NPR: “The New Christian Film Industry!” Christianity Today: “Make It Stop!”

NPR: “The New Christian Film Industry!” Christianity Today: “Make It Stop!” February 24, 2009

NPR recently ran a story about the (supposedly) exciting new “Christian movie industry.”

The story contained this quote:

“I think we’re going to see significant production houses that will be funding $200 million films done by Christians,” he predicts. “We’re going to have our own Steven Spielbergs. We’re going to have our own filmmakers that can tell great stories, produce tremendous films, but they’re going to be doing it with a Christian world view, and they’re not going to be embarrassed about that.”

I read this, and promptly burst into tears, then suffered a seizure, and was rushed to the hospital, as I watched the hard work of so many artistically gifted Christians being flushed down the toilet in the name of “branding.”

Fortunately, Mark Moring at Christianity Today was willing to raise the question: Wait… do we really need a Christian film industry?

Read his response here, and the comments as well (where I had “few” words to say myself).

If you combine *that* report with the preposterous, easily de-bunked articles by the Movieguide “culture warriors” in The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek and The Washington Post, (not to mention their response to the Oscars) you can see why I have been suffering nightmares about a bleak and discouraging future for Christians in the arts. (CT also responded to those here, and so did Brett McCracken… thank goodness.)

When the loudest “Christian voices” in the media consistently embarrass those that actually have something of merit to contribute… when they manipulate statistics and pretend that all America wants are cute, safe, Christian stories with pre-packaged morals at the end… how can we hope to have any meaningful engagement in culture, or appreciate the riches of the stories and movies that others have to share?

If anybody reading this wonders, “What’s the big deal? Why not have a Christian movie industry?” I encourage you to read the first three chapters of Through a Screen Darkly. That’s where I shared stories from my own life about the awful consequences that can come from such good intentions, and I also shared examples of what is possible when Christian cast of “branding” and instead glorify God with quiet excellence. If we stop focusing on creating “Christian Spielbergs” we may realize that God is already revealing himself through Spielberg himself, and that by working in the world rather than separating ourselves from it, we follow Christ’s own example.

UPDATE: Hey… how many of you have been following Looking Closer, or Christianity Today’s movie coverage, long enough to remember this?

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16 responses to “NPR: “The New Christian Film Industry!” Christianity Today: “Make It Stop!””

  1. Somehow, in the concert hall, explicitly sacred music can coexist with secular music. Even today, organizations are commissioning new works of explicitly Christian music that get performed in major concert halls. This is a huge success story for sacred art. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and B Minor Mass come out of this tradition, and are recognized far and wide as masterworks. There is a similar issue with visual art. HOWEVER, in music and art it’s generally viewed as OK to make a Statement as long as people know that’s the deal (although some might even object to that). In books and movies, however, this is not generally accepted. And stories are supposed to be more like real life, which is more part of the realm of General Revelation. If Special Revelation is to be incorporated, it must be done with grace and care.

  2. We’re going to have our own filmmakers that can tell great stories, produce tremendous films, but they’re going to be doing it with a Christian world view, and they’re not going to be embarrassed about that.”

    As in Facing the Giants VII and/or Left Behind XII?
    Bonnet Romances with Altar-Call Endings?
    Filmed Thomas Kincade Paintings?
    Pitch sheets that read “Just like fill-in-the-blank, Except CHRISTIAN (TM)!”?

    Ten-twenty years ago in local SF litfandom, we had an expression:
    “It’s gotta be Christian — look how shoddy it is!”

  3. While I don’t remember the article linked in the update, I do remember laughing quite a bit reading the Matrix Reloaded review mentioned within, especially, if I remember correctly, a quote about the survivors of Zion more at risk of a syphillis outbreak than death by machines.

  4. Your comments remind me a of what Illuvatar (God) tells Melkor (the Devil) in the first part of the Silmarillion: “And thou Melkor shall see that anyone who seeks to rebel against me shall prove but my instrument in the devising of things more wonderful than they can possibly imagine.” (It goes something like that. I don’t have a copy of the book here to make sure I get it right.)

    If everything lives and moves and has its being in God and God made all…then his fingerprints will show up everywhere, even in films made by non-christians.

    The core of this conflict isn’t about film at all — its about theology. Some take a slightly gnostic stance and see Christ as being against culture. In this viewpoint, culture reflects a depraved humanity and needs to be reclaimed. Others see God at work within culture and seek to celebrate that and participate in it. Cuture isn’t a threat to follow Christ, its an area to live out Christ’s commands to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourself. And as you point out Jeffrey, there are many ways to do this.

    The confusion and damage will continue as long as this divide exists. What is needed is a reformation of the Evangelical church — one that re-embraces a fuller sense of God as creator, one willing to see the good beneath the ruin and the rust of wounded humanity — one embracing the notion that spirituality encompasses all of life, not just certain activities — that everything we do leads us one step closer to God or one step further away — especially how we treat our neighbor, who may be a non-Christian working in the film industry.

    Film, like all art, grows out of culture. Some of it — like art films themselves — will only appeal to smaller audiences. In this sense, films made primarily for a Christian audience aren’t necessarily bad, though its an unlikely way to see great art made because, as you say, the message becomes the most important element. If a Christian film industry develops out of movies like “Facing the Giants,” etc. that could be OK.

    The issue here is what is a Christian approach to culture and art. Is it only films like “Facing the Giants” that are explicit about faith? In that context, your book Jeffrey is an invaluable resource and a great gift to the church. Keep fighting the good fight! (And be sure while you’re at it to follow Christ’s command to love even those who treat you poorly — not an easy task…but then neither was the cross.) That said, I fully share your frustration!!

  5. I heard that NPR piece and laughed when I heard “What was the biggest grossing independent film in 2008? No, not Slumdog Millionaire. Not Milk. It was a movie you’ve probably never heard of.”

  6. Thank you for this insightful post. As a novelist, I struggle straddling the CBA ABA fence, writing redemptive stories that don’t necessarily scratch the basic evangelical Christian itch. I want to write stories, and often the stories write themselves, devoid of obvious spiritual applications. And yet, God’s fingerprints are in the words.

    In movie making, the question is the same.

    Are we Christ-followers making movies, or are we making Christian movies?

  7. “If we stop focusing on creating “Christian Spielbergs” we may realize that God is already revealing himself through Spielberg himself…”

    Wow. Yeah.

  8. I’m on a forum with many of these people who think that there should be a replacement industry, daily fighting against this idea.

    It’s here:

    I go by Winston on the forum as well, and if you read through you’ll see that there are numerous threads where we go in circles about this idea. For some idiotic reason everyone has the Arrested Development tendency regarding a Christian Filmmaking Industry in light of the CCM industry, which goes something like this:

    Tobias: Perhaps there is another way! Some couples try what’s called an open relationship; they go out and date others in the hopes that it will strengthen their marriage.
    Lindsay: Does it ever work?
    Tobias: No no, it never works.
    Tobias: But perhaps it will work for us!

    And the rest is really easy to guess.

  9. Does this mean there will be a Christian rating system?

    FPC -For Practicing Christians (family-friendly, uplifting and non-confrontational)

    FLC -For Lapsed Christians (not for children, somber, deeply confrontational)

    FNC -For Non Christians (message-heavy, semi-confrontational but never alienating, with altar call following the credits)

  10. I do have thoughts on this. And I find that, strangely, they are not the same thoughts I had ten years ago. As you know, I come at this as a writer who is a Christian and who has worked in “Christian Publishing.” The need to view our interactions with others as part of a “culture war” is, perhaps, what divides some “Christian” arts industries from publishers, music labels and production companies who do not use a religious marker to signify what they are about. Many, though not all, of these religiously marked companies, tend to favor message over medium. And I think this is where our frustration, as artists and as viewers, listeners and readers comes from.

    You said: “by working in the world rather than separating ourselves from it, we follow Christ’s own example.”

    Maybe because that’s where my journey seems to have taken me these last several years (not that I’m Christ-like), I feel a great deal less distress over the presence of Christian-labeled industries than I once did. I think that these industries are a given, and it is no more useful for us to war against them than for Christians to war against New York publishing houses. The “Christian” industries serve a particular audience that is looking for a particular thing. I know that when I’ve been feeling REALLY low, I have flipped on the Christian music station — the one I only listen to once every seven years? — because I knew I’d hear something comforting, positive and uplifting when the world looked bleak. I’m more likely to go to ancient prayers for this purpose, which are not always uplifting, but occasionally, I’ve been in the car and just wanted something simple to block out the darkness.

    Now, can we who find nourishment in broader reading, listening and viewing, introduce the “Christian label” audience to something new? Well, that’s exactly what you’ve been doing all these years, Jeff. And I KNOW you’re having an impact.

  11. Yes, Jeffrey, I’ve added “Through a Screen Darkly” to my “Need to read” list. I got hooked at “exegeting” film in an elective course at seminar this past spring and it is amazing how many films have a deep spiritual theme to them. Some, albeit, are probably a little off center of the Christian theme, but they are there.

    I want Christian art to be GOOD art… and not necessarily have the label “Christian” on it, as if the name somehow makes it better. There are some truly HORRIBLE Christian fiction works out there and, as much as I love the Christian music scene, there are some artists in that scene that just don’t come up to the standards of good music. I fear what will happen to the movie industry with a “Christian” label on films.

    As for God revealing himself through Spielburg, all one has to do is watch films like Amistad, Munich, and Schindler’s List to see God’s hand there. As I commented over on CT’s blog, movies like “Spider-Man 3” and “The Dark Knight” have intense redemption themes. Tolkien’s novels had deep themes of divine providence and hope that, according to the directors’ commentary on the DVD, they took special care to preserve in the films.

    Makes me weep, you know. Thanks for giving voice to this here as well as on CT Movies.

  12. Dare I say we have the same problem across the arts, not just in the movie industry. As always, I love the way you say it so much better than anyone else.