HOLLYWOOD – It’s not hard to argue that faith-based movies are bigger than ever, and with movies like “Unplanned” (March 29), “Breakthrough” (April 17), “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (April 18) and “Overcomer” (Aug. 23), on the horizon, the trend isn’t waning any time soon.
Some of these movies, like last spring’s, “I Can Only Imagine,” are surprise box office hits ($83 million in ticket sales on a $7 million budget) and even win over a slim majority of secular critics. Others, like “God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness” bring in significantly less ($5.7 million in ticket sales and an undisclosed budget) and are written off completely as inferior by critics who aren’t already believers (and by some who are). As Christian movies continue to grow as a genre, the tension between entertainment, artistic merit and a biblical message comes into focus.
For example, Jared Wilson, Director of Content Strategy and managing editor of the For The Church blog (ftc.co) at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in January wrote a piece titled, “Why Christian Movies are So Terrible,” sparking responses in various news outlets.
The idea behind the article is clear from its title. He argues that Christian movies are more propaganda than art, “because they begin with wanting to communicate some Christian theme – the power of prayer, the power of believing, the power of something – and then the story is crafted around that message…. Delving into the depths of human character and motivation is subservient to getting the message across.” He further argues that Christian movies tend to veer heavily into Christian sentimentalism and emphasize tidy narratives over nuance. Finally, the theology of these movies, Wilson writes, is so shallow it can be “scribbled on the back of a napkin.”
But perhaps, as Wilson suggests, a well-done Christian movie is so far out of the norms of Hollywood it can’t even exist.
“Suppose we actually had a Christian movie that was aesthetically excellent and artistically authentic,” he said. “Do you think it wouldn’t strike so many of us as out of tune with what we expect good movies to be? … Or let’s consider this: The gospel always sounds offensive to the world. Maybe Christian movies that articulate faith content clearly are destined to be laughed out of the theater, regardless of the excellence of their cinematic context, if only because the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. What if there isn’t a way to make the gospel sound cool? That’s something worth pondering for Christian moviegoers and Christian movie-makers alike.”
Michael Foust, a Christian journalist who covers the entertainment industry, disagrees that artistic excellence and the gospel are necessarily polar opposites.
“I think we are not being fair if we don’t acknowledge the great strides that Christian movies have made in the past 10 to 20 years,” he said. Indeed, Wilson agrees in his article that the caliber of talent in front of and behind the camera is dramatically improving.
Matt Millsap teaches a course on Christianity and the Arts at Spurgeon College at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and said that while the craft is trending upward and he did enjoy films like “I Can Only Imagine,” he tends to agree that modern Christian art is more “appropriations of art.”
“A lot of times what we end up producing is art of lesser quality that is simply imitative of all this other art that’s being created in these other, more secular contexts that tends to be of high quality,” he said.
But not all the time, Foust argues.
“It’s easy to say Christian movies aren’t art when you’re not watching a lot of Christian movies,” he said. “A lot of times the debate is unfair because we’re not acknowledging that there are a lot of bad mainstream movies, too. It comes across as ‘mainstream movies are good, and Christian movies are bad,’ when there’s bad art all across the spectrum.
“You can get into the argument about ‘What is art?” and get into the ideas of story first, art second, or art first, story second and all that,” he said. “I would argue that Scripture is story-first.”
That’s not to say that Foust can’t see areas where faith-based movies have room for improvement.
“Yes, there are some Christian movies that are, well, they’re just not very good,” he said. “But that’s just how it is in all of art, though. You can’t hit a home run every time and sometimes you might not have the budget for what you want to do. Sometimes you might have a bad cast. That’s just how it works.”
Even though he may see more artistic merit in most secular movies, Millsap said that doesn’t mean they’re more edifying than a faith-based movie with a shoestring budget. It’s the same reason an ice cream cone will usually get picked over a salad, even though the salad is much healthier.
“It may technically be a more nutritious meal, but I prefer the ice cream cone because I like ice cream,” he said. “You’re going [to the movies] for the ice cream and you’re ignoring the fact of whether or not it’s actually nutritious.”