A Former Muslim Discovers That He Likes Cheesy Christian Films After All
A good Christian film can help us take Christianity more seriously, and a bad Christian film can keep us from taking ourselves too seriously.
The Academy Awards happened three weeks ago. I didn’t watch it.
It seems to me that Hollywood has, for quite some years now, been more interested in throwing awards at films that advance political causes rather than films that most people would actually care to watch. I didn’t see a single one of the eight films that were nominated for best picture this year.
On top of that, too many of the acceptance speeches are preachy. Maybe some of the award winners assume they’re supposed to preach at us since the awards are held on a Sunday. Why would I bother to watch a boring, sanctimonious and political award show that’ll throw honors at movies I’ll probably never care enough to watch when I could be doing … anything else?
Judging by the Academy Awards’ declining Nielsen ratings over the years, I suspect that a lot of people have been asking themselves a question like that.
There was a time when I did pay attention to the Oscars. I’ve even been to my share of Oscar parties in years past. And when I was younger, I figured I was supposed to like any film when it happened to be critically acclaimed, regardless of how boring it was. My own low point in this was before I became Catholic, when I told some of my friends that Brokeback Mountain was an “outstanding” movie, even though it most definitely was not. I don’t think I’ll ever make that mistake again.
But Oscar weekend isn’t all about celebrating movies that the film critics label as “good.” It’s also the weekend of the Golden Raspberry Awards (a.k.a. the Razzies).
I do enjoy watching bad films, almost as much as I enjoy watching good films (ones that are actually good, that is), and far more than I like watching so-so films. Films such as Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (a.k.a. “Turkish Star Wars”), 1990 Bronx Warriors, and Ed Wood’s perennial Plan 9 From Outer Space have each given me many laughs for their ridiculous awfulness.
But what about when a bad movie also happens to be a Christian-inspiration film?
I’d spent some years on the ministry team of the filmmakers’ group at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, back when I was an Evangelical. The gist of what I’d learned at Redeemer was that subtle Christian themes were what made secular films good, whereas many (but definitely not all) blatantly Christian films were just piles of garbage.
Several of my fellow Evangelical film enthusiasts and I, snooty as we often were, brazenly disliked Christian pop culture (whether it was music or film) whenever it managed to cross the threshold over to the territory of cheesiness. We thought of cheesy Christian art as something to be embarrassed over, and something to get defensive over, figuring that fellow Christians who claimed to like it were too uptight to admit that some Christian art could be really bad. In retrospect, I realize that we could be very uptight in our judgments.
In 2008 a visiting film studies professor (who taught at Baylor, if I remember correctly) gave a presentation series at the Redeemer office titled “Faith & Film,” in which he playfully showed us a clip of the ending of Facing the Giants, in which (spoiler alert!) a scrawny high schooler kicked a 51-yard game-winning field goal after the coach lectured him about faith in God. Those of us watching all shared a good laugh.
I gladly gave a free pass to films such as The Warriors (“Warriors come out to play-ayyyy!”), and yet I looked down my nose at films such as Left Behind (starring Kirk Cameron, who did go on to win a worst-actor Razzie for Saving Christmas). It took me quite a while to realize that for someone who theoretically disliked such Christian films, I’d watched an awful lot of them over the years. Why should the filmmakers of bad Christian films be subject to such a double standard?
Bad films are often at their best when their producers sincerely believe that they will inspire us all. I wonder if, some years down the line, another great “making of an awful movie” film will be made about a director of one of these Christian-inspiration films. I also wonder if Kirk Cameron would be willing to play himself when that happens.
I do suspect that the filmmakers behind films like God’s Not Dead, Heavenly Deposit and Eternal Salvation truly believed that those films would inspire so many of our non-Christian, and nominally Christian, neighbors to seriously consider the Gospel message. As a Christian, I very much sympathize with such a desire to. But I myself never bothered to watch films like those until after I’d already become a practicing Christian, and I rather doubt that those filmmakers realize how much preaching to the choir there is in such films. But more than that, did it ever occur to any of them while the cameras were rolling how gloriously those films were missing the mark?
Professor Radisson, the antagonist played by Kevin Sorbo in God’s Not Dead, wanted all of the students to deny the existence of God on the very first day of his philosophy class. The screenwriters had written him as such a strawman that one of his college-aged students even managed to show him up with a PowerPoint presentation during class. Radisson (spoiler alert!) does come around during his dying moments though, after being hit by a car just outside the venue of a Christian rock concert. (I’m looking forward to meeting him in Heaven.)
The main character in Heavenly Deposit (played by John Savage) became so financially desperate that he had to sell family heirlooms and his wife’s wedding ring to keep up with mortgage payments. But at the same time, the house which he so desperately sought to keep was huge (my guess is that one of the producers let the crew film in his own house) so that any viewer can easily ask him or herself, “How did a guy with such a checkered employment history afford that big house in the first place?” Did a detail like that ever even occur to the filmmakers?
Eternal Salvation follows the formula of a non-Christian protagonist who runs into problems, who then goes on to befriend someone who’s already Christian (and always acts like a Boy Scout for it) who tells him all about the Christian life, and who then goes on to accept Christ and have all of his problems disappear. This film sweats Prosperity Gospel like someone with no air-conditioning in the summer, so that the protagonist (an investment banker) becomes (another spoiler alert!) even wealthier after accepting Jesus Christ into his heart, and all of his problems began when he collapsed on a golf course. Were the saints who embraced poverty and suffering somehow bad Christians for it?
These films so gloriously missed the mark! But I suspect that the filmmakers figured that a guy like me — a practicing Christian, that is — would have gone on to invite some of his secular friends to a watch party, to sit those friends down and turn off the lights, and hit the “play” button so the narrative could do the rest. And when the credits began rolling, I could’ve turned the lights back on, and asked those non-religious friends, “So guys, what’d you think about that?”
My enthusiastic smile would’ve faded when I heard the sound of crickets and throat-clearing.
These films are every bit as much fun to watch for their awfulness as their secular counterparts. They also have the added benefit of being bad films that families can laugh at together.
The first article I ever wrote for the Register (as a guest writer) was about several of the well-made Christian-themed films (like The Exorcist and Flowers of St. Francis) which had unwittingly influenced my own conversion to Christianity, and to the Catholic Church after that. There are other great films, classics such as Ben Hur and Lilies of the Field, as well as 21st-century masterpieces such as Lord of the Rings, that have this power. There are profound stories in other mediums, such as Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, that have a similar power. (Dostoevsky’s works crush atheism because he didn’t write his atheist characters as mere strawmen.) The legacy of Christian storytelling is far too solid to be threatened by Christian stories that happen to be cheesy, so what’s there to get defensive about?
And, in a funny way, cheesy Christian-inspiration films have also assisted me in my own faith journey — usually by instructing me of what not to do as a Christian. If Left Behind and Eternal Salvation are the best stories that the “rapture” and the Prosperity Gospel can offer, then I know that I don’t have to pay much attention to either of these. If we go about assuming that atheists such as Professor Radisson are such incredibly one-dimensional people, or if we define the journey of our faith as an obsessive comparison to the world at large, then our own faith will begin to lack depth.
A good Christian film can help us consider taking Christianity very seriously. A bad Christian film is an opportunity for us to laugh, and can help prevent us from taking ourselves too seriously. And the Truth is so all-encompassing that the stories inspired by our faith can keep up with the best of them, and can also keep up with the worst of them. Everything belongs.
Yes, it took me a while to say it, but I’ll definitely be watching more of these awful yet highly entertaining films in the near future. What I’m not too sure of is when I’ll get around to watching any of this year’s Oscar winners.