This morning I read a review of the film God’s Not Dead over at Gospelspam.com, and was struck by the thesis of the review, which is found in the title, “God’s Not Dead but Christian Screenwriting Is.”
The review had plenty of good to say about the film, but also plenty to say about the problems currently found in Christian filmmaking – specifically the writing. This issue brings up strong feelings and thoughts in me, as I am a Christian, and I have been a student of screenwriting since 2007. I’ve written screenplays (both produced and un-produced), and have recently published my first novel, Thimblerig’s Ark. I felt led to respond to the article in the comment section at Gospelspam, and then decided to reproduce the bulk of my comments here.
Let me say from the start that my intention with this article is not to attack my fellow Christian artists. I generally have great respect for anyone who carries an idea from imagination to the screen, and with Christian artists, I also respect the intention behind the process. And I know that there are probably some very good independently made Christian films that try like crazy to break out to a larger audience, but are unable to do so for many different reasons. The intent of this article is more to express my frustration of the limitations faced by Christian artists, put there by the church at large.
For centuries the church was the main sponsor of amazing art. Christians were responsible for setting the tone of art for the culture, and we have the amazing work of artists such as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and many others as the fruit of that labor. But for some reason Christians have rarely been able to accomplish dramatic storytelling effectively on any large scale, which is ironic, considering that we are the custodians of the Greatest Story Ever Told. While there are the occasional mold-breakers (thinking about C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor in the literary world, to name a couple), modern Christians seem to have a hard time jumping feet-first into the story-telling deep end, telling a compelling story that will go beyond the church walls.
This is a multi-layered conversation, and it is thankfully a conversation that is taking place among many creative Christian writers and artists. In 2007 I was privileged to take a month long intensive screenwriting course in Hollywood with Act One, an organization that trains Christian writers and producers how to write and produce good films with integrity. It was one of the most stimulating months of my life, as we wrestled with these issues on a daily basis. From that time, and since, I’ve thought of three major hurdles that Christian artists face when attempting to write, sing, or film something that will have the potential to impact the world. For the sake of this article, I will focus on Christian filmmaking.
The first problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to be SAFE. When is the last time a big “faith-based” film had an R rating because of it’s true depiction of sin? It’s a huge dilemma, because we – as followers of Christ – don’t want to sin ourselves in making a film, or encourage sin, but this really handcuffs us and our ability to realistically portray life. If you are a Christian, when was the last time you saw a Christian film that truly challenged your faith? What was the last Christian film that asked questions without giving answers? Does the greater Christian culture allow for that?
The second problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to be PREDICTABLE. When I was doing drama in summer camps in Kazakhstan, a friend pointed out that the representation of Satan was always more interesting than the representation of Jesus. He also said that it wasn’t saying much, because Satan was fundamentally not so interesting because no matter the drama presentation, he always acted the same way, and the same was true of Jesus. I see this carried through in expectations for Christian filmmaking – the protagonist and the antagonist usually act a certain way, and if they don’t, the film won’t be received well. What does the audience want? The non-Christian needs to become a Christian, and the Christian needs to find “victory” of some sort. My major disappointment with the Kendrick brother’s film, “Facing the Giants”, was that it was a wonderful opportunity to show how a Christian deals with failure, but in the end the filmmakers decided to make it a fairy tale where a prayer changes the direction of the wind. It was predictable, and the film was wildly successful.
The third problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to PREACH TO THE CHOIR. With the exception of Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, how many films made by Christian filmmakers have made any sort of dent in the culture beyond the church walls? When is the last time a film made by Christians received substantial praise from non-Christian film reviewers? This past weekend, God’s Not Dead had good box office – earning a respectable $9.2 million, but how much of that cash was from non-Christian wallets? The film also currently has a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is high for the typical Christian-made film.
Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming film, Noah, is a very interesting case to me, and it is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for some time. Unfortunately, a big reason that I’m hopeful for the film is that it was NOT made explicitly by Christians, and while the studio also wants a piece of the “faith-based audience box office pie”, Aronofsky made the film he wanted to make. I am much more interested in this film than I am in God’s Not Dead or the recent Son of God, because it will be everything a typical Christian film is not: it will be a dangerous film – forcing the viewer to rethink the traditional way of viewing the story of Noah; it will undoubtedly be unpredictable, because Aronofsky is not handcuffed by an allegiance to modern evangelical sensibilities; and finally, thousands and thousands of people are going to be flocking to see it, and not because of their church allegiance.
How cool would it be if a film made by Christians could make the box office that Noah will make, with audiences from every different walk of life? Here are my tips on how the body of Christ can come closer to making that happen:
1) We need to permit our artists (writers, actors, musicians, filmmakers) to take more risks. And artists, whether you are permitted or not, take more risks. Did you really get into your artistic field because you liked playing it safe? Why play it safe with the most important thing you have to say?
2) We need to encourage our artists to challenge rather than stroke our sensibilities. A pearl is made when dirt is irritated inside the oyster, after all. And so artists, don’t wait for permission. Start challenging your audience. They will undoubtedly resist you, but we need to be challenged or we’ll stagnate and fade away into irrelevance.
3) We need to recognize that art is art, the pulpit is the pulpit, and while the two might cross paths from time to time, they are completely different animals. This goes for everyone. Does everyone truly understand this? With all the recent criticisms of Noah because it “is unbiblical”, I have to think that lots of people don’t. Read here for more of my thoughts on this.
4) We need to be okay with movies that don’t give all the answers. If they succeed in asking some good, deep questions, they might actually open the doors to conversations where answers can be explored. Artists, isn’t part of our job to provoke questions? Don’t feel you have to end every sentence with a period
5) And most importantly: tell good stories. As Frank Capra famously said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” If you are an artist, the quality of your work should be at the top of your list of considerations. Jesus wasn’t known for telling mediocre stories that ticked off all the correct religious boxes. He was known for telling compelling stories that challenged his listeners while communicating God’s truth. Aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus?
I need to conclude this article by saying once more that I do respect that there are Christians out there trying to bust into the filmmaking business, and I wish them well. I just hope we can figure out how to tell The Story – truly the Greatest Story Ever Told – in the manner in which it deserves, and in such an excellent way that people outside the Christian subculture will receive it.
Update: If you have read this far, and you want to read more of my thoughts on this subject – especially as related to what artists of faith need to do – please go here for my follow up article: What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking Episode 2
You can also respond further about the things brought up in this article here.
Finally, if you would like to see me trying to put my words here to practice, then download my new novel, Thimblerig’s Ark! It’s the story of Noah’s Ark from the animal’s point of view, and here’s what has been said about it:
“A great romp!”
“…couldn’t put it down…”
“A powerful story!”
“…seems like a children’s book, but its themes are more adult.”
For the price of a latte at Starbucks, you can own this novel, and help an independent first-time author at the same time!