Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why I Hate the Christian Film Industry™

(the trademark symbol is largely unnecessary as the title of CFI is not trademarked, but it is aesthetically pleasing to do so and helps communicate the target for which I am speaking.)

I feel too strongly on this subject to do much of a preamble, so let's get right to business:

You didn't read that title incorrectly. It's not a joke.

I hate the Christian Film Industry™

Whew. There. I said it. Pray for my salvation.

Why do I - a Christian and a film enthusiast - hate Christian films, you ask? Oh, friend. So, soooo many reasons:

1. The Sacrifice of Art in the Name of ‘Message.’

I, for one, want to know why the Christian church is constantly smashing down on the creative outputs of their members for not being enough about God, or published by Thomas Nelson, or advocated by Willie Robertson. Why. We would rather squelch the heartfelt, beautiful, God-given art produced by our brothers and sisters for not showing a clear Conversion Experience rather than be amazed at the ability God has allowed us to have to make such fantastic, whimsical, thought-provoking, emotionally-resonant things.

This is point number one because on a purely personal and artistic level it. is. my. biggest. issue.

  • “Message films are rarely exciting. So by their very nature, most Christian films aren’t going to be very good because they have to fall within certain message-based parameters. And because the Christian audience is so glad to get a “safe, redeeming, faith-based message,” even at the expense of great art, they don’t demand higher artistic standards.” ~ Dallas Jenkins, movie reviewer and director of The Resurrection of Gavin Stone??? (I have no idea the merit of this new movie, but the quote stands on its own.)
  • “We have the makings of a movement that can change this culture. I honestly believe this. But I also believe the first step toward establishing the groundwork for a vibrant, relevant cultural movement based on scriptural thought is to stop producing “Christian films” or “Christian music” or “Christian art” and simply have Christ-followers who create great Art.” ~ Scott Nehring, in his book You Are What You See: Watching Movies Through a Christian Lens.
  • “If we are trying to evangelize, the fact that most Christian-themed movies are torn to shreds by non-Christian critics becomes an issue. If, however, we just really want to see our fantasies validated on screen, then we will write-off these poor reviews as “persecution.”” ~ Andrew Barber, in his article “The Problem with Christian Films.”

On a similar note, and as a sub-point here, I want to know what the Mormon church is doing that the Christian church is not. Every time I turn around, I discover that another of my favorite artists, whether it be in film or elsewhere, is a professing Mormon or at least grew up in a LDS home:
  • musicians Imagine Dragons, the Killers, and Lindsey Stirling
  • youtube comedians Studio C
  • authors Brandon Sanderson, Shannon Hale, Heather Dixon, and Brandon Mull
  • animator Don Bluth
  • actress Amy Adams and actor Will Swenson (both formerly)
  • etc, the list goes on
What ways of encouraging art and artists does the Mormon church employ that my Baptist upbringing, and the Conservative Christian community in general, is so sorely lacking in?

I have spoken to a few of my Mormon friends on the subject, and the basic gist of what I have gotten in response is this: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints encourages their members to be in the world but not of it, and at the same time, to go out and live life. To create, make, behold, and enjoy. While I am not asking Christians to follow Mormon faith or theology - not at all - I would encourage you to look into the things other people, cultures, and even religions are doing when it comes to creating art for both secular and religious reasons. I think we can still stand to learn something here.


So stop treating it like it's not.

It is an artistic medium, my friends. It's not something you just open a machine, shove in some high-grade cameras, a solid three point sermon, and half a plot inside, and then hope for the best. Stop ignoring what thousands of film-makers ahead of you have learned over the years in the practice of this art, and take a few pages from their book. Write believable dialogue. Conjure accessible characters. Compose a bit of a score. Try something daring with those cameras. Surprise us. Challenge us. Flip the perception of our cultural norms on its head. You can't expect the secular world or even the discerning Christian viewer to watch, enjoy, or be influenced by your films if you don't pay attention to this.

Bottom-line on this point? If you are in a committed and genuine relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, then you have no envelope to push, no reason to force a Message and forsake an art. With the Gospel as your foundation, everything you write and create will show that, with or without your direct intentions. And it will be natural, artistic, beautiful, thought-provoking, and the natural overflow of your love for truth.

2. The Christian Culture’s Subsequent Villainization of Hollywood.

This past Christmas, my sister gifted me a book titled Behind the Screen, “Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture.”

I sat down almost before all the gift-giving was done and devoured the first three chapters before the holiday meal was served. It's a fantastic read, I encourage you to pick it up. But let me quote from the introduction which had me “Amen!”-ing and punching my fist to the sky every third word:

“We obsess about “the culture” endlessly; we analyze and criticize. But we can’t figure out anything to do but point an accusatory finger at Hollywood… Blaming Hollywood for our cultural woes has become a habit… Casting Hollywood as the enemy has only pushed Hollywood farther away. And the farther Hollywood is from us, the less influence we have on our culture. We’ve left the business of defining human experience via the mass media to people with a secular worldview…. In pushing away secular Hollywood, haven’t we turned our backs on the very people Christ called us to minister to - the searching and the desperate, those without the gospel’s saving grace and truth?”

This book, written by creatives and executives in the film world (including one of the writers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the producer of Home Improvement, and even the multi-credited Ralph Winters, among a whole host of others), is a frank, beautiful, and challenging read for artists, Christians, and film buffs. And we need to be challenged.

What we also need to keep in mind is that Hollywood is one of the biggest informers of our culture today. Take a trip to the local mall, or just walk past a group of students, and you're going to see evidence of movies all over. This isn't a secret, it isn't a revelation, but it's something we need to stop ignoring. Movies are an important part of our lives in every aspect. We need to both pay attention to what they are doing and understand where they are coming from.

The point here is that the church culture says if it doesn’t come from Sherwood Films, or have Kirk Cameron or Ducky Dynasty in it, or have a conversion sequence, it isn’t Christian and therefore Christians should not view or encourage it in any way. This. Is. Crap. Pardon my French.

Beauty can come from imperfection.  Even unregenerate hearts still bear the image of the Divine and are capable of producing so much worthwhile and significant art. Which leads to…

3. Guess What? Secular Film Companies Make Quality Faith Films Too??!

There are multiple examples I could bring up here, but I’m just going to go with the one shining example I always think of: Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt. It is purely a work of art from any standard, and that is the epitome of what Christians should be looking for in their endeavors to create good film. PoE is gorgeously animated, seamlessly directed, well-scripted, morally driven, and more Biblically and historically accurate than you would believe. And where it falls down on direct representation, it remains true to theme and character in the same way that a child's adapted version of a classic novel (theoretically) remains true to its own source as well.

And, also, I mean

 Just look

At this art

Like, wow

I sacrificed images on the first two points just so I could emphasize this one.

I could go on for ages about how much I adore this film. (Joseph, King of Dreams, is also noteworthy, but I feel not nearly up to par with the craftsmanship of its predecessor.) Okay, moving on...

4. I Do Like Some Films Made By ‘Christian’ Companies

I don't know, honestly I might step on people’s toes or surprise you by which of these I actually approve of, but here we go:

  1. I like Fireproof. I have many issues with it, but overall it is a fairly well-made, Hallmark-style emotional flick. The acting leaves much to be desired, but it’s a decent bit of showmanship, story, and truth (aside from everything working out perfectly in the end, hence the "Hallmark" remark).
  2. I do not like Facing the Giants. Give me Blind Side any day of the week, except don’t because… sports. "Everything is terrible, our sports team can't win, I'm going to lose my job, my wife can't have children - but, oh wait, I need to pray and trust in God - Now absolutely everything is better and my life is fixed! Prayer and Trust worked for me, try it today!" Friend, Jesus trusted God and prayed in the Garden for the Father to take the cup of suffering from him and he still went to the cross and died for you, let that sink in a bit.
  3. However, both Courageous (some actual real life dialogue and not a completely happily ever after, whaaaat???! Oh, but token conversion experience, of course), and the early-and-forgotten Flywheel (which, although low in camera quality and acting, is actually an enjoyable story), come in as films I would sit down and at least watch a second time.
  4. Risen is well-made and acted and has some establishment of genuine Craft. However, as far as story plots go, I feel a lot was sacrificed. The mountain-top encounter with Christ was, while perhaps the most generally cliche piece of story, to me the most heartfelt and provocative. After that…the film kind of ended in mediocrity. Like…what did the characters do after the credits rolled?? When the whole point of the film was... what the characters went and did after the credits rolled. I don't know, I just came out dissatisfied and slightly confused.
  5. I actually really enjoy Mom’s Night Out. The manic theme almost kills me, but the quiet and the reveal at the end is worth sitting through to see. As a double plus, there is a beautiful artistic element and the dialogue is almost flawless.
  6. Soul Surfer is decent. I think I've watched that one a couple of times. Some class-act actors, and some decent script-writing help level up the artistic quality - though those picturesque Hawaiian landscapes don't do the film any harm either. A nice touch was all the "is this the moment the shark attacks?" false starts, since that is the only sure thing moviegoers knew was going to happen in the plot. I would high-five them on that little bit just by itself. The story is also very character driven, and not Message driven, which is fantastic. The Message of it is important, but it is important through the characters, and not used as a heavy-handed plot device slingshotted at the audience.
  7. And I appreciate Luther. I don’t watch it often, because I personally can’t stomach the more violent aspects (the reason I haven’t/don’t watch The Passion or End of the Spear.) But Luther is a great biographical film, and I would encourage anyone studying Catholic and/or Protestant history, especially Martin Luther, to watch it. This is a Film in both art, message, and class.
Tbh, I’ve been avoiding most of the other Christian films, and those others I have seen I was simply not impressed by, which is why I won’t talk about them there.

5. You Don’t Have To Slap A Jesus Fish Bumper Sticker On It To Be Christ-Honoring

Walden Media is a prime example, I believe, of what Christians in the film industry should be doing. I mean, they’re not perfect at all, but they are not sacrificing art for message - or vice versa for that matter. While not strictly a Christian Film group, Walden is founded and run by a majority of Christian Conservatives who are actively seeking to make quality and wholesome films for people of all diversities. They’ve had a few flops and several more that just didn’t quite live up to their potential, but they also brought us:

-which are among some of my favorite films of all time. (And there are other fine examples to add to this list from Walden, but these are the ones I can appreciate artistically and thematically the most.) And the first and last are two of the most good, wholesome, challenging, encouraging films I have ever had the privilege of viewing - with absolutely zero sacrifice to the artistic expression of the chosen medium. LWW did not stand back from Lewis's original tale, or the themes he so lovingly furnished within it, just as AG did not flinch from telling the story of abolition or its champion in Wilberforce, flaws and all. Faith-honoring films, beautifully orchestrated, lovingly crafted, and viewed hungrily by Christians and non-believers alike.  

Walden Media and others like it work to produce well-crafted films, which are put out by *gasp* an assortment of believers and non-believers. Art. Good films. Not Messages dressed up in makeup with a classy Instagram filter and a 30-day challenge booklet to get your revival outfit on.

God changes hearts, people. Not movies. Movies challenge ideas. If you're going to a Christian Film for salvation you are looking in the wrong place. If you are going to a Christian Film to be made to think, to be inspired by the narrative, then your mindset is correct.

Note. In looking through various commentaries and articles on this subject, I just found this one in the link below, which is a superb read and really gets at the heart of what I feel, and am very badly trying to communicate:

 Why Faith-Based Films Hurt Religion


When Christian Films start being an actual representation of creative community and the artistic talents God has given to us as personal and spiritual gifts, rather than a cheap way to try to force morality on Hollywood and on our neighbors without ever leaving the confines of our Bible Boxes in case we might get soiled, I may start appreciating the Christian Film Industry™. Until then??? I’ll stand behind my fellow creatives and my fellow believers and hope and work for the best.

6. Christians Can Enjoy Secular Film Productions.

I would even argue that they should.

We were created by a Creator God, who takes pride and joy in making beautiful things, in making each of us. And we are made in His image. We are creators as well, we make art all the time. Scripture tells us to worship God in everything we do. The movement of making “Christian Films for Christian Audiences because of Christian Reasons” is missing the point entirely.

We as creatives are not here to make God Art, we are here to make art that glorifies God.

This means we can walk into any theater in the world and experience a good, quality film, made by any production studio with an open mind and a Christ-governed heart and have no fear. While we need to be aware of the dangers film portrayals in the secular culture can bring up, with a good head on our shoulders and discernment in our choices, we can witness the art before us and it isn't sinful to enjoy a good movie. I might go as far as saying it is no less holy to watch a clean secular movie as it is to watch a Christian film. Friend, like I said in the beginning, if your eyes are fixed on Christ, then no movie is going to change that.

You don't go to heaven or hell based on what movies you've seen or been a part of. Let Scripture and the Spirit inform your worldview, and then go out and view the world. View the world as your fellow human beings view it, and compare that with how Christ wants you to see. Keep your eyes open. I'm not saying let movies inform your opinions, but be informed by the opinions in the movies, and no matter who produced them (Christian or secular), line them up with Truth. And enjoy the artistry. Enjoy the artistry. God did not create us as creators in vain.

7. Christ Does Not Need Hollywood. However, Hollywood Does Need Christ.

  • “While many missionaries travel to remote villages in Africa or South America to spread Christianity, [Karen] Covell believes her calling—her mission field, if you will—is right here in Los Angeles, in an industry that many of her fellow Christians find immoral or even downright sinful, both for its on-screen depictions of sex and drugs and the real-life sex, drugs, and other temptations that exist behind the scenes. Covell, who was a film producer in the early 1980s, says “the church did not get how I could justify being a Christian in Hollywood, and Hollywood did not get how I would follow God. It was a divide.” It was nearly impossible to meet other Christians working in the industry, let alone ones who would express their faith openly. “I said, ‘The church hates Hollywood, Hollywood hates the church. There’s got to be some way to bridge that divide.’” - in an article by Jennifer Swan.
A little-known fact about me, only known by a tiny handful of friends and family members at present, is that I have felt called, not merely to be a professional creative in the world of visual storytelling, but to be in ministry in it as well. Whether it be film or live theater, that world is calling to me, both in its creative endeavors, and in its desperate need for the hope, truth, life, and light of Christ.

Actors and directors in Hollywood and on Broadway are in as much need of the grace of our Lord as the starving orphans in the unreached people groups on the other side of the planet - same as your next door neighbor. They need us. So often, the only time these people are exposed to the Gospel at all, it's through the media we produce - including films - but more often than not, they are never exposed at all. Who is going to go to them if not us? Who is going to connect with them if not the filmmakers and writers and actors who follow a different Script, and a different Director? Let them see our art, but let them see our love, too. Let them see truth, and light, beautifully and respectfully portrayed. I don't want them to watch our movies and see Church Culture. I want to give them something beautiful, something that will stir their beliefs, something that will ignite their curiosity, something that will point them to Christ.

But if Christians continue to tie themselves down, and group themselves together, cutting themselves off from the culture and the culture off from them, then we are doing absolutely no heavenly or earthly good to anyone.

So, you see, it’s not just the artistry (or lack thereof) in the Christian Film Industry™ that gets to me.

It’s the fact that the film media culture is a people group that the church as a whole is ignoring. We are ignoring the impact Hollywood has on the world around us and still trying to be relevant to that world, which is counter-productive and just plain silly.

It’s the fact that I see actors, actresses, producers, writers, who are obviously searching for the Something that will fill the void in their souls, and their primary exposure to Christianity and Christ - the only One who can satisfy them - is the Christian Film Industry™. An industry which is largely filled with broad and meaningless substance -  because heaven help us we should talk about something real - and the rest of it is just plain bad art.

I believe with everything within me that God has called us to higher things than this.

Higher art, loving to create as he lovingly created us, and never being satisfied with the things that are less than Good, pushing us to go again, and learn, and change, and develop, and grow.

Higher impact, going deeper into the issues of our culture and our natures to address and satisfy the problems and needs that are felt be every human, not just the church-goers who will show up in theaters and in pews for Sherwood’s next big thing.

So, in closing:

Why do I hate the Christian Film Industry™?

Because I am a Christian.

And because I love film.

And I'm not going to stand idly by and pretend like it doesn't drive me completely mad with frustration and disappointment when Christian Movies are the laughingstock of both the Christian and secular worlds.

Please, please, please, stop guilting other believers into a mindset that there is something spiritually wrong with them if they don't watch, and enjoy, and promote Christian movies. Maybe the horribly-stilted dialogue was too distracting for them. Maybe the awkward acting didn't allow them to get into the story. Don't judge your friends if they didn't like the Christian film you asked them to watch. Chances are they had good reason to be disinterested. Go back and watch it again. Start judging the faith-content alongside the art-content. They should go together, not against each other.

(However, trust me when I say it isn't production quality that makes or breaks a film as far as history is concerned, it's artistry and the content written in that will do that for you. Hence why Monty Python is an eternal cult classic, while Avatar is a movie-goer's award-winning joke)

We as believers do not have to accept bad art and praise it and laud it because of a more-or-less (and, be honest, it is often "less") Bible-centered Message when it is poorly produced. Not because production is of higher worth than content, but because we can do better than this, and we should do better than this. If we are to make quality Christian Films we cannot sacrifice one for the other, they go hand-in-hand, lest by neglecting one you betray the other.

We need a change. We need a revolution. I hope to be a part of it.

The world is watching you, Christian. When the lights go down, and the screen turns on, and for just a couple hours out of eternity, hundreds of souls have their attention focused on what you've produced: what are they going to see? And who are they going to believe?

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