Why are Christian movies rubbish?

There are three certainties in this life. Death. Taxes. And horrible Christian art. And for some reason, thanks to evangelical superheroes like Stephen Baldwin and Kirk Cameron, Christian crossover movies are going to keep happening. So strap yourselves in for the ride…

Salon ponders just why they’re so bad. In response to the release of a Christian movie you may not have heard of called “Soul Surfer”…

“But do Christian-themed movies really have to be so bad? I won’t even pretend that “Soul Surfer” is the worst film I’ll see this month, since it lacks the overarching, high-concept horribleness of something like “Your Highness.” But it’s a trite, sentimental puddle of sub-Hollywood mush, with mediocre photography, weak special effects and an utterly formulaic script that somehow required seven (!) credited writers. Believe me, I have learned, over and over again, that ordinary moviegoers, a lot of the time, want to see a story that’s positive, predictable and not all that challenging, but even measured on that yardstick this one is pretty awful.”

He makes an interesting assumption about the motives behind the Christian movie industry, essentially that they’re preaching to the choir – trying to reflect Christian values to a Christian audience. Which is doubtless part of the problem.

If evangelical Christians want to see their life and faith and values reflected on-screen, I guess that’s understandable. But movies are not mirrors, and the mass audiences that went to see “The King’s Speech” or “Black Swan” or “The Social Network” didn’t necessarily identify with the characters or their lifestyles.

But that’s not really it. I don’t think. I don’t think Christian movies are preaching to the choir, I think they’re trying to preach to the outsider as well. Which is great – especially if you’re a quality, C.S Lewis style, engager with culture. But typical Christian movies are using the tools of a culture they despise to present a message and a world view. And they do it with no subtlety. Just with a blunt instrument and lots of force. There’s none of the subtlety or nuance that makes cinema compelling.

A letter writer to Salon agrees.

Christian films suck because by and large, the evangelical audience doesn’t want challenging, complex characters or art. They want the same pabulum spoon-fed to them over and over: God has a plan, accept Jesus and be saved, secularists bad, blah blah blah. There’s no shading or nuance or dark ambiguity in Christian cinema; just God and Satan duking it out. That’s why the films are as thudding, leaden and dull as those tracts the Jehovah’s Witnesses try to shove in your face every weekend while you’re trying to watch what you Tivo’d Friday night.

TV Tropes has an article dedicated to the “moral” response to new art forms. Readers of my series of posts on Backwards Masking Unmasked will recognise the work of the “Moral Guardians” and the eventual development of the Contemporary Christian Music industry.

“Sometimes even Moral Guardians have to accept that The New Rock And Roll isn’t going away. They can’t stop people from watching/reading/playing/listening to it, and even if they succeed in instituting a Censorship Bureau, it’s still not up to their standards.

Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. If those works aren’t up to their standards, they will make works that are. And they can even throw in a message about their beliefs and views in these works. Thus they make The Moral Substitute.

Most of the time, this runs into the same problem as a Clueless Aesop. The creators put so much emphasis on the moral message that they forget what actually made the movie, book, music, or game good. Things like quality writing, acting, plot, directing, production values, design, gameplay, and quality control are, at best, a distant second. Expect in most cases (both in fictional depictions and, often, in Truth in Television) the resulting product to be a bland imitation infused with an overwhelming sense of smug, Holier Than Thou self-righteousness and / or a moralistic determination to Anviliciously beat you over the head with whatever message they’re trying to get you to conform to.”

Findo posted this quote from a HuffPo interview with Christian musician Derek Webb that explains much of what is wrong with contemporary Christian art.

“the job of any artist is to look at the world and tell you what they see. Every artist, whether they acknowledge it or know it, has a grid through which they view the world and make sense of what they see. Even if it’s a grid of unbelief — that you don’t think there is anything orchestrating the world and that everything is completely random — that is a grid through which you make sense of the world.

A lot of “Christian art” is about the lens they’re looking through, rather than the world they see through it. I’m not going to criticize anybody for doing that, but I would rather look at the world through the grid of following Jesus and tell you what I see. But that doesn’t presume that all the art I’m going to make will be about following Jesus.”

This is why Christian art that is designed as either a cultural apologetic for the Christian life, or a sales pitch, is bad, well, one of the reasons. We’re not just making art that responds to the world as we see it – like Bach did – we’re making art that reflects how we want other people to see the world. Without subtlety, nuance, or appeal. It’s bad art. And it’s a bad sales pitch. And I hate it.

That is all.


Byron Smith says:

The best Christian movies are generally not called Christian movies. To pick one example, Magnolia was a film about grace and forgiveness deeply shaped by the gospel in all kinds of ways. But it was not a “Christian” film.

Nathan says:

Hi Byron,

Exactly. Just as the best Christian music isn’t called Christian music… I still think that despite the liberal use of the f-bomb, Mumford and Sons produced the most Christian CD I’ve ever bought (I haven’t bought many). And though I don’t like U2, I can appreciate that their approach is better than any derivative Christian artists whose names I don’t know.

Subtlety. Nuance. And not beating people over the head with the gospel. That’s all I ask for in art produced by Christians…

Thanks for the comment – I read your blog. But I don’t think I’ve ever commented. I’m such a hypocritical blog lurker.

Gary Ware says:

The generalisations in the post provide adequate space to make specific response difficult.
I read the Salon piece and noted the criticisms.
Maybe it isn’t a well made movie.
The main issue is that modern art seems more obsessed with provocation than truth. With questions more than answers.
Problem remains that for millions of people the situations portrayed in the biographical material behind Soul Surfer or the Blindside (sometimes in lesser measure, sometimes in more) have been confronted and given meaning, purpose and hope through the Gospel, the Scriptures, prayer and relationships. It might seem like trite sentimentalism to the practiced diffidence of the scoffer, the mocker and hipster. But it’s real life.
Academics dislike definitive answers because there’s nothing new to write doctoral dissertations about.
Modern art does not like the fact that an answer exists because they want people to dwell on questions. (cf Rob Bell)
The obsession with art as provocation in contrast to exploration of truth is an indulgent expression of western self-absorbtion.
No-one in a real life crisis is looking for a question.
They want an answer.

Byron Smith says:

Perhaps many people in a real crisis ask are asking the wrong question(s). Part of the point of (at least some) art is to help us notice what we didn’t notice before and to ask questions we haven’t previously asked. This can be very helpful in a crisis.

Or not. But if you are going to characterise and critique all of “modern art” in a comment of less than 200 words, then it would seem that the generalisations in the post provide adequate space to make specific response difficult.

Nathan says:

Hi Gary,

Since I’m not a hipster, but often mock and scoff, I’m going to respond as though this is directed at me.

My problem is, if what you say about modern art is true, that we dwell on questions – why are Christian artists not producing art that takes part in the genre – rather than producing art that offends those who appreciate the genre?

Surely if we want to participate in culture, and present the gospel through such participation, the onus is on us to make a valuable contribution to the landscape rather than standing apart and trying to look our best like we aren’t standing apart.

Surely if we’re reaching out to those in crisis who also like to think about questions the way to provide answers is to frame the question properly so that the answer is Jesus. Not tell them that the answer to their question is Jesus without showing them how or why.

You can, I believe, explore truth in the form of artistic proof, and even proffer an answer, without ramming the answer down your viewer’s throat.

When a patient is in hospital, in a coma, unaware of their need to eat – you don’t open their mouth and start ramming food into it. You put them on a drip.

Gary Ware says:

Thanks for both your responses Byron and Nathan.
I appreciate your thoughtfulness.
In pointing out the problem with my fallacy of over-generalising in my response you’ve helped me appreciate that I should have been thinking more about the diversity of ways in which Christians participate in the spectrum of artistic endeavors.
If you’re familiar with the general descriptions of high, low and folk art, then I think I fell into the trap of making generalisations that confused both genre and purpose.
Demanding a pop-culture item to have the expressive nuance of high-culture or the embracing life expression of the folk idiom is unhelpful in that regard.
So is anticipating that high, or even folk art yields fruit for consideration as obviously and readily as pop.
Pop art occupies a moment of space and then seems to be gone.
Is it true that pop art only fails if it fails to gain anyone’s attention, but if it does gain attention then it’s succeeded?

Nathan says:

Hi Gary,

I’m still not sure we’re on the same page here. My point is, that whatever level of art you’re pitching at, the job of the Christian artist who would contribute to the artistic world, is to understand the conventions of the art form they are producing – not just to produce a cheap, knock-off version with the gospel shoehorned in in a completely bizarre way.

This isn’t a methodology unique to the artistic sphere – it is the same problem I have with the Family First approach to politics. We create poor man’s versions of the real deal, with our desire to stand separate and be redeemed, rather than working within the system and being a Christian in the world.

So my answer in the arts sphere, and in this case the film sphere, is that whatever sort of movie you’re producing, be it rom-com, or some sort of avante garde production, our job is to produce good art that points people to Jesus. Making bad art as a moral substitute isn’t the answer. That’s why I mentioned Bach. He got it right. U2 get it close to right (as much as I hate to admit it). The Blindside is a good example of a movie with a Christian message where the Christian hand isn’t (I haven’t seen it, but going by reviews) overplayed.

From an audience perspective all art is subjective in terms of success, from the artist’s perspective, I guess with pop art success is measured by impact, financial return, and if it achieved what the artist intended.