Did you go see the movie Heaven Is for Real? Based on a true story, it’s about a boy who meets Jesus in a near-death experience and about his parents’ struggle to believe their son’s incredible news. The father, who is a pastor, fights belief until he no longer has the strength to doubt, and in the end, the family comes together with renewed faith, knowing that Heaven is, indeed, for real.
Didn't see that coming.
It was pretty predictable. I mean, it was a Christian film: a mildly interesting story with two-dimensional characters reciting faith-centric messages. What else did I expect?
The success of movies like Heaven Is for Real and Fireproof indicates that there’s a real market for Christian films. It makes sense that people want to see them; people want to be edified, they want a good message from a movie for once, and they want to know that there are good people making art. Those aren’t bad reasons, but these movies not only aren’t engaging the culture, they're irrelevant very people who need to experience the beauty of the world as we Christians know it. I’ll talk about film because that’s what I know best, but the following three points in relation to Christian films can be translated to other art forms as well.
Well, maybe not basket weaving. But, who knows?
1: A Christian movie isn’t automatically a good movie.
When a movie like Heaven Is for Real comes out, I think people of faith go see it simply because they want to combat the Hollywood smut being shown in Theater 6. But what they’re actually saying is that whether or not the film is well executed, it’s automatically better because it’s Christian. And that’s just absolutely false.
Making a film “Christian” doesn’t baptize it and wash away its artistic sins. Film is relatively new, so we don’t have a long history to reference, but it’s not hard to see that the great pieces of art commissioned by the Church over the centuries demanded technical perfection, and technical perfection first. A Pieta sculpted by some random Italian guy with a chisel probably wouldn’t be that inspiring. Fortunately, Michelangelo was around.
2: Before anything, a movie is a story.
As we know, Jesus caught a lot of flack for hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors, even from His disciples. But he told them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17).
This verse applies so well to film because most "Christian" movies are for, you guessed it, Christians. And yet, many people think we need Christian movies because by communicating a "positive message" they will encourage people to be good upstanding churchgoers. While that might be a worthy thought, let's examine the two assumptions behind it.
The first is that the goal of art is to convince someone of some message. This, however, is not art; this is propaganda. Art is real, it is deep, it is challenging. Propaganda is contrived, thin, and abrasive. Film, as art, should tell a story, should show us the possibilities of the human soul, both good and bad.
Moreover, stories are not only about messages any more than the faith is only about a message. Both faith and stories, rather, are about people; specifically in a movie, the characters are what we connect with, why we care about the film in the first place. They must be, above all, believable and relatable. In fact, it’s the same–no, more so–with our faith, because for Christians, the message is a person. The Word became flesh. Without Jesus, the faith is nothing.
The second assumption is that the people who need to receive the good message of a Christian film will see it. This is just absurd. Honestly, how many atheists are going to see Heaven Is for Real? How many people not already believing in Heaven went to go see it, then came out of that movie actually believing? That being said, it can be assumed that Christian film, for the most part, is intended for the believers from the get-go. That’s not preaching to the choir; that’s a choir droning hymns to itself in an empty church.
Who's up for some Marty Haugen? Come to the Feast? Anyone?
If we really want films that can change the culture–which means changing individuals, by the way–we must tell authentic stories and not just spout pulpit platitudes. Authentic stories are the ones that can resonate with an audience and open an avenue for the Holy Spirit and a change of heart. But how can we get films like that without using the Book of Deuteronomy as a shooting script? Well…
3: We need Christian artists, not Christian art.
My friends and I started making movies in college. At a small Catholic school with no film program, we funded our own projects, bought or borrowed our equipment, and were entirely self-taught. Fellow students enjoyed partaking in these projects (ask Marcellino how many times he or his friends have been murdered in these films), and generally, people really liked them.
Treat yourself to 3:03. It's a masterful performance, really. *Hint* He's the gay guy.
As you’ve probably guessed, however, these movies weren’t any kind of "Christian" film. There was violence and cursing; there was corn syrup and cocoa (that’s a cheap recipe for blood, if you ever need it). But there was also a definite moral hierarchy to the stories and characters because that’s what we cared about, that’s what we were learning about, and that’s what manifested naturally in our movies.
I think that’s how we can get more movies that edify and uplift us: by encouraging, investing in, and raising up Christian artists - not the preachy kind, but those who are unafraid to explore both the darkness and the beauty of the human heart. We need to build up artists who can speak to a fallen world, inviting people to experience the many ways that life can be lived and to decide that only the best life is worth living.
To get these kinds of artists, we need people formed by the faith, trained to tell stories, and technically proficient in film. Those are three separate and gigantic endeavors that take a lot of time. My friends and I have been doing it for years, and we’re learning things every day. But we never would have learned as much if we only made or, even, only watched Christian film. That’s like saying a budding architect should only look at and design churches. We need hospitals, too.
Let's play "Guess whether that building is a Catholic church or a hospital!"
If you want to make films that glorify God, then you should watch the best that film has to offer, and make films with the movers and shakers in the industry. Be part of the dialogue instead of starting your own conversation off in some corner. And don’t worry about the subject matter of your films; just tell a story you’re passionate about. There’s no other reason to make art.
Let’s remember that Hollywood isn’t some nebulous force of evil trying to destroy morality; it’s a bunch of people, all with passions, desires, brokenness, and dreams. Many of them are really trying to make a difference. Instead of condemning the entire industry outright, let’s pray for all of the people in it and encourage more Christians to join their ranks.
If your nephew or friend or daughter wants to go into the film industry, instead of telling them to grow up, give them your old camera. Make them read John Paul II’s Letter to Artists. Sit down and watch your favorite movie together.
And, yes, it’s ok if that movie happens to be Heaven is For Real. Just make sure they watch Citizen Kane, too.
Conor Hennelly has been writing for fun since age ten. He graduated from Ave Maria University with a degree in philosophy and works in marketing.