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When Christians make bad art, we misrepresent the kingdom.
By Katie Saffell
Hanging over the sunken arm of the saggy leather couch in my friend Kelsey’s living room, I turned my face from the TV screen in horror. Kelsey and I shared a look of disgust. Just when we had thought it could not get worse, it did.
This wasn’t a horror movie, by the way. This was a film called Christian Mingle. Yes, like the dating site. The movie, which came out in 2014, stars none other than Lacey Chabert, better known as Gretchen Wieners from the cult classic Mean Girls (2004). Chabert stars opposite Jonathan Patrick Moore as Paul Wood, the most generically handsome, vaguely attractive human either of us had ever seen.
But this isn’t about bland facial symmetry or the conundrum of making a person attractive while simultaneously implying that said person has zero sexual drive, though that was impressive. This is about bad movies.
IMDB’s description of Christian Mingle reads: “A marketing executive tries to find Mr. Right on a Christian dating website. When impressing her dream guy ends in disaster, Gwyneth gets in touch with her spiritual side.”
I’ll spare you the details. She meets a pretty white boy who leads her to Jesus. There are numerous reasons why this movie is problematic. I’ll try to narrow it down. In addition to typical bad movie staples – bland personality; zero character development; uncomfortably bad camera work; cheesy sets and overstated costuming; pointless scenes; wordy, hyper-spiritual monologues; racial stereotypes; sexism; and unethical, unnecessary and repetitive brand placement – it just makes Christians look bad.
Christian art is notoriously mediocre because it refuses to accept outside influence, either in content or production. When Christian artists do accept influence, whether filmmakers or writers or musicians, they do so with such a commitment to be an “alternative” to what already exists on a secular platform that the art produced is simply a replica, a cheap knockoff version of whatever is popular with Jesus’s name slapped on like a barcode.
As much as evangelical Christians hate being labeled, (“It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Sound familiar?) they sure flock to labels whenever it’s possible to demarcate “Christian” media content from everything else. When something is labeled Christian, it is considered safe: inoffensive, wholesome, #blessed. It’s like being in a book club where all the books were written for and about the members of that group, and no one else. It is exclusive, and in a culture where we like to feel special, it’s validating. It’s also dangerous, and incredibly narcissistic.
Art made by Christians about Christians is autobiographical. It’s a self-portrait. When we paint ourselves in context with others, then, we have to be careful about the shades we use. The better Christians make ourselves out to look in comparison with everyone else, the less everyone else is going to like what we have to say.
Enter the 2014 film God’s Not Dead. In the first of three movies, college freshman Josh Wheaton (a nice nod to our friends at the private Christian college in Illinois) takes on his philosophy professor who threatens to fail Josh if he does not renounce his beliefs. Besides this being illegal according to the U.S. Department of Justice, it’s also comically unrealistic.
The point here is that Wheaton’s professor, Radisson, played by Kevin Sorbo, is the primary representative for non-Christians in the film, and he is a Grade-A jerk.
The contrast isn’t subtle. Imagine a Christian and an atheist both go to see a film like GND, or Let There Be Light, released Oct. 27. They see arrogant, angry bullies versus soft-spoken, longsuffering underdogs. When they walk out of the theater, how does each of them feel? Who was that movie made for? It’s not enough to depict Christian characters who love people. Christian storytellers need to love others by representing them accurately. This doesn’t mean we need to advocate beliefs we don’t share, but we definitely cannot demonize them.
Autobiographies are one thing, but telling another person’s story is no small responsibility. When movies represent the world outside Christian circles to their highly sheltered audience, they are, under the brand label of “Christian,” extorting the implicit trust that comes with the label to affect the way a viewer sees the world.
These movies depict the world outside the evangelical Christian bubble as incredibly hostile. Big, bullying institutions have no other plot purpose outside the malicious intent to destroy anyone professing Christian faith. These fear-mongering portrayals of any and all things secular immediately put Christian viewers on the defensive and gratify their dangerous inclination toward victimhood.
In short, Christian movies like God’s Not Dead are propaganda stroking the evangelical ego and further polarizing and politicizing the rift between evangelical Christians and the rest of the world. And when they include celebrity cameos like the Robertsons and the Newsboys, and plugs like Christian Mingle – a movie literally titled after a paid service – Christian entertainment sends a message of insincerity. It has an ulterior motive. It demands something from its audience, instead of offering something.
When storytelling gets wrapped up into an agenda it compromises the integrity of the story. The story is no longer allowed to mean what it means: it means what the agenda wants it to mean. This is not a problem exclusive to Christian entertainment, but Christian entertainment is increasingly exclusive toward an agenda.
It’s also important to remember that secular storytellers can, and frequently do, tell Christian stories better than Christians do. I’m thinking of Hacksaw Ridge. I’m thinking of Les Miserables.
I want to make it clear that people make Christian movies with good intention. I might hate Facing the Giants because I had to watch it in my Bible class every two months for a year after it came out, but I understand where it was coming from. Yet, when The Shawshank Redemption moves me more spiritually than Fireproof, I have to wonder if the current understanding of “a Christian story” might just be too narrow a definition.