Faith on Film

I’ve heard people bemoan that there aren’t more good Christian films, or perhaps that Christian films are just no good at all. This will very possibly come from someone who has suffered through God’s Not Dead, amongst my least favourite films I’ve ever seen, or something similar. As you may be aware, God’s Not Dead tells the story of a Christian student who, upon enrolling in a philosophy class in his first year of university, is mandated by his professor to sign a declaration that God is dead before he can continue with the class. Of course, our protagonist does not accept these terms, and the debate is on to prove once and for all whether God is dead or is surely alive. It will come as no surprise I’m sure, that it concludes with the existence of God in no doubt and with a last-minute conversion from the villainous atheist professor. Its many other objectional elements aside, its villainisation of various groups (atheists, Muslims and journalists for example), its tenuous claim to be based on true events, its insistence to drive a wedge and create a clear ‘us’ and ‘them’, there is something quite unappealing about the very closed messaging of the film. I’m not saying anything new here about God’s Not Dead, a film that despite finding commercial success and being embraced by its intended audience has been widely and thoroughly criticised ever since its release.  

It is, however, only the tip of the iceberg of many such films successfully catering to an American evangelical audience, a small but lucrative audience consistently showing up for small films that make steady returns. Despite an unsurprising political move in recent years (God’s Not Dead’s own sequels, which I have not seen, seem to have shifted by now to fighting against government involvement in homeschooling and an upcoming film about the pastor character running for congress?!) there have been a steady stream of films such as War Room, Heaven Is For Real, Miracles From Heaven and Facing the Giants…) giving such inspiring and confirming messaging as God’s Not Dead. Of course, there is an obvious commercial incentive towards this approach to such stories, but even aside from this as an approach to faith, it also feels like a rather uninteresting approach to film, or to art more broadly.  

I remember from my studies as a film student coming across an idea from John Fiske, an influential writer on television, of ‘producerly texts’: that is texts (a text in film/media/cultural studies is not just something written, but rather whatever the object of study is: film, painting, performance, a set of practices, a Tweet, etc.) that leave a number of loose ends which are open to new meaning through their audience. The opposite of this openness would be the ultimate of closed texts – propaganda – which seeks to limit the possibilities of interpretation down to just one. Whilst seeking not to be too harsh and pejorative (I can understand the desire for reassurance and comfort from time to time) this second approach seems to much more closely describe the films discussed above. What would God’s Not Dead be without a clear message that God is, in fact, not dead? The filmmakers surely do not want threads of doubt or ambiguity to offer a different reading, even if I have felt that, reading against the grain, the film poses its own cinephile’s problem of evil; why would a good God allow themself to be represented by such a horrible film? 

Reflecting on why I love film as much as I do, I am sometimes drawn to the idea that watching a film can in some way be a guided meditation of sorts. Some prefer the language of watching a film as a conversation, but either way, the filmmaker brings what they have to offer, and you bring yourself, along with your ideas, experiences, opinions, emotions. And so it is with all art; viewing a painting, listening to music, reading literature and poetry. Giving my attention to a film for two hours or so I am directed in my thoughts and made to consider something and to move back and forth with the film and my own thoughts and experience.  

Of course, there are different types of films and filmmaking that are more or less suited to this way of thinking, but one aspect it requires is this level of producerly openness, some ambiguity, or (dare I say it) doubt. These films that are so concerned with a closed, certain message are defeated by their own anxiety of what the audience might bring. Rather it often seems to be filmmakers with a more complicated relationship with faith who produce films with more to offer a viewer. To take some examples from recent years, see Silence from Martin Scorsese, who variously seems to describe himself as a Catholic or a lapsed Catholic depending on when he’s asked. Through the story of two undercover Jesuit missionaries facing persecution in 17th century Japan, Scorsese faces up to the role of Christianity in colonialism and the seeming silence of God in the face of suffering, whilst still offering a hope in faith. First Reformed, from writer-director Paul Schrader who was raised in a strict Calvinist setting he now rejects, follows a priest’s growing awareness of the climate crisis, the conflict of what his place in it is to be, and whether there is any hope in it. Thirdly, in a more commercial example, Noah, from atheist filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, throws a strict following of the Biblical account to the wind to probe into the relationship between God and humanity and to bring to the fore environmental ideas about our duty of care for the Earth. This is a fairly narrow selection, but by allowing that spread of ambiguity, of their own questioning and exploration of it, we too are invited in to bring to the table our faith, our questions, our doubts, and join in the exploration together. 

Written by Michael Dickinson. Michael studied Film at Falmouth University, and is a trustee of the Student Christian Movement.