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Dec15TueBooth University College professor Michael Boyce reflects on the success of Christian movies and why good art matters. December 15, 2015 Interview by Kristin Ostensen
This September, a Christian film called War Room was number 1 at the box office, and has since gone on to become the top-grossing independent evangelical Christian movie ever in North America. Soon after the film's release, associate editor Kristin Ostensen spoke to Michael Boyce, head of English and film studies at Booth University College in Winnipeg, about the popularity of such Christian films and why creativity is important.
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
Why have War Room and films like it, such as God's Not Dead and Courageous, been so successful?
Evangelical Christians have become very savvy about marketing films. It started with The Passion of the Christ in 2004—the production company actually screened it early for pastors, and educated them about the importance of opening weekends and how box-office success relates to the longevity of a film in the theatre. Many Christians are looking for films that inspire and elevate their beliefs, while others are looking for alternative forms of entertainment that they don't see in regular movies.
Despite their success with audiences, these films have not been popular among critics.
I think the reason that they've been panned is that most Christian films tend to be too didactic. They're trying to get the audience to accept a certain world view, and so they sometimes function more like propaganda. The plots are predictable and the characters feel two-dimensional.
Why is there this divide between Christian audiences and film critics?
I think there has been a real suspicion within the Christian church toward art because art, at its best, is open to multiple interpretations and challenges viewers about what they think. It's comfortable with ambiguity; it's not black and white; it's not pushing one answer.
Some Christians might take issue with your criticisms of faith-based films, noting that they encourage people in their faith.
I know lots of people are going to be touched by these films and I'm not saying that nobody should see them. One of the questions I'm asking is, Who are these movies for? If they're trying to reach people who are outside the church or Christianity, I don't think they're going to do that. I think we always need to engage critically with whatever's presented to us. The Apostle Paul tells us that we need to test everything, whether it's good or bad, and I'm not going to give a free pass to something just because it says it's Christian. To be respected in the artistic world, Christian artists need to be good artists.
What are some key criteria you use when judging films?
Broadly speaking, I look at story and technical skill. For example, in terms of story, did I expect the plot to go in that direction? Is it doing something new? Is the acting good? Are the characters fully realized? And in terms of the technical aspects of moviemaking, I ask questions like, How is it shot? How are the scenes composed? Has the filmmaker used distance and spatial relationships effectively?
Can you give me some examples of films that meet your criteria, and would also appeal to Christians?
The one that immediately comes to mind is Calvary. It's a difficult film—it's gritty and raw—but it's brilliant and beautiful and I love it. It's about a priest who is told in the confession booth that he is going to be killed in seven days because he is a good priest, and then it follows the next seven days and how he chooses to continue to engage and serve a community that doesn't really respect him. It's not a Focus-on-the-Family-friendly film, but it asks challenging questions about the idea of the Christian life and what that means.
You bring up a good point—I think there's a lot of hesitancy around films that explore difficult themes, or include violence or sexual scenes. How can we approach films that may be good, but not family-friendly?
I think it can be helpful to watch those kinds of films in a community and dialogue afterward. If you watch something that upsets you, then you can talk about it. It's an excellent way to engage in more difficult material. But it's also important to know your own limitations—if you can't handle swearing and violence, it probably won't be fruitful for you to force yourself to watch things that are going to upset you. That might be more damaging.
Why should Christians care about consuming and producing good art?
I think art does something for the person responding to it and the person creating it. Creation is a deeply spiritual act. Christ is the Creator and, to me, as we emulate Christ and live as he lived, creativity is a part of that. Valuing creativity and honouring God, you should always try to consume the best the world has to offer.