My heart has been troubled for a while about all this business with Christian filmmaking. I am a Christian. I am a lover of film. I still cannot help but cringe when I see advertisements for films such as Fireproof, Courageous, October Baby and most recently, God’s Not Dead. Why do such films cause me to cringe, but also shrink back with a sense of embarrassment if I am to call myself a lover of film? It’s a conflict with my identity. I am a Christian, and the Christian in me doesn’t want to find myself in a place attacking these (from a film perspective) terrible films, but if I am to have legitimacy as a lover of film I cannot give these films credit. I know some movies I love are terrible films, but this is something different.
The very problem lies in the fact that I feel shame in being highly critical of these “Christian” films. I put quotes around Christian not because they are not Christian films, but to call in to question why we even have to label a film as a Christian film. More so, why do we label “Christian” reviewers as Christian reviewers? Do people go around and label themselves as a Christian orthodontist, IT guy, waitress, professor, businessman, etc.? Why are we using “Christian” as an adjective here? Surely one may be a Christian businessman, but who really says their professional occupation is a Christian [fill-in-the-blank]? Hopefully this highlights the absurdity of needing to label a film as a Christian film or oneself as a Christian filmmaker.
1 Thessalonians 4:11 says, “and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (ESV). To me, this is saying that as a Christian, one must find a job and do it well. There is no need to label one’s profession as a Christian “whatever” because if the person is doing their job well, that is what glorifies God. If you love others well in the workplace, that glorifies God. One may say, “Well, these Christian filmmakers are making a film well and they are glorifying God.” Okay, but bear with me. I’m not going to make a claim that such films do not glorify God. That would be a huge misstep. Their creative effort, rightly does glorify God. I, however, will try to make a case for why I do not see them as legitimate.
I struggle with knowing if anyone’s been impacted by these Christian films. This is because I personally don’t know anyone who’s been impacted by these films and has told me about their experience. I’ve heard of many men wanting to become better fathers because of Courageous. I can rejoice with this. But for me, the film lover, these films do not resonate. They seem false. Poorly made. I don’t like to go to the theatre to be spoon-fed a gospel-packaged show.
I think the most beautiful films that have impacted me are those films that are subtly “Christian”—whatever that is. Two of the most profound spiritual cinematic experiences I’ve ever had occurred watching The Tree of Life and Of Gods and Men. The latter film focuses on Christian monks, so it is in a sense, explicitly Christian, but it is not a “Christian” film. These films aspire for something beautiful, for truth. It’s hard to place a finger on what exactly these films do right. When I see The Tree of Life and others like it I think to myself, “This is what Christian art should look like—whatever that is!” They are works of art. I think Christians should aspire for a creativity that is unmatched.
Christians must rid themselves of a mentality that it’s “secular movies” and/or “Christian movies”. From the start, that mentality forces an unchristian competitive and judging nature. The Christian, if a filmmaker, must do a creative work, and let it speak for itself. One doesn’t have to hide one’s religion without making a film that touches on spiritual issues. Terrence Malick doesn’t hide the fact that he is Catholic, but his films don’t seem to have a spoon-fed message or don’t speak to a specific issue.
When looking at “Christian” films, one has to address the fact that an unbeliever who is a film lover simply isn’t going to watch those films. They don’t want to be preached at. And frankly, they admire quality works of art. I think one would have much more “success”—whatever that is—in watching a movie like The Tree of Life. Just watch a movie and sit down and discuss with one another the feelings it evoked.
When I think some of the great classical composers, I know they were creating music to glorify God, but it was not “Christian” music. Whatever art form it is, we must aim for the highest creative effort. All throughout the Psalms the psalmists sing and make music to the Lord. I can imagine some were just clashing cymbals. If it’s works of literature, write about truths in such a way that every sentence is oozing with God’s glory—there are ways to do this without badgering your readers over the head with churchy words. There are times when we need to hear “churchy” words composed in a “churchy” fashion, and I think that happens at church. That is why a film is not a sermon. Most of the “Christian” films out there today are just cinematic adaptations of a sermon.
I don’t say all of this to justify me watching whatever film I want to and seek to find Christian meaning in it. I have personal convictions about what I will not watch, and I am sensitive to others’ convictions as well. This is a plea to drop the label of Christian films and Christian filmmakers. It’s just silly. This is a plea for creative Christians to aspire for truth, to aspire for beauty, to aspire to the highest reaches of their being to give the world some picture of the indescribable transformative work that Christ has brought to their lives.