I recently watched a fantastic film “Calvary” (I know, it came out a while back, but I’m a hermit). It was about an Irish priest who struggled to maintain order and decency among his widely faithless congregation, in spite of a death threat made by an anonymous churchgoer . I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but this priest was given one week to live, not because his attacker didn’t admire or hated his local priest, but because he was raped by a priest as a child, but the pedophile priest died years ago. He was an innocent victim in that attack and felt a strong moral imperative to return that injustice in kind and, therefore, chose the innocent local priest as his subject of vengeance. Kudos to the screenwriters, who brought a pastor’s frustrations to life and also provided within that role an ethical ideology that transcended his frustrations. He didn’t want to be held to this imperative anymore, but chose to make a daily decision to remain dedicated to it.
Now, this movie is rated R (Oh, no, evangelicals!) because of understandably profane language in highly adult situations. The “F word” was used to accurately describe the sexual abuse and real-time emotions in such awful circumstances. The “G.D.s” were used to accurately describe the normative hatred towards God in such appalling positions. In other words, the film was real. It gorgeously conveyed the human condition and our conflict with the often counterintuitive message of Jesus Christ. Does the priest stay faithful to the commandments of Christ or does he backslide the direction of his wayward congregation? Does he finally cave into his natural inclination to flee his oath or does return hate with hate? Well, you have to watch it to find out because I’m no spoiler. But what I want to do is contrast this secular film and its raw depiction of a world suffused in evil and the “Christian” films I have seen.
Now I have to be honest, I have only seen “Fireproof”, “Heaven is for Real” (Heaven help that film, by the way) and “God’s Not Dead”. Oh and I made it maybe a half hour through a literally God-awful “Left Behind” movie. But I have to tell you, after seeing these movies, I just don’t get their concept of a “Christian film”. They often begin with an ultra-biased agenda that automatically sacrifices, at least to a substantial extent, nuances that are critical to the film’s overall ability to effectively convey a real-world message to its audience. The films I have seen were “safe” for children, but praised as monumental achievements by evangelical adults. I’m not sure why this is the case because the films I watched were so slanted towards its main message that its effectiveness was inevitably limited to those that already agreed with it in the first place. Forget about these films’ pitifully-skilled scripts (which quite honestly could’ve been written by a local churches’ youth group) and its atrocious “acting” and talk about what in the world it is that we’re watching when we watch these so-called “Christian films”.
I’ll give you just one example. In “God’s Not Dead”, a skeptical philosophy professor challenges his students’ faith, but one student remains firm in his, despite his professor’s discrimination. But there’s no real substance to the atheist character. It was a hollow caricature of the most hate-filled unbeliever. It was a type of generalized demonization of those who do not affirm that God exists. Since this is a Christian blog, I find it hard to be a spoiler on this film so I’ll just let you know he gets hit by a car and before he dies, gives his life to Jesus, which he, naturally to the films’ agenda, believed in all along. Yay Jesus!!!!!
Now, every burden has a benefit and this film is no different. I am a Christian apologist, which means I do what the student did in the film: I defend the existence of the Christian God as a logical and sound worldview. So now when the Biblically illiterate -bashed PureFlix junky ask me what I do, I ask them, “Have you seen God’s Not Dead? Yeah, I do that.” Sometimes their ears perk with interest and they ask questions. So, I guess that’s the benefit. But is actually worth it? I don’t think it is.
That leads me into my ethical problem with “Christian films”. As the release dates near, my Facebook and Twitter is FILLED with people who actually see this as a Gospel initiative. I often read, “Hope this opens people’s eyes!” or “Can’t wait to see how many people this brings to Christ!”, so on and so forth. Let that sink in. Many have replaced the nearly insufferable message of Christ’s burden and calling and compartmentalized it into a 90 minute evangelical advertisement. We’ve marketed a watered-down message of Christ and his desperate outreach to the non-Christian.
Don’t get me wrong. God bless anyone who came to a sinner’s prayer by watching one of these films but God help anyone who thinks that they have just accepted the Gospel as a life decision based upon the viewing of that film. Maybe that’s not their intention though, right? It is “just a movie”. But is it? If taken along its own narrative, it becomes kind of a vicious circle to the Christian media-convert. Think about it. The film presents a shallow narrative of Christian belief and touches the heart of an unbeliever, the church leaders praise the film, the unbeliever looks back to the film and leaders for discipleship when life isn’t like the film. What’s the turnover rate, I wonder? Probably similar to the rate of your local Cheddar’s.
Now, maybe some watch the film, open a New Testament, and are led by the Holy Spirit to understand this great truth that is Jesus Christ. But how does that reflection hold up the narratives of these films? Christianity is a burden. It is a cross that we carry in the way Christ carried his. It isn’t a go-lucky Jeremiah 29:11 tangent. CHRIST IS NOT A PRODUCT FOR OUR OWN HAPPINESS. But, unfortunately, we sure have made it one, haven’t we? Thank God Hollywood finally caught on to that, right? I don’t think so.
These aren’t artistic expressions of the Gospel, they’re propaganda. It feels more like an elaborate test of confirmation bias than a respectable film. These three films felt more like I had been drawn into a two hour life insurance commercial, not an honest attempt at a portrayal of life’s most important subject. Quite frankly, I hope an honest seeker of Christ never accidentally steps into a room of such disingenuous material.
Now if I were to influence an unbeliever via a movie, I would show them Calvary. I would show them the film with noble principles in the face of life’s darkest valleys. I would show them the film with all those “G.D.s” and “F words” because life deserves them. No wonder these “Christian films” are mocked. They should be. But don’t get it twisted, they’re not mocking Christianity. They’re mocking the straw man that much of the American church has made it out to be. I happily join them in their jeers.
I’ll leave you with a question based upon the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:2, when he writes, “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”
My question for the PureFlix crowd is simple: “Why are YOU still not ready?”