Preaching at the Movies
In this blog post, I’d like to point out a growing concern I have with Christian films, give a couple examples, then attempt to articulate an appropriate response. By “Christian movies,” I mean films made by and largely for Christians, which attempt to convey a Christian message and enjoy a theatrical release. There are examples that elude this definition, but I have in mind movies like the ones by the Kendrick Brothers (most recently War Room), as well as October Baby, Do You Believe?, and God’s Not Dead.
I sympathize with the impulse to make and watch these movies. Some of them come close to the aesthetic and technical standards of “mainstream” films and are generally free of compromising content. But I suggest that Christian films tend to make themselves the event in which viewers are preached to and instructed about Christian life and practice. This is a concern because those functions are primarily reserved for the context of the church.
God’s Not Dead is about a Christian who is given the task of defending his faith in front of his philosophy class and hostile professor. If you were to edit together just the scenes in which the main character, Josh Wheaton, stands at the podium defending his faith, the screen time would total almost 20 minutes. Twenty minutes is a very long time to spend on sequences that are primarily propositional claims read from a PowerPoint presentation. It is not hard to see his lectern as a pulpit, his fellow students as a congregation, and the unanimous persuasion of the class as conversion – which would make Josh Wheaton the preacher.
Or consider how essential written text and teaching moments are to the plots of the Kendrick Brothers’ movies. In Facing the Giants, Grant Taylor’s life is in shambles (he coaches a losing team, drives a broken car, and cannot have children with his wife). This all changes when he stays up all night with his Bible and journal, writing a new “game plan” for his family and football team. Or in Fireproof, there is The Love Dare, a hand-written journal of devotionals which Caleb Holt uses to restore his broken marriage. We hear much of the journal being read, either onscreen or in voiceover. In Courageous, Adam Mitchell turns his parenting around by studying Scripture and writing a “Resolution,” which is adopted by several of his friends, resulting in a ceremony in which they pledge to the conditions of the resolution – all of which is recited out loud.
These documents – the “game plan,” The Love Dare, and the Resolution – are teaching documents. They instruct. And because they are text-based props within each film, they necessitate scenes in which they are explained. Coach Taylor unveils and explains the game plan as he stands before his team in the locker room. Caleb’s father teaches him the purpose and meaning of The Love Dare at a campsite they stumble upon. Officer Mitchell first explains the Resolution to a small group of men, then preaches it to a congregation in the film’s final scene. Ultimately, the ones being instructed by these teachers and documents are not other characters in the film, but us the viewers.
With each of these movies in mind, my question is, why use film – a uniquely visual medium – to essentially portray an apologetics course or to teach us biblical ways to improve our lives? It might be that these movies are less concerned about doing what films do and more concerned about teaching and preaching. Again, the concern is that these are primarily meant for the church.
The underlying assumption here is that Christian messages can take any form, and since movies are a predominant medium in our culture, we might as well use those. A wise pastor once said, “What you win people with is what you win them to.” The church at large busies itself with “getting the message out” via whatever medium is most popular and then wonders why students abandon church in college, or why the newly converted leave the church at the first sign of trouble. It is because the medium has passed on the assumption that we don’t need the church, not really anyway.
So, then, what should our response be? Does this mean that we should ban Christian films? Surely it doesn’t mean that. All things are lawful. By raising these concerns, however, I am emphasizing that not all things are beneficial. I am not convinced that Christian films benefit us. I am increasingly convinced they are vehicles for biblical truth – truth we are meant to encounter as we deeply commit ourselves to our church.
If you enjoy these movies, if they entertain or engage or move you, then watch them. But recognize that they are moving you toward something, and likely they are moving you toward a vision of life that tends to trivialize the role of Christ’s body. All this is to say, watch them discerningly. Try to watch them as movies and not as supplementary preaching material or Bible study curriculum. For those things, let us turn, with renewed vigor, to the church.