This 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.”
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.
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.
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.