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.

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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.

And as much as I don't love the idea that there's a separate, specific industry for "Christian" stuff, I understand it, too. People need to make money, and they found a market segment, and it will pay for what they offer. Or, people want to categorize the movie they made by the kind of consumer who will be glad they spent their time and/or money on it, and it keeps people who won't like it from wasting their resources.

There's no inherent reason someone couldn't make a good "Christian" movie. There's also nothing keeping a conservative or liberal film from being good, or really, any genre film. Tons of bad horror films are made for money, but there are some good ones, too. There are dozens of terrible romantic comedies, but there are some where craft and genre work together to make something that's good. Plenty of "family" films are hackneyed, but some are quite enjoyable. I really hope that there will be some good Christian movies in the future, too.

When that's not the case, though, it's for the same reasons that Micah Mattix and Alyssa Rosenberg point out: movies and TV are not just vehicles for messages.

When art is made in order to carry a message, it becomes a servant to ideology—to a system of abstracted ideas and ideals. Ideologies are not in themselves bad, but they often hit rough patches when they come out of the clouds and down to earth. (For instance, the pacifist who is suddenly less of a pacifist when the lives of his wife and children are threatened by an intruder.)

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Movies and TV shows built to transfer particular abstract ideas wind up fitting the story to the ideas, instead of letting the story and characters breathe and live like real people, who are messy and inconsistent and confusing. Like you. Like me.

You believe in your ideology because you think it's the best one, the correct one. You have to. If you don't believe your ideals are the right ones, then I don't know why you believe in them.

Humans actually are pretty good at figuring out if someone is telling them a story in order to talk us into believing they're right. We hate it. But we also like seeing the results of our ideologies played out on screen in ways that are favorable to us.

But you know what else is true? Conservatives don't really like movies that too obviously try to communicate liberal ideas. And liberals don't like movies that are trying to hard to make them conservative. The market segment is all wrong there.

The ones that do work are suggested by Jonah Goldberg and Alyssa Rosenberg (a conservative and a liberal, respectively) above—stories where the story and the character are the point, where empathy is exercised. Without empathy (which is, at its core, good writing) and some careful craft, these movies sell tickets at the box office to the choir, but they don't "work" as ways of proclaiming an ideology. Because it comes off as preachy. Because it feels like being bludgeoned. Because it feels tone-deaf to why you—the not-conservative or the not-liberal—choose not to be those things.

"Christian" (adj.) films have the same exact problem: if you don't agree with them already, which is to say if you're not part of the market segment (which doesn't exactly line up with the noun, by the way), then they're just going to make you mad.

What sets something like Calvary apart (or a number of other films I've seen lately—off the top of my head, Short Term 12, or the film As It Is In Heaven, which I also saw this week) is that they do that empathy thing really well. There are actual bad guys in these movies. There are some good guys, too—but not uncomplicated ones.

And, importantly, there is a feeling of what, in one of their songs, Over the Rhine calls the "slip and grip of grace."

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To craft characters and stories like that requires you to understand what is good and what is bad, but I think way more importantly, they require the writer to have a finely-tuned sense of empathy. Not just to feel bad for characters having a hard time, but to feel like that's you up there on the screen, to make your viewer feel that way too, and then to feel the necessity of grace.

Maybe you're not a recovering alcoholic; maybe you've never been unfaithful to spouse or friends or whatever; maybe you've never murdered anyone or cheated on a test; maybe you have lived a pretty clean life. But if you are a Christian, the noun kind, then you know you're a mess, one that has to not just lean but grasp, wildly, for something greater than you or you'll come apart at the seams. And if you're an artist, you don't start from ideas—you start there.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: the best Christians, the best artists (and critics and parents and pastors)—the ones who make things that actually change lives—are ones who know they are miserable sinners.

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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