What’s Wrong With Christian Movies?

This weekend I joined my friend Dale Maxfield for two movie showings and video reviews on his blog. One of the movies we discussed was the new Christian movie, God’s Not Dead. You can check out the conversation we had on Dale’s website, but to save you the trouble of clicking, I really didn’t like it. I thought it was trite, contrived, and undermined its Christians-versus-atheists debate by making the atheist as unsympathetic and incapable as possible. As a Christian, I thought it was generally pretty terrible, and I said as much in my review with Dale. But from a Christian perspective the final quality of the film is often more complicated than that.

Movies generally function as either dumb entertainment or high art, and frequently as both. Christian movies like God’s Not Dead often have the stated intent of also being a ministry platform. This isn’t just a way to kill a couple hours, it’s a way to try and bring people to God. This is obviously a slippery thing for a reviewer to assess, even one who is a Christian. Even if a movie doesn’t speak to me spiritually, that doesn’t mean it won’t work for someone else. If someone isn’t as hung up on all of the issues I have with the movie, both as a film and as theology, then there’s nothing getting in the way of them having their own experience. And from a Christian perspective, if a movie that costs millions of dollars ends up bringing just one person into relationship with Christ, it has to be assessed as a win.

In my conversation with Dale I was firmly wearing my critic hat, and as a result it might not have given the movie the grace that I would have given to some other Christian ministry. I don’t think that was necessarily the wrong move given the context, but it’s kind of an incomplete picture. I am sure that there are people out there who were inspired to Christianity through God’s Not Dead, and I’m thrilled that that’s the case. But to what degree do I extend that mercy? Do I have to celebrate what I thought was a pretty unpleasant film experience because it affected someone else’s faith journey? If a Christian movie comes out in mainstream cinemas and has to compete for movie dollars with big budget offerings from major studios, is it not then subject to the same level of criticism? And on the other side, if a movie has the stated intent of being about ministry to non-Christians and at least one non-Christian is affected by it, then why should its relative quality as film be put to question?

As someone who is both a Christian and responsible for reviewing the movie in the first place, I really have no idea. While I rejoice if someone is brought to faith through a movie, I have to say that I think that shoddy films aren’t a net gain for Christianity. Most people who are unconvinced won’t come away from God’s Not Dead thinking any better of Christianity. I fear that such movies are more often made with primarily Christian audiences in mind, as a way to inspire and encourage rather than a way to provoke and challenge. Even God’s Not Dead, with its debate-focused story, usually goes for warm fuzzies over intellectual debate. This is an issue I have with a lot of Christian media. If you listen to K-Love on the radio, their stated mission is to be “positive and encouraging.” That some people really need positive encouragement is true, and I’m glad they can get it. But that’s a very incomplete view of faith, which is never as tidy and happy as we want it to be. Surely to advertise that kind of attitude is misleading to someone who is just now learning about Christianity. In my own faith, there is peace, but it’s often in the midst of a maelstrom of doubt, frustration, and unresolved questions. To act like such issues aren’t there is fundamentally dishonest.

And yet…do the relative artistic merits ultimately matter if the stated intent is to bring people to faith, and if it is accomplished? Atheists and those of other faiths who read this blog will think that’s kind of a silly question, but it’s one I feel like I must ask. Even if a better-made movie would have been a more effective ministry tool, that small number brought to faith is a good thing from a Christian perspective, and I’m glad that lousy movie accomplished it. I don’t, however, think that it’s a good idea to just rally around any movie with a faith-based message. Doing that will only encourage studios and theaters to market such movies towards churches, since they are a guaranteed audience. I’m of two minds about the whole topic, and I’m starting to think that I might never reach resolution.

So the question “What’s wrong with Christian movies?” isn’t so much asking about why so many are terrible. It’s more a question of, if a movie sets out to change minds towards Christianity and does so, even on a small scale, isn’t that a success? What’s wrong with a poorly-made movie if it ultimately does what it intended to do in the first place? And on the other hand, wouldn’t a better-executed movie accomplish the same thing more effectively?

I’m not sure, and I might never be.

I am generally not so open about my faith on a blog that mostly focuses on board games, but this particular issue has been gnawing at me all weekend and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I encourage all readers, Christians and non-Christians alike, to comment and leave their thoughts, but it should go without saying that anything nasty or inflammatory will be deleted. Let’s try to discuss this like grown-ups, hmm?

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5 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Christian Movies?

  1. I’ve been a Christian as long as I can remember, but I find myself angry at stuff like this. A couple of years ago, my church encouraged a congregation-wide bible study based on a set of videos about worldviews, but it was the most infuriating DVD I’ve watched in a long time. Strawman arguments and actually making fun of those with a different worldview did not help me enlarge my view of the world or prepare me for a reasonable, intelligent discussion with someone of a different cultural or religious background. I only went to two sessions and never went back.

    It strikes me that this new movie is cut from the same cloth. Maybe… maybe there are some Christians that need patted on the back and reassured that they picked the “right side” (okay, I’ll admit that I need that myself sometimes), but low quality “art” is not the way I would choose. In fact, something like this video is more likely to turn me off than encourage me. I want honesty and quality and for artists of faith to not be afraid. Is that so difficult?

    One of the best debates I’ve seen about faith versus atheism was in an epic fantasy written by a Mormon: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. He didn’t fear the arguments of his atheist character and neither did he shy away from the feelings of his faith-filled character. It was incredibly refreshing to read and I’ve been looking for a similar treatment of religion in art ever since.

  2. I loved Way of Kings, and that was one reason. A very honest debate, where resolution is not necessarily the point.

    I could have made this a litany of the problems I had with God’s Not Dead (the horrible atheist stereotypes, the unfortunate racial problems, its facile and comforting view of faith), but that was mostly covered in my video review with Dale. I don’t doubt that it’ll serve some people well, but you can say that of literally anything.

  3. Nate, I have not seen the movie, but the preview tells me quite a lot. The preview for this movie caricatures atheists as angry, proud, and anti-Christian. And like a lot of Christian apologetics (Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, etc.), it appears to engage with secular critiques of religion and more liberal challenges to evangelical theology disingenuously. Even amazing acting and cinematography, etc.–if these were to accompany this story–could not overcome such gross stereotyping and childish theology (in my opinion). This movie represents the fading relevance of fundamentalist Christianity and its naive certitude. If it brings about a beautiful transformation in someone’s life, then that’s great at that level. But Christianity at its best ought to strive for the truth with much more sincerity and integrity as it seeks to be transformed by the light it finds in Jesus and in its scriptures.

  4. Well said. One statement you made seems to sum up the the questions you are raising here, and it is also the statement to which I would like to pose a counter question.

    You said ‘And from a Christian perspective, if a movie that costs millions of dollars ends up bringing just one person into relationship with Christ, it has to be assessed as a win.’

    What if it brings one person to Christ, but pushes away ten others who might have been interested in thoughtful dialogue? And what if it leaves ten more ‘Christian thinkers’ wondering if a thoughtful faith is really possible?

    Unfortunately, I think this is the sad truth about movies like this. They might work for some, but they push far too many further away.

    Just my thoughts…thanks for the post.

  5. Beth P. sent me here and I’m so happy. Well done and thoughtful.

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