The last few weeks my social media feeds have been filled with posts about movies. This flood of posts were prompted by three movies: Son of God, God’s Not Dead, and Noah. The nature of the posts were widely varied: some promoted a movie, while others ripped apart the same movie, even calling out directors for alleged heresy.1
As I have not seen any of the movies yet, I will refrain from talking specifics. But I do have a few thoughts on Christians, movies, and the imprecise term “Christian movie.”
What makes a movie Christian?
This is not a rhetorical question; I do not know what makes a movie a Christian movie.
- Is it a Christian movie when it is retells a Christian story?
- Is it a Christian movie when it is directed or produced by Christians?
- Is it a Christian movie when it is found only in Christian bookstores or catalogs?
I have heard all of the above cited as reasons for why a movie was Christian. Yet I think all are weak reasons. Perhaps the greater issue is with the term Christian.
Too often, the word Christian becomes a marketing term, one meaning “safe, clean, and family-friendly.” Think Christian radio and TV stations. Unfortunately, Christian (the marketing term) means to the rest of the world “boring, preachy, and poor-quality.”
Should It Matter?
Why do we have to label things as “Christian”? Do we use the term just for marketing, targeting members of a church like any other demographic? Is it to make the movie safe and acceptable, like a religious MPAA rating system? Or do we use it so we can feel good about it, like we feel morally superior for watching a Christian movie?
As a youth worker, I understand the struggle many parents face with movies: how do you decide what movie is safe for your children? The MPAA rating system is broken,2 leaving parents to find another way to determine the appropriateness of a film.
But is “Christian” the best term for something family-friendly, without violence, sex, and language? I don’t think so.
Using the same logic, most of the Bible could not be considered “Christian.” We would have to skip over the violence of the Old Testament conquests, the steamy passages in Song of Songs, and the crude, harmful language Paul uses to describe the Judaizers.3
Do We Understand Art?
As a whole, American Christians don’t understand—or even comprehend—art. This is a shame, for in much of the church’s history it has been a great and influential patron of the arts. But thanks to our Puritan ancestors, we still struggle with an inadequate theology of art and beauty.
In many churches, forms of art are seen more as modes of communication; they are used primarily for instruction. So stained glass invokes a story, children’s videos entertain while also provide morals, and even the flannelgraph is exclusively used for instruction.
But that is not the purpose of art.
Art is to inspire, challenge, provoke, and move us. It is something we must process and engage, not something we passively accept. Sure, it is something that communicates, but not one best suited for instruction—that would be a documentary.
This translates into movies like Noah and Son of God, both of which trace their sources to biblical stories. When viewed only through the lens of instruction, these movies will always disappoint. This is true of other movies recounting historical events, which is why so many have the disclaimer Based on a True Story.
Recently, many of my students have seen Divergent, the movie based on the hit teen book series. Those looking for exact continuity between the book and the film focused only on the parts left out; other students enjoyed the movie for what it is, not what they wished it would be. The same could be said about every other book-turned-movie.4
No movie will ever perfectly convey a story. Nor will any art form. Glass, videos, and felt all fail to capture fully the stories of the Bible. When a story is translated from one medium to another, there is something lost.
And that’s ok.
The Purpose of Movies
The purpose of movies, as an art form, is to immerse the viewer into another world. A world that you can feel, sense, and see in a whole new way. From the beautiful colors of The Wizard of Oz to the incredibly vivid details in Avatar, movies create these rich tapestries, on which they paint a story.
Movies, as an art form, are not meant to instruct. We ought not to go to a movie expecting a comprehensive theology lesson; the truths would not be communicated neither fully nor compellingly.
Movies don’t instruct, but they do teach. Through movies, we see the world’s messy reality, while long for fairy tale perfection. Through movies we can see depictions of depravity, love, grace, and sacrifice. Sometimes these lessons are blatant, but more often this is done subtly, below the surface.
Of course, this makes it harder for us to evaluate, since it requires us to engage, think, and evaluate the claims the movie presents. But it is much more rewarding, as we learn to actively participate in the art, not passively accepting it.
Redefining a “Christian” Movie
So perhaps we need a better definition of a “Christian” movie. One that allows for a healthy view of movies as an art form, while also considering the Christian worldview. Instead of asking the questions I had mentioned before, perhaps these questions might lead us to a better understanding:
- Does this movie present the beauty, grandeur, and complexity of God’s creation?
- Does this movie speak truth to the human experience—the good, bad, and ugly?
- Does this movie present themes essential to the Christian worldview (love, forgiveness, sacrifice, and redemption)?
If we learn to use these questions as our filter through which we evaluate movies, then perhaps we can develop a healthier, more constructive appreciation of movies as an art. Further, we will see how truth is communicated through this medium, regardless of whether it is described as “Christian”.Tweet
Of course, almost all comments—whether positive or negative—were made before the specific movie was released. ↩
Some problems: The age divisions are too broad. The ratings focus on the amount of offenses instead of severity of the offenses. The ratings fluctuate over years; what once warranted an R now would be PG or PG–13. ↩
I think we do skip over these difficult passages, but that is a rant for another time. ↩