Chariots of Fire is a powerful tribute to a Christian athlete who refuses to run on the Sabbath. Tender Mercies is about a washed-up country music singer who comes to faith.
Other movies are packed with Christian content: O, Brother, Where Art Thou? hinges on the death and rebirth of baptism and is punctuated throughout with lovely gospel music. The Matrix movies constitute a parable of incarnation. The Shawshank Redemption, Dead Man Walking, Hoosiers, The Apostle, The Mission, Amistad-all have explicit Christian themes and references.
All of these movies effectively express Christianity. Yet none were made by Christians. Thom Parham makes that point in his chapter "Why Do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?" in Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture (Baker). By contrast, Mr. Parham observes, Christian-made movies intentionally designed to convey a Christian message tend to be preachy, of poor quality, and box-office bombs.
One reason he offers is that Christians tend to be preoccupied with sending a message. And visual art just cannot communicate overt messages effectively.
Instead, he says, film works metaphorically. Language can communicate with clear propositions, but film communicates instead with symbols. Visual media are suggestive rather than clear-cut. Movies are not good at logical explanations; rather, they provoke emotions and evoke mysteries.
In her chapter "What Kind of Stories Should We Tell?" Linda Seger, a Christian who is considered the creator of the job of script consultant (whose craft is to doctor scripts that do not quite work), concurs. "Film works on a subtextual level," she explains. It has to work by suggesting, not telling. Thus, by film's very nature, any overt message will tend to be unclear and somewhat beyond the filmmaker's control.
This also means that sometimes the imagery will end up communicating something very different from what the creators intended. Ms. Seger points out that Christian filmmakers may actually-unintentionally- express non-Christian ideas. An example would be when the characters are so morally pure that they do not need salvation, a moralism that is humanistic rather than evangelical. This also accounts for what Mr. Parham cites, a non-Christian just telling a good story and inadvertently expressing the Christian faith.
Certainly Christians can-and have-created good movies that effectively convey Christian ideas. That is evident from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. But what carries the message is a good story. And the message is indirect, inherent in the film's emotional impact.
While The Passion of the Christ is certainly a message film, it shows the story of Christ's suffering and death, rather than explaining it, going so far as to eliminate language altogether (except for the subtitles) in using a script in Aramaic. Because of its overwhelming visual imagery, Mr. Gibson's movie is much more powerful and evocative than, say, The Greatest Story Ever Told. And yet, as Ms. Seger might have predicted, The Passion did provoke wildly different reactions.
Christian moments in film-the depiction of the kingdom of heaven in Babette's Feast; the hint of resurrection at the end of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal-are priceless, whether or not they were made by Christians. Since the biblical worldview is so much bigger, richer, and truer than narrow little human ideologies, no one should be surprised when non-Christian storytellers express something that corresponds with God's created reality.
But the incapacity of visual imagery to convey specific meaning effectively demonstrates why God chose to reveal Himself not by means of a tangible image-as with the pagan deities, with their mystical and emotional appeal-but with the Word. To know God, you have to read the Book.