Christian families are constantly interacting with all sorts of entertainment: books, music, video games, television, and movies. In part 1 of this series, we discussed worldview analysis as a foundational principle of evaluating the media we consume. Now we will examine some additional considerations.
When I was a child in the 1970s, Christian filmmaking—films made outside the Hollywood system, financed by Christians, for Christians—was in its infancy. No child of that era can forget being scared sleepless after watching the doomsday horror film A Thief in the Night at Sunday night church.
Films from this era were frequently noted for their good intentions, poor screenwriting, no-name talent, and underfunded production budgets. Many Christians believed that the noble intent of the filmmakers to preach the Gospel was enough to overcome substandard production values. But by the mid- to late-80s (when I was in film school), Christians who worked as professionals in Hollywood began to rethink that strategy. They looked around and started asking why Christian films were so bad? Didn’t Jesus deserve better than this?
The recent efforts of producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey to make The Bible mini-series brought independent Christian production values into near alignment with Hollywood standards. Yet, other Christian filmmakers seem content to settle for mediocre production standards while appealing to the niche evangelical audience by making “preachy” films.
Production value plays a vital role in deciding whether a film ought to be considered “good” in the minds of most consumers, even among Christians. Sure, there are loyal followers who will consume almost any piece of entertainment that’s released with certain branding or headlining performer. But if a film lacks exemplary writing or skillful performances it misses out on potential greatness; and box office numbers generally reflect that.
In my view, there is inherent value in an artful film because our creativity reflects the image of our Creator (Genesis 1:26–27). And, sometimes, it’s perfectly appropriate for Christians to appreciate good art, even if we don’t agree with the worldview it portrays. We can offer comments about a thoughtful script, amazing storytelling, compelling acting, or beautiful cinematography. When we do so, we’re often praising the efforts of the many hard-working believers who labor anonymously within the entertainment business. Quite frankly, I’ve often found that a well-acted, thoughtfully written, small-budget film (such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) or a well-made, sincere, “family friendly” movie (like Babe) can elicit more enjoyment than a poorly scripted summer blockbuster (Armageddon comes to mind) or a moderately okay Christian film (such as Fireproof).
Many Christians have a tendency to make immediate judgments about what constitutes “good” entertainment based solely on moral content, specifically, language, sexual content (both on-screen and implied), violence, and substance abuse. These are important considerations, especially for parents; however other factors need consideration, too.
It’s important to understand that films and books are often multilayered. So it’s valuable for Christians to learn a little about how to discern the layers. It helps to begin by looking at a film or book’s themes from a “big picture” perspective and avoid quick judgments based on the moral content alone, such as foul language, sexual acts, violence, or drug abuse.
Let me explain what I mean. Consider Schindler’s List. This Oscar-winner contains many difficult, even horrific, scenes. In isolation and without context, it seems the morally objectionable content (e.g., genocide, child abuse) would preclude Christians from viewing or appreciating the film. However, the film presents a powerful message of individual repentance and redemption. I think this is why Schindler’s List resonates with so many believers. This deeper thematic purpose provides a larger context from which to interpret the inclusion of more objectionable elements.
In another example, Cobb (which perhaps only 10 other people on the planet actually saw) includes many scenes showing baseball legend Ty Cobb engaging in drug abuse and other unflattering behavior. It was a very hard film for me to watch. In the end, however, I was struck by the film’s very accurate picture of the futility of life without God. Money and fame failed to bring peace and satisfaction.
Now, would I recommend Cobb to my mother or teenage daughters? No way—but if I was engaged in some water-cooler conversation, it might come in handy as a bit of a morality play. In this way, individual Christians ought to weigh out these issues in coordination with their interpretation of Scripture, their conscience, and their personal sensitivity.
One final thought: remember to pray for all of those Christian brothers and sisters who work within the entertainment business. They often face difficult and discouraging environments and situations as they attempt to be salt and light in a dark place.
Resource: In 2012, Kenneth Samples and I recorded two podcast episodes featuring tips for watching movies from a Christian point of view: “How to Watch a Movie, Part 1” and “How to Watch a Movie, Part 2.”
By Krista Bontrager
Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.