An independent movie recently released on DVD did not get much attention, but it is definitely worth a look. One reason is that most of the attention it did get was appreciative and respectful—unusually so for a Christian film.
The movie “Midnight Clear may never achieve Christmas-classic status,” wrote reviewer J. B. Mitchell in the Orlando Weekly. “But like [other Christmas films], this . . . production is ultimately affecting . . .”
In many ways, Midnight Clear represents a paradigm shift for Christian filmmaking. The film has Christian characters, and several of the storylines revolve around a church. But there is no preaching at the audience—and that’s intentional. Director Dallas Jenkins based the film on a short story by his father, Jerry Jenkins. (Yes, the same Jerry Jenkins who co-wrote the Left Behind books).
Dallas Jenkins told interviewer Tony Farinella, “When you preach . . . you take what’s supposed to be an entertaining story and then you make some obvious message to it, and then people can say, ‘I don’t go to the movies to be preached at.’ So, because of that, I have no interest, even as a Christian, in trying to force-feed my perspective into a story where it doesn’t belong. I’m simply trying to tell stories about people that I know from the perspective of a worldview that I have.”
So we have here a simple but compelling story about several different people facing crises and tragedies at Christmas. The protagonist, played by Stephen Baldwin—who is, by the way, a Christian—is no one to look up to. He is losing his job, belligerent, self-deluded—in short, his ex-wife has good reason for trying to keep him away from their kids. One of the main questions of the film becomes whether there can be any grace for this man—and watching the way he behaves, that is not always an easy question to answer.
Is this what a Christian film ought to be? I think it is. I think Dallas Jenkins has it exactly right. That’s the same kind of thing that I have often said about films: They are films, not sermons.
The paradox of film is that while people learn more from movies than they realize, they do not want the teaching to be direct and explicit. They want a good story from which they can draw the message. I would venture that every human being has that same craving for story—an aspect of human nature that Christ Himself understood and used.
At bottom, the theme of Midnight Clear is “mattering.” Who matters in this world? Why do they matter? What does it take to matter? Is it about what you do? Is it because someone needs you? Or is there more to it? These are some of the most fundamental questions of the human condition—and as it happens, some of the most fundamental questions that Christianity speaks to.
In Midnight Clear, no one walks down a church aisle or sings “Just As I Am”—but the characters do come to understand, in ways that make sense within the story, what it means to matter: the dignity of humans.
That’s why this simple story is a better example of Christian filmmaking than a film, for example, that tries to grab the audience by the throat. And that’s why it is a film that I think Christians should see and ponder. It may, indeed, encourage others to start telling good stories that encourage viewers to get the message themselves.