Why Can’t Christian Films Be Better?

Recently I’ve found myself having to defend to parishioners and friends the fact that I could not stand the movie Courageous. There seems to be almost an expectation that, as a Catholic priest, I should love explicitly Christian films. While I certainly think that the message of fatherly responsibility was good, and I would support, and maybe even encourage people to watch it, I still didn’t like the film. Granted, I am an admitted film snob, but just because I did not like the movie, know that I don’t think those who did like the movie are cinematic philistines. I want to applaud those people who watch and support films like as an alternative to the hyper sexualized and hyper violent films Hollywood has made the new standard. I also want to make it clear that I admire the individuals who made the film Courageous. They have noble intentions and the popularity of such films will hopefully send a message to Hollywood and the larger film companies that there is a discernible market for Christian cinema in America. Yet it’s been difficult, while trying to respect the Christian sensibilities of others, to explain exactly why I do not like Courageous and other similar explicitly Christian films. I think however I’ve finally been able to clearly formulate my opinion why I didn’t like the film.

If you go to your local chain bookstore you will inevitable find a couple of rows of books dedicated to “Christian Fiction.” Christian fiction is a genre that has grown in popularity over recent years (as is evidenced in the fact that shelves housing these books seem to have gradually replaced the more traditional “Christian Theology” ones. However, the largest proliferations of shelves have been those containing “New Age” volumes. This says a lot about the religious inclinations of presumably literate Americans today). Most works of Christian fiction contain explicitly Christian themes and plot lines that tend to attract a more Evangelical or fundamentalist reader base. With few exceptions While these titles might warm the Christian soul, with few exceptions, they leave a lot to be desired in the realm of actual literary merit.

Compare these titles to the classic Catholic novels and literary works of the 20th Century – Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted, the novels of Georges Bernanos, Greene’s The Power and The Glory, the poetry and drama of TS Eliot, Wise Blood and the plethora of short stories by Flannery O’Connor, the novels of Walker Percy and even the works of Jon Hassler and JF Powers. Like contemporary Christian fiction, these works deal directly with Christian themes (the authors in no way hide their Faith), yet they are markedly different than contemporary fiction. Why? Because they contain a real literary flair and philosophical and theological weight.  They are the works of individuals who were both Christians and consummate artists. They have an intellectual, cultural, and spiritual depth that contemporary Christian fiction lacks. Contemporary Christian fiction novels are unapologetically Christian, but it takes more than a strong belief in Christ to make a good work of fiction.  It takes talent and a certain amount of subtlety in dealing with the subject matter.  I look at the jackets of most of these books and they appear to me to look like a cross between a Harlequin romance novel and an edition of Little House on the Prairie adventures. If this is any hint as to the subject matter that lies inside, I will gladly stick with in the gritty realism of Graham Greene or the grotesque South of Flannery O’Connor. These novels are immanent enjoyable and contain a message of real human and spiritual depth. Fortunately, there are Christian writers today like Michael O’Brien who are attempting to write good Christian fiction of genuine literary and spiritual value.

What is true for literature also applies to film. Although the medium is different, the stories conveyed are essentially the same (thus we see so many books being made into movies). Think of contemporary Christian cinema that is typified by films such as Courageous, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants. Great messages? Yes. Decent films? Maybe. Good art? No. Will these films last the test of time? I seriously doubt it. They are the celluloid equivalent of contemporary Christian fiction. They will attract a certain audience but like their counterparts on paper, will end up occupying the bargain bins and eventually be forgotten.

Now compare these films to the classic Hollywood and international Christian films such as The Ten Commandments, The Bells of St. Mary, Black Narcissus, Au Hazard Baltasar, Diary of a Country Priest, The Flowers of St. Francis, Andrei Rublev (fortunately most of these are available on DVD or Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection). But also consider more contemporary Christian films such as Babette’s Feast, Of Gods and Men, and of course The Passion of the Christ. These are works of genuine spiritual depth, but also of artistic and cultural value. Like the great Catholic novels of the 20th century, these will, God willing, stand the test of time.

But the unfortunate truth is, except for the classics and more widely-released films like The Passion of the Christ, most American Christians have never heard of these other films. And if they did, most would not be interested in watching them since most of them are foreign films and most Americans don’t like to have to “read” a movie and even more, see cinema as entertainment and not art. It’s the same reason that “Christian fiction” titles are multiplying like the congregation at the newest Mega-Church, while Evelyn Waugh sits forgotten on the shelf. This is an unsettling statement about our cultural and spiritual depth as a nation.

And that is the real heart of my dislike of the film – it portrays a shallow Christianity. Our two millennia old Faith has a tremendous richness to it. And inspired by their Faith in Christ, individuals have produced some of the greatest art known to man, Catholics especially. Great works of art and spirituality rarely “lay it all out” for their audience. There is always a sense of mystery that draws you in and continues to unveil new dimensions and meanings to you. There is no sense of mystery in Courageous. The very commendable message is predictably laid out right from the beginning for its audience.

Frankly, it might be unfair to expect such artistic and theological profundity from a film like Courageous. The producers are certainly good Christians, but unlike many of the other films mentioned, they do not approach their subject matter from a “sacramental worldview.” This tends to be the approach of Catholic artists who often attempt to reveal the mystery within creation and existence. The sacramental perspective is not a real part of a more fundamentalist approach to Christianity, and this fact bears itself out in films such as Courageous.

Artists such as Michelangelo and Caravaggio have left us breathtaking works of art that reveal the mystery of the human and the divine. Film is the artistic medium of our age. While films like Courageous have their place, Christian filmmakers should take up the challenge to not only convey the truths of the Christian faith, but that also convey a sense of beauty and mystery in their films. These are the type films that will have the power to truly change minds and touch hearts for generations to come.


Fr. Bryce Sibley is a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette. He was ordained to the priesthood in the year 2000. He is currently serving as pastor and chaplain of Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center on the Campus of the University of Louisiana - Lafayette.

  • RK

    I haven’t seen Courageous, but I think your larger point is excellent. Many contemporary books, movies, and art in general avoid the grappling with real issues of Faith and opt instead for a timid and derivative glance at religous issues. Thre is no greater drama in human history than Faith and many of its story lines still wait to be explored.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    The differences you outline here in the area of artistry are representative of the differences between Protestant and Catholic expressions of faith.  Protestants have “church services” that are not objectionable in themselves and are quite commendable – scripture reading, good songs, and oftentimes a great sermon.  But these services leave you flat and wanting for more.  The Catholic Mass has these elements but much more in that the Eucharist draws you (if you allow it) into the fuller mystery of the transcendent God who is love.  The Eucharist is at the same time immanent and transcendent.  

    I agree with all you have written about Courageous.  My wife and I saw it in the theatre (mainly to give it some financial support as a counter-cultural effort on our part).  I came away saying to myself that what I experienced was obvious and true but did not speak to anything more profound on a spiritual level.  It simply did not transport me to any place where I had not already been.

  • Pingback: Why Can’t Christian Films Be Better? | Catholic Canada()

  • Pargontwin

    This is exactly what I experienced when I tried to read the “Left Behind” series.  Though I never believed in the Fundamentalist view of what the End Times would be like, there’s always that little bit of guilty curiosity about the future.  But I found those books to be very nearly unreadable.  What could have been a wonderfully dramatic story ended up about as cut and dried as a poorly made documentary.  It was too predicable, and, worst of all, too implausible.  It adhered to the most literal possible interpretation of Revelation (and I’ve never found anything that even remotely suggested the “Rapture” to me anywhere in Scripture), and the question that plagued from the time Nicholas Carpathia became the Potentate was, if we mere humans know all this is coming, wouldn’t the devil know it too?  Wouldn’t the forces of Hell be able to block Christian efforts at every turn?  Even taking into account the fact that God can blind those fallen angels to certain things, as St. Mary of Agreda tells us the Blessed Virgin revealed to her  in “Mystical City of God,” the implausibility factor was simply too high. 

    So, even to someone who sees cinema and literature as mere entertainment, artistic merit still has some importance.. 

  • Sherry

    Not everyone  is college educated, and of those that are, the great majority have never had a theology course to be able to mine the depths of some of the authors to which you refer. It is all very well and good for well-educated people to encourage better books and films, but I believe that movies like Courageous are also filling a great need. 

    Many people really thought Courageous was an excellent movie because of its messages in terms of strong fathers, chastity, etc. It was an inspirational movie for many parents and children – who may not have attended some of the movies you listed. And, if like the books that do not become classics, these kinds of movies are relegated to the dust bin, they will have served their purpose, one of which was to get parents and children talking about serious issues.

    Another movie that was criticized was There Be Dragons. I live in a retirement area and a number of people from our condo building went to see this movie. A friend of mine had bought out the theater and I helped to sell tickets. After the movie, at a restaurant, people from our building were in four booths in a row, having  just come from the movie and all were having stimulating discussions about it. Several were atheists and they were asking questions about Catholicism. One of them is now thinking about the Church in a serious way. A “fallen away” Catholic friend who saw the movie went to Confession for the first time in years.

    The Holy Spirit is working in lots of ways in lots of various venues. My marketing background has helped me to see that there are many different people with many different needs and many different approaches.

     So I hope that we encourage lots of creative Catholic young people (maybe who have gone to the World Youth Days) to go into media to help develop wonderful evangelization tools.

    P.S. I sure hope movies are made of Michael O’Brien’s books!

  • Fr. JohnR.

    As a Catholic priest, I wholeheartedly agree.  It is unfortunate that the many wonderful films with Catholic sensibilities have to be explained to our people.  The sacramental worldview is fading.  Maybe that is why The Tree of Life was greeted with so much confusion by those who saw it.

    • Geraldine Duddleston Young

      I saw The Tree of Life and was moved by it, but it also was forgettable. The message, for me at least, did not last much longer than the film.

  • Kendrick fan

    I agree that movies such as The Passion of the Christ are incredible works of art, but I do admire the Kendrick brothers for their efforts to bring their particular brand of Christian viewing to those who are tired of  disappointing, sometimes horrifying, secular fare.  I enjoyed Flywheel in particular and thought it conveyed a good message within an interesting story.  I actually found myself in tears at times.  Although their acting is somewhat amateurish, there is a sweet innocence about it that I find refreshing. They are obviously not “movie stars.”  You have to give them credit for putting their money where their mouth is.  If uplifting is the most they can provide, sometimes that is enough.

  • buckyinky

    There may be an even more obvious reason that these films are horrible, though it may contradict somewhat Fr. Sibley’s point about the message being a good one.  The blogger Dalrock has a very incisive and convincing critique of Courageous, concluding that the movie in grand, though often subtle, ways does not speak or otherwise convey the truth.

  • JOB

    While I wholly agree with your general premise, having not seen the film in question, I would like to see you cite some “chapter and verse” as it were from the film itself. Are there any glaring examples of this lack of sacramental view which mars the film?

    Also (and maybe this is part of your larger point), it’s a shame that most Catholics these days look at film and entertainment as somehow outside the bounds of sound investments – catechetically and, inicidentally, financially.

    Clearly, the folks making these Protestant films have found the opposite to be true – and they’re laughing all the way to the bank, I daresay. So, where – outside of Mel Gibson – are the Catholics willing to put their money where their mouth is. Barbara Nicolosi is one, for sure. Any other takers? Bueller? Bueller?

    At any rate, thanks for an interesting article.


    • Fr. Mike

       JOB, funny you should mention the lack of “Catholic investment” into this art form.  Next week, the film “For Greater Glory”, about the Cristero War in Mexico, opens nationwide.  Starring Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, and Peter O’Toole, it tells the story of a people who stand up for religious freedom against a government that has outlawed that right (how appropriate to our own time).  This film was actually partially funded by the Knights of Columbus, and truly resonates to us today not only spiritually, but also culturally, politically, and artistically. 

  • Laughing all the way to the bank like pornography and simple minded sex comedy producers?  Just because a film generates large profit does not make it high art.  The message of these movies are great, but they are so watered down and unbelievable from a character standpoint that it’s hard to take them seriously.  Most of the ‘people’ portayed in these films are Christian caricatures tip toeing an invisibly thin line, as not to tick off the loud fundementalists.  I wish there were more Christian based movies with real, identifiable characters who have depth.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a market for these films, and many people love them.  As a Christian, a Catholic, and an artist I just desire more.  How else can the other side be reached through this medium?
    And also, did not plan on watching this film, already saw “Fireproof” and others.  It could very well be a great movie.
    “The Way” is a pretty good flick, and far superior to a film like “Fireproof” IMO.

    Great article, thanks for that!

    • Geraldine Duddleston Young

      “The Way” is an incredibly thought-provoking movie. I highly recommend it. The problem with movies like Courageous or God’s Not Dead is they tend to want to hit you over the head with their Christian message. Movies like “The Way” let you discover it for yourself, as it should be.

  • Nel

    You’ve said beautifully and clearly exactly what I think about ‘Christian Fiction.’  Truly, on a literary level, it’s down there with Harlequin Romances – and propaganda of all sorts, which is, in my view, what it is: it preaches to the converted and perhaps can sway the very young or very gullible who are in the process of being formed as evangelicals or fundamentalists, but it is unlikely to engage any thinking person or bring about any dramatic conversions. 

    I’ve spent more than 25 years of my life studying and teaching the great books of English and American literature.  In contrast to those lasting works of true literary worth, ‘Christian Fiction’ in print or film, strikes me as the artistic equivalent of an evangelical informercial for spray-on salvation.  No depth, no richness, no subtlety… everything’s on the surface, and it feels more artificial than artistic.

    Films CAN have a philosophical or theological depth without hitting the ‘average viewer’ over the head with it.  Take a film like Dead Poets Society.  It’s full of references to the American Transcendentalists that are completely lost on many, many viewers (judging from the experience of my many, many students).  But when those references are opened up, the film becomes much deeper, more profound, more thought-provoking and disturbing – and people enjoy it on a completely different level.  And they enjoy the fact that they can enjoy it on a deeper level; they like the fact that they can step back from the film, see how it engaged and manipulated their emotions, and then ask, ‘But was the Transcendentalist experiment at Welton School really a good idea?’  That’s how art works: it attracts people who only see the surface, who simply enjoy it, without thinking much about it.  But it also can be plumbed for deeper significance in a way that delights and inspires the ‘average’ viewer or reader; real art can broaden the mind.  It doesn’t just reinforce what the audience already believes.

    “Christian Fiction” and “Christian films” lack depth, probably because the theology behind it is so shallow.  The Reformation cut itself off from a millenium and a half of Christian philosophy and art, and embraced a sort of self-inflicted amnesia about the human condition by abandoning the communion of saints and the confessional.  It is no wonder that art produced by evangelicals and fundamentalists will be shallow stuff. 

    Garrison Keillor wistfully remarked in one of his monologues that at the Reformation, the Catholics got the Sistine Chapel, and the fundamentalists got the ‘Praying Hands.’  I think he summed up the difference between ‘Christian Art’  and art in the Catholic – the fully Christian -tradition rather neatly.

  • Barney

    Not too sure just how embarrassed I should be here, but after 16 years of Catholic education, I have never heard the term “sacramental worldview.”   I can deduce the intended meaning, but why are we viewing the world through the lens of our sacraments?  Is that really what our faith distills down to in the end?  Perhaps you have over-intellectualized our faith Father.  I for one enjoyed the movie and thought it was a little cheezy at times, but scored on what I perceive our faith to be about in it’s most basic form.  We were, are, and will be sinners separated from God and in need of a Savior.  Jesus went to the cross to pay a price that we are not capable of doing ourselves.  We normally refer to this as the Gospel – the worldview that should trump a sacramental one if you ask me.  

    What do I know though…I’m just one frustrated Dad in the pews…   With respect to your next article, I suggest a more introspective tone, maybe something along the lines of “Why can’t Sunday Sermons be better?”  Perhaps with that premise, you could offer proactive remedies that inspire (from the pulpit) the next generation of film makers and actors and singers and entertainers that will want to personally engage Hollywood and attempt to fight back and recover lost ground that Hollywood has been encroaching on for the last 40 years.    Considering the filth that Hollywood dispenses on a regualr basis, I would expect a modicum of support for wholesome attempts to push back against the corrosive effects of the Entertainment Elites instead of simply lamenting how “they don’t make them like they used to…”  

    • Tim

      No offense intended Barney, because I don’t know when you received those 16 years of Catholic education, but Catholic education has been, to put it mildly, very weak over the past 30-40 years.  The Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are what makes us Catholic, and necessarily informs our worldview.     Father’s vocation here on earth isn’t to encourage us to stay where we are, but to feed, nourish, forgive, and heal us through the Sacraments, and preach the Gospel to us.  What makes the Gospel that you mentioned anything different than what you could hear at 10,000 protestant churches on any given Sunday?  The Sacramental worldview is everything.  Without it, you will continue to just be ‘one more frustrated Dad in the pews.’     Also, you make some pretty strong assumptions that Father isn’t encouraging and teaching proactively from the pulpit, and totally miss that he is giving a modicum of support (see the first paragraph and the second to last paragraph).  Fr. Barron has a great video about the age of dumbed down Catholicism that we live in.  Enjoy!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZkPH1rOAG0

      • Barney

        Appreciate the video. But I’m a little confused, I don’t know of a sacramental world view, which none of my friends do either by the way. We tried to Google it and found 4,200 references in an environment that returns more than 10 million average replies in a normal search. So while I don’t want to step on any toes, do we need to really manufacture a nouveau , cutting edge approach to our faith? Am I to blame for being dumbed down or insolent for insinuating we tend to over-complicate our faith sometimes. I can’t help but wonder what Father Bryce hopes to accomplish by introducing a Sacramental Worldview into a rare public conversation about giving one’s life to Jesus. Is the absence of an explanation (and embracing) of trans-substantiation the issue or have we over-complicated Grace. His yoke is light. Dumbed down is an interesting descriptive.

        • KEVIN OBRIEN

          A sacramental worldview is the recognition that everything that exists can be made holy by God, and is valuable, both because everything was made by God and because God became man and died to redeem it – died to redeem all of creation, which now, especially since the Incarnation, points to the presence of God in a deep and effective way, as the Sacraments do.   Ordinary matter, ordinary life, ordinary man  is thereby elevated to a mystical significance.

          A sacramental worldview grows out of our experience of the Sacraments, but is not merely a symbol of the Sacraments, nor a narrow analogy to any particular Sacrament.

          Fr. Sibley’s point is that a Catholic like Shakespeare can celebrate all of life dramatically, for all of life fits into God’s plan and leads us to Him; Protestants like the makers of mediocre films begin with the presumption that God can not operate through everything in life.  This makes creating drama from a Protestant non-sacramental worldview a challenge.

        • Kirsten Milliard

           Hello Barney. The sacramental worldview about which Father writes is a huge reason that I love Jesus and the Church and my faith rather than just plodding along in the faith. It is anything but “nouveau;” it comes forth from the Incarnation itself, and so has everything to do with the Gospel and our salvation. The Sacraments are very special ways, mediated by the Church, in which the grace of God and God Himself are made present to us in this world. But our entire world is filled with small-s sacraments–other signs of the presence of God. The sacramental worldview sees that all creation is imbued with the grace of God because God himself entered the world as Christ, renewing creation. Truly beautiful things are sacraments, and they usually comprise both simple and complex elements. The human race itself, being made in the image of God, is given the grace to create beautiful things that, like all sacraments, point beyond themselves to the highest and deepest good: God.

          Ironically, I was forced to use one of the “comic books” of theology to which Fr. Barron refers in my high school Sacraments class. The problem with the “dumbing down” that these books do is that they try to limit the Sacraments to oversimplified dictionary-style definitions which end up having no real, significant impact on anyone who reads them. It was not until I was handed Augustine’s Confessions that I felt in my heart what it meant to say that the Eucharist was the source and summit of our faith. I learned more about the Sacrifice of Mass reading Martin Luther, for heaven’s sakes, than I did reading the “comic book”. And the further I got in my theological education, the greater and more lovely the mystery became. My education doesn’t mean that I understand God, or the Church or the sacraments. The number one thing it has taught me is how little I can know about God, but also how important it is to continue seeking and loving him. That’s what sacraments and Sacraments ought to do as well–they give you a glimpse of God and even the Real Presence, but keep you hungry for more. The creations that Father criticizes seem to try to lay out God simply without acknowledging His complexity. Fr. Barron’s “Catholicism” presents the doctrine and liturgy of our faith by means of the sacraments created throughout the ages of the Catholic tradition–the churches, the writings, the art works, the lives of the saints and more. We come to know truth through these beauties, because authentic beauty is truth. The Truth that sets us free is the suffering of the Sacrifice on the Cross as well as the beauty and glory of the Resurrection and heaven. Catholicism is at its best when what it has been (the tradition) works with the Church that it is now to make that Real suffering and saving presence of Christ known in souls. As C.S. Lewis wrote, we are far too easily pleased by what is offered to our souls when God is offering so much more. His essay “The Weight of Glory” can give you a pretty good idea of what a sacramental worldview is.

    • JP

      The sacraments are gifts from God to us and serve as a sign of God’s love. An example of the sacramental view of life is marriage. The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony (the making of mothers) contains both a physical and mystical form. However, if we just concentrate on the physcial (civil unions, marriage) and not the mystical we reduce marriage to nothing more than a physical arrangement for cohabitation. If we just concentrate on the mystical at the cost of the physical, then marriage becomes nothing more than an abstraction. But seen from its totality (sacramental perspective), Holy Matrimony has a unity of both that connects a physical act with a spiritual (unseen) one. Both are needed. And there are times that God grants us the Grace to occaisonally get a partial glimpse of them in thier true form.

      JRR Tolkien brings this sacramental perspective out in his Ring trilogy. Suffering (especially Redemptive Suffering) has a depth of meaning in Tolkien’s art, as the suffering of Frodo and Samwise mirrors the suffering of Christ’s self-giving. Tolkien took a sacramental view of his art and if one reads carefully one can see it effused in the Catholic symbolism of the Shire, Middle Earth, the Elfs, as well as the lives of Men. Life, Death, and especially Nature.

      The Diary of a Country Priest is another work of art that  employs a very sublte sacramental view of life. The awful sufferings of Father Laydu have meaning when taken within the context of Catholic Theology. Both the novel and the movie elegantly join theology and art in order to an important point home. The movie is preachy without being preachy. There is no happy ending; but the movie and novel point to an unseen reality that transcends physical happiness.

      Seeing our existence and the world’s existence through the lens of Gods Love (the Sacraments) is in my opinion the most difficult thing to learn, let alone live . The Sacramental “worldview” stresses the unseen as much the seen. We can not fully understand the gift of Holy Matrimony or Absolution, or the Holy Eucharist. We cannot understand suffering -especially Redemptive Suffering.  Mother Theresea lived a sacremental life, despite the fact that God withheld his consolations from her throughout most of her life. But like Father Laydu, she could say at the end of her life, “All is Grace.”

  • Elinor Dashwood

    I can’t sit through TPOTC, even for the pleasure of reminding people that I was on to Mel Gibson while all the other Catholic bloggers were still dissolving into little puddles of gratification that Somebody Totally Cool was willing to say he was Catholic.  (He wasn’t, of course; as I kept pointing out, he was a schismatic.)  I also can’t abide The Ten Commandments (the dialogue is unbearably coy and inept) and Going My Way, which would have made two or three better, shorter films, but which I found very confusing all in one picture.  I haven’t seen Diary of a Country Priest, but I’ve heard it admired and I’d like to watch it one day.

  • Bill A

    Fr. Bryce,


    I wholeheartedly agree with your opinions. I have seen all
    of the movies made by this group and enjoyed them all while all along wishing
    that they had been made by someone looking through a Catholic lens.


    I felt the same thing about the book “The Shack.”


    I would like to hear your comments on the “Fatherless.
    Motherless, Childless” series of books by Brain J. Gail.

  • Tim

    Fr. Sibley – thanks for a breath of fresh air!  Your same comments also apply to the heavily promoted film October Baby, which, quite frankly, was very superficial and lacking in a lot of areas.  One thing you didn’t mention outright, which I think may be one of the reasons why so many Catholics latch onto movies like these is that when their is a famine, and food is put on the table finally, people tend to be rather indiscriminate about what it is, and even think it is the best thing they have ever tasted… We lived in dumbed down times where there is no appreciation of art in all its forms, including music as well.  I think a lot of this, for Catholics, is fundamentally rooted in dumbed down, protestantized liturgy, with a lot of the sacredness and reverence taken out of it.  Our liturgies for so many people today have been trying to imitate and become relevant with our culture and society, instead of elevating it, and bringing folks to a sense of mystery, awe, and beauty.  People don’t recognize beauty when they see it anymore,  because like you wrote about art, beauty doesn’t ‘lay it all out there,’ but seeks to draw you in and ‘continues to unveil new dimensions and meanings to you.’  There’s a priest who has a couple homilies/talks on movies and music you might like:




  • sibyl

    Gosh, and this is how I also felt about Bella. Again, I wanted to like it; I was prepared to give it all kinds of leeway. And artistically, it had some good cinematography and actors who actually could act. But the plot was TOO PAT. It was just too easy, esp. when the girl is invited home and we are treated to the “big happy ethnic family” scene, in which it is revealed that her dilemma has already been dealt with by others and look how well it all turned out! But even Bella was better than Fireproof, which was one long thinly disguised sermon. After I watched it, I spent at least an hour thinking of all the ways that movie could have portrayed the exact same idea, but better, with more true art. Isn’t the very first dictum of any kind of writing to “show, don’t tell”? Almost that entire movie was an object lesson in telling rather than showing.

  • El mono liso

    main problem is that Christianity has become a rather bloodless and
    individualistic matter, especially in the developed world. I speak as someone
    who is barely a believer. A differing characteristic of those works of
    literature and art that you cite as the glories of Christendom is that, unlike
    modern Christian media, they reflected real life just as it was, warts and all.
    Michelangelo’s David is a statue of a naked man; Pius V condemned his Sistine
    Chapel ceiling to be a stew of nudes. Would any of these films show nudity? I
    didn’t think so. Personally, I think James Joyce’s Ulysses is a profoundly
    Catholic work. Which right-wing Catholic pundit would agree with me?

    you want to portray the dramas of actual human beings and not just as kitschy
    caricatures on a holy card, you have to portray all aspects of their life. They
    defecate, they fornicate, they vomit, and they doubt. They do all sorts of
    things that push the limits of what faith and good behavior mean. Think of
    Shusaku Endo’s Silence: is it clear that the main character has done right, or
    wrong, or neither? You should also consider Miguel de Unamuno’s short story,
    San Manuel Bueno, Martir, about the priest who loses his faith. Unamuno was not
    a leftist, and not a foaming-at-the-mouth enemy of the Church. The truth is,
    most Christian art has devolved into kitsch because it can barely stand the
    weight and heft of the burdens of the real world. Modern Christianity, even when
    it pretends to embrace the Cross, is an exercise in sheer escapism. This even
    is the case in the field of devotion. What “good Catholic woman” could pray
    without blushing the traditional prayer for easy childbirth to Santa Librada in
    Spain, roughly translated: “May it feel as good coming out as it did going

    other words, Christian art is a victim of its own success. Those Catholics who
    care enough about what the Church teaches to actually attempt a “Catholic art”
    are too “well catechized”, too infused with bourgeois morality to make anything
    remotely interesting. In the end, they end up making a Thomas Kinkade-esque
    world of G-rated fantasy with a little bit of holy water sprinkled on it. What
    many assume to be “Catholic art” was merely art done in societies where
    Catholicism was the dominant philosophy by default, and people had to fit real
    life into Catholic ideological categories. They created great art, but is
    Handel’s Carmelite Vespers any different stylistically from any one of his
    operas based on some gaudy secular tale of love and treachery? Is any given
    painting of a Renaissance or Baroque Madonna any less inspiring because the
    model for the painting was a courtesan? Or are these the real reasons these
    works were successful in the first place: the perfect harmony of the sacred and
    the profane, or rather, the blurring of the lines between the two realms.
    Again, I speak as an outsider looking in, but these are questions would-be
    Catholic and Christian artists must ask themselves.

    terms of films, I have to give my hearty recommendation to the Mexican film,
    Yo, la peor de todas, on the life of the Mexican nun and polymath, Sor Juana
    Ines de la Cruz. 


      El Mono Liso, what you are describing here is the sacramental worldview.  It is also exactly what Jesus did – he descended into the depths of humanity in order to redeem it.  The superficial make-believe world where prayers bring new cars (“Facing the Giants”) and nobody sins (much Catholic fiction) is both bad art and, in spirit at least, anti-christian.

  • Alecto

    I happened to catch a charming film called “St. Ralph” about a young Canadian runner who believes that winning the Boston Marathon will provide the miracle he needs to snap his mother out of her coma and the priest who coaches him.  There is some predictability in the friction between the elder/younger priest, but it was encouraging, almost ethereal and funny. 

    I also loved “The Mission” for its themes of innocence, sin, penance and redemption.  And, while these aren’t necessarily “Christian” films, “The Verdict”, about a  drunk lawyer who finds his soul (and let’s face it for any lawyer to find his soul is quite a feat), reminding us that the Lord extends his hand in mercy and forgiveness even to those who seem too far gone;  “The Shawshank Redemption”, the classic story of making lemonade out of life’s lemons, and “Apocalypto”, for its highly underrated illustration of the consequences of moral corruption. 

  • Jay E.

    Good points, Father. Another thing that is very irritating, and the same, in all the Fireproof, Facing the Giants, and Courageous movies is the bad theology of the “prosperity Gospel”. All these people start doing good things and praying… and behold, their football team starts winning, they get a great job and get promoted, they get rich and happy and successful. Which is totally what happens when someone starts following Christ………….

    Courageous, at least, was fairly entertaining – however shallow.


      Indeed, the Prosperity Gospel message in these movies – in “Facing the Giants”, just like on a game show, the praying protagonist gets A NEW CAR – is the worst thing about them.

  • poetcomic1

    I prefer more old-fashioned movies than ‘Courageous’.  For instance – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It pushes the indissolubleness of  marriage to the limits and upholds them.  It unwaveringly understands the sacred meaning of ‘the child’.  When Liz Taylor leans in the back door and says “I disgust me.” and then goes into ‘confessional mode’ that her husband is the only man that ever really satisfied her and loved her, I care about that horribly damaged couple more than a lot of ‘perfect’ ones.  Not to mention that the moviehas a LOT more Latin in it than 99% of modern NO masses).

  • Pingback: “… the celluloid equivalent of contemporary Christian fiction.” — The Curt Jester()


    Excellent article, and I’ve been writing about this for years – especially here, “Why Bad Christian Art is Anti-Christian” – http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/05/why-bad-christian-art-is-anti-christian.html

  • I would add that it’s hard for Catholic filmmakers to produce good art nowadays, because it’s hard for anybody to produce good art nowadays. 

    Anyway: I don’t go see recently-made movies, because they almost always disappoint me.  I am bombarded by an intrusive score.  I am dazed by pointless antics in cinematography.  I am bludgeoned by CGI’s.  I am wearied by film-school dialogue.  I am left cold by men and women attempting to guess what it is that men and women used to feel for one another. 

    So I’d rather watch — for deeply Christian art — almost any movie by John Ford, Frank Capra, and Alfred Hitchcock.  And by a few others, too.  Check out these relatively unknown but profoundly Christian works that are also very fine as art:

    Rich and Strange (Hitchcock)The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (Ingrid Bergman, Robert Donat)The Long Gray Line (Ford; Tyrone Power, Ingrid Bergman)Penny Serenade (Cary Grant, Irene Dunne)

    • Geraldine Duddleston Young

      Excellent suggestions! And they weren’t labeled as “Christian,” which, to me anyway, inevitably alienates an entire audience who needs to hear the message the most. The Christian message should be found in movies and books without having to “Force” it in them. Let human nature discover the beauty of God’ truth through the character interactions, not flowery speeches.

  • Pingback: On “Christian art” | The rose in the cross()

  • Olive

    I was just talking to my family about this yesterday…we as “Christians”need to put our money where our mouth is! If we want quality films with a message we need to pull together as a culture and support it. There is certainly plenty of money for the “other” stuff I won’t watch…let’s pull together and make it happen…I’m in.

  • Father, I say this the zeal of a missionary: Some of us just want to read something dumb.  We don’t want All High Art All The Time.  We want to relax, put up our feet, and watch or read something entertaining.  If it’s clean-cut and lively but without in-your-face Christian themes, it gets called “secular”.  Which means the portion of the pie that contains explicitly Christian messages is only a small slice of the total output of Catholic literary art today.

    I’d love to see more mid-level writers doing specifically Christian literature — neither cheesy evangelical romances nor this impressive literary stuff that only people way too smart for me read.  _Courageous_ doesn’t appeal to me, either, but I have to give the likes of Michelle Buckman, Karina Fabian, Regina Doman and John McNichol credit for trying to hit that middle point, neither saccharine nor too elevated, just good fun plotting, a nice slice of edge, but solidly and unmistakeably Catholic.

  • (I should clarify here: I also own and love a glow-in-the-dark crucifix.  If that helps anyone place me better, on the sacred art appreciation spectrum.)

  • Jason Negri

    Well-said, Father!  I am fond of the expression: “Piety is no substitute for technique”, and while I may disagree with your conclusion (I thought “Courageous” was a good movie and an improvement over its predecessors, e.g. “Fireproof” and “Facing the Giants”), I fully agree with your premise.  We need more catholic movies (small “c” intended)!

  • Alanonymous

    Good read. The same can be said of contemporary Christian music–it lacks testicles because it’s marketed to soccer moms and their kids (yes, I’ve talked to people who work at Christian labels and they acknowledge that). I’ve also talked to someone who works at Thomas Nelson and they didn’t even like having to deal with edgy Ted Dekker–they wanted to sanitize his writing. Oh the benefits of living in Nashville, where you find out the streets that glitter are not made of transparent gold.

    • Bono95

      I know! After a mere 30 seconds of any contemporary Christian song, I find myself craving heavy metal, which normally I can’t stand either. I know not everyone can be Bob Dylan when it comes to songwriting, but can’t these contemporary Christian artists PLEASE try harder not to leave listeners “stuck inside of Mobile with the Nashville-or-wherever-the-capital-of-contemporary-Christian-music-is blues again”?

      • Geraldine Duddleston Young

        I find contemporary Christian music cloying. I find better messages in love songs (provided they do not mention sex) because God is our Lover and His message is His Love for us. Think about the lyrics to Bread’s “Baby I’ma Want You. Crude, but true.

        • Bono95

          Amen, sister!

  • Pingback: First Links — 6.6.12 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog()

  • Jason Larabell

    Like any work of fiction (book or movie) there are the really good, good, not so good, bad, and really bad. Not every writer is going to be genius. In fact many or most will be nothing more than mediocre. Readers and viewers will get their something new fix but in the end the works of fiction probably aren’t that memorable. But that is not what is important in this day and age. What is important is that Christian works of fiction be popular so that we can influence two industries that have more or less forgotten we are a nation of 80% Christians. Even if we aren’t all as devout as we should be. I’m thinking the following may apply to what we read and watch: LK 6:45, Matt 12:33-35. Not everything that isn’t Christian is evil but given the choice between watching a Christian movie and one that is not of the same theme/plot one would hope that  the more uplifting (or other positive trait) Christian one be chosen. But again not that there is anything wrong with the other unless it is blatantly evil. Example a how to video guide of witchcraft (assuming there is something like that).

  • I agree…to a more indepth point….however, I believe that even the most shallow of Christian films serve a purpose. They appeal to those who do not appreciate the deeper philosophical and literary works. They look for “feel good” after-shock. They are not interested in immersing the human mind in the infinite realities and using those realities for more than short-term questioning (placed on the back burner of the intellect) which requires more than one moment in time to fully absorb. For those who want to dive far below the surface of the obvious moral-of-the-story, and ponder the questions that might arise from profusion of who, what, when, where and how electrifying the novel setting, characters, background, and how all of those components fit precisely into the film’s directives. I don’t know that we will ever experience on a regular basis that level of art in film, writing, or art. I’m sure the genius is still out there waiting for opportunity to express the beauty of the Christian faith of our fathers.

  • Bono95

    I must admit that I am both highly picky and highly opinionated, but I find Carmen Marcoux’s novels “Arms of Love” and “Surrender” to be near picture perfect illustrations of your point, Fr. Sibley. To their merit, the books provide desperately needed messages about chastity and discernment, contain very developed characters, and as the feedback in the back pages prove, have been loved by and had good effects on people of all ages and backgrounds. However, I found them to be a bit simplistic, repetitive in places, slightly overdone in the details, and rather in-your-face with the faith. (for example, the characters ALWAYS play and listen to contemporary Christian music and ONLY contemporary Christian music and maybe a little classical on the side. What little mention rock’n’roll gets is quite negative. I know very well that rock can be and is sometimes not clean or wholesome, but a not insignificant amount of it [good, bad, and morally indifferent] is quite well done technically and artistically, while most contemporary Christian songs I know = “praise the Lord, dance, sing, stand up and hug your neighbor”+ zero tune +zero rhyme scheme + same 4 chords [C, G, D, Em])

  • poetcomic1

    Excellent all around but no need to run down The Little House books. Read “The Long Winter”, for instance, for a harrowing child’s view of sheer survival as a family hunkers down against a primeval assault by winter-gone-mad. Laura’s future husband, Almonzo, as gallant as any young knight, sets out in a blizzard on a near-impossible journey to get wheat to feed his entire little community – and this is thought a normal examplee of youthful derring-do. We ‘peasant Catholics’ like that sort of thing but then I barely finished High School.

    • Bono95

      Maybe Father was referring to the TV series, not the books. The Little House books are fantastic, but the TV, in my view, wasn’t much more than a soap opera in a sun bonnet.

  • AugustineThomas

    I would argue that the reason that Waugh sits unread has more to do with the fact that people want something that deals with their current world. Older Catholics are closer to the time that Waugh is writing about, so they can more easily appreciate it.
    The problem is that, as the Church is made up overwhelmingly of heretics, real Catholic culture is dying. We aren’t producing anymore Waughs because they’re being won over to secularist belief because their parents are most likely heretics and there are no orthodox Catholics around to win them over to orthodoxy.
    We need to stop trying to team up with secularists and go back to what has worked for the first 2,000 years: being unashamedly, Catholic and, yes, even building Catholic enclaves to produce real missionaries to go out into the world.
    Trying to incorporate secularist belief only invariably converts Catholics to Godlessness and destroys the Faith.