Why I Don’t Like (Most) Christian Movies

I don’t like Christian movies.

There. I said it—and it feels good to finally say it publicly.

(What’s ironic about that statement is that I have a B.A. degree in film because I originally wanted to make Christian movies.)

So there I was—the Christian who doesn’t like Christian movies—watching The Case for Christ and I liked it. I really did. But wait a minute. I don’t like Christian movies! This led me to do an inventory of the Christian movies I’ve seen over the years, and I had to admit to myself that, yes, I liked some of them.

The Christian movies I liked were true stories about real people. For example:

  • The Case of Christ – Lee Strobel, the atheistic journalist who took a hard look at the resurrection of Christ and moved from skeptic to believer.
  • Hacksaw Ridge – Desmond Doss, whose Christian conviction kept him from  carrying a gun in WWII, yet he received the Medal of Honor for his actions in battle.
  • The Hiding Place – the ten Boom sisters hid Jews during WWII, yet they maintained a strong Christian faith even after being caught and sent to a concentration camp.

This doesn’t mean every Christian biopic is done well, but at least they’re starting in a better place: a real story about real people dealing with real struggles and faith.

This also doesn’t mean there’s no place for fiction in communicating faith. Ever heard of Pilgrim’s Progress? Then of course we have the catalog of works by C.S. Lewis.  When I came to the end of the whole Harry Potter series, I was moved by the subtle way it communicated the gospel.

But the majority of Christian movie storytelling is … well, the state of Wisconsin probably envies the output of cheese in these movies. The filmmakers mean well, but as a way to bring your friends to Christ, they fall short. They’re not believable.

For all my disdain of the genre, they do serve a purpose. Although the intent of so many of these movies is to be evangelistic, they serve well to encourage believers. They give many believers Christ-centered entertainment.

But if I want to use a movie as an on-ramp to talk about faith and spiritual matters, make-believe Christians in a make-believe world are no match for the real thing.  

Watch The Case for Christ (which releases on DVD August 15), then go for coffee with a friend and have a conversation.

What “Silence” Said to Me

“There’s a joy to the Christian life that just can’t be manufactured—and those outside the faith just don’t understand. It’s a joy that is not tied to our circumstances. In fact, our circumstances can get pretty nasty, but when we’re walking with Christ, the joy is still there.”

mv5bmjy3otk0nja2nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwntg3mjc2mdi-_v1_sy1000_cr006401000_al_I wrote that statement in an earlier blog, but I was reminded of those words when I went to the movies.

I was eager to see the movie “Silence.” Martin Scorsese’s movie is based on the 50-year-old novel by Shusaku Endo, that looks at both the struggles Jesuit priests faced in 17th-century Japan and the intense persecution Japanese Christians face during that time.

The first two-thirds of the movie dealt honestly with the persecution the Japanese Christians faced and their struggles with how to live appropriately during those difficulties. What struck me was the joy in the faces of these poor Japanese.

The focus of the movie, though, is more on the effect these persecutions had on the Catholic priests, who eventually turned from their allegiance to Christ. The novel focuses on both faith and faithlessness, but that last third of the movie is far more focused on the faithlessness of the priests.

For example, the Inquisitor, the one leading the persecution of the Christians, is presented as quite reasonable and sane in his arguments against Christianity. He told one priest that Christianity might work in Portugal, but it doesn’t fit Japan.

The rationale of the Inquisitor plays right into our current post-modern culture that believes, “What works for you doesn’t necessary work for me. You have your truth, and I have mine.” Consequently, some people will likely view the priests as the bad guys, bringing something to the Japanese they didn’t need and only caused them pain and suffering.

You may have a different reaction to the film, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Go see it. It’s a well-done film, and it will give you much to talk about.

What is missing in the movie is the truth of how many thousands of Japanese Christians never lost their faith; in fact they died with a faith and joy grounded in Christ.

I think the point the author intended was missed by Scorsese. Yes, Christianity does not fit Japan—but it doesn’t fit anywhere. Christianity is not part of the Japanese culture, the American culture, or any culture. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

We are not to live for this world. We are looking forward to a greater, eternal home. And that is why we can live with joy regardless of what happens to us.

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:13-15).

I’ll admit it: I don’t want to face persecution. But when that day comes, I want to stand with a resolve and a joy because I have a relationship with Jesus Christ. And Christ gives me an eternal home into which death will only bring me.


What Movie Best Captured Your Teenage Experience?

When those people who make lists for a profession talk about movies, they list movies as drama, action, comedy, horror, romance (i.e., chick-flick), and idiotic (i.e., David Spade movies). But one genre is rarely mentioned. In fact, I’m not even sure what to call this genre.

  • Teenage Angst
  • Coming of Age
  • Teen Rebellion

Every few years, some producer/director offers their take on life as a teenager and why it stinks to be an adolescent these days. That amuses me because the people who write  and direct these are adults. Sure, they might write from their own perspective, but so many aspects of the adolescent experience change as quickly as the hip and groovy slang they use … the awesome and rad slang … the snatched slang … oh, never mind.

And there are lots of these movies, but how many of them can you remember off the top of your head?  Hollywood has more films in this category than zits at a freshman dance, but few of them stand the test of time. Some were immensely popular at their release …

  • Blackboard Jungle (1955)
  • To Sir, With Love (1967)
  • Pretty in Pink (1984)
  • Clueless (1995)
  • Mean Girls (2004)

… but they don’t stand the test of time. [And, yes, I’m sure I left off a movie that both rocked and defined your high school experience AND it stands the test of time in your humble opinion.]

Every once in a while, though, someone gets it right, and I can name two movies that have pulled it off. Before I mention those, let me point to two movies coming out that will join the ranks of teenage angst and coming of age movies.

mv5bode2nje4njyymv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzk3mjq0ote-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_The Edge of Seventeen (opens November 18)

This is teenage angst from a girl’s perspective. It’s told with a lot of humor, a lot of language, and did I mention a lot of angst? The movie is done well, and Hailee Steinfeld has certainly grown up from her role as Mattie Ross in True Grit. While it’s done well, the story line is not riveting. It was not boring, but it was predictable. Woody Harrelson, who plays the girl’s teacher, helps carry the movie.

the_space_between_us_posterThe Space Between Us (opens December 16)

OK, I liked this one, chiefly because it was so radically different.  Asa Butterfield plays a child born on Mars (his mother was on the first crew to go there), and he lives there for 16 years. Adolescence is kicking in, though, and he wants to visit earth. Thanks to social media, he makes friends with a girl who is an outsider like him. However, because he grew up with a different gravity, his body really can’t handle the heavy gravitation of earth. He still makes the trip, connects with his friend, and learns about the wonders of the earth and the hassles of adolescence—while dealing with people chasing him and a body that can’t handle this planet.  He brings to the story a whole different angle on the whole adolescent quandary of trying to fit it, becoming a adult, and trying to connect with a parent.

Sure, go see these movies. You won’t be disappointed. See them now, though, because they will join a long list of other movies that capture the adolescent experience for about three weeks and then fade away.

Two movies about teenagers have stood the test of time.

rebel-without-a-cause-one-sheetRebel Without a Cause (1955). I think teenagers could watch this today and still connect with the issues Jim Stark (played by James Dean) was all angsty over. Get past the clothes and the old cars, and you see the issue of trying to fit in, peer pressure, relating to parents, and trying to figure out who they are. It’s a well done movie that solidified James Dean as the ultimate teen icon. (He died just weeks before the movie was released.)

the_breakfast_clubThe Breakfast Club (1984). The beauty of this film is that it captures the different faces of teenagers: the athlete, the smart kid, the popular girl, the rebel, and the outsider. Each character is different, but as they talk, argue, and fight, they collectively present the angst of adolescence. This was certainly not my generation, but no one can watch this movie and not identify with one of these characters.

During my student ministry days, this is a film I always wanted to show the youth group as a launch pad into a Bible study and discussion, but  the movie’s language kept me from doing that. (I showed Rebel Without a Cause instead.)

If you have to go to the movies, go see The Edge of Seventeen and/or The Space Between Us. Then go home and get Rebel Without a Cause and The Breakfast Club on Netflix.

Three things amaze me, no, four things I’ll never understand—how an eagle flies so high in the sky, how a snake glides over a rock, how a ship navigates the ocean, why adolescents act the way they do (Prov, 30: 18-19, The Message)

Why You Need to See Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw-ridgeHow far would I go to stand by my convictions?

It’s been a few years since Mel Gibson has been behind the camera—10 years to be exact—but he has returned with an incredible piece of work. Hacksaw Ridge, which opens this weekend, is extremely well done and thought-provoking—on so many levels.

Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who volunteered to serve in the army during World War II. It sounds illogical for a conscientious objector to volunteer, but Doss’ Christian convictions allowed for both.

  • Doss knew the Axis forces were evil, and he  volunteered to do his part to defeat them.
  • Doss took the Sixth Commandment seriously. He would not kill; therefore, he would not pick up a gun.

All Doss wanted to do was be a medic, but basic training required training with a gun. His refusal to do so led to a court martial. My favorite line in the movie came from Doss during his court marital:

With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”

 I’ll leave the rest of the story right there, but Doss became the only person to ever receive the Medal of Honor who never fired a gun.

This is not a “Christian” movie in the normal sense of the word, but it’s one of the most Christian movies I’ve seen. Gibson’s war scenes rival anything in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for battle realism and intensity. Soldiers talk like soldiers. But in the midst of the violence and horror is a man who unashamedly lives out his Christian convictions.  This is not the contrived story so common in Christian movies. This is a real man in a real world living out a real faith.

The movie never takes a swipe at owning and using guns. Desmond Doss never preaches against guns; it’s just his personal decision not to use one.  He never acts superior for his conviction nor does he call others to take the same view. Doss quietly embodies the principles of Romans 14, living out his convictions without pressing them on others.

Go see this movie. Yes, it’s full of blood and guts, but you’ll walk away wanting to be a better person. And you’ll find yourself asking yourself the question I opened with:

How far would I go to stand by my convictions?

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Why We Love Movies Like Inferno

mv5bmjiwmjuyodexov5bml5banbnxkftztgwmje0ndm4ode-_v1__sx1296_sy1196_This weekend, the latest Ron Howard/Tom Hanks movie, Inferno, hits the theaters (Oct. 28). In anticipation of the movie’s release, I recently read the book. I’m sure the movie will have excellent production values, and they will make it an exciting two-hour ride through Italy, but …

Without having seen the movie, I can tell you that, if you’ve seen The da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons, you’ve seen this movie.

I’ve read all four of Dan Brown’s books that center on a symbologist (a word made up by Dan Brown) named Robert Langdon. Each book follows the same formula!

angels-demons-9780743493468_hrA conspiracy exists and/or lives are in danger if the truth is not revealed (or if the truth does not remain hidden, as in The Da Vinci Code). The truth is hidden in plain sight in symbols and special texts, and Langdon, the expert in symbols, is the only one who can crack it—all while being accompanied by a beautiful woman and being chased by nasty people. The only difference in each book is the focus of the symbols or messages:

  • dvc-bAngels and Demons – Roman Catholicism
  • The Da Vinci Code – Jesus and Mary Magdalene
  • The Lost Symbol – Freemasons and the U.S. government
  • Inferno – Dante’s Divine Comedy

(I’m not complaining, just making an observation. It’s like the 342 Jame Bond movies in existence: same basic plot with different geography, gadgets, and girls. I still watch every Bond lostsymbolmovie that comes out—even the ones with Timothy Dalton—and I will be in line to see Dan Brown’s Inferno.)

Brown’s books have been popular because of our love for conspiracies. Brown starts every book with a claim that the artifacts or groups in the book are real. The problem is that Brown never distinguishes between fact and fiction, so people believe what he writes about the symbols in architecture and art. Consequently, they assume those symbols really do convey hidden messages.

Why do people want to believe that? Because we love a conspiracy. We want to feel like we’ve got the inside scoop on something hidden in plain sight. The truth can’t really be as simple as it appears.  That explains why so many people still refuse to accept the fact that one man, acting alone, shot President Kennedy.

This love of seeing what no one else can see is older than the early church. The New Testament church regularly battled a system of thinking called Gnosticism. Gnosticism had several layers, including the desire to uncover the hidden truth. Gnostics prided themselves on their “inside information;” they were the elite who had the hidden knowledge. (By the way, Gnosticism is rampant throughout The da Vinci Code.)

Truth is much simpler than that.

Why would God make His truth hard to discern? One of the foundational truths about the Bible is its clarity. We can take Scripture at face value. God wants us to know Him; He wants us to have a relationship with Him. He’s not going to hide it from us or make us unravel puzzles and walk mazes to find Him.

Jesus is there—in plan sight.

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Eddie the Eagle … Flies

MV5BMTUxOTc5MTU1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODYyNTA1NzE@._V1_UY1200_CR89,0,630,1200_AL_For those who want to quickly return to Facebook posts of cat videos and photos of someone’s burrito, I’ll jump to my conclusion:

Eddie the Eagle is worth seeing.

Frankly, I wasn’t interested in seeing the movie, but I had free tickets to an early screening, so the price was right. Turns out the movie met most of my criteria for a good movie.

We all have criteria by which we judge a movie—the plot, production quality, the appearance of Scarlett Johansson—and one of my criteria is:

Does it kickstart a conversation when the movie is over?

Eddie the Eagle is the story of Eddie Edwards, who represented Great Britain at the 1988 Winter Olympics. What makes Edwards unique?

  1. He was the first person to represent Great Britain in ski jumping in over 50 years; and
  2. He was lousy at it.

The movie tells Edward’s story in two parts: (1) his decision and training to ski jump and (2) his participation at the ’88 Olympics. As best as I can tell, the movie stuck to the actual events at the Calgary Olympics. Everything prior to that, though, was created for the movie. Hugh Jackman, for instance, is a major character in the movie, yet he plays a non-existent coach.

What makes the movie worth watching—and why this film is a great conversation starter—is everything that made the crowds fall in love with Edwards at the Olympics. He was not good at his sport—he came in last in both of his events—but he didn’t seem to care. He was the true underdog. The other athletes were embarrassed by him—he was a mockery to the sport—but others saw him as someone who embodied the Olympic spirit: the athlete who does the best he can, even if he has no chance of winning.

Eddie the Eagle falls in with movies like Rudy and Cool Runnings, and it merits seeing—and talking about.

  • When is a dream or ambition worth striving for, and when is it truly unrealistic?
  • What was wrong with the attitude of other athletes toward Eddie? What was legitimate about their beef with him?

Eddie the Eagle opens Friday, February 26.

“Risen” Rises … to a Point

risen_posterI struggle with faith-based or “Christian” movies. They mean well. Faith-based films provide an alternative for Christians who don’t want to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,  But if the movie’s goal is to reach a larger audience and make people think deeply about the gospel and matters of faith … well, frankly most Christian movies fall short.

Risen hits theaters this weekend, and it is the latest faith-based movie. Joseph Fiennes stars and Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood, the Count of Monte Cristo) directed. The story centers on a Roman soldier (Fiennes) who has been charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) to find the missing body of Jesus and squelch the rumors of a resurrection.

So does Risen … er, rise to the occasion … or does it simply get a gold star for effort?

Yes. On both counts.

The first half of the movie is great. We see the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ from a non-believer’s viewpoint.  As the Roman tribune leads the investigation at the tomb, digs through corpses, and questions some of Yeshua’s followers, we’re exposed to the proofs of the resurrection. The story is well executed. It neither preaches nor feels like we’re sitting in an apologetics class.

The movie makes a marked turn, though, when the tribune actually sees the resurrected Jesus. [Oops. Forgot to say SPOILER ALERT. Jesus does rise from the dead.] The soldier knows what he’d seen earlier—a very dead man—but now he sees Yeshua alive, and he struggles with what to believe. So far, so good.  But then the tribune immediately abandons everything and spends the rest of the movie hanging out with the 11 disciples.

The second half of the movie bugged me for two reasons.

  1. The historical, biblical factor. I realize a writer has to take some creative license in adding a fictitious character to a historical account, but this writer ignored key elements. Fior example, the disciples hid in fear, but when the Roman tribune shows up, he’s welcomed in. The soldier is readily accepted into the group and is present whenThomas sees Jesus for the first time …he’s in the boat  when the disciples go fishing … and he’s walking within earshot to hear Jesus restore Peter. Peter openly embraces this Gentile, even though in reality it was years later that Peter, a typical Jew who would had nothing to do with Gentiles, first talked to a Gentile about Christ.
  2. The cheese factor. The disciples didn’t seem real. They were presented as having their act together and understanding the spiritual significance of everything going on around them. (Bartholomew especially seemed more like a hippie straight out of 1969 high on love and possibly something illegal.) Risen moved from a story to make me think to one that was preachy and forced.

Fiennes does bring a welcome subtlety to the Roman pagan turned Christ follower.  Fiennes did not play him as the evil, nasty, hateful Roman soldier often portrayed; he feels human—and he retains that humanness after his conversion. This pagan-turned-believer is the one character the audience will connect with—simply because he is the most believable.

Overlook my criticism, though, and go see Risen. This is the one faith-based movie I would gladly take a non-Christian to see. The carefully crafted investigation into the missing body of Yeshua is worth enduring the second half.

I would have preferred a movie that filled the entire story with the investigation; the tensions between the Romans, the Jews, and the rumors of a resurrection; and the struggle in the Roman tribune’s own mind. The last scene, then, would’ve been the solider seeing Yeshua alive. The credits roll, and we the audience are left to ponder: what did the soldier do next?

That would make for a great conversation at Starbucks afterwards.