‘Christianity’ in Film & TV

ChristianityInFilmIt’s almost inevitable that whenever I’m at a BBQ or party, someone will end up asking me about media and films. This is because I work in media and I’ve gone out and made a few films over the years. And once people find out that I’m a Christian, the conversation usually turns into a discussion on ‘Christian films’.

This is always interesting as there are only a handful of opinions that different people have on this subject – and I’ve heard them all many times. As soon as a person starts talking I know exactly which opinion they have, and I will change the way I speak in order to communicate effectively with them. I change the things I say in order to talk about Christian films on their level. I do this in order to bring them on a short journey around the circle so I may explain the way I understand films and the placement of Christianity in films. I’ve learnt to make an effort to do this, because I see ‘Christian films’ very differently to most people.

In the end what it all boils down to is this – I am not interested in making ‘Christian films’ but rather I seek to make great films which have Christianity placed within them.

This often baffles people because its usually a new concept to them, which is why I first find out the position they are coming from before presenting my view. To accurately explain my view takes time, as I would first have to explain about screenwriting and controlling idea and story structure – just to mention a few. So what I tend to do instead is give examples of films they might have seen, which have elements of Christianity woven into them.

If they ask me about one of my own films such as 1500 Steps they will say “so, is it a Christian film?”. I will reply, “It’s a different type of Christian film – it’s a Christian film in the same way that Man of Steel or Chariots of Fire or Here Comes The Boom orRocky Balboa is a Christian film.” – I can tell you that I get some strange looks! Yet all of these films, and many other films and tv shows which you would not naturally think of as ‘Christian’ do in fact have the message of Christianity woven into the fabric of the story.

Some do it rather strongly while others do it subtly or will only offer a glimpse of the message. For example Man of Steel (the latest Superman movie), is almost a direct allegory of the story of Jesus – even to the point that they’ve made Superman 33 years old when he becomes the saviour of the world! Alternatively, an unusual example of Christianity in film is in the zombie TV series The Walking Dead, where at the end of the third series the antagonist reads a passage from a Bible that is laying open and gets convicted by it – or at least irritated. Then at the end of this episode we see a graveyard cross in the foreground of the prison with ‘hopeful’ music playing over it – symbolising the cross as a symbol of hope.

Because of my understanding of film and story structure, I know that I am not imagining these messages, – I know that they have been put in on purpose by the writers, producers and directors of the film.

By this stage of the conversation I can see the person’s brain start ticking over and their eyes opening up excitedly as they begin the understand the concept. Quite often at this stage of their new revelation they blurt out “Oh, that’s like The Matrix isn’t it?! – that’s got a Christian message in that!” – This is when I sigh and explain that, no I don’t think the Matrix has a Christian message, but is rather a very obvious Gnostic message. …but that’s for another conversation.

I’d love to know what messages you’ve picked up in films and tv shows you’ve recently seen. Feel free to comment.

  • Rosemary

    I think Rocky is a great example of a Christian character in an otherwise secular film with themes that could extend into spirituality (not just for Christians, but for multiple religions). Rocky Balboa is quite obviously Christian, prays to God before his big bout against Apollo Creed, but what separates his religious identity from characters such as the ones in the faith-based sports movie “Facing the Giants” is that Rocky doesn’t pray for God to let him “win” and then through Divine Intervention receive a miracle. Instead, he uses faith as something to help him deal with the pressure he is under, asks for a prayer to keep himself safe (because that’s what real life Christians do)…and he doesn’t even have to spell it out to the audience that he believes in God because it’s quite obvious.

    My absolute favorite depiction of Christian characters, though, comes from the TV series Little House on the Prairie. This TV family endures hardships and falls back upon their faith as an avenue to get them through difficult times. They don’t judge others, they don’t come across as self-righteous, they don’t “preach” to people who don’t want to hear it, and they don’t hate their neighbors who have differing belief systems. In fact, quite the opposite. On numerous occasions, this family prays for their enemies and sticks up for their non-Christian acquaintances. If most Christians were like that then there wouldn’t be so many negative stereotypes associated with them.

    The Little House family endures some of the worst atrocities and heartaches any human being could endure (death of a child, loss of livelihood, verbal and physical harassment, etc) despite the fact that they believe in God. Belief in God doesn’t spare them from atrocities, and nor should it. I think that after the popularity of the rapture swept through Christian media (most notably through the Left Behind series) there has been this ongoing trend where Christian characters should be spared suffering, as if to sell an audience of potential converts on the premise that you can apparently bypass going through terrible situations if you become Christian. I think the trouble with a lot of faith-based film today is that the makers are trying to “sell” their faith to people by portraying it as something that will gain immediate rewards. But that is a terrible idea, no matter what your perspective. Faith-based films of the modern era portray a “perfect Christian” who does not stumble but rather becomes inherently unstoppable as soon as they place their trust in God. This is a character that nobody can relate to, but it apparently makes the audience who already identifies as Christian feel like they are somehow spiritually “superior” than those who are non-Christian (which, in itself, is an un-Christlike mindset). But that is what sells the tickets. Theaters roared with thunderous applause during the latest “God’s Not Dead” film, feeling excited when the atheist character got his “just desserts.” This is a dangerous trend, and it’s only going to get worse.

    Even though characters like the Ingalls Family stumble frequently on their show, they pick themselves up time and time again by relying on their faith. To me, that’s a much better model to live by than a movie that promises everything will be peachy and rosy when you become Christian and that non-Christians will eat crow for hating on you.

    Little House doesn’t build into the mind of the Christian viewer any sense of self-righteous indignation. It doesn’t build into the mind of the non-Christian viewer the sense that Christians somehow feel they are superior to everyone else. It gives both of these persons (Christian and non-Christian, alike) characters they can identify with and strive to be more like. In fact, it is the only time I recall seeing Christians onscreen and silently thinking to myself that, “I wish I could be more like them.”

    But what do I know? Faith-based films sell pretty well in their current state of self-righteous indignation, so why not just keep making football movies where God picks the winner based on who loves him more? Right?

    • Thanks Rosemary! Love all your thoughts on ‘Christian’ films here.

      You’re right:

      1. ‘Christian’ characters portrayed in ‘Christian’ or ‘faith-based’ films are not very ‘real’. They are usually shallow characters who would not survive in the real world. This is the biggest mistake ‘Christian’ filmmakers continue to make.

      2. These films sell well because they sell direct to a churched audience immersed in a thick ‘Christian’ culture. They don’t sell because they are well told stories.

      3. There are some good ones out there though. Check out The Encounter starring my friend Bruce Marchiano. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1663680/

      4. Love to get your thoughts on my review of ‘Christianity’ featured in Riddick here: http://joshreidmedia.com/riddick-example-of-christianity-in-film/