Why Can’t Christian [i.e., Evangelical Protestant] Films Be Better?
by Fr. Bryce Sibley
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’s Brideshead 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 Courageous, Fireproof, 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 in Courageous. 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 like Courageous. 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 like Courageous 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.