Why is Christian Media So Awful?

Why is Christian Media So Awful? November 13, 2013

I’m going to confess right now that I’m out of touch with the music world. But I have an excuse. When I was 16, remember, I converted from Catholicism to the Southern Baptist Convention, and a few months later to Pentecostalism. And I threw myself into religion. I never really got the chance to figure music out and largely allowed the Christian Marketing Machine to tell me what I should be listening to. When I listened to the kinds of Christian music that I’d loved once after deconversion, I noticed quickly that it was actually terrible! And maybe I’ve figured out why.

(Neil Willsey, CC-SA.)
(Neil Willsey, CC-SA.)

You might have heard me talk before about the Christian Marketing Machine–which, by the way, is just my own idiosyncratic term for that huge conglomeration of Christian publishers, bookstores, music labels, and movie producers that seem to dominate modern evangelical entertainment–like LifeWay Christian Resources, a huge chain of Christian bookstores which sanctimoniously refused to stock a book by Rachel Held Evans because she used the word “vagina” in a nonfiction book about women’s sexuality and relationships. (If you’re wondering if there was a double standard going on, then you would be correct; they didn’t seem to have a problem with a male megapastor talking about penises and anal sex in his sex book.) It’s no exaggeration to say that this group of businesses and umbrella interests are in large part precisely why folks think of “Christian movies” and “Christian music” and think of, generally, one image. These businesses propagate a certain image, a particular style, of media. Anything that goes against that image and style gets nixed, as Ms. Evans discovered. There was a time when getting in good with places like LifeWay was of paramount importance to Christian publishers and media makers, though one might argue–especially in the wake of Ms. Evans’ story of the patently absurd sexism and unfairness she faced at the hands of her peers–that this influence may be fraying a bit around the edges.

Well, this machine’s dominance was only just then getting rolling when I was first involved in evangelicalism.

Amy Grant (album)
Amy Grant (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia). I owned this album, and not ironically either.

A lot of stuff was going on in the mid-80s that was all coming together at once. Amy Grant was the darling of what was fast becoming known as the Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) scene, but she wasn’t the first, just the biggest and the cutest. I’d never heard anything like her music before. It was squeaky-clean and boppy. It sounded a bit like the “worldly” music my church hated, but only a bit. It was more like early Whitney Houston, before the drugs and weird stuff caught up with her. It was upbeat and sterile but full of sexual and romantic longing. It was filled with a theology my pastor would not have recognized, sung by a young woman who didn’t look very properly Christian at all. Her Jesus was Boyfriend!Jesus, not the Biblical one, not the one who suffered and probably didn’t eat that well and hung out with all the wrong people and threw petulant fits at fig trees and sponged off his friends and stole horses and called foreign women “dogs;” Amy Grant’s Jesus was the man she wanted to marry, and I ached just like she did for this vision. Yeah, it’s embarrassing to admit now, but I loved her music when I was a teenager.

As far as print media was concerned, Christian books had always been popular, but suddenly (it seems like in retrospect) an explosion hit publishing of what Snopes.com so aptly termed glurge. To paraphrase Snopes’ explanation, glurge stories are sickeningly-sweet morality tales that distort and make up facts to make their preachy points. Their irresponsible creators often unwittingly (and hilariously) refute and undermine their own messages, but that doesn’t stop them from churning out story after story.

And indeed, that was what we were starting to see in secular and Christian bookstores alike in the mid-80s. This Present Darkness came out in 1986 and was a near-instant hit in my neck of the woods; it was about a big conspiracy by an Illuminati-type huge network of New Agers and demons to take over the world or something, and they’d have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for that intrepid reporter and her dumb cop buddy! The Wikipedia page about its cultural influence is blank, but I can tell you what that influence was for my church: we all began thinking of angels as being everywhere and developed major paranoia and persecution complexes (and we turned the last page of that book convinced that New Ager were members of some vast brotherhood to be feared; it was almost disappointing to learn much later what that movement was about and what it was capable of doing). But books like it were quick to follow, and I ate them up without any sort of critical discernment about just what I was consuming. They were Christian–they were sold by Christian booksellers, written by Christian authors, and had Christian themes. Surely that meant they were edifying, right? Every human being in my church owned a copy of This Present Darkness–chances are it was the one book that we all had in common with the exception of the Bible. It was only the first one of many to come, though.

I think that it wasn’t till the mid-80s that Christian marketers realized just what a treasure trove of money Christian consumers were. We were hungry for entertainment that fed us and made us feel comfortable and happy–and victorious, and superior, and right. We had money to spend–more than we’d ever had before the 80s, that’s for sure–and we had political clout of a sort we’d never had before then. We wanted glurge. And boy howdy did we get what we wanted.

I fell for every bit of what this new Christian media had to offer. I dragged my first boyfriend, Kurt, to, no kidding, an Amy Grant concert, which was also my first concert. (I don’t know what religion he was; I assumed he was Christian, but we didn’t talk about it much.) I was on cloud nine. I think I sang with my friends to her songs; to be sure, we knew every word. Kurt was horrified, though he politely tried his best to hide it from me and my friends. I still wonder what he thought of that outing. We broke up a short while later, though I don’t know if the concert had anything to do with it. And certainly I didn’t lose my affection for many years for that preachy, whiny, weirdly sexualized, obliviously narcissistic brand of super-boppy over-the-top CCM that makes me grit my teeth today.

If you’re wondering, why yes, Biff especially loved the older side of CCM like Keith Green, Carman, and 2nd Chapter of Acts; for a while he wanted to run off to Keith Green’s compound; after he died in a light plane accident, his widow had this religious retreat she ran (this was around the time of that Waco thing I’ve talked about before, when Biff really needed extra authority in his life). It wasn’t quite as excruciating as the newer stuff (I had Christian friends who referred to Michael W. Smith as “Michael Whiner Smith”). But I couldn’t imagine then being a Christian and listening to “worldly” music anymore. In the same way, I’m seeing fundagelicals get especially antsy to have Christian movies to watch, as if “worldly” movies just aren’t good enough for their high-and-mighty loftiness or have some sort of secret power that overrides their religious indoctrination. And these Christian movies suck just as bad as Christian music does, and I think for much the same reasons.

You guys know how I reviewed the trailer for I’m in Love With a Church Girl, the newest example of Christian dreck to come steaming out of the dark stinky maw of the Christian Marketing Machine? I’ve been thinking about just why it is that I find Christian music, movies, and other media so dissatisfying. And in one of those weird kinda combo moves, it seems like more than a few other folks are wondering about it too off and on in recent years, like this guest poster over at Friendly Atheist who was wondering the same thing a couple years ago, mentioning among other things an article over at Salon about the low quality of Christian movies. Christians themselves don’t generally seem so concerned about the bubble they’re wrapping themselves up in, though sometimes you’ll see a squawk from a Christian who can’t stand Christian movies either (that’s a really good writeup, by the way, and I think he adds some good points to the discussion).

It’s just baffling how determinedly bad these movies are. It’s fascinating. It’s no wonder people speculate about how something so awful could possibly happen. It’s like this goofy “separate-but-equal” thing evangelicals have going on where they’re making homemade movies to amuse themselves and don’t realize just how wildly sub-par in quality their homegrown attempts are in comparison to real movies. It’s like they’ve got their bubble and all they really know and see is inside that bubble, so they just don’t know any better. It’s downright fascinating to me, as an outsider. Then again, I adore bad movies (I’m on the verge of wearing out my DVD copy of Xanadu).

Now, as popular as evangelical-oriented books and music had become back in my day, movies–being much more expensive and difficult to make–were a bit slower to happen, though of course they did happen. China Cry was one movie that came out when I was in college, a bit late to the party, and it was ferociously forced-birther in mindset. Whatever its posters implied, abortion was really its central focus–it made the argument that China was very evil for forcing women to abort babies they wanted to keep (which every pro-choicer would likely agree is indeed very bad and not okay at all), so therefore abortion must be criminalized in America because China, y’all (which–wait, WTF?). A bunch of folks from my church actually made a field trip to go see this movie–it was playing in a small theater off the beaten path and not easy to find, as I recall–and it was so preachy that I felt very uncomfortable–even though I was myself a forced-birther at the time! Another movie released around that time was Hell’s Bells, which was more of a documentary about how evil and Satanic rock music was, but it didn’t catch on quite as much, since it was a documentary; the less insane Christians didn’t respond to it because it was, well, insane (it got into backmasking and everything–no paranoid conspiracy theory or coincidence was too extreme), and the more insane Christians who might otherwise have appreciated its crazy consider all movies to be Satanic so they didn’t even know it existed. China Cry suffered from the same problem–it was too weird for the mainstream Christians, but extreme Christians didn’t really go to movies anyway.

So movies had a tough time finding an audience at that time. It took a couple of decades for Christianity to get polarized enough and for its more extreme fringes to get large enough (and used to the idea of going to movies) to make movies a worthwhile investment of money and time for the Christian Marketing Machine. They might want to preach, but nobody sane wants to throw millions of dollars away and get laughed at.

Now Christian movies pop up fairly often. There’s even a large online database of them. Here’s a partial list of them (notice the explosion of movies since 2005). They’ve got the clout to get some fairly big names–Kevin “Republican Hercules” Sorbo, Hans Matheson (he was Cranmer in The Tudors), and even Peter O’Toole, who drops by for about 30 heartbreaking but effortlessly stupendous seconds in the absolutely hideous One Night with the King. Their production values have skyrocketed–they’ve got money for decent effects and sets. They take in millions of dollars–as One Night with the King did, taking in some thirteen million dollars worldwide; a Kirk Cameron effort, Fireproof, took in triple that. Associations have their own film festivals like the Academy Awards and they rave about these movies. Their soundtracks are polished and sell millions on their own and get Grammy-like awards called “Dove Awards”.

And the astonishing thing is that despite all of these big names, high value productions, slick soundtracks, awards and gushing reviews, and millions of dollars of ticket sales, they still largely suck so bad you can hear the engine sound from outer space.

These movies are so bad, so hideously pandering, so obviously trite and cliched, so clearly preachy and insulting, that only Christians could ever love them. And they do love them. They think these movies are awesome and don’t even seem to understand that they categorically are not good at all.

Where is this disconnect coming from?

Christians have had enough time to figure out how to make a decent movie. It’s not like it’s that hard. People go to school to learn how to structure plots and deal with conflicts and characterization. Making a decently competent movie doesn’t seem like it’s that crazy hard. Every summer we see the results of people doing exactly that–these movies won’t break records or win awards, but they get at least some folks out of the house and buying tickets. Truly awful movies are not actually that common, and they tend to share characteristics that, if avoided, can teach future generations how to avoid awfulness.

At this point, one of those characteristics is “aimed squarely at Christians.”

All right, folks–we’re gonna ignore that for centuries, Christians made art that has withstood the test of time. Nobody’s going to say otherwise. We know. We’re cool. But we’re gonna ignore that. That time is over. Now any fool who wants to preach sickly-sweet sappy sermons at eager Christians can write a screenplay and find some ridiculously wealthy megachurch or Christian group to bankroll the future Razzie recipient, and that movie-maker can count on Christian churchgoers to eagerly lap up whatever s/he chooses to vomit onto their brightly-colored melamine plates.

There was a time when even Christians could distinguish between good and bad movies. Think about it–a society that was predominantly Christian produced a person who could create a Citizen Kane. Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Chariots of Fire, these were all made in a society where Christianity was dominant and somehow they didn’t totally suck (and the last one’s even listed among “Christian movies” on one list I saw; it’s apparently a “Christian movie”–and here I thought it was merely “a great movie”). But just as we gradually lost our ability to tell the difference between canned gravy and fresh, just as we gradually lost our ability to tell that boxed-mix cakes are definitely different from homemade cakes, just as we totally forgot what good liquor and wine taste like after being denied anything but cheap rotgut during Prohibition, Christians gradually weaned themselves off of truly great movies and storytelling and onto a track that went in a wholly different direction, into Fake Flavorland, where canned cream of mushroom soup with a bit of sherry equals the best mushroom sauce and where Wonder Bread tastes just as good as a homemade honest loaf of bread, and on that train went, into Gooey Gloppy Dessert Central, where super-duper-sweet, sticky, gooey, gloppy, shmooshy, gooshy chocolatey, fudge-dripping desserts are always a surefire hit. They got used to fakes and awful-tasting shortcuts, and they never grew out of those childish dessert tastes. And folks, I’m here to tell you there is nothing wrong with shortcuts and gooshy childish desserts. I’ve got a pan of Hot Fudge Pudding Cake in the fridge right now. Just don’t mistake those shortcuts for the real things they replace so poorly and for stuff mature adults crave to the exclusion of all other desserts.

And that’s why these movies are so awful and why they are so poorly received. They’re glurge, bought and paid for by people who don’t know good art when they see it or have any idea what constitutes a good story anymore because they themselves were raised to respect and love the power of the glurge, and they’re aimed at people who have lost their sense of taste and wouldn’t know a good story if it bit them on their rumps.

Let’s start at the beginning, with their stories, which are almost always total crap to start with. And as usual, I have a story to tell about my experiences here.

A very long time ago, in college, I met a young woman who wanted to be a novelist. She wrote every second she could, and had already begun querying publishers to try to get her big novel in print. One day she asked yet again if she could run her book by me. Sure, I said, because I was young and stupid and didn’t realize what a horrible idea it is to force one’s friends to read one’s first novel or to be the friend who acquiesces to that strong-armed suggestion. So okay, fine, I got tired of her asking and I read her book.

It was horrifying, but not quite for the reason you might think (plotting, pacing, terrible characterization, confusing POV shifts, excessive tense problems, and characters nobody could ever care about, though trust me, those elements were involved). No, it was horrifying because she had based her hero and heroine very closely after Biff and me, but the resulting characters had been twisted into the warped confines of her fantasy world. I’m not kidding. They were just like us, except seen through the lens of a Christian who was way into the Christian Contemporary Media scene. Reading her book was like seeing myself in the weirdest Bizarro caricature imaginable.

Her heroine, whose name was one letter off from my own and who looked like me, didn’t want kids at all, which was about right. Her husband, whose name was one letter off from Biff’s name and looked like him, desperately wanted them. So far, it sounded pretty similar. But then the heroine got pregnant! Isn’t that just hilare! And it was twins! ZOMG how zany! Except then the babies got born and discovered they’d had quadruplets! So wacky! And the novel was about how they coped and how the heroine discovered she’d always wanted kids all along and they should have more kids and she was sooooo happy and in love with her life and wasn’t Jesus wonderful.

I’m really not kidding; that was the book.

And she was just shocked when I wasn’t totally enthused.

See, she really thought that if I got pregnant against my will, I’d “have to” have the babies that resulted, which was her first mistake. By that time I was heading into pro-choice territory and saw no reason why any woman should bear children she actively didn’t want. Then she thought that if I were forced into slavery like that, if for some reason I simply was not able to get out of having children no matter what, if I were just inundated with children, I’d “learn to love them once they got there,” to use the tired old phrase the childfree hear so often. In her world, that’s what happens to women who are forced to have children they don’t want–a Disney ending where the babymama learns that she really was cut out for motherhood in the end and discovers that she’d needed children all along to be truly happy.

But in the real world, the one my friend had never visited and whose language she could not even speak, women aren’t forced to have children they don’t want to have. And not all women who are strong-armed into having children against their better judgement fall in love with their babies once they get here. Many women resent motherhood and wish they could take back their lives. Even women who wanted those kids may figure out they weren’t cut out for this life, but by then it’s usually way too late for take-backsies. Naturally, my friend didn’t understand any of that.

In the same way, plots in these movies reflect the weird and alien understanding of human culture that evangelicals often have. In their world, things are black and white. Bad guys are usually very bad (as in the gangster in that trailer I reviewed), and good guys are all Boy Scouts; I don’t remember ever seeing a pedophile or adultery-committing pastor in a Christian movie, nor non-Christians presented as entirely sympathetic. Conflicts are unrealistic and set up along urban legend lines (such as the cops in that trailer acting like all they have to do to end drug trafficking in their area is arrest this one big dealer). There’s also a huge persecution of Christians in American culture in these movies, since that’s what most evangelicals totally believe in absence of actual evidence (see also anything from Kirk Cameron’s spew-filled hands), and the only way out of whatever bad thing is going on is wholesale repentance and church-joining. Miracles are presented as not only possible but inevitable–completely unlike the real world, where “miracles” are only “miracles” if you turn and tilt your head just so, squint just right, and maybe then you’ll get to see the sailboat in the Magic Eye image the Christian is presenting as totally undeniable proof of his/her god’s hand, dude, total proof, man. Anybody can be “saved,” Christian arguments are unassailable, all you need is enough faith to overcome anything (even addiction), atheists just need the right pep talk or to have their lives ripped apart enough to realize they were totally wrong, and women aren’t uppity unless they’ll be learning by the end of the movie how to behave themselves and value their husbands. These movies push buttons–I mean, they hit all the high points: “ZOMG PERSECUTION!” “FEMINISTS, AMIRITE?” “MEANIEPIE ATHEISTS!” And Christians fall for it over and over again.

In short, these movies reflect the world as the Christian sees that world, and their plots reflect what Christians desperately, dearly wish the real world worked like. It’s a reflection of their self-image and how they think society works. But it bears no resemblance at all to the real world.

Now, one might argue that movies aren’t on the face of it very realistic either. Nobody sane thinks there are weird spirit-and-goblin-filled magic bath-houses littering Japan, or that people can invade other people’s dreams, or that houses can be lifted into the air with balloons. But these movies have an internal consistency and they resonate with what reality looks like. That’s what we call “willing suspension of disbelief”–the story is consistent with our experiences as people, so on those points where it differs superficially from what our world looks like, we’re willing to go along for the ride.

The old man in Up is mourning the heartbreaking and all-too-early loss of his wife; we know what mourning looks like, and we know what lengths someone will go to in order to make that suffering easier. We know that if it were possible to put balloons onto a house and lift it up, it’d probably look a lot like that movie makes it look. The movie’s hero’s society is like our society in many ways; the people in it get weird situations to react to, and they react to them like we would probably react to them if we were there. In the same way, we know that if a sulky 10-year-old girl were to see her parents get turned into pigs, she might well react just like Chihiro/Sen does in Spirited Away. These movies and many others like them are powerful because they start with people we understand, motivations we’re well familiar with, and concepts we recognize even if they’re cloaked in fantasy, and their creators twist them all a little bit to produce something new and fascinating.

But not Christian movies.

Their characters are not real people but conceptualizations and standing cardboard figures. These characters’ motivations don’t make a lot of sense, and indeed it doesn’t matter if their actions do either because these characters exist only to push forward the movie’s message. The concepts in these movies aren’t recognizable and don’t usually have real-world foundations. And there’s really not much new there; Christian media seems absolutely terrified of breaking new ground or saying something too revolutionary. “Trite” and “cheesy” are the kindest descriptions I could summon for the bulk of their plots.

Basically, these films are like fictionalized sermons. They exist for a purpose, and that purpose isn’t to tell a good story or to entertain or to strike a statement. No, their purpose is to preach to the converted and maybe convert the lost.

In the end, I’d say this: a good story is still a good story. I have a well-loved copy of the animated movie Prince of Egypt–and I like the story it tells even as I recognize that the events it depicts never ever happened. I have books of mythology that I love and read even though they are not my religion and I know their events didn’t happen. It shouldn’t matter–and to me it doesn’t matter–what religion I am, or what religion the movie’s makers are, or what religion the story comes from. A good story stands on its own.

The fact that Christians so eagerly receive and lap up these absolute shitfests of movies speaks to their own inaccurate perception of society and the disconnect between reality and evangelicals’ conceptualization of religion and relationships. And until they figure out that you can’t just rely on a contrived, formulaic “message” or push people’s religious buttons to tell a story, the rest of us will continue to point and laugh–and stay away.

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