Christian Principles in (Mostly) Secular Films

Being a film lover can be difficult on occasion when you live as a Christian. While you might assume it is due to the films you should avoid (which can sometimes be the case), sometimes it is due to the “Christian Flicks” that you end up watching that cause the most discomfort…

I grew up in the church. I have no regrets when it comes to the lifestyle choices I was raised on, nor especially for the God whom I serve. But on rare occasions our youth group or my family would try to watch films with good Christian messages, and a good 50% or more those films were cringe worthy, to put mildly (*cough* Facing the Giants, God’s Not Dead, Left Behind *cough*). While far from all of them were bad (Courageous, Fireproof, and Mom’s Night Out had either redeeming qualities/messages), many of them left a bad impression, or even taught fairytale type messages that seem to undersell Christianity. But what if I were to tell you some of Hollywood’s very own critical, box-office, and even Award successes have just as helpful themes, if not more palatable?

Today, I want us to look to a handful of such films that contain particular Christian messages within their scenes, and see how we can learn some valid lessons from such high-quality films. We will in a sense be looking at how all these films can be used in an evolutionary search of sorts to convey such important and inspiring lessons. Granted, since we are discussing Hollywood, please note that this involves their perception of Christianity, no matter what denomination. So understand that these will/may not show a complete accurate description of doctrine. Along with that is a given, this is Hollywood, folks. The films in question won’t be 100% inappropriate content free. No, these films range from different maturity levels, giving them a handful of language issues, as well as some questionable scenes. I will try my best to point out if one has some hazards or not (the Clearplay/Vidangel might help), but please refer to the MPAA ratings, and/or a Christian Reviewing sight (such as Plugged In and Kids In Mind).

Without further ado, let’s look at some lessons, and let’s transition (manipulate?) them into making some vastly important truths.

The Life of Pi

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For some, this is going to start off as a head-scratcher, but bear with our evolutionary progression on display here. The Life of Pi is an intriguingly told and fantastically shot film about a boy lost by himself at sea, with his only companion being a blood-thirsty tiger. But the film, while Family Targeted in appearance, is a heavy emotional and philosophical film. The protagonist, as well as the film, ultimately suggests that it can prove God’s existence (interesting for an Ang Lee film, isn’t it?).  Please note a worrisome fact, they are not out to prove a particular god, because the main character Pi believes in all gods, but prove existence nonetheless. In the end, this remarkably directed film (which won the Oscar for Best Director, and is beautiful to view on Blu-Ray) comes to the conclusion that the best reason to believe in Theism is solely that life seems better with a god (or gods), and not necessarily with the help of any science. Like I said, the love of all religions, as well as a shallow faith is concerning for some, and cautioned for children, but as a first step in our list, it has a point. On the surface itself, isn’t life just better and preferred when you have a Creator to look to, as well as a hope for a better tomorrow? I can’t find anything wrong with that assessment, even if it is incomplete…

The Tree of Life

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I must forewarn, of all the films mentioned, this is the one most would prefer not to embarking on. First off, the film itself is a challenging and mature look at a dysfunctional family with various complications (including fights, complicated teen “maturing” years, and tragedies) which make it for older audiences (rated PG-13 for “Some Thematic Elements”). The second is due to the fact that this is far and away the most artistic film on this list. Instead of traditional dialogue or narrative to tell the tale, this film prefers to convey its story and message through visual story-telling. This of course, while remarkably beautiful, makes for a challenging watch, and one that will take me quite a bit of time to undertake again (if ever). The third reason is even possibly for the Christian struggles within. Let me explain. This film, through its visuals and subtle story, is a contrast of essentially grace (from God and as a lifestyle) vs. nature (men’s nature and rash behavior). The film has moments of beauty that show nature (including a prolonged Evolution sequence) in its habitat. We have come to act upon and indulge ourselves in such behavior. It’s even stained on those who claim to have grace (like the characters, Jack and Father), but can’t get rid of their ingrained nature within. But then there are some, like Mother (played to perfection by Jessica Chastain, in the performance that should have received her Oscar Nomination that year), who display and even represent grace in their lifetime. Now, the film shows how tragedies bring such grand individuals to question God and who He is, by asking some unanswerable and difficult questions about His nature and behavior. But, as the credits role, it is clear to see this film shows that the best and only life worth living is one under and in accordance with God’s graceful nature. That, even with it’s questionable methods, is a truly fantastic message in a film nominated for Best Picture.

The Night of the Hunter

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We are now progressing to another challenge people have with God and Christianity in our movie countdown. In this particular film, our main character is a slimy, horrifying, and murderous Gospel Preacher named Harry Powell…Not exactly what you would expect from a religious film, is it? This film likewise, due to the fact that Powell is a cheater, murderer, and of course moral hypocrite (the film opens with him in a brothel) is not one for kiddies. The film shows how he uses his position to prey upon rich widows, and in one particular case, the children of one such unfortunate woman. In Hollywood fashion, this film is a thriller about kids on the run from such a hunter. You’d come to expect that such films paint a pretty bleak picture of religion, but in this case it does quite the opposite. This film demonstrates in the opening monologue, as well as its third act, that we are to beware of such “wolves in sheep clothing.” Instead, we are shown that there are people who we should rather look up to who do walk in a spiritual manner. One such women is Rachel, a sweet and hard working women, one who doesn’t seek publicity or attention for her walk. The film shows that while some people do harm for Christ in their life, others who would prefer to live a gentle and quiet life are those who greatly exalt and reflect Him. Add into the mix that this is a great atmospheric thriller (borderline horror), it is one I’d highly recommend!

The Lord of the Rings

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Are you kidding me? Seriously, there are probably hundreds of Christian themes and messages within the films (and pages) of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (as well as our following choice). It seems like such great attributes as love, leadership, mercy, sacrifice, unity, and countless others are dripping from the seams. In fact, if we were just basing this list off of a normal numeral countdown, this would far and away be my #1. But there is one particular area in this fantasy, character, and action masterpiece that I want to point out; the burden of sin. We see that the film quite literally demonstrates burden and sin in the very ring itself, the one only Frodo, with great difficulty and failings, is able to bear (which brings about many other great thoughts). Ultimately, what is the greatest hindrance to understanding and coming to Christ? The very sins that consume us. That is why the vial Gollum is such an incredible character. You yearn for him in the midst of his treachery to turn back to the young and lively person he used to be, before years with the ring made him to be such a pathetic miser. But in the end, his mind is so corrupted and clung to what he had, the notion of moving forward is (nearly) impossible. Add into the mix once again that this is one of the best epics of our time, I more than stand by this selection.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

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I know what you’re saying, “but Andrew, this IS a Christian story.” And I would wholeheartedly agree. That’s why the world’s love for the timeless tale, as well Disney’s decision to fund it, make it that much more of grand spectacle. Let me start by saying, while this film series was far from the same caliber as the books they were adapted from, this particular film was far and away the best one put to screen. Now, as the past films we’ve mentioned and their various lessons have demonstrated, many people will consider and investigate Christ for one reason or another, and many will find it hard to approach Him for just as many other reasons. But hopeful the world doesn’t stop there. Rather, hopefully the lesson that can be gleaned here (and what a glaring one it is) is taken to heart.  In this iconic fantasy, we see the tale of four English siblings as they enter a world of wonder, which just so happens to be located in their wardrobe (how convenient). The characters therein, especially that of the stubborn brother Eustice, end up demonstrating the hopelessness we in this world ought to feel, and will ultimately feel if we are solely responsible for our actions and lives. That’s where the divine-like Lion Aslan comes into play. His character perfectly resembles Christ’s love and sacrifice we ought to approach. There is so much death, uncertainty, and despair in this life alone, the only truth and salvation found is that of the Christ, our savior.

Les Miserables

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We find ourselves back in the cautionary films. This one definitely needs discretion due to multiple lewd scenes thanks to one of the main characters being a prostitute. This particular film does a rather good job of showing, well…miserable people. Miserable people in miserable circumstances. I suppose you could call it the theme.  The tale opens to one such individual, Jean ValJean, an ex-convict with no hope or future in his horizons. Yet, by being shown a glimmer of love, he realizes that a life dedicated to God is the one he must ultimately choose. In some Christian based films, that would mean happiness and wealth henceforth. Here, not so much. And that’s what this story does so greatly, is show that a life dedicated to Christ does not mean we can disregard the consequences of our past. Some call this counting the cost, but yet one way to remember it is just bearing up to our past. That sounds easy in theory, but Valjean’s heartbreaking, hardworking, and miserable life demonstrates otherwise. While this film might turn away some due to the fact it is an opera, I for one had enough forewarning, and thereby loved it. While there are many greats characters, songs, performances, and messages throughout. The richest and most significant is of course Jean Valjean’s decision to take responsibility and forgive his miserable past, in order to find true redemption through Christ.

Amazing Grace

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Now, I may need to retract my earlier statement. I do think this one is the closest we have on the list that personifies a “Christian-esque” film. If that’s the case, then I just wish it was the go-to mold, because it works brilliantly. Bear in mind though, this captivating little film boasts one of the finest British casts in just mere supporting roles alone; Albert Finney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, and Toby Jones. In this historic tale of William Wilberforce, a 1700’s Parliament member who is faced with a dilemma. That being that he struggles to come to terms with his extensive fight against the disease that infects his country, Slavery. What makes this film rise up against other similar tales is that WIlberforce is one who has decided to turn to God in his life. And it is ultimately about his great desire to dedicate his time, life, and actions to what God would expect from him. By seeking out God’s will, he concludes God has called him to fight this uphill legal battle against a country grounded in tradition. While there should be caution when waiting for a supernatural “call” from the Lord as to how our life should be. We understand God has already called us to follow Him, but we should still hold fast to the notion that God can use men and women to bring about wondrous deeds (whether publicly acknowledged or not is irrelevant) in our life if we depend upon Him. The film’s message is a lot more nuanced and less ham-fisted than you might expect, with the John Newton scenes as the understandable and inspiring exceptions. The outcome is an engaging period piece, a sympathetic romance, a gripping courtroom thriller, and an inspirational and challenging tale that begs us not to sit idly by when God expects great things from His followers.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

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This last selection is once again another historic choice. This time however, we are looking to WWII dramas. While there are many war time selections that might meet this description with similar themes (Unbroken and the WWI Sargent York come to mind), I believe this understated foreign flick meets our standards perfectly. This was a rather recent discovery for me, and I was completely blown away. We are introduced to German siblings Sophie and Hans. They are anti-Nazi activists who are caught in the middle of a mission spreading propaganda papers against Hitler’s empire. The film opens with such an intense moment; one might be taken aback when the rest of the film is largely cheap/realistic taped interrogation scenes Sophie endured at the hands of Nazi commanders. In short, this film is a lot of talk and little action. But don’t let that discourage you, this is a remarkable and engrossing film that brings up many social, moral, and of course Christian themes. The biggest point throughout is seen in Sophie’s willingness to look such powerful men in the face and speak up for her bold convictions because of the God she serves, even when it can cost her everything. It leads our list to this; we have seen that many people might avoid God or come to Him on different terms due to various struggles, but all men truly need Him, and a life without Him is meaningless. We’ve seen that His love saves us, but that the choice to follow Him demands our humility, our dedication, and now maybe even our comfort or lives. Are we willing to make such a bold confession of Him in our life? While many other films demonstrate this message, this Foreign Oscar Nominated film does such a remarkable job at it by showing a smaller and more intimate setting of such a strong and faithful woman.

In the end, hopefully you don’t find my method overly appalling. I do understand there are some Christian films out there with important lessons that should be appreciated. But I also understand we tend to give a thumbs up to all Christian flicks because of the genre it holds, and not for the lessons, truth, and even quality they bring to the table. While the films I present here have “bones” to avoid likewise, hopefully I’ve given you some options to look to and apply to our lives, and the way we view media. Also, are there any great choices I may have missed? The ones I selected all served a particular lesson, but I’d love to hear of any I may not know. Let me know in the comments.

P.S. Paper’ Route’s new album Real Emotion is killer. A few favorites are Real Emotion, Balconies, and Mona Lisa. Check it out!

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