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.
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. It is, I swear to progressive God, the worst movie I have ever seen. 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. 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 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.
 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.
 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.
 With the possible exception of The Holy Mountain, cause come on, heavy-handed symbolism does not take the place of plot. Grow up, Jodorowsky.
 Get it? Teen mother? Mary? Clever.
 Thank you very much, Joel Osteen.