Faith in Films: Why is it so unappealing?

Why does personal faith always look bad in films? Think about it: how many movie scenes have ever presented prayer, worship, or evangelism in a way that made you want to identify with the characters?

Even films of great believers, like A Man for All Seasons, are essentially about one man’s heroic struggle for “what he believes in,” usually part of a process of self-realization.

This is a serious problem. I will lay down some possible reasons below, and you can give your response to this quandary.

Answer #1: There is something about the structure of film that is extremely conducive to some aspects of life, and not at all for others. Decisions, passion, libido, insanity, revenge, self-realization, and bliss all go very well across the big screen. Faith does not. Neither do parenting, patience, or boredom. Movies are a medium, and they are forced within certain constraints, including our attention span, two dimensions, a beginning and an end, and the perspective of the camera, which is visual. Also: cuts between scenes, the lack of physical sensation, and the inability of the viewer to make decisions that affect the situation.

Answer #2: It’s the Hollywood script that eliminates all possibilities of personal devotion on the silver screen. Not only is God-content marginalized, but any plot structure that could portray faith is kept out. Maybe faith could be evoked if a filmmaker could create within a totally different plot structure. For example, The Seventh Seal, by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, is about a medieval knight who is losing his faith after being in the Crusades. Personified Death finds the knight, but the knight challenges death to a chess match and the plot moves forward with characters of various perspectives on faith and life, with interludes of the mortal chess match. Sound different? It is.

Answer #3: A picture shows us who we are from the outside, so we must look at ourselves from the outside in – which we rarely do. Possibly, our own faith actually doesn’t look that good. This is the toughest option. In other words, explicit acts of faith actually don’t look good from the outside. Try videotaping yourself praying.

Answer #4: We are chasing a red herring. The question, “Why doesn’t faith look appealing on the big screen?”, supposes that we are actually looking for authenticity in the faith of the movie portrayal. First of all, movies are not authentic; they are productions. Second, it is a mistake to look for a authentic religious practice because the substance of the religious practice is not authenticity. The substance of religious life is right living, right beliefs, right worship – these done sincerely, of course, but not always needing to feel sincere, authentic, desired, or real. That is – understanding a right relationship to God, rather than being in a relationship with God.

Answer #5: Quite the opposite. The relationship with God is primary. The crucial disjuncture of faith and film is that the film cannot let us in on the main character hearing God, being warmed by Him, or being devoted to Him. Faith does not look good in movies because faith is not “existential experience of faith” but an experience of a real God.

Lend your thoughts.

3 Comments

  • Avatar
    February 26, 2011

    Kathleen Worthington

    Faith in films is unappealing because it is portrayed as an “author’s message.” The faith film wants to teach us something, or point something out, or do pretty much anything except create catharsis, which is the true purpose of drama. However, I would argue that faith in film is everywhere; it’s just ephemeral.

    When the Riders of Rohan arrive at Gondor’s battlefield (yes, I’m an LotR egghead), and all has seemed lost as the hideously evil orcs destroy the White City, and the horns ring out announcing the Rohirrim’s presence, whose heart doesn’t lift? When the Riders charge into the battle, expecting to die, and sun glints off their armor, and the horses pound and the soundtrack makes you literally cry, who doesn’t feel the majesty of the moment? This is faith in film. Music, heroism, goodness.

    What about a Jane Austen movie (the article that brought your blog to my attention), when Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet realizes that his precious Lizzie really and truly loves someone, which also means that she will leave him? What about . . . (I’m a movie maniac, so I could go on forever here.)

    Like any of the arts, greatness, truth and beauty in film lead us to our Maker. Unfortunately, overt faith in film tends to forget the rudimentaries of creativity, perhaps believing that good intentions will carry the day. My strong belief in this led me to jump in and add my 2c. Thanks, and I look forward to reading more.

  • February 26, 2011

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  • Avatar
    December 14, 2011

    Frederica Mathewes-Green

    Interesting idea. I think that there was a time when faith was sometimes portrayed effectively in movies, such as George’s prayer in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (immediately answered with a punch in the nose, I think, but it’s a sincere and credible moment). And, the same year, same star, in “Made for Each Other,” Jimmy Stewart’s character prays hard when it looks like his baby may die. These are effective moments, but not possible in today’s films, I think, bec of changing expectations. In many movies there are moments of stress in which even a non-believer woudl be tempted to pray, but no one in the story ever does.