Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0

How should a Christian review a "Christian movie"?


104 posts in this topic

Posted · Report post

[This thread began after another thread became too... um... heated. It is an attempt to raise a question and address it with caution and respect among the participants.]

What if we started this conversation over?

What if we began by linking to Peter's review of The Last Sin Eater, and several other reviews ... like Facing the Giants, The Second Chance, Hangman's Curse, etc.? (Film Forum would give us some good cross-sections of reviews on these films.)

And then, what if we tried to discuss the central issue all over again ... those of us who have seen the movies ... in order to re-consider what a Christian critic should take into account when reviewing a "Christian film"?

What if we wiped this slate clean and tried again, hopefully wiser and more cautious?

(Personally, I'm in favor of locking the original Last Sin Eater thread because too much damage was done, inadvertently and directly, there. But we need to be able to discuss the issues at the crux of that debate. And we need to be able to consider, praise, and criticize that film for its strengths and weaknesses. Clearly, from JoelC's opening post, there was some "attitude" going on there. I refer to his declaration that another �brilliant masterpiece� was coming from FoxFaith. That attitude was not unprovoked, mind you. FoxFaith got off to a start that made many of us disappointed and a little frustrated. I sympathized with JoelC, and have spoken with plenty of similar frustration myself. But considering the current climate, better to surrender that mess-of-a-thread, and step with extra-extra care and try to start again.)

Let's not make these threads about FoxFaith's not-so-glorious beginnings. Or about anything said on the radio about whether or not CT's reviewers have full-time jobs, or whether we�re Christians or postmodernists or any derogatory, demeaning labels.

Let's talk about the issue:

Should Christians give extra slack to Christian movies that are less than excellent examples of the craft? Or should we always give at least three stars to movies that "preach" the gospel? Is a Christian being "anti-evangelical" if he gives one star to a movie about Christianity made by Christians? Should preachy movies be embraced as expressions of evangelical conviction? Or should the terms "preachy" and "movies" remain mutually exclusive? Is there a place for altar-call moviemaking, and if so, what is that place? Should those films be subjected to critical assessment of aesthetics and storytelling and performance?

Should it make a difference to us if the film was made by a Christian or not?

When does criticizing a Christian filmmaker stop being constructive and turn into something detrimental and "mean"?

What's the difference between constructive criticism of a work and "slamming" a filmmaker?

I ask this, mind you, because in my work as a reviewer I want to do what is right and good. I am motivated, for what it's worth, by evangelical conviction. I have no doubt that I have things to learn about that. And so I'm listening.

So, in the interest of celebrating the privilege of art, and to explore whether or not Christian filmmakers should be held to the same standards of excellence as any other artist, let's discuss these issues.

It is a crucial conversation, the crux of what concerns the folks here at Arts and Faith: the difference between proselytizing and art, between preaching and poetry, between 'delivering a gospel message' through argument, and 'manifesting the truth of the gospel in art' (which is about excellence in form as much truth in content).

Many of us got involved here in part because we were so weary of mediocrity in religious art, and were finding profundity beyond the borders of "Christian entertainment." How do we keep from throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

I think this conversation is worth continuing whenever we get another film that clearly presents the gospel (whether that be Sophie Scholl, Dead Man Walking, Chariots of Fire, or The Last Sin Eater).

Which films deal with the gospel in an exemplary fashion?

Which films don't, and can we, in good conscience, graciously discuss where they go wrong?

Let's talk it over, receiving each other's opinions with grace, and without making presumptuous claims about the hearts of people we do not know. Most people I have met here speak out of Christian conviction, and they have done so from the foundation of this board. I see no reason to suspect each other of anything less, unless someone has plainly declared that they speak from some other kind of conviction.

Yes, there is objective truth, but none of us can claim complete comprehension of that truth on this side of glory. As we attempt to engage in respectful dialogue, maybe we can work our way closer to a fuller apprehension of that truth. Or at least practice grace.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

So, let's say there's a movie called "The Decision."

It's about a sort of prodigal son who runs and runs into trouble and crime.

That trouble and crime is represented in "safe," PG-rated terms.

And then he meets an inner-city pastor.

Who guides him to the truth of the gospel.

In a last minute crisis, the prodigal runs again, only to face the pending consequences of his sins, and on a failing cell-phone battery, he puts in a call to the pastor.

The pastor comes to try to save him, but too late.

And yet... by some miracle... the guy is pulled out of the consequences, and he acknowledges that he can't depend on some human father figure to save him, he has to rely on Jesus.

And he confesses and becomes a Christian. And the music swells. And the film ends when we see him wearing cleaner clothes and having a nice haircut, cleaned up and worshipping.

This scenario reflects aspects of a lot of the "Christian movies" I grew up with. But let's say it stars, oh, Christian Slater in the lead, and he's fairly good in the role. Let's say Scott Wilson (Junebug) plays the pastor. So there's some good acting too.

But the camerawork is decent, nothing to shout about. And the soundtrack is typically sentimental, with a few Christian pop songs thrown in.

What should a Christian film critic do with "The Decision"?

Is this automatically a three-star movie (out of four)?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

What if it was approached as if a family member made the film? In essence, if it's a "christian movie", then it's made by someone in the Body of Christ, and they are our brothers and sisters.

It wouldn't take away from an honest review, criticizing the weaknesses and praising the strengths. But it might give a framework that keeps everyone one the same side. Maybe in this way the criticism doesn't feel like attacking but more like "oh I really wish they wouldn't have done that".

This of course takes works from both sides. Each party would have to believe that they were out for the others best interests. This way, criticism is given and received fairly and with trust.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Spoon said:

What if it was approached as if a family member made the film? In essence, if it's a "christian movie", then it's made by someone in the Body of Christ, and they are our brothers and sisters.

It wouldn't take away from an honest review, criticizing the weaknesses and praising the strengths. But it might give a framework that keeps everyone one the same side. Maybe in this way the criticism doesn't feel like attacking but more like "oh I really wish they wouldn't have done that".

This of course takes works from both sides. Each party would have to believe that they were out for the others best interests. This way, criticism is given and received fairly and with trust.

Hmm. I'm curious, Spoon, how this approach would differ from your recommendations for the best way to review, oh, The Queen or Little Miss Sunshine or Catch and Release?

I ask because your description of how we should approach films made by brothers and sisters in Christ sounds a lot like the way we should approach our neighbors and total strangers. In other words, respectfully, with kindness, and without a sense of "attacking."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Hmm. I'm curious, Spoon, how this approach would differ from your recommendations for the best way to review, oh, The Queen or Little Miss Sunshine or Catch and Release?

I ask because your description of how we should approach films made by brothers and sisters in Christ sounds a lot like the way we should approach our neighbors and total strangers. In other words, respectfully, with kindness, and without a sense of "attacking."

I hear what you're saying, and I agree. I guess I was thinking of how I feel whenever I hear of a christian film being released. I remember how I felt when I heard about "One Night with the King". It almost feels more personal. It leads me to a lot of wishful thinking. Because the gospel is so important to me, I perk up whenever I hear there is a story coming out made by someone who may feel the same way about the gospel.

Now it feels like I'm almost talking myself into a different approach. Almost like, if you're dealing with the gospel or christian themes, you dang well better do it well.

So maybe the family aspect comes in with how we sometimes hurt those who are closest to us. And if we feel like they are misrepresenting Jesus, it's more serious than if they aren't exactly getting Freddy Kreuger down to a tee.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

And how should non-Evangelical Christians (which is not an oxymoron) review films by Evangelical film makers? How should Evangelicals treat films by non-Evangelical film makers? How should we review a film by an Orthodox Jew? or a Reform Jew? If they make a film based in the Tanakh, should we be upset if they don't read the Christian reading of the story into the film?

I do pay attention to the theology of the film. Sometimes I hate the theology, but if it is presented well, (cf. substitutionary atonement in Breaking the Waves - not evangelical, of course, but I think some of the theology should resonnate) it provides an opportunity to discuss a difficult subject. As Johnston says in his chapter on the use of film for ethics, it provides a common language. It matters that it is presented well. A key part of that is that it is not preachy. I'm a preacher and I hate when I'm preachy -- it's not the homiletics I was taught.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Regardless of how we might want to convince ourselves that a Christian brother or sister should be treated the same as we treat others, there are a host of social/psychological dynamics at work here.

For example, in Social Psychology there is a concept called Choler. It is an "instinctive emotional reaction,

Edited by Denny Wayman

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Denny, I know you don't know me from Adam, but I just wanted to chime in to say that I think your post is not only well-reasoned, but is full of excellent wisdom as well. The pastor at my church this week happened to comment that he finds that he often gets angry at other christians more easily and more often than he does at non-christians. I know for myself I often feel a disdain for those christians that I feel are doing more harm than good, whether through "christian" movies that aren't likely to do more than preach to the choir, or street preachers that aren't likely to do more than confirm the worst jokes and stereotypes.

But despite however well-intentioned I might be, I have to remember that they, just like myself, are on a spiritual journey from point A to B through God working in their own lives, that he loves them just as much as he loves me, and that I can't think of myself as "farther along" on the journey than they are, just on my own journey. I don't usually know what God's doing in them, and I can't usually see all of what God's doing through them.

I fear that Screwtape would be quite pleased at times to see how preoccupied I am with correcting and chastizing my brothers and sisters, whether they "deserve it" or not. Your post is a helpful window into the psycological and emotional issues that make it such a hard habit to shake.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Another danger I would suggest, is that the passion we have for well-done film CAN, and I'm not saying it will, but it CAN replace our passion for Christ. In that sense, we are worshipping excellence in film more so than the message of the gospel. That is why some reviewers dissect their reviews into two parts and give a rating for the message/values and then a second rating for the cinema. The fact that most of us don't do that reveals a discomfort with separating the message from the medium. Ever since McLuhan

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

To take a stab at a few of the original quesitons...

I realize that many of the frequent posters on the board are professional critics - and going even beyond that, certainly almost all of the posters here are at least amateur critics, in the sense that they're more likely to watch a film and pass critical judgment on it - even if only to themselves and their friends - than to actually make a film, or other work of art to be judged by the public for that matter.

My comments come as a professional christian filmmaker, and maybe will be of some use as an alternative perspective in that regard.

Should Christians give extra slack to Christian movies that are less than excellent examples of the craft? Or should we always give at least three stars to movies that "preach" the gospel?
No! Absolutely not! Filmmakers at this level are not children to be coddled, even if we're still in the "young" stages of a career. There's a difference between recognizing potential in a filmmaker that's not fully realized yet in his or her current movie and praising that despite the flaws of the film, and propping up an undeserving work, whether as "art" or "entertainment" because they're part of the family.

I understand that this is how we would respond to our own family member creating something - we would be more lenient. But that's if we're hanging their picture on our refrigerator, not trying to do what's best for them as they try to make films that wage war in the larger marketplace. Imagine a CEO of a major corporation being more lenient with an underperforming child who leads one of the divisions. He's not helping anyone.

I simply don't see a way, as a filmmaker, that me receiving an unfairly high review because "I'm family" or because I included the correct theology, helps anyone.

1) It hurts me as a filmmaker, because I'm not shown my own limitations and faults in order to correct them next time. Besides, I shouldn't be making films in order to get good reviews in the first place, and should no more feel satisfied by good reviews than personally hurt by bad ones.

2) It hurts the films I make, for the reason stated above.

3) It hurts the christian film viewing community, by not letting them know that they're playing in a mud puddle, and not at the sea.

4) It hurts future attempts to get deserving works by christians recognized. If we're giving 3+ stars to crappy films just because they've got the right message, no one will listen when a film really deserves the recognition.

The flip side to all this of course, if what Denny mentions above. Critics should be careful not to unfairly criticize a film because of its message either. There are some very well done, very "preachy" movies out there - just not typically christian ones - that get plenty of praise from the critics. When one of those movies comes along, a critic should resist the urge to distance themselves from it just because of its on-the-nose message.

Is there a place for altar-call moviemaking, and if so, what is that place? Should those films be subjected to critical assessment of aesthetics and storytelling and performance?

Yes, but a limited one. These movies are basically visual sermons of a sort, and they should find a home in the same place that sermons do - among a crowd who knows what they're getting into and is receptive to hearing that message. ie. a crusade-type event, or a church sponsored screening. The audience will be willingly open to, and probably waiting for, a movie-sermon, and the movie can and should deliver on those lines. And in these scenarios, I think that while critical assessment can be just as valuable to these filmmakers, if the films aren't intended for mass consumption, the films don't need reviews intended for mass consumption.

Should it make a difference to us if the film was made by a Christian or not?
No more than whether a filmmaker is a muslim should inform us as to how we might read into a film. Take me off welfare and let me learn to live for myself. This is part of the error I see when a particular radio host talks about a film needing the support of the christian community in order to survive. Films by christians won't evolve unless darwin's allowed to kill the bad ones.

When does criticizing a Christian filmmaker stop being constructive and turn into something detrimental and "mean"?

As a filmmaker, criticism can be detrimental and mean whether I'm a christian filmmaker or its a christian reviewer, or neither of those things is true, and the criticism should be held to the same standard regardless. The criticism should attempt to address the successes and flaws of the film, and should typically be wary of going beyond that to infer some quality about the filmmaker in my opinion. (ie. "Like so-and-so's other films, this one betrays a stunning lack of originality and talent, blah blah blah.") Don't make it your job to convince filmmaker bob to stop making films because he sucks at it.

Which films deal with the gospel in an exemplary fashion?

The only title I might contribute here that most people probably haven't seen is a film called "Jesus, Joey and Mary" that I saw at a film festival last year. As far as I know, it's yet to have any theatrical or dvd release, but I'm hoping for one soon. It's about the struggle of a guy who's grown up in the catholic church but hasn't had the message "sink in" who falls for a "born again" girl and the issues that causes with his family and friends. My wife and I sat in on it, both enjoying it immensely (it's a comedy), but both nervously waiting for that moment when it would undoubtedly cross the line into sermon territory. For the most part, it never came, and to me was a wonderful example of a movie that stayed true to telling a compelling, engaging story first, and letting the message work as a component of that story, and not as the "evangelical punchline."

Edited by popechild

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Now THIS is the Arts and Faith dialogue I know and love.

Great stuff guys.

Denny, I agree with you that we can easily become more agitated by folks in our own camp, and... speaking from experience... especially when the views you hear are views you once held yourself and eventually came to outgrow or to see as sinful. I feel shame when I hear people condemning art that doesn't have Jesus' name clearly stamped on it, largely because I used to be fueled by that particular judgmental zeal myself.

But MLeary, I also agree with you, and I think that praising aesthetic excellence *is* part of advancing the gospel, because excellence reflects God's glory, and some of the "worldly" movies made with surpassing excellence reflect God's truth back to me more powerfully than the mediocre "come to Jesus" pageants of Christian filmmaking.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

But MLeary, I also agree with you, and I think that praising aesthetic excellence *is* part of advancing the gospel, because excellence reflects God's glory, and some of the "worldly" movies made with surpassing excellence reflect God's truth back to me more powerfully than the mediocre "come to Jesus" pageants of Christian filmmaking.

"Pageants of Christian filmmaking" has just joined "Setup for an evangelistic punchline" as a personal favorite in my critiquing-christian-movies vocabulary...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Which films deal with the gospel in an exemplary fashion?

The only title I might contribute here that most people probably haven't seen is a film called "Jesus, Joey and Mary" that I saw at a film festival last year. As far as I know, it's yet to have any theatrical or dvd release, but I'm hoping for one soon. It's about the struggle of a guy who's grown up in the catholic church but hasn't had the message "sink in" who falls for a "born again" girl and the issues that causes with his family and friends. My wife and I sat in on it, both enjoying it immensely (it's a comedy), but both nervously waiting for that moment when it would undoubtedly cross the line into sermon territory. For the most part, it never came, and to me was a wonderful example of a movie that stayed true to telling a compelling, engaging story first, and letting the message work as a component of that story, and not as the "evangelical punchline."

I make that distinction as well. Some of the stuff that comes directly to us to review from Christian film-makers I've called a "visual sermon" as in the Left Behind, or a "visual parable" as in the episodes made for TV:Believers Among Us. In this second case I wrote:

Overtly Christian and presenting plots that explore many of the issues facing Christians today as we attempt to live out our faith, the stories are compelling and the presentation is refreshingly wholesome. The heroes are normal Christians living faithful lives and the power of faith and prayer is shown clearly.

However, from an artistic standpoint, the acting is uneven and we often feel as though we are watching a visual parable rather than real people living real lives. Because of this, it is difficult to identify with the actors and lose ourselves in their experiences. This shortcoming is something the series will undoubtedly want to fix as the episodes continue. The writing is better overall than the acting at this point

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

In some ways this reminds me of the conversations we used to have around Christian music. For me this discussion brings up all kinds of other questions and comments, for instance. Should we be using film as a medium for "preaching" at all? I think a film should reflect a thinking Christian filmmaker's world view for sure, but that can take a lot of different forms. Another thing that bothers me is mediocrity being excused because the artist in question is a "brother" or "sister". If anything, I long for the day when people say, wow that's such a great film or song or painting, that artist must be a Christian. We should be leading the way, but I know this can't happen overnight.

A couple things I do believe though: 1) we are never going to have the quality of art from Christians that we should have if we cut them slack simply because they are Christians and 2) if we hadn't largely abandoned certain aspects of the arts to those with different world views than us we might be further along now. It's a shame more evangelicals read crap like "Left Behind" than Francis Schauffer or any of the other great Christian writers on art. No wonder we're in the state we're in.

There does need to be a strong encouragement to our Christian brothers and sisters who are trying to make it in this difficult art form, but too often we praise films that aren't praiseworthy and attack "Christian" films that fall outside of the average evangelicals comfort zone because of violence, language or whatever. So it's a fine line, but we need to find a way to expect excellence from Christian artists while at the same time showing respect and exhorting them in the good things they are doing.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Only done a quick scan of posts but I can't see any discussion of what constitutes a Christian film other than Nardis' passing comment on genre (in an economic context). For purposes of this discussion, are you creating a new genre? And if so, does the genre consist of filmic elements? Or are you talking about intent? And if so, is this conversation not redundant?

Big questions that might not have an adequate response. Sorry. I can't help being contrary. Or so I'm told.

Edited by gigi

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Only done a quick scan of posts but I can't see any discussion of what constitutes a Christian film other than Nardis' passing comment on genre (in an economic context). For purposes of this discussion, are you creating a new genre? And if so, does the genre consist of filmic elements? Or are you talking about intent? And if so, is this conversation not redundant?

Big questions that might not have an adequate response. Sorry. I can't help being contrary. Or so I'm told.

It's a fair question, but in this context I would say that "Christian film" would mean a film that has an explicitly Christian agenda - so intent. Or another way to look at it might be to look at who's distributing it. All kinds of distributors can release movies with Christian elements in them, but it's pretty easy to tell which ones are specifically out to make "Christian" films. I'm not sure what you mean by the conversation being redundant though... The question seems to be how to respond to those films that are already self-defined by their makers/distributors as "Christian."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

No time to write a book or anything here, but just a few quick thoughts ...

Many of the discussions around "Christian film" remind me of the discussions around "Canadian film", and vice versa.

As a Canadian, I am very aware of the fact that I sit on the fringe of the American mainstream, and so I am constantly alerted to the existence of Canadian films and told that we need to "support" Canadian films, etc., etc., and sometimes the Canadian films that get the biggest commercial push are among the crappiest Canadian films I have ever seen (e.g., Men with Brooms, Bon Cop Bad Cop). Likewise, as a Christian, I am very aware of the fact that I sit on the fringe of the American mainstream, and so I am constantly alerted to the existence of Christian films and told that we need to "support" Christian films, etc., etc., and sometimes the Christian films that get the biggest commercial push are among the crappiest Christian films I have ever seen (e.g., the Left Behind series).

Also, as a Canadian, I am sometimes inundated with debates over whether Canadian films should try to "cross over" into the American mainstream; and likewise, as a Christian, I am sometimes inundated with debates over whether Christian films should try to "cross over" into the American mainstream.

To all of this, all I can say is that I value films that are grounded in particulars but open to universals, and ideally that would mean a film that may have a special appeal to some "niche" or other, but is also truthful and insightful in a way that can draw me out of my niche (and perhaps draw others to a better understanding of my niche). And that applies equally whether my "niche" is that of a Canadian or that of a Christian. (Oh, the joy I felt a few years ago, when everyone wanted to talk about The Barbarian Invasions -- the first Canadian film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. That film is VERY Canadian, yet it also taps into much deeper, and much more universal, aspects of the human experience.)

So yes, please, let us praise excellence.

But let us also tread gently where filmmakers are still finding their footing.

A movie like Thr3e has enough longtime professionals involved -- such as producer Ralph Winter and certain actors -- that I don't think we need to worry about kid gloves there. Likewise, I would argue, The Last Sin Eater, which also has its share of industry pros. (Question: One of the producers of that film was a producer on Touched by an Angel. Was Touched by an Angel a "Christian" show? Should we treat The Last Sin Eater any differently than we might have treated that show? I ask this as one who never saw Touched by an Angel and thus have no critique to make of it one way or the other.) And when one of the Crouches can throw tens of millions of dollars at a movie (be it Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 or One Night with the King), I don't think it matters much whether the actual writing or directing is done by veterans or amateurs -- the very production itself is built on the assumption that talent and creativity can be bought, and if it isn't actually in evidence onscreen, we need to point that out, possibly even ruthlessly, lest we fall into the trap of praising a film for being oh-so-expensive.

But a movie like Facing the Giants ... ah, that is a different story. Once you know that that movie was produced for only $98,000 by a bunch of amateurs at some church (with much of the budget going to a few pros on the technical side of things), I think it would be impossible to come away from that film without being at least SOMEWHAT impressed. Yes, by all means, let us critique the writing -- pointing out its cons as well as its pros. But let us try to do so in a constructive, encouraging way.

The director of that film told me that everything depicted in his film had actually happened to someone in his church. Great, I have no reason to doubt that. But the film is not a documentary; as the director himself admitted, he had to re-arrange things chronologically to fit them into the structure of his movie -- and beyond that, of course, he had to select which elements to include in the movie and which elements to leave out. So we could certainly ask him why he chose so many stories or subplots that end in triumph. What about a film that ends more open-endedly? -- a film that leaves some things unresolved, and invites us to ask where WE would go from there? (What sort of impact would the story of the Prodigal Son have had if it had ended with Jesus telling us HOW the elder brother responded to his father's plea?)

As I was pondering my review of The Last Sin Eater, I toyed with the idea of mentioning that my mother's cousin had died at the age of two in an accident of the sort that one hears about in rustic frontier towns. (This accident took place in a Mennonite village in Paraguay.) And I toyed with mentioning that my mother's cousin had said, shortly before dying, that she saw an angel. For that matter, my grandmother has said that she saw ... something like that ... at a very trying point in her life, back when she still lived in Ukraine. So I would never, ever go after a film simply because it happens to show an angelic visitation, even a vistation to a young girl who has lost her sister, which is what happens in The Last Sin Eater. I do think we as Christians have to be a little more open to that sort of thing than some of secular compatriots might be.

I am reminded of a comment that Ron Reed made at his blog recently, about how the Jewish film Ushpizin is sometimes described by secular critics as a "fairy tale" or a "fable"; as Christian critics, I don't think we can be so dismissive. (Or am I being too dismissive of those secular critics when I say that they are being at least somewhat dismissive?)

But my main beef with The Last Sin Eater was that it raised this very interesting subject -- namely the practice of "sin eating" -- and then didn't seem very interested in it, beyond its capacity to be "just another set-up for an evangelical punchline."

Obviously, I have no problem with something being put into a film in order to "set up" something else down the road -- that's just good plotting. And I don't even have a problem with evangelical messages -- though if we reduce them to punchlines, we commit a sin against good drama and good evangelism. (How does that old joke go, about Christian movies being just like porno movies? Bad writing, bad acting, and you always know how it's going to end. Something like that.) It's the "just another" part of my quote that everything else hinges on.

We need to take an interest in characters and situations FOR THEIR OWN SAKE. We need to become compassionate, other-centred, willing to step out of our own ghettoes and our own skins, so that we can experience what it's like to live in someone else's shoes for a while. This is why I am uncomfortable with the dichotomy between "form" and "content" that sometimes comes up in these discussions. Looking for "excellence" in Christian films surely means more than looking for good lighting, editing, music, etc.

The Last Sin Eater erred in two ways, I think, and I alluded to both of these ways in my review, though perhaps not as well as I could have. On the one hand, it erred by showing very little interest in the phenomenon of "sin eating", beyond its ability to set up the evangelistic message that comes about halfway through the movie. On the other hand, it also erred by linking the phenomenon of "sin eating" to a rather extreme sort of back-story in which we learn that this Welsh immigrant community living in the Appalachians once slaughtered an entire tribe of Native Americans -- and THEN, after the community's leader died, his son contrived to have another member of the community selected as a "sin eater" so that the leader's son could have a chance of stealing the "sin eater's" girlfriend away from him.

So, as I see it (and feel free to argue with me), the phenomenon of "sin eating" is trivialized and reduced to the level of a plot device in a romance novel, and it is connected to a genocidal sin that virtually no one in the audience will feel any connection to. No one will see this movie and think, "Oh yeah, I know what this is about, my sins are so equally bad that I too feel the need for someone to take my sins away," etc., etc. It is more likely that people will think, "Yeah, THEY sure need to have THEIR sins forgiven, don't they." Instead of INVOLVING us in the process of guilt and redemption, the film DISTANCES us from it -- which surely must work against the film's stated aim of evangelizing people. (It doesn't help that this back-story comes up pretty much only in the last half-hour or so, so it might disorient some people who have stuck with the film this far.)

(I suppose someone might argue that the genocidal back-story DOES tap into some sort of collective American guilt over the nation's treatment of Native Americans, and that's certainly possible. But I wonder what sort of back-story this movie would have had if it were set in 19th-century Wales and not among 19th-century Welsh immigrants to America? Why did this thing called "sin eating" begin over there in the British Isles in the FIRST place? Did it exist among immigrants to America who did NOT have a history of genocide?)

It's the journey, not the destination, that counts. We know that, where Christian films are concerned, all roads will lead to Jesus. But that doesn't mean we can't take the occasional scenic route, or that the bus can't let us off a few stops early to let us walk the rest of the way on our own.

- - -

Incidentally, the radio host who went ballistic this past week recently quoted the following paragraph from the New York Times's review of The Last Sin Eater at his website (the bold parts were bolded at his website):

The resulting "Ordinary People"-style expiation of guilt is so affectingly performed by Ms. Forbes and Mr. Thomas that the rest of the story, a blunt and rather prosaic Christian allegory, feels like a redundant epilogue. But since the movie is a big-screen Sunday school story with sumptuous scenery, graceful crane shots and Rembrandt lighting --
designed mainly to impart and then repeat wisdom about guilt, sin and redemption -- this can't really be considered a flaw.

I find this pretty funny, myself. The website puts "this can't really be considered a flaw" in bold -- and to what does "this" refer? Why, to "the rest of the story, a blunt and rather prosaic Christian allegory, feels like a redundant epilogue", of course. So, "blunt", "prosaic", and "redundant" can't be considered "flaws" because ... why? Because evangelistic art is by definition never mediocre? Give me a break.

Oh, and "redundancy" is apparently okay if the whole POINT of a film is to "repeat" itself?

I would respect the New York Times review a bit more, BTW, if it didn't have a couple of glaring errors (and in a review that's only 219 words long, "a couple" of glaring errors is kind of a lot). One glaring error is minor, i.e. saying that a role is "performed by Ms. Forbes" when, in fact, Forbes is the CHARACTER'S name, not the actor's. But the other glaring error is kinda big, i.e. when the review refers to "her village's sin eater (Henry Thomas)". Um, the Sin Eater is played by someone else. Henry Thomas, of E.T. fame, plays the Man of God. This suggests to me that the writer of the New York Times review wasn't paying very close attention -- even for a review that is barely more than 200 words.

So the review basically says, "I wasn't paying very close attention, but the film does have some flaws, but the target audience won't care because it all looks rather pretty and they like to be preached to."

If that's the sort of "positive" review people want ...

Well, let's just say that on THIS level, I agree that Christian critics should not write like secular critics.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Should Christians give extra slack to Christian movies that are less than excellent examples of the craft? Or should we always give at least three stars to movies that "preach" the gospel?

No.

Is a Christian being "anti-evangelical" if he gives one star to a movie about Christianity made by Christians?

Only if he did so BECAUSE he is opposed to films which are intrinsically evengelical.

Should preachy movies be embraced as expressions of evangelical conviction? Or should the terms "preachy" and "movies" remain mutually exclusive?

I consider "preachy" an automatic put-down. So by default, ALL "preachy" movies suck and not worthy of anyone's embrace.

Is there a place for altar-call moviemaking, and if so, what is that place? Should those films be subjected to critical assessment of aesthetics and storytelling and performance?

I have no problem with a Sunday morning sermon being preached by a live pastor up at the pulpit in a church. I also have no problem with an old-fashioned altar-call immediately following. If one or two souls get saved that morning, well then Hallelujah, the angels are rejoicing.

But I do indeed have a problem with a pastor spending two million dollars of God's money on props and costumes and sound and lighting equipment to accompany that Sunday morning sermon of his. If one or two souls get saved that morning, while I do appreciate the eternal value of their salvation, I still feel that was a very costly redirecting of money that could have been used to feed and clothe and shelter the homeless, or buy some used cars for a lot of single moms, or pay for medical needs of many a destitute family. But if NO ONE gets saved that morning IN SPITE OF all that stuff and nonsense, then it was a collosal and shameless waste. Perhaps a few already-saved people were blessed or touched, but we who already have the Promise don't need to blow two million dollars on our own private entertainment, while local families go without healthcare.

Should it make a difference to us if the film was made by a Christian or not?

A film is not a sermon and a sermon is not a film. But I suspect that a lot of behind-the-scenes meddling takes place whenever a Christian film gets made. The kind of meddling where some wise old preacher from yesteryear is either one of the executive producers, or else sits on some "committee" (and we have all heard stories about secular films that die in committee or are re-written by committee). And this old codger tries to apply Hermeneutical and Homiletical principles to his assessment of the film's worth. But Hermeneutics and Homiletics are NOT sciences that lend well to good filmmaking. Just like a lot of rookie filmmakers try to make a stage play into a film, or else try to make a novel into a film, or even a radio script into a film, these well-meaning gentlemen try to coerce the director into making a three-point sermon into a film. And the translation between those two realms just doesn't work.

In a sermon, you are supposed to be as clear and on-the-nose as possible. That's good Homiletics. But in a film, that's the kiss of death. And these "committees" just don't have a clue about how misguided they are when they force a filmmaker to do it their way.

A film is an art form. And it has been officially declared the most expensive art form in the world. I have little tolerance for poorly preached sermons, and equally little tolerance for poorly made films. The greater and more tragic loss of a poorly made film is that it's a waste of money, and an insult to the art form itself.

When does criticizing a Christian filmmaker stop being constructive and turn into something detrimental and "mean"?

When it's "mean."

I find many film critics to be insufferably self-important and go out of their way to weave clever insults and put-downs into their reviews. They're less concerned with either informing the filmmaker about the movie's flaws or advising the public about the film than they are with seeing how clever they can be in their word choices and phrasings. They're writing for their own enjoyment, not as a service to the public.

Ebert is my favorite critic. He feels the proper role of the critic is to be "the ideal viewer" who sits in the audience as a proxy for thousands or even millions of people who will read his review to decide whether or not to spend ten bucks a head on the movie. And when he writes a review, he writes it as a service to those potential viewers/ticket buyers, not as a personal exercise in his own ability to be witty.

What's the difference between constructive criticism of a work and "slamming" a filmmaker?

See above.

I ask this, mind you, because in my work as a reviewer I want to do what is right and good. I am motivated, for what it's worth, by evangelical conviction. I have no doubt that I have things to learn about that. And so I'm listening.

Rex Reed is perhaps the most insufferably arrogant critic out there. Ebert is perhaps the most human. Set those two guys at opposite ends of the bell curve, and then work from there.

So, in the interest of celebrating the privilege of art, and to explore whether or not Christian filmmakers should be held to the same standards of excellence as any other artist, let's discuss these issues.

It is a crucial conversation, the crux of what concerns the folks here at Arts and Faith: the difference between proselytizing and art, between preaching and poetry, between 'delivering a gospel message' through argument, and 'manifesting the truth of the gospel in art' (which is about excellence in form as much truth in content).

As soon as a preacher steps down fro the pulpit and takes off his two-piece suit, and instead puts on a pair of riding breeches and a French beret and sits himself down in a canvas folding chair, he is now no longer a preacher, he's a film director. And he will be judged by an entirely different set of standards, governing an entirely different sphere of human communication.

He has just changed offices.

Romans 12: 6-8

6We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his[b]faith. 7If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

I Cor 12: 27-28:

27Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.

The office of filmmaker is NOT the same as the office of preacher. It has totally different guidelines governing it. He WILL be judged accordingly. My advcie to him: "Study to show thyself approved."

Which films deal with the gospel in an exemplary fashion?

I rarely ever go to see Christian cinema. So I can't comment here.

Which films don't, and can we, in good conscience, graciously discuss where they go wrong?

We can and we must. But might I suggest the following: privately contact the filmmaker ahead of time and tell him you're planning to give his or her film a bad review (albeit a kindly worded bad review, in the spirit of Ebert and NOT Reed). That might prove disastrous. But maybe he or she will appreciate it.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

I don't have much to add to add to the thoughtfull comments already posted. I'll just say that as a Christian film lover who is not a professional critic, I've found myself in some awkward conversations with other Christians about movies. When Facing the Giants came out and my fellow church goers raved about it I just tried to be polite. It obviously gave people comfort, etc. but it was not profound, well made cinema. I'm usually at a loss for how to engage other Christians on the subject without feeling like a snob.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

No time to write a book or anything here, but just a few quick thoughts ...

Peter, that was beautiful. If I weren't a fan of yours already, that would do the trick.

Any you are correct, the NYT review should be far more offensive and patronizing to Christians than yours.

regards,

-Lance

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

I'll just say that as a Christian film lover who is not a professional critic, I've found myself in some awkward conversations with other Christians about movies. When Facing the Giants came out and my fellow church goers raved about it I just tried to be polite. It obviously gave people comfort, etc. but it was not profound, well made cinema.

And on the flip side (sorta, because I'm not a professional critic, either), I had mentioned "Daniel" in Jesus of Montreal as an interesting example of a "Christ-figure" in an adult Sunday school class, only to have one of the members collar me a few weeks later to complain that the film had been unsuitable for their teenage children because of nudity and profanity. Um--sorry? It's rated R--what was she expecting?--and I had been talking to an audience of people over 35. Why did I assume that they would think any film mentioned was suitable for all ages? Oh--because it was Sunday school! Interestingly, she and her family had loved To End All Wars, which is also rated R & liberally sprinkled with four-letter-words. Maybe they sound better with Scots accents.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

I wonder if Chris Utz is following this thread and if he sees a parallel in how he would review Arican American films. Does he give special treatment to Norbit? I won't deny that he might see that film differently than we do. But would that (as is mentioned above) result in him being easier or harder on the film?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

I reply as a Christian and as a personal friend to many here. I tried my hand at reviewing, and found out that you guys are awesome at what you do. I don’t know where you come up with the time, but what you do is appreciated, and this specific topic is critical to your very important job.

The following are my own beliefs based on my work with various labels as a musician, my seven years experience as a (paid) leader in an evangelical church, and my observation of how art and faith intersected years ago, and how the two intersect now.

Tarkovsky and Kieslowski didn’t have a Family Christian Bookstore, which would deliver their films via Foxfaith, Zondervan, et al. Both Family Christian and Zondervan may have had good intentions in their humble beginnings, but are now at the stage of turning Christianity into a formulaic self-help at best, a capitalist Big Business enterprise at worst. I don’t know the intentions of Foxfaith, but I see it as an enterprise fixed on using the momentum of Christian distributors to its own advantage.

How you review a “Christian” film doesn’t depend on the film itself and the people behind it. It depends on the choices they make for distribution. If they choose to go through all the so-called Christian labels, if they choose to have it available in your local Christian bookstore, then it isn’t art, it is part of a machine that has usurped the word CHRISTIAN and run it amuck. These films, IMO, are not worthy of review. They have taken the easy road and grabbed the Church’s dollars rather than put their story, their thoughts and ideas, in the real world, where most of the time it would never survive.

Might a clip from that film be of use in a Sunday morning sermon? Certainly. Might that film find its place in the heart of a family that attends church and calls itself Christian? Sure. And I don’t have a problem with that. But Jeffrey asks what should be taken into account when reviewing a film, and unless you are only reviewing films made by companies who are marketing to Christians, I ask that you completely ignore these productions.

POTC, much as it made me cry, much as it made me realize what Christ has done for me, in retrospect, seemed to carry a lot of baggage with it. Mr. Gibson put his own money forward in an attempt to create the crucifixion experience for viewers. It was an incredible thing that he did, but Big Business only noticed the ($$) results. They see a potential – they see a market. And if Christianity is only seen as a market, I want to know who is doing the marketing, and why “Christian” thoughts are so easily represented. When we are only seen as a target market the power has left the reality of our faith. We are seen as parrots that only mimic the phrases. The words are dead because the reality of the words has been left behind. Big Business knows the words as well as we do. Big Business derives its doe from the loss of individual Christian thinking/experience.

Jeffrey, Peter, SDG, Greg Wright, (m), and more – I don’t know how much say you have in the reviews you write, but I ask you to make this point clear to the people above you. Review films that go about things the hard way; films that rely on the strength of their craft, rather than films that use catch phrases that define Christianity for its known emotions, instead of its unstoppable, regenerative power.

Most of the films that remind me of Christianity's "unstoppable, regenerative power," have been made by non-Christians, FWIW.

-s.

Edited by stef

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Hey, I'm new here, I found this fourm through the Looking Closer journal. Ironically, I was doing research for a podcast that my friend and I are planning on starting, a weekly show that discusses Christian movies from a critical perspective.

Our impeteous is that almost every "christian" movie we've ever seen was fairly awful and wouldn't have been given the time of day if it wasn't "christian." So we're going to review new and classic christian movies with the same perspective that we would view secular films. Example: I hated Daredevil, and it was far better than almost every christian film I have seen. We have both seen lots of christian films due to our backgrounds, having both attended private chrisitan schools and grown up in strongly christian families.

In my opinion, Chrisitan movie viewers give far too much leeway to bad films if they are christian. All you have to do is go to any christian bookstore and see what they have for sale. Tons of garbage! On of the real tests in Christian music seems to be the "crossover" appeal to secular audiences. Well, by that standard, how many chrisitan filmmakers have crossover appeal? The Big Idea people, who got killed by poor budgeting? That's the only one I can think of.

I like the look of this forum and will try to post fairly regulary. I'll update with info about the podcast when we record our first episode, scheduled now for next Friday, March 2.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Our impeteous is that almost every "christian" movie we've ever seen was fairly awful and wouldn't have been given the time of day if it wasn't "christian."

Yo Bobbin,

Who is the intended audience for your podcast? I'm sorry, but it sounds as though you have your mind made up about how you're going to treat the whole genre of "Christian film" (however you define it), so your listeners know what you'll say before you open your mouths. So why should they listen? Do you intend to go through, say, the whole Billy Graham/World Wide Pictures back catalog, just so you can give presumptively negative new reviews to films that are 25 years old? What's the point? Why bother?

A while back we had a thread about some blog that exists for the sole purpose of publishing negative reviews of recent CCM. I looked at a few of the reviews. It was about as entertaining and informative as watching someone shoot fish in a barrel. That blog may still exist, but I can't bring myself to care about it enough to go and find it.

[uPDATE: OK, maybe I *can* bring myself to care enough. It's amazing what you can care about if you give it some effort. Here's the CCM Patrol site, and here's our thread discussing it. Note that David, the site owner, hasn't touched the site in four months; maybe he found something better to do.]

When I hear someone dismiss a whole genre or category of something, I figure I can just give my mind a little vacation while he ticks off specific examples. If I meet a guy who says "Impressionist art sucks," I really don't need to pay too much attention to his specific comments about the different types & amounts of suckage he attributes to Monet, Manet, Sisley, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh et al. Having dismissed them as a group, he needn't dismiss them again individually.

So, if your podcast is just going to be a bashfest, I suggest you reconsider the whole undertaking. There must be some more constructive thing you can do with your talent and energy.

I said it in that CCM Patrol thread, but it bears repeating here: Christian journalists, including film reviewers, should strive for excellence in their journalism, especially insofar as they're going to expect Christian filmmakers to strive for excellence in their filmmaking. Truthfulness and plain speech are Christian ideals, but so are humility, kindness, and gentleness. Those are just some of the balls that a Christian film reviewer has to keep from hitting the ground.

Edited by mrmando

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0