In TIME…

Well, it’s been an exciting day already, and it’s only 11am.

For what it’s worth, I’m quoted in this week’s issue of Time Magazine.

It’s a mixed blessing, as irritating as it is exciting.

The conversation I had with the reporter (not Richard Corliss, whose name is on the article, but a woman who was doing the interview in order to provide him with material) was extraordinary. She understood my input and contributed her own perspective with confidence and insight. (She identified herself as a devout Catholic living in New York.) She then passed along her interview to “the writer,” who must have been consolidating interviews and notes from several researchers. To see that THIS article is what came from our conversation… that Richard Corliss focused on the shallow and clearly naive exploitation of movies in contemporary church services, and to catch his cynical tone, is really truly disappointing.

The hardest part to take is being lumped together with “Christian film reviewers” like Ted Baehr who behave like publicity-seeking Pharisees, who judge movies based on things like how many swear words are in them, and sometimes use their reviews for character assassinations. (Movieguide’s review of Monster’s Ball turned into an attack on Roger Ebert, saying that Ebert liked the film because he “likes to ogle the breasts of black women.” Just last week, Baehr’s editorial on the career of motion picture mogul Jack Valenti ended with, “I hate to think of what will happen to you when you face the judgment of God.” He discredits even good films if the heroes don’t at some point acknowledge Jesus as Lord… and you know how rarely that happens.)

Momentary rant: Art is irreducible to paraphrase. Great art reflects to us something of the artist’s apprehension of the world, in its brokenness and beauty. It will reveal both wonderful and ugly things. It will reflect the many ways people behave, the choices they make, and the consequences. It will reward patient examination, and if it’s good, it will further reward those who revisit it, offering myriad insights and suggestions that lead us to deeper questions and a greater appreciation for people of other experiences. We cannot judge a work of art by the behavior of the characters in it: their speech, violence, sexuality, etc. (Otherwise, what do we do with the sordid tales of Scripture?) We certainly cannot demand that art reduce itself to didactic argument, and we especially cannot judge a work based on how far it goes to explicitly spell out the gospel. We can instead look at art and catch glimpses or truth, beauty, and meaning that are available to any man, woman, and child. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans said, the mysteries and truths of God are evident to all human beings so that they are without excuse. His glory has been imprinted upon our hearts. It is my goal as a film reviewer to listen for those rumors of glory, look for this moments when the elements in a film congeal to reveal something that has the power to transform us.

It’s so disappointing. I talked with that Time interviewer for more than half an hour about the weakness of reducing art to a single “moral,” about the dangers of oversimplification and the limitations of the “Christ figure” approach to interpretation. We talked about Magnolia and House of Sand and Fog and Crimes and Misdemeanors. We talked about the damage done by Movieguide’s “checklist and standards” approach, the way it completely misunderstands the way that art works and the purpose of art. She got it all down, shared her own experiences, and was very excited about the article.

(Sometimes I try to imagine what it would have been like if, during my days as an English Literature major at Seattle Pacific University, we had changed our focus from the study of literature to the grading of literature based on whether or not the characters ever misbehaved. By Movieguide standards, Madame Bovary would have been an “abhorrent” work, and Heart of Darkness would have scored very poorly as well… regardless of the fact that they are masterpieces of literature. Hmmm… come to think of it, there’s some pretty harsh language, violence, and sexuality in the Bible as well.)

And yet, despite the views we expressed to the reporter, these things were completely ignored by Corliss, and more… he made it sound as if there is no variation at all among Christians in their interpretations of film… that Baehr’s speaking for all of us when he judges movies on how useful they are as propaganda for Jesus, and how “clean” they are of a select list of “offenses.”

What a total drag.

The situation is ever-so-slightly improved by the sidebar article, in which they list excerpts from recent religious press film reviews. They start with an (uncredited) quote from my review of “Shrek 2,” and provide a link to ChristianityTodayMovies.com, which should help a few alert readers to note the differences between CT’s approach and the mode of many other sites. You can see that sidebar at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101040816-678617,00.html

Anyway, the issue will be on newsstands today or tomorrow. It’s the August 16th issue, which says “AL-QAEDA IN AMERICA” on the front cover.

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  • Anonymous

    The article is translated from Dutch by the 16 Horsepower fans running that website. The correct translation of “geweten” is indeed “conscience”.

    I knew you’d like the article. :)

    Matthijs

  • Levi Nunnink

    mizznicole, Jesus did not die to save “the human enterprise”. He died to save souls. Of course one result of his incarnation and sacrifice is cultural reformation. How could we not reform when we draw nearer to God through the blood of Jesus? How could we not be inspired to beauty and art?

    But we are still strangers on this earth. Our hope is in heaven not in this futile culture. Remember Jesus is coming to create a new heavens and a new earth, the old will be done away with!

  • mizznicole

    Wow, the Jesus I follow is the one who redeems the whole human enterprise, culture and all. If Jesus hadn’t come to redeem culture, we’d have no Sistine Chapel, no Moonlight Sonata, no Brothers Karamazov, no Julian calendar, and maybe no United States.

    Jesus inspires cultural reformation by the very essence of his redemptive work in the human person. As he frees man from sin, he lives and acts and reflects the imago dei more perfectly. How can the most beautiful, piercing, searching art not come from believers totally given over to the penetrating power of the Holy Spirit? The collective transformation of belivers becomes cultural redemption, easy (and hard) as that.

    We’ve lost the West not because Jesus has nothing to say to culture, but because the church lost her identity. Once we begin to see ourselves as creators in the image of God, and realize that this heritage has belonged to us as Christians all along, we’ll begin making inroads to the enemy’s camp. We won’t win any battles by encasing ourselves in the ghetto.

  • davo

    Geoffrey,

    My dad used to be interviewed semi-frequently for various things he did, and he finally came to refuse any interview unless he could at least look at the final copy prior to publication and choose to bail out if it was not fairly represented. Of course very few people would go along with it, but hey, at least he could stop grinding his teeth in frustration.

    It makes me often wonder when I read stories about various folk who were ‘interviewed’ in print or on TV, how poorly they’re being represented. In fact, I’d say it’s more rare than not to hear people say they were happy with how it turned out.

  • Levi Nunnink

    I appreciate your response. By no means am I a Baehr apologist. I don’t read his reviews for the reasons you mentioned (there’s nothing more boring than being able to predict a review based on how many swear words the movie contained) whereas I visit your site on regular basis.

    When you say that “Baehr says things under the banner of the church as if he is speaking for all of Christianity and since his voice is so “public,” I consider it a mission to show that he does not speak for the church as I know it” I can’t help but feel your frustration. But if we are mis-represented to the culture than what loss is that? Jesus didn’t come to reform the culture.

    As a Chistian you must do as your convictions dictate and if that includes calling out Baehr (as Paul did to a number of people) than God bless you. But this culture and what it has to offer is extremely temporary.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Perhaps you’re right… perhaps using words like “publicity-seeking Pharisee” is a bit harsh. Perhaps it would be better if I just stuck to the facts and let people draw their own conclusions. I could offer, for example, the time I was interviewed on the Dick Staub show, in which I was asked to talk about the value of metaphor in the Harry Potter stories. When Baehr came on the show after me, the show host asked him what he thought about Christian film critics like me who find meaning in some of the Harry Potter storytelling. His curt response: “Well, they just haven’t read The Bible, and they’ve been blinded by the glitter of Hollywood.” Perhaps I should post excerpts from the articles where he has praised his own Web site as the ONLY Christian-perspective movie review service founded on a Scriptural world view. One of the primary motivating reasons I’ve had for becoming a film critic is to trying and draw attention to the fact that there is a wide range of thinking about film and media amongst Christians, and much of it is “based on Scripture.” Baehr, being the guy with the biggest platform, consistently says things under the banner of the church as if he is speaking for all of Christianity, and since his voice is so “public,” I consider it a mission to show that he does not speak for the church as I know it. So perhaps I should take an approach where I let his quotes speak for themselves, you’re right. But I find it interesting that Christ, who usually went out of his way to stick up for people being publically persecuted, didn’t hold back from calling a pharisee a pharisee when he encountered one in public. I’m certainly not the “only true perspective” on films… I’m just an explorer, reporting what I find, and I’m frequently awed and impressed and even deeply moved by discoveries and observations of other critics. I’m not setting myself up as the authority by any means… far from it. I’m just against anyone coming along and elevating themselves as THE authority on the subject, especially when they’re so presumptuous as to announce to the world that their “competitors” (another misconception) “haven’t read the Bible” or have been “blinded by the glitter of Hollywood.” After all, this is the guy who has “reviewed” films he’s been paid to promote. This is the guy who doesn’t flinch at having a fellow who participated in producing a film co-author that film’s review for Movieguide. I just find it sad that when TIME goes to tell the world about Christian film criticism, we’re all put under the same label as someone who disregards the standards of journalistic integrity as consistently as Baehr, and who uses the privilege of his platform to announce which public figures will face the severe judgment of God.

  • Anonymous

    Amen to that. I’m a sometime Christian (perhaps a post-Christian?) who’s slowly moving into adulthood (age 30). I’m trying to understand the messy, beautiful world around me which which my traditional evangelical Christian upbringing did not prepare me for at all. Thanks for your willingness to look beyond the surface both in film and in life, to find meaning and inspiration in unexpected places.

    – c.m.

  • Levi Nunnink

    You know Jeffery it’s a little rediculous to label someone a publicity-seeking Pharisee of the worst sort just because they have a poor understanding of art and they (perhaps wrongly) attack people in their articles. (Excuse me, but aren’t you assasinating Baehr’s character in your article?)

    Sure maybe Baehr is doing a lousy job in spreading the christian word on art but Jesus is bigger than art. Be careful that you don’t become like the ghost in C.S Lewis’s The Great Divorce who could not love the glory of heaven because he could not paint it.

  • Anonymous

    i feel exactly the same way. your “momentary rant” is a perfect summary of why i feel that article turned out so poorly, and why i was so disappointed by it.

    -kate b.

  • Anonymous

    i feel exactly the same way. your “momentary rant” is a perfect summary of why i feel that article turned out so poorly, and why i was so disappointed by it.


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