What Makes a “Good Christian Movie”: Pt. 2

Last week I highlighted a blog discussion initiated by The Gospel Coalition that explored what excellence in Christian filmmaking might look like and how it might be achieved. I also promised to share more of my own perspective on the subject (unsolicited thought it may be). Here then are at least a few steps in that direction.    

Thought it’s far from an original view, tt seems to me that Christian filmmakers—or any other kind of artist for that matter—need to concern themselves primarily with two dimensions of their work: (1) what could be called its artistic, aesthetic, or technical excellence and (2) its content. While this certainly won’t be the final word on either, let’s briefly consider both dimensions in the context of making movies.

Artistic Excellence

Movies are essentially stories that are given visual and auditory form. As such, anyone who wishes to make movies of quality needs first to tell good stories using the means available in filmmaking.

But this goal, it must be stressed, is fundamentally different than simply communicating truth—however valuable that truth might be. Stating ideas in a straightforward, propositional manner can be of enormous value. In fact, there are any number of situations in life that call for this very thing. One the other hand, such expressions rarely, if ever, constitute a compelling story. 

Perhaps an example will illustrate the point. Consider two alternatives:

  1. Stating that God’s relationship with his people is based on his loving grace rather than our moral performance—something on the order of what Paul does in Ephesians 2:1-10.
  2. Jesus telling the parable of the prodigal son (or perhaps better, the two lost sons) in Luke 15.

There are obviously suitable occasions for both approaches. They express much of the same truth. But only the second is a good story. 

Without a compelling story, a filmmaker may have many good things to say. He might even have makings of a considerable achievement in another medium. But he likely won’t have a good movie. 

All this means that filmmakers will need to place a premium on the many artistic considerations that go into telling good stories in their chosen medium: everything from plot and character development to setting, cinematography, and editing, to the performances of the actors involved.

But we should add one thing: crafting stories of this type is very difficult. It’s true that contemporary Christians have often produced art of substandard quality. No doubt this is, at times, due to a tendency to elevate message over medium. But as Douglas Wilson points out, sometimes a simpler explanation is available:

I have no problem with evangelicals receiving criticism for producing schlock. That is what criticism (rightly conceived) is for. What I cannot abide is schlock criticism — memes that make no sense getting endlessly repeated as though they were some kind of wisdom. One of those memes is that evangelicals are unique in their ability to produce this stuff. Anybody who says this cannot have been in a video rental store recently. Evangelicals make bad movies because making good movies is hard, which turns out to be the same reason why people generally make bad movies.

Content

A few brief points:

1. Art, including film, does not need to be expressly “religious” or “spiritual” in its content. 

A tree may not present the gospel, but it’s to be enjoyed nonetheless. And while art is quite capable of communicating overt spiritual truth—often in extremely powerful ways—it need not do so to be appreciated.

This is not at all to say that a filmmakers should avoid communicating their worldview or particular faith commitments within a work. Indeed, it would be difficult to do so. This leads us to the subsequent points.

2. Let the Big Story shape the small stories.

Many have pointed out that the Bible, despite its many genres and books, ultimately forms one great narrative. Broadly speaking, it is a drama with four acts: creation, fall (or rebellion), redemption, and consummation (or glorification).  

Whether we realize it or not, these four acts form the reality in which every human being participates. As a result, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that that compelling filmmaking will almost always resonate in some way with one or more of these themes—again, whether we realize it or not. 

3. No one can say everything all the time

A particular work of art need not display the entirety of Christian truth or even all the elements of the gospel. Not even Jesus’ parables—which were specifically meant to convey such things—do that.

A given film may dwell on or bring to the fore a few concepts that reflect a Christian worldview while not concerning itself with others. One film may highlight the brokenness and tragedy that infects our world. Another might center upon the consequences of exhibiting a particular character trait in certain circumstances. A third could explore our longing for satisfaction and inability to find it in our own power. Still another might focus on portraying a type of redemption, and so on.

In many cases, the totality of an artist’s work will artfully display a broad spectrum of biblically consistent truth. But individual works may bear a lesser burden. 

4. In filmmaking, “leavening” often works best. 

A filmmaker is often better served in communicating through what might be called “leavening” rather than more didactic means. By this I mean that a filmmaker’s worldview should suffuse and bubble up throughout a work.

A well-known example from literature (and subsequently the movies) is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Because Tolkien’s faith permeated his work, LOTR contains numerous echoes of the biblical story. In this sense, it is profoundly Christian. And yet, these echoes aren’t simple equivalencies to biblical characters and events (Tolkien in fact confessed to despising allegory). Instead, they’re expressed in ways that are consistent with Tolkien’s imaginative world and serve the story he wished to tell. Ironically, taking this approach makes these echoes all the more compelling within the medium of literature/film, even if the same strategy almost certainly wouldn’t be sufficient for a sermon or a seminar.

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