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The Problems with Christian Film

September 21, AD2016

eye, see, sight, sad, tear, cryThis past August, Maclean’s published an article called “What would Jesus watch? Behold a new era in Christian film,” by Jaime Weinman, in which he says that in 2014, there were more so-called “Christian” films than there were comic book superhero movies. Some of these films were even relatively profitable, such as War Room, which earned $73 million on a $3 million budget, and whatever one thinks of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, or Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, they were Bible stories being told with a prestige that has seemed absent for a long time. 2016 has seen the release of several films apparently trying to capitalize on this trend.

Now, Weinman also says that “the boom in religious-themed moviemaking has been criticized as disappointing from an artistic standpoint,” and he’s not just referring to secular critics; indeed, “believers criticizing religious movies for not being sophisticated enough is a minor cottage industry online.” Specifically, he quotes Alissa Wilkinson as saying that “the core issue is almost always that the writing is two-dimensional, a lot more interested in being ‘inspirational’ and ‘affirming’ than being challenging.”

Sentimentality

Wilkinson refers to concepts that the author Flannery O’Connor, in her collection of occasional prose, Mystery and Manners, explores in greater depth. O’Connor says that the “average Catholic reader” reduces grace so that is it found mainly in sentimentality:

We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.

Possibly the dominant stereotype of Christian film is that it is primarily interested in being “inspirational” and “affirming.” This means it often skips the hardness of redemption, and is more about overcoming obstacles than dying to self in Christ. There is no need to be redeemed if you are being affirmed in your righteousness, and no need to be called to conversion.

This idea that being inspirational is one of the same problems found with praise and worship music, in that the sentimentality of chasing positive emotions takes precedence. As Jonathan Aigner says, discussing Evangelical worship,

At some point, we decided that corporate worship, especially the music, wasn’t about disciplined, regular reenactment of God’s story. Instead, we decided that the purpose of music was to usher in an emotional experience, a perceived intimate connection with the Almighty. Musical appeal became a substitute for the work of the Holy Spirit. If we felt something, it couldn’t just be the music, it MUST be the Spirit. (Funny how the Spirit always seems to time its biggest moves around the modulations.)

So, while music was once simply a way to add dimension to our sacred storytelling, we began to exploit its emotional appeal, suggesting the feelings it could evoke to be authentic spiritual connection. The congregation’s work was no longer to sing God’s story, but to feel happy, jesusy feelings while music is played in their midst.

O’Connor describes readers as wanting grace and redemption as something divorced from the world around it, which can be served as “Instant Uplift.” Stories, according to this desire, should have a good, clear, and easily digestible message, which can be summed up in a short sentence, and once they can sum up the story thus, they can be satisfied that they have been edified.

Christian Realism

For O’Connor, however, to be a writer, especially a Catholic writer of fiction, means not that one is trying to convince readers of something, least of all a theme, but rather that one has to “reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality.” The writer is obliged “to penetrate concrete reality,” and to “penetrate the natural human world as it is.” Ultimately, fiction should ground the supernatural in the concrete, and this means that the writer or filmmaker cannot afford to be sentimental, lest he or she skip that process of redemption that takes place within concrete reality.

Associating concrete reality and redemption has the obvious effect of bringing up the sacraments, of grace being made present in the physical, which O’Connor acknowledges, saying, “The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that sustains and supports at every turn the vision that the storyteller must have if he is going to write fiction of any depth.” We might call this a type of Christian realism: concrete natural must be portrayed accurately, but because creation points towards God, because the natural points to the supernatural, an accurate portrayal points towards this transcendence.

The danger with Christian realism is that, because it strives to portray the world as it is, because it is realism, it can be mistaken for something that is not Christian, especially by those who are not Christian and do not understand Christian thought.

Take, for example, Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life, which vividly grounds the history of suffering and grace within the physical universe. It opens with a quotation from the Book of Job, and climaxes with a grieving mother saying to God, “I give you my son,” in which she both offers her suffering up to God, and refers to the Father offering up His Son for the redemption of suffering sinners. While some argue that there are hints of Gnosticism or pantheism in parts of the film – not unreasonably, but in the end, I disagree – this climactic utterance is more than enough to demonstrate that overall, it explores suffering from a Christian perspective.

Still, there are critics who somehow manage to see this film as, you know, transcending religion, when they even deign to acknowledge that the film may possibly have some religious preoccupations. There are critics who grudgingly mention in passing a scriptural allusion; who say it contains a “deep philosophical reference”; who say that despite all its allusions, that it’s a religious film only “if you want it to be”; or that to see Malick’s vision as Christian is a “mistake” because it “goes beyond mainstream religion,” despite all of its explicitly Christian overtones; or that it is a “gross oversimplification” to say that it is “about religion, or even a singular definition of God.”

No, Malick does not clumsily browbeat the audience, telling them to offer up all their pain to God and everything will be alright, but he offers the subtlety and sophistication that perhaps less masterful filmmakers lack. Secular critics cannot have it both ways, criticising the simplistic didacticism of bad Christian films while ignoring or belittling more sophisticated and profound explorations of that same faith in films they do praise. If they can’t bother trying to understand good Christian films on the films’ own terms, it’s no wonder that somebody gives them something a little less complicated.

Critical Competency

I do not think it unfair to expect a little more erudition and astuteness from our critics. Matthew Arnold, whose essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” is one of the more enduringly important texts on the subject, says that critics must “see the object as in itself it really is,” and therefore, a “false or malicious criticism had better never been written.” For Arnold, criticism is the activity that makes “an intellectual situation of which the creative power can avail itself,” and therefore must make “the best ideas prevail.” Arnold argues that a poet must “know life and the world before dealing with them in poetry,” and the same goes for the aspiring critic, who must therefore study and master the current of ideas, whether historical or foreign, or even religious, and with that knowledge, the critic can comment intelligently on a new idea, or a new work. It is quite clear that, for example, some commentators have not the necessary knowledge upon which to draw when discussing Malick, and when they do, they don’t, as Arnold says, accept his films for what they are.

So, there are at least two problems with Christian film, broadly speaking: the inability of secular critics to see and evaluate good Christian film for what it is, and the willingness of Christian audiences to settle for being inspired, uplifted, and affirmed, which is to not take the world as it is.

They’ll know us by our stories

O’Connor’s solution to the failure of communication between an artist and an audience with mutually exclusive beliefs is to say that “the more a writer wishes to make the supernatural apparent, the more he has to make the natural world, for if the readers don’t accept the natural world, they’ll certainly not accept anything else.” Ultimately, in O’Connor’s stories, it is often by violence that the natural world, and therefore also the supernatural, makes its mark on her characters.

To pick the most famous example of this, the grandmother in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” who is concerned with only her whims is, at the moment of her murder, able to be concerned for her killer. That ending, a downer if there ever was one, is still a triumph because she, for a brief moment, loves another person in way that she has not done at any point in the story. The story affirms nobody, there is no obstacle overcome, it is not particularly inspirational, and the character who discusses faith with the most passion is the killer, who doubts that Jesus was God. Yet the story cannot be mistaken for anything but a Christian one. It emphasises the hardness of nature and the difficulty with which the grandmother dies to herself, and offers hope not only for the grandmother, but also for her killer’s conversion, though we do not see it. The natural world is where O’Connor – skilfully – depicts the movements of the supernatural.

For O’Connor, peoples are known by their stories, not their statistics, and the greatest drama is that of the salvation of the soul, like the grandmother’s story. There are different ways of telling that story, but Christians obviously have an intrinsic interest in it. Catholics especially, with a sacramental view of reality, have the tools to wed the salvation of the soul, of the supernatural, to the natural, theoretically making it accessible to any who accept the natural world. With this intrinsic tendency towards the greatest stories, it is disappointing that Christian film is known for its inferior and didactic offerings, because it means that filmmakers are failing to tell good Christian stories consistently, and that critics are failing to recognise them when they do.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Patrick Malone has been writing for Catholic Stand since March 2016. He has a BA (Honours) in English, and is particularly interested in secularism and the exploration of faith in literature and film, especially the works of Terrence Malick, the McDonagh brothers, Flannery O'Connor, and Cormac McCarthy. He has also been published in Millennial Journal.

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  • Guy McClung

    Patrick-Wunnnerrfulll message! I think you have the first draft of a PhD dissertation. And I think you realize that you have written an implicit description/denunciation of much of what passes for liturgy today, in addition to discussing film. It always stuns me when I hear a “hymn” that not once uses the words “God” in any form or “Jesus.” But “me,” “we” and “us” are in most lines. “And the greatest of these suggestions is to love yourself as yourself.” Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas

    • Patrick Malone

      Thank you, Guy!

  • james

    In 2004 the “best picture” ‘Crash’ was released to the public. The reason for for its success was the most
    remarkable way in which a miracle of secular redemption was portrayed in two separate plots to the story.
    The intention was not to laud a Christian ethic but to define man’s natural inclination to imitate Christ’s life
    and example saves the world – one situation at a time. When you have to define something as Christian
    (movie) you’ve already pegged yourself as an elitist. There have been a million movies made that portray
    our fallen nature raised to encompass a redemptive act but by dubbing a film ‘Christian” per se you risk
    sharing the Pharisaic folly of pointing to the others in back who ‘ thank God I’m not like them’.

    • Patrick Malone

      james,

      Firstly, I’m using a term that others, such as Weinman have used, so it’s useful shorthand, and, when studios explicitly market certain films to churchgoers, it’s a term that’s impossible to avoid, as obviously I am not doing the defining. In any case, considering that apparently studio executives think Christians don’t want to be challenged (http://aleteia.org/2016/09/14/christians-in-hollywood-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly), it’s hardly an elitist term (and elitism is a slur that rather handily avoids the questions of artistry and craftsmanship).

      Secondly, as I discuss in the above essay, “Christian” storytelling needs to reflect the natural human world as it is, just as any good story written by anybody else must do. That means, among other things, that there is an extent to which it is pointless trying to decide whether a good story that presents the world perceptively is “Christian” and therefore acceptable, and that a “Christian” film, might not actually seem to fit that label. It means that there is plenty of room for “secular” storytelling, and if this also presents the world perceptively, a Christian will be able to fruitfully engage with that story from his or her own perspective as a Christian. My fair criticism of certain critics has naught to do with the perspective from which they write, but their ability to engage with those stories critically.

      Furthermore, if you look at my author bio, only one of the five storytellers I list as people in whom I have interest could be uncontroversially called “Catholic,” and only two “Christian,” at least as far as I know. It’s therefore completely unfair to say that I risk the Pharisaical folly of thinking myself better for dubbing things “Christian” if I am embracing these artists without dubbing them as such. There are many secular films I admire without needing to think of them as “Christian,” even if I don’t write about them in this forum.

    • Brendan

      Well said Patrick. Far too easy for too many to simply attack valuable perspectives as elitist. I thought that your article was intelligent, well argued and thought provoking. Hopefully, those wishing to disagree will play the ball and not the man next time.

    • james

      My mistake was using “ you ” ( wasn’t trying to make this personal ) instead of “one” in reference to becoming Pharisaical

      “ This idea that being inspirational is one of the same problems found with praise and worship music, in that the sentimentality of chasing positive emotions takes precedence.”

      ” … while music was once simply a way to add dimension to our sacred storytelling, we began to exploit its emotional appeal, suggesting the feelings it could evoke to be authentic spiritual connection.

      In Psalm 150 the musical instruments of man to include voice are used, not to exploit but enhance worship. There is nothing simple about music. It’s pure math and not a dimension that needed to be added but an integral dimension without which any emotion would be hobbled. In other words: ” Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie
      to you.” Roger Ebert

      “… and the willingness of Christian audiences to settle for being inspired, uplifted, and affirmed, which is to not take the world as it is.”

      Give the audiences a break, please, they live in the world 24/7. As far as the average person understands, redemption either comes or it doesn’t – after life and death is over; only then will you know for sure.

      I would welcome your opinion of the third ( first was 1925 silent movie ) Ben Hur film.

    • Patrick Malone

      Fair enough, thanks for the clarification.

      In Mysteries and Manner, O’Connor talks about a letter she received from a reader who said (I’m paraphrasing from memory here) that all one wants sometimes is something to read when one is weary. That’s entirely true. But if that’s all “Christian film” is known to be, that’s a problem, especially if one takes seriously O’Connor’s emphasis on realism. Sometimes one needs escapism, but a culture does not live on escapism alone. The danger is that “Christian film” as a whole becomes too escapist and does not anywhere address those problems from which one needs to escape. The enduring works of Catholic literature of the twentieth century, by, say, Waugh, Greene, O’Connor, and Shusaku Endo are challenging, but they have come to be defining works, while much else no longer seems relevant.

      I would also want to distinguish between emotion and sentimentality, as O’Connor uses the term. For her, sentimentality is not simply indulging the emotions, but separating grace from the world. That is the problem I wanted to address, though in fairness, my quoting Aigner may have muddied that, seeing as he uses the word “emotion.”

      However, while I’m on the topic, the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has an essay called “Religion in America,” in which he warns of the danger of worship becoming purely individualistic and inward-focused when it becomes too wrapped up in the experience of profound emotional experience, generally prompted by music. There is a loss of communion in this case. Worship can’t just be the indulgence of emotion, but Aigner and I have encounter situations that cross that line too often.

      Obviously emotion is an essential aspect of human experience, and should not be disparaged. At the same time, as Fr. Quintana says in Malick’s film To the Wonder, “emotions come and go like clouds.” As such, I don’t trust them as much as Ebert does. I worry that investing too much in associating positive emotion with worship will alienate those undergoing the dark night of the soul, who might not have such emotions. Music that can still elevate liturgy without needing to inspire intense emotion, is I think, less likely to fall in that way.

      Thank you for your confidence in my wisdom regarding Ben-Hur. Unfortunately, I haven’t actually seen it, and am not likely to see it for a little while yet. Friends whose opinions I trust have been generally positive about it, but that’s all I’ve got.

      I stumbled across these two pieces and I thought they might interest you, as they touch on these topics. I might have tried to find a way to incorporate them had I seen them sooner:

      https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/06/in-praise-of-praise-music

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sickpilgrim/2016/09/mud-wrestling-with-angels-unawares-when-catholic-art-is-dark-or-ugly/

    • Patrick Malone

      It further occurs to me that I’m not so much criticizing stories that are uplifting/inspiring/etc, but stories that do so without connecting that goodness to the sacramental nature of creation. The nature poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins are an excellent example of doing this well.

    • james

      I’ll check out GM Hopkins, thanks.

    • Guy McClung

      check out these in his poems:

      shake out like shining from shook foil
      and
      quickgold

    • james

      thanks Guy, I will