How to Make a God Movie
Alissa Wilkinson, the chief film critic for Christianity Today, pens a smart piece for The Atlantic about bad God movies and good God movies. She points out that there really are some fine films with religious content being made today … but also some dreck. The problem is not so much with moviemakers as with the expectations some Christian audiences have. Excerpts:
In the movie business, “Christian” or “religious” usually gets conflated with the “faith-and-family” audience, sidestepping a wide swath of people of faith who aren’t looking for “safe” stories. One publicist informed me ahead of Sundance that the film she was representing wasn’t “appropriate for Christians.” Another told me it would never have occurred to her to pitch me. Marketers, publicists, and distributors tend to view Christian moviegoers as a monolithically single-minded group staunchly opposed to any film that might garner more than a PG rating, and only interested in movies that depict Biblical stories, tell inspirational biographical tales (mostly about athletes, brave children, or war heroes), or explicitly reinforce their own beliefs.
If you ask me, the most “Christian” film released in 2014 was Calvary, which premiered at Sundance in 2014. The movie starred Brendan Gleeson as a tough but loving priest facing his death in a remote fishing village. Rife with religious imagery and resonances, the film’s message about forgiveness and redemption is thoroughly consistent with Christian theology and features a bracing view of the havoc wreaked on generations of children by abusive ministers (by no means a problem exclusive to Catholics). Though it got left out of many “faith-based” discussions because it garnered an R rating from the MPAA for “sexual references, language, brief strong content, and some drug use,” it earned raves from secular and religious critics alike, garnering a Rotten Tomatoes score of 89 percent.
Calvary, along with movies like the Oscar nominees Ida and Selma, is an explicitly religious exploration of widely asked questions that doesn’t point to easy answers. Several Christian critics writing for religious outlets (including myself) put all three of these films in our top ten lists for the year—while also facing significant backlash from some readers who were horrified that we’d praise, let alone watch, a “blasphemous” film like Noah.
But I noticed something interesting. For every angry reader who contacted me—and there were many, and they were caustic—another expressed gratitude. Many were Christians; some had grown up in church and left it behind; a few were indifferent to religion altogether. All, however, were looking for carefully crafted films that took the religious experience seriously.
Preach it, sister. I saw Ida not long ago — it’s on iTunes — and was deeply taken by it. It’s a stark-looking black & white Polish film set in 1962. On the eve of taking her final vows to enter the convent, a young novice named Ida goes to visit the only relative she has that survived the war and the Holocaust: Wanda, a drunken, cynical communist judge. Wanda reveals to Ida that she’s really a Jewish orphan who had been hidden with the nuns before the Nazis came. The nuns brought her up as a Catholic. Now she has learned the truth, and drives around Poland with her dissolute aunt, trying to find where her parents are buried, and to confront the Polish gentiles who took over the family land. Here is the trailer:
The film builds in emotional power as it reaches its climax, which, of course, hinges on whether or not Ida will return to the monastic community and join it, or enter the world. Ida deals with questions of history, justice, and identity, and asks how one can find meaning in human existence after the apocalypse that overtook Poland, especially its Jews. It is ultimately a movie about nihilism, and potential responses to how we live and act with moral awareness and responsibility after the experience of the Holocaust. Do the forces of nihilism win? Is living for today and its pleasures all that’s left to us? If nihilism is not to win, how can it be defeated? What happens to the human soul after Auschwitz? Understand that this is not a movie that takes place in the death camps, but rather in the aftermath, in a time when it is already known that the communist attempt to establish justice and a meaningful postwar society has devolved into an exercise in lies, brutality, and cynicism. Ultimately, Ida is a movie about faith: faith lost (Wanda’s, in communism), and faith tested (Ida’s, in the path she was given).
The thing is, Ida is a very, very simple story: simply scripted, simply shot, simply acted. But it is very deep. I have no idea if the Polish director is any kind of observant Christian, but it doesn’t matter. Ida is a film that takes religion very seriously, and it is in no way preachy, moralistic, or simplistic. And it clearly doesn’t only appeal to Christian audiences; it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year. The New Yorker‘s David Denby called it a “masterpiece,” and summed up the questions posed by the film like this: “What do you do with the past once you’ve re-discovered it? Does it enable you, redeem you, kill you, leave you longing for life, longing for escape? The answers are startling.”
These are religious questions, even if God is never mentioned directly, only implied. And Ida is a thousand times more profound and penetrating that the religious kitsch on offer for Christian audiences. The piece by Christian film critic Alissa Wilkinson is actually a hopeful report highlighting films and directors that are moving beyond the “safe for the whole family” school of didactic religious filmmaking. Another excerpt from her piece:
One of the featured events at Sundance this year was a panel on faith-based films. Several attendees I spoke with were disappointed that panelists focused predominately, once again, on the “faith and family” audience—the same underlying market confusion I’d observed all year. One attendee, Ryan Daniel Dobson, is a Christian filmmaker developing a project based on the Biblical story of Hosea, in which the prophet is told by God to marry a prostitute, who repeatedly abandons him. A project like this will likely interest many people of faith, but not those looking for a “family film.” Like a growing number of Christians who work outside both the Hollywood system and the Christian film industry, Dobson sees films like God’s Not Dead as nearly antithetical to his understanding of what film ought to do and what faith ought to look like.
“Several times ‘faith films’ were compared to superhero movies, where a studio can’t stray from what their fanboy audience wants, because it would guarantee a box office fail.” Dobson told me. “Several times, it was said, ‘We’re doing this for them’—the audience. I find that particularly heartbreaking when said on the grounds of a festival where stories are told with such honesty that it forces the audience to admit they might be wrong.”
A couple of thoughts on this. In a recent e-mail exchange with Charles Featherstone, whose extraordinary memoir of his journey from an abused, outcast young man to radical Muslim to Christian pastor-without-a-pulpit I have recommended to you, said something profound:
Created or called, the Biblical narrative has really helped me see who I am. God rarely, if ever, calls the well-behaved and well-adjusted to follow. Again, with David. He was an awful man. A terrible king. He was a murderer, a rebel, a terrorist, a rapist (one reading of the Bathsheba story), and he stole men’s wives (2 Samuel 3:16 has this wonderful tale of Michal’s husband pathetically following her as she makes her way to David). He was as dithering a king as he was decisive before he became king. And yet, this awful man, who in his whole life only repents once of anything he ever did, and then only when Nathan the prophet calls him on it, is so beloved of God that God makes a promise to save Israel, to save the whole world, through David. The Bible is full of misfits, people who don’t belong, bad men and women who God calls to be part of God’s saving acts.
This is why I get so angry when we reduce scripture to simple guidance for good behavior. It isn’t really that at all. And when it becomes that, I’m suddenly left out of the story, because I am not “beyond reproach” and because I have never lived a life “beyond reproach.” It may be words of blessing and comfort to them as are settled and at home, but those words are almost all spoken by people who are not, from Abraham to Paul. People called to leave, to wander, to never find rest except as guests in homes that are not theirs.
That gives me great strength. I am not alone in all this. It hasn’t made the last year easier, but it has made it bearable. I am not wrong because I am a misfit and a malcontent, that I am not flawed or troublesome or “difficult” or “the problem” merely because some people (well, okay, rather a lot) say so. Because God uses people like me — perhaps even needs people like me — to speak the words that must be spoken. I don’t understand it, and I truly wish it were not like this. My home is with Christ, and that will have to suffice in this world.
Maybe this unfilled yearning is like the thorn Paul writes about. He has pleaded with God to remove it, and Jesus tells him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Perhaps we must bear this burden of wanting something we cannot have as a witness, to ourselves and to others, of the grace of God. I hate that possibility. Not everyone will listen — it is not a powerful voice. But I’m reminded of something a Lubavitcher Rebbe said, that while the kings had power, no one remembers their words. It is the words of the prophets, who had nothing but what God gave them to say, that we remember.
Dante did not become the towering figure we know from literature and history until they made him an outcast, and he had to confront the mess he had made of his life and make sense of it. The Divine Comedy is, of course, the most profound and penetrating Christian story ever written outside the Bible. Yet it is a long poem in which some villains make it to heaven, other friends of the poet’s who weren’t especially bad people in life end up in Hell, and one of the great archfiends of the play is the Pope of the very Catholic faith that the poet passionately believes in. There is nothing — nothing — simplistic or moralistic about the Divine Comedy — and this is why it reached me in the depths of my despair like nothing else could have done. I did not see it coming. In fact, I’m pretty sure one of the reasons I avoided it over the years is that I thought a medieval poem about heaven and hell would be a boring morality tale. No, no, no. Not in the least.
The point I want to make for this discussion is that the story the Bible gives us is one of tragedy, of paradox, of God’s purposes for His people revealing themselves through the most unlikely figures — and, for Christians, God revealing Himself in the form of a carpenter from Nazareth who was despised by the people He came to save, and put to death. It’s a crazy story, just crazy — but we Christians believe it to be true. There is nothing play-it-safe about the Bible. It is full of mystery and paradox and revelation.
The second point I want to make about the “faith-and-family” school of play-it-safe Christian moviemaking comes from the memory of a conversation I once had with a friend who had been raised Evangelical, but who, as a teenager, was struggling with overwhelming problems at home, such that she had begun to harm herself in ways that ought to have been obvious to all around her. My friend told me, about her church community back then, “If they had opened their eyes, they would have seen a girl in crisis, and reached out and helped me figure out how to deal with this crisis. All they could see was a kid who needed to be taught how to witness to the people seated next to her on the airplane.”
What she meant was that in the world of her church community, the point of the Christian life was to lead others to making a “saving decision for Christ.” This, to be clear, is a vital and irreducible part of the Christian life, one that Evangelicals rightly prize, often more than the rest of us Christians, who have forgotten this truth and this duty. But as I understood my friend from this remembered conversation, the Great Commission (Christ’s command to his followers to go out and make disciples of all the world) crowded out everything else within her community. They knew how to produce evangelists, she said, but they weren’t so good at forming disciples.
I’m not quite sure why this conversation came to mind in contemplating Christian moviemaking, but there you are. Perhaps it has to do with a belief that the often-agonizing complexities of faith, of humanity’s relationship with God, is not the most important thing; winning converts to the faith is, and comforting the faithful in their beliefs is. It’s not just an Evangelical thing; Flannery O’Connor caught hell all the time from her fellow Catholics, who wanted to know when she was going to write “nice” stories for a change.
In the end, I don’t think most people, Christian and otherwise, are eager to explore mystery. They want all the answers, when the questions are often more important. They think of their relationship with God as having an ordered set of doctrines and dogmas, and arranging their thoughts to align with these beliefs. The truth is that God wants our heads, yes, but more than that, He wants our hearts. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” For Christians, the Truth is a Person. There is never anything simple and straightforward about our relationships with others. We are mysteries relating to mysteries, and, for Christians, that relationship is mediated by Mystery.
Art — real art, not kitsch — emerges from that profound truth.
UPDATE: A good and important counterpoint from a reader:
The Bible is full of misfits, people who don’t belong, bad men and women who God calls to be part of God’s saving acts.
Yes. Still, I’m so tired of misfits. I’m just a normal dude that goes to work and puts bread on the table. It seems like everybody, from JD Salinger to Flannery O’Connor, wants to write books and make movies about misfits. And I get it, there’s something to both being an artist itself and to being a Christian that seems to require a measure of alienation. But the high school quarterback seeks redemption just as much as the brooding loner who writes poetry. To the traditional man has the role of freak been given, in this age. As great and as thoughtful as Ida might be (I haven’t seen it, though I will), “a stark-looking black & white Polish film set in 1962” isn’t likely to get far beyond the art-house crowd who, let’s face it, can be tempted by the consolation of knowing how lovely it is to be the sort of person who is moved by this sort of thing.
I find the faith-and-family Christian film as nauseating as you do. Still, I empathize with the hypocrites a bit, those oft-rebuked (by Jesus Christ!) souls who don’t have a terribly profound grasp of what authentic Christianity is, yet show up to church on Sundays, teach their kids their prayers and put a check in the collection basket. These folks are grasping, gossipy, and awful, but the church wouldn’t be here without them. They are like Amity Shlaes “Forgotten Man”, just in another context. They were last spoken to by Mel Gibson, and they need to hear this stuff more often.