About a year ago my friend Mike Horton published a book entitled Christless Christianity. Mike is a Calvinist and we certainly disagree about TULIP (well, at least we disagree about the U, the L and the I). But we agree that much of American Christianity, even much that claims to be “evangelical,” is slipping into what I would call “Christianity without Jesus.” He calls the same phenomenon “Christless Christianity.” Of course that’s an oxymoron–to both of us.
I think it’s nowhere better illustrated than in Christian attempts to purvey the gospel through popular books and films aimed at the general public. These remind me of some Bible translations that translate “Son of God” as “Messiah” so as not to offend certain religions. (These translations are now under review which I think is good.) While I don’t think we should go out of our way to be offensive to non-Christians, I believe we should be careful not to remove the offense of particularity that makes the gospel good news. The good news is that Jesus is God living a human life as one of us, dying for us and still being human in his resurrected body with “wounds yet glorified above.”
The other day a secular journalist called me to talk about Christianity in Hollywood movies. He was preparing a story about explicitly Christian themed movies being shown in secular movie theaters. I reminded him that this is really not new. I can remember when Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures produced its first explicitly evangelical Christian movie for showing in secular movie theaters. I was still in fundamentalism then and we wouldn’t darken the door of any such den of immorality even to watch a BGEA produced movie! I only got to see it because several churches went together and rented the theater “just for us.” (Which is also the only way I got to go roller skating, bowling, etc.)
Now, in case that made you curious–the problem with movie theaters (for us) was not the bricks and mortar or seats or screen. It was what pe0ple allegedly did in the back seats or in the balconies. Seriously. I was told people went to movie theaters to have sex in the back rows and balconies when the lights were out. “Would you want Jesus to find you in such a place when he comes back?” The implication was that those of us there when he returned would miss the rapture. I kid you not.
So, we rented the movie theater in downtown Sioux Falls and went to see, I think it was, For Pete’s Sake…the first movie the BGEA produced for showing in secular movie theaters. (Maybe it was another one, but that’s the one I remember.) It was explicitly Christian, but somewhat toned down from earlier movies like The Restless Ones and before that The Tony Fontaine Story, etc., etc. (Christian films were a really big deal among fundamentalists and Pentecostals in the 1950s and well into the 1960s. They were shown mainly in churches on Sunday evenings and at Youth for Christ “rallies,” etc.)
For you old timers like me…Do you remember The Gospel Blimp (a really good message with irony about evangelism based on one of my favorite Christian author’s short story)? If you’re really, really old, you might remember Without Onion. I can’t believe I do.
Anyway, what’s new, I told the reporter, is that some of these movies made by Christian movie producers are going mainstream and showing all over the country right alongside R rated movies (previous Christian films made by the BGEA usually only got limited release in areas with high Christian density) AND sometimes use non-Christian actors and actresses. Another new thing is that some major Hollywood releases are explicitly Christian themed—like The Apostle starring Robert Duvall and Farrah Fawcett–but not made by a Christian movie production company like Provident.
One thing I really liked about The Apostle (one of my favorite movies ever!) was that it did not shy away from the name Jesus. Or from explicitly Christian worship, conversion, evangelism, etc. Oh, of course, the form of Christianity featured was not “mainstream,” but it’s what I grew up in and have never seen it portrayed faithfully in all its glory and not-glory (I couldn’t think of what word to use there!) anywhere else in film. (Certainly not in Steve Martin’s Leap of Faith!)
To my chagrin, however, and I said this to the reporter, many, perhaps most, of the so-called “Christian movies” I see studiously avoid naming Jesus. They tend to portray a kind of vaguely Christian spirituality in an inspirational way that most Americans except die-hard atheists and agnostics could appreciate. I’m not sure what such movies actually accomplish. They are full of God talk, but so what? That’s often what theologian Robert Jenson so aptly called “unbaptized God.” I am very wary of any unbaptized God or non-specific spirituality.
Of course, I realize that most Christian-themed movies, if that’s what they really are, would not “make it” in the secular movie theaters all around the country if they were explicitly Jesus-centered. Or if they portrayed a group of Christians, for example a church or church group, that was denominationally specific. The exception to that is Catholic and African-American (which is usually portrayed as Baptist). Very few TV shows or movies that portray a white Protestant church or gr0up give you any clue what KIND of Protestant they are. They are generic.
I remember one “sort of” Christian themed TV show that attempted to do this–to focus on a church without identifying it denominationally. It was “Seventh Heaven.” We watched it almost weekly as a family. It came close to being explicitly Christian at times, but ultimately failed because, to the best of my knowledge, it never mentioned Jesus. I tried to identify what kind of Protestant church it was. (The father in the family was a minister.) Finally I saw it–the Disciples of Christ symbol on a banner inside the church! (The pastor-father also occasionally referred to the “elders” which narrowed things down a bit.) In one episode, the middle daughter who was planning to become a minister (without going to seminary?) took a book down from her father’s church study book shelf. It was Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic! Very interesting. Something intentional going on there.
Recently I saw Seven Days in Utopia–another Robert Duvall movie. I heard it was a “Christian” film. It was inspiring, but I don’t think Jesus was ever mentioned–even indirectly. A church was shown, but it was not denominationally identified.
I often wonder why Protestant churches in TV shows and movies are so rare and when they do appear they are almost never identified with any denomination or even with any particular form of Protestant? TV producers and movie makers have few, if any, qualms about showing Catholic churches and priests and Jewish synagogues and rabbis. But when Protestants appear you can’t tell what kind they are. (Unless, as I mentioned earlier, they are African-American in which case the church is almost always Baptist. But I’ve seen some really weird things even then. I remember one TV show or movie that featured an African-American Baptist church that baptized infants!)
I don’t consider a TV show or movie “Christian” unless the gospel is presented in some way and unless Jesus is alluded to in some way. Otherwise, it’s just “inspirational” which doesn’t excite me or even draw my interest as such. In other words, it might be a good movie or TV show, but it doesn’t make me think of it as “Christian.” At best it’s what Mike calls “Christless Christianity” which is, in my opinion and his, not real Christianity.
About the Author
Roger Olson is Professor of Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He has published many books including The Story of Christian Theology (1999) and Against Calvinism (2011). You can follow his blog at Patheos.