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Posted by on Feb 26, 2015 in Faith in Writing, Filmmaking, Theme | 43 comments

The Big Problem With Christian Books and Movies

The Big Problem With Christian Books and Movies

 

I have a problem with Christian books and movies. Mostly, I don’t like them.

Sometimes I feel guilty for my dislike. After all, I’m a Christian. I get the feeling that I’m letting down my tribe or something.

But the truth is that a lot of Christian books and movies just tend to be pretty mediocre. Sometimes just plain bad.

 

For Example

 

I watched a Christian movie recently that was rated four-and-a-half stars on several movie review sites. It was also one of the most painful things I’ve had to sit through in a long time. The story consisted of a shallow, flaky rich guy who spends a week in a town where, surprise surprise, everyone else is a Christian. As he wanders around the town, everyone he meets gives him a sermon right out of Sunday school, delivered with a perfect smile and an inhuman dose of loving patience. And of course, because no unbelieving mortal could hope to resist such a flood of Christian-ness, he does a complete character flip, and accepts Christ on his knees. (The bonus being that he gets to marry the blond Christian chick who could have been a model, but decided to start a home fortroubled boys instead.)

 

God’s Not Dead

 

God’s Not Dead, the most hyped and anticipated Christian film of the last year, also disappointed me. The cinematography and acting were decent, compared to a lot of other Christian movies I’ve seen. But it wasn’t a good story. There were too many characters, all shallowly developed. The main storyline was basically a demonstration of Christian apologetics–good arguments, maybe, but nothing I hadn’t heard before. The end felt forced, relying on gimmicky melodrama to evoke emotion, rather than solid storytelling and character development.

 

Big Fishes, Little Pond

 

Both of these movies have hundreds of glowing reviews online, all written by Christians. They’ve won awards, all from Christian festivals and companies.

If you took the Christian message out of these movies and replaced it with an ambiguous or blatantly secular one, would they do well commercially? Of course not. They would be mocked and dragged through the mud all over the internet. They would be ridden out of town on a rail.

 

The Problem

 

And therein is my biggest problem with Christian movies, books, and even music. Christian art happens in a small, cozy pond where the standards are nice and low. People aren’t looking for art, or good stories, they’re looking for sermons and apologetics, or possibly more often, warm fuzzies that make them feel good about following Jesus.

Something else a lot of Christians are looking for are movies that they can feel good about watching with their children on Saturday night, or books they feel comfortable with their third-grader reading. Stories without smut. And you know what, I have no problem with that. There’s a genuine need for clean, family-friendly stories.

However. Why do we have to sacrifice good storytelling for family-friendly?

I have a crazy theory that if the standard for Christian art was higher, the message would actually be stronger. Maybe if we stopped trying to wrap a story around a sermon and started working theme and story together organically, like good storytellers, people would stop associating Christian movies and books with words like “cheesy” and “preachy”.

 

Not finished talking about this yet. Stay tuned over the next couple of weeks–I’m planning on getting a little more in-depth on this stuff. What are some of the most common problems you see in Christian books and movies today?

 

photo credit: Christian Cross 26 via photopin (license)

43 Comments

  1. YES. I have two other problems with Christian fic.
    1. When the MC claims to be a Christian but doesn’t act like one. This happened in a YA series I read and it drove me nuts that the MC claimed Christian but was dating the guy who wasn’t and kept important stuff from her parents and… yeah.

    2. Just because it’s “Christian”, doesn’t mean it’s family friendly. While I actually don’t have a problem with movies not being appropriate for children, I do have a problem with the assumption that because they’re Christian, they must always be okay for children under 13.

    I don’t have a problem with good Christian fiction, but like you said, there isn’t much of it.

    • Good points! Although I do think that “acting like a Christian” is sometimes not what a character needs to be doing… Even Christians are flawed human beings and do things that are stupid, bad, and awful. We all fall short, right? So I think it’s good to have characters of faith who still do dumb things. As long as they’re on a journey to become better, and not stagnating right where they are.

      • Oh, I agree. But the MC didn’t change in terms of Christianity that I can remember. Other than the fact the guy she was dating wasn’t a Christian and she was (and now that I think about it, I’m not sure that Boy #2 of the love triangle ever said he was a Christian, either…), you could’ve left Christianity completely out of the story. (And it would’ve been an okay story without it, I think.)

  2. That sums it up perfectly!

    • Thank you!

  3. Oh my goodness. I’ve literally been considering writing a post on this exact subject recently. SO MUCH TRUTH.

    I’ve been irked by Christian fiction (movies, books, etc.) for a long time, and I too have felt guilty about it. I sometimes feel like a critical monster saying it, but the truth is that a lot of people who make those films and write those books aren’t storytellers; they’re pastors or wives of pastors, or I dunno–someone who wants to preach a sermon and thinks that’s the way to do it. But they just //aren’t// storytellers, and so their stories feel cheesy. Which is sad, because the world needs more //good// Christian fiction.

    Something that I’ve seen so often in the media world is this: the secular media reaches for a person’s emotions, while the Christian media reaches for their intellect. The Christians try and //tell// them how bad the secular culture is, but the problem is that that culture is already ingrained in their emotions. It’s not a problem that can be solved by preaching in their faces.

    Unfortunately, this puts Christian media behind in the game. Why? Because the secular media knows how to tell a good story, while all the Christians know how to do is tell you about Jesus and why all of this stuff is wrong. (And don’t get me wrong; people need to hear that, but shoving it down an unbeliever’s throat is just about the least likely way to convert them.)

    I would so love to see the passion for the Christian message combined with the passion of goody storytelling. And I agree 100% with your thought that the message will be stronger for it. Fabulous post, Braden. This is something that Christians everywhere need to hear.

    • Exactly, and exactly! You put it perfectly. 🙂

  4. I feel much the same way. I often feel guilty because I find myself cringing more than enjoying myself when watching most Christian movies (I did feel God’s Not Dead was a bit better than most, although I sort of wish the atheist professor 1. Didn’t have a tragic backstory to explain his atheism and 2. Did NOT get converted at the end and 3. Didn’t die in the end).
    Don’t even get me started on ‘Christian’ fantasy. Oh, puh-leeeze. That stuff can be the worst!

    BUT I also have to say that I think a huge majority of secular movies and books are ALSO preachy. We just don’t realize because of the culture around us. But anytime a preacher or a Christian is made to be the over-the-top bad guy in a secular movie, that’s just as heavy handed as making an atheist be the super villanous, completely evil person in a Christian movie.
    Evolution, atheism, all sorts of things are shoved down our throats in secular fiction all the time; but we can’t recognize it because everyone around us accepts it and therefore they also don’t see it (well, sometimes they do; I’ve seen some good reviews of bad movies where non-Christians even recognize that the secular message is way too heavy-handed and in-your-face). Anyways, I’d say that instead of trying to write stories as good as non-Christians, we should set our sights on writing for the glory of God and writing *better* than the secularists.

    • Oh, Christian fantasy. Bad bad bad. So much badness.
      And yeah, that’s actually a really good point. EVERY story has a soapbox. Today’s society is just a little more tolerant of some soapboxes than others.

  5. Yes, Braden, yes.
    Agreed.

    What’s your opinion on movies like Fireproof, October Baby, and Courageous?

    • Hmmm. I guess you mean movies from the Kendrick bros and their proteges?
      I dunno. I mean, I kind of have a soft spot for the Kendricks and their movies, because I grew up on Facing the Giants, and that movie was basically what made me decide I wanted to make films. And I do think that they do an amazing job with what they have. I think the writing isn’t the best, but considering the fact that they’re not writers, they’re just church dads who started writing in their adulthoods, I think they do a pretty good job.
      I didn’t like October Baby. I thought the story and screenplay were both weak. Again, I don’t think it lived up to its hype. But that’s just me being the Christian movie grinch. 😉

  6. I believe I have seen both of the movies you just described and mentioned. I liked the idea of the second, more than the actual movie, and I agree that both could have been significantly better. One of the problems is that a lot of the producers and cast of these Christian movies are amateurs, and don’t have enough experience to turn out a five star movie. I really thought Courageous was good though, and I like the other movies made by Sherwood Pictures. I’ve also enjoyed Mom’s Night Out and The Lost Medallion. There definitely seems to be a lack of high quality Christian movies available, especially movies that don’t present mixed messages. (Just let me know when you decide to produce a film and I’ll be glad to be one of the corny, amateur actresses in it;)

    • I tend to enjoy the Sherwood films more than other Christian movies, just because I like the Kendricks.
      And hey, we’ll probably need one of those. 😉

      • Yay! You won’t be disappointed, I assure you. I’ll work on my redneck impressions;)

  7. A hearty AMEN!

    • Thank ya!

  8. I totally agree. Christian movies are so dumb and phoney. Actually, Catholic movies and books are much more realistic than Christian ones. Most of them are very good and have story lines. There’s this great series out there by William L. Biersach about a Catholic priest who used to be a cop in the homicide department. Him and his gardener are ordered by their superior to try and figure out why Catholic bishops are being murdered. It’s an amazing series and even my brother who doesn’t read much more than Star Wars, enjoyed it. The first book of the series is called “The Endless Knot”. It’s really great, and definitely not like that movie, “Ring the Bell” where you just ring a bell off a tree and automatically get to go to heaven. This series actually shows that, no actually you do have to go to Confession and go to Mass every Sunday and give things up for Lent to escape Hell and even then you usually still go to Purgatory. It’s a lot more work than the movies make out.

    So yeah, that was my little rant. 😀

    Thanks for the post, Braden:)

    • Hmmm, I’ll have to check that out! I really enjoy the Father Gilbert audio drama series.

  9. I wrote a post about this problem just a few weeks ago (I’m putting it as the link behind my name.)

    There are just so many Christian’s who think they can hide behind the label and instantly become best sellers. And there are so many Christians who think that they have to support their tribe (as you put it) that they can get away with it.

    And it’s the wrong attitude. We’re called to excellence, not mediocre.

    Now, I’ll admit that lower budgets may factor into the movies’ lack of quality, but with books, we really have no excuse. We can edit just as well, or better than the secular.

    Some other issues I’ve met with in my reading:

    Overdone allegory. I’m looking at the Kingdom Chronicles where Daniel – I mean, Leinad (sorry, my dyslexia gets in the way sometimes) goes from being Seth to Noah to Joseph to Moses all within one book (and if it’s 40,000 words long, I’d be surprised). I loved the concept but … that was way too much to pack into the story. And as much as I love a good retelling of Jesus’ death on the cross, don’t rely on it for your climax. (Though, on the other side of the coin, don’t let them be so unrelated that the Sacrifice looses its value.)

    Elsie Dinsmore Syndrome. I love the Elsie books (I own them all and am quite proud of my collection), but I don’t want every Christian I read about to follow in her footsteps. I want to see Christians who struggle with their faith. I want to see fiery brands for Christ along side the humble servants.

    Spice. Ugg. With this one, I have to just ask WHY. Some Christian writers get the idea that if they don’t include a “spicy” scene, they won’t get sales. Um. No. Excellence, remember. Unless it’s essential to the plot (and believe me, the first night of the couple’s marriage is NOT under any circumstance), DON’t include it.

    *Steps down from soapbox*

    • Yeah, as writers we sure don’t have the low-budget excuse… Maybe a not-enough-coffee-excuse, but… 😉

    • I love The Kingdom Series, and have been rereading it since I was a kid. Understanding that it was supposed to be based on the characters in the Bible, I was delighted with figuring out which biblical figure was being portrayed, and loved that it put it from the perspective of knights. The action is suspenseful and engaging, and the characters realistic and likable. I would agree that it is overdone allegory if it wasn’t what the series is supposed to be. There are few books I have reread so much as those. The Cloak of the Light by the same author was even more exciting, and I enjoyed that immensely as a YA Christian Sci Fi.

      • I think a lot of it was the fact that I came to them too late, (I was either seventeen or eighteen), and the kindle copy I read had SERIOUS formatting issues. I loved the idea, and would have eaten them up as a kid … but from my reading vantage point now, it fell short. There are better, and it could have been paced better so that it didn’t feel so crammed. I love seeing biblical and historical events rewritten in a fantasy setting (I’m personally working on one about the early church and fall of Jerusalem), but the Kingdom books aren’t my favorites.

  10. I can definitely see what you’re saying about the movies! Though, I did think ‘God’s Not Dead’ was a better Christian movie than most. And there are some better ones out there! But I recently watched a Christian movie (Saving Winston) and it was absolutely terrible! Really terrible… It was really badly done (bad script, plot, casting, etc.). Ugh!

    Really, though, it’s so true that many (if not all) Christian movies are not as well done as secular movies.

    Speaking of movies – did you ever watch Son of God? If you did, what did you think of it? I really liked it and thought it was very well done!

    • Hmmmm, I haven’t! What’s it about?

      • It’s the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It came out last year, or the year before, I believe.

  11. Agreed!

    As with “God’s not dead”, it’s “putting God on trial” is heinously unbiblical. Much could be said on this point.

    Another problem I see with christian storytelling is that so long as the main character prays/learns the right lesson, every problem will be fixed. The protagonist’s victory does not mean everything turns out just peachy.

    • Exactly! I’m not a fan of happy endings, actually. I’m a fan of semi-happy endings.

  12. It’s Sturgeon’s Law, you know? I mean, there was (/is) a time where a science fiction story would be written off from any kind of serious critical examination because it was science fiction. (The Hugos were started because science fiction wasn’t getting any sort of attention from most literary awards) And so Sturgeon realized that “ninety percent of everything is crap” and used this to defend the fact that yes, science fiction could be quality even though most of it was bad.

    I think the same thing applies to Christian fiction. There is a lot of crap, but there is a lot of not crap too. Like, Leaper, one of my favorite novels of all time (if not my very favorite novel of all time) is explicitly Christian.

    I mean, if you went to every movie that is currently in the box office, how many would you rate positively? On the other hand, we tend to disregard legitimately good Christian movies (To End All Wars, The Mission, Luther, etc) and talk about Facing the Giants instead.

    I don’t know, I just don’t think the landscape is as quality dry as we claim it is. We all accept that the majority of novels in the YA section won’t appeal to every reader, but we bemoan the state of the Christian arts because there are some bad movies and books out there right now.

    Meanwhile, there are lots of Christian writers, musicians, and artists in general in the world right now who kind of get glossed over in our rush to point out all the ones who are failing. And that sort of bothers me. There ARE people who are doing good stuff, but they get ignored because they are doing good stuff. Isn’t that pretty backwards?

    Or maybe it’s just that really good content does get buried because it is more fun to make fun of Kirk Cameron’s Christmas Special than it is to seriously consider the issues at play in The Mission.

    • You have a good point! I actually think there’s a lot of good content made by Christians out there. My problem is mostly with the content produced inside the “Christian Pond”, where Christians are so starved for Christian-labeled art that they are willing to settle for low quality content that just regurgitates messages we’ve all heard from the pulpit a hundred times.
      I do think that there’s a lot of really good art made by Christians out there that gets ignored because of our willingness to focus on the bad art. I also think that the really good stuff gets ignored because it’s too different, and it doesn’t follow the mold that the “Christian industry” likes to sell from. (Like Future of Forestry, a Christian music project that makes freaking incredible music, but you’ll never hear it playing on Christian radio because it’s just too different.)
      I just want people to hold art made by Christians to a higher standard. I don’t want people to settle for bad art just because it caters to their denominational preferences.

      Also, I’ve been wanting to read Leaper for a long time. I hear it’s a fantastic book.

      • I definitely feel that comment about Christian Music. One of the best Christian band of the last while (probably ever) would be Showbread (in my hugely biased opinion.) But they’re weird and their songs sometimes have names that would make people uncomfortable, and their shows used to be kind of scary for people outside of their scene, but they’re very, very serious and sincere about their faith and it gets hugely ignored.

        Same with Five Iron Frenzy. People don’t want ska anymore (Probably because most people hate ska) on the radio.

        But I spend a lot of time around people who listen to a lot of radio, and you know what? Music on the radio sucks. And even if they promise not to play a song more than once per day, they will play it every single day.

        Radio sucks. That’s just what it does. Secular and Christian alike.

        I don’t know, I just don’t think that the difference is as big as people tend to make it seem like it is. Does FIF and Showbread and plenty of other good Christian bands get passed over? Of course they do. Does generic Christian music flood the spot instead? Yep.

        Does Shake It Off by Taylor Swift get played eighteen times a day, until my brain starts to bleed a little bit? Also yes.

  13. I completely agree with you. I feel bad about it sometimes, but I don’t like most Christian books and movies either. They’re way too predictable and usually underdeveloped. I often feel like if I want a good story I have to turn to secular media.

  14. Interesting thoughts. I wonder why it is that Christian literature is not very good? I once read an article on this subject, and the author suggested it might be that we feel that we have to put in a message about God, whereas secular authors just write whatever sounds good to them. So maybe that’s part of it.

  15. You have some great points and I agree with you completely. I just wish you would have pointed them out a little more gently in the first part, “For Example”. I am looking forward to hearing what else you have to say about it.

    I am trying hard not to make my book too preachy and still have Christianity in it. Any suggestions?

    • I hope I didn’t come across too bluntly! I’m not trying to be mean, just trying to make a point. 😉

      Honestly, you have a really hard task in front of you. Have you read my article “How to Send a Message in Your Story Without Preaching”? Here’s a link: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/message-in-your-story/ Hopefully it gives you some ideas!

  16. I highly recommend the book Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle. It’s about making art when you’re a Christian. She’s the one who says, “We don’t lead them to the truth by telling them they’re wrong, but by showing them a light so lovely they’ll want to know the source of it.”

    Especially if the Christian message in a movie was, for example, turned into a message from the government, it would totally be seen as propaganda.

    I myself have been struggling about this in my fantasy series, whether or not to have a God-figure, and I’m finding the story is much stronger without an obvious God-figure.

  17. The best movies that I have seen that have a christian message are not even “christian” movies. *cough* Gimme Shelter *cough* and do you know why? Not because they didn’t have christian themes, but because they didn’t shove that theme down you throat. Personally, that is why I like Fireproof. I don’t think it does as much shoving as others. The focus in mainly on romance but has a christian theme. I liked Gods Not Dead, but it too had a lot of problems. The ending scene was just NOT convincing for me and some of the characters seemed really cliche (the blond girlfriend comes to mind along with the professor who allegedly knew God existed all along).

    Anyways, it looks like I jumped on the band wagon here with a long comment but, long story short, I totally agree. I’m writing some fanfic that is about a character dealing with trauma and I plan on having a Christian message, but one of my biggest fears is coming across as preachy and cheesy. I hope that doesn’t happen. 🙂

    • Oh, that girlfriend… I wanted to strangle her. The breakup scene was the happiest part of the movie for me. Another recurring theme in Christian movies seems to be good Christian guys who somehow have evil girlfriends.

      • I know. I was like,” Why is she even existent in this story?” I know she was supposed to be a “sacrifice” he had to make in the name of truth, but please, getting rid of her was more of a relief then a sacrifice. And, come on, that just looks bad on Christian girls and guys. That a Christian girl would be so selfish and maniacal and that a Christian guy would be dumb enough to date her. o.o

        • True dat!

  18. I love this, and its pretty accurate. I can keep going forward knowing my characters aren’t shallow. Thank you!!

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