Can Christian Films Be Good?

A few weeks ago at Christianity Today.com, Mark Moring wrote a column called Why Are Christian Movies So Bad?  The article reviews a book by Scott Nehring, You Are What You See, Watching Movies Through a Christian Lens.

I haven’t read the book, but was intrigued with the question at this conservative site, because it seems to me that many Christians (at least those who drive the Christian film market) aren’t that discriminating about film quality and story depth, gravitating instead to sermonizing, sentiment, and sports metaphors, avoiding fantasy unless it’s a “safe” C.S. Lewis story (in which fantasy is okay, because it’s allegory). To be truthful, I don’t see that many films, and experience has taught me to avoid those specifically “Christian.”

In  his column, Moring writes that Nehring:

“…is long on stating the problem in terms we’ve heard before: Christian movies are ‘intellectually vacant,’ ‘disconnected from reality,’ and are known for ‘substandard production values, stilted dialogue and childish plots.’ He blames it not only on the filmmakers themselves, who are guilty of mediocre art (at best), but also the Christian audience, which he says should be more discerning and more demanding — of excellence, that is.

His concluding paragraphs, entitled, ‘So what can we do?’, include a few platitudes that sound great — ‘we need great films,’ ‘we must demand quality’ — but are short on practical suggestions and application. Nehring likely offers more detail in his book (which I haven’t read), so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt; I’ll assume he gets more specific in those pages.

He’s right that Christians ‘must demand quality,’ but what’s that look like? Does it mean that we shouldn’t pay $10 to see a lame Christian film in the theater, or $18 to buy the DVD? And that we should spend our money on excellent films instead? Perhaps, but box office statistics alone don’t really tell us much about excellence, or whether films are worth our while (no matter how some folks might interpret those numbers).

To me, the main thing goes back to something that producer Ralph Winter (the X-Men and Fantastic Four movies) told me a couple of years ago: There’s simply no substitute for a great education at a first-rate film school, years of hard labor in the trenches with the best in the business (and yes, that likely means working side-by-side with pagans in Hollywood), and paying one’s dues with lots of sweat, heartache, trial-and-error, failure, and dogged, unwavering persistence. There’s simply no substitute for it.

True, God might clearly be leading you to make a movie, even a ‘Christian’ movie. But without such a background, it’s unreasonable to think you can make a great one. It’s hard work, arguably the hardest of all the arts to master. And it takes time. Prayer and God’s leading are great, but alone, they’re no substitute for mastering the craft. That takes years.”

These thoughts echo Malcolm Gladwell’s points in his book Outliers, in which he shows how people at the top of their field get there by incredibly hard work over a long time, and through providential circumstances that helped them hone their abilities. But are Christian filmmakers willing to work that hard? What does it take? Why don’t we have original, imaginative, creative, thought-provoking films that portray life in a realistic way? Oh wait, we do, but films like Bruce Almighty, The Blind Side, The Apostle, The Book of Eli, Pixar films, and the Harry Potter films (obviously) aren’t made by “Christian studios.”

I urge you to read the comments on this column before chiming in, as they cover most spectrums of opinion. Despite some real thoughtfulness, no one mentions Harry Potter. Surprise.

I bring this subject up because the reviews for Voyage of the Dawn Treader have not been positive. See here and here (h/t revgeorge), and an article on the making of the film, I saw the film trailer and it didn’t look promising to me. I was disappointed by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and didn’t see Prince Caspian.

What are your thoughts about “Christian” films? Has anyone read Nehring’s book?

About Deborah Chan/Arabella

Deborah Chan, previously “Arabella Figg” I read the first three Harry Potter books in 1999 to see what the fuss was about and was hooked. After participating at HogwartsProfessor.com for several years, and then here at the pub, I joined the Blogengamot in 2009. I enjoy discussing and writing about the books I love, and particularly enjoy looking into characters' psychological and emotional motivations. My husband Rick and I live in Spokane, WA, where I’m a columnist for our newspaper, The Spokesman-Review. Our cat Casey Rose is my gravatar. Butterbeers all around!

22 thoughts on “Can Christian Films Be Good?

  1. Arabella —

    Thank you for taking this on. I saw that CT article and the Relevant article before it.

    As a screenwriter who is a Christian and who works in Hollywood, and as a screenwriting professor at the top film school in the world (USC), I feel compelled to respond.

    Here’s why so many “Christian” films suck: The filmmakers don’t know what they’re doing.

    Filmmaking is an immensely difficult craft. To make a film that works, one must have (1) God-given talent at very high levels; (2) a devotion to one’s craft that takes easily 10,000 hours to reach (thank you, Arabella, for mentioning Gladwell’s “Outliers”!); (3) a vision: something to say and the ability/craft to say it in a dramatic form; that is, the ability to *tell a story*; (4) a team of gifted, dedicated and like-minded people, because filmmaking is a collaborative art; and (5) the resources to make your film.

    (It’d be too easy to say Christians jump into filmmaking without having all these elements in place. But really, most everyone jumps into filmmaking without having these elements in place; I’ve read enough really bad scripts for contests (Christian and otherwise) to know. Christians just seem to think that the fact that they’re Christians makes up for the necessary elements. It doesn’t.)

    Are Christian filmmakers willing to work that hard? Sure, we are. But chances are, when we do, we’ll end up working with the professionals rather than the amateurs and hobbyists. I wrote a couple of things for the fledgling “Christian” market in the early 1990s. But when I got good enough, I started working for Hollywood. Why would I go backwards?

    Others feel the same way. Christian filmmakers (in all crafts — writing, directing, producing, acting, camera, sound, animation, effects, editing, design) are hard at work all over Hollywood. All on mainstream films, films you’ve seen, films that have made a lot of money and been nominated for awards.

    And then there’s Pixar. I hear a lot of people complain that what we really need is a “Christian studio.” Well, we sort of have one, folks. Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter are very overt about their Christianity, and my understanding from several sources is that Brad Bird is also a Christian. Between them, that accounts for the writing and/or directing of A BUG’S LIFE, FINDING NEMO, THE INCREDIBLES, THE IRON GIANT, MONSTERS INC., RATATOUILLE, TOY STORY, TOY STORY 2, TOY STORY 3, UP, and WALL-E. Not too shabby. Of course, these guys have been practicing their craft since 1987, 1988 and 1979, respectively. Maybe that has something to do with it.

    Or maybe that has *everything* to do with it. Most of the Christians I see coming to Hollywood are not willing to pay their dues. They’re not willing to put in the hard work, learn their craft, work in crappy subservient jobs. They don’t want to tell a story, they want to make a statement (wrong!). They want to be famous for God (“I want to win an Oscar so I can be humble before a billion people” — a real quote I’ve heard).

    To be fair, non-believers come here with the same attitude. But the Christians add to it the sense that because they have God on their side, they’re better. Or they’re exempt from the rules that apply to everyone. Or they deserve special treatment (“You *have* to give my script to Steven Spielberg because I’m a Christian”).

    So, to the original question: Can Christian Films Be Good? Many already are. You just didn’t know they were “Christian” films. And most of the films that self-identify as “Christian” films will *not* be good because they are made by amateurs and hobbyists, not by professional filmmakers who know what they’re doing.

    You can make an airplane out of a kit. It might even fly. But that doesn’t make you an airline manufacturer or an airline. And no matter what you call yourself, I’m not flying in your homemade airplane.

    Christians who learn their craft, know how to tell a story (rather than give a sermon), and are professionals can make good films. Because filmmaking is SO hard, they won’t bat 1000 — but no one does. Christians who are amateurs and hobbyists will have a much, much, much lower batting average — usually an embarrassing one (just as would happen if you put a Little Leaguer in the World Series).

    You’re a Christian who wants to make movies? Great! Put in your 10,000 hours, get some *real* training, learn your craft, and come join us in Hollywood. Or admit you’re a hobbyist, make movies for fun and for your local church, and set those dreams of fame, fortune, and changing the world aside.

    My apologies if this is too ranty. Happy to respond to anyone who takes issue with me.

    –Janet

  2. Janet said, “Christians who learn their craft, know how to tell a story (rather than give a sermon)…”

    Well, I have nothing against sermons, seeing as I give one every Sunday. In many ways a sermon is different than telling a story, although there are some similarities. The main problem I have is with sermonizing, that is, using a story or medium not meant for it to push a point. And this is not restricted only to Christians.

  3. I have often wondered the same thing regarding contemporary Christian music. While the nonsense on secular pop radio is nothing to aspire to, there are creative musicians in other genres. By CCM doesn’t seem to be one of those genres; or if it is, the creativity is limited to only a handful of artists. Zealous Christian parents and children are too forgiving of mediocrity in that are as well.

  4. Arabella, fantastic post, and Janet, I’m SO glad you spoke up as well. Made me want to cheer. :)

    With production equipment and (self-)publishing more accessible nowadays than ever before, it’s easy to bypass the honest hard work required for the making of quality art. This is true in every field, including the comparatively easy-to-create popular music (hey, I’ve posted my very amateur wizard rock online, but only as part of an admittedly amateur community. The pros among us–such as the Ministry of Magic guys and Christian Caldeira–put days, not hours, into a song. They deserve every bit of their success.)

    At any rate, I’m not sure I like the idea of separating so-called Christian art from art itself. Historically in the West, most of the art that has achieved both quality and accessibility has been created–directly or indirectly–out of Christian sensibility. (The religious sensibilities that inspire art are more varied in the east.) Gothic and Baroque architecture, Michelangelo and Raphael and Bernini, Shakespeare, etc. I don’t think it’s accidental that The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter were all written by people with some degree of Christian faith. (Not to say that atheists can’t, or haven’t, created art of quality and/or accessibility. Just that a huge portion of it has been done through religious belief.)

    When belief attempts to separate its expression from the foundational cultural and emotional resonances that move human society, it strangles its own soul. I’ve heard decent Christian music, but much of it fails to realize that a lyric must appeal emotionally to the listener, and that singing about God is not innately comparable to singing about romance. Gregorian chant is quality art. The standard “worship song” is not. It’s a short version of the problem Christian fiction has: There’s a subtle but enormous difference between telling a conversion story and writing a human, believable tale of apotheosis.

    revgeorge, “The main problem I have is with sermonizing, that is, using a story or medium not meant for it to push a point. And this is not restricted only to Christians.” HEAR, HEAR. :)

  5. I agree, the best ‘Christian’ movies aren’t coming out of Christian studios. Just as the best Christian music is being made by Christians who happen to be musicians, not companies setting out to make ‘Christian music.’
    And with apologies to Janet, I’ll make a sweeping statement that Moring’s article misses the point that the vast majority of ‘secular’ movies are also guilty of being “intellectually vacant,” “disconnected from reality,” and known for “substandard production values, stilted dialogue and childish plots.”

    Truly good or great films come along once in a while. And you’ve got to shovel fairly deep to find them. But that is true of every field of art.

  6. Honestly, 90% of all movies are boring, cliched, badly acted drek of no interest to anyone. “Christian movies” get a bad rap simply because they are a small, rather distinct genre, which makes it impossible to ignore the high percentage of failures.

    When you look at, say, “thrillers”, you automatically disregard the huge numbers of direct-to-DVD Steven Segal bombs and focus on the still very large number of entertaining thrillers. Since the number of good thrillers is much larger than the *total* number of Christian pictures, it seems like the Christian movies are relatively bad.

  7. Black Angus,
    In regards to your last comment, Avatar immediately comes to mind as on of the guilty “secular” films.

  8. Not quite sure what the term “Christian” movies refers to. Is it movies about Christ? About people with explicitly Christian practices? About people who talk about their Christian faith? Movies about priests or nuns or the Catholic Church?

    I can think of quite a few successful mainstream movies which have very strong Christian content. Going back to The Robe, Barabbas, The Shoes of the Fisherman, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Black Narcissus , through Jesus Christ Superstar, The Last Temptation of Christ, Dogma, DaVinci Code, and of course The Passion of the Christ whom the Pope himself approved of. I”m sure there must be others which I’ve missed – not to mention the ones that Arabella listed above.

    Anyways, my point is: it seems possible to marry mainstream production values with explicit Christian content. So I’m confused: how are these different from the others? Is it the fact that they go for entertainment – and in the odd case, aesthetics – first and there is no overt proselytizing?

    If that is the case, then isn’t the answer kind of obvious? Wasn’t it Julie Andrews who told us about the spoonful of sugar? They need to adjust the sugar to medicine ratio.

  9. Red Rocker – A “Christian” movie (at least as Arabella is discussing them) is one that intentionally conveys a message or lesson that would reflect the Christian faith or its message in a positive light. It would be pro-Christian.

    Of the movies you listed, Dogma, DaVinci Code and others certainly don’t fall into that category. A movie about Christianity is not a “Christian” movie; just as Fahrenheit 9/11 was about the Bush administration, but was certainly not pro-Bush.

  10. Janet, my hat’s so far off to you that I think I need a couple more hats. You put into words a lot of things I’ve been thinking for years but have never quite been able to articulate that well. (I’m also inordinately pleased as an unabashed Pixar / Brad Bird fan. Should have guessed!) I’ll be mulling that comment for quite a while.

    Jenna, I’m completely with you on the false dichotomy between “Christian Art” and “Art.” As C. S. Lewis once pointed out, if somebody wrote a “Christian Cookbook,” the ingredients and recipes would be pretty much the same as in an atheist or pagan or “secular” cookbook. There aren’t different rules and skills for the craft of baking just because somebody believes in Jesus. The difference would mostly be in the application of the skills, maybe by insisting on fair trade produce and feeding the poor or some such.

    Dorothy Sayers has some splendidly caustic thoughts on similar lines in the introduction to The Man Born to Be King–her goal was to tell the story well, and it was all but incidental, from a technical standpoint, that it was the story of Christ instead of Lord Peter Wimsey that she told that time.

    Music has come up a couple of times in the discussion as well. This is something I’ve often pondered myself as a composer with a (very minor) degree of success in both “Christian” and “Secular” markets. (I guess we can consider concert art music “secular”.) To me what’s most worrying is not that there’s so much mediocre cliche “Christian” music out there–as others have pointed out, that’s true of all genres–but that the mediocre stuff seems to have become the touchstone.

    Really, there is no serious shortage today of skillful music being done both by Christians and on Christian themes. But say “Christian Music” and the first thing most people think of is something shopworn and trite like [examples recused for politeness' sake]. Why not Olivier Messiaen or Morten Lauridsen? Or Fernando Ortega or Ken Medema or even U2? The question to me is not “Why is Christian music so bad” but “Why do people only ever seem to think of the bad examples when they’re thinking about that question? And how can I stop them?”

  11. Eric, thanks–and in my own comment, I should have watched out for the very false dichotomy I was trying to make note of. The music played on the so-called Christian radio, like the fiction described sometimes as ‘Christian’, sometimes as ‘Inspirational’, is not composed of the best examples of art created by Christians.

    To clarify further: There’s sacred art–that is, art created for sacred purpose. Gregorian chant, polyphony, and the great Missas by Beethoven and Mozart and the like belong in this category. Byzantine icons and the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, likewise. Then there’s art created with sacred meaning, though perhaps not to be directly involved in the rites of worship. Iconographic fiction, an oratorio for performance, things like that. And then there’s art with sort of a “safe for the whole family” meaning, art with all the difficult and disturbing and potentially sinful parts taken out. This is, I think, where most of what we think of when we think “Christian film/music/books” fall.

    (Which reminds me of taking painting classes from my mother, a master artist. She told me over and over again to go darker in the shading. But she wasn’t asking me to paint a dark picture. She called for darkness simply because it sets off the light.)

    Some of the so-called Christian art aspires to sacred use and/or sacred meaning–but if your influences are [pop music examples left nameless for politeness' sake], how good are you really going to get? And for those not willing to put in the time and effort Janet described so well, the same question applies.

  12. my first response is that it all comes from a misplaced view of culture. Most christians fall into the “christ and culture in paradox” ideal or the “christ transforming” mindset. One thinks that there’s a delicate, awkward dance between the church and the world, the other thinks we should baptize the world and try to fit it into our purpose.

    I like Aquinas’ model of Christ above the culture. I think with hard work (as you mentioned) and natural talent, the church can create a Christocentric Superculture that the whole world piles around to see. Rowling, Lewis, Chesterton, Newton, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. etc. etc. did this.

    My second response is actually a rough quote from a man whose name escapes me. He said:

    “The early church started out as a movement of radical disciples.
    When it went to Rome, it became an empire.
    When it went to Europe, it became an institution.
    When it went to England, it became a monarchy.
    When it came to America, it became an enterprise.”

    I hesitate to ever turn the word “Christian” into an adjective. I think Christians do things, and if the world likes it, then great, but the wrong question is “Can we compete with the world?”

    The right question is: “Are we profoundly faithful with what we have?” Because if we are, then Wesley’s right, “When you stand up to preach, set your speech on fire, and if nothing else the whole word will gather around just to watch you burn.”

  13. I love that quote.

    In return I offer this:

    Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s

  14. I’ve given Caesar my taxes this year, and given God Caesar, but I’m not sure how that applies to my attempts at creating culture…

    Could I ask for a clarifier, Red?

  15. I’m sorry to be so late to comment on my own post. This is a fantastic discussion, just what I hoped for. Janet, thanks, I was hoping you’d share your perspective, and it confirms my thinking. As Christians, an attitude of entitlement is one of the least attractive and illogical ones to have.

    I once read a comment that the best religious art was done by secular artists because it was done for art’s sake. Desire to create isn’t the same as talent, vision, experience, and the grit to labor for years to make and perfect something that speaks to every human heart and belief. Instead, a “good enough” mentality prevails, which doesn’t reflect well on the God who created the both gilded moth and the elephant.

    As long as people don’t see themselves as artists and craftsmen first, or don’t understand what craftsmanship is, we’ll continue to have subpar art that’s justly dismissed by the world. We’ll have stultifying, paint-by-numbers arts only appreciated by a few. Adding to the problem is that many Christians have problems with metaphor, imagination, and narrative; they prefer black and white literalness in story. This causes suspicion toward fantasy and parable, or “diagonal” storytelling in any art form.

    As Jenna points out, the church used to be the hub of artistic activity reaching into all areas of human experience. In separating itself from contemporary culture, it created its own little “safe” corner, and is now a coattail-hanger, adopting predigested ideas and trends only after these are cultural mainstream. How little originality results.

    When 9-11 happened, I felt consumed to express my feelings in an artistic way. I suddenly found a poem gushing out of me a couple weeks later on the way to an appointment, and I wept as I scribbled lines down at stoplights. As I honed the poem at home, I wondered if other artists around the area were having similar experiences. I approached my (then) church about hosting a 9-11 art exhibit, inviting local artists to contribute. It would be a wonderful thing for a grieving community and bring people to the church. Win-win, yeah? Nope. An utter lack of interest.

    Finally, I managed to contact the local arts commission, and they set it up in an empty storefront downtown. Many established, even famous artists, and some amateur ones, including homeless teens living at a shelter, contributed thoughtful, exquisite, moving works, and my poem was displayed, too. Attendees wrote out their own feelings and thoughts, and taped them on the window for the community to read. It got a great write-up in the paper, and was well-attended by all ages, but I don’t think anyone from my church went.

    As long as Christians lack an “utmost for His highest” regard toward artistic expression, and the church dismisses art that is risky and edgy, the world will walk on by and never stop to look. This will be so whether it’s film or another art form.

  16. What I was trying to say with the “Render to Caesar” quote is that it might be a good idea to separate preaching from entertainment (and art). Leave the preaching to people who have devoted their lives to God. Leave the entertainment to entertainers (and the art to the artists).

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t exalt God through art (or even through entertainment). Any lover of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven or even Kevin Smith can attest to that. But it seems to me that there is a difference between praising and preaching.

  17. Red Rocker, I disagree with your use of the “Render to Caesar” quote. Those words by Jesus have no relevance in this discussion because they are very misunderstood. Caesar’s world blended religion and politics (as any ancient society did), and the Emperor cult was one of the fastest growing religions in the time of Jesus. Even though Jews in the first century were under Roman rule, they would not have understood separation of church and state either. It is a concept from the eighteenth century. Religion permeated every facet of society. What Jesus was getting at was render Caesar what was Caesar’s (i.e. those coins with the idolatrous images of the emperor) and give God what is God’s. It was as much a political statement as it was religious. It was saying that Caesar is not God, and that the God of Israel demands full allegiance over and against pagan powers, and that He, not Caesar, is King and Lord over the World. Reading what Jesus said through a first century lens allows the reader to not commit gross anachronism in reading our own 20th century Western ideas into the text.

  18. Johnny – actually there are 5 standard interpretations of that phrase – none are more definitive than the others in today’s context. According to Wikipedia -

    This phrase has become a widely quoted summary of the relationship between Christianity and secular authority. The original message, coming in response to a question of whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, gives rise to multiple possible interpretations about whether it is desirable for the Christian to submit to earthly authority. Interpretations include the beliefs that:

    A. It is good and appropriate to submit to the state when asked;

    B. Spiritual demands supersede earthly demands, but do not abolish them;

    C. The demands of the state are non-negotiable;

    D. Spiritual authority should maintain its independence from temporal authority, which rules by force rather than moral law.

    E. As everything belongs to God and nothing belongs to any man, including Caesar, then there is nothing to render unto Caesar.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Render_unto_Caesar

    As you can see both Red Rocker’s interpretation as well as your own fall under the Render Under Ceasar quote. I kindly disagree and actually think that it has a lot to do with the query posted – especially in relation to what Arabella said in the comment right before.

    I happen to believe there are no “Christian Films”. None. Not one. I also don’t think there are any “Jewish Films”. Nope, Schindler’s List is not a “Jewish Film”. Neither is Fiddler on the Roof. Or “Muslim Films”, or Buddhist Films, or Greek Orthodox Films, or Atheist Films.

  19. Gross anachronism, eh?

    Hmm, let me try again. What I was trying to say is that what makes for a successful sermon might not make for successful entertainment, and vice versa.

  20. Bennu, I’m not concerned with today’s context, but how first century Jews would’ve understood the words of Jesus. A person living in the first century would not understand the first four choices Wikipedia presented. The notion of statehood and sovereignty weren’t around until the nineteenth century. No Jew (Christian or non-Christian) would’ve recognized the idea of spiritual (or heavenly) demands versus earthly demands. This smacks of the divide between heaven and earth, between religion and politics, between the sacred and profane that the Enlightenment pushed in the eighteenth century where we can put God (if he exists or not) up there in heaven and leave the earth for us to run. It goes along with the idea of private spirituality as opposed to doing religion in public. And tell a first century Jew that the demands of the state (I should say empire here) are non-negotiable when they protested fiercely when Pontius Pilate placed imperial standards in Jerusalem. Their religion was non-negotiable. Their faith in the one God of Israel, the King and Lord of the World, was non-negotiable. They would never submit to the demands of pagan states. They had to pay taxes, yes, because they were under the rule of Rome, but certain things were non-negotiable. Spiritual versus temporal authority? Nope, religion and politics were fused in any ancient society including Rome and yes, Palestine. Once again our own modern mindset can understand the first four explanations of “Render to Caesar” but the original hearers wouldn’t. The fifth explanation is essentially right since everything does belong to God, but it fails to recognize the subversive meaning that people would’ve recognized, that if we are to render unto God, then Caesar is not God. Why do you think Rome persecuted the early Christians? Because they worshipped “another King”. Also what should Caesar be rendered but those blasphemous coins with the emperor’s image. Render those idolatrous coins back to him. They belong to him.

    Red Rocker, I shouldn’t have said gross and I didn’t mean to apply that to you. I actually agree with you that preaching has no place in entertainment. There are lots of examples including JKR who said that she never intends to preach in her novels, but that morals are drawn. I just wanted to point out that the whole “Render unto Caesar” quote was and still is by and large misunderstood by many people to say something that it does not.

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