“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
English Standard Version
Normally, I would write an educational post about something near and dear to my heart courtesy of one of my many long and philosophical conversations with God. Instead, I am breaking from the norm here at Barefoot Christian Faith because I want to talk about something else that is near and dear to my heart as a Christian and a writer. Tonight, we are going to talk about Christian-themed films, literature, and artwork. Why? Because in the real world when I am not pounding away on a thesis, (which is now the length of a small novel), I am a writer of fiction for children and adults.
Madeline L’Engle is one of many sources of inspiration when it comes to my forays into the land of professional storytelling, and yet the high-quality work that is synonymous with her Christ-centric book A Wind In the Door is noticeably lacking in modern fare. Instead of reading texts or watching movies that are deep and thought-provoking like the film Calvary, most Christians find themselves subject to media that is sub-par at best. Given some of the strong opinions I have on this subject, before we go any further I want to make it clear that my intent is not to attack the Christians behind some of these programs.
As an artist in the real world I have a lot of respect for anyone who manages to get their idea out of their heads and into the real world. Only a scant ten percent of artists ever make their living solely from their craft whereas the rest of us work a day job in between schlepping our creations to potential buyers. That said, I understand that there are probably a lot of financial limitations placed on Christians who try to write books or direct films of substance. If it doesn’t look like the investors are going to get a return on their investment if said investment is more “daring” than what most Christians are used to there is a good chance that the money will go to someone more “safe”.
Therefore, the intent of this post is to express my frustration with such a system that limits Christian artists to the point where all they can produce are substandard books and films. Given what I just subjected myself to in the movie A New Hope I am just going to come out and say what needs to be said -
The vast majority of Christian media is substandard.
Because at some point it was decided that Christian books and films needed to be so sanitized and safe that now all we have are glorified after-school specials with some prayer tacked on to make it all Jesus-y. I have read and watched a lot of Christian entertainment and each time came away disappointed due to the poor quality. In both books and films the characters are underdeveloped and the acting abysmal. Most of the time I don’t even need to read or watch the entire book or program because the writing is hackneyed and predictable. If I want to watch a film that deals with actual sin and immorality with protagonists trying to be upright and moral in a broken world then I watch a secular movie by a secular producer penned by a secular writer.
Ironically, this wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time the church was the main sponsor of some of the most amazing artists our world has ever seen. Bach, Mozart, Handel, and Rembrandt are all the products of Christians who once felt it was their responsibility to set the tone for the art of their respective cultures. Unfortunately, the days of Michelangelo and C.S. Lewis are long past. Modern Christians seem to have a real hard time telling story that will be heard beyond the parishioners of the local church.
How did this happen?
In the 1960s this country witnessed major sociocultural changes that are still being felt to this day. Unfortunately, for a lot of Christians who were staunch traditionalists this was seen as an assault on their very identities as followers of Christ. Subsequently, they built a cultural wall around themselves complete with content filters atop an isolationist attitude that turned into a tangible time capsule. It was as if they wanted the pleasures and conveniences of modern culture yet feared being tainted by amoral content and questionable philosophies. Instead of confronting said fears they enabled them by creating a fantasy world reflective of what they wished the world to be as opposed to dealing with things as they are. As a result they created a system rife with poorly trained artists who pander to an audience that has been taught to accept substandard art instead of quality. Sadly, even with successes like God Is Not Dead where you can have a decent budget, skilled and experienced staff, and a workable marketing plan the genre is still pockmarked with pedantic scripts and agenda-driven plots and dialogue.
Earlier I mentioned the film Calvary. Personally, I would describe this little indie film as a perfect example of what Christian storytelling could be if artists were given the freedom to take risks. (Warning: Contains spoilers) In it we see the protagonist – a Catholic priest – confronted with an anonymous antagonist who tells him in confession that in seven days he is going to kill the main character. The murder is retribution for sexual abuse he endured as a youth at the hands of another priest, and reasons that it will hurt the Catholic church more if he kills a good priest instead of a bad one. While on the surface this film appears to be a commentary on the current scandals affecting the papacy, in reality it showcases what it means to live as a Christian in a broken and fallen world that includes people who have been hurt in the name of said faith.
Themes of forgiveness and bitterness are thoroughly explored until the anticlimactic finish where the antagonist and priest have their final encounter. The movie concludes in a manner that leaves a Christian viewer re-examining their position on what it means to show mercy, grace, and forgiveness to a person who has gone so far as to take the life of someone you love. It doesn’t end predictably with easy answers anymore than it features safe characters free of immorality and salty language. Instead, it takes a hard look at the human condition and through the lens of a Christian living in the real world.
All one has to do is walk out their front door in order to see that there is violence and vulgarity alongside sexual immorality and every kind of evil. As my pastor once observed in reference to the consequence of Adam and Eve obeying the snake – when you look at the Earth it is as if they released Hell itself. I couldn’t agree more which is why it doesn’t help to have books and films that are little more than an after-school special with some prayer thrown in. While discussing this post my husband Evan pointed out that our writings and films are a form of ministry, and if that ministry is sub-par then we really aren’t going to reach people with the gospel. Specifically, we are not going to reach people with a real and relevant gospel in the manner that Jesus did.
In theory, the restrictions on content are there because people think they are biblical. FYI, before you start e-mailing me I am not saying we should produce stuff you would see at 2 AM on Cinemax or HBO. In reality we need to produce movies that are accurate to scripture itself. I find it real hard to believe that modern Christians cannot handle a simple kiss or rough language since the Bible itself would get an R-rating if it were made into a movie based on the subject matter alone.
This is the same book where David bought Saul one-hundred Philistine foreskins as a ‘gift’ in exchange for the hand of his daughter Michal in 1 Samuel 18:25 (NLT), and Lot had drunken sex with his own daughters following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:31-32, NIV). Speaking of said ill-fated cities we have a crowd of men trying to gang-rape the two visitors who stayed with Lot prior to their destruction, and Lot offering said daughters in place of the guests. Don’t believe me? Read it for yourself in Genesis 19:1-8 (NLT). We also have a human sacrifice in Judges 11:29-40 (NLT), a concubine who was raped to death after her husband turned her over to an angry mob that originally wanted to rape him (Judges 19, NLT), and what about the guy having sex with his own mother in Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:1, NIV)?
I kid you not.
To that end I am a Christian who writes science fiction featuring characters and situations you would find in the real world. Currently, I am working on a project that features a protagonist I have been writing for the better part of almost five years. A U.S. Marshall coming off of a severe downturn in both his career and life we meet Leland (the main character) at a profound low point that works to further his belief in atheism.
You read that correctly.
Leland starts out as your typical, red-blooded atheist who returns home on the heels of tragedy to a family that represents your typical southwestern upper middle-class brood. His uncle is a respected businessman and academic who is the quintessential American Joe complete with football in college and church on Sunday. A life not dissimilar to his own father who is a respected physician who married the predictable hot blonde with a background in entertainment. It is perfection personified – except it isn’t. Neither Leland nor his family is human. Instead they are shape-shifters who live alongside humanity right along with three billion other non-human residents.
Yep, he is an alien. However, the universe Leland lives in is not that different from our own. Life is not perfect. In his line of work Leland sees the worst that both humanity and his own species has to offer in regards to immorality. To him there is no God given what sentient beings are capable of doing to one another. It puts him at odds with his family leaving him in the company of his younger cousin Braden who on the surface looks like the guy you don’t want giving out spiritual advice. He smokes weed and does tattoos for a living despite going to an Ivy League college. Subsequently, he is the black sheep of the family. The cousins are surrounded by a motley crew of oddball characters and situations of moral complexity.
There are no easy answers in the world they live in anymore than there are ones in ours. Leland reflects members of my own family who worked in law enforcement, and went through seasons of atheism and doubt after reporting to scenes of total depravity. Braden and the others are examples of what it looks like to try to respond to a world where those realities exist. A response born out of their acute awareness of their own capabilities and shortcomings when trying to wrap their minds around situations that can’t be wrapped up in ten chapters or less.
Which means there is salty language and actual sin that people deal with when living on a broken planet. Instead of nice safe characters that are predictable I write characters that you would find in your day-to-day life. I have endings that don’t wrap up with neat little bows. I write about hard questions that philosophers of all stripes have struggled to figure out. I write because readers want to see characters that actually struggle with issues of morality and faith because for many of them it is a struggle they can relate to regardless of whether they are secular or religious.
Even if it is in the context of a shape-shifting U.S. Marshall.