I’ll be the first to admit Christian movies often miss the mark.
In an era where vibrant stories and characters can be brought to life using spectacular art, technology and cinematography, it is disappointing to see the Christian film industry recycle old plots and clichés.
In conventional Christian movies, problems faced by characters are often relatively small and uncontroversial to appease audiences, leaving little to challenge viewers.
The secular world and the people in it are depicted as evil, while the church is deemed incorruptible, giving irreligious viewers a visceral reaction and forgetting that us Christians are just as messed up as everyone else. Sometimes more.
In short, many Christian movies mistakenly overlook the concept of redemption—God’s ability to rescue and restore the most downtrodden from the ashes — that is integral to the Gospel message.
While there are some fantastic Christian films made by explicitly Christian production companies, I’ve also found some captivating secular films that both strengthen and challenge my faith.
1. Dead Man Walking
Dead Man Walking is a 1995 film based on the anti-death penalty book by Catholic nun and activist, Sister Helen Prejean. The movie navigates the difficult concepts of morality and justice as Sister Prejean — played by acclaimed actress Susan Sarandon — provides spiritual counsel to a death row inmate. Despite his bitterness, racism and generally unlikable personality, the two become close.
Sister Prejean grapples with the evil of the crime Sean Penn’s character has committed and laments the pain of the victims’ families. However, her faith is predicated on the belief humankind is inherently flawed, but has been offered the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Ultimately, the story advocates for the concept of grace: forgiveness given to those who do not deserve it, which turns out to be all of us.
2. A Hidden Life
A Hidden Life is another true story of a humble Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, who refuses to pledge allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Jägerstätter vehemently rejects Nazism, mainly because of his aversion to racism and the systemic violence against disabled people pervasive in the Third Reich. His morality and personal Christian faith motivate his choice, which seems counterintuitive considering the intense persecution that follows.
Franz Jägerstätter’s priest, friends and neighbors ridicule his objection to Hitler’s rule. His beloved wife and young children suffer severe emotional and financial consequences when he is imprisoned and later executed. In beautiful but tragic detail, the camera follows Jägerstätter as he draws strength from his deep faith and love of his family.
Importantly, Jägerstätter’s doubts are not disguised or sugar-coated, but draw him even closer to his Saviour.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s life is familiar to many, but his rich personal faith shines through in Selma, the 2014 historical drama starring acclaimed British actor David Oyelowo. Oyelowo himself is a devout Christian who felt God calling him to act in Hollywood. The movie focuses on the monumental march from Selma to Montgomery: a civil rights demonstration against racist voting practices in the Jim Crow South. The march was met with violent repression by a well-known racist named Sheriff James Clark and his underlings.
Faith pulses through the film as the famous preacher and civil rights leader struggles against the racism entrenched in American life and politics. His arguments are predicated on the belief that God created all people equally in His image, and that seeking justice is integral to the Christian calling. As Oyelowo expresses:
I don’t think King could have… as stuck to the theme of nonviolence and love in the face of hate if he didn’t feel that command and that notion from God. His faith was the engine for what he believed in and how he acted.
4. Hacksaw Ridge
Featuring award-winning actor Andrew Garfield as conscientious objector Desmond Doss, Hacksaw Ridge is another film exploring the consequences of holding fast to one’s convictions. Growing up in a violent household, Doss turns to his faith for strength and becomes a radical proponent of non-violence, even becoming a vegetarian in the process.
While he encounters relentless teasing and bullying for his beliefs, he eventually becomes a medic in the Second World War, bravely saving seventy five men — both Japanese and American. The film emphasizes the sanctity of human life and investigates the concept of self-sacrificial love, which is most perfectly captured by Christ’s crucifixion for all of humankind.
It is almost shocking to think the first major biographical drama about Harriet Tubman’s life was only released in 2019. The formerly enslaved woman single-handedly rescued seventy people from slavery, became a fierce suffragette and even led Union soldiers to victory during the Civil War. Needless to say, Harriet is a film vital to the preservation of American history.
Tubman listens to God’s voice as she experiences visions. These divine experiences ultimately allow her to evade so-called “slave catchers” and bring many of her neighbors and family to safety. She prays often and fervently, expressing praise, grief and anger. Biblical imagery is employed when Tubman becomes known as “Moses,” and Black Gospel songs carry secret messages to help others to their promised land.
Honorable mentions: The Best of Enemies, Les Miserables, Silence, and Lord of the Rings.