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What Makes a Movie Christian?
by Andrew Witmer
Andrew Witmer, M.A., is an ABD PhD candidate (American History), studying and teaching at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville VA. He is also proprietor of Up Close Audio. Since 2003 he has been an AIIA Resource Associate for matters relating to history and culture. The following piece is original.
After Mel Gibson scored a box-office hit with The Passion of the Christ in 2004, Hollywood woke up to the fact that there was a bundle of money to be made from Christian moviegoers.
For example, in 2006 a company named FoxFaith announced its goal of annually bringing at least six movies aimed at Christians into theaters across the country.
FoxFaith and its evangelical audience seem to have a pretty clear idea of what constitutes a “Christian movie.” The company distributes only films that feature overt Christian content or are based on the work of a Christian author; many evangelical Christians would probably add that “Christian movies” are wholesome and uplifting.
I disagree. In fact, in my view, the whole concept of a “Christian movie” works a lot better for marketers than for Christians, and should be scrapped. Let me explain.
Christians who are engaged in the arts – whether in film, literature, music, or other media – have historically concerned themselves with questions of the good, the true, and the beautiful. This is a very different way of thinking about art than the approach mentioned above that concentrates on the beliefs of the artist and the presence or absence of overt Christian themes in the artwork.
Both approaches are rightly concerned with distinguishing good from bad art, but I think the second approach is seriously flawed.
For one thing, the commitment to “the true” often requires artists to explore ugliness as well as beauty, since the world clearly possesses both. One of the most important Christian beliefs, in fact, is that things are not how they are supposed to be. Telling the truth about the world means telling the truth about its brokenness, and this isn’t always pretty or uplifting.
It does no one (not even children) any good to view only films that present sanitized and sentimentalized versions of the world. But this is precisely what many “Christian” movies do (though no one would accuse Mel Gibson of doing this!).
This is unnecessary. Christians, of all people, should be able to see clearly how messed up the world is, and their art should tell the truth about this brokenness, lament it, and offer a vision of something better and more beautiful (not every individual work of art has to do all of these things).
Such honesty about life’s difficulties, joined with a hopeful gesture toward the possibility of something better, characterizes the Bible itself, which never shies away from the faults and frustrations of real people, but never wallows in the futility of life, either. An honest approach of this kind has the potential to speak to a broad audience, including those who are not Christians, because it addresses our common human condition and experiences.
This brings me to a second point. We all know that the designation “Christian movie” is in large part a recommendation, a seal of approval that says, “this movie is by one of us and is worth watching.” (That is why the concept works so well for marketers. If they can present their movie as “Christian,” they’ve gone a long way toward persuading Christians to pay for it.)
This can be a useful concept for Christians trying to avoid the offensive material found in many films. But dividing art into “Christian” (good) and “non-Christian” (bad) is risky business, and is certain to mislead us. Christians produce a great deal of well-intentioned but slipshod or dishonest art. And many non-Christians produce artwork of outstanding merit, possessing great insight into the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Evangelical Christians are rightly concerned about what they watch, but too often base their decisions on whether a movie features overt Christian themes or is by another Christian. Instead, Christians would be much better off evaluating artwork on the basis of how skillfully and truthfully it explores the world, in all of its glory and brokenness.
If Christians want to take seriously the command of Jesus to be “in the world, but not of it,” they should find ways of producing and critiquing art that don’t build unnecessary fences between themselves and those who don’t share their faith. And they should think these things through for themselves, without relying too heavily on the assistance of the marketing geniuses at FoxFaith.