The Problem with Christian Films: Do They Help the Kingdom?

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Empty comfortable red seats with numbers in cinema

Recent years have showcased a number of somewhat high profile Christian films. The most famous (or infamous) of these is God’s Not Dead.  April 2016 will bring the release of the sequel, God’s Not Dead 2, starring Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch). The original film portrayed a Christian student who stands up to an atheist philosophy professor who criticizes the student’s beliefs (the story was inspired by a chain email that was entirely false). The sequel recycles the theme of the “persecution” of American Christians and once again involves a Christian at odds with an institution of education. Hart plays a history teacher who gets into hot water for the way she answers a student’s question about Christianity and Jesus in her classroom, with a dramatic court case as the end result.

When I recently heard the news about this film, my mind checked back several years ago to a conversation I had with a friend about the “Christian culture” of American Christianity. We talked about how Christians claim to take a separatist position from the world, but when someone from the outside looks in, they may see a reality that’s not too much different from the worldliness that Christians shun. We talked about how we have our own brand of entertainment. We have our own rock stars, separate book stores, our own awards shows (remember the Dove Awards?), and, of course, our own movies. It can amount to a worldliness within the worldliness that is looked over if it has a Jesus sticker slapped on the front.

I’m not saying all of these things are bad things (though I fail to see the need for the Dove Awards). I like John Mark McMillan and David Crowder as much as the next person and that final scene in the verse by verse film adaptation of The Gospel of John gets me every time (white Jesus aside). My concern is when that happens, we unwittingly exclude the people we’re trying to reach. When we over Christianize entertainment, we sometimes fail Jesus’ primary mission. Are we reaching people with all of this media, or are we excluding them with judgmental messages, Christianese jargon, and overly specialized Christian entertainment, creating what has been labeled collectively by others as Jesus Junk? Is a movie like God’s Not Dead or its sequel an effective tool for evangelizing, or is it merely a means of exclusively entertaining and empowering Christians? Given that these films appear to demonize the secular opposition and go against Scripture that speaks against engaging in controversies, I find it difficult to believe that they would be accessible to many non-Christians.

The question of accessibility of films such as the God’s Not Dead series leads me to other issues: Christians vs. Non-Christians and the “persecution” of American Christianity. My problems with these themes are that they are not entirely true. First, there is no “Us vs. Them.” Our greatest enemies are not people, and God does not need us to defend Him. We are not His lawyers arguing His case, and our salvation doesn’t depend on it (there’s possibly something to be said about works-based salvation here). If we confess with our lips that we believe in the all powerful God who loves us, the excellence that exudes from our lives via the power of the Holy Spirit within us will silence any naysayers and bring more people into the Kingdom than ten God’s Not Dead sequels. God is big enough for any problem. Trust Him; He can handle it.

Second, Christians have yet to experience mass persecution in America. Some claim that these movies are a wake-up call because the film makers see that it is slowly happening. I can’t predict the future, but I do know that one need not dig very deep through world news in recent years to discover true persecution of Christians elsewhere.  In America, we are not barbarized for our faith like the Christian community in Iraq that has been forced underground by ISIS, yet still prays for its enemies. In America, we pour out wrath and rage (which is a sin, by the way) on social media when Duck Dynasty cast members or Chik-Fila get criticized. The sad thing is that we tend to be louder about the latter and not the former. When the American church’s response to the plight of global Christians is overshadowed by our own culture war, we should indeed be ashamed.

As far as Christian media goes, what can we do better? In the music world, one sometimes hears the word “crossover genre”. It generally refers to something transcending its normal or expected audience to those who would best be described as being outside that expected norm. For example, the bands Switchfoot and P.O.D. have enjoyed success on mainstream radio as well as Christian radio. Thus, there was something a bit more accessible about their music that drew in non-Christian listeners. The same goes for other forms of media with the likes of authors such as George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, all Christians, who all wrote a number of books in the fantasy genre that enjoyed crossover success. The Lord of the Rings was described by Tolkien as being inherently Catholic without explicitly preaching the particulars of Christ and Catholicism. Christians understand the allegory of the Narnia series, but they’ve been read by countless others who enjoyed them and were not Christians. Even my wife read them when she was an athiest and to this day names them as being integral to her eventual Christian conversion. She once told me that she believes her strong sense of morals, despite being a militant atheist, was probably influenced by the black and white worlds of fantasy fiction (the genre being heavily influenced by all three aforementioned men). Isn’t it great to look back and realize that grace was at work even in our seemingly more insignificant moments?

My point in all of this is not taking Christ out of our entertainment. My unpopular opinion is that we need to find new ways to put Christ into entertainment. We need film makers, authors, and musicians who are Christians and who are also willing to make Christ accessible to more than just one group of people. Christ says in the Gospel of Luke 5:31-32 that “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” I’m not sure that calling someone to repentance involves making a show of defeating an atheist in a debate. There is no “us and them,” which, as ISIS has demonstrated, leads to an “I-it” mentality (the person who is other becomes sub-human). In Christ, there is only “I and Thou.” Perpetuating the division in our country in an entertainment piece will not win many people over, if any at all. Such things seem to only create enmity.  How are we to love our enemies and give them the Gospel of Christ when our entertainment is showing us all of the wrong ways to do it?

Image attribution: Milan Maksic / Thinkstock

5 COMMENTS

  1. The best obviously pious movie I’ve even seen is Song of Bernadette. The subject matter might be difficult for some Protestants (it’s about a Marian apparition), but it’s a quality movie that handles its themes well and won four Oscars, including Lead Actress and Cinematography.

    For something more contemporary, Terrence Malick is good and obviously heavily influenced by Christianity. Although he is becoming increasingly controversial with his last couple films (for stylistic filmmaking reasons, not primarily religious). My favorite movies of his are Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life.

    • There have also been some quality Catholic-related movies in the last couple decades. Doubt, Cavalry, Ida, Of Gods and Men. Also note the Catholic trappings haunting The Godfather in the background – arguably the best scene in each of the three movies features a sacrament in some way (Part I’s baptism, Part II’s Corpus Christi assassination, Part III’s confession scene – flawed as the third one is, it’s not completely without merits).

      The TV show The Americans features Protestant Christianity in its plot in a very interesting way. The show is about a Soviet spy couple living in deep cover in 80s suburban America. Their daughter, who doesn’t know her parents’ secret life but suspects something strange, eventually finds her way to an evangelical church. This sends her parents into a bit of a panic, especially her mother (the more ideological and committed communist of the couple). It’s quite clever, because they manage to make Christianity subversive and threatening in a show about America.

  2. I think you make some good points while I disagree with a few others. I honestly doubt the effectiveness of Christian movies other than providing moderately decent entertainment for Christians. I think they are ineffective as tools for evangelism because for the most part they aren’t done on a high enough level to interest ‘outsiders.’ Now as for lumping in things such as the Dove awards, I disagree only because the majority of Christian music artists never have a glimmer of hope to be recognized by the mainstream awards shows so why not show them some recognition for what they do.

  3. By and large, I think Christians can walk and chew gum at the same time. There is more than one purpose to entertainment of any general category and Christian entertainment is no different.

    Not every note written/sung or every movie directed must have one inclusive focus to expand the kingdom. We are given more than one purpose on this earth. We can have praise and worship songs that don’t appeal to non-Christians because we also need to give praise and worship and they do not.

    Must we hide that praise and worship to make it “accessible” to non-believers? Christians also need to feel empowered, feel the camaraderie, feel a part of the larger church, we need to be encouraged, and we need to see and here messages of hope. This is where we recharge the batteries, revive the spirit, and find kindred souls who will pray for us when they don’t even know our names. These are not “inclusive” things. These are separatist things.

    You are right that we need accessible stuff and I don’t think anyone would argue that. But we also do need exclusive things. Christ was exclusive in picking 12 disciples and didn’t include Eddie the stable guy who didn’t believe, just to appear inclusive. Christ met in the upper room with his 12, not the folks from the downstairs. He said “where two or more are gathered in my name….”, and did not suggest to be inclusive of others. Sorry, but there are some things that are exclusively just for Christians. It’s part of our religion, necessary to our faith, and Christ set the example…. unless of course you wish to suggest that Christ was being judgmental by not making the above “accessible” to non-believers.

    The trick isn’t to do just one. It’s to do both. The analogy of the bride is quite appropriate. You and your wife need inclusive time with other people, friends, relatives, etc. It’s wonderful when it happens. But you also need time for just the two of you. When you decide to have just couple time, it isn’t that you are being exclusive and judgmental when you arrange time for just yourselves or do things that only you appreciate. In fact sometimes it’s important to tell others that they aren’t invited, even at the risk of hurting their feelings. It keeps you a couple, keeps your marriage strong, and it gives you the ability to go out into the world and be more.

    And so what if we have the Dove Awards? Not everything appeals to me either, but that doesn’t mean it should be dispensed with. It’s a recognition of performance and excellence and that’s a good thing. Christians can celebrate exceptional things without it being belittled.

    Thanks be to God that we in America have not yet suffered the worst oppression that the world has to offer. Nobody has suggested anything different. But this is a country that was born out of Christian purpose and whether one wants to label it, there are small but relentless attacks on our faith that are leading us to exclusion. Maybe you don’t see it or feel it, but it’s there. There are now jobs in this country that we could take 5 years ago without hesitation. But given recent events, ask how many members of your congregation who do not believe in gay marriage would ever consider being a cake baker, a wedding photographer, or run a bed and breakfast. If you don’t understand what I’m asking, then ask. Attacks on that faith, on individuals or companies for standing up against even modest attacks should not be tolerated either. Silence is consent. But silence is also how we get from minor attacks, to making tenets and practice of our faith against the law.

    You are absolutely correct in saying that we need to put forth more effort to combat the problems of the church and Christians who are barbarized worldwide. No doubt and no debate. I will however suggest that given our current political climate, if not for Christians, much of what goes on around the world with persecution of Christians and is heard, would be completely ignored. I will also suggest that the moms and dads who are raising their kids, going to work, mowing the lawn, have a hard enough time keeping track of what’s going on with their kids and neighborhood and little time to even know much less understand what’s happening in Sudan much less doing anything personally that would make a difference.

    The question I always ask though when someone feels the need to be critical of what others don’t do [particularly those who are critical of people who don’t spend their vocational activity concentrating on matters of the global church] is, what do you do that is different? Being the guy that stirs the pot and points the finger is not a job or a calling. I will happily follow the lead of someone who leads, but not one who shames others for that which he doesn’t do either. This is not a personal attack against you Chris. I’ve seen this attitude show up out of seminaries for many years. Some sooner or later are willing to find a mirror, but most just continue to point the finger and wonder why others aren’t being louder.

  4. One of the songs that led me to a Christian youth group and to Jesus was the song “Free Will” by RUSH. Yes. RUSH. RUSH was really quite Christian and philosophical in it’s lyrics, at least in the 70s and early 80s, as they based a lot of their lyrics from the books of the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”. I think that before we had a separate “Christian Contemporary” genre of music and entertainment, we did a much better job of setting the Christian message and morals to all the masses. I remember those made of TV movies when I was a kid that were almost always uplifting and Christian based. I believe that the segregation of entertainment has not been a good thing for our culture or for the Church. However, I strive to find the really awesome things in our pop culture. They may not even come from “Christians”, but they aren’t far off, and might be the little arm twist that people need to come around to getting saved. So, I teeter between the two worlds. I pay attention the Christian genre mostly so I can speak to my Church friends and understand what they are taking in. I listen to regular “top 40” so that I can find the good in it to maybe use that to grab someone and pull them over to the Christian side of things. I just cannot justify being 100% Christian entertainment. That omits too many cultural tools and clues.

    On another note, if you read comments to articles posted on Drudge and other news sites, you will quickly see that more and more the tides are turning against the Christian culture, especially in politics. It seems that when you are hiding behind a pseudo-persona and a phone or computer, one tends to be more aggressive in their disdain for Christian people. Because of this, and the separation of Christian entertainment from the mainstream, there really does seem to be more of a divide, and more of beating down of Christian morals and ideas. Add to that the lack of cohesiveness in the greater Church. We can’t even love each other from church-to-church, forget loving a sinner on the street. We have a true, quickly growing forest fire in the Christian America, which I imagine is what this second “God’s Not Dead” is addressing. (I have not seen it yet.)

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