizarre “anti-Christian” comment about CT–totally legalistic and judgmental. These are just thoughts on my mind stimulated by your post. I greatly appreciate and value your insights as one of a very few Christian film reviewers whom I truly respect. Keep it up.

  10. “I think your reviewer needs to be more in touch with the average Christian rather than set themselves up as a movie critic.”

    That’s a very telling statement but this phenomenon is not limited to Christians. I think most people in our society don’t have clue one about what criticism really is & the role it should play. I know of so many people who have been angry at reviewers because they panned their favorite big studio film, just like the person quoted above about Facing the Giants. I find it’s very rare that the Average Joe or Josephine out there can really look critically at film or TV.

    Partly this is because they’re used to “reveiws” that give a plot synopsis, including spoilers, & then rave or pan the actors (or their private lives), locations, filmaking techniques, clothes, hairstyles, etc. Real film criticism that has a POV – dare I say *worldview*? – of the sort you, Jeffrey, or Peter Chattaway or Steven Greydanus (to name just 3) is a rarity for most people these days. They read People, Entertainment Weekly, etc; magazines that trade in 1 or 2 paragraph, glib & sometimes snippy takes on films (I refuse to call those things reviews). They watch Ebert & Roper give their truncated 3 minute soundbite reviews on TV, or tune in for just the direction of the thumbs at the end – but very rarely do they actually read their print reveiws.

    When confronted with real film criticism, most folks blanch. They really don’t know what to do with it. That doesn’t fully explain why this CT reader was so hostile or the “anti-Christian” charge. But I think there’s a very visceral reaction against criticism at times & this is just another example of it.

    We who love film seek out good reviewers & books on film criticism, like your upcomming book, that relate film as an art form to our culture & take seriously how film affects culture. We understand that a good film can be good because it fires on all cylinders but great film can be culturally important in addition.

    But I don’t think most people know how good the medium can be. Partly because of TV. Filmed entertainment is beamed into our homes 24/7/365 & a whole lot of us can’t recall a time when it wasn’t. We all know there’s a whole lotta junk on the airwaves – the legacy of what Murrow called a “vast wasteland.” I’m sad to say that most of my friends, Christian or not, can’t tell the good from the bad & many of them don’t want to think critically about what they watch. They just want to be entertained.

    And it goes beyond film, of course, into literary & music criticism. We, as a society, need to learn how to think critically. Being Christian, I think we should lead the charge & bring light to that area of our culture.

  11. One caution, Jeffrey. I’m not sure the readers who wrote in are representative of CT’s readership. I don’t think you implied that in your post, but neither did you caution against it.

    I mention this because, reading the post, I do get the impression that you’re weary of CT “readers,” but CT readers have often written in with their compliments for the magazine’s movie coverage. I’d rather highlight that good, than curse the “darkness” (so to speak) in these latest responses.

  12. I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t comment on its merits or lack thereof. But as to the comments themselves, who ARE these people?! It would never enter my mind to say something like this. If a movie is poorly done, then it just is! Mainstream movies get panned all the time!

    This makes me embarrassed to be a Christian. It really does.

  13. A friend of mine has a theory that all of the world’s problems could be dealt with if only we asked 5 simple questions. Unfortunately, we usually end up asking a different question alltogether: You think you’re better than me?

    And that is the crux of “get in touch with average”-itis.

  14. Just when one thinks that we no longer need to convince our Christian community that G-d wants our first fruits, and not merely our average fruits…