What Should Christian Film Look Like?
Jesus is king, but somehow kingdom entertainment still sucks. I could talk about books, music, and the like, but there’s enough to complain about with just the movies. Sentimental stories. Bad acting. Heavy-handed moralizing. What are Christian films supposed to look like? What will Christian film be like when we are further up and further in? Maybe if we knew the trajectory, we could start taking steps in the right direction.
Not to be simplistic, but mature kingdom entertainment will be, in a word, good. Great; what does that mean? I remember my professor launching a graduate-level film class with the complaint that Christian-educated students don’t have a clue on how to define good movies.
“What is a good movie?” he demanded.
We stared at him, afraid of giving answers too holy, too smart, too glib.
“A good movie glorifies God,” I tried.
He tipped a half nod. “Break it down further. A good movie is one that pleases Him. Does God like it? It’s that simple.”
And it really is. We aren’t trying to live up to a platonic standard, we’re trying to please a Person. This has a couple unsettling implications. One: There is an objective measuring stick by which we evaluate what we watch—as well as what we write, produce, perform, or direct. In God’s Kingdom, there is no such thing as no man’s land. Two: We have to use our heads. A “good” movie might not be good for you. Conversely, a movie that you can’t recommend to your teenage daughter might be just the thing your friend wracked with envy needs to see. It all depends. And if we’re in the kingdom business (and we are—either for or against), then it really matters that we think it through.
Three Kinds of Value for Film
To flesh this out, it’s helpful to think about the ways a movie might be good. What are the types of value a movie can have? I’d like to offer three: technical, response, and intrinsic.
1) Technical value is the easiest to spot: directing, acting, dialogue, editing, cinematography, special effects, set design, music, etc. Many films boast high technical value (Darren Aronofsky’s Noah) while being utter bilge. Especially for young, upcoming moviemakers, getting distracted by shiny technical value is all too easy. “But the lighting in Black Swan is just so artistic! But the camera angles in Trance are so tricky!” Yes, and the Cloaca is still a poop machine. Well executed doesn’t mean right. A perfectly choreographed rape? Amazing visuals of a worthless antihero? Breathtaking realism in a nihilistic gangster drama? Don’t forget—in war, camouflage has always been the name of the game, so don’t get sucked in. And don’t overestimate your ability to dive through an Egyptian sewer for the bobbing gold nuggets. Have the guts to call crap crap and move on.
2) Response value depends more on the audience. It is what makes a film worthwhile if it is watched by someone (as opposed to intrinsic value, where it doesn’t have to be watched at all; see below) and changes them for the better—or at least should change them. Response value can diminish if the viewer isn’t mature enough or willing to counter, grapple, and discern. You’ve got to know yourself and your own weaknesses, be familiar with the world’s lies, and understand the culture war—and gear up to engage on the front lines. I chose to watch Drive (with Ryan Gosling of the stony face) because I knew from trusted reviews that certain elements were excellent and I wanted to learn from them while brawling with the postmodern schlock. I came away stronger—but the movie wouldn’t suit your typical highschooler.
3) Intrinsic value describes those movies that need not be watched in order to do good and please God. We’re talking basic truth, goodness, beauty here. Slumdog Millionaire might go completely unwatched and it would still be intrinsically valuable. Of course, this is not to say that intrinsically valuable movies are suitable for all ages; one of the best movies I’ve ever seen—Rachel Weisz’s The Whistleblower—would tear a 12-year-old apart, but it loves what God loves and hates what He hates, and I will always thank Him for how that movie changed me.
Warring Through Film
Now let’s imagine the future . . . and how to get there. Naturally, a Scripture-saturated culture will have cut way down on raunchy chick flicks and lewd, self-worshipping rubbish like The Imitation Game, but will there be more slow, deep, character-driven movies? Fewer popcorn flicks? More drama, less comedy? More movies that make you ponder (Brick) and fewer movies that are simply fun (Guardians of the Galaxy)?
I’d submit that when we’ve pushed God’s war to the gates of Berlin (so to speak), we will create movies that are increasingly like the stories God tells in real life—both in skill and in subject matter. Does God tell spy dramas? Romcoms? War stories? Kids’ adventures? Purely entertaining fun and games? Yes, He does. So when you picture the future—when you picture what to fight for—envision a feast of everything. There will be war films, family dramas, summer blockbusters, screwball comedies, and over-the-top spoofs; they will simply be really, really good: a marriage of high technical and high intrinsic value.
How Do We Get to Good Christian Film?
How to get there? Start with the obvious—and if this seems bossy, it’s because many of my friends are into Game of Thrones and they need some bossing. Stop. Just stop. Garbage in, garbage out. You are what you watch, so turn it off. Do start watching Gravity (brilliant and worthy on every level), The Island (not perfect, but delivers abortion a sound beating), and Amadeus (where envy gets taken out and shot). Do start interacting intelligently with what you watch. Know thy enemy. Learn to spot postmodernism, nihilism, and every brand of secularism a mile away. And if you’re in the filmmaking world, refuse to compromise. You will be known by your loyalties, and if you’re secretly loyal to trash, it won’t stay secret for long.
Bottom line, if you want to build God’s kingdom, don’t underestimate the power of story. Viola Davis, star of the repulsive How to Get Away With Murder, once boasted that the reason why society has so drastically changed its views towards homosexuality over the past 10 years or so comes down to this: “We told stories.” She’s right. (Remember when Brokeback Mountain was shocking?) Stories change the world, so determine to watch and create the right ones.
Finally, let’s not be mortified by the films our Christian brothers are producing now. Is Saving Christmas technically profound? No. But once again, it comes down to ultimate loyalties. Stand shoulder to shoulder (publically) with these brothers who are honestly trying to do the right thing, and if we want to help them improve their craft (as we should), then we must let a loving, unembarrassed relationship steer the conversation—preferably over a meal. When we’re further up and further in, we will want those gutsy pioneers with us! And when people look around and wonder how society has changed its views toward Christ our King, let it be known: We told stories.
Response Value Film Recommendations
Intrinsic Value Film Recommendations
- How to Train Your Dragon
- Robin Hood (Errol Flynn)
- What’s Up, Doc?
- The Impossible
- Band of Brothers
- Pride and Prejudice (BBC/A&E)
This article was first published in Every Thought Captive magazine. SUBSCRIBE TODAY!