“A Christian movie.”

The label will make some Christians cheer, happy at the prospect of a film that portrays them and their beliefs without the cynicism and punishing stereotypes they see in so many mainstream films.

Christian crusaders will decide ahead of time that a film labeled “Christian” is a film worth promoting because it is made by people who are “in the fold,” and thus can be trusted.

The label will make other Christians cringe, presuming that the film is poorly made, preachy, and self-congratulatory… and that the filmmakers are probably guilty of narrowly stereotyping “non-belevers.”

saving-christmas-posterAnd it will make most film critics — Christian or otherwise — groan and start writing their negative reviews even before they see the actual movie.

I realize that I’ve just drawn several narrow stereotypes. It’s true — some people will respond in ways that fit one or another of these categories. But then there will be plenty of people who have more complicated responses — who weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the film without a knee-jerk reaction, thinking carefully and respectfully, avoiding any mean-spiritedness.

I admit that I have, at times, reacted cynically to so-called “Christian movies.” To some extent, I think it would be dishonest of me to respond any other way: As a student of storytelling and cinema, I have found many so-called “Christian movies” to be heavy on agenda and light on art. Art is not art if it preaches messages, if it lectures, if it seeks to persuade the viewer. Art is a record of an artist’s own process of discovery; it is what somebody made out of their experience of a question or a mystery. It shows and leaves enough room for us to wrestle our way towards our own conclusions.

So… have you seen Saving Christmas? If so, please send me your thoughts about it. I’m sincerely interested in reading views that aren’t just blanket endorsements or blanket condemnations. Time permitting, I may share excerpts of a few of those responses here. But I’d encourage you to join me in trying to resist knee-jerk responses, and in trying not to fulfill any narrow stereotypes.

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100 Cupboards, by N. D. Wilson

I’ve been talking to my new friend N. D. Wilson, author of Boys of Blur, Death by Living, 100 Cupboards, and more. We met in 2013 when we were both speakers at an arts conference in Nashville called “Hutchmoot.” While discussing the popularity of Kirk Cameron’s films among Christians, I asked him if I could publish his thoughts on Cameron’s latest big-screen endeavor. He generously agreed.

So here is his review, complete with honest disclaimers… followed by some links and excerpts of other reviews for comparing and contrasting. I encourage you to read a variety of reviews… not just for the sake of looking closely at the movie, but for the sake of asking “What makes a good review?”

And then, if you see the movie, let me know what you think of of it.

Now I’ll hand the microphone to N. D. Wilson…

Saving Christmas From Fussing Fundies

by N. D. Wilson

Where to begin…

Perhaps with a full disclaimer: I’ve been friends with the director of this film (Darren Doane) for six years now, since my very first taste of his run-and-gun panache on the set of Collision, a debate doc starring Christopher Hitchens and my pastor/father, Douglas Wilson. Darren is one of my closest friends and allies in the task of raucous, joyful, Christian living. I also consider Kirk Cameron a friend, and I can honestly say that I don’t know anyone with a thicker skin and a bigger smile. His ability to employ both simultaneously, maintaining authentic joy and gratitude while under attack, is what I respect about him most. That and his willingness to grow and shift theologically without apology…

Basically, if I hated this movie, I wouldn’t tell you. I would tell my friends in private, preferably over an amazing beer. But I don’t hate this movie. Not at all. In fact, I love what the film is attempting and what I think it achieves.

Saving Christmas is a low-budget, slapstick, Christmas pageant that deftly manages to achieve a Chestertonian lack of self-importance (taking itself and all participants lightly) while simultaneously respectfully celebrating and honoring the tremendous full weight of glory that crashed into the world at the incarnation. And I don’t think I can overstate how difficult that is to do. When evangelicals get silly, they tend to also get insufferably disrespectful of their own sacred material. When they get solemn, they tend to get insufferably sentimental. Not so here. The film undercuts all the vaseline-on-the-lens you-just-got-to-believe sentimental manipulations that pervade even secular “holiday” movies. Instead, it opts for quick inversions and surprise switches (a violently imagined Santa, a joyful belly slide instead of weepy repentance, etc). And the gospel message is treated with appropriate awe and wonder, again deemphasizing the seasonal sappiness (sugar plums) and connecting Christ’s birth to Herod’s genocide and the cross, and running the narrative thread straight through to the empty tomb and Easter.

The tropes and mechanism of Saving Christmas are small scale versions of the familiar — the whole story takes place in one night (ala Dickens), but the frame is even tighter. The story focuses on Christian (played by Darren Doane) fussing at his own Christmas party. And instead of ghosts and rattling chains, and various visions, Kirk (played by Kirk) finds Christian sulking in his car in the rain. And Kirk then takes Christian to Sunday school without leaving the front seat.

This isn’t Elf or Die Hard or Scrooged or Love, Actually (thank God). This isn’t a traditional three act film. This is like a church pageant that somehow preaches the gospel powerfully by means of kids in bathrobes — or through two guys talking in a car. In the car, in the rain, Christian spews all of his various self-serious, pious reasons for not wanting to celebrate Christmas, the reasons why he is too good for silly nutcrackers and Santa and those awful druidical trees. And Kirk, at first sympathetic to Christian’s concerns, then rocks his faux-piety with voiceover narration over reenactments and stylized settings. Christian rolls out every anal retentive fundamentalist objection to Christmas and Kirk responds with typology, imbued meaning, and true perspective. He sees Christian’s sourness and then raises him joy.

Kirk isn’t trying to “save” Christmas from pagans and unbelievers. He’s trying to save families — wives and kids — from joyless, uptight, fundy fathers and husbands. He’s trying to lead his own Christian “family” — the fundamentalist brothers and sisters he still loves — into a richer and fuller faith. And judging from the sheer out-pouring of wrath on Kirk’s Facebook page…it is much needed.

Secular critics have obviously struggled with the film. And by “struggled” I mean that they have mocked, belittled, sneered, and shrugged. They have, in the words of sage pub-going Englishmen everywhere, taken the piss. And of course they have. I had no expectation that they would do otherwise. Saving Christmas is nothing like Breaking Bad, after all, despite the use of a titular participle. This film is an overtly didactic Sunday school story about an uptight Pharisee in a bad sweater who trades moping for joy, marvels at the glory of Christ’s birth, discovers typological significance in his Christmas décor, and apologizes to his wife. It’s like asking a secular film critic to review a happy marriage. Or a sermon. Or my family’s Saturday night “Sabbath dinner” where all the kids clink tiny glasses of wine in liturgical response to the declaration: “This is the day the Lord has made.”

They won’t get it. They won’t like it. And we don’t need them to. Yet.

Saving Christmas has all the sophistication of a small pack of enthusiastic, red-faced carolers wearing itchy sweaters and cookie crumbs, spilling hot chocolate in their excitement and belting out mismatched verses of Joy to the World. And I, for one, find that kind of authentic celebration wonderful. This film points through the symbols and rituals of the western Christmas routine to a young mother and a manger and a baby born to die and rebuild the world. The characters and the filmmakers are thrilled with their message and in awe of their Lord, but they are in no way impressed with themselves. Nor should they be. Our Lord after all, was willing to be born in a stable and placed in a trough. Surely we aren’t too good for a pageant?

Well, count me in. Hand me a bathrobe. I can sing off-key and hang lights with the worst of the season’s most joyful fools. The darkness is doomed. For unto us a Child is born. And He will put all things right.

And now, here are links to — and excerpts from — a variety of other film critics.

Cameron

FilmFisher, a film review site “by educators and students, for educators and students,” where reviewers consider “artistic excellence, cinematography, writing, acting, plot and the ways films succeed or fail at cultivating humanity and shape those living as Christians,” Joshua Gibbs, who also blogs for the CiRCE Institute, has a lot to say… including these observations:

I would wager that lines of voiceover outnumber lines of dialog by a good four to one ratio, and for this reason, Saving Christmas becomes painfully tedious after twenty minutes. Towards the end of the film, Cameron exhorts the audience to enjoy material things at Christmas because the Incarnation was the Word taking on materiality. Had the filmmakers taken this advice to heart at the beginning of the film, they might have produced something which appealed to the senses and the emotions instead of a bloodless lecture largely devoid of real people. For all its talk about the meaning of the Incarnation, Saving Christmas isn’t very incarnational.

While Kirk Cameron ought to be commended for trying to wrestle historical ignorance from contemporary Christians, his claim to love “everything about Christmas” carefully cuts around anything somber. Herod is name checked, but a sober commemoration of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents is remanded, in the closing moments of the film, to thoughtfully looking at a nutcracker doll. … When Cameron finally commends his audience to give “new meaning to old things,” he seems a good man who lacks the confidence to wholly return to the old meaning of old things.

Peter Sobczynski at RogerEbert.com says:

Saving Christmas is little more than a screed delivered by Kirk Cameron scorning everyone who doesn’t celebrate the season as ostentatiously as he does, justifying his attitude with bits and pieces gleaned from the Bible, delivered in the most self-righteous manner imaginable. The result is perhaps the only Christmas movie I can think of, especially of the religious-themed variety, that seems to flat-out endorse materialism, greed and outright gluttony. (Towards the end, Kirk admonishes one and all to “get the biggest ham…the richest butter.”)

Michael Rechtshaffen at The Los Angeles Times:

Virtually everything about this production feels thrown together. Even with that extended musical interlude (performed by the God Squad Dance Crew) and an end-credits blooper reel, the package barely cracks the 80-minute mark.

The Chicago Sun-Times‘ reviewer Bill Zwecker writes:

This may be one of the least artful holiday films ever made. Even devout born-again Christians will find this hard to stomach.

 

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