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How should a Christian review a "Christian movie"?

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#1 Overstreet

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Posted 19 February 2007 - 04:48 PM

[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.



#2 Overstreet

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Posted 19 February 2007 - 04:59 PM


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)?

#3 Spoon

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Posted 19 February 2007 - 05:20 PM

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.


#4 Overstreet

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Posted 19 February 2007 - 05:45 PM

Spoon said:
QUOTE(Spoon @ Feb 19 2007, 02:20 PM) View 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.


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."


#5 Spoon

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Posted 19 February 2007 - 07:48 PM

QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 05:45 PM) View 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.



#6 Darrel Manson

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Posted 19 February 2007 - 09:39 PM

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.


#7 Denny Wayman

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 03:20 AM

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, usually one of anger, toward a person who is perceived as being a part of our social group, in this instance a Christian, and yet they behave in a way that we feel violates our groups norms. Durkeim said it:

QUOTE
Human society is created and renewed by the intense arousal that occurs in gatherings and assemblies. Mechanical solidarity is maintained by an instinctive emotional reaction (choler) to the violation of collective sentiments.


So, rather than being overly permissive and winking at poor cinema when it is done by a "fellow" Christian, people who are Christians and feel passionate about film (like those of us on this board) are just as likely (and perhaps more likely) to be overly reactive in a negative way when the film is made by a Christian about Christian themes and violates our groups sentiment about what constitutes excellent cinema.

But that is only where it begins.

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 McLuhans insight that medium and message on inextricably bound together, we recognize that we need to rate a film as a whole.

That is perhaps the best argument and the worst. The best in that Gods story should be told with excellence and if the editing, camera work, lighting, and acting are not excellent, then we either have a choler reaction and let our brother know he has failed us, or we have a thoughtful and insightful criticism describing how the quality of the film has failed to meld with the excellence of the message, thus undermining the very evangelistic/educational/informative goal of the Christian film.

However, it also the worst argument because it seems to be a biblical principle that when it comes to how God communicates his message, he often uses the most unlikely human messengers. It is often in their weakness that God is glorified. In fact, you could almost say that God goes out of his way to use the most common among us to communicate the most profound of truths so there is no confusion as to Who is speaking.

On the other hand, aesthetic responses to religious music, art, poetry, preaching has always been a tricky business. A person can be moved by the excellence of the music of Handels messiah, for example, and want nothing to do with the Messiah Himself. Or we can enter a beautiful cathedral and have the hairs on the back of our neck stand up from the beauty and mistakenly think our aesthetic reaction is a spiritual experience. But, then, how does one separate the two? God who created the beauty of the heavens and the earth clearly wants such living art to cause us to lift our heads to the Artist.

I would end this post by just pointing out what I have in the past that there is a thing called Choice Shift where people in one group begin to reinforce one another in their opinions, such that their opinions become increasingly shifted to a more extreme position. That is why free exchange of opposing ideas keeps a group from becoming extremists.

I say all of that to say, we are about a very complex process. That is why Ive decided, as a Christian to comment on film rather than review films. In my opinion the thing that ultimately matters is what kind of people we are after viewing a film, as a whole, medium and message. Are we more or less likely to Love Jesus and Love Others, including Loving our Enemies, or not?

Denny

Edited by Denny Wayman, 20 February 2007 - 03:23 AM.


#8 MattP

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 04:09 AM

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.

#9 M. Leary

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 04:43 AM

QUOTE(Denny Wayman @ Feb 20 2007, 04:20 AM) View 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 McLuhans insight that medium and message on inextricably bound together, we recognize that we need to rate a film as a whole.


Thanks for invoking McLuhan, that is really helpful. And I like the way you have reasoned through the rest of the post as well, especially regarding the way we evaluate what God uses to communicate to other people. But pragmatically, I wonder if your second point actually balances out your first point. What if a Christian critic feels called to the professional criticism of art and film as a way of celebrating and articulating a transformational Christian aesthetic. Then capitulating to an awfully mediocre "Christian film" because a "brother" has made it would completely contradict this calling. That's a rock and a hard place, both rock and hard place being connected to competing ministerial concerns.

I suppose there is a way that a Christian critic could be intentionally constructive towards such a director, attempting to channel this director's efforts a different direction, helping him to notice areas in which his craft needs practice. Ultimately, a review (even personal contact) between a Christian critic and Christian director could lead to more successful filmmaking in the future. That symbiosis between critic and director is something that needs to happen in the "Christian film industry," but doesn't. And it probably won't.

But in the long run, which is more important? Risking one's critical integrity to give three stars to a poor film because we may be ideologically attuned to it? In this situation I would be resolute about what is at stake in Christian film criticism, it cheapens both theology and grace to pretend bad films about the gospel are worth the money spent on them. Not only does JO's hypothetical film sound like a sermon, it sounds like a bad sermon.

#10 MattP

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 11:51 AM

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.
QUOTE
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.

QUOTE
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.

QUOTE
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.

QUOTE
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.

QUOTE
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, 20 February 2007 - 11:53 AM.


#11 Overstreet

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 12:07 PM

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.

#12 MattP

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 12:16 PM

QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 20 2007, 09:07 AM) View 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...

#13 Denny Wayman

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 03:40 PM

QUOTE(popechild @ Feb 20 2007, 10:51 AM) View Post
QUOTE
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:
QUOTE
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 an unusual problem in many films today.


As to films that present the gospel my favorite is Spitfire Grill. However I would put many films in that category, especially some of the classics like Hugo's Les Miserables.

Denny

#14 skills0

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 05:11 PM

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.

#15 gigi

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 06:04 PM

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, 20 February 2007 - 06:06 PM.


#16 MattP

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 09:35 PM

QUOTE(gigi @ Feb 20 2007, 03:04 PM) View 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."

#17 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 21 February 2007 - 04:37 AM

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.

#18 Plot Device

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Posted 21 February 2007 - 04:07 PM

QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View 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.

QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View Post
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.


QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View Post
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.




QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View Post
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.


QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View Post
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.


QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View Post
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.


QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View Post
What's the difference between constructive criticism of a work and "slamming" a filmmaker?


See above.

QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View Post
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.


QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View Post
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."



QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View Post
Which films deal with the gospel in an exemplary fashion?


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

QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Feb 19 2007, 04:48 PM) View Post
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.

#19 Backrow Baptist

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Posted 21 February 2007 - 09:26 PM

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.

#20 Lance McLain

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Posted 21 February 2007 - 09:35 PM

QUOTE(Peter T Chattaway @ Feb 21 2007, 04:37 AM) View 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





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