And They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Label, by Jason Eaken

31 Jul

As a Christian who grew up in a Christian household, I’m an accurate barometer for the matter at hand. When my parents bought me a CD player as a gift, they included the newest DC Talk album. When my parents realized I responded to the dry humor of the likes of David Letterman and the self-deprecation of Conan O’Brien, they asked the church counselor for help. To this day, when my mother sees a book of mine laying out, she will ask me if it has any “nasty language” in it. Every radio pre-set is Christian radio, my mother even cooks to Christian talk radio. When it comes to movies, my parents venture into the mire of secular films occasionally but with reluctance. If the movie is rated “R,” its chances of being watched decrease by approximately 97%.

Everybody does it. EVERYBODY. We gravitate toward those who share our beliefs and opinions entirely, and we dismiss outright those who don’t. But is that really a worthy excuse? If everybody else is doing it, shouldn’t Christians stand up and be the exception? We should. Which is why it’s so continually disheartening to see how the Christian community views popular culture in general and film in particular. In future blogs, I’m going to delve into some specific areas of “secular” movies that keep Christians away – foul language, sexual content, un-Christian subject matter, and violence – but for now, some general observations are in order.

Despite the fact that we could talk ad infinitum about the problems and shallowness of the film industry, it is a mistake to view movies as simple entertainment; a way to pass time. Film is an art form, and there are serious artists (and funny artists) trying to say something with their films. There are artists who use their films to explore ideas and emotions and who want to do something that lasts. It is time for Christians to begin seeking out better movies than just the ones playing at the local megaplex. Film is not an entertainment that happens to be art. It is an art form that seeks to entertain in the process.

Speaking of linguistic distinctions, our Christian community tends to give disproportionate weight to those movies that call themselves “Christian Movies.” Most see it as a sign that they will not be offended by anything they see in the movie; but this is true if and only if they are not offended by bad writing, acting, production values, and the over-simplification – nay, distortion – of their faith. The label also cynically implies that movies without it are not Christian, as if “Christian Movies” are made with some special film-stock that was dipped in Holy water before being put into the camera. It is better to be a movie that happens to be Christian than a Christian movie. One major reason I am so insistently negative about the label is that it lacks humility. It is self-important. It’s much harder to make a good movie when you’re wound up by how brilliant you’re certain the finished product will be. It distances you from the immediacy and the honesty telling a good story. It observes the finish line too quickly and forgets to run the race.

This is an issue that affects Christian movies more than most because it is easy to assume that since one’s motives are pure, the product will be artistically meritorious. It doesn’t work that way. I admire the grassroots effort of the Sherwood Baptist Church to raise money and finance a movie (these are the minds behind Facing the Giants and Fireproof) but they haven’t made a good one yet. No doubt the people involved want to make movies that speak to people and demonstrate Christ’s love, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to do the work. That someone feels called by God to make movies does not automatically mean that the movie will be any good. If anything, it means that they have a lot of work ahead of them. If they don’t have a background in film or and understanding of it as an art form, then they have a responsibility to the call that has been placed on their life to get one. Otherwise, they disrespect the path the Lord has set before them and they miss the opportunity he has given them. That movies are seen as entertainment does not at all mean that their creation is child’s play. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Just because a movie isn’t made by Christians doesn’t mean Christ can’t speak to us through it. God is not so limited. God is Truth. If a film achieves a truth, then it is relevant to our lives and relevant to our walk with Christ. It doesn’t mean that we should baptize the film and claim it as a sleeper Christian film. That’s not the point. The point is that God is big enough and good enough and loving enough to transcend the parameters of a movie and reach us through it. Regardless of the filmmaker’s personal beliefs. On the other hand, to build on the previous point, just because a film is made by a Christian doesn’t mean it has anything to say. Film critic (and national treasure) Roger Ebert puts it this way: a movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. Even if a film is “about” Christian themes, it is in vain if it does not say anything of worth about them.

Right now, the state of Christian cinema is bleak. A lot of people will tell you that that’s because it’s in its infancy, and it just needs some time to grow. I disagree. The state of things is bleak because the people making the movies (a) aren’t filmmakers and haven’t taken the time to become filmmakers, and (b) hold a frustratingly misguided and narrow view of what content is acceptable in a “Christian” film. Without a major shift in both areas, the impact of Christian films will be relegated to preaching to the choir. That is, if the choir is still listening.

3 Responses to “And They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Label, by Jason Eaken”

  1. Chrisk August 2, 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    How can Christian Film be considered in its infancy when this came out 10 years ago:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apocalypse_II:_Revelation

    Have a good read with that plot description. The devil was using virtual reality goggles to kill Christians.

    I saw it in a room full of very interested Christians and their youth pastor. Worst movie I ever saw.

    Being young is no excuse either. Even a film as early as Edison's The Kiss drew from theater, which is reliable and logical to draw from.

    Christian movies seem to draw from Lifetime or Syfy originals, which probably has a root in romance novels or tame pulp.

    The biggest problem is that the movies are Safe. Safe is not a reflection of reality either physical or spiritual. I do find the films offensive, not just because of the poor production qualities, but because of the simplistic and vapid perspective.

  2. Jake VanKersen August 3, 2009 at 1:11 pm #

    Jason,

    Thank you for writing this article. As a Christian and a Film School Grad I find myself sharing your frustration. I have never seen a Christian film that has even come close to exploring faith and spirituality as much as Pulp Fiction did in the character of Jules. I have been moved to tears many times over at the Truth being revealed in "secular" movies.

    I think the thing that frustrates me most about Christian film is that if God called them to do it then that is all they need. It is played like some kind of spiritual trump card.

  3. JoshDLong August 7, 2009 at 12:32 am #

    Right on. Christians shouldn't make "Christian" movies they should just make movies. God can speak through a story even if no one has a conversion experience. I've learned more about God, sin, and death through Bergman than I have through Kirk Cameron. And I sat through Fireproof. Oh, did I sit through Fireproof.

Leave a Reply