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.
But the problem with sermonic films isn't that we get bad movies—which we often do—it's that we get very narrow and un-interesting movies, movies that pound you with the obvious, that rob you of a genuine experience of self-understanding. Sermonic films should simply be called extravagant infomercials and no more: clear message, bad movie.
So to summarize my point: Christians should let sermons be sermons and movies tell stories.
A Christian movie
What then is a Christian movie? In my experience of reading and talking with people about movies, I've discovered three ways in which this question could be answered.
The first, and most unfussy, way to define a Christian movie is to say that it is a movie made by a Christian. In the same way that we might refer to Dorothy Sayers as a Christian novelist or Peter Paul Rubens as a Christian painter—though none worked exclusively with religious subject matter—so also we might call Scott Derrickson (Hellraiser V: Inferno), David Cunningham (To End All Wars), James Collier (The Hiding Place) and Eric Hannah (Extreme Days) Christian filmmakers. Simple and simplistic.
The second way to define a Christian movie is to say that it is a movie that deals with Christian material. This movie we might call the religious movie. It explores religious figures, historical events or other themes related to Christian faith and practice. The registry would include films such as The Mission, Road to Redemption, The Apostle, The Omega Code, Luther, Jesus of Nazareth and, of course, The Passion of The Christ. A lot of Christians sadly get stuck here and cannot move beyond the thin confines of a religious story. They wish to tell their story and indeed they wish for others to be convinced, definitively and unambiguously. The problem though with so many "religious" movies isn't so much that they're bad movies, but, to paraphrase Madeleine L'Engle, they're bad religion, which brings me to the final category.
The third way to define the question is to say that a Christian movie is one that bears witness to a Christian imagination. What is that? It is an imagination that's been shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by a Christian storyworld: that metanarrative that makes sense of our cosmos. This idea of a Christian movie could be called "deeply Christian," though not superficially so. Let me point out only two features of the Christian storyworld: the Christian mythos and its anthropology.
The basic Christian mythos, or grand plot, goes something like this: in the beginning it was good, then it was bad, but God is making it good again. In theological terms we call it creation, fall, redemption. As Believer artists, we're invited by God to bear witness to this cosmic pattern—of home, away, home—in contradistinction, for example, to Hindu ideas of Brahman, reincarnation and the cyclicity of life. In movie terms a Christian mythos manifests itself in films like The Lord of the Rings or Jaws.
A Christian anthropology answers the question, what does it mean to be human? Our answer is that we're made in the image of God and thus endowed with inestimable dignity. We rebelled, however, and thereby introduced brokenness into the world. Yet redemption is possible in Christ, and it is in him that humanity shall be perfectly renewed. Humans are responsible for their actions. Evil is real. Goodness is a gift from God. Movies such as The English Patient and Chicago betray the Christian vision of humanity by allowing its characters to indulge and then falsely escape the consequences of their misdeeds.
A good, Christian movie
This brings us now to our final question, which was also the original question: What makes for a good, Christian movie? In brief, a good, Christian movie is one that is well-crafted and true. A film that does not strive for artistic and aesthetic excellence cannot be a good film. It will be a shoddy or uneven film, making whatever story or message is being told almost impossible to digest, no matter how biblically sound it is. Likewise, a film that does not bear allusive witness to the truth cannot be a good film. This phrase "allusive witness" is intentional, for we are not suggesting the evangelistic film. We're suggesting rather the film that witnesses allusively, obliquely, to the splendor of goodness, the shabbiness of sin, the hunger to be forgiven, the yearning for the divine, the playfulness of creation—all things true—in films such as Dead Man Walking, Glory, To Kill a Mockingbird, Blade Runner, Babette's Feast, Henry V, and Chariots of Fire.
In the end, there is frankly no simple answer to the question of what constitutes a good, Christian movie. Understanding how we use our terms is an important beginning. Appreciating the nature and intentions of art is also important. We recognize that we're dealing with a greater cultural confusion about art, about religion, and about the interface of the two, and a little essay such as this will only begin to ask helpful questions. But if the measurement of a good, Christian movie is that it be exclusively family-friendly, then surely Christians will have been robbed of their mandate to explore Christ's renewal of all dimensions of human experience—the lovely and the ugly, the romantic and the drab, the goofy and the grotesque.
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