I recently turned 50, and to mark the occasion I ranked my all time top 50 movies. Every guy has a list of his favorite five or ten movies. I wanted to go all the way to 50 baby!
It turned out to be a worthy challenge because there are so many great movies. In the end, I listed 100 movies (my top 50 + 50 honorable mentions). You can check out the list on Facebook.
My list has an eclectic mix of genres and languages. There’s something for everyone and a whole lot for me. I could watch all 100 films again and again.
But when I reviewed my list I realized it included no great Christian movies. How could I have missed this fast-growing genre? But then I googled “great Christian movies” and discovered that there aren’t any.
Sure, there are good Christian movies, but no great ones. And by great, I mean good enough to make my top 100 list of all time movies. The only movie that comes close is Prince of Egypt (#48 on my list), but that’s as much a Jewish story as a Christian one. You could say the same for The Ten Commandments.
(Why didn’t I consider the ultra-violent The Passion of the Christ? Because that’s a movie you only watch once.)
Why are there no great Christian movies?
It’s not as though we are short of great Christian artists. Christians have featured prominently in many artistic fields for centuries – architecture, music, painting, writing, poetry, etc. The top two authors of the 20th century were both Christian. (Tolkien and Lewis, of course.)
But in the world of moviemakers, there’s no one who reaches the heights of say, a Bach a Rembrandt or a Bono. Why not? Is it because talented Christian moviemakers don’t make overtly Christian films? Or is it because overtly Christian films tend to suck?
I suspect it may be a bit of both.
You don’t need me to tell you that many Christian movies are unwatchable schlock. They hit you over the head with hamfisted messages delivered by one-dimensional characters spouting platitudes. Many are unashamedly tribal, right down to their marketing. “If you are a Christian, you should support this Christian movie; if you are not, we hope you watch it with an open mind and allow us to convince you to change sides.”
I’m not saying it’s wrong to use art to evangelize. I am saying that dramatized sermons don’t make great movies. They just don’t.
In a recent article entitled “Why Christian movies are so terrible,” Jared Wilson says Christian movies are not made by artists but propagandists. They are vehicles for conveying a Christian message, such as the power of prayer, rather than artworks telling a human story.
What’s wrong with that?
It’s dishonest, says Andrew Barber in his article “The problem with Christian films.” You can make great art or you can go for the evangelistic pitch, but you can’t do both without invoking a sense of a bait-and-switch.
By the same token, there are many “non-Christian” movies that do a superb job of conveying Christian themes such redemption and sacrifice. The Book of Eli (#13 on my list) comes to mind, as does Les Miserables (#20), Babette’s Feast (#23). When The Matrix (#12) came out in 1999, every pastor and his dog mined it for sermon illustrations. Full disclosure: I have done this too. I’ve done the same for Tomorrowland and the climactic Avengers movie.
There are also stunning films that tell Christian stories (eg: Amazing Grace, The Mission) or stories about Christians (Chariots of Fire, Shadowlands). But although Chariots of Fire is a great film (#17 on my list), I don’t know if it qualifies as a Christian film. It’s a sports film.
When I was young and idealistic and the world was black and white, movies were either sacred or secular. It would have been inconceivable for me to say a secular movie had elements of the sacred. Now that I’m older, I find the lines are blurred.
Imagine if someone made a movie about the parable of the shrewd manager. Would that be a Christian movie? Of course it would. It comes straight from the mouth of Jesus. Yet it would look nothing like most Christian movies today. There’d be no mention of God, no praying, and an awful lot of deception and duplicity. With that in mind, we might ask…
What makes a great Christian movie?
How would we recognize one if we saw one? Let me offer some signposts:
1. A great Christian movie conveys a great truth
It doesn’t shove religion down our throats, but nor does it glorify the deeds of darkness in a desire to be edgy. Instead it fills our minds with things that are good, pure, and noble (Php. 4:8). It may not mention Jesus, but it smells like Jesus.
2. A great Christian movie tells a great story
Movies are universally recognized as story-telling platforms, so a great movie, by definition, tells a great story. It doesn’t preach or pontificate, but it fires our imagination and makes us feel something. It might make us think or fill us with wonder, but the main thing is it speaks to the human condition in a way that entertains.
3. A great Christian movie has flawed but relatable heroes dealing with real problems
We relate best to characters who are imperfect (like us) and who are facing challenges that we understand. Look at the characters in the stories Jesus told and you will find fools, misfits, villains, prodigals. Even the good guys make mistakes. What problems do they face? They come from fractured families (prodigal son), they’re about to get fired (the shrewd manager), they’ve suffered a misfortune (the good Samaritan), and they have annoying friends (the midnight friend). Jesus’ stories have endured for 2000 years because they convey a great truth (point 1), they entertain while making us think (point 2), and they are thoroughly relatable (point 3).
4. A great Christian movie masters the artform
Give us brilliant dialogue and subtext delivered by talented actors playing memorable characters. Put them in visually arresting sets or landscapes, and deliver pitch perfect sound. Leave the garbage on the cutting room floor and go easy on the CGI.
If these are the standards for a great Christian movie, it seems to me that many non-Christian movies are, in fact, great Christian movies. They tick all the boxes.
But what boxes have I missed? What do you think makes for a great Christian movie?
Paul’s new 20-page study note, “What is the baptism that saves?”, is now available on Patreon.