When Film Forum surveys the reactions of Christian films critics each week, the reviewers rarely find consensus. More often than not, the disagreements stem from different ideas of what movies are: Art? Entertainment? Education? In my conversations with eight critics last year, I asked them what distinctions they drew between each category; their answers offered a glimpse into the varied expectations a person might hold walking into a movie theater.

For Josh Spencerof StrangerThingsMagazine, the distinction between art, entertainment, and education is determined solely in "the eye of the beholder. It's all subjective. One person's entertainment is another's art is another's education." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com placed the distinction at the other end of the artist/consumer relationship: "It is a matter of intent. Education should instruct. Entertainment should please. Art should inspire." Elliott says filmmakers should try to integrate these ideals: "The film that encompasses all three categories is worthy of praise."

Jeffrey Overstreetof Looking Closeragrees with Elliott—to a point. While he likes to find all three components in a film, he believes that education and entertainment are more accurately labeled by-products of good art. "Art is primarily one person's exploration of something," says Overstreet. "It invites others to explore and to find the same insights, sometimes to discover greater or altogether different insights. Art doesn't aim to teach, but experiencing it can be educational. [Likewise,] entertainment is not a primary focus—it's a by-product. Something is entertaining because it is, in some way, good at something. Art can be entertainment. But so can sports. Circus performers. Magicians. Even television commercials."

Sarah Barnettof Culture@Homerejects the labels altogether, saying they've been corrupted by Western culture to the point of meaninglessness. "Unfortunately, 'entertainment' has lost its real meaning and has come to mean escapism. Once upon a time, entertainment was more about switching one's mind on than switching it off. … In the same way, education no longer suggests mental stimulation or the enabling of minds to develop and think for themselves. Education is more about disseminating information which is intended to be accepted. … So it has fallen to art to pick up the roles shed by entertainment and education. Art, which is frequently criticized as being inaccessible, is left to dazzle, to provoke and to stimulate. Unfortunately, it is rarely thanked."

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Doug Cummingsof Movies and Ministryalso believes art has been given power by shifts in Western culture, and suggest that the church harness it for worship and witness. "The great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman once wrote [that] 'art lost its significance to life when it separated itself from worship.' … I think good art can point people toward God in appreciation of Truth and Beauty. I think it's the task of Christian artists to 'offer their bodies as living sacrifices' in the creation of art through worship and it's the church's task to let them do it. … We don't need to get bogged down in power struggles, financial interests, and church business models in order to control culture. The church can produce and appreciate art through worship in ways that informs and inspires the culture around us."

However, it's the culture-shaping power of movies that most bothers Thomas A. Carderof the Childcare Action Project. "There is no vehicle of imparting information as consistent throughout the land as a movie. Even classroom programs vary from state to state, from city to city. Movies do not. The vulgarities in a movie are the same from Seattle to Miami." Carder says movies entertain and educate, but don't fulfill the objectives of entertainment or education. "Entertainment/art ceases to be art and education ceases to be education when they present aberrant behavioral templates, foul imagery and carnal knowledge to our kids. … Disguising sinful behavior in a theme or plot does not excuse the sinful behavior of either the one who is drawing pleasure from the sinful display or the practitioners demonstrating the sinful behavior."

However, J. Robert Parksof the Phantom Tollboothsees moviegoing as no more dangerous than talking to an unbeliever. "One of the great things of the human condition is our incredible need to communicate with each other, to somehow describe what my life is like to you, and, in turn, to understand what your life is like. … When we share the gospel, we are communicating what's important to us. On the flipside, we must also be interested in hearing what other people are saying to us. … You can't watch Magnolia and not think that there's something that [writer-director] Paul Thomas Anderson wants to tell us about his world." Parks says art, education, and entertainment are all attempts at this sort of communication. Art is more concerned with its form, education is focused on its content, and entertainment is "trying to communicate some aspect of joy, of life." He uses Jesus as an example, who not only used stories (art) to teach concepts (education), but was also "had life, and vitality, and excitement. … I firmly believe that Jesus was a fun guy to be around. You just get that sense that this is someone other people enjoyed, and I think part of that is that he was probably really entertaining to be around."

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Holly McClureof Crosswalk.comshares how a movie offers vitality and excitement for her: "I love that a movie can make me cry or touch my heart and make me aware of feelings or emotions I hadn't experienced for awhile. I love that a movie can make me think about something or get passionate about an idea and I'll think about it for days and then do it." McClure says great movies blend entertainment, art, and education, taking "a person to a level of enjoyment they lack from everyday life," and taking "the human mind and spirit to another level of understanding and appreciation about life and who we are as human beings."

Steve Lansingh is editor of TheFilmForum.coman Internet magazine devoted to Christian conversation about the movies.

Related Elsewhere:

See earlier Film Forum postings for Christian reviews of these movies in the box-office top ten: Save the Last Dance, Cast Away, Traffic, What Women Want, Finding Forrester, Miss Congeniality, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Thirteen Days, and Double Take.