Christian Movies - Ministry or Menace? (Part 1)

In January 1954, Youth for Christ Magazine, in the article “Who’s Who in Religious Films,” spotlighted key people and organizations involved in Christian film production. Around this same time, A.W. Tozer wrote “The Menace of the Religious Movie” in which he opposed the use of Christian films to portray spiritual or biblical dramatic performances. Youth for Christ was in favor of Christian films because of the decisions for Christ that accompanied them. However, they also recognized that there was opposition and sought to quell it by highlighting the positive aspects they saw with Christian films.

Below is a summary of the “Who’s Who” article presenting the justifications and rationale of those involved in and supportive of Christian films at that time.

The Early Days

C.O. Baptista was credited with pioneering the Christian film idea in the late 1930s. Baptista said that while using an object lesson during Sunday school “he suddenly caught a vision of what that same object lesson could do if presented as a motion picture in churches.” Baptista produced dramatic films, sermon-type pictures, and animated films. Reportedly, “hundreds of professions of faith” resulted from the showing of just one of his dramatic films.

Also in the late 1930s, Episcopal clergyman James Friedrich began Cathedral Films and produced biblically-themed films that “immediately caught fire among nearly all denominations.” He was criticized by some for using professional actors “some of whom appeared in the kind of secular films frowned on by many evangelical groups.” However, this did not dampen his endeavor and a later film on the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ “was the most honored religious film of 1953” when it won three awards.

Gaining Popularity

It was said of Dick Ross, of Great Commission Films, that “basic in all of his work is a clear desire to see people won for Christ…that has resulted in cameramen and others in his film productions coming to know Christ as Saviour.” Ross produced films for missionary work, colleges, and evangelists such as Billy Graham.

Irwin “Shorty” Yeaworth, the son of a Presbyterian minister, began Good News Productions in the basement of his father’s parsonage. He reasoned, “Jesus taught the crowds by telling stories…. Why couldn’t he do the same, using modern communications media?” Yeaworth emphasized that his goal was not to compete with other religious film organizations nor was it “to get the most business or produce the best films.” Rather, he felt “that God has led to a peculiar ministry, reaching the unsaved where they are, with a message they can understand.”

Growth and Expansion

Irwin Moon, of Moody Films, had a “vision of what God can do through documentary, scientific films.” Using the world as his stage, he specialized “in portraying through his camera the wonders of creation and God at work in nature and the world around us.”

Christian writer Ken Anderson, of Gospel Films, Inc., began writing, directing, and producing motion pictures when he “foresaw the place which films could and would have in evangelism and missions.” Likewise, evangelism was the aim of some of the movies produced by Unusual Films that were “geared for presenting the Gospel on high school and college campuses.”

Sam Hersh, a seller of educational films, came “to the realization that a great demand existed for religious films” for the family. In the 1940s he organized Family Films, Inc., showed a few of his movies to religious leaders across the United States, and then produced more films designed to meet the expressed needs of those who provided feedback. At first his films were thought to have “a somewhat watered down Christian message” but later productions were deemed effective “for evangelistic purposes.”

The End Justifies the Means?

Tucked in the Youth for Christ Magazine article, amid these vignettes about Christian filmmakers, was the short testimony of sixteen-year-old Bobby Oliver in which he thanked God that he “found the Lord Jesus Christ” through watching a Christian film. Bobby wrote, “I only pray that others might have the privilege of seeing this wonderful film that they, too, will receive the Lord Jesus as their Saviour.”

A personal testimony, such as Bobby’s, was the oft-used trump card played either proactively or defensively in response to future or present criticism of Christian films. One such critic was A.W. Tozer. He had seven arguments against the use of Christian movies (not including educational or missionary film presentations) that were reproduced in Youth for Christ Magazine in January 1954. That article, titled “Christian Movies? The Pro and Con of Religious Films,” included a condensed version of Tozer’s seven opposition arguments printed alongside seven arguments in support of Christian films as expressed by Evon Hedley of Youth for Christ International. Part two of this two-part series presents those opposing viewpoints.

Brenda T Bio


Brenda Thomas received her BS from Faith Baptist Bible College (Ankeny, Iowa), MA from Faith Baptist Theological Seminary and MA from California State University Dominguez Hills. She lives near Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband and two children and is a member of a Baptist church there.

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There are 16 Comments

pgerard's picture

I think it is very easy to view the use of movies completely through the lens of our own entertainment-laden culture, and I believe that is how churches in our culture need to view this issue.  But I am familiar with a mission to India, Dayspring International (http://www.dayspringinternational.org/), that claims to have reached millions of the outcasts in that nation who have no education by means of a film that presents the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is not a mission board in our circles by any means, but their approach is to the point for this discussion.  They claim that literally hundreds of thousands have made professions of faith and hundreds of churches have  been started by means of this movie.  I am skeptical of their claims in regard to the numbers converted, but at the same time, is there a better way to reach the uneducated with the gospel than by means of a movie that is faithful to Scripture?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

One of the questions I wrestle with when I hear arguments against theater in general and movies in particular: at what point does story telling become theater? The point matters because film is nothing more than theater recorded on a medium that makes it portable and repeatable. So the older debate is Christian use of theater. Tozer's actual arguments appear in tomorrow's post and he does tend to, correctly in my view, lump theater and film together sometimes.

But if film is just theater/drama, aren't they both really just story telling with multiple participants?

My thought in response to pgerard above is that individuals could tell the story... or groups could act out the story, but once you get groups acting out, why not film? The differences seem subtle at best.

Wayne Wilson's picture

Interesting bit of history.  I don't think there is any real difference between theater and film. Film allows you more ability to control time (through editing) and obviously you can "switch sets" instantaneously. Christians arguments against the theater are as old as the church, however.  They seem to be about the same as those against film.

 One thing that hurts Tozer's case, I believe, is the claim that actors are liars, since they are pretending to be something they are not.  Does that make children playing cowboys sin?  

Aaron makes a good point, of course.  Drama is primarily story-telling.  There are differences, however, where dangers can creep in. In drama, the viewer is more likely to become connected emotionally to the performer.  

I'm not against it. I teach drama.  

Brenda T's picture

Yes, Tozer tended to lump drama/theater in with movies/films. 

As far as story-telling. I do not get the impression that Tozer was opposed to story-telling, but rather, that he was opposed to a reliance on pictures, images, or acting to tell a biblical or spiritual story. Here are some Tozer quotes from the Youth for Christ magazine article that won't be in tomorrow's post, but that might help people understand his viewpoint (when they read it tomorrow).

All it [a picture] can do is remind of some truth already learned through the spoken or written word. The movie addresses its message primarily to the eye, and to the ear only incidentally. Words can say all that God intends them to say, and this without aid of pictures.

To harmonize the spirit of the religious movie with the spirit of the Sacred Scriptures is impossible. Imagine Peter standing up at Pentecost and saying, 'Let's have the lights out, please.' Perhaps Jeremiah could have gotten along with the divine touch if he had had a good 16mm projector and a reel of home-talent film.

Ron Bean's picture

Film produced by Christians might be evangelistic or instructive but it can also be used to tell stories that entertain and/or instruct. The medium itself is not sinful. The Kendrick brothers have done a great job at telling good stories and "Mom's Night Out", while not a Kendrick production, was very entertaining. It's also been noted that the story writing and technical aspects  of some film production varies in quality. The poor story line, glaring factual errors, and antiquated cinematography of Unusual Films "Milltown Pride" was embarrassing while The Kendricks seem to be getting better. For the record, I wouldn't label what Hollywood produces (i.e. Noah) as Christian film.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Brenda T's picture

Ron wrote, "The medium itself is not sinful."

You might be interested in this Tozer quote from "The Menace of the Religious Movie"

For the motion picture as such I have no irrational allergy. It is a mechanical invention merely and is in its essence amoral; that is, it is neither good nor bad, but neutral. With any physical object or any creature lacking the power of choice it could not be otherwise. Whether such an object is useful or harmful depends altogether upon who uses it and what he uses it for. No moral quality attaches where there is no free choice. Sin and righteousness lie in the will. The motion picture is in the same class as the automobile, the typewriter, or the radio: a powerful instrument for good or evil, depending upon how it is applied.

For teaching the facts of physical science the motion picture has been useful. The public schools have used it successfully to teach health habits to children. The army employed it to speed up instruction during war. That it has been of real service within its limited field is freely acknowledged here.

Tim Emslie's picture

Quick thought experiment on the difference between story-telling and theater/film. Would the latest hit movie be the same box office draw if presented as what is sometimes called a closet drama, i.e. a shot of the actors reading their lines with a narrator to describe the action? My guess is that we would discover a great number of people would vote with their wallets that the two (standard movie vs. closet drama) are different. The next question is, is the difference meaningful? Many within and without the church have said that it is. I’m not the one to either summarize all the arguments or offer any kind of authoritative opinion, but my sense is that the difference in medium is not nothing or insignificant.

Wayne Wilson's picture

Tim Emslie wrote:

Quick thought experiment on the difference between story-telling and theater/film. Would the latest hit movie be the same box office draw if presented as what is sometimes called a closet drama, i.e. a shot of the actors reading their lines with a narrator to describe the action? My guess is that we would discover a great number of people would vote with their wallets that the two (standard movie vs. closet drama) are different. The next question is, is the difference meaningful? Many within and without the church have said that it is. I’m not the one to either summarize all the arguments or offer any kind of authoritative opinion, but my sense is that the difference in medium is not nothing or insignificant.

Interesting thoughts, Tim.  I think experiencing "the latest hit movie" and the "closet drama" or reader's theater is different. Those are somewhat extreme ends of the spectrum. I suspect one would be more aware of the actors as actors in the latter case, and more likely to get "lost in the story" and connected to the characters in a well made film.  A middle case, of course, would be the small film, or small theater drama, not the blockbuster, which these days is designed for 12 year olds.  One successful art house type film (not a blockbuster...successful) years ago was My Dinner with Andre --- literally a full movie of two interesting people conversing over a meal.  Certain kinds of people found it delightful, like they had been there.  (Not quite my cup of tea).  I did see A Man for All Seasons performed with the simplest set in a very tiny theater once and I was mesmerized. It was simply brilliant.  I can't think of anything bad about such an experience if the play is worthy.

Telling a story well can have a similar effect, I believe.  I recently was laid up for a while after a surgery and someone loaned me an audio CD of Brock and Bodie Thoene's first AD book.  It's about 15 hours. Just a guy reading (a very talented guy), but it was so well written and so well read, that I saw it.  It was a movie in my head, if you will.  It is a different experience, since my imagination is engaged and supplying the visuals. In film, of course, the director chooses all the images and characters for you.  But if he chooses well, I am not able to perceive the harm that Tozer sees.

 

Gerry Carlson's picture

I remember seeing Tozer's pamphlet in my dad's bookcase in the early 50s. It piqued my interest as a kid because we used the "Christian" films in my dad's church on the southside of Chicago near where Tozer was pastor for a time. After my dad was killed in a plane crash in 1957, YFC in Chicago dedicated a showing of the film "Preacher's Kid" to our family and took an offering for us.

During the period Tozer spoke often at YFC rallies. His integrity as a thinker evidently afforded him respect. Perhaps he prophetically (in a discernment sense) sensed that the future of video would dull the sensibilities of Christians to Biblical truth. 

Gerry Carlson

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I would agree that there are differences between film, drama, and storytelling. Or I guess, more precisely, I'd agree that there are diff's between film, drama, and other kinds of story telling.

To turn the thought experiment above around a bit, how many people would go see a movie with no story? It's hard to even imagine one, though some of them are pretty short on story, to be sure.

In any case, just to clarify my own POV, I see differences between all of the species of story telling, but I'm persuaded that they are species of the same genus.

That said, it doesn't follow that if the genus has good species in it, all of the species are 'good.' But it does bring the important questions into focus: what distinguishes one species from another? Do those distinguishing features (or essential attributes, if you like) render the species unfit for certain purposes? Tozer sees the species of film as having a few limited good uses. But it's interesting to me that he does not seem to explore what it is that makes drama differ from other forms of story telling or what makes film differ from other forms of drama. Maybe it's in the "Menace" book. I don't have a copy.

Tozer clearly wants to emphasize the superior value of the written word--and on that point, I'm enthusiastically with him in spirit, though not in all the arguments and other particulars.

Jim's picture

The problem I have with "Christian" films is .... sometimes they are just plain stupid. 

The BJU film Milltown Pride would fall into this category

Contrast that with Tender Mercies (1983). Here's a film that does not try to be "Christian" but has a very powerful message of redemption and faith. The characters are presented as real people with real problems. 

Rob Fall's picture

what do you think of The Printing, Sheffey, Red Runs the River, and Flame in the Wind?

Jim wrote:

The problem I have with "Christian" films is .... sometimes they are just plain stupid. 

The BJU film Milltown Pride would fall into this category

Contrast that with Tender Mercies (1983). Here's a film that does not try to be "Christian" but has a very powerful message of redemption and faith. The characters are presented as real people with real problems. 

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Jim's picture

Rob Fall wrote:

what do you think of The Printing, Sheffey, Red Runs the River, and Flame in the Wind?

 

Jim wrote:

 

The problem I have with "Christian" films is .... sometimes they are just plain stupid. 

The BJU film Milltown Pride would fall into this category

Contrast that with Tender Mercies (1983). Here's a film that does not try to be "Christian" but has a very powerful message of redemption and faith. The characters are presented as real people with real problems. 

 

 

I saw Sheffey (I think two times) ... too long ago to comment

Rob Fall's picture

as I'm sure every studio has its share of stinkers.

Jim wrote:

 

Rob Fall wrote:

 

what do you think of The Printing, Sheffey, Red Runs the River, and Flame in the Wind?

 

Jim wrote:

 

The problem I have with "Christian" films is .... sometimes they are just plain stupid. 

The BJU film Milltown Pride would fall into this category

Contrast that with Tender Mercies (1983). Here's a film that does not try to be "Christian" but has a very powerful message of redemption and faith. The characters are presented as real people with real problems. 

 

 

 

 

I saw Sheffey (I think two times) ... too long ago to comment

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Ron Bean's picture

The early BJU films were better than the Christian films of their era. The Printing was a victim of a changing world as it was written and produced before the fall of the Soviet Union and released after the fall.  Being shot on film in a digital age, Milltown Pride was technically behind the times and it's story line was not believable. The largest goof is in the final scene. Anyone who knows anything about baseball noticed that (spoiler alert) the hero batted out of order when he hit the home run to win the game. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Rob Fall's picture

mean about the Printing.  Another set of problems is BJU was unable to fully research for the script, stage business and musical score.  As I understand Georgi Vins and his family gave some pointers, but they didn't cover some obvious stuff.  Just a few years, later and BJ would have had access to underground Evangelical Christian=Baptists emigres.  I know I married one in 1991.  As for my nits,

  • Stager Business the family is shown sitting down as the father prayed the grace.   The old country EC-Bs think we Americans are highly disrespectful (and for some sacrilegious)  for sitting during prayer.  EC-Bs either stand or keel.  Table Graces are usually said standing.
  • Musical Score comes from the BJ  school of scoring.  But nothing really, sounds Russian. 

Взойдём на Голгофу http://youtu.be/p5-M8sAX9Xw is sung at most if not all Lord's Supper services.

In Sacramento, I met and got to know one of the brothers who worked on the technical team developing the printers for the underground printers.

 

Ron Bean wrote:

The early BJU films were better than the Christian films of their era. The Printing was a victim of a changing world as it was written and produced before the fall of the Soviet Union and released after the fall.  Being shot on film in a digital age, Milltown Pride was technically behind the times and it's story line was not believable. The largest goof is in the final scene. Anyone who knows anything about baseball noticed that (spoiler alert) the hero batted out of order when he hit the home run to win the game. 

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

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