Part 2: The Moral of the Story

We've been wrestling with the question of just how explicit, in the things of faith, a Christian film should be. Should it be in your face with Jesus and the gospel, or should it be more subtle?

We asked two sharp-thinking filmmakers to help us wrestle with the question. Rik Swartzwelder is an L.A. filmmaker whose short, The Least of These, won numerous awards on the film festival circuit. Atlanta's Angela Harvey is a filmmaker, writer, graphic designer, and founder of Crimson, which produces independent films, gospel tracts and greeting cards.

In an oversimplified nutshell, Swartzwelder believes Christian filmmakers should feel free to be direct with spiritual content—including the gospel—in the context of cinematic storytelling, while Harvey believes such things should be communicated in a more subtle way, if at all. With those assumptions as the starting point, we asked Rik and Angela to debate their positions in an e-mail exchange—which we're now sharing with you in a special four-part series, starting today and running through Thursday.

We kicked off yesterday with Part 1, where both parties essentially presented their opening positions on the topic. The debate steps up a notch today with Part 2 …

Angela Harvey writes:

Let me address some of the direct questions you've posed, then I'll delve deeper into my position.

First, I did not say, nor did I intend to imply, that Christian filmmakers should hide their faces or their faith from the audience. That would be disingenuous and a terribly unsatisfying experience. When I say "Christian themes," I mean that filmmakers can incorporate things like quoting Scripture in dialogue, though perhaps not citing chapter and verse. (Although I do believe Christian-ese words like "repent" and "get saved" should be avoided.)

A Christian portrayed as a murderous sociopath in 'Man on Fire'

A Christian portrayed as a murderous sociopath in 'Man on Fire'

We can create important characters who are likable and intelligent, and then incidentally show them to also be Christians. Christian characters are often portrayed as murderous sociopaths (Man on Fire, 21 Grams), just barely hanging on to a remaining thread of faith (The Apostle), or just plain weird (I Heart Huckabees). We can also certainly have characters "talking about and wrestling with the existence of God," but there's nothing inherently Christian about that; it's part of the human experience.

That said, I disagree with the premise that other filmmakers are free to be as much of themselves as they wish. As an African-American filmmaker, I can say that there is quite a bit of pressure to suppress some of the "ethnicity" in our films. If we don't, we end up making films solely with and for other blacks. The examples you referred to—Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Woody Allen—are not standard points of reference, but exceptions to the rules. The danger of consistently making films that are "too" anything—ethnic, political, religious—is not only that you alienate segments of your potential audience, but also that you paint yourself into a corner as to what audiences will believe that you can express. At this point in their careers, can you see Oliver Stone making a romantic comedy or Woody Allen directing a war flick? Can you imagine John Singleton making a film set on a farm? I'm not saying that they'd be incapable, but that the audience might be less than accepting.

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Moving on …

I absolutely believe that audiences of all ages, races and backgrounds are looking for the moral in the story, although they may not use those words to express it. Next time you leave the cineplex after having seen the shoot-em-up du jour, eavesdrop on the kids' conversations. Those boys, after talking about how cool the biggest explosions were, will move on to characterization. They'll talk about the premise: "Do you think that could ever really happen?" "What would you have done if that were you?" The audience doesn't just walk out of the theater brain-dead and full of popcorn.

As Christians, we should take advantage of that. Or rather, we should allow the Holy Spirit to take advantage of that. That is of course, assuming that we expect the Holy Spirit to take the messages in our films and use them to draw people closer to himself. Every filmmaker wants his audience to experience the beauty or the fun or the tortured anguish of his work through his eyes. That's his job, and it's a noble pursuit. But he has to leave room for the audience to see themselves in his work as well. That's part of what makes it relatable and memorable. So, if we are going to make "Christian" films, people need to see some of their own experiences being lived out—their own questions at least being asked if not answered.

If, as a Christian, one finds herself drawn to filmmaking as an occupation or hobby but has no belief that those films will be used by the Holy Spirit to touch audiences, then it makes no difference if she is overt or covert with the Christian message. Her film can go out into the field as one voice among many, and her goals will have been accomplished. That is not what I call a "Christian" film. A writer, director or producer's Christian faith does not make his or her product inherently "Christian" any more than a Christian pastry chef makes "Christian" desserts. In my mind, a film is "Christian" when it is sent out into the public dialogue with the express intent to promote a positive Christian worldview and/or is evangelistic in nature.

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As believers, we're obligated to share the Good News through whatever channels we can, and one of the most powerful and compelling channels at our disposal is the motion picture. If we use our imaginations and the Holy Spirit's inspiration, we can create movies subtly charged with the gospel. Then, after the credits have rolled, viewers can discuss how something in that movie touched their hearts or answered a burning question. The Holy Spirit can help each of them draw their own conclusions. And when they embrace the gospel, the experience will be deeply personal.It won't be because a filmmaker grabbed them by the hand and led them there.

Rik Swartzwelder responds:

I'm going to try and address the specifics of your most recent e-mail within the context of what I perceive to be two broader differences that are informing our dialogue.

First, you seem to be saying that, for you, the primary purpose of film is to evangelize or "promote a positive Christian worldview," and yet, any "Christian" content should always and only be minimal, or subtle. On the other hand, I believe that the primary purpose of film is to simply tell a good story; and yet, I'm arguing in favor of more freedom to include direct "Christian" content, not less. I believe this disparity stems from a more significant issue—that we are approaching these matters with conflicting theological assumptions, most notably the division of sacred and secular and what does or does not make something "Christian." I'll touch on this second point, in particular, near the end of this installment.

Keeping those differences in mind …

Your definition of what constitutes "Christian themes" in film sounds more like a public relations campaign, if not outright propaganda. In life, outside the movies, are all Christians "particularly likable and intelligent"? Christians, like everyone else, have good days and bad.

Susan Sarandon was a notable Christian character in 'Dead Man Walking'

Susan Sarandon was a notable Christian character in 'Dead Man Walking'

Clearly, there does seem to be a fixation on "bad" Christian characters in mainstream film; however, there are many who believe that the portrayals in 21 Grams, Man on Fire, and The Apostle are captivating, realistic glimpses of characters struggling with faith. Other notable Christian characters can be found in Dead Man Walking, Signs, Chariots of Fire, You Can Count on Me, and The Mission. In my opinion, the solution is to show both the good and bad—not just the good.

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I do agree with your next idea—to a point—that "Christian-ese" should be used sparingly. Even so, pop culture continues to embrace themes of salvation and forgiveness, repentance and redemption, heaven and hell. The God-talk in Bruce Almighty didn't keep it from making big bucks at the box office. Likewise, check out the recent songs and grosses of U2 or Kanye West. The Matrix franchise might as well be officially listed as a new religion! Pop culture is dripping with spirituality of all flavors. This stuff is universal, as much as food or sex. When you discount "talking about and wrestling with the existence of God" as not being "inherently Christian" and just "part of the human experience," I say, "Exactly!" I couldn't agree more. This is precisely the common ground where all humanity connects and, therefore, filmmakers of faith should not shrink from building and expanding from that common ground in their films—not to evangelize necessarily, but because it's naturally a part of who they are and how they see the world, as it is and as it could be. Christianity does have some unique answers to those universal questions, so just toss 'em out there and see what happens. And, sometimes, to get people talking, it's best just to say it plain and let 'em have at it.

As for your concern over whether or not other filmmakers are free to "be as much of themselves as they wish," I'd still maintain that the way some Christians beat up on other Christians for being "too Christian" in their work is unique. Without question, a filmmaker must always keep the audience in mind. However, just like you wisely remind us that it's best not to underestimate the audience's ability to connect the dots for themselves, I'd say it's equally important not to underestimate their ability to be open-minded. I think people want to see well-crafted movies, above all. Many were able to admire the craft and majesty of The Passion of the Christ while not fully embracing its thematic content. One thing's for sure though—that flick got folks talking.

Nia Vardalos stuck to Greek culture in her surprise hit

Nia Vardalos stuck to Greek culture in her surprise hit

When Nia Vardalos, writer-star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, was trying to get her movie made, she was told that it would have a better chance if she changed the Greek-American family in her script to an Italian-American one, for wider appeal. She didn't heed that advice, of course. Now, I'm not Greek, but that didn't stop me (or many others) from enjoying the film. In fact, the fresh glance into an oft-overlooked slice of America made it all the more enjoyable. Building upon universal themes of love and family, the filmmakers were able to jazz up that foundation with the unusual and authentic details that made the film all the better.

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Your concern that films that are "too" anything can isolate audiences and limit filmmakers is somewhat justified, but again, I think there's a bigger picture. Filmmakers are always going to be pigeonholed, to a degree. What should Spike Lee or Woody Allen or Oliver Stone (or John Singleton) have done earlier in their careers in order to now make the kinds of films you mentioned? If they had not been intensely personal and bold early on, they may never have had careers at all. You say those examples are "exceptions to the rule." Exactly! I hope and pray that young filmmakers of faith become exceptions to the rule, making films that are talked about decades later—just like the examples I used.

Ultimately, the problem with most films at the cineplex isn't that they're "too" anything, but that they're generally not about anything at all—at least beyond the lowest common denominator or run-of-the-mill wish fulfillment. So, regarding "the moral of the story," I still say it's the last thing on the minds of most moviegoers. We're just going to have to agree to disagree on that. But, assuming you're right about that, then that's all the more reason filmmakers shouldn't shy away from being audacious and direct in their work. That's risky, but I'd much rather see a filmmaker aim for greatness—and miss—than play it safe.

So, how do the Holy Spirit and personal theology play into all this? What makes a film, or anything, specifically "Christian?" Good questions. And although it's clear we share the same questions, apparently we don't share the same answers.

I believe that one's assumptions as to what the Holy Spirit may or may not do through our work in no way limits what the Holy Spirit actually does or does not do. The Holy Spirit can do whatever he wants—wherever, whenever, regardless of human intent or belief. In movies, and in life, I'm often drawn closer to God by the actions and words of those who claim no faith at all—as well as by those who are deeply spiritual. Furthermore, my true personal impact on others, in my life and work, will fully be revealed only in eternity, I believe—and it just might be that my most noble moments are the ones least obvious to me, but flowed naturally out of my walk with Christ.

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Be that as it may, I think your definition of what does and does not constitute a "Christian" film is an oversimplification. I don't buy the idea that unless someone is intentionally evangelizing, that he or she is not advancing the Kingdom or engaged in something truly "Christian." Is not all work sacred if it is committed to God and honors God?

Using your analogy of the Christian pastry chef, I would contend he is indeed making "Christian" desserts; if he is doing his job as if to God. If that's not "Christian," what is? Is a Christian builder being more or less "Christian" depending on whether or not he or she builds a church or a home or an office building? Granted, you could push these analogies to extremes and make them collapse upon themselves. Even so …

Would you agree that the process itself is also a part of what makes something "Christian?" Let's say a particular film "promotes a positive Christian worldview," but the filmmakers lied to vendors, treated their crew with disregard, or asked their actors to do things you wouldn't dare ask your grandmother or child or Christ himself to do—is that still a "Christian" film? There's much more going on than the end result alone—a reality that is woefully neglected when discussing the issue of faith and film and what is or isn't "Christian" in cinema.

On the surface, this brief diversion may seem off-topic, but I don't believe it is. Some say we are on the brink of a "new Christian Renaissance" in the arts, especially in regard to motion pictures. If that's true, it's vital that we in no way abandon a spiritually holistic, non-compartmentalized approach to these concerns.

Continued: Part 3: The Recruiting Power of Film

Angela Harvey is a filmmaker, freelance writer and graphic designer in Atlanta. She's also founder of Crimson, which produces independent films, gospel tracts and greeting cards. Angela holds a degree in Organizational & Interpersonal Communications from Oral Roberts University and she worked in full-time ministry for seven years. Angela enjoys hiking, yoga and cooking.

Rik Swartzwelder is a writer-director-producer whose films have screened at more than 120 film festivals and garnered more than 40 major awards, including a Crystal Heart for his 35mm short, The Least of These. He earned his M.F.A. in Motion Picture Production from The Florida State University and is currently in Los Angeles developing several projects. For more info, please visit