I’m posting this so you can help me think through what a “Christian” film is.
I have an occasional (very occasional!) segment called “Good Question!” where I take a stab at questions people send me. Click here for previous “Good Question!” posts. (The link will take you to another blog of mine.) In the last few weeks 3 students in Eileen Flynn’s journalism class have contacted me about various topics they’ve chosen for writing projects. I think the topics would make 3 worthwhile “Good Question!” posts. Names aren’t necessary, so I’ve removed them.
I’ve already posted the first one and the second one. In this third one, the student was doing a paper on the latest “Left Behind” flick. He wanted to know whether I was planning to preach on it and, more broadly, what I thought of “Christian films” in general. I’m afraid I muddied the water more than I cleared it: My objection to “Left Behind” was for theological reasons rather than stylistic ones. And I have a problem with a film being labeled a “Christian” film, as you will see below.
Feel free to ignore the End Times questions: I’m posting this so you can help me think through what a “Christian” film is. I’ll put the student’s questions in italics and my answers in standard font:
1. Could you tell me again how the movie “Left Behind” differs from what you teach? And why you won’t be doing any preaching about it?
I hold to what’s called the “historic premillennial” position, and the Left Behind books and films are based on a position called “Dispensationalism.” You might want to scan Wikipedia for the differences. In short, Jesus taught a time of trouble prior to his return. Dispensationalists teach that there is a “secret” disappearance of Christians prior to this time. I don’t believe Jesus or his Apostles taught this secret disappearance.
2. Could you tell me again your opinion in Christian films becoming mainstream?
Please define what you understand as “Christian” films and give some examples.
Are “Christian” films defined as films about Christians? In this category would be Ben Hur, On the Waterfront, Chariots of Fire, Tender Mercies, Lars and the Real Girl, The Blind Side, Amazing Grace, 12 Years a Slave, etc., etc.
Are “Christian” films defined as films that happen to be produced by Christians? In this category would be the charming independent film Chalk done by Someday Soon productions here in Austin. It’s not a “message” film: It’s a comedy about public school teaching. Maybe Mom’s Night Out should fit here, since again it’s not a “message” film but a comedy about motherhood. Even The Passion of the Christ is widely regarded more as an “art house” film than Christian propaganda. The Austin-American Statesman reviewed it in this way.
People tend to categorize Facing the Giants and Fireproof as “Christian” films: But even with these films produced by Christians, about Christians, these films are still designed as stories. They are no more “message” films than, say, the Tom Hanks film Philadelphia. Most films ‘advocate’ that some belief/behavior should be embraced/condemned/ridiculed. Is it defined as ‘advocacy’ only by those who aren’t persuaded? Philomena was so full of low-hanging liberal tropes I quit counting, but none of my more progressive friends saw any of them.
Not trying to be difficult here, but just trying to grasp a proper definition. Is Noah a Christian film since it has “some connection to the Bible?” Why isn’t it a “Jewish” film since it specifically has some connection to the Hebrew Scriptures? It was certainly an awful film. The Coen brothers did a film called A Serious Man with a lot of inside jokes mostly appreciated by those with Jewish upbringing. So…a Jewish film? Is The Kite Runner a Muslim film. Even better, let’s call Slumdog Millionaire a Muslim film because the Muslim protagonist suffered persecution at the hands of Hindus. We’re on a roll, so how is Life of Pi not a “Hindu” film when clearly it can only be understood from within a Hindu perspective?
But somehow Fireproof is a Christian film because, well, why? Because it’s view of marriage is best appreciated from within a Christian perspective? I’m not defending it from an artistic angle. Films can be good or bad, but why do they have to be “Christian” when other films are not “Hindu” or “Jewish”?
So, what is a “Christian” film and how does the “Left Behind” remake fit in the definition. Christianity Today says it is not in any way a “Christian” film (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/october-web-only/left-behind.html)
3. Could you tell me again your opinion of thinking that it would be good if more deeply rooted Christians were in director’s roles?
Christians should be (and are) encouraged to enter into all arts, so that includes film. But non-believers can handle “Christian” material sensitively. Chariots of Fire was not produced by Christians; neither was A River Runs Through It, but the Christian characters were presented with sensitivity. Noah: Um, not even close. We anticipate the Coen’s and Jolie will sensitively handle the true story of Zamperini’s conversion in Unbroken this Winter, but we’ll see.
4. What’s your opinion on why there has been growth in the Christian film industry?
Again, I need some examples of what you’re seeing as a “Christian film industry.” The folks at Sherwood? Anyone else? From what I see, Christians are very much the subjects of mainstream and indie films and the creators of such films. I really don’t see an aspiration from anyone to create a niche industry. Do you?
5. What does it say to you when more big-time actors choose to play roles in films that are influenced by Christianity?
I imagine some actors are attracted to the story, some actors are inspired by the characters they’re enlisted to play, and some just need the work.