Sacred and Profane: A Survey of Christian Film Criticism

Into the Dark
Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century By Craig Detweiler Baker Academic, 2008. 320 pages
through-a-screen
Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer and Beauty, Truth, and Evil in the Movies ByOverstreet Regal Books, 2008. 340 pages
catching-light
Chasing Light: Looking for God in the Movies By Roy Anker Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004. 402 pages

Why do so many Christian writers become film critics?

In the past decade, an astounding number of books and websites have attempted to divine the Christian meaning and value of film. I am going to call this writing Christian film criticism, which is the most used term on the web and in other books. Christian is always a tricky term to use, but I think it’s the best ((I will use the term Christian with the admission that the title is lacking is specificity and meaning. However, any adjectives for Christian will be either pejorative or will further conflate the intended adjectival meaning. With this admission, I will point out that most of the writers I’ve found seem to come from “born again” American Protestantism, if not evangelicalism.  Of course, evangelistic has become an adjective for a types of believers. “Born-again” or evangelical Christianity is important to these writings. At points, too, I would like to use the word fundamentalist, but this word is troublesome, and what’s more there are many types of fundamentalists. Each of these writers, though, is a fundamentalist— they fundamentally believe that their daily life and work is orchestrated by God.)). “Critic” is also a complicated word to use, and Christian writers span from Roger and Ebert to academic style criticism— not to mention the usage of criticism meaning disapproval, which there is also plenty of.  There’s a blog article, What on Earth is Christian Film Criticism, that does well at considering both of these terms. I really didn’t know that there were so many books about Christian film criticism until I started reading them. I’ve read parts of most of the books available, but there is a fair amount of overlap in these books and some of these books are poorer in quality and relevance ((You may have questioned the relevance of this topic altogether.)) Because of this overlap, and to be more concise, I’ll limit my survey to a few of these books, and I’ll consider in detail only three more recent, popular books: Through a Screen Darkly, by Jeffery Overstreet, In to the Dark, by Craig Detweiler, and Catching Light: Finding God in the Movies, by Roy Anker. Here is a more comprehensive list of books, which I’ve been reading:

  • Screen Deep: A Christian Perspective on Pop Culture, 2007
  • Hearing a Film, Seeing a Sermon: Preaching and Popular Movies, 2007
  • Religion and Film and Introduction, 2007
  • Jesus of Hollywood, 2007
  • Theology Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Critical Christian Thinking, 2007
  • Movies that Matter: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith, 2006
  • Finding Saint Paul in Film, 2005
  • Faith in film: Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema, 2005
  • The Hidden God: Film and Faith, 2003
  • Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals, 2003
  • Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste, 2003
  • Praying the Movies: Daily Meditations from Classic Films, 2001
  • Reviewing the movies: a Christian Response to Contemporary Film, 2000
  • Reel Spirituality, 2000
  • Saint Paul returns to the movies: triumph over shame; 1999
  • God and the Movies, 1997

Every Christian writing on film (that I could find) used, reused and overused metaphors of light and dark: “light in a dark world”; “divine light”; “chasing the light (of God)”; “being freed and absorbed by light”; “a hint of God’s light (peaking through darkness)”—I could go on. In Chasing Light, Roy Anker writes for several pages, in technical detail, about the process of making movies— that is exposing film to light. In many cases, as it is in Chasing Light,  these light/dark metaphors are central to the writer’s purpose. The critic’s self-proposed task is to praise films that shed light on beauty and also understand the darker, unexposed parts of film. In most of these books, light is primarily a metaphor for the theology of general revelation. General revelationists believe that truth of a Christian God is revealed in the natural universe and common human events. General revelation is really a placeholder for anything that is not special revelation, which is the authoritative revelation of God i.e. the Bible. There is an important feature to general revelation, what Calvinist and other Protestants call common grace: it is evidence of God’s goodness plainly evident to all humans, including non-believers. As Craig Detweiler in Into the Dark explains,

God began with a beautiful creative act incarnated by Jesus. He is the most arresting image of God, the embodiment of kingdom ethics, and the ultimate lived Truth. We proceed with confidence because the Spirit behind the beauty of creation and the mystery of redemption is also the source of our discernment. We walk by faith, not by fear.

Viewer Discretion Advised

The notion of discernment is an important part of general revelation. Many Christian critics assert that the natural tendency of moviegoers is to have their morals corroded and their baser instincts stroked. But with discernment the Christian viewer can parse the bad parts of film (sin) from the good (the revelation of God)— they can “catch light”. Jeffery Overstreet, who writes reviews for Christianity Today and an online collection of reviews, Looking Closer, says that “The sacred is waiting to be recognized in secular things. Even those artists who don’t believe in God might accidentally reflect back to us realities in which we can see God working.” He will, with discernment, guide the reader into the dark world of Hollywood. But:

[I]sn’t this a dangerous endeavor? You bet you life. (And that isn’t all that we will bet?) There are dangers: pieces of broken glass, glimpses of death, and obscenities spray-painted everywhere. We’ve done a bang-up job of polluting God’s world and making paths to glory fraught with peril.

I recently read the book Rapture Ready, wherein I was introduced to John Howard and John Streck’s useful explanation of how contemporary christian music (CCM) artists abstain from or assimilate into secular, pop music. In Howard and Streck’s book Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music, Christian artists are placed in three camps, separationalist, integrationalist, and transformationalist: the seperationalists are completely cloistered in the CCM world, the make indisputably Christian tunes for a Christian audience; integrationists, while their audience is still primarily Christian, are welcome to mainstream exposure; they cross-over the secular world with palatable, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend-style pop; transformatinoalist artists are harder to define because they are outsiders, and diversely so ((Rick Moody has a delightful essay on this topic, How to Be a Christian Artist. He writes about the band, the Danielson Famile. In part, his essay is a humorous exposition on how tranformationalist Christian artists do it. http://www.believermag.com/issues/200506/?read=article_moody)). These categories are also useful for considering how evangelicals experience film. Christians who write books about Christians watching films are integrationalists, and sometimes separationalists. These writers are adamant that secular film is meaningful to a Christian worldview and instructive to everyday life, but they have selective, complex rules for what makes a film good. Sometimes these critics negatively critique a film for reasons of morality, or what you could call prudishness. But this is the case less than you might suspect. The question of a film’s goodness, rather, is measured by how well it shows the light of God or the darkness of evil. Detweiler describes this as a process, “from art (beauty) to ethics (goodness) to theology (truth)”. Films that show the darkness and “sinfulness” of creation are also to be appreciated, provided that dark and sinful characters are met with redemption or some other cinematic situation that demonstrates the emptiness of life without God’s redemption e.g. despair or death. Indecency and obscenity, while they are seen as unnecessary and gratuitous, are often ignored (with a couple of notable exceptions, which I’ll address later). Sexing and boozing hardly bother these writers in contrast to a much darker, more dangerous presence in films these days, moral relativism. Again, I’ll get to this later on.

A List of Matters Discussed by Christian Film Critics

To best summarize what I learned about the subject matter of the books I’ve read, I’ll just list the majority of subjects:

  • Films directly about God (The Last Temptation of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told)
  • Films about the Bible or the Church (The Mission)
  • Films about Christians (Saved, Jesus Camp)
  • How God is revealed or his represented in films. ((This is the thesis of God in the Movies: How do you cast God in a Hollywood role))
  • The origin and nature of evil (The Exocist)
  • God’s intervention in human affairs (Magnolia)
  • Films about god-like forces in humans affairs (Signs)
  • The beauty of God’s creation
  • Films that seem to show the beauty of God’s creation (The New World)
  • The absence of God in human events
  • How the depravity and emptiness of godless people are depicted in film
  • The perceived intervention of God in human events
  • Emotions and life events related to spirituality, like stories about a person whose a prodigal or a person redeemed
  • Films that the reviewer feels like they are required to watch because of the films cultural popularity or importance. ((This does not hold true for canonical films. There talk of the classics and seminal works, but not much writing about films that you would watch in a university survey of film.))
  • Films that “wake us up” (Requiem for a Dream)
  • Nihilism and moral relativity (American Beauty)

A Moveable Feast

Babette’s Feast is a film that all Christian critics seem to gravitate towards. Directed by Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast is an adaption of a Isak Dinesen’s short story of the same name. It’s a simple story about two pietistic, unwed, elderly sisters in rural Denmark (Jutland). The film’s climax is manifest in a single meal: A talented parisian cook, Babette Hersant, serves the sisters for a number of years as a humble cook; then one day, Babette wins a Paris lottery, receiving 10,000 francs, and invests these winnings in a large, opulent feast, which the religious sisters deride as decadent:

[The sisters] decide to consume the feast but refuse to celebrate it, offering it up as reparation for sin. At the banquet is an army general who remembers enjoying a similar feast at the hands of Paris’s most celebrated chef, a woman. Babette remains unseen though out dinner, but despite all resistance, her meal has a dramatic effect on the diners. Stories are shared, enmities resolved, and new unity celebrated. ((from Movies that Matter, by Richard Leonard.))

Beyond Christian allusions to the last supper and the woman who perfumed Jesus’ feet, Christian critics see Babette’s Feast as a defense of joie de vivre in Christian life. It’s a argument against self-denial and retraction from pleasure, Godly or secular. Reading the various writing on Babette’s Feast is tiresome because there is so much agreement and redundancy between critics. The more I read, the more I found it difficult to decide which ideas are fresh and which are derived, but overall the writing seems to be derived, with many paraphrases and little attribution. But all the writing about the film helped me to better appreciate how Christian critics measure greatness in film. Consider how Roy Ankler swoons over Axel’s work:

Babette’s Feast is a quiet, lyrical drama, slow and painterly in style, packed with delicate but potent images that go to where words cannot stretch, even though virtually the whole story is set in the unpromising setting of a remote and unexciting place among mostly obscure, unexciting people. But it covers a great deal of territory cinematically, intellectually. and religiously— as only a few rare films have. In giving visual life to lsak Dinesen’s fetching story, screenwriter-director Axel makes plausible the toughest of all propositions, whether in cinema. literature, church, or anywhere: that God shows up in human affairs. that divine light does indeed shine, even in the most unexpected places and amid the manifold disappointment of human life. That comes as great surprise to the characters, including the religious ones, and even more to viewers, especially the jaded among them. The three elements that bind the whole of Babette’s Feast together are surprise, splendor, and love. The divine light becomes in this film a palpable manifestation of divine love.

Interestingly, Anker goes on to explain that Babette’s Feast show us how Christians best understand beauty, as they are closer to its source:

Axel’s telling of Dinesen’s Story suggests that because of its notions of divine love, the Christian community is the group most capable of imbibing and grasping the artist’s adoration of a world steeped in sensuous beauty, a beauty that is graceful in its own right and betokens the love of the God who put it there in the first place, It is this notion of a world framed by divine love and for love that lies at the center of Babette’s Feast.

Detweiler poses a related question that complicates this view. Pointing out the vapidity of most Christian pop culture, like CCM, he asks Christians “if you are in touch with the creator, shouldn’t you be the most creative.” As Anker admits, Babette’s Feast, despite winning an Academy Award, is not well-known among secular audiences. So, Detweiler says the Christian critic and artist must go into the dark and engage with the secular world. He says that there should not be sub-cultural art or conversations about art in the Christian world. This critic is like Babette, requesting that abstemious folks in the Christian community look at the beauty in the outside world. Surprisingly, many of the critics discussing Babette’s Feast don’t seem to notice or comment on this parallel with their own writing.

The God Room

Jeffery Overstreet did make this connection. He recounts that he was moved by films like Babette’s Feast to provide a better online discussion of secular film: “I wanted to try writing about film the way C.S. Lewis wrote about books.” However, after reading his reviews on Looking Closer and reading his book, I question how closely he really looks at film, which leads me to a more detailed aside about Overstreet’s writing. Overstreet’s anecdotes and stories are a little too neat ((When writing about his interviews with the movers and shakers of the movies, Overstreet over-emphasized the poignancy of his questions, and has a worse habit of guessing the intentions of his interview subjects.)), and one may suspect him of making things up. Overstreet boast of interviews conducted in “The God Room,” where filmmakers and actors discuss the religious relevance of forthcoming films. In one such interview, Overstreet talked with Patrice Leconte, director of Les Bronzes (French Fried Vacation), Intimate Strangers, and Man on the Train.

“Why are you so preoccupied with stories about temptation and about characters who must decide whether or not to transgress an ethical boundary?” Leconte responds, “There is something very curious and interesting in what you are saying. There is nothing more interesting than meeting someone who casts new light on your work. I have never thought about it, but you are absolutely right in what you say about the obsession in my movies main characters. It’s true that the situations revolve around the temptation of transgressing something that is forbidden… Thanks for shedding some light on my work .. I’m a filmmaker of transgression.”

While we could certainly read an irony or playfulness in Leconte’s answer, Overstreet is satisfied to leave it here, with no examination of what Leconte means by transgression. In this way, I found Overstreet to be self- referential and congratulatory ((In Relevant Magazine, Brett McCracken agrees, noting that while he liked Overstreet’s book he found the writer to name-drop and be too showy)) about his position as a critic but to fall short of his professed task as a critic. Sometimes Overstreet corrects this impression with modesty:

If I hadn’t been paying attention, I would have missed them. This tells me that I’ve missed thousands of other meaningful moments along the way. So I go back, again and again. I pursue conversations with other moviegoers to learn what they saw so that I can fill in more of the picture. I want to learn how to train my attention and judge what is meaningful and what isn’t. In a word, I want to learn discretion.

Yet, I kept finding that Overstreet only looks closely at certain types of films, like Babette’s Feast. He’s too forthright with his druthers and not curious enough to understand films that he dislikes. Other parts of Overstreet’s film writing are short-sighted. A small example of this is his response to A.O. Scott’s review of The House of Sand and Fog,

[Scott] in The New York Times described it as “the story of two rights adding up to a monstrous wrong.” I’m not sure what he means by that. He is right in saying “There are no clear villains, no serendipitous, life-altering accidents, only the slow, inexorable escalation of hasty decisions and excusable lapses in judgment toward an unbearable final catastrophe.” It all adds up to “wrong,” but where are the “rights”? Certainly, the protagonists desire the right things, but they go about pursuing them in self-centered and heartless ways.

Overstreet misses the intentional double meaning of “rights”. It’s the belief in American rights, like the pursuit of happiness, that causes conflict in the film. A small mistake, but is suggests that Overstreet’s focus on matters of morality prevent him from finding deeper meaning in the film ((Overstreet also has trouble with meta conventions, as shown in his review of Tarantino’s Kill Bill: “Perhaps someday we’ll discover that Tarantino can develop a voice of his own, free of allusions and tributes and cross-referencing. And we can hope he’ll learn more about discipline and restraint. For now, the films he’s provided give us scenes of discomforting indulgence, portrayals of brutality that punish the audience as well as the hero, and dialogue that at times becomes sickeningly obscene.”)). I’d like to move on from the pastoral to the galactic, but I should first discuss another case where morals cause this critic to stumble.

Some of My Best Friends are Gay, But

The following statement augurs trouble ahead, “I have several gay friends, and I value their friendship, even if we disagree on some issues.” In his review of Brokeback Mountain, Overstreet is honest in his belief the homosexuality is sinful, but he also seems to want the reader to understand that he believes homosexuality is no worse than any other sin (that the writer is not bigoted):

“Brokeback Mountain is a film in which all kinds of people engage in all manner of wrongdoing. Yes, there are two men who hastily plunge into an intimate sexual bond, and as a result, their relationship narrows to become an unhealthy sexual obsession rather than a flourishing friendship and love – they become enslaved to their lust, and it disrupts the rest of their lives. But there are also heterosexual people guilty of violent hatred, and heterosexuals who engage in hasty sex soon after meeting […] “All of us, if we’re honest, can relate to the story of Jack and Ennis. Their story is the human story, from the Garden of Eden to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Hamlet to The Lord of the Rings to Grizzly Man: At one time or another, we have all transgressed… we’ve pursued something we wanted, something that wasn’t what was best for us, without regard for the consequences our actions would have on each other, on the future, and on the world around us. Human desire oversteps its bounds, we are weakened by our inappropriate appetites, and it costs us something. That’s the real story of Brokeback Mountain.”

But this and Overstreet’s other remarks about Brokeback Mountain belie this idea. Homosexual transgression is not just sin, it is original sin. Gay love is the enemy of empathy:

“In the moment Jack and Ennis plunge into sex together, their relationship changes. You’ll see it happen as the story progresses. Their deepening care and understanding stops. They become controlled by and obsessed with their sexual connection. Their days of rich and flourishing friendship are numbered.”

Futhermore, Overstreet’s review starts to read like notes from a Narth meeting:

“Families and the church have failed these two men, it seems.”

And,

“We can surely feel compassion for Jack and Ennis, grieved that they grew up in such a harsh and lonely world, where they have not seen a good model of heterosexual intimacy, where they know nothing of God, and where they thus believe they can only find fulfillment in each other. By letting their sex drives lead them, they weaken their freewill. They submit to a master that does not know reason.”

Jesus is Wizard!

Star Wars is a cosmic, well-packaged fabulation of good, evil, and (spiritual) force. As Anker writes,

“Against all odds, then, wrapped in the pop space western that is Star Wars, lies a fetching, luminous, and finally exultant fable of a holy trust, apprenticeship, and pilgrimage that culminates in a resplendent vision of servanthood, reconciliation, and a winsome portrait of the new creation that awaits the cosmos”

It’s no surprise, then, that nearly all Christian film critics write about the film and resoundingly like it ((There are countless Christian books about Star Wars, like Star Wars Jesus. There are so many passages that I would like to share from Star Wars Jesus, but I’ll have to save this for another post. Just take this chapter title, “The Death Star: the act and image of a complete lack of faith. Sensing a great disturbance in the Force,” or “Han Solo is like Jesus, especially when it comes to your subculture.” Along with Star Wars, it would be reasonable to discuss The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, which is often discussed by writers, since its film adaptation in 2001— with a comparable amount of references to Tolkein’s book trilogy; C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia; and other series, such as the works of Madeline L’Engel. I could also add the Harry Potter series and The Golden Compass, which have been given slightly less attention by Christian film critics. Yet, Tolkein’s works contain Christian allegory, despite the author’s intention to not make these allegories direct, and I feel like Star Wars is illustrative in a better way— it is overtly about good, evil, and other Godly themes, but it has also been derided by many Christians. I will mention, as a further aside, that Overstreet jokes about postmodern, elitist film critics think that hobbits are gay. An article I very much enjoyed reading a few years ago, makes a the case for homoeroticism between hobbits very well.)). Not all Christians feel the same admiration for Star Wars, however. They claim that the spirituality in the trilogy is too much like New Age and/or Buddhist beliefs. They are seperationalists— it’s not cinema, it is the “sinema”. But such detractors are clearly on the fringe, and probably don’t watch movies in the first place. Really, Star Wars is one of only a handful of films that are both entertaining (for kids and adults) and not offensive, and is therefore shown in churches all around the U.S. (Princess Bride is another example of this category of movie.)

This curmudgeonly set is worth bringing up only because diplomatic counter-arguments are made to this group by Overstreet, Detweiler, and Stone. Films that are colossally moral or spiritual are a good place to begin an argument about how secular movies provide spiritual enrichment. In Faith and Film, Brian Stone writes, “Though the Force of Star Wars resembles elements of Zen philosophy and ancient Chinese Taoism ((Anker writes: “The Force has moved from a largely magical plot gimmick, a dues ex machina contrivance, to a complex conception that within is posture of love demands an attitude of nonaggression— an odd, even paradoxical, stance for would-be-warriors. It is emphatically clear that the only hope for combating he evil Emperor and his dastardly henchman, Darth Vader, lies in this posture of nonaggression.” Indeed, this sound kind-of New Age to me.)), it also has characteristics that make it an interesting dialogue partner for reflecting on the Christian affirmation ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit.'” Using the Hebrew scriptures as his guide, Stone goes on, in tedious detail, to explain the commonality between the Holy Spirit and the Force in Star Wars. Stone’s broader point is that “[m]ovies do not merely portray a world; they propagate a worldview.” He argues that by merely objecting to sinful Hollywood values is not enough: “We must also become more responsible as Christians for engaging film theologically. […] The relationship between Christian theology and popular film is, in short, an interfaith dialogue.”

In God and the Movies, Bergson and Greeley posit that God is portrayed in micro and macro ways in film. The macro portrayals of God are often epic Science Fiction and Fantasy movies, Star War being a prime example. The macro God is also cast in films with elements of magical realism they say:

“The God of magical realism is a God of enormous power, a God who can make bells ring even when there are no bells, a God how causes a spring garden to bloom overnight despite the snow, a God who saves a drowning man in a body of a whale, a God who can send the dead back to free a survivor of paralyzing grief.”

At first, I was lost in a discussion of magical realism because I only know this term in the literary sense, in the writings of Angela Carter or Garcia Marquez, but the writers go on to include films such as Like Water for Chocolate and What Dreams May Come, which seem more compatible with the term. Bergson and Greely’s point is that god-like forces, and evil forces, are revealed in both small and fantastic situations in films like Star Wars. The small revelations, like the moment “[w]hen Luke turn off his targeting computer and opened himself to pray for God’s help,” as Overstreet writes, taught us how to pray. An then there’s the big picture, which Anker writes about:

“Obi-Wan is after nothing less than the defeat of Darkness[sic] ((Many of these writers go crazy with capitalization, making proper any word that is an attribute of God.)) itself, the metaphysical power that seeks to destroy all that is good in the world.”

Additionally, Anker has a nice way of explaining the spiritual significance of the trilogy of the 1970 and 80s in contrast with the 2000s trilogy: “The future of the Star Wars saga lies in its past… [T]he first of the original trilogy to be filmed showed how light comes out of darkness. The trilogy now underway shows how darkness emerges from light, how people and societies come to lose harmony and hope.” Why is it, though, that even in epic films the largest displays of spirituality are usually the darkest ones— the portrayal of evil? Why is it that God does not, in the world we live in, reveal his light in miracles or any other heuristic events? Why must Christians insist of things like the resurrection, the virgin birth, and the intelligent design of the universe? Or as Lars Von Trier ((Overstreet and Anker write about Von Triers but they appear to have an uneasy feeling about Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and the directors other work)) wonders ,

“The general assumption is that all people are able to differentiate more or less equally between good and evil. But if this is the case, why does the world look like it does? Why have all the good intentions of my parents come to nothing. And why do my own good intentions lead to nothing?”

I’ll leave these question aside, beside having just asked them. But I must point out that majority of Christian criticism is not about the beauty and truth of God in film, but rather about the absence of God.

Film Noir

You will find in Christian criticism that metaphors of darkness and light extend to all types of dichotomies: beauty vs. ugliness, decency vs. obscenity, absolution vs. relativism, the certain vs. the unknown, and so forth and so on. In writings on contemporary secular film, especially the many films that withhold any general or morals truths about the human condition, Christian critics exhibit near obsession with binaries of purpose vs. nihilism or religious enlightenment vs. fractured, postmodern meaninglessness. Detweiler is notably different in this regard. Detweiler blogs about working toward understanding between religious and secular, postmodern culture. He argues that movies are a good place for Christians to learn from a fractured, postmodern world. In his book, Into the Dark, he considers many of the films in the Internet Movie Database’s user-ranked list of the 250 Movies ((Ranking circa 2007)), which is, as Detweiler admits, an odd list. Of course, the demotic and non-authoritative nature of the list is the reason Detweiler chose it, it samples the films people watch and talk about, not just canonical film. While Detweiler is fun to read, his book is not cohesive or well-organized and much of what he writes doesn’t make sense, critically or semantically. He will casually uses Biblical words, phrases, and allusions in any given sentence. It’s easy to miss his point or be perplexed by his point all together. Consider this statement,

Art and commerce met in the films created by Hollywood’s “holy trinity” of Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas. Francis Ford Coppola served as the literal godfather to a new generation of filmmakers fresh out of film school.

Or one of my favorites,

Despite our unprecedented financial and scientific success in the modern era, the twenty-first century can be characterized as a return to the Dark ages

Here he writes about the films of Quentin Tarantino,

Like John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, Tarantino was a forerunner for the messy, transcendent movies that have followed.

And he later on continues,

To some, his success signaled the decline of Western civilization. But to dedicated fanboys (and girls), Tarantino’s unlikely rise demonstrates the newer, democratic possibilities of filmmaking, film criticism, and even theology: general revelation in action.

And there is more,

Quentin Tarantino married postmodern surfaces and brutal violence with the transcendent possibilities of film. Tarantino’s disciples were inspired by the psychic power of cinema to simultaneously outrage and inspire. While some were attracted to Tarantino’s higher calling, other unleashed even flashier (and emptier) forms of film noir.

These cryptic comments about Tarantino bring me to one of Detweiler’s main topics. Detweiler describes a resurgence of film noir and oddly identifies Tarantino has one of the most important figures in this movement, further placing Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, Alejandro Gonzales, and Guy Ritchie as Tarantino’s disciples. I had difficulty following Detweiler’s definition of film noir ((He does not give much room for explaining his definition, or how contemporary films that use noir conventions have any  sort-of meta thing going on; He does not explain the jest in playing with the genre.)), but I think I understand his broader point. He is arguing that in dark (noir) films sin bears itself out in the “grim consequences of a world without God”; indeed he says Richard Rodriguez’s ((Perhaps, if Tarantino really had any disciples, Rodriguez would be one.)) Sin City is the “apothesis of film noir.” “Film noir at its best reveals our cold, cold hearts. It understands the murderous impulses that lurk beneath our civil veneer,” he summarizes.

Just like other critics, Detweiler professes the belief  that to be human is to act sinfully. The real difference between Detweiler and other critics, in my reading, is that Detweiler argues that Christian’s should be willing to see and discuss any serious or popular film. He says that Christian is not an adjective. I took this as a rhetorical statement, since Christian is more of an adjective, a type of person or belief system, than it is a noun: Christian should not be a genre or label for art and Christian values should not be a measure of a movie’s watchability. It’s odd then, in his writing on postmodern art, when Detweiler regularly uses postmodern as an adjective; the suggestion seeming to be that postmodernity is not a cultural or historical trend, it’s a movement or a point-of-view. The same goes for moral relativism, which is not a trend from scientific or humanistic facts on the ground, but it too is a political, anti-Christian movement. Again, unlike others, Detweiler is not denouncing the glorification of sin and nihilism in movies these days. He tries to avoid  accusing filmmakers of playing tricks on us, manipulating emotions, or tempting an audience into sin. Detweiler wants people to watch films as an occasion for understanding: “Only when we agree that we have things worth discussing, convictions worth dying for, can we engage in meaningful dialogue.” Still, I did not do very well in understanding much of Detweiler’s book, partly because of the cant and mushy language he uses, and I often suspected that he was trying to appear more open-minded about certain films than he really was.

Final Thought
Reading these books, I’ve mostly tried to understand what Christian critics want from film. For the most part, I think they want filmmakers to ask all viewers, Christians included, to see new, challenging things— to reevaluate their lives based on what is learned from film. The moviegoer needs to do work, which (considering the Multiplex these days ((That’s is, since the 1970s or who knows when.))) is a rather tough sell for secular audiences too. It a tough and admirable position, as many of these writers’ contemporaries, fellow church goers, and friends will disagree with them and continue believing that the ‘secular’ is inherently damaging to a person’s soul. These critics want to believe that films, for the most part, can speak for themselves.

But these writers are compelled to be spiritual guides as much as they are critics. ((This tendency is illustrated by the practice of including discussion guides at the end of each chapter in these books, which give the reader loaded and leading questions about how to interpret film. Overstreet and Detweiler seem to have resisted this trend, as they don’t want too much hand-holding, but they still provide supplementary material that imposes a particular way of viewing film.)) I’ve tried to describe differences in opinion among Christian writers on film as much as I’ve pointed out accordance. But the trend of seeing beauty, darkness, and truth— limiting notions in their own right— as strict,  religious terms stands out in all of these writings. And I find that this tendency impedes the critics’ understanding of and imagination for the power of film. For example, is there room left in this view for how Jean-Luc Godard defines truth and beauty: “Beauty is composed of an eternal, invariable element whose quantity is extremely difficult to determine, and a relative element which might be, either by turns or all at once, period, fashion, moral, passion.” Or, how close can we look at certain films before we go blind?

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5 thoughts on “Sacred and Profane: A Survey of Christian Film Criticism

  1. Great post. I wasn’t aware of this genre of film criticism. It seems a bit shady though. It’s almost as though these Christian critics are being apologists for a mostly secular art form.

    To me, they seem to be looking for metaphors that aren’t even intended, trying to reinterpret the art of sinema and cinema for a new audience. I would be very interested to know what Tarentino thinks of these critics.

    I would think the filmmakers would like to speak directly to the Christian audience, letting them think for themselves, rather than have the filter of the Christian critics. However, it is possible that these critics do bring people to films that otherwise wouldn’t come to them.

  2. Have you ever read Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey?

    I think this book, which was originally a pamphlet passed throughout Disney in the 70’s, was where all of this mythos began.

    this theory came from Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with A thousand faces.

  3. Interesting post. I am a Christian, who grew up in the “seperationalist” category. I rarely watched movies because they were promoters of many “evil” things. However, I am a musician and a composer with a passion for orchestral music. At this point I am in my last year of university at a large secular university 3000 miles away from home. Since I finished high school I have found myself fascinated with film scores/music and am pursuing a career composing music for them. It is a huge learning curve for me. I have not abandoned my theology, beliefs, or Christianity. In fact, my faith continues to grow. Yet I am incredibly confused as to what a Christian in this industry should look like, and how to balance my beliefs and my desire to write exceptional music (not just good music… Christianity is filled with enough mediocre musicians). Thank you for your perspective on the flaws in which Christians approach this medium. Should you feel that you have pertinent or helpful information or advice to pass on I am willing to receive it. Thank you for your research and for your respect of those who are navigating the secular/sacred distinctions.
    Blessings,
    Rebecca

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