Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.
Avril Z. Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and eductaor with over seventeen years experience making films and helping other filmmakers figure out which films to make. As she says in the first article in this series, "while it is good to critique films from a theological perspective, it is equally important that we think about artists who are creating the work," so we're excited to feature Avril's proposal for what filmmakers who are Christians should consider as they decide which stories to devote large portions of the time and talents to. Avril's entire series is archived here. - Editor
A couple years ago, I received an early morning text from my nephew with an interesting message. “God's Not Dead!” was all it said in all caps. I got excited. Who wouldn't be excited that their 14-year-old nephew had some kind of piercing spiritual revelation in the middle of the night and wanted to tell the world about it? I found out later that it was part of a marketing tool from the faith-based film God’s Not Dead. At the end of the film during a Newsboys concert, viewers are instructed to text those words to everyone they know as a proclamation of truth, but it also conveniently serves as an advertisement. Clever, Pureflix Entertainment. Very clever. This marketing technique helped lead the film to a $60 million box office sweep, becoming yet another film to put Christian audiences on Hollywood’s radar, despite the fact that it may have only received a 15% (out of 100%) audience ratings score on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 5 out of 10 score on IMDB.
What do those numbers indicate? And how can a film be so ridiculed yet at the same time so financially successful? These questions lead me to ask, "What really is wrong with Christian film?" My initial answer to that question might shock you, as I would say “nothing.” Nothing is wrong with a movie that makes a teenage boy want to share his faith and still manages to appeal to an audience. Similarly, I can't begin to tell you how many people have told me that Fireproof saved their marriage, and so to that I say God bless them all. But as I seek to understand my own lens as a filmmaker, I feel a need to poke and prod a little at the very definition behind the word that has become its own genre and why it has become so hated by some and loved by others.
What Is "Christian Film?"
If we’re going to ask the question what is wrong with Christian film, let’s first be clear in our definition of the term. Is it a film with Christian themes? Is it film made by Christians? Is it film only for Christians? Wikipedia defines it as “an umbrella term for films containing a Christian themed message or moral, produced by Christian filmmakers to a Christian audience, or even some films that are just marketed to Christians.” That definition is fair enough for the sake of this argument.
Historically speaking, it was not uncommon for churches and religious leaders to experiment with the use of film as an evangelism tool. As early as 1897, passion plays and biblical stories were filmed as a means to draw large crowds in addition to spreading a religious message.1 In this regard, many films in the early days could be classified as “Christian.” This began to shift as tastes changed, rules changed, and the church found itself reacting to the excess that was ushered in during Hollywood’s Golden Era. As the production codes began to enforce more rules and restrictions on the content within the medium, the separation between “secular” film and “Christian” film became more distinct. By the 1990s, “Christian film” became synonymous with apocalyptic fare as production companies such as Cloud Ten Pictures became popular among Christian circles, releasing films such as Left Behind and Revelation. Today, family dramas as well as sports and survival stories seem to be easily and categorically marketed as Christian films.
For many years, the production quality of Christian film has been lackluster at best in comparison to mainstream, secular film. The budgets have usually been lower, and the acting has left audiences with trite performances that failed to reach any type of emotional depth. In recent years, Christian films have advanced at least on a technical level, with production quality of films such as War Room, God’s Not Dead, Blue Like Jazz, and Son of God rivaling some Hollywood fare.
Yet, still, when it comes to content and execution, sentiments about this genre often become even more divided among critics, audiences, and filmmakers. Critics have had to acknowledge the viability of faith-based films due to their box office success (War Room ended up being the film that beat Straight Outta Compton out of its three week winning streak in domestic box office sales2). Some Christian audiences celebrate the presence of faith on the big screen; other Christians bemoan the packaging of such films and their messages, while mainstream audiences are either oblivious or just bemoan their existence altogether. And then there are some filmmakers who see the faith-based genre as an opportunity to cash in on a niche audience, others who see it as a venue to artistically express their faith, and others who see it as an utter waste of time.
In an online review of the film War Room, blogger Christy Lemire cynically expresses what many critics of the box office hit have voiced: “‘War Room’ is indeed a curiosity — a strange beast with sleek packaging and a silly script. It basically preaches that a woman can transform her lying, sneaking, stealing husband out of his evil ways through prayer.” The problem with such critiques is that as Christians, we actually do believe that prayer can change things, which for many Christians, makes War Room a palatable and viable example of a Christian film. In the words of the film’s director Alex Kendrick, “We’re more interested in calling people of faith to pray and ask God to intervene in our culture.”3 His response upholds the definition for a Christian film; therefore War Room was successful in its mission. The film, along with most other films by the Kendrick Brothers, are films by “us” and for “us,” and therefore are perfect examples of a Christian film, according to the above definition.
But in between the lines of the Wikipedia definition reads an unspoken, narrow interpretation that Christian films must also be wholesome and safe for the whole family, and have a fairly definitive and salvific message at the end. That in and of itself is not wrong. After all, the foundation of the gospel is good news in the midst of a dying world. And while it is good to see films that are positive or hopeful, I see two major problems with both the literal and implied Wikipedia definition of the term. It leaves me wondering if there should be more to the definition, and if, in maintaining such a narrow definition of what we call Christian film, are we missing part of our own narrative?
We Are Too Telling
The first problem that this genre in its current state presents is the amount of stories that it leaves out. As a single, African American, female artist, it is sometimes very difficult to see myself in Christian films. Very rarely do they tell stories geared toward adults who may not be raising families or toward people of various different cultural experiences. Granted, there are films that depict the Black faith experience to some degree, a la Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes. (Those films face their own challenges, which I’ll have to tackle in a different series.) But collectively, many Christian films tend to leave out certain elements of the human story that would provide the depth and nuance that help create empathy. A friend of mine and fellow Christian filmmaker once summed it up perfectly when he said, “In a Christian film there's always a character who is going through something and then there's always a character who has done some things in their past, but they're the model Christian that everyone should follow. The only thing is, we never get to see those bad things from their past.” That's the narrative that we seem to be missing all too often in many of the stories labeled as Christian films.
In the case of War Room, that model Christian is Miss Clara, an elderly prayer warrior who convinces her real estate agent, Elizabeth, that prayer is the key that is missing from her failing marriage. When Clara admonishes Elizabeth to get in her closet and “Fight!” for her marriage, it sounds like speeches I've heard before at prayer conventions, vigils, and revivals. I can see why Christians feel they can relate to it. But later in the film, we learn that Clara’s stance is the result of failing to pray during her own rocky marriage. Unfortunately, that is something we never get the chance to see, instead we hear about it through a long dialogue scene between Clara and Elizabeth.
In God’s Not Dead, college student Josh Wheaton challenges his atheist philosophy professor to a series of debates to prove God’s existence. We learn that Professor Radisson’s aversion to God doesn't come from science or reason, it comes from losing his mother at a young age. How do we learn that? Not through flashbacks or character indications of loss, but through a speech, essentially a melt down that Radisson has in front of his class during one of Josh’s debates.
One of the first rules of screenwriting is to “show don't tell,” and I'm noticing that in a lot of Christian films chracters talk a lot. They give a lot of speeches. I get it – Christian audiences can understand and appreciate these films because they can relate to the words. But for non-Christians who don't understand those words, I wonder if it would be more helpful to see such experiences than to hear them. Matt Fagerholm stated on Rogerebert.com in reference to War Room that,
If these films truly want to evangelize, then they must step outside their comfort zone—out of the closet, so to speak. They must acknowledge that life is far more complicated than the typical Sunday sermon would indicate, and that faith means more than submitting to a controlled existence ruled by fear. They must portray the full dimensionality of the material world before they can begin to explore the spiritual one.
The weight of these testimonies get lost when we don’t get the fullness of their story. But of course, Fagerholm’s assessment only holds weight if the Kendrick Brothers actually had an intention of stepping outside of their comfort zone, which we’ve already established that they did not. This leads to the second problem.
Telling To Whom
All too often there is a disconnect between who Christians say they are trying to reach in Christian films versus how those films are being received by the public. In the case of the film God’s Not Dead, actor Kevin Sarbo stated his goals in making the film: “I really want the fence sitters out there to come and form their own opinions about if there is a God. I would love atheists to come and see this film as well. I realize we can’t change everyone’s mind out there, but hopefully we make some of them reflect and wonder.”5 If the makers of God’s Not Dead intended the film to be an evangelism tool for non-believers, then reviews from unbelievers come to bear to evaluate whether or not they were successful in their goal. According to RottenTomatoes.com, reviewer T. Patrick states,
“The atheist characters were hollow and one dimensional.”
Robert M. states,
“Christian films have a tendency to take the corniest path possible and stick with it. Take Life of Pi for example which tackles a similar idea on a grander scale, has more spiritually and infinite amounts of creativity behind it and it isn't the least bit corny.”
And reviewer Chess J. says that,
“The lens the movie views academia through is one of distrust and contempt. That POV is as old as the Christian canon itself, or at least as old as the Christian additions to that otherwise Hebrew canon.”6
Surely as Christians we shouldn’t base our faith or our moral value or even our movie tastes on internet comments. However, I think these examples are something worth considering as we think not only about what stories we tell as Christians, but also whom we’re telling them to. Isn't it ironic that according to the definition, Christian film is successful with Christian audiences? Yet, to read the reviews, it seems like non-believers have an expectation for faith-based films to appeal to them as well, and they are utterly disappointed. Imagine that – unbelievers actually expect us Christians to speak to them in parables they can relate to.
I think the current definition of “Christian film” is okay. I am not advocating for an elimination of the term but rather for of an expansion of it. If we say we want to reach unbelievers, but unbelievers cannot understand or relate to our message, it is time to re-imagine what Christian film could be. We can accurately depict Christians and their beliefs, but if we are going to depict non-Christians as well, we need to do so fairly and genuinely.
Perhaps the real opportunity is not in expansion of the term, but in an expansion of our expectations as filmmakers, critics, and audiences. Filmmakers need to decide and be up-front about whether they are screening only to the choir or to general audiences; critics need to learn to understand the different aims of different types of “Christian film,” so they can criticize them knowledgably; and Christian audiences need to realize the Christian film they love might not appeal to their non-Christian neighbors. If we can all do those things, Christian film has the potential to be more than it has ever been, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
 Robert Johnston, Reel Spirituality. p. 42
 Dave McNary, “Box Office: ‘War Room’ Edging ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Over Slow Weekend.” Variety Magazine. September 6, 2015.
 Todd Cunningham, “‘War Room’ Producer-Director Alex Kendrick on Prayer, Politicians, and Prospect of a Christian Superhero Movie.” The Wrap. September 2, 2015.
 Nell Minnow, “Interview: Kevin Sorbo of ‘God’s Not Dead.” http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/moviemom/2014/03/interview-kevin-sorbo-of-gods-not-dead.html