I am generally more than a little critical of modern Christian films. I have felt the same way about Christian contemporary music for a long time and my basis for this response is not about the rhythm, the beat or the sound. I like almost all kinds of music, much as I like almost all kinds of film. My response has more to do with the inferior quality of much that is presented as “Christian.”
When it comes to film some of this can be directly traced to small budgets and a myriad of other limitations that flow from having a small budget. But this is not entirely true either since a large number of foreign films reveal that a creative (independent) artist can do good film without huge budgets or blockbuster, well-known actors. The major problem, at least for most Christian films, relates to the inferior story lines presented in a sappy, romantic and sentimental form. The second problem is generally seen in the very predictable, formulaic way the Scripture is used to give simplistic answers to life’s truly hard questions. Christian filmmakers have a difficult time using real art, good story-telling and subversive plot to make a truly great film.
When I picked up No Greater Love I was not prepared to resonate with the story as much as I did. Focus on the Family called it, “Inspiring and encouraging.” And Moody Radio said, “Amazing . . . a great film.” While I would not call this “a great film” it is far better than many similar Christian films, some with much bigger budgets and well-known actors. I would call this a film worth seeing and one that will do several valuable things for Christians. First, it will present, in an unusually strong way, a powerful portrayal of divine sovereignty. The story, without giving away anything, begins with a couple in a brutal argument. You soon realize that about ten years have passed and the husband is rearing his son on his own and doing an excellent job of it. As he sorts through some photos in a keepsake box there is a newspaper headline that says: “Local Man’s Wife Still Missing.” Enter the really interesting twist, one rarely seen in a Christian film. The husband/father has a good friendship with a Christian man/friend who is truly interested in him as a person but does not recruit him for Jesus in a typically pressured way. As a result of this bond of real friendship the father allows his son to attend “Kid’s Fest” (VBS) at a local evangelical church. The surprise turn is that he discovers, on graduation night, that his wife is working in this church. She has recovered from a long battle with alcohol and drugs and is now a Christian. I will not give away more of the story here but the point is that divine sovereignty is wonderfully presented in the script. Certain lines in the script underscore this in a wonderful way.
Second, this film will engage you thoughtfully and emotionally about the issue of divorce. More importantly it engages the oft unaddressed issue of what a believer should do in a marriage with an unbeliever. Overall this is handled well though the pastor in the film comes across as “just too happy” and filled with too many simple answers. When he does counsel the wife about what she should do with regard to a legal marriage to her husband (an unbeliever), he has her read 1 Corinthians 7:13 aloud. He then asks her: “What do you think that means?” This was the high point in terms of how he handled her difficulty in personal counsel. (One scene in this sequence was taken out and taking it out shows the producer was working to get this right and thus did improve the end result a great deal.) But there still remains far too much romantic Christianity for my taste. While love is always the right choice, and No Greater Love says this pretty effectively, it still says it in ways that many struggling people I know could not easily relate to as nuanced and human. In the end it feels too much like a “happily ever after” story to be really true. (Of course it could be true but the point is that the story has to convince you better than it does.)
I recognize that films cannot resolve all the tensions of a basic story in 109 minutes (the actual length of No Greater Love) but script writers and producers must allow for more ambiguity and tension in order to tell a moving and powerful story. I think a film like Gran Torino, directed by lead actor Clint Eastwood, is a powerful example. This was not only a great story, filled with biblical and Christian reality throughout, but a far more subversive story in the way the message gets across. This is precisely why non-Christians will watch it and engage with the lead character powerfully, especially if the Christian is there to raise the right, and appropriate, questions. Films like No Greater Love work for conservative Christian audiences, and will likely help some couples make a right choice to save their marriage. But in the end this is a “Christian” film and thus it will not work widely with a broader audience. After watching the features on this DVD I sense that the producer/director understood all of this better than most and thus he aimed at his audience very specifically. In this case he did a far better job of reaching that target than 9 of 10 such Christian films that I’ve seen in the last five years. I would recommend this film to any age group. There is nothing offensive in nature to be questioned.
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John, how does this post relate to the previous one on Mr Bol. Now, I realize in part what you are saying, but why should we expect the world to recognize our movies when they don’t even recognize the real and more compelling right before them?
We think if the Church is “humanitarian” enough, engaged enough, then the world will take note, but we just become “good guys” and when we are overt in our Christianity, then said public figures take a lot of heat, even from Christians – “Oh, they should just be good guys, work hard, and not be so preachy.”
I am all the more convinced that it is like John the Baptist and Jesus. It doesn’t really matter if we come eating and drinking or fasting. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.