Christians across America are gathering in movie theatres to see “War Room,” the latest film written and directed by Alex and Stephen Kendrick. The two brothers’ movie tells the tale of how an old woman’s teaching about prayer changes the lives and marriage of Tony and Elizabeth Jordan.
While this story may sound like your average feel-good Christian film, there’s more going on. What we’re seeing is the culmination of ten years of the brothers’ work.
Alex and Stephen Kendrick (who are not related to “Pitch Perfect’s” Anna Kendrick) started their filmmaking career in 2002, when Alex, a pastor at Sherwood Church in Georgia, saw a Barna Group study on how film and entertainment influenced culture more than politics or journalism. This inspired Alex to work with Stephen to write the script for “Flywheel,” their first film. “Flywheel” was made for less than $20,000 and relied heavily on volunteers from Sherwood. The film was released directly to DVD and received very little in sales. But it was the start of a long media career for the brothers.
Since then, they’ve written, directed, and released three additional films to theatres and attracted mass-media attention. Many of these films were box-office successes, showing there is an audience for faith-based films. Alex and Stephen even received awards from Movieguide and from the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival commending their dedication to filmmaking and the faith.
When “Facing the Giants” hit theatres in 2006, media critics saw it as the start of something big, of a strong Christian media market that would “change the culture.” But were these predictions true?
The answer is a bit complex. Yes, the Kendrick brothers did change culture; they just didn’t change the major one. All they actually did was introduce a new generation of Christian filmmakers to a low standard of storytelling.
The Kendrick Brothers Wrote the Book on Christian Film
While Christian films are hardly a new phenomenon, Sherwood showed how a small, independent, religious company can make a significant box-office hit. After “Facing the Giants made more than $10 million in the box office, other filmmakers decided they wanted to get in on the action. Groups like Pureflix Entertainment and Erwin Brothers began following the Kendrick brothers’ footsteps, creating family friendly media for a Christian audience that became significant in its own way. It was clear that Alex and Stephen Kendrick were leading the way towards a new kind of filmmaking
However, in clearing the way, the Kendricks ended up standardizing a series of literary devices, or “tropes,” in the Christian film industry. These include:
Preaching to the protagonist and audience: Kendrick films seem to be written more as a cinematic sermon than a fully fleshed-out story. Certain Christian characters take a significant amount of time to present the main character and audience with an argument for either the Gospel or a moral lesson about marriage, parenthood, sexuality, etc. In “War Room,” all the protagonists’ problems are fixed after A) accepting Christ and B) setting up a prayer closet. While this is clearly the end goal of the film, it ends up causing the non-teaching parts of the film to not resonate with an audience that may not agree.
Simplistic character archetypes: These films tend to write protagonists in a very one-note fashion. Either the protagonist is a Christian with few character flaws whom God helps get through his struggle, or he’s a non-Christian whose conversion helps him conquer everything without the potential for future struggle. In the same way, non-Christian characters are either openly antagonistic to the expression of faith, there to be converted by the believers, comedy or realism relief, or all of the above.
Telling, not showing: Instead of taking time to show a character’s backstory or problems through visual representation, the films tend to rely on characters explaining their problems to the audience.
For example, let’s look at the drug subplot in “War Room.” According to the movie, Tony Jordan, the husband, was fired from his job because he “padded his numbers” and stole samples from his employer. However, the film doesn’t attempt to show him doing this (outside of a single gesture in one scene that you’d miss if you blinked). Instead, it relies on external characters telling Tony (and the audience) what he’s done. This is an unhelpful method of storytelling; especially for one that’s supposed to be visually driven.
Keeping it excessively clean: While the Kendrick brothers clearly want to deal with issues like fatherhood and marriage, they seem to go out of their way to avoid certain “thematic elements” in order to maintain a family-friendly standard. The most notable example of this in the Kendrick brothers’ work is “Fireproof,” where the main couple (played by Kirk Cameron and Erin Bethea) spend a lot of time talking about the husband’s problem with pornography. However, the film never takes time to A) actually show the husband using it, and B) never uses the word pornography!
Now, these aren’t new tropes in Christian film and literature, and some of them aren’t exclusive to Christian media. Films like “The Happening” and “San Andreas” also have their problems. However, the Kendricks’ work unintentionally cemented a framework for Christian media where viewers have learned to frown on departing from “making this to present a truth.”
Movies Will Save You
But why is this bad? After all, the Kendricks themselves have said in past interviews that their main goal in making these films is to save souls. But is that really happening? And is that the sole goal of the film?
While Alex and Stephen have mentioned multiple times in past interviews that their films have inspired others to make first-time confessions of faith, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what the market is using them for. A recent Lifeway study revealed that the vast majority of Christian media consumers are self-proclaimed Christians. If you add the recent data points from Christian media advocacy group Faith Driven Consumer to the equation, it becomes clear that the Kendrick brothers’ box-office “success” is driven by a select number of religiously motivated consumers who are more interested in art that advocates for their view than in art that is aesthetically excellent.
Some would defend this economic framework by arguing that if a film saves a single soul, it is completely worth the time. However, this seems far too pragmatic. First off, the primary function of a film isn’t to act as a sermon or to save a soul; it’s to tell a story in a visually interesting and enjoyable way that will help the viewer empathize and realize things about the world around them. This is best done through an intelligent professional mixture of technical forms, cultural ideals, economic interests, and content.
Don’t Challenge Me, Just Confirm My Beliefs
However, recent shifts in how American Christians view art has caused them to overemphasize the moral or religious content in a piece of art at the cost of aesthetic and cultural excellence. This is why argument- or sermon-focused films like “God’s Not Dead” made more than $60 million in the box office while more artistic films like “Noah” or “Calvary” were either derided for their more “creative” approach to a biblical story or received little attention from the faith-based consumer market.
The Kendrick brothers have changed the face of Christian media in more ways than one. They inspired a new generation of Christian creators to express their faith in the cinematic medium. However, their work also cemented the notion that Christian media should be used to save and teach. While this might seem like an effective way to spread Christian ideas, it only empowers a select group of Christians who mostly seem interested in promoting content they already agree with.