May 7, 2012

Posted by in Music and Art | 12 Comments

Miscellany 32: Christian Film – Garden or Wasteland?

What do we even mean by saying something is a “Christian film”? In a thought-provoking piece called “Moving Beyond ‘Christian Films,’” Brett McCracken discusses the recent film Blue Like Jazz, with particular attention to the way it relates to the limitations of the Christian-movie ghetto. McCracken argues that Blue Like Jazz undercuts itself in its very attempt to be a Christian movie that doesn’t fit into “Christian movie” stereotypes. I haven’t seen the film myself, so I can’t speak to his assessment of BLJ, but I most certainly agree with what he says here:

I long for the day when we will have moved on from “Christian film” as a category. I long for the day when evangelicals will make excellent films that are beautiful, lasting, complex and true. I long for the day when Christian moviegoers will appreciate truly great films and encounter God through them, regardless of if they are made by Christians or pagans.

It’s easy to bemoan a cultural wasteland. Often when we do so, we’re speaking the truth. But in this case, are we overlooking signs of growth and life outside the boundaries of “Christian Film”?

Brett McCracken also has an interesting piece to complement his take on Blue Like Jazz: “33 Films that Take Faith Seriously.” As I read through the list, I realized that many of these films are ones that I simply considered great films… not great Christian-themed films, but great films.

Perhaps one test of a great Christian film is whether it is considered great by believers and unbelievers alike. Even when I was still an atheist, I loved Amadeus, Chariots of Fire, and The Mission. I didn’t understand or sympathize with all elements of the films, but they moved me deeply (and still do). Yet as an atheist, I would never have bothered seeing the equivalent of Soul Surfer or Fireproof or Courageous. I say this, not having seen any of those movies as a Christian, either… for pretty much the same reasons.

But most important, I think, is that a film must show the truth about human experience. I think that the reason I find most of the films labeled “Christian” to be so unsatisfactory (and unsatisfying) is that they are so eager to present the light of Christ that they ignore the darkness of human pain.

If we don’t acknowledge the darkness, we will not have credibility when we speak about the light. Yet we must also fight fiercely against the idea that the bleak meaninglessness of naturalism and atheism is ‘the way life is.’ Pain and death are not the end of the story.

Malcolm Guite puts it quite well (in an interview by Lancia Smith: you should read the whole thing). He is speaking specifically about poetry, but his words ring true for film as well:

…there is a proper place for the depiction of suffering and the expression of bitterness in Art as in life. We don’t need some anodyne sugary literature saying peace, peace, when there is none. But it is also true that the agony in the Garden and Good Friday are not the end of the story. ‘Love is come again like wheat that springeth green’, and Love has the last word. If a poem is to be true it must somehow be adequate to both these dimensions…

What are some other examples of films that get things right?

Consider the film Amazing Grace, which tells the story of William Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery in Britain. Or Gran Torino, Spitfire Grill, I Am David, or Charlie Brown’s Christmas, to toss in a few titles pointed out by Hieropraxis readers.

Consider The Artist, which I reviewed here!

And, now that you’re thinking about films, here is an film review site that’s worth checking out: Looking Closer (hat tip to Mary Mueller).

So: readers, what other films ought we to notice?


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  1. This is such a good post, Holly. I have read numerous Evangelical blogs that praise Donald Miller and his writing. I do not deny these Christians mean well, but I think Miller is too simplistic in his view. (And once again, I am sure he means well, too, when he writes as a Christian viewing the world.) I would much rather read a work like the Divine Comedy, which portrays the good, bad, and ugly of this world, but that is also a great piece of literature, as well. I know you have written before that many Christians read literature simply because it is labeled “Christian,” and such literature portrays the world in a sappy, maudlin way, and it is often simplistic and poorly written.

    I believe the same can be said be true of “Christian” movies that can be said of “Christian” literature, and that such movies are simplistic and do not portray the world in all its complexities. Unfortunately, such movies and such literature would have done nothing for me to alter my worldview when I was not a Christian, and they do nothing for me now that I am a Christian.

  2. Thanks so much for this excellent piece, Holly. I applaud your inclusion of Malcolm’s remarks about poetry here, and agree that they are equally applicable to film. As Christian I see the world and all its art through a filter of God’s redeeming presence in this world for our sake. Because of that I see the movie ‘Thor’ bearing a deeply redemptive voice, in spite of it being an “action hero” movie. The Count of Monte Cristo with Richard Harris, Jim Caveziel, and Guy Pierce is another film and story that has affected me greatly and it has never been cast as a ‘Christian’ movie. Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden positives sings with the transformative power of genuine love in many reflections. The potential list is great if we would take the time to develop it really.

    Ultimately this issue is about Christians being excellent in their given crafts and doing their work from the core of their being letting fully integrated spiritual perception be revealed through their work. Works in any venue put forward from a manipulative agenda produce pieces that are shallow and ring false to the soul even when the “theology” is right. C.S. Lewis addressed this so succinctly when he said, to paraphrase, “what we need are not more Christian writers but more writers who are Christians.” When we are fully Christ’s then His own Strong, Good Voice is what will come through ours as we work, and have the power of redemption going forth through our labours.

    Thank you for addressing this issue and bringing our attention to it in your well written posts. They are always thought provoking and timely. Many blessings to you!

  3. Holly Ordway says:

    Thanks, Ali and Lancia! Indeed, the flip side of thinking something is good just because it is labeled “Christian” is ignoring good work because it lacks that label. I think that one of the most powerful ways that Chrisitan parents could make the public schools a better environment for developing and strengthening faith would be to promote the teaching of the classics…

  4. Holly, you spelled out in no uncertain terms the issue I have with so much “Christian” media -books, movies, music, etc- and that is, it’s mostly absolute DRECK. I appreciated the films on your list, and I appreciate websites like that view secular media from a spiritual viewpoint, something badly needed in the marketplace of ideas. Again, thank you.

  5. _On the Waterfront_ is an excellent example. The priest is a great character. _Chariots of Fire_ of course is the greatest movie ever made. I saw _Amazing Grace_ and liked it, though there were some glaring historical inaccuracies (the portrayal of John Newton in particular was cringe-worthy). It had good acting, especially from Benedict Cumberbatch—kind of funny now that he’s become this massive British star. I also like _The Hiding Place_, which is based on Corrie Ten Boom’s life. _The Inn of the Sixth Happiness_ is an old Ingrid Bergman film about Gladys Aylward. It waters down the Christian element some from real life, but it’s still there and done respectfully.

    I have actually watched all of the Sherwood movies, from _Flywheel_ to _Courageous_, and speaking as somebody who takes movies and art in general very seriously, I actually think they weren’t as bad as people made them out to be. For what they are, they are actually decent movies. And the makers are genuinely trying to improve their craft, which is exhibited in the fact that each film they’ve made is better than the one before. _Courageous_, the most recent, is by far their best. Yes, there’s some on-the-nose dialogue here and there, most obviously the closing scene, but so much of it was just good solid movie-making that it would be a pity for Christian moviegoers to snub it just because it’s a “Christian film.” Regarding the accusation that Christians aren’t willing to deal with the pain of life, there is a major character who loses a child in this film, and another major character who stumbles horribly and is left having to deal with the consequences of his actions by the end of the film without a happy resolution. So I think reverse snobbery is equally as much of a danger as mindlessly imbibing sub-par work because it bears the “Christian” label.

    As for BLJ, I haven’t seen it but it just looks like shallow liberal propaganda to me. Not worth my time/money/mental effort.

  6. Two other worth-while films that have been marketed to Christians but shouldn’t be tossed into the “cheap Christian movie” bin are _Bella_ and _Like Dandelion Dust_. I was genuinely impressed with both of these movies on all levels. I would never be able to make it through the book _Dandelion Dust_ is based on (couldn’t even finish the five preview pages on Amazon), but somehow it got translated into a really deep, well-produced movie. Don’t read the book. See the movie.

    One other film that’s not a Christian movie per se but has also been marketed to Christians is _Warrior_. I was impressed with that film even though it had some unnecessarily rough language, and I wasn’t completely convinced by the development of one of the main characters. It was a very honest film that dealt with themes of faith and redemption in a compelling way.

  7. When I initially commented I appear to have clicked on
    the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a
    comment is added I recieve four emails with the same comment.

    • Holly Ordway says:

      Hi Jak, Sorry about that! I tried to unsubscribe you from comments on my end, but could not see how to do it, so I’m going to email my tech support folks.

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