Christian Media

Why Bad Christian Movies Might Be a Good Thing

There’s a natural evolution when it comes to innovation. The first prototypes of a product, media project, or any creative endeavor are rarely perfect, and usually fatally flawed. But part of the development process is working through the bad stuff in order to get to what actually works. The airplane, the mobile phone, the personal computer – nearly all products we love and value went through a maddeningly convoluted process on it’s way to what we experience today. Which brings me to the deluge of recent “Christian” movies – which for the most part, I admit are pretty awful.

In the 70’s and 80’s, movies with Christian themes were occasionally done by Hollywood studios, and the rest were produced by big organizations like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Later, the Jesus Film Project jumped in, and eventually some independent producers. But today, it appears every church in America is in the movie business. At the National Religious Broadcasters Convention – which focuses mostly on broadcast radio and TV – you can’t miss the booths, brochures, and trailers for a rash of new, low budget Christian movies.

But the truth is, although I applaud any effort to actually mount a feature film, the vast majority are still pretty amateurish. However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. As I sit here looking over the promotional material for a number of these films, I’m hoping we’re in the same place the cell phone was 20 years ago – rough, but on a direct route to we see today.

So I’m suggesting we offer these young producers a little grace, and give them some time to work through the bugs and develop their talent. After all, most of them are dealing with minuscule budgets. Certainly, any less than excellent movie, TV program, or other creative content doesn’t help us influence the culture. But at the same time, the secular media business has it’s share of clunkers.

We can only hope that after a few years of suffering through so many duds, we’ll eventually set a higher bar, where the vast majority of movies made by Christians are worth sharing.

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  1. As we learned at this year’s Oscars, it’s all about the story. Let me repeat, it’s all about the story. Get that right first and maybe, just maybe, the film that does it justice will follow.

  2. Agreed, the biggest problem I have seen in indie films in general, let alone Christian films, is lack of story and too large of scope. Indie Filmmakers need to produce projects that meet their budget. Whether its $5,000,000 or $5,000, quality film can be produced with the right amount of story and creativity. Stop over-reaching and let an indie film be what it is. The world will respect you more for it.

  3. Today I just read a Relevant magazine article by Michael Gungor titled “The Problem with Christian Art” and he shared the root issue of the matter, “If you want to glorify God with you work, I don’t recommend trying to be a ‘Christian artist.’ Instead, be a good Christian. And be a good artist.”

    Being a good Christian doesn’t automatically make you a good artist.

    You’re not a good Christian baker because you only bake communion wafers and cross-shaped donuts. You’re a good Christian baker because while working for the Lord and not for men, your pastries happen to be delicious due to your attention to fine tuning your craft.

    Same for any craft. If you’re a Christ follower then He inspires you to be the best you can be so you sweat and you bleed until you get your craft right. Then your product glorifies God in it’s quality and dedication you took to make that a good product. You have delicious Christian pastries because you made yourself into a great baker.

    You can’t have good Christian movies unless you have good Christian film makers.

    1. Right! Consider a film that won two Oscars… It is never recommended from the pulpit… because the story line came from an author with a big mindscape of a story… Elmer Gantry.

      Would a Christian organization make a film that exposes its own hypocrisy?

      The end of the movie features Elmer Gantry being offered a big-shot ministry position. He says when he was a child… he would go, in essence, for such a FOOLISH THING… but that he had grown up and out, so declined.

      Would a Christian organization, busy in success of doing the same foolish things Elmer in the movie could see the hypocrisy-it-was-doing… make a film that suggested a way up and out from childishness?

  4. good word Phil, let’s cut some slack for these guys, and figure out ways to encourage them to make and market better stories. i personally want to find ways to help these filmmakers find better tools in storytelling, and make better choices. but no doubt, their hearts are in the right place.

    as others have said, it all starts with the story. just tell the story, and don’t try to do too much.

  5. I’ve seen two “Christian films” that I actually liked – The Imposter with the guy from DC Talk (not to be confused with the excellent documentary from last year with the same name), and a psycho thriller called Dangerous Calling which was ludicrous but actually quite fun.

    The rest are generally mediocre at best, toe-curlingly dreadful at worst.

    I have a fundamental problem with the notion of a “Christian film”. Someone else commented that it’s better to be a Christian and an artist, not a Christian artist. I heartily agree. If you study your craft and strive for excellence, your worldview will be inherent in your work. This is a much better way of working rather than self-consciously striving to preach a message.

  6. I heartily applaud encouraging young film-makers in developing their craft. This takes time. It would be rare that any artist would create a masterpiece in their first, second or tenth try. To this extent, cutting an artist some slack while they hone their craft, are trusted over time with higher budget projects and mature as a story-teller will benefit not only the artist, but the audience and by extension the culture.

    I would not however cut any artist slack because they were a Christian, or because their artistic attempt had Christian themes. I am not suggesting Phil that you would either, but your blog post does not address why it is that Christians as a demographic group tend to accept subpar artistic attempts, especially when the mediocre product is produced by an artist who has made a confession of faith or if the product has Christian themes.

    Also not stated in your post is that among the young artists trying to get their product noticed at conventions like NRB there are also throngs of “media professionals” who have been hawking their own version of “Jesus junk” for many years. The majority of subpar product is not coming from the freshman, but is rather coming from those who have successfully been able to sell their wares to an accepting Christian population for many years.

    I recently saw on the NRB website that you have served (or are currently serving) on NRB’s 2013 Board of Directors. From this unique perspective, what direction do you see Christian Broadcasting heading? Most of the other Board members represent what might be considered the establishment of program producers and Christian media outlet businesses. Where does Phil Cooke fit it?

  7. Good motion picture stories are all about the story and engaging the audience visually with metaphors to help the audience emotionally connect with the characters and the moral dilemma they face. Unfortunately, too many Christians who want to be filmmakers think that a good movie is all about “The Word,” which they interpret as didactic storytelling. But the truth of God’s Word existed in reality BEFORE there was even a Bible. We need to understand that “God’s Word” is evident outside the words of Scripture in the workings of natural law, of both the physical and psychological kind. The Bible and theology simply EXPLAIN what is true about reality. Good movies that connect with broad audiences reflect reality and the consequences of natural law. Christians filmmakers need to learn to tell stories with metaphors not words. (Show don’t tell… and when I say “show” I DO NOT mean a poster with words on it, or a Bible verse on a wall hanging, or even a song in the background.) As much as I appreciate the general production craft of the Kendrick brothers and the Sherwood offerings, I cannot watch their films. The stories may be there, but they are didactic and on the nose. They require absolutely no effort to identify with the characters or “work” to be part of the moral dilemmas of the characters. They are narrated dioramas. Very disheartening. As a story and script consultant to both A-listers and many Christian wannabee filmmakers, I get an opportunity to help some engage their audiences with characters that learn by experience and not by being preached to. As humans, our experiences TEACH US, the sermons at church simply EXPLAIN what we’ve already learned. There is still too much reliance on Scripture and messages and not enough on physical hooks.

  8. Hi Phil,

    So glad to read this. I’m one of those up & coming film makers who is also a Christian. While for many years I have been frustrated by the amateur efforts of “Christian films” I had watched,

  9. The Bible has every great story type but I see a lot of “End of Times” themes in Christian Movies where it is more Soap Box than Story. I also did not like the “Left Behind” movie. They seemed to want to make a G rated film out of an R rated book. What does everyone think about the History Channel’s Bible mini series?

  10. Another angle on this is recognizing that many professional musicians come out of first participating in church music teams; some professional actors come out of participating in church drama groups; – perhaps that is the place of church-made christian films? That although churches may produce amateur christian films, they do provide a first step for many future professionals.

  11. I would half agree with you. From a technical standpoint we could see some improvement over time but I don’t see Christian movies ever reaching blockbuster status within the secular market. I think a fair analogue would be the contemporary Christian music scene. They have had ample amounts of time to “work through the bugs” but the list of stand out recording artists remains extremely slim. The inherent problem with Christian art in any capacity is that it’s passion is all too often stunted by an obligation to align with what one thinks God wants them to make instead of actually being lead and truly inspired by the spirit, to be a conduit for something deeper, more raw, and much more authentic. The fact is that the ability to make movies is now in everyone’s hands. That doesn’t mean a lot of great movies are going to be made. In fact it means a lot more terrible movies are going to be made. It does of course mean that some gifted people will have the opportunity to make truly great films that might not have otherwise been made but they will still be in the minority.

  12. Two additional issues (related to each other):
    1. Working outside your giftings. Lots of folks want to make movies. Or be an astronaut, for that matter. Few have what it takes. They are good at other things. They should seek to be excellent at what God has gifted them for– their strengths– and not work out of their weakness. Heck, very few people in HOLLYWOOD are able to pull off good storytelling in a feature film. Your hire a plumber to do plumbing, and electrician to do electrical work. Why not hire a professional, experienced filmmaker to make a professional film that tells the most important story you know?

    2. Stewardship. If you are taking tithes and offerings sacrificially given to further God’s kingdom and using that to make a movie, IT BETTER BE REALLY GOOD AND IMPACT PEOPLE FOR THE CAUSE OF CHRIST.

    Just sayin’.

  13. Perhaps one of the greatest Christian authors of all time, Mark Twain, knew to simply be good… One of his best lines, of course, was Huckleberry Finn saying, “because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell” — because he decided to help free his black friend who was a slave, Jim — and go against Churchianity. 😉

    The point being, to be approved as a Christian often is to agree not to be a Christian in real life, but if you decide to be a Christian in real life, Churchianity says you are going to hell…. (Churchianity is never aware of the irony!…)

  14. I’m opposed to the very concept of a “Christian” movie. Movies that convey truth and beauty, weave a redemptive plot scenario, underscore the nobility of virtue, or celebrate the triumph of those who achieve victory in extraordinarily difficult circumstances are movies that Christians can celebrate as they analyze the character and plot developments through the lens of the Christian worldview. But to segregate moves that are “Christian” (because the protagonist gets “saved” in the last 15 minutes, or because the characters are reading the Bible at the audience) vs.”secular” movies is unhelpful.

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