What Makes a “Good Christian Movie”?

It’s not quite the task that, say, explaining the Trinity to my five-year-old is, but answering the question in the title still very much opens a proverbial can of worms. 

One of the reasons this is so has to do with whether the question is valid in the first place. What, after all, do we mean when we use the term “Christian movie”? Is it better to ask what makes an excellent Christian movie or how Christians are to make excellent movies. The difference between the two questions is not incidental. In fact, it anticipates two significantly different ways to view the involvement of Christians in filmmaking—or any other form of art for that matter.

Still, the subject is both natural and important. Movies are not only one way we live out our God-imaging inclination to create and enjoy art, but they also play a powerful role in shaping and reflecting our society. Consequently, any thoughtful discussion of the topic is a valuable thing. 

Three cheers, then, for our friends over at The Gospel Coalition, who got the ball rolling on a series of posts dealing with just this topic. It’s genesis came from a comment by Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making, regarding the films produced by Sherwood Baptist Church (Fireproof, Facing the Giants, etc.): “one or two Christian kids with real talent somewhere in this vast land are going to see these movies, get the sacred-secular dichotomy knocked out of them at an early age, move to Los Angeles, work their tails off, dream, fail, and try again . . . and one day make truly great movies.” This sparked TGC to ask: “What would these movies look like? What advice would you give to a Christian screenwriter, director, or producer who wants to make a film with artistic excellence from a Christian worldview?” 

TGC elicited responses from three individuals: Brian Godawa, screenwriter and author of Hollywood Worldviews; Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, and Joe Carter, an editor at TGC. All three are thought provoking. An excerpt from each:

Godawa:

I know, I know, all Christian artists think they value both the craft and the content. But in my experience, they often fool themselves. When it comes time to make a decision for the story or the “message,” they will go with the message every time. Why? Because they feel obligated by God to communicate a clear “message,” or else they have wasted their time. They do not realize that the story itself, along with its style and craft, is part of the message. If we understand the nature of beauty as a theological imperative we would see that truth is ultimately incarnation, which is dramatic embodiment. The Word became flesh. Word and image, style and content, are equally ultimate.

Cosper:

Filmmakers are storytellers, and Christian filmmakers should (vocationally speaking) focus first and foremost on telling great stories. …In Tolkien’s introduction to a later edition of The Lord of the Rings, he says he despises allegory and fiercely argues that his goal in the development of the series was to create a believable world and tell a compelling story. That should be an end enough in itself.

Preachiness in films is always obnoxious, whether it’s from evangelicals or Michael Moore. People go to the theater with the hopes of being told a compelling story, and when the urge to get a message across trumps the need to tell a good story, the film suffers and the audience cries foul. They came for an adventure and they got a sermon. But this is exactly what many Christians think of when they talk about “Christian” filmmaking. 

A good story, on the other hand, can carry profound redemptive themes and portray the agonies and ecstasies of everyday life in ways that a sermon can’t (not to say that it’s superior, just different).

Carter:

Unfortunately, many Christians have convinced themselves that we can approach our vocations with a sense of religious neutrality. But we can’t. Our work either betrays a worldview shaped by Christ or one influenced by the world (or, more likely, a syncretistic mix of the two). Whether we are plumbers, teachers, or mathematicians, our faith ultimately shapes the way we approach and carry out our work.

………

When it comes to art, common grace can only carry us so far. Without the redemptive guidance of the Christian faith, our culture-making efforts as Christians will eventually stagnate and atrophy. Our work will become indistinguishable from those who rebel against our Creator.

For what it’s worth, I found myself alternately agreeing at times with each post and either disagreeing or at least wanting clarification at other points. (I particularly took issue with Carter’s estimation of Terrance Malik’s The Tree of Life, on which I’ve written here, here, and here. I almost always appreciate what Carter writes, but on this point I think he’s profoundly missed the mark.) And as the above excerpts hint at, the authors themselves aren’t completely on the same page. Cosper later responded on his own blog to Carter’s post, which sparked further (and amicable) discussion between the two in the comments section. 

Next week, I’ll try to follow up with a few more observations of my own…or maybe more accurately, that I’ve borrowed from elsewhere.   

(My thanks to Justin Taylor for his post pointing to the TGC discussion and a few related posts.)

Leave a Reply