[THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.]
While I grew up in a Christian household and still consider myself a Christian, I am also an artist, and I often find myself having to choose between my faith and creating art that is meaningful to me. I was urged to watch Christian films growing up, so I have seem my fair share of films like Fireproof and Ring the Bell, which often featured a protagonist who, by the end of the film, either had their life saved by a God-induced miracle, was brought to salvation in Christ by an intensely loving group of Christians, or some combination of the two. Partially as a result of this, I grew up believing there was a natural progression to faith where a sinner would break free of their temptation and fall in love with God forevermore. Of course, I knew I would never be completely free of temptation and sin, but with God by my side, I could overcome it all. When, inevitably, that did not come true in my own life, I began to question what the Christian faith was all about.
What I realized, as I got older, was that the influence of these films was, more often than not, negative, especially when it came to demonstrating the Christian faith to children. Rather than exploring the difficult realities of constantly pursuing God, they showed a world where Christians always overcame adversity and were the better for it. Thus, when I started recognizing the mistakes I was making–and kept making those mistakes–I began to wonder if I was even cut out to be a Christian.
This was reflected in the stories and screenplays I wrote throughout my youth. These compositions often worried my parents as they were often centered around death. This was not the beautiful death of an already saved Christian but, rather, contemplated what it meant to be die not having done anything good. They would often tell me to write something happier, but what I never told them was that these works were a reflection on unanswered questions I had about Christianity. To be clear, this is not meant to be a poor reflection on my parents, but instead, a representation of their experience with a distilled version of Christianity. Besides my parents, there are many Christians that are not open to Christian art that does not adhere to the Christian image of a desirable salvation and pleasant path to eternity. Art that does not conform to these rules is often shunned as sacrilegious or blasphemous, but instead of outrightly rejecting it, Christians should first view this art from a different perspective. At the very least, it is a way to understand how the world sees Christians and what Christians can do to change negative perceptions of themselves, but in addition to that, some of these works do a great job of presenting and analyzing the realities and struggles of the Christian faith. All Christians (and all people) have faults, but the more we try to present ourselves as perfect and others as imperfect, the more we will be chastised for our imperfection and our hypocritical rejection of others who do not abide by our standards.
Admittedly, my favorite film, There Will Be Blood, deals with this topic. It is written off by many as anti-Christian, but in my opinion, it does not reject the religion but the façade behind which many Christians hide. I’m not going to pretend that the film’s director is Christian, but if you seriously examine the film, it is clear that what he is not critiquing Christianity as a whole but Christians who tout their faith, only to abandon it when it becomes convenient to their livelihood.
This idea is embodied by Paul Dano’s character, Eli Sunday, the pastor at the Church of the Third Revelation. His sermons are dramatic demonstrations of miracles and salvation. During one service, in order to rid an elderly woman of her arthritis, he touches the sides of her face and whispers for the ghost to leave. This quickly escalates to him yelling at the demon, “As long as I have teeth, I will bite you, and if I have no teeth, I will gum you!” The film’s main character and Eli’s foil, Daniel Plainview, watches skeptically, later saying to Eli, “That was one goddamn helluva show.”
In contrast to Eli, Plainview is an openly self-involved man. As he states in the film (and as can be seen in the featured image/GIF), he often sees “nothing worth liking” in other people, including his adopted son, H.W., who he uses more as a tool to convince others to sell him land on which he can drill for oil. It is obvious that Plainview is not a good man, but while Eli has questionable methods, some viewers might perceive his actions as well-meaning, if misguided. What Plainview has that Eli does not, however, is transparency about who he is, and while that does not make him a better person, it makes him–in an unfortunate way–more respectable. At the end of the film, when Eli approaches Plainview about helping him out of a rut, Plainview forces him to say that he is “a false prophet” and “God is a superstition,” demonstrating that all along it was power and wealth that motivated Eli rather than his love for the gospel.
I recently showed the film to a Christian friend of mine, who enjoyed the film but was concerned about how to perceive evangelicals after watching it. He had recently read a book that had told stories about the lives and practices of various evangelicals and told me that many of the things described in the book were similar to the things acted out by Eli Sunday in the film. The question he posed was interesting: is it inherently wrong to share the gospel the way that Eli does?
In my opinion, the answer is no. While people need to be careful about the way they interpret the gospel–and while many of the things Eli does are wrong–what the film is telling us to do is examine the person behind the mask. What are their intentions and to what are they actually committed? Is it what they are preaching and the people they are preaching to or themselves? And if it is the latter, how can they be seen as better than a man like Daniel Plainview?
Films like these are not meant to suggest that Christianity and all its followers are constantly doing wrong, and neither are they in support of Christianity. However, just because they do not necessarily portray the religion a completely positive light, does not mean that they should be written off as anti-Christian. I am not suggesting that Christians should add these films to an anthology of Christian media, but rather that films and other works of art like this one deserve to be watched closely by the Christian community, so we can examine how these critiques can better Christians and, by extension, Christianity as a whole.
Post-Script: While I won’t write extensively on it, another good work that is great to view from a critical perspective is Paolo Sorrentino’s limited series The Young Pope. It tells an eccentric story of a young American who becomes Pope and how his unconventional approach to the position opens the eyes of those working inside the Vatican.