I heard the following from Alistair Begg on the radio today and thought it was particularly relevant to Christian art, which most often manifests itself as “romantic” rather than genuine.
I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long…
…The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
I wonder, do you agree with me, that whoever it was that sang the song “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” (and then I think Coca-Cola stole that for themselves, if I remember correctly “I’d like to buy the world a coke” or something). Not a bad little song, but not of any lasting value. What about this idea – that the Christian says “I’d like to teach the world to cry. I’d like to teach the world how to cry”?
You say “No, that can’t possibly be, because the Christian is the joyful one. The Christian is the one who’s going to teach the world how to sing, how to laugh, how to rejoice, how to do all the other things.”
Yeah, but only the Christian can teach the world how to cry. What to cry about, and how to cry. And the absence of lament in contemporary Evangelical Christianity is arguably one of the things that presents to the watching world a substantial sense of a Christianity that is not actually authentic.
The Faithfulness of God
See also: Tragic Worship
So the point? (I haven’t forgotten) The point is that the industry that labels things as Christian and sells them to you has far more to do with marketing then Christianity. They are marketing to the mixed bag of values that has created the Evangelical Christian subculture. It’s a mix of some historically Christian values, some American values, and a whole lot of cultural boundary markers that set “us” apart from “them.” This sort of system makes us feel safe and right, and it makes some of its gatekeepers very wealthy and powerful.
Nobody goes to an art gallery and says, “boy, that painting is so creative.” Why? Because it’s art! Of course it’s creative! Why else would it be there? It’s very nature is creativity. Or like Lisa pointed out to me today, “that would be like saying, I love your house, it’s so architectural.”
But when someone in the Christian industry actually takes their art seriously, everybody is like “holy crap, listen to how creative it is!”
It’s like a person that’s been living among zombies for years seeing an actual human being and exclaiming, “wow, look at how clean her face is! She doesn’t even have any blood on it or anything!”
MICHAEL GUNGOR On The Problem With The Christian Music Industry
See also: The Roots and Rise of Pietism in American Evangelicalism
People often listen to a lot of contemporary Christian music, and I’m not always sure why. Cause I play it, and I know there’s not a lot to most of it. Sometimes it concerns me, the number of people who can quote my songs, or they can quote the songs of several different people, but they can’t quote the Scriptures – as if anything a musician might have to say would be worth listening to. Really, I mean, what musicians do is they put together chords, and rhythms, and melodies. So if you want entertainment, I suggest Christian entertainment, because I think it’s good. But if you want spiritual nourishment, I suggest you go to church or read your bible or something. And let this entertain you, but look beyond this for what you really need in life.
-Rich Mullins, intro to “Elijah”
Tobias Lindholm, writer and director of the excellent A Hijacking, notes
I couldn’t make a film about the truth of the hijackings in the Indian Ocean, because I don’t believe that truth exists. But I could make a film about seamen, pirates, CEOs and relatives. Because they do exist. And if A HIJACKING feels like it is about them, then I am very close to my goal.
How does your view of truth affect your filmmaking? Does your belief in truth require that you know the truth in every situation? Does your belief in black and white mean there is no gray? Do you give equal weight to the first line of Proverbs 21:2 as well as the second line?
Gene Veith (God at Work, Reading Between the Lines, Honky-Tonk Gospel, ReViewing the Movies):
All distinctly Christian art must be, in some sense, about the agonizing struggle between sin and grace.
Mere moral lessons, while perhaps commendable, are not enough to be distinctly Christian, since Mormons, Muslims, and ethical humanists could agree with them. And mere optimistic positive messages are not enough and may even be harmful, since they can create the illusion that we can achieve righteousness by our own efforts. Works of meaning and beauty have their own value. But to be explicitly “Christian,” a work needs to be, directly or indirectly, about sin and grace and what Christ has to do with them.
As a Christian, I strive to be self-aware of the things that influence and shape me and the culture around me. Ron Baines’ lecture The Roots and Rise of Pietism in American Evangelicalism does a great job of showing how we got where we are. This really helps makes sense of many of the films marketed to a Christian audience.
It might feel like a general discouragement, but there’s something specific you’re believing that’s giving life to this discouragement. Develop the habit of asking your soul questions. “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” (Psalm 42:5). Make yourself put it into words. Be specific (don’t just accept “I don’t do anything well”). Name what it is that you crave.
Lay Aside the Weight of Prideful Comparison
This edifying podcast has plenty of lessons and implications for filmmakers. Listen up
artistic literature aids one’s memory to make the comprehension of a doctrine* a permanent acquisition
*a truth of Scripture
This is the highest purpose of art. Does that offend your artistic sensibilities? Isn’t that just propaganda? David Puttnam said every film contains propaganda. Consider Gordon Clark’s Christian Aesthetics
In this two part interview with Bill Moyers, titled “Hollywood’s Role in Shaping Values”, Producer David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields) says:
Filmmakers are selling themselves short by making trivial films.
Puttnam’s contention is that films have an incredible power to influence how we live our lives.
My diet of American cinema formed what might be called my ethical understanding of the world (The Search, The Best Years of Our Lives, Inherit the Wind, On the Waterfront)… It was from films like this that just about every tenet by which I’ve tried to live my life somehow evolved.
Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation
He says filmmakers need to acknowledge and embrace that reality and make films that positively affect society.
There’s an underlying poverty of ambition. I’ve never accepted that there’s any dichotomy at all between entertaining you and also dealing with an issue. And I think it’s the job of the responsible filmmaker, or the good filmmaker (forget responsible) to deal in both. When I’m teaching I have this expression I use all the time. There are AND movies and there are OR movies. A filmmaker’s responsibility is to make an AND movie. That’s to say a film that is entertaining and informing, and has intrinsic values, values which are ongoing in society which people can gather around and defend. An OR movie is a movie that, on day one, decides it wishes to exploit whatever is fashionable about the audience at that moment and doesn’t wish to bother itself with injecting any other values whatsoever.
Puttnam argues this balance is found by telling stories that resonate with the hearts of audiences. A Chinese audience could understand what was happening in Chariots of Fire even without subtitles, and thereby it entertained and informed them.
What’s wonderful about cinema is that it’s a truly international medium and if you can make that case in a movie – my experience as I’ve traveled the world with the films I’ve produced is – you get the same echoes. People respond in the same way to the same fine echoes of themselves they see on screen.
But Moyers points out the fundamental problem with Puttnam’s argument: that doesn’t tell us which values to promote.
Rambo appeals to a lot of people, millions of people, for many of the same reasons. Here’s a man, an individual on a mission of patriotism for his country, driven by deep, abiding affection for his brothers in arms, for his country, his cause, risking his life, going into the dark forrest, as the mythologists would say. Wrestling with demons, adversaries. Coming back having accomplished the will of the individual against the hordes out there. Now what’s the difference between the Rambo of that image and the Jesuit priest in The Mission?
…It is universal, but the other side of it – I remember when Rambo came out 3 years ago, the New York Times ran a story saying that the image of the militia, the mob, all the young men fighting and killing each other in that devastated city, lining up at the few movie houses waiting to see Rambo. They carried their AK’s with them. They were going to see this. It reinforced a universal image they have of themselves.
What has to be acknowledged is that virtue is universal because we are created in the image of God, but so is sin, because we are fallen, marred image bearers. Author Grant Horner explains:
God made us in His image; we make movies in ours… Film is the most powerful image of itself that humanity has ever produced. No one could deny that books, art, music, politics, social consciousness, and so forth are significant, but film is the one “cultural location” where all of these other categories may meet and have a discussion… Film has become a significant theater displaying man’s nature – in both its glory and its shame.
Meaning at the Movies
Puttnam’s desire is to see films propagate what ought to be. But you can’t do that by appealing to what is. You can’t get an ought from an is. The only way films can have the kind of impact Puttnam wants them to have is if they are rooted in the Word of God – our only source for what ought to be. And a proper understanding of the Word of God prevents us from looking to ourselves for hope. Puttnam argues:
The effect of that drip, drip, drip daily diet of views and ideas that adhere to what’s best in society. That has an effect. Not one movie. Not one [newspaper] article. But just the fact that all of us buckle down and try and do better and be better.
This will never accomplish what Puttnam wants it to because society is fallen and in need of a Redeemer, not better bootstraps. “Something more is wanted than merely to din into men’s ears what they ought to be, and what they ought to do. Something is wanted more effectually to renovate the heart and move the springs of action. The water is nought, and if you make it flow it is bitter. You want an ingredient to be cast into it that will heal its poison springs, and make them sweet and clear.”
With this in mind, consider these three closing points from Puttnam:
- “Every single movie has within it an element of propaganda. And they walk away with either benign or malign propaganda.”
- “I don’t think it is the role of the businessman to capitulate to the artist any more than it is the role of the artist or the creator to capitulate to the businessman.”
- “You make a passionate and committed film, and you do it well, and the audience will always turn up. I’ve never had the audience let me down. I’ve never made a fine film, as a producer, and had the audience not turn up.”