Thursday, January 24, 2008

Principal Christian Films

I have said just about all that I have to say about the various candidates and, quite frankly, I'm tired of the horse-race commentary. I'm also at wit's end as to who the GOP should nominate--although, all things considered and on balance, I still incline toward McCain, taking into consideration character, policies and electability. At this point, I am happy just see who the collective wisdom of the Republican electorate will choose.

So I would like to return to the subject of film and ask for your input. What are the best "Christian" films? That is a more difficult question than "what are the best New York or political films?" New York is featured in a film or it is not. A film has an explicitly political theme or it does not. But what makes a film Christian?

There are films that have featured stories from the Bible. Gibson's The Passion of Christ is an recent one. The Greatest Story Ever Told was an earlier presentation of the gospel story. Campus Crusade for Christ's Jesus Film has had worldwide impact.

Some films that have featured Jesus Christ were blasphemous and thus not Christian at all. The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus Christ Superstar fall into this category. I think that Godspell is unintentionally blasphemous. In that film, Christ is unwisely depicted as some sort of clown, and so I would exclude it.

But I would also exclude the first three respectful treatments of the life of Christ because, standing in the historic Protestant and Reformed theological tradition as I do, I believe that any depiction of Jesus is distorting, misleading, idolatrous and thus blasphemous. (Westminster Larger Catechism Question 109: What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?) Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments is a film classic, but insofar as it introduces extrabiblical elements such as the love story, can it count as a great Christian film? The animated Prince of Egypt misrepresents Moses as being more concerned for his Egyptian adoptive brother than for the holiness of God and of his people, as I recall. Bible movies are problematic.

Don't bother mentioning Left Behind (bad film; bad eschatology) or It's a Wonderful Life (bad angelology).

I'm thinking along these lines:

Les Miserables (1935; Fredric March, Charles Laughton). The bishop's forgiveness scene is marvelous.

Sergeant York (1941; Gary Cooper)

Shadowlands (1994; Anthony Hopkins)

Luther (2003; Joseph Fiennes), although I have to view the 1973 Stacy Keach version, and review the 1953 Niall MacGinnis version.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005; Andrew Adamson dir.)

Amazing Grace (2006; Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney)

What about Gods and Generals (2003)?

What do you think? Can anyone help me here? Was there nothing appropriately Christian put into film between 1941 and 1994?


Shane Vander Hart said...

I really enjoyed Amazing Grace. That has to be one of my top choices, along with Narnia.

Luther was good... Gods and Generals was also good, but I wouldn't say it is the best.

I'm not so sure that I would lump an actor playing the role of Jesus - especially in the Jesus film where he is just reciting scripture as a violation of the 2nd commandment.

"You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down and serve them...," (Deuteronomy 5:8-9a, ESV).

I see where you are coming from, and I do not favor depictions of Christ in art mainly because of division that it has caused among racial lines. I'm still not sure that violates this command however since Jesus did come in human form.

The problem comes when it becomes a type of idolatry like for instance when somebody prays and the conjure in their mind a piece of art depicting Christ. Not okay.

By the way I consider myself a Reformed evangelical.

I personally avoid said art in my home, but I do appreciate the impact that the Jesus film and the Passion have had. I went to see the Passion and came away with a deeper appreciation for the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf.

I know not everyone feels the same way, and I think this has to be an issue that people in the Body will have to agree to disagree.

Richie said...

Dr. Innes,

The most subtly explicitly (you know what I mean) Christian movie I've seen in several years is The Great Raid (2005). I highly recommend it.

In the same vein, To End All Wars (2001) is excellent.

I am a little surprised that my favorite film, The Mission (1986) isn't on here.

Richie said...

The Great Raid (2005)
To End All Wars (2001)

and the best of all

The Mission (1986).

william said...

Perhaps it's too Catholic for this list, but I really enjoyed The Mission, from 1980. Jesuit priests try to help native South Americans build a Christian culture and come into conflict with the slave traders. They struggle with an appropriate response to a violent incursion on the part of the slavers. Strong performances, beautiful cinematography, powerful Morricone soundtrack.

I suspect that this list is not going to be a very long one. I enjoyed Luther and Amazing Grace, but I can't think of many others to add.

But is there any source material? How many great Christian novels have been written in the last three decades? I wonder if orthodox Protestants need to remember how to express their tensions in lower-intensity art forms, such as painting or novel-writing or poetry, before they move into film making.

David C. Innes said...

Shane, my agreement with the Westminster standards on this is based first on the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. If it were important to our piety and growth in Christ to use images of him (e.g. children's picture Bibles, flannel graph), God would have inspired an artist to give us an accurate picture of Christ. (He inspired artists in the adornment of the temple.) But he did not. But the Scripures provide us with everything that we need to know, worship and proclaim Christ.

Moreover, my position is based on the nature of the New Covenant. It is word-centered in character, focused on what the ear can hear, not image centered like the Old Covenant, focused on what the eye can see.

Yes, Christ came in the flesh, but what he left behind was not a picture but a doctrine, Scripture, a message to be preached. Pictures of Christ are inherently idolotrous. Aside from the fact that they are rarely Semitic in appearance (THAT is the ONLY important racial issue), they are always pictures of someone who is NOT CHRIST. It is a picture of a model or of an imaginary face.

But even though my posts have theological content, and from time to time I throw out theological positions, I don't want to go back and forth with people in Reformed theological debate. There are dozens of sites out there where people go around and around on these things.

Let me just point you to a little booklet published by Banner of Truth entitled Seeing Jesus.

David C. Innes said...

Thanks William and Richie. You really came through for me. I thought that The Mission was not Christian as much as it was Marxist liberation theology. But it has been many years since I saw it. I should see it again. I preferred The Black Robe. I will look up those other films. Shadowlands is another one that comes to mind.

The Left Behind series of novels brought this dearth of good Christian literature to my attention. We are left with Lewis and Geo. Macdonald on the one hand and Jeannette Oke on the other. Movies can't fill the void. William is right. Literature must come before cinema.