Anatomy of a Christian Approach to Movies
Christian Cinema, Meet PtP

What does a Christian approach to movies look like?

If you ask American Christians in general, it looks startlingly like a strictly American approach to movies… and the adjective “Christian” becomes just another synonym for “vanilla.”  As George Barna famously reported in 1998, “Of born-again Christians, 30% reported that they watched an R-rated movie in the past week, compared to 40% of non-Christians.”  And the numbers reportedly haven’t gotten any better since then.

If you ask Christian radio station programmers, the Christian approach is roughly equivalent to “family-friendly,” which means avoiding mention of anything R-rated or above… unless, of course, it’s The Passion of the Christ.  As a pastor and student of theology, though, I don’t find the Bible “family-friendly”—particularly those passages about gang-rape, sodomy, incest, and genocide.  But we don’t steer our children away from the Bible, oddly enough, though we water it down for them pretty well through our teaching.

Ted Baehr, the ubiquitous campaigner for the moral chastening of Hollywood, is at least on the right track in declaring that a Christian approach must be biblically-based.  For MovieGuide™, an “exemplary” movie is one that promotes a “Biblical, usually Christian, worldview, with no questionable elements whatsoever.”  For a typical week, such as this one, this approach tells us that the theaters offer us 1 exemplary movie, 2 “good” ones, 4 worthy of “caution,” 7 garnering “extreme caution,” and 20 earning the label “abhorrent.”  From that standpoint, I’d say it’s worth giving up on movies entirely, given that the drive to reform Hollywood is apparently moving at the pace of the Millennial Snail.

Another end of some spectrum sees a Christian approach to film (and art in general) as one that celebrates beauty and truth wherever it may be found.  One of the most visible proponents of this notion today is CT Movies critic, novelist, and blogger extraordinaire Jeffrey Overstreet, with whom I appear on Dick Staub’s The Kindlings’ Muse At The Movies on a monthly basis.  His blog’s tag line is: “In art and faith, ‘the truth must dazzle gradually.’”  This starting place is, naturally, one C.S. Lewis would have embraced, one which claims that truth or beauty of any kind—and in any context—are gifts from God.

Now, Baehr is certainly right that you wouldn’t eat a chicken sandwich that was “only 10% feces”—and that God calls us to be holy as He is holy, and that the Epistles encourage us to dwell on things that honest, pure, good, and decent.  But Chesterton also had a point that, in this all-too-fallen world, we are often in the practice of leaving gold in the gutter and tossing soiled diamonds into the sea.  We are, perhaps, obsessed with using the word “bad” (or “evil”) to describe what’s simply “not good enough” for our very spoiled and outrageously demanding tastes, as he put it. So Overstreet, et al, have a point, too.

Out in another orbital path entirely, Hollywood Jesus (with which I have been long associated, and for which am now Managing Editor), sees a Christian approach as being neither celebratory nor proscriptive, but primarily as evangelical.  In that light, the site has an “everyone welcome” approach reminiscent of Christ’s dinners with tax collectors and harlots—figuring, well, that folks are going to go to those parties anyway… so someone Christlike ought to be in the middle of it all starting constructive conversations.  The danger of this approach, of course, is that there are an awful lot of us who have no business hanging out in bars or associating with prostitutes.  Metaphorically (and literally) speaking.  And, um, we know who are.

Several years ago, as I began teaching film at Puget Sound Christian College, my wife Jenn and I came to see that, while salvaging gold from the gutter is a worthy endeavor—and while efforts such as those of MovieGuide, CT Movies, Looking Closer, Hollywood Jesus, and the Dove Seal all have their valuable places—one dimension of a “Christian” approach to film was distinctly lacking: the human element.

Even abhorrent art is made by real people, people broken like the rest us have been at one point or another.  And every work of art is a tangible expression of some soul created and loved by a righteous God.  In some degree, these works of art reflect the reality of their makers’ lives.

Do the people behind these works of art matter to us as much as our own children, our own interpretations, or the cause of evangelism?  Why not?  What credit is it to us if we only love those who love us, what we think, or what we do—to paraphrase Jesus?  How much of an effort are we making, after the example of Christ, to consider others more important than ourselves?  These are motivations that are also biblical, and characteristically Christian.

Past the Popcorn, now partnered with Christian, is an attempt to reflect, through criticism, the love that Christ has for artists working in film.  We hope to do that (albeit imperfectly) by demonstrating that we at least care what these filmmakers’ works are trying to say—whether we agree with those ideas and worldviews or not.  The world knows full well that Christians know how to speak, and how to speak loudly. We’re trying to demonstrate that Christians also know how to listen, and listen attentively.

As to the question of whether anyone ought to be seeing any of these films… well, given that Hollywood entertainment is arguably the art-world’s equivalent of crack cocaine, even The Sound of Music can be seductively dangerous.

And, given the choice of the latest Bond, Batman, or Sherwood Pictures flick versus the very family-unfriendly scriptures, we’d all be far better off spending more time with the latter.  Too bad we can’t resist ice cream, either!

It’s tough being in the world but not of the world.

©2008  Reprinted by permission.