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April 15, 2011

'Why Are Christian Movies So Awful?'

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir asks the question, but he's picking on the wrong movie

A few months ago, we ran a blog post titled, "Why Are Christian Movies So Bad?", prompted by a thought-provoking article of the same title over at Relevant magazine.

The title above this blog post is taken directly from a new essay by Andrew O'Hehir at Salon; the only difference, of course, is that "bad" has been replaced by "awful." Maybe it's just a matter of semantics, and to an extent, I agree with the writers of both essays. There are a lot of crummy Christian movies; ugh, I've certainly seen enough of them.

What I completely disagree with, however, when it comes to O'Hehir's article, is his "hook": He's jumped on Soul Surfer as an excuse to write his opinions, and for that, I think he's wrong. O'Hehir calls the film "a trite, sentimental puddle of sub-Hollywood mush, with mediocre photography, weak special effects and an utterly formulaic script. . . . [T]his one is pretty awful."

I don't think Soul Surfer is a great movie; I'm pretty sure it won't be considered for our Critics' Choice list at the end of the year (though it'll be a strong candidate for our Most Redeeming list). It's not great, but it is very good. And if, as O'Hehir suggests, it is to be labeled a "Christian movie" -- and frankly, I could argue either way on that point -- I would say it's one of the best ones we've seen in years.

Our critic gave it three stars (out of four) -- somewhere between a B-minus and a B, if this were a grading scale. (3.5 stars would be B-plus to A-minus, 4 stars would be A to A-plus, for comparison's sake.)

Let's try to look at things a bit more objectively than O'Hehir does. Soul Surfer has a 53 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes -- meaning that 53 percent of the 74 critics compiled so far gave it a positive review, and 47 percent gave it a negative. ("Positive could mean anything from barely making the cut to thinking it's the best thing since sliced bread; I think the film falls somewhere in between. Conversely, "negative" means anything from barely missing the cut to "I hated it.")

Some of the nation's top critics liked the movie (Entertainment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times), but many did not. But why didn't they like it? I don't have time for a full analysis here, but here's what Roger Ebert wrote in his 2.5 star (out of four) review:

My problem with "Soul Surfer" is that it makes it look too simple. Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) has a loving family of professional surfers and a big, friendly dog. She lives in walking distance of the beach. She was and is a committed churchgoer and got great support from her spiritual leaders. She was an indomitable optimist with a fierce competitive spirit.

But there had to be more to it than that. I applaud her faith and spirit. I give her full credit for her determination. I realize she is a great athlete. But I feel something is missing. There had to be dark nights of the soul. Times of grief and rage. The temptation of nihilism. The lure of despair. Can a 13-year-old girl lose an arm and keep right on smiling?

The flaw in the storytelling strategy of "Soul Surfer" is that it doesn't make Bethany easy to identify with. She's almost eerie in her optimism. Her religious faith is so unshaken, it feels taken for granted. The film feels more like an inspirational parable than a harrowing story of personal tragedy.

Ebert's skepticism is understandable. I've asked many of the same questions myself, even when I interviewed Bethany Hamilton, the title character: Didn't you get angry at God? Didn't you struggle with your faith? How could you and your family make it look so simple? Ebert is right to wonder about these things, but he can't blame the movie for them. I have spent time with the Hamiltons and with Bethany, and it IS uncanny how "simple" they've allowed this incredible experience to play out. A rock-solid but "simple" (er, childlike) faith somehow kept Bethany from experience those "dark nights of the soul" and "times of grief and rage" that Ebert wanted to see. I know I certainly would've have experienced those things. But again, don't blame the film -- those are questions for Bethany and her family, not for the filmmakers or scriptwriters. They're not making this stuff up.

Also, I think Ebert oversimplifies. If he were to watch the movie again, he'd see the scene where Bethany tearfully asks her youth pastor how this could possibly be a part of God's plan. She is downcast and troubled in the hospital (a scene which Bethany says was trumped up a bit, because she wasn't really all that sad). She worries that people will see her as a freak. She storms away from one competition, so upset about her circumstances that she says she'll never surf again (also fictional -- apparently the filmmakers tried to find those "times of grief and rage," and couldn't find them!)

Anyway, I'm not picking on Ebert. I'm picking on O'Hehir. Soul Surfer is a good, maybe even a very good, movie. And it is definitely NOT the place to start picking on "Christian films." I could name at least a dozen (or 50 or 100) places to start, but this ain't it.


Thanks for linking to O'Hehir's article. I agree with his comment that contemporary Christianity has no similarity to the Reformation Christianity that inspired artists like Bach.

I would be curious to hear where you think this recent short film (that won the 168 Project) falls in the Christian film spectrum: http://www.uselessmovie.com

I wonder what kind of "Christian Film" O'Hehir would actually like (in this context, I suppose, any film that presents Christians or the Christian Faith in a positive light)? Have there been any? Christians and the Christian Faith, if acknowledged at all, are typically scripted as part of the Dark Side. And how could *any* film be "sub-Hollywood"? The best (most redemptive) films I've seen this year were indies, in limited release and shunned by Hollywood.

I totally agree! There definitely is a place for a discussion of bad "Christian" flicks (don't get me started), but it's off-target focusing on Soul Surfer. I read a reviewer that wondered where the sex and swearing was in the life of these teenagers (Bethany & her friends). I'll grant him that those could be/ are components in the lives of too many Christian kids, but it's sad to think he can't imagine a chaste, balanced teen could be a real character in a compelling story. Maybe learning to balance on a surfboard is a better metaphor for all of life than any of us could have guessed.

Hey, Brandon! And I second your request for Mark Moring's opinion on "Useless"!

Regarding O'Hehir's opinion of "Soul Surfer", it's as subjective as me not really believing the character choices in "Black Swan", no matter how well acted and photographed it was.

From my observation, the mix of components that make "transcendent" or "abnormal" faith seem "real" in films is psychologically very complex. But the best presentations almost always come from characters who demonstrate that they are both VERY aware of their fallen humanity AND aware that their clinging to faith in a Higher Power likely won't seem rational or realistic to those around them (including the viewers).

And we've seen such demonstrations in MANY non-"Christian" movies, where the hero (Indiana Jones, James Bond, Sponge Bob, or whoever) pursues a course that he knows the costarring character won't understand or swallow easily.

So I don't think the Hamiltons (in the movie) necessarily needed to "lose faith," or "think suicide," or whatever else Roger Ebert was wishing for. I think it's enough, on the "down side," that the movie shows Bethany expressing doubt of God's love to her youth pastor, and being disillusioned in the hospital.

At the same time, it really would've helped if, at some place after the midpoint, the Hamiltons had acknowledged, to an unbelieving character: "We know we're far from perfect, and that this faith thing may not make sense to you... or a lot of people. But we believe it, and we're gonna stick with Him. Try it and see." Or something like that.

I admit, even as a life-long Jesus-follower, I'm still skeptical of any presentation of faith in God that doesn't include some struggles and doubts. And I admire most those who continue strong in their faith even though filled with many doubts and longings.

I'm grateful for the Hamiltons' true story making it to the screen. But it reminded me how turned off I get when OTHER movies clumsily try to convince me of THEIR "faiths," whether secularism, Buddhism, reincarnation, or whatever.

Christian filmmakers should always avoid any presentational approaches that would make us gag if used in the name of some other faith!

There is - unfortunately - a fundamental problem here, which is common to a lot of faith-based films, summed up in a quote variously attributed:

The facts are no defense in fiction.

Or, as also variously attributed:

The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to make sense.

Bethany's "true" story (the real-life one) is very inspiring on many levels; but it seems that what the filmmakers neglected to realize is that the facts that made her real-life story amazing also made the film adaptation of that story problematic.

Real stories and movie stories are different things, serving different purposes. And I suspect one needs to be intimately aware of how movie story functions in order to be able to adapt a real story to film.

Fundamentally, this often means the filmmaker must be willing to jettison the factuality of the real-life narrative in order to craft a film story that tells the Truth.

And, sadly, this ability to separate fact from narrative Truth is problematically missing from most Christian product, because most of the current evangelical trend of filmmaking values theological correctness over narrative exploration.

Which is the core of the problem Ebert, O'Hehir and other critics are pointing out: Christian films may be factual - they may even be theologically correct - but they ring false.


(...there's a great quote from Del Toro in his recent New Yorker interview, regarding adaptations, that's a bit blue but worth looking up...)

I agree with this article - some people simply do have rock-solid faith. Everybody doubts sometimes, certainly. But what kind of faith would that be if every Christian threw in the towel every time something bad happened? There wouldn't be any Christians left. Life is rife with tragedy and suffering. Hamilton's faith is a testament to God - to the strength he gives his children in times of trial. A non-Christian like Ebert simply cannot understand such a thing, and therefore he has no choice but to deem it unrealistic.

In my opinion, the whole idea of the "dark night of the soul" is so commonplace for any hero movie nowadays, from Lord of the Rings to Spiderman. People like Ebert think it's realistic simply because we've come to expect it as part and parcel of the genre.

Anyone who thinks "Soul Surfer" or "Fireproof" are terrible Christian movies has obviously not explored the full extent of the DVD shelf at their local Christian bookstore. I haven't seen "Soul Surfer" yet, but I find it hard to believe that it can be worse than any of the worst of the 48-odd Christian movies I watched while doing a Christian movie podcast. Especially any so-called "Christian horror film." Those will give you a new appreciation for the subtly and depth of "Fireproof."

There are people who respond to an altar call and it is sincere and pray a sinner’s prayer and their lives are changed dramatically.

There are Christians who honestly speak life and hope and speak the Word and persevere and hold out that joy. They fall short in other areas of their lives but they are steadfast in that area.

But how does it translate onto the big screen? Does it seem real? A lot of times when we see an altar call in a movie it seems faked or fabricated to us… or a formula that doesn’t seem real to us. That’s why Bruce Almighty seems more effective in showing transformation in the main character’s relationship to God than in many of the “Christian films” that I’ve seen over the years.

As I’ve always been saying for quite some time now if we want to give a message through film - we need to speak the language of film. If we visited an African Tribe and shared Christ with them - speaking Spanish is not going to work for them.

I was talking to my wife about this last night and the truth of the matter is that we as humans tend to be drawn to people who are always smiling and speaking joy. Whether you like Joel Osteen or not , his simple messages of hope and joy are very effective if you’re feeling down. I’ve seen his TV ministry make an impact on someone going through depression. I have some Christian friends who are genuinely joyful people and always happy and everything is sincerely
“blessed” and I love spending time with them. It lifts my spirits. They are like magnets and even when they’re suffering, they do their best to praise the LORD through the storms and it is an effective gift of their lives.

The thing is that people love movies like The Pursuit of Happyness - films where people are down in the dumps and unable to get out of an almost impossible situation but mark my words, based on my experience, they flee from real people like that until that person gets through the other side. They are drawn more to the people who have the joy in the storms especially when they’re aware of the storms they’re going through. Nobody wants to be around someone who’s down especially when they’re down for a long period of time.

So how do we translate that with our movies? Well first of all, there are many stories in our Bible of people who did struggle during the dark times. Look at King David and his crying out in the darkness to God in the Psalms. Look at Job. Look at Elijah who asked God to take his life because he felt all alone. The Apostle Paul was shipwrecked and dealt with all kinds of mess in his ministry. The Children of Israel cried out for deliverance for years. Jacob stood before Pharaoh and limped up to this king of Egypt and said these sobering words :

>New International Version (©1984)
And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.”

We as Christians many times don’t do any better than the world does either. We fail to mourn with those who mourn many times and run from the unlovely and the hurting who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We turn a blind eye to those who are suffering and other Chrisitans hide their pain. It’s part of the “stain glassed masquerade” that Casting Crowns sings about.

If anything, perhaps this story of the sister in the LORD who lost her arm should be more for Christian audiences - especially those who are struggling to keep their joy. In that sense, we should see that she held onto her joy through that storm and learn that it is possible to hold your joy and keep the faith in times of despair. It’s something that I assure you that there are many Christians who are also unable to relate to her testimony like the world does because they have been unable to stay joyful in their circumstances.

I’ve had a Christian dissapointed in me for not being joyful in one of my struggles over the years and in some ways, he was speaking truth and I should have strived to do better, but in some ways he was not allowing for me to mourn as God allows for us to mourn over being in a difficult situation.

It would be interesting (and rewarding) to see how Roger Ebert's view might be influenced if he were to interview Bethany and her family. I was bed-ridden for seven months with a kidney disease (and, at one point, my parents told it was hopeless) when I was in high school. That was '58. I continued to fight the disease off and on until '71. Neither I nor my family ever questioned God (and I was no born again Christian, more a works oriented one). Today my wife of 45 years has Alzheimer's; both of us trust the Lord completely to work all things to the good for His glory.
Roger might think we make it too simple, although we have questioned Him from time to time: "We know You have a plan, but we'd be grateful if You'd make more of it clear to us, Lord. Please don't leave us in the dark." Or “Heal her brain, Lord, according to your gracious will, knowing you'll give us what we need even if it isn't what we want."
We take the same approach as our Savior did in the Garden of Gethsemane, I think.
After ten years of the disease she still knows me and smiles when I visit her if she's awake, and laughs when I talk to her if she's alert. She's still a great blessing for whom I thank God every day.

"They have long viewed Hollywood (not without justification) as a Jewish-dominated metropolitan enterprise"


I've read many opinions from Christians about Hollywood, and most of it was criticism. Not once have I heard a critic complain that Hollywood's problem is that it's run by Jews.

Why don't we broaden the question and ask: "Why are SO MANY movies so awful?" Hollywood filmmakers (using that term in the broadest possible way) make real stinkers too. It's not limited to Christians.

The problem is when you make a movie & label it as "Christian" or "Faith-based," you immediately slap production and message expectations on it, as though filmmakers who are Christians have to short-cut the same learning curve as all other filmmakers.

Christians who make films are stuck between a rock & a hard place. Any film that is labeled "Christian" or "Faith-based" has to meet so many expectations about messaging, cast, crew, etc., that it would be a miracle to have a solid story that would stand up to the intense scrutiny that resembles the Inquisition.

I read this article the night before I went to my 4-month oncologist appt. At the appt, the Dr asked if I had any concerns, and I said my hair was thinning quite a bit. he said, "That's due to your stress over the diagnosis." "No," I said, "I'm not at all stressed out over the cancer diagnosis." I thought about the article. I feel a bit guilty that I am NOT stressed out! But I know that I am in God's hands. I am comforted beyond worry. My Creator holds my future, and I am walking with Him towards it. This kind of faith is unexplainable to a non-christian. But it's real!

I loved Soul Surfer, and I agree with your analysis. They were telling a true-and very inspiring-story (as much as possible), not drumming stuff up for dramatic effect.

Who knows, maybe someday a Christian movie will come out and blow your socks off! I heard of this one movie called Lion Of Judah that's being taken into consideration at the Golden Globes! (http://freedomist.com/2011/04/christian-movie-to-get-golden-globe-and-oscar-consideration/) check it out!

When we hear people suggest that Christian films are "bad", is the criticism from the Christian or secular communities?

There is a large Christian audience wanting to see movies that they can relate to, and the messages sent in these films are often quite blatant and "in-your-face", which might not be very appealing to a secular audience.

This isn't very different from someone who never read a comic book going to see the latest Spiderman or X-Men movie. If you are not already engrossed by the topic, you will likely be more critical of the film.

This is a really good read for me, Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw.Thanks for posting this informative article.

I've heard a lot of people say Christian music isn't as good as mainstream music too. I can think of many good Christian movies. If you watch the movies without judging them, you can enjoy the movie.

What an amazing movie...AND a great ending to one of the best franchises ever made!