Culture Clips: An MTV Writer Critiques Christian Movies

God's Not Dead 2

Many, if not most, Christian filmmakers long to reach out to those beyond the faithful fold with their films. It’s a laudable goal. And a biblical one.

I’m sure that most of those earnest Christian directors could tell stories about how their movies have impacted viewers, likely leading some to embrace Jesus for the first time. That said, the gulf between faith-filled moviemakers and mainstream secular culture remains a daunting one. I was reminded of that this week when I came across this article by MTV’s Rachel Handler: “What Does Christian Netflix Want From Us?” Handler watched some of Pure Flix’s most popular films from the last few years, including I’m Not Ashamed, God’s Not Dead 2, I Am … Gabriel and Alison’s Choice. She then identified each film’s “Moral Lessons Imparted” and asked the question, “Am I Pure Yet?”

Handler’s sarcastic tone (“Pure Flix is just like Netflix,” she writes, “but for ‘families of faith,’ specifically the faith that sees earthly life as a filthy pit stop on the way to heaven, populated by millions of feckless, hell-bound sinners in need of salvation.”) is painful. But it also illustrates how big a challenge it is for a Christian film to connect with non-Christian viewers.

Others, however, have questioned the entire paradigm. Producer Mark Joseph (The Vessel, I Am David, Ray) recently told Fox News that that he thinks the term “faith-based film” needs to be put out to pasture. “The term scares away both the marginally religious and the irreligious, and it’s a signal to them that the story is going to be preachy and overbearing.”

Another Christian filmmaker, Spencer T. Folmar, thinks a better approach is to quit sanitizing movies to the point that they seem unrealistic. This director of Generational Sins, which deals with child abuse and alcoholism, told The Hollywood Reporter, “We live in an R-rated world, and covering up the darkness won’t bring it into the light.” Accordingly, his forthcoming, likely R-rated film is, according to the article, “overflowing with profanity.” Executive producer Thurman Mason adds, “People will call it ‘faith-based’ and we can’t help that, but we’re marketing it to secular audiences. We’re creating a new genre, and there could definitely be pushback.”

There were also developments this week on a couple of fronts regarding services that censor content from mainstream secular films. Utah-based movie-filtering service VidAngel—which has been engaged in an ongoing legal battle with Disney, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.—announced a new partnership that will allow subscribers to view cleaned-up content on Netflix, Amazon and HBO Go.

Almost simultaneously, Sony Entertainment launched “The Clean Version” initiative, which will scrub the studios films (either through editing or removing altogether) of “graphic violence, offensive language, sexual innuendo and other adult content,” according to Salon. The service would essentially give customers the opportunity to watch films that likely would eventually be edited for television or airline use anyway.

Some in the industry, however, say even studios don’t have the right to offer such edited versions apart from directors’ approval. The Director’s Guild of America told The Hollywood Reporter, “Directors have the right to edit their feature films for every non-theatrical platform, plain and simple. Taking a director’s edit for one platform and then releasing it on another — without giving the director the opportunity to edit—violates our agreement. As creators of their films, directors often dedicate years of hard work to realize their full vision, and they rightfully have a vested interest in protecting that work. We are committed to vigorously defending against the unauthorized alteration of films.”

Wonder Woman, meanwhile, has garnered the lion’s share of superhero headlines over the last two weeks. (Including a story this week revealing that actress Gal Gadot was five months pregnant when she shot some retakes for the blockbuster film.) That wall-to-wall wondrous coverage was interrupted this week by the sad news that Adam West, the man behind the cowl in the iconic Batman TV series of the 1960s, had passed away at the age of 88.

Elsewhere in the news, allegations of sexual abuse surfaced on the set of ABC’s reality show Bachelor in Paradise, prompting Warner Bros. to immediately cease production of it. Writing for The New York Times, Jennifer Weiner suggests that viewers’ appetites for ever-more lurid content on this (and similar) shows is a contributing factor in what has allegedly occurred. She writes, “As the reality genre has flourished, viewers’ appetites have increased. We like to watch. We always want more drama, more sex, more fights, more tears—and producers have been happy to provide it.” She says the shocking thing isn’t that an purported assault like this happened, “but that it has taken this long for something this bad to occur.”

Finally this week, HBO’s Sesame Street has a new skit riffing on the explicit Netflix series Orange is the New Black dubbed “Orange Is the New Snack.” Orange’s creator, Jenji Kohan, said in an interview that her next project is a drama about Jesus’ teen years. “Like The Wonder Years but with Jesus,” she said.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

SJamison More than 1 year ago
I think part of the problem with "faith-based" films is the need the makers feel to depict Christianity as an unmixed positive.  (This also afflicts current day Christian fiction to a large degree.)

Contrast "Uncle Tom's Cabin":  There are well-meaning Christians on all three sides of the question of slavery, complete with pastors using dueling proof texts at each other.  St. Clare's deathbed come-to-Jesus moment is good for his soul, but very pointedly does nothing to help his slaves.  Cousin Ophelia is against slavery on religious principle but deeply prejudiced against black people.  The Quakers are depicted as very good people, but even they struggle with where the line is on pacifism in the face of evil.  It's a novel soaked in Christianity, but with all the warts included.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
I agree. In every religion there are the people who are truly trying to live good lives and be good examples. And then there are the people who claim to be good, but clearly aren't. We all know examples of both of these people in our lives, so when a movie tries to act like only the pure and good ones exist it's clear to everyone that they are being unrealistic.
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
The quote from the article used here actually got me thinking.  to repeat it, the quote was 
"Pure Flix is just like Netflix,” she writes, “but for ‘families of faith,’ specifically the faith that sees earthly life as a filthy pit stop on the way to heaven, populated by millions of feckless, hell-bound sinners in need of salvation."

I think there is some truth to what she said here.  I wonder if maybe one reason many christian films turn off a lot of viewers, even some Christians, is because many of them are, quit frankly, pessimistic.  I know that might seem paradoxical (a pessimistic christian message) but it's true in a certain sense; take the God's Not Dead films for example.  They are uplifting in their messages in certain ways, but both films also paint us a picture of a world that is hostile, intolerant, and alien to the christian protagonists.  They, in short, depict earthly modern day life as a "filthy pit-stop" as the author of the article put it. And I think that turns people off.  Certainly you can say that is a biblical position, and in some ways things are "worse" now than they were in the past, but sometimes it seems like christian film, and a lot of real life Christians, are like the metaphorical "grouchy old man" complaining about "those darn millennials" and expounding how much better life was when they were young.  Seems like tons of Christians live with Rose Tinted glasses about the past, and are just too quick to dismiss all of present day life as a total hell hole, blind to all the ways that life *genuinely* is better in some aspects now than it was before.  The vibe i've often gotten from Christian movies is that "everything around us is a lost cause".   Maybe that is in some ways true, and biblical, and certainly we know that eventually things WILL get much worse before Jesus finally comes again, but, could we try not to exaggerate about the badness too much pre-maturely? ^^?  
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
Things will have to get much worse before Jesus comes because they are not bad now. They aren't exaggerating badness, they are making it up. The entire premises of both God's Not Dead movies would never happen (and many people have looked up the court cases listed at the end and found they had nothing to do with the plot). The student in the first could simply have complained to the college dean, and the teacher from the second could easily have sued the school and won because she merely mentioned Jesus in relation to a historical figure. Things aren't bad for Christians in this country, they just aren't being listened to with the blind respect they once were.
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
This is an issue I have discussed many times with friends, when expressing dissatisfaction with Christian fiction -- much of it tends to be superficial and unrealistic -- idealistic, in a sense. And that's the distinction that needs made: sometimes entertainment is for inspirational purposes only, and not intended to be realistic. It's intended to INSPIRE. That is fine. But life is a balance of good and bad; there needs to be more Christian fiction / films that do not just inspire, but show the truths of life.

Naturally, a realist will look at some of PureFlick's films with a critical eye, because they are inspirational instead of realism.

But when you do strive for realism, it needs to BE real.

What I have noticed with films such as God's Not Dead is... it's obvious to me the writers know no true atheists, have not spoken in depth to true atheists, and are just imagining what an atheist's views are based on their own (biased) opinion. Real atheists are not what Christians think they are, any more than real Christians are not what nonbelievers think they are. It is very, very difficult, if not impossible, to understand someone with a different worldview than you; their thinking is foreign to you. The only way for a good balance is intense study / relationships with people of different worldviews -- and devotion to being honest in your representation of a different argument from yours.

That's what ALL movies lack, at times -- external perspective. It's all very one sided. That's normal -- that's how the human brain works. But it doesn't always foster good relationships.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
The thing is though, it's so easy to identify with an atheist. If I told you right now that you need to repent and turn to Odin or you won't make it into Valhalla, and that Ragnarok is coming very soon, what is your reaction? Well, now you know how an atheist thinks :)
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
LOL, good point.

It's true, my atheist friend looks at me, when I talk about faith, the way I probably look at a different friend, when she talks about astrology. :P
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would like to address something with the Christian movie genre, if I can be the voice in the corner :) In my opinion, PureFlix is the most 'mainstream' of the Christian movie companies, but let us not forget some of the other great sources out there. Sherwood Pictures released Facing the Giants, Courageous, Fireproof, great and powerful movies. Burns Family Studios released Beyond the Mask a few years ago, there are Christian movies out there that are truly powerful. Even though both of the studios I have mentioned have lower production and budgets than PureFlix, they are still pull off their stories and characters convincingly. Also, not everything that PureFlix has released is bad. The film Woodlawn is one of my favorite football movies, it has great things to say about the racism and hatred that was an evil part of our country for a long time, and how God's love can cross all boundaries. PureFlix released that movie. Hopefully I haven't been too long, just some thoughts :)
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
PureFlix films may be "pure", but they are purely boring in terms of character and story, and more often then not are dishonest.  For instance, God's Not Dead is supposed to be a film about a kid standing up to his atheist professor and proving that God is real. 1) The professor turns out to not be atheist at all (he believes in God, just doesn't like him). 2) The kid never actually proves God exists. And 3) The final argument "How can you hate someone who doesn't exist?" is ridiculous. People hate fictional characters from books, TV, and movies all the time without believing they are real. So the kid doesn't even legitimately win the argument. Honestly, I see nothing of value in their films and they are certainly not bringing any atheists to God if they don't even know what an atheist is.

tl;dr I agree with Ms. Handler's assessment.
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Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
I did read her article. All of it. I've also watched many reviews of PureFlix movies by Say Goodnight Kevin (a Christian Youtuber). It's not just atheists who are saying these things about Christian movies.
John Johnson More than 1 year ago
Inkfeather1 I think that God's Not Dead had good character development. In the film you had a whole variety of characters from different backgrounds whose plots all came together at the end. The professor was a christian WHEN HE WAS A KID. Then his mom passes away from a gallant battle with cancer, and as a result converts to atheism, because his thought processing was like this "If there really is a loving god how can he let this happen". Also the student does present arguments during the second class debate. Yes maybe there could've been more, but honestly you can argue scientifically about stuff like this all day, and usually most movie studios prefer not to make a film longer than 2 hrs, because that usually means less showtimes which= less revenue. Plus they also need to make subplots to make the movie more interesting. So the debates in that movie are not necessarily a means to an end, but are used as a starting point. I think that you should watch it again, because i personally think that there's a  lot that you misinterpreted or missed. Have a great day!
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
The main character didn't develop at all. He's the same at the end as he was in the beginning. Very few characters change, and the only two that do just convert to Christianity and that's the extent of their "change" (religion does not equal personality, so it barely counts as development). 
Atheists don't hate God because of something bad that happened to them, they simply don't believe he exists for any number of reasons. The professor believes God exists and hates him. That is not an atheist, it's a misotheist.
The student's arguments were terrible. I'm not going to bother with them since many others have rebutted them far better than I could here.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I guess "people like Handler" would just use those comments to further their own agendas. "See? These Christians think I'm a lost cause, so 'bitter' and 'scarred' that they don't even want to associate with me. Awww, but they're praying for me. How noble and pure. Well, guess I was right about them: they're all a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites." (No, I'm not saying *you're* a hypocrite; just pointing out what the counterargument might be.)

It was incredibly sad and even painful to read her article - to know that *that* is what unbelievers think of Christians based on movies. And, truthfully, why shouldn't they? That's the image these Christian filmmakers have put out: holier-than-thou, all-knowing, perfect Christ-like figures in the face of *every* adversity no matter what, etc. That's...not realistic, yet that's the image unbelievers have seen. Based on that, why should they dig any deeper into Christianity? They've already been disgusted and turned away by the attitudes they've seen in movies. And heaven help them if they venture one day into a church: they're liable to run into people who see them and run away in fear. "Oh no, an unbeliever; lock up the valuables, protect the women and children!" Or, worse, seeing how some Christians treat each other: how they can be gossipy, backstabbing, manipulative, tyrannical little sadists just like anybody else, all while claiming to be "Christians." Certainly nothing like the unified, peaceful, oh-so-perfect congregations shown in Christian films. 
I wish I was exaggerating, but I saw a lot of that behaviour at the last church I belonged to. If I wasn't a Christian already, I sure as heck wouldn't want to become one based on *that* behaviour. If you're an unbeliever, and you saw the same behaviour, would you want to look any further into Christianity? Not likely. You'd see the Christian films as pure propaganda, all idealized fluff and no substance whatsoever, since they obviously don't show reality..... And the cycle continues.

I for one would love to sit down with Ms. Handler and just talk with her. Show her, through the actions of real pastors and real church members and real Christians, what *true* Christianity is like - not this ultra-fake, ultra-"pure" mockery we see in Christian films.

So yes, please, pray for her. Pray that she meets someone who's willing to show her what real Christianity is like. She *is* lost; many people are; and Christian films like that certainly aren't helping.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
Jesus ate meals with people his society considered "beyond lost".