|Image from War Room (Affirm Films/Provident Films)|
The thing is, when this faulty theology is confronted or when Christian film critics and pastors offer a thoughtful critique of the film, the response often seems to be, "Well, you're wrong. The movie made me feel great, and I feel encouraged, even convicted to pray more. And who are you to speak judgmentally and negatively about other Christians and what God is trying to do through their work? God inspired me and changed my life through this movie. How dare you question that?"
Well, I dare question it. I think it's dangerous when we stop the questioning regarding our faith and our art. (It's equally dangerous when we only question and never come to any solid conclusions or ground our feet in good theology and relationship with the Creator). More importantly, it raises a larger question, one about the relationship between personal experience and sound theology:
If someone believes an experience to be good, and it inspires them to genuinely follow God more, does that make it true?
If I come to a personal conclusion that is ultimately good--at least in my eyes--does it really matter how I got there? Why criticize the process if the end result is beneficial? Perhaps the ends justify the means.
I've admittedly done this in reading the Bible. I've read passages and discerned God speaking to me through the words on the page, despite my knowledge that proper exegesis of the passage would not bring about the personal conclusions I was contemplating. Yet this personalized reading of Scripture still prompted me to be more faithful in my apprenticeship with Jesus and pursuit of his kingdom. Surely that's a good thing. So when someone believes their prayer life is improved after watching this film, who am I to judge?
Another example: if I feel inspired to evangelize by texting all of my friends "God's Not Dead"--a tactic openly encouraged in the final moments of last year's faith-based hit of the same name--and someone actually chooses to believe Jesus through this (obscure, confusing, intrusive, ineffective) method, isn't that something worth celebrating? Who cares how it happens, as long as it happens?
What if I'm feeling good about a film precisely because it is designed to manipulate my emotions? What if the belief system a film promotes is almost, but not quite, Christianity? What if my own personal faith is less like the Christianity inspired by Jesus and more like an American subculture inspired by American values and marketing tactics?
I am concerned films like God's Not Dead and War Room are inspiring folks to pursue a Christianity that doesn't correspond to the same values of Jesus. The more of these Christian films I watch and review, the less I see the spiritual life described in the Bible. Instead of a true Christianity, I'm convinced many of these films promote a Christian flavored Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a particularly American version of Christianity, whose tenets are summarized as such:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Experiencing significant pain, suffering, or sadness is likely due to a distance from God and not behaving as faithfully as one should.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. He will intervene when called upon by good people in prayer.
- Good people--those who believe in God--go to heaven when they die.
These are faith-based films all right. But what faith are they promoting?
In this genre of film, most or all of the Christians turn out happy, healthy, and smiling by the film's conclusion. The non-believers often are killed, jailed, or otherwise come to a painful end. This narrative structure aligns with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism's soteriology--good people are blessed and happy, while non-believing bad people experience suffering. The audience response, "It made me feel good!" certainly rings with MTD's belief system. Of course it makes you feel good! That's what God is meant to do for us. And you know something is true and beautiful if it's always positive and uplifting.
Not only do these films make you feel good, they give you clear, practical instruction on how you are to behave in response to the film, a behavioral practice that is guaranteed to make your life happier and better. For War Room, it's "make a plan to pray more." For God's Not Dead, it's "text everyone about God now." These behavioral prompts are like the application points to a sermon, given a simplicity and an immediacy that makes for an easy discipleship. Having one's lifestyle and practices be changed by a film isn't wrong or bad--my own life has been significantly transformed by a few key moments in film--but faith-based films are more overt and didactic in their approach, and directly connect audience's response with their Christian faithfulness, i.e. good Christians will do what this film says. It's the filmic form of those Facebook memes prompting you to share a photo or Bible verse with all your friends, where the implications are clear: if you don't share, then you're not being true to Jesus.
I imagine the recent box office success of War Room will be celebrated as a victory for God's kingdom, because in the paradigm of MTD, any sort of financial gain would obviously be considered a good thing and a clear answer to prayer. God rewards and blesses those who are faithful and obedient, right? MTD is also a very individualistic endeavor; there is nothing in its central tenets about the need for community or accountability. My faith is my faith, and who are you to question how I think and feel about God? This corresponds to my original question above about personal experience; it doesn't much matter if it's the true God as found in Jesus, as long as I'm a good person and happy and don't bother anyone else. After all, being a Christian is best summarized as being nice in the name of Jesus, right?
At best, the filmmakers are ignorant of their filmic campaign for a false gospel of MTD, likely because they too have succumb to its pervasiveness in our culture. At worst, the filmmakers are keen marketers and moneymakers who have discovered an evangelical subculture all too willing to throw their money towards these well-marketed echo chambers that will keep MTD alive and well in the American church.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is almost Christian, just enough that many of us may not even recognize the difference in ourselves. The response of "I liked it, so stop critiquing it" may be an indicator that our faith is placed in something less than the death-and-resurrection power found in Jesus and the reign of his kingdom values in our world. Jesus doesn't invite us to be nice so that everything works out to make us happy. He bids us to come and die, to live a life of sacrificial love, compassion, justice, and mercy. Prayer is not meant to fix all my problems or get me things I want; it is intended as a means of holistic transformation in the relational context of conversation and presence with the Divine. Evangelism cannot be summed up in a text message or an invitation to a poorly-made movie; sharing the good news requires my whole life, demonstrating the radical love and grace of Jesus for my neighbor as genuinely good news. Critiques of my beliefs and opinions and character are not bad or divisive; they are necessary aspects of Christian community as we spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
In true Christianity, there is room for difference and grace. I am not saying that we cannot have differing opinions on films, or that the subculture of evangelical Christianity cannot have its own art and stories to celebrate. This is not the cynical rant of someone who believes Christians incapable of making good art, but as someone who believes we can--and should--make art that resonates with the truth and beauty found in Christ. I am concerned as a pastor and a film critic because it's not just that these films aren't that good, it's that they seem to advocate for a less-than-true form of Christianity. And audiences are buying it, both literally and spiritually. I'd rather see viewers seek out Paul Harrill's Something, Anything or Joshua Overbay's As It Is in Heaven, two recent films that are far more challenging to watch than most faith-based films, but have greater spiritual dividends. When it comes to faith-based films, let's be cautious about the underlying faith these films ultimately promote. It's almost Christian. When it comes to finding meaning, purpose, and reality, "almost" may not be enough.
Update: The film As It is in Heaven I recommend in the final paragraph is Joshua Overbay's 2014 film available on Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime; it is about a pseudo-Christian doomsday cult. It is *NOT* this 2004 Swedish film currently streaming on Netflix with the exact same name. The link I provided above will take you directly to Overbay's film on Hulu. Please approach any film-watching experience with wisdom, discernment, caution, and grace.
If you'd like a resource for growing as a wise and discerning movie watcher, check out my book, Jesus Goes to the Movies.