The New Christian Film Criticism
By Brett McCracken
February 8, 2007
Should a Christian see R-rated movies? Such a question seems, in many ways, archaic, in our hipped-up, new-wave, “emerging” Christianity. But the fundamental questions of discernment in the arts are still relevant and beg to be addressed. Within Christianity (in terms of the arts … specifically movies), we have the reactionary far-right wing who act as the Stasi police for Christendom—pillaging the entire landscape of Hollywood for any hint of dirty language, flash of nudity or nihilist inclination. But then we also have the reactionaries to the reactionary wing—those uber-cool Christians who take pride in slamming family-friendly fare and flaunting their immense appreciation for (and unique moral immunity to) the most aesthetically depraved.
But we rarely have thoughtful dialogue among these extremes, and thus are sorely lacking in any sort of useful, progressive engagement with cinema. If you propose in academic or professional film circles the notion of “Christian film criticism” as a serious discipline (in the sense that black film criticism or feminist film criticism is taken seriously), you will probably be laughed off. Thankfully, we are taking steps to change that.
A significant step in the right direction has come with the brand new book by Jeffrey Overstreet, Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth, and Evil in the Movies (Regal Press). Overstreet, a film critic for Christianity Today and author of the insightful “Looking Closer” culture website, has taken it upon himself to free Christian arts journalism from the ghetto and shackles of narrow-mindedness, utilitarianism and aesthetic ambivalence (as well as the flipside—aesthetic gluttony). His new book (released Feb. 5), gives hope to all of us who struggle for a more thoughtful, measured and empathetic Christian perspective toward cinema.
Rather than take the typical “Christian film book” route and highlight the obvious films ( The Shawshank Redemption, Braveheart, The Matrix, Star Wars, etc) with spiritual “applicability” (whatever that means), Overstreet takes a more holistic look at cinema itself. He structures his comprehensive discussion by genre, covering happy adventure film (Indiana Jones), bleak art-house cinema, violent westerns (Unforgiven), social justice fare (Born Into Brothels, The Motorcycle Diaries), comedy, horror, fantasy and everything in between. Each section is peppered with tidbits from Overstreet’s many interviews with filmmakers (everyone from Charlie Kaufman to Kevin Smith), as well as quotes from wise authors and thinkers like Frederick Buechner, C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Annie Dillard and Flannery O’Connor.
Overstreet’s breadth of knowledge is impressive (if at times a bit showy). He’s perfectly at home talking up the virtues of popcorn films (Spielberg, Lord of the Rings), obscure but important foreign directors (Yasujiro Ozu, Patrice Leconte, the Dardennes), classic Hollywood (Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life), hipster faves (Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry), even camels (The Story of the Weeping Camel). He does well to accentuate the directors every Christian should be familiar with (but usually isn’t), like Wim Wenders and Krzysztof Kieslowski, but doesn’t dwell too long on any one filmmaker or film. Indeed, a strength and weakness of the book is that it covers so many films and directors. Some might be turned off by the occasionally esoteric, ever-present name-dropping, but I found this trait to be central to the spirit of the book. After all, this is clearly the account of a film lover, and what film lover doesn’t love plugging good films and filmmakers at every opportunity?
Another thing that makes this book different is that it is structured less as a didactic lesson in “all you should know about film” than it is a personal tale of one author’s experience with the medium. Overstreet incorporates personal stories and memories at nearly every turn—from his childhood in the Pacific Northwest, summer job at a video store, to his constant psychological struggle to reconcile his Christian faith and growing love of movies. Overstreet’s accounting in this regard is especially strong, and probably represents the experiences of quite a few others of his generation and mine—who have loved cinema and sought to negotiate a better place for it in the life of a Christian.
Overstreet also offers interesting bits of meta-commentary on the vocation of Christian film criticism itself, recounting tales of “the God room” at press junkets (the room with Christian journalists) and provides a comical take on the “Abhorrent!” pedagogy of certain Christian film “critics.” He even offers some self-criticism/commentary, pondering the extent to which his hours and hours of film-going are doing more harm than good. "If dining at the table of movies becomes my primary focus,” Overstreet writes, “I am forgetting the purpose of the meal. It is served to give me strength, so that I can return to my life stronger, healthier, closer to being whole." Such an outlook on art—as something one should receive as spiritual sustenance rather than use or collect for selfish reasons—is immensely helpful.
Indeed, in a profession that is so often used for propagandistic, utilitarian, commercial or self-righteous ends, Overstreet stands out as a critic whose primary love is cinema itself and productively engaging with it (a practice which, admittedly, is too large and complex for one book to cover). His extended discussion near the end of the book about Terrence Malick’s The New World —a film which inspires Overstreet to “seize the people I love and bring them into a theater to enjoy it on the largest screen possible”—is indicative of his general feelings about art. In The New World, Overstreet writes, “Malick has given us a story that sets aside the pursuit of happiness for something greater—the apprehension of joy.”
And this, in a nutshell, is the most beneficial message of Through a Screen Darkly. It is a book that suggests to Christians and non-Christians alike a new way of seeing film. More than mere entertainment or socio-political textual fodder, it is an art form; unique and yet similar to other art forms that have the potential to spur the viewer to a higher consciousness of beauty and a fuller apprehension of joy.