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WHY DO HEATHENS MAKE THE BEST CHRISTIAN FILMS?

Most films that successfully incorporate Christian themes are made by non-Christians. Thom Parham explains why in this essay from the new book, 'Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture.'

Buy 'Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture' at Amazon.com

[Editor's Note: To read GodSpy's interview with Barbara Nicolosi, co-editor of Behind the Screen, click here.]


Places in the Heart
is a film about Edna Spalding (Sally Field), a young woman who tries to save her farm from foreclosure after her husband dies. During the course of the film, Edna assembles a surrogate family around her, consisting of Moze, a black sharecropper (Danny Glover); Mr. Will, a blind boarder (John Malkovich); and her precocious children, Frank and Possum (Yankon Hatten and Gennie James). Near the end of the movie, the Klu Klux Klan runs Moze out of town. In the final scene, the townspeople gather at church, where a stirring rendition of "Blessed Assurance" is followed by a reading of 1 Corinthians 13:1-8:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am become as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy and all knowledge but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor and have not love, it profit me nothing. Love is patient, kind. Love is not jealous or boastful. Love never ends.

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.

Secular filmmakers tend to observe life more objectively than Christians. They see the world the way it really is, warts and all.
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:

Chariots of Fire (1981)
Tender Mercies (1983)
Places in the Heart (1984)
Hoosiers (1986)
The Mission (1986)
Grand Canyon (1992)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Dead Man Walking (1996)
The Apostle (1998)
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
The Iron Giant (1999)
Magnolia (2000)
Signs (2002)
Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002)
About Schmidt (2002)
Changing Lanes (2002)
In America (2002)
Bruce Almighty (2003)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
The Passion of the Christ (2004)

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:

Gospa (1995)
Entertaining Angels (1996)
The Omega Code (1999)
The Joyriders (1999)
Left Behind.. The Movie (2000)
Carman: The Champion (2001)
Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 (2001)
Mercy Streets (2001)
To End All Wars (2001)
Hometown Legend (2002)
Joshua (2002)
Left Behind II:' Tribulation Force (2002)
Luther (2003)
Finding Home (2003)
Therese (2004)

'If you want to send a message, try Western Union,' said Frank Capra, a Christian who made hugely popular mainstream 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

A Christian filmmaker wouldn't dare create a Christian protagonist who questions God, who falls or fails.
"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:

I'm gonna yell at you 'cause I'm mad at you. I can't take it. Give me a sign or something. Blow this pain out of me. Give it to me tonight, Lord God Jehovah. If you won't give me back my wife, give me peace! Give it to me, give it to me, give it to me, give me peace! Give me peace! I don't know who's been fooling with me-you or the devil. I don't know. And I won't even bring the human into this, he's just a mutt, so I'm not even gonna bring him into it. But I'm confused, I'm mad. I love you Lord, I love you, but I'm mad at you. I am mad at you!

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.
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.

A particular group of Christians has excelled in its craft during the past century of cinema... and all came from a Roman Catholic background.
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

There is one exception to my argument that non-Christians make the best Christian films. A particular group of Christians has excelled in its craft during the past century of cinema. This fraternity includes Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars Von Trier, and Krzysztof Kieslowski. All operate (or operated) in the mainstream rather than sequestering themselves in a subculture, and all came from a Roman Catholic background.

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.  

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November 10, 2005

DR. 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.’

This essay was originally published in 'Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture.'

Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright © 2005. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

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READER COMMENTS
03.10.07   Goldbug says:
QuoteOriginally posted by: GodspyMost films that successfully incorporate Christian themes are made by non-Christians. Thom Parham explains why in this essay from the new book, 'Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture.'I have noticed this as well. Especially in the Lord of the Rings series and the Chronicles of NArnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe . Many of the lines and other things with the strongest Catholic or Christian messages that were put into the movies were not mentioned in the books. I find it pretty darn awesome.

10.05.06   alexspil says:
We Christians tend to forget that although saved, we are still weak human beings, doing mistakes. One of these, very typical of us, is the constant try to put other people in two categories, "heathen" and "christian"... But who are we, to judge or classify our next one? As the friend said in previous paragrpaphs, about "Apostle" Duval, I dont know if Duval it is or it is not a Christian, and to be honest it doesn't matter. What matters, is the message that he spreads arround. If he was chosen to play such an important role, that means something.. Or do we want to analyze/criticize God's thought of chosing Duval?! That would be funny indeed! Today I watched Kieslowski's "Double life of Veronica" for the 4th time in my life... An absolute masterpiece in my opinion. So many things have been told about Kieslowski and his relationship with God..Some present him as atheist, some others as great Christian.. Decide guys, he can't be both! (or he can?!that opens a big discussion...) What I want to tell, is to look@ the wood and not @the tree. Important are the messages and pictures he spread arround the world, and not "what hat we 'll put on him, the one of the believer or the one of atheist?"... It is up to the Lord (and to Krysztof, when he met Him - I hope he bow to Him!), to put the label "Christian" or "non Christian". We should better look ourselves and what we do in our everyday life and actions.. God in my opinion doesn't care for the definitions we give of a Christian and a non Christian...So He judges a director and its film not from what the latter says that he believes, or worse, from the category the others classifyy him, but from what he really manages to put on the screen and how this will touch the lives of other people.God bless youAlexandros

03.13.06   nir says:
There was a good book on this very topic called "Addiction to Mediocrity" back in the 80's.Personally, I think the most spiritual movie I've ever seen is the first Matrix movie. The whole idea of another world, unseen, that was the "real world", was very compelling. The protagonist was told that he could do anything if only he believed. Heard that anywhere before? Great article.

02.10.06   Witnessprotection says:
Per Professor Partham's statement that Robert Duvall is not a Christian...I pulled this from a post-"The Apostle" interview via Google. 'Duvall, 67, is the son of a Methodist father and a Christian Scientist mother."Because my parents were so religious, I attended church regularly. I've always been a believer."'Among the various denominations, cults and sects that claim to be Believers ... the single Bible verse that writes a Believer's name in the Book of Life is Romans 10:9.If Duvall has done this, and according to his film(s), he has, so he's a Christian, despite the doctrinal differences of the Christian Science system and the average KJ/NIV Bible.As for "the best" Christian films, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ" stands head and shoulder above the nearest competitor. And Mel's saved, not a "heathen".

12.26.05   Thrasymachus says:
I think this article misses two essential points. The first is that narrative as such is inherently Christian. That is, all narratives tend (more or less clearly) towards a kind of indirect revelation of Christ. Just look at the Joseph Campbell-derived story template so popular among writing instructors these days. Campbell thought he was inferring the existence of archetypal patterns common to all myths/stories, but in fact he was simply noticing the fact that all human stories find their fulfillment in Christ. Depending on your perspective, you might say these stories all either hint at some aspect of the gospel story to come, or derive (ontologically if not historically) from the 'seeds' of Christ present in all of creation. This being the case, it makes sense that someone devoted to telling good stories would occasionally produce a story that suggests connections to the gospel in a more or less explicit way.Yet my second essential point provides an even stronger reason why we should expect non-Christians to produce good Christian stories. It is, I believe, a simple fact that the cultural history of the western world is a story of the ever-increasing penetration of the gospel into all aspects of human understanding and behavior. This cannot be understood simplistically, of course. Everyone knows we live in a mostly 'secular' world, after all. But even secularism is more Christian that much that goes by the name Christian. I am thinking in particular of the work of Rene Girard -- we are all today acutely aware of the innocence of victims in a way that would be impossible outside a culture that had never heard the story of the passion. It's not unusual for good filmmakers to notice these connections, even if they are not confessing Christians. Oddly, they are communicating Christian truth simply because they see it as truth, as a reflection of the mystery of things, not because it's 'Christian'. Sadly Christians are too often less interested in reality than in something called 'Christianity'. That applies to Catholics too, of course. But the power of the gospel cannot be smothered by Christians, no matter how hard they try.

11.12.05   DLMurphy says:
I think this argument contains an important insight that Christian artists in every field should attend to: i.e., that to twist one's art around a message, however well-intentioned, is to disfigure both art and message. That Christians have had so much trouble with this of late, especially in America, surely has something to do with a) the anti-intellectualism and mistrust of the arts we've inherited from Puritanism (the tendency mentioned in the article to think that to portray sin is to condone it), and b) the vicious Culture War. The latter has put Christians in the arts off-balance. It has limited their faith-perpective, which should be a universe-opening vision, to a pugilistic defense of parochial party politics and eccentric theology. Worse, it provokes an even narrower "if I ruled the World" revenge-play view of God's huge and merciful Providence. This large-scale failure would seem to give support to Flannery O'Connor's notion of the difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of producing truly great Christian art outside the context of a Christian culture. I recently came across this terrific quote of Frank Sheed's about novelist Gertrud von le Fort: QuoteThe secular novelist sees what's visible. The Catholic novelist sees what's there. He may or may not bring God and the angels as characters into his story, but they are always factors in his story (just as a painter cannot paint the wind and cannot paint the air but would produce a poor landscape without them). This is not to say that the Catholic is the better novelist. He may lack genius or art or even ordinary talent, so that he merely potters about on his universal stage while the secular novelist works magic with the little bit of universe which is all he has. But if by chance the Catholic has genius, then his novel cannot but be revelation.No question where the preponderance of "magic" has been the last few decades. Having said that, I would hate to see such an understanding, which should serve as a caveat and not a deterrent, discourage Christian artists from attempting overtly Christian themes, or from attempting to market them to Christians. I noticed that the article failed to mention, God knoweth how, Mel Gibson's watershed The Passion of the Christ. (I see that Barb Nicolosi does discuss it at some length in the interview.) Passion was an overtly Christian-themed movie by a Christian director, produced independently--no mainstream studio or distributor would initially touch it. And it was heavily marketed to Christians. That it was also a great work of art, I suspect even by Bl. Flannery's exacting standards, should give encouragement to Christian artists that the minefields of the Culture War, and a brutal marketing environment, can be navigated, though perhaps not without trial and even error.

11.10.05   Godspy says:
Most films that successfully incorporate Christian themes are made by non-Christians. Thom Parham explains why in this essay from the new book, 'Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture.'

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