On Christian Reception: Gateway Films (Pt 1)
There is no doubt that Christianity has affected cinema in many ways, whether it be the influence of unique filmmakers’ styles or the ideological motivations of faith-based production companies. Growing up as a Christian in a conservative Christian community, my household was an outlier in terms of media consumption standards. Many of my friends were not allowed to watch shows like Spongebob or the Marvel franchise. Instead, they would watch movies like God’s Not Dead, Fireproof, Courageous, or The Shack. Once my friends had grown up and gained independence, they still chose to remain within the strict boundaries of Christian cinema. For most, this wasn’t due to a moral dilemma but rather a lack of interest having grown up with solely faith-based entertainment. I, on the other hand, was obsessed with classic film and pop culture heroes like Batman, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Luke Skywalker. As I have gotten older, I have found that my spiritual journey has coincided with my views on film, and, more importantly, how a Christian should view film. What started as skepticism towards Christian films eventually became an openness towards all of them. Through an analysis of several popular Christian films using both theories of film viewership and reception, it is evident that a Christian can break films down into three categories: Gateway Films, Difficult Films, and Discussion Films. An understanding of all three will serve to benefit the Christian cinema viewer in their understanding of their own faith and broaden their cinematic horizons.
Of all the media I consumed as a child, I remember being fascinated with movies the most, particularly those which my parents had labeled “off-limits” and “inappropriate.” While I was typically allowed to watch most cartoons, my parents were adamant about screening episodes before I was allowed to see them. Usually, they turned to Christian film review websites such as Common Sense Media. Oftentimes, Christians in my life would ask me, “would a good Christian watch that?” Or maybe, “would Jesus sit and watch that with you?”
As I got older, my dad introduced me to several classics, movies that I still revere as the best of the best today. The first time I ever saw Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was ecstatic to find that not only were there two more films, but also an entire television series (not to mention the fourth film, which I still love no matter what anyone says). It was one of the first movies I got really excited about, and when I was finally able to watch the suave adventurer’s first outing in Raiders, it really stuck with me. Later, in high school, I entered a period of what I would call cinema snobbery. This was a shift in my life where instead of being open to watching a Pure Flix movie, I would outright mock and refuse it. I attribute this to the first real experience of independence that comes with high school. I began to watch things like Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, Drive, and American Psycho (In other words, the teenage angst required viewing list). These films are in no way bad, but they are very typical introductions to “real” cinema for young people. While there were still Christian films that I considered to be good, I wouldn’t classify them as anything other than a “weekend movie” (something I would be forced to watch with my family or at a conservative friend’s house). These are an example of what I would call now, the Gateway Film.
A Gateway Film melds good spiritual and Christian beliefs with artistic cinema, to possibly introduce the audience to other films with even deeper messages. The two greatest Gateway Films I can think of are The Prince of Egypt and The Miracle Maker. I doubt one would be able to go their whole life and not have seen The Prince of Egypt. It crosses into secular boundaries due to its wonderful animation, soundtrack, and top-tier cast. A Christian will come for the stories of Moses in Exodus and might stay for those artistic reasons. A secular person, on the other hand, might do the exact opposite, coming for the cast and staying for the message. The Prince of Egypt balances the art and the message so well, so it is the optimal Gateway Film.
There is a chance many even at John Brown University haven’t seen The Miracle Maker, and that is a shame. The multi-media approach to filmmaking is truly amazing to watch, as the story of Jesus’ life is told in stop-motion animation while his parables are done in 2D drawings. Anyone interested in the art of film would be benefited from seeing The Miracle Maker, but if that isn’t enough, it comes with an all-star cast: Ralph Fiennes, Julie Christie, Ian Holm, and William Hurt, just to name a few. The voice acting is terrific and exactly what you would expect from the talent involved. Beyond the technical aspects, The Miracle Maker does something else that The Prince of Egypt (and any good Gateway Film) should do. It takes liberties. This does not mean that the message or important accuracies are diminished, instead, the liberties are taken to reinforce concepts within the confines of the medium. In The Miracle Maker, Jesus’ life is presented from a lesser character of the New Testament’s point of view. Jairus’s daughter, whom Jesus famously healed in Luke, watches as Jesus’ most important biblical moments unfold. This perspective adds an element of realism and separates this account of Christ from many other films. While not much is said in the Bible of this character, it is through her eyes which we view the story in The Miracle Maker. Her dialogue and interactions are not taken verbatim from the Bible but are a stylistic retelling. This is done in such a way that the message of the gospels is not hindered but respectfully translated into film.
A Gateway film is an excellent way to expand your cinematic horizons as a Christian. These kinds of films can be a sort of break through and might get you to watch something that might challenge your faith in some way. This is the territory of the next category, the Difficult Film – a film based in Christian principles but might present the message in an unorthodox or uncomfortable way.