“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” John 12:46
As a Christian who aspires to write about movies for a wide audience, Jesus’ words in John hold special resonance for me. Like humanity’s endless struggle between good and evil, the movies offer a powerful interplay between light and dark. In a movie theater, we may sit in darkness for a time, but the light of the projector lifts us up out of the darkness. This interplay of light and shadow is especially powerful for the Christian who desires to write about film.
Thus, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s essay “Confessions of a Christian Film Critic” comes to me as something of a revelation. It’s a candid, honest, and reflective account of what it means to be a follower of Christ and a lover of movies, and the challenges of writing for a secular audience.
But, as the great religion writer Terry Mattingly, a mentor and former professor of mine, points out, this is the confession of a liberal Christian film critic, specifically, an Episcopalian. Mattingly asks what the same essay would look like if it were written by a conservative religious believer. As someone who hails from the non-denominational evangelical tradition, I thought I would attempt to answer that question. Join me as I explore a response by, of course, asking more questions (Jesus did a lot of that), looking to areas in which I agree with Ms. Hornaday as well as points of contention.
HONESTY IS SUCH A LONELY WORD
I believe that God can speak through both secular and religious filmmakers to deliver messages of great power and truth. I also believe that God’s presence can be completely absent from a movie; film can be used for great evil as well as great good. Hornaday certainly believes this too, but, as a respected journalist, she is careful to never let her biases alienate her readers.
She describes “the journalistic habit of not allowing my personal biases to surface, thereby inappropriately using my work as a religious platform and alienating those readers who don’t share my faith or have no faith at all. Those individuals have every right to read a movie review or essay without feeling sermonized, excluded or disrespected.”
The most important aspect of a critic’s work is honesty. And I believe there are times where a Christian critic must speak out against something he/she finds reprehensible or antithetical to God, even if it might end up excluding some readers. That would involve letting at least some personal biases come to light. A recent example is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (which Hornaday was not a fan of either). Although not one of Scorsese’s best, the movie is well made. But, the film’s glamorous depiction of sex and drug use gave me a headache. Christians are often called to turn away from the things of this world, and I certainly was turned away by this movie. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I was not a believer, but I am; how can I ignore a “personal bias” when it changes my entire perception of a film’s quality? Of course, this doesn’t explain my undying love for films like Pulp Fiction and A Clockwork Orange. I admit my religious protestations are not always consistent. But honest critics may find it difficult to separate their religious worldview from how they felt about a film; and that’s exactly as it should be.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
I greatly admire Hornaday’s increasingly strong—and very Christian— stance against senseless violence:
“As a student of film history, I know that violence is a long-standing, even essential element of cinematic grammar and audience catharsis; as a Christian, I find it increasingly difficult to accept portrayals of brutality that are glib, meaningless, played for laughs or cynically nihilistic.”
That list of movies would be pretty darn long. Hornaday feels drawn to a higher standard in calling out senseless violence. The late great Roger Ebert, who viewed film through his culturally Catholic lens, did the same, ripping apart positively reviewed blood fests like Kick-Ass and The Raid. But can a Christian still enjoy the impeccable craft of a Tarantino film? Can we detach ourselves from their voyeuristic bloodletting? I imagine Hornaday (and certainly Roger Ebert) might be more accepting of an equally brutal Coen Brothers film like No Country for Old Men (although fellow Post critic Stephen Hunter was not a fan). Do we puritanically judge movies by their level of violence, or whether that violence serves some sort of artistic statement that we find palatable? What about sexual content?
I’m not sure I have an answer, because film is such a subjective experience. A film we might never expect to move us might leave us in tears, and we may take offense over a movie we expected to love. Again, there’s no rhyme or reason to how we may respond to violence in one context, but not in another.
FOR YOU ALWAYS HAVE THE POOR
But how do we respond to movies that reflect the concerns of this world through a godly lens? Hornaday writes:
“I’m constantly on the lookout for films that lift up our capacities for connection and mutual understanding — not as sentimental, schoolmarmish morality plays, but as an artist’s genuine healing response to a broken and confused world. Anything that seeks to honor or nourish or at least acknowledge our fumbling, feeble, quietly heroic attempts to help get each other through the heartbreak and suffering of life will always earn at least a nod of gratitude from me.”
This gets a big “amen” from me. There are some great secular films out there that Christians will likely be especially drawn to, as they provide a unique perspective in confronting human brokenness. They might even spur religious viewers toward missionary work or other ways of serving and reaching the world’s poor. Films like Blood Diamond or The Year of Living Dangerously are rich experiences for any viewer, but may hold special power for those who identify with Christ’s tremendous passion for the poor. The former devolves into typically showy Hollywood displays of violence, but the latter has a great deal to say about the topic. Take character Billy Kwan’s reflection on how to respond to suffering: “What then must we do? We must give with love to whoever God has placed in our path.” It is in responding to films like these that Christians can add their unique, necessary voices.
Hornaday’s liberal Christian tradition leads her toward a more hands-off approach when it comes to mixing her faith and her criticism. After all, she wouldn’t want to offend anyone. But it should be noted that the cross of Christ is sometimes very offensive, and it will clash with mainstream culture as often as it will mesh. Abhorring senseless violence or glorification of sinful behavior, while also admiring art that calls us to a higher purpose, should be a goal of every good critic. But it should hold special consideration for the Christian critic. Hornaday gets all that right. But her goal of masking that consideration in “language having to do with humanism, transcendence and cosmic mystery” strikes me as a bit false. A critic should not only describe how he/she feels about a work of art, but why. If Hornaday’s faith is the impetus behind her opinions, she should say so. Such a response transcends “objectivity” and reaches higher to the critic’s main goal: honesty. Honesty from a Christian critic can help lift us out of the darkness, not unlike bathing in the light of the silver screen.
Read about my take on more specifically Christian Hollywood fare.