Why do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?THOM PARHAM
Most films that successfully incorporate Christian themes are made by non-Christians. Thom Parham explains why in this essay from, Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture.
The choir then sings "I Come to the Garden Alone" as the communion elements are passed. Philandering husband (Ed Harris) is the first to partake, followed by his forgiving wife (Lindsay Crouse) and their daughter. The camera pans across various congregants, including an evil banker (Lane Smith) who tried to foreclose on Edna's farm, and band members from a previous night's shindig. Then, oddly, the camera continues to pan, revealing a couple who died trying to escape from a tornado, some of the Klansmen, and Moze. Panning past Mr. Will, Possum, Frank, and Edna, the camera finally rests on Edna's late husband, Royce (Ray Baker), and Wylie (DeVoreaux White), the black youth who accidentally shot him and was in turn lynched.
At this point, we realize there's much more going on in Places in the Heart than what's on the surface. The film is a metaphor for the kingdom of God, and the final scene tells us that God's grace is available to all who accept it — white or black, young or old, good or evil, living or dead.
Writer/director Robert Benton is not an evangelical Christian. Yet, his film incorporates "Christian themes" with more subtlety, artistry, and depth than the majority of films being made by professed Christians. It is not the only one. In fact, most films that successfully incorporate religious themes are made by nonreligious people.
Here are some of the better films with Christian messages or themes from the past few decades:
All of these films were critically acclaimed and/or box office hits. But with the exception of Jonah, Bruce Almighty, and The Passion, none were made by Christian filmmakers. Christians, however, did make these films:
Overall, these films are unwatchable. There are only a handful of good scenes among them. None had success with critics or at the box office. (What does it say about Christian filmmakers that one of their best-received movies features computer-generated vegetables who sing and dance?)
If Christians want to make successful films that incorporate their worldview, why not learn from those who are already doing it — non-Christians. So let's ask: why are the best Christian films being made by secular filmmakers?
The first reason secular filmmakers are making better Christian films is because they are making them for mainstream audiences.
All of the films on my first list were produced for the main-stream market. They opened in either wide theatrical release (over two thousand theaters) or, in the case of the smaller films, an "art house" release of around one thousand theaters. The films on my second list were produced for the "Christian market." A few were released into about three to four hundred theaters. Most went straight to video or got a "vanity" release in two or three theaters.
The idea that Christians will go see films targeted at them has not been borne out by the marketplace. Christians, it turns out, see the same films as everyone else.
And what about the success of the Christian music and publishing industries? They have succeeded because they take advantage of an infrastructure of Christian bookstores, through which music and books targeted at Christian audiences can be sold. But there are no Christian movie theaters, and Providence Entertainment, the lone Christian distribution company, recently imploded. In other words, films targeting Christians have to compete with mainstream films for distribution and, if they make it to the cineplex, for audiences.
But Christian filmmakers seem to believe that they do not have to compete in the mainstream market. Thus, storytelling and production values end up taking a backseat to the movie's message. The films are merely bait to lure viewers to a homily or altar call, and this only ensures their failure.
Even with the built-in distributions system of Christian bookstores, the Christian music and publishing industries figured out after a few years that they had to develop products that were just as good as mainstream books and music in order to succeed. Christian filmmakers will have to do this and more. To compete in the mainstream market, they will have to appeal not only to Christians but also to mainstream audiences.
Parables, Not Propaganda
"If you want to send a message, try' Western Union," said Frank Capra, a Christian who made hugely popular mainstream films. Film excels at metaphor — forging a connection between dissimilar objects or themes. It doesn't fare as well with text messaging. Show, don't tell, is the rule of cinema. Christians, however, can't seem to resist the prospect of using film as a high-tech flannel board. The result is more akin to propaganda than art, and propaganda has a nasty habit of hardening hearts.
Though Places in the Heart is a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, nowhere is this notion communicated overtly. It is suggested through the film's system of metaphors and reinforced by its enigmatic ending. This is yet another reason non-Christians make the best Christian films: they understand that cinema is an art form of symbol and metaphor.
Jesus began many of his parables with the phrase, "The kingdom of God is like ..." (He used this construct twelve times in the Gospel of Matthew alone.) In the book All the Parables of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer explains, "Because of His infinity, God had to condescend to those things with which man was familiar in order to convey the sublime revelation of His will." Jesus's parables allowed his audience to understand heavenly principles in earthly terms. He would even respond to questions with parables — instead of stating the answer outright, he would allow his audience to make the connections themselves. Jesus also knew that the things of heaven are too large to be fully grasped by the human mind. They are mysteries, in the classic sense of the word, and can only be hinted at through symbols and metaphors.
Christian filmmakers seem to dislike mystery. Rather than using Jesus's construct, "The kingdom of God is like ...," their films often proclaim, "The kingdom of God is." Nothing is left to the imagination. Audiences are not allowed to make their own connections; they are told what to think. In his book True Believers Don't Ask Why, John Fischer characterizes this attitude as: "Jesus is the answer; therefore nothing can be left unanswered." This approach, no matter how sincere, rings false to audiences and leaves them feeling manipulated. That's why movies like Left Behind, which try to convince audiences of the truth, instead leave them tittering. Anthony Breznican of the Associated Press described it as "a weak proselytizing device masquerading as a movie." The National Review's Rod Dreher called it the "Gospel According to Ned Flanders." As long as people of faith are more concerned with messages than metaphors, they are doomed to make bad films.
"Do You Have Eyes but Fail to See?"
Secular filmmakers tend to observe life more objectively than Christians. They see the world the way it really is, warts and all. Christian filmmakers, on the other hand, tend to see the world the way they want it to be. Ignoring life's complexities, they paint a simplistic, unrealistic portrait of the world.
The film Joshua, adapted by Christian filmmakers from a popular Christian book, poses the question, "What if Jesus's incarnation occurred in modern times?" Unfortunately the filmmakers' answer seems to be "Jesus came to make nice people nicer" (to quote my friend and colleague Craig Detweiler). Christian artists seem more interested in propagating warm fuzzies than dealing with tough questions. (If King David were alive in twenty-first-century America, would his psalms make it past the gatekeepers of the Christian music industry?)
Perhaps the problem can be attributed to the fact that many evangelicals believe it's a sin to question God. But this notion is not scriptural. Jacob's name was changed to Israel, one who struggles with God — after his all-night wrestling match with the angel at Peniel. We are allowed to wrestle with God. Yet where are our stories about people of faith who struggle with God?
The Apostle, starring, written, directed, and executive produced by Academy Award winner Robert Duvall, is such a story. Although clearly familiar with evangelical subculture, Duvall is not a Christian. In the film, he plays Sonny, a pastor who discovers his wife has taken up with a youth pastor and conspired to take away his church. Sonny yells at God:
Sonny's dialogue evokes the book of Job. But today, the candor and passion of his frustration with God could have only been captured by a non-Christian. A Christian filmmaker wouldn't dare create a Christian protagonist who questions God, who falls or fails. But Duvall portrays a fully realized character rather than a stereotype. Sonny accidentally kills his wife's lover in a fit of rage. Yet, after Sonny flees from prosecution, he continues to do the Lord's work. Christians must not be afraid to grapple with the nature of reality and, indeed, God himself in their art.
The Wonders of God
Secular filmmakers also have an advantage when it comes to making films based on Bible stories.
Sometimes it's difficult for those of us who grew up in the church to truly appreciate the wonders, ironies, and paradoxes inherent in our faith. God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Christ was both man and God. These are not small claims! But for those of us who believe them, they become so second nature that they sometimes seem like it.
As a preacher's kid, I learned at an early age how to memorize Scripture and find Bible verses. I came to think of the parting of the Red Sea and the miracle of loaves and fishes as if they were everyday occurrences. It wasn't until I was older that I began to notice how amazing these biblical accounts sound to those who didn't grow up in a Christian household.
You can see this kind of wonder in The Prince of Egypt, an animated film from DreamWorks, a company owned by three secular Jews: Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. In one scene, we see the burning bush reflected in Moses's eyes as he realizes for the first time that this is YHWH, the Great I Am, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The sequence is everything it should be: ethereal, beautiful, and mysterious. Christian filmmakers will have to learn to see with new eyes if they want to convey the same sense of wonder in their biblically based films.
The Need for Redemption
In our post-modern, relativistic world, non-Christians often deny the existence of good and evil and the notion of sin. Yet, non-Christians are often more successful than Christians at representing sin in film.
This may be true because non-Christians are more likely to acknowledge the void within the human soul. French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote, "There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ." C. S. Lewis used the German word Sehnsucht to describe a deep, inner longing for the "other." Even such disparate sources as Jean-Paul Sartre and twelve-step recovery programs acknowledge this "God-shaped hole" in our hearts.
We Christians believe this void is the result of original sin, the rift in our union with God, and that our yearning for completion is a sign of our need for redemption, or reunification with God. Yet we are reticent to show this on screen. Our protagonists must be better than good; they are flawless, and inhumanly so. We are afraid that merely depicting sin is an endorsement of sin.
On the other hand, non-Christians may not call sin "sin," but that doesn't mean they don't acknowledge it in their art. They recognize sin as something in our human nature that prevents us from attaining what they might call "self-actualization" or "enlightenment." In the original screenplay for American Beauty, protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) sleeps with the object of his desire, the underaged Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), before he is murdered at the film's finale. Director Sam Mendes had screenwriter Alan Ball rewrite the ending because he felt Lester must be "redeemed" before he dies. Mendes recognized that though Lester believed sleeping with Angela would fulfill him, this was an empty fantasy that would keep him from true fulfillment. Lester's redemption comes when he acknowledges Angela as a person instead of just a fantasy.
Another example is Tim Robbins's Dead Man Walking, which recounts the true story of Sister Helen Prejean's attempt to save Matthew Poncelet's soul. In their pivotal jail-house conversation, she admonishes him to accept responsibility for his role in the deaths of two teenagers: "Matt, redemption isn't some kinda free admission ticket that you get because Jesus paid the price; you gotta participate in your own redemption. You got some work to do." Matthew finally acknowledges his crime and asks for God's forgiveness.
In taking an unflinching look at their characters, these film-makers came much closer to telling the truth about sin than most Christian filmmakers even though they didn't call it "sin."
An Exception to the Rule
Three tenets of Catholicism informed their craft and equipped them to excel. First, an intuitive understanding of iconography gave them a strong foundation for crafting visual images. Next, they seemed to grasp the incarnational function of art, which allowed them to give tangible form to intangible concepts. Finally, their understanding of the sacramental nature of life helped them relate divine patterns through everyday minutiae. For these reasons, even lapsed Catholic filmmakers, such as Brian De Palma or Federico Fellini, tend to be better equipped to focus on religious themes than practicing evangelicals. This isn't to say that non-Catholic Christian filmmakers are at a complete disadvantage when creating cinema. But the Protestant evangelical emphasis on the primacy of "word" has not allowed us to fully realize our ability to translate the image of God (imago Dei) into moving pictures.
From Places in the Heart to The Apostle to Dead Man Walking, secular filmmakers have continually shamed us by treating Christian themes and subject matter with grace and depth, while our filmmakers have been too busy making apocalyptic schlock to notice. If we, as a community, can embrace and learn from what non-Christians are doing with the art form, then perhaps our next generation of filmmakers will be different. They will have to learn to make films for the mainstream, to embrace metaphor and eschew propaganda, and to be more objective observers — to wrestle with tough questions and to portray sin as it really is. If they do not, we will continue to be scandalized by the fact that heathens make the best Christian films.
Thom Parham. "Why do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?" from Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture edited by Spencer Lewerenz and Barbara Nicolosi
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Thom Parham is an associate professor of Theater, Film, and Television at Azusa Pacific University. He has written for the CBS drama ‘JAG’ and the Family Channel sitcom ‘Big Brother Jake’ and has also worked on ‘Touched by an Angel.’ Thom is listed in the 2002, 2004, and 2005 editions of ‘Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.’
Copyright © 2005 Baker Books
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