Last month, while out at the movies, my wife and I happened to see trailers for two new movies produced by and for the Christian market — "faith-based films" they call them these days. Both trailers distilled their respective stories down to about 3 minutes of earnest dialogue snippets, tear-streamed dramatic moments, and inspirational footage of sports (basketball in one, track in the other). Throughout both trailers — which we saw on two different days before two different movies — the audience was audibly laughing. I was cringing. The paint-by-numbers aesthetic of the new wave of Christian movies persists in making the faith appear trite, inauthentic, corny, and — worst of all, as far as the culture goes — uncool.
Why despite all the gains made in technology and budgeting can't Christians make good movies?
I know, I know — people always try to come up with exceptions. But there aren't any, really. Every now and again some well-meaning brother or sister will say to me, "This one's different. You gotta see it. It's not like the others." And then it is. It painfully, painfully is. Why does it seem like the only good "Christian movies" are the ones made by the world's artists with Christian themes (The Passion of the Christ, Silence, etc.)? Some thoughts:
1. Christian movies are not made by artists but propagandists.
I don't mean that these projects aren't carried about by people who know what they're doing with cameras, lighting, etc. The visual quality of Christian movies has definitely increased over the last decade. The caliber of talent on both sides of the camera has increased, as well. So when I say Christian movies aren't made by artists, I don't mean they aren't made by people who are good at their jobs. What I mean is that they are made by people who don't really know what the job ought to be.
I tracked this shift most notably in Christian writing (fiction) about 20 years ago. We always wondered why there weren't any more C.S. Lewises or G.K. Chestertons around. The truth is, there were — they just weren't writing for the Christian market, because that market does not want art that communciates truth but art that is being used by a message. And there's a difference. It is the difference between art and propaganda.
Christian movies are more akin to propaganda than art, because they begin with wanting to communicate some Christian theme — the power of prayer, the power of believing, the power of something — and then the story is crafted around that message. This is true even when the story is something based on a real-life incident. Delving into the depths of human character and motivation is subservient to getting the message across. This is why so much of the dialogue in Christian movies violates the classic writing proverb, "Show, don't tell."
2. Christian movies take place in the imagined reality of Christian sentimentalism.
Characters in Christian movies don't often sound like people in real life. They sound like Christians imagine (or desire) real life to be. This is why the Christian protagonists are always earnest, even when they "don't have all the answers," and why the non-Christian antagonists always sound like the one-dimensional memes Christians tilt against in their Facebook streams.
Dialogue between believers and unbelievers always trends upward toward the believers' win column, not because that's how real-life conversation usually goes, but because that's how Christians want it to go in their minds. You know the debates that you play out in your daydreams where you inspire the team with your spirituality, "own" the atheist with your apologetics, or warm the heart of your cranky neighbor with your kindhearted wisdom? All of that gets to come to life as if it really happens in a Christian movie. It doesn't have to sound real. It just has to sound like the real we imagine there to be.
3. Christian movies emphasize narrative tidiness over nuance.
When I was trying to get my first novel published, I had an interested publisher say to me, "We can't publish this if the sheriff has his arm blown off in the firefight at the end." The scene in question was not gory or indulgent. But it was a narrative choice I made to make the stakes real and high. A good guy can get hurt in real life. Well, my big mistake was mistaking the world of Christian fiction for real life. In the world of Christian fiction — at least, for that publisher — good guys don't get hurt.
Thankfully many Christian movies don't follow those rules any more, but they still prefer narrative tidiness over nuance. There is a kind of prosperity gospel that pervades contemporary Christian art. It's there in CCM radio, of course, and it's all over Christian movies, including the ones based on true stories. The team has to win. The sick person has to defy the odds. (If you can get a sick person and a sports team in the same story, you've hit Christian movie gold.) The atheist prof must get owned. The unbelieving spouse must be converted. On and on it goes. Why? Because "if you just believe," you can win.
Christian movies have embraced a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross. This is why, apart from inauthentic dialogue and stilted acting, Christian movies ring so untrue to ears tuned to reality. We know real life doesn't work this way — even for believers. The world of Christian movies is uncomfortable sitting in the ambiguity of suffering, confusion, or chaos for too long. But if we must have Christian movies, they above all others, should be brave enough to tell us the truth, which is messier than what the market usually wants to hear.
4. Christian movie theology must be contained in platitudes.
Every prayer sounds scripted. Every dramatic moment sounds cliched. The pastors sound like the phrases on motivational posters. Christians speak to non-Christians in "gotcha" wisdom, delivering Jesusy fortune-cookie bon mots to souls apparently just a few well-turned phrases away from conversion. The theology of Christian movies can be scribbled on the back of a napkin. It's Christian bookstore coffee mug-level philosophy. It's Christian T-shirt-level aphorizing.
Christian movies are typically made by the same folks who produce weekend services full of applicational pick-me-ups and fog-and-laser inspirational easy-rock. There's not a lot depth in them because there's not a lot of depth behind them.
5. Even the best "Christian movie" will never be cool.
If you're still reading, you're either agreeing with me or just looking for more evidence of what a heartless curmudgeon I am. But here is something to consider that may surprise everybody: Suppose we actually had a Christian movie that was aesthetically excellent and artistically authentic. It was written with a writer's sensibility, theological depth, the nuance of reality, etc. And then suppose it had clear Christian content in it. Do you think it wouldn't strike so many of us as out of tune with what we expect good movies to be?
This is a question every armchair critic of Christian movies — like me or maybe you — ought to consider: is it just the aesthetic and dramatic quality of these movies we find embarrassing? Or is it the strangeness of hearing the kinds of things we say on a regular basis in church suddenly flung up on the big screen and aired out in front of the world? (Is it possible that the dialogue is realistic and we just stink at speaking well to one another?)
Or let's consider this: The gospel always sounds offensive to the world. Maybe Christian movies that articulate faith content clearly are destined to be laughed out of the theater, regardless of the excellence of their cinematic context, if only because the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.
What if there isn't a way to make the gospel sound cool? That's something worth pondering for Christian moviegoers and Christian movie-makers alike.
In any event, if your movie's gonna get laughed at for being Christian, maybe at least make sure it's because of the cross and not because it's corny.