Many godly people think that the goal is for movies to be "non-offensive" in terms of sex, language, and violence. But the problem with that standard is it only describes a void. It doesn't give any creative guidance. A lot of Christians lauded the 2002 release A Walk to Remember mainly on this basis: "It didn't have any bad language, and the two teenagers didn't sleep together." Yes, but it was a banal, predictable story with underdeveloped characters, pedestrian acting, and saccharine dialogue.
There aren't going to be any simple narrative guidelines that make a project acceptable. Sometimes, it will serve the Truth to have the bad guys get away with murder, as in the 2002 film In the Bedroom. This project, which dealt with the spiritual and psychological urgency of forgiveness, was rejected by many Christians because the film's two protagonists kill someone in revenge and don't get caught. "Yes," I groaned to one indignant pastor, "but the characters are insane at the end of the film! No one wants to be them!" He responded, "I just think it would have been better if they had ended up in jail." Ironically, the film is more haunting because the two characters don't end up in a man-made jail but in a psychological prison of their own making.
While Christian projects will not be defined by the topics they treat, we can expect that certain defining themes will inhere in our projects as the cinematic "aroma of Christ."
Affirmation of Spiritual Realities
The 20th-century Christian apologist Frank Sheed distinguished Christian storytellers from pagan ones by the fact that Christian writers live in a world that is as much driven by spiritual realities as by material ones. He noted, "The secular novelist sees what is visible; the Christian novelist sees what is there."
Created with a Christian sensibility, a movie should be haunted by the invisible world. For believers, everything that we see is a sign of a reality that we cannot see. Paraphrasing St. Paul, all of creation points to the Presence and Nature of the Creator. A movie made with this conviction will leave viewers with the sense that beyond all the chaos and craziness in the world is a Loving Mind that comprehends it all, and is over it all.
This broader vision--encompassing what is seen with the heart as well as with the eyes--has as much to do with good writing as with pastoral urgency.
A Christian film should be imbued with the certainty that we are not alone. We were conceived of, worked out, prepared for, and assigned a place in the plan. We are connected to one another and to the One who yearns for us as the apple of his eye. Humans are meant to be merciful to one another. Talents are given to us to speed us corporately on our way home to God. We should treat human beings the way we would treat any unique and precious treasure that belongs to someone else.
Good and Evil Are Not Equal
Despite how it seems to a merely human perspective, good and evil are not locked in an equal struggle. The good is much greater, because it can incorporate every evil and turn it into a good.
A Christian dramatist needs to portray sin with the same intensity as does a purely secular dramatist because, as Flannery O'Connor noted, "Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live." But a Christian movie would ultimately lead viewers away from cynicism and toward hope. As Auschwitz survivor Corrie ten Boom expressed it, "We know that there is no pit so deep, that God's love isn't deeper still."
Coined by Pope John Paul II, the term "the culture of life" encapsulates the attitude toward human persons that defines Christians. Pope John Paul II distinguishes the reverence with which believers approach the human person from what he calls secularism's "culture of death." A society has bought into the culture of death, the pope notes, whenever it concludes that the resolution to a social problem can be found in the death of a person or group of people.
A Christian project will emanate the certainty that men and women are the summit of everything created. If rareness makes something valuable, then human beings are precious in their uniqueness. Human beings are not valuable because of what they can do but because of what they are: vessels of love. Love called forth to be poured in. Love seeping out on those around.
Humans are a unity of matter and spirit, making each person a mystery. And so a Christian movie will reflect a reverence in its bearing toward the human person.
Our reverence to persons will dictate not only the kinds of stories that we tell but also the method in which we tell them. We will not ask actors to violate themselves for our art, because Christians reject that a person can ever be used for any purpose-even for drama. Further, we can't manipulate, coerce, propagandize, or deceive.
Juxtaposition of Joy and Suffering
The weirdest thing about Christians is the way we can hold both terrible suffering and joy in our hands at the same time without any sense of contradiction. Good Friday is at once the worst thing that ever happened and the best thing that ever happened. In every death, we see the seeds of resurrections, and so our grief can never be complete, as in despair.
Because of this, our stories are always going to emit an aroma of hope. Comfortable with this mystery, as the human creature's lot in life, we do not have to resolve every conflict in our stories. But our unresolved conflicts will always reflect our conviction that, as screenwriter and novelist Karen Hall has said, "I may not understand the reason why, but I know Someone does."
But Will It Sell?
The capacity for a product to sell: this is a primary paradox for Christian writers and producers in Hollywood. On the one hand, we have vital stories and themes that we want to see produced. A writer who isn't passionate about the material will not be able to weather all the sacrifices and obstacles the project will require.
On the other hand, professionalism demands that we offer a product that will be saleable. Too often writers who pitch me movie ideas will be stymied when I ask them the necessary question, "What will drive millions of people to the movie theaters to see this story?"
This doesn't have to be a paralyzing problem for Christians in Hollywood. The answer to the problem of commerciality is to find the intersection of our themes with the current cries of the world. What is it that the people of our world are worried about today? What are the most urgent fears of this generation? These are the "signs of the times" for the church in this age, and particularly for those of us who are storytellers.
People, Not Projects
The principal reason for the moral confusion that ends up on the screen is the paucity of happy, well-catechized believers in the entertainment industry. We do not have enough witnesses to Christ living and loving and working alongside the witnesses to Mammon or secular humanism that have overrun the creative community. We do not have enough thoughtful, godly filmmakers who can draw compelling stories from a mature faith experience.
The world does not need a "Christian cinema" so much as it needs Christians in cinema.