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The Crisis of Craft in “Christian Cinema”

World Wide Pictures, the film division of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is exploring a new approach to “Christian cinema.”

Its latest film, “Road to Redemption,” tries to infuse its characters with a sense of a spiritual journey, said Barry Werner, the film’s director of operations, in a Religion News Service article.
“If we can find a way to portray [sin and salvation] in our film by doing it with story, not stopping and have someone preach at the camera,” he said, “we have actually modeled the conversion experience.”
Preachy dialogue sticks out like a sore thumb, wearing its agenda on its sleeve. It eliminates subtext–those emotions and dimensions that simmer beneath the surface of what we see and hear.
Poor films choose to lecture instead of show or imply. Consequently, audiences don’t play with meanings. They’re injected with them.
In many self-defined “Christian movies,” audiences aren’t encouraged or allowed to search or journey. Instead, they’re treated to a daily dose of dogma.
But it’s really not about being clubbed over the head with Christianity. It’s about being clubbed over the head. Period.
The marketing for “Road to Redemption” forsakes head-clubbing for attention-grabbing.
“A couple come into contact with stolen mob money, gamble it away, and end up on the run from gangsters,” reads its plot outline on the Internet Movie Database. There is no mention of God, Jesus, religion or even spirituality. The closest thing to Christianity is the title, “Road to Redemption.”
But the title “Shawshank Redemption” hints at atonement as well. Alas, many don’t consider it “Christian” because: a) it originated with Steven King; b) it contains profanity and/or c) it didn’t say it was Christian.
Nevertheless, the Web is awash with sites exploring Christian themes throughout the movie.
But for many Christians, the lines are clear. Affirming Jesus as the Son of God means a movie is Christian. Nudity and profanity mean it isn’t. Violence, interestingly, is negotiable.
Christian filmmakers discussed sex, violence and profanity at an Aug. 12, 2000, conference in Hollywood. But attendees “left without easy answers,” according to Associated Baptist Press.
“We strive for excellence,” said conference coordinator Jimmy Duke in ABP. “Nothing preaches the gospel more than excellence.”
But excellence in movies is not derived from ham-fisted, on-the-nose, in-your-face storytelling. “Christian movies” that employ such storytelling will never achieve excellence. The “broader audience” will stay away because it can endure only so much brow-beating and preaching.
“If your agenda is greater than your love of writing and your love of storytelling and your love of characters as real people, the agenda gets in the way,” world-renowned script consultant and Quaker, Linda Seger, told BCE in a phone interview.
“Sermons are fine for proselytizing,” she said. “Movies are not.”
Seger is hardly a staunch opponent of “religious” films and TV. She worked on an adaptation of “Christy,” lauds the success of “Touched By an Angel,” consults on “Christian scripts” and even believes films with specific religious themes can succeed commercially.
“What I find with Christians is that they many times say, ‘I have to use my story to make somebody believe what I want them to believe,'” Seger said. “What they’re after is people believing rather than people experiencing the redemptive journey.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.