Just like “Christian music,” the terminology regarding faith-based cinema is often problematic. Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as a “Christian” movie because movies, though often remarkable pieces of art full of symbolism, commentary and meaning, are not sentient beings. Even the animated ones are, strictly speaking, still things, inanimate objects lacking eternal souls, incapable of feeling emotions or making decisions. In this sense, calling a movie Christian because of one high-profile Christian involved (Kirk Cameron) would be as silly as calling an LA Lakers basketball game Christian because of the involvement of Jeremy Lin.
And yet, most people make implicit moral judgments about the quality of films based on the involvement of certain high-profile Christian people or the approval of certain organizational gatekeepers (pastors, Christian writers, parent advocacy organizations, et cetera). The term “Christian movie” is a pragmatic piece of shorthand for, “feature film either presented by or aimed toward Christian people.” This could serve as a definition, except for the fact that filmmaking is an inherently collaborative endeavor, which – as can be seen in any final credits sequence – often requires the work of hundreds or even thousands of people, spread across a duration of weeks, months, or in some cases, many many years.
And yet, this does not stop people from talking about movies as Christian, often because the presence of some nebulous form of “Christian message,” which in some cases (Fireproof, The Passion of The Christ) is quite explicit and easily understood, and in other cases (Bruce Almighty, The Preacher’s Wife) is a little less clear or explicitly Biblical. This is an improvement, but still problematic, because even if you ignore the difficulty and ambiguity inherent in trying to verify the Christian identity of all the principal creative roles in the filmmaking process (the film’s producers, directors, screenwriters, stars, etc.) and just focus on the relative “Christian”-ness of the message, sometimes the layers of meaning and messages in films can be messy to unpack.
Consider this list of films from the last decade, each of which are notable for one of the following: being a vehicle for a high-profile person of faith, having a faith-based message, having source material that’s sourced from or thematically related to the Bible, or having a very specific outreach strategy involving churches or church leaders:
Heaven Is For Real (2014)
The Book of Eli (2010)
God’s Not Dead (2014)
Believe Me (2014)
Jumping the Broom (2011)
The Single Moms Club (2014)
The Second Chance (2006)
Son of God (2014)
The Gospel (2005)
Black Nativity (2013)
Blue Like Jazz (2012)
Machine Gun Preacher (2011)
The Grace Card (2011)
There is a stunning amount of stylistic and thematic diversity in that list of films, diversity that hasn’t been around in decades past. There are films that portray Biblical characters with a faithful, orthodox interpretation, communicating an explicitly Christian message (Son of God, The Passion of the Christ). There are films that portray an explicitly faith-based story where the primary storyline revolves around someone beginning or affirming a faith commitment (God’s Not Dead, I’m In Love with a Church Girl).
Then there are films that portray a family-friendly story where Christian faith is a ancillary part of the plot, but not a primary dramatic element (Courageous, Bella). Also there are films that portray a generally redemptive story that is consistent with certain aspects of a Christian worldview, but that contain thought-provoking conundrums or messy, thorny issues for the viewer to grapple with (Blue Like Jazz, Believe Me).
There are films partially created or produced by people with very public faith profiles, like TD Jakes’ involvement with Jumping the Broom and Steve Taylor with Blue Like Jazz. There are films that take a hard look at Christian ministry, both domestically (The Gospel, The Second Chance) and internationally (Machine Gun Preacher).
And then there are films that deal with faith or Biblical themes but are created by people who are not of faith, like Darren Aronofsky’s recent Noah, or the Michael Stipe’s satirical takedown of evangelicalism, Saved! Also, plenty of TV comedies take a swipe at Christianity, like “South Park,” “The Daily Show,” or more recently, “Key & Peele.”
(And don’t even get me started on Aaron McGruder’s “Black Jesus.”)
My point in all of this is that good art requires the examination of faith issues from a variety of perspectives and voices. Yet for many audience members, the only way a film can be “Christian” is if there is a major altar-call type scene with a dramatic conversion. If the movie isn’t an overt endorsement not only of faith itself but Judeo-Christian morality and/or Protestant culture, then it’s not “Christian.”
This is the chasm that prevents Christians from being taken more seriously in the industry. It’s not necessarily the people of faith who are doing their best to create good work within the confines of both their moral compasses and professional opportunities, but the fans, the people whose distorted, low expectations artificially deflate the market for good art that interfaces with issues of faith.
Chris Rock said recently that the true test of racial equality in America will be when black folks will have the freedom to make mediocre or terrible films and still be able to continue to work and improve as filmmakers. I think a similar dynamic is true for Christians, but in reverse. For Christians to be more fully accepted in Hollywood, audiences will have to stop flocking to bad films just because they’re marketed to Christians (like Nic Cage’s Left Behind remake), demolish the Christian subculture bubble that exists for film in the same way it used to for music, and be free to evaluate each film on its own merit.
There are three films coming out soon which should be attractive to audiences of faith, and they are all intriguing to me for different reasons. Do You Believe, which I covered for a press event in a separate piece, The Same Kind of Different As Me, an unexpected tale of faith and friendship featuring Djimon Hounsou, Renee Zellweger, Greg Kinnear, and producer Devon Franklin’s remake of Annie, which will be out during the 2014 holiday season.
I hope these films are good examples of crowd-pleasing entertainment and thought-provoking art. But more than that, I hope that people of faith will see them, and in doing so, redefine their expectations around what films good Christian people should see.
In my opinion, good Christians should see good films… however “good” is defined. As Christians, both embedded in our own subculture but also in the midst of a broader American popular culture, we’re clearly not there yet… but we’re a lot closer than we’ve ever been.