Subtlety. Beauty. Intrigue. Mystery. Wonder.
These are all words that come to mind when one thinks about “art.”
So where are all these things when it comes to popular Christian filmmaking?
Uh. Yeah. I’ll say.
On Friday, the long anticipated remake of The Left Behind movie was released in theaters. Previous to its release, I wrote in length about some of my theological concerns with the film. But what I didn’t mention was how concerned I was about the quality of the upcoming film. Because, let’s face it, when it comes to Christian filmmaking, we don’t have a great track record. But I kept silent about my fears because I’ve been wrong before (case in point: I recently mentioned that Pluto isn’t a planet, which, evidently is no longer true).
But, alas, my apocalyptic fears seemed to be well placed. Left Behind was released in theaters today. And, despite a large budget and several big-name actors, the film is already getting canned by critics:
“…the true apocalypse of this new Left Behind—what makes it far worse than that bad original—is that it’s a soulless Christian movie starring Nicolas Cage. Which is ironic, since the idea of “soul” is such an integral part of Christianity.”
So that kinda hurts.
And it goes downhill from there: Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 3%. Nope, there’s no digits missing from that number: three-percent. Just to put this in complete perspective: the same website also reviewed Grown Ups 2, Adam Sandler’s putrid sequel concerning which one critic remarked: “..in the first five minutes, a deer walks into the star’s bedroom and urinates on his face. It’s all downhill from there.”
And yet, RT gave Grown Ups 2 a composite rating of 7%, more than double Left Behind.
And what’s the justification for the horrible ratings?
“At best, Left Behind is shoddily made sensationalist propaganda-with atrocious acting-that barely registers as entertainment. At worst, it’s profoundly moronic.”
“…featuring local-cable production values and dialogue that seems written by a crack team of Sunday schoolers…”
“One need not be a Godless heathen to find fault in Left Behind’s message-delivery system: It’s a fire-and-brimstone sermon wrapped in the tissue of a bad disaster thriller…”
This seems to be a trend in Christian filmmaking: we seem to think that the cinema is our opportunity to preach to people who wouldn’t otherwise want to hear a sermon. But the reality is if someone doesn’t want to hear a sermon on Sunday morning when we’re making them free espressos and giving them a gift-bag at the door then the same crowd certainly won’t want to hear a sermon when we charge them $10 for it on a Friday night.
And if you think I’m being too critical just look at the ratings for Christian films over the past few years. God’s Not Dead: 17%…Facing the Giants: 13%...compared to those Nick Zano’s 2008 Fireproof looked like a rockstar with a composite critic rating of 40%. And everyone on this list looks brilliant compared to Persecuted, which opened in July and as of right now has a RT rating of, I kid you not, 0%.
“Well, it’s persecution!” you’d say. “Culture just hates us because of our faith so of course they’re going to hate our films!”
To which I would reply: spare me the nonesense.
There is persecution of Christians in the world but it certainly isn’t in the United States and certainly doesn’t consist of getting a (well-earned) 3% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Furthermore, Christians can and do succeed just fine in pop culture. I give you Switchfoot a band consisting of members who are profoundly Christian. Yet, despite of (or, I should say, because of) their faith, Switchfoot has a music career that spans two decades, have sold millions of records and won multiple awards, among them a Grammy and 12 San Diego Music Awards. They’re incredibly popular among culture, and yet also Christian.
Then there’s writers like Marilynne Robinson. A sincere and deeply intellectual Calvinist, Robinson’s literary works have earned her a reputation as one of the greatest writers of our time, securing her a coveted Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Robinson comes from a school of writers that also includes Flannery O’Connor, a novelist and short-story writer whose work is still held as the best in its genre over fifty years after her death. Said O’Connor:
“I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic.”
Culture doesn’t hate our faith, it just hates our agenda. And it doesn’t appreciate Bible-thumping disguised as art.
Unfortunately, what’s so often seen in Christian filmmaking, and is reflected in many reviews of the Left Behind movie, is just that. It’s the trading of any subtle evangelism and beautiful ascetics for a Bible-thumping attitude, using the medium of film to scream: “HEY WE’RE CHRISTIAN AND THIS IS CHRISTIAN AND YOU SHOULD BE CHRISTIAN TOO!”
And that’s the best case scenario. Worst case scenario, Christian films such as Left Behind, and this spring’s release of God’s Not Dead, trade what should be love, humility and sincerity in their messages to culture for not-so-subtle undertones of: “We’re right! You’re wrong! Nah, nah, neener, neener!”
And so we gather our non-Christian friends together, drag them to the theatre, make them sit through a couple hours of another movie critics review as “a lifeless film, void of anything remotely human, God-like, or authentic.” Then we drive them home while they shoot us strange looks from across the car, wondering if we’ll be making a pit stop at a meeting with the next Jim Jones on the way. When drop them off we invite them to come to church and they politely refuse before retreating into their home, like a prom date who doesn’t want to get kissed, and locking all their doors and windows.
Meanwhile we sit in the car, snap our fingers and wonder: “Well dadgummit, why didn’t that work?”
Look, truth be told, Left Behind, like some of its predecessors, will probably make a lot of money this weekend. Because Christians swarm to these things. I mean, c’mon: we love a “Christian” movie! When a faith-based director rises above the filth and grime that is Hollywood and produces a film ringing of Christian virtue and truth, we couldn’t imagine anything better!
But we should.
We really, really should.
Because what reviews of the Left Behind movie and a train-wrecked tradition of filmmaking betray is that we’ve really lost touch with our mission as Christians. It’s one thing if we want to use film to simply preach to the choir, so to speak. If the goal of Christian art is to inspire and sing our own message right back to us, so we can all nod, clap and be gleefully entertained… well, then okay. We’re doing a good job.
But if that’s the case then we’re also not Christian. Or at least, we’re not acting like it.
Because the mission of believers, the mission of the Church, is not to preach to the choir but to go out on the streets, the highways, fields and towns. The mission of Christians is to go out into culture and speak through it and to it, not with the force and bluntness of a hammer upside one’s head, but with subtly and intrigue, with a sense of wonder that causes people to stop what they’re doing, look up, and say “huh…maybe I should follow the guy they’re following.”
The goal of Christians should never be just to preach our message back to ourselves, but to speak it out into the world. And if the way we’re speaking it isn’t working, then we need to change our tactics.
Based on these film ratings, I’d say that needs to happen, and it needs to happen yesterday.
Christians can and do perform well in many other spheres of art and culture. And their faith shines through in brilliant and magnificence ways: their works inspire wonder, intrigue and desire. They attract non-Christians and Christians alike and leave all with sense of mystery, gently pulling the scales back from their eyes and allowing them to glimpse the world that exists beyond materialism, immediate gratification and even self-will.
And good art does not come at a cost of evangelism, good art does not require that we lay aside our Gospel virtues and take up secular humanistic standards so as to produce something deemed “valuable” or “beautiful” by worldly standards. Rather when done properly, good art has evangelism flowing from it naturally and effortlessly, like a river that’s finally been undamned.
The tragedy is that, as of now, many traits of good art are void when Christianity hits the big screen. And when that happens, it’s not just an abstract notion of art that suffers. Rather its the beauty and invitation of the gospel message that also gets left behind.