I know I’ve ranted a bit on this topic before, but in recent months I’ve seen some stuff that makes it worth revisiting. The topic is “Christian” movies. Is this a thing? More improtantly, is it a thing worth pursuing?
The reason I’m thinking of this is that with The Director being, well, The Director, 🙂 we go to the movies a lot. In recent memory, I’m seeing more and more films on the “Coming Soon” sections of the theaters that are either Christian-themed, or obviously made by Christians. I’m not talking about films like Noah, which was actually not produced a Christian group; I’m talking about films with Christian or Biblical themes that are geared toward a church audience. It used to be that we would see one of these come out every couple of years, but now, it seems like there are several a year. Heaven Is For Real. God’s Not Dead. Son of God. Fireproof. Grace Unplugged. Courageous. Blue Like Jazz. All titles from the past few years, and all released in theaters.
Oh, don’t get me wrong–this isn’t a new deal. Jesus’ life and death have been portrayed onscreen more times than I can count–and other Christian-themed films have been around at least as long as I’ve been alive, though they were mostly shown in churches. (Anyone else have the hell scared out of them by the Thief In the Night trilogy back in the 70’s and 80’s?) More recently, most of these types of films were getting released straight to VHS and/or DVD because the people behind them knew it wouldn’t be cost-effective to try to get them shown in theaters. But more and more, these films are getting theatrical releases, and thanks to church groups being mobilized, some of them are actually being fairly well attended.
I’ll be honest: I’ve not seen any of the films I listed a few paragraphs up (except for Noah). I’ve pretty much sworn off this subgenre of films since One Night With the King, which I ranted about here. So please understand I’m not critiquing any of these films, or telling you whether or not you should watch them. I’m just interested in the trend–and more importantly, I’m questioning whether it’s a trend that should actually be happening. Is it a good thing that these “Christian” films are showing up on theater screens? Are they really helping people? Are they making a positive difference in our world?
If they do, then great. But I’m not sure they are….
To explain myself, let me back up and relate this to another area of media and culture where I’ve been engaged for quite some time: music.
I grew up when the “Jesus Movement” was coming to the fore, right when the Larry Normans and Keith Greens of the world were exploring the idea of setting Christian lyrics to modern music. The first time I heard a Keith Green record as a kid, I was captivated. Wow, you can make this kind of music and sing about Jesus? Cool! As I came of age in a church culture where we heard regularly how secular rock music was of the devil (anyone else have the hell scared out of them by hearing “Stairway to Heaven” played backwards in church?), the contemporary Christian music scene provided a safe haven for me and my friends in youth group–a way to enjoy many of the same styles of music as our non-Christian counterparts without all the drugs, sex and Satanism. And what could be wrong with that? We’d go to all kinds of concerts and Christian music festivals. We’d see Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Petra, DeGarmo & Key, White Heart, and lots of others you may or may not remember.
But while this scene was coming to a peak in the mid-1980s, some voices in the wilderness were already raising questions about it. A musician and philosopher named John Fisher began making the rounds at some of these gatherings and festivals, asking provocative questions like whether there actually was such a thing as “Christian” music. I neither understood nor agreed with him back in those days, but now I completely get what he was driving at. “Christian” is a noun denoting a person, not an adjective describing a product. But I digress…
Eventually, the “Christian” scene I’d grown up with began to lose its veneer. The songs became stale, mamby-pamby, irrelevant, and not at all artful. Eventually, everything seemed to gravitate more toward modern worship music, which was great for the church, but not very relevant anywhere else.
I remember when we were all so excited about Christian music because it was a way to evangelize–a way to reach non-believers and show them that Christians could be just as modern and hip, while giving a positive message. And for awhile, it seemed to be working. We celebrated when Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Stryper started breaking into the Top 40. But it didn’t last. Soon, it became apparent that the Christian music scene was sustained because Christians were buying the records and going to the shows. A growing number of Christian artists and labels were simply entering the business because it was a market–a way to make money from Christians. The major labels got in on the action, too–they started buying up the independent Christian labels to get a piece of the action. Christians became their own market–a ghetto of sorts where the music and products they bought were relevant only to them.
Here’s where all of this is brought home to me: as my deconstruction from institutional Christianity has progressed, I’ve found myself less and less interested in Christian book and music stores. I haven’t been in a Mardel since I left Tulsa over four years ago. And the scary part is, I now know nothing of what is going on in that world. Churchgoers mention their favorite bands and artists, and half the time I don’t know who they are. I don’t know who won the Dove Awards for the past several years. I’m completely unaware of the Christian music marketplace, where once I could tell you who was hot, and who was not. My point is, now that I’m out of that subculture, I can tell you there is almost no bleedover. Christian music is still a multi-million dollar business, but it’s still a cultural ghetto, relevant only unto itself. Modern Christian music has been around for nearly 50 years, yet after all this time, almost no one outside the “bubble” is being reached.
If reaching the nonbeliever is an overarching goal for Christian music, you only need to do a little math to see that this experiment has been a monumental waste of time and money. It’s just not working.
So now, let’s bring it back to what seems to be an emerging Christian film industry. I’m sure there are millions of people in church circles who are currently celebrating the fact that there are now more positive-themed films being shown in theaters. Many megachurches often buy tickets in bulk for their members so they can fill the theaters on opening weekend and show the film industry that this is the kind of film America wants. Thus, more of these films are being made, and occasionally, they’re doing better than expected in the theaters. It seems like a great thing.
But truthfully, how many non-believers are wandering into these theaters to see these films? One percent? Less than one percent? How many people who are walking into these films are being convinced that they need to change their lives? Chances are, nearly zero–because the people who go in to see these films are already in full agreement with their message. (Never mind the fact that people don’t like to be preached to when they go to the movies–and that’s as much the case with films made by non-Christians as by Christians.)
My point? All I see with this burgeoning Christian film industry is the rise of another subcultural ghetto. A lot of money being spent and changing hands among Christians so Christians can be entertained, but not much happening beyond that. We keep justifying it by telling ourselves that this is a way for us to be present within our culture, but the truth is, we keep bringing our Christian bubble along with us wherever we go. We aren’t infiltrating the world culture at all with this kind of activity; we’re only taking up space and setting up mini-bubbles so Christians have a “safe” place to go.
So what does this mean? Should Christians not be in the film industry? Quite the opposite. One of the holdovers left to me from going to a major Christian university is their ongoing theme of training students to go into “every person’s world,” and this is something I still believe. But when it comes to film and other media, I’ve come around to the belief that there are much wiser ways to be “salt and light” in these areas.
I’ve got my own ideas about what this might look like, but since I’ve already rambled on awhile, I’ll save it for part 2. Meanwhile, what are your thoughts? Do you agree with my perspective, or do you have a different one? Are these Christian-themed films a good thing or a bad thing?