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02

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2013

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Why Are Christian Movies So Awful?

On 02, Mar 2013 | No Comments | In Featured, Stories | By admin

Just read an article at Salon.com called Why Are Christian Movies So Awful? It’s a review of the new movie Soul Surfer, which is based on the true story of a young Christian surfer who lost her arm, but was gutted of any theology by the producers.

One line from the review stuck out to me:

At the risk of offending many people in many different directions, Christian cinema reminds me of gay cinema. If, that is, gay cinema were permanently stuck in 1986, with a self-ghettoizing mandate to present positive role models for youth and tell an anodyne but uplifting story that sends a message of hope.

On the face of it, this is a curious turn of events. Whatever you want to say about Christianity as a system of thought or a force in history, you’ll have to admit that it has a pretty impressive record as a source of inspiration for artists and writers. But when we use the buzzword “Christian” in contemporary American society, we’re talking about a distinctively modern cultural and demographic phenomenon that has almost no connection to the spiritual and intellectual tradition that fueled Dante and Milton and Leonardo and Bach.

Christian movies will continue to be awful so long as Christian theology continues to be awful and shallow, as it has become in contemporary American Christianity. If Christians continue to be obsessed with “culture war” and are content with “a self-ghettoizing mandate to present positive role models and tell an anodyne but uplifting story that sends a message of hope” as a means of getting a leg up in that war, rather than making art that proclaims our multi-faceted God as He is revealed in Scripture, then we will never see great art like Bach’s on the big screen.

At least those were the thoughts kicking around in my head during the awards ceremony for 168

I echo O’Hehir’s closing line:

If I really had any faith in American pluralism and in my fellow human beings, I guess I would predict that someday soon Christian filmmakers will ramp up their craft and make much better movies than “Soul Surfer.” Does the Lord really want to be glorified by way of something that looks like an especially tame episode of “Baywatch”?

But digging a little deeper into why specifically Soul Surfer failed to inspire, it’s important to note that “Soul Surfer” was not a strictly Christian film. It was produced and written by unbelievers (actual Baywatch TV writers, btw) with the goal of reaching a mainstream as well as a Christian market. And there are seven credited writers. Of course, if you have unbelievers writing a movie about someone’s faith in their Savior, it’s going to be shallow. The problem with Soul Surfer is that any faith element was seen as obligatory, not as integrated necessity. Screenwriting Chairman at UCLA, Richard Walter explains:

Integration is an essential, elusive quality informing all creative expression. Integration transcends mere parts: tale, character, dialogue, and all the rest. Instead it embraces the whole picture… Integrate your whole picture and you can write anything at all. Indeed, if from beginning to end a screenplay is genuinely integrated, the writer can successfully do even nothing at all. (Essentials of Screenwriting, 14)

He gives several examples of how seemingly mundane scenes like drinking coffee can be engaging and essential if they are properly integrated. So the opening scene in Soul Surfer with the family happy-clappy at a church service on the beach, and all the other “faith” scenes, failed to entertain because they failed to integrate. But why did they fail to integrate?

Decades spent writing and teaching have taught me that writers’ own personal stories are the only story they should write. Principle 8: Whenever writers sit down before blank paper or glowing pixels, they should write their own personal story. Even if a writer attempts vigorously to do otherwise, even if he works on an assignment writing a script for hire based on someone else’s idea, even an idea totally alien to his experience, he will nonetheless end up telling nothing other than his own personal tale… If a writer fails to personalize her story, if she fails to make it her own unique tale, regardless of how well turned it may be it will nonetheless also be flat, hollow, heartless, pale, frail, upholstered, laminated, and not wholly human. Each and every movie explores only one and the same theme. Whatever else writers may think they’re writing about, in fact we all treat but a single subject: ourselves… Principle 13: Even if you do not know that you are writing your own personal story, that is what you are writing. Your own heart and your own hand make every script you write only that: your own.

He concludes:

Weave a crafty tale that is thoroughly integrated and personal; you’ll win audiences regardless of the picture’s context.

Soul Surfer failed to win audiences in the way it intended because it was not integrated and personal. The writers simply didn’t know what to do with this “faith” thing that was part of Bethany Hamilton. The Hamilton family made sure it was in the film, because it defines who they are, but the writers couldn’t integrate it because it was not their own story. Thus Soul Surfer presents “a positive role models for youth that tells an anodyne but uplifting story that sends a message of hope” but it fails to captivate.

Principle 9: Screenwriters must embrace authentic self-disclosure, no matter how painful, as the organizing principle of their movies.

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