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.