(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)


“Christian filmmaking is coming of age. Christian filmmaking is coming of age!”

(Doug Phillips, SAICFF organizer)

“…not all things are profitable.”

(1 Cor. 6:12)

So I was sitting there in my car early on Saturday morning listening to NPR and all these Christians start talking. It was disorienting to say the least. The “fly-over state evangelical Christian” is one of NPR’s most cherished stereotypes, and many of the people interviewed in this segment did little to contradict this set of assumptions. Wagon-circling? Check. Moralizing? Check. Polarizing? Check. Gobs Of Money To Blow? Oh most definitely, check.

It was the much-discussed bit on the St. Antonio Indpendent Christian Film Festival, which recently handed out prizes to films in a range of categories. The $101,000 prize went to The Widow’s Might, a film by 19 year old auteur John Robert Moore about a woman about to lose her house to foreclosure and the people that help her keep it. Apparently there is a lot of singing in it, which means I will watch it. I am a sucker for any film in which people sing lines that could otherwise be spoken (though I doubt it has much in common with Honore’s Love Songs, which is the best recent film of this ilk). And I will also watch it, because if someone associated with the festival is to be believed, The Widow’s Might represents the adolescence (see above quote) of an industry that took its wobbly fledgeling steps with… that Left Behind movie? Spare the rod, spoil the child. More on that later.

Here are some choice bits from the vision behind the festival:

When a people worship sensuality or embrace dark visions of reality, it is always evidenced in the arts. There is no neutrality! On the other hand, when a nation fears and loves the God of Holy Scripture, their religious commitment is evidenced in the music they play, the way they dress, and their vision of family life… The future of our culture will be waged in the hearts and souls of the people of this nation. The vision of the Jubilee Awards and the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival is to make one of the many steps needed to lead men to Christ, to train Christians to actually think like Christians, and to take back the culture for the Lord Jesus Christ in the area of film by encouraging, motivating, and rewarding those uncompromising, creative, and innovative filmmakers who are willing to take the narrow path… More than ever before in the recent history of our nation, we have access to the tools for waging a new form of cultural guerilla warfare against the elites who would redefine the biblical family out of existence and present a dark and nefarious vision of reality to the future. We need Christians to challenge the present culture of death, infidelity, perversion, and ethical malaise by boldly proclaiming the crown rights of Jesus Christ over every sphere of life and thought — including film. God has given us a tremendous window of opportunity. We must seize the day!

All boilerplate culture wars stuff. There is so much to respond to here that it is difficult to distill my discomfort with this kind of visioneering into an easily readable blog segment. For starters, I am not so sure Christianity isn’t about embracing “dark visions of reality.” I can think of few descriptions of reality that touch the desperation at the heart of the Bible’s holistic narration of sin and its effects in the world. It is only in the context of this “dark and nefarious vision” that the unthinkable largesse of the Bible’s parallel description of grace takes shape. The gospel embedded in the span of story, poetry, and prose from Genesis to Revelation takes on a stunning range thematic shapes and forms. It is expressed by murderers, bitter depressives, diseased flesh, prostitutes, broken bodies, and any other contemptible thing it can think of between the Garden of Eden and the crystal streets of the New Jerusalem. It is terrible and wonderful, destructive and creative, ugly and beautiful all at once. If we want to start drawing thematic lines in the sand, the gospel and the Bible aren’t going to be much help in finding valid starting points. The Bible is just as violent (Revelation 19:13), sensual (Proverbs 5:19), and dark (Mark 16:8) as it is hopeful and edifying.

The truth is that vision statements like this aren’t making Biblical distinctions at all. This simply isn’t how the Bible works. They are not even cultural distinctions. They are marketing distinctions. By framing the differences between Hollywood media and Church media in these kinds of a-biblical thematic terms, this vision statement isn’t drawing the dramatic line between spiritual life and death that it thinks it is. It is simply drawing a line between two different kinds of products: We don’t want to see your filth, Hollywood. We are going to make our own films. We are going to leverage our market. We are going to buy tickets and go to them. We are going to award them prizes! Then we are going to buy them when they come out on DVD. We are going to do this until until the pile of our products over here is bigger than your pile of products over there. This will be our signal that we have won the hearts and minds of the* culture. We will gain total thematic dominance over your dark and nefarious visions one DVD and related study guide at a time.

Is this really the “narrow path”? If so, why does it look exactly like the broad one that has led Hollywood to destruction? This kind of Christian film marketing is theologically insane. In the NPR story, Fireproof producer Stephen Kendrick explained why the film was such an instant success: “We did a lot of screenings showing the film to ‘influencers,’” he explained. “That would be pastors, ministry leaders, those would be people who speak to the audience.” The worst effect this envisioned Christian Film Industry would have on American christianity has little to do with these films themselves. I have no problem with people having family friendly media around. And the loss of narrative intelligence that accrues from being immersed in such didactic media is easy to deal with. The most deadly fallout is the culture that appears in the wake of Pastors and other ministry leaders being thought of as “influencers,” which is an awfully Orwellian euphemism for “advertisers.” This subversion of the Church by business in the guise of evangelism isn’t worth whatever it produces.

*N.B.: Not just culture, but the culture. Far more ominous. It’s what we drive through on the way to church.

Some Questions:

1. Is Christian filmmaking really coming of age? The lack of historical consciousness in such a statement is alarming. There may be a certain market coming of age, one that is linked to the success of things like Left Behind and Fireproof. But theology and the entire symbolic network of Christian thought have been at the center of cinema ever since David Livingstone toted magic lanterns all the way down to Africa. Tarkovsky, Bazin, scattered all through Film-Think are key figures in film history that had a very imaginative and culturally influential Christian impulse. Ingmar Bergman spoke often about how even though he became agnostic, all the Christian images he had picked up in his devoutly Lutheran home lurked in the recesses of his narrative consciousness. This indomitable presence of Christianity can be readily tracked throughout the last century of film history. And then, of course, there are the numerous Christians that are working quite successfully in the American film industry already. Christian filmmaking is as old as the medium itself.

2. Should a Christian ever spend 200 million dollars on a film production?