Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The largest problem with many so-called Christian films today is their inability to connect with audiences who are not already Christian. These Christian ghetto films, such as “Fireproof” or “God’s Not Dead,” have found success in reaching a segment of the Christian audience, but they have had little impact outside of the Christian bubble they operate in.

Why is that? First of all, many of these films rely on shoddy production values, poor acting and stiff dialogue. Most egregiously, they focus on message before story, which almost always results in a mediocre story that fails to deliver its message.

As a Christian and a filmmaker, I find this appalling. Christians are inheritors of literally the greatest story ever told by the greatest storyteller there ever is, has been or will be. Yet so many modern Christian films play less like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “The Sound of Music” and more like cheap knockoffs of a Hallmark movie.

This current dynamic exists in part because there is a portion of the modern Christian audience that is perfectly willing to support a film of inferior craftsmanship as long as it reflects their values.

Christian filmmakers willing to play along have a decent chance, with an effective enough marketing effort, of reaching this audience, but only this audience. If the budget is low enough, they may even be successful financially.

But by continuing to create product that is only connecting with this segment of the Christian audience, they are perpetuating the public perception that “Christian film” means bad acting, inauthentic characters, and boring, if not uninspiring, stories.

Christians have a religion that is interesting, engaging and challenging. If Christian filmmakers actually want to fulfill the Great Commission, along with reaching the large segment of the Christian audience that puts more stock in a film having some artistic merit, then they should focus on producing films that are good for the soul’s consumption and true to the (often messy) human condition and beautiful in their craftsmanship.

This means creating Christian characters that talk like real people going through real problems. For instance, I was both pleased and dismayed when I saw this authenticity at work in Randall Wallace’s “Heaven Is For Real” (2014) — pleased because it was present, dismayed because of its rarity in the cinematic landscape.

It means telling otherwise secular stories that include authentic Christian characters, such as Shia LaBeouf’s Boyd “Bible” Swan, a devout and respected member of a tank unit in director David Ayer’s World War II film and Brad Pitt starrer “Fury.”

It means finding new ways to engage people in the story of Christ, such as the theologically respectful, yet creatively imaginative “Last Days in the Desert,” which starred Ewan McGregor in the dual roles of Christ and Satan.

It means dealing honestly and creatively with challenges facing the church today, such as in the superb drama “Calvary,” which shows Brendan Gleeson’s good priest tackling the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis head-on in a personalized, yet synecdochic, catharsis.

It also means wrestling with difficult questions that Christians and non-Christians alike can relate to. For instance, why does God appear to be silent in the midst of suffering? What does it mean to stay faithful to something you passionately believe in, even when you are severely persecuted for that belief? Director Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming adaptation of Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo’s classic historical novel “Silence” tackles these questions, among others. “Silence” tells the story of two young Portuguese priests, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who sneak into Japan in the early 17th century to minister to the persecuted Japanese Christians in hiding — and to find a long-lost mentor, played by Liam Neeson, who has reportedly renounced his faith.

According to recent Pew numbers, interest in spirituality among the populace at large is rising, so the harvest is real. God willing, there will be enough workers to launch a Christian film renaissance.

Michael Leaser is vice president of Cave Pictures, which has invested in “Wildflower,” “The Ticket,” “Waiting for the Miracle to Come,” and Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.” He holds a master’s degree in theological and religious studies from Drew University. Mr. Leaser has written 50 film reviews and culture articles for World magazine. He has also worked for The Philanthropy Roundtable and for Michael Novak at the American Enterprise Institute.

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