By Joel Davidson
As I look at Christian movies today, there’s one thing I wish we saw more of: awe. The fact is, many Christian films exist to communicate some kind of message or ideology instead of depicting the awesomeness of God. They start out with a concise (and often very impactful) message and try to wrap a narrative around it. This isn’t true of all Christian films, but it’s a prevalent stereotype that’s not without precedent.
For instance, take Fireproof. This film tells the story of the marital conflict between a fireman (Kirk Cameron) and his wife, and how their marriage is saved by the healing power of faith. According to director Alex Kendrick, the film’s narrative was based around a devotional book called The Love Dare, directed at struggling married couples.
Fireproof definitely didn’t fail in communicating its message. Lots of real-life couples were deeply impacted by the story. Even as a single guy, I found myself thinking more about how I could be more selfless and loving with friends and family as the credits rolled than the bad acting or forced comic relief. But, though I was touched by the message, some moments fell flat, particularly Kirk Cameron’s salvation scene, because I didn’t understand his emotional state or how God was working in his heart.
In a way, Christian filmmaking makes me think of the Christian life as a whole. On one hand, we can know about who God is and what He has done through His word. This is a basic definition of theology: knowing things about God. That corner is occupied by movies like Fireproof, stories that exist to communicate Christ-centered messages.
However, we don’t just know things about God. We have the humbling pleasure of actually knowing the God of the universe in a deep and personal way, and I believe the emotions associated with that need to be expressed more in film. You might think that the glory of God is something too great to communicate at all, and you’d be right. But art is the closest we can get, and, perhaps surprisingly, movies are a prime medium for it.
“Abstractions are things that really can’t be said so well with words,” filmmaker David Lynch once said. “And cinema is a language that can say abstractions.”
And it’s true. Just think about some of your favorite movies. Mulan isn’t an awesome movie simply because of its message of heroism and being true to oneself, but because its story powerfully communicates the emotions that come with that: frustration, liberation, loneliness, and ultimately the joy of triumph.
Our God is an imaginative God (the very first sentence in the Bible is a testament to His creativity), and, throughout His word, He calls us to be imaginative. Revelation 21 gives us a vivid description of the new heavens and the new earth, and it’s impossible to read without the imagination going wild. I believe God encourages us to express the abstract elements of our walk with Him through art: the darkness and depravity of this fallen world, the joy of His presence, the peace of His salvation, the beauty of His creation, and even the heartache and confusion of not knowing the mysterious ways God’s will works in our lives sometimes.
Some movies like Terrence Malick’s recent Tree of Life and To the Wonder have powerfully grasped at the transcendent feeling of communion with God. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky made a career out of such films. But most mainstream Christian cinema seems to be preoccupied with teaching messages. There is a place for that, but, again, the Christian life is a two-fold experience. It may be rooted in good news, but it’s also a relationship. To all you Christian artists out there, I don’t know exactly what God’s been doing in your life, but I sincerely hope you’re going to show us.