Post script added Sunday afternoon.
The headline on this post by Salon movie critic Andrew O’Hehir asks Why are Christian movies so awful? But that’s the copy editor’s question. O’Hehir himself isn’t wondering why they’re awful, just so damn mediocre. “Lame.”
Does the Lord really want to be glorified by way of something that looks like an especially tame episode of "Baywatch"?
That strikes me as facile. For one thing, Dennis Quaid is no David Hasselhoff. (That cuts both ways.) For another, and this touches on a point I’m going to get to, if the beach scenes in Soul Surfer feature any ambulatory decor remotely resembling Pamela Anderson or Yasmine Bleeth then Soul Surfer is not a “Christian” movie, no matter how preachy it gets.
But the comparison to television seems apt. These movies look like they have the same low-budget-necessitated anti-aesthetic production values and take the same dully conventional approaches to character and narrative as Hallmark Hall of Fame Specials and Lifetime movies. Except for Soul Surfer, they star the same sort of bland, familiar but not famous, white bread actors too. They look like they were made for television.
You can tell the difference within a few seconds of watching either of those shows. They present a much more active form of faith. Not surprising since the main characters are agents of God. They are here on earth to do things. Their purpose is to help make life better in the here and now.
They are in the business of saving people.
Actually, so are the main characters in Baywatch, another reason O’Hehir’s comparison is off the mark.
The main characters in these Christian movies are in the business of being saved.
They don’t do things for others. The main action of the movie is in their having things done to them. “Christian” movies are targeted at a conservative Christian audience and so they reflect conservative Christian beliefs and the main one of these is that the individual is essentially helpless in the face of temptation. Which means that if a movie is to be “Christian,” it has to have at its center characters who are passive and to a great degree helpless.
Helplessness on the part of the hero or heroine is not traditionally the stuff that makes for exciting storytelling.
Dramatically, both Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel were only incidentally about religion. They owed their structures and their conventions to other TV shows that weren’t explicitly about faith and religion. Route 66, The Fugitive, Run for Your Life, Then Came Bronson, The Incredible Hulk (seriously) and Kung Fu (even more seriously)---shows about wanderers and seekers who found themselves in a position to do somebody else some good every week and, sometimes cheerfully, sometimes despite themselves, did it.
Tod and Buz, Richard Kimball, Paul Bryan, Jim Bronson, and David Banner were not overtly religious men. (Caine is a special case.) And none of them would have thought of himself as an angel---Kimball, Banner, and Caine, particularly; pressed, they’d have described themselves as lost souls. All three of them could have been named Caine or, rather, Cain. Although unlike the original, they were guiltless (or in Caine’s case relatively guiltless), they would have felt they’d lost God’s favor or his protection.----but they all acted as if they believed that if we have a purpose on earth it’s as Kurt Vonnegut’s son, Mark, the doctor, says: “We’re here to help each other through this, whatever it is.”
If there is religion behind this idea, it is a religion that teaches that faith is best expressed in the act of helping others---in good works.
Touched By An Angel and Highway to Heaven owe inspiration to to the nun and priest movies of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, as well. Boys’ Town, Going My Way and The Bells of St Mary’s, and Heaven Knows, Mr Allison are about people who’ve consciously taken on the job of being agents of God. (It’s important to keep in mind that that’s a sacrifice, an act of extreme self-denial for them, requiring constant self-effacement and abnegation, not a matter of self-aggrandizement.) They spend their lives in and around churches and, we suppose since it’s part of the job description, devote many hours of their work days to prayer and contemplation, but we see them out and about in the world, doing things for others.
No way am I suggesting that either Highway to Heaven or Touched by an Angel was as good as those classic movies and TV shows, although Highway to Heaven could have its moments. Michael Landon was not a hack. But I am saying that like their forerunners, they presented a liberal and humanistic version of religious faith.
Not necessarily politically liberal, although for Hollywood in the New Deal Era and Television in the 60s and 70s that would have been the default setting, but liberal in the sense of having as its goal making life on earth better for everybody.
A conservative version of Christianity, which is the version currently receiving almost all the media’s attention to the point that a great many people, particularly conservatives themselves, but lots of liberals too, think that it is the only version, has as its main if not only goal individual salvation. And that salvation can only be achieved by God’s grace. You can only be saved if God decides to save you and if he decides to, there’s nothing you can do to stop it, and if he decides not to, no amount of begging will help, although begging can’t hurt. No amount of good deed-doing will help you either. You can be damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s entirely up to him. The only thing you can do to help save yourself is believe.
Fireproof is about a firefighter whose personal bad behavior is ruining his marriage. It’s kind of a conservative Christian Rescue Me. But you can argue that Rescue Me is a liberal Christian Fireproof. In Rescue Me the reason we root for Tommy Gavin to get the better of his personal demons is that he is a heroic firefighter. We accept him as a good guy who is worth saving because he is so good at saving others. But in Fireproof the fact that the main character spends his days risking his life to save others doesn’t matter because he isn’t right with God. The fact that he is a hero is almost held against him, partly because his heroism has become a source of vanity and pride and he uses the dangers and demands of the job as excuses for self-indulgence. But it’s also the case that his is a worldly success and a worldly fame. The message here is that it doesn’t matter how wonderful you appear to be in the eyes of other men and women if you aren’t a shining light in God’s eyes.
Tommy Gavin, though, is right with God. He needs to get right with himself. That’s what Jesus and the ghosts keep appearing to tell him. Straighten up, man, get over it, get over your guilt, get over yourself. You’ve got a job to do. Tommy’s God-given responsibility is to other people. In Fireproof and other conservative Christian movies, the main character’s first responsibility is to himself and his own salvation. That’s how Fireproof can have as its happy ending the firefighter’s hero’s return to hearth and home. Although his job is ostensibly to rescue other people, the hero is rewarded for allowing himself to be rescued. He’s rewarded for giving in and accepting Jesus as his personal savior and his reward is a little bit of heaven on earth. He’s granted a place he can retreat into in order to escape the temptations of this world.
It’s the old debate between Faith and Good Works. It’s not that conservatives don’t believe in the importance or efficacy of good works or that liberals don’t place any importance on faith. But it is the case that liberals believe that you don’t have to believe in God to get into heaven and conservatives do. But more to the point here is that conservatives believe that the whole purpose of life on earth is getting right with God which can only be achieved by having Faith. This is how we find ourselves facing down the attempts by would-be theocrats to make ours a “Christian” nation by allying themselves with corporate sociopaths who not only don’t want to help the poor and the weak but actively despise them. Conservative Christians don’t have time to spend worrying about those from whom God has apparently withdrawn his favor. They’re too busy worrying about whether or not he’s going to withdraw his favor from them. All their time and effort have to go into keeping the faith. This means not just resisting but eliminating all temptation to doubt. The culture wars are all about conservative desperation to drive their own personal demons from the public sphere so those demons don’t threaten their faith.
To put it starkly and simply, liberals see religion as being about how to live well here on earth and conservatives see it as being about getting into heaven. A liberal’s religion begins with walking out the church door and a conservative’s begins with walking back in, shutting and locking the door behind you, and never opening it again not even to take a peek at the weather.
A conservative Christian movie, then, is a movie about coming back to church. It’s about rejecting the world and withdrawing from it, at least, in spirit. It’s a movie in which victory is won not through self-sacrifice but through putting the self ahead of everything else and then celebrating that fact. “God loves me! I am saved!”
Conservative Christians might argue that it’s not the self that’s celebrated, it’s the soul’s salvation as a goal. But that’s a dodge. The point is that we’re meant to cheer the single individual for that individual’s own sake. This is a quality that makes most action movies and so many triumph of the nerd comedies so unappealing. The point is self-aggrandizement.
Conservative Christianity isn’t the only religion or philosophy to teach that worldliness is the main obstacle to salvation or, as the Buddhists call it, enlightenment. But it tends to equate worldliness with bodied-ness and so, for conservative Christians, the greatest temptations are sins of the body, primarily, in fact almost exclusively, sex. But the main reason most people go to the movies is to watch pretty people doing sexy things. That means that for conservative Christians movies are temptations. In order to make a movie for conservative Christians you have to make a movie that rejects the main reason for there being movies.
Conservative Christian movies can’t be sexy. Think about that. You’re setting out to make a movie knowing that you have to avoid what movies are about. That’s going to affect your casting, script, costume, set, and make-up designs, lighting, and even the editing, with the pressure pushing you towards bland and unexciting choices in every aspect of your filmmaking.
So you have movies that are about passive, self-aggrandizing, sexless heroes and heroines.
I don’t go to the movies to be preached at. Few people do. But there’s a sizable number of a certain sort of conservative Christian who will only go to the movies if they know they’re going to hear a sermon. When I want to go to church, I go to church. These Christians want everywhere they go to be church. They need the constant reassurance that church provides. That’s why they want their politicians to be as big a bunch of God-botherers as their preachers and why they want to reinstitute prayer in public school classrooms. They need to be told over and over again that it’s all going to be fine, it’s all going to work out, that they are good and God loves them and won’t abandon them and that they are going to heaven when they die.
Now how are you going to make a good movie for grown-ups if your guiding dramatic principle is a Sunday School lesson for children?
Soul Surfer is based on a true story. It’s being marketed for a Christian audience, but from the reviews, I can’t tell what makes it a “Christian” movie, particularly. It’s about a family of surfers who happen to be devout Christians and you couldn’t tell their story and leave out the Christianity any more than you could leave out the waves. I also can’t tell what sort of Christians Bethany Hamilton and her family are. There’s a scene where Bethany and her church group go to Thailand to bring aid and supplies to the survivors of a tsunami. But that doesn’t signify one way or the other. As I said, conservative Christians aren’t indifferent to doing good works, they just don’t believe that it’s enough to get you into heaven. The main thing, though, is that Bethany doesn’t appear to have needed any saving. Her faith gave her the strength, courage, and confidence to get back on her surf board, but asking God for that kind of help is something believers of all sorts and conditions do. What would mark Bethany as a conservative Christian and Soul Surfer as a conservative Christian movie is if she believes it’s God’s plan for her to become a champion surfer. It’s interesting to me how many people God has saved with the intention that they go on living the life they were already living and doing the things they always wanted to do for themselves anyway. So if there is anything like a “God wants me to be rich and famous so I can spread his word” speech in the movie, then we’ll know.
A “God gave me this talent for a purpose” speech would come closer but wouldn’t be definitive.
“God wants me to keep going so others who are facing adversity and disappointment and suffering and pain will be inspired to keep going themselves” would shade things a little towards the liberal side, but here’s the thing.
I know many Christians who are politically and socially conservative but who practice a very liberal form of Christianity. They might not be comfortable with the words “Social Justice,” but I think they recognized what Glenn Beck was ranting about and they didn’t like it that he was attacking their faith.
In this interview with NPR, Hamilton doesn’t mention her faith or even bring up God, except maybe in the most oblique way. She talks a lot about surfing and when she does she sounds more like an artist than a believer. She also displays a merry sense of humor.