A few years ago, my local Blockbuster sadly closed its doors for the last time. The public, having discovered that renting ten year old, scratched up copies of Robocop for five dollars apiece, when they could buy a new copy at Walmart for less, had finally wised up. Of course, having a huge stash of movies to get rid of, the manager of this particular Blockbuster decided to sell off their remaining collection of battered DVDs.
For fifteen dollars each.
Being the prudent fellow that I am, and knowing how these sales tend to work, I perused the store, picked out all the titles I wanted, and stuck them behind a large row of the trusty Christian, “Left Behind” movies. A week later, when that manager realized that there were only about three people in the state willing to buy a five dollar DVD that had been used three thousand times, and to do it for fifteen dollars, they, in their wisdom, lowered the price to eleven dollars. Another week later, the price was lowered to three bucks. Then two days after that, it hit one dollar.
Cue my return.
I stole in cautiously at first, fearing my stash plundered by the grubby hands of like-minded individuals. The store was stripped— the empty shelves mocked me. I made my way to the back, however, and behold; the line of “Left Behind” movies lay untouched, Nicolas Cage’s vacant eyes staring up at me, accusatorily, as if to say: “please take us with you—it’s so lonely here with just the Judge for company”. Indeed, the only movies left in the store were the wall of Christian movies and one copy of Sylvester Stallone’s much maligned action film, “Judge Dredd”.
Closing time was nearly upon me, so I collected my ill-gotten booty, and after a moment’s hesitation, grabbed Judge Dredd and made my way to the checkout counter. As my prizes were bagged, I found myself looking back at those “Left Behind” movies. They were, along with the rest of the Christian films, the only ones left in the store. Left behind, indeed.
Christian culture has a great reputation for bad movies. With high-earning successes such as “Passion of the Christ,” “Passion of the Christ,” and “Passion of the Christ,” to line our coffers with money, one would think Christian filmmakers would be pumping out titles on par with the best of today‘s cinema. But, no—far too often, Christian media is bogged down by unrealistic characters, stilted dialogue, and pedantic, preachy overtones that not many—including Christians—want to hear. With all the grace of a sloth belly-flopping into a jell-o filled pool, these films often stumble over themselves, become mired in Civil War era special effects, and generally fail to leave any lasting impression, other than perhaps a sensation of acute embarrassment for the viewer if guests are present.
To be fair, Christian filmmakers are in a tough position. They must cater to an audience already desensitized to, and expectant of, gratuitous violence, sex, and moral ambiguity, while also adhering to the standards of what a “Christian Movie” should be. It’s become difficult for Christian movies to compete. If we have Kirk Cameron and Nicolas Cage arm wrestling Arnold Schwarzenegger, they’re going get crushed—although Cage’s vacant expression is still unlikely to change.
The problem lies in the isolationist attitude so many Christian directors take. As a former student at a major Christian University, I have seen the full spectrum of this attitude; believe me, it’s there. In regard to movies, this culture of insulation has resulted in poorly trained directors whose sub-standard work fails to communicate to much of the world. To make a real difference, what we need are Christian filmmakers supplementing filmmakers working solely in the Christian Genre. It's relatively easy to film a “Christian movie,” but it takes a special kind of director to infuse that next summer blockbuster with subtly intelligent scriptural truths—a movie doesn’t have to be labeled a Christian film to be one. The directors’ beliefs will naturally come out of the narratives they create.
While I focus mainly on film, this problem is indicative of the ideology of isolationism rampant in Christian arts and culture as a whole. This isolationism often works like a time capsule, leaving all of Christian media stuck decades in the past. We have Christian bands that seem to be still competing with *NSYNC now in 2016. While the local worship team may not be quite able to match the boy band’s hypnotic gyrations, they should endeavor to be just as excited about their art, and its quality, as any secular band. Christianity’s artistic isolationism needs to be broken down.
To remain relevant, we need Christian directors who simply make great movies. If openly Christian directors take on what are generally considered “secular” projects, imagine the redemptive themes that might permeate Hollywood. Imagine, for a moment, these directors take on action flicks, dramas, gritty westerns, and horror films, using each genre in a redemptive fashion and utilizing great casts and effects.
So how was it that the Christian film genre seems to have come off the assembly line with everything bolted on backwards? Like any art, film is cultivated by two groups, the directors and the audience. And Christian audiences have gotten quite used to being served week old French bread while the world eats its steak and laughs. In fact, in an effort to be removed from the “secular” world, Christian audiences have demanded that old bread, that it be served at all times. Arbitrarily.
Christian directors almost have no choice but to keep serving the same thing over and over, lest they alienate their longstanding audiences. These audiences often want a watered down version of reality, bereft of any hints of a struggle with the darker nature of mankind, because they believe that it is Biblical to limit their viewing to such films. But that’s just not true.
Do you want to know what else is Biblical? A man with superhuman strength annihilating a thousand men with a jawbone. Men struggling with sin, losing their belief, getting stabbed, burned, hung, crying, laughing, and living. And don’t even get me started on Song of Solomon. That’s a part of what’s Biblical, and all of it is braced with the over-arching metanarrative of God, and infused with His absolute truth and morality. There is no gratuity there, no violence or sex for the sake of the reader’s simple, carnal pleasure. But it is the story of life, given to us by God in order to better learn how to live. Christian audiences should realize that they can use their discernment to choose among all film, not simply from among the Christian genre. Toss away what makes you stumble, and keep what is artistic and scriptural gold—Christian filmmakers will notice, and, hopefully, start spinning that gold, themselves.
C.S. Lewis lets us in on a very astute observation on literature that applies to film as well.
"Christian Literature can exist only in the same sense in which Christian cookery can exist...That is to say, its choice of dishes would be Christian. But there could be nothing specifically Christian about the actual cooking of the dishes included. Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a Pagan. In the same way, literature written by Christians for Christians would have to avoid mendacity, cruelty, blasphemy, pornography, and the like, and it would aim at edification insofar as edification was proper to the work at hand. But whatever it would choose to do would have to be done by the means common to all literature; it could succeed or fail only by the same excellences and the same faults as all literature; and its success or failure would never be the same thing as obedience or disobedience to Christian principles."
In other words, a good movie is a good movie, Christian or not. Christian filmmakers fulfill their calling when they make quality films that are informed by their Christian worldview. In order to create a viable alternative to such highly intellectual films as “Transformers,” a change is needed in both audiences and directors. Christians must stay relevant to culture. They risk being rendered irrelevant unless they, as an audience, demand quality, and Christian directors begin to respond to that demand by breaking out of their comfort zones. The product need not be branded Christian; the fruit of a Godly mind will always please the Lord. Take Nicolas Cage’s character’s advice: you don’t want to be left behind.