What Is a Good Christian Movie, Anyway? (Part 1)
Editor's note: This is the first of a four-part series about what it means to make "good, Christian movies." In this first part, the author begins by trying to define what is meant by the term.
An excerpt from a radio interview conducted by phone, July 24, 2003:
Radio Host: Welcome back to KIRO, your Christian radio station in Austin, Texas. So we have on the air a Mister David Taylor, who is with some kind of festival here in town—something like a music or film festival, isn't that right, David?
David: Yes, it's the Ragamuffin Film Festival.
Host: So that's great! That's great. Now, David, this is a family-friendly festival, isn't that right!
David: Well, uh, yeah … sure.
Host: So tell us a little about the festival, David!
—38 seconds later.
Host: Well that's great! So there you have it, folks! It's happening this summer with the Hope Chapel: a Christian film festival! Now, David, just to reassure folks out there listening, this is a family-friendly festival, that right!
David: Well … yes?
Host: There you have it! Thank you, David! Now folks, I've got to tell you about these animal rights activists who're suing Kentucky Fried Chicken for abuse of chickens! Would you believe it! I should get my gun and shoot something! That's crazy!
I hang up the phone, genuinely befuddled by the exchange. I sit at my dinner table, staring at a be-crumbed place mat, trying to figure out whether our film festival is "family-friendly" or not. With less than two minutes to catch the attention of radioland, I panicked. I said yes. But why? Was I tricked? What exactly did he mean, "family-friendly"?
Obviously, he'd had something specific in mind, perhaps something in the range of uplifting, positive, clean and inspiring. So if by family-friendly he meant movies like The Princess Bride, then definitely, yes, we really need more family-friendly movies. If he meant, however, flicks such as A Walk to Remember, a movie so sweet as to be cloying and bland, then no, we don't need the gospel to be sentimentalized. If he meant that the good kind of family-friendly movies are the only movies that Christians should be making, then our question has become more complicated. Are we to equate a family-friendly movie exclusively with a "good, Christian movie"?
Nearly a year after the radio incident, I find myself stuck with the knotty question: What is a good, Christian movie? This, of course, is the kind of question that drives my filmmaker friends batty. The phrase has become derogatory. They don't want to be asked that question. "I don't make Christian movies, I'm a filmmaker who is a Christian!" The English is terrible, but the point is well-taken. And yet … and yet surely there is a positive answer to the question. Merely defining oneself in the negative doesn't guarantee clear skies in the mental department.
So I will hazard an answer.
I will do so by going backwards. First, I shall ask, what is a movie?
Now this might look like a simplistic question. But it is important to know not only what a thing is, but what it is not. Succinctly put, a movie is the art of storytelling by way of motion pictures. A movie is not a sermon. A common mistake in the Christian community is to confuse sermonizing for storytelling. Desperate to convince the prodigal son, the Christian producer employs the instruments of film in the service of propaganda: the propositional persuasion of the viewer toward an idea.
Am I saying that it's never permissible to use film to preach a sermon? No. Oliver Stone does it all the time.