Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections

Part IV of 2017 Lenten Series: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python
The inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life, or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

by Gary David Stratton 

Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her own children.
Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley.

If by some miracle of time-travel you could suddenly transport 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards into the audience of your local cineplex tonight, he might very well declare the entire motion picture industry a work of witchcraft! (And he may very well be right.) Yet, a careful reading of America’s greatest theologian’s most important work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, reveals insight into both the craft of screenwriting and the purpose of Lent. Both point to the importance of paying attention to “inciting events.”

The Inciting Event

Whether in real life or a work of fiction, most stories begin with a hero[1] pursuing largely self-centered goals designed to help them survive in their current circumstances. In Gladiator (2000) Maximus just wants to go home to his family and farm. In Star Wars (1977) Luke Skywalker desires only to get off the planet to be with his friends at school. Erin Brockovich (2000) seeks nothing more than a salaried job to feed her kids. Each lacks both the understanding and the desire to pursue anything beyond the struggles of their day-to-day life.

Then something happens; something screenwriters refer to as the inciting event. Suddenly, a new and bigger story crashes in upon the hero’s carefully constructed world. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story, “At the beginning of the story, when weakness and need are being established, the hero is typically paralyzed in some way. You need some kind of event to jump-start the hero out of his paralysis and force him to act.”[2] Luke accidentally triggers a hidden distress video in the memory of a droid. Erin Brokovich discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is poisoning Hinkley’s small town water supply.  Caesar unexpectedly commissions Maximus as protector of Rome in order to re-establish a true Republic. In each case, the inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

The entire story turns when (and only when) the hero makes this difficult choice. In fact, we don’t even have a story without such a decision. For instance, in The Blind Side (2009) hundreds of “Christian” parents drove past homeless teenager Michael Oher one cold November evening. Any one of them could have stopped to help. Only one did. Everyone faced the same event, yet only Leigh Anne Tuohy was incited by it. We tell her story because she acted.[3] This is why most screenwriters refer to the hero’s decision to act in response to the inciting event as plot point one.  Why? Because without that decision you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story at all.


This is where Edwards’ thought becomes helpful. According to Edwards, our soul is composed of two primary parts: our mind (including both our perceptions and our understanding of those perceptions), and our heart. Our heart is that aspect of our inner being that attracts us toward some people, ideas, or actions and repels us from other people, ideas, and actions.

When our heart’s attraction towards a particular person, idea, or action is particularly strong, Edwards labels these powerful inclinations as our affections. To Edwards, affections are “the moving springs in all the affairs of life, which engage men in all their pursuits; and especially in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigour.”[4] They are the hidden internal reasons why we choose to love some people and not others, to believe some ideas and not others, and take some actions but not others.

Victory in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm, until Caesar's inciting event changes everything.
With victory for the empire in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm . . . until Caesar’s inciting event changes everything.

This makes our affections an extremely important element of any great story. When the hero answers their story question in the affirmative it reveals something deeper in the their soul than any casual observer could notice. Something in Erin Brokovich (compassion? justice?) compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her children (for whom she originally took the job.) Something in Maximus (duty? nobility?) drives him to accept Caesar’s commission, even though it means delaying a comfortable retirement with his wife and son.

Something in the inciting event reveals the hero’s genuine affections. While this single experience never completely transforms the hero–numerous temptations to give up or turn back will come later–something in the inciting event causes them to take their first step of their journey away from a mere longing for comfort and convenience and into something deeper. They want something more and are willing to take action to pursue it.

Awakening or Transformation?

This motivating drive could be an affection that was always present, but “woke up” only when confronted with the inciting event. For instance, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo’s inciting event is an unexpected party of singing Dwarves inviting him to join their quest:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”[5]

It takes a bit no longer for him to act, but soon he is running down the road without so much as a handkerchief in his pocket.

Other times, something in the inciting event itself changes the hero’s heart. For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a chance encounter with an alien spacecraft implants Roy Neary with both vivid images of The Devils Tower in Wyoming as well as the insatiable desire to go there.[6] In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, God not only incites Moses to return to Egypt to free his people, he transforms Moses’ affections (and even his appearance) as well.[7]  Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, is perhaps the ultimate inciting event in the New Testament. His zeal for God is both revealed and transformed by the voice from heaven.

In both inciting event types the hero is confronted with a choice before the story can even begin. As über screenwriting guru Robert McKee declares:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

Obviously, the inciting event is only the beginning of this revelation and transformation, but it is crucial to writing (and living) a great story.

We Are What We Do

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes interesting not only for screenwriters, but for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Edwards rejects the commonly held notion that our affections and our will are two separate components of our inner being, so that our affections might want one thing, but our will chooses another. Not so, says America’s greatest theologian. “Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the inclination, without some effect upon the body…”[8] In other words, while we often profess belief in one direction and act in another, or feel we ought to act one way and then do the opposite, our actions alone reveal the true affections of our heart and mind. We do what we love.

Edwards therefore insists that genuine faith . .

“[C]onsists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart. That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged.”[9]

Lenten Examination

"Then something Tookish woke up inside him..."
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him…”

This is why Lent can be so transformative. The season is designed to help us examine the gap between our professed faith and our lived belief, between our creed and our lifestyle, between the things we tell ourselves we are passionate about and our true motivations revealed by our actions. Jesus instructed his followers, “You will know them by their fruits.”[10] And Edwards reminds us that Jesus viewed most important fruit as a love of God expressed in sacrificial service on behalf of others. “This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you… For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give us life for others.”[11]

The practice of (and not the mere tip of the cap to) sacrificial service reveals the presence of the greatest and highest affection of all: love of God and others for God’s sake. Why? Because much of what passes for religion seems motivated by little more than a self-centered desire to survive in our current circumstances. However, the decision to give up your life in sacrificial service of others is rarely motivated by anything except genuine spiritual affections. In essence, Edwards is saying, if you want to see who the true heroes are around you, don’t look for the most religious, or the most famous, or the most published. Look for those who love

Lent then is a season for honestly asking myself if I might be missing inciting events to love and serve that are happening all around me: a homeless teenager who needs shelter, a town that needs an advocate, a political system that needs reforming, a social injustice that needs a champion. Perhaps they are more than the mere random events. They could be God’s call to wake up and enter our true story. Our true affections are revealed only in our responses to these inciting events that dare us to ask: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

Any screenwriter could tell you that.

Next: The Volcano in Your Backyard: Micro-Worldviews and the Honeymoon from Hell


[1] Or, ‘Main Character,’ as some main characters are clearly not heroic.

[2] 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 276). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition. (2008-10-14).

[3] This is not to say that sometimes a hero requires numerous inciting events to jar them into action. For instance, Luke learning that a beautiful princess needs rescue, that his father was really a Jedi fighter pilot, or even that a Jedi master needs his help, isn’t enough to overcome his earth-bound (er, Tatooine-bound) inertia. It is only after imperial Stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle that he finally decides to go with Obi-wan to Alderaan and, “Learn the ways of the force like my father.”

[4] Edwards, Jonathan (1745) A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (In Three Parts) (Kindle Edition, 2011) Locations 332-333.

[5] The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Mariner books, 2012), p. 83. (Italics mine.)

[6] This same alien transformation motif is also subtly evident in Spielberg’s more famous E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982).

[7] Actually, in this nearly four-hour long epic, one could argue that Moses transformation is the midpoint of the film. However, in the biblical account, Moses’ encounter with THWH at the burning bush is clearly the inciting event for his personal journey at the Exodus itself.

[8] Affections, 270-271.

[9] Ibid., 297-300.

[10] Matthew 7:16

[11] John 15:12, Mark 10:45

All-Time Top Films for Deep Culture Impact

Part four in series: The Oscar “Huh?!” Factor: Why Academy Voters Usually Pick the Wrong Film

Two decades of using film in the classroom has resulted in quite a few surprises in the stories with the deepest cultural impact on this generation.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

The list below is in no way infallible, but it sure could get a good Oscar weekend conversation going.  (See Deep Culture Impact Films for the ever-evolving DCI criteria.)







* Indicates Academy Award Winner

url-51933  King Kong (F)

1936  Modern Times (C)

1937  Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (C)

1939  The Wizard of Oz (F)

1939  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (D)

1939  Gone with the Wind (D)*

1940 Fantasia (C)

1941  Citizen Kane (D)

1943  Casablanca (D)*


1946  It’s a Wonderful Life (D)

1951  The African Queen (D)

1952  Singin’ In The Rain (C)

1954  Rear Window (T)

1954  On the Waterfront (D)*

1955  Rebel Without a Cause (D)

1954  Seven Samurai (D)

1956  The Ten Commandments (D)

1957  The Bridge on the River Kwai (D)*

20121210051712!Sleeping_beauty_disney1957  12 Angry Men (D)

1958  Vertigo (T)

1959  Ben-Hur (A)*

1959  Sleeping Beauty (C)

1960  Psycho (T)

1961  West Side Story (C)*

1961  101 Dalmatians (C)

1961  Breakfast at Tiffany’s (D)

1962  To Kill a Mockingbird (D)

Screen shot 2013-02-23 at 6.03.20 PM

1962  Lawrence of Arabia (D)*

1964  Mary Poppins (C)

1964  My Fair Lady (C)*

1964  Dr. Strangelove (C)

1964 Goldfinger (A) and the entire Bond franchise, especially 1965 Thunderball (A) and 2006  Casino Royale (A)

1965  The Sound of Music (C)*

1966 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (D)

1967  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (D)

1967  The Graduate (D)


1967  The Jungle Book (C)

1968  2001: A Space Odyssey (F)

1969  In the Heat of the Night (D)*

1969  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (A)

1971  Fiddler on the Roof (C)

1972  The Godfather (D) and 1974 The Godfather 2 (D)

1973  The Exorcist (T)

1973  The Sting (C)*

1973  American Graffiti (D)


1974  Chinatown (D)*

1975  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (D)*

1975  Jaws (F)

1976  Monty Python and the Holy Grail (C)

1976  Rocky (D),* as well as 2006 Rocky Balboa (D) and 2015 Creed (D)

1976  Taxi Driver (D)

1977  Star Wars: A New Hope (F) and 1980 The Empire Strikes Back (F)

1977  Annie Hall (C)*

raiders_of_the_lost_ark_ver1_xlg1978  National Lampoon’s Animal House (C)

1979  Apocalypse Now (D)

1979  Alien (F) and even better 1986 Aliens (F)

1980  Raging Bull (D)

1981  Raiders of the Lost Ark (A) and 1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (A)

1981  Chariots of Fire (D)*

1982  Blade Runner (T)

1982  Tootsie (C)


1982  E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial (F)

1984  Amadeus (D)*

1984  Beverly Hills Cop (C)

1984  Ghostbusters (C)

1985 The Breakfast Club (D)

1985  Back to the Future (C)

1985  The Color Purple (D)

1986  Top Gun (A)

1986  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (F)  The best of the highly influential franchise… so far. (J.J. Abrams could change that.)


1986  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  (C)

1987  The Princess Bride (C)

1988  Rain Man (D)*

1989  Dead Poets Society (D)

1989  Field of Dreams (F)

1989  Do the Right Thing (D)

1989  Driving Miss Daisy (D)*

1990  Dances with Wolves (D)*

1990  Pretty Woman (D)


1991  Terminator 2: Judgment Day (F)

1991  Beauty and the Beast (F)

1991  The Silence of the Lambs (D)*

1992  A Few Good Men (D)

1992  Unforgiven (A)*

1993  Groundhog Day (C)

1993  Jurassic Park (F)

1993  Schindler’s List (D)*

1994  Forrest Gump (D)*

Screenshot 2014-03-02 23.59.401994  Pulp Fiction (D)

1994  Shawshank Redemption (D)

1994  The Lion King (C)

1995  Braveheart (A)*

1995 The Usual Suspects (D)

1995  Toy Story (C) and the entire Toy Story trilogy.

1996  Jerry Maguire (D)

1996  Fargo (D)

1998  Saving Private Ryan (A)


1996  Independence Day (T)

1997  Men in Black (C)

1997  Good Will Hunting (D)

1997  Titanic (D)*

1998  American History X  (D)

1999  American Beauty (D)*

1999  Fight Club (A)

1999  The Matrix (F)

1999  The Sixth Sense (T)


2000  Gladiator (A)*

2000 Memento (D)

2001  Shrek (C) and the entire Shrek franchise.

2001  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (F) and the entire Harry Potter series.

2001 Serendipity (C)

2003 The Return of the King (F)* and the rest of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: 2001 The Fellowship of the Ring (F) and especially 2002 The Two Towers (F).

2003  Finding Nemo (C)

2003  Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl  (A) at least as part of the entire Pirates franchise.


2004  Spider-Man 2 (F), the entire Spider-Man Trilogy and even the new franchise starting with 2012 The Amazing Spider-Man (F) series.

2004  The Passion of the Christ (D)

2004  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (F)

2008  The Dark Knight (F) and the entire Dark Knight trilogy is definitely going to make the DCI list.


Films on the Deeper Culture Impact ‘watch list’

I suspect many of these movies will prove to be DCI films, but it is still too early to tell. 

2005  Crash (D)*

2006  The Departed (D)*

2012  The Avengers (F) and the entire Marvel Avengers franchise, especially 2008 IronScreen shot 2013-02-24 at 12.58.13 PM
Man (F), 2013 Iron Man 3 (F), and 2011 Thor (F)

2007  No Country for Old Men (D)*

2007  Juno (D)

2008  Slumdog Millionaire (D)*

2009  The Hangover (C)

2009  Avatar (F)

2009  The Blind Side (D)

2010 Inception (F)

2011 The Help (D)

2012 Django Unchained (D)12YAS-Poster-Art

2012 Life of Pi (F)

2012 The Hunger Games (F), and and most likely the entire Hunger Games series.

2013 12 Years a Slave (D)*

2013 Frozen (F)

2013 American Hustle (D)

2013 Gravity (D)

2014 American Sniper (D)

2014 Selma (D)


2014 The Imitation Game (D)

2014 Guardians of the Galaxy (F)

2015 Spotlight (D)*

2015 Inside Out (A)

2016 Zootopia (A)

2016 La La Land (M)

2016 Arrival (F)

* Indicates Academy Award Winner


What films did I miss?

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category

Part of ongoing series: The Future of Faith in Film and Television

Clare Sera’s BLENDED and Andrea Nasfell’s MOM’S NIGHT OUT highlight the strange dichotomy between ‘Christian’ movies and the rest of Hollywood. The sense of legitimacy provided by Box Office Mojo’s new “Christian Movie” genre is nice, but is a separate category really a good thing for faith-based filmmaking?

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor


Box Office Mojo, Hollywood’s leading site for reporting movie attendance, has started posting results for ‘Christian’ movies “produced by Christians that promote or embody their religion” from 1980 to present.  The legitimacy and media attention are nice, but is this distinction a good thing for faith-based filmmaking?  While it’s encouraging to see Hollywood recognizing the economic viability of ‘Christian’ films, it is disheartening to see ‘Christian’ filmmaking reduced only to, uh, “less than subtle” explorations of faith.

While being labeled as a ‘Christian’ film might be a kiss of death for many films seeking a broader audience, a number of excellent faith-exploring films didn’t make Box Office Mojo’s list for any obvious reason. For instance, The Blind Side  ($255M) would be #3,  Madea Goes to Jail ($90M) #5, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose ($75M) #6, IF they had been included. In fact, Tyler Perry’s films would have dominated the top twenty-five if BOM had included them.  So why didn’t they?

What’s more, subtle and artistic faith explorations–such as the film’s of Alfonso Cuarón, Brit Marling, and the aforementioned Scott Derrickson–certainly aren’t on the BOM list (perhaps rightfully so), yet probably point the way for future faith-based filmmakers seeking true cultural impact more than a quick-buck from the faith community. I suspect that the great Christian filmmakers of Hollywood’s glory days–Frank CapraCecil B. DeMille, etc.–would roll over in their graves at the thought of a separate genre for ‘Christian’ films. Their films dominated THE Box Office (and Academy Awards) because they were truly outstanding works of art with broad popular appeal. (See, Shouldn’t a Great Film Impact DEEP Culture?)

A Tale of Two Writers

moms_night_out_xlgTwo current films by graduate’s of the Act One screenwriting program highlight this strange dichotomy for the modern Christian screenwriter.  Andrea Gyertson Nasfell‘s hilarious MOM’S NIGHT OUT is included on Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian’ movie list (currently #18 at $10M and rising), mostly because of the public faith pronouncements of some the film’s producers and stars. Clare Sera‘s equally hilarious BLENDED (currently at $36M and climbing) is NOT included on Box Office Mojo’s list, presumably because it is NOT produced by or starring any publicly vocal Christians.

Both Andrea and Clare are wonderful Christians whose faith deeply informs their writing. (They’ve been part of the same writing group since they sat beside each other in Act One’s inaugural cohort.) Both films portray a strong Judeo-Christian moral promise. Because of their premise, both movies were largely panned by Hollywood critics and adored by the viewing public. (BLENDED received a coveted A- Cinema Score and MOM’S NIGHT OUT an 88% like score on Rotten Tomatoes.)  Both are outstanding comedies. My somewhat cynical teenage daughter–not the target audience for either film–loved them both and kept breaking out in spontaneous laughter for days afterward as lines from each movie kept coming to mind.

What’s the diff?

So why does Box Office Mojo consider one a ‘Christian’ film while the other is not? The reasons may be obvious to their editors. But anyone who reads Two Handed Warriors regularly or, better yet, understands what Act One is attempting to do in training Christians to enter mainstream media knows that it is a false and perhaps even dangerous distinction. We need writers like Clare Sera and Andre Nasfell to write outstanding films that flow from their own authentic faith, no matter which side of BOM’s dichotomy they fall upon. And we need Christian moviegoers who choose movies to view based not upon what Box Office Mojo or any other genre assigning agency thinks is ‘Christian,’ but upon which films reflect moral premises and artistry consistent with the beauty and love of God.

So… should we care that Box Office Mojo now has a ‘Christian’ movie genre?  Should we celebrate? Should we weep?  I’m not sure. But we all should make sure to view BLENDED and MOM’S NIGHT OUT while they are still in the theater.

Read the complete Box Office Mojo list for yourself and let us know what you think.


See also:

Support Your Screenwriters of Faith: Go See POMPEII Tonight

The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking

The Future of Faith in Film and Television

Thirty Favorite Christmas Movies for 2013


Rank Title (click to view) Studio Lifetime Gross /Theaters Opening /Theaters Date
1 The Passion of the Christ NM $370,782,930 3,408 $83,848,082 3,043 2/25/04
2 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe BV $291,710,957 3,853 $65,556,312 3,616 12/9/05
3 The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian BV $141,621,490 3,929 $55,034,805 3,929 5/16/08
4 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Fox $104,386,950 3,555 $24,005,069 3,555 12/10/10
5* Heaven is for Real TriS $88,412,645 3,048 $22,522,221 2,417 4/16/14
6* God’s Not Dead Free $59,872,680 1,860 $9,217,013 780 3/21/14
7 Son of God Fox $59,700,064 3,271 $25,601,865 3,260 2/28/14
8 Soul Surfer TriS $43,853,424 2,240 $10,601,862 2,214 4/8/11
9 The Nativity Story NL $37,629,831 3,083 $7,849,304 3,083 12/1/06
10 Courageous TriS $34,522,221 1,214 $9,112,839 1,161 9/30/11
11 Fireproof Gold. $33,456,317 905 $6,836,036 839 9/26/08
12 Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie Art. $25,581,229 1,625 $6,201,345 940 10/4/02
13 One Night with the King 8X $13,395,961 909 $4,120,497 909 10/13/06
14 The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything Uni. $12,981,269 1,340 $4,251,320 1,337 1/11/08
15 The Omega Code Prov. $12,614,346 450 $2,354,362 304 10/15/99
16 End of the Spear RM $11,967,000 1,163 $4,281,388 1,163 1/20/06
17 Facing the Giants IDP $10,178,331 441 $1,343,537 441 9/29/06
18* Moms’ Night Out TriS $9,758,646 1,046 $4,311,083 1,044 5/9/14
19 Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed RM $7,720,487 1,052 $2,970,848 1,052 4/18/08
20 Megiddo: The Omega Code II 8X $6,047,691 353 $1,573,454 314 9/21/01

* Currently in theaters.

See entire Box Office Mojo list





The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking: What is a Christian movie? by Mike Rinaldi

Christian Movie, Faith-based Film, or Christian Worldview Movie? Can you tell the difference?

Part of ongoing series “The Future of Faith in Film and TV”

by Mike Rinaldi

The Passion of the Christ may have Christ as the lead character, but is it a “Christian” Movie?

What is or isn’t a Christian movie? What is the difference between a “Christian” movie and a “Faith-based” film? Many people use the terms interchangeably but they are very distinct things. The distinctions may appear too subtle to make a difference, but believe me, when you talk to studio executives and marketing departments… they are acutely aware of the distinctions. So you, the screenwriter, must be aware also.

There’s a perception that the majority or entirety of actors and crew– pretty much everyone involved in the films– are Christians. This is generally not the case. Some Christian movies are produced by churches utilizing a lot of volunteers and in those cases, it tends to be that the majority of folks involved are Christians, but this is a minority of the Christian movies. It’s not a requirement for Christian movies to use only Christian people in the production and this has no bearing on the definition of a Christian movie. The movie is defined by its content.

Some of this is a bit subjective and you’ll hear some audiences (or even people who avoid movies all together) disagree on the nuances. Some of the defining points may even be fluid. But I’ve worked with many producers of Christian and Faith-based movies and continue to work regularly with the top producers and distributors in these genres. So as best as I can convey the definitions, here they are.

Compare, contrast, tell your friends.

Christian movie 

*Contains a Christian worldview
*Prescriptive (not descriptive)
*Made primarily for Christian audiences
*May or may not contain subtext (but even if it does, it’s theme and message must be stated verbally by at least one character– even if the intent is clearly understood visually or subtextually)
*Usually contains a minimum of one quoted Bible verse
*Usually includes no cursing, not even “hell” or “damn”
*Contains no overt sensuality, definitely no sex scenes
*Generally produced by Christian producers
*Budget rarely exceeds $1 million
*A studio (Sony Affirm, Fox Faith) may distribute, but likely won’t produce
*Indicative stars: Kirk Cameron, Stephen Baldwin, Rebecca St. James
*Indicative studio, prodco: Sony Affirm, Sherwood Pictures, PureFlix


Film examples: 

Facing the Giants
What if…
Mercy Streets
One Night with the King
The Ultimate Gift

Faith-based film

*Contains a Christian worldview
*Descriptive storytelling (not prescriptive)
*Theme (may not have a “message” per se)
*Made for Christian and secular audiences
*Contains subtext
*May or may not contain a quoted Bible verse
*May include mild cursing such as “hell” or “damn”
*May contain some sensuality, but probably no sex scenes
*May or may not be produced by Christian producers
*Budget may exceed $1 million
*May be produced by a studio
*Indicative star: John Schneider
*Indicative studio, prodco: Fox Faith, Downes Brothers Ent., Walden Media

Film examples: 

Soul Surfer
Like Dandelion Dust
Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie
The Chronicles of Narnia
Blue Like Jazz

Christian worldview movie 

I coined this term to clear up the confusion caused mostly by Christians who run around willy-nilly categorizing movies as Christian even though the movie doesn’t fit their own criteria. They do this because the movie does communicate a Christian worldview (whether or not that was the intent of the filmmakers) and they want to label it as such. So Hollywood and Christians, you can start using this term now. You’re welcome.

*Contains a Christian worldview
*Descriptive (not prescriptive)
*Theme (may not have a “message” per se)
*Made for secular audiences
*Contains subtext
*Often produced by a studio

Film examples: 

The Book of Eli
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Blind Side
Paranormal Activity
The Village
Tyler Perry Movies**
Stranger than Fiction
The Passion of the Christ*
A Serious Man
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Lord of the Rings


*Bible Epics from the golden age of Hollywood are given their own category, not referred to as Christian or Faith-based films. (The Passion of the Christ is really the modern contribution to this category, but that throws people off so I included above in Christian Worldview. People are often baffled why it‘s not considered a Christian movie so if you‘re surprised, you‘re not alone.)

Film examples: 
The Ten Commandments
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The Robe
The Passion of the Christ

**Tyler Perry movies probably fall under the category of Christian Worldview even though many Christian bookstores sell his DVDs. They don’t usually clearly fall into either the “Christian” or “Faith-based” categories.

Other posts in the series so far:

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, by Brennan Smith

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category, by Gary David Stratton

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories, by Gary David Stratton

Oh Crap! The Theater’s Full! by Actress McKenna Elise

The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking: What is a Christian movie? by Screenwriter Mike Rinaldi

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by TV Writer Ron Austin

Christian Movie Establishment versus Blue Like Jazz

Why Story Structure Matters: Even if you don’t want it to, by Screenwriter Christopher Riley

Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Writer-Director Brian Bird


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