The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Sony created a subdivision dedicated to producing Christian films. The disconcerting fact is that it follows a pattern that has nothing to do with gospel values.
Some weeks ago Vanity Fair magazine picked up a story that passed on completely unnoticed for most evangelicals.
In fact, I don´t even know why a magazine like Vanity Fair would report such an issue - it had been slotted in amongst makeup ads and articles about the best dressed people of Hollywood.
[A warning at this point; from now on I'm going to talk about awkward stuff.]
Sony, the film production company (which in recent years has released blockbusters such as the new Ghostbusters or Spiderman: Homecoming), has created a subdivision dedicated to producing Christian films.
Let me explain: I’m not talking about major productions or about copying those great films from the history of cinema such as The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, which were works by directors and writers who used the widespread biblical culture to create film productions of great aesthetic value. No, what Sony intends to do here is to jump onto the new bandwagon.
In 2003, Alex Kendrick, pastor of a Baptist church in Albany, Georgia, raised $20,000 in offerings to write, direct and produce a Christian themed film for his congregation. It was so successful that they founded Sherwood Pictures, one of the most successful independent film producers of the last two decades.
The key to success is to produce very low budget films of a strong Christian American evangelical nature that will be shown in churches, community centres and Christian schools, obtaining huge benefits. Advertising expenses are minimal, spectators don’t expect top quality and they are a loyal public.
The key to all this is that Sony is entirely uninterested in the content of these films: they only want to enter a very lucrative market. The same has happened in the editorial field with Harper Collins. A few years ago they created a subdivision of Christian literature without any other motivation or religious commitment behind their actions than to reach a percentage of the population which, if it were offered what it was looking for, would buy all their products. The evangelical cash cow had been discovered and they are beginning to cash in on it.
In the case of films, it is obvious that this is an intelligent move by Sony. The reality is that the benefits flowing from big film productions are rapidly diminishing because production costs continue to rise. To get viewers hooked these days, movies have to be spectacular and that entails massive production funding. In the case of movies like the new Spiderman, despite its high quality, the profit margin is not generous. However, a film like Fireproof (2008), which cost half a million dollars, raised 33 million in benefits, a profit margin hard to ignore.
If someone tries to see in all of this a new interest in Christianity or the gospel popping up within the cultural industry of the United States, he will be way off the mark. It is only about the discovery and exploitation of a new market, and the creation of a new industry. The disconcerting and certainly uncomfortable fact about this new industry is that it is being created in the image and likeness of things which have nothing to do with gospel values.
There are different types of culture industries. There are those that appeal to higher or transcendental issues, to the creation of culture as the engine for social cohesion and as one of the main means for advancement in society. Then, within these elevated concepts, they often defend things that are not necessarily close to the truth of God, but that is another issue. There are also cultural industries that derive more towards forms of leisure or entertainment that have their own deviations, but most of the time they are a waste of time.
However, there are also industries that take advantage of a kind of mindset of their followers, a common pattern of consumption which generates greater benefits the closer it gets to addiction levels.
Unfortunately, the Christian film industry I refer to has worrying similarities with this last type of industry in which we could include romantic literature and pornography. I’m not saying they are the same, of course, but they do have some points in common: 1) quality is conditioned to quantity; 2) low budget and a lot of profit margin; 3) Creating consumers instead of critical viewers.
I’ll expand on this a little.
The three industries try to capture consumers more than viewers. They offer things (romance, sex, faith experiences) that cannot really be enjoyed indirectly: if you don’t experience them personally, they don’t do much for you in real life. However, they seem real enough. In all these cases, the mechanisms of pleasure and reward are activated in the brain, along with the release of the substances that cause addiction. I am certain they aren’t the same thing but they function in a very similar way.
I know people who are very attached to these types of Christian films and they will tell you all about them and defend them in the same way I have seen women who read romantic literature do. They don't realize they are products of very low aesthetic and artistic quality and they are mass produced because their only intention is to make the paying public occupied and happy.
However, Christians who are not used to seeing these Christian films are unable to enjoy them. The same thing happens with someone who is not used to pornography or romantic literature.
But the biggest problem that I see has to do with the experience of faith. In the Christian films that I have seen (or that I have been forced to see) we often see experiences of faith that fit the script rather than the Scriptures. Faith often takes us down unpleasant paths and heart breaking experiences that will not end well in 90 minutes. Often there is no happy solution in real life but reality is completely inappropriate for a movie that attempts to send the audience home feeling triumphant and victorious.
In real life, the true experience of faith, which is the work of the kingdom of God in us, is something very different from what we are sold in such movies. For that reason these movies are completely useless as a means of evangelization, as the producers themselves admit. They are not evangelistic material and are not produced as such (and whoever pretends they are will be very disappointed to discover that they have no evangelistic effect). They are products designed to substitute real faith experiences with artificial ones geared to a certain type of Christian.
In spite of all this, I know that there are people who see them, and defend them. I am not against that as long as it is done with moderation, with a good conscience and without any kind of imposition. If you see it as nothing more than a consumer product and that it isn’t every Christian’s cup of tea, if you don’t use them as evangelistic tools, if you are not fooled into believing that Hollywood is becoming seduced by Christianity, there should be no problems.
The sad truth about this industry highlights a serious problem that we evangelicals have been dragging behind us for decades. From the beginning, there were groups that opposed cinema going and the entire Hollywood industry due to its opposing moral values. But instead of solving the problem by strengthening people’s faith so that they could face any other view without wavering, it was decided that forbidding Christians to go to the movies was the best possible route but this produced immaturity, amongst other things.
Although these old complexes have been softening over the years, they are the reason why there are very conservative groups who think that the best way to solve the old dilemma is not by promoting mature and wise believers but rather in imitating the industry to face the dilemma not from the position of faith, but from the a commercial market standpoint. This way, the “Christian approval” label is stamped on a product and sold as a new form of ‘Kosher’ or ‘Hallal’ so that believers can consume it without fear, and without having to use their own criteria.
I believe that God, when He made us in his image and likeness, made us sensitive to art and beauty. You only have to take a closer look at the planet we live on to understand this. As beings created by an artistic and creative God, we are also artistic and creative and, in the art of creating, we find a primal source of well-being for our souls.
Those who write, paint, cook or knit, for example, understand this principle. Art and culture were also corrupted by the fall (it is clearly seen in Babel), and there is a dimension of the gospel that also seeks to restore that human culture back to the image of God. However, there is nothing in the above-mentioned Christian cultural industry which appeals to that: it does not seek to reflect God to the world, but only to provide feedback to those who are already convinced and to keep them protected within their church boundaries.
On the other hand, the redeemed culture I believe in impels me to continually seek professional excellence and the reality of the aesthetic experience as God first imagined it. The solution to the conflict does not lie in creating a parallel industry. It does not reside in a response from the market, because that is a response that usually leaves God out entirely.
I believe that we must understand the essence of creation and its needs with greater insight so that we can discover how to be creators in the midst of other creators, and that we may forge for ourselves a space where we can talk about life and light in our own right. From my experience, I can say that when one is honest and authentic (qualities that can only be nourished from Christ), he is able to create things that transform the world and create dozens of opportunities to share the gospel. When we do this the other way round, looking at the product itself rather than the content, evangelism remains a sad shadow of itself. Sadly we have become accustomed to that shallowness, and we have come to accept that this is all we can expect. But this way of thinking is far away from the wider reality that God is offering to us.