Seeing With the Eyes of Faith: Evangelicals and the Film Arts

Movies have long occupied contested terrain in religious circles. A Christian writer in the 1930s described Hollywood as the “place where Satan has his throne.” In their desire to spread the gospel, evangelicals became leaders in the development of all the major media–except motion pictures. Matthew Crouch, producer of the evangelical sci-fi film, The Omega Code, said, “My dad was sincerely told by his mother, ‘If you go into the theater and see Roy Rogers and Dale Evans ride their horses, you’re gonna go right into hell.’ We’re just waking up to the fact there can be entertainment.”

While earlier generations might have rejected all “worldly amusements,” today, dancing, movies, popular music and television watching are commonplace, even among conservative evangelicals. Popularization of the idea of a comprehensive Christian worldview–Christ as Lord of “every aspect of life”–has increased the legitimacy of evangelical participation in popular culture. I suggest that a paradigm shift is underway in the evangelical community, as a posture of aversion has shifted to one of engagement. But what kind of engagement? Tensions in the traditional evangelical approach to the popular arts have facilitated developments that strained the original paradigm that justified them, raising new questions that have begun a remaking of cultural perceptions.

 

Changing Attitudes

 

Evangelicals became convinced that the paramount (and often only) purpose for popular art, if it is to be considered “Christian,” is evangelism or ministry. The evangelical paradigm embodies a central tension, however. On the one hand, the popular arts are embraced as having great potential for communicating the gospel. But if popular artworks can be used to evangelize, then they can also be used for spiritual corruption. These same media are also feared, then, as a potential threat to the faith; some evangelicals condemn them as apostate and advocate abstinence. To alleviate this tension, evangelicals appropriated popular arts and practices for designated “Christian” purposes. To guard against mainstream corruption, critics issue warnings against artworks deemed morally or spiritually harmful to the degree that they contain sex, profanity, or graphic violence (in that order of priority). Instead, they advocate “family” entertainment, popular art that is “safe” for children–and Christians. The evangelical paradigm for popular art, then, is distinguished by an emphasis on confessional appearance and a concern with personal morality.

This conception became the foundation of the evangelical popular consumer culture that emerged in the 1970s, shaping the way evangelicals thought about, produced and consumed popular art. It has also found some acceptance among mainline Protestants, and even mainstream trade and news reports assume that explicitly religious content separates “Christian” artworks from nonreligious or “secular” ones.

In recent years, however, evangelicals have been singing a different tune. Gospel and R&B singer CeCe Winans now claims, “Gospel music is not always going to be a song that says ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.'” The Dallas Morning News ran a story about the growing number of Christians who advocate going to movies, even R-rated ones. Dan Allender, a senior editor of Mars Hill Review, was quoted: “We want people to be involved in culture because Christ has revealed himself in culture.” Writing in Relevant Magazine, Dallas Jenkins, the president of an evangelical film company asks, “For those of us GenXers who aren’t really into family films, where are the thought-provoking, morally important rated-R films . . .? Can’t at least one be made by a Christian?” There used to be a vague consensus among religious publishers that books about movies were, as one editor told me, “dead in the water” in the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) market; today there are a number of successful titles. Many Christian colleges have increased their offerings in film studies, and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities now sponsors two semester programs: the Los Angeles Film Studies Center and the Contemporary Music Program. All of these examples suggest a significant change in evangelical attitudes. Several related events in the contemporary Christian music (CCM) industry set the stage for this change, and give us insight into the cultural shift that is taking place.

 

Homogenized Knock-offs?

 

CCM pioneers in the early 1970s eventually established a multi-million dollar enterprise on the premise that popular music could be used for evangelism. That concept went unchallenged until CCM’s brightest star, Amy Grant initiated a “crossover” into the mainstream market in the mid-1980s. With each new recording, Grant included fewer confessional songs; she eventually topped the Billboard singles chart in 1991. Her colleagues and fans, however, were both angry and perplexed. Was an evangelical artist still “Christian” if she sang “nonconfessional” love songs like “Baby Baby” and “Every Heartbeat”? The complete absence of any faith-confessing lyrics on Grant’s 1997 release “Behind the Eyes” forced the Gospel Music Association to revise its criteria for the Dove Awards to make room now for songs “obviously prompted and informed by a Christian worldview” (however ill-defined that remained).

When entertainment conglomerates began purchasing gospel record companies in the early 1990s, some traditionalists feared the result would be a watering down of CCM’s gospel message. Ironically, the opposite occurred. To please their corporate owners, gospel labels have to cater to the existing evangelical market niche with myriad musical styles all identified as CCM by explicitly religious lyrics. Meanwhile, Grant and others continue to release recordings “about life experience without any hidden spiritual agenda,” as Grant once put it.

That Grant had to abandon confessional songs in order to succeed in the mainstream culture exposed a central failing in the evangelical concept: confessional artworks might affirm already existing beliefs, but they are largely ineffective as vehicles for evangelism (as studies confirm). The music produced by CCM artists, which one CCM songwriter dubbed “a homogenized knock-off of pop music,” had only limited value outside the evangelical consumer culture. The CCM crossover facilitated a crisis in the gospel music industry and raised important questions: Is confessional appearance (which can often be very superficial) the only way to characterize “Christian” popular art? And if confessional appearance is not the sole criterion, how might we judge productions as being faithful? How can Christians create popular artworks that the mainstream market finds interesting and important? And how can Christian critics and consumers be faithful in their engagement with the dominant popular culture?

These are the kinds of tough questions facing evangelical filmmakers who are in a situation today similar to that of the CCM crossover artists. They too are pressed by commercial imperatives while still harboring a sense that their work should somehow have evangelistic value. The choice seems to be either to make movies with “universal themes” and broad appeal in the mainstream culture, or to create “a parallel universe of Christian movies,” as panelists at a film seminar I attended recently put it. My concern is this: Like the CCM crossover artists, without a workable vision and supportive community, Christian filmmakers will simply make “homogenized knock-offs” of Hollywood productions. They’ll create essentially humanistic films that, while perhaps wholesome and friendly to sentimental touches of the divine, can hardly be characterized as representing an integral Christian worldview.

Film studio executives are probably right to assume that mo
st churchgoers will simply join other moviegoers for standard Hollywood melodramatic fare. And some evangelical critics have reinforced the impression that what matters most to their constituency is the absence of sex, profanity and graphic violence. The general perception is that evangelical moviegoers care most about a film’s rating. That makes it difficult for filmmakers to pitch a project to studio executives based on its potential appeal to evangelicals and other Christians. Why should a studio gamble on a film that appears to cater to a specific audience (and may potentially exclude other groups), when these people already attend Hollywood films with broad religious-mythic appeal? And so Robert Duvall had to personally finance The Apostle, a film about a southern Pentecostal preacher. Or why risk another fuss like those that attended The Last Temptation of Christ, or more recently, The Passion?

Technological advances in digital cameras, sound and editing equipment have made it more affordable for evangelical filmmakers to produce independent features outside the studio system, perhaps with support from the church community. But such support exists almost exclusively for films that evangelize, or at least provide wholesome entertainment for the whole family. So how are evangelical filmmakers going to produce those “thought-provoking, morally important R-rated films”?

It is not an easy course to chart, and the stakes are high. The “average” film today needs to sell over 30 million tickets in the U.S. and Canada just to break even and only about one-quarter of all the films produced go into nationwide release. Needless to say, this is a difficult and competitive business that requires a team of talented people with lots of creativity and savvy instincts.

 

A “Post-Confessional” Approach

 

Critical approaches to film reveal different emphases on moral/theological as distinct from aesthetic matters. Concerned with plot and character, a Rolling Stone critic writes, “At the risk of understatement, The Matrix Revolutions sucks”; while an evangelical critic dismisses such negative reviews and is thrilled that Neo, the main protagonist, is “a Jesus Christ parallel.” A critic concerned with morality denounces Kill Bill as “a degenerate movie,” while another praises it as “a virtuoso piece of filmmaking.”

Generally speaking, mainline Protestants tend to stress the aesthetic as the primary factor in film criticism, while evangelicals tend to emphasize the moral and theological. The mainline Protestant emphasis on the aesthetic looks to many evangelicals like cultural accommodation. The Protestant focus on “creative and authentic artistic expression and honest portrayal of the human situation” has not sufficiently emphasized the role of faith. We have not seen the development of a characteristically Protestant approach to film comparable to the “Catholic imagination” exhibited by such notable filmmakers as John Ford, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. Either there is not much of a distinctly Protestant cinematic tradition for filmmakers serious about their faith to draw on as a source of inspiration, or what does exist is not recognizable as such.

However, the evangelical tendency to emphasize explicit confessional content has resulted in a lot of embarrassingly poor-quality productions marketed in the name of evangelism. A review of the Left Behind movie began with: “Immediate disclaimer: This is not to denigrate the religious beliefs that inform Left Behind . . . This is simply to address the hilariously bad manner in which those beliefs are expressed.” Christians are not excused from artistic issues just because they are trying to communicate the gospel. Perhaps this is a key reason why “movies made by Christians have not achieved ‘normal’ status,” as Dallas Jenkins put it. He observes, “We’ve seen a massive rise in dollars spent by Christians in film and television, all in the name of impacting culture. Is it working? So far, very little.”

By requiring explicit statements of belief, the evangelical model tends to make faith the issue. I propose instead to think of faith as providing the context for engagement with film. On this view, faith is not the subject matter that makes a movie “Christian”; instead, a film’s calibration as a Christian product depends on both artistic qualities and the perspective brought to bear on its subject. This understanding affirms the essentially artistic character of film while recognizing the different roles and purposes it fulfills in serving our neighbor. The best motion pictures transform the real world into an imaginary one by representing events and experiences along the contours of a cultural landscape that is more or less visible in particular movies. The contours of a Christian cultural landscape are made up of ideals, beliefs, values, attitudes and assumptions that represent what it is like for people to live in God’s good, but fallen world.

Let me focus briefly on characterizations to illustrate. Mainstream Hollywood films are most often populated with protagonists who are sometimes wayward, but basically good. They have within themselves everything they need to secure their destiny and salvation, and they only have to come to that realization. God is treated, if at all, not as the source of redemption, but as a “magical” source of outside assistance. In this way movies affirm the popular humanistic belief that “God helps those who help themselves”; that is, we are capable of securing our own salvation with only a little help from God.

In contrast, the Bible gives us a more complex and ambiguous portrait of humans. People have inherent dignity and worth because they are created in the image of God, but are also sinful and have a tendency to do evil. In the hands of skilled writers, these Biblically informed assumptions can be used to create characters that reveal the complexities of the human heart. Instead of stock melodramatic depictions of good or evil, characters ought to be wonderfully complicated and believably flawed, inclined to do evil regardless of how much money, talent, social status or education they have. Evil can be depicted as real, while also at odds with the best of human experience, by showing that there are emotional and social consequences for actions and that people are morally responsible for evil acts they perform. Redemption can be shown as coming from experiences that make characters aware of their own brokenness and insufficiency and the need for a savior outside of themselves. In other words, by crafting characterizations and storylines imbued with beliefs consistent with biblical faith, Christians gifted by God can tell stories about “every aspect of life”–emotions, events, experiences–in ways that exhibit understanding and insight.

Film criticism pursued along these lines will contribute to our evaluation of the contours of the world that a particular film puts forward (regardless of the worldview represented) and its relation to the artistic features and style employed. And an insightful and honest Christian response to a film will often affirm certain aspects of its worldview while criticizing others.

We already have plenty of Hollywood stories featuring self-reliant individuals, basically good but wayward, who perhaps find a little “magical outside assistance” from a divine being. We don’t need even more homogenized Hollywood knock-offs. Instead, Christian filmmakers can find “universal themes” to work with in order to produce creative characters and dramatic stories that are informed by a Christian vision. The best of these kinds of films would bring the world into focus so that we see with eyes of faith, recognizing the dreadful ways that sin corrupts and wreaks havoc in the world, while understanding what God’s good intentions are for our lives.

William D. Romanowski is professor of com
munication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (Brazos, 2001).