Why My Faith is Not FoxFaith (and Great Art is Not Necessarily “Christian Art”)

When I saw a promotional video for the arrival of FoxFaith, a special library of movies that “Christians and families can enjoy,” I had a flashback.

As I perused the titles of films being included in that label, I felt the walls closing in, trapping me in a familiar world of art that consisted of:

A) Nice, gentle, comfortable entertainment
B) American nostalgia
C) Bible stories.

About ten years ago, I decided that I couldn’t take living in such a small world anymore.

I was no longer content to believe what I was being taught within the culture of the churches I’d attended and the Christian school in which I studied.

No, it wasn’t Christianity that I questioned. What I saw in the world around me only affirmed my belief that this world is in trouble, and that Christ is our only hope.

But the limitations being set on what television, movies, music, literature, and art were acceptable for my attention… it just didn’t match up with what I was coming to understand about the challenges Christ has given to his church. I accepted the New Testament’s declaration that all things in the culture around me are lawful for me, and I am free to move about the country.

But there’s more that passage. It says that “Not all things are profitable.” There’s the rub. I wanted to be free, but I also wanted to learn to discern what works of art were profitable… what works of art were, to borrow some words from Philippians, excellent, of good repute, and worthy of praise.

I could no longer buy the idea that, when it comes to art, Christians should only pay attention to:

  • whatever is clean;
  • whatever is free of anything that could possibly offend;
  • whatever is cute;
  • whatever portrays America as blameless;
  • whatever assures us that the good guys always win;
  • whatever is safe for six-year-olds and simplistic enough for them to understand;
  • and whatever openly proclaims the name of Jesus.

For me, these qualifications confined me to a sort of wish-fulfillment art. It limited me to a particular corner of Christian culture in which we dreamed about what we wanted the world to look like… a sort of Thomas Kincaid vision of the world… not art that challenged me to grapple with the dark, complicated world I live in, where answers don’t come easy. It was art designed to make me comfortable, not art designed to challenge my mind and test me.

As I began to read and study classic literature in high school and at Seattle Pacific University, I was challenged by visionary Christian instructors to ask myself why it was culturally “okay” for Christians to read classic literature, which reflects the messy realities of the past, but it wasn’t considered okay for Christians to engage with contemporary art, which reflects the messy realities of the present.

I began turning my attention to Great Art instead of “Christian art,” I found that there is much more to be enjoyed, discovered, and learned from beauty, excellence, and truth, than the stuff being labeled as “Christian art” in the aisles of Christian supply stores.

While I did find occasional examples of “Christian art” that were challenging, like the music of Mark Heard, Leslie Phillips, and Steve Taylor, these were exceptions to the rule. Their music was honest, provocative. They wrestled with the tough questions and the doubts. Thus, when they offered praise or affirmed their faith, it was that much more powerful. They had integrity. Meanwhile, the other “Christian” expressions felt, for the most part, like people going through the motions, like mere repetition of familiar scriptures and ideas instead of expressions from those who had been out in the world and learned through the testing of their faith.

Great heroes of the faith were not people who made themselves comfortable in a “Christian” subculture and sat around singing praises. They were people who went out into the world and put their faith to the test.

I became convinced that any art that

  • is true;
  • that is beautiful;
  • that is excellent;
  • that is honest;
  • that represents evil as bearing consequences;
  • that represents love as light in darkness;
  • that steers our attention away from ourselves and toward something greater;

… this is the art capable of revealing God’s truth to us.

It is art that affirms hope and design and order and the possibility of redemption even in the midst of ugliness, sin, chaos, and failure.

“Christian” or otherwise… no art will be perfect. That’s because art, even art made by Christians, is a work of human minds and hands. And human minds and hands are flawed and fumbling, even at their best

But the best art will endure because it will capture and reflect something of excellence and beauty. Excellence and beauty cannot help but reflect the glory of God.

This means that great art, art that opens us to the possibility of inspiration and encounters with the Sublime, may very likely come from the imaginations of unbelievers, who do not realize that the materials of their work speak volumes beyond what the artist intends… and that’s just the way God intended it.

Woody Allen’s movies have brought me closer to God. That would make him furious, but his movies about running from God show me a vision of hell, and show me what we give up when we lose our faith. Steven Spielberg’s films have enhanced my faith by rekindling within me a childlike sense of wonder as I watch. And the more I have explored the vast geography of filmmaking, the more I find startling affirmations of God’s grace, and revelations of his power, in unexpected places… like the films of Kieslowski, Tarkovsky, and Bresson; Haneke, the Coen Brothers, and the Andersons (Paul Thomas and Wes).

In a letter, C.S. Lewis wrote:

‘Creation’ as applied to human authorship seems to me to be an entirely misleading term. We re-arrange elements He has provided. And that is surely why our works never mean to others quite what we intended; because we are recombining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings. Because of those divine meanings in our materials it is impossible that we should ever know the whole meaning of our works and the meaning we never intended may be the best and truest one.

This means that we simply cannot create a category called “Christian art” and identify it by the faith-affiliation of its artist, or any clear and identifying “Christian message.”

All art by Christians will be characterized, to some extent, by flaws and misconceptions and limitations.

And all art by non-Christians will, to some extent, exhibit God’s glory, even if they artists strive to contradict that.

I don’t limit myself or fence myself into the corral of “Christian music” or “Christian movies.” Out in the vast expanse of art, I have been nourished by works created by some of the most reckless and irresponsible individuals (some of whom are as prone to error as myself). And I have been insulted and even sickened by the self-righteousness, emptiness, derivative nature, “sanitized” quality, and laziness of much that is labeled as “Christian art.”

Someone is sure to challenge me with examples of excellence that have been produced within those confines, and I don’t deny that they exist. But they are few and far between. Many celebrated as achievements of surpassing excellence will, when held up against artistic achievement beyond those wall, look cheap, derivative, and disposable by comparison.

***

In an interview with Mary Kenagy, managing editor of Image journal, I asked her about the new fiction collection called The Best Christian Short Stories. I asked her what distinguished these stories, including one of her own, from what we usually find in the “Christian fiction” section. What sets this anthology apart?

She said:

Well, pain, of course. The Christian story – the central Christian story, I mean, Jesus coming to earth and dying and all that – doesn’t shy away from pain. But since Christians are often nice people, gentle people, we get this mistaken idea that they should be reading some special kind of kinder, gentler fiction than every one else, an idea that is doing nobody any favors.

And then from there, once you have Christian fiction in a ghetto, in a smaller pool, whatever is rising to the top won’t be as good – in terms of its talent and craft and discipline — as what rises in the open sea of contemporary literature at large.

I like my story, but I am not as good a writer as Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro and Joy Williams and people whose work is not in the Christian section.

So why have an anthology like this one? I think this collection can work as a bridge for readers who think they only want to look at books in the Christian section. What I hope happens is that it could coax those readers out onto the open sea. Because a lot of the writers in the anthology are visible both on the sea and on the pond, if I can just drive that metaphor in the ground.

I want to sail the open sea.

Great art will not merely show us what is pleasing to the eye. It will sometimes reflect horrifying, dismaying, ugly truths about sin and the fallen state of the world. It will reflect what is lovely and appealing, but it will also reflect the folly of human behavior. It will move us to humility, not arrogance; Godliness, not nationalism; an authentic encounter with the truth rather than an emotional encounter with nostalgia and sentimentality.

***

Thus, it was with great dismay that I encountered this promotional video from Fox.

The studio announced a whole new label… a whole new branch of entertainment.

It’s called “FoxFaith”.

What will you see on the FoxFaith network?

“Family and Christian films everyone can enjoy.”

Huh. Okay, what qualifies as a film for “FoxFaith”?

Well, at first glance I see a whole lot more evidence of mediocrity than excellence.

Sure, they’ve got a classic or two, including The Grapes of Wrath and The Passion of the Christ.

But they’ve also included: My Friend Flicka. Cheaper by the Dozen (the lame Steve Martin remake.) Oklahoma.

And something that loooks like a sign of the apocalypse: Strawberry Shortcake: Adventures On Ice Cream.

And, of course… Garfield The Movie.

I am not making this up. (More info in this L.A. Times article.)

In other words, the films they recommend for Christians and families are often works that are innocuous, mediocre, and merely nostalgic, providing us with little or no challenge whatsoever.

They also primarily reflect the values of white, American, middle-class, 20th-century culture. Not a foreign film in the bunch.

At last, a collection to keep us safe and warm, to prevent us from growing and changing, to save us from the unsettling influence of visionary art.

South Pacific?

This is a list containing a lot of art crafted for the lowest common denominator, not art that presents us with exemplary craftsmanship and galvanizing visions of the truth.

Oh, sure there are a couple of titles in there that can be applauded for some level of artistic achievement… but most of those those are bathed in the glow of sentimentality and Americana. Yes, there are even a couple there that were produced by a friend of mine, but they’re not his finest works, and if I were him, I wouldn’t want my work to be pigeonholed in a collection that looks like it was chosen by people who spend their evenings watching the Hallmark Channel.

So it was with relief and a hearty “hear hear!!” that I read Jason Morehead’s response to the very same endeavor at his blog, Opus. Jason writes:

Christianity is not “family safe”, nor should “Christian” art be passed off only as such. Of course, “Christian” art needs to focus on whatever is good and true and lovely. But at the same time, it also needs to take an honest accounting of human brokenness, evil, injustice, and all of the other nasty things that permeate this life. But somehow I doubt that such art will be coming from the gates of FoxFaith, though I would love to be proven wrong.

I, too, hope FoxFaith has much more exciting recommendations on its calendar.

***

When the Christian film buffs and movie critics over at Arts and Faith voted on what they consider the Top 100 spiritually significant films ever made, the list came out looking very different. We were voting on the films that challenge us with superlative, exemplary artistry, and with stories that nourish the spirit.

You can read that list here.

And I can assure you, Hangman’s Curse and South Pacific and Garfield the Movie aren’t anywhere near it. Spiritually significant art is not designed to make us comfortable. But there are plenty of films on this list that people of all ages can enjoy.

***

S0… what are some of the films that have challenged my faith, inspired me to consider the mysteries of God, and nourished me? For every viewer it will be a little different. In Through a Screen Darkly, I’ve written about how my life was deeply enriched by films like:

Chariots of Fire
Babette’s Feast
The Mission
The Story of the Weeping Camel
Wings of Desire
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Amadeus
The Fisher King
Dead Man Walking
Don’t Come Knocking
Saved!
Les Fils (The Son)
Taxi Driver
Magnolia
Punch-drunk Love
Code Unknown
Gosford Park
Ordet
Au Hasard Balthazar
Three Colors: Blue
The New World

In fact, the book includes a list of almost 200 titles recommended for moviegoers to watch and discuss the themes and spiritual explorations taking place there.

Few of these films announce themselves as “Christian,” and many of them would be inappropriate viewing for young children. (There are, however, several titles that I would be happy to show to children, to give them examples of excellence rather than sentimentality, art rather than mere entertainment. And these would be much more challenging, much more excellent than any of those “family-friendly features” on the FoxFaith list.)

If Christians would spend less time protesting movies that offend them (The DaVinci Code), and less time celebrating not-so-sensational films as the pinnacle of art (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), they might begin to discover that films are not defined by the way they are marketed, or the labels attached to them.

There are profoundly inspring, challenging, true, and beautiful films coming from all corners of the world, from all eras of filmmaking, and from both sides of the political divide. We need to stop looking for those that come to town wearing badges that say “Christian-friendly” or “processed for easy family consumption.” We need to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” so that we can recognize how excellence reflects God far more powerfully than blatant preachiness.

I hope you’ll find Through a Screen Darkly to be a conversation-starter. And that it will loosen the stifling restraints of Christian culture, offering some perspective that will help liberate us further to find glimmers of christ in a wide range of art.

There is a lot of beauty out there. A lot of truth. Discerning minds will find it wherever they go, in rare and wonderful expressions.

FoxFaith is probably only the beginning of the industry’s move toward branding and selling movies to Christians. Let’s not fall for it. Let’s resist conforming to the patterns of popular culture and marketing. Let’s demonstrate discernment by embracing truth and excellence wherever it can be found, and not judge DVDs by the labels slapped on their covers.

TO COMMENT, write to joverstreet [at] gmail.com.

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