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The Way to Fix Christian Films: Add Ambiguity

The Way to Fix Christian Films: Add Ambiguity

Last week, the latest in a string of low(ish) budget faith-based films to hit mainstream theaters released, and like many of its predecessors, God’s Not Dead 2 has been met with less than enthusiastic reviews: It currently holds a 14 percent rating on the critic aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.

The original received just 15 percent, which is worse than last year’s hit War Room (34 percent), 2011’s The Grace Card (35 percent), 2014’s Heaven Is for Real (46 percent) and 2009’s Fireproof (40 percent) but not nearly as bad as Nicolas Cages’ Left Behind reboot (2 percent).

To be fair, when looking at the aggregated critical feedback from professional film critics, a few things should be kept in mind: Most of these movies make a ton of money (relative to their production budgets), and despite being panned by critics, they also mostly feature high marks from audiences.

Fair enough. To their credit, the filmmakers know their audience, and make films they like—even if critics don’t.

But it would be a mistake to call the disparagement between bad reviews and high ticket sales (mainly from Christian audiences) a sign of some large anti-Christian conspiracy.

As the theme of some of the recent faith-based films indicate, there are large sects of American evangelicals who maintain the belief that Christians in America are being “persecuted“, and view negative critical analysis against Christian art as an attack on their faith.

But there’s a danger in conflating a bad review of Christian art with an attack on values.

Objectively—or at least using the standard of the collective opinions of people who are paid to critique films—many “faith-based” movies are not very good. They may find audiences of Christians (many of whom already agree with the story’s underlying message), but that doesn’t mean they are impacting culture as much as they could.

There is a way to “fix” Christian movies, but doing so may take away the one thing many of faith-based film fans find so appealing in the first place: Easy answers.

Difficult Parables

One of the main ways Jesus taught His followers was through the use of parables. He told stories to underscore different themes, ideas and concepts.

Not only were the stories memorable, they also had a certain power that traditional teaching methods didn’t: They could leave room for ambiguity.

Some of Jesus’ stories are confusing. Some of His metaphors need to be wrestled with. Even today, discussing the meanings can lead to debates, even among scholars.

Take the story of the Prodigal Son. On the surface, the story is about the grace of a father, who forgives his wayward, foolish son. But, the subtext is much deeper than that. Isn’t the older brother, who always worked diligently and selflessly for his father without recognition, justified in being upset that his young, foolish brother received a party and gifts instead of punishment? Why wasn’t his own hard work praised?

Where is the “justice” there? If the story is about grace, why is the older brother even a part of it?

Or take the story of the lost sheep: The shepherd defies reason and leaves 99 sheep to go find a single lost sheep. The parable is so powerful because it goes against our idea of what is reckless, wise or practical.

Or the parable of the workers: A vineyard owner hires laborers who work faithfully all day. Toward the end of the day, he hires several more workers, and pays them the same amount for much less work.

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more.

Aren’t they justified in that reaction? Isn’t that fair? Shouldn’t they expect to be paid more money for more work?

In the parable of the talents, the servant who buried the money his master had given him—for safe keeping until he could return it to his master—is harshly punished: “Throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That’s a challenging outcome.

Jesus told followers, “If your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” This is a metaphor, right?

These parables are challenging because Jesus understood that it was better for stories to challenge pre-existing ideas than to simply tell people things they already know.

Sometimes, big questions are more powerful than easy answers. Because the bigger the question, the bigger the truth it can reveal.

All of these parables not only require the listener to deeply engage with the story, but also to wrestle with the meaning. Each holds a deeper truth about God, but none of them sound like the plot of a Christian movie.

Real Emotion

Part of the constant refrain from critics of Christian movies is that they always end neatly. That they’re preachy. That they’re more invested in the agenda of the message than the drama of a story.

Ambiguity changes that. Difficult questions—especially when posed as part of a compelling story—make audiences grapple with emotions. Take the parables: Readers feel angry for the workers. They feel injustice for the brother. They are afraid for the servant. At that point, they are forced to examine why they feel the way they do, and to see the difference between human nature and the way of Christ.

Jesus made people think, but He also made them feel.

He didn’t manipulate emotions with simple plots; He challenge them with complex twists.

Engaging with Complexity

At the end of many Christian movies, there’s a moment when a character comes to Jesus and is told what they must do to receive the eternal salvation they’re looking for. It’s the alter call before the credits.

The problem is, even that was not a method typically employed by Jesus. Though He’s constantly asked “What must I do to have eternal life?” He’s given different answers depending on who was asking. (Give all your money to the poor; love your neighbor; leave your family behind).

Jesus wanted people to dig deeper, to ask questions that got to bigger answers. It’s not that the truth of the gospel ever changed—it was that He didn’t want it to be reduced to a single prayer or a quick promise made by someone out of fear. Jesus wanted followers who would choose to live their lives differently and accept a grace that defies our ability to understand.

In Matthew, Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Ask. Seek. Knock.

Films that cause people to do this—that ask them to go deeper with questions and to wrestle with truth—won’t just make for better movies. They’ll also offer better answers.

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