Recently, ChristianCinema.com released the results of a month-long movie poll pitting various Christian films against each other. Paralleling basketball’s “March Madness,” the tournament entered 64 films that were eliminated or advanced in a knockout format as Christian viewers voted. Naturally, movies with an aggressive social media campaign behind them had an edge, which might explain why the 2014 release God’s Not Dead was ultimately crowned (in Christian Cinema’s words) the “Best. Movie. Ever.” Because nobody’s ever made good films outside the evangelical Christian film-making bubble, so best Christian movie, best movie, same different right?
I did my own review of God’s Not Dead when it first came out. I gave it 2.5 stars out of 5, which in hindsight actually seems too generous. I don’t have to explain why it’s not the best movie ever, but it’s a far cry even from being the best Christian movie ever. It beat out obviously superior movies like Passion of the Christ and The Blind Side on its way to victory in this particular poll, which isn’t even including every good Christian movie ever made.
The selection process for the 64 films that were included was interesting and somewhat baffling to track. It prompted me to think about what even counts as a Christian movie. It also made me think about what it takes to make a movie that’s simultaneously great and Christian.
Some of the choices were obvious: Facing the Giants, Left Behind, Soul Surfer, October Baby, etc. And I wasn’t too surprised to find that the Christian Cinema store doesn’t even carry such deep-dyed Catholic offerings as Of Gods and Men and For Greater Glory. (Although they do carry the Catholic pro-life films Bella and Gimme Shelter, both of which are light years ahead of October Baby and neither of which got into the 64.)
But other inclusion/exclusion choices baffled me. There was a whole bracket devoted to sports and another devoted to true stories, yet neither of them included the critically acclaimed favorite Chariots of Fire. Amazing Grace, which chronicles the true story of William Wilberforce’s fight to end the slave trade, was also strangely absent. On the flip side, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was probably the strangest inclusion. The books only had subtle references to Christianity to begin with, and the movies drifted even further from the spirit of Tolkien. More understandable but almost worse in a way was the inclusion of the Narnia movies, which gut many of Lewis’s explicitly Christian undertones. I’m not sure how to feel about the fact that the Narnia movies knocked out Lord of the Rings in round one. This tells me that a lot of the voters probably haven’t read the books in either series.
Then there’s the aforementioned The Blind Side, which advanced all the way to the championship round before losing to God’s Not Dead. This movie was popular with evangelical audiences, because it tells the inspiring true story of a Christian family who adopted a homeless black teenager and helped him land a college football scholarship. However, the family’s faith is barely mentioned in the movie. It comes out in a cross necklace here, a Thanskgiving prayer there, but nothing more overt than that. Let me stress that this is actually a good thing, and the movie works just fine on its own. In fact, it’s arguably the best of the bunch. But “Christian”? Technically, not really.
So does it Mean Something that the best movie in the list is also one of the least explicitly Christian? Is it possible to make a great, explicitly Christian movie? My short answer is yes. The fact that a movie is explicitly Christian (or at least has explicitly Christian elements) doesn’t have to keep the movie from being great.
But. It’s really, really hard. So many other things have to be just right to make it come off well, and they almost never are.
For one thing, it’s always tricky to pull off a great film built around a particular message, or a particular ideology. To the greatest extent possible, the message should arise naturally from the characters and their setting. The more you try to force the message, the more stilted the story becomes. This is true of any kind of religious or political “message movie,” and there are Hollywood filmmakers just as guilty of it as Christian filmmakers. In fact, it’s impossible to keep up with all the mainstream Hollywood films that bash viewers over the head with a leftist message. They’re plagued with a lot of the same problems that the same critics who give these movies a pass will gleefully point out in Christian films: caricatured villains, preachy dialogue, agenda-peddling at the expense of storytelling, etc.
For another thing, with apologies to my Protestant readers, explicit Christianity often makes for better, more artistic movies when the setting is Catholic. This is partly because Catholicism has deep historical roots, whereas contemporary American evangelicalism of the kind commonly marketed in Christian films doesn’t. So there are simply more time periods and cultural settings to work with. You can make movies about Spanish Jesuit martyrs in the 1700s, Mexican martyrs in the 1900s, French monk martyrs in the 2000s… all kinds of martyrs! And that’s another thing: Martyrdom makes great movies. (With apologies to Love Comes Softly.)
And as always, you need to have a really bang-up story, a talented professional cast, a brilliant director, a script that’s strong, intelligent and subtle all at once… basically, all those minor details that make up a great movie, period. Good luck bringing all those elements together in any context, much less a context where the talent pool is restricted to Christians.
I get where evangelical Christian filmmakers are coming from. They look at all of Hollywood’s “message movies” and think, “It’s not fair. Hollywood puts out a message movie and it grosses billions, while we’re struggling to have anything like that impact with the greatest message of all. Where are the movies representing our culture?” And you know, there are worse things than writing what you know and having your evangelical characters talk like (*gasp*) evangelicals. But Christian writers and directors are still learning how to show more and tell less. They’re still learning the art of expressing their characters’ feelings without cramming the dialogue full of exposition. They also need to make the struggles and bad influences on their Christian characters more subtle, instead of sticking a giant “I’M AN OVER-THE-TOP VILLAINOUS ANTAGONIST” sign on the back of every atheist/agnostic character. They also need to outgrow the crutch of having a conversion scene for said stubborn atheist/agnostic character. Almost no Christian film can leave home without one, and the few that don’t are among the more interesting ones.
“Wow,” you’re thinking. “That’s pretty rough. So what are you saying, the Christian film industry should just give up?” Of course that’s not what I’m saying. The Kendrick Brothers didn’t give up, and their most recent movie is probably their best effort yet. What I am saying is that Christian filmmakers should seek out feedback from other Christians who know what they’re talking about and genuinely want Christian movies to get better. The problem is that not many people are out there vocally critiquing Christian movies from within the subculture. Most of the criticism is coming from the outside, from secular critics who often conflate technical critiques of evangelical movies with a general disdain towards evangelical culture and politics. It’s somewhat understandable that Christian filmmakers are hesitant to take such opinions seriously. However, I still submit that they should find what is worth keeping in any critique. And don’t shoot the messenger when another Christian takes the time to explain what they could do better in their next project.
It’s not that I’m rooting against Christian movie-making. I’m just not sure most Christian filmmakers have fully realized just how hard it is to make a good movie.
Oh, what’s my favorite Christian movie? Well, since you asked: