Twentieth Century Fox recently released the first trailer for Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale as Moses.
Exodus will join other biblically-inspired movies released in 2014, such as Son of God, Noah, Heaven is For Real, and God’s Not Dead.
Some are calling 2014 the “year of the Bible” in film. Upcoming Bible movies include a movie about the life of King David, also by Scott, a Pontius Pilate epic starring Brad Pitt, and Left Behind starring Nicolas Cage (set to release in October).
The comeback of biblical films in Hollywood is certainly worth celebrating. Ted Baehr, founder and publisher of MOVIEGUIDE®, says Christians have made the mistake of abandoning mass media in the past, but we are called to engage it and transform it. In an interview with me, Baehr says he loves working in Hollywood because film has a profound way of impacting our culture and individuals on a personal level. In the movie business, he says, “you deal with the soul.”
But as the controversy surrounding Darren Aronofsky’s Noah illustrates, not all Christians are willing to call these movies “Christian” movies. Others films like God is Not Dead were praised by many Christians yet received poor reviews by others for poor screenwriting.
This raises the question: what makes a “Christian” film anyway?
What Makes a Film “Christian”?
Sometimes when we call a movie Christian, we mean that the content is biblical and historically accurate, or maybe the director intends to send a message of Christian values or gear the movie towards a Christian audience. There is typically more emphasis on the content and less on the acting, screenwriting, and theatrical components when deciding whether or not a movie should be branded “Christian.” But Millennial Christians are beginning to think differently about what the faith label means.
Millennial Christians today don’t want movies that are so obviously Christian-agenda driven at the expense of depth and artistic appeal. They want movies that speak to the human soul. They just want good movies. Scott Nehring says in a Relevant article,
If a film claims to be Christian, it was supposedly done for the glory of God, but we do not glorify God by making lousy movies. We need great films.
Making great films means rediscovering the value of honestly portraying reality. James Tillman, in reviewing Noah, says,
Good art helps you see reality how it is. Thus, to make good art, you must first attend to what is; the artist must try to look at how the world is as carefully and deeply as possible. Naturally, this includes attending to those parts that make the artist uncomfortable, as the silence of God does many Christians. […] [T]his requires that one be willing to endure one’s own discomfort; it requires that one be willing to stay within a problem that is painful and for which there are rarely easy answers, because to do that is to remain true to reality. Many Christians seem unwilling to do this. Aronofsky is not a Christian, but his willingness to connect Noah’s story to our own difficult experience is part of what makes Noah good art. It is because Noah’s experience is a universal one that Methuselah addresses us as well as Noah when he says, “You must trust that He speaks in a way that you can understand.”
Some Christian commentators argue that Christians are afraid of art. Cole Nesmith, pastor of City Beautiful Church in Orlando, says Christians fear art because art explores the unknown. It’s also about believing a different reality is possible. Great art dives into the reality of the world’s problems and brokenness, even if it means asking questions without providing a clear answer. Andrew Witmer shares the same view:
For one thing, the commitment to “the true” often requires artists to explore ugliness as well as beauty, since the world clearly possesses both. One of the most important Christian beliefs, in fact, is that things are not how they are supposed to be. […] Christians, of all people, should be able to see clearly how messed up the world is, and their art should tell the truth about this brokenness, lament it, and offer a vision of something better and more beautiful.
Confronting reality in film involves communicating truth. And if Christian screenwriters, cinematographers, actors, directors, and producers communicate truth, they glorify God in their work. That’s what makes a film “Christian.”
Let’s scrap the label
If a “Christian” movie is simply a good movie, it doesn’t need the Christian label. Millennials today want to toss the concept of a “Christian” movie. Nehring says,
The product itself should not carry the label […] His fruit will bear His name.
Maybe Hollywood will remember 2014 as the year of Christian films, but will Christians remember 2014 as the year of great films? That would be something greater to celebrate.