Why Christians Shouldn’t See Christian Movies

Here’s one reason:

The glaring problem with God’s Not Dead, and most other films made for and marketed at the “faith audience,” is that instead of exercising and challenging the imagination of their audience in ways that would make their audience better Christians, they shut down imagination and whisper sweet nothings into their ears instead.

God’s Not Dead enlists an army of straw men (the evil atheist professor who will fail a student for refusing to sign a paper agreeing that God is dead, the evil atheist boyfriend who abandons his girlfriend as soon as she announces her terminal illness, the evil Muslim father who kicks his daughter out of the home for converting, the evil liberal ambush journalist with a bumper sticker on her car that reads “I love evolution”) then burns them in effigy. The movie isn’t content to merely convert our main antagonist, effectively forcing him to grovel before his 18-year-old student. It also trots in a deus ex machina and kills him off. (Spoiler, sorry.)

I can look past characters created by writers who have only heard about liberals and secularists on talk radio. But every non-Christian character in the movie, and so many others, “hates God” (direct quote). They believe or hope the Almighty has kicked the can, and do so for deeply personal reasons. They’re all secretly miserable, every last one. I believe in the power of representation enough to know that God’s Not Dead insidiously shapes the imaginations of the audience, especially if their daily lives don’t bring them into contact with people who don’t believe the way they do. And that’s true for many (and not just Christians).

Rarely do I even recognize myself or my family and friends in Christian movie characters. Left Behind, a faith-based film in which virtually all the Christian characters are weirdly portrayed as nutjobs, is a great example. And the God-fearing characters in God’s Not Dead seem like decent people, even if Duck Dynasty’s Willie and Korie Robertson co-star in a dash of ill-conceived product placement. But I believe we’re all in the same strange family of misfits. Which is why I get twitchy with the “faith audience” designation. The implication is that, if you’re not in that audience, you’re… what? The doubt audience? The unbelief audience?

The Coen brothers, however, gave a better reason in their latest, “Hail, Caesar”:

All of this means, however, that the Bible-Blockbuster religion depicted on the screen is going to be in significant ways distinct from actual Christian religion (or, in the relevant parts of Ben-Hur and the whole of the Ten Commandments, from actual Jewish religion). Hollywood owners, executives, and directors can sincerely believe that such Bible-Blockbuster religion is a unifying and salutary thing to portray for the nation, and more importantly, they can know that it is a very profitable thing to portray. But in the Coens’ telling, the problem is that Bible-Blockbuster religion cannot but be deceptive, hypocritical, and at the deepest level, faithless. Many of the key actors and many of the key film-makers will not believe in the relevant actual religions, and any serious believers that are on the set may either disagree with the religion that is being depicted, or disagree with one another about its correct interpretation. On the doctrinal level, it is only going to fully work for those who are in the vague sense believers but who have decided not to look into doctrine or the pages of scripture very much. On the dramatic level, it is going to involve actors, writers, and image-makers imitating a faith that many of them don’t have, and which is itself perhaps impossible to depict.

So the Bible-Blockbuster is going to have to primarily make faith seem to be a matter of melodramatic emotional inspiration, which from another angle, is a matter of manipulation. Hollywood magic, used…well, used for what? Not simply for escapist entertainment, but for more firmly setting the religion of America?

Carl Eric Scott admits that he feels awkward laughing at Jesus through the Coen’s smart alecky ways and tries to answer this here. But if Scott were truly a 2k Protestant, he’d know that he wasn’t laughing at Jesus in “Hail, Caesar.” He was only laughing at Hollywood trying to capitalize on Jesus. And if Alissa Wilkinson watched more Coen Brothers’ movies, she’d know not to go to Christian movies. What’s the point?

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22 thoughts on “Why Christians Shouldn’t See Christian Movies

  1. The ancient “Chariots of Fire” was not just Christian but, yes, I’ll claim it, practically Reformed! [Joseph Fiennes is working on a Part II). And the original ‘Ten Commandments’ *was* manipulative — but that can be done in a good way — and great eye candy. These new films though are actually something quite different — a Tim LayHaye-Kirk Cameron–700 Clubish-ish subset of Christian movies — and in fairness need to be endured as such. If you don’t know that the the lead singer of the title cut used to be the black guy in DCTalk, why in the world did you buy a $12 ticket in the first place?
    And then there are the Catholic ‘Christian’ movies… Anyone still hosting re-vieiwngs of the virtual passion play that was “The Passion” [I wish MG had done a cinematic “Book of Maccabees” before he made himself a pariah] and the thoroughly disturbing “Exorcism of Emily Rose”? (Although The One True Church crowd also has the 97% unentertaining Dorothy Day biopic “Entertaining Angels” to reckon with since her cause for sainthood looms) .
    But I can’t take the disdain of Alyssa Wilkerson, Peter Chattway and Co. too seriously when their critical voices convey the liberal, NPR-like sort of Understanding Parent Knows Best syndrome. The Coen Bros are fine for the crowd who might buy The Great Courses DVDs — or remembers Greek tragedies from high school — but still like their fun. But for a lot of others, bad Christian movies are still weirdly enjoyable moments of distorted cultural identification, and bashing them is a little like bashing Bash ‘n’ The Code or Amy Grant inside the youth room, for heaven’s sake. It’s easy to do, but do we have to? They aren’t surprising the unbelief crowd, just giving them manifested ammo. Which is nothing new or alarming.
    I mean, OK, they kill off the professor. But they DO convert him first. You can’t please everyone.

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  2. Though I do go to these movies, I fully agree with what is said above. A friend of mine had a great word to describe some of the Christian movies out there like God’s Not Dead, she calls the content of the movies ‘Schlock’

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  3. I expect to enjoy Hail Caesar, but I have to confess (gloat?) that I find Life of Brian too sacrelicious to enjoy. (I do love me some Holy Grail though…)

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  4. “God’s Not Dead” offers shallow, arguably dishonest and unflattering stereotypes of unbelievers in a manner that is similar to the way the classic film “Inherit the Wind” offers unflattering, unfair stereotypes of Bible-believing Christians. “Christian” films like God’s Not Dead seem to be aimed at LCDCs (“Lowest Common Denominator Christians” – a designation coined by my son to describe generic evangelicals) who inhabit the insular world of the evangelical ghetto, and who rarely rub shoulders with real-life unbelievers.

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  5. Geoff’s son says: “Lowest Common Denominator Christians”

    The following is a Facebook message sent several months ago to a senior teaching elder in our church with which I have significant disagreement. Depending on the week, we are told from our pulpit that we should be preparing for a fully secular and hostile America OR for transforming the society for Jesus. This drives me nuts. You may appreciate this Geoff.
    ======================================

    What is the gospel and therefore the mission of the church?

    Should we be preparing for a secular America, scrubbed clean of any meaningful public Christian influence?

    Or should we be proceeding under the assumption that the United States is on it’s way to Christian transformation?

    If we really believe that Jesus is coming back soon, that must mean that the tribulation is either RIGHT around the corner or we are in it now. How does that work with taking the nation for Christ? (I haven’t actually changed my mind on this)

    What are the biblical principles governing these vital questions? What one believes those principles are, will dictate their ministry,

    The hermeneutic used in each case includes as part of the package, the methods it is believed God will bless as means to whichever end one embraces as his goal.

    Both can’t be right.

    These are completely different goals, with completely different methods and those working toward each, cannot work very deeply together. The “Mere Christianity” lowest common denominator model of unity, will not carry those embracing it through the coming persecution if the Tim Kellers, Russel Moores and Lifeway publishing houses of the church world are wrong.

    Getting this wrong will be the most astronomical error in church history from an ecclesiastical standpoint. Either way.

    This is what’s at stake in my mind. All I care about is what the truth is here and what do we do next? NEVER has biblical accuracy been more important.

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  6. Zrim: “Geoff, propaganda disguised as art. But what’s more annoying, the propaganda or its consumers? Does it matter?”

    GW: I find aggressive atheists & skeptics who unfairly stereotype all biblical Christians as narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, hypocritical, anti-science, bombastic creeps, to be annoying. Likewise, I find the kind of LCDC Christians who reside in the intellectual bubble of the American evangelical ghetto and who unfairly stereotype all atheists, agnostics, and pretty much any other type of unbeliever, as jerks and bullies hell-bent on stripping Christians of their freedom of religion and basically feeding them to the lions, to be annoying as well. (Granted, real life does unfortunately provide some examples of individuals who fit both stereotypes quite well.) And I find the “propaganda disguised as art” which each side produces to be annoying as well.

    You ask, “Does it matter?” I guess I would have to ask a clarifying question, “Does it matter in what sense?” That I (and others) get annoyed by both the propaganda and the propagandists doesn’t matter one hoot when it comes to the legal constitutional liberties of both sides to believe their stereotypes of others and to produce their propaganda disguised as art. In a 2K world they are certainly free to do so. But it does “matter” in the more basic sense that many, both unbelievers and believers, have learned the all-too-common practice of shallow, bumper-sticker stereotyping and of talking past rather than to the other side. For those of us who profess to be lovers of truth and worshipers of the true and living God who commanded us not to bear false witness, I think this should matter very much.

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  7. GTT: “God’s Not Dead was cinematic blasphemy. I couldn’t get outta there fast enough.”

    GW: “Cheesy” is the first word that comes to my mind, not “blasphemy.” Though I would agree that the shallow, decisionalist theology undergirding the “gospel” in the film, along with the shameless consumerism and Christian celebrity-ism which pervaded the film (the film was basically an advertising plug for the Christian band the “Newsboys” and, a bit more subtly, for the Duck Dynasty series), could probably be described as “blasphemy” of a certain degree.

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  8. Geoff, may I ask, can you elaborate on what you mean by “decisionalist theology”, and, presumably, why that is ‘bad’? (Full disclosure: I’ve not seen the movie, and generally cringe at the thought of the ones in this genre.)

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  9. Petros: “Geoff, may I ask, can you elaborate on what you mean by “decisionalist theology”, and, presumably, why that is ‘bad’?”

    GW: Sure, Petros. By “decisionalism” I am referring to the Arminian (i.e., anti-Calvinist) assumption that man has a totally free will, and can therefore decide to either choose or reject Christ on a whim.

    Combined with revivalism, decisionalism tends to assume that unbelievers can be led to Christ by emotionally-manipulative “new measures” (altar calls; playing 500 stanzas of “Just as I am” playing in the background with all heads bowed and all eyes closed; exposing unbelievers to cool Christian groups like the Newsboys; the use of Christian celebrities; heart-wrenching drama; etc.). Such unbiblical gimmicks are believed to have the power to move the wills of unbelievers to exercise saving faith in Christ; for, after all, if the will is totally free and capable of choosing Christ, then gimmicks which can move the will to choose temporal, earthly products (such as the use of advertising gimmicks to move potential customers to buy a product), may therefore be similarly employed for spiritual purposes in moving the will to choose Christ.

    Contrary to decisionalism and the revivalistic gimmicks it has spawned, the Reformers (in line with the teachings of Scripture) taught that the will of unregenerate man is in bondage to sin, and incapable of choosing any spiritual good. That is why regeneration must precede saving faith. Only this position consistently upholds the biblical teaching on grace — namely, that salvation is not of him who wills nor of him who runs (i.e., works), but of God who shows mercy. (I.E., God decides for us before we decide for Him; we love Him because He first loved us.)

    But, contrary to the Divine monergism taught in Scripture, in decisionalism you are not born again until you believe. That is the theology that I believe strongly undergirds the “God’s Not Dead” franchise, and most other Christian artistic productions today, such as those in the realm of music and film.

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  10. Geoff, thanks. Can you further elaborate if you intended there to be a distinction between (adverb alert) “totally free will”, as opposed to merely “free will”? Then, in light of the Calvinist assumption that man does not have a totally free will, what role (if any), do you think a believer has in offering/challenging an unbeliever to respond to the gospel? And relatedly, what personal responsibility (if any) does an unbeliever have to respond to the gospel?

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  11. Petros: “Can you further elaborate if you intended there to be a distinction between (adverb alert) “totally free will”, as opposed to merely “free will”?”

    GW: “Totally free will” = an autonomous free will, a will unconstrained by the spiritual state of one’s heart and the desires & inclinations which arise from that spiritual state. “Free will” (i.e., the biblical kind) = The ability to do what one desires to do. The unregenerate, who are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), desire to sin and to reject Christ; by the work of the Holy Spirit the regenerate desire to trust Christ and pursue righteousness.

    Petros: “Then, in light of the Calvinist assumption that man does not have a totally free will, what role (if any), do you think a believer has in offering/challenging an unbeliever to respond to the gospel?”

    GW: Believers are called to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them to everyone who asks, and to confess Christ before others. Evangelists and Ministers of the Word are to indiscriminately call all men to repentance and faith, for all are responsible before God to repent and believe. (Inability on the part of the unregenerate does not negate their responsibility before God.) It is through the general call of the gospel (which goes out to all who hear the gospel and is seriously meant) that God effectually calls His elect unto saving faith.

    Petros: “And relatedly, what personal responsibility (if any) does an unbeliever have to respond to the gospel?”

    GW: All who hear the gospel are responsible before God to repent and believe the good news. Only the elect are enabled to do so. Again, inability does not negate responsibility. All unbelievers who are confronted with the gospel have a personal responsibility before their Creator to respond positively to the gospel call.

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  12. Thanks, Geoff. Appreciate your time. Your last paragraph about how “inability does not negate responsibility” is a bit problematic, but no need for us to go down that rabbit hole now. Thx.

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  13. Christian fiction didn’t used to be this bad though. Unfortunately it is doing sterling work making us look bad to people who don’t need any help thinking ill of us.

    We’re suffering from an alienation of the intellective and incensive parts of the soul. The Bible and older Christian fiction (and it doesn’t have to be much older) show a deep understanding of human nature that absolutely tracks with personal experience. They get humanity right because great pains are taken to understand the deep desires and fears of the human soul.

    I’ve been saying for years that the more bookish Christians are going to trend Catholic or Calvinist (with a few here and there going EasternOrthodox or conservative Anglican) because they seem to be the only denominations going with an interest in intellectual development. A big part of this is understanding the human heart.

    Modern Christian fiction doesn’t address my mind or my heart really, it can be such a nullity. It’s like they are allergic to getting past the “happy clappy”. I believe we still need a “hate the sin love the sinner” attitude. The people who are fans of these movies are usually so starved for stories that aren’t actively hostile to their faith they put up with a lot, not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t know any better and no one is telling them anything.

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