What is a “Christian film”?

Annex - Bergman, Ingrid (Stromboli)_NRFPT_02
Ingrid Bergman in Rosselini’s Stromboli, a film Éric Rohmer described as a conversion experience.

Inevitably, when writing a blog like this, it will become necessary to wrestle with the question: “What is a Christian film?”. I addressed it briefly in the FAQ, but it’s worth revisiting here. Wikipedia says it is “an umbrella term for films containing a Christian themed message or moral, produced by Christian filmmakers for a Christian audience, and films produced by non-Christians with Christian audiences in mind”. Note that the emphasis is on the faith of the audience – the customer – not the filmmakers. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but it’s not hard to read that as something of a cash grab.

I say this not as a criticism, but with a sense of frankness. If you grew up in suburbia in the 1990s (as I did), you know all about the Jesus business. Jesus-themed parody T-shirts, WWJD bracelets, Amish romance novels (don’t get me started): there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. But it’s only fair to acknowledge that we’ll forgive a multitude of aesthetic sins if you stamp a Bible verse on them. I myself went through a four year period where I listened exclusively to Christian rock music and, to quote one of my favorite bands from that era, All Star United, “this Jesus thing, it’s a smash hit!”. Even then, we knew on some level, what we were getting ourselves into.

The way I see it, Christian movies are just another facet of the Jesus merchandising juggernaut. And just as it was not wrong of me to limit my music listening to the likes of Dime Store Prophets or Seven Day Jesus over Belle & Sebastian or Radiohead, there is nothing wrong with someone limiting their movie-going to things like God’s Not Dead, God’s Not Dead 2, or God’s Not Dead 3 instead of Star Wars Episode 19: A Galaxy Even Farther Away or Fast and Furious 127. But let’s not forget, the Christian blockbuster did not exist until 2004 when Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ finally convinced Hollywood of the purchasing power of church people. That doesn’t mean God didn’t go to the movies before 2004, you just had to look a little harder. And just as I eventually came to Radiohead and Belle & Sebastian as an adult, my concern is not so much what we consume when we make these faith-conscious viewing choices, but what we are missing when we play it safe.

Take the films of Eric Rohmer, for example, the elder statesman of the French New Wave, the philosophical godfather of the Cahiers du Cinéma. His films are, you might say, very French. His characters run around naked a lot, have plenty of affairs, and generally make a lot of bad decisions. If you were to make your movie watching decisions based on an arbitrary Scripture quotation threshold or a minimum “Jesus” quota (an actual idea I heard proposed multiple times in the ’90s to determine the “Christian-ness” of Christian music), you might see a lot of movies that affirm everything you already believe, but you’d never watch a single work by Rohmer, a devout Catholic and traditionalist who legitimately believed that the cinema was “a 20th century cathedral” and that “true cinema is necessarily a Christian cinema because there is no truth except in Christianity”. That sounds to me like the kind of filmmaker Believers should be flocking to, not hiding from.

In the 1970s, Paul Schrader (the man who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver) identified a style of filmmaking that expressed an ineffable sense of spiritual longing left unsatisfied by modern secularism. Not all of the movies I want to cover fit into Schrader’s definition of “transcendental cinema”, but that’s the kind of approach I want us to take as we dig into the last 125 years of movie-making. I want us to take an honest look at what we might be missing. You’ll hear enough at church and on your Christian radio about how you should see whatever it is that Kirk Cameron most recently slapped his name on. But are they telling you why it’s important that you watch Boris Karloff roam the streets of Edinburgh strangling people in The Body Snatcher? Because I will.

Further Reading:

Interview with Paul Schrader from the Globe and Mail (2017)

Toward a Definition of “Religious” CinemaChristianity Today (2014, paywall) – Note, I haven’t read the whole article as the bulk of it is “subscribers only”, but coming from CT, I imagine it’s well thought-out .

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