A Movement of "Courageous" Culture-Making Churches?

Here are a few paragraphs from what I wrote for the “Religion Notebook” in the next issue of World Magazine:

The new movie Courageous played before a packed house in its red-carpet premiere in Atlanta on August 26th. It tells the story of a group of male friends who remember the importance of fatherhood and commit themselves, in the midst of personal tragedies and professional struggles, to be the husbands and fathers God calls them to be. It’s the fourth film from Sherwood Pictures, the filmmaking ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.

Stephen Kendrick, who is both pastor over Sherwood’s prayer ministry and writer and producer of the film, explained after the premiere that the series of films is a reflection of the unity and purpose that God gave Sherwood Baptist to reach the world from their little town. After the congregation saw their first effort, Flywheel, 500 volunteers stepped forward for Facing the Giants. The number grew with the highly successful Fireproof, and over 1,500 congregants helped produce Courageous. The church has used the profits to plant other churches and to fund missions and community outreach. As Kendrick told me, “We encourage other churches who are considering making films: Don’t despise small beginnings. An avalanche can start with a single stone.”

It was once common, of course, for churches to commission sculptures and frescoes, portraits and plays. There has been no greater patron of the arts in the past two millennia than the Christian Church. Yet this is less frequent today, when art is commonly seen as a secular pursuit. So there are at least two points worth celebrating, according to Andy Crouch, author of Culture-Making, in the efforts of Sherwood Films. Whatever the artistic merits of the movies themselves, he told me, “it’s better to create something worth criticizing than to criticize and create nothing,” and the movies “open the door to a cultural creativity the church should never have lost in the first place.” Talented young Christians may watch the movies, “get the sacred-secular dichotomy knocked out of them,” and find the inspiration to invest the time and training that are needed to create enduring and redemptive works of art.

As the article goes on to explain, other churches have begun to follow Sherwood’s example, producing films like The Grace Card, The Glass Window and To Save a Life.

When I went to see the Courageous premiere, of course, I was not expecting anything avant-garde.  I had not seen any of their previous movies, but I understood that Sherwood Pictures is not out to push the envelope of filmmaking.  Does that mean it’s not “art” in the strict sense of the term?  When Curtis Chang asked Daniel Siedell, a Christian professor of art history, whether Thomas Kinkade paintings were works of art, Siedell responded that art “should force us to rethink our beliefs about the world.”  Kinkade’s work, however, “only reconfirms and solidifies what we [Christians] already think about the world.”

While it’s certainly true that nothing in Courageous will cause Christians to question their view about the world, art can serve a variety of purposes.  Most generically, I agree with Martin Heidegger’s view: art discloses truth.  Art cuts through our socialized, lazy, comfortable, distracted ways of seeing the world, and shows us truths that we often forget or want to forget or perhaps have never known before.  What challenges “our” views about the world may not challenge the views of, say, secularists, and conversely what confirms our views may challenge the views of a secularist.  Churches like Sherwood Baptist are honing their craft, refining their product, and putting into the marketplace of ideas a cultural artifact that can disclose certain truths and call people to love what is true and good and beautiful.

To be clear, I hope that Christian films will continue to raise their standards in screenwriting, cinematography, acting, and the like.  There is an important witness to be given the world in the commitment to excellence, to thoughtfulness, to the freedom and well, courage to penetrate the most profound and painful aspects of human experience.  How astounding it would be if Christians could be known — again — for supporting and producing the very best works of art.  Courageous explores the ways in which men fail their wives and children, the ways they find strength in friendship to do the right thing and hold one another accountable, and the ways in which men suffer and seek the strength of God in the midst of pain and loss.  These are worthy things — and it sounds a lot like art to me.

Is the movie preachy?  It ends with a five minute sermon promoting a pro-fatherhood movement.  Is it any more preachy than, say, Milk or Green Zone or The Fountain?  I would say not.  And, given the devastating consequences of fatherlessness across American society, consequences that are explored throughout the film, it has an important message.  Art often does have a message, a change it seeks to promote in society, a movement it seeks to awaken.

Yet what I find so fascinating here, and so encouraging in the example of Sherwood Films, is the very concept that churches — and not merely individuals — can be culture-makers.  The church as the filmmaker.  The church as the artist.  There’s interesting biblical precedent.  The scriptures tell us that the ancient Hebrews not only brought their treasures for the tabernacle and the Temple, but that craftsmen of all kinds gave their talents and expertise.  Perhaps churches can marshal their resources as well as their people and all their gifts to create world-changing works of art.  If highbrow Christians are sometimes embarrassed at the dialogue or the predictability of the script, then perhaps they can lend their talents and make them better.

Will the day ever come when a church produces a film that wins an Academy Award?  Or a musical that wins a Tony?  Or a collection of poems or short stories that wins a Pulitzer?  I pray that day will come.  But the point, of course, is to change the world and not to win its applause.  For believers, there is always an audience of One, and that One is pleased when we honor him with the best of our talents and efforts and also when we participate in the redemption and re-creation of all things.

I believe Sherwood Films is being faithful to its calling.  They are crafting works of culture that exercise a redeeming influence upon society.  And I believe that young Christian actor or writer or director who follows after them, with work that is more complex or daring or refined, will be following her calling as well.  Rather than casting aspersions on high culture Christians or low culture Christians, we should celebrate our unity in the Spirit and our cooperation in advancing the work of the kingdom in many spheres at once.

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  • I agree whole-heartedly. Marilynne Robinson is, perhaps, leading the way when it comes to good Christian fiction and essay writing.

  • I’m torn. I have no doubt that Sherwood’s filmmaking ministry is a real ministry, and God has given them some great gifts which, when used, will glorify Him.

    That said, I wish Christians wouldn’t settle for lower quality so often. My problem with the movies (Facing the Giants and Fireproof being the best-known) isn’t with the people who make them; it’s the way mainstream Christians embrace them and convince themselves that these films are of the same quality that Hollywood is putting out.

    I am convinced that most Christians wouldn’t be willing to accept a substandard can of green beans, or inferior-quality pair of shoes, just because it has the “Christian” label in it. But they do when it comes to art (particularly music and movies). I say “they” not because I want to separate myself from Christians; I am one. But I know, as a Christian, we can do better than FTG or Fireproof.

    You bring up an interesting concept, though: the church, rather than individuals, making the movie. I know there are individuals out there doing what they can in Hollywood, and making excellent movies in some cases.

    Writers/producers like Pete Docter, who’s “Up” was nominated for Best Picture an, in fact, ended up as the top movie on several critics’ lists.

    Actors like Denzel Washington, whose underappreciated “Man on Fire” had more Christian messages, and less preachiness, than anything Sherwood has put out.

    Movies like “Bella” and “To End All Wars”.

    The list is short, but it’s getting longer.

    This trailer for Courageous looks decent, though, and one can only hope that Sherwood is getting better with each effort. They aren’t there yet, though.

  • LCG

    Like the previous writer I am torn. I applaud people trying to make a difference. I think the problem with ‘faith-based’ films is they think the purpose of the film is ‘the message’ and the message almost comes thru as a sermon. It seems to me ‘faith-based’ filmmaking will come of age when they make great movies period. Not every film has to have an altar call to get the message across. I just watched WIN WIN. It was about a moral dilemma of an average citizen and how he worked through it. It wasn’t Christian by any means but there was a message of morality. I could visualize a ‘Christian’ ending where the main character would have been saved and his business would have boomed (ala FLYWHEEL). The real world doesn’t always (not very often) turn out that way, even for Christians. Maybe the film wasn’t overtly (or in any way) Christian but the main character ‘wrestled’ with his sin and what to do about it. I think if Christian filmmakers could concentrate on great films not just on the message, they will end up with great films with a message naturally woven into the story. We need great filmmakers who happen to be Christian not great Christians who want to be filmmakers. I do hope Sherwood films might grow into that role by attracting the right people. Christians should be producing great art for the sake of great art not just to produce a message.

  • Cliff

    I agree with the previous posts. I appreciate what Sherwood is doing, and while I mostly enjoyed seeing both Facing the Giants and Fireproof, they were not (in my opinion) great films. The message of both was great, but the film-making was not. It was better than I expected, but still not up to great movie standards for acting, screen-writing, directing, cinematography, etc. Hopefully it’ll keep getting better.

    Your statement, “Will the day ever come when a church produces a film that wins an Academy Award?” got me thinking. I just recently re-watched “Chariots of Fire,” which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1982. I remember being blown away by that movie when I first saw it because, for me, it was the first authentic depiction of a Christian in any Hollywood movie I had seen. They avoided goofy stereotypes and showed what it means for a person in this world to treasure Christ above all else–and the conflict that creates. As Eric Liddell stated in that film: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” I believe this movie, not made by a church, nonetheless “preaches” better than many sermons. My hope is that the Church embraces the arts in the way Eric Liddell did his gift of running.

  • Steve Billingsley

    I wonder if much of agonizing over the “low quality” and “preachiness” of the films that Sherwood Baptist has made isn’t motivated less by a desire for Christian high art than by the desire to look above it all. Making films isn’t something that is easily done, much less films that rise to the highest echelons of artistic achievement. I think that it is amazing that a single church, with limited resources, has managed to make the splash that it has. Sherwood Baptist has already made a difference. I think that is worth celebrating.

    If you don’t like the movies, fine, don’t watch them or support them with your money. But the high-minded hand wringing is pretty ridiculous. I doubt that any of the concerned critics have ever produced any art of lasting value.

    • Can’t speak for everyone, but I am neither hand-wringing nor agonizing. Just sharing an observation. You should try sharing yours without insulting those who see it differently.

      • Steve Billingsley

        Couldn’t your comments be seen as insulting to those who like the movies?

        I wasn’t trying to insult anyone, I just think that we should think twice about defaulting toward a critical attitude towards “mainstream Christians”. How do you know what mainstream Christians (however that defined) “embrace them and convince themselves that these films are of the same quality that Hollywood is putting out”. Have they all told you this? Who made you the judge of what is standard and substandard?

        G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay in the early part of the 20th century called “In Defense of the Penny Dreadfuls” regarding the cheap pulp action stories that were produced for mass readership (mainly juveniles). His point was that the reason that the straightforward, somewhat moralizing stories actually touched something basic in human nature. They touched the desire for a world where the good guys won, the bad guys lost and things worked out in the end. The people who read these stories knew enough of the hard knocks of real life to know that wasn’t how things really were, but the reassuring nature of these stories didn’t shield them from reality or give them a false sense of hope. Instead it provided a note of hope that there was sometime and someplace, even if it was only in the age to come, that things really worked out for the best. The reason that many Christians may like these films is not that they have convinced themselves that Kirk Cameron is a better actor than Tom Hanks or that Sherwood Baptist Church makes better films than Peter Jackson or Christopher Nolan. (Incidentally they probably don’t think that Thomas Kinkade is Rembrandt either). It just might be that it refreshing for them to watch a straightforward story where things work out. There is a reason that some of the most lasting stories in human history have a “they all lived happily ever after” feel to them. Much of what is produced in popular culture is nihilistic and empty. Sometimes people just want an antidote to that.

        I’m not insulting you. But are you insulting the people who purchase and watch this kind of art? Do you think you are better than they are? Are you so sure?

        • “I doubt that any of the concerned critics have ever produced any art of lasting value.”

          Yes, that’s an insult, and made me not want to read anything else you had to say. But I did, anyway.

          “How do you know what mainstream Christians (however that defined) “embrace them and convince themselves that these films are of the same quality that Hollywood is putting out”. Have they all told you this?”

          No, it’s just observations, as I said. I have heard enough folks say something along the lines of “I just watched Soul Surer, and it was great! Plus, it’s a Christian movie!”

          I cringe when I hear that. What the heck is a Christian movie? One which glorifies God? If that’s the definition, then movies in which people with talents put their talents to work an produce an excellent product, then God is glorified. I didn’t invent this idea. Martin Luther said if you are a shoemaker, then make a good shoe and sell it at a fair price, and God is glorified. In the Old Testament, on more than one occasion, God called for the best craftsmen to build His temple or to build something else.

          “Who made you the judge of what is standard and substandard?”

          Steve, have you seen “Facing the Giants”? Have you seen the dad in the wheelchair who was smiling as he delivers his lines (a trap that almost all amateur actors fall into)? Did you notice the script which called for a small (in terms of height) character named David, going up against a team called — wait for it — yep, they’re called the Giants! ?

          Substandard acting plus substandard writing equals substandard movie. I need not promote myself as the ultimate authority to say that.

          • Steve Billingsley

            How is that an insult? It’s just an observation…..

            I have seen “Facing the Giants”. I liked it just fine. It didn’t surprise me that the actors seemed to be amateurish. Because guess what, they ARE amateurs. If I watch a 1960s era sci-fi movie, should I be surprised if the special effects aren’t cutting edge? I knew that going in, same as a movie made on a shoestring budget with amateur actors. If you didn’t like it, fine. Don’t watch the next one. Why does it bother you if other people like the movie? What is that to you?

            Why does it bother you if some Christians like Christian movies? No one is telling you that you have to like them. Have your opinions, knock yourself out. But who called you to cringe at others points of view (particularly if they are your brothers and sisters in Christ and their opinions about movies aren’t really all that important in the big scheme of things)? Some people like movies that I don’t like. And some people don’t like movies that I do like. We’re not talking about pornography or something that is actually harming anyone. We’re talking about movies that were made by a church that did the best they could. As I said before, I think that is worth celebrating.

          • Why does it bother you that it bothers me?

  • Steve Billingsley

    Wow, that was snappy.

  • Steve Billingsley

    It bothers me because when you “cringe”, you are cringing about people that I know and love and who don’t deserve smugness as a response to their likes and dislikes.

    Way to not even address the issues raised.

    • Sorry it bothers you. I cringe because I know Christians can do better. And we shouldn’t settle for less.

      • Steve Billingsley

        Sorry, I don’t buy that. You’re assuming that people are settling for less. When you cringe in embarrassment over the efforts that others have made, you are putting yourself in a superior posture, as if you know better than they do. You can gloss that over anyway you like, but it is still a smug response, full of assumptions about what others should or shouldn’t like and about the motivations and abilities of people that you don’t know at all.

        • Steve, I don’t give a flip what you buy. Get off my case. I gave an honest response to something that is important to me. You are free to disagree, but you’re going a step beyond that into uncalled-for territory.

  • It’s tough for filmmakers when they’re learning their craft, larely because they’re doing it out in the open. Hopefully Sherwood will continue to improve and will eventually move beyond creating films for one small subculture.

    Regarding some good Christian artists in other fields, N.D. Wilson, Leif Enger and Doug TenNapel all deserve kudos for remaining faithful while producing works for mainstream readers (since they’re all novelists of one stripe or another).

  • DD

    I haven’t seen any of these movies (and probably won’t), so I can’t speak to them. But I would suggest that there’s plenty of room in the film industry for well-made movies that are informed (in their themes, writing, or imagery) by Christianity. I’m sure you can all think of some examples (‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘Sophie Scholl’ are two off the top of my head).

    When it comes to Christians in the arts, the trouble comes (I think) when Christians believe that there’s such a thing as “Christian truth” outside of “Truth” and a “Christian perspective” outside of the human perspective. When Christians draw a line between themselves and the secular world and then make art for the consumption of their own group, that’s fine, but it’s insular, limited, and seems to suggest a division between peoples that I don’t think God sees in the same way.

    And when a film sets out to explicitly make a case for Christianity – well, that’s propaganda. It might be artfully done sometimes, but it’s still propaganda.

    • Steve Billingsley

      By that standard the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” are progaganda.

      • DD

        No, I don’t think so. Neither are about making the case for or converting people to a particular way of thinking or believing. They emerge from and assume a Christian context, yes, but neither Michaelangelo nor DaVinci employed art to serve an ulterior motive of converting people to Christianity.

        • Steve Billingsley

          No, they sought to glorify God – at least to some degree – (as did Bach who inscribed “Soli Deo Gloria” on some of his greatest works). So anyone who seeks to convert someone to Christianity is working from an ulterior motive. That’s interesting.

          • Steve Billingsley

            One other note. An ulterior motive would be a hidden motive. I don’t know how anyone could characterize the movies Sherwood Baptist makes as having a hidden motivation. I think they would quite openly say that they are hoping that their movies would help convert people to Christianity.

          • DD

            I would suggest that there is sometimes a difference between doing something “for the glory of God” and doing it for the sake of making a convert. Not that the latter is necessarily a bad thing. I’m just saying they’re sometimes different.

            Likewise, an ulterior motive isn’t necessarily a bad motive. But people can generally tell when you’re trying to sell them something.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Good thoughts, there, brother. Thanks.


    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I do wonder, though…”propaganda” is obviously a loaded term. If a film sets out to make a case against sex-trafficking, then it’s “propaganda” in a sense. If a Christian writes a book to make the case for Christianity, it’s “propaganda” in a sense. In more traditionally Christian terms, it’s just “witnessing” or “confessional.” Calling it “propaganda,” given the political connotations of the term, probably brings a lot of rhetorical baggage. Developing a movie that’s intended to make the case for Christian faith can be a very good and beautiful and compassionate thing, and I want to agree with a couple of the commenters here that I want to assess films on the basis of the right value and priorities, and not assume that it needs to fulfill all the values and priorities of secular critics.


  • bob Smith

    You know,

    It’s amazing how so many professing Christians try so hard to be like the world. The bible is clear; we are not to partake in the sensuality of the world. Our job is to promote the gospel, and allow that truth to open hearts and break down barriers. If a movie is the tool that does this, great. When we start critiquing these tools using the world’s standards, I am afraid we are lost. So lost!

  • I like the idea of churches being creative entities in their own right. I like the idea of scrappy, independent filmmakers coming out of churches to make explicitly Christian art. I love the idea of Christians following a creative calling. But I don’t think we need to make apologies for poorly made garbage simply because it tried really, really hard to be good. I’ve seen Fireproof. It was garbage. Not the worst film I’ve ever seen — more mediocre than anything — but garbage nonetheless. It was not only poorly constructed, but I also thought it mangled the impact of the gospel message because of its poor craft and poorly-conceived thematic arcs. When a film’s message actually becomes more noxious because of its substandard execution, I would argue that the film actually works *against* the redeeming nature of the Gospel.

    The conversation here between Mr. Williams and Mr. Billingsley has been disappointing. I tend to sympathize more with Mr. Williams. Mr. Billingsley implying that any negative opinion about a film (or any piece of art) simply because the person giving the opinion has not yet made a piece of art is a stupid thing to do. If one must first create a long-lasting, acclaimed piece of art in order to have the moral authority to offer criticism, then that same criterion should apply equally to those who offer positive opinions. Either an opinion is valid or it isn’t, irrespective of the extraneous accomplishments of the giver. Unless Mr. Billingsley is a successful filmmaker, then that line of reasoning is really self-defeating.

    I would also submit that there’s a substantial difference between ripping on an individual’s preferences (the likes/dislikes) and offering an educated opinion on an objet d’art. It’s one thing to say, “I enjoyed Fireproof.” It’s another thing to say, “Fireproof is a good movie.” That’s personal taste vs. informed judgment. If a serious student of cinema comes along and says “Fireproof sucks, and here’s why,” that says nothing about the taste of people who happened to enjoy the movie. A person who enjoys the movie ought to be able to acknowledge that he is, indeed, settling for less. There’s nothing wrong with settling for less if it’s what one enjoys. I enjoy Taco Bell. It’s cruddy fast food, but I like it. I do acknowledge, however, that there are other, more nourishing foods out there in which I can partake, and that if I hold up Taco Bell as the equal of something from the kitchen of a world-class chef, then that would only expose my ignorance. Again, it’s the difference between preference and judgment. I wouldn’t presume to cast aspersions on the taste of someone who enjoys Fireproof; I would, however, be well within my rights to question his/her judgment if that person asserts that it is not “substandard.”

    I do agree with Dr. Dalrymple that great art doesn’t necessarily need to “challenge” us. Any art that speaks the truth can be art. Again, though, if the truth is muddied by bad execution, it’s not really the truth anymore. It’s a mess, and a potentially pernicious one at that. God may appreciate the good intentions of an artist, but then, only God knows the human heart. We humans only know a person’s heart by their fruits, and if Fireproof was the fruit by which I know Alex Kendrick, then it is an act of faith on my part to believe that he’s really doing God’s work.