Scott Nehring has an article at Relevant asking a great question: why are Christian movies so bad? He describes Christian movies in terms many of us have heard before: “intellectually vacant,” “disconnected from reality,” he says they suffer from “substandard production values, stilted dialogue and childish plots.”So why are they so bad? According to Nehring the issue is evangelical isolationism. He says that dating back to the 1960s, many Christians became uncomfortable with popular culture and retreated into “cocoons”-safe places for Christians to hide from the big, bad culture and where they could discuss what they “hoped the world was like rather than dealing with how things are.”This isolation resulted in “poorly trained artists” and Christian filmmakers not “playing with the big boys.” He calls today’s crop of Christian filmmakers “ill-equipped and out-matched.”
I cannot pretend to have given this subject as much thought as Scott Nehring-he wrote a whole book on the issue-but I’m not sure his argument holds up under scrutiny. What caught my attention in Nehring’s article was the “cultural isolation” boogieman that so many Christians like to employ these days. I hear similar notions in church leadership settings. The reason so many churches are struggling, the logic goes, is because we’ve isolated ourselves from the advances is organizational leadership that are occurring in the secular business realm.
The problem with this argument, from a general point of view, is that it misses one of the hallmarks of American evangelicalism which has always been cultural engagement. In the early/mid 20th century it was the fundamentalists who withdrew from culture, politics, business, and the arts. Believing this was an unfaithful response, the evangelicals sought to retain an orthodox theology and reliance on Scripture will actively engaging the wider culture. When people throw around the “Christian cultural isolation” argument they often paint with too wide of a brush. They fail to distinguish between the numerous approaches to culture evident in 20th century American Christianity.
But that’s not my primary difficulty with Nehring’s perspective. A case might be made that Christians did in fact withdraw from Hollywood to create a (sub-standard) parallel film industry. But this alone may not explain the poor quality of their movies. After all, during the same time period (1960s to the present) a parallel Christian music industry was also born that has gone on to be both financially successful and (in some cases) artistically applauded. And we have increasingly seen music artists cross a permeable barrier between secular pop and Christian recording markets. So why haven’t we seen the same with films?
I believe Nehring is missing an important explanation for the lower quality of evangelical films-our non-sacramental theology. American evangelicalism, for the most part, has rejected a sacramental understanding of creation. Unlike Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some other high-church traditions, evangelicalism is rooted in modernity and a literalist vision of the world. The bread is just bread. The wine is just wine (sorry, grape juice). A thing is what it is. We prefer our Bible teaching unambiguous and direct-didactic and expository, thank you very much. We prefer our gathering spaces to be bare and with minimal symbols. Our brand of theology tends not to feed or cultivate the imagination.
A sacramental theology, on the other hand, requires one to see on multiple layers at once. A thing may carry multiple meanings simultaneously. Symbols dominate space and teaching. Mystery is embraced, and the imagination encouraged.
Unlike evangelicals, there is no shortage of celebrated Roman Catholic filmmakers today. And many of the 20th century’s most respected novelists also come for Catholic backgrounds: Graham Green, Flannery O’Conner, Shusaku Endo, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Is it possible that creative story-telling, like the kind necessary to produce great films, is particularly difficult for evangelicals because our instinct is to come directly at a something? Where Michelangelo would sculpt the Pieta, John Calvin would prefer to preach a 12-point sermon on the death of Christ. Rather than create a fantasy world like Middle-Earth to speak about the dangers of industrialization, a task that requires imagination and comfort with ambiguity, we’d rather just create a film about the dangers of industrialization.
The Left Behind books/films are an example of this direct communication style. Clearly LeHaye and Jankins created the series to teach their particular end times theology. The teaching was merely presented in the guise of fictional narrative. Contrast these films with the apocalyptic movies created by non-evangelical artists: WALL-E, The Book of Eli, 12 Monkeys. Of course any biblical theology lurking in these films takes a back seat-something almost unthinkable to evangelical sensibilities.
Vincent van Gogh illustrates this well. In 1889, his friends Gauguin and Bernard sent him copies of their paintings of Christ in the Garden of Olives. Vincent said the paintings “got on my nerves.” He saw their works as depicting Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane, but they ended there. They failed to draw the viewer and his/her pain into the composition. They were too literal. Van Gogh decided to paint Christ suffering in the garden without actually painting Jesus. Instead he used the contorted olive trees to represent his, and our, suffering. Vincent believed “that one can try to give an impression of anguish without aiming straight at the history Garden of Gethsemane.” Such sentiments are not prevalent in the evangelical culture that rewards literalism.
In the end I’m not convinced that we can rack up bad Christian movies simply to cultural isolation. We need to look at our theological vision of the world and the way we have starved the evangelical imagination in favor of literal truth.