Editor of Movieguide, Tom Snyder writes,”Just because the secular movie critics and secular elites in Hollywood don’t like some of the movies we pick does not mean that they are really bad movies within the categories in which we pick them. In that sense, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS was a very entertaining, uplifting family movie that kids would enjoy. The mainstream critics trashed it, but the American audience, many of whom still have strong vestiges of their Christian heritage, even though not all of them may understand essential Christian doctrines like the sinlessness of Christ and the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, not by works, seemed to like the movie very much.”
Most believers accept the fact that our culture is filled with ideas, embedded in captivating and entertaining forms, which are antithetical to the Christian worldview. Films, TV shows, songs, and other cultural productions can be used to propagate immoral values, anti-Christian or religious ideologies, or dehumanizing views of life: however, they can also reveal the human need for a Savior, the transcendent meaningfulness of God ordained relationships, and the beauty of Christ’s creation. Making things more interesting, it is not uncommon for a film to contain all of these diverse and contrary elements. This diversity means that the job of the critic is extremely difficult, and our duty in choosing a critic who is discerning enough to accurately inform us of the merits of a film seems no less difficult. The question which is of particular importance is:
Considering all the divergent and potentially deviant ideas and content in modern film, can we trust the judgment of a secular critic?
The discussion I will provide here will be far from comprehensive, but I hope to show that Christians should value and critically examine the judgments of secular critics in the same way they value and critically examine the judgments of all non-Christians.
Before I delve into the more detailed and theological aspects of this topic, I would like to address a basic assumption concerning whether or not we can trust secular critics: Secular critics are people who write for secular publications. The problem with this statement is that we cannot assume that film critics writing for secular institutions are themselves secular. There are many devout Christians glorifying God in their workplace across the country. So to conclude that a review of a film is inaccurate because it was written by a secular critic, which is assumed because the critic wrote for a secular publication, which is defined as a publication which is note overtly and explicitly devoted to the Christian worldview, is poor logic and fundamentally does little to help us determine the trustworthiness of a critic.
Anyone who doesn’t exclusively watch films made by Christians has some understanding of Common Grace: the idea that while man is fallen, there remains good and blessed aspects of his humanity due to a measure of grace God has given to the whole human race. We understand and take for granted that fallen, unredeemed humans can make excellent works of art due to common grace, but some struggle to offer the same trust to the opinions of secular film critics. Both filmmakers and critics address issues of moral values, truth, meaning, and beauty. The difference, one might suggest, is that critics condone or condemn; they make value judgments about what is good, and without a biblical understanding of “goodness,” the critic is unable to accurately discern. Filmmakers, however, also condemn and condone through what and how they film. And they also make value judgments. No filmmaker goes out to make a “bad” movie. Even the most campy film is created with the intent to make a good campy film (or it is at least the failed attempt at a sincerely good film).
Since filmmakers and critics share many of the same concerns and make similar value judgments, we can look at the way we discern the quality of movies for a model for how we can discern the quality of a critic’s review.
As believers, we are required to thoughtfully consider the morality and truthfulness of everything we involve ourselves with. Hopefully, we don’t expect a Hollywood movie to be completely true to the Christian worldview; our assumption is that we must guard ourselves from ungodly influences (just what constitutes an influence might vary). We must test everything according to the Truth of the Gospel. And in a very similar way, we should test the critiques of film made by critics according to what we know to be true. If we accept the fact that “secular” filmmakers can create movies that contain true statements about the world, movies of excellence, then we must accept the fact that “secular” film critics can make true statements about those films and their excellence.
At this point there is an important distinction that must be made between recognizing that we should think critically about “secular” film reviews and assuming all secular film reviews to be inaccurate. Since we can see that it is wrong to assume that a critic writing for a secular publication must be a non-Christian, and since we recognize that owing to common grace non-Christians are quite capable of creating good works, we should not presume that the reviews found in secular publications are inaccurate without examining them on a case-by-case basis.
There are two other points I would like to treat briefly which offer further support for my argument. First, we must take into account the formal aspects of film which are, for the most part, able to be judged regardless of the critic’s worldview. Editing, the verisimilitude of dialogue and acting, composition, sound, and many other formal elements of film are, in general, not tied to issues of worldview. Certainly when it comes to these elements, there should be little difference between the judgments of secular and Christian critics. And in film reviews, criticism of the formal aspects of a film are quite significant.
Second, thanks to the Judeo-Christian legacy in Western culture, especially in America, it is not unreasonable to expect critics to make some of their value judgments based on some aspects of this heritage.
We live in a world that is hostile to the Gospel and what we believe. This hostility demands vigilance and thoughtful discernment. However, by God’s grace, Christians are not the only people blessed in their ability to make good – and to some extent true – works. While it might be easier to ignore and condemn the reviews of “secular” film critics as unredeemed, we must acknowledge that there are many “secular” critics who can responsibly judge the merits of film. Between common grace, our Judeo-Christian heritage, and the relatively transcendent, formal aspects of film, we should not be surprised or opposed to the fact that non-Christian critics can accurately judge the merits of film. Fundamentally, it is always the obligation of the individual believer to test films and reviews of films against the Truth. And of course, there is tremendous benefit in reading Christian criticism (this website is a testament to that fact). But the benefit of Christian criticism and our obligation to test everything against the Truth does not diminish the fact that secular critics can produce helpful and accurate reviews of film.