It’s been about a week since I wrote about the rapture and the release of the epically awful Left Behind movie.
In that time I’ve had the chance to reflect on the responses I’ve received. Well, not just the responses to my post, but to all the posts that had the unholy nerve to criticize the movie.
As I did, an interesting phenomenon began to emerge.
Not a new one, mind you.
Just an interesting one.
At least to me.
Along with defenders of the rapture came the ubiquitous defenders of Christian movies in general, who seemed to feel like they were being personally persecuted because Left Behind was receiving negative reviews.
Of course, there were the obligatory angry “Christians are being persecuted by the liberal media!!” comments. But there were others who were celebrating the criticism as some sort of prophetic persecution come to fruition.
One person in particular remarked, “I don’t care how much they hate it. The more they hate it, the better the movie is!!”
As bizarre of a statement as that is, that person is not alone in their blind and unflinching support for all things ostensibly Christian. In fact, in my experience that seems to be the default defensive position of many Christians when it comes to so-called Christian movies.
Which got me to thinking.
Has there ever been a bad Christian movie?
Before you answer with the obvious, allow me to share a relevant anecdote.
Do you remember the movie Facing the Giants?
I’ll never forget it.
Not because of the movie itself – it was atrocious – but because of the response I received when I dared to criticize it. The moment came about during a staff meeting at church. As we were waiting for more people to arrive, someone asked if we had seen the movie. I had and being something of a self-professed cinephile, I assumed they were also going to express their disappointment in the film because it was so obviously awful. From the terrible acting to the cliché writing to just about everything imaginable in the film, I thought this was a moment to collectively lament the sorry state of Christian filmmaking.
I was wrong.
Not only did my fellow staff members absolutely love the film, but based on the looks on their faces my disdain for Facing the Giants was apparently akin to disdain for Jesus himself.
Of course, if you’ve spent much time in the church you know that moment wasn’t an aberration.
Whenever I’ve dared to be critical of Christian movies around other Christians (or at least around very conservative evangelicals), it’s like I just set the Bible on fire. The idea that a fellow Christian wouldn’t absolutely love a movie they were told to love on Christian radio is absolutely unimaginable.
Not unconditionally loving and supporting these sacred cows has become something of a 21st century sin.
Why is that?
Why can’t Christians acknowledge the poor quality of something simply because other Christians create it?
I think an obvious part of the issue is a misplaced sense of betrayal. On the one hand, Christians don’t typically get much press in the movie world (this past year’s glut of Christian targeted films notwithstanding). So, the thought seems to be that when one of us breaks through, the rest of us should support them because “they have the opportunity to preach Jesus to the lost.”
Which leads to the other problematic assumption in all of this – that Jesus is actually being preached to the lost.
I’m not sure that he is. And not just because the audience that sees these films is almost exclusively Christian. Unfortunately, since Jesus is mentioned, few stop to question whether the actual gospel is actually being preached (as opposed to the gospel of American Christianity) and therefore by criticizing the quality of a film, someone like me is accused of actually criticizing the gospel itself.
Nor are any other Christians who loathe poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly made Christian movies.
We’re criticizing bad art because bad art is a tragedy.
Both for the world and for a church with a rich history of breathtaking masterpieces.
Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean everything we produce has to have a salvation pitch thrown in.
In fact, it would probably be better if the art we make doesn’t have an overt salvation pitch in it. Why? Because to the extent that movie moments we see in Facing the Giants and Left Behind reflect real life, those two minute magical conversations reveal how little we think of the Christian faith in general and discipleship in particular.
In those magically unrealistic moments, the good news of the gospel is reduced to nothing more than a tacky sales pitch that just makes everyone uncomfortable.
It’s ok for Christians to make art without feeling the need to awkwardly force the Sinner’s Prayer in at the end. In fact, there are many Christians who are doing just that. Unfortunately, their work often gets overlooked because we only ordain a movie “Christian” if it tells people they’re going to hell.
It’s also ok for Christians to not feel obligated to like or even support something just because the name “Christian” is attached or because somebody at church told you that their cousin is the director and it’s actually a secret Christian movie to trick people into becoming Christians.
It is not our Christian duty to blindly support bad art just because somebody slapped the name “Jesus” on it.
In fact, the rich artistic history of the Church demands we be better critics than that.
Not every movie has to be an Oscar winner. Not every book need be a literary classic. And not every work of art needs to be a masterpiece.
But there needs to be at least a hint of creativity.
And, unfortunately, the church today is sorely lacking in that department.
Our artistic output is far, far too often little more than tacky ripoffs of mainstream pop culture wrapped around the obligatory salvation sales pitch.
We can do better than that.
We must do better than that.
We can create original, beautiful works of art.
But it will only happen when we take our heads out of the sand, swallow our humility, listen to our critics, and stop treating every criticism like a terrorist attack on the gospel.
And just as importantly, good art in the church will only ever come about when we allow our artists the freedom they need to create without the pressure to contort everything they do into a sales pitch.
For, if we really believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in the world, drawing all of creation back to its Creator, then we have to believe that the simple act of creating, of artists using the gifts God has given them, is itself an act of worship that can shine like a city on a hill – even without a sales pitch.
Which means if we can find the courage and humility to trust in the Spirit to be the creative spark in the church, then every time we try to force the Spirit to conform to our worn-out conversion formulas and not so subtle efforts to trash everyone that disagrees with us, we must admit the truth.
That secular critics are not persecuting us. They’re just being honest.
That we’re really more concerned with getting people to agree with us than we are with creating good art.
And that, yes, there very much is such a thing as a bad Christian movie.