Have you ever wondered why most Christian movies fall so flat? The vast majority of the Christian films produced in the last few decades rank among the worst movies ever made. In fact, at least one of them, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, had the dubious honor of being IMDb’s worst-rated movie of all time. (It’s currently tied for last.) It nearly swept the Razzies in 2014 too. One of its wins was for Worst Screen Combo: Kirk Cameron & His Ego. Ouch.
Some of the mockery and scorn leveled at Christian movies certainly stems from ideological differences. Most of the people who call Christian movies “lame” and “preachy” don’t belong to the choir. But as I’ve written before, much of the criticism leveled against Christian movies is completely legitimate, and we should take it seriously.
But it’s not enough to agree that Christian movies generally stink. That’s an important first step to facilitate improvement, but the real question is, “How can Christians make better movies?” Let’s start by dismantling a commonly proposed solution: bigger budgets.
Why Bigger Budgets Wouldn’t Save Most Christian Movies
Left Behind is a presumably Christian movie with a big budget and at least one “big name” actor. By all accounts, it was a terrible movie.
Many Christians will claim that higher production values would mean better Christian movies. That simply isn’t true. It might mean better-produced Christian movies, but a polished booger is still … gross. Who would polish a booger, anyway?
The main reason bigger budgets wouldn’t help most Christian movies? The worst parts of most Christian movies wouldn’t cost any more money to improve.
The main reason bigger budgets wouldn’t help most Christian movies? The worst parts of most Christian movies wouldn’t cost any more money to improve. Most Christian movies should never have been made in the first place, at any budget.
Forgive me the pain it will cause you, but think back to all the terrible Christian movies you’ve ever watched. What made them so bad? You might say “the acting.” But the real culprit for that sense of bad acting may have been badly written dialogue or poorly-conceived scenarios coupled with visionless or tasteless direction. Good dialogue and an interesting scenario could salvage all but the very worst acting, directing, and cinematography.
And that is where I think Christian movies need the most work: the script. And that’s good news really. That can be fixed. And once the scripts are fixed, Christian movies will be in a much better place to attract the right talent in other areas that need improvement.
There are three main problems with most Christian movie scripts. With few exceptions, they are unbelievable, cliché, and preachy. How do you fix these problems?
Don’t Deliver Messages. Tell Stories.
In the first category, screenwriters should be telling stories based in real experience. Most Christian movies tend to be topical rather than conceptual. In other words, most screenwriters have a topic they want to speak on and a message they want to convey concerning that topic, rather than a concept they want to explore, or realities they want to represent. So they construct a thinly-populated soapbox scenario from which they can present what they think is true.
Further exacerbating the problem, the topic and message are too often “gospel-centered.” In other words, Christian screenwriters want to tell a redemption story in order to “preach the Gospel” to the audience. Lest you misunderstand, I think Gospel truths will imbue any authentic work by a faithful Christian. But I think the Gospel is much larger than the Sinner’s Prayer, and evangelistic art still needs to be good art.
Art that is subjected to the needs of a particular topic, with a particular message, is most often called propaganda. And it is nearly always bad.
Topical art rarely makes for good art. Art that is subjected to the needs of a particular topic, with a particular message, is most often called propaganda. And it is nearly always bad.
Unless a movie is a documentary, it should be driven by concepts and characters. Not topics and messages. In other words, in order to write believable scripts, Christians need to write believable stories populated by believable characters.
This doesn’t preclude presenting the truth. Jesus taught many truths, but he did so mostly through parables: believable stories populated by believable characters. He trusted that the truth was inherent in reality.
Consider how detrimental to the Gospel most Christian movies actually are. Unwittingly, they transmit the idea to the audience that the only world where the Gospel has any power is a fantasy world. This is simply not true. We must trust God enough to tell real stories simply and accurately. The truth will be in them without our help if we’ll get out of the way.
The topical nature of most Christian art necessitates that narratives and characters fit the needs of the message. Which means that nuance and particularity suffer. And cliché rears its ugly head. (Hey! That’s a cliché!)
Cliché comes in many forms. Stereotypes. Generalizations. Narrative rubrics. Clichés. (Who would have guessed?)
You’ve seen them all in bad movies, Christian and otherwise.
There are two ways that screenwriters fall into the trap of cliché. The first is the obvious way. They use familiar, hollow expressions, especially at inappropriate times. They write flat, obvious characters based on stereotypes. They confirm anodyne generalizations. They follow derivative story arcs enslaved to some version of the Hero’s Journey.
The second cliché trap way is equally, if not more, obnoxious. Sometimes Christian screenwriters are so desperate to be “original,” that they end up just inverting clichés. They take the first thing that comes into their minds, and they use the opposite. Most of the time, movies built on cliché inversion are even more painfully clumsy than their more straightforward counterparts.
How do you kill cliché? By writing from real experience, retaining and evoking the life and spirit of the original. Tell a real story. Mine for real dialogue from real people. Pay attention to little details. That’s a good place to begin. Don’t worry about being original. Just be real. And start small.
Character and narrative creation should be inductive, not deductive.
But you can’t even begin to do this if you are trying to write topical movies. It’s basically impossible to write a topical movie with any detail or life. Because topical movies are based on percentages and probabilities.
For instance, if I want to write a movie about “homosexuality,” and how homosexuality is wrong, I’m going to have a hard time writing a good movie. Now, if I wanted to write a movie about how a particular homosexual with a particular story ends up having to stay for a few weeks at the house of his old friend, who happens to be a Christian, then I have something. As long as I allow the characters and the story to develop naturally without forcing them to my own conclusion. The point here would be exploration and representation rather than confirmation and presentation.
If my intention is to convince the audience of a message (or confirm an audience that already agrees with me), I’m not going to take any chances. In service to my cause, my homosexual character would need to be unequivocally mean or miserable. I’m sure some homosexuals are that way. Some Christians are too. That’s not all that interesting or helpful. It’s a surface level probability: a sweeping generalization.
Character and narrative creation should be inductive, not deductive. Rather than beginning with a general concept and moving to the specific, go the opposite direction, from specific to general. Why? Because art should show not tell. Have I said that before?
Don’t Be Preachy (He Preached … )
Which leads me to the final way to improve Christian movie scripts: don’t be preachy. In fact, don’t even try to make a “Christian” movie. Work on developing compelling believable characters, authentic dialogue, and intriguing concepts and scenarios. If you are in fact a Christian, I’m sure you will find that your Christian perspective will naturally inform your work. You shouldn’t have to try to make a Christian movie. The irony here is that if you succeed in telling a good story with believable characters, you will have a greater chance of convincing unbelievers of the truth.
I don’t mean, “Don’t talk about God.” How could you be realistic without talking about the creator of reality? But if you have to force God into your work, it’s because your work isn’t real. Fix your work. Then maybe God will dwell in it.
Before unbelievers can believe in God, they must first believe you.
I remember I had been spending a lot of time with a very intelligent, charming non-Christian who couldn’t agree with me less concerning God and the Bible. After a few months of hanging out with him nearly every day, a thought occurred to me. I knew what he believed concerning God, but I wondered what he believed concerning me. So I asked him, “I say that I have a personal relationship with God. You don’t believe in God. So, do you think I’m crazy? Or am I lying? Do you think I actually believe what I say I believe?” He responded, “I don’t think you’re crazy. I do think you’re connected to something. I don’t know what it is.”
I think that is a vitally important aspect to evangelism. The path to convincing the audience concerning God is to first establish a credible and authentic witness. And preachiness evinces that your message is not believable. It feels like a performance and a posture. An audience watches your movie and thinks, “This is not real. People don’t deal with things this way. No one would ever say or do that. Oh, and here comes the altar call.” When an audience says a movie feels preachy, it is not just that they haven’t believed the message. They haven’t even been convinced that the moviemaker believes the message. Before unbelievers can believe in God, they must first believe you (Rom. 10:14). That’s a heavy burden, but, if God has really sent you, he’ll also equip you.1