Jesus & Cinema: Why Most Christian Movies Suck, and What We Can Do About It

About two years ago Douglas Gresham, stepson of C.S. Lewis and Executive Producer of Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia series, spoke at Liberty University’s Chapel service, as well as in not one but two of my classes. I can’t say I’ve been more impressed with a man than Douglas Gresham. He’s been a rancher in the Australian outback, a radio broadcaster, an actor, and a Hollywood producer. He’s pretty much the real version of “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” So when Gresham opened up about his opinion of Christian filmmaking in my History of Film class, my ears perked up. He told us with steely-eyed conviction in his thick British-Australian accent, “The world doesn’t need more Christian movies. It needs more Christians making good movies.”

That phrase has stuck with me for the past two and a half years. I didn’t even have to write it down, because it was forever engrained in my mind. Early the next day, Gresham would drop by my 400-level Philosophy class (an elective that I didn’t have the brain capacity for, and had to later drop). After he weathered through the 60 minutes of Narnia-related questions from my peers, I was able to chase him down the hallway and ask for his e-mail address and phone number.

Eventually I was able to share a thirty minute phone conversation with him about what it takes to make it in Hollywood. I had to wake up very early one Saturday morning to call his house phone in Malta; it was evening there. In our conversation, he dutifully answered my questions. He emphasized hard work, connections, and most of all, prayer. In other words, “Good luck, kid. You’re gonna need it.”

When I pressed him on whether Christians should pursue the purchase of a multi-billion dollar studio, as was recently proposed by Christian filmmakers in a book, he soundly rejected the notion. He acknowledged that, not only would this foster an “Us vs. Them” mentality and thus compromise the legitimacy of the films, but it is completely unnecessary.  “Christians don’t need to fight Hollywood, Garrett,” he said. “They need to infiltrate Hollywood.”

Let’s face it. Christian movies, by and large, are disappointments. I’m not talking The Passion of the Christ or Narnia, because those movies were well-produced with the power of Hollywood behind them. I’m talking Left Behind. I’m talking Fireproof. I’m even talking Thr3e and The Visitation and House, which were based on very good Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker novels. The last three, products of a recent 20th Century Fox venture called FoxFaith, are the kind of stories that I think can be successful. Psychological thrillers can really make people think if done well. Unfortunately, the movies are embarrassments.

The problem with the latter three movies, based on the stellar books of Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti, has something to do with money. The average Hollywood movie costs over $100 million. But the average budget for a FoxFaith film was $1 million. To make a movie, you need money. If it’s a big idea, you need a lot more money. Avatar cost $500 million. The Dark Knight was a relatively cheap superhero movie at $200 million. But Saw, which is a similar scale to House, cost only $1.2 million to make. Paranormal Activity is extremely entertaining and made on a $15,000 budget. Obviously a movie doesn’t have to be expensive to work.

So why is one movie a success and the other a joke? My theory is personnel. House had bad direction, worse acting, awkward editing, and a poorly adapted script. Had a legitimate studio with accomplished filmmakers taken the reigns of House, my theory is that it would have been professionally made, well-promoted, and would have performed positively at the box office.

People have to have a reason to see a movie. First, they have to know it exists. Second, promotional materials have to spark interest and capture their imagination. There has to be a hook, some spectacle, or interesting idea behind it. A potential audience has to “buy” it. Does it look like it’s worth $10 to go see it? Is it worth two or more hours of their time? Of course, it helps when a movie is associated with people who have a strong reputation. If Steven Spielberg’s name is on a film, chances are it’s going to be very entertaining. If Leonardo DiCaprio is starring, it’s probably an Oscar contender. We expect excellence from established stars. I doubt Christopher Nolan would be directing an ensemble cast in The Dark Knight Rises, had it not been for his brilliant script Memento that caught the interest of Guy Pearce. Nolan’s very first film is considered to be one of the top 100 films of all time, and it cost only $3 million to make.

So it’s not so much money as it is execution. Which brings me to the Sherwood films, produced by Sherwood Baptist Church. They have come a long way in terms of production quality since Facing the Giants, but Courageous is still laughable in terms of acting, writing, and appeal. These films have their place: they have redeeming and soul-altering messages. But they are sadly, deeply flawed. First of all, they have little to no appeal outside of churchgoing folk. And even churchgoers find little worth their time in these movies. It’s a two-hour sermon masquerading as a movie. Movies are supposed to whisper truths, not take a crowbar to people’s heads until they “get it.” I don’t dislike the Sherwood films because of their messages; I dislike them, because of the way they tell them.

The great Christian fiction writers didn’t preach in their fiction. C.S. Lewis, as obvious as his analogy was, did not make Lucy accept Aslan into her heart. The reason that Ted Dekker has sold about 10 million books in just 10 years is because he weaves Christ into his writing without actually telling you that he does it. It’s the mark of a great storyteller. Christians may pick up on it, but his stories undoubtedly make non-believers think. Dekker was highly influential in making Christ tangible to me, and he didn’t pen the name “Jesus” once. He didn’t even quote Scripture.

When I pick up a book, pop in a DVD, or sit down at a movie theater, I don’t do it to get hit over the head with a shovel. I do it to be entertained. I do it to have my mind stretched, my eyes dazzled, and my heart softened. And when I think about the message of the story being told, I want to be pointed to the answer, not given the answer repeatedly. Not only is it lame, but it’s cheap. People don’t want to be treated like complete idiots, and that’s what too many Christian movies do. Storytellers who can’t show without telling are just not good storytellers.

Remember Jesus’ fiction? It was edgy, and it resonated with the day’s culture. An outcast Samaritan was the hero of one of his tales. In several stories, a religious leader was the antagonist. A man trespassed, then deceived a land owner in order to obtain a hidden treasure. A father celebrated the return of a wayward son who had spent his inheritance and committed all kinds of sins. And usually people had to bug the crap out of Jesus to understand what He had meant. The listeners of Jesus’ stories were so moved and deeply invested in his stories, that they debated their meanings, and were perplexed by the implications.

Yes, we need movies like Dekker’s The Circle Series. Movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which poses very spiritual questions like no other movie I’ve seen. Movies like Memento and Inception, which deal with the topics of truth, belief, and depravity. Like Signs, which confronts issues of faith and loss. I believe that Christians can make the best ideas, the best movies, because we have the greatest muse in the Greatest Storyteller. We can show the world Truth and Love. We can provoke people to life-altering thoughts and heart-stirring emotion.

But that raises another question. Where do we draw the line? If we don’t have to quote Scripture or preach Jesus in our stories, where is the end? How much violence is permissible for a Christian filmmaker to show? Is profane language off-limits? I can’t say for certain, but I do know that Jesus was more concerned about hearts than rules.

Randall Wallace, who spoke at Liberty University’s 2011 Commencement ceremony, penned the screenplay for movies like We Were Soldiers, The Man in the Iron Mask, and most notably Braveheart. He grew up in a strongly Christian home and is still a bold Christ-follower to this day. Wallace frequently cites Jesus Christ as his inspiration, Savior, and Lord. But there is graphic violence in his movies. Yes, there is cursing as well. In fact, there are even a handful of F-words.

In an interview with Christianity Today, Wallace defended the content of his films. “I resist and even resent the notion that a film with faith-based values has to be placid, soft, un-masculine and un-muscular.”

Has he crossed the line? Disobeyed Christ? Has he forsaken his witness? As a young aspiring screenwriter, I am still establishing the lines I wish to never cross. But one phrase keeps running through my head, and it was made by one of the most prolific authors in the history of mankind: Stephen King. In his nonfiction book titled On Writing, speaks to this issue: “A writer has one job. To tell the truth.”

King is not a Christian, as far as I know, but he acknowledges the principle that stories are told best when they are believable and real. If we cannot tell the truth in film, I fear we will never succeed.

“Doesn’t everybody love stories about heroes?” asks Wallace. “They grab our attention, they make our hearts pound—but only if we believe them, only if we can identify with them in some way and hope that to some extent we can become more like them.”

Like the greatest storytellers, he recognizes the influence and importance of messages and themes in film.  “I want to walk out of a theater and think, Because of what I just experienced, my life will never be the same. I think everybody wants that.”

To create stories that provoke deep thoughts and emotions, we must portray both good and evil in clear and tangible ways. Ted Dekker said it best, when he defended the edgy nature of his novels.

“It’s critical as a storyteller, as anybody who’s interested in impacting culture, [that] you must speak the language of the culture you wish to impact.”

Could this be what the Apostle Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 9:22 when he said, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some”? Through the surrounding verses, he emphasized being able to relate to the lost, not ostracizing them. We are all human, and we all struggle with the same questions, the same vices. The difference is that as Christians, we have a hero, lover, and friend in Jesus Christ who enables us to be His instruments. To be that, we have to have a conversation with the prostitute, the tax collector, the drunkard, the lame–the abused, the user, the afflicted, and the weak. We have to tell it straight.

“It’s critical that we use a very dark brush to paint evil,” says Dekker. “When you bring the light into that darkness, that light is very vivid. When it dispels the darkness, we see the brilliance that’s there.”

I’m completely with Dekker on this issue. He attracts a wide audience with themes and stories that resonate. They are radical, completely original, and soul-searching without being off-putting. But he’s not about to downplay his Christianity either.

“The greatest hero that exists today without a doubt is Jesus Christ,” says Dekker. “To characterize him as a hero, it’s important to make his enemy a ferocious enemy. The one story that’s most exciting to us, and to Him, is that story when He defeats evil.”


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