I find much of what is considered popular “Christian” movies to be lacking. Besides the obvious theological problems raised by movies portraying Jesus as some sterilized hippy that simply wants everyone to be happy, God as an impersonal judge that is more like Santa Claus than the creator of the cosmos, or anything involving the rapture, I find many of the story lines to be trite, corny, and distant from the experience of many people dealing with brokenness in their lives. While there are obviously some redeemable characteristics to these movies, and many people do in fact like them, I would like to posit an alternative perspective on the Christian movie-going experience: the best movies portraying the journey of a Christian to the heart of God are often found in the secular world.
The problem I think we as Christians run into when trying to select movies is twofold: 1) we can too narrowly define Christian movies as those films produced by Christian organizations and/or have an explicit message of Jesus or Christianity, and 2) we shy away from anything rated above PG because PG-13 and R rated movies inevitably include images that are contrary to our Christian values, and thus, “could not be Christian.”
I could not disagree more. Take a movie like Gran Torino for instance. The main character (Clint Eastwood) is a vengeful, broken man who uses terrible language and more racial slurs than I knew existed. At multiple points in the movie he resolves conflicts with threats and violence, and if that’s not enough, is disrespectful (to say the least) towards the local priest seeking to help him. This character is far from G-rated and family friendly, and by no means a prototypical Christian hero. And yet, I find him to be a powerful expression of the Christian experience. *Spoiler alert* Touched by the very people he spent his entire life hating, he finds redemption and closure to many broken aspects of his life by refraining from violence in a violent situation, sacrificing his own life for the life of the community. His experience of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption is powerful to say the least.
How about the movie Crash? This Academy Award winning movie is rated R for “language, sexual content and some violence” and the only explicit reference to any religion is one character’s superstitious devotion to St. Christopher. In no way would I show this movie children, and frankly, most teenagers. And yet, I find it to be a foundational movie in my Christian development. Comprised of a series of vignettes, the movie follows the lives of numerous strangers as they unknowingly interact and shape the lives of the other characters. What I would call the “anti-Disney” movie, it portrays a world that is not-so-easily boxed and categorized into “good” and “bad” people with predictable and happy endings; like us, each character brings a complex set of experiences to each situation, complete with faults and failings, exhibiting a remarkable glimpse of God’s love in one instance and a terrible act inhumanity in another. It is a reminder that no one is outside of the power of redemption, and that it may be people in situations we least expect that we experience God most vividly. It is a reminder that no body should be judged by what they do on their worst day. It is a reminder that we are not the protagonist of ever story, and that our actions can have profound effects on those we meet every day.
In a truly providential way, I was working on this post when a like-minded parishioner invited me to attend the first “Franciscan Film Society (working title)” movie night. Let’s get together for dinner, watch a great movie, and have a discussion among young-adult Catholics, he said. Fantastic. Besides offering me an opportunity to interact with people (roughly) my age outside of the friary in a fun way, the movie and discussion was an extraordinary experience of Christian fellowship and faith building.
As I should have expected, but was completely put on the spot, the organizer asked me, “the Franciscan,” to explain to everyone why I thought what we were doing to be particularly Franciscan. Luckily, the answer seemed obvious to me. Franciscan theology is an incarnational. God is ever immanent, both creator of and partaker in matter. God is not some distant idea on high looking down upon us. God is in our midst, appearing in the broken and mundane, the imperfect and incomplete. Jesus’ taking on flesh rather than speaking in a booming voice from heaven is evident of this. When we watch movies to experience the ever-present God, recognizing God in the mundane and less-than-obvious places, together in community, we are doing so through the lens of a Franciscan.
For some, this whole experience might seem a bit misguided and self-fulfilling: you see what you want to see because you have read into the movie. That’s possible for sure, and I hope that I have not led anyone to believe that simply because something is R rated and doesn’t talk about God that it is in fact Christian. There are of course movies with little moral value and not worth watching (including many G and PG movies!) But it’s worth a question: is what we’re doing “reading into” a movie that was never intended to be Christian in meaning, or is it recognizing the presence of God all around us, using a popular and powerful medium to kickstart a discussion about our own experience of God? For me, just because something is not explicitly Christian or it contains situations that are not in keeping with our Christian values does not mean that it cannot provide a liminal experience for conversion and growth. My hope is that this experience of film, this replacing of rose-colored glasses for Franciscan ones, will in fact help each of us to see God more clearly in the world around us, a world that, frankly, more clearly resembles the brokenness and struggle found in well-made secular movies than it does explicitly “Christian” ones.