Quite a lot has been said about Christian films in recent years, particularly the kind of independent Christian movies that became so popular after Passion of the Christ came out.
Many Christians have argued for and against these Christian films for various reasons.
One big point of contention is how Christian films usually portray miracles. They often show characters praying for the first time in a while or making a big sacrifice, and then quickly everything changes. God shows up and fixes absolutely everything.
There may be various things we can critique about this kind of plot twist (does it promote prosperity gospel teaching, would it seem less cheesy with better production values) but there’s actually a deeper question here that most Christians miss: can you really show the supernatural in a compelling way on film?
Can you show a miracle or a moment where God or angels show up in the flesh in a movie without it looking silly?
Some scholars have argued you can’t, that film like every medium has its limits and showing “divine encounters” is one such limit.
Roy Anker, who teaches English at Calvin College, argues in his book Catching Light: When God Shows Up at the Movies that while filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments, King of Kings) though they could portray God effectively “simply by filming the most conspicuous showing of the divine in Biblical history,” those movies usually don’t impress people unless they’re already believers (Anker 121).
Film-critic-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader (who ironically studied theology at Calvin) made a similar argument in a two-part review he wrote of the film Pickpocket in 1969.
Schrader argues “for those who wanted to make the supernatural real, that is make spiritual art, cinema seemed like the ideal solution,” (Schrader 43) then mentions films like Biblical epics and Christian films and concludes, “but they didn’t work,” because the audiences could always tell the supernatural element was just special effects or screenwriting (43).
Let’s assume for a moment that this argument is correct. That the conventional way of portraying God in a movie (a voice from heaven, a glowing man with a beard, direct adaptations of Bible scenes with lots of special effects), always ends up seeming cheesy.
In that case, what are other ways you can talk about God in film? Can you use other techniques to portray something supernatural and holy breaking into the everyday world we live in?
For the next few posts, I’ll examine other ways to talk about divine encounters on film. I’ll be drawing pretty heavily on films that Anker talks about in Catching Light, films which he argues tackle spiritual themes in unusually compelling ways.
Any thoughts about this? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear them.
Also, stay tuned for the next article in this series, where I examine a possible way to show divine encounters in films.