Christian films have been under attack from Christians who are bloggers or film critics. I don’t oppose Christian films. I’ve enjoyed a variety of Christian films, including those made by people like the Christiano Brothers, Edward T. McDougal, and Sherwood Pictures.
I don’t hate Christian films, but I do have a serious problem with the recent direction of Christian films this year as represented by films like God’s Not Dead and Persecuted. Christian lawyer David French’s defense of Christian films from a blogger’s attack illustrates this problem:
First, creating good art is hard. Barber displays zero appreciation for that rather salient fact. Many of these Christian films are being made with folks who are relative rookies in the movie world, without the benefit of the vast experience and talent of Hollywood. And because creating good art is hard, I always appreciate a bit of humility in critics and rarely find truly acerbic reviews to be amusing or interesting…If it’s so easy, go create some yourself.
There’s truth in what French says. As a novelist, I know that writing good material isn’t easy. It’s a lot of work. However, a lot of things are challenging. For one thing, governing is hard, playing sports is hard, even customer service is hard at times. If Mr. French were to take this view consistently, he couldn’t even criticize the President because governing is hard.
Most of the people who write reviews on Yelp couldn’t immediately do the job of the employees and companies they’re panning but they know what they expect in terms of customer service and quality of product and they know they didn’t get it.
It’s as if a mechanic fixed your car poorly and then snorted. “Look pal, if you think fixing cars is so easy, how about you try it?” This argument is nothing more than an excuse for mediocrity.
In addition, saying the filmmakers, producers and actors behind God’s Not Dead lacked experience isn’t really much of a defense. There’s a reason it’s not really fair to compare films like The Crossing or Gold Through the Fire to quality major studio releases. Those movies, shown at film festivals, released directly to video. They weren’t made to compete with E.T., but made for churches to use at events. In many ways, they could be seen as a high quality church drama act and not a lower quality movie.
The problem with God’s Not Dead is that it gained a nationwide release. That comes with higher expectations and more criticism. The filmmakers doubtlessly heard of sites like Rotten Tomatoes and blogs talking about films. As a great cartoon character once said, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”
The biggest problem isn’t just the poor quality of God’s Not Dead, it’s that nothing in interviews or discussion by people in the Christian film industry indicates any of them see any weaknesses in the film. This wasn’t a learning experience. The producers of God’s Not Dead made a film with paper-thin and unlikable characters that grossed thirty times its budget because it spoke to Christian angst in the face of our struggles in the culture war. So for years to come, we can expect more films like it.
The sad thing is, many people getting involved in Christian filmmaking are doing so with the best of motives. They see how Hollywood has remade our culture thanks to Christians neglecting the entertainment industry and want to counter that influence. The problem is they don’t understand what’s changed our culture has been television and movies like All in the Family, Will and Grace, Dawson’s Creek, and Brokeback Mountain, not the films mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The films made by Christians that need promoted aren’t those who view film as an opportunity to slam liberals in the most ham-fisted way possible. We need filmmakers who make films like Eric Liddell ran. We need directors who feel God’s pleasure when they direct a scene. We need filmmakers determined to glorify God through excellent film the same way JS Bach glorified God through excellent music.
Producing awful films won’t change our culture. These films are counterproductive as they suggest to non-Christians that instead of serving an awesome and amazing God, Christians serve a cheesy and lame God.
The days of bad Christian films should come to an end, but what should Christian films look like? In my next few columns, I will I take a look at some of the best Christian films made and examine what lessons today’s Christian filmmakers should draw from them.