A recent article on Francis Schaeffer in Commonweal magazine highlights the “tremendous tension” in the thought of the man who was arguably the most influential intellectual for a generation of evangelicals. On the one hand, Schaeffer and his friend H.R. Rookmaaker loved the arts, enjoying the music, painting and philosophy of the twentieth century and seeking to find a place for great art in Christian theology. On the other hand, Schaeffer’s rigid theological system – an uncompromisingly literal, propositional “fundamentalism” (the term has more pejorative connotations today) which afforded no place for even the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth – worked against his love and enjoyment of the arts at a fundamental level. Thus Franky Schaeffer, his son, has observed of his parents that they were happiest when they didn’t have to shoulder the burden of their evangelistic mission and were able to simply enjoy a ‘secular’ concert or gallery show.
What would Francis Schaeffer say about the Oscars this year? In a sense, we don’t even need to ask the question since he typifies the dominant pattern of subsequent evangelical interaction with culture. Many evangelicals feel the same way about the movies that the Schaeffers felt about the arts in general; on the one hand, they love watching a great movie, but their theological system prevents them from letting themselves enjoy it with abandon. In fact, the pressure put on many Christians from a theology that views the relationship of church to culture as primarily one of evangelism may prevent them from “watching” the movie at all; instead, they will be preoccupied as they view it with how its message fits or fails to conform to a “Christian worldview” and looking for elements (Christ-figures etc.) that will make the film the basis of future evangelistic conversations. They will, like Schaeffer, be caught between enjoying ‘secular’ art and feeling that they should somehow justify their interest in it on the basis of missionary activity.
This situation is not as bad as what preceded it, ie. decades of reactionary prudishness. Thanks to contemporary authors like Robert Johnston, evangelicals have perhaps reached a point where occurrences of violence, profanity, sexuality and “taking the Lord’s name in vain” are not the most important things to concentrate on when watching a film; it seems fair to say that a majority of evangelicals are willing to watch movies with these elements, so long as they are not gratuitous. (Although we can always count on Focus on the Family to detect all traces of immorality; their review of inspirational Best Picture winner “The King’s Speech” devotes well over half of its space to cataloguing alcohol use, cuss words (such as “h—” and “willie”), sexual content (“Couples kiss”) and “other negative elements” in the film.) What most present-day evangelicals fixate on instead, however, is the red herring of how “Christian” the movie is. “Amazing Grace” and “The Shawshank Redemption” occupy one pole of the continuum, and godless, secular films like “Black Swan,” “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” sit at the other end, the latter films labeled as dangerous firstly because they are ambiguous in their morality – failing to demonstrate a clear-cut “Christian worldview” where good and evil are clearly defined – and only secondly because they contain troubling elements that evangelicals would rather not confront. However, this is not to say that evangelicals only watch movies with “Christian” themes. Many may avoid “Black Swan” because they believe it promotes violence and lesbian sex, but just as many probably watched it, enjoyed it on some level but ultimately categorized it (in a Schaeffer-esque schema) as mainly a symptom of cultural despair. In other words, the evangelical reading of a film becomes primarily an evangelistic one, rather than an appreciation of the film on its own merit.
These observations may apply to other Christian traditions; Jolyon Mitchell has written of the troubled history of both Protestant and Catholic engagement with Hollywood. However, evangelicals with their strong commitment to evangelism, the primacy of the Bible and cultural relevance seem to be the most prone to slide into what media theorists call “subaltern” readings of film ‘texts,’ constructing meanings out of films based on their own needs and predispositions that totally reconfigure the overall experience. For example, watching a film actively looking for a Christ-figure will inevitably construe (and, arguably, distort) the meaning of a film in a particular way. Although some movies obviously do play the “Christ-figure” card, the particular tendency of evangelicals to find sacrificial saviours around every corner is one which most modern Catholic film criticism seems to avoid. Similarly, watching a film ‘as if’ the screenwriter, director or lead actors are secretly Christians who have embedded “Christian messages” in the film will direct attention away from the “dominant reading” and instead support an alternate set of interpretations which may be miles away from what the director had in mind. This type of film-watching may be seen as an act of resistance to cultural hegemony in one sense (and of course there are spiritual truths and themes to be gleaned from films), but it also raises serious questions about appreciating art as art and not just a vehicle of ideology.
The Oscars are still a venerable “institution” in an age where many of the cultural bonds that once held Western society together have dissolved. It is not so much the actual, nitty-gritty of who wins what, who wears what and how witty the hosts are that legitimates the Academy Awards as a cultural enterprise, but its overall purpose: to recognize and promote excellence in the art of cinema, to point to particular cultural products and artistic efforts and pronounce them “good.” Of course it has its many flaws, but it still aims to illuminate what heights and depths the art of cinema can attain. Insofar as evangelicals are able to move beyond the problematic theology of culture which hindered Francis Schaeffer and truly engage twenty-first century art on its own terms – to go to the movies and enjoy them with both a critical eye, spiritual sensitivity and a willingness to be immersed in a different “world” – they will be able to join in this process of declaring the fruits of human culture to be “very good,” not just “good but sub-Christian.”