Less Christian Art – More Christian Artists

“Christian film” is far better now than it was just a few years ago. Then again, that is a little like saying that dry heaving is better than puking. Yes, you’re doing better, but you’re still left queasy and the end material results are still unpleasant. After thirty years of claiming to be on the verge of breaking into the mainstream, “Christian film” is still synonymous with substandard production values, heavy-handed dialog and childish plots. This is not to say there’s a lack of good movies to be seen. The issue is that we don’t need good movies.

We need great movies.

To be blunt, if a film purports to be a “Christian film” it supposedly is done for the glory of God. You don’t glorify God by making lousy movies.

We need great movies.

Like I said, things are getting better. Production values are indeed increasing and there are some serious shops out there trying their best. Within the past ten years we’ve gone from embarrassing messes like Left Behind, The Omega Code, and Joshua to more impressive works like The Nativity Story, Luther, Beyond the Gates of Splendor, Saints and Soldiers, and Facing the Giants. Lest we forget, there’s also that little ditty Mel made called Passion of the Christ. As the industry has come to see the financial and cultural muscle of Christians they have worked to market products our way. Those directly in our ranks have likewise stepped up and tried to cater to our tastes. This has lead to more investors, more money and better looking product. Of course you can have the nicest lighting in the world but if you’re still filming a pedantic script with summer-stock reject actors your “better look product” is simply lipstick on a pig. The product still stinks.

As I said, the genre is improving but must do better. I believe the first step in improving “Christian film” is to stop having “Christian films” and simply have Christians making films. I believe labeling our works, or allowing others to label our works, is our first mistake. When we label our works as being “Christian”, the intention is usually to announce that the piece is “made for Christians” and presumptively is made to glorify Christ. These are fine – no commendable ideals and should be the goals of any committed Christian when making art. We run into a few problems when we use the “Christian film” label however:

1. The label is just that, a label. It allows Christian artists to be pigeonholed by both people in the industry. Those in the industry can subscribe any negative ideas they’d like to a label “it’s one of those “Christian” films.” The label can also relegate the product to a particular distribution stream, which isn’t always a great match.

2. The audience can do the pigeonholing as well. Christian audiences have come to expect very particular things. The rules don’t’ tend to stress Biblical truth, moral clarity and sound technical achievement but rather a watered down view of the world. Violence is almost non-existent, salty language never happens, unmarried couples never struggle with lust, evil isn’t really all that evil (because showing various forms of sin isn’t allowed) and in the end everyone is converted quite nicely with no residual issues. Life is reduced to an after school special with praying thrown in for good measure.

For me, this is where the aforementioned dry-heaving usually comes in.

The “Christian” label sets the filmmaker up with a number of hindering rules that are meant to satisfy the most sensitive members of the audience and more times than not hijacks the proper development of a story.

3. When a non-Christian is presented with a “Christian film” their reaction is going to be far more defensive than a regular ol’ movie. No one wants to go to the movies to be preached at. As it turns out, looking at the box office receipts, they don't go.

4. Which branch of Christendom gets the corner on the label “Christian film”? Catholics make movies, as do the Evangelicals and Mormons. Who gets to claim their films are “Christian”? I’m certain most Catholics would be made uncomfortable at a film like Luther while most Evangelicals would bristle at many of the films stemming from the LDS.

5. When we remove ourselves by stamping our cinema with the Christian label we are leaving the wider culture to be run by whoever comes around. We retreat into our safe little subculture and then act surprised when the Pagan turn Hollywood into Nineveh. We handed over the steering wheel to the heathens and relegated ourselves to whining in the backseat as they drive the culture straight to hell. Our place is at the FRONT of culture not running along the side of it hoping we’ll get noticed.

As you can see, the label brings up a number of serious issues – issues that are not necessary. Christians should drop the label, drop the pretenses and get to work. We have retreated into this subculture to protect ourselves from the wider one. By relegating our work to be “Christian” we extract ourselves from the wider population. We need to be in the mix.

Christian film’s has a long history of being relegated to the basements of churches. The films were made by Christians for Christians to be seen by Christians in the comfort of their churches. We have spent all of our efforts preaching to the choir and then exclaiming that our work was done. If Christians are to make movies they should be with the intent of distributing the teachings of God to everyone not just those in the light. We are to speak the Good News to the world and we can’t do that if we’re too busy entertaining ourselves. Removing the unneeded label of “Christian film” from our works is the first step in the process of opening up to the outside world.

I am not calling for a lowering of our moral standards. I am not saying we should be ashamed of being Christian. Quite the contrary, we should be open about our faith. It is important for the filmmaker to be identified as Christian than his work be labeled as such. If a Christian makes a film, and if that Christian speaks to Biblical truth and morality – he is making a Christian film. The labeling is there for show and its not helping anyone. A pagan can make a movie and label it as Christian. The product itself shouldn’t be where the labeling resides. The artist is the one who is the Christian. His fruit will bear His name.

I have no interest anymore in seeing “Christian film” What I want to see are films made by Christians. There is a difference in my mind. The former is made to satisfy the demands of Christian culture. The latter answers to Christ.
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