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?