Why are Christian movies so bad?

Posted on 01/24/12 35 Comments

The other day somebody advised me to watch the film “Courageous”. I took their advice. Partially.

We started to watch the film. But then forty-five minutes into it we realized that Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” was about to begin. So…

In other words, the film suffered from the most devastating of cinematic crimes: mediocrity. It wasn’t good enough to draw our minds into its world and away from the nightly TV listings, and it wasn’t bad enough to keep us hooked with its sheer awfulness. Rather, its script and acting felt like it was about the level of an average sitcom without the laugh track (and, save, one scene, without the laughs as well).

And that is not all. “Courageous” is a Christian film. And “Christian film” is typically code for “overtly didactic”. This was no exception. In the portion I saw characters in the film repeatedly stressed the need for fathers to be good fathers to their children. The script-writing was so ham-fisted I half expected the actors to look directly into the camera as they were delivering their hortatory lines. In fact, the film felt like an elaborate Campus Crusade for Christ skit on fatherhood. Subtlety is definitely not the strong suit of evangelicals.

The central event in the portion of the film I watched is the untimely death of a beloved daughter in a car accident and the father learning to deal with his grief. As I mused about how poorly this was presented I was led to reflect on another film which covers some of the same ground. “Rabbit Hole” came out two years ago. It is a fantastic film, but along with “Buried” and “United 93″ it is one of the heaviest films I have watched in the last five years. The sense of desperate grief is stifling.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Becca Corbett in an Oscar nominated performance. Becca’s husband (played by Aaron Eckhart) is desperate to reach out to her and save their marriage. But daily both bereaved parents are being water-boarded by their own guilt, and their seething rage at the other. This family is gripped by so much pain that even now I find a sense of anxiety settling in just to recall it. In “Courageous” God is the sometimes-hard-to-understand-but-always-quietly-abiding-benevolent-presence. In “Rabbit Hole” he is a cause of skepticism and unvarnished outrage. Not surprisingly I resonate better with the theology of “Courageous” but in terms of a depiction of agonizing loss, “Rabbit Hole” is the truer film by light years.

As I pushed stop on the control I mused over the fact that “Courageous” received an outstanding A+ Cinemascore from its audience. I must say that didn’t impress me. After all, if you survey people who had just purchased “two buck Chuck” (Charles Shaw Winery’s fabled two dollar bottle of wine) I guarantee you’d get a disproportionately high grade. Not surprisingly that is widely reflective of the expectations and demands of the customer base. Charles Shaw markets to an audience that is satisfied with a two dollar bottle of wine. And “Courageous” is marketed to an audience that is satisfied with a two hour Campus Crusade for Christ skit. Fair enough. It is a free country.

What bothers me is not that people pour themselves a glass of two buck chuck. Rather, it is that they think they aren’t missing something when they bypass the (still very reasonably priced) Penley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. By the same token, it doesn’t bother me that some people like watching films like “Courageous.” And if that spurs them on to be better parents then all the better. But if they choose it instead of a film like “Rabbit Hole” they do so at their own loss.

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  • http://wilkinsonweb.com Dan Wilkinson

    I really appreciate everything you said here. I think these issues cut across all of the arts, whether it’s music or painting or books or movies. More often than not, when Christians TRY to make CHRISTIAN art, they end up creating something that’s all surface and has no depth. I think that instead, Christians should seek to simply create art, without overt concern for conveying a “Christian” message. And, if through that process, they are true to themselves and what it means to be a human and a Christian, their beliefs and values will shine through in a way that is genuine and honest instead of forced and overly didactic.

    • randal

      I am on board with you Dan. People make great films because they love the cinematic art form not because they want to use the film as a dispensable husk toward some other end.

      At the same time, let me add that film goers often want moral guidance from their films. Take the case of Gus van Sant’s “Elephant”. It is a straight quasi-documentarian depiction of a day at a high school which ends in a shooting. Van Sant makes no moral commentary in the film and I think it works. But many people were critical of the film because they thought van Sant should have provided a clearer moral perspective on the unfolding events. Moralistic and teleological perspectives are evident in great anti-war films like Eastwood’s “Flags of our Fathers.” That film wears its ideological commitments on its sleeve but it was a great film nonetheless. I leave it open that a Christian can make a great film that they intend to highlight their own ideological commitments with the same degree of boldness but finding success in that area is rare indeed.

  • Walter

    Subtlety is definitely not the strong suit of evangelicals.

    No kidding there. I love to read good science fiction. I made the mistake once of buying a scifi book that was written by an evangelical author. Seemed like every third paragraph was an altar call to repent and accept Jesus; it totally got in the way of the story.

    Also, when Dirty Harry catches up to the bad guys, we don’t want to see him witnessing to them about Jesus and forgiving them, we want to see him blow the bad guys away. Violent acts of revenge seem to appeal to our base nature.

    • Kathy

      Who were the authors? I find that Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti satisfy my cravings for excellent science fiction – I think they might be considered in that genre. Either that or fantasy. I think these two writers exhibit excellence in their craft and are far from sappy.

      • Clinton

        These authors are more along the lines of horror, than anything else (though Ted Dekker does seem to delve into fantasy at times).

  • MGT2

    I agree with you that Christian movies are generally bad; I am never “eager” to watch any, only “The Ten Commandments”.

    You are right of course that the problem is that they are overly didactic. And, as Walter noted, they are too preachy. But the main reason I think is the notion that the movie must be “Christian,” meaning that if there isn’t an overt attempt to evangelize, then God is being dishonored. This is stifling to the creative impulse (agreeing with Dan Wilkinson).

    I hate it when I go to a gospel concert and the artist tells me that we are there to worship. No, I paid my money to be entertained. So I want them to entertain me (albeit with God-glorifying music and songs); I’ll worship in my own way.

    There seem to a mindset that causes many Christians to miss all the beauty in the world: in the opera, music, art and various artistic expressions, such as movies that approximate the reality of daily life, that are not explicitly “Christian.”

    • randal

      The misbgotten assumption that interactions with other human beings need to end with an evangelistic appeal is like the person who starts selling Amway products. After their friends realize that a phone call is no longer just a phone call they start to drift away. People don’t want to feel that they’re always being marketed to.

      • Kathy

        What about the movie “The Passion”? Overtly Christian.

        • Walter

          “The Passion” should be overtly Christian. I actually enjoyed that movie. I don’t have a problem with books or movies that incorporate Christian themes about redemption and atonement, but I don’t like it when the flow of a good story is interrupted by heavy-handed attempts at proselytization.

          • randal

            In the case of “Passion” Gibson wisely eschewed an altar call for an uncompromising depiction of what crucifixion would have meant along with a tasteful if restrained engagement with some subtler theological themes.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Randal, what did you think of Javier’s “miracle” in Courageous? Although it is difficult to make any generalizations about Christians, do you think it’s a fair statement to say that most Christians believe that their god actively intervenes in the world in situations like that one?

    I am reminded of a story told by a prominent Christian about receiving an envelope with the exact amount of money he needed to pay the month’s rent. I’m not sure if it was Rick Warren or William Lane Craig or someone else. Does anyone else recall that story?

    • randal

      I take it the miracle to which you are referring is the fact that Javier happens to be in the right place at the right time to get a new job right when he prays. I think it would be something of a misnomer to call that an intervention. At least it could be open to misunderstanding since people these days often think of miracles as interventions in terms of some sort of violation of natural law. This certainly is not that but it is a miracle in the original sense (a sign that God is working). Numerous factors in the event are fine-tuned (e.g. Javier having the same name as the other individual) in such a way that it is reasonable to understand the event as a sign-miracle answer to prayer.

      I talk about a similar case in the Crazy book and it deals with Craig on deputation raising funds for mission work.

      I also have a great case of this that I describe in my forthcoming book with John Loftus.

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        Don’t mean to derail discussion of Christian movies, but I just had something happen to me that was interpreted as a ‘miracle’ in this manner.

        I went to the bus stop yesterday, parked my van, walked around toward the bus stop, and realized before I got six feet that the ‘shell’ had fallen off my van key; only the ‘valet key’ was on the keychain. I wasn’t too surprised, it’s been getting loose. But without the main part of the key, I wouldn’t be able to start the van when I got off the bus at the end of the workday.

        I turned around and began a search near the van, and inside it. I looked for an hour (my wife was busy with the kids, and couldn’t come help me). I wasn’t under the van, next to the van, or inside the van under the seat, in the console, in the cupholders, anywhere.

        Finally I found it – balanced precisely on top of the backrest of the driver’s seat, under the headrest. It must have come loose as I was getting out of the van, and stayed there.

        I don’t always grab the seatback for support as I turn out of the door of the van. Most of the time, the key doesn’t fall off the keychain. Even when both of those conditions are met, the odds of it staying balanced up there have to be less than one in a thousand.

        A relative said – on Facebook – “Guess you were meant to remain right there for about an hour for some very important reason. Amen!”

        So, is it reasonable for me to see “a sign that God is working”?

        • Katie

          “So, is it reasonable for me to see “a sign that God is working”?”

          If you had stopped and asked God to help you find the key, and then had looked up and immediately seen it there, then maybe. Assuming that every little coincidence or unusual happening is an intervention by God is extremely naive, which I assume is the point you are making.

          Incidentally, I know of several people who claim to have anonymously received the exact amount of their rent at one point or another.

        • randal

          I’ll respond to this tomorrow.

  • Aaron

    This should be a guest article on the blog: Stuff Christians Like. I appreciate you bringing this up–it’s one of those things we all think but no one has the cajones to bring up, lest you be a heathen.

    Somehow, many evangelicals need to take the step that sometimes the revelation of God is similar to that of prospecting for gold or hunting for deer; where do we find these things? You find them where you find them–so too God reveals himself to us where he reveals himself, be it in Nicole Kidman or not. It doesn’t take a crappy movie to share the message–besides, a quick exit poll of movie goers to these shows would result in a minimum of 3 categories; 1. I’m an evangelical and I loved, loved, loved, it, 2. I came with my evangelical friend even though after going to Fireproof that I’d never go to another one of these, or 3. I snuck in after ‘The Devil Inside’ and now I’m utter confused.

    • randal

      I will say this: as bad as “Courageous” may be, it is definitely better than “The Devil Inside”.

  • Josh

    I muse disagree here.

    While I do agree that Courageous is far from the finest piece of film making, I do not agree that those who would be satisfied with it have “lost” in some way. Truth is of higher value than entertainment or production quality.

    • randal

      I’m not claiming that one shouldn’t enjoy a film like “Courageous”. Nor am I saying one shouldn’t enjoy a cup of coffee from the Chevron gas station or a glass of Charles Shaw wine. All these things have their place. But we should recognize that they are limited exemplars of their class.

      • Josh

        What I’m trying to get at is that I agree they’re limited, but Courageous is only limited in ways that have no eternal value. If you drink the coffee to put some caffeine in your system, it doesn’t matter how it tastes. If you’re drinking coffee for the taste, it doesn’t matter if you’re more awake or not. I believe in prioritizing wakefulness over taste.

        • randal

          How do you judge if something has “eternal value” or not?

          • Josh

            I would say that something that cannot, in and of itself, bring people closer to Salvation, or further along in sanctification, nor glorifies God, has no “eternal” value, in and of itself.

            Based on your description, Rabbit Hole does not have eternal value by this metric. Courageous does. I understand fully that Rabbit Hole is probably a “better” movie by every other standard, but I can’t see its value as being the same as that of Courageous.

            • randal

              Why do you think that making great art (paintings, music, film) is not glorifying to God?

  • Josh

    I do not believe that great art necessarily glorifies God simply because it is great. I believe that many great works of art DO glorify God, even when the creators of the work had no such intentions. But I don’t believe that all great art does so.

    • randal

      Question 1: why you think that only some great works of art glorify God? What is it that exclude the other great works of art from glorifying God?

      Question 2: why do you think that “Rabbit Hole” is not glorifying God as a great work of art?

  • Josh

    I believe that the content has something to do with whether God is glorified. Simply because something is done well doesn’t mean it is glorifying to God. It has to have some aspect of the message being conveyed that is capable of pointing people towards God. That doesn’t necessarily require intentionality. I have read and watched things I know for a fact were not produced with Christian or even remotely religious intent that yet I do believe pointed to God.

    In case it isn’t clear, I haven’t seen Rabbit Hole and I have no intentions of judging it. All I have to go on is your description: God is a “cause of skepticism and unvarnished outrage.” I don’t believe this is a proper attitude towards God, and it certainly would be more likely to push people on the edge back into skepticism and keep those who already do not worship Him from moving any closer. Again, I have not seen the film.

    • randal

      Josh, it seems that according to your criterion “This little light of mine” is glorifying to God but Mozart’s Requiem and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 are not. Is that really your view?

    • http://wilkinsonweb.com Dan Wilkinson

      “Simply because something is done well doesn’t mean it is glorifying to God.”

      Doing something well doesn’t make something art, let alone great art. I would argue that all great art necessarily has a transcendent quality that points towards, and perhaps allows us to glimpse, the glory of God.

      I think perhaps the issue at hand is how one defines the term “art” and how one might go about measuring its “greatness.”

      • randal

        Another thing Josh hasn’t considered is the extent to which bad Christian art can end up alienating people. A bad evangelist can wreak great harm in the name of the God he proclaims. The same goes for poorly done Christian film, music and literature.

      • Judit

        But unfortunately you can’t make ppl watch it. AND, if it’s somehow a bit embarrasing to watch it doesn’t mean that I am not a christian for turning away. And if I feel that way, it certainly won’t be reaching the unbelievers it’s aimed at. Someone once said: It’s none of your business what others think of you. Unfortunately this is true, for me in any case.

    • Judit

      Sorry very belated. You’re right Josh. I reckon they should rather make all their movies in documentary format. Then there isn’t that desperate attempt which in the end flops out.

  • http://nilon.tk Autumn Ogden

    In the 2009 documentary Transcendent Man, Ray Kurzweil commented, “Does god exist Well, I would say not yet.

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  • Judit

    In all of them, someone will start a sentence with: “you see, when G-d…” it’s that YOU SEE that irks me and makes the whole thing implode. Ben Hur (made by HOLLYWOOD) depicted Christ in a wonderful way so that one really did feel G-d’s presence. Evangelicals should stay away from the movie biz. My friends say words like: You must watch it, it is LIFE changing! and then I simply pretend that it was.

  • Joseph Varner

    I know this is an older post but I thought I would post anyway. I am finding more and more that Christian movies have a desired end, the happy ending. Action is almost non existent in Christian movies and they are all just too preachy. Over the last several years I have stopped watching these movies because they are all very predictable and really tell the same type of story just with different characters. After watching the really silly Left Behind movies I basically gave up on Christian films. Why can’t we have films that portray similar stories like Frank Peretti writes?