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Do “Christian” Artists Get Unfairly Reviewed?

Do “Christian” Artists Get Unfairly Reviewed?

by Mike Duran · 22 comments

I am biased towards Christian artists. Especially those working in the secular marketplace. I want them to succeed.

Which is one reason I’ve been following Scott Derrickson’s career with interest. Derrickson is a director with some significant films to his credit. I first took interest after watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a well-crafted, truly frightening and thought-provoking film. Derrickson has been outspoken about his faith but savvy enough, and fluent enough in the craft, to gain the respect of insiders.

His latest film, Deliver Us From Evil, is getting a lot of press. It’s another foray into the horror genre and its intersection with biblical themes, in this case exorcism and the reality of the devil. In his review at Christianity Today, Nick Olson summarizes the idea behind Deliver Us From Evil this way:

“…evil involves spiritual forces beyond human agency”

Even though “the materialist skeptic and the fundamentalist have unwittingly conspired to seal existence air-tight,” writes Olson, Derrickson’s film has lent “some fresh air” to the subject. Or as his article sub-heading puts it, “The biggest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing us he didn’t exist.”

Needless to say, I’ve been anticipating this film.

So I was a bit bummed when the reviews started coming in.  At Rotten Tomatoes, Deliver Us From Evil is not doing well. As I write this, it has a 30% critical rating.

I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment on the fairness / unfairness of those reviews. Nor do I treat critical reviews as gospel. But I was quite intrigued by this Tweet from the director last night.

 

I must admit, I was a little taken aback by the insinuation here. If I’m not mistaken, Derrickson may be suggesting that the negative critical reviews are evidence that the themes of his film are, in fact, in play. Evil is reacting to its exposure. In other words, “The devil made me review it.”

Now, let me make a hard right.

Another film opens this week — totally different in genre and intent, but nevertheless under-girded by similar “Christian” components.

Dinesh D’Souza is openly Christian, writing books like What’s So Great About Christianity and Life After Death: The Evidence. Even more notable may be D’Souza’s conservative political aims and outspoken critique of President Obama and what he perceives as the moral / spiritual collapse of America. His new film America: Imagine the World Without Her continues that trend.

Other than professing to be believers, I doubt that Derrickson and D’Souza have much else in common.

Except that both their films are getting hammered.

Once again, the early reviews at Rotten Tomatoes place America at 25%. Some reviewers are even going to the extent of suggesting it is “The Worst Political Documentary Of All-Time.” This reviewer displays his objectivity with statements like the following:

D’Souza is an obnoxious personality on film: often wearing bleached mom jeans and multi-colored thrift shop polo shirts, he speaks condescendingly slow so that the cheap seats can hear him nice and clearly. His speech has the sort of halting, faux-intellectual cadence that makes you wish you were more of a bully in high school.

Of course, such vitriol has led many supporters of D’Souza, his faith, politics, and patriotism, to suggest that the film’s poor critical reviews are due to reviewer bias. Like Deliver Us From Evil, it’s “that sort of anger which tells an author he’s hit his target.”

Other than the obvious issue — How far should artists go to defend their work and answer their critics? — the dove-tailing of these films and their critical reception poke at some rather raw, unanswered questions about spiritual content in the secular marketplace. Some of those questions would be…

Is there a bias against spiritual art? Do atheistic gatekeepers conspire to suppress the Christian message and keep it from or disparage it for mainstream audiences? Are Christian artists unjustly targeted for censure in ways that others aren’t? Is there a double standard in the marketplace when it comes to religious and “secular” (or anti-religious) rhetoric? Is “agenda” just as prevalent in the general market as the religious market? Do religious and/or conservative points of view get an unfair shake? Do Christian artists get unfairly reviewed?

It could be argued that these are two very different films with totally different alliances and points-of-view. Granted.They may be better juxtaposed than aligned. Nevertheless, D’Souza, like Derrickson, could blame the negative reviews not on the actual quality of their product, but the bias of the reviewers. In Derrickson’s case that could be secularists and materialists who are simply annoyed with the insinuation of real evil. In D-Souza’s case, it is secularists and anti-Christian liberals who are opposed to his message.

In this way, the two films and their filmmakers may be targets.

My point here is not to endorse (or pan) either film, but to simply ask whether the artists’ beliefs or their film’s point-of-view make them unfair targets to critics.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam Graham July 3, 2014 at 7:03 AM

To a degree. I know that there are Christian writers who will have their work panned primarily because of the Christian content while atheists can and do push very explicit atheistic and paganistic themes. One point I make often is why must Christian artists whisper while pagan, atheist, and new age artists feel free to shout. A Christian film that pushes faith in Christ is preachy while an anti-Christian film is “bold” and “courageous.”

On the other hand, there are are some pretty awful Christian films that have been made, “God’s Not Dead” was horrible, so was the Christiano Brothers, “Unidentified.” There are more I could list but most of them are too obscure. The only way to really be sure is to go and see the film.

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Gary Whittenberger July 3, 2014 at 8:59 AM

An anti-Christian film is “bold” and “courageous” because the culture is overwhelmingly Christian. And there is much more disdain for atheists in our culture than for Christians.

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D.M. Dutcher July 3, 2014 at 9:46 AM

Eh, no offense, but I have yet to see the atheist version of Ned Flanders. Usually atheists get a free pass in the media, and negative portrayals are rare while the fundamentalist is a stock villain.

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Rebecca LuElla Miller July 3, 2014 at 10:17 AM

I can’t think of a single instance when, say, someone accused of corruption is identified as an atheist. But you can be sure, if a Christian who is outspoken or who works for a Christian organization is accused of such a thing, his beliefs will be part of the story. In some ways this is good, though. The media loves to go after people who don’t live up to the standard of expectations. They go after actors, for example, who get arrested for drunk driving, not plumbers who get arrested for drunk driving. Yes, part of it is the fact that these are famous people, but famous people do a lot of good things that don’t make the news. It’s the incongruity of their lives that make them news worthy. So if a professing Christian is caught in the very act, the news love to trumpet their guilt while ignoring handfuls of others who do the same thing.

All that to say, I don’t agree that atheists get bad press or are looked down upon in our society. I don’t hear atheist jokes or hear about any atheist haters. I can’t think of one instance when an atheist was on the receiving end of public disdain.

Becky

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Proctor S. Burress July 3, 2014 at 11:40 AM

Nicely said Gary. When will the poor put-upon souls grasp a few points: 1. they are in the majority, 2. they claim to set the standards, 3. they ‘lovingly’ judge all other as inferior or ‘lost’ 4. they rarely turn the other check and 5. they are to be ‘bruised’ for His sake!

And we are told the Romans thought of them as “atheists!”

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Matthew Sample II July 3, 2014 at 7:51 AM

Do “the artists’ beliefs or their film’s point-of-view make them unfair targets to critics”?

Yes.

Our beliefs are such a deep part of us that when we come across opposing beliefs we react negatively. Sometimes if we really do not agree with an idea, the art does not overcome our cognitive dissonance.

Also, the star system is woefully inefficient. If I really do not like a film’s message but recognize the merits of the film, I have three options. I can ignore my personal faith and review solely based on the quality presentation of the awful content. Or I can ignore the quality, and allow my abhorance of material to direct my review. Or I can compromise BOTH my belief and good taste.

I don’t give reviews to books that I don’t like.

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Gary Whittenberger July 3, 2014 at 9:02 AM

Maybe we need two ratings, one for content and one for artistry.

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Matthew Sample II July 3, 2014 at 12:02 PM

That is how Francis Schaeffer evaluated art.

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D.M. Dutcher July 3, 2014 at 8:19 AM

The IMDB reviews are a bit more balanced. It looks more like Derrickson went to the well again with another exorcism picture, but didn’t do it so well this time. The exorcism film as a genre is a bit past its prime too.

The thing about D’Souza is that a lot of conservative documentaries are just that bad. I’m not really hostile to them, but Expelled as I remember was similar, and even overtly conservative film in general gets hit for that. Zucker’s American Carol for example. D’Souza also has his own troubles due to that campaign contribution thing.

I think in both cases it really is a quality issue. And sometimes we see persecution where it isn’t. Plenty of normal films are horrid, too; quite a few hit 30% or under on the tomatometer.

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Gary Whittenberger July 3, 2014 at 9:04 AM

I’ve never seen a D’Souza film, but I’ve read a couple of his books. I think his reasoning is very poor and his conclusions are mostly wrong. I would never go see a film of his. The only time I would pay any attention to him is in a filmed or written debate.

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Gary Whittenberger July 3, 2014 at 8:57 AM

Mike, you said “My point here is…to simply ask whether the artists’ beliefs or their film’s point-of-view make them unfair targets to critics.” I can only guess at what you mean because I think your question is not worded very well.

All films are fair targets for all critics! A critic is permitted to criticize anything he wants. He can criticize the content or story of the film. He can criticize the artistry. He can criticize the financial backing. He can recommend that people go see or not go see the film. This is a critic’s privilege in a world of free speech. So what? People can choose to go see the film or not and agree or disagree with the critic.

The only film you mentioned that I have seen is the “Exorcism of Emily Rose.” I am not a film critic, but I am a secular humanist, and I thought the film was excellent. I recommend that people rent it and see it. I did not know that the director was a Christian, and knowing that does not affect my opinion of the film. There is nothing in the story of the film that cannot be explained within a secular framework, in my opinion. I think it is a very good film to stimulate discussion in a group of skeptics.

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Mike Duran July 3, 2014 at 9:21 AM

Gary, IMO there’s a huge difference between something being a “fair target” and something being fairly reviewed. Unless you believe all reviews are fair?

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Iola July 6, 2014 at 2:29 PM

Define “fair”.

As an example, I have two children. The older one thinks “fair” is that she gets to stay up later at night. The younger thinks “fair” is both of them being sent to bed at the same time.

It’s the same with reviews—whether or not I consider a review is “fair” may well depend on my view towards the subject. And star ratings (e.g. at Amazon or Goodreads) are based on whether or not I liked the book, not whether or not it was a good book. Wuthering Heights is a classic, and I can see why it’s a classic, but my subjective emotional reaction is that I didn’t like it. Is that “fair”?

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Johne Cook July 3, 2014 at 9:24 AM

The difficult thing is we (Christians and Conservatives) don’t (or shouldn’t) use the same tactics when reviewing material from the opposite perspective. We simply don’t (or shouldn’t) play their game.

So what are we left with? Allow me to share an anecdote from Big Brother (CBS). (I know, I know – it’s a Reality TV show. But hear me out…) On last night’s show, Devin, the big, hulking Rock wanna-be (seriously, he thinks he’s more handsome and talented than Dwayne Johnson) is also – within the first week – a notorious schemer who had already created three alliances and betrayed two. But this being Big Brother, that behavior is mostly seen as a virtue. The very first alliance he made was with Donny, a 42 year old single Groundskeeper from North Carolina. (As both men have first names beginning with ‘D’, they immediately christened themselves ‘The Double Ds.’ My wife and I were rolling our eyes. “Do they not know…” “I know, I know…”) After a challenge that he lost, Donny was entertaining his housemates with back-woodsy stories and a cricket chirp that he can make with his mouth. Devin walked into the room and noticed how captivated the housemates were with this simple guy. He went back to his latest alliance, The Bomb Squad – an all-male alliance that excluded Donny – and told them Donny was ‘holding court’ and ‘couldn’t be trusted.’ Later, Devin took Donny aside and pretended to weep for his friend when Donny was put up on the block and was at risk of being voted out in Week One. Then, while up in the Head of House room talking about how he usually wears tall white socks, he showed the shorter white ankle socks his girlfriend bought for him. The ex-Army HOH Caleb noticed that the Donny’s calves and shins were devoid of hair and said he recognized that pattern. He said American soldiers in Afghanistan exhibited that look because their tall boots wore the hair away and they started thinking Donny was not only ex-Army but ex Special Forces. (This is laughable. Some people are not forthright about their former or current occupations, like the fellow who is a cop on Jersey but said he works constructions. Donny is what he says he is, a simple guy.) Later, Devin and Donny were talking in the dark of night in their room and Devin said something about not being sure he could trust Donny. Donny said ‘What do you mean?’ Devin said, ‘Some of the guys wonder if maybe you’re holding out about a former job.’ Donny said, ‘What do you mean?’ Devin said, ‘Sometimes people lie about their former or current employment to keep people from knowing something about them. They wonder if you were a solider and were hiding that.’ Donny laughed in a good-natured, ‘oh is that all’ kind of way. He said ‘No, I’ve never been it the Service. I’m a groundskeeper for schools in my county and have been for many years.’ Then he said, ‘I appreciate you sharing your concern. I want you to know I still believer in you, Devin.’ The next day, after losing a competition to see who could take themselves off the block, Donny was comforted by a number of the much younger houseguests. Donny went back to his bed and was laying down, weeping softly. Devin came in and made some half-hearted comments about Donny not having to worry about losing and being voted off. Donny said ‘That’s not why I’m crying. I’m crying because I’ve been alone for 21 years and it is so nice to have so many young people care about me. I’ve gotten hugs from both women and men today. I’m not used to that. I feel so blessed.’ Devin didn’t get it. Donny followed up. ‘I’m not crying because I’m sad, I’m crying because I’m happy.’ Devin left the room and went the diary room where he spoke about what had just happened. He said he wasn’t buying Donny’s ‘act,’ that people just weren’t like that. But then he started tearing up himself. Super-cynical Devin never extended love to anybody and was just sure Donny was pulling a fast one on the house (because that’s what Devin himself was doing). But in the face of grace and love, even super-cynical Devin was not unaffected by the simple love and faith of a simple groundskeeper.

And that’s our best weapon, the very love of God through Jesus Christ that flows through us despite our own tendency to cynicism. We don’t fight as the world does, and we don’t need the weapons that the world uses. We know a better way and have different weapons. We will not necessarily be ‘safe’ as we fight this different battle with different weapons, but that doesn’t mean we will not be effective. Love conquers all.

http://www.cbs.com/shows/big_brother/cast/214883/

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Rebecca LuElla Miller July 3, 2014 at 10:50 AM

Mike, a couple thoughts. I’m hesitant to jump in and say, Yeah, Christians don’t get a fair shake because others are against our faith. While that’s a possibility, there’s also an equal possibility that reviews are poor because the work in question isn’t very good. Before we jump on the “Christian artists don’t get fair reviews” bandwagon, I think we’d benefit from looking at the quality we’re producing.

The other thought, though, is this: if the sample you quoted is reflective of the criticism D’Souza received, then I’d say it isn’t fair. However, you indicated that he is also outspoken about his political views, which could just as easily have earned him an unfair hearing.

All that to say, I don’t think we have enough evidence to make a generalization. And I’m not sure it’s helpful to do so.

Becky

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ginaburgess July 3, 2014 at 1:17 PM

From a bit different angle, Jim Caviezel (played Jesus in Passion of the Christ) was a “marked man” for years after He played Jesus in that film. He couldn’t land a job for the longest time, then along comes the part in Person of Interest. The character Mr. Reece would just as soon kill you as look at you, and Caviezel plays that role excellently. I’d be afraid to ride in an elevator with him.

He has never backed down from his beliefs as a Christian, but that role and his beliefs did cause a pause in his career. Kevin Sorbo had the same problem until he started seeking out role in Christian films.

What I don’t get is why Hollywood does not conduct good business in the film business. G-rated films and Christian, or at least exhibited faith in films, always make more money that R-rated films. I think it is probably because most of the people in Hollywood think all people everywhere speak with foul mouths. They are terribly uncomfortable when confronted by Jesus. The only thing they know to do is throw up a “protective” rejection screen and hope Jesus blows away with their brush off.

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Lex Keating July 3, 2014 at 6:08 PM

The way I see it, Mike, you have two different sets of people under attack. And for different reasons. Christians, and artists. Christians for their faith. Artists for expressing themselves. Even when the artist is a Christian, the overlap isn’t as close as you’d think.

Christians will be criticized for their beliefs. This shouldn’t come as a shock. Ever. And it will be unfair, cruel, stupid, and based out of senseless persecution. Satan hates us. So, anytime we put ourselves out there, we should expect to be under attack.

Artists have two problems: whether they know their own message, and whether they communicate that clearly. Well, three problems. Artists also need to make sure they are communicating with their target audience. Plenty of “Christian Artists” don’t know the God they claim to serve, or what they intend to say. Some artists are so busy making their art that they lose touch with reality, and don’t communicate very well. And some artists release a beautiful piece of opera to an unsuspecting group of metalheads, and everyone misses the artists’ point.

Both filmmakers should expect negative criticism, because it’s not realistic to think everyone will like the work and/or understand his intent. But neither does “persecution” translate to doing the job right. Unless the point of the work was to tick off a certain audience member. Some artists are that contrary.

So, on the one hand, it’s kind of awesome that they make their work the way they intended. On the other, it’s a little sad that they think bad reviews can be so easily dismissed as persecution–rather than honest objections.

And I would like to bring forward two recent film endeavors, where belief is not only central to the plot, but a lack of faith is directly associated with the villains. “Jack the Giant Slayer” repeatedly asks the question “What do you believe?” It isn’t explicitly Christian, but faith and a worldview dependent on absolute right and wrong go a long way towards arguing that there is a place for Jesus in the conversation. Good men (and bad ones) all make it very clear that their faith governs their actions. The other is a South Korean television drama called “Faith” (though some multi-language translations call it “God” or “The Doctor”). It’s looooong, but the whole story is constructed around the argument that your faith guides your actions. (For example, the young queen believes her husband is a wonderful leader. Every decision she makes promotes him as king. The young king believes his country needs a wise leader–and that he’s not it. Their beliefs frequently put them in opposition to each other.) I believe the underlying belief system is Buddhism, but Jesus could drive a truck between the absolute moralism and the transparent truth seekers.

Honestly, if we want Christian art to be taken seriously, the level of art has to be ramped so high that even agnostics enjoy the faith woven into it. But the first person we’re out to please ought to be God. And He doesn’t expect our thoughts and beliefs to be lauded by the world (I Cor 1:18-31), so why should we?

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Lucas July 5, 2014 at 2:16 AM

Hey Mike, great post. I’m a Christian writer as well and I found your post to be true for most movies with Christian themes and morals. It’s so true that when we do something for the Lord, like produce a movie or write a book proclaiming his name, the enemy will do everything in his power to stop it. That’s why Christians get persecuted. Whenever I follow God’s will, a lot of things go wrong! That’s not because I’m out of the Lord’s will, but because the enemy hates my guts.
As for movies like Deliver Us from Evil and Emily Rose, I know a lot of people who gave them bad reviews, even Christians, because they’re too dark. I highly appreciate writers and movie makers who aren’t afraid to write horror, because what is life without Christ? And they also show the consequences of sin and our fallen nature without giving their audiences the impression that sin isn’t too bad, and that life without Christ isn’t bad either. It is.
I myself am writing a horror novel, and I know a lot of people, even Christians, probably won’t like it. I’m not going to sugar coat evil, and I’m not going to put my faith in the sidelines.
So again, thanks for the post, and I too am looking forward to sometime seeing Deliver Us from Evil.
God Bless.

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Kerry Nietz July 6, 2014 at 6:12 AM

Just wanted to add this: According to Deadline, D’Souza’s film received an A+ CinemaScore rating, putting it on a par with Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump and Gandhi.

http://www.deadline.com/2014/07/america-movie-dinesh-dsouza-exclusive-clip-abraham-lincoln-video/

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D.M. Dutcher July 6, 2014 at 7:10 AM

Cinemascore polls movie audiences on opening night though, man. Of course people are going to rank it highly, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. For comparison, Transformers: Loud Noise of Extinction is at A-, Think Like a Man Too is A, and Maleficient is A. If you show up for Dinesh’s documentary in theaters, chances are you’re heavily invested in it already.

Got to be careful what ranking agencies you use.

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Kerry July 6, 2014 at 7:24 AM

I won’t claim to be a Hollywood expert. I’m just going on what they tell me:

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/why-cinemascore-matters-box-office-225563

:)

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