It started in 1903 with a 44-minute French silent film, Vie et Passion du Christ (Life and Passion of the Christ). Whether made for commercial reasons (people would buy tickets) or spiritual ones (to spread the good news about Jesus), I don't know. But since then, there have been lots of "Christian movies."
[ Note: For more information about each of the movies mentioned, see the links at the end of this presentation. ]
As a teenager in the 1950s I enjoyed the big Hollywood "biblical epics," some still worth seeing, especially those that were uplifting — Deborah Kerr in Quo Vadis (1951) (Peter Ustinov as Nero is classic), Charlton Heston in Ben Hur (1959). The black and white Martin Luther film, much viewed back then in our classrooms and churches every October, came out in 1953. Others were mostly spectacle — Charlton Heston again as Moses in Ten Commandments (1956) and still others salacious — David and Bathsheba (1951) with Gregory Peck, Salome (1953) with Rita Hayworth. For commercial purposes, Hollywood was bringing biblical themes to the big screen.
Perhaps the biggest contribution in the following decades was the Jesus Film in 1979, dramatizing Luke's Gospel. A production of Campus Crusade and dubbed in more than 1400 languages, it is still being viewed around the world.
The industry website IMDb lists "Top 10 Christian Movies." Number one is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). In second place is the oldest film on the list, The Hiding Place (1975) starring Julie Harris, an excellent film still available on YouTube. The 2003 Luther starring Joseph Fiennes is listed at number four. That list, however, has not been updated since early 2013.
Decent production doesn't require Hollywood any more, so recently there has been a flood of "Christian/spiritual" movies. Your local video rental store (they still exist) features a section of them, as does Walmart. Wikipedia lists 61 "Christian Films" produced since 2010. And YouTube lists 47 "free full-length Christian movies."
2016 continues the trend with films like Risen, The Young Messiah, God's Not Dead 2 (sequel to God's Not Dead of 2014), and I'm Not Ashamed: the Rachel Joy Scott Columbine Story. If you've seen some of these, what did you think? And how SHOULD we think about these films? Should we see them? Sure, why not. Should we recommend them? That might depend on our answer to this question: How Christian Are These Movies? What is necessary to make a movie Christian? What is enough to make it Christian?
[ If you have a philosophical bent, explore the differences between "necessary" and "sufficient" conditions. ]
Here's what I think. See if you agree (or not!).
First, the movie has to be good, well-made. A movie aiming to carry a Christian message that isn't well made is counterproductive; it invites ridicule to the message. A well-made movie involves a lot, but chiefly three things: script, acting, and production value.
Script is key. The story must be well told. Read about my disappointment in God's Not Dead 2 at the end of this presentation. We simply must do better than that.
- Good acting is essential. Christian films tend to be low-budget, so often they get one professional to star and the other roles are played by amateurs. The difference shows up immediately, and consigns the film to the "Christian film ghetto." These won't make it into the festivals or the theatres, and for good reason.
- Professional production values are essential, but might be the easy part. We have students at Bethany right now learning to turn out work with a thoroughly professional look. Our big production challenges lie in the script and acting.
While being a "good movie" in these ways is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient. What more, then, is necessary to make it Christian?
I used to have an absolute litmus test: Does the name of Jesus appear? I thought this obvious; how could a movie be Christian without mentioning Christ? "Heartwarming" and "wholesome" are nice but if that's all there is, it doesn't count as "Christian."
Better still, I thought, to be "Christian" the movie should actually tell us what Jesus did for us. Does it present the Gospel? Does it explain the reason and purpose of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection? That is, does it teach atonement, the forgiveness of sins for Jesus' sake? If it does, then we know it is Christian.
And (speaking of quality scripts) it's best if the Christian message is integrated artfully into the story, and not stuck in with an irrelevant "oh by the way Jesus loves you" scene near the end. The Sherwood Pictures movie Fireproof (2008) provides a good example of an integrated story line. There the protagonist is a firefighter who knows from experience what it means to rescue people in deep danger, and is brought to recognize his own need for rescue, and the Savior who provides it.
This is the essential distinction, then, that should appear in the message of the movie. Christianity is about what God has done for us: how by his grace he saved us through the work of His Son Jesus Christ. If the movie focuses instead on what we must do to please God, it is a failure and counter-productive. The latter is what happens in movies like The Grace Card (2010), Flywheel (2003), and Facing the Giants (2006), where the message conveyed is that if we behave well, God will reward us. That's not the message of Christianity; in fact, it detracts from the Gospel by drawing attention to ourselves, to what we do, and away from what Jesus did for us.
Of course we should appreciate the efforts of those Christians who are actually making wholesome and inspirational movies. They contrast sharply with so much of the trash that is out there. But I wish they would proclaim Christianity, rather than moralism, and I wish they wouldn't spoil the beauty of the Gospel by always making it conditional on something we do — "accepting" it.
However, lately I've backed off the strict "gotta mention Jesus" litmus test, in favor of a broader consideration: does the movie advance the viewer toward an open reception of the Gospel, perhaps some day? There are two reasons for my change.
First, if we make Christian movies, we want to get them past the "Christian ghetto" racks in Walmart, and in front of the vast audiences at major festivals, in theatres, and on cable channels. At Christ in Media Institute's first conference, "Creativity and Lutheran Theology in Media" in 2009, people I respect argued that in today's industry, making films that are wholesome and inspirational, only indirectly suggesting Christian themes, is as far as we can go. Anything proclaiming what Christ has done for us, or even mentioning His name, would not be permitted into these venues. [ Look at Jas Lonnquist's perceptive review, in the 2016 spring GOWM conference, of the challenges facing Christian screenwriters. ]
Secondly, many viewers we want to reach are not ready to hear much about Jesus right away, and simply turn off if he is mentioned. The ground needs to be prepared before they will listen to the Gospel. Perhaps a movie today can fulfill the function of John the Baptizer, making the crooked straight and the rough places plain to prepare the way for the Lord to enter someone's heart.
How can we judge whether a movie does this?
Here are three tools — I call them "critical tools" because they can guide us to do some "critical thinking" about movies.
1. The Effect Criteria
We can evaluate a film's usefulness in preparing viewers to hear the Gospel by putting it on one of three levels:
How do the films you have seen fit into one of these three levels?
2. The Harstad Scale
Professor Harstad's remarkable testimony found linked at the bottom of this conference's front page ("The Message") can provide a tool for evaluating how Christian a film is. His eloquent wording is worth careful reading, but here is a summary.
- About the Bible: God has provided a reliable revelation.
- About sin: We are hopelessly lost in sin.
- About Jesus: Jesus Christ the Son of God came and saved us.
- About Word and Sacrament: God gives us the Means of Grace.
- About grace: Our salvation is entirely God's work.
- About life now: The Christian life is a joyful struggle.
- About life forever: Our hope is the resurrection.
We can ask about any film: does it in some way carry even only one of these Scriptural themes? If so, it can be understood as advancing the viewers toward an open reception of the Gospel, and can fairly be described as a Christian film.
3. The Kuster Taxonomy
I too boldly named this after myself because I overcomplicate things, and I don't want anyone else to be blamed for that.
A "taxonomy" of course is a system for classifying things, usually ranking them in value. Here is a way of putting films into groups according to a variety of ways they can be considered "Christian" (or not). Consider this chart, the descriptions of each level, and the sample films that illustrate them. What do you think? Is a "taxonomy" useful, and if so, are these the right "levels"? Then consider movies you have seen, and place them on the chart.
|Level +7 Explicit Gospel presentation integrated into the story, showing the viewer through words and visuals how Christ accomplished the redemption of the world, restoring the believer to God's favor, and how faith (alone) in Christ rescues the believer from sin and all its effects.||Luther, Passion of the Christ, Fireproof|
|Level +6 Christians (believers, clergy) as main characters are portrayed realistically, sinners who know their Savior, facing temptations and sometimes falling, but their faith in Jesus shapes who they are and what they choose to do in the face of the challenges in the story.||The Hiding Place, Courageous|
|Level +5 Christian allegory.||Gandolf's fall in LOTR, Chronicles of Narnia|
|Level +4 Portrayal of Christian morality — good deeds and decisions are motivated by a love of God prompted by gratitude for our redemption in Christ.|
|Level +3 Positive portrayal of Christians — they are intelligent, moral, charitable, "normal" people who like everyone else encounter joys and sadness in their lives. Sometimes signs that characters are Christian is obvious, other times the signs are subtle, spotted only by those who look for them.||Seventh Heaven, Pollyanna, Monk|
|Level +2 Portraying the wickedness of sin, making clear we need rescue because of an ultimate accountability to a higher power.||Ghost|
|Level +1 Portraying morality — hard work pays off, etc., but with no reference to spiritual motivation.||Pursuit of Happyness, Invincible and various similar sports films|
|Middle Type 1 Neutral spirituality — good stories with no significant reference to a higher power, MOST MOVIES||Star Trek, Pride and Prejudice|
|Middle Type 2 Fantasy spirituality — good stories in which spirituality of a non-Christian sort plays a significant part in a way simply to entertain. It is clear that this spirituality is not to be viewed as reality.||Star Wars (the Force), Harry Potter, Jason and the Argonauts|
|Level -1 False teaching of Universalism is promoted: "Everyone is going to heaven."|
|Level -2 False teaching of Moralism is promoted: "We can please God by being good, God's main interest in us is our behavior, not our rescue."||Touched by an Angel, Ghost, Flywheel, Facing the Giants|
|Level -3 Christian believers/clergy portrayed negatively, as fools, hypocrites, mentally ill, etc. See Jas Lonnquist's presentation in GOWM 2016|
|Level -4 The spirituality promoted is of a false god.||Avatar|
|Level -5 Immorality presented as entertainment to titillate.|
|Level -6 Immorality recommended and glorified: sin presented as heroic, and immoral people as role models.||Bonnie and Clyde|
|Level -7 Instruction in immorality: how to sin, and encouragement to join in the sin portrayed in the film.|
So let's talk Christian movies! To start us off, here are some I've seen recently. Agree or disagree?
God's Not Dead 2 (2016)
Contrived plot built on stereotypes of "enemies" of Christianity with gratuitous cameos by current heroes of the political "Christian right." The story's purpose is to showcase a couple of apologists for the historicity of Christ. The "proof" that "God's not dead" is that God can sway a jury to win a case. Mentions "Jesus" frequently, as one who gives strength and help in trouble. One prayer asks for "forgiveness" and there is one mention that "he died for us" but no other sense of redemption or atonement. It's up to us to ask him to come into our hearts, and pledge to give our lives to him. The plot manipulation in this film is so transparent that it dishonors Christ and is counterproductive as a presentation to unbelievers, since it invites their scorn. Christians are not afraid of the world's scorn, but we should try not to deserve it. We have to do better screenwriting than this! Though I haven't seen I'm Not Ashamed: the Rachel Joy Scott Columbine Story (2016), many commenters have said the same about this movie.
I liked this movie. The Gospel, atonement through the death of Jesus for us, is clearly stated. They spoil it by one line that says it doesn't count unless you accept it. The main point about the duties of fathers is dramatically made, and leaves every father walking out of the theatre feeling totally inadequate. In this regard, Courageous might illustrate the misleading emphasis by many mainline churches on Jesus-as-Example. That could be good Law preaching, since it impresses on us how far short we fall of God’s ideal for us. We can never measure up to “WWJD.” But Jesus did not come primarily to be our example; he came to be our Savior. That is Gospel — not what we do for him, but entirely and only what he did for us. Our challenge is to portray this emphatically and clearly in a movie story. But the production values in Courageous are good, the acting is professional, and the story holds attention. Some might think the kids' responses to their fathers' responsibility-taking are not realistic, even creepy. But the movie presents flawed Christians who face very hard situations, and everything doesn't always turn out all right. The third and fourth Sherwood films (this one and "Fireproof") do it well. Much better than the first two ("Flywheel" and "Facing the Giants"), though still relatively light on what Jesus did for us, and heavy on what we should do for Jesus.
This is a rather slow-moving but interesting exploration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the perspective of an "outsider," a skeptical Roman centurion, who is assigned to find the "stolen body" which of course he can't do. Filmed in Spain and Malta, the sets and scenery are spectacular; they, along with the reactions of the various characters, especially the disciples, give the viewer some feeling of what it would have been like to have lived through those first post-Easter days. While the purpose of the crucifixion, atonement for our sins, is not clearly expressed, it may not have been clearly understood even by the disciples during those days before Pentecost. The movie's final message is "…and so Christians love,” thereby missing the real meaning and importance of the resurrection: Jesus’ work of saving us is now complete and certified by God. However, the fact of the resurrection, the central event of history and the center of the Christian faith, is firmly asserted, and might prompt even unbelieving viewers to contemplate, and perhaps to search out, its meaning.
The Young Messiah (2016)
A somewhat dark portrayal of what Jesus might have been like at age 11. Like many recent movies set in Jesus' day, the cruelty and oppression of Roman domination are dramatically portrayed — probably with considerable accuracy. The story is fictionalized, of course, much like a movie drawn from apocryphal books. Crucifixion is strongly foreshadowed, but the extent of "gospel" goes little farther than that this child is destined for something great. I like the portrayals of Mary and especially Joseph as caring and effective parents.
What Christian movies have you seen?
Here is more information about many of the movies mentioned in this presentation (on the YouTube links you can skip the commercials):
Vie et Passion du Christ (1903) —
full movie on YouTube [ fun to watch, especially early special effects ] —
information at wikipedia
Quo Vadis (1951) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
Ben Hur (1959) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
Martin Luther (1953) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
Ten Commandments (1956) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
David and Bathsheba (1951) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
Salome (1953) — scene on YouTube — information at IMDb
The Jesus Film (1979) — entire film, as well as 61 clips — information at IMDb
The Passion of the Christ (2004) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
The Hiding Place (1975) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb — complete film on YouTube
Luther (2003) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
Risen (2016) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
The Young Messiah (2016) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
God's Not Dead (2014) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
God's Not Dead 2 (2016) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
I'm Not Ashamed: the Rachel Joy Scott Columbine Story (2016) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
Fireproof (2008) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
Flywheel (2003) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
Facing the Giants (2006) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
The Grace Card (2010) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
Courageous (2011) — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
The Good Lie (2014) [ I recommend this movie highly! ] — trailer on YouTube — information at IMDb
[ Listen to a 7-minute interview with Dr. Kuster about his presentation, conducted by Andy Bates on KFUO-AM radio on his "Faith 'n' Family" program, September 28, 2016. Audio courtesy of Worldwide KFUO. ]
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