Philip Kosloski graduated from the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy and Catholic Studies and completed his Master of Arts degree in Theology with the Augustine Institute. He is a writer and author of In the Footsteps of a Saint: John Paul II’s Visit to Wisconsin. He blogs at philipkosloski.com and writes to help all Catholics master the art of prayer by conquering the practical obstacles that prevent a fruitful relationship with Christ.
What is the purpose of Christian films? Are they meant to evangelize, inspire and transform the culture? Or are the best films the ones that “preach to the choir” with a message of “Jesus Saves?”
In the past 10 years there have been a landslide of Christian films, all of which are trying to replicate the enormous success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Since then there have been movies such as (to name only a few) Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011), God’s Not Dead (2014), Heaven Is for Real (2014), Mom's Night Out (2014), Old Fashioned (2015), Do You Believe (2015), War Room (2015), and the latest, God's Not Dead 2.
While some of these movies were successful at the box-office, movie critics rarely praised them and the public at large barely knew about them. The latest Christian film to enter into the cinema conversation is God’s Not Dead 2. Unfortunately, it too received an enormous amount of negative criticism. The Chicago Sun-Times called it a “a two-hour, jazzed-up movie version of a sermon,” while others claimed the movie “isn't interested in a balanced discussion, and instead plays out in a tedious, cheesy, and frankly infuriating manner.”
Is this a good thing? Jesus might have said that the world will hate you, because they hated me, but does that mean we should make movies that infuriate instead of inspire?
Thankfully, there is another way.
Looking back at the history of entertainment, there have been numerous films with explicit Christian themes that inspire even the harshest of critics. For example, one movie that is seen by all as a masterpiece of cinema is A Man for All Seasons (1966). When looked at in the abstract, it has a very similar plotline to God’s Not Dead 2.
A Man for All Seasons is about: “Sir Thomas More, a Catholic statesman in England who rebelled against Henry VIII's self-proclaimed status as the head of the Church of England and paid for his religious beliefs by having his head exhibited on London Bridge.”
God’s Not Dead 2 is centered on: “a high school teacher is asked a question in class about Jesus, her reasoned response lands her in deep trouble and could expel God from the public square once and for all.”
Both movies are about standing up for Christian beliefs and both movies involve “courtroom” drama. However, one received a 14% Rotten Tomato rating, while the other is “fresh” with an 82% rating. One appeals to all, while the other is praised by a few.
It appears that the plot is not what offends; otherwise people would stop giving A Man for All Seasons such positive reviews. Based on the reactions to God’s Not Dead 2, the problem lies in the “heavy-handed” proselytizing. In other words, when people know you are preaching, they immediately tune you out.
What made A Man for All Seasons such a powerful film is not only the superb acting and screenplay, but most importantly the powerful witness of Thomas More. The point of the film was not to covert people to Christianity or give a defense to Christ’s name, but to simply tell the inspiring story of a saint. And therein lies the key to successful Christian cinema: witness.
Pope Paul VI put it this way:
Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses’ (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41).
Going forward, if we want to engage the culture and change it from within, the best type of movie to create is one that highlights Christian witness instead of Christian preaching. While “preaching to the choir” may get you millions of dollars from a portion of the audience, it will turn away those who need to hear the message of Christ the most.