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Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?

Elizabeth Roberts and Rik Swartzwelder in Old Fashioned.
Elizabeth Roberts and Rik Swartzwelder in Old Fashioned.
(Skoche Films)

As the world gleefully awaited the release of Fifty Shades of Grey in 2015, Evangelical Christians were awaiting ... well, it would be inaccurate to call Old Fashioned the Christian version of the film, but it's definitely meant to be the Christian response.

In the film, Clay, a former frat boy who runs an antique store, meets Amber, a restless spirit who wanders around the country. When Amber rents an apartment from Clay, she quickly realizes everything she's heard about him is right — he has really outdated, and unrealistic theories of love, mostly centered on "old-fashioned" courtship.

Amber learns of Clay's theories firsthand when she asks him to come over to fix something in her house. Before he can enter her home, he makes Amber leave. He has made a promise to himself that he will never be alone in a house with a woman. He's saving himself for marriage, you see.

Clay's ideas are intriguing to Amber, who finds herself drawn to the throwback gentleman. But both of them have skeletons in their closet, and need to deal with those first if there's any chance of making their old-fashioned courtship work.

Fans of Fifty Shades might see echoes of that book in this basic plot summary. In both stories, a man with unconventional notions of romance and sex woos a woman, getting her to at least consider his viewpoint. Except in Fifty Shades, this involves lots of sex, and in Old Fashioned, this involves, well, no sex at all.

To be clear, there's nothing inherently wrong with either plot. Chastity is rarely depicted onscreen, but that, of course, doesn't mean the topic is off-limits. Plus, if Hollywood is serious about cultivating diversity of perspective, then it needs to tell more stories that portray lesser-known walks of life on screen — including religious ones.

But Old Fashioned's problem isn't that it's telling a religious story. The biggest problem here is it's desperately trying to invalidate a secular one.

Not Fifty Shades of Grey

Just watch the film's trailer:

Perhaps the film's main selling point is that it's not Fifty Shades of Grey.

Mark Borde, co-president of Freestyle Releasing, the company distributing the picture, called Old Fashioned's marketing strategy a "counter-programming plan" to Fifty Shades. Producer Nathan Nazario acknowledged as much in a press release: "Going up against big-budget, blockbuster competition that offers a dark take on love, Old Fashioned puts romance and respect in the heart of relationships."

Borde even compared the box office fight between the two films to David and Goliath. And the numbers certainly bear this out. Since its February 6 release, Old Fashioned has brought in about $258,000. On its opening Friday alone, Fifty Shades pulled in over $30 million, making it the fourth highest opening night box office of any R-rated film ever, according to Box Office Mojo.

You get the feeling that Old Fashioned owes its entire existence to Fifty Shades of Grey. It's as if the Christian movie industry pays attention to mainstream cinema just long enough to see what it's up to, before raising funds to do slightly different versions of the same thing, only with less famous actors, more Jesus, and rocking chairs. (There are always rocking chairs.)

Any person even vaguely familiar with Evangelical subcultures will recognize the trend of copying and sanitizing whatever pop culture is doing. This trend belies a certain impulse within Evangelical Christians to separate the entire world into two categories: sheep and goats, wheat and chaff.

A good deal of contemporary Christian art is predicated on the sacred/secular divide: As Christian film critic Alissa Wilkinson noted, "Christians, and evangelicals in particular, have been really, really prolific in making pop culture products that parallel what's going on in mainstream cultural production."

To illustrate this point, Wilkinson references a poster many '90s Evangelicals will remember quite well: the "If you like that you'll love this" chart. The chart features two columns. The first reads, "If you like that." It contains the names of secular bands. The second reads, "You'll love this." It contains — you guessed it — Christian bands with similar, if sanitized, sounds.

If the chart were around today, it might say "If you like YouTube, you'll love GodTube," or "If you like Twitter, you'll love Gospelr." Or "If you like — and/or abhor — S&M sex, then you'll love this movie about chastity." These artistic replacements are intended to satisfy the Christian's cravings for the secular, harmful version.

The end result is that the Christian product seems like a knock-off, a cheap alternative.

It isn't problematic that Christians "borrow ideas" from Hollywood and put their own spin on them. Every film genre does this. But given the Christian doctrine of creation, it is certainly surprising that so many Christian filmmakers — and artists in general — would choose to mimic someone else's vision, rather than cultivate their own.

It's surprising because, in Christian theological terms, God is not the one who makes knock-offs. In the opening chapters of the Bible, God creates the universe, and he tells Adam and Eve to enjoy it all — except for that one tiny tree over there. It's Satan who comes along with a counterfeit offer: What did God really say? Did he really give you true freedom? He may have given you a garden, but I'll give you an apple. If you like that, you'll love this.


Elizabeth Roberts and Rik Swartzwelder. (Skoche Films)

What makes a movie Christian?

Often for Christian consumers of art, the question isn't "Is this artwork Christian?" Instead, it becomes, "Is it Christian enough?" That enough is often what makes something "A Christian Thing." That enough is what takes a cultural artifact from the realm of the secular to the sacred.

In Eyes Wide Open, a book that sets out to articulate a theological take on pop culture, evangelical William D. Romanowski traces the enough impulse to Evangelical responses to popular singer Amy Grant. In the mid-80s, Grant achieved a fame virtually unheard of in Christian music.

For many Christians, writes Romanowski, it was a "dream come true" to have one of their own make it that big. However, he argues, when Grant began to abandon explicitly Christian lyrics in favor of ones focused on romance, many Christians became uneasy and were forced to reconsider their paradigm for Christian art. Was Amy Grant enough of a Christian singer?

The fact that Grant resisted easy categorization prompted discussion and debate. She defied the strict sacred/secular bifurcation. Of course, the only difference between "Christian" Grant and "secular" Grant was the lyrics. Christian art, the logic went, is Christian art only if it explicitly communicates its Christian-ness.

So a Christian movie is a Christian movie if it states forthrightly the beliefs of the filmmaker. The communication of those beliefs is the most important thing. Everything else — including most categories of filmmaking artistry that, say, critics would primarily care about — is secondary, helpful only insofar as it helps the filmmaker win more non-Christians to the faith.

The goal, in other words, isn't to make a movie. The movie is only the vehicle for achieving the goal. The real goal is engaging and converting secular culture.

The gift vs. wrapping paper

As Daniel Siedell, Art Historian in Residence at The King's College in New York City, notes, "For [Evangelical Christians], culture is a tool, a more effective way of getting at political realities, or winning the battle of ideas in the public arena."

Siedell uses the following analogy with his students to explain what he means.

Imagine a gorgeously wrapped gift sitting under a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. The presentation of the package, while pretty, is nowhere near as valuable as what's inside.

Now, he says, extend that idea to Christian art. The artistic qualities of a work become the unnecessary wrapping paper. As such, it doesn't really matter how good or bad they are.

That's why it doesn't matter that Old Fashioned is often very boring. It doesn't matter that the script bursts at the seams with overwrought dialogue, or that the actors (outside of lead actress Elizabeth Roberts) offer phoned-in performances.

Director, writer, and lead actor Rik Swartzwelder might bear some of the blame here. After all, his resume, like many others in the Christian film industry, seems notably paltry. A good deal of what actors and directors know about their trade comes from on-the-job training, from working on set and in production studios under filmmakers with decades of experience. By isolating themselves from Hollywood, Christian filmmakers are passing up not only on "secular messages," but on the mentoring that other budding talent are receiving.

As a result, Old Fashioned, rife with cliché, feels forced and unnatural at every turn. Even Amber — seemingly having read a screenwriting book or two — points out that Clay's lofty discussions of love seem so "on the nose." What critics might note as a flaw is seen, by much of the film's core audience, as the whole point. The phrase "on the nose" usually connotes directly expository, even sermonizing dialogue, spoken unrealistically by the characters. But if you're looking for a sermon in your art, as many Christian audiences are, "on the nose" becomes the reason the art exists.


Rik Swartzwelder. (Skoche Films)

There's an old maxim in Hollywood that goes, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." Embedding explicit takeaways in film is something that bedevils some of the worst films out there, regardless of whether or not they're religious. Sending a message is usually a good way to create a bland, boring mess.

Brian Godawa, Christian screenwriter, thinks it's important to note that Christian films aren't the only ones that are explicitly preachy. All films, says Godawa, "have messages to some degree or another, and writers and directors know full well they're embodying those messages in their storytelling."

But even if Hollywood films do contain embodied messages, they're not always as explicitly drawn out as they are in Christian movies. That's because, says Godawa, many Evangelical Christians, who are people of the Good Book, have come to value words over images. "They don't know how to embody their messages in the story," he says. "They have to hear the literal words [of the Gospel]."

As with the bifurcation between sacred and secular, so, too, do contemporary Christian artists divide form and content, believing that what a piece of art says is of infinitely more importance than how it says it. The thing communicated is more urgent than how it's communicated.

Of course, this perspective overlooks the fact that how a thing is communicated is the thing that's being communicated. To put it in Marshall McLuhan's terms, "The medium is the message." That is, when you communicate an idea through the medium of film, the aesthetic quality of the film subsumes the idea, fundamentally altering its narrative shape.

For example: in the theology of Old Fashioned, chastity is praised as an original virtue, and loveless hookups are scorned as the perversion of it. However, this particular message of the film falls flat for the sheer fact that the entire film is a knock-off of an original film.

In other words, the content of Old Fashioned is at odds with its form: It's difficult to see the sex in Fifty Shades as a cheap knock-off of godly sex, when Old Fashioned is itself a cheap knock-off.

When greatness is a sin

But if what you really want out of a film is to see a particular message conveyed, then it's possible to excuse poor filmmaking quality as, to use Siedell's image, simply less decorative wrapping paper.

A scene in Old Fashioned illustrates this nicely. During one of their heart to hearts, Clay tells Amber how he came to run an antique store. He says that once "Jesus found him" in his senior year of college, he had a change of heart, which ended up drastically altering his life's goals. So, asks Amber, "What do you want out of life?"

"To be decent," he answers. "That's it. A good person."

Granted, he adds, his goals aren't heroic, nor are they ambitious. "I guess I just wasn't destined for greatness," he says.

"I think the world has enough greatness," Amber reassures him. "Not enough goodness."


Elizabeth Roberts and Rik Swartzwelder. (Skoche Films)

The brief exchange stands almost as an apology for both this movie and the entire Christian film industry. Where Hollywood (in this analogy, at least) strives for artistic greatness; Christians try to be good. Hollywood wants to make masterpieces; Christians want to communicate good (i.e. explicitly Christian) messages.

But why does Old Fashioned place greatness and goodness in opposition the way it does? As any child who's ever prayed the familiar Christian mealtime prayer will tell you, God is both great and good at once. And in the Bible, God often seems interested in form and content. For example, according to the creation myth in Genesis, the trees God made are both "good for fruit and pleasing to the eye."

Old Fashioned, like many Christian films of late (see: God's Not Dead, Left Behind, Heaven is For Real), doesn't understand this marriage of content and form. As a result, the lessons at the heart of the story — i.e., the whole reason the film exists in the eyes of its core audience — are easily dismissed by the secular masses the film is ostensibly meant to reach. This is the irony of the Christian film industry: movies that appeal mostly to Christians are marketed as if capable of bringing sinners to repentance.

Plenty of artists of faith cultivate their own aesthetics and tell stories that reflect their deeply held beliefs. Terrence Malick, whose films grapple with the complicated relationship of God to man, comes to mind. But too many Christian artists keep one eye fixed on secular pop culture, while the other looks sentimentally at the art they're making. That means a lack of focus is perhaps inevitable.

One remedy to this might be an apocryphal anecdote attributed to Martin Luther. After a cobbler converted to Christianity, he asked the German theologian how he could be a good Christian cobbler. Luther responded, "The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship."

The answer, then, might not be in striving to convey the message most full of surface-level goodness but, rather, in pushing for artistic greatness. Then, once form and content emerge in harmony, can barriers be broken down and conversation begin.

Because really: no one likes a poorly made shoe.

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