There's been a flurry of "Christian" movies in the last year, but most aren't good. Or, at least, they aren't good art. My opinion is certainly not unique, even amongst other Christians, which begs an interesting question: how come most explicitly "Christian" art is so bad? And what makes art "Christian"?
Let's take the first question first; what Christians often miss is that art communicates through two means: form and content. Something might be good art in form- the way the message comes across- but may proffer a terrible message (content). In cinematic fashion, a great example of this might be No Country For Old Men, where the acting and cinematogrophy are first class, but the ultimate message is nihilistic. Alternatively, a message may put forth a good message, but be terrible artistically. Most "Christian" movies in the past year fall in this category. Allow me to elaborate.
A movie currently making the rounds in "evangelical Christian" circles is Courageous. The movie depicts four fathers-all police officers- on their journey to parent and how their faith informs such a journey. Largely, the movie depicts a good message; namely, that it's good to be a good father and that it's hard and that it's rewarding and that it's ultimately powered by God. Some of my problems are with content: there is a moralistic tinge to this kind of message. In other words, if we don't do something by our own sheer moral effort, it won't get done. Ironically, this subtly contravenes the Christian message. Even still, most of my problems with the movie aren't necessarily with its moralism.
My problems with the movie is that it's bad art. Sure, "Christian" movies have come a long way in certain respects. The acting is better. The camera work is better. And yet....and yet.....it's still bad art, and there's a simple reason for this. The movie doesn't know how to get it's message across in anything but preachy aspects of dialogue. The most profound moments in the film are when someone is talking to someone else about what they need to do or believe. In other words, the only reason the movie exists is for me to watch other people talking to each other. The final scene in the movie even depicts a guy preaching a message from a pulpit. It's all tell, and no show. Art is thus limited with this kind of approach.
Similar critiques are leveled against a different kind of "Christian" film: Blue Like Jazz (great critiques of the film's preachiness can be found here and here). Despite the fact that this film attempts to be edgy and a different kind of Christian film, the reviewers above can't help but notice that the movie's message is attempted primarily through drab dialogue.
But what's the alternative? Is there any way to promote the content of the Christian message through a vehicle that waxes more artistic? Yes. I submit to you The Tree of Life, a Terrence Malick film that has nearly no meaningful dialogue. The actors-Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain- no doubt carry some of the strength in artistry. But ultimately, the film promotes aspects of the Christian message without ever saying so in dialogue.
The essence of the film is a 20th century Job story where a father and mother lose their middle child and the father loses his job. And yet, the film almost never tells you that those events are happening. You have to watch it happen through innuendo, through visual representation, through the absence of what isn't there in series after series of visual vignettes. Interspersed between larger groupings of vignettes are barely audible prayers addressed to God: various forms of 'whys?' and 'how longs?'.
Furthermore, the brilliance of the film rests on its reliance of the visual as it overlays the Biblical message of Job. The film starts with a biblical quote, its only true message of preaching, but it sets up every visual element. The quote is from Job 38:4 and 7.
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?"
There is some difficulty here, because you have to actually know the reference in Job and know the biblical story for the film to make any sense. In the quote, you know that God is speaking to Job. Job has been trying to vindicate himself before his friends the entire book, saying that he's not suffering because he is wicked. Job repeatedly demands his vindicator, God, to so grant his case before his friends. Eventually God comes on the scene and essentially says, "who am I to vindicate you? I was the one who created this whole thing. It's you who ought to worship me."
With that in mind, for about 20 minutes in the middle of the movie, the visual vignettes backtrack in time to celestial images and the fashioning and forming in deep space. It's not until about five minutes into this extended- seemingly incredible interruption- scene that you realize what's happening. Malick is showing us creation, instead of telling us about it. Malick is giving us God's answers to these barely audible prayers in visual form, and not in dialogue.
The film, understandably, is thus very difficult to follow. It's the complete opposite of most "Christian" films, because having no dialogue means the message is a little harder to discern. The audience's understanding of Malick's message is thus tentative, and even still the artistry of the film definitively supports the idea that God doesn't owe us anything, and yet he still redeems us (Job 19: "I know my Redeemer lives.") It's the Job message. The Christian message. Not through dialogue but through a powerful artistic form.
That gets us to the second question we asked at the beginning: what makes art "Christian"? I think The Tree of Life, despite not being explicitly "Christian" art, is still good Christian art. Are there other movies, for example, that can fit this description? Perhaps. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are certainly not explicitly or implicitly about the Christian message, but there's a reason the motifs from those films are powerful. Harry takes the judgment of Voldemort due him and dies for everyone, and is brought back to life. Katniss takes the place of her little sister in what seems certain death.
Did you catch that? The reason those motifs are so powerful is attributed to what theologians have called "substitutionary atonement" for centuries. Jesus takes our place on the cross and the penalty that was due us-he is our substitute- and gives us his righteousness in place of that, if only we'd believe in Him. There, right there in not-Christian movies, is the concept of a Christian idea being played out. It's not being told to us, it's being shown. If only "Christian" movies could learn this lesson.
That leaves me with only one obvious conclusion from all these premises: in Christian art, we need more show, and a little less tell.