Thinking Christianly about the yearâ€™s top films
To think Christianly about a film is to think critically about its messages and whether those qualities of the Christian Story also characterize these cinematic narratives. To view a movie Christianly is to think about the worldview presented in the film and whether that view is in concert with or is opposed to the Christian way of being in the world. For example, if a film depicts a world of existential despair and random fate, such as Woody Allen is prone to do, this film is just as “unchristian” as a movie peppered with four letter words because this is not the kind of world that the Christian Story as told in Scripture believes. Some Christians will point to sex, violence and profanity as the obvious signs of film’s depravity. I do not disagree that these items should be one consideration in whether a film is “Christian”, but I do find these surface evaluations of a film’s merits to be shallow and maybe even judgmental when divorced from deeper theological reflection about the meaning and message of the film.
It is possible for a film with no sex, profanity or violence to construct a worldview that is unfaithful to the Christian witness. Facing The Giants , directed and produced by a church in Georgia and distributed by Fox Faith media, is such a film. This film, which aspires sincerely to be Christian, does not tell the truth about the Truth. It is the story of a high school football coach who can’t win a championship and of his wife who is infertile and without child. He finally gives his life to Jesus in a field (why is it always a field?), and guess what? He wins a football championship and his wife gets pregnant. Go God! Christians win! Such faith fairy tales with happy endings and triumphalist hopes are one of the reasons nonbelievers have such a difficult time believing the gospel because they know that such presentations of the Gospel are not authentic to the way life really is, nor to the New Testament which speaks of suffering and loss as the result of following Jesus. While I applaud the film makers for their sincere effort, this schmaltzy view of the Christian gospel made this movie one of my least favorite films of 2006.
Not all “Christian” films are Christian; on the other hand, not all “non-Christian” films are non-Christian. As one of my friends often remarks, pagans often make the best Christian movies. Whether that is true or not, I believe it is possible to think Christianly about films that are not explicitly Christian, even those films that may contain some offensive elements. Let me illustrate using three films from this year.
The movie The Queen stars award winning actress Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth who must come to terms with the demands of her people and the new government of Tony Blair during the days surrounding the death of Princess Diana of Wales. This movie is brilliantly written, the cinematography is captivating, and the acting is superb. Beyond this, the movie depicts the struggle of the tradition and duty bound Queen with the modern and more cathartic Tony Blair. As the Queen says at one point in the film, “There has been a shift in values.” Any one who has sat through an elder’s meeting or navigated a worship war can relate to the powerful truth of this film, which authentically depicts the pain and loss of those who have to give up traditions, and the great tug of those who consider emotion more important than duty. The message of the film has much relevance for Christians: If the kingdom is to survive, adaptation is necessary but always painful for those who value duty to the past over experience in the moment.
Another film that I believe deserves attention from Christians is The Devil Wears Prada , the delightfully funny movie starring Merryl Streep and Anne Hathaway that shows the subtle evils of materialism and power. The movie gives us a real window into both New York City and the mysterious world of fashion; but more than this, it helps us to see the pain and brokenness of those who make success their god. The movie contains little vulgarity, depicts sin truthfully, and is terribly funny. The film not only reveals the dark side of a glamorous life, but it also, points us to the possibility of choosing a different kind of life that is rooted in deeper values of beauty, love and goodness. That’s all.
A pregnant mother living under an oppressive government. A baby born by a miracle in humble surroundings that saves the world. No, I’m not referring to The Natvity Story, though it is a decent movie. I’m speaking of Children of Men , a science fiction tale of a crisis that develops in Britain when all the population is dying off because all of the women have become infertile. Clive Owen masterfully plays the lead in this film about the loss of meaning, the despair of hopelessness, and the purpose of the future. Biblical references are scattered throughout, and the movie score is by the Russian Orthodox composer John Taverner. But is this a Savior of human souls? No, the baby is a savior of a renewed humanity in this world. As despairing as this movie is, I believe it is theologically one of the most sophisticated movies of the year that nudges its audience towards Truthiness, if not the Truth itself.
Children of Men was one of several films in 2006 with prevalent Christ figures. Superman Returns revealed one of the most blatant Christ stories of the year, telling the story of the skeptical Lois Lane who discovers that the world truly does “need a Savior” (yes, that’s a quote from the movie). Pan’s Labyrinth (NR) is an adult fairy tale in the likeness of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe by Spanish director Guillermo Del Toro. The movie contains graphic violence, but it tells a story close to the Christian one which describes the darkness of this world but also helps us see an alternative world that is just as real that is breaking into this reality to end the power of death.
What are we to make of these sometimes overt and at other times subtle Christian images? Has Hollywood suddenly become Christian? I doubt it, but these good stories and some of their themes that are reminiscent of the Christian Story remind us that God is still incarnate in our world to speak truth to falsehood, to create beauty where there is ugliness, and to inspire hope where there is despair. If you are looking, you may even find God in a Hollywood movie. He is never listed in the credits, but He’s the original creator of all stories that are beautiful and true.
TODD BOULDIN lives in Los Angeles and is the director of Pepperdine University’s Lilly Endowment Program on Vocation. He is a member of the Camarillo Church of Christ and served as part of a mission team in Brasilia, Brazil.
March 1, 2007