The Scandal of the Evangelical Taste

I recently stumbled across a blog post asking the question, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?”  I had to read that, because I’d asked myself the question before about Christian (Evangelical) arts in general, and wondered if the author, Mr. Ambrosino, had an answer.

He does, and I think he’s right, and recommend reading the entire post – but for my time-starved friends I’ll boil it down to this: We Evangelicals care about the factual content above everything else.  Tell (don’t show) me the old, old story, and then follow it up with a group discussion guide.

Mr. Ambrosino’s contention: Evangelicals love the Word over any “packaging”, and thus art takes a back seat to the message.  Wooden dialogue, endless exposition, predictable chord changes / modulations / rhymes: it’s okay for art to suffer as long as God is glorified and the gospel preached.  Except that only the choir is listening.  To quote Mr. Ambrosino:

Old Fashioned, like many Christian films of late (see: God’s Not Dead, Left Behind, Heaven is For Real), doesn’t understand this marriage of content and form. As a result, the lessons at the heart of the story — i.e., the whole reason the film exists in the eyes of its core audience — are easily dismissed by the secular masses the film is ostensibly meant to reach. This is the irony of the Christian film industry: movies that appeal mostly to Christians are marketed as if capable of bringing sinners to repentance.

This approach to art also explains the reactive nature of Christian art and writing, why it sometimes feels like there’s so little originality in the Christian bookstores.  Da Vinci Code?  Write rebuttals.  Fifty Shades of Grey?  Shoot a not-Fifty-Shades-of-Grey movie.  Harry Potter?  Promote Narnia.  I love Narnia, but it should be promoted in its own right and not with the nervous intent on keeping up with the Joneses.  The children of a creator God, who calls us to excellence (Php 4:8), should be leading the way with fresh, creative art – but as long as the obvious presence of a gospel message trumps quality artwork, we’re creating a self-sustaining market for lazy art, and if the world mocks us for our bad taste (if it even notices), well, Jesus promised us persecution, right?

But “how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”  True, they can’t, but can they hear any better with someone preaching to them poorly?  We ignore at their peril the basic principle that communication is more than just the factual content of phrases, and depends significantly on its packaging.  Articles like Mr. Ambrosino’s give me hope that some people may be catching on and taking more care to marry content and form, which I contend will not only give us art we can take pride in, but better and more effective preaching as well.

5 thoughts on “The Scandal of the Evangelical Taste

  1. Linda Wightman

    Yes! This is a subject very near and dear to my heart. The article accurately describes much of Christian art as what a friend of mine — several decades ago — called being “of the world but not in it.” The folks who made “Facing the Giants,” “Fireproof,” and some other movies that escape my mind at the moment did quite a good job given their constraints and their amateur status. The movies present positive, much-needed ideas in their story lines, but just when I start to think they’re something I could share with my friends, along comes the pasted-in, obligatory, explicit Gospel message that breaks the flow and would instantly turn my friends off to the whole film. It is as if the only part of the watchman story in Ezekiel 33 that we care about is making sure we’re not held accountable for the other person’s condemnation, because we’ve warned him — even if we’ve done it in a way that makes it almost impossible for him to respond.

    One of the biggest reasons I’ve become so taken by the TV series, NCIS is its outstanding craftsmanship, excellence in every area, be it acting, writing, camera work, you name it. I’ve seen nothing like it for such consistent, long-term excellence. (Yes, some episodes are not as good as others. But they’re now in their 12th season, with very, very few that I have found unsatisfactory.) It’s not a Christian show. They have at times been hard on Christians. But as I wrote, their Christmas show was an outstanding example of how the Gospel can be clearly presented implicitly in a way that someone other than the choir can hear. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga — the books, not the movies — is another.

    Yes, a more explicit presentation at some point is also important. But that’s not the job of art.

  2. thduggie Post author

    It’s ironic, isn’t it: we try so hard to be relevant and fail because we’re trying too hard. We try so hard that the gospel ceases to look like a life-saving alternative: it takes on the appearance of some dowdy me-too product from the WalMart sale bin.

  3. Brenda

    Part of the trouble, I’ve found, is defining the audience and, consequently, the expectations of the work. If the audience is the Evangelical church/community, they want something safe. And safe doesn’t have anything that makes waves. No bad words, no bad habits, no conversation that doesn’t hammer home the message. The concern for quality definitely takes a backseat.
    If, on the other hand, the audience is “the world”, how much of the world needs to be in the story for it to resonate with them? Can a story still communicate Christ if it is raw, or frightening, or addresses touchy/shameful topics? I know people who claim to be Christians, but they love their chosen media *so* *much* (comic books, science fiction, Joss Whedon) that they make excuses for it. They find a grain of the story that mimics faith in a half-hearted manner, and instantly print the gospel over the whole story. I do think a lot of this is going too far.
    Some modern efforts (in film media, mostly) that have surprised me with how much of the Lord they let in have been:
    1. Bella – film about a young woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy, and the compassionate man who changes her life
    2. The Blind Side – film about one outspoken Christian family who rescued a boy from poverty and nearly went to jail for it (based on a true story)
    3. Jack the Giant Slayer – retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, but every character in the story must face the question “what do you believe?” with action (NO mention of Christ, but a lot of talking points for faith)
    4. The Spitfire Grill – slightly older film (a Catholic work, I believe) about a convict on parole whose quest for spiritual healing brings life to an entire community
    5. Faith – S. Korean drama (roughly 26 hours) wherein every character acts upon his/her beliefs. I suspect the intent was towards Buddhism, but this story made room for Christ at every turn, so that evil was practically demonic and good clung to faith until it became a reality. Well worth the effort of all the subtitles. 🙂
    I believe that a lot of the Evangelical efforts in books and movies have been to create “nice” stories. Because Jesus makes us “nice” people. But that’s not what Scripture says. God calls us to be good, not nice. One does no harm, but the other works to eradicate evil. And I do think that a “good” story can portray evil for what it is. I just wish we’d be brave enough to follow through on that more often….

  4. thduggie Post author

    Thanks for the comments! I remember watching the Spitfire Grill last millenium on the recommendation of our IV staff dude and enjoying it. I hardly ever watch movies these days, but now I have a neat and handy shortlist on my blog!
    And I agree with many of your points, Brenda. If our faith is what it claims to be, it should be able to tackle the tough stuff, the biggies, and not just work in a framework of nice people or clear-cut schematics. It should be a real alternative to the world’s solutions, not just a sanitized carbon copy. I sometimes feel like we want to make our faith as inoffensive as possible in order to be welcoming, and instead render it faceless and bland. It’s one of the things I struggle with: how do I make my faith not relevant, but real, in a steel mill? Is real faith always in-your-face noticeable?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *