Calvary and the Christian Cinema Crisis

Last week, after a Good Friday service, I watched a Christian movie. Every good movie contains truth, but some go even further and explicitly proclaim the way of Jesus. I call these “Christian” movies. Unfortunately, most of them are terrible. This one wasn’t. This one was Calvary. 

Calvary tells the story of a village priest in Ireland named Father James. In the opening scene, a man bears his soul in a confession booth. The man recounts a sad history of abuse as a boy. Then, he announces to Father James that he’s going to kill him in one week. He wants revenge, but rather than kill a bad priest, he wants to kill a good one. The rest of the film plays out as a Holy Week for Father James. We see him minister to his flock in the village, all the while moving each day closer to Sunday when he’ll meet his killer and possibly his maker.

Calvary is a standout film with a razor sharp script and an unforgettable performance from Brendan Gleeson. But it’s also a great Christian movie, and that made me marvel at how rare great Christian films have become. Consider 2014’s God’s Not Dead, Left Behind, and Saving Christmas. What does Calvary do right that these movies do wrong?

Calvary is Honest About the Sins of the World

Bad Christian movies present a fantasy land where characters are only as bad as the PG rating allows. Calvary is rated R. People swear. Some are violent. Some are vulgar. This is the world we live in. There’s nothing clean or tidy about it. If the Bible isn’t shy about depicting the reality of sin in the world, why should we be?

Calvary provides a character for nearly every idol the world is pining for these days. Materialism, greed, suicide, atheism, unforgiveness, murder, cynicism, religion, racism, war, and abuse are all topics covered. The film’s darkly comic tone allows deep ground to be reached without falling victim to heavy-handedness.

The other way Calvary is honest about the sins of the world is by refusing to present a war between Christians and non-Christians. The truth, as depicted by Calvary, is that most people aren’t directly opposed to Christianity — they’re indifferent. They fail to see any benefit of the Christian life. Our job as Christians isn’t to fight against unbelievers or beat them over the head with truth. Our job is to be lights in the darkness. Our job is to so radiate love and faith that people want to know our Jesus.

Calvary is Honest About the Sins of Christians

There’s a trend in Christian films not to make Christian characters too sinful. After all, they’re supposed to stand out — they’re the salt and light. Father James bucks this trend. At his darkest moment in the film, Father James turns to alcohol after being sober for years. Here we see a broken man. He swears and lashes out. He even gets violent.

But Father James still shines brighter than the characters around him in that he recognizes the sins in his life and fights against them through an abiding walk with God. He loses the battle sometimes, but the next day he gets up and begins again. When a character accuses him of being judgmental, he responds: “Yes, I am.  But I’m trying not to be.”

Christians aren’t different because they’re perfect. They’re different because they know Jesus, and his grace sets them free.

Calvary is Centered On its Art, Not its Message

I’m horrible at poetry. I focus too much on the point I’m trying to make, and my poems end up ham-fisted. Great poets don’t start with a message, they start with the words. They’re entranced with the beauty of letters and sentences colliding, and out of the beauty of the words comes truth.

The same is true for film. Great filmmakers focus on good stories, three dimensional characters, and artistic form. The message comes later, and may even be unintentional. Why are non-Christians able to make Hollywood movies dripping with Biblical truth? Because they’re focused on the art and, in so doing, they’ve created a breeding ground where truth can flourish.

I wish more Christian filmmakers would understand this. Go to film school. Study movies. Learn the craft. Calvary succeeds where most Christian movies fail because it’s first and foremost a good movie. The greatest message in the world will be dead on arrival if it’s not wrapped in quality art.

The Crisis

Christian cinema is in a crisis. We’ve become a laughingstock. Being persecuted is part of the territory for Christians, but can we please be persecuted for the right reasons? Let’s be persecuted because we love Jesus, not because our movies are awful. There’s more at stake here than just our reputation. Christ’s reputation is on the line too, along with his message.

What if all Christian movies were as good as The Apostle, Dead Man Walking, The Tree of Life, and Calvary? People would stop and take notice. Questions would be asked. Discussions would be had. We could, quite literally, change the world.

Douglas Gresham once said “My Grandfather, C.S. Lewis, used to say ‘We do not need more Christian books, we need more Christians writing good books.’ I’d like you to know that also applies to film. We do not need more Christian movies. We need more Christians making good movies. Because that is how we will change the world. We look around and we see our presidents and potentates, and we call them our leaders. They’re not. It’s the people who make the movies that lead the world.”