We all know the scene: the cheaply produced, generic movie score swells as our gruff but likable atheist antagonist finally admits his error and trusts in Christ as Lord. Turns out, all he needed was being faced with a fairly serious crisis, and he would abandon nearly everything he previously believed!
We’ve all heard the question (or even asked it ourselves): “Why are Christian movies so bad?”
It’s a valid criticism—in general, they are bad. They tend to be low-budget, and often even lower talent.
Christian films like the never-ending God’s Not Dead series fall prey to the same cliches that plague Hallmark movies: overly simplistic characters, unrealistic motivations, and lackluster production. Even many Christian novels exhibit the same shallow writing and lackluster effort, and popular Christian music bears the stereotype of being homogenous and uncreative to the extreme, often taking the safest (and least interesting) route.
This wasn’t always the case, though. For some 2000 years, Christianity consistently produced some of the most beautiful art, architecture, poetry, plays, music, and books ever created. What has changed in the last century?
First, we have to understand what art is—or what it should be—before we can understand what it has become.
Art Aims at the Chest
Art is vital to any culture. Art is the expression of the values of a society, an attempt at expressing truth, beauty, or goodness in a tangible form. Every culture in history has produced its great works, and each of the great works says something insightful about its culture, as well as something true about reality, beauty, God, or humanity.
Good art reflects back at the audience, not simply because it can’t help it, but to show the audience their own face in the mirror. Good art causes the audience to examine the claims before it, to examine itself. Good art invites the audience to experience truth, beauty, and goodness alongside the artist. Contrary to the rationalists, art does more than simply communicate data, and contrary to the romantics, it does more than communicate emotion. Good art communicates both.
One of my favorite writers of the twentieth century is Kurt Vonnegut, who, despite his deep and cynical agnosticism, displays a mastery of both the rational and the romantic. Vonnegut wrestles with the human condition, and looks for answers to the big questions. He wants to show us the absurd, insane, and comical nature of reality that we too often overlook.
Talented and sincere absurdists are many, but there are few who write from a Christian perspective. As Christians, shouldn’t we—who have the answer to the absurdism of the cosmos in the revealed Christ—be first in line to wrestle with the complexity of the human condition? Should we not laugh alongside the cynic, even as we try to point them heavenward?
Along with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of the strongest examples of a pop culture phenomenon that displays truth, goodness, and beauty in an artistic and entertaining way is Star Wars. Star Wars succeeds in capturing hearts and minds because, like The Lord of the Rings, it’s inherently mythical. Myth—even pagan myth—speaks to truth about the nature of reality in a way that cold hard facts cannot.
C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, in a famous conversation, talked about how myths are not lies, but rather “invention about truth” (as biographer Humphrey Carpenter put it). Star Wars, at least the original trilogy, displays the enacting of virtue in an enchanted world in a way that captivates us. If we as Christians aimed at creating the next Star Wars rather than the next Left Behind, we’d be on a better track.
There are “Christian” movies that buck the trend and create something meaningful and powerful, though they tend not to be produced by the Christian production companies and advertised to churches the same way. Some of my favorite examples of Christian movies in this vein are Martin Scorcese’s Silence, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and even William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Each of these deals with biblical truth and issues of faith in a more complex and intriguing way than something like Facing the Giants or The Case for Christ. Part of the issue, and part of why they aren’t marketed toward “Christian” crowds, is the nature of the content, and the fact that they aren’t “family friendly.” But that doesn’t mean they aren’t “Christian.” Many Christians in history—even very recent history—held a deep conviction that we should create art to reflect truth, beauty, and goodness in a way that glorifies God.
Francis Schaeffer in Art and the Bible said that “the Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.” Too often, our imaginations in the 21st century fly only to proselytizing, or preaching to the choir. Most of us agree that to write a hymn intended to praise the triune God should be a careful and intentional endeavor. We affirm that we should aim to create something beautiful, as it will be used in the highest possible activity for human beings on this Earth: praising the Creator. But for many historic Christians, this attitude extends far beyond works that are intended explicitly to praise God or be used in the Church—it extends to all our creative endeavors. After all, we are instructed: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24). Put simply again by Francis Schaeffer, “Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person as a Christian. What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism.”
As J.R.R. Tolkien put it, to be a creature is to be a “subcreator,” as we are made in the image of God, and therefore are made to be creative ourselves. To be creative is a holy calling, and we are to glorify God in the art we create. This is the piece of the puzzle that is lost on too many contemporary Christians. Secularization in the West has given us the image of a chasm between the holy and the mundane, between the “spiritual” and the “secular.” It has made us believe that we can separate out our religious lives from our social and creative ones. This is why in today’s world we are left with two streams: “normal” or “secular” art, and then “Christian” art on the other side of the chasm. These are not to be separate, but we’ve bought into the lie that they are. We’ve bought into the lie that anything can exist apart from reference to its Creator in some way.
R.C. Sproul took issue with this, saying “What makes art Christian art? Is it simply Christian artists painting biblical subjects like Jeremiah? Or, by attaching a halo, does that suddenly make something Christian art? Must the artist’s subject be religious to be Christian? I don’t think so. There is a certain sense in which art is its own justification. If art is good art, if it is true art, if it is beautiful art, then it is bearing witness to the Author of the good, the true, and the beautiful.”
There have been Christian artists in recent decades that have sought to push back against this trend. J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis are two of the more famous examples, both creating quality works of fiction for a wide audience, informed by their Christianity and beholden to God, but seeking to create a cohesive and beautiful work that glorifies God by its very goodness, not by proselytizing.
This is reminiscent of the quote commonly attributed to Martin Luther (though almost certainly never said by him): “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”
Art has fallen from being seen as something that reflects the divine, to something that can be separated out from the divine. But the way that we as a society view art and its purpose has also fallen, in a few ways.
The Movie as the American Art Form
The 20th century witnessed an explosion of different media for artistic expression, and with the rise of industrialization and commercialization, an explosion of the consumption of art—suddenly referred to as mere “entertainment,” and even later, in the 21st century as “content.” This degradation of terms can be attributed to multiple factors, not the least of which is the sheer amount of novels, plays, television series, and films created in the last century. With such a wide array of “entertainment” to choose from, and so much more free time to spend, the value of art can seem diminished.
But the value of art is not simply in its “entertainment” value or its ability to distract us from “real life.” Though we may unconsciously view and refer to art today as less important than art in centuries past, I don’t believe its value has decreased at all. Art still serves the same vital function it always has, but it only does so effectively when the artist has this high aim in mind (as Lewis, Tolkien, and countless others have). The lower our view of “popular art” or “popular culture” is, the lower quality it will necessarily be.
Every society produces its great works, and has its dominant form. The epic, the play, the novel, and the symphony are all examples of the form great works have taken. America is a very young culture, but it has produced its own great works. Though America has great plays, novels, and symphonies, I believe the great American art form has to be film. Though the motion picture was not invented in America, America did perfect it. Film (and by extension, television) combines the theater with both the visual arts and the musical arts to create a final product that is all of these in part, and none in full. It combines sight and sound, light and shadow, color and contrast to create a coherent story from start to finish. As the great American art form, the general state of film at any point over the past hundred years can tell us something about the state of American culture.
For example, films from the late 1930s and 1940s that we now consider “classics” represent an America that is somewhat culturally united, as it faced a common enemy in the Axis powers, and the American people in general held common fears, coupled with a largely shared moral foundation. War films from this era don’t shy away from depicting conflicts in which a clear “good” guy fights a clearly “bad” one. Casablanca depicts the difficulty of remaining “neutral” in a conflict that is clearly moral in nature. It’s a Wonderful Life condemns greed and selfishness while promoting family and community—all the while presenting external threats to the peaceful Bedford Falls, whether economic or military. The same spirit is found in most classic Westerns of the period. The white-hatted gunslinger with the heart of gold protects the innocent from the greedy and selfish outlaw.
Moving into the 1950s and ’60s, however, we start to see more overtly political Westerns (High Noon and its pointed response, Rio Bravo), and other films in which the conflicts depicted are shown as being much more morally complicated. The Vietnam era escalated this trend, and its effect lingered for a long time, Full Metal Jacket being a heartbreaking and potent example. The Westerns of this time period still usually employ a “good guy, bad guy” dynamic, but the good guys are much more of a moral mixed bag. We see the rise of anti-heroes, rogues, and flawed protagonists take the center stage—see Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, and later Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. As we move into the late 20th and 21st centuries, the overall trend of American cinema has taken us to a much darker, less inspired, and more cynical place.
This reminds us that the values of a society are seen in its art. Art says something about those who produced it—and what do “Christian movies” tell us about the Christians that made them? I would argue that by and large, these tell us that Christians are no longer concerned with producing quality art for the glory of God. Instead, they’re concerned with pandering to an established audience and making a profit. Take the aforementioned God’s Not Dead series, and look at its arc: from a movie about standing up to your atheistic college professors (God’s Not Dead) to a movie about standing up for Christian laws before the U.S. Government (God’s Not Dead: We the People). It’s hard not to wonder if these movies are simply designed to give evangelical Christians stories that feed into whatever cultural conflicts are popular at the time.
This leaves us with a general attitude of “leave the real art to the secularists, let them produce all the good stuff.” We may not explicitly say it, but when we are content to let “Christian” movies rise no higher than Fireproof, and make no attempt to create the kind of art we see on the big screen ourselves, we’re saying that we’re content to let the nations pursue beauty and goodness, while we as the Church simply regurgitate pabulum. We are saying that while we may go and see the good stuff at the theater over popcorn, we don’t need to have any part in making it. This kind of attitude is dangerous, and needs to be corrected.
No More Christian Movies
Let’s let the “Christian movie” die. That is to say, let’s not let it be a separate category any more. Good stories don’t get a “message” across, generally speaking. Good stories show virtue through themes and characters, rather than through overt signaling. Christians, with the aim of glorifying God and communicating authentic truth, goodness, and beauty, should be on the forefront of the arts, producing some of the best action movies, love songs, and dramatic novels that society can produce. We don’t need to make sure every story contains a Scripture reference or an atheist character converting on his deathbed. My sentiments and loyalties have been shaped more thoroughly and effectively by Star Wars than by Left Behind, or any other pandering Christian film. Good art should be made for our neighbors, and for God Himself—and God doesn’t need to be pandered to. I think He’s smart enough to grasp a bit of nuance now and then.
Don’t let the pagans produce all the best art. Show the world that Christ is more lovely than any prize, more beautiful than any painting, and the work He is doing in history is a more intricately woven story than anything that world could produce—and do it by showing what great works can be produced by an artist who loves Christ and simply lets his convictions and ideals inform his work. Make something beautiful, and do it because of the beauty of Him who made all things.