On our Discord Chat, students ask a lot of wide-ranging questions about the Catholic faith and its place in their lives and the culture. I publish some of the broader or more interesting questions here on the CCM Blog.
QUESTION: Why can’t we have a good Christian Movie?
DAVID: Looking at the movies produced that are intentionally Christian, there really does seem to be a lack of quality. Rare is the critically acclaimed Christian movie, and more often than not the movies are just … well … bad. Flannery O’Connor, the great Catholic novelist wrote:
For the Catholic novelist, the prophetic vision is not simply a matter of his personal imaginative gift; it is also a matter of the Church’s gift, which, unlike his own, is safeguarded and deals with greater matters. It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.
It is, unfortunately, a means of extension which we constantly abuse by thinking that we can close our own eyes and that the eyes of the Church will do the seeing. They will not. … When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous. (“Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” 1964. emphasis added)
Most so-called Christian movie-makers (of all denomonations), unfortunately make movies trying to see with the “eyes of the Church” and not through their own lens of Christian Realism with the prophetic vision as a part of the artist’s own. They make movies about what they think the Faith wants of them, rather than make good movies of what they know in which their own faith (if genuine) will undoubtedly inform what they make.
Bishop Robert Barron has for years been pointing out that in reality we don’t need “Christian” movies to find Christian themes and content in our cinematic culture:
NPR: You’re widely known for looking at pop culture and history and all these things that we look at all the time, but looking at them through a Catholic lens. Can you talk about that?
BISHOP BARRON: That’s another favorite strategy, which I call the “seeds of the Word.” It’s an old phrase from our tradition, semina verbi, the seeds of the Word, which suggests that elements of God’s revelation are everywhere. They might be in somewhat distorted form, but they’re everywhere in the culture, because everything’s touched by the Logos, by God’s reason. Therefore in a movie, in a book, in a song, in something in the popular culture you can find a seed and say, “Oh, look, there’s an echo. That’s like what we hold, an icon of the True.” To point that out is a more positive strategy for evangelization rather than shaking your finger at the culture.
Some of the best examples are the remake of True Grit, by the Coen brothers, and Gran Torino by Clint Eastwood. Both are filled with the Gospel motif. In fact, Gran Torino is one of the very best presentations of the Christ figure. So I love pointing that stuff out, to find and point out these elements within the culture, because they really are everywhere. (interview source)
Bishop Barron’s movie reviews for years have been exploring the semina Verbi within cinema that through our lens of faith we can discern, and in others help to grow. It is incumbent upon us to take the existing culture, discern its adherence to the Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, and like leaven help build on those moments when they’re present or call it out prophetically when it contradicts those Transcendentals.
All that being said, on the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of film, the Vatican released a list of 45 Great Films, organized by whether their greatness lie in their portrayal of Religion, Values, or as Art. It’s over 25 years old, and embarrassingly eurocentric, but it’s a place to start. If you are a UNC-Asheville student, many of these are free to stream on Kanopy – https://unca.kanopy.com – and if you create an account with your unca[dot]edu email, then you can save a watchlist there.
THE VATICAN LIST OF GREAT FILMS (1995)
Andrei Rublev (1966)
Babette’s Feast (1987)
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966)
La Passion de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ (1905)
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
The Mission (1986)
Monsieur Vincent (1947)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Sacrifice (1986)
Au Revoir les Enfants (1988)
Bicycle Thieves (1949)
The Burmese Harp (1956)
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Dersu Uzala (1975)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
On the Waterfront (1954)
Rome, Open City (1945)
Schindler’s List (1993)
The Seventh Seal (1957)
The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)
Wild Strawberries (1957)
Citizen Kane (1941)
Grand Illusion (1937)
La Strada (1954)
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
The Leopard (1963)
Little Women (1933)
Modern Times (1936)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)