Why Are Christian Movies So Bad?

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Scott Nehring has an article at Relevant asking a great question: why are Christian movies so bad? He describes Christian movies in terms many of us have heard before: “intellectually vacant,” “disconnected from reality,” he says they suffer from “substandard production values, stilted dialogue and childish plots.”So why are they so bad? According to Nehring the issue is evangelical isolationism. He says that dating back to the 1960s, many Christians became uncomfortable with popular culture and retreated into “cocoons”-safe places for Christians to hide from the big, bad culture and where they could discuss what they “hoped the world was like rather than dealing with how things are.”This isolation resulted in “poorly trained artists” and Christian filmmakers not “playing with the big boys.” He calls today’s crop of Christian filmmakers “ill-equipped and out-matched.”

I cannot pretend to have given this subject as much thought as Scott Nehring-he wrote a whole book on the issue-but I’m not sure his argument holds up under scrutiny. What caught my attention in Nehring’s article was the “cultural isolation” boogieman that so many Christians like to employ these days. I hear similar notions in church leadership settings. The reason so many churches are struggling, the logic goes, is because we’ve isolated ourselves from the advances is organizational leadership that are occurring in the secular business realm.

The problem with this argument, from a general point of view, is that it misses one of the hallmarks of American evangelicalism which has always been cultural engagement. In the early/mid 20th century it was the fundamentalists who withdrew from culture, politics, business, and the arts. Believing this was an unfaithful response, the evangelicals sought to retain an orthodox theology and reliance on Scripture will actively engaging the wider culture. When people throw around the “Christian cultural isolation” argument they often paint with too wide of a brush. They fail to distinguish between the numerous approaches to culture evident in 20th century American Christianity.

But that’s not my primary difficulty with Nehring’s perspective. A case might be made that Christians did in fact withdraw from Hollywood to create a (sub-standard) parallel film industry. But this alone may not explain the poor quality of their movies. After all, during the same time period (1960s to the present) a parallel Christian music industry was also born that has gone on to be both financially successful and (in some cases) artistically applauded. And we have increasingly seen music artists cross a permeable barrier between secular pop and Christian recording markets. So why haven’t we seen the same with films?

I believe Nehring is missing an important explanation for the lower quality of evangelical films-our non-sacramental theology. American evangelicalism, for the most part, has rejected a sacramental understanding of creation. Unlike Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some other high-church traditions, evangelicalism is rooted in modernity and a literalist vision of the world. The bread is just bread. The wine is just wine (sorry, grape juice). A thing is what it is. We prefer our Bible teaching unambiguous and direct-didactic and expository, thank you very much. We prefer our gathering spaces to be bare and with minimal symbols. Our brand of theology tends not to feed or cultivate the imagination.

A sacramental theology, on the other hand, requires one to see on multiple layers at once. A thing may carry multiple meanings simultaneously. Symbols dominate space and teaching. Mystery is embraced, and the imagination encouraged.

Unlike evangelicals, there is no shortage of celebrated Roman Catholic filmmakers today. And many of the 20th century’s most respected novelists also come for Catholic backgrounds: Graham Green, Flannery O’Conner, Shusaku Endo, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Is it possible that creative story-telling, like the kind necessary to produce great films, is particularly difficult for evangelicals because our instinct is to come directly at a something? Where Michelangelo would sculpt the Pieta, John Calvin would prefer to preach a 12-point sermon on the death of Christ. Rather than create a fantasy world like Middle-Earth to speak about the dangers of industrialization, a task that requires imagination and comfort with ambiguity, we’d rather just create a film about the dangers of industrialization.

The Left Behind books/films are an example of this direct communication style. Clearly LeHaye and Jankins created the series to teach their particular end times theology. The teaching was merely presented in the guise of fictional narrative. Contrast these films with the apocalyptic movies created by non-evangelical artists: WALL-E, The Book of Eli, 12 Monkeys. Of course any biblical theology lurking in these films takes a back seat-something almost unthinkable to evangelical sensibilities.

Vincent van Gogh illustrates this well. In 1889, his friends Gauguin and Bernard sent him copies of their paintings of Christ in the Garden of Olives. Vincent said the paintings “got on my nerves.” He saw their works as depicting Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane, but they ended there. They failed to draw the viewer and his/her pain into the composition. They were too literal. Van Gogh decided to paint Christ suffering in the garden without actually painting Jesus. Instead he used the contorted olive trees to represent his, and our, suffering. Vincent believed “that one can try to give an impression of anguish without aiming straight at the history Garden of Gethsemane.” Such sentiments are not prevalent in the evangelical culture that rewards literalism.

In the end I’m not convinced that we can rack up bad Christian movies simply to cultural isolation. We need to look at our theological vision of the world and the way we have starved the evangelical imagination in favor of literal truth.

  • http://quotidianjournal.blogspot.com/ dan haase

    the quote below is from “Christian History” Issue 78 (Vol. XXII, No. 2), 2003
    “So. What about this flinty Catholicism of Tolkien’s and its effect on his work? First, Catholics are profoundly narrative. Where Protestants gravitate towards the immense abstractions of sovereignty, election, depravity, atonement, and grace, Catholics characteristically come to rest on events: Creation; Annunciation; Gestation; Parturition; the Agony in the Gardens; the Passion; Resurrection, and Ascension. The Mass is an enactment, as opposed to the Protestant service, with its center of gravity in the sermon. Second, Catholicism is sacramentalist. The point where the Divine touches our humanity is a physical one…The entire Gospel is enacted—physically, in the Catholic liturgy. Hence the ease with which the Catholic mind reaches for narrative. Tolkien believed he could not have written the saga if he had not been a Catholic. He trusted his imagination in ways sadly rare among Protestants….Third, good and evil in Middle-earth are indistinguishable from Christian notions of good and evil in our own story.” ~ Thomas Howard (p. 24)

  • http://thesecondeclectic.blogspot.com/ Adam

    This was really helpful–the distinction between a literalist vision and a sacramental theology. It gave me words for something I’ve noticed. Pope Benedict’s *Jesus of Nazareth* represents well this sacramental approach and seeing multiple meanings at once. This definitely brings the Scriptures into greater fullness for me, in three dimensions instead of two.

  • http://goinggod.tumblr.com Ryan

    Once you entertain the idea that Scripture could mean two things at the same time–let alone three or four–that there could be a multivalent reading of Scripture, there is a fear that seizes the evangelical mind. There should be just one reading. And we like our movies, music, books all to have this ‘one reading.’ We have to accept that the Bible can’t be hard to read, can’t be difficult to understand or even unexpected. If you read the Bible and get confused, it’s best to just close the book and ignore that part. Or read the commentary underneath to figure out what the ‘right reading’ is.

  • Josh Lindsay

    Great article! I would say that its both isolation from the culture (or least not being around other talented film makers) and being uncomfortable with ambiguous or “layered” story telling. And I would also argue that Christian music has the same problem, at least to a degree. I love listening to K-Love but most of it sounds the same to me. And it seems if the lyrics don’t meet a certain criteria then it doesn’t make the cut (i.e. “Mention ‘Jesus’ three times or just sing something from Proverbs or you don’t get any air time.”).

    To me it boils down to Christians who try to be great artists vs. Great artist who also happen to be Christians.

  • http://carolesmithturner.com Carole Turner

    As someone with an Elvish tattoo I love this piece! :-)

  • http://blog.randomlychad.com ChadJ

    This was a truly beautiful bit of writing. As an Evangelical, it challenges me. I’m discovering that real people with real issues don’t just want to be preached at–they want to know that we care. As it is with people, so must it be with culture–we must engage on multiple levels, yet without diluting the heart of Jesus. If we are to be in the world, but not of it, we must look to our example: Jesus. It’s as simple and as profound as that.

  • http://evangelican.com Jason

    This topic drives me crazy. I’m so put out by the lack of creativity and originality offered by “Christian artists”. I think much of the blame lies with awful theology which is a result largely due to the 2nd Great Awakening. Considering films such as “Facing the Giants” and “Secret Life of Jonathan Sperry” we see how toxic our theology has become, basically, follow Jesus and everything will work out fine. The same is true with most of the music you hear on “Christian radio.”
    I do see a new (or fairly new) breed of Christians who are truly artists (Andrew Peterson, Derek Webb and the like) who aren’t in it for a buck.
    I can only guess that there are evangelicals out there who are talented and have great ideas for film but simply can’t find the money and backing to put their art out for mass consumption. After all, it is a lot cheaper to cut an album than to shoot, package and distribute a film.
    You highlight how Catholics have been very successful in the arts – I think one reason for this is evident in a quote by Bono (of U2, not Cher) where he responded to the question “is U2 a Christian band?” His response, “no, we’re a band of Christians.” That is genius. They have never been held hostage to the creative restraints that come along with “Christian bands” and the shortsighted labels that own them.

  • http://www.armchair-theology.net Dave

    I think you’re quite right in your assessment. Throughout Church history there has been a broad and deep artistic heritage in many cultures yet Western Christianity can’t adapt well to one of the more prominent art forms of its contemporary culture: cinema. I have to wonder if it has something to do with the perception within Western Christian culture that Christian art needs to be “family friendly.” We have tamed our view of scripture to the point where the Sunday School Jesus looks nothing like He does in the Gospels and I wonder if we do the same thing in movies.

    Life is raw, often unfriendly and decidedly NOT family friendly. How can we make engaging art if we don’t allow it to live in an adult world, instead placing it in a Disney fantasy?

    In Christ,
    Dave

  • Robin

    Thank you for this post you have put to words what I have been feeling and thinking for years. I wish there was a way to wake up evangelicals and fundamentalists to this problem I think this literalness deprives them of so much.

  • http://ramblingfocusforintellectuals.blogspot.com Briar-Rose

    Not all Christian movies are bad. I have greatly enjoyed the ones I’ve seen by Halestorm Entertainment. They make movies about what is mostly Mormon-family life, with all its ins and outs. If your random-Christian congregation has a Boy Scout troop, and you were in Scouts yourself, you would probably get a kick out of “Down and Derby.” My sister enjoyed their version of “Pride and Prejudice” even more than the one with Colin Firth, and I daresay, more than the book by Jane Austen. But then again, these movies are clean, Christian comedies, and my sister has enjoyed clean television and movies her whole life, and she’s in her mid-twenties. When she was a teenager, she really liked “I Dream of Genie” reruns, even though they are very sexist (a woman who does everything she does for a man), and she (my sister) is a Democrat. I have argued with her over politics before, but she is far more proficient at ranting than I am, and now she’s married, so I have to let her ranting be her husband’s problem now.

  • joel hunter

    “Why are Christian movies so bad?”
    1. Granting the premise of the question that evangelicalism = default Christianity, the author rightly illuminates what is lacking in evangelical theology where it bears upon the imagination. The commission to make disciples is never understood as an injunction to “Imagine!” Its meaning is exhausted by “Teach!” So it is no surprise that most evangelical movies are little more than sermons. And while sermons might be good for some things, the media of literature and film are poor means to deliver sermons. Sermonizing on film–like moralizing–is almost always unbearable.

    2. The answer to the question is to be found in the question itself. The fact that one can pick out a film as belonging to the genre ‘Christian’ is why the movies are so bad. Kinds of movies reflect the kinds of stories they tell. Christianity is not a kind of story. Thus, for a filmmaker to set out to make “a Christian movie” is already to engage in a kind of self-consciousness and pretentiousness that once projected on screen, again, is almost always unbearable.

  • http://www.lgallant.blogspot.com Leo Gallant

    it seem that Christian Evangelicals have more trouble with symbolism than even God. God often paints stories in elaborate, descriptive terms that leave you in awe and wonder. Just read the book of Revelation, for instance. Crowds weren’t drawn to Jesus’ teaching because of a didactic style, but because of His ability to passionately weave a story in a very convincing way.

  • http://vjmorton.wordpress.com Victor Morton

    If I may engage in some self-promotion, I wrote the following regarding narrative and soteriology in a review of FIREPROOF — it’s the whole end of the review, but this is the basic thrust:

    “I just have to wonder if evangelical soteriology doesn’t mold the mind in ways fundamentally inimical to drama. Imagine that you believe (and this Catholic, at least, can only imagine it) that your life is radically divided into ‘Before Christ’ and ‘After Christ,’ with your accepting Christ being a single, decisive act that takes place on a definable day that one can remember, mark and celebrate as the day you were saved, in the same way that one can remember, mark and celebrate the day you were married or the day you were born. If this is your understanding of the universe (I freely admit I’m grossly oversimplifying), then your scripts will be at least vulnerable to overdetermined, thesis-driven, on-a-dime plotting …
    “Whatever may be said about this within its proper realm — the understanding of the supernatural act of salvation — drama about human beings simply doesn’t work that way because drama relies on men not being gods, being radically imperfect, and on our consciousness of both these other facts.”

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