I just saw Finding Nemo. Trusted friends (adults and children alike) told me it is a must-see. But my wife and I still emerged from the theater wondering what, exactly, we had just received for our investment of $15 and two hours of our life.
"To praise, exalt, establish, and defend." The great Roman Catholic journalist and author G. K. Chesterton, in one of his gem-like short essays, urged all Christians to do these things when they came across worthy literary or artistic expressions. Modern literature, media, and culture contain little that is positive or edifying, said Chesterton. Those that don't major on the degraded, the corrupt, and the dysfunctional still blow an uncertain trumpet. They haven't much to offer that can build up audiences.
Chesterton argued that it's our job as Christians to seek out cultural products that say something worth saying-and then to recommend them to others. "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things" (Philippians 4:8).
Certainly, Finding Nemo is artistically well done, sweetly humorous, untainted by any of the decadence that so disturbed Chesterton. But the problem my wife and I had with it is this: We've seen it all before. It's the Disney formula. Despite the (tired) theme of love between father and son, in the end it's just well produced mind-candy. Its message is pasteurized. It does not feed much in us beside the desire to be entertained.
Every time I see such well-meaning but empty movies, I remember Neil Postman's arresting title: Amusing Ourselves to Death.
OK, yes: I do keep coming back—media lemming that I am.
It goes something like this: I'm on my way home from work. It's been a long day. I'm tired. I know five restless kids and an equally tired wife are waiting for me at home. So what do I do? I stop at the Blockbuster and pick up a couple of harmless entertainments. And that evening, a few more hours trickle away as the family relaxes in front of them.
I begin to have sympathy with the Puritans or the medieval monks,with their suspicions of time-wasting merry-making. There must be better things to do with life than this!
To be sure, not everything is bleak in the world of media giants and media outlets. Wal-mart has helped the Veggie Tales' Jonah video rocket to over 2.7 million in sales (some 25 percent of these have been sold through Wal-mart stores). And they have demonstrated an aggressive enough preference for conservative and Christian media products to make the liberal media cry "censorship."
But this courageous (though, of course, lucrative) public preference for conservative media on the part of one major retailer is not enough, if the stories we watch and hear never rise above the basic (Jonah) or the sensational (Left Behind). Where are the Christian classics—old and new? Where can we go to find compelling, spirit-lifting stories from the great Christian writers and inspirational biographies from the annals of faith?
Where, indeed. A few suggestions:
The classic BBC Narnia series feels a little clunky, but it is an award-winner that my kids keep coming back to and enjoying. Focus on the Family has done an even better job—though in audio rather than video—with their Radio Theateradaptation of the Narnia books. This is a top-notch audio dramatization hosted by Lewis's stepson, Douglas Gresham. The series' adaptation of The Silver Chair well deserved its recent triumph over 600 entrants—many from such major secular players as Random House—for the coveted "Audie Award." Focus also created the Peabody Award winning audio drama "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Freedom" a few years ago.
Focus on the Family's other audio titles include Ben-Hur, Silas Marner, Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, and other Christian-themed classics.
Many Christians went to see Anthony Hopkins play a grief-stricken C. S. Lewis in the Richard Attenborough-directed version of Shadowlands when it first hit the theaters in 1993. But the original BBC TV version of Shadowlands, originally aired in 1985, is a more stirring and more explicitly faith-centered production of the script centering on C. S. Lewis's marriage to—and subsequent loss of—the American divorcee Joy Davidman.
That version was co-produced by Gateway Films, a company that, in partnership with its video distribution arm, Vision Video, has released a steady stream of screen versions of Christian literary classics and Christian historical dramas. If you are concerned about the quality of entertainment served up by the Hollywood machine and you want to feed on some truly beautiful and substantial film, you need to surf the Vision Video catalogue.
There you will find dramatized biographies of well-known Christian leaders like John Calvin, John Wesley, Francis of Assisi, and, yes, Martin Luther (the 1953 black-and-white classic is still well worth seeing, as is Where Luther Walked, the warm-hearted, quirky romp through Luther's home turf, accompanied by vignettes from his life, hosted by Luther scholar Roland Bainton). You will also find the inspiring stories of people from church history who may be little more than a name to you—if even that: William Tyndale, George Fox, Hildegard of Bingen, Jan Amos Comenius, and many others.
And there is much more worth seeing in Vision's extensive catalogue: a film (somewhat clunky, but unique and inspiring) on the birth of missions in the eighteenth-century Moravian community; a film series with accompanying discussion material (there are many of these in Vision's catalogue) on persecution in the early church; and such silver-screen classics as A Man For All Seasons (on the life of Thomas More—though track down the superior 1966 production rather than the star-studded but lackluster 1988 version if you can) and The Ten Commandments(with Charlton Heston in the role of Moses).
Signs are, the time may be ripe for a new crop of such Christian classics—a crop of the very highest quality, fit to compete against even the slickest Hollywood productions. PBS has realized there is something timeless and good about the story of a Christian hero like Martin Luther—witness the release this Thursday, July 9, of its special on that Reformer. And now a new full-length, faith-based theatrical movie on the life of Martin Luther is slated for limited release across the country this coming September. Hot on its heels (in October) will come a movie about one of Roman Catholicism's best-loved saints, Therese of Lisieux.
On the Narnia front, audiences have reason to hope for good things from Walden Media's upcoming adaptation of Lewis's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Likely to be a few more years in the making, the movie will get to draw on the talents of director Andrew Adamson, whose Shrek won an Academy Award in the newly formed category Best Animated Feature.
"Narnia was such a vivid and real world to me as a child, as it is to millions of other fans. I share Walden's excitement in giving those fans an epic theatrical experience worthy of their imaginations, and driving a new generation toward the works of C.S. Lewis," says Anderson. "Making a film that crosses generations is a far easier task when the source material resonates such themes as truth, loyalty and belief in something greater than yourself."
These values and others—courage, self-sacrifice, hope, and the battle against the evil without and the evil within—also shine from Peter Jackson's adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. I know I'm not the only Christian movie-lover counting the months until the release of the third movie in the trilogy this December.(On Tolkien's faith in his life and work, see our Issue 78: J. R. R. Tolkien and the featured articles from this issue on our main page at www.christianhistory.net).
With such riches out there, why sit through another viewing of one of the Disney chestnuts—as pleasant and inoffensive as those are? The alternatives mentioned are often as well made as any secular production, and they have so much more to say to us. Let's not settle for innocuous.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Earlier this year, Christianity Today assistant online editor Todd Hertz interviewed the author of Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment about how technology and exciting entertainment have created what he calls a "deadness of soul."
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
From Beer to Bibles to VBS | How America got its favorite summer tradition. (July 3, 2003)
The African Lion Roars in the Western Church | Anglican liberals are fretting, conservatives rejoicing, and all are scrambling to their history books: whence this new evangelical force on the world scene? (June 27, 2003)
How John Wesley Changed America | His 300th birthday should be a red-letter day on this side of the ocean. After all, we're all Wesleyans now. (June 20, 2003)
Did Eric Rudolph Act in a "Tradition of Christian Terror"? | A historian considers the evidence of the Crusades and the Inquisition (June 13, 2003)
The Ancient Rise and Recent Fall of Tithing | Is yet another time-honored Christian practice fading from view? (June 6, 2003)
When World Leaders Pray, Part II | Tony Blair's spin-doctors worried when he recently "outed" himself as a Christian. But what impact has Christianity really had on our leaders? (May 29, 2003)
The Day the Ransoming Began | A gripping new book details the first American missionary hostage crisis, over 100 years ago. (May 23, 2003)
When World Leaders Pray | Some observers are upset with Tony Blair's recent public avowal of faith. But what impact has Christianity really had on our leaders? (May 16, 2003)
Got Your 'Spiritual Director' Yet? | The roots of a resurgent practice, plus 14 books for further study. (May 2, 2003)
Missionary Tales from the Iraqi Front | The modern Anglican mission to Iraq met with initial success, but its story sounds a cautionary note. (April 25, 2003)
The Goodness of Good Friday | An unhappy celebration—isn't that an oxymoron? (Apr. 17, 2003)
Top Ten Entry Points to Christian History | Some enjoyable ways to get the most out of the work of church historians. (Apr. 11, 2003)
Top Ten 'Starter Books' | Get rooted in the Christian past with these riveting reads of primary sources. (Apr. 4, 2003)
Top Ten Reasons to Know Christian History | War reports deluge us every hour. Why should we read "old news?" (Mar. 28, 2003)
Saint J. R. R. the Evangelist | Tolkien wanted his Lord of the Rings to echo the "Lord of Lords"—but do we have ears to hear? (March 14, 2003)