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Seven Cardinal Sins of Christian Films


Seven Cardinal Sins of Christian Films

Faith-based films are set apart when it comes to film-making. Unfortunately for most, this subgenre separation is not complimentary and has given Christian-themed cinema a self-perpetuating stigma. While the film-makers set out with the best of intentions, these inspirational films all seem to encounter a similar batch of issues.

Part of the inherent problem rests with the original objective and purpose of the film. Are the film-makers aiming to make a great film with Christian values for everyone, or are they setting out to make a Christian film with great production values for Christ-followers? It’s ironic that you’d imagine the inspiration at the heart of the film is meant to draw the "unchurched", yet it often ends up being made exclusively for pre-existing members.

Are these Christ-orientated films seen as tools to spread the good news, or are they simply cornering a large captive self-marketing segment? These films tend to preach to the choir. You could argue that the role of church-friendly films is to serve the endorsed entertainment needs of the insiders, yet this exclusivity shouldn’t compromise the quality of the film in question.

In order to address and hopefully eradicate the stigma going forward, here are Seven Cardinal Sins that Christian films and film-makers often commit...

Preachy

If you’re looking for pure entertainment, there’s nothing worse than feeling as though you’re being manipulated by a film. Great thought-provoking films won’t insult audiences with strong biases; instead they will persuade the viewer to see things from their point-of-view. If you feel like you’re being led by the nose or patronised, you’re going to kick back.

Christian films tend to create barriers when viewers feel like they have been judged, excluded or forced to accept a set of absolute values they haven’t subscribed to. Film is a powerful medium, but if the audience feels the underlying message is self-righteous or rife with propaganda and ulterior motives, the end result is usually a disconnect for them.

Naivety

The Christian lens is typically rose-tinted. As such, we tend to encounter a rather romantic view of life in films representing this viewpoint. It’s not to say that bad stuff doesn’t happen, but we’re typically privy to a sanitised "Pleasantville" version of what we know from our own experience. There’s a creeping idealism as characters tend toward positivity and simplicity. They’re not perfect, but their wholesome virtues predispose them to fit in-line with the idea of being God’s children.

This suspended God-vision seems to numb the depths of depravity and turn ordinarily complex situations into a simple spiritual equation. This naivety also sinks into the medium as an art form, diluting the artistic merit of the director’s personal vision for a safer, clean-cut middle ground.

Inconsistency

Inspirational films probably struggle to get the same level of funding and support from traditional investors as mainstream productions. While it could be seen as a setback, Christian films are able to leverage their message movie status to accumulate necessary resources from local churches, change agencies, charity partners and key individuals.

With a typically indie disposition, the film-makers tend to rely on whatever resources are available to them. “Doing it for the faith” can sometimes mean working at a reduced fee, offering film services for free and trying to save a buck wherever possible. Keeping costs low, phoning in favours and debuting inexperienced talent makes these films more susceptible to inconsistency in performance and makes them more prone to technical hiccups, which can make or break a film for less forgiving audiences.

Cheesy

Just like good and bad CGI, there’s a fine line between real and unreal. God’s supernatural power as Creator of the Universe makes Him difficult to represent in human terms. As such, it’s tricky to represent an all-knowing, all-powerful God or heaven in any form without being subject to some inherent inadequacy. This generally cheapens the vision and undersells the moment. It seems that you can’t be subtle enough.

This also applies to sincerity and insincerity when it comes to film, and trying to get the balance and integrity of God-breathed passion can sometimes go horribly wrong. There are many hurdles: shoestring budgets, thin scripts, two-dimensional characters, working with non-actors and creating moments of deep, heartfelt spirituality can render important scenes off-balance and insincere. That contrived feeling can ruin the emotional integrity of a scene, and if a degree of insincerity creeps in, the moment goes from deeply heartfelt and sentimental to funny and borderline sacrilegious.

Melodramatic

Christianity is a faith that encourages an intersection of the heart, mind and soul. It’s not simply a religious theory, but a message of love and relationship, which tends to pivot on a deeply emotional breakthrough for true change to take place. Placing your faith in Christ and casting your belief on an event in history that forms the basis of our timeline is not simply a light-bulb moment. It often results in a pent-up, overwhelming outpouring of elation and emotion simultaneously.

Dealing with characters struggling through life, experiencing highs and lows or converting on this basis makes it easy for a faith-based film’s tone to tend toward melodrama. This is exacerbated by strongly stereotyped characters, who often populate scripts trying to reach the broadest audience possible. Choosing to enrich these moments with cinematic power is prized over entrenching them in the maudlin.

Insularity

While finding new audiences must be a serious consideration and motivating factor in the film-making process, Christian films often seem content with simply speaking to, inspiring and satisfying their own folk. If you’re relying on a captive audience to champion your film or a church network to fund the production, they obviously need to like it.

This prerequisite often results in an inoffensive message tailored to the insiders, as opposed to the telling of a universal story that has points of contact for all audiences. While the general themes of redemption, forgiveness and restitution hold strong as compelling journeys for characters, the didactic language, church-orientated setting and one-cure-fits-all approach can be alienating.

Contrived

The Christian way is founded on such noble qualities as authenticity, belief and honesty. Conveying these qualities by means of the film medium can be problematic in the sense that the film-making process relies on illusion and fabrication of such moments. Every film-maker aspires to represent moments of truth, yet the pressure is compounded by a film’s budgetary reach. While faith-based films deal with relatable characters, their scope is generally ambitious and the stories extraordinary.

This kind of storytelling has a tendency to be overwrought in its attempt to extract great emotion. When we deal with characters going through a life-changing conversion, everything seems to get played up and the nuances of the moment are lost. Creating the right conditions for a character to reach full realisation also tends to be orchestrated to a fault, straining the emotional integrity and over-extending our suspense of disbelief.

In order to rectify these problems, film-makers need to be aware of and identify these pitfalls. The Christian film industry appears to be improving and growing with experience with each passing year, and hopefully this will be reflected in terms of potential investors. More experience, more workable budget and having access to better actors will also go a long way to establishing the right tone and hopefully these films will start to appeal to those inside and outside the faith as both an enjoyable and worthy form of entertainment.