Friday, April 20, 2012

Deconstructing "Christian Films"; part I



DECONSTRUCTING "CHRISTIAN FILMS"; PART I
THE DEFINITION OF "CHRISTIAN" FILMS

The debate about "christian films" has followed me for years, ever since Biola. When I first enrolled in their film program in 2007, the debate was simmering and already at a boiling point. Conservatives had strong issues with sex and foul language, while the more liberal students continued to (sometimes unnecessarily) push the lines of good taste. At the time, I sided with my liberal friends (and I still do) and thought the entire debate was silly and unconstructive. Of course, I did very little to advance a reasonable dialogue on the topic as I was too busy being angry, chasing girls (to little effect) and supporting random libertarian causes. 

But, after hearing about the "Blue Like Jazz" controversy (1), the issue has come back to really bug me. Reading about two "christian films" duking it out over a piece of biblical terrain seemed not only futile but damaging. Imagine others watching this inner-christian spat over something as trivial as a film. This is also the same with "The Last Temptation of Christ", with christians protesting the film without having seen it. We're often very good at shooting from the hip and missing the map for the territory. 

So, I'm going to set forth some criteria about what defines a "christian film." These ideas are not set in stone, and I'm open to changing or refining my ideas. I won't be putting for any specific biblical data, but will attempt to argue in a different way.

The same difficulties in defining evangelicalism are inherent in defining really anything as Christian. Some define evangelicalism more sociologically (2) in terms of historical trends. I'm inclined to work within this framework and put forth a definition of what defines a "christian film."

VALUES & SPECIFICS

To be clear, a "christian film" and a film with christian "values" are two different things. I imagine that this discussion and the subsequent challenges will bring forth clarity, but I'm somewhat confident that "values" are different and require a different set of criteria. 

BEBBINGTON'S QUADRILATERAL

I consider Bebbington's Quadrilateral to be a great foundation for this discussion. Based on his research, Bebbington attempted to define what evangelicalism really is, and what is required of it. He defines it as follows, and I have added to his principles. My additions and clarifications are italicized. 

1. Biblicism. 

An adherence to Scripture and belief that it contains the ultimate authority. 

2. Crucicentrism.

The atonement of Christ. 

I've seen some criticism leveled at "Blue Like Jazz" (3) in regards to atonement theory, but I considered this already in my review of "Blue Like Jazz" and found the critique strongly lacking (4). 

3. Conversionism.

Believing that humans need to become converted to Christianity. 

4. Activism.

The belief that the gospel needs expressed in effort. 

Oddly enough, many christians seem to shirk this label and divorce it from social justice. I can understand the desire to be separate from possible progressive politics, but this does include ministering to the needs to non-christians, which makes this part vital and something christians seem to be lacking. All of the four premises put together seem to offer the potential for the label. Of course, this is not conclusive and more directed to stimulate more viable criteria.

I will add a final and conditional premise that can make or break the idea of a "christian film" and a film that has "christian values."

DOGMATISM; A CONDITIONAL PREMISE

5. Dogmatism.

A conditional belief that is either respectful and passionate, or condescending and antagonistic. What it adds is empathy and what it detracts is the same. 

Which brings me to my next point.

SUBJECTIVISM

The biggest issue we often miss is intention. What did the filmmakers intend to communicate and do they refer to their art as "christian?" Steve Taylor has a love affair with cheekiness and sarcasm that comes through very strongly in his film, but I haven't read anything that would lead me to believe that Taylor would label his work as "christian." In fact, in order to reach more people, it seems that it would benefit Taylor and Miller to separate from current Christendom (to avoid associated baggage) in order to get their film out there. To be taken seriously by your audience is indeed an important ideal. 

Many christians desire to be separate from the world, and will sacrifice quality for message, as if one is more important than the other. The issue becomes subjective. I went to see "Fireproof" at the dollar theater and I watched as several older people left the theater halfway through when the film paused to deliver a really poorly written sermon. I heard one of them mutter "bullshit" on their way out. I knew very little about their religious convictions, but I knew I wanted to join him and talk. I didn't. 

Simply put, a filmmaker who doesn't want to associate his film with the "christian" label is justified in doing so. In doing so, he would be fulfilling part 4 and 5 out of BQ, leaving room for parts 1-3 to be integrated however he or she chooses. 

EXAMPLE

The first four premises together make, I would argue, the potential for a christian film. Assuming that dogmatism is a negative feature (to be separated from conviction), if one is dogmatic about the above mentioned features then the resulting artistic piece will indeed be didactic and be made exclusively for those that are Christian.  People who are not christians will have little interest. The presence of dogmatism does indeed create tension with the audience and filmmakers. Consider that "Fireproof" has over 600 five-star reviews on Amazon (5). Consider that "Fireproof" strongly fulfills 1-3 very strongly, to the point where I wanted to leave the theater. It poorly applies part 4, not because it lacks integrity or a desire to promote christianity, but because it misunderstands it's audience. Was the film made for christians, or everyone? 

I think the film was made exclusively for christians, with the hopes that others would overlooks it's poor filmmaking, structure and writing in the hopes of seeing the "message." This will be looked at in another section. 

Anyone who does not buy into christianity as a whole, or even in parts, will watch this film, see all four parts (excluding the workings of the Holy Spirit and God working through whatever medium He desires of course) and given the conditional nature of 5 in a dogmatic manner, its unsurprising how many if not most non-christians react. They leave. 

"Blue Like Jazz", as an opposite example, fulfills all 4 points as well as the conditional nature of part 5. It understands that dogmatism works against the point of the film, and the conditional nature of part 5 allows the film to be understood by those who would otherwise ignore it. Because of this, I do think "Blue Like Jazz" rejects the potential to be labeled a "christian film" and instead prefers the label "film." Again, this does not assume that films cannot have christian values. 

For a "secular" film that fits very well within this paradigm, see "The Grey" and my thoughts on it.(6)

This brings me to another point.

LABELS

The baggage that comes with the label "christian" is enough for me to disassociate my writings with the label entirely. I will use myself as an example here. Of course, anyone with theological training can pick up specific themes in my writing. However, I do wonder if disassociating myself with the label actually solves anything.

Kierkegaard mentioned that once a label is placed, the argument is negated. I don't know if I agree entirely, but the concept of lumping all similarities into a specific camp strikes me more as a camp mentality than an honest exploration. Just making a note of this. 

FAILURE & "THE MESSAGE"

The biggest objection I've heard to my thoughts (in other avenues) is that "the film was bad, but the message was good." I have several things to say to this.

1) This is based on a misunderstanding. if one believes that there is some sort of standard in art in terms of quality, then every film must be understood and looked at in that way. No partiality.

2) Partiality may be shown, but one must admit that they are showing it as such, and their opinion is based more on personal preference against a set standard. 

3) What is the standard for good films? I offer several thoughts below:

3a) The technical quality. "Memento" was made for cheap, and it turned out to be a classic. "The Dark Knight" required over 185 million to make, but it was flawless. 

3b) The efficiency of the narrative. Does the film work as a whole? Pacing, acting, writing, direction. Anything involving the requirement of interaction in terms of narrative. 

3c) The strength of the message. The message can be entirely fatalistic, but does it communicate it well? Does it remain true to it's worldview? Does it challenge it? Is it dogmatic?

3d) The personal element. This is where the presuppositions and experiences of the viewer come into the equation. They make up a quarter of it, and one is allowed to reject the film as personally repulsive or in disagreement with the worldview expressed. I think "Watchmen" fulfills A-C very well, but the overall worldview is something I would reject. It is a great film in the first 3 points, but fails for me on a personal level. Subjectivism. 

4) Finally, the message is only part of the entire film. I'm not convinced that accepting a bad film just because of the "message" is valid. 

CONCLUSION

I'll confess, I don't think I've really settled the issue at all. At most, all I hope I've done is provide some possible rabbit trails we can all follow in the hopes of finding the truth. This debate is not settled nor is this article conclusive. 

I will also confess that I'm not certain this discussion will ever end. As with Bebbington's Quadrilateral, it has it's fair share of detractors (D.A. Carson is one). So, here's to the truth and that it may be found.

If it doesn't, we can still argue less important things like jelly beans and dark beer. 

--Nick

Footnotes:

(2) Bebbington's Quadrilateral. 
-- biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages).
-- crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
-- conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted.
-- activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.
(4) TMC, Blue Like Jazz review. Also, Split/Frame review.

11 comments:

  1. Nice work. I agree that applying Bebbington's Quadrilateral seems to be a good way to classify a film as Christian or not. Regarding dogmatism, it seems you're saying dogmatism often has a polarizing effect, where a given viewer either strongly agrees with the film or strongly disagrees. And a Christian film, therefore, is one in which the polarity is such that Christians support the film, while non-Christians get up and walk out of the theater.

    In all, I think you have several articles here. I think you've crammed a lot of good thoughts into a single piece, and further details and discussion would be beneficial. Interesting stuff!

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  2. Very well argued. Having not seen Blue Like Jazz, I can't really offer up any thoughts on that front. But with Christian films in general, as well as with Christian fiction, I have a tendency to be annoyed before I even start. I saw Fireproof and cringed at the unrealistic dialogue and improbable plotting. I watched To Save a Life and shuddered at it's ability to cater to every cliche known to man about Christians (especially the SoCal Christians).

    I feel like Christian filmmakers (as opposed to filmmakers who happen to be Christian - remember that old Biola discussion?) often sacrifice quality for the sake of message (as you stated so eloquently) with an intention for outreach, but the serious flaw in that plan is that A) people walk out of the theater, or stay but fail to grasp the message because they're too busy finding things to criticize, or B) the "outreach" isn't possible because anything with "Christian" attached to it becomes instantly avoided by anyone who has had a bad experience with Christianity or judgmental Christians (sadly common).

    The other fault I find with Christian films is that they are too much like sermons, themselves. They don't leave any room for a viewer to come to an understanding of the message because they have a tendency to instead shove that message down the audience's throats, and then do it again just to make sure it sticks. For me, the best films are the ones that subtly teach me about the world around me so that I can have a deeper understanding of my place in it.

    My recommendation to filmmakers (and to artists in general) is to decide what your message is first, but instead of telling it at people, find a way to guide them into reaching that message at their own pace in a way that will make it relevant in their own life. Like any good rhetoric, equal appeals to logos, ethos, and pathos must be satisfied in order to be effective. Therefore, good films need to be plausible, aesthetically pleasing, and persuasive without being forceful and without sacrificing one element for another.

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  3. Curses! I just wrote a long answer but wasn't logged into wordpress, so it erased my beauty of a response... sigh.

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  4. Okay, attempt number two:

    1) Thanks for the Bebbington Quadrilateral introduction. I'd never heard of that before.

    2) I agree (as I'm apt to do) with Kierkegaard's disposition towards labeling. Particularly in filmmaking, it seems a stupid endeavor. I should add also that I rather loathe the genreing of "horror films" as it stands that most of the truly terrifying films in my life are those that were labeled dramas: such as films like Cache.

    3) For myself, my criteria for whether a film is 'good' or not absolutely crosses the genre line. Criteria: Does the film provide insight and/or commentary on the character or creativity of God, or speak to the relationship of his creation to his nature throughout history? Under that lens, I think "Christian films" have a tendency to often fail profoundly because A) the message they hope to tell me is one I already feel quite familiar with and B) they betray the artform being used, denying the powerful insight that sight and sound can apply to an idea, and in its stead focus on a pedantic sermon which ends up turning the film into the equivalency of a afternoon schoolyard ethics cartoon.

    God is great and vast and mysterious, and He has placed us in this rubix cube of a universe. There is infinite ground to toil the soil and reflect upon the nature of this place and the character of the One who chose to create it.

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    1. 1) You are welcome. ;)

      2) That would fit in well with my 3d explanation.

      3) I also think this fits really well in 3c.

      God is indeed great. ;)

      --Nick

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  5. In general, I think "Christian film" is an overly broad generalization that really needn't apply to any film that isn't explicitly (and intentionally) Christ-oriented -- i.e. "The Jesus film" or "Left Behind."

    I think people's use of the term "Christian film" evolved from the idea of "Christian books" and "Christian music" -- both of which are much easier to classify as "Christian" because there's usually only 1-2 authors which makes their 'message' much clearer.

    Films, on the other hand, speak with a plurality of voices (the screenwriter's, director's, actor's, cinematographer's and editor's), they cover a wide variety of topics (some Christ-like, some aren't), and their interpretation varies drastically across audiences.

    The problem, as you rightly point out, is that some Christians are deeply perturbed by films that blur the line between secular and Christ-oriented films and (in the case of Blue like Jazz) may lash out against filmmakers they fear are watering down their hold on the "Christian film market."

    For films like "Blue like Jazz"--that are largely geared toward Christians yet choose to push the limits of what a Christ-oriented film looks like--I think using Bebbington's Quadrilateral is a useful way to discuss and deconstruct whether or not a film fits into the mold of evangelicalism.

    :)

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  6. Thanks for the insights, Jared. That's a great point I hadn't considered. The tapestry of influences and voices regarding pre/pro/post in film. Most excellent.

    ;-)

    --Nick

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  7. The term "Christian" film (or fiction or manga or video game or whatever) reminds me of something either Lester Del Rey or damon knight once said about sci-fi: "Science fiction is what you find on the shelves of the library marked 'science fiction'."

    Every work of art has a message, but a lot of times the message isn't what the artist thinks the message is. It's like the title character in Barton Fink; he thinks he's writing stories celebrating the masses but what he's really doing is showing his ignorance & disdain for them.

    I trust I don't come across as a showboater, but I have a number of posts on my blog about Christian media & media that has content Christians might glean insight from; would you be interested in seeing those links?

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