Thimblerig’s Guide for Watching Christian Films (for People who aren’t Christians)

Christian films.

Fifteen years ago they were found almost exclusively on the shelves of Christian bookstores. Online streaming at that time was virtually non-existent, they didn’t typically play on the regular movie channels, there wasn’t a “Christian Film” section at Blockbuster video, and the odds were that if you were outside of the Christian subculture, you would never see a Christian movie.

And then, in 2004, everything changed.

The Passion of the Christ, the highest grossing independent film of all time, sent an electric jolt through the American film industry. Realizing that an audience actually existed for movies that talked about the Christian faith as something other than a punchline, the major Hollywood studios wasted little time setting up “faith-based” divisions to try and figure out how to best exploit service this previously-neglected demographic.

posterSince then, non-religious theater-goers have seen more and more “faith-based” films being advertised on the coming attraction posters of their local cinemas. Films with ecclesiastical names like “Heaven is for Real”, “God’s Not Dead”, and “Ninety Minutes in Heaven” starring well-known Hollywood actors such as Nicolas Cage, Greg Kinnear, and Jennifer Garner were – for the first time – sharing the stage with typical secular films.

In this brave new world, a regular Friday night movie-goer could walk up to their local megaplex and inadvertently wind up sitting in a movie made by Christians, largely for Christians, and walk out afterwards feeling as if they’d just watched The Big Short without Adam McKay’s explanatory fourth wall breaks.

And so, as Lonely Planet helps guide confused travellers wandering the globe, I’ve developed this guide to help non-religious folks understand what might have just happened if they accidentally wandered into a Christian film.

thimblerigs-film-reviews

*caveat – these are generalizations, and specific Christian films may or may not follow these guidelines. Thimblerig accepts no responsibility for such films.*

1) Christian Films are often written in Christianese

The first thing you need to learn when visiting any country is how to say important phrases in the local dialect. Watching Christian films is no different, as our films are peppered with the dialect of the early 21st century American Christian, a dialect known as Christianese. And for some reason, we don’t do subtitles.

[Note to Pureflix: consider adding subtitles to God’s Not Dead 2]

how-to-speak-christianeseSome basic samples of Christianese that you may encounter in our films:

“Does he know Jesus?” – “Is he a Christian?”

“Does he really know Jesus?” – “If he’s a Christian, why doesn’t he go to church?”

“She’s lost, and needs to come to Jesus!” – “She’s not a Christian, but she should be. And she should attend church regularly.”

“You need to ask Jesus into your heart.” – “You need to become a Christian.”

This is usually followed by “The Sinner’s Prayer”, a prayer that a person recites to become a Christian. This a controversial prayer in Christian circles, because it is not Biblical, meaning that it’s not found in the Bible.

“They have a heart for the lost.” – “They want people who aren’t Christian to become Christian. Oh, and they want them to attend church regularly.”

“God is telling me…” – “I have an opinion that I want to share with you, and by putting God’s stamp of approval on the comment, it will have weight and gravitas. Even if it is just my own opinion.”

“I’m blessed!” – has different meanings, depending on the context. If the person has just gotten something good, it means, “God’s given me some good stuff!” If it is said in response to a personal inquiry, it means, “I’m doing fine, thank you.” Ultimately, it’s an attribution to God for whatever is happening in the Christian’s life.

So, in a Christian film, you might find dialogue like this:

This is just a cursory introduction to the language of many Christian films. For more detailed information about the Christianese dialect, I’d recommend that you visit the Dictionary of Christianese.

(Incidentally, if anyone in the Christian film industry would like to option my Bob and Dave script, please let my people know.)

2) Christian films typically tell much more than they show

One of the most important lessons a traveler can learn when exploring a new part of the world is the importance of saying “I don’t understand” rather than “that doesn’t make sense.”

And if there’s one thing about Christian films that doesn’t make sense to people it’s our propensity to tell. Yes, our films tell. They tell, tell, and tell, and then they tell some more, much more than they show, breaking that cardinal rule of storytelling.

“There’s too much exposition in that Christian film,” the secular critics complain. “They tell us everything!”

However, just as you have to take culture of origin into consideration when watching a foreign film, the Christian film viewer who is not actually a Christian should take the culture of origin into consideration.

And Christian culture loves exposition.

I mean, loves exposition.

preaching-1The best example of this is found in a style of preaching called “expository preaching,” where the preacher spends days or weeks studying a passage from the Bible in depth, and then on Sunday morning, they stand in front of the congregation (audience) and explain everything the passage has to say, verse by verse – sometimes word by word.

The preacher will go deep into the cultural and historical significance of the passage of Scripture, even down to the meaning of certain key words in the verse’s original language of Hebrew or Greek.

The idea behind this is that if one can come close to understanding the original meaning of the ancient document, one might better understand what God intended by that Scriptural text, and better figure out how it can be applied to our lives today.

Oh, and by the way, we Christians also love application.

So, in a nutshell, we explain the message very specifically in church so that there is no chance of confusion, and so that the listener can apply it to their own lives. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the uninitiated that we do the same in our films.

Rather than criticizing our films for being over-expositional, maybe secular critics should critique how well our films handled that over-exposition.

3) Christian films are generally Christian wishes being fulfilled cinematically

It’s important to understand the mentality of people when you visit a foreign country. What do the people of that country hope for? What aspirations do they have? How do they view the world?

Some people misunderstand the Christian mentality. They think that we’re a bunch of “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by” people, avoiding reality and clinging to a fantasy about a benevolent old guy who lives in the clouds.

That’s not the case, though. Christians know the reality of the world. We know perfectly well that things can be really, really bad. That things can go south in an instant. But we also know how we wish things were (or in Christianese, how we pray for things to be). So, our films are typically a strange amalgamation of reality and fantasy wish-fulfilment.

For example, we know it’s tough to raise kids, and so our films have no problem showing struggling parents. But we also love a good redemption story, and so in our films someone prays and the runaway kid will make a big personal change (Christianese, repent) and come back home, prodigal-style. This is what we wish would happen with every errant child.

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 3.10.14 PMWe also know that marriage is tough in reality, and that not all marriages survive, and so our films will show the difficulty of marriage. But we also believe that God can repair any relationship, and so in our films someone prays and ultimately our film marriages work out. This is how we wish marriages would always work out.

In reality, we know that God always answers prayer but that sometimes the answer is “No.” But in our films, we like to focus on when God says, “Yes!” For example, someone prayed to win the big game? Check, game won. Someone prayed to restore the broken marriage? Check, marriage restored. Someone prayed for the sick person to be healed? Check, healing has happened, and death has been defeated.

We like our films family friendly, non-offensive, and easy to watch. We like our films to make us feel better about ourselves as Christians. We typically avoid subjects like the certainty of death, the reality of doubt, and the in-the-dirt nastiness of the mistakes that we make in life. It’s just nicer when things turn out alright, isn’t it?

If you love happy endings, you’ll love watching our films.

4) Christian filmmakers are not infallible 

No country you visit is perfect. You know that amazing 5 star hotel, right on the beach? Just a half mile down the road you’ll find people sleeping in hovels and working for pennies. That tourist site that houses ancient ruins that you’ve always dreamed of seeing? It’s all managed by a corrupt government of cigar smoking fat cats who could care less about the orphans running on the streets.

It’s the same with Christian filmmaking. Our filmmakers are not infallible, and they will make strange decisions, and they will focus on curious things from time to time. You don’t have to forgive us for that, but we do hope that you’ll understand.

godsnotdead2-1For example, if you are paying attention to Christianity in America right now, you might notice that many church leaders are promoting a persecution narrative for American Christians (rather than for global Christians who are actually being persecuted). This might be perplexing to you, because you know that American Christians actually have incredible freedom to practice their religion. But the narrative is out there, and it’s even worming its way into our films.

You see, for the longest time, American Christianity has been the big kid on the block politically, financially, culturally, and other -ally ways, but it’s not the case any more. We American Christians are still coming to terms with the fact that we’ve lost power and influence, that our voices aren’t as loud as they used to be, that people often simply don’t care what we think any more.

And we’re certain that – as a result – persecution is coming.

And even though we’ve had our expository preachers tell us that according to the Bible, persecution is a guaranteed part of the Christian experience, we are still terrified that it will really happen. Because we like the “Christians are victorious!” narrative. Remember our wish-fulfillment filmmaking? We want to wind up on top, even though that pretty well goes against everything Jesus taught.

If you aren’t a Christian, then our cries of persecution in America probably seem ridiculous to you, and might even serve to create more and more animosity from you towards us.

And in a height of irony, I can imagine the animosity building to the point that our focus on making movies that stoke the fires of fear could actually turn out to be the catalyst for actual persecution. In other words, I can imagine that our fear of persecution could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wouldn’t that make an interesting Christian film?

5) Christian films are hopefully evangelistic

Countries that have bustling, successful tourist industries convince people that when they visit, they will never want to leave.

Christian filmmakers have a similar goal with their films. If you are not a Christian, they hope that their films tells about the Christian experience so clearly that after watching you will also want to become a Christian (Christianese, give your heart to Jesus). 

“Really?” You say, befuddled. “Then why use all of the insider language that I don’t understand? Why break the traditional rules of storytelling to the point where I’m too distracted by exposition to see the value in being a Christian? Why all this talk about persecution when all I see is Christians making noise? Why does it seem less like these Christian films are trying to attract me, and more like they’re trying to push me away? Why do they make it so hard?”

I know, I know. Reaching you with our films seems more like an afterthought, and your becoming interested in Jesus as a result of our films would just be some sort of religious collateral damage.

The only thing I can say is that Christian filmmakers are working in a business. An industry. And they have to serve multiple masters, just like all filmmakers, and that affects the films that are made, no matter what the hope of the filmmaker might be.

Christian filmmakers have to please their investors, who are usually also Christians. And they are often Christians who love expository, on-the-nose, don’t-mess-around preaching. They can be less interested in artfulness and more interested in admonition. Their purpose is communication usually at the expense of craft. Their goal is to put out the Message, and the medium is simply utilitarian, like a jeep or a Swiss Army knife.

Also, since Christian filmmaking has started to become big business, the filmmakers also have to please the secular studios, who might be footing the bill for distribution or marketing. And the studios need to be convinced that the product that the Christian filmmaker is developing is going to put the behinds of the Big Christian Audience into the cinema seats.

who-is-your-audienceThis means that Christian filmmakers have to ultimately please that Big Christian Audience.

Make one misstep, and the Big Christian Audience won’t turn out, and the filmmaker might not get the chance to make a second faith-based film. Play his cards right, and he stands to make a 2000% return on his film’s initial investment, which will make everyone happy. His career will be set.

So you can see, that even if a filmmaker has a heart for the lost, and a desire to see thousands of people come to Jesus, her ability to make a film that would actually be evangelistic is restrained by the forces pulling her in other directions, forces that – ironically – want to be evangelistic, too.

6) And by the way, we make a lot of End Times movies

Statistically speaking, if you accidentally walk in on a Christian film, it’s likely to be a movie dealing with the end of the world, or the End Times. This might be connected with #4, and I’m not going to say a lot about it other than to say that for some reason, we have a certain segment of the Christian filmmaking community that is absolutely fascinated with the end of the world.

This is even though in Matthew 24:36, Jesus himself told us that nobody will know when the end will come. Go figure.

You can see an amazing IMDb list of Christian End Times movies here.

Thimblerig’s Guide to Christian Films is woefully incomplete, but what do you expect from a blog article? If you truly want to see an actual guide, then feel free to start me a crowdsourcing campaign, or put me in touch with the fine folks at Zondervan, and we’ll see what we can do.

Meanwhile, may this guide help the next time you stumble into a movie starring Kirk Cameron or Kevin Sorbo, or the next time your well-intentioned Christian friend invites you over and pops in a movie made by a pair of brothers named Kendrick. Maybe, because you have some insight into their culture and mindset, you’ll better appreciate their intentions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s Wrong with Christian Media?

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Lifeway Research recently released a study that examined the use of Christian media.  The results showed that the vast majority of Christian media is consumed by – hold onto your hats for this, folks – Christians.

Christian Media Barely Reaching Beyond the Faithful

This doesn’t come as a surprise.  Media will typically be consumed by the target audience, and in this case, why would a person who is not a Christian care to listen to a Christian podcast?  Why would they be interested in reading a book about Christianity?  Why would they spend their time watching Christian television programs?

It seems like the logical thing to do here is to circle the wagons.  After all, if the Christian family is consuming most Christian media, then we should just keep creating media for the family!  This is how business works, isn’t it?  You identify your target audience, and then push your product for that audience.

Given, the study does show that some of our media is being consumed by people outside the church – like a positive form of collateral damage –  but we should count those people as frosting on the cake and keep on doing what we do when we do what we do.

But hold on, hit the brakes, stop the engines, turn off the lights… there’s a slight problem with all that.

Did Jesus tell his disciples in Matthew 28:19 to “go back into the church, close the doors, and make disciples”?

No.  Of course not.  He said “Go into all the world…”  Go.  Get out of your comfort zone.  Stop naval gazing and get out into the world where people need the message of hope that we find in the story of Jesus.

Christian media should deal with finding the lost, and not just massaging the found.   What are the “Christianese” words for this?  Witnessing?  Sharing?  Evangelizing?  We’re supposed to be engaging with the world outside of the church, not just circling our wagons to protect the women and children.

Look at it this way.  Imagine your church supports a missionary family living in some foreign country.  The missionary family comes home on furlough, and visits your church to share about the progress of their work in this foreign country.

The missionary husband sets up a powerpoint presentation in the fellowship hall after the pot-luck dinner, and starts showing slides of the family’s work.

“We’re so grateful to be serving in our host country, and blessed to be able to share our work with you today.”

The missionary smiles and turns to the screen.

“In this picture, we’re having some missionary neighbors over for dinner.  We like to have other missionaries over for dinner regularly.  This next picture shows us at our bi-weekly Bible study with some other missionary families.  Oh, you’ll love this one – it’s a picture of us worshipping on Sunday morning at our church, which is only for missionaries.   Hmm….  this is our neighbor who isn’t a missionary… I’m not sure how that picture got in there.   Ah, here!  This next picture is better – it’s our missionary office, where we work with other missionaries.  Finally, here’s a picture of our kids going to their missionary-kid school.  It’s missionary run, taught, and attended.  They just love it there.”

That missionary probably wouldn’t be supported by the church for much longer.

So, we want our missionaries to engage with the culture around them, but for some reason, we seem to be perfectly comfortable that Christian media is only reaching other Christians.

And Christian media isn’t even doing that very well!

RNS-CHRISTIAN-MEDIA bTake Christian movies for example – one of the categories where the results were considered the most encouraging.  The Lifeway study shows that four out of ten people said that they watched a Christian movie in the last year.

Four out of ten?  That’s pretty amazing!

Well, it seems like an encouraging number until you remember that eighty-three percent of the American population identifies as Christian.

Eight out of ten people consider themselves Christian, and four out of ten people watched a Christian movie last year.

Let that sink in.  Less than half the Christian population of America watched at least one Christian movie last year.

So, what does this all mean?  Should we shutter all the Christian bookstores?  Boycott Chris Tomlin concerts?  Send Phil Vischer snarky letters for hosting a podcast with a Christian point of view?

No. Of course not.  (Although sending Vischer snarky letters about his ukelele might be warranted…)  There’s nothing wrong with producing media for ourselves.  There’s nothing wrong with producing media for small segments of ourselves.  People do that every day, all over the world, in all walks of life.

But as Christians, we shouldn’t be content with that.

So, if you are a person interested in Christian media and interested in changing those statistics reported by Lifeway Research, here are 6 (+2) things that Christian media must do better to catch the attention of those people who normally wouldn’t care.

1.  Be Professional.

If something is good in media, it’s not because it is good by accident, or because someone prayed for it to be good and God miraculously made it so.  Things are good in media because professionals have been hired to make them good.  Christian film producers have finally started to realize this, raising enough money to enable them to hire pros to help shoot their films, and the result?  Christian films are finally starting to look like well-shot films.  People in the world outside the church respect professionalism.

2.  Be Excellent.

Maybe this is a part of being professional, but if you’re involved in Christian media, then you shouldn’t cut corners.  If you’re a self-published writer, then revise, revise, revise.  Give yourself time to do the best you can possibly do with your efforts.  Want to be a filmmaker?  Cut your teeth on shorts before moving to features.  Watch a LOT of movies – and not only Christian made movies.  Read scripts.  No matter what area of media you feel drawn to, take the time to become excellent.  Say what you will about the world, but the world appreciates and is drawn to excellence.

3.  Be Creative.

This is where we often drop the ball with Christian media.  In our rush to get our message out, we tell sloppy stories.  We create one-dimensional characters.  We allow our faith to handcuff us, which is not why we have our faith.  “It was for freedom you were set free…”  Remember?  That includes the freedom to be creative.  Try to look at the world in a different way, in a real and authentic way.  Especially when you consider those people who believe differently than you do.  We call God the Creator, not just because he created everything, but because He is also so incredibly creative.  Go, and do likewise, because people outside the church are attracted to true creativity.

4.  Be Intelligent.

We’ve all seen the near-constant parade of apparently unintelligent Christians in media.  People hosting programs who have trouble putting together intelligible sentences; faith-based scripts that seem not well thought-through or properly edited; embarrassingly discourteous or rude commenters on the internet; self-published novels that are so plotless and pointless that they make one wish that self-publishing were as hard and expensive as it used to be.

Our reputation for being unintelligent has been well earned by these things and much more.  Write intelligently, direct intelligently, comment intelligently, create intelligently.  God may use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, but that doesn’t mean we should aim to be fools.  Christians in media are the front lines for changing the intelligence perception with the media they create.

5.  Be Ingenious.

Christian media is known for trying to take something the world has done and recreate it in a faith-friendly way.  The world gives us 50 Shades of Grey, Christian media reacts with Old Fashioned.   There’s a good article about this on Vox, written by Brandon Ambrosino.  I’d also recommend the article he cites by Alissa Wilkinson.

The point is that Christians in media need to be ingenious.  We should lead rather than follow, set the standard rather than chasing after the latest fad or trend.  We should aim to take the world by surprise with our ingenious and unique creations.

6.  Be Honest.

Finally, one of the best weapons we have at our disposal as Christians in media is honesty.  As we interact with people who aren’t in the faith, they should see this about us – as we interact with the media, they should notice this about us.  As we write, direct, act, talk, sing, produce, film, record, edit, draw, or whatever it is we do, people should recognize it in us.

They should talk about it behind our backs.

And if they do?  That’s okay.  We should have nothing to hide, and no reason to hide.  We don’t have to pretend to have it all together, because we know that we don’t.  We don’t have to act like our families are perfect, because we know that they aren’t.  We don’t have to act like we have all the answers, because we know that we don’t.  And that’s okay.

What we do have is Jesus.

And if you’ll pardon my brief use of Christainese, we have his forgiveness, his mercy, and his grace.   And He gives us the ability to live openly, transparently, and honestly – in life and in the media we create.

And that is how we will impact the world.

And now the (bonus +2).

1.  Drop the Secret Language.

Christianese – the secret language of Christianity.  The moment you fall into using the secret language, you lose potential interest from people who don’t speak it.  If your Christian media is inundated with Christianese, you need to make some changes, or you might as well just create your media in Klingon for all the good it will do you.

To find out more about Christianese, go to the Dictionary of Christianese, or read a good article about it here.  And then cut it out.

2.  Give the End Times a Rest.

What do we know?  Jesus will return.  How?  When?  We have no real idea – just theories and interpretations.   That means that our Rapture books and movies are just the Christian versions of The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Road, or any of the other dystopsian end-of-the-world stories you want to pick.   And they’re not nearly as compelling, well told, or well made.

Can we just give it a rest for a while?

Please?

(Actually, having said that, a Christian dystopsian story that absolutely nothing to do with the Rapture or the anti-Christ could be a really interesting read.)