Christian Movie Madness (or Is There Such a Thing as a Great Christian Movie?)

Christian Movie Madness (or Is There Such a Thing as a Great Christian Movie?) April 23, 2015

Recently, released the results of a month-long movie poll pitting various Christian films against each other. Paralleling basketball’s “March Madness,” the tournament entered 64 films that were eliminated or advanced in a knockout format as Christian viewers voted. Naturally, movies with an aggressive social media campaign behind them had an edge, which might explain why the 2014 release God’s Not Dead was ultimately crowned (in Christian Cinema’s words) the “Best. Movie. Ever.” Because nobody’s ever made good films outside the evangelical Christian film-making bubble, so best Christian movie, best movie, same different right?

I did my own review of God’s Not Dead when it first came out. I gave it 2.5 stars out of 5, which in hindsight actually seems too generous. I don’t have to explain why it’s not the best movie ever, but it’s a far cry even from being the best Christian movie ever. It beat out obviously superior movies like Passion of the Christ and The Blind Side on its way to victory in this particular poll, which isn’t even including every good Christian movie ever made.
The selection process for the 64 films that were included was interesting and somewhat baffling to track. It prompted me to think about what even counts as a Christian movie. It also made me think about what it takes to make a movie that’s simultaneously great and Christian.

Some of the choices were obvious: Facing the Giants,  Left BehindSoul SurferOctober Baby, etc.  And I wasn’t too surprised to find that the Christian Cinema store doesn’t even carry such deep-dyed Catholic offerings as Of Gods and Men and For Greater Glory. (Although they do carry the Catholic pro-life films Bella and Gimme Shelter, both of which are light years ahead of October Baby and neither of which got into the 64.)
But other inclusion/exclusion choices baffled me. There was a whole bracket devoted to sports and another devoted to true stories, yet neither of them included the critically acclaimed favorite Chariots of Fire.  Amazing Grace, which chronicles the true story of William Wilberforce’s fight to end the slave trade, was also strangely absent. On the flip side, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was probably the strangest inclusion. The books only had subtle references to Christianity to begin with, and the movies drifted even further from the spirit of Tolkien. More understandable but almost worse in a way was the inclusion of the Narnia movies, which gut many of Lewis’s explicitly Christian undertones. I’m not sure how to feel about the fact that the Narnia movies knocked out Lord of the Rings in round one. This tells me that a lot of the voters probably haven’t read the books in either series.
Then there’s the aforementioned The Blind Side, which advanced all the way to the championship round before losing to God’s Not Dead. This movie was popular with evangelical audiences, because it tells the inspiring true story of a Christian family who adopted a homeless black teenager and helped him land a college football scholarship. However, the family’s faith is barely mentioned in the movie. It comes out in a cross necklace here, a Thanskgiving prayer there, but nothing more overt than that. Let me stress that this is actually a good thing, and the movie works just fine on its own. In fact, it’s arguably the best of the bunch. But “Christian”? Technically, not really.
So does it Mean Something that the best movie in the list is also one of the least explicitly Christian? Is it possible to make a great, explicitly Christian movie? My short answer is yes. The fact that a movie is explicitly Christian (or at least has explicitly Christian elements) doesn’t have to keep the movie from being great.
But. It’s really, really hard. So many other things have to be just right to make it come off well, and they almost never are.
For one thing, it’s always tricky to pull off a great film built around a particular message, or a particular ideology. To the greatest extent possible, the message should arise naturally from the characters and their setting. The more you try to force the message, the more stilted the story becomes. This is true of any kind of religious or political “message movie,” and there are Hollywood filmmakers just as guilty of it as Christian filmmakers. In fact, it’s impossible to keep up with all the mainstream Hollywood films that bash viewers over the head with a leftist message. They’re plagued with a lot of the same problems that the same critics who give these movies a pass will gleefully point out in Christian films: caricatured villains, preachy dialogue, agenda-peddling at the expense of storytelling, etc.
For another thing, with apologies to my Protestant readers, explicit Christianity often makes for better, more artistic movies when the setting is Catholic. This is partly because Catholicism has deep historical roots, whereas contemporary American evangelicalism of the kind commonly marketed in Christian films doesn’t. So there are simply more time periods and cultural settings to work with. You can make movies about Spanish Jesuit martyrs in the 1700s, Mexican martyrs in the 1900s, French monk martyrs in the 2000s… all kinds of martyrs! And that’s another thing: Martyrdom makes great movies. (With apologies to Love Comes Softly.)
And as always, you need to have a really bang-up story, a talented professional cast, a brilliant director, a script that’s strong, intelligent and subtle all at once… basically, all those minor details that make up a great movie, period. Good luck bringing all those elements together in any context, much less a context where the talent pool is restricted to Christians.
I get where evangelical Christian filmmakers are coming from. They look at all of Hollywood’s “message movies” and think, “It’s not fair. Hollywood puts out a message movie and it grosses billions, while we’re struggling to have anything like that impact with the greatest message of all. Where are the movies representing our culture?” And you know, there are worse things than writing what you know and having your evangelical characters talk like (*gasp*) evangelicals. But Christian writers and directors are still learning how to show more and tell less. They’re still learning the art of expressing their characters’ feelings without cramming the dialogue full of exposition. They also need to make the struggles and bad influences on their Christian characters more subtle, instead of sticking a giant “I’M AN OVER-THE-TOP VILLAINOUS ANTAGONIST” sign on the back of every atheist/agnostic character. They also need to outgrow the crutch of having a conversion scene for said stubborn atheist/agnostic character. Almost no Christian film can leave home without one, and the few that don’t are among the more interesting ones.
“Wow,” you’re thinking. “That’s pretty rough. So what are you saying, the Christian film industry should just give up?” Of course that’s not what I’m saying. The Kendrick Brothers didn’t give up, and their most recent movie is probably their best effort yet. What I am saying is that Christian filmmakers should seek out feedback from other Christians who know what they’re talking about and genuinely want Christian movies to get better. The problem is that not many people are out there vocally critiquing Christian movies from within the subculture. Most of the criticism is coming from the outside, from secular critics who often conflate technical critiques of evangelical movies with a general disdain towards evangelical culture and politics. It’s somewhat understandable that Christian filmmakers are hesitant to take such opinions seriously. However, I still submit that they should find what is worth keeping in any critique. And don’t shoot the messenger when another Christian takes the time to explain what they could do better in their next project.
It’s not that I’m rooting against Christian movie-making. I’m just not sure most Christian filmmakers have fully realized just how hard it is to make a good movie.
Oh, what’s my favorite Christian movie? Well, since you asked:
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  • dbmurray

    A few more glaring omissions from the 64:
    1. The Apostle (1997)
    Two thumbs up from Siskel & Ebert. And there was an Oscar nomination and Best Actor wins for Robert Duvall from most of the major film Critics Associations that year.
    2. The Prince Of Egypt (1998)
    I find it rather curious that the recent “biblically-inspired fantasy epic” (AKA, biblically inaccurate) film that lost a ton of money, _Exodus: Gods And Kings_ is on the list, but a film from a major studio that actually made a 30 million dollar profit is ignored.
    3. Speaking of animation, you’d think they’d have included at least one of the Big Idea Veggietales films in the comedy category.
    4. The Cross And The Switchblade (1970)
    I’m not saying it’s a great film, but it’s one many voters would know. In fact, it’s hard to figure out quite where they were coming from culturally speaking to arrive at this list. I spent eleven years working in Christian retail, but I’ve never heard of half of these films.

  • The Apostle is an interesting one. Obviously, Duvall is a genius, but I found it hard to like his character. I did appreciate the embrace of southern culture and all the colorful little “church moments.” But I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to make of the preacher when all is said and done. It’s not so much the first crime he commits and runs away from that troubles me, because it’s an outburst in the heat of the moment. The way he unrepentantly tries to seduce a married woman later in the film is far more troubling. Duvall said in interviews that we’re supposed to view the preacher like we view David in the Old Testament, but the difference between them is that David repented!
    I agree, including Exodus was a real head-scratcher given how fast and loose it played with the text. And it seemed like they were scraping the bottom of the barrel in comedy because several of the inclusions were stand-up videos.
    I kind of like The Cross and the Switchblade. Yes, the music stinks and the production values are laughable, but I liked the performances and some of the writing. However, I think there was a notable trend with this list to include fairly recent films. They probably were hoping to get younger voters interested, and almost nobody under the age of 40 is going to remember a film like Switchblade. Then again, they had Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments in there, so…
    I hadn’t heard of a bunch of these myself, but maybe a lot of them came out after you weren’t in Christian retail anymore.

  • Well, you raised the fair point in your article that the villain should not be over the top. The flip side of that is the hero should not be a perfect person either. That’s what made The Apostle ring true for me. Sonny/EF is seriously flawed, yet he MUST preach…knowing full well that if he becomes popular again, it will lead to the discovery of his secret.
    We are not supposed to like or admire the main character.
    The takeaway is that when God puts a calling on a preacher, he is going to preach no matter where he ends up. As the film ends, he is still preaching even though he is working on a chain gang in prison.

  • I see your point. And perhaps that’s part of the unspoken point of the film—he’s furious over the fact that another man took his wife, yet here he is preparing to do exactly the same thing himself.
    The thing is though, I’m not sure he really does have a calling from God to preach if his sexual morals are that screwed up. I think Paul would have a thing or two to say about the way he’s pursuing that woman. Again, I’m not sure the analogy to David is actually quite accurate. Obviously, David sinned horribly and was far from a perfect person. But it was clear that he could be brought to an awareness of his sin, and that he was truly stricken before God in the end. The only clue that Sonny even feels a twinge of guilt is the scene at the end where he sees the woman reunited with her husband and family in a restaurant. Just that scene tells him all he needs to know, and he turns on his heel and walks away overcome with emotion. As Duvall explained it, Sonny knew full well in that moment that this was right and for the best. He just couldn’t quite handle it.
    The thing about Sonny is that it’s not even clear to me that his preaching isn’t a compulsion or a desperate psychological crutch. It’s almost as if it’s all that he knows how to do, so he does it out of sheer inertia. Perhaps that’s also part of the film’s point. But in that case, it seems a tad pernicious. I do respect a film that takes a hands-off approach and lets the viewer draw his own conclusions though.