While the credits rolled, I heard sniffles all over the dark auditorium. Letters to God, a faith-based film released on April 9, screened before a small preview audience at Biola University. In a Q&A session after the film, an old man piped up, “Well, there’s not a dry eye in the place, and that’s gotta say something.” I scrunched down in my seat. My dry eyes bored into the row in front of me. More elderly viewers called out their praises. More scratchy voices lauded the film’s message. Really? I thought.
The idea for the story—a little boy with leukemia writing letters to God—was beautiful, but did they have to tell me he was an inspiration? Did they need to make the pastor—with his cloying comforts and simplistic solutions—such a cliché? I squirmed in my seat every time the stricken boy’s grandma launched into a sappy prayer.
Authentic movies, ones that portray the honest complexities of life, challenge us, move us and inspire reflection—but authenticity is hard to come by in Christian films. Christian movies rarely depict genuine characters living in the real world. The Christian film industry’s offerings are easy to dismiss, not necessarily for their message, but for their artlessness—their predictable plots, clumsy moralizing and sentimental endings.
Patrick Doughtie, screenwriter of Letters to God, suggests that Christian screenwriters simply need to inspire their audiences "to be better human beings." There are no conversion scenes in his film, but there is plenty of cheese. The primary message of the film—that prayer actually changes things—was repeated ad nauseam. But Doughtie argues that Christian films with strong messages still have a place. Christian families want movies that don’t bombard them with violence, sex, profanity and hopelessness.
A tension exists in the Christian film industry. Is the main target audience Christians or non-Christians? By placing their movies in theaters throughout the country, the Christian filmmakers who made Facing the Giants and Fireproof claim they want to reach more than just a Christian audience. But non-Christians often say these films depict life unrealistically. Fireproof, a story about the struggles of a couple on the verge of divorce, wraps up quite nicely as the two main characters turn to God and renew their wedding vows. Facing the Giants also neatly concludes with the main character’s football team winning the championship game after trusting in God. The two movies include conflict, but their perfect endings suggest that once you turn to Christ, life instantly gets better. For Christians, this simply isn’t true. For non-Christians, this seems like a hollow promise.
Jim Britts, screenwriter of the recently released Christian film, To Save a Life, says that when a person turns to Christ their life usually gets worse before it gets better. He recalls that he, and those editing his script, abided by the motto: Cheesiness is sin. "If people will think it’s cheesy,” he says, “we might as well not make the movie." Britts based his script on the junior high and high school students he led as a youth pastor in Oceanside, Calif. The film grapples with suicide, cutting, drug use and sex—so, how could his story not seem authentic?
The LA Times praised the film, saying it exceeded expectations for a faith-based story. Yet, Variety dismissed it for its focus on the religious message rather than the quality of the narrative. Many Christian movies draw this kind of immediate critical scorn. But whether or not the movie is well-made, a large Christian consumer audience wants to see it. Fireproof actually beat out Slumdog Millionaire on opening weekend. Christian audiences demand hope, which a lot of screenwriters have taken to mean a feel-good, Christianese-filled film with a pat ending. The result is that Christian audiences are expected to settle for bad art. The presentation doesn’t matter, just the message.
John Hancock, the director of The Blind Side—a secular film that promotes the Christian ideal of loving your neighbor—told Christian Post: "You set out to tell a good story. You don’t do it because there is a deep message involved because the movie is almost always bad when you do that. Your job no. 1 is for it to be entertaining and if it’s inspiring that is great too." Christians may shake their heads and insist that elevating entertainment over truth is sinful, yet Christian films often make the message unappealing to secular audiences—not because of the truth they preach, but because of their hackneyed presentation. "I would never want to make a movie that just entertained," Britts says. "I would want to make something that people are going to walk out of and be different."
For Britts, however, this does not mean he must write in a conversion scene. To Save a Life‘s purpose was not to save a soul in the darkness of the movie theater. The job of the Christian screenwriter, Britts said, "is to make great films with great stories."
Christian filmmakers need to rethink how they are trying to reach secular audiences. The producers, directors and screenwriters of recent Christian movies have made some progress toward integrating a Christian worldview into an otherwise engaging and professional film. In the future, maybe Christians won’t have to twist their friend’s arm to come see the latest Christian movie. Maybe someday, as Britts says, “Christian” will be a noun and not an adjective.