When the Academy Award ceremony airs Feb. 26, an unusual film that has bemused some, exhilarated others and drawn wide-ranging comments tops the list of nominees.
Tree of Life lends itself to a variety of interpretations, but its Christian themes of grace and redemption appear explicitly from the first frame—a quote from the Book of Job asking, "Where were you when I (God) laid the foundations of the earth?"
It's not the first time directors have discovered powerful religious themes make good films—think Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings—and it won't be the last. Director Steven Spielberg announced last month he will direct a biopic about the life of Moses in a style Britain's Guardian newspaper described as a mix of Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan.
But observers note an increase in independent and Hollywood-produced films inspired by clear religious—even Christian—worldviews. The Book of Eli, The Blind Side and film versions of C.S. Lewis' beloved Chronicles of Narnia books are only a few.
Explicitly Christian movies
Some evangelicals say even those films, and their subtle treatment of Christianity, fall short of an adequate alternative to what they regard as Hollywood's decadent values. Their concerns have spawned a recent flow of much more explicitly Christian films aimed directly at the evangelical market—Courageous, Fireproof and Facing the Giants among them.
Many Christians enthusiastically have embraced those films as clear-cut expressions of their worldviews. Others say they lack artistic merit and assert their overt approach is unlikely to draw any but the most fervent Christian audiences.
The debate raises important questions: Are explicitly Christian films essentially propaganda pieces, not artistic expressions? Are Christian themes expressed most profoundly in more subtle ways—perhaps by directors who aren't Christian? And who's the target audience?
Defining Christian films
Grappling with those questions to some extent requires defining "Christian film," said Rini Cobbey, chair of the communication arts department at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.
"Is it a film made by a Christian?" she asked. "Or is it a film made for—or, more likely, consumed exclusively by—Christians? Is it a film made with the intent to convert viewers? What kind of conversion? An initial statement of faith and prayer of confession or a lifelong conforming to God's image?"
Cliff Vaughn, media producer for EthicsDaily.com, agrees: "Labeling films 'Christian' is a tricky business. Most use the 'Christian movie' label to corral films with no sex and no profanity—note that a little or a lot of violence isn't a deal-breaker—or to showcase films with a literal come-to-Jesus moment."
For a decade, releases by Sherwood Pictures have defined Christian films for many moviegoers. The studio, a ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., has produced at least four films, including Facing the Giants in 2006, Fireproof in 2008 and Courageous in 2011.
All were popular with church groups, which heavily promoted them, and earned far more than the modest budgets required to produce them. Facing the Giants grossed more than $10 million at the box office, Fireproof more than $33 million and Courageous, as of last month, more than $34 million.
By contrast, Tree of Life so far has a domestic gross of a little more than $13 million, although it has earned more in foreign screenings.
Sherwood's success has encouraged other church-based movie makers, among them Calvary Church in suburban Memphis, Tenn., which last year produced The Grace Card, distributed by Sony Pictures, the studio that also distributed Courageous.
Key leaders behind Sherwood Pictures' films are unapologetic about their motives. Alex Kendrick, who directed several of Sherwood's productions, told Time last year: "Our goal is to use movies to change culture. How many sermons would we have to preach to reach 5 million people?"
Michael Catt, pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church, wrote on Sherwood Picture's website, "Our goal from Day 1 has been to make family-friendly movies that build on the Judeo-Christian ethic and communicate the gospel without compromise."
Sherwood's and other producers' successful foray into the movie-making business is a testament to a burgeoning niche market—and perhaps to a hunger for films that reflect a worldview many evangelical Christians find compatible.
Copycat Christian art
But there's a danger, some observers insist, that a larger audience will find such films superficial and inauthentic—an impression they might transfer to Christianity itself.
"My biggest problem with 'Christian art' is that it is so typically not authentic," said Thomas Ward, a professor of acting and directing in the theater arts department at Baylor University in Waco.
"It seems to be a copy of something else. People say, 'Let's make the Christian version of this or that.' Whatever happens in pop culture—whether it's music or television or film—it seems that a few months later a Christian version of it shows up. I find no real value in that kind of work. Frankly, I'd rather see the original."
Wishful thinking leads to Christian support for some projects, Vaughn noted.
"Sometimes we want a particular movie to succeed—commercially or critically—because we loved the book it was based on, or we're fans of the lead actor, or we believe in its message. We may wish for these things in spite of the film's shortcomings, which our bias may or may not allow us to admit," he said.
Michael Parnell, pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va., and a film reviewer for EthicsDaily.com, warned, "The medium of film can easily be used to manipulate the viewer."
"Some Christians accept this because they don't see the film as propaganda," he said. "They see it as an expression of their worldview and affirm it. Critics see much of this as heavy-handedness. Christians, who are used to overt expressions of Christian themes and values, do not."
Family-friendly or not
Countering that impression of manipulation may require more nuanced films that embrace the complexity of Christian faith and even explore its darker side—an approach that might be at odds with the "family-friendly" aims of some Christian films.
It also might result in films not easily accessible to the average movie-going audience. On the box office window of at last one theater, a sign explained Tree of Life wasn't a narrative film and might be difficult to follow—pointedly adding no ticket refunds were offered.
"There should be films for all kinds of audiences, but not all films should be watchable by children," Cobbey said. "There are dark, complex themes throughout Scripture, and we should reflect this in our own creativity. Some artists are gifted and called to do the happier Psalms-type filmmaking, and some to Lamentations and Hosea."
While an exclusive emphasis on "family-friendly" values could be regarded as a current shortcoming of Christian films, Ward said, that might change as Christian filmmakers develop.
"Christian films that deal with darker themes would be welcomed more by the non-Christian world," Parnell said. "A good example of this is Tender Mercies. That movie dealt with the conversion of a boozing, broken-down country singer who goes through baptism as a means of declaring his faith. Some say that this isn't a Christian movie, but it surely has an evangelical storyline."
Authentic or vulgar?
Complex and authentic films are about more than including coarse language, violence or sexuality, Cobbey insisted.
"There's a difference between films which leave out certain kinds of language or actions or social contexts, and a film which has a lower quality of writing, acting or other production elements," she said.
"Everyone goes to the bathroom. Most movies don't show characters doing this on a regular basis, and we don't cry foul about their inauthenticity. The difference is, language is usually essential to characters revealing who they are and what their relationships are. So, to sanitize a fundamentally human form of expression is more likely to be inauthentic than to condense what daily actions we see them participating in during the course of the story."
Ward noted he does not believe a movie must contain profanity or violence to be authentic. "It's more a question of story and truth. I start with story and characters and let theme come last. Some Christian filmmakers start with the theme, or what they want to say, and then write around that. That's a difficult way to work if you're aiming for authenticity."
A compelling story is key, Cobbey agreed. "The first definition I give my students on the first day of my visual storytelling class is, 'Story is editing.' It demands making choices, leaving some things out, emphasizing—even exaggerating—some.
"Our task as artists is to participate in God's redemptive work by simultaneously doing what art does best—tell stories, evoke emotional response, provoke new ways of seeing familiar things," she said.
"And at the same time, doing what all forms of (Christian) communication should do—tell truth, provoke healing and growth, reflect God's nature and plans."
Looking for Christian themes
Is the hard work of detecting Christian themes in Hollywood's products worthwhile? Some observers think so.
"When one sees a great theme of faith on the screen, that's a sign of the gospel coming through," Parnell said. "Those images are there, but we have to train our eyes to see biblically. We have to train ourselves to see the movie through the lens of the gospel."
"Open your mind and your heart," Ward said. "Don't sit down to watch a movie worried about who the persons are that made it and whether or not they believe the same things you believe.
"A Christian may see Jesus reflected in a number of stories. I say that's enough, and it's OK if his name isn't used. I daresay Jesus would be OK with that as well."
"In the end," Vaughn said, "God speaks in mysterious ways, and I don't get to decide when and how a person hears that still, small voice.
"Some Christians say they have been hearing it in Hollywood films for decades. Others say they're hearing it now in low-budget message pictures."