When one thinks of faith-based films, more often than not, we think of one of two types of films: Biblical films or evangelistic films. The history of Biblical films is relatively long, the spectrum wide and the challenges of successfully presenting this profound, rich, well-known story are many.
Biblical Films had their beginnings with short films in 1897s, only one year after the advent of film. Films such as France’s Lear’s Passion (1897) and America’s The Horitz Passion Play (1897), were the forerunners to one of the first feature-length Jesus films, the silent 1912 film From the Manger to the Cross. From those early days, the genre quickly splintered into many different expressions of Biblical stories or Christian faith, with the best well known being the Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epics (10 Commandments -1923, King of Kings -1927) and the more recent Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and The Passion of the Christ (2004).
Evangelistic films, often highly didactic with explicit Gospel messaging, have their origin in churches, Christian organizations and/or Christian filmmakers. Beginning with the silent Passion films, to Rev. James Friedrich’s The Great Commandment (1939) to 1972’s Thief in the Night and the most viewed film of all time The Jesus Film (1979), through to the Kendrick Brothers films such as Fireproof (2008) or Courageous (2011); Christians have long used film to share their faith. These overtly Christian films benefit the Body of Christ, by supporting Christian’s beliefs and providing an opportunity for believers to invite their unchurched friends to hear the Gospel presented in a “neutral” environment. However, often the offerings of many evangelistic films are narrow, with little theological depth; proving to be quite anemic as a cultural change-agent.
The question arises, are these films merely evangelistic vehicles or religious art? Michael Bird wrote in the Cambridge Journals, “Within the discussion of religious art there arises the fascinating question of how art can engender the awareness of those special, hierophanous moments in culture where the sacred dimension breaks through into an otherwise profane experience. How does the artist render visible that which is inherently invisible?” In the Book of Matthew, Jesus rebukes the “sign-seeking” hypocritical leaders by saying, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16.1-3). Jesus’ criticism stems from their seeking heavenly signs merely from the obvious visible sights. If they truly desired a fuller revelation from the Spirit of God, they should seek a glimpse into the spiritual realm. How often do we in the Christian community want things laid out for us very clearly, looking for understanding solely from the tangible, earthly plain?
I have experienced numerous “aha” moments of spiritual insight while engaged in a compelling cinematic story. In my experience the most powerful theological understanding in film comes, not from the obvious “religious-centric” sources, but from different, unexpected, frequently non-Christian film moments. My friend Dr. Craig Detweiler writes, “General revelation is a term created by theologians to describe the experience of God available to all people. Such revelations may arrive as a word, a thought, a vision, a touch, or a feeling. These divine breakthroughs wake us, surprise us, reassure us that we are not alone. The power of general revelation often resides in God’s ability to sneak up on us, to speak through unlikely people or unexpected situations.”