Check out this website promoting David and Goliath, a movie that hopes to attract audiences by condemning “Hollywood” as the Enemy of God.
Note, I put “Hollywood” in quotes. Because… who exactly is this looming, powerful giant?
I’m not going to post the David and Goliath trailer here: I want you to see the movie’s web page and trailer with your own two eyes…
Just look at their sales pitch:
“HOLLYWOOD HAS REJECTED THIS FILM
FOR BEING TOO ‘GOD-CENTERED.'”
(Look closer: Apparently “Hollywood” didn’t just reject the film. It must have punched the movie in the teeth, because it’s going to be coming to a “theather” near you.)*
Notice, there are no details provided on the page about how this rejection played out. There’s no information about who this Goliath-villain called “Hollywood” really is. There’s no explanation of the circumstances in which someone said “Augh! This movie too God-centered!” (The film’s Facebook page does say that a studio executive complained that God is mentioned in almost every scene… which might be a valid complaint for a screenplay that expands this very brief Bible story into a feature-length movie.)
Maybe I’m crazy, but I seem to remember seeing some big-screen versions of Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings that were quite “God-centered.” God also played a big part in The Immigrant and an even bigger part in Selma, a David-and-Goliath story drawn from recent history which was nominated for Best Picture. Studio executives had no trouble with that. (And by the way, there’s another David and Goliath movie being made by a big studio. A major motion picture about Jesus starring Ewan McGregor — Last Days in the Desert — is already playing at festivals. What’s more — Martin Scorsese is making a book about one of the great novels about missionaries: Shusaku Endo’s Silence. So, yeah.)
Besides, a movie’s “God-centeredness” has little or nothing to do with how often God is mentioned. It has to do with whether or not the film gives us a sense of the beauty, the mystery, and the awe-inspiring grace of God.
I’m a Christian. And I believe that great art is “God-centered” — or, better, “God-filled.” “God-reflecting.” Flannery O’Connor might say “God-haunted.” And whether I worked in Hollywood or not, if I worked for a studio, I would have rejected this movie just based on the shoddy artistry so evident in this trailer. Work like this is very likely to convince audiences that Christians can’t tell the difference between mediocrity and excellence; it’s quite unlikely to convince them to take the story of David and Goliath seriously, or to understand how the story of David prepares us for the even greater example of Christ.
Here are a few of the first impressions comments posted to my Facebook page by fellow Christians when I showed the David and Goliath website and trailer:
- “That’s the whitest Hebrew I’ve ever seen.”
- “What’s up with the accent? And why is there a sword covered in blood flashing in screen so often? I thought it was a stone and simple sling that defeated the giant….”
- “‘God-centered,’ in this case, is seemingly synonymous with ‘God-awful.’ That trailer made me wince — and it had nothing to do with a little stone penetrating my forehead.”
Yeah, I know — criticizing the problems with today’s so-called “Christian movies” is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s so easy to find groan-worthy hype about how “Christian movies” are on the rise.
Remember when film journalists —even Christian film critics — dismissed the latest Left Behind as one of the worst films in recent memory? The team promoting Left Behind responded by quoting one of their supporters and bragging that the movie was getting 4-star ratings “from the only critics that matter.”
Here’s a tip: If the “only critics that matter” to you are the people who are telling you what you want to hear, well… I can find plenty of passages in the Holy Scriptures that warn against that very behavior.
What the hypers are hyping is not art. It’s heavy-handed evangelism, or worse, propaganda.
The director himself is currently boasting that he’s not just a director… he’s an evangelist. Nothing wrong with being an evangelist, but being an evangelist doesn’t mean you are a better filmmaker any more than being a cheerleader makes you a better auto mechanic.
And the film looks likely to be mediocre even when it comes to evangelism and propaganda. It’s not that they haven’t bothered to run a simple spell-check. (The film is apparently going to hit “theathers” in places called El Paseo and Alburqureque, which I can’t find on a map.) The filmmakers’ sales strategy is to lead by condemning the world… which is exactly the opposite of Jesus’ engagement with his community and culture. With this “Us versus Them” rhetoric, the David and Goliath team are trying to persuade people that Christians should create a substitute culture… an industry of “alternatives” to actual art.
And how are “Christian movies” distinguishing themselves as “alternative”?
“Christian movies” usually have “a clear message.”
Most artists know that art is not about “delivering a message.” Art is about the work of the imagination. It’s about what artists make as an expression of their engagement with beauty, with mystery, with questions. If it can be paraphrased for its “message,” then it isn’t art… or, to be more generous, it is very poor art indeed. There’s nothing wrong with a message — but a message isn’t art any more than than a press release is chamber music.
How many of you, when you go to the movies on Friday night, say to your friends, “Hey, let’s go get a message!“?
Moviegoers want to be caught up in a work of imagination, which gives them an experience that provides all kinds of things to discuss and explore and ponder and revisit. A work of art is something more than a youth-group skit illustrating a lesson about peer pressure, or how evil atheists are, or about how [insert a kind of sin here] will lead to [insert obvious, horrible consequences here]. If it’s a good movie, than the form of it will contribute substantially to what the film means.
Of course, to understand how the composition of images contributes to what they mean, you have to… study cinema.
“Christian movies” are usually a display of mediocrity in many if not most of the cinematic arts, from acting to cinematography. But that mediocrity usually stems from the emphasis on message over art.
“Christian movies” often betray early on which better films they are trying to imitate, exposing a lack of actual imagination.
“Christian movies” often simplify complex matters into dishonestly dualistic paradigms.
Okay, in plain English: That is, they portray real-world affairs as cases of the “good guys” (squeaky-clean Christian heroes) versus “bad guys” (one-dimensional villains — villains that reveal how poorly acquainted the storytellers are with the history, motivations, and perspectives of the people they’re insulting).
And the “happy ending” comes when good guys win and bad guys are shown suffering consequences. This reinforces tribalism, and contradicts the Gospel’s call to humble ourselves and to follow Christ’s example in loving and forgiving our enemies.
“Christian movies” are about patting believers on the back. They tend to wrap up in a way that makes Christians feel good about what they already think they know, leaving little to the imagination, and suggesting that the Gospel is all about choosing to be on the right team. They reinforce a Gospel of righteousness: “Do good, and you’ll win God’s favor.”
I could go on and on. (I have gone on and on about this for decades now. It’s one of the reasons I wrote Through a Screen Darkly. If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you could probably have written this post.)
Of course, such tone-deaf nonsense like the Left Behind campaign hype or this David and Goliath hype ignores the fact that great films about faith have been revered around the world — by believer and unbeliever alike — for many, many decades.
Since the earliest days of cinema, and continuing in the craft today, artists of faith have made great cinematic art about faith that avoided all of these “Christian movie” problems. They don’t bother to call their films “Christian movies.” They instead endeavor, like great artists of all kinds do, to create something that reflects a larger truth than words can merely say. They strive to capture beauty, which is the language of God. They strive to explore mystery and deep questions that tease our heads and hearts into active exploration. They don’t talk at us — they give us something to talk about.
And when an artist makes something beautiful, diverse audiences show up no matter what their “worldview” might be. The filmmakers don’t have to go out and sensationalize some “culture war” to get attention. And when they cut a trailer that gives audiences a sense of their work, it isn’t full of clips that look like Amateur Hour.
I saw several excellent films about faith just in the last couple of years. They were inspiring, they did not shy away from questions about faith, and they were warmly received by audiences and journalists. If you’ve been following this blog, you know about them.
And you know what happens when those films — which invite us to encounter the glory of God and to ponder his beauty and mystery through excellence — are shown?
- They get good reviews! (By contrast, “Christian movie” filmmakers usually paint film journalists as agents of Satan.)
- They are watched around the world. They are appreciated. And they are discussed for many years to come. (By contrast, those who make “Christian movies” tend to blame “Hollywood” when their mediocrity is criticized or ignored, which is like a student blaming the teacher when his shoddy research paper gets a “D.”)
- They influence filmmakers of other worldviews. (By contrast, “Christian movies” remind filmmakers everywhere what not to do.)
I’m just here to share the good news:
That we can learn from mediocrity about how to strive for excellence, which will bring greater glory to God.
That criticism is not “persecution.” If a film journalist persecutes a filmmaker, that’s not criticism — it’s mean-spiritedness. But critics who do that tend to lose their credibility, their reputations, and their jobs. True criticism honors God by telling us the truth about strengths and weaknesses. It is an opportunity to learn. And the Holy Scriptures tell us that he is a fool who rejects counsel.
That “Hollywood” is not an evil entity — it is a diverse community of artists, entertainers, craftspeople, entrepreneurs, salespeople, and business people. That community includes a lot of Christians who have chosen to work in the world with their neighbors, instead of withdrawing to try to create a false heaven on earth. We are to engage with “Hollywood” as with any community of our neighbors — by demonstrating love, grace, and the kind of humility that demonstrates our interest in learning from them.
The director of this David and Goliath movie is going around saying this:
“I have a pastor friend who says he doesn’t know anyone in his large church who would fight Goliath today. Sad testament to the state of our faith today.”
Actually, no… that’s not a sad testament about your faith… unless you have placed your faith in David the Shepherd Boy instead of Jesus Christ.
Here’s some good news: David was a forerunner of Jesus. When Jesus arrived, he made all things new. And he did that by facing a different Goliath… Death. He showed us an even more courageous and powerful way to respond to Enemies. He fought with love. He opened his arms. Instead of marching out and killing his enemies, he loved his enemies and forgave them even as they were persecuting him.
If you are convinced that Hollywood is your enemy, then fight like Jesus did: Love your enemy. Pray for your enemy. Forgive your enemy, even as he persecutes you.
You just might find that, in this case, you’ve got the wrong “enemy.”
You just might find that this thing you call “Hollywood” is full of people with different ideas and opinions. You might find that many of those who you thought were persecuting you were actually calling for excellence in artistry, because excellence in artistry moves them and inspires them. Excellence in artistry makes audiences want to see more. It makes them call their friends and say “You’ve got to see this!” Why? Because, whether they understand this or not, excellence reflects the true glory of God.
Finally — again — my favorite quote from Madeleine L’Engle’s glorious book about faith and art, Walking on Water:
“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Perhaps that means I’m just whistling into the wind. How likely is it that any of this will be heard? The David and Goliath team will probably ignore all of this or complain that I’m a cynic and a traitor to the faith. If anything is likely to change hearts and minds about the mediocrity of “Christian movies”… it’s art. It’s beauty. It’s the truth in all of its glorious, awe-inspiring wonder.
Those who have eyes to see… let them see.
*Thanks to Chattaway for catching “theather.” I wouldn’t have bothered reading far enough to notice.