Real Life Wins at the Box Office

Redemptive stories rooted in real life are captivating audiences on the silver screen, but can these films really be called ‘Christian’?

All great art starts with a story. The best art highlights raw, real stories that honestly navigate universal themes and allow audiences to insert themselves in the narrative. Most importantly, good stories make us feel something.

Since the dawn of Hollywood, movies have provided a few hours of escape from the “real world.” Yet, in recent days, the most revered movies of our time are inviting the “real world” into the theater. Many of the films nominated in the coveted “Best Picture” category at this year’s Academy Awards, including Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, and Lion, held redemptive undertones, often making the underdog the hero or the heroine. All tackled often-difficult (and, at times, taboo) topics that reflect larger, ongoing cultural discussions. None were labeled explicitly Christian, yet one could argue that many of the year’s most-celebrated films captured stories that support and uphold the tenants of Christianity.

“I find that so many non-Christian films are often more Christian than their specifically Christian counterparts because they tell stories about real brokenness and transformation, and the artists let those stories do the illuminating work,” observes Ryan Parker, author of Cinema as Pulpit and a regular blogger at poptheology.com. Parker works at Wit PR, where he spent the last year spearheading Christian marketing campaigns for some of 2016’s biggest blockbusters.

“We need to be honest that much of Christian filmmaking isn’t as good as it could be,” Parker asserts. “Non-Christian films are often, in my opinion, better because they’re more honest about the world we live in. They’re not afraid of portraying the grittier experiences of life. When Christian filmmakers refuse to address this honestly—or deeply—then the light they wish to shine becomes blinding and not illuminating.”

Since the grittiness of life isn’t always G-rated, many of the best-told redemptive stories coming out of La La Land today can’t be found at Christian retail, either because the major studios haven’t been interested or experienced in marketing to Christian consumers or the films aren’t labeled “safe for the whole family.”

Overtly Christian films—including War Room, God’s Not Dead 2, and Woodlawn—continue to dominate the best-seller list. Our industry has become astute at crafting movies that speak blatantly of faith, and the Christian community has been faithful to support these films both at the box office and at retail. However, could it be that Christians, and Christian retail, are missing out on the beauty of redemptive storytelling by limiting their scope to safe, tried-and-true titles?

These choices aren’t inherently wrong. Yet, there’s a whole big world out there full of compelling stories Christian retailers might consider. Perhaps it’s time to expand the definition of what constitutes a “Christian” film and challenge filmmakers of faith to step out of the Christian bubble and start making great art in the middle of Hollywood instead of on the outside looking in.

“CHRISTIAN ENOUGH”?

“People often make up their own mind about what makes a film a Christian film,” offers CBA’s newly appointed film commissioner, Kevin McAfee. “It’s important to have an underpinning of faith wherever you can in modern filmmaking, but there are many ways faith can be seen. Whether it is gently presented, or powerfully spoken, all have their unique place; and as Christ was evaluated in Mark 4:11, ‘Jesus was always found telling stories, gently nudging them toward receptive insight.’”

Christ Himself was the ultimate storyteller, often speaking in parables. “Jesus told compelling stories that connected with the times and places in which His audience lived,” adds Parker. “He was also using images that made, perhaps, more sense to His contemporaries than they do to us today.”

The best example of a modern-day parable comes in the form of recent blockbuster The Shack. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by William P. Young, The Shack boasted one of the strongest openings ever for a faith-based film when it bowed to $16.1 million in March, stealing the No. 3 spot at the box office. While controversial, particularly for its portrayal of the Trinity, it’s a potential goldmine for Christian bookstores that buy into the film’s family of products. The movie sent the book back to the top of The New York Times, ECPA’s, and CBA’s best-seller lists. The title has now sold 20 million copies and has been translated into 34 languages.

Meanwhile, The Shack: Music From and Inspired By The Original Motion Picture debuted at the top of Billboard’s Christian Albums chart despite a track listing that includes an eclectic mix of artists crossing genres from pop to country to Christian. Artists as diverse as Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum, Kelly Clarkson, and Hillsong UNITED, among others, all contributed original music to the soundtrack namely because of the film’s message—an overarching narrative of redemption, forgiveness, and grace.

“I wanted to be part of this movie because it speaks of hope into the darkest of hurts,” shares Darren Mulligan of We Are Messengers, whose contribution, “I’ll Think About You,” is the only actual song on the soundtrack to appear in the film. “The Shack is a wonderful opportunity to engage many in conversation about God at a time when popular culture often portrays Christianity as being irrelevant.”

While The Shack has been criticized as much as it’s been acclaimed, one thing is for sure: It doesn’t sugarcoat tragedy. In fact, it brings to light the fact that no one is immune to suffering, and that’s arguably why it’s resonated so strongly with believers and seekers alike.

“It doesn’t offer trite answers to the complex, painful reality that life can be,” offers Brad Cummings, the film’s producer.

BE INFORMED

Ultimately, Christian retailers must make the decision as to how wide and deep their in-store DVD selection will become. Yet, one thing is clear: Those who become students of the film genre at large and educate themselves on all types of media their consumers are digesting will be better equipped to make the most of the opportunities film provides.

“Christian store customers are engaging content beyond what’s on their shelves,” Parker says. “They might be supporting films like Fireproof or Courageous when they release in theaters or on DVD, but they’re also flocking to the latest Marvel blockbuster.”

Conversely, filmmakers of faith need to seize Hollywood’s current fascination with our market and step up to the plate with exceptional storytelling. “Filmmakers need to trust their audiences to be engaged with their stories without being beaten over the head with a message,” Parker maintains, “and to, perhaps, trust the Spirit to speak through their work.”

It all goes back to the stories that provoke thought, elicit emotion, and give viewers the opportunity to see themselves in the characters. “I am of the persuasion that the unsanitized, unvarnished, genuine, dare-to-be honest approach with the challenges, pain, and hurts of real life is where the Gospel actually shines the brightest and works the best,” Cummings says. “God crawls into the mess and desires to bring forth healing if we will let Him. He doesn’t need us to put any PR spin on that. Just be honest and real.”

Christian music faces many of the same dilemmas and challenges as Christian film. Explore the question of what defines Christian music at www.cbaonline.org/ChristianMusic.

Lindsay Williams

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