Too often Christian movies follow the same pattern: a mildly interesting story with two-dimensional characters reciting faith-centric messages.
If that’s the best that art by believers can offer, we’re in real trouble.
The success of movies recent Christian movies indicates that there’s a real market for this genre of films. It makes sense that people want to see them; people want to be edified, they want a good message from a movie for once, and they want to know that there are good people making art. Those aren’t bad reasons, but these movies not only aren’t engaging the culture, they’re irrelevant to the very people who need to experience the beauty of the world as we Catholics know it.
Why Are Christian Movies So Bad?
The following three points in relation to Christian films can be translated to other art forms as well.
1. A Christian movie shouldn’t be treated as a good movie just because it’s Christian.
When a Christian film is released, people of faith might support it just to combat the Hollywood smut being shown in the next theater. But what they’re actually saying is that whether or not the film is well executed, it’s automatically better and worthy of attention because it’s Christian. And that’s just absolutely false.
Making a film “Christian” doesn’t baptize it and wash away its artistic sins. It’s not hard to see that the great pieces of art commissioned by the Church over the centuries demanded technical perfection, and technical perfection first. A Pieta sculpted by some random Italian guy with a chisel probably wouldn’t be that inspiring, just because it was a Pieta. Fortunately, Michelangelo was around. Film is relatively new, so we don’t have a long history to reference, but any film made by Catholics should be professional in execution and, more importantly, it should tell an authentic story.
2. Before anything, a movie is a story, not a message.
As we know, Jesus caught a lot of flack for hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors, even from His disciples. But He told them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17). This verse applies so well to film because most “Christian” movies are for, you guessed it, Christians.
It’s true that Christian movies might encourage people to be good upstanding churchgoers by sharing a positive message. That’s a worthy hope, but let’s examine the two assumptions behind it.
The first is that the goal of art is to convince someone of some message. This, however, is not art; this is propaganda. Art is real, it is deep, it is challenging. Propaganda is contrived, thin, and abrasive. Film, as art, should tell a story; it should show us the possibilities of the human soul, both good and bad.
Moreover, stories are not only about messages any more than the faith is only about a message. Both faith and stories, rather, are about people; specifically in a movie, the characters are what we connect with, why we care about the film in the first place. They must be, above all, believable and relatable. In fact, it’s the same–no, more so–with our faith, because for Christians, the message is a person. The Word became flesh. Without Jesus, the faith is nothing.
The second assumption is that the people who need to receive the good message of a Christian film will see it. This is just absurd. Honestly, how many atheists are going to see Heaven Is for Real? How many people not already believing in Heaven went to go see it, and then came out of that movie actually believing in Christ?
Christian film, for the most part, is intended only for the believers from the get-go. That’s not preaching to the choir; that’s a choir droning hymns to itself in an empty church.
If we really want films that can change the culture, we must tell authentic stories and not just spout pulpit platitudes. Authentic stories are the ones that can resonate with an audience and open an avenue for the Holy Spirit and a change of heart.
3. We need Catholic artists, not Catholic art.
So how do we get more movies that edify and uplift us? By encouraging, investing in, and raising up Catholic artists – not the preachy kind, but those who are unafraid to explore both the darkness and the beauty of the human heart. We need to build up artists who can speak to a fallen world, inviting people to experience the many ways that life can be lived and to decide that only the best life is worth living.
To get these kinds of artists, we need people formed by the faith, trained to tell stories, and technically proficient in film. Those are three separate and gigantic endeavors that take a lot of time. Learning these skills doesn’t just mean only watching or creating watched Christian films. That’s like saying a budding architect should only look at and design churches. We need hospitals, too.
The great news is that many of these artists are out there, and some of them are already working together.
Let’s remember that Hollywood isn’t some nebulous force of evil trying to destroy morality; it’s a bunch of people, all with passions, desires, brokenness, and dreams. Many of them are really trying to make a difference. Instead of condemning the entire industry outright, let’s pray for all of the people in it and encourage more Catholics to join their ranks.
If your nephew or friend or daughter wants to go into the film industry, instead of telling them to grow up, give them your old camera. Make them read John Paul II’s Letter to Artists. Tell them about Catholic Creatives so they can meet professionals and aspiring professionals with the same interest. Sit down and watch your favorite movie together.
And, yes, it’s ok if that movie happens to be Heaven is For Real. Just make sure they watch Citizen Kane, too.