In The Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang makes clear his Christian faith while also making clear that the conversation about “Christian movies” is focusing on the wrong movies.

After all, movies that earnestly engage with the questions and ideas at the core of the Gospel (Chang mentions Last Days in the Desert and Silence as good examples) tend to be overlooked by Christian audiences, while those that are propagandistic and popular with evangelicals are those that misrepresent Jesus’s own teachings.

Describing contemporary Christian movies, Chang writes,

My reservations have little to do with standard criticisms like awkward performances or clunky production values — venial sins, surely, for new filmmakers trying to find their way. What rankles about a cinematic sermon like “Letters to God” or a morally offensive wartime drama like “Little Boy” isn’t the mediocrity of the craft; it’s the calculation inherent in the enterprise. There’s a smug complacency with which these movies preach a message ostensibly meant to set the world passionately ablaze.

I didn’t check all these prejudices at the door when I recently caught up with “I Can Only Imagine,” “Paul, Apostle of Christ” and “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness,” the three highest-profile Christian-themed releases of the spring moviegoing season. But I watched all of them in a tentative spirit of optimism, intending to gauge the present state of what I have often hesitated to describe as art, and hoping to be pleasantly surprised. And at least two films in this cinematic trinity largely succeeded in overcoming my inner skeptic.

He goes on to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the three films, expressing admiration for how Paul, Apostle of Christ avoids the common failures of so-called “Christian movies.”

How much value are we willing to ascribe to a work of art simply because it aligns with our beliefs? And how much can we trust our tears? Any honest believer who has sat through a worship service has certainly asked whether they are hearing the authentic voice of God or simply being emotionally manipulated by the music — and then proceeded to wonder if the two might not, somehow, be one and the same.

I certainly can’t say whether the swells of emotion I felt while watching “Paul, Apostle of Christ” are attributable to the Holy Spirit or simply a competent level of artistry by all involved, and I’m not terribly interested in parsing the difference. By far the most intelligent, absorbing and stirring of these three movies, writer-director Andrew Hyatt’s well-acted drama of imprisonment and martyrdom implicitly rebukes the “God’s Not Dead” franchise by reminding us what actual persecution looks like. It returns us to a vision of ancient Rome (the film was shot on location in Malta) where some of Christ’s earliest followers were routinely burned alive in the streets or condemned to death in the arena.

Similarly, Steven D. Greydanus at The National Catholic Register finds much to admire in Paul, Apostle of Christ:

Shot on a budget and a tight schedule in Malta (where Gladiator and Troy, and more recently Risen, were shot), Paul, Apostle of Christ is remarkably authentic-looking. The screenplay is intelligent and thoughtful, with only occasional missteps, ranging from an occasional poorly chosen phrase (like Luke’s “thoughts and prayers”) to a late moment in which a character who has suffered a trauma more dangerous than Paul’s floggings is up and about far too quickly.

But then he points to the potential for the film to be misunderstood and embraced for the wrong reasons:

Paul, Apostle of Christ is dedicated to all who have been persecuted for their faith. This potentially raises a sticky point.

In our day, global persecution notwithstanding, American Christians are generally far less aggrieved than many of us are inclined to think. It’s easy to imagine many comfortable viewers watching Paul, Apostle of Christ as if it were not only a story of our heritage, and one that resonates with the experiences of suffering souls around the world, but a mirror of our own experience.

On the other hand, the film’s clear repudiation of violence in the name of Christ, its repudiation of efforts to seize the reins of power by any means necessary, and its theme of seeing enemies as human beings are especially welcome today. Sometimes in the effort to resist evil one risks becoming what one opposes, or worse. Paul, Apostle of Christ suggests that it’s always better to suffer evil than to be brought to its level in resisting it.

 

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