Christians Making Movies – Up The Ante

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I love movies.

I’ve rated nearly 800 movies over at Flickchart.com and I can watch my favorite movies over and over again.

Right now, my top 5 films on Flickchart are:

1. The Godfather
2. The Shawshank Redemption
3. Inception
4. Back To The Future
5. The Godfather II

As a Christian, I think films are a terrific medium in which to tell people about God & Jesus.

There’s only one problem.

Christians have been doing that and for the most part, doing it poorly.

Kyle Cooper said something at the Story Conference that is sure to stick with me.

He said:

“The credibility of our message comes into question when we do mediocre work.”

It is so true. The best example I can think of are the ‘Left Behind’ series of films. They’re awful. Absolutely awful. How bad was it? The author of the books, Tim LaHaye filed suit against the production company citing breach of contract because he said the film and sequels were so poorly made.

Turning a camera on and filming doesn’t work, even if you’re telling people about Jesus.

Several years later in 2006, two brothers from Sherwood Baptist Church, Alex Kendrick (actor and director) and his brother Stephen shot and released the movie, ‘Facing The Giants.’ It was an ambitious effort in which they tried to bridge the gap between movies that preach to the choir and films that reach those who don’t know Christ.

It didn’t work. ‘Facing The Giants’ was ok but it was largely a film that preaches to the choir. It was clunky and the acting was sub-par. Their second effort, ‘Fireproof’ was an improvement, but still suffered fromt the same problems with mediocre writing, dialogue and sub-par acting. I thought Kirk Cameron was adequate in his role, but Erin Bethea was painful to watch as Cameron’s suffering wife.

Yet, prior to seeing these films, friends would say to me those movies were, “Awesome!”

But they were not awesome.

‘Courageous’ is the latest effort. I cannot comment on the film as I have not yet seen it, but of course I see people saying the movie is “Awesome!”, “Phenomenal!” and “One of the best movies I have ever seen!” In looking at the reviews, they aren’t as kind. There are some positive reviews. The Hollywood Reporter writes:

Courageous reveals the duo’s [Kendrick brothers] growing expertise as filmmakers with its skillful blending of moving drama, subtle comedy and several impressive action sequences, including a well-staged foot chase and a harrowing shootout between the cops and bad guys.

In addition, even negative reviews have offered up some positive thoughts, but one common element I see amongst those negative reviews is Kendrick’s propensity to push aside the narrative in favor of preaching to the choir. And yes, if you’re an evangelical Christian and see this film, it may serve to reinforce some beliefs and spur you to live out your faith in a more meaningful way and that is great.

But what does that do for the lost?

What does it do for those on the cusp of stepping across that line of faith?

Christians often get defensive when something they like is criticized, particularly by secular critics. “Oh they just don’t get it!” Of course they don’t get it. They’re not part of that culture. The problem is, most non-Christians won’t get it either. I’m not knocking the Kendrick brothers and their efforts for the sake of doing so. I give them props for working to improve and you can see the the progression they are making. I would just like to see them expand beyond their comfort zone and work to make a film that can reach a wide audience but still get their message across.

Successful and critically acclaimed movies (for the most part) all have one common factor among them: A good story.

Redemption As A Story

Let’s step back for a moment and go back 28 years to a film many people reading this may not have seen. It’s called ‘Tender Mercies’ and stars Robert Duvall (Oscar winner for Best Actor) as Mac Sledge a has-been, alcoholic country singer. The movie opens with Mac waking up in a post-drunken stupor in a small road side motel in Texas.

Mac has a history. He’s a drunk. He’s divorced. He physically abused his ex-wife when drunk and has a teenage daughter he has not seen since she was a baby.

Over time he marries the woman (Tess Harper) who owns that motel where he awoke. Her husband was killed in Vietnam, so Mac works to be father figure to her boy, Sonny. He gives up drinking. He tries to connect with his daughter and ex-wife. But none of this comes in a “Saul on the road to Damascus” transformation. It’s a slow process with one that has major trials along the way.

It’s a realistic portrayal of redemption and an excellent story. I would show this movie before any of the Kendrick films to somebody that had questions about God, salvation and/or redemption.

Perseverance As A Story

What if a film like ‘Tender Mercies’ is not your thing. What if you want something more modern? How about the film, ‘The Book of Eli’? Now I know some are thinking, “Caruso, you’re nuts.” But stick with me.

The Book of Eli is a great movie. It tells a great story. Eli (Denzel Washington) has the only Bible known to be in existence in a post apocalyptic world. For reasons he doesn’t understand, he’s been told to go west with this Bible. Along the way, Eli encounters criminals he kills without mercy and has to fight his way past a charismatic, but dangerous leader (Gary Oldman) who is seeking out a Bible because he knows its power can be used to control people.

What does the film reveal about issues of faith?

Three things in particular:

  1. Perseverance – Eli doesn’t give up, though doing so would have been easier. We live in world where many people have to persevere through tough times and challenges.
  2. Power of prayer – Eli prays. And not because he “has” to but because he wants to.
  3. Obeying God – Eli doesn’t ask why. He doesn’t know why. But God asked him to do something and he obeyed.

Yes, the film features graphic violence. Then again, so did ‘The Passion of the Christ’ which to date is the highest grossing ‘R’ rated movie in the United States. It took in $370 million in the USA alone. It’s success was not merely because the movie was about Jesus. It was successful because the story of Jesus is compelling and Mel Gibson did a fantastic job putting the movie together.

This kind of film making is part of the reason I am pretty excited about ‘Four Stones’, a movie about the story of David from the Old Testament. This movie is scheduled to be released in October 2012. The story is simple, yet powerful:

Four Stones is the story of a young overlooked herdsman who becomes an unlikely hero when his quiet ancient village comes under the attack of a ruthless band of raiders, led by an unstoppable warlord. This original epic tale, drawn from the biblical story of David and Goliath, will be retold in a gritty, modern cinematic style that captures the hearts and minds of today’s audiences. It’s an ancient story for a new generation.

My friend, Ben Arment is the visionary behind this film. The overall project behind it, One Thousand Premieres is looking to fund a good portion of the film by asking people and churches to to sponsor a showing of the film. From as little as $99 (1 to 14 people) to $999 (200+ people), you’ll be able to view the film either via live stream or with a DVD. Here’s a video with Ben describing the project:

There is already buzz about the film and the project.

Ben informs us of the following:

  • Two major film distribution companies have contacted me to explore the model.
  • Several major publishers have inquired about the film’s novelization and other resources.
  • On September 15, over 200 newspapers throughout the US carried a story about it.
  • An influencer in California has offered up hundreds of acres of wilderness property where we can construct sets and shoot the film over several months next spring.
  • Several notable Churches are getting ready to sign up for full Premieres and a number of smaller ones

It’s pretty exciting. Check out the website for more details.

So what do you think?

Have you seen any of the films I’ve talked about?

Do you agree? Disagree?

I’m really interested to see what the community thinks.

77 SHARES

Jay Caruso

I am photographer. I love my wife and kids immensely. I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, my Savior. I was an IT Director and Project Manager for 10 years. Now I am a Senior Logistics Analyst at The Home Depot. I love the sport of baseball and the New York Yankees.

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  1. says

    I’m going to comment I think for the very first time! haha… I love film as well, and I love commenting on a article that is written by a friend! score! lol. Full disclosure, my family goes to Sherwood and I know the kendrick brothers.
    What Sherwood does awesome is get their whole congregation involved in the films, I mean EVERYONE. People volunteer their time, talents, and money to help these films come into fruition which has helped the church a TON. However, I really don’t care for them, much for the same reasons that have been stated…. I don’t care for the films because they are not CREATING CULTURE… nothing is new about the stories, the stories are too prefect and don’t reflect real life at all. Sure they are appealing to a demographic of people that like stories like the ones they make, but as Christians we are called to GO AFTER the world. I plead to filmmakers to use the power you have, to move people into action and unveil mysteries in new light. Don’t coddle me, make me feel uncomfortable, challenge me, push your imagination, then you will be successful in creating culture… and get my money :)

  2. says

    I am with you. I went to see courageous, mostly because I was asked to go by some of the people at my church that I am trying to develop a relationship with. The movie itself was better than I expected, but it still was a little too “Christian” for my tastes. Things lined up too perfectly, relationships were not nearly as messy as they normally are, and the story line was pretty simplistic.

    During one scene, when a character reveals that he has a daughter born out of wedlock that he is ignoring, another character instantly begins to lead him to Christ. When I came home, I asked my wife if there is something wrong with me… my first thought in that situation would not be to lead the man to Jesus, but to understand more of his story, find out what else is rattling around in there, and see how I can help him restore a right relationship with his daughter. Does this make me a bad Christian?

    I really like what Chris says above about creating culture… back in the day, the church had a huge hand in shaping what is art, what is culture, and all that. While I am not calling for a return to those days, I (and many others) are all but begging for the church to get back into the practice of making great art, and worshiping God through that excellence as opposed to yet another propaganda film.

    One last unrelated thing… perhaps someone can tell me this, but it appeared that Michael Catt’s name was misspelled on the credits (he was credited as executive producer), I think it was spelled with one t… can anyone confirm that for me?

  3. says

    There was a year I was in a small group where we did a movie group. All except for one of us were either in seminary, working on a PhD in theology or related field or working in a church. We were all a bit burned out on the traditional bible study small group.

    So we watched movies. One week we would watch the movie, the next week we would have dinner and talk about the movie over dinner. We did this at the very start of netflix so we could hold onto a movie without late fees.

    There might have been a movie that was explicitly Christian, but I don’t remember. Instead we watched AI, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and a bunch of small independent movies that have interesting things to say, but were not explicitly Christian. We also avoided a lot of explicit sex and violence. But honestly, there is so much that is good, if you get a group that has watch widely, you have a lot of good materials.

    • says

      Great post Jason. I can’t get behind the rallying cry, “We should support this because it has a great message.”

      The thing is, there are SO many talented people out there who can create culture as Chris said. It’s just a matter of the people in positions above them letting it happen. Once that does, I think we’ll be amazed at what God will do through them.

    • says

      The story of Christ is great and what His ministry has done for the world is great. Many people connect through movies. There is a great opportunity there. People just need to step up their efforts and others need to take a chance on creating great art where the message doesn’t seem so forced.

  4. Alex MacDonald says

    I just wanted to say thank you for this post. The quote from Kyle Cooper really sums it all up…and in several different scenarios, too.

    For example, if a pastor gets up to speak during a service and hasn’t prepared well enough, the pastor will probably do a mediocre job, and will lessen the credibility of the message. Or if a church website doesn’t look presentable and is difficult to use, people will question the credibility of the message the church is trying to send – or they may just give up and not even question!

    I think it is important to compare Christian media – such as websites and movies – with so-called secular media. If the two don’t compete in terms of the same standards, then what chance does the Christian media have over any other choice?

    Christian comedians should be just as funny as non-Christian comedians. Christian websites should navigate well and be appealing to non-Christians. Christian movies should be held to the same standards as any other film out there.

    • says

      I agree with Adam on this. I don’t necessarily think it has to be exactly the same. There’s no Christian movie that can be as funny as ‘Airplane’ in my view simply because humor sometimes manifests itself in base things like farts.

      It’s not a matter of saying, “We need to be as good as_____” but rather a team of creative people putting together something that tells a great story.

  5. says

    The Book of Eli is my FAVORITE movie of all time. Not only does it have epically awesome fighting in it, but it has an awesome story to it.

    By far my favorite movie that has a christian theme to it.

  6. says

    Couple quick thoughts.

    First, what’s wrong with making movies for the choir? Beyond the subpar production, the greatest criticisms about these movies is that they are unrealistic. Isn’t that why they call it fiction? Don’t you wish that you could lead every person in crisis to Christ? Is that such a bad thing to portray in a movie? Just like teen girls who fantasize about becoming a princess, there are people who actually pray for things like this to happen and they enjoy seeing a world where it does.

    On that note, I hope lots more of these films come out and I could care less if folks outside the church don’t notice them.

    Second, my number one favorite movie of all time is Luther. Great movie, christian theme. Amazing all the way around.

    • says

      Carl, there’s no problem with what you’re saying. The problem with these films is that they’re being made with the intent of reaching a wider audience and they’re falling way short.

      The question goes back to, “How do we show the love of Christ to somebody?” Look at it this way:

      A hungry person walks into a church. He says to somebody, “I haven’t eaten in two days. Do you have something to eat?” The person hands him a tract and says, “I’ll be praying for you.” The man leaves, goes to another church and asks the same thing. The person there immediately brings him to the kitchen and provides him with food and says, “Let me pray for you.”

      Now, both men are showing the love of Christ. But which church is going to spark more curiosity in that man who asked for food?

      As I said, it’s not like people don’t have moments like Paul did. A great classic movie about such an experience is ‘Sergeant York’ with Gary Cooper. Alvin York was a mean drunk who was saved because of a church revival at the end of the year in 1914 (the movie portrays it more as a Paul “struck by lightning” moment). But again, that movie had a great story and it had the great Gary Cooper in the lead role.

      The problem with “choir” movies is that Jesus doesn’t want to us to do that. A Pastor once said, “Many Christians are like a pro football team that likes to huddle but never likes to yell “Break!.”

      We need to break the huddle.

      • says

        My problem with Choir movies is that usually they are marketed as evangelism movies. Chior movies do not have an altar call. So we say we are spending money doing evangelism and actually we are just entertaining the chior.

  7. says

    Art rarely has impact when it was created, first and foremost, with an agenda. Art needs to come from within. Purpose and intent can come later.

  8. Brian Brophy says

    I am a filmmaker (worship shorts- “8 Track Productions”), and a pastor. And I think there is another issue that has to be taken into consideration here when comparing a film like “facing the giants” and the “The book of Eli.” Feature length film making is totally different than shooting shorts or commercials or even TV shows. The expense, expertise required, production and distribution management,and level of acting required are 1000 times greater. Just take the acting for example. The acting in Giants was not good. But it was a 2 hour movie. You might forgive some thin acting in a 4 minute short, or a 30 minute TV show, but you have to put up with it for 2 hours here. But how do you get better acting?… Well, it has to come from better salaries for better talent, better leverage and connections for better talent, or better directing/coaching and more time for practice and experience. The production time table and budget of “giants” didn’t allow for any of this. And it couldn’t. Shoot, half the movies that come out have acting that bad or worse (and scripts that bad too.) If you don’t believe me just go watch GI Joe or any of the transformers movies.

    The truth is the only way to get better is to do it. Learn and do it again. I saw Courageous and honestly I think it is one of the best movies I have ever seen. They dealt with real issues that real people (not just Christians) deal with, but they showed the difference of how someone striving to walk with God deals with those issues. Sure it got a bit too preachy in the last scene, but If it had ended with a coach in a locker room preaching instead of a man in a pulpit people wouldn’t say a word. There is bias against christian film making. I believe that a movie like courageous is a huge step in the right direction and I think the Kendricks are very courageous (no pun intended) for stepping up to the plate and doing what they do in a world where they are criticized inside and outside the church. If more Christians would get into the film business then it wouldn’t be so debased. Go watch other movies made with there budget and then compare.

    • says

      I agree with much of what you’re saying. I would also say that in this digital age, with relatively inexpensive gear that is able to shoot 24 frames per second, budgets aren’t the albatross they used to be. Acting talent can be found. There are many people willing to lend themselves to a project they believe in.

      Look at movies such as ‘El Mariachi’, ‘Following’ and ‘Once.’ All of those movies were made for less than $10,000. Granted, El Mariachi didn’t have the best acting as it was an action film, but Rodriguez recognized that and made the action the centerpiece of the film.

      And again, if my criticism of the movies the Kendrick brothers have made seems harsh, it’s not my intent. Like I said, I give them mad props for doing what so many others have not and I am interested in seeing ‘Courageous’ because I have heard good things about it. I just want them to be pushed more. Let’s seem them take their talents and really go for it.

      Know what? They may be able to get some big name talent if they write a kick-butt script and….ASK.

      The big ask. Ben Arment knows all about that.

  9. says

    Jay,

    You said things that I have been saying for years. I actually saw Courageous before it was completed in January. It was a giant leap forward from their other films, but still in the vein of Hallmark and Lifetime movies . . . it is destined to be played over and over on Gospel Music Network or something along those lines.

    I want to see movies with real characters living real lives, not sterilized bible belt Stepford Wives style characters that are moral at heart, but need a kick in the pants. There needs to be real drama, real life. I recently saw the film Priest with Paul Bettany and it was a great commentary on society and the church. I would say that Devil and The Rite were also fine examples of biblical truths wrapped up in a much more serious story than what you can buy at your local christian book store.

    Thanks for the comments, it is nice to know I am not the only one who feels this way.

    • says

      Thanks Joshua. I appreciate the comments.

      You know, there was a movie I saw recently (same distributor for Courageous) that did an admirable job. It was ‘Soul Surfer.’ Was the movie great? No. I think it was great for teenage girls.

      BUT….what I did like was how it handled certain issues. It showed this teenage girl, doing things teenage girls sometimes do, like sneaking out at night. It was obvious to anybody watching that faith, prayer, God etc were all important to this family but it never reached a preachy state.

      I think we’re on the cusp of something great.

  10. says

    Great thoughts Jay. I concur with you on the Sherwood produced films and other similar kinds of films. I’m surprised, however, that no one’s made mention of “Soul Surfer” or “To Save A Life”. Granted, “Soul Surfer” is based on a true story, but it had a well-known cast (Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt) and showed the faith struggles of Bethany Hamilton through her ordeal. And “To Save A Life” was a messy movie about teen suicide. Both films were effective in sharing their message without being preachy. I have an easier time recommending these films to non-believers over the Sherwood produced films.

  11. Chris Ames says

    A very tactful, honest, and edifying perspective Jay. This article is exactly the kind of thing we need more of around here. Good work.

  12. Tracey James says

    Yes! Yes! Yes!
    I believe that each of the films mentioned in your post were good movies depending on the angle of the view. I believe each film was created to reach a certain audience. “The Book of Eli” I believe was intended to reach those who would not ordinary watch a film such as “Facing the Giants”, “Fire Proof” or “Courageous”, sorry let’s not forget about “Fly Wheel”. I can only imagine the secular views were on that one. And I believe that those films were intended to reach the Christian community to encourage us to act upon our faith, marriages, and families with an invitation at the end much like a Pastor would do on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning service.

    I would love to see the movie “Four Stones”. If you find a church who is going to participate with viewing of the film that is close by, I would like to view it. Will you please keep us posted?

    Great Post!

  13. Tim Mossholder says

    Jay…

    I agree with your perspective wholeheartedly. So well stated. And incidentally, it seems that so many roles that Robert Duvall has taken over the past years have had incredibly redemptive story lines (“The Apostle,” “Second Hand Lions”, etc.).

    Here’s another thought regarding Christians making movies for Christians. I hate to knock them for two reasons: 1) they should have the freedom to create whatever it is that God has put in their heart to create; and 2) everyone has to have their “first” creative effort, which likely won’t be their best. Unfortunately, the “first” release frequently flavors the rest that are to come. “Facing the Giants” was nails-on-a-chalkboard for me. It makes me very hesitant to see their other productions, though I’m sure they’ve improved.

    It’s too bad that the Body of Christ seems incapable of: a) honestly critiquing works from within; b) rating some films as “for Christians only”; c) giving each other space to grow creatively (me!).

    Thanks for helping us to work out those kinks! Keep up the good work.

  14. Will says

    I saw the movie and was really disappointed. I’m even coming at it from a Christian perspective and actually liked some of the films you mention here (“Left Behind” series, “Facing the Giants,” “Fireproof”). In the first three movies by these brothers, there was at least some coherent thread: cars, sports, romance. This time around, it was a mess. Four guys just happen to be on the police force together, and that seems to be their reason for hanging out. Never mind how the stereotypical angry divorcee practically telegraphs his tragic ending from the opening scenes, and how the “rookie” is a non-believer who somehow enjoys attending barbecues with Christian coworkers.

    There’s too much idle time where people are just talking (or is that because people in the South aren’t in a rush or needing constant suspense/drama?), and I wished they’d get on to the next plot point. The action sequences never scared me or left any doubt about the eventual outcome (you know good/the police always win[s]).

    I did see maybe two or three powerful scenes (forgiving a deceased father), but it takes forever for the plot to develop.

    I never like it when Christians are stereotyped or parodied, so why do we do the same thing in our entertainment? You can’t have a Latino family without them eating rice and beans? Gangstas have to wear do-rags and drive a Cadillac? This stuff is just too corny and tired to be taken seriously.

    The thing I notice whenever I read Jesus’ parables, is that He knew how to do more than just preach to evangelicals. The first time you heard about the prodigal son (both are actually prodigal, and the story isn’t about them, but I digress) did you see any of those plot twists coming? How about the hired vineyard workers who experience a 1st century sort of “redistributing the wealth”? That man KNEW how to tell stories. I just feel insulted on God’s behalf when Christian art seems so campy, unoriginal and not very useful outside of Christian circles.

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