Can Secular Movies be Christian? Or Christian Movies Secular?

Preston Sprinkle —  March 29, 2011 — 15 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I raised this same question regarding music (see the post below), but the same sort of question can be raised with movies. A few years ago, a bunch of us at EBC went out to the movies and saw the Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood. All of us walked out of the theater and thought, “man, that had one of the most blatantly Christian themes of any movie in the last 10 years!” Eastwood plays a grouchy old racist war-vet named Walt, who is watching his once good-ole-white neighborhood be overrun by gangs and Hmong refugees. The whole story is carried along by strong redemptive undertones, and ends with Eastwood lying dead on his back with arms spread out in the shape of a cross and his body filled with bullets. His death redeemed others (the once hated Hmongs, in fact) from a death sentence; Eastwood’s death gave them new life. Quite honestly, the movie could be viewed as a simple modern-day exposition of Eph 2:11-22.

But the movie is filled with swearing and so many Christians are turned off by it. Now, personally, swearing in movies can be quite annoying, especially when it’s unnecessary. But in a way, the swearing in Gran Torino actually fits. It often surrounds the scenes where there are gang squabbles and other scenes where in real life we would expect the people to swear. A Christian movie director might choose to leave out the swearing, but this would raise the question of honesty and sin: would it be an honest portrayal of a bunch of gang bangers steeped in the muck and mire of a sinful world if they didn’t swear?

In any case, this raises another interesting question: should a movie be viewed by Christians if it has swearing, and yet also has a blatantly Christian theme? Or, to flip it around, can a movie truly be considered “clean,” if it has no swearing (or nudity, or drug scenes, etc.), but is driven by strong anti-Christian themes, such as the many sappy Romance flicks that totally skew the biblical definition of agape love, or movies like Gladiator, that are driven by that all too subtle theme of vengeance (contrast Rom 12)? Or, is it safe for my kids to watch movies like Cinderella, which cuts against the grain of a whole host of Christian values including materialism, a worldly view of beauty, and, again, a very wrong understanding of agape love? I suggest that we have a very narrow view of what constitutes “Christian” or at least what would qualify as a “safe” movie for Christians to watch. Most of the dangerous values promoted by Hollywood that are embedding themselves into the hearts and minds of Christians—I would argue—are not the taboo things like swearing, drug scenes, or witchcraft, but the more subtle yet captivating anti-Christian values like vengeance, conditional love, and materialism. It’s no wonder that the Evangelical church is so plagued with these sins (50% divorce rate?), even though they are relentlessly condemned in the Scriptures.

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Preston Sprinkle

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • http://www.catholicadventure.com/ maria

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  • Nick Knight

    Of course secular movies can be Christian. Check out this list: http://www.imdb.com/list/pBGlNZKG-y4/
    people who call themselves “Christian” need to begin opening their minds and changing their hearts. You all need to look beyond trivial things like “bad words” in films, and focus on the underlying message that the movies are trying to convey to you.

  • http://christiangirl3712.posterous.com HeatherEV

    I agree to an extent. On one hand, I personally do not like seeing movies with too much violence or anything like that, but on the other hand, I think that when we water it down, we miss one of the points of a movie, which would be to tell a story that people can relate to and put themselves in.

    A good Christian movie that came out last year that does a great job of capturing real life and still being wholly Christian was To Save A Life. Although it is for teens and is definitely a teen movie, it did a very good job of portraying what high school is truly like, even with the swearing, drugs, and parties. They didn’t water anything down and it made it relational. Had they done anything to make it more “cleaned up” then it would not have had nearly the impact it did.

    • preston

      I appreciate your honesty with the violence comment. And yes, I feel the same way to some extent; however, I wonder what it would look like if we made a movie out of the Bible–the Old Testament, in particular–and only used the words from Scripture as a the script (I’m thinking of Judges, Ezekiel, etc.). The movie would, of course, be rated “R” (at least), and would contain some of the most violent scenes that Hollywood could ever imagine.

      • http://www.intothisgrace.blogspot.com/ Liam Moran

        Preston,

        I agree with the above comment as well. Just take The Passion for example. I believe it was Roger Ebert who said it was the most violet movie he had ever seen.

      • http://christiangirl3712.posterous.com HeatherEV

        I definitely think it would be rated “R” at least…maybe even NC-17 for some particular scenes.
        But the violence in the Bible is not senseless or without purpose. It is recorded with a purpose. A lot of the violence (and other stuff that’s definitely worse) we see in movies nowadays is just put there to sell the movie. Sex scenes or showing blood and gore when they could get the point across another way are just to make money. And that annoys me.

  • Preston

    Liam,

    And yes, you’re correct. The title of my post does not quite capture the main point of the post; it was simply trying to connect the theme to my previous post.

  • Preston

    Liam,

    Nice to see you again so soon! And I appreciate your comments.

    One question to raise–not necessarily about your post, but as a side-note on this topic–is what does it mean for a movie to be “biblical” or “Christian.” (Grammatically and theologically, we could even question the use of the noun Christian as an adjective, since only people are called “Christian” in the Bible.) For instance, is it biblical to draw out the sinfulness of society? Or is it biblical to reveal the disgusting and complex nature of racism (as in the movie Crash)? Of course, most movies will not situate these isolated truths within the full spectrum of a Christian worldview (Creation, Fall, Redemption, or whatever…), but they often do, I would argue, capture in a very powerful way at least one component of what would be considered a biblical worldview. Any movie that accurately captures real life–which can sometimes be quite messy(!)–could be considered “biblical,” I think.

    For more on this issue, a great book (though I’ve only read it through conversations with my colleagues) is Grant Horner’s “Meaning at the Movies” (Crossway, 2010).

    • http://www.intothisgrace.blogspot.com/ Liam Moran

      Preston,

      I would argue from a more narrow perspective that a Christian movie (adjective) is one where the film producers, along with the intent of the movie is to in some way present the Christian worldview in the format of a film. The end result is that they are to glorify God.

      Now, I do agree though that sinfulness and even Christian themes can be presented in a secular format. Consider The Passion by Mel Gibson. I do not think he is saved and I doubt his production staff is either. But did he present an accurate portrayal of the crucifixion and the biblical message of redemption? I think so.

      My concern is that while some secular films do in fact draw out the sinfulness of society, some films do so in a way that glorifies sin, man or both. That is why I would hesitate to refer to some films that do perhaps present Christian themes as “Christian.”

      Even books can do the same. There are lots of secular books on the market in various genres in which Christian and biblical themes are presented but the books themselves would not be categorized as “Christian.”

      • preston

        Liam,

        I think I would agree with this, though I’m still thinking through the benefit of using “Christian” as an adjective (even though we often do).

        What about this. General revelation teaches us that God reveals himself through creation, and humans are the apex of creation. Therefore, can God reveal himself in “general” (less specific) ways through unbelievers? I would say yes. This is supported by the fact that all people (I believe, and most would agree) still posses and reflect the “image of God,” and therefore, while that image is skewed and distorted (like a cracked mirror), it still mediates some aspects of the Divine.

        Together, the truths of General Revelation and the Imago Dei support the notion that God can reveal aspects of himself through unbelievers and their creative–God given and God-reflecting–gifts, such as film, art, and music.

        I think that this explains why biblical themes often shine through in movies, like the theme of redemption in Gran Torino, the union between humans and creation in Avatar (cf. Gen 2-3; Rom 8), and the depth of sin in No Country for Old Men. Yes, all of these do not capture the full spectrum of the biblical worldview, but they do capture, I think, aspects of it. In any case, if I am correct about Gen Rev and Imago Dei (and I really just took this from Kevin Vanhoozer and others), then I could say that God revealed himself to me in a general way through these films. God, in other words, took what the Bible says about sin and impressed it upon my heart, mind, and imagination through No Country for Old Men.

        Thoughts?

        • http://www.intothisgrace.blogspot.com/ Liam Moran

          Preston,

          I do think that movies can both reflect our sin nature and also reflect the truths of General Revelation and the Imago Dei.

          Good thoughts!

  • Paul

    There are numerous secular films that have Christian imagery and value systems.

    Go watch “The Big Kahuna” with Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito that talks about how we shouldn’t “sell” the gospel, but should get to know people first…it’s filled with swear words and other questionable scenes, but the message to young Christians is beyond powerful.

    I would argue that “Schindler’s List” and “Amistad,” both directed by Steven Spielberg demonstrate Christian themes. Amistad beautifully showcases the story of Christ through the perspective of the slaves, whereas Schindler’s list shows the self sacrifice of Christ for the Jewish people.

    More ironically, films like Boogie Nights and Trainspotting, if they know it or not, truly show how the “wages of sin is death.” While they might be filled with sex and drugs and other sinful acts, they also show the desctructive side of heathenism.

    Forrest Gump is a film that shows a God-fearing person being blessed while his hippie love interest Jenny falls victim to the lies of the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s and ends up dead due to her lifestyle choices.

    And what about films like “O Brother Where Art Thou?” with its beautiful gospel music soundtrack?

    Then there are allegories like “The Shawshank Redemption” which tells the story of a man who is convicted of a crime he didn’t committ, stops the Pharisees around him, helps the convicts, and dissapears from the tomb in the end. The narrative is very much structured after the gospels.

    I think we each have barriers that God puts on us. I know that I have felt much freedom in the movie choices God allows me to make, but I feel a strong restriction in areas of drinking and other areas many Christians feel free in. We can’t be passive watchers, but instead must go a step further and analyze the images and ideas in front of us. Or else we will fall victim to the sin on the screen.

    Gosh…I love this new blog EBC set up…

    :)

    • preston

      Paul,

      Thanks for your helpful thoughts and list of other movies! I think movies like Shawshank Redemption show that there is a longing for Redemption in the heart of every (or most) people (see Rom 2:14-15).

  • http://www.intothisgrace.blogspot.com/ Liam Moran

    Preston,

    The title of your post is, “Can Secular Movies be Christian? Or Christian Movies Secular?”

    Another question that I have for “food for thought” is can secular movies contain christian content and can christian movies contain secular content? Clearly, Clint Eastwood would not call Gran Torino a “Christian movie.”

    Or even if a movie like Saved! which is about Christians (in a satire way) can that be considered “Christian”? Or is this a secular movie about Christians?

  • http://www.intothisgrace.blogspot.com/ Liam Moran

    Preston,

    You raise some good points here. I agree that there are numerous secular movies out there that contain biblical and spiritual themes throughout them.

    The concern I have is at the same time, some of the movies out there that have become a part of pop culture end up pointing towards man as the messiah, such as the one you spoke of here, Gran Torino. Ultimately, Eastwood was the redeemer in the movie.

    Consider also the Matrix trilogy. Those movies had all kinds of spiritual themes and even used biblical titles and names throughout them. In the movie, there is one last city of humans remaining, Zion. Ultimately, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is “the one” and becomes the messiah. But, were there Christian themes? I would say so.

    I also agree with your point about children’s movies. Some evangelicals would oppose others from watching movies like Gran Torino but then let their children watch movies like Cinderella and others considered to be “safe” yet they clearly contain messages and themes contrary to the Bible. Even at the toddler age, children can watch these kind of movies and start forming an unbiblical worldview. Are we as evangelicals entirely consistent with our beliefs?

    Preston, you also said, “I suggest that we have a very narrow view of what constitutes “Christian” or at least what would qualify as a “safe” movie for Christians to watch.” I agree.