‘Captive’ and the Christian Film Industry
To clarify what I mean when I talk about the Christian film industry, I specifically mean the films that are made by and for Christians, and marketed almost exclusively to them. This would include God’s Not Dead, which was huge in the US, The War Room, which is currently doing well over there at the moment, and even something like Christian Mingle, a film sponsored by the dating website that actually exists. It’s a huge industry in the US, with whole churches booking out cinema screens and encouraging everybody to go and see them.
Here’s the problem, though: they are almost all terrible films.
There are generally two kinds of films marketed at Christians in the US. Those like Left Behind and Captive which take traditional genre tropes and throw in something vaguely Christian, but try and keep it accessible by keeping Christian content to an absolute minimum. In Captive it is reduced to maybe a couple of sections of The Purpose Driven Life and a nauseating epilogue that shows footage from Oprah where Warren praises his own book. Left Behind took a book series with a loose grasp of theology at best and made it, somehow, even less satisfying. It’s just a film about trying to land a plane after the rapture. You have to wonder who they expect to see these films, not Christian enough to drag in the faithful, but too Christian for anyone else.
Then there are the films like God’s Not Dead, The War Room and Courageous where it’s all about people just talking about God in the least realistic way possible. God’s Not Dead is, without doubt, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, taking a ridiculous premise (philosophy professor threatens to fail a student if he can’t prove the existence of God) and making it even worse with tin-eared dialogue and the kind of straw man arguments that would never make it into any apologetics book that is remotely robust. I’ve not seen the other two, but word is that I should be grateful for that.
Both types of film suffer from the fact that film making appears to be a secondary or even tertiary aim. This cinema appears to exist purely to exploit a market that, in the US, is quite ready to go and see a film if it affirms what they already believe. I wonder if it’s because Christian audiences feel that the rest of Hollywood seeks to undermine their faith, so they enjoy something that is on their side for once. The problem is, such congratulatory storytelling removes any drama or tension from cinema and is a fundamentally dishonest way of making films.
Take God’s Not Dead for instance, which sets up the villain as the worst nightmare of a paranoid evangelical: the atheist whose sole aim in life is to undermine the faith of Christians. Such people may exist, but they are rare and largely confined to Dawkins losing fans on Twitter and Reddit’s atheism subforum. The professor in God’s Not Dead is not a real character, he is there simply to serve the triumphalism of some weak sauce apologetics. It all ends with an “I’m Spartacus” moment where the whole class stand up and declare that God is alive – something which you see coming from the moment the stupid premise is established. Such storytelling sets up an unhelpful ‘us versus them’ dichotomy between Christians and everyone else that will inevitably conclude with “but don’t worry Christians, you are right.” There is no place for doubt, for grief or for a realistic discussion of why people believe or don’t.
The films which are less overt in their faith are no less problematic, because then the faith elements are crowbarred in so they can market it to a Christian audience, and any film made with its marketing in mind is problematic from the start. All the thematic heavy lifting in Captive is done in the epilogue, which is lazy film making and a poor excuse for properly exploring ideas of what drives people to extremes and how we find our purpose in life – two dramatically meaty themes that the story had potential for but failed to address. What do such films actually have to say? They exist merely to pat Christians on the back and confirm their pre-existing suspicions and ideas.
No non-Christian is going to see one of these films and think ‘hey, I should follow Jesus now.’ They will watch them and either laugh, or nod off. I’m yet to see a ‘Christian film’ that isn’t creatively bankrupt. I was provoked to think more about the relationship between God and suffering – the kind of honest discourse that you see in Job and Ecclesiastes – from a film like A Serious Man. I engaged more with doubt, faith and the place of the church in Calvary. I thought more about God as our creator in The Tree of Life and Noah. These films aren’t made as ‘Christian’ films, although some of the directors may have faith. They are made by directors who want to make good films with interesting themes.
It’s too easy to conflate “I agree with this” with “this is good art.” Incidentally, everyone does this, and we’ll likely see a similar reaction to Suffragette, an important film about a worthy subject that is actually fairly dry, dramatically. It’s just that this critical response is what the Christian film industry builds its foundations on, and I think we can do better. Christians are capable of making exceptional art, and they can do so without compromising on themes of faith. Let’s make something more honest, that everyone can watch and engage with.
End note: any proper film buffs who want an exploration of Christian themes in not overtly Christian film making, read this excellent piece on Terrence Malick, Song of Songs, Augustine and many other things.