Editor's note: This is the second of a four-part series about what it means to make "good, Christian movies." In this part, the author examines what it means to make movies that are both honest and true in their depictions of humanity.

As the director of a film festival, I hear a lot of impassioned talk about movies with a message. In fact, I've figured that Christian filmmakers could be divided cleanly into two parties: those who want a religious message and those who don't. You have the courageous wardens of truth, supporting gospel-oriented flicks such as The Hiding Place and Left Behind. You have the brave renegades who fight for P. T. Anderson's Magnolia or Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11. You have the evangelists and the expressionists, the ten commandments and the beautiful lifers. To which I say: go for it.

If you want to advance a message in your film, however—to which I would quickly add that not all films need to have one to be good (What About Bob? comes to mind)—you'd be smart to keep it honest and truthful. For a film "with a message" without truth is by definition a falsehood (The English Patient), while a film "with a message" without honesty smacks of manipulation and quackery (The Girl Next Door). Tricky territory, this.

So what exactly does it look like for a filmmaker to profess a commitment to honesty and truth? Toddy Burton, a filmmaker at the University of Texas, points us in a good direction:

Reality is hilarious. Truth is hilarious. That's why people make fart jokes, because they're funny. Body functions are funny. Did you see Mean Girls? It's a teen comedy based on a non-fiction book about teen girls called, Queen Bees and Wannabees. The movie is hilarious and it's because it's all just based on the way people really are.

"The way people really are." Let's begin our investigation with this phrase.

"The way people really are"

The first thing to understand about filmmakers is that, like the rest of us, they're mostly trying to make sense of very basic things: "the way people really are," or really, really want to be. They're fascinated by human behavior: rock star losers, sex mamas, pinheads, bad Japanese dancers, trainspotters, raging bulls, old geezers riding lawn mowers across the country. And why not? We're the only creature on earth capable of questioning not only the circumstances of our existence but the reason for it, and we're fascinated by our own fascination.

So let me ask a stupid question: Is our collective life homogeneous? Are we all monolithic humanoids? No, thank God. In the film Donnie Darko, Donnie got it right in responding to a teacher who argued that every human motivation can be categorized into either fear or love: "You can't just lump everything into two categories. Life isn't that simple. People aren't that simple."

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Our life is complex: splendid, appalling, romantic, boring, horrific and an ambivalent mess. In short, it is polymorphic, or as my mother might put it, there's a lot of life to go around.

My stupid question looks less stupid, then, when you discover how narrowly Christians behave in their movie tastes. Plenty of folks tend to be only interested in religious stuff—Jesus-stories, end-time prophecies, how-to-stay-a-virgin romantic comedies. But biblically, we're to be interested in everything, even as God is interested in everything. All of life merits comment, and by such comment is made meaningful. Under the gaze of the artist, life really does begin to make a little more sense. So if you're going to make a movie with a message, take advantage of the near infinite possibilities that surround you, like bacteria or turtles, or your uncle.

The Way People Really Are—Honestly

Now when filmmakers say, "I'm just being honest," what do they mean by honest? They probably mean something along the lines of: "I'm being candid, open, straightforward, without disguise, without delusion." In short, I'm being authentic about the way life really is. If the great, 19th century Scottish missionary David Livingstone, lionized by Protestants, was a lousy husband to his wife, Mary, then I'm not going to gloss it over with euphemistic tales of self-sacrifice and biblical submission. I'm going to show him to be the human being that he was, fallen and capable of great acts of selfishness, though never beyond the reach of divine grace. In this way only could he ever become a genuinely attractive example to the rest of us, not an in-credible, un-reachable demi-god.

People do not like dishonest stories. They become annoyed by artificial characters. There's a reason why most people, including Christians, disliked the movie Left Behind, and it had less to do with its theology than with its aesthetic merit.

In one scene the philandering pilot, Rayford Steele, sits at the edge of his bed, staring at his wife's crumpled nightgown. She's disappeared and he, the husband with a mistress, is "obviously" distraught. Then he sees a Bible which he "obviously" throws at a mirror, which "obviously" shatters. He then "obviously," though utterly inexplicably, grabs the Bible and "obviously" starts reading it. A few scenes later he walks in on a nameless, backgroundless, sinful-who-knows-why pastor who got left behind and yells at God in melodramatic soliloquies and throws racquetballs at crosses, but then instantaneously and weepily asks God to use him.

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Rayford leans down and says, "He already has, he already has." He has? What? Really? How? When? They don't even know each other. What happened?

The problem here lies with the film's contrived, i.e. dishonest, depiction of non-Christians. Their badness is never shown, only talked about. They bear no resemblance to any pagans most of us know, and their experience of redemption becomes a facile and in-credible transaction, soundtracked by heavy-handed Christian music. The formulaic conversions, devoid of actual characterization, rob the viewer of a genuine encounter with the mystery of Christ, and it is this that turns people off. Conversely, the two non-Christian and one Christian business associates who talk about faith in the film The Big Kahuna look a lot more like, well, "real," people, which explains the film's more meaty effect.

To summarize, then, honesty is the manner by which the filmmaker depicts his subject matter. Honesty involves the strength to see what is there, not what he wishes were there. With honesty, regardless of the message, one gets the unvarnished version: the good, the rotten, the irrational—in short, what God sees and then redeems.

The Way People Really Are—in Truth

What role then does truth play? The phrase, "the way people really are," is a way of saying something about truth. But what is truth?

Truth is that which accords with fundamental reality. Truth coheres not only with actual human existence but with God's intended purposes, or ideal, for human beings.

For the filmmaker there are two essential kinds of truth: the grand and the common. The grand truths deal with the big religious ideas. For the Christian this includes things like the sovereignty of God, the dislocation of human nature, the atonement of Christ. The common truths traffic in the more ordinary things of life: food, old age, racism, cerebral palsy. What's frustrating to a lot of Christian filmmakers is the presumptive expectation that they should only work with the grand or religious truths to the exclusion of the common, human truths: the little things. This expectation however is not only theologically problematic, it excludes the greater part of our lives and stagnates the imagination.

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But let's take a common truth for now: life is messed up, nothing fancy. In The Hours, a gorgeously acted, beautifully shot movie, everyone's life is messed up. The situations resemble our own and we quickly find ourselves empathizing with the characters. But even as it begins with the simple truth, "Life is messed up," it ends with an un-truth, "There's nothing I can do about it but choose what's best for me." There is no intervening God, no incarnation to make sense of the senseless, no supernatural power. There is nothing but choice: self-serving, self-justifying choice.

In a piece of spirited dialogue, Nicole Kidman's larger-than-life Virginia Woolf implores her husband, Leonard, to let her be. "Only I can understand my condition," she pleads. "This is my right. If it is a choice between Richmond and death, then I choose death." And so she does, serenely walking into a watery grave, hallowed by a verdant English countryside. She chooses death irrespective of the consequences for her husband.

So does Richard (Ed Harris), who chooses suicide over death by AIDS. So does Julianne Moore's Laura Brown, the poster-child of 1950s wifedom purgatory, the emblem of American personal rights:

I left both my children. I abandoned them. … It would be wonderful to say you regretted it; it would be easy. But what does it mean to regret when you have no choice. It's what you can bear. There it is. No one is going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life.

She chose "life"? Only at the expense of her own children, and for that she was praised by film critics as courageous. Balderdash. It's false! Christianly we understand that this kind of selfishness only results in a worse death, the misery of self-centeredness. Contrary to Laura's impression, there is a Forgiver. How he forgives is a mysterious thing. But for the filmmaker the responsibility to depict the truth—the message of forgiveness—is a holy one that requires great suppleness.

The Way People Really Are—in the End

Annie Frisbie, adjunct professor of screenwriting at Messiah College, observes that "all writers of fiction are responsible for telling the truth as we see it, but the Christian writer has a further responsibility to also tell the Truth." Anticipating the impulsive reaction of the edgy, progressive Christian filmmaker, she goes on to say, "And that's really, really hard to do."

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Indeed it is. It's hard to portray the truth winsomely. It's hard to escape cliché s and shibboleths. It's hard to grasp the complexity of life with a transparent eye. It's ugly out there—and we're implicated in that ugliness. But God help us, we must avoid the danger of tidying things up. A filmmaker has a responsibility to portray the truth in an honest manner—with a message even—but never at the expense of the lush, multifaceted mystery of life.

In the end, the best way to convey the truth is by telling a really good story with a lot of rich metaphors and honest characterization, remembering also that the greater power of art resides in the suggestion of truth, not its proclamation, in the beckoning hint, not the feeble platitude.

Part 3:In Defense of Mere Entertainment

David Taylor is the Arts Minister at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas, and director of The Ragamuffin Film Festival, held August 6-8 in Austin.