People have asked me to write on this for various reasons, but let me say at the outset: my goal is not to mock anyone’s creative endeavors, but to move the cultural conversation forward.
Try to keep an open mind…
You’ve already read the title and more than likely by now the sphincter clenched, pupils contracted, jaw set, and all guards flew up because you already know the unwritten rule: never badmouth Christian movies in mixed company.
But there are many who see Christian movies as a strange and largely inscrutable subgenre of drama that pushes aesthetically inferior, preachy, simplistic stories for the Christian ghetto. Thus, they dismiss every Christian movie by association.
On the other hand, many Christians see these movies as a safe alternative to Hollywood’s immorality, and the only reason they do not receive more critical acclaim is bigotry. If you don’t agree, well then, you “love the world” or have backslidden into Hollywood’s lure of sex, violence, profanity, and hedonism…
The resulting argument always generates more heat than light, largely because both sides fail to recognize that Christian movies “suffer” under a different paradigm.
The Hollywood Way
Hollywood storytelling burgeoned over 100 years ago, born out of the theories of Aristotle and the Greek theater, rising through the medieval minstrel shows, through William Shakespeare and other Elizabethans, and into vaudeville. At each stage they refined a craft according to technology, culture and audience response.
The result is a storytelling template that emphasizes, generally speaking, a single protagonist who must go through an inner journey of transformation in order to overcome an external problem. We refer to that external conflict as “A plot” and the inner struggle as “B plot.”
Critiquing Hollywood movies, which takes graduate-level courses to explain, involves Aristotle’s principles as well as modern aesthetics. While this analysis may still seem like a popularity contest, most of the time the questions are: how unified is the story? How true to our human experience is it? How deep is the protagonist and how fulfilling is his arc? How well does the movie connect emotionally with its audience?
So a “bad movie” by Hollywood standards lacks aesthetic value (bad sound, bad lighting, bad acting, bad editing, etc) or it lacks unity (see: Aristotle’s Poetics) or is false, meaning we don’t accept the reality of the plot, character or theme.
The Christian Movie Alternative
Christian movies, however, are part of a history of Biblical storytelling that grew from Moses, the prophets, King David, the Book of Job, Jesus’ parables, the Acts of the Apostles and Revelation. Its influence touches theater through the centuries but has more influence in medieval morality tales, Dante, various allegories, then into modern morality literature and specifically, sermons.
There is no distinct template for a Christian movie, but in many cases the protagonist’s inner journey of transformation (B plot) IS the A plot. That is, what the protagonist needs to learn in the story becomes the primary focus, and external conflict(s) (A plot) become secondary.
For Hollywood, this is a HUGE problem.
But for those well-versed in sermons, this feels quite natural, and they will evaluate the movies the same as sermons. An anecdote or analogy may fall flat but how well does it express the Gospel truth? How well does it impact the viewer (for the Gospel)?
A bad Christian movie may or may not have bad production value, but it violates the Gospel. It’s false as it relates to Biblical truth.
In other words, a Christian film may be ugly, but it can’t be sinful.
This is the crux the quality argument. This is the reason why, if you badmouth or roll your eyes at a bad Christian movie, your brethren think you’re possessed or a heretic.
It is also the reason why I refer to most Christian movies as “narrative sermons” rather than movies. It’s almost unfair to judge them by another scale.
Yes, some may say that Christian movies suck from a different paradigm is like saying Amadeus sucked because it had no car chases. Avoid the arguments.
That said, the larger issue is, how can the Christian filmmaker justify equating the 3-act structure with a 3-point sermon when the vast majority of his audience is not versed in that paradigm? If you’re ministering to the choir this doesn’t matter. Sherwood Baptist knows their core audience. But if Christians want to reach the lost, every missionary learns the native language.
Consider that God gave the prophet Daniel “knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning” and the king “found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” (Daniel 1:17-20, paraphrase)
Go, and do likewise, so no choices are made out of ignorance or bigotry.
And that bigotry cuts both ways. Despite what many Christians believe, in Hollywood, the craft of screenwriting is not “sex, violence, drugs and profanity,” but plot, character, dialog, and theme.
In other words, it’s not sinful to learn the Hollywood’s native sorcery. They may hate us anyway, as Jesus said they would, but if Christian movies don’t “suck,” then the only remaining stumbling block is the message.