Monday, December 11, 2006

"Christian" Art and Christian Artists

Hank Hill to Christian rocker: "Can't you see that you're not making Christianity better? You're just making rock and roll worse."
That is one of Tom's favorite quotes. It's funny because it's true.

I know I'm opening a can of worms with this one but there is a discussion going on in the comments about supporting movies because they are "Christian." Seriously though, what is it about doing something as a "Christian" effort that makes it ok to slack off and accept mediocrity because it is a good faith effort? No one else gets that pass and as Christians I thought that we were supposed to do and offer the best of the best in our work.

I agree with Scott Nehring that what we need are more Christian artists and less "Christian" art. The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia would never have reached so many people if they had been pushed as "Christian" stories. I, for one, would never have touched them with a ten foot pole in the days before I became Christian. As it was, someone let slip to me the Jesus-Aslan connection when I was in the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I kept reading but I couldn't get past that connection. As someone who was tolerant but not fond of Christians, I was completely unable to look at the work with an unprejudiced eye. Therefore, I hated it as being so obvious. Is it obvious? Maybe yes. Maybe no. All I know is that I will never know because I was tipped off that it was "Christian" from the beginning. And I resent that opportunity being taken from me.

The public's general perception is that if something is called "Christian" it is substandard work. Sadly, all too often they are correct. In that case you are only preaching to the choir who go to support Christian movies. There is nothing wrong with that I suppose but why not preach to the entire world as we are called to do? For that, one must remove the dreaded "Christian" label and go forth as a talented artist with a good story to tell. If it is Christian at the foundation that will come out without having to slap a label all over it.

I probably wouldn't have turned this into a post except that I just came across Jeffrey Overstreet's take on the subject.
Since the Contemporary Christian Music has done so much to sidetrack Christian musicians so their music doesn't accidentally end up in arenas where the world might hear it... why not create Contemporary Christian Cinema? That way, faith-related films can play to those who already agree with their messages, and to those who don't want to bother with the challenges of mainstream movies. Meanwhile, mainstream audiences can put even more distance between themselves and films that openly wrestle with issues of faith. They'll spot the "faith" label, feel a shiver run down their spine, and move on to something else.

Walls and boundaries. That's what we want. Neat and easy labels and categories. All the better for judging other people, for staying where we are, for complimenting ourselves on our choices.

No matter what the industry does to try and fence in me and my Christian faith, it won't work. I won't preoccupy myself with "Christian moviemaking" any more than I'll spend time shopping for "Christian groceries." I'll keep exploring questions in the open sea of artmaking, fully convinced that God is revealing himself in the art of all kinds of people. After all, they're all made in his image, and they're all using his materials, so how can they possibly hope to stifle the truth? I'll keep finding God as he peers out through the beauty and the truth that resonate in the works of even the most defiantly irreligious.

If I see a "faith" label on a film, it'll automatically make me suspicious that the work is preachy and mediocre. And more than likely it's obvious enough and simplistic enough to qualify as entertainment for a six-year-old. If I sound a little too judgmental here, well, what do you expect when decades of preachy, mediocre, connect-the-dots "Christian art" have shaped my opinions?

My advice to Christians who make movies? Make them complex enough, powerful enough, beautiful enough, and subtle enough that they can never be dismissed as movies for that "faith-based" audience and ignored by people who want something challenging.
Jeffrey Overstreet commenting on the Weinsteins beginning a faith-based movie line
To me, this connects in a beautiful way with a brilliant post that Melanie Bettanelli wrote about Santa Claus. This is a lengthy excerpt but it is not all and you do yourself a disservice if you don't go read it all. As I said ... brilliant.
One day this [violently anti-Christian] friend said to my sister that if Christ is like Aslan, then perhaps that is the kind of Christ she could wish were real. Well, I was raised on Narnia and I strongly suspect that my image of Christ has strong doses of Aslan in him. Because I think Aslan is a very good icon of Christ indeed.

And to me that's one of the wonders of fairy tales like The Chronicles of Narnia, that its beautiful art which can evangelize the culture. Sew seeds in hearts that are not yet ready to hear the gospel message, that are firmly closed to any mention of Christ. And slowly they warm, thaw: If Christ is like Aslan, then maybe Christ isn't so bad after all. Maybe he's a God I could believe in.

Many Christians hailed The Lord of the Rings for that same reason. There is no mention of Christ or God, no one in the book seems to have any faith at all. And yet every word, every action proclaims the gospel message. For it is a story about a small man, a hobbit, a weak, inconsequential nobody who willingly bears a great burden expecting no benefit for himself, indeed expecting destruction at every step. It's about what it means to be a follower of Christ, to pick up one's cross every day and lay down your life for your friends and for those you don't even know.

To me the Santa story is the same thing. In its modern, secular rendition there might be no mention of Christ, in fact it might seem to lead one into a fantasy realm where there is no room for Christ. And yet He is there. It's the story of a man who somehow, miraculously gives abundantly, perhaps even prodigally, to everyone regardless of who they are or their state in life and expecting no return for himself. It's about the miraculous ability to be everywhere at once, impossibly in one night.

To me Santa is the image of the prodigal love of Jesus, pouring himself out for everyone expecting no return for himself. It reflects the miracle of the Eucharist, (just think of Christ on a thousand altars all over the world in one night on Christmas Eve).
Think of how subtly God gets our attention so much of the time. Through nature or "coincidences" or things we read or something a friend says. He doesn't show up in a vision of glory every time we need to get a message. The glorious sunset that bespeaks His creation to me may be touching someone else's heart with a specific message that He has prepared. For a third person it may simply be beautiful but may be softening them up for further communications in an unknown way. And it is sent to all, without any special genres or labels on it. We could do much worse than to model ourselves on that method.

See all of the photos in this Flickr series

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