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We Miserable Sinners
Brendan Gleeson in 'Calvary'

This month, a few corners of the Internet have gotten interested in whether or not literature and popular culture reflect politically conservative positions, and what should be done about it.

In National Review on July 9, Jonah Goldberg suggested that American popular culture, contrary to popular assumption, is essentially conservative. Two days earlier, on the cover of National Review, the conservative book editor Adam Bellow suggested that what culture (and, specifically, literature) needs is more conservative creators and more conservative funders. Alyssa Rosenberg responded in the Washington Post, suggesting (as "friendly opposition") that conservatives run the risk of creating terrible art if their first step forward is ideology, not craft; Micah Mattix more or less agreed in his take in The American Conservative.

Personally, I don't have much of a dog in the politics-and-culture fight. But I got interested because this all sounded pretty familiar. As lore has it, Hollywood needs to be infiltrated by people of faith who can make sure that "our values" are being reflected on screen.

Well, I've just come from a screening of Calvary, the most "Christian" film I've seen in as long as I can remember. I don't think it will be winning any awards from the Christian world (although I guarantee it will show up on my end-of-year list here at Christianity Today, and a few others, too). It has bad words, and it takes place in a universe very like ours—that is, in one where people are suffering the ugly aftereffects (and sometime during-effects) of their very serious sins against one another.

I put the word "Christian" in quotes there, though. I think we can all agree that a film cannot be "Christian" in the way you and I can be, because a film cannot be converted, cannot believe, cannot be baptized (literally, anyhow), cannot be part of the body of Christ. That's the first sense of the term: a noun.

The noun kind of Christian is a label applied by people on the outside to a community of folks who were different from the rest. Specifically, a group in Antioch. The whole story shows up in Acts 11, which is the same chapter where God gives Peter the vision of the unclean animals descending from heaven, and tells him to take and eat. God has made the unclean clean. And the church spreads to the Gentiles.

Actually, I'm not a Bible scholar, but as far as I can tell, it wasn't until the good news spread to the Gentiles—those who were unclean—that anyone starting calling those people Christians.

I can't tell you a ton about Calvary yet, but what makes it air-quote "Christian" in something close to the first sense is that it sees the grace of God as something that extended only to the unclean—the sick, I suppose, who need the physician, as Jesus said. You see this, and you say: that is a human, but a human touched by something bigger than them.

The second sense of "Christian" is pesky. We use the word as an adjective to describe things we can buy and consume—mostly movies and music and books, but also art and T-shirts. It's a marketing category, like "family" or "romance" or "action."

I used to have a huge problem with this, but I've come around on that. Marketing categories are useful and necessary. It's regrettable that the word for the marketing category is the same as the word for the people who buy it (unlike, say, "horror"), I suppose, but that's how it is.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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