Brandon Ambrosino, an Evangelical, has a good piece reflecting on why Christian movies are so bad. The hook is Old Fashioned, a virtuous Christian version of Fifty Shades of Grey. There’s nothing really new here, but it’s worth reading again. Christians have been writing these pieces for years now, and nothing ever changes. Excerpts:
You get the feeling that Old Fashioned owes its entire existence to Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s as if the Christian movie industry pays attention to mainstream cinema just long enough to see what it’s up to, before raising funds to do slightly different versions of the same thing, only with less famous actors, more Jesus, and rocking chairs. (There are always rocking chairs.)
Any person even vaguely familiar with Evangelical subcultures will recognize the trend of copying and sanitizing whatever pop culture is doing. This trend belies a certain impulse within Evangelical Christians to separate the entire world into two categories: sheep and goats, wheat and chaff.
A good deal of contemporary Christian art is predicated on the sacred/secular divide: As Christian film critic Alissa Wilkinson noted, “Christians, and evangelicals in particular, have been really, really prolific in making pop culture products that parallel what’s going on in mainstream cultural production.”
Christian art, the logic went, is Christian art only if it explicitly communicates its Christian-ness.
So a Christian movie is a Christian movie if it states forthrightly the beliefs of the filmmaker. The communication of those beliefs is the most important thing. Everything else — including most categories of filmmaking artistry that, say, critics would primarily care about — is secondary, helpful only insofar as it helps the filmmaker win more non-Christians to the faith.
The goal, in other words, isn’t to make a movie. The movie is only the vehicle for achieving the goal. The real goal is engaging and converting secular culture.
There’s an old maxim in Hollywood that goes, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Embedding explicit takeaways in film is something that bedevils some of the worst films out there, regardless of whether or not they’re religious. Sending a message is usually a good way to create a bland, boring mess.
Brian Godawa, Christian screenwriter, thinks it’s important to note that Christian films aren’t the only ones that are explicitly preachy. All films, says Godawa, “have messages to some degree or another, and writers and directors know full well they’re embodying those messages in their storytelling.”
But even if Hollywood films do contain embodied messages, they’re not always as explicitly drawn out as they are in Christian movies. That’s because, says Godawa, many Evangelical Christians, who are people of the Good Book, have come to value words over images. “They don’t know how to embody their messages in the story,” he says. “They have to hear the literal words [of the Gospel].”
Read the whole thing. Ambrosino concludes with the wise observation that Christian filmmakers ought to stop trying to make “Christian films,” and instead focus on making good films.
When I was researching my forthcoming book How Dante Can Save Your Life (out April 14; pre-order it here), I looked in to why storytelling is such a powerful means of changing one’s thinking. I marveled that there was almost no change-your-life advice I read in The Divine Comedy that I didn’t already know, or that wasn’t available me in a non-fiction form. The magic happened because the poet embedded this wisdom in an amazing story, and — this is crucial — a story that was not only interesting, but constructed with technical skill that at times beggared belief. The result was an encounter with a work of art that was not only true, but also beautiful.
Dante certainly knew what he was doing. In fact, he makes storytelling a necessary part of the penitent’s journey up each terrace of Mount Purgatory. The penitent Dante enters each terrace by encountering, visually or otherwise, three different examples of the virtue he is supposed to learn on that terrace. When he leaves, he encounters three different examples of the vice he is supposed to have left behind there. The idea is that the moral “takes” if it is embedded in a vividly told story.
It turns out that there is some scientific evidence to explain this. Writing in The New York Times, journalist Annie Murphy Paul says that neuroscientists have discovered that when someone reads a story, it lights up parts of their brain that are activated when the subject is engaged in an activity. So if you are reading a story about a man walking up a mountain, the part of your brain that would activate when you yourself would be walking up a mountain lights up. It’s as if the act of imagining the act is, as far as our brain knows, pretty close to doing the thing ourselves.
This does not happen when we read non-narrative nonfiction. So, I could read the same lessons in a self-help book that I would read in the Commedia, but they have a greater chance of making a difference in my behavior if I encounter them embedded in a story. From the story:
Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In a study led by the cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.
But telling a story is not enough. Research indicates that it has to be well-told. I don’t have time this morning to dig through my files and find the citation, but I ran across research indicating that a story that is aesthetically unaccomplished does not have the same effect. In other words, to trigger the brain’s receptiveness to the message embedded in the narrative, the narrative has to be told with skill. It’s as if a lover must first be attracted physically to the beauty of another before they can open up and appreciate the worth of the lover’s character. It may be unfair, but that’s how our brains work.
And all of this is explicit in Dante, in his poetics! The deeper one goes into the Commedia, the more amazing it is.
This is why storytelling — both visual and written — that intends to celebrate and inculcate a certain morality won’t succeed if it is aesthetically poor or second-rate. I’m not an Evangelical, but my wife grew up as one in the 1980s and 1990s, and she has told me that if the only pop culture you consume is Christian (e.g., your musical diet is only Christian pop), it may be that you rarely encounter aesthetically accomplished music or fiction. And you become trained to think that the purpose of art must be to issue an altar call for conversion, or else it is to be suspected. Not all Evangelicals think that way, of course, but she said it is common.
I wouldn’t lay this all at the feet of Evangelicals. I can think of a Catholic movie I had to watch in the past (I will not name it, to protect the guilty) that was just terribly done — achingly sincere, theologically correct, but artistically third-rate — and whose promoters were busy trying to guilt Catholics into watching it because “we need to support this kind of movie.” Uh, no we don’t. For that matter, Flannery O’Connor, back in the 1950s, complained in her letters about all the Catholics who tut-tutted her for not writing nice stories with comfortable, easy-to-understand morals. I have heard some Orthodox laymen say that they will only read books that are “Orthodox” — meaning unambiguously advocating for an Orthodox Christian point of view. I would imagine that leaves them little to read in the fiction department.
The Divine Comedy is a profoundly Catholic poem. It is a profoundly Christian poem. But more than either, it is a profoundly beautiful poem, a work of dazzling artistry, filled with realistic characters, complex morality, and vivid imagery. That’s why nonbelievers read it and adore it too. And some of the people who follow Dante through the afterlife will have been so powerfully affected by his Christian vision that they will experience a religious conversion — not because Dante has made an argument, but because he has caused them to have an experience via their imagination.
I like this point in Ambrosino’s piece, which I hope you’ll read
One remedy to this might be an apocryphal anecdote attributed to Martin Luther. After a cobbler converted to Christianity, he asked the German theologian how he could be a good Christian cobbler. Luther responded, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”
You’ve heard of the blaxploitation genre, meant to serve a ghetto audience? We don’t need more cruxploitation movies for the Christian ghetto.