Christian film is a curious genre. Despite facing universal panning from critics upon virtually every release, the genre continues to thrive. The most recent example, War Room, even took first place in the box office on its opening weekend. But the question then becomes, with this level of support, are Christian films making an impact in the broader culture? And if not, how can we change that?
There’s something of an inner conflict when it comes to Christian films and who they’re marketed to. There’s a certain sense in which Christians like to see Christian film is an evangelistic opportunity. This is why it has become almost obligatory to have a conversion scene in Christian film. So in that sense, one might think that these films are being marketed to non-Christians. But that’s not what’s happening. As one current example, the upcoming film The Resurrection of Gavin Stone advertises that “pastors everywhere” are recommending it. Rich Peluso, President of Sony’s Christian imprint Affirm Films (Risen and Heaven is for Real) said in an interview with Bloomberg that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ caused “people to pay attention to the fact that the faith community will respond to a film and come out in droves.”
But if Christian films are directed primarily at Christians, why have so many adopted a simplistic, affirming approach to Christianity? In most of these films (though, to be fair, not all), Christians are portrayed as nearly faultless, if not actually faultless, while the outsider non-Christians are the ones who have issues. There are numerous examples of this, from Caleb’s parents in Fireproof to the perfect love interest in Christian Mingle. The result is that these films function primarily as worldview validation, assuring Christians that their view of themselves and the outside world is indeed correct.
But is that a good reason to make a film? When we think about story, naturally, we think about how Jesus used story. He was a master storyteller, and the parables are some of the most potent stories in literature. But His purpose was never to validate what people already believed. Instead, his purpose was to challenge their assumptions and show them truth. This is not the case in far too many Christian films.
It is, however, the case with some and we would do well to learn from them. Take October Baby, for instance. This is not a conversion film. In fact, the main character is already a Christian at the beginning of the movie – and not doing well. She is suffering both physically and emotionally, because she’s a survivor of a failed abortion. Her health keeps failing, and she suffers from low self-esteem because her mother did not want her. From the very premise, it challenges our assumption that being a Christian necessarily makes the hard circumstances of your life easy.
In fact, the vast majority of the faith-based films I’ve seen that are good (Passion of the Christ, October Baby, and if I can stretch genre definitions just a tad, Hacksaw Ridge) trade on this idea of suffering in Christianity. Suffering is the legacy of Christianity, a fact that we have often ignored.
But this brand of popular Christian film isn’t only worldview validation, it’s sanitized worldview validation. It’s understandable that Christian filmmakers want to avoid content that may cause temptation for their audience. But in so doing, they present a world that is not so terrible and evil after all.
As a result (although this is certainly not their intent), the victory they intend to show is diminished. Salvation is only meaningful if we accept how vile our own sinfulness is. The cross is only impactful if we grasp how barbaric and brutal it was. If Christians want to tell stories about redemption, they need to be more straightforward about what we are being redeemed from.
In short, if we want Christian films to have an impact in the broader culture, they need to have quality, they need challenge us rather than validate us, and they need to be more honest about what the world (and Christians) are really like.