Thom Parham: Why do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?
Most films that successfully incorporate Christian themes are made by non-Christians. Thom Parham explains why in this essay from, Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture.
Places in the Heart is a film about Edna Spalding (Sally Field), a young woman who tries to save her farm from foreclosure after her husband dies. During the course of the film, Edna assembles a surrogate family around her, consisting of Moze, a black sharecropper (Danny Glover); Mr. Will, a blind boarder (John Malkovich); and her precocious children, Frank and Possum (Yankon Hatten and Gennie James). Near the end of the movie, the Klu Klux Klan runs Moze out of town. In the final scene, the townspeople gather at church, where a stirring rendition of "Blessed Assurance" is followed by a reading of 1 Corinthians 13:1-8:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am become as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy and all knowledge but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor and have not love, it profit me nothing. Love is patient, kind. Love is not jealous or boastful. Love never ends.
The choir then sings "I Come to the Garden Alone" as the communion elements are passed. Philandering husband (Ed Harris) is the first to partake, followed by his forgiving wife (Lindsay Crouse) and their daughter. The camera pans across various congregants, including an evil banker (Lane Smith) who tried to foreclose on Edna's farm, and band members from a previous night's shindig. Then, oddly, the camera continues to pan, revealing a couple who died trying to escape from a tornado, some of the Klansmen, and Moze. Panning past Mr. Will, Possum, Frank, and Edna, the camera finally rests on Edna's late husband, Royce (Ray Baker), and Wylie (DeVoreaux White), the black youth who accidentally shot him and was in turn lynched.
At this point, we realize there's much more going on in Places in the Heart than what's on the surface. The film is a metaphor for the kingdom of God, and the final scene tells us that God's grace is available to all who accept it - white or black, young or old, good or evil, living or dead.
Writer/director Robert Benton is not an evangelical Christian. Yet, his film incorporates "Christian themes" with more subtlety, artistry, and depth than the majority of films being made by professed Christians. It is not the only one. In fact, most films that successfully incorporate religious themes are made by nonreligious people.
Here are some of the better films with Christian messages or themes from the past few decades:
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Tender Mercies (1983)
Places in the Heart (1984)
The Mission (1986)
Grand Canyon (1992)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Dead Man Walking (1996)
The Apostle (1998)
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
The Iron Giant (1999)
Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002)
About Schmidt (2002)
Changing Lanes (2002)
In America (2002)
Bruce Almighty (2003)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
All of these films were critically acclaimed and/or box office hits. But with the exception ofJonah, Bruce Almighty, and The Passion, none were made by Christian filmmakers. Christians, however, did make these films:
Entertaining Angels (1996)
The Omega Code (1999)
The Joyriders (1999)
Left Behind.. The Movie (2000)
Carman: The Champion (2001)
Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 (2001)
Mercy Streets (2001)
To End All Wars (2001)
Hometown Legend (2002)
Left Behind II:' Tribulation Force (2002)
Finding Home (2003)
Overall, these films are unwatchable. There are only a handful of good scenes among them. None had success with critics or at the box office. (What does it say about Christian filmmakers that one of their best-received movies features computer-generated vegetables who sing and dance?)
If Christians want to make successful films that incorporate their worldview, why not learn from those who are already doing it - non-Christians. So let's ask: why are the best Christian films being made by secular filmmakers?
The first reason secular filmmakers are making better Christian films is because they are making them for mainstream audiences.
All of the films on my first list were produced for the main-stream market. They opened in either wide theatrical release (over two thousand theaters) or, in the case of the smaller films, an "art house" release of around one thousand theaters. The films on my second list were produced for the "Christian market." A few were released into about three to four hundred theaters. Most went straight to video or got a "vanity" release in two or three theaters.
The idea that Christians will go see films targeted at them has not been borne out by the marketplace. Christians, it turns out, see the same films as everyone else.
And what about the success of the Christian music and publishing industries? They have succeeded because they take advantage of an infrastructure of Christian bookstores, through which music and books targeted at Christian audiences can be sold. But there are no Christian movie theaters, and Providence Entertainment, the lone Christian distribution company, recently imploded. In other words, films targeting Christians have to compete with mainstream films for distribution and, if they make it to the cineplex, for audiences.
But Christian filmmakers seem to believe that they do not have to compete in the mainstream market. Thus, storytelling and production values end up taking a backseat to the movie's message. The films are merely bait to lure viewers to a homily or altar call, and this only ensures their failure.
Even with the built-in distributions system of Christian bookstores, the Christian music and publishing industries figured out after a few years that they had to develop products that were just as good as mainstream books and music in order to succeed. Christian filmmakers will have to do this and more. To compete in the mainstream market, they will have to appeal not only to Christians but also to mainstream audiences.
Parables, Not Propaganda
"If you want to send a message, try' Western Union," said Frank Capra, a Christian who made hugely popular mainstream films. Film excels at metaphor - forging a connection between dissimilar objects or themes. It doesn't fare as well with text messaging. Show, don't tell, is the rule of cinema. Christians, however, can't seem to resist the prospect of using film as a high-tech flannel board. The result is more akin to propaganda than art, and propaganda has a nasty habit of hardening hearts.
Though Places in the Heart is a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, nowhere is this notion communicated overtly. It is suggested through the film's system of metaphors and reinforced by its enigmatic ending. This is yet another reason non-Christians make the best Christian films: they understand that cinema is an art form of symbol and metaphor.
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