Why watch a Christian movie? Why go to a Christian play? I mean, either one is going to be awful, right?
Well ... right. And that's the problem.
When our culture was Christian, our art was Christian. Shakespeare's plays are the best example of profound dramatic art written from a Christian (indeed a Catholic) perspective.
But our culture is no longer Christian. And so the dramatic art of our day that's interesting and engaging and well done usually has a secular point of view or one that is only accidentally Christian, or only marginally Christian, and most typically anti-Christian.
This means that Christian groups often produce dramatic art for the Christian Ghetto, my term for the self-consciously Christian among us, who entertain one another with movies, for instance, produced with bad actors on low budgets with horrendous writing and poor direction. The Ghetto is such a limited market that the producers do not have the resources to do better, and the consumers are so desperate that they don't complain. I have written about this at length.
This has a chilling effect on evangelization.
For example, I've been moderately pleased with the movies Facing the Giants and Fireproof, both of which were produced by a Protestant group from the South, and, although they contain amateur actors and a few "prosperity gospel" plot elements, are not all that bad for "Christian movies".
But that's the problem. "Christian movies" take the risk of being limited from their inception by the Ghetto's protective notion of what something "Christian" should and should not be about (a squeamishness not shared by Christ, who ate with prostitutes, blessed the smelly poor and died on a cross). Flannery O'Connor says somewhere something to the effect that a book written by a Catholic is a Catholic book, and certainly O'Connor's stories, which are profoundly Catholic, are also profoundly disturbing and difficult to read. And yet more real and honest than stuff like Facing the Giants and Fireproof. As any Christian knows, there is nothing that Christ cannot address, engage and redeem - but Christian film-makers and film-goers are a little afraid to admit that.
For, well-intentioned as movies like Facing the Giants and Fireproof are, it takes a special kind of desire to want to see them - knowing the artificiality of the genre. In fact, Sunday my wife Karen told me that she wanted to watch "on-demand" the latest movie from this production company, one called Courageous that's all about Faith helping guys through tough times.
But I talked her into The Muppets instead.
Then on Monday, which was Karen's birthday, she wanted to go see October Baby in the theater. This birthday thing means I couldn't say no. But I wanted to.
After all, October Baby is another "Christian movie". Yes, my friend and Theater of the Word actress Emily Lunsford had written a glowing review of the movie, which was filmed in Emily's home town of Birmingham, one of my favorite places; and yes, my friend Fr. Brian Harrison of the Oblates of Wisdom and St. Mary of Victories church in St. Louis had emailed all of his parishioners raving about the movie, strongly encouraging us to go see it; but this is not only a Christian movie, but a pro-life Christian movie.
I mean, if you remember all of the fuss over Bella, you recall much ado about a pretty good movie but not the sort of movie you'd really make much of an effort to see again. A few notches above Facing the Giants / Fireproof, but, frankly, not as good as The Muppets.
Now I know you can't compare a feel-good family comedy like The Muppets to Bella, except you really can. Wildly differing as their goals are as films, they are both simply movies - and as a movie, The Muppets is far more clever, entertaining, and well-made than Bella.
I say this with great admiration for the people behind Bella and the message they were struggling to convey.
But I say this with the reservation that Bella succeeded to the extent it did in the same way Facing the Giants / Fireproof succeeded, in the same way that the film Therese succeeded. All of these were pretty good movies that played to a very specific audience - all of these were moderately well-done works that pleased the denizens of the Ghetto. They were supported by film-goers who bought their tickets in order to support Christian cinematic art. Without that element of patronage, one wonders how successful these movies would have been.
Having said all of this, and being fully aware that everything I say applies as well to the stuff we produce here at the Theater of the Word Incorporated, I can affirm at least one thing:
October Baby is a spectacular movie. (For once I was glad I listened to my wife!)
This is a movie that is good even outside the Ghetto.
It is well acted, well directed, and above all well-written.
Perhaps nothing hurts a movie more than a bad screenplay, and frankly the most noticeable weakness shared by all of the films mentioned above (other than The Muppets) was lackluster writing - not particularly bad writing, but rather weak writing.
October Baby, on the other hand, has a story that holds your interest from the beginning. It has three-dimensional and believable characters, well crafted conflict and structure, and above all comedy. There are wonderful comic moments in this film, the sort of thing that self-consciously Christian films lack, moments that let the viewer know that this is a film with a heart, a story that sees humanity in all its foibles and flaws, and therefore a story that is not preachy in any way.
But the thing that really destroys you in the theater is the witness of the actress who plays the birth mother, a real life witness that occurs at the end as the credits are about to run. This is the most effective meeting of fiction and reality that I have ever seen in a movie or in life.
Thank God for this film and thank God that the film-makers get it. Emily Lunsford points out that producer Jon Erwin told christiancinema.com, “I think that’s where we differ philosophically from other Christian filmmakers. We’ve been part of the secular industry for so long that I’ve grown to really love people who work in entertainment. They’re messed-up people who have a lot of needs, but I don’t want to isolate myself with Christian people making Christian movies. I’d rather engage the secular industry and not shy away from what I believe.”
With this kind of attitude there is hope.
And with a movie as beautiful as this, there is hope.
It is a movie that is true to man, to Christ, and to Protestants and Catholic alike. In short, it is true to life. It is a well-made film and the first of what I hope will be a true revolution in the culture of cinema.
And finally - the main character in this film (played beautifully by Rachel Hendrix) is the "October Baby" of the title, born October 7, 1991.
October 7 is the Feast of St. Mary of Victories.
Our Lady, under this title, was dear to St. Therese (subject of the film Therese), was the patroness of the Christian victory over Islam at Lepanto (immortalized in verse by G. K. Chesterton), is the patroness of the beautiful church housing the aforementioned Fr. Harrison and the Oblates of Wisdom, and is very dear to me for many reasons.
She is, unbeknownst to the film-makers, present in this movie in a very pervasive way. And it is the message of the Mother of Our Lord, who carried the unborn savior, and to whom all martyrs of the womb are precious - it is the message of this lady, whose heart was pierced by many pangs of sorrow - it is the message of the virgin whose unborn infant Jesus made the unborn infant John leap with joy in Elizabeth's womb - it is the message of this holy disciple of Christ - that even in the midst of a world that eats its young, a world that grinds and destroys the most innocent among us, a world that hates life and longs for death - it is the message that even in such a world, there is Victory, there is hope.
Go see October Baby. Not because it's pro-life, not because it's Christian, not because it's your wife's birthday and you have to.
Go see it because it's good.