A Lack of Divine Authenticity: My Umbrage With Christian Films

by: Johnny Gall

As a person of faith, I have no problem admitting that most Christian music is awful. There’s little depth in the lyrics, little musical complexity, and nothing very original going on whatsoever. Some exceptions, thankfully, arise on occasion, but on the whole, I think South Park’s suggestion that it amounts to little more than replacing “baby” and “girl” with “Jesus” is pretty apt.[1]

Not too long ago in 2006, a man named Alex Kendricks and his congregation in Albany, Georgia decided that making awful examples of one art form was not sufficient, and so Christian films were born with cult hit Facing the Giants. They are, thankfully, easy to avoid, but there is unfortunately a movement that is gaining strength through the support of mainline Christians and the finances of Kirk Cameron.

Facing the Giants, a faith-themed football movie, is the most well-known, and God-knows-why, audience-respected part of this canon.[2]  It is, I swear to progressive God, the worst movie I have ever seen.[3] Granted, I fell asleep halfway through, but I doubt the second half could have remedied the awfulness of the first.

In the same manner that many Christian musicians like to eschew innovation and musical complexity, Kendricks and his crew have apparently decided that conflict isn’t an essential part of screen-writing, because it’s not a Christian value. Religious people aren’t supposed to think or ponder. They’re supposed to believe what they’re told and walk that line so they can go to Heaven. With this in mind, the basic plot of the film is that protagonist Grant Taylor is a football coach whose life is awful because his team can’t win, he’ll probably be fired and his car breaks down a lot and he can’t impregnate his wife.

But then, just when he’s at the end of his rope, Jesus happens. Following this instance of Jesus, his team starts winning because they all believe in Jesus, Taylor coaches them to state championship, someone buys him a new car and, even though it was scientifically impossible, somehow his wife gets pregnant. Twice. Cause what do fertility doctors know?

Many Christians adore the film because it proves that faith in God can provide miracles. This is a flimsy argument, however. If God is the creator of the universe, then the God of the universe of the film is screenwriter, director and lead actor Alex Kendricks. Of course I believe in Alex Kendricks. He’s right there on the screen. Your film proves nothing.

This is the crux of the genre of Christian films. Screenwriters want to prove the benefits of faith in God, so they make every faithful protagonist win in the end. They throw any meaningful questions out the window, because what do questions about the universe have to do with religion? Thus, they effectively proves that Christian screenwriters exist, which is just great news.

And while I want to argue in favor of the spate of independently produced gay Christian movies, such as 2003’s Latter Days or 2007’s Save Me, I just can’t. They’ve managed to construct a plot, with legitimate conflict, but in the end they fall into the same trap of trying to prove the existence of God, getting too heavy-handed with plot, and reducing important questions to less-than-satisfactory answers.

This is one of the reasons people take issues with religious folks, and Christians in particular: religion should be about asking important questions, not parroting the simplistic answers you’ve been given. When you try to act certain about questions of human origin, you look stupid. And when you try to craft legislation and force other to conform to this certainty, you look even worse and everyone hates you.

The same applies with film, and with every artistic pursuit. Stories tank when they have no conflict, and promising that every problem will be resolved if you just believe enough is not good enough.

There are, thankfully, films that defy this. 2004’s Saved! is a fantastic example, first because it doesn’t reduce questions or provide simple resolution. Believing in Jesus doesn’t make protagonist Mary not pregnant anymore.[4] It doesn’t make her boyfriend straight. It doesn’t make McCauley Caulkin walk again. Shit happens to these people, and there are no easy answers. This is genuine. Films, books and lectures that preach that Jesus will solve all your problems[5] are a disservice to people of faith, because the implication is that when shit happens to them, it’s because they aren’t believing hard enough. Because obviously nothing bad ever happens to people of faith. That’s why you never see televangelists involved in scandals on the news.

The other thing is that it differentiates good Christianity from bad Christianity. It admits that certain people believe in God, and then do awful things because of that belief. Any film which discusses religion but doesn’t admit that religion hurts people is 1. lying and 2. clearly preaching to the converted.

Saved! stands head and shoulders above other movies which treat religion because it admits that there are doubts, that we don’t actually know the origins of man and that bad things happen to good people, because bad things happen to everyone.

Another of my favorite examples is Kevin Smith’s Dogma. Smith takes these ideas to the extreme, because even while travelling with angels and performing miracles, protagonist Bethany clearly struggles with doubt and doesn’t know what to believe.

Listen, I know we’ve discussed religion a lot on the blog, usually in the context of “don’t separate my faith and my sexuality,” and some of you may be getting tired of it. But I think the discussions are important, not because I want to convert all of you. I could care less. I think religion, when boiled down, is really just exploring all the things we don’t know and probably never will. Where does man come from? What happens after we die? Does good really prevail? These questions should be universal, because they’re important to human understanding of the world and of life. I want to see the discourse embodying the complexity it should, but it won’t so long as fundies are making awful art which pretends to already know everything.

I would love to see more films tackle the delicate subject matter of religion, but I want to see it done well, in a way which causes viewers to contemplate rather than simply believing. So, I would urge all of you, contemplate the big questions. Consume art which asks you to. And when a piece of art tries to tell you the answers, reject it. Artists should know better than to craft pieces which offer false truths, and anything we can’t prove conclusively falls into that category.

Johnny Gall is so, so very close to completing his B.A. from NYU in English and Creative Writing. He has hopes of moving on to seminary, and then to ordained ministry and works with several groups which advocate queer equality in the Methodist church. He is a feminist, anarchist, person of faith, part-time librarian and an all-around good guy.

[1] My least favorite example is a well-known little ditty called “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever”, in which the lyrics boast that they could sing infinite songs, without addressing the fact that they cannot write a second verse to this song, nor a chorus that doesn’t repeat the same line over and over.

[2] No, but seriously, on rotten tomatoes, critics rate it at an average of 13%, and the general public rates it as 84%. Something is not right.

[3] With the possible exception of The Holy Mountain, cause come on, heavy-handed symbolism does not take the place of plot. Grow up, Jodorowsky.

[4] Get it? Teen mother? Mary? Clever.

[5] Thank you very much, Joel Osteen.

6 responses to “A Lack of Divine Authenticity: My Umbrage With Christian Films

  1. You slept through the second half of Facing the Giants, but somehow can tell us exactly what happened through the end of the film?

    Saying that there is something wrong with the fact that Rotten Tomatoes reviewers show 13% and public says 84% seems to assume that those who see their movies for free vs. those who plop down their hard-earned money, are more “right”.

    Your basic assumption is that audiences who appreciate these type of films are in some way wrong because they like something you dislike. In this way, you are an elitist who lives under the basic assumption that your opinion is all that matters. On this blog, this might be the case, but in the real world, it is not. Though I’m not a huge fan of these so-called Christian films (not sure what makes them ‘Christian’), as a filmmaker who has some great ideas of what I think art is and is not, ultimately, I, like nearly all artists, want to share my art with the world, even though I know not everyone will ‘get it’, I have admiration for the Kendricks who have only built on their audience since their football movie. The audience for their next film, Fireproof, was 3x larger in the theater and by all estimates, as large in DVD sales (their book sales were well above 6 million). Their most recent film, Courageous, surpassed even Fireproof, which I thought wasn’t going to be possible…and though I think it was a preachier film, the acting and production value was improved. The audience at the theater, which was by far bigger than any other film at the theater that night, laughed and cheered out loud and I heard sniffles from those fighting back tears. Though I thought it was sappy and overstated in some parts, who am I (and who are you) to look around and say, ‘You’re all idiots for being moved by this movie.’

    Word to the wise…riding a high horse just means your fall is farther when you trip.

  2. Hold your horses there pal. I believe art is subjective as much as anyone, but does it necessarily follow that art criticism can never exist? I don’t recall ever writing that the film is objectively bad or that anyone who likes it is wrong, but I don’t see why I should have to refrain from giving my opinion, as this is obviously an opinion piece, and on a very opinionated blog.

    and I certainly don’t blame anyone for the film’s success among audiences, but I do think the audience success corresponds to issues of mob psychology and conformity in the church.
    And I certainly don’t think that criticizing the theological positions of a film centered on religion makes me an elitist. It makes me a person capable of forming opinions and expressing them.

    thanks for the critique, but honestly, to criticize someone for being on a high horse only means placing yourself on an even higher one.

  3. You are my hero, for the record. And I was about to jump on top of writing a post raving about how much I love Saved when I got to that point in the post.

    My only beef? “Where does man come from?” C’mon self-avowed feminist. 😛 But just because I call you out doesn’t mean I love you any less.

    p.s. “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” is also my absolute LEAST FAVORITE “Contemporary Christian” song. Though there may be others I have managed to avoid. I’ve had a mocking version of it since I was about 12 years old…well, the chorus, at least.

  4. Hang on there genius. There are about 2000 years of Christian musics out there beginning with the codification of chant by Gregory the Great, the organum of the Notre Dame school, the plainchant of Hildegarde von Bingen, the masses and motets of Josquin and Palestrina, the cantatas of Bach and the oratorios of Handel and a host of Christian music that continues to be composed to the present day. Your ill-advised first sentence: “As a person of faith, I have no problem admitting that most Christian music is awful.” is 1) an insult to centuries of composers who created music as a reflection of their deep faith and commitment to Christianity and 2) nonsensical in that describing yourself as a person of faith somehow give you authority for your ridiculous and uninformed statements about music. You know nothing of Christian music except for the current popular form that Kara describes as “Contemporary Christian.” If you’re going to blog, be sure you are informed about your topic.

  5. 1. You’re completely right. I should have said “contemporary Christian music.” That was a mistake and I’ll completely own up to it.
    2. Does the assumption here have to be, “you have no idea what you’re talking about,”? Could it not be, “You accidentally left out a word”? It just seems a bit hasty to jump directly to that line of thinking.

  6. ‘Does the assumption here have to be, “you have no idea what you’re talking about,”? Could it not be, “You accidentally left out a word”? It just seems a bit hasty to jump directly to that line of thinking.’

    It seemed like a safe assumption. I’m not unfamiliar with a BA program and I’m aware of the paucity of instruction in music history and literature with many such degree programs. I wouldn’t know you from Adam and I only have your words to go by. That’s how it works; you write stuff and people draw inferences from it about you and what you know. Here’s an example. You write:

    “There’s little depth in the lyrics, little musical complexity, and nothing very original going on whatsoever.”

    The lyrics aren’t the music, at least not entirely. Words set to music are considered to be a “combined art,” such as music + expressive body motion = ballet; poetry set to music is art song or lieder in Germany. There are many.

    What’s the big deal about complexity in music? An entire musical era called the Classical Period (it included the likes of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven up until his 3rd or 5th symphony) was all about musical simplicity and naturalness. Ever heard the second movement of Haydn’s 92nd Symphony nicknamed “Surprise?” It’s like a simple child’s tune but is witty and charmingly composed.

    It’s essentially the nature of popular music forms to share a “sameness” with the other popular tunes in the same genre. Let’s face it; pop music is basically disposable; designedly so. To expect originality from Contemporary Christian music seems a tad unreasonable to me. In 300 years, I expect that people (if there are any around then) will be playing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I don’t expect that they’ll be playing Aerosmith, Lady Gaga, Radiohead or Delirious? in a hundred, much less 300 years from now.

    That’s where I drew my inference.

    Look Johnny. You seem like a decent guy and you write clearly. I’m a professor who is used to jumping on stuff in a direct way. I probably should have said: “You appear to know nothing of Christian music except for the current popular form…” and even that may have been a bit much and for that I apologize.

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