Sunday, August 06, 2017

How to Improve Christian Movies

I’ve already previously discussed my problem with Christian movies, and why I think the focus of the Christian filmmaking paradigm should shift from making Christian movies to making great movies.  For magnetic acting, brilliant direction, inspired scripts, engrossing storytelling, gorgeous cinematography, moving sound design, and exquisite production value can prove to be more impactful foretastes of the richness of the Gospel than a direct but diluted delivery of it, something most Christian movies are guilty of.  As a follow up on that, I intend to convey in this essay a thought, a suggestion, on how Christian movies can be bettered.

I read an article once that implied that God’s Not Dead is the Christian’s 50 Shades of Grey.  Now, both are indeed bad films (though I’ll argue that the latter is significantly more awful, especially since the former has a killer soundtrack) but the idea of comparing a wholesome Christian movie about a Christian student standing up to his atheist professor to an erotic romance film featuring BDSM and an abusive relationship is seemingly preposterous and off-color.  However, there’s actual truthfulness in this.  Both have the sensibilities of fan fiction written to indulge in one’s romantic imaginations (in fact, the original 50 Shades of Grey novel was literally Twilight fan fiction).  Both came as a result of wanting fantasies realized.  While 50 Shades of Grey allow women to have their kinky fantasies and curiosities projected through Anastasia Steele’s racy encounter with Christian Grey, God’s Not Dead allow Christians to fantasize of ideally overcoming persecution via an intellectual setting and having their worldview validated by peers or other people as a result.

The main issue I have with God’s Not Dead and other Christian movies that take the route of indulging in a fantasized, romanticized scenario of real-life issues of faith is that it tends to misrepresent them.  Moreover, by having a “fairy tale” feel and resolution, these movies come off as corny, lazy, and stupid.  Therefore, they aren’t affecting beyond the superficial highs and artificial poignancy they elicit, and they definitely fail to be thought-provoking.
In real life, though there are indeed tons of Christian intellectual giants out there, Christians aren’t always smarter than atheists.  Though they have the truth, Christians don’t always prevail against atheists in debate.  Example, during the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925, the Christian fundamentalist and Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan clashed with liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow about the teaching of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in schools.  Bryan was a great orator but he was out of Darrow’s league when it came to courtroom debate.  Darrow humiliated Bryan, and ever since, Christian fundamentalists have been stigmatized as ignorant and intellectually backward.

So here’s a thought: God’s Not Dead could have been about a Christian student failing to overcome his much smarter professor in debate, and how he deals with the fallout of being constantly ridiculed and scorned afterwards.  It could show him struggling but keeping his faith, while also inspiring him to study more and develop his intellect.  Or I would have actually been satisfied already if the movie just had raised better arguments.  Because, seriously, there are actually more thought-provoking arguments from both sides of the issue which have been around for a long time than the flimsy ones the movie opt to feature.  I would have also preferred it if the film’s main theme is clearly about the importance of pursuing Christian intellect (something that I unfortunately found lacking in mainstream Christianity).  Let’s bring it a step further: what if God’s Not Dead is about a Christian student who encounters an atheist professor who is not only smarter, but also kinder, more generous, and more selfless than him?   On paper, isn’t this a more provocative movie already than what we actually got?

My overall point here is that God’s Not Dead – and other Christian films for that matter – would have been tremendously more rewarding if it didn’t pamper Christian fantasies but, instead, provoked genuine, meaningful reflections through challenging, well-thought-out stories and relatable, well-realized characters.
Silence is a great example of a Christian film done right – and beautifully so.  Now, I understand why Christian evangelicals won’t quickly label it as a “Christian” movie and why its themes won’t easily resonate with them.  It’s because the film involves Catholic characters and a Catholic perspective.

In the movie, the shogunate are persecuting Japanese people converted to Christianity by Jesuits and their sufferings are only relieved when they choose to apostate, which involves stepping on a fum-i, a board or stone with the image of Mary or Jesus printed or carved on it.  Now, “born again” Christians or Protestants will have no problem with stepping on an icon of Mary, even of Christ.  For them, it isn’t apostasy at all, as their faith is not rooted on man-made objects. In fact, many of them would even consider these icons to be blasphemous.  However, it’s not that hard to let the fum-i-stepping serve as a metaphor for the actual practice of denying Christ.  Such can be transposed into being asked to deny Christ with a gun pressed against your head.  Besides, persecutors will opt for the method that will deliver their desired effect.  For the Catholic converts, it was stepping on fum-i.  If it had been Protestant characters, it would have easily been coercing them in some other way to blaspheme or deny Christ.

Thus, through this outlook, a Christian would be able to appreciate and ponder on the issues the movie raised.  Why is God silent during our sufferings?  Or is He?  Do we lose our salvation when we apostate?  Is it okay to temporarily apostate, or “pretend” apostate, that is, to perform the required act but, deep inside, one isn’t really discarding his faith?  Is “pretend” apostasy acceptable when it’s not about keeping your life but about saving the lives of others?  Can we be restored when we apostate?   If we can, is one really a Christian when he apostates and repents, apostates and repents, over and over again?  Is it possible to live out one’s faith secretly without compromising it?  These are just some of the thoughtful questions that a Christian can take from the movie and be prompted to study and reflect about, especially if he or she doesn’t have definite answers for them yet.  And Silence is able to offer these effectively and emphatically largely because of its superior quality as a film, as an art form.

In short, Christian movies should try being more like Silence and less like God’s Not Dead.

Here are three kinds of Christian movies that I wish to see done more...
  • Christian comedy films.  To a degree, that’s what The Resurrection of Gavin Stone was, a comedy.  And maybe that’s a reason why it’s easily one of the better Christian movies I’ve seen.  I find it shocking that there’s a shortage of humor-centric Christian films out there when Christians have great aptitude in being clever and hilarious, as proven by the several Christian meme pages in Facebook, as well as comedians like Tim Hawkins and Brad Stine, who are legitimately two of the funniest comedians I’ve ever encountered (if you are not familiar with their work, look them up in Youtube). 
  • Christian biopics.  Throughout history, there are many notable men and women of faith whose remarkable lives have cinematic appeal.  Since these stories are based on real life, the chance of becoming “fan fiction-y” is minimal.  The risk of misrepresenting theological issues is lessened as well.  Well, on paper, at least.
  • More adaptations of fiction written by devout Christians.  As proven by The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, the stories and worlds coming from the rich imaginations of Christian authors resonate with – regardless of whether they were intentionally or subconsciously inserted – meaningful Christian undertones.  Now, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is one epic Christian fantasy story I would love to see beautifully adapted into the big screen.

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