Part 3: The Recruiting Power of Film
We've been wrestling with the question of just how explicit, in the things of faith, a Christian film should be. Should it be in your face with Jesus and the gospel, or should it be more subtle?
We asked two sharp-thinking filmmakers to help us wrestle with the question. Rik Swartzwelder is an L.A. filmmaker whose short, The Least of These, won numerous awards on the film festival circuit. Atlanta's Angela Harvey is a filmmaker, writer, graphic designer, and founder of Crimson, which produces independent films, gospel tracts and greeting cards.
In an oversimplified nutshell, Swartzwelder believes Christian filmmakers should feel free to be direct with spiritual content—including the gospel—in the context of cinematic storytelling, while Harvey believes such things should be communicated in a more subtle way, if at all. With those assumptions as the starting point, we asked Rik and Angela to debate their positions in an e-mail exchange—which we're now sharing with you in a special four-part series, starting today and running through Thursday.
In yesterday's Part 2, the debate ranged from what the gospel should "look like" in a movie to exploring the Holy Spirit's role in conveying the message. In today's Part 3, the debate continues, including an exploration into whether "Christian" films are actually recruiting tools …
Angela Harvey writes:
As a freelancer, I do a lot of work for churches, and I would consider that work "Christian." But when I write or design something for a secular organization, I do that work with excellence and unto the Lord—but I don't necessarily consider the end product "Christian" in nature. I don't think it's possible to make Christian desserts, even if you put a chocolate cross on top.
You've repeatedly said that Christians are putting pressure on other Christians to suppress the Christian content of their work. What I am espousing here is not suppression, but a deliberate weaving of Christian themes—such as quoted but not referenced Scripture, and well-rounded Christian characters—into the fabric of great stories. It doesn't require less artisanship or individuality than mainstream films, but a great deal more. The difference between my position and the one you've been attacked with lies in execution and in the motive of the heart.
I can think of only one reason why Christians would want religious content completely cut out of a film, and that's fear. They fear personal rejection and embarrassment, or they fear the film will be poorly executed, resulting in a further demeaning of themselves, the gospel and the Church. I can certainly understand those fears; the church has suffered from enough bad filmmaking over the past couple of decades. Hiding our faith isn't the answer, but at the same time, I don't think it's necessarily appropriate to scream that we are Christians from the tops of our lungs. There's a balance. And if that includes highlighting our strong points in order to get people to give Christianity a second look, I have no problem with that.
When I was at a state university, my biology professor was so anti-Christianity that he consistently told students that Christians were idiots, that most people who attended church were uneducated and easily duped. He attacked no other form of religion or spirituality. Otherwise, this man was affable and one of the most respected teachers on campus. But he was wrong.
The truth is, most Christians I know are likeable and intelligent. Granted, we all have our bad days, but those don't generally include cutting off a man's fingers with a cigar cutter and then searing them closed with a cigarette lighter, as Denzel Washington's character did in Man on Fire. And I really can't remember the last time one of my friends decorated his gigantic, diesel-eating truck with pictures of Jesus, ran over an entire family and then fled the scene as Benecio del Toro's Jack Jordan does in 21 Grams.
Let's offer a little bit of perspective here. I really appreciated John Corbett's portrayal of the Lutheran Pastor Dan in Raising Helen. While the film itself may not have been Garry Marshall's best, I still appreciated the positive portrayal of a Christian character under ordinary circumstances. That does not mean that all our Christian characters should be falsely free of character flaws and do nothing wrong. But in presenting flawed people, I think we should be careful not to imply that the thing in which they've placed their faith is also flawed.
What sets Christian filmmakers apart from the Nia Vardaloses of the world is the exclusivity of our faith. We're recruiting. And we have an uphill climb. People in Western society have firmly rooted belief patterns and stereotypes in mind when it comes to Christianity. When they're presented with something that is obviously "Christian" or labeled as such, they don't come to the table open-minded. They're bringing a lifetime of baggage with them. We don't have the luxury of putting our faith on display for casual observation. We have to be more creative than ever. I'm not suggesting that we should hide the four spiritual laws in every script and hope that people try to weed them out like some form of Where's Waldo. Embracing faith is a process, not an event. Films woven with scripture and the idea of personal salvation can help people along in that process.
Tom Cruise's Vanilla Sky is arguably a recruitment tool for the Church of Scientology. Unbeknownst to those watching the movie, they're learning many of the tenets of Scientologist faith. Yet one of my closest friends, a devout Christian, loved that film. The presentation of the message was subtle enough to allow everyone the opportunity to enjoy the film, yet present enough to get people to think about how it could affect their own lives. The Scientologist church around the corner from my old apartment saw a great deal of growth around the time of that film's release. That could have been a coincidence, but I doubt it.
My favorite movie is Peter Hedges' Pieces of April. Hedges takes the very familiar themes of family unity and forgiveness, gives them a new face and creates a wholly unique cinematic experience. As Christians, we can do the same with the message of Christ.
Rik Swartzwelder responds:
It's encouraging to discover that we do share some common ground—most notably, an admiration for Pieces of April. That film is a wonderful portrayal of forgiveness that one could actually argue borders on a "Christian" message. The other issue that we definitely agree on is the need for filmmakers of faith to be even more creative and more tenacious and work harder than ever before at developing their craft. As we focus on those things, I believe much of what we now debate will become increasingly less important.
In the meantime, what do you say we nuke the label "Christian film" for the rest of our discussion? How about forever? As I emphasized in my opening statement, I believe the focus should be craft, not labels; and as we progress, I'm even less sure what that particular label means or if we should be using it at all. Just what exactly does make the end product "Christian" in nature? Does the fact that Gary Marshall's Raising Helen has, by your definition, a positive Christian character make it a "Christian film?" Somehow, I don't think Gary Marshall would necessarily embrace that idea.
As for Nia Vardolas, I'm not sure what her faith background is, but I do know that My Big Fat Greek Wedding contains quite a few Greek Orthodox references and a character that actually chooses to convert to the Greek Orthodox faith as part of the main story line. Again, the inclusion of these elements in no way hurt the box office of this film. Or, are you referring only to evangelical Christianity as being "Christian"? I wouldn't make this delineation, but I understand that some do. The deeper issue here, I think, is that Christians around the globe can't even agree at every point as to what Christianity is or isn't, so it's no surprise that when it comes to the movies we're no different.
I agree with you that many Christians (myself included) are afraid of being embarrassed by low-quality propaganda masquerading as narrative, but I can't speak for the motives of those that differ with me on the solution. So often, I'm scarcely aware of my own motives, I hesitate to guess at others'. However, when I refer to direct "Christian" content, I am absolutely not talking about recruitment tools for the church. Nor am I talking about entertainment for the church—the last thing the body of Christ needs is more celebrity culture of any kind, let alone adding "Christian" movie stars to the mix. Least of all, I'm not talking about any film that intends to be labeled the label we shall not mention. This isn't about creating commercials for Christianity or servicing a niche market; it's about telling truthful stories and creating distinct works of art. When you say that you have no problem "highlighting our strong points in order to get people to give Christianity a second look," I say we don't really dupe anyone with such an approach.
Now, obviously, I'm not denying the inarguable influence of film—go to any high school in America this instant and you'll surely hear Napoleon Dynamite quoted more often than any textbook. But then, your friend may have loved Vanilla Sky, but did she become a Scientologist? I don't doubt your claim that interest in Scientology may have bubbled for a season. But what happened when the steak didn't live up to the sizzle? From my perspective, the biggest danger in Christians approaching film as a "recruiting" tool in the same way, interestingly enough, can be illuminated by the character of Jack Jordan in 21 Grams. Agreed, I've never known anyone with a huge truck decorated with Jesus-art that ran over a family and fled. However, I know a great many people who bought into a commercialized version of Christianity—believing life would subsequently always be better, then stumbled when it wasn't, then ran away and hid just like Jack Jordan did. When you "sell" anything in such a manner, you set people up for this. Christ is perfect, yes, but we are not—nor is the Church.
As filmmakers of faith, our highest calling is to be truthful to what we know and believe and share that with others—not to play spin doctor for the Almighty, as if God would even need such a thing. And, to me, "well-rounded Christian characters" means characters that are just as flawed as the rest of humanity—just like in the Bible. I, for one, am rather grateful that God gave us the whole story and not just an advertisement.
But again, I say create these film characters naturally, out of personal experience and insight—in the context of a good story and superior filmmaking craft, for its own sake. How God uses or doesn't use any film is a holy and mysterious thing and, at the end of the day, God's business. Plus, whatever perspective someone brings to a film has as much to do with what he or she takes away from the film as the film itself. This is why both Christians and Buddhists can watch Groundhog Day and claim it as their own.
Ultimately, I would say it's unwise and unfair to place any kind of "recruiting" burden on filmmakers, especially filmmakers of faith. Audiences are savvy and can sniff out an agenda pretty quickly. Trying to be cloak and dagger about it can often make the audience more antagonistic, not less. Besides, how many people have truly committed their lives to Christ primarily because of watching a movie, or hearing a song, or studying a piece of art? Films can plant seeds, possibly give a nudge toward God, but, it's by interacting with real people in the real world that most people are drawn to the Kingdom. The artist as missionary, yes; the film as missionary, not necessarily.
Angela Harvey is a filmmaker, freelance writer and graphic designer in Atlanta. She's also founder of Crimson, which produces independent films, gospel tracts and greeting cards. Angela holds a degree in Organizational & Interpersonal Communications from Oral Roberts University and she worked in full-time ministry for seven years. Angela enjoys hiking, yoga and cooking.
Rik Swartzwelder is a writer-director-producer whose films have screened at more than 120 film festivals and garnered more than 40 major awards, including a Crystal Heart for his 35mm short, The Least of These. He earned his M.F.A. in Motion Picture Production from The Florida State University and is currently in Los Angeles developing several projects. For more info, please visit www.oldfashionedpictures.com.
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