‘Film heaven’ says Rev Dr George Hargreaves
Most Christian films are testimony films, like Miracles From Heaven or the new film I Am Not Ashamed (due out in October 2016) which is based on the journal of the first student to be killed in the Columbine High School massacre. Other films are based on real life events such as the cases portrayed in the God’s Not Dead films. Testimony is a crucial factor in why Christian films are so great for the Church and for evangelism.
There is tremendous spiritual power in testimonies. Scripture tells us that, ‘They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony’ (Revelation 12:11). These films are not just entertaining movies; they are weapons of spiritual warfare.
The major reason why these films are so important is that people get saved through them. I have personally witnessed salvations at screenings. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons for the growth of pop-up cinema in churches.
Christian films follow Jesus’ example of telling faith-initiating and faith-building stories. Films are the most powerful way of storytelling known to man and storytelling is the most effective method of transmitting truth, ideas, values, history and knowledge. That’s why Jesus told stories. We know them as parables, but they were simply stories that conveyed the message and brought many to faith.
Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino has claimed that ‘cinema is the new church’. While I do not agree, I understand where he’s coming from. French comedian Laurent Lafitte, master of ceremonies at this year's Cannes Film Festival asserted, in his opening speech, that cinema is ‘an individual [the director] speaking to the world.’ Clearly Tarantino sees the movie screen as a pulpit - a place from which he and other directors can speak to the world.
As Christians we too are called to speak to the world. Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’ (Mark 16:15) So if cinema allows you to speak to the world – tell stories to the world - then it stands to reason that it is an excellent tool for preaching the gospel. J. Arthur Rank, the Methodist Sunday school teacher from Reigate certainly agreed. He asked: ‘Why should not the cinematograph be adapted for church needs?’ (Burnett, 1934:15)
Within five years of asking that question J. Arthur Rank built Pinewood Studios (the studio where they now make Star Wars and James Bond movies) and had clergymen open the studio in prayer. Within ten years he was the most powerful man in the British film industry and remained so for the next two decades. God honoured his belief in ‘cinema for Christ’.
Christian films aren't just good for the Church and for evangelism. They’re great!
Rev Dr George Hargreaves is an Oxford trained theologian and anthropologist. He is Chief Executive of The Christian Cinema Charitable Trust and CEO of Kingdom Cinema Equipment Ltd.>
‘Second-rate cinema’ says Nick Pollard
‘Faith-based’ films make money; especially in the USA where vast numbers of church members buy tickets and pack cinemas. But are they good for mission, especially in the increasingly secularised UK where we need to reach those who never go near a church?
The church is called to model our mission on Jesus. The book of Acts begins by referring to ‘all that Jesus began to do and teach.’ Why that word ‘began’? Because Jesus now continues his ministry through his body, the Church, which follows what he did and taught. Jesus welcomed outsiders, particularly those who were alienated by the religious establishment. He taught in parabolic stories rather than linear propaganda. He answered questions with questions rather than delivering tracts. He respected the integrity of the listener rather than driving them to a decision.
We can model ourselves on Jesus by helping those outside the Church to reflect on spiritual questions openly and explicitly raised by many of the mainstream popular films that they watch. But I think there are serious questions to be asked about some ‘faith-based’ films, particularly with the impending release of two quasi-sequels (both of which may lead to ongoing film franchises), God’s Not Dead 2 and Miracles from Heaven. Will these films help us to follow Jesus’ model of mission?
Much has been written about the caricatures of atheists in the original God’s Not Dead. Certainly, from my experience of leading over 60 University and College missions, all of which included public dialogues with atheists on campus, I didn’t recognise the one-dimensional characters in the film, which I fear could drive people further away from faith.
Similarly, with Miracles from Heaven, much has been written about the ‘heaven tourism’ genre where people claim to come back from heaven to tell their tale (with a lucrative book contract). Many have raised questions about the differences between the ‘heaven’ they claim to have lived in and the distant visions of heaven glimpsed by Isaiah and Ezekiel, plus the fact that no resuscitated biblical character tells of any experience in heaven.
Of course ‘faith-based’ films can, by God’s grace, reach some people. But is this the best way of engaging with cinematic art and reaching most people in our culture?
The actor and writer Rob Lacey, who was part of my mission team for many years before he died, famously said ‘good art makes you feel so much you can’t help but think.’ The first line of the Bible is ‘In the beginning God created…’ Before the Bible-reader knows anything else about God, we know that he is creative. And we, as his image-bearers, are called to be creative.
I, for one, am delighted to continue to help people engage with good cinematic art, and through this to help them seek the great artist who created the heavens and the earth. But I have serious doubts about the artistic integrity and missional value of some of the current raft of ‘faith-based’ films.
Nick Pollard is co-founder of EthosEducation.org which publishes free educational resources to help young people engage with popular feature films in order to develop a greater understanding of themselves, their community and the world around them, and to explore the Bible’s teaching about contemporary issues.