Why Christian Movies Suck (and other musings)

06/08/2011

Warning: As the title suggests, the following article is not scholarly. Sometimes broad stereotypes are used for comedic emphasis and I try to balance them on both sides of the issue. Also embedded in the texts are my honest, sincere thoughts. Please read at your own risk and leave comments if you disagree (or agree. Those are really nice too). I’m only 22 as of this writing, and there’s still a lot more that I need to learn. All opinions are welcome.

I just finished four years attending a conservative Christian college. At said college I was required to minor in Bible. I was also required to attend daily half-hour chapel services where camp counselor’s from the north shore tell our students how evolution is evil and how long women’s skirts should be. I was only allowed to visit female dorms during certain hours with the doors open and an ordained minister standing behind us and was prohibited from drinking, smoking, gambling, swearing, and asking questions. Everyone who teaches at that school is required to affirm the entirety of the school’s doctrinal statement including the infallibility of scripture, the doctrine of the trinity, and that all the heathens burn in hell for eternity and if that bothers you you don’t love God enough. On the other hand, I’m kind of a film junkie. I hope one day to pursue a career in film, and I watch everything I can get my hands on from pretentious arthouse crap by gay French intellectuals to violent godless trash from Quentin Tarantino. I am therefore more sympathetic to communists, pot smoking, and Grand Theft Auto and would be considered a negative force in society by Bill O’Reilly. I occupy two very different worlds, but I don’t consider myself a contradiction. A paradox maybe, but not a contradiction. I follow Jesus for very specific reasons and I engage in media for very specific reasons, the primary reason on both sides being I’m passionate about them (moreso Jesus than movies, just to be clear). In fact, I think that the war between Christians and media is poorly defined and picks a lot of the wrong hills to fight over. To be sure, there is an incredible media presence in the world today and very little of it is truly positive. Unfortunately, Christians are pumping out as much negative content as Hollywood, albeit for different reasons. What follows are my honest thoughts about merging faith and film, and how just about everybody yelling the loudest right now is getting it wrong.

I was taught while earning my intensive mandatory Bible degree that the primary purpose of Christians on this earth is to bring glory to God. Now whether this is done by unconditionally loving others and making the world a better place or declaring dead birds in Arkansas to be God’s message of hate to the gays on national television is a matter of interpretation. But I think all Christians can agree that bringing glory to God is a good thing. Most evangelicals, especially the most conservative ones, would say that is the most important thing. Anyway, if Christian media is considered to be the worst, most basic, most insular, and least intelligent (and just take my word for it. It is. Even among most Christians in media), how does that glorify God? I’m about to offend a lot of people and there’s really no way around it at this point. I’ve sat in a room where one of the head deacons at Sherwood Baptist Church talked about their surprise hit Facing the Giants. He explained the countless emails and phone calls he’s received from people telling him what an impact those movies have made on their lives. That film was shipped around the world, and the numbers of those who converted to Christianity was staggering. I’m not denying that’s a good thing. Those people were probably wonderful people, and I hope that transformation made a lasting impact in their lives. I have no doubt, however, that they were not filmmakers. No filmmaker would be able to leave Facing the Giants with anything but disgust for the ideology that made it possible. That person wouldn’t just be cynical either. The movie could still legitimately be crap and move a specific audience. The truth is that people can be impacted by just about anything if it hits their lives at the right time, and most people don’t take the time to discern if what they’re consuming is quality or not. Just because lots of people listen to Miley Cyrus music doesn’t mean that Miley Cyrus music is good. People who know anything about music hate it because they know what constitutes quality. I emphasize that I have nothing against the people who do listen to Miley Cyrus. They have other things going on in their lives aside from studying Bach. But objectively, that music is not good. Is that lowest common denominator in every field the one we want to aim for with Christianity? Sure it produces big numbers, but does it express the genuine truth of the gospel and does that impact last? How does it reflect upon Christianity that our art sits in the gutter and avoids broader context? People are looking for answers and I can see them flocking to Facing the Giants because it claims to have them. But are the answers provided in Facing the Giants capable of enduring the many storms of life and complex ideologies and challenges that will come their way? Is that film a lasting artistic statement that will stand the test of time?

Sometimes I feel like Christianity is the McDonalds of religions. In every civilized country each is going to have at least one building in every town, sometimes hundreds if the city is big enough. They all look pretty much the same, inside and out, and are gonna be frequented by a lot of conservative middle Americans and people looking for a cheap meal. Sometimes people from the left show up, but they’re usually desperate and in a hurry and they almost never go back because they feel judged. Anyone can enter provided they have shoes on. In fact, the whole goal of the enterprise is just to bring more people in. Anyone who brings up trying to make things better gets laughed out of the room (actually, this is where the comparison falls apart. Historically, Christians have burned those people at the stake). To be fair, these are stereotypes that by no means apply to all churches, and Christians aren’t the only people who fall into these traps. Most of Hollywood is organized the same way. In fact, most of media has been dumbed down in order to sell products and appeal to audiences, and it is dumbing down society at large. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman compares the future as predicted in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, arguing the latter view of the future has already come true:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions’. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I highly recommend, makes a wonderful case for how the dumbing down of culture is a prevalent problem and one with far reaching implications. Unfortunately, Christians seem pretty okay with it so long as culture is being dumbed down their way. Christian author Scott Nehreg wrote in his analysis of Christian films, You Are What You See, “The term Christian film has become synonymous with substandard production values, stilted dialogue and childish plots… we still wanted the pleasures of modern culture, only without any tempting content or philosophy.” I would argue that this is the problem with all ideologically insular art, and it is intensified by Christian culture’s rejection of most outside forces as dangerous. The question that arises is does Christianity work as well when dumbed down? When stripped of its context and discourse and a wide view of the world, is Christianity the same effective religion? A billion trillion things happen every day (that’s a real statistic. Look it up) and not all of them have a simplistic answer or a corresponding Bible verse. If our Christian art ignores those things, then it’s a statement that our Christianity ignores them as well. And what does that say to the people who struggle with those things? Not everyone can live in a suburb in the American midwest. You could argue this same pursuit of safety and attempt to escape any conflict is what drives Christians to push their culture on others through politics, but for the sake of time and my own personal safety I’m not going to argue that right now.

When Billy Graham talked to Johnny Cash about his career as a singer, he advised him, “Don’t apologize for who you are and what you’ve done in the past… Be who you are and do what you do.” Cash, one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century who claimed Christianity, had a multi-generational appeal that stemmed from his honesty. Cash didn’t hide his struggles, and he was honest enough with himself to know what they were. Part of honesty is having rounded perspective on the world. There’s enough good stuff in the world that you could just paint pretty landscapes and deer in front of houses for your entire life, and there’s enough ugly stuff that you could make a million No Country for Old Men’s based on real stories. But painting pretty landscapes doesn’t mean kids in Africa aren’t constantly dying of water contamination. The key is to try to keep perspective; not to pretend everything is all rainbows all the time and not to give into fatalism either. Right now Christian film (let’s not even go into music or television) has no balance, in part because Christians are trained from a young age to regard discomfort as the nudging of the conscience. If it makes you uncomfortable it’s probably a bad thing, or so that train of thought goes. Many Christians relate their experience with media to stories like Joseph fleeing from his lust or Paul’s plea to the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things,” or to the Colossians, “Since then you have been raised with Christ set your minds on things above.” For these reasons, Christians sterilize their content just to be on the safe side. Let’s ignore for a moment the possibility that most of the sterilization we choose could be cultural and not in keeping at all with the values of the early church those passages were written to, or that to disregard such content in all cases would mean chopping significant segments from the Bible. This entire view ignores that perhaps expressing truth means addressing sin and evil in more direct ways. Former Christianity Today film critic Jeffrey Overstreet wrote in his book Through a Glass Darkly, “If a depiction of evil causes us to sin, by all means, we must respond to our conscience and withdraw until we have become stronger. How many of us are humble enough to admit when we are what Scripture calls ‘the weaker brother’? But if we can look at evidence of sin, consider its consequences and resist the temptation to imitate it, this can lead to wisdom and resilience.” Am I saying that every Christian should go out and rent A Clockwork Orange, or even be willing to make a work with everything contained therein? No. Am I saying there might be some value to A Clockwork Orange and we maybe shouldn’t knock it, and there might even be things we can learn from it (not to mention that it is more valuable to society as a whole than Facing the Giants or Fireproof)? Absolutely.

A lot of Christian artists have made the arguments that their work is unpopular because it is counter-cultural, to which my question is, what’s so counter-cultural about making something that appeals only to yourself and the people like you, specifically so that you don’t have to listen to what anybody else is saying? My generation does that a lot, wildly consuming only those movies, music, television, and internet content that advocate their self-centered, eternal youth mindset. Is Jesus’ message so weak that it needs that kind of isolation from reality? In that sense, Facing the Giants is about as counter-cultural as the MTV Movie Awards. What would really be counter-cultural is someone who could address pain and suffering head on and find the root of it not in politics or some worn ideology but in the core of human nature. Christians don’t know of anyone like that though, right? C.S. Lewis once said in his book An Experiment in Criticism, “To be moved by the thought of a solitary old shepherd’s death and the fidelity of his dog is, in itself and apart from the present topic, not in the least a sign of inferiority. The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures is that you never get beyond yourself. The picture, so used, can call out of you only what is already there. You do not cross the frontier into that new region which the pictorial art as such added to the world.” I love C.S. Lewis. I’m going to take a moment aside to say that. Most Christians love C.S. Lewis, but I think that’s because most of them haven’t read any of his stuff except the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity. Here’s a guy who knocked on just about every uber-conservative Christian cliche and stereotype in the book, wrote about a ton of stuff evangelicals fight over like crazy these days, and the way he pegs the problem with Christian media is just pure poetry. When films like Facing the Giants or Fireproof or music like that of Casting Crowns appeals to Christians, it’s not necessarily a problem. Maybe there are honest parts of the Christian experience that those works access, but they’re working with material that’s already there. It doesn’t require any craft or strength, and if the goods weren’t there already then it has no effect at all. When our media is like this, we are never challenged and we never improve, and our media has no effect on discerning audiences outside of our demographic. And if you  think you already have it all figured out or that the quality of your media and art is no big deal, then you’re part of the problem because neither of those things is ever true. I heard a number of complaints earlier this year about some mild swearing in a school play I was involved in. That play, while not the height of art, had some interesting things on its mind. I’m probably going to offend some more people here. I guess if you’re still reading at this point you can handle it. If you can sit through an entire play about the plight of the mentally handicapped and come out offended by a light swear word, then maybe the theater (or real life) just isn’t for you.

Next we come to perhaps the most overused excuse for why Christians make the media that they do. If our art doesn’t display the truth of the gospel in a clear and defined (some would say heavy-handed) way, then the artist is ashamed of the gospel and wasting an opportunity to bring the audience to Christ. Most Christians I know who do not work in media see media as a practical form of religious advertising or a clever tool for expressing Christian doctrines. Again, I’m going to ignore a few really major flaws with this line of thinking, like why on earth should a person be moved to our side simply by us expressing it basically (and this is a big one. Like maybe the biggest one. I’m ignoring it because I think it requires no elaboration at all. That just doesn’t make sense). Also, is that method of Christian witnessing effective in all cases, or can it be a hinderance to many seekers? (if you say its not, you have already ruled out most of Europe ever heading to a church ever again) Instead, I’m going to focus on how that view of art disregards what art is. Poet and University of Maryland professor Rod Jellema wrote in his article “Poems Should Stay Across the Street from the Church”, “I don’t think the Church seriously wants ‘Christian poetry’… if you say you want Japanese food, you must first want food; if you want a three-power microscope with oil-immersion lens, it is implied that you already have some working interest in microscopes and what they can do. Likewise, if the Church wants Christian poets, it should be apparent that the church is tuned into the vision of poetry generally, and finds poetry valuable in its rendering of human experience.” The truth is that forcing any type of artistic expression renders it dishonest, regardless of what the conclusion is. Yes, art does reflect the views of its creators, but there are natural steps to achieving that, and starting with a Bible verse in mind and just trying to express what the verse is saying is so simple and contrived that it is a disservice to the form. That is not art. So some Christians argue that art therefore has no value. Actually, they might have their stuff together better than the Christians who just view it as a practical tool. They at least acknowledge that the way most Christians use art is pretty petty and useless outside of church services themselves, and that the way art really works has no value within their worldview. But I still beg to differ. Theologian Karl Barth made a case for the value of art when talking about the music of Mozart. “Because he knew something about creation in its total goodness… He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time – the whole context of providence.” Is art necessary? Only in cultures that are reasonably prosperous and settled does art thrive. Otherwise people are working on things like, oh, surviving. But the same thing applies to the pursuit of self-fulfillment and truth, and Christianity is pretty dependent on those things being important. Not all truth can be expressed in doctrines and easy catch-all sayings. Maybe in low conflict communities we can manipulate our realities to fit within those confines, but I defy any person living to figure out the best way to deal with the conflict in the Middle East. There are as many opinions as there are people, and they’re all wrong to a certain extent. We live in a complex, sometimes messed up world that doesn’t fit into easy boxes. Art expresses the complexity of life. It expresses emotional truths. It has a life of its own. To make art fit into those confines that our own worldview fits into and not consider any other possibilities makes our art dishonest. A film can be filled with nothing but Bible verses and Christians living them out and it could be a total lie. In fact, it would always be a lie because that is not how the world works. I think R.C. Sproul once said, “All truth is God’s truth.”

Here’s another problem I’ve realized with Christian art, and this tangent is going to probably going to derail this article for its duration. I spent a long portion of time in college as an agnostic. In the Christian community, that’s a tough thing to admit (it’s like coming out for gays, except it’s Christians who shun you instead of… oh, never mind). This might be the first time I’ve ever admitted it publicly (not that we all don’t live like we’re agnostics most of the the time, but really, would you want me to explore all these tangents? This article’s too long as is). Pretty much from the moment I set my foot on Northwestern’s campus, I was arguing with atheists and fighting against evolution and liberal politics. But I found myself empathizing with the other side. And people in chapel kept telling me that theirs was the only way and leading me down logical alleys by which any view but theirs led to the abandoning of Jesus. I know a lot of Christians who argue that their worldview is given to them by the Holy Spirit and anyone who disagrees probably just hasn’t had the truth revealed to them. It’s an easy way not to have to listen to anyone else ever. Must be nice. Instead of viewing the whole Bible as true, they view the Bible as the only source of truth. Anything outside is either off limits or unimportant. I thought as soon as I started asking questions about mass killing in the Old Testament or the justice of sending people to eternal hell or why God’s plan for restoring the world really didn’t seem to be working in Africa, I was out.

I no longer struggle with my faith at all. I struggle with things in the Bible and the way it should be lived out daily, but my faith is unwavering. Here’s why. Some point last summer I finally felt okay with leaving the faith. I was no longer in it for the guilt or the fear. The world was going to end and I wasn’t going anywhere when I was going to die, and I was absolutely alright with that. Human nature was driving the world to hell in a hand-basket and self-absorbed Christianity was no different from any of the other ideologies more concerned with recruiting members and being right than with fixing these problems. The thing that happened when I gave up was important. I finally became able to read the Bible again. I hadn’t read the Bible for years except for class purposes because I was terrified that what was in there was what everybody on both sides kept saying there was. I rediscovered Jesus when I reopened the book. The thing I love about Jesus is that whenever somebody asked him a question, he’d ignore the question entirely and ask another question that got to the real heart of the issue, usually something that person was terrified to give up or admit. That’s somebody who I’d like to follow, not out of guilt or fear, but because he seems to transcend the system. He was surrounded by people who wanted to turn what he said into a political message or something that attacked all the people they disagreed with. He avoided it. He was focused on living and doing and breathing truth, while everyone else looked for safety. In my culture today, that’s really appealing. Terrifying as hell itself, but appealing.

I think even in peaceful America we’d kill Jesus all over again, and I think there are some Christians who would lead the charge. Really. That’s not hyperbole. I really, genuinely think in this world we live in today, Jesus wouldn’t make it to 33. Jesus was a troublemaker (I almost said maverick, but my goodness that word has to leave my vocabulary). He called his followers to give everything; not ten percent of their income or attending church on Sunday mornings (both can be good, but are not the point) but to give absolutely everything they had. He looked people in the eyes and made them unmistakably aware of the lies they were telling themselves and the things they weren’t ready to give up to find enlightenment. In our world, entrenched in all of its ideologies, each of us so entitled to our own opinions and angry at others for theirs, he’d just have to meet somebody who’d get so angry at not being able to lie to themselves anymore that they’d have to kill him. Jesus had perspective. Jesus knew of the evil in the world. There was child sacrifice, slavery, and rampant poverty going on in his day. He knew the incredible sacrifice required to combat fatalism in a self-centered, problematic world. All of my favorite Christian authors from Rob Bell to Greg Boyd to Donald Miller all refer to Christianity as a response to fatalism. There’s a lot of messed up stuff in this world (child sacrifice, slavery, and rampant poverty to name a few), and only apathetic or ignorant people aren’t bowled over by it. Jesus’s was a worldview that acknowledged all of that, but provided a tough answer. God wants to restore all things. We, the church, the people of the world, are His way of doing that. We just have to be willing to die, to give up our material possessions, to give of ourselves in ways that supersede following moral checklists and signing doctrinal statements in order to do that. It’s not forced or coerced. It’s by God’s grace. I struggle with that so much. I’m still getting up the courage to live it out like I think I should.

I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does, and anyone who says they do is lying. Anyone who says the argument is over or that thinking things through for yourself is dangerous is also lying. That’s what cults do because they can’t stand under the weight of truth. If I thought Christianity taught that, I wouldn’t be a Christian. There’s lots of truth that’s not in the Bible. The Bible itself says that God reveals himself through nature. As Rob Bell put it in his book Velvet Elvis, Christianity is  “about the identification of a God who is already there.” Back to art for a moment. There are lots of Christians whose artistic work is excellent; musical genius Sufjan Stevens, Pixar’s writing brain trust of Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter; the late, great Johnny Cash; heck, Stephen Colbert is a practicing Catholic. Look at their approach to making art and see how it differs from the traditional understanding. It will say a million times more than anything I can write here. I think Christianity can make a difference in the world, and I think art can make a difference in the world. They both do when used correctly. And I think Christians, for that reason, should make and consume the best art. End of story.

Now please argue with me below.

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12 Responses to “Why Christian Movies Suck (and other musings)”

  1. Krista said

    First of all, thanks for sharing this. It is extremely well written and very interesting to me as a secularist. I remember when I was traveling in Europe a couple of summers ago thinking to myself, “Some of the most beautiful art ever made was made by Chrisitians, what happened?!” I think a big reason that the glory days of Christian art ended hundreds of years ago is because good art needs to be progressive and Christianity (for the most part) prefers to be stagnant and traditional. I’m not sure how Christians can remedy this problem. I absolutely agree with your statement that Americans would crucify Jesus again. Actually, the close minded/childish picture that Christian art presents is one of the things that drove me away from the religion. I like the darkness of A Clock Work Orange.

    • Krista,

      Thanks for commenting. I always enjoyed the discussions on the articles you used to post and figured I’d return the favor. Anyway, I totally hear what you’re saying about the progressive nature of art. I think there are a few problems at work here, the first being that Christianity is an Eastern religion that was accidentally placed at the core of Western civilization. I’ve heard many convincing arguments that much of the witnessing that occurs in the later books of the new testament was actually a direct social attack against the Roman ideas of class and hierarchy that came to define the religion post-Constantine. Christianity among the self-assured, affluent, and the powerful doesn’t seem to work nearly as well. That overpowering, super-politicized religion that developed was set up for an incredible fall as more complex ideologies developed. When the mirror broke, a narrow view of Christianity could only represent a slender piece of it. Furthermore, protestantism suffers because it is a direct response to the pageantry and symbolism of the Catholic church. There are lots of amazing filmmakers and artists with backgrounds in Catholicism and Judaism because those religions are so dependent on visual imagery, oral tradition, and and rich history. Since protestantism kind of directly attacks all of that, I think protestants have a natural (puritanical even?) aversion to the beauty represented by huge cathedrals and million dollar Bibles (which are genuinely beautiful) paid for by sales of indulgences and near-slave peasant work. The people who sailed across the sea on the Mayflower obviously didn’t have a good view of art or human creation, and I think those roots hurt Christian art today. All in all, religion in a world of politics and power struggles gets confused quickly, but I think in order to avoid succumbing to human nature, it needs to be progressive. I agree with you that that is not how history has worked to this point, but nonetheless it needs to. There are Christians making good art today. They just aren’t as noticeable because they aren’t making overt Christian art (which, one could argue, making overt art as propaganda for any ideology can be sketchy at best). I’ve read interviews with Andrew Stanton where he argues Wall-E is essentially a Christian allegory, and yet that story flows so well you’d never notice. All that to say it can work. Christians can still make good art. The primary reason I wrote this note was that while I was at Northwestern I saw a lot of other students struggling with this as well. I want Christians to make better art. I want more Christians to be open minded and interact with the world in a more real way. To stop fighting gay rights tooth and nail and letting Africa go to pot. But it’s a process. I hope I can make a difference by making a step myself.

  2. Doug said

    Thanks for writing this! Ryan – do you feel like something isn’t “art” if the artist, the creator of it, is trying to communicate a very specific viewpoint through it? Not a trick question, just seemed like that was part of what you were expressing in one of your points and thought it was interesting.

    • Here’s a really long answer, because I’m not sure. To be honest, I struggle with this point a lot. For instance, one film I have incredible respect for is Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. That movie is essentially communist propaganda, but it’s shot so beautifully, like poetry told by strokes of a camera. I don’t have any interest at all in what it’s saying, but the way it says it draws me in. I really love the TV Show Firefly, but some of those episodes are essentially Joss Whedon taking a concept of existentialism and elaborating upon it, albeit with complex characters and terrific pacing. On the Christian side of things, some of my favorite films (which I kind of mentioned above) are Wall-E and Toy Story, each of which have deeply Christian themes embedded, and maybe even started with those themes in mind. There’s an interview Andrew Stanton did with Christianity Today where he said:

      “They tell you that as a storyteller, it’s vital to just stick with and be honest with your values system. The last thing I want to do is go to a movie and feel like I’m being preached to or being told how to be, and I think it’s more honest—and you’re going to have more effect—to be truthful with the values of your characters, working off of your own values.”

      So yah, there’s definitely a balance that can be struck there. I’d say to a certain it’s in the approach (also that anyone who tries to put a strict definition on art is getting into murky territory). I think craft plays a huge part of it. I think a lot of Christians don’t detect the flaws in their art because they’re too caught up in the fact that it agrees with them or refers to something they’re interested in. I’ve seen very, very few examples of that ever working. On the other hand, I just went to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which opens with a verse from Job, very intimately describes Malick’s views on “the fall” paralleled with his guilt and confusion in childhood, and spends fifteen minutes visually retelling God’s response to Job and his friends. And all of that is absolutely stunning and deeply involving and honest.

      I guess, that’s all a long-winded way of saying that I think there are specific methods that work better for making good art than others. Nobody has to apply any specific methods, but it shows up in the final product. No matter how interesting a topic, writing a biographical film only from the perspective of one person isn’t going to be interesting and that bias is going to ruin the illusion almost instantly. It takes months (years even) of research to make something that begins to reflect the complexity of life. Beginning without any respect for mystery or the presupposition that you know everything is a tough worldview for making substantial art; particularly traditional film. I think there’s value in sermon illustrations and specific, morality skits, but there has to be something more there for it to be real, great art. I’ve heard Johnny Cash cover the exact same hymn as some other mainstream Christian band, and I like Cash’s version and can’t stand theirs; because Cash just has this incredibly honesty in his music that’s tough to define. I can live the essence of it through what Cash creates, while I don’t get that sense at all from the other band. It’s the same hymn. Just a song written about Jesus and probably some very specific beliefs and passages in the Bible. But one person makes it live and the other doesn’t. I’m not a good enough artist yet to understand specifically why, but what I stated above is my best guess.

      • One other thing. Sometimes I theorize that my problem isn’t with all ideologically-driven media, but just with Christianity-driven media. I’m not sure I believe the same things about the world as some of the people who make Christian media. And maybe that’s it.

        Or maybe it’s just that the teachings of the Bible aren’t always well-suited to film, music, or paintings, and they misrepresent deeper truths. I often feel like a religion like Christianity doesn’t work as well in a democratic culture where the assumption is that everyone gets to be right and have their say and if you believe it you’re entitled, nay obligated, to vote it onto everyone else; or that letters written to a culture where everyone memorized the Torah will have the same impact in a world where all thoughts are condensed to 140 characters and a two minute news story on a war is considered too long. I think there are a lot of abuses that occur there, and many of them are reflected in the way Christians represent themselves in media and art. So yah, maybe that’s my problem more than that type of creation itself.

  3. Doug said

    Thanks for the reply, Ryan. Very thought provoking ideas about issues I think and converse about pretty regularly. BTW, I agree with you that Pixar films reflect great artistry. I think a lot of people think of them pretty much as well made children’s films, but multiple viewings of them tell a different story.

  4. Thank you for writing this – it’s given me a lot to think about. I’ve really been struggling with my faith for the past five years or so, mostly thanks to a cult-like “ministry” program I became involved with for about a month. I guess I kind of thought that when I started school at Northwestern, the issues I was having would go away. Three years later, I still find myself struggling with my faith, although a lot has definitely changed and I am in a different (better) place spiritually than I was 3 years ago. It’s encouraging to hear that I’m not alone in my questioning and doubting. I think there’s a lot of truth in what you’ve written here. One idea that really stuck out to me was honesty…we need more of that in Christianity. I get so tired of shallowness and pretending everything is fine and blindly following what Christian leaders say just because they’re Christian. It’s so refreshing to me when people are real about what’s going on in their lives, struggles and all. Yet, I struggle with being real as well. I worry about saying too much. Do people really want to hear (or in the case of my blog, read) all that? I’m never quite sure. Anyway. I’m starting to ramble. I’ll stop now before I go off on some completely irrelevant tangent. =)

    • I think all Christians question and doubt. There are just healthy ways of dealing with it and unhealthy ones, and I think pushing it to the back of our minds and pretending it doesn’t exist is an unhealthy one. I’m a really big fan of Rob Bell for this reason. You don’t have to believe in all of his theology (I agree with most as far as I can tell, but you don’t have to) but his approach to honesty was really eye-opening for me.

      Also, I have no problem with rambling. The blog above was like 8 pages long single spaced. I think Christianity needs those people who won’t self-censor their “controversial” thoughts, because lots of people are thinking those things silently. I think the world needs to see that too. Too often the challenges against mainstream Christianity come from angry, atheist comedians or professors with profanity-laced screeds and appeals to the destruction of religion as a whole. It’s polarizing and creates an unhealthy us vs. them mentality, or worse, creates the assumption there’s only two real choices in the matter. That’s why I try, as best I can, to quote Christians in my challenges to Christianity and atheist or non-religious authors when arguing for it. I think realizing the writer has gone through the same things they have is an important thing for many people who’ve been trained to doubt everything except one interpretation of the faith they they have problems with. As Rev. Bell once said, “God has spoken and everything else is commentary.”

  5. I audibly said “Amen” at least a dozen times while reading this. You’re good with them words.

  6. Wow, I have been working through this “renewing of my mind” for the last ten years. I am glad you are figuring this out now, instead of when you are in your 40-50s like me. In other words…..I agree!

  7. John Baum said

    Hello, sir. I found your blog through Mr. Daniels’ review of “The Shack.” I am fairly certain I agreed with everything you had to say, as you echoed many of my own thoughts from the last couple years, and I also was given new insight into other areas I had either not considered or have merely only scratched the surface on. By which I mean to say this was an excellent read, so thank you. I also think you are one of those people who I would have enjoyed getting to know beyond having my brother introduce me to you twice at your apartment…

    In response to a question posed by one of your other readers above, “do you feel like something isn’t “art” if the artist, the creator of it, is trying to communicate a very specific viewpoint through it?”
    I might go so far as to say that art is not art if the creator of it is NOT trying to communicate a very specific viewpoint. In playing music, I must be attempting to communicate something to my audience, whether that is some aspect of my faith or my joy that Brett Favre is finally out of Minnesota’s hair… Otherwise it can come across as fake, and not real art. Perhaps where mainstream Christian music fails the most (outside of a general lack of musicianship that I will not get more in depth on…) is that it is trying to force all of their music to have basically the same message, whatever that may be. Certain audiences will eat it up, but those who know anything about music, poetry, or reality at all will, at best, perhaps tolerate it.

    Jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon once said something to the effect of, “Music is all from God. Take away the words, and it’s all from Him.” I think often it is forgotten that even secular music/art can still communicate aspects of God (or just beauty in general) and cause Him to be praised. I think I have praised and thanked God more often while listening to secular jazz in a bar than I have while being in praise chapel… Am I even allowed to say that as an NWC student? I sometimes forget how much that thing I signed allows me to do… Regardless, the true beauty in secular art often far outweighs the false, safe kind that many so often attempt to force onto Christian art…

    I apologize for any poor grammar, incomplete thoughts, or simply rewording things you already said (I am fairly certain I did that…). As of right now (nearly 8AM), I have yet to be able to fall asleep in what I will still refer to as tonight, in spite of the hour…

  8. source said

    I enjoy your wordpress template, where did you get a hold of it?

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