A Christian author and preacher tore into what he called “terrible” Christian movies today, arguing that many are being made by “propagandists” rather than artists.
Jared C. Wilson, director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, said in an article earlier this week that the only real good "Christian movies" are those made by world artists.
As examples of rare good Christian movies, he pointed to "The Passion of the Christ," directed by Mel Gibson, and 2016's "Silence," directed by Martin Scorsese.
He then listed several reasons why Christian movies as a whole are terrible, starting with the accusation that they are not made by artists, but by propagandists.
“Christian movies are more akin to propaganda than art, because they begin with wanting to communicate some Christian theme — the power of prayer, the power of believing, the power of something — and then the story is crafted around that message. This is true even when the story is something based on a real-life incident. Delving into the depths of human character and motivation is subservient to getting the message across. This is why so much of the dialogue in Christian movies violates the classic writing proverb, ‘Show, don't tell,’” wrote Wilson, who is also managing editor of For The Church and director of the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church.
He clarified that he is not questioning the skills of the cameramen and others working on the faith-based movie sets, but he believes these are "people who don't really know what the job ought to be."
Famous authors C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, he pointed out, "just weren't writing for the Christian market, because that market does not want art that [communicates] truth but art that is being used by a message. And there's a difference. It is the difference between art and propaganda."
In his second argument, he said that Christian movies often suffer from “Christian sentimentalism.”
“Characters in Christian movies don't often sound like people in real life. They sound like Christians imagine (or desire) real life to be. This is why the Christian protagonists are always earnest, even when they ‘don't have all the answers,’ and why the non-Christian antagonists always sound like the one-dimensional memes Christians tilt against in their Facebook streams,” Wilson argued.
Third, he positioned that Christian movies look to portray “narrative tidiness” instead of nuance.
He used an example from his own writing career when he was trying to get a novel published but an interested publisher told him:
"We can't publish this if the sheriff has his arm blown off in the firefight at the end."
Wilson explained that “the scene in question was not gory or indulgent. But it was a narrative choice I made to make the stakes real and high. A good guy can get hurt in real life. Well, my big mistake was mistaking the world of Christian fiction for real life. In the world of Christian fiction — at least, for that publisher — good guys don't get hurt.”
Wilson also spoke out against platitudes in Christian movies.
“Every prayer sounds scripted. Every dramatic moment sounds cliched. The pastors sound like the phrases on motivational posters. Christians speak to non-Christians in ‘gotcha’ wisdom, delivering Jesusy fortune-cookie bon mots to souls apparently just a few well-turned phrases away from conversion. The theology of Christian movies can be scribbled on the back of a napkin,” he said.
“It's Christian bookstore coffee mug-level philosophy. It's Christian T-shirt-level aphorizing.”
Finally, he warned that even the best Christian movie “will never be cool.”
“The gospel always sounds offensive to the world. Maybe Christian movies that articulate faith content clearly are destined to be laughed out of the theater, regardless of the excellence of their cinematic context, if only because the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” he pointed out.
“What if there isn't a way to make the gospel sound cool? That's something worth pondering for Christian moviegoers and Christian movie-makers alike,” he advised.
“In any event, if your movie's gonna get laughed at for being Christian, maybe at least make sure it's because of the cross and not because it's corny.”
Christian media producer and author Phil Cooke told The Christian Post on Wednesday that he “completely understands” Wilson’s frustrations when it comes to movies made by Christians.
“There’s no question that many Christian filmmakers mean well, and have great motives. But the truth is that any compelling story should balance on the verge of going either direction. Most ‘Christian’ films have the feeling that the end is already decided, and it’s always positive,” Cooke offered.
“I understand the desire to share our faith, and position it in the best possible light. But the truth is, that makes an inauthentic and unbelievable story that doesn’t resonate with audiences.”
He argued that filmmakers need to be able to understand what makes a good story before thinking about the Christian implications.
“The bottom line is that if we can’t draw people into the film based on a powerful and compelling story, then all the good intentions in the world won’t help,” he told CP.
As an example, Cooke offered the use of profanity in movies.
“My feeling is fairly simple and it’s all based on the character. One of the greatest criticisms of media created by Christians is that it’s simply not believable. You can’t have an outlaw biker, a member of the Mafia, or a drug addict using nice, ‘family safe’ words. The truth is that they use profanity on a regular basis, so to not allow that in a movie at some level, is to cheapen the character and undermine the believability of your story,” he said.
“So my rule is we don’t use profanity in a gratuitous way, but when necessary, to help express the nature of the character in his or her present state. To be convincing, it has to be real, authentic, and believable. To do otherwise is to create a fake character, and that does nothing for the presentation of the Gospel.”
Looking at the bottom line, Cooke said that “unless we show how deep the sin, we can’t show how great the salvation.”
“That doesn’t give us a license to use profanity, sexuality, or violence all the time, but it does create the need to show real people, real characters, and real situations,” he clarified.
Cooke reflected: “When Christian audiences stop being so offended when they see authentic behavior on film, and we have Christian filmmakers with the guts to tell those stories in a compelling way, then we’ll start impacting the culture.”
Earlier, film reviewer and teacher Andrew Barber also warned about what he views as problems in Christian filmmaking.
Barber wrote in a Gospel Coalition article in 2014 that many times, Christian films come out as “inherently dishonest.”
“Over the last few years, many church-funded films have featured explicit evangelism encounters. They usually come near the climax of the movie and feature one character explaining to another how he/she is a sinner and needs Jesus, the result of which is usually conversion. Everyone knows this scene is aimed at non-Christians in the audience; it’s the altar-call sequence of the film and frequently features explicit preaching,” he wrote.
“The problem is the sense of bait-and-switch. We are saying, on the one hand, ‘Hey, we know you love art; here is our art over here!’ and then ‘P.S. Now that we have you in the theater, we would like to convert you.’ While the scenes can be powerful in presentation, they are more akin to interventions than filmmaking.”