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Christian critics of a bygone age…

Christian critics of a bygone age… July 25, 2005

There are times I wish I could just take off for a day — or a week — and rummage around the periodical archives at a library. Today I was at the Regent College library, looking for certain articles on film in old copies of Christian Century and Christianity Today, and I discovered some fascinating things along the way. Nothing of earth-shattering importance — just fascinating, to me, at least.

For example, I discovered that the March 16, 1973 issue of Christianity Today introduced “a new feature on the arts” called “The Refiner’s Fire” — it’s the big item on that issue’s cover — and one of the two inaugural subjects covered in this section is the Billy Graham movie Time to Run, which editorial associate Cheryl Forbes is actually rather critical of. Of the scene in which the heathen main characters turn off their TV set or drive away from the stadium parking lot when they hear Billy Graham’s altar call, she writes, “This realistic touch does not entirely compensate for the contrived effect of introducing the crusade scenes in the first place.” She also notes that the film is already behind the times: one character’s mini-skirts are out of fashion, she says, and “The dialogue misses the mark in trying to be ‘with it.'” She says of the main character, “The rebel finally leaves and travels across the country, still, unbelievably, clean-shaven and neatly dressed (see photo).” And then she concludes that “it is doubtful that this technique of evangelism will work with moviegoers off the street . . . The film seems aimed at an evangelical audience.” I don’t know how long this “Refiner’s Fire” feature lasted, but it is interesting to me that it would kick off by expressing its disappointment with evangelical filmmaking. A cheerleader’s chorus, this wasn’t.

I found a similarly critical review of Born Again (1978), the film adaptation of Charles Colson’s autobiography, starring Dean Jones. Once again, the reviewer praises some performances and expresses disappointment in others, including that of Dean Jones himself. (Sorry, I forgot to note in which issue this appeared.)

Then there was the review of the film version of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (my essay) in the January 27, 1978 issue — and it’s written in a surprisingly serious tone, given that the person who wrote it is described as a contributing editor to The Wittenburg Door. I am particularly intrigued by this item because I have long wondered when, exactly, this film was produced; given how the closing credits mimic the pyramid shape of the opening crawl in the Star Wars films, it was obviously produced some time after May 1977, but given the many portentous predictions regarding the 1980s, it must have been finished no later than 1979 — and as it happens, the IMDB claims that that was the year of the film’s release. But if Christianity Today reviewed the film in January 1978, then it could not have been produced any later than that; and given the lead time some magazines require, the film could very well have been finished by late 1977.

And then there was Martin E. Marty’s review of The Gospel According to St. Matthew in the December 23, 1964 issue of Christian Century — over a year before the film was released in the United States! — as well as a number of interesting articles from the 1950s and mid-1960s, decrying the exploitation of Billy Graham and other select church leaders during the promotion of epics like The Greatest Story Ever Told (shades of The Passion‘s marketing strategy, perhaps?), and exploring exactly what sort of relationship Hollywood and the Church ought to have.

I might post some more details later, if and when I have the time. But it’s interesting to see how, despite all the technical and cultural and aesthetic changes that have taken place in cinema over the last 40 or 50 years, the Christian community’s relationship to it — and the terms in which this relationship is discussed — haven’t really changed. And, as one who now writes for Christianity Today myself, I have to say it is encouraging to see that artistic integrity was a concern for those who paved the way, too.

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