Last week we published our review of Left Behind, written (contrary to some assertions) by one of our regular critics. It took the film, and its source material, to task for a few things: not being at all entertaining, being outright offensive in its portrayal of a number of characters both Christian and not, and pursuing the minimum “Christian” content to be marketed at Christians while not embodying or exploring any particularly Christian traits or concerns.
So I’d like to respond to some of these concerns, referring to Jack’s piece throughout.
I do know that one could argue that a film in which the Rapture occurs is embodying a Christian concern; unfortunately, the Rapture also occurred in the HBO show The Leftovers and that raunchy Judd Apatow movie This Is the End and a few other properties just in the last year, so that doesn't really hold water. Nor does the portrayal of a Christian character make it Christian.
The thing that makes a movie “Christian,” in today's movie climate, is that it either explores important questions rooted in and resonating with the Christian faith (I think of This is Martin Bonner, or Calvary, or Tree of Life, or any number of films), or it is made for the Christian “market” and will be primarily watched by that market, like God’s Not Dead. Or, sometimes, both.
Jack's argument is that in his view, the property does none of those things well, settling more to be a “Jesus juke” of other popular genres. They are, in other words, copies of things that already exist, with “Christian” stuff stapled on in order to make them more palatable to a particular market segment with money to spend. (As Jack notes in his two-paragraph note at the end of the review, he recognizes that the authors of the books were doing something a bit different, and that people may have found the books more meaningful or helpful than he did. He felt the books were a “shallow interpretation of an endlessly deep faith.” For the record, I agree, and have since I read them myself as a teenager.)
I'll confess that in publishing this review, I knew it was going to be a little like lobbing a grenade over a wall, given that the review is forceful in tone. Here is why I went with it: not only did I think Jack pinpointed what made me so uncomfortable with the property since I was a teenager, but he did it not as some kind of cynical outsider but as someone with a great deal of personal investment in the matter, and he also made it possible to say something out loud that I think is important.
I believe it is vital for Christians to recognize that they are a massive market segment who are only going to see themselves marketed toward more in the future. And I believe that it is important for Christians to realize that they can use that power to ask for better entertainment, things that actually do explore the deep, complex questions that have animated our faith for millennia. I think it's time for Christians to quit acting like victims and instead call a spade a spade when they see it.
And, most importantly for us, I think it is important to give audiences permission to feel morally outraged if they feel they've been had.
A few people have expressed concerns about Jack's admission that he started the film already expecting to hate it, because of his long-seated reaction to the books and their portrayal of Christians. Several have expressed concern that he was saying that he was hoping to hate the movie, and then he did, so what did he expect?
I understand the objection; no filmmaker wants to hear that someone walked into their film expecting to hate it, nor does any critic want to admit it, since we attempt to have no preconceived notions about a film before we see it.
The thing is, it's hard not to have preconceived notions about a movie, particularly when (a) it's based on a bazillion-dollar mega-property that virtually every American evangelical I know who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s read; (b) it's already been made into three movies, which means this is a reboot; (c) it stars an A-list actor who nonetheless has a rather rocky track record. The best you can do in that case is acknowledge your bias and then think, I hope this is better than I was expecting.
On occasion, I've found it useful to admit bias in my own reviews, when my bias was then contradicted by the film itself. For instance, in my review of Short Term 12, it's useful to say that I wasn't expecting much, since it so thoroughly routed my expectations. In that case, it was to my delight. Similarly, if I go see a movie with high hopes, and it’s awful, then I think it’s good for me to say that.
Jack's admission served a similar purpose, because he too found that his expectations were subverted. He expected one thing, and what he got was totally different and even worse. The argument boils down as follows: the source material, with which I am intimately familiar, portrayed my faith and what I knew of my fellow adherents in a way I found objectionable. So it was hard for me to believe I could like the film, if it was faithful to the book. But, somehow, and in a way I found unexpected, I hated it not for that reason, but because it did something even worse: it betrayed its own source material by barely even touching that material, while simultaneously marketing to Christians as if it they need to like it.
In other words, it's not the eschatology that is being taken to task here (whether you are an adherent or a dissident). It's not even the film's quality as a film, for the most part—something that it seems virtually every other outlet on the planet mentioned and didn't seem to need a lot of explanation here.
It's that the movie pulled a bait-and-switch on its audience, and it didn't even do it well.
I didn’t review the film, but it’s this that makes me really mad. I don't get passionately upset about movies much, but when I do, it's because it seems something unethical has happened. It's what I felt when I wrote my review of The Hunger Gameslast year; that is, you say this is about one thing, but then you turn around and do something else, all in pursuit of commercial gain. I think commercial gain is great, but I don't think that kind of dishonesty can be allowed to stand, whether the target audience is teenagers or Christians.
I particularly don't think it can be allowed to stand when it is offensive to the same audience who also comprise most of the readers of this magazine: sincere, faithful Christians who have been willing (again, not often in bad faith) to overlook some matters of quality when it meant they could see a movie that matched up with or outright portrayed their beliefs. In a number of cases, the lack of filmmaking quality has been because those movies are essentially low-budget indie films produced by church communities or groups of friends (Jack mentions Facing the Giants and Fireproof in that category); that's not a slight against them, just a recognition that these films would never have been the successes they often were if they weren't being made as “Christian films,” films for Christians, who very much want some films to call their own.
Of course, in some other cases, the lack of filmmaking quality, when it exists, is because not every filmmaker takes the time necessary for things like budgeting and fundraising and script revision and all that.
Finally, and this happens almost every time we publish a not-glowing review of a Christian film, I've seen some people object that we ought to basically calm down and try to support this film, and others, because it's hard to make a film, and this one is pretty close to a Hollywood blockbuster, and it's silly for us to criticize some films for being too preachy and then complaining when this one isn't Christian enough. So here are a few notes on that.
First, it is irresponsible for a critic to support this or any film because movies are hard to make and at least they tried. I do know that movies are hard to make. And they're expensive, and they take a lot of time. I get that.
But, the thing is that movies are also a time and money commitment for viewers, and they are letting something into their lives that wasn't there before. My job, any critic's job, isn't to tell a viewer that they should or should not actually watch the movie, but rather to give them some way to look at the movie before or after they see it and to get a sense of whether or not it is for them.
In this case, it was important for us to make it crystal clear that you are not a bad Christian or person if you go to see this movie and leave feeling like it was not a good movie, or, further, that you were offended by how it portrayed your faith. I've actually heard from people who saw it and felt the same, and the thing about a critical voice is it can help validate your opinion.
It was also important in this case to call a spade a spade, which is to say: you spent 15 million dollars on this movie and told us we should see it, and this is what happened? A bad copy of an already-shaky genre (the Hollywood blockbuster)? Why did this need to exist?
Behold an emperor, wearing no clothes.
(I want to note here, lest we be accused of “hating Christian movies” or the like, that just in the last month we reviewed three films also being marketed to Christians, at least one of which qualifies in every way as a “Christian film,” in a positive manner. The day after the Left Behind review ran, we ran a positive review of The Good Lie, which has some distinct faith themes, was being marketed to “faith-based audiences,” and boasts an A-list star in Reese Witherspoon. A week earlier, we reviewed Believe Me, a satire of Christian subculture made by Christian filmmakers; two weeks ago we ran something close to a glowing review of The Song, a retelling of the Song of Solomon. I could go on.)
So this is not a case in which some people with a good idea for a story got together to make a movie that a family might be able to enjoy together and overlook some of its failings; this is a conventional PG-13 Hollywood blockbuster (which is already kind of a terrible genre these days) about a disaster, a reboot of a movie that had already been made with a B-list star, and it had a $15 million budget, and it portrayed its own target audience as sort of simplistic weirdos, and to add insult to injury, it's justnot good.
I know filmmakers of faith, or who are exploring faith, who are also passionately committed to both their faith and to great filmmaking. They are studying, apprenticing, and learning, and approaching their craft - aesthetics, writing, acting, directing, all of it - with love for the movie world and for their viewer. But for some of them, their movies are simply not even getting seen, because on the one hand they don't have the A-list star and the big budget, and on the other they don't have the viral marketing engine behind them, often because their movies aren't explicitly evangelistic. I'm trying hard to locate these filmmakers and see their stuff, and then to write about it when I can. (By the way, if that's you, please get in touch.)
You're free to disagree, of course; maybe you saw it and liked it, or don't think that it merited the serious thrashing we gave it. For Jack, though, and for me too, it was a matter of conscience: we couldn't see this happening and not respond forcefully, especially given the platform.
As critics, we have to be committed to being writers of integrity, and that involves calling out when we see something that we think needs calling out. It involves getting upset on behalf of the wronged and making a passionate case to readers that it’s worth demanding something better. And Left Behind, I firmly believe, needed to be called out.
(By the way, in an article published just now over at The Atlantic, the wildly successful Christian rapper Lecrae made this statement: "The exploitation of believers just to turn a profit—so you care less about making a quality product, you just want to keep telling the same stories and repackaging them over and over just to exploit people—I have a problem with that.")
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