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Why Aren't Christian Movies More Popular?


Low budget, independent Christian movie producers are angling to move from the DVD-only doldrums to the big screen. This has been an uphill struggle ever since the blockbuster success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, according to this report in the WSJReligion-themed books do well in the marketplace. What accounts for the failure, aside from outliers like The Passion, of religious-themed movies to hit it big at the box office?

Part of the answer is of course quality. A good Christian movie has to be first and foremost a good movie, and making good movies isn’t easy. Christians certainly aren’t doing themselves any favors in this regard by hiring politicians rather than artists to lead studios.

There have been some critically acclaimed spiritually themed movies lately—Of Gods and Men comes to mind, as does Terrence Malick’s corpus (Both Of Gods and Men and Tree of Life won the Golden Palm at Cannes). But these movies aren’t exactly the kinds of films designed to bring the masses to the movies and rake in the money at the box offices.

Perhaps part of the reason for this is that Christian movies are hard to categorize. Historically, religious bestsellers (and they have been legion) cut across many different genres: simple stories told clearly and simply about ordinary lives transformed by encounters with God, the adventures of great heroes of faith whether from the Bible or other sources, works of fiction that present spiritual themes in either heroic or apocalyptic dimensions. JRR Tolkien’s extraordinary fantasy trilogy was (and still is) considered one of the greatest works of Christian fiction in the 20th century, and while the films don’t exactly dwell on the profoundly Christian spirit that informs every line of the story, they don’t exorcise that spirit either. So the fact that “Christian movies” haven’t been reaching blockbuster status doesn’t mean that movies whose inner logic or vision is shaped by faith haven’t achieved plenty of success.

Stretching our understanding of what constitutes a Christian movie might go along way to resolving the apparent disconnect between popular Christian books and unpopular movies, but it’s also true that there’s an unclaimed ground between highbrow works by figures like Malick and popular-yet-subtly Christian works like Lord of the Rings. Our troubled times need all the help they can get, and claiming that ground is important part of answering that need. Let’s hope the rising generation will bring a new wave of great Christian art to the moviegoing masses.

[Image of Movie Theater from Shutterstock]

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  • Andrew Allison

    I fear that Prof. Mead’s religious beliefs have led him astray again. That the “Lord of the Rings” and, I might add, for example, “Star Wars”, exhibit Christian values of good and evil doesn’t make them Christian. These themes are ubiquitous and to ascribe them to Christianity is, at best, unwarranted. Which is not, I hasten to add, to attack Christianity.
    The reason that Christian movies are not, in general, popular is self-evident: most don’t appeal to a wide audience.

    • rheddles

      And most of the audience they would appeal to has stopped going to movies.

      The DVD only doldrums don’t seem like a bad place for an underground anti-establishment movement like Christianity to be. The media business is moving rapidly. Netflix a major content producer?

      • Corlyss

        “And most of the audience they would appeal to has stopped going to movies.”

        Perhaps the kiddie movies monopolize that crowd. I know you can’t get good movies here in Cache Valley for all the theaters catering to kids and families with kids. If I want to see a good adult movie, I have to go either to Ogden or SLC, which often means I don’t see them until they come out on dvd.

    • USNK2

      Perhaps Mr. Mead is confusing Tolkien’s trilogy with C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series?

      Tolkien’s core source was Norse mythology, which was also (Radical Socialist) William Morris’s source when he created the genre of heroic fantasy in the 1890’s after his utopia “News From Nowhere”, written as rebuttal to Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”.

      (Sorry, I have studied both authors for decades, and never saw any Christian anything.)

      The problem for actual Christian films is the weird attacks in the USA.
      “Amazing Grace” was a fine biopic film about Wilberforce’s Evangelical crusade to end slavery, but there was a boycott in the USA because of the producers, and it depicted Evangelicals in a positive way.

      • Andrew Allison

        I thought about including C. S. Lewis, but decided it would be redundant. The values to which he and Tolkien subscribe in their writings predate by Centuries their shared Christianity (and friendship). I suspect that we are in agreement that Christianity adopted, rather than invented, most of its underlying principles.

      • Corlyss

        “(Sorry, I have studied both authors for decades, and never saw any Christian anything.)”

        Were you looking for it? Or studying it for some other reason?

        • USNK2

          I loved reading all of William Morris’s heroic fantasy novels when they were in print forty years ago, and Tolkien was also re-issued for the Woodstock generation.
          And never once thought any of it was more influenced by Christianity than the more obvious sources of Norse and Anglo-Saxon epics & mythology.
          My favorite Tolkien species are the Ents, a bit of Druid tree-worship reference.
          Mr. Mead is an intellectual. I am not.

          • Corlyss

            I’m certainly not an intellectual either. I’m much too lazy to be anything but a pseudointellectual.

  • Matt B

    Tolkien was a Christian, and his faith informed his fiction. Austen, Dickens and Dostoyevsky are other authors whose Christianity pervades their work, which can be considered great Christian fiction even if the Gospel is never explicitly referenced.
    That’s my problem with modern fiction; you can find cynical secularism, sappy pantheism, or proselytizing Christian goop that is as subtle as a 2×4 to the head. There is an audience for mature Christian fiction, but clearly a lack of mature Christian artists ( and investors).

  • Corlyss

    The Soldiers and Saints movies seem to do well. There’s another from the same producers cuing up to show soon: The Saratov Approach. Soldiers and Saints was a thrilling true story about a handful of survivors of the Malmedy massacre and their escape to American lines. I certainly agree they have to be good stories first.

  • lukelea

    I’d settle for movies that celebrate Western history where it deserves to be celebrated instead of presenting a Manichean world view of Good vs. Evil with a lot of violence and female nudity thrown in.

    • USNK2

      Gary Cooper “Sergeant York”

      so much of all history IS about war, not peace.

    • Corlyss

      Gosh. What would be left to call out the heroic in man without Good vs. Evil, Us vs. Them? Even sports are modeled on that kind of primeval struggle. Not really a lot of the Joseph Campbell Hero Quest without it.

      My favorite movies lodge firmly in the Code era [except for movies where Kurt Russell removes his shirt]. The dialogue was snappier, the women were prettier and better dressed, the men looked more like men than old juveniles and they dressed like responsible adults, they both worked at good responsible jobs, the sexual tension was expressed thru more subtle means than everyone jumping into bed with everyone else ll the time, nobody vomited or urinated on screen, and there weren’t a lot of teen-angst/substance abusing adults searching for themselves to clutter up the dramatic impulse. I spend a lot of time listening to old time radio where many of those same characteristics were on display and the pictures are in your head.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Funny that you mention Kurt Russell. My favorite movie of his is one he did with Robin Williams called “The Best of Times”, a fun comedy with a deeply moving subtext about redemption.

        • Corlyss

          I can’t decide whether Capt. Ron or Overboard is my favorite movie of all time. I know – I’m irredeemably shallow. I like a lot of others for a variety of reasons, but those two make me laugh out loud and Capt. Ron has some great set ups, like the argument between Russell and Short about guerillas as opposed to gorillas, and the glass eyeball, and the one about how much gas they have to get them to their destination. I’ll look for The Best of Times.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Overboard is one that I love…but I suppose that I am a hopeless romantic…
            Captain Ron is absolutely a riot…though I must admit for me that it is Martin Short who makes that film…Kurt Russell seems to be sleepwalking through most of it…

          • Corlyss

            I think “sleepwalking” was supposed to be the essence of the character – a little older version of Wayne’s World’s Garth, brain slowed by years of drugs and alcohol and no responsibility.

          • f1b0nacc1

            If so, he did it well…

  • free_agent

    I’ve read that due to the dynamics of word-of-mouth publicity, it’s hard for a mainstream (big budget) movie to be successful unless it does well with American theatre audiences, which are dominated by young people. Thus, e.g., all movies must have a romance line so as to be acceptable as date movies.

    In that context, it’s possible that fully Christian themes are unsaleable, since much of the tenor of Christianity is controlling the taste for sex and violence among young adults, which would prevent them from being gratifying fare for audiences of young adults.

  • Gage

    Yes low budget may be a reason and it doesn’t appeal especially to the youth but I think there are still a lot of good Christian movies being shown.

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