A scene from VeggieTales, the Christian computer-animated series that follows the lives of some adventurous vegetables.

December 11, 2017

GOULDTHORPE | How Christian are ‘Christian Movies’?

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I’ve wanted to write about Christian media and “Christian” media for a long time. Of course, my strength is in animation, so for the most part I’ve stayed quiet. This past week though, we had the release of The Star, and I figured now was the best time for me to lay these feelings out there.

I also want to clarify my background with all of this. I consider myself a fairly devout Catholic. I attend Mass (somewhat) regularly, I pray every night, and I try to live my life according to the morals set out within the Gospel. I’m certainly far from perfect, but I feel like I can still give a Christian perspective on Christian media. That out of the way, I have a lot to say, both good and bad.

Whether you view the Bible from a secular or religious perspective, there’s no denying that it’s a remarkable piece of literature. Stories like Exodus, David and Goliath, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, are firmly entrenched within Western literary canon. Heck, they are referenced with symbolic gestures even in comic book movies! Not to mention that phrases like “to see the writing on the wall” or “in the belly of the beast” were also coined from Biblical stories. Altogether it’s a millenia long narrative that’s a cycle of redemption and damnation, a people constantly lost and found and lost again, with espionage and war and politics all brought into the fray.

So then why do we get things like Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas?!

In recent years we’ve seen a lot of “Christian” movies hit the mainstream, and I have some gripes with a lot of the most popular ones. God’s Not Dead outright lies to its audience about how Christians are being persecuted in the United States, citing cases that were either irrelevant or thrown out of court altogether. The sequel, God’s Not Dead 2, claimed that the American Civil Liberties Union wants to eradicate Christianity altogether. War Room says that the solution to an abusive marriage is to literally retreat into a closet and pray that everything turns out okay, without taking any concrete action like getting a marriage counselor. For claiming to be “Christian” movies, these films send horrible messages. They condemn tolerance, demonize entire swathes of people, and send perverse morals that will ultimately harm people undergoing serious troubles.

When it comes down it, here’s the problem that I see. Film studios decide “Hey, let’s cater to the Christian audience.” They slap some B-list plot together, put a cross in the background, put the name “Jesus” in the script, and profit! And even if they manage to actually incorporate a Biblical theme into it, it’s usually horrifically misinterpreted. For this I point to the previously mentioned War Room. They quote Matthew 6:6, which says “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” It’s presented as an excuse to say “Take no action and pray, and all your problems will be magically solved.” Reading more than one verse, though, reveals that it’s supposed to contrast not with taking action, but with being boastful about being a better person. In other words: don’t pray instead of acting; pray instead of bragging. And that’s just the center of one of these movies.

Does that mean all Christian media is terrible? Of course not. You may have noticed me distinguishing between Christian media and “Christian” media so far in this column. That’s because while the movies I’ve discussed so far are CINO – Christian In Name Only – truly Christian movies are spectacular. And for that I’d point you within my own field, to The Prince of Egypt.

The Prince of Egypt to this day remains one of my favorite animated films. It has a brilliant soundtrack, gripping visuals, and most of all a story that brings to life the story of Exodus in a beautiful way. It shows Moses being chosen, a shepherd, to be the mouthpiece for God and to save a people from enslavement. He has to overcome his own self-doubt and fear to do great things. It perfectly nails the spirit of the Exodus narrative, covering it in a respectful and artistic way.

Of course, not all good Christian media has to be serious and dramatic. Look at the most famous Christian cartoon, VeggieTales. While they might simplify things down, and leave out the sex and violence, they talk about Christian themes in a way that kids can both understand and apply to their own lives. With titles like “Where’s God When I’m S-scared?” and “God Wants Me to Forgive Them?!”, it still manages to deliver an authentically Christian message.

Films like God’s Not Dead are a special kind of offensive to me. They paint Christians (like myself) as utterly detached from reality. They also do violence to a text, a sacred text, to produce political propaganda. When Hollywood adapts stories from foreign cultures, especially from foreign religions, there’s a certain expectation that they treat it with the care and respect that it deserves. Christian movies should be no different. Filmmakers need to make the effort to understand what they are talking about, and not just use the name of Jesus as a chance to spew irrelevant and irreverent ideologies.

In the end, I just wanted to get this off my chest after ruminating on it for a year. I want to stand up and say that not all Christians enjoy the ilk of God’s Not Dead. I’d personally label The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile as Christian before I’d give the label to Left Behind. I’d also warn viewers to not let their guard down. Just because a movie says it’s Christian doesn’t mean that it’s going to give you Christian values. It’s worth looking at the message, and if necessary, rejecting the message. After all, Hollywood is not a church.