I am not going to give the people behind the idiotic and offensive press release I recently received the recognition of identifying them by name, but the claim that they make is one I have heard often enough I need to respond. The headline: Film Critics Don’t Get Faith Films. This shows no understanding of critics, movies, or faith. It disingenuously uses Rotten Tomatoes’ audience score to “prove” that audiences can like a film even when critics do not, overlooking two key points. First, the audience score will always be higher than the critics score because by definition the people who buy tickets are already interested enough in the film to make a commitment of time and money and once having done so, are even more likely to be fans. Furthermore, the audience score can be influenced by relatively few numbers, especially if the filmmakers get their friends to cast positive votes.
Films like “The Identical” and “Left Behind” do not get bad reviews because critics don’t “get” faith-based films. They get bad reviews because they are awful films. These films are not just decidedly below average by any standard of drama or aesthetics; they are also bad theology. Referring to a couple of Bible verses and omitting sex and bad language is not enough to make a film “faith-based.” And, more important, it is not enough to make a film spiritually challenging or nourishing. “Faith-based” movies should be held to the same standards of critical review as any other film. And it is fair to expect them to meet or exceed those standards. Note that critics for faith-oriented publications have given bad reviews to these films as well.
I love to see movies that inspire audiences to make a deeper connection with God or to live a more humble and compassionate life. But too many “faith-based” films have the shakiest of theologies and are more interested in perpetuating a narrow, claustrophobic, smug brand of Christianity than they are to exploring the teachings of Christ. I object to the notion that “faith-based” refers to only one segment of Christianity, but, if that is the case, the purpose of “faith-based” films should be to challenge viewers to become better Christians. Unfortunately, instead too many of these films serve only to congratulate the audience for their superiority or promote a culture of victimhood. Instead of inspiring generosity toward others, they increase divisiveness and prejudice.
I have found a lot to admire in some “faith-based” films like Christmas with a Capital C and Brother White. Other films engage with religious beliefs beyond that covered by the “faith-based” media industry. And of course many films that do not market themselves as “faith-based” have powerful lessons for both faithful and seekers. I encourage everyone to read the thoughtful essay by Steven D. Greydanus, a longtime critic for Catholic publications, called Do atheists and agnostics make the best religious movies? His excellent list omits my favorite movie about Jesus, however, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, made by an atheist, Pier Paolo Pasolini, beautifully simple and one of the most moving and inspiring religious films I have ever seen.
“Faith-based” should apply to any movie that seeks to deepen our connection with the divine. And “faith-based” or not, all movies should be evaluated on the quality of their story-telling.