Why Can’t Christian Films Be Better?

Recently I’ve found myself having to defend to parishioners and friends the fact that I could not stand the movie Courageous. There seems to be almost an expectation that, as a Catholic priest, I should love explicitly Christian films. While I certainly think that the message of fatherly responsibility was good, and I would support, and maybe even encourage people to watch it, I still didn’t like the film. Granted, I am an admitted film snob, but just because I did not like the movie, know that I don’t think those who did like the movie are cinematic philistines. I want to applaud those people who watch and support films like as an alternative to the hyper sexualized and hyper violent films Hollywood has made the new standard. I also want to make it clear that I admire the individuals who made the film Courageous. They have noble intentions and the popularity of such films will hopefully send a message to Hollywood and the larger film companies that there is a discernible market for Christian cinema in America. Yet it’s been difficult, while trying to respect the Christian sensibilities of others, to explain exactly why I do not like Courageous and other similar explicitly Christian films. I think however I’ve finally been able to clearly formulate my opinion why I didn’t like the film.

If you go to your local chain bookstore you will inevitable find a couple of rows of books dedicated to “Christian Fiction.” Christian fiction is a genre that has grown in popularity over recent years (as is evidenced in the fact that shelves housing these books seem to have gradually replaced the more traditional “Christian Theology” ones. However, the largest proliferations of shelves have been those containing “New Age” volumes. This says a lot about the religious inclinations of presumably literate Americans today). Most works of Christian fiction contain explicitly Christian themes and plot lines that tend to attract a more Evangelical or fundamentalist reader base. With few exceptions While these titles might warm the Christian soul, with few exceptions, they leave a lot to be desired in the realm of actual literary merit.

Compare these titles to the classic Catholic novels and literary works of the 20th Century – Waugh’sBrideshead Revisted, the novels of Georges Bernanos, Greene’s The Power and The Glory, the poetry and drama of TS Eliot, Wise Blood and the plethora of short stories by Flannery O’Connor, the novels of Walker Percy and even the works of Jon Hassler and JF Powers. Like contemporary Christian fiction, these works deal directly with Christian themes (the authors in no way hide their Faith), yet they are markedly different than contemporary fiction. Why? Because they contain a real literary flair and philosophical and theological weight.  They are the works of individuals who were both Christians and consummate artists. They have an intellectual, cultural, and spiritual depth that contemporary Christian fiction lacks. Contemporary Christian fiction novels are unapologetically Christian, but it takes more than a strong belief in Christ to make a good work of fiction.  It takes talent and a certain amount of subtlety in dealing with the subject matter.  I look at the jackets of most of these books and they appear to me to look like a cross between a Harlequin romance novel and an edition of Little House on the Prairie adventures. If this is any hint as to the subject matter that lies inside, I will gladly stick with in the gritty realism of Graham Greene or the grotesque South of Flannery O’Connor. These novels are immanent enjoyable and contain a message of real human and spiritual depth. Fortunately, there are Christian writers today like Michael O’Brien who are attempting to write good Christian fiction of genuine literary and spiritual value.

What is true for literature also applies to film. Although the medium is different, the stories conveyed are essentially the same (thus we see so many books being made into movies). Think of contemporary Christian cinema that is typified by films such as CourageousFireproof, and Facing the Giants. Great messages? Yes. Decent films? Maybe. Good art? No. Will these films last the test of time? I seriously doubt it. They are the celluloid equivalent of contemporary Christian fiction. They will attract a certain audience but like their counterparts on paper, will end up occupying the bargain bins and eventually be forgotten.

Now compare these films to the classic Hollywood and international Christian films such as The Ten Commandments, The Bells of St. Mary, Black Narcissus, Au Hazard Baltasar, Diary of a Country Priest, The Flowers of St. Francis, Andrei Rublev (fortunately most of these are available on DVD or Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection). But also consider more contemporary Christian films such as Babette’s Feast, Of Gods and Men, and of course The Passion of the Christ. These are works of genuine spiritual depth, but also of artistic and cultural value. Like the great Catholic novels of the 20th century, these will, God willing, stand the test of time.

But the unfortunate truth is, except for the classics and more widely-released films like The Passion of the Christ, most American Christians have never heard of these other films. And if they did, most would not be interested in watching them since most of them are foreign films and most Americans don’t like to have to “read” a movie and even more, see cinema as entertainment and not art. It’s the same reason that “Christian fiction” titles are multiplying like the congregation at the newest Mega-Church, while Evelyn Waugh sits forgotten on the shelf. This is an unsettling statement about our cultural and spiritual depth as a nation.

And that is the real heart of my dislike of the film – it portrays a shallow Christianity. Our two millennia old Faith has a tremendous richness to it. And inspired by their Faith in Christ, individuals have produced some of the greatest art known to man, Catholics especially. Great works of art and spirituality rarely “lay it all out” for their audience. There is always a sense of mystery that draws you in and continues to unveil new dimensions and meanings to you. There is no sense of mystery inCourageous. The very commendable message is predictably laid out right from the beginning for its audience.

Frankly, it might be unfair to expect such artistic and theological profundity from a film likeCourageous. The producers are certainly good Christians, but unlike many of the other films mentioned, they do not approach their subject matter from a “sacramental worldview.” This tends to be the approach of Catholic artists who often attempt to reveal the mystery within creation and existence. The sacramental perspective is not a real part of a more fundamentalist approach to Christianity, and this fact bears itself out in films such as Courageous.

Artists such as Michelangelo and Caravaggio have left us breathtaking works of art that reveal the mystery of the human and the divine. Film is the artistic medium of our age. While films likeCourageous have their place, Christian filmmakers should take up the challenge to not only convey the truths of the Christian faith, but that also convey a sense of beauty and mystery in their films. These are the type films that will have the power to truly change minds and touch hearts for generations to come.

Fr. Bryce Sibley is a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette. He was ordained to the priesthood in the year 2000. He is currently serving as pastor and chaplain of Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center on the Campus of the University of Louisiana – Lafayette.

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  • John Bergsma

    If Christian film-making is poor, so is secular film-making.  The vast majority of secular films are poor art with a poor message.  So recent Christian films are poor art with a good message.  A classic comes along only rarely.  Casablancas and Babettes Feasts can’t be pumped out.  If there was a secret to producing them, somebody would have found it by now.  They are rare gems that come along when all the factors are right.  

  • newine

    Thank you Fr. Bryce. I am a Catholic Christian/husband/father/grandfather and I had mixed feelings about the movie as well. Although I believed the movie had good intent, there was something about it that made me uneasy. I think your analysis articulates precisely why I felt uneasy. I also think the film tried to play with my emotions in a manipulative kind of way. It seemed some what contrived and lacking genuine – ness. As I walked out of the film I thought I would like to track down those guys in the film (assuming that they are real Christians) and follow them around for a month and see if they are actually practicing what they preach. Its good to set the bar high but you better be able to CONSISTENTLY demonstrate your style and technique on how to jump over it.

  • Fr. Sibley is correct to identify a missing component of Christian Film and Fiction (CFF) as “mystery.” I’m a story and script consultant to mainstream filmmakers, and to Christian Fiction writers (see book; The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success). In both industries, when trying to engage the film audience or reader, the adage is “SHOW DON’T TELL.” Literary films and novels that Fr. Sibley invokes SHOW through metaphors and other symbolic representation to inform the audience what the story is REALLY about. When you TELL people what they’re suppose to believe and understand about a story the audience’s intelligence and insight is insulted. Part of “entertainment” is getting emotionally and intellectually involved and figuring out the gaps and meaning of a story. Well-told stories are the best means of passing down moral values from generation to generation because they engage the audience’s emotions by connecting them personally with the story’s characters. This is done by letting audiences “live” with and “in” the characters and making the moral decisions the characters are faced with, and then “living” out the consequences of those decisions. (Authors and filmmakers use dozens of particular techniques to do that.) Thus, the same story can have 1,000 subtly different meanings to the different individuals watching or reading. Using metaphors and such, allows the story to personally connect in a thousand different (and true) ways. But when you TELL people what they’re suppose to believe, the connection is lost on most because it’s no longer personal, and because the audience is no longer involved in making the moral decisions with the characters and living out the consequences. And the particular explanation provided by the filmmaker or writer is limited to that particular explanation minus the nuances that engage the many others. In short, when didactic story telling techniques are used the audience is disconnected emotionally and intellectually. When metaphor story telling techniques are used, the audience is connected. Without going into a longer explanation, “Showing” and not “Telling” is why God does not carve the words to John 3:16 into the bark of every tree you see. The “words” are not necessary to communicate whatever is good, true, and beautiful. Thus, it is through such mysteries that we learn about God and how to live a better life. At times we need those mysteries to be explained, and that is the role of sermons, homilies, catechisms and the like. But the natural way God established for us to learn what’s good, true, and beautiful is simply to SHOW us, and not TELL us. And that is what the best storytellers do.

  • jenniforlife

    Christian films can be better. But I don’t believe they have to be. I am a devout Catholic, homeschooling mother and pro-life activist. I attended Catholic school in my earlier years as well as public and military schools. I have always been artistic and been a natural as well as cultivated snob with regard to art. No one beats Michelangelo and all churches should look like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. I have watched with horror as glorious churches and chapels have been dismantled and destroyed to make way for both Catholic and Protestant pole barns of worship. I have also watched with horror the last few decades of continued moral dismantling of our nation. However, being raised to have Catholic sensibilities in academic areas has caused me to not only look at the world through a sacramental view (desirable), but has caused me to have a poor perspective on reality (undesirable). I have spent the last 20 years carefully observing nature, people, and politics and learning how to segregate my academic snobbery from the way people’s heart’s beat, the political trends of our time, and the broad spectrum of academic and social experience and meaning for people in our society. Even nature in its complex simplicity teaches us much. In any case, my point is that as Catholics living in a largely non-Catholic society, we need to remember that we live in a real world. Of course we need to and should apply our Catholic point of view to the world, but to understand who and what is around us, not just always reaching for academic ideals, but to reach for the souls around us, educated and uneducated, clean and dirty, wealthy and impoverished, Catholic and non-catholic, we have to wear their shoes sometimes. We have to get inside their perspectives sometimes. When I go to Mass I am at the heart of Catholicism. But often times priests don’t have much perspective beyond that. They are so much the heart of the church (which is needed and good!) that their perspective is rich in Catholic views and culture, but not in the variety of views and cultures that surround them. And I mean intellectually, emotionally, and socially I am not suggesting changing anything about Catholicism, but to let enter into their hearts more of an understanding of different people’s perspectives which range from the simple, to the complex, from highly academic and intellectual, to the unschooled. But even very uneducated people have a depth of heart and soul that is infinite in beauty and song and of equal if not greater value than craft and art.
    So while I totally appreciate genius and mastery of the arts and sciences, including cinema, I do not need a masterpiece to move me. I can be just as moved by the simple and sincere. This movie, like most works of art, attempts to “manipulate” emotion, but not as a cheap trick or out of evil motives. It is a simply done film with a pretty simple message. And I loved the simplicity and straightforwardness which makes the film accessible to all. They took modern family situations which were pretty true to form, and told some heart wrenching stories of conversion and rearrangement of priorities. I love Jesus of Nazareth, the 10 Commandments and other richly beautiful films. But my sensibilities are not insulted by a simple approach to God. Unfortunately, these moviemakers are not Catholic and do not have the fullness of thousands of years of history, even more than 2,000 since so much of our faith is fathered by and derived from Judaism. But again, I do not automatically consider a performance to be fluffy or cheesy because of a lack of awareness of parts of this history. The human heart has told a very relevant, beautiful story of life and love in our day and I dare say many Protestants and even some Catholics can feel much appreciation for it, if we can set aside, albeit briefly, our constant striving for academic perfection.

    Just my two cents. Thanks.