So I’ve already received one note from a fan of so-called “Christian movies” who pointed to some positive reviews of Woodlawn in the mainstream press, and who then implied that this negates my protests about the Christian movie industry. (The Rotten Tomatoes “score” — which is always a dubious generalization — of 100% is based on only seven reviews at this writing.)

She seemed to think that I’ve been eagerly anticipating bad reviews for this film, and that positive reviews would put me in my place.

Um, no.

Critical acclaim for Woodlawn doesn’t mean that critics are starting to see the light when it comes to “Christian movies,” or that those of us who are frustrated with the propagandistic and shoddy qualities of that “industry” are all wrong. It just means that Woodlawn may have strengths that previous “Christian movies” didn’t — strengths enough to earn a measured recommendation.

Nobody would be more pleased for that to be true than me.

The thing that really surprised me about this note, though, was that this person was suddenly treating the assessments of mainstream film critics as credible — as if the opinions of film journalists might actually mean something.

This same person had brushed off the more negative responses from mainstream film reviewers regarding earlier “Christian movies,” calling those reviews nothing more than “anti-Christian bias.” What the Tomatometer shows, though, is just the latest clear evidence of what I’ve been saying all along:

When a film is well-made — even a so-called “Christian movie” — people who recognize competent artistry will call it what it is.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. It’s a common phenomenon: Moveigoers write critics off as snobs and haters if those critics, with their expertise in the art of cinema, find anything lacking in the films that those moviegoers like. But if the films that those same moviegoers  like bring positive reviews, they’re quick to embrace and broadcast that critical praise as verification.

Either way, Woodlawn is not the first film made by Christians to earn praise from critics.

It’s not even the first film this year to do so — but the others were not marketed to churches or packaged in such as way as to make them look like “a win for the home team,” so evangelicals largely ignored them.

Nor is Woodlawn the first well-reviewed film to include blatant representations of the gospel.

You see, it isn’t that big-screen representations of the Gospel will be critically rejected. (Selma, anyone? Calvary? Of Gods and Men?) It’s just that…

…art is about truth, beauty, and imagination… not message.

Art is about showing a big “What if?” with excellence, not telling “Here’s how it is!” with a sledgehammer.

The moment that somebody interrupts artistry to try and “Trojan horse the gospel” on people — that’s a real expression, by the way — is the moment that audiences will realize that what looked like a story has turned into a sales pitch. And they’ll start to back away.

Based on some of the reviews I’ve seen, Woodlawn sounds like it has some admirable artfulness to it, artfulness that has been lacking in other films of that “genre.” But let’s not pretend that our long national nightmare has at last been, um, “left behind.” As Kenneth Morefield wrote at Christianity Today, “Jon and Andrew Erwin really are the best thing going in the Christian movie cottage industry. There’s your pull quote, and though it is faint praise, I will stand by it.” And Joe Leydon at Variety says that Woodlawn‘s action and uplift are sustained “until the balance tips rather too blatantly toward the latter during the final minutes.”

Personally I’m hoping (and I admit, I’m just a kid with a crazy dream) that Woodlawn will help point moviegoers — especially evangelicals and their often-misguided “Christian movie industry” (Left Behind, Facing the Giants, David and Goliath, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, God’s Not Dead) — in a better direction: toward an overdue appreciation of cinema’s most poetic religious masterpieces.

Many of those movies have been, and remain — beloved by moviegoers and film scholars, for decades. (You can read about some of them here: the results of a survey about faith-related film hosted by Image.)

Many of those most zealous to invent “Christian movies” haven’t taken the time to learn enough about film history and world-class artistry to discover what already exists: cinematic greatness that represents the Gospel, shining, studied, imitated, and revered around the world. Moreover, they’ve missed one of the most beautiful things about the Gospel: It often manifests itself in the art of their neighbors and the work of other cultures, appearing unrecognized in unfamiliar vocabularies and costumes — profound evidence of the “eternity” that the Scriptures say is written in our hearts.

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