This past weekend, much of the southern region of the US was hit with pretty severe storms – some even had tornadic activity. A retreat center near Jackson, MS, sustained substantial damage. This resulted in multiple churches coming up with a “Plan B” for a retreat that was slatted there. As you’ve probably figured, we were one of the churches impacted by the closing of the retreat center.
Scripture tends to equate wisdom with reflection and moments of solitude, but sometimes God’s providence requires haste. In this case, our youth staff did what many assume youth workers do – scramble and throw things together last minute. We, no doubt, worked fast, but we also included our youth team – comprised of multiple adults – to add some extra wisdom to our efforts.
Working with only a few hours, we decided to take our students to pizza, dessert and a movie for Friday night. In many ways this seems like an easy solution, but picking a movie that multiple families and students agree upon is close to impossible (I’ve written about that here). The easiest choice for us was the film, God’s Not Dead 2. I say easiest, simply because I knew there was no “bad language”, violence, or sex.
The irony of making this decision comes from the fact that I have been somewhat of a critic of the “faith-based genre” of movies. One of my major critiques of these movies – apart from their typical poor artistic value – has been the poor theology they often communicate. To me, this is much more offensive than other content that could be present. However, I instructed our students that we were going to watch this movie in order to discuss it and possibly critique it. I told our students we could praise certain elements of the film and disagree with other elements.
I understand that critiquing “Christian movies” is becoming just as much of a cliché as many of the kitschy content found in the films themselves (More on that here). While this article will critique come of those elements, the aim of this article is the discipleship of the next generation of our church. How are we to train teenagers to view, analyze, criticize, and appreciate faith-based films with a discerning mind?
At the most basic level, I simply wanted our students to understand that there’s disagreement among Christians on these movies. I assume many of our students might not even realize that disagreement on faith-based movies is even taking place in the Christian community. One doesn’t have to spend much time searching the Internet to find Christians praising and bashing these movies.
Most likely, there are two groups of teenagers in your youth ministry – those who love these films and those who hate these films, but feel guilty about hating them. For the second group, they would much rather see Captain America: Civil War, but feel guilty that they desire to see a “secular” film over a “Christian” one. They think being a Christian means that they need to like GND2, so they inwardly feel guilty that they don’t really like it all that much. Then, when #TeamCap hits the silver screen they feel guilty for enjoying that movie more than a film like GND2.
Our students need to know that it’s okay to dislike a movie like this. Just like it’s okay to like a movie like this. I know there are plenty in Christian circles who would protest for saying we could even like a movie like GND2, but, as I found out, there are elements in the movie we can celebrate. Don’t misunderstand me, there is critique that is needed – which is simply an element of being a discerning viewer – but Christians, of all people, should know that if God’s common grace is seen in films like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice; surely God’s grace is powerful enough to shine through a movie like GND2.
Critique is Part of Our Humanity
In the second place, I wanted our students to understand that critiquing a movie is an aspect of watching any film. In my experience, Christians have acted quite defensively towards me when I’ve criticized the theology of films like Facing the Giants and War Room. As far as I could discern, the rebuke to my criticism seemed to imply that these films were above critique. How dare you speak negatively towards a “Christian movie”?!, seemed to be the mindset of this group.
Our students must realize that humanity is not above critique, because we are fallen. All art – as beautiful as it may be – is imperfect, this side of heaven. Christian movies are not above critique, just as an Oscar-winning film like The Revenant.
I truly enjoyed the very dark, and gritty film, The Revenant, however, director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, seemed to take just a bit of artistic liberty in places where it was unnecessary and could have been 20 minutes shorter. Not to mention that I felt that this wasn’t Leonardo Dicaprio’s best performance. It was a very physical performance for him, but I’m still unsure of it being Oscar-worthy (just for the record, I also think he was robbed in other films).
Point being, I can critique an Oscar-winning film, which is praised by Hollywood (and rightly so, I might add); therefore, Christians must not get too defensive over other Christians offering criticism of faith-based films. Our students need to develop a critical eye towards film instead of mindlessly sitting in a dark theater with a disengaged brain God expects them to steward.
Portrayal of Atheists
The major critique of GND2 – which others have pointed out – is its portrayal of atheists. To put it bluntly, they are villainized on the screen. They are portrayed as cold, harsh, unloving humans filled with hate. Even the countenances of some are instructive to the viewer of which side they are on before they even open their mouths.
As I told our students, I know some very nice unbelievers, just like I know some pretty unkind believers. We must be cautious of stereotyping people based on their beliefs. My question to our students was, Do you think an atheist would walk away from this movie with a different perspective? As I said, God can use whatever means he desires to bring a child of darkness into light, but I strongly doubt that a true atheist would walk away from this movie questioning their beliefs. In all likelihood, they would leave the theater even more ingrained in their own beliefs as well as the stereotypes they hold towards Christians.
I had great pause over this discipleship opportunity. To be honest, I was a bit fearful to take a group of students to a movie like this with the possibility of criticism. Would I offend one of my parents? Anger one of my students? Cause division? However, the driving force that fueled my passion for this exercise was 1 Timothy 4:16a, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” Teenagers need to know that they always carry their theology with them. Life and theology are wed together and must not part. Their theology must inform their watching of movies, listening of music, clothes they wear, words they speak, and tone of their criticism.
I was timid to take on this practice, but the cost of avoiding it seemed too great. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Butterfield gives Christians some helpful critique to bring this discussion to a close:
Christians always seemed like bad thinkers to me. It seemed that they could maintain their worldview only because they were sheltered from the world’s real problems…Christians always seemed like bad readers to me, too. They appeared to use the Bible in a way that Marxists would call “vulgar” – that is, common, or in order to bring the Bible into a conversation to stop the conversation, not deepen it…It seemed to me that the only people who could genuinely be satisfied with this level of reading or thinking, were people who didn’t really read or think very much – about life or culture or anything.
 I put bad language in quotes, because I’m using the term bad language in the way many Christians think; i.e., profanity. Even though there was language including gossip, judgment and self-righteousness in GND2 – language that’s equally offensive to God – at least they didn’t use profanity.
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. (Crown & Covenant Publications: 2014) pg. 4.