Saturday, September 13, 2008

An Exploration of the State of Christian Cinema (part one)

“I made it as a prayer, an act of worship. I wanted to be a priest. My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.”
- Martin Scorsese speaking about The Last Temptation of Christ in Martian Scorsese: A Journey.
What do you mean, “the state of Christian cinema?” one might ask me. Allow me to first define the term “Christian cinema.” I want to approach the topic of Christian involvement in filmmaking from two fronts: (1) Films made by Christians with an openly Christian message, and (2) Christians working in the film industry making films with broad appeal. Thus, “Christian cinema” as I refer to it here seems to have two incarnations (I recognize the irony of using that word). Yet, both mesh into a broader issue, Christian engagement of the American culture through cinema. This will by no means be an exhaustive discussion on the topic, as much can be said, and as I will point out in this entry, much is ever changing. These are merely the observations of one filmmaker/film lover who also is a follower of Jesus.

Part One: Christian Movies

Much has been made in the past of openly Christian films being released in theaters. There certainly seems to be a whole range of reactions to these films, though almost all academically and artistically engaged Christians's reactions to such films so far have been quite negative. Think back to films like
The Omega Code, Left Behind, and Tribulation. Before we get too bogged down in wondering why fellow Christians might be so disapproving of many of these films, let us stop and consider whom these films are supposed to reach. Affecting a secular audience is certainly on the forefront of the makers of such films. But take this quote from Tom Allen, who in his article “The Faith-Based Film Movement Takes on Hollywood” in MovieMaker Magazine (a secular, general publication), writes: “Legendary Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton once wrote: ‘If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” Well, today’s low-budget Christian moviemakers are taking him at his word.” {1}

Ouch. But you know what. He’s right. And he’s not the only one saying this. Craig Detweiler, someone I had the privilege of studying under, writes in his book
A Matrix of Meanings (which he co-authored with Barry Taylor): “When films such as The Omega Code or Left Behind combine special effects and Scripture to explain the future, God becomes cheesy, the wholly Other boiled down to a hidden code.”{2} The problem, as Detweiler explains in the chapter he authored for the book on the topic of films is that Christians haven’t understood the medium of film and how to approach an audience. They haven’t appreciated what Paul Schrader (filmmaker and screenwriter of such films as The Last Temptation of Christ and Taxi Driver) points out is the temptation to use the “abundant means” of cinema to proselytize. Schrader highlights: “With comparative ease he [the Christian filmmaker] can make an ardent atheist sympathize with the trails and agonies of Christ. But he has not lifted the viewer to Christ’s level, he has brought Christ down to the viewers.” {2}

Scott Derrickson, director of such films as
Hellraiser: Inferno, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still (due out in December), and a follower of Christ, writes this, “If we create with an agenda that people perceive before they feel the descriptive truthfulness of our story, they’ll resist it. Why? Because we are giving them propaganda, not art. Every ‘Christian film’ I’ve seen is propaganda. Christian films are often resistible because Christian screenwriters have the habit of writing about what they believe instead of about what really moves them.” {3}

Now, Derrickson wrote this back in 2002. I had the opportunity to ask him recently if he felt the trend had changed at all in recent years. He replied that, “yes, there has been some shifting away from the propaganda-ness of Christians in cinema, but not enough.” I agree with Derrickson. Certainly, in the past few years, I’ve noticed an improvement in the quality of storytelling coming from overtly Christian films.

This improvement happened despite two more film installments of the
Left Behind movie series, which improved in cinematic style to some degree, but may have actually gotten worse as far as actual storytelling. The third (and as far as I know, the final film of the series, since the authors of the books have not reportedly sold the movie rights to any more of the books), ends with a victorious and unscathed Anti-Christ walking out of the shambles and flames of the building a Christian just suicide-bombed knowing it was filled with other people (non-Christians) as well as the Anti-Christ who he knew he couldn’t kill, but wanted to slow down. I’m sorry, that is just unacceptable! Especially in a post 9/11 America that is hypersensitive to images of buildings exploding and stories of suicide bombers, such tactless storytelling is abominable. To think that somehow a Christian film is sending the message that extremist behavior like this is in some way acceptable is just morally reprehensible! It's as if the filmmakers skipped right over the entire New Testament in favor of gleaming half-baked interpretations from Scripture's final book. And seeing as I doubt any more films will be made, that leaves the conclusion to this accidental trilogy with a victorious and unstoppable Anti-Christ. Wow, guys. Good job. That’s some messed up eschatology right there.

Okay, that rant aside, I’ve seen some improvement in Christian filmmaking. In two weeks, one example (in my view) will be released in theatres. The film is called
Fireproof, and you can read my review of it on this blog. I also plan on reposting that review soon in light of the release of that film. Thus, I’m not going to spend any time talking about it now.

There’s been an improvement also in films like
Joshua, which is a fictional exploration of what it might be like if Jesus came in the flesh today to a small town. I find this film refreshing (while far from perfect) because it understands well it is a work of fiction. Notice how I even describe the film here . . . “an exploration.” That’s one great power of fiction, the ability to explore outside of the reality we are locked in. Another film that has gotten the label of “Christian movie,” though I feel it has far broader appeal to mass audiences than most movies with that stamp, is To End All Wars. This film does so much so well, it stands out as one of my favorite films in recent years to deal with war, and particularly soldiers and prisoners of war (I like it as much or more than Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, which was an amazing film). And central to the story, because it is true to the actual events the film is based on, is the Christian faith of several of the characters and how this faith develops, changes, grows, and affects those around them throughout the story. Keep in mind too that the cinematic execution of To End All Wars is superb. It’s beautifully shot, the performances are powerful, and the careful attention to detail you see in any major Hollywood production is there. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a film done right. There are still those critics of the film that complain that it’s just another example of Christians trying to push their worldview on everyone else . . . but let’s face it, Christians have been getting that complaint for as long as there have been Christians. Forgive me if I’m not all that affected by such a complaint.

So, as things seem to be improving, another question comes to my mind: Is cinema the place to proselytize? Films like
Fireproof have raised this question anew for me. I’ll admit, I really don’t see cinema as a place for a sermon on celluloid (or HD for that matter). Allow me to quote Scott Derrickson again: “. . . I don’t feel obliged to propagate my point of view through cinema. I’m not interested in winning converts through film—because the gospel is foolishness, and foolishness makes for bad filmmaking. But I can’t ignore the fact that issues of faith and spirituality interest me more than anything else, so I’m not going to avoid them, especially when those issues are important to so many other people.” {4}

As a filmmaker myself, I agree with Derrickson on this point. I’m not interested in making films whose primary goal is to win converts. You see, there’s a fine line as Derrickson, in an earlier quote, points out between art and propaganda. My goal is to make art. Art provides an experience. It can inspire thought, feelings, and discussion. But art that has only the objective of persuading you to a particular point of view is on the same intellectual plane as pornography, as far as I’m concerned. Pornography’s whole existence is wrapped up in lust. It is its inception and its conclusions. It is uncomplicated, lacking nuance, lacking even the possibility of various interpretations. In the same way, art that has as it’s sole reason for existence the propagation of one idea and has no nuance of complexity or contrasting views and is not open to various interpretations is not art at all. It’s just a different kind of pornography. And it’s just as reprehensible, in my view.

This is a central issue that must be grappled with first by Christians seeking to make cinematic art, something that entertains and explores the world we live in, something that connects with audiences and opens the possibility of spiritual discussion and engagement. I see improvement in this area. But just as Derrickson so carefully pointed out to me, there’s still much more improvement needed. But how do we get there? I think the next step is to stop thinking about making “Christian Movies” all together, and start thinking about the work of a Christian as a filmmaker in a secular world.

Read Part Two

End Notes:
{1} MovieMaker Magazine, Issue No. 74, Volume 15, pg 56.
{2} A Matrix of Meanings by Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, © 2003. Pg 159.
{3} “Behind the Lens: The Christian Filmmaker in Hollywood” by Scott Derrickson, published in Christian Century, January 30 – February 6, 2002.
{4} Take from “Raising Hell,” an interview with Scott Derrickson on The New Pantagrual, pg 4.


carneyj95 said...

I totally agree with this POV. Respect the audience, let them figure things out on their own. Create discussion, even arguments, just don't hit people on the head with a cinematic sledge hammer.

Rob said...

Great post, Mikel...thanks for alerting me to's like my rant, except well-thought out, research, and perfectly written! :^)

I hope you don't mind, I linked my post to yours in the hopes that others read it,'s really good!

I really enjoyed reading your other posts, too, and I've added you to my blog reader. Thanks again for the comment and the link!