Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Exploration of the State of Christian Cinema (part two)

“Society needs artists, just as it needs scientist, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art from which is ‘the art of education.’ Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place.”
- Pope John Paul II, from “Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists.”

The Christian as Filmmaker

The lights go down. The projector rolls. Light, cast upon a screen, becomes something else entirely. Suddenly, it has a language all its own. An experience. What a moment ago was a strand of still images is now a living thing. It is transformed. A miracle of sorts.

And this miracle doesn’t stop there. As a medium, cinema is built upon conflict and resolution, upon failure and redemption. It is this way because cinema is a story-centric medium. What sets it apart from other means of storytelling is its unique experiential quality. Philosopher Colin McGinn (whom I’ve quoted on this blog before) connects this quality to an apparent strong relationship between the film viewing experience and the dreaming state of mind. McGinn writes in his book, The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact:

Perhaps our willingness to entertain sensory/affective fusion in the case of movies is preconditioned by our acquaintance with it in our dreams: we can so readily respond to it in the cinema because we are so familiar with it in our nighttime consciousness. . . . The kind of seeing we experience in the cinema is emotional seeing—the seeing of emotions with emotions. Eye and heart are locked inextricably together, just as they are in dreams. This is not disinterested, clinical seeing, but seeing charged with feeling. {1}

It should come as no surprise that such a medium might draw the attention of those with a deep and resounding faith. Cinema gathers from so many different disciplines, it becomes a sort of unified theory of art (or maybe a unified application of the arts). And in so doing, it opens up the experiential exploration of humanity to those who view it. From a Christian perspective, what’s not to like about this? Here is a medium that offers us the opportunity to experience the interaction of the divine and profane, a meeting ground of sorts, filled with contrast and the potential for redemption.

The central challenge of cinema as a medium (just as with any medium, really) is understanding its strengths and weaknesses. Some things work well in cinema, others do not. And still others seem to only work in movies and nowhere else. Pivotal to the filmmaker’s success is the understanding of visual metaphor to communicate to the audiences. Again, cinema has a language of it’s own. Learning to speak this language is the first (and arguably the most important) endeavor a filmmaker must undertake. Becoming fluent in this language takes years and focused effort. There are effective ways to communicate to an audience, and the filmmaker has to keep in mind that she or he is communicating through an experience.

Central to the struggle of many Christians in their efforts in filmmaking is a staggering lack of understanding of the visual language of cinema. Rather than present an experience that the audience can be caught up in, observing the unfolding of events like flies on a wall, such films all but preach directly to the audience, bypassing the most powerful aspects of cinema. I’ve wondered why this is for some time. An interesting observation by one of my professors at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center, Craig Detweiler, helped me start understanding this. He pointed out the correlation between the rich visual history of the Catholic Church and the number of influential Catholic filmmakers in the industry. Compare that to the almost complete absence of real visual elements of worship in many Protestant denominations (excluding maybe Lutherans, Episcopalians, and other “Catholic-Lite”—as Robin Williams might classify them—churches) and the much smaller number of Protestant filmmakers of influence. I think he’s on to something. Ingrained in the Catholic mind is the visual representations of faith, their visual metaphors, use of composition, structure, lighting, and texture.

Deweiler took it one step further: Consider the large number of Christian books and music flowing forth from Protestant churches. Why is this? That’s because these are elements that are regularly part of most Protestant worship services. The use of music and focus on verbal communication through reading scripture and the proclamation of the Gospel through preaching (a dominantly verbal medium) seems to more than accounts for this. I agree. And I think that what has happened is simply that young people growing up in these different traditions have tapped into that which they are most familiar with, what they’ve been regularly exposed to over the course of their lives. I don’t think it’s any surprise that there is a higher number of Catholics in filmmaking. As one who was raised in a Protestant denomination, I can definitely state that my visual education has all taken place out side of the church (some times even in spite of the church, sadly).

Recently, after reading a passage from a book by a well-known conservative Christian writer and radio personality, I was struck by a very sad thought. This particular Christian spokesman quoted the lyrics to a secular song and then proceeded to lambaste it for its devaluation of the institution of marriage. The problem with his assessment is that he completely missed the experimental nature of hearing a song. He completely overlooked the use of irony, subltly, and the act stating a view only to ultimately lament that such a view has come into dominance in our society. So, while I appreciate what this Christian spokesman was attempting to demonstrate, I think he missed the boat completely in appreciating the song he was drawing from. The sad thought that occurred to me as I wondered how he’d managed to “miss it by that much” was this: Are sermons making us dumber?

Now, before you skip to the end of this blog entry and write me an angry response, allow me to explain that I do attend church regularly, and find some value in most sermons. Having said this, allow me now to suggest that there is too much of an emphasis on sermons within the Protestant tradition. The issue here is that sermons (while often an experiential medium too—you sit in a pew and listen) lack subtlety. I can see it already, pastors who might be reading this, some of them my friends, rolling their eyes. “Of course they lack subtly, Mikel,” they might say. After all, sermons are supposed to be a clear proclamation of truth, no misunderstandings allowed.

Certainly not wanting to be misunderstood in your preaching is not a bad thing for any pastor. However, the issue comes down to how young Christian minds are trained to interact with the world around them. Many protestants I know have little to no exposure to any other mediums used for the dissemination of ideas other than sermons. And as I have already pointed out, sermons are of a rather straight-forward manner. What you hear is what you are meant to understand. This is fine for preaching. However, if people are not exposed intelligently to other mediums that present ideas in a more complex manner than sermons, I argue many such people become seriously handicapped when it comes to interacting with art. You see, most art is all about subtly, being open to multiple interpretations, even open to being misunderstood. The above-mentioned Christian spokesman was applying the rules of dissecting a sermon to his interpretation of the song he was writing about. What he didn’t take into account is that you cannot expect to approach an artistic medium and simply take it at face value as you might a sermon. The same song he was so frustrated by made me sad too, but not for the same reasons. Rather, in the lyrics, I could hear the songwriter’s lament that marriage had lost its meaning in his world. I could hear him calling out for some sort of hope in this matter. By using a seemingly direct and careless approach, the songwriter was pointing out how lamentable and damaging this loss of value is to marriage. This was no love song, afterall.

Let’s perform an experiment here: According to such rules as the above mentioned Christian spokesman used on that song, what is the message of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic,
The Lord of the Rings? I know, rings of power are bad. They should be tossed in a volcano or something. Wow, glad we cleared that up.

Do you see what’s happened? We’re not even beginning to think metaphorically. You cannot approach art with this mentality. But so many Christians do. It is no wonder that even still the small liberal arts (though hardly a thing about it is liberal or truly tapped into the arts) Christian college I graduated from has a campus-wide ban on R-rated films (aside from a self-refuting exception for The Passion of the Christ). It is no wonder that many conservative Christians still feel apprehensive about films as a medium and can only officially approve of a movie “with a message” (even if they might view films regularly). Here’s what fellow Christian and filmmaker Scott Derrickson has to say about this: “Christians are not yet ready to elevate a film purely for its excellence in craft and subsequent entertainment value. Somehow, it’s still got to have content that services our Christian point of view, or it’s not worthy of our stamp of approval.” {2}

Maybe it is this mentality that has pushed me away from considering myself a “Christian Filmmaker.” After all, not only do I appreciate films that are not particularly derivative of my Christian worldview, I make films that are not necessarily proclaiming my faith. Until one can develop an appreciation for the medium on its own terms, there is no hope that one can become truly literate in cinema. One of the most frustrating conversations I still deal with on occasion is how I can appreciate a film that has swearing, immoral behavior, and other so-called “reprehensible” content and still consider myself a Christian. Certainly, I am not an advocate of every film that comes out (an awful lot of films are pretty bad for multiple reasons, including terrible sinful content). What I am saying is that evaluating a film purely by its MPAA rating is about as unsophisticated as film viewing gets.

So what does this mean to the current state of Christians as filmmakers? It means there is an awful lot of bagage to contend with for any new filmmakers coming out of the various Christian traditions. The truth is, if you are passionate about filmmaking, be prepared to step on some toes along the way. Be prepared to deal with some people never quite understanding what you’re doing. And be prepared to have some people become out-right angry with you for no damn good reason at all.

But there is hope! A new generation is upon us. The above quoted Derrickson represents one such example. In December, Derrickson has a major motion picture (the third he’s directed) being released in theaters. Recently, FOX featured a long preview for the film before a special encore presentation of the pilot for Fringe. Maybe you caught it. Derrickson’s remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still promises to be an engaging film. A major Hollywood production, starring major Hollywood stars, Derrickson’s work as a director is certainly in a place that not many openly Christian individuals have been allowed to venture thus far. Honestly, this probably has to do with Derrickson’s stated position that he’s not at all that interested in evangelizing through film. Here’s what he says on the topic:

I’m not interested in winning converts through film – because the gospel is foolishness, and foolishness makes for bad filmmaking. But I can’t ignore the fact that issues of faith and spirituality interest me more than anything else, so I’m not going to avoid them, especially when those issues are important to so many other people. I think that my work is usually an attempt to explore issues of faith from a unique perspective. When writing a script, I don’t set out with an agenda to push, but rather with questions to explore. And I must be willing to let the film take me someplace I hadn’t expected. If I really have faith that God may be involved in the creative process, then I shouldn’t be surprised when the work itself challenges what I think and believe. If I’m so arrogant as to think that I have a superior perspective that the world should share, or if I lack the humility to change my mind about spiritual issues in the course of creating, then I am destined to fail as both a Christian and as an artist. {2}

I think Derrickson is on to something here. Cinema is a great place for exploring spiritual issues, and we live in a spiritually curious and awake society. Maybe the broader masses are not interested in organized religion, as some observers of the post-modern trends have indicated (and I second that indication), but our culture is quite fascinated by the spiritual, seeking an understanding of the world we live in that takes into account more than purely modernist/scientific ideas of reality.

Derrickson’s not alone. There are other filmmakers in Hollywood that come from various Christian Traditions such as Denzel Washington, Howard Kazanjian, or Tom Shadyac. One such prominent Christian is Ralph Winter, involved in producing the X-Men films, Fantastic Four, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek III, IV, V and VI, and several other major Hollywood pictures. Winter has ventured into more distinctly Christian films, having produced the first
Left Behind film, Thr3e (based on Christian author Ted Dekker’s novel), and Hangman’s Curse and The Visitation (both based on Christian author Frank Paretti’s novels), and is currently in pre-production for The Screwtape Letters (you know, the C. S. Lewis classic). Winter is a Hollywood insider, there’s no question about it. And he seems to be making the best of it. The Visitation works well as a horror film and has an audience. While not perfect (and what film is?) I did enjoy it. The important thing I see in Winter is that he seems very observant about the work he does. He’s willing to take risks on making more openly faith-oriented films, but he also seems to know when to step back (notice his lack of involvement in the second and third Left Behind films).

Here’s a little of what Winter has to say on the topic of his faith and filmmaking:

It's known at the studio what I stand for and who I am. But being a Christian certainly isn't something to lead with. [Successful filmmakers must] be the hip, avant-garde thing that's going to get movies made and be at the cutting edge of culture. [Christianity] is not what Hollywood sees as all that. {3}

Actually a friend of mine, Scott Derrickson, a Christian director, has a movie coming out called The Exorcism of Emily Rose [now on DVD]. He's a strong proponent that one of the best ways to discern the story of good and evil is through horror movies. And he says that's the clearest picture of what the Gospel is about because of good guys and bad guys. He's quite an eloquent defender of that idea and has written about it in Christianity Today. Not that everybody that consumes horror movies has thought through stuff to that level, but Scott has, and he is a pretty interesting, creative talent out there trying to make horror movies that have some substance to them. {4}

I think movies are best when they tell us stories that ask good questions and inspire us to go further. It's like a good sermon on Sunday morning: it inspires you to go back and look at the text and say, “I want to go further; I want to know more.” Movies that ask great questions are like that for us and are making a contribution to our culture. {5}

I think you get the picture. In fact, there’s plenty more I could draw from Winter on the topic, but I can’t do that here and encourage you to look up articles and interviews with Winter. He’s been interviewed quite bit, actually, and has quite a bit of wisdom to share.

Now the question certainly arises about methodology. How is a Christian supposed to function as filmmaker? I think the answer, like so much in Christian faith, is unique to the individual. After all, God designs us with different talents, and fills us with different passions. I think He does this for a reason. A lot is made of having a “calling” in Christian circles. I think there’s some truth to this. Many people are out-right called by God to work in various areas of culture and ministry. However, a lot of us never really feel that distinct sense of calling as a lot of other people in the Church. I think that’s because God has given us various gifts and talents He would like to see us develop. The question becomes, how do you want to serve God?

That’s very much how I feel about filmmaking. I sense no calling to make specific films. What I do sense is a hunger to tell stories that matter, to worship my Creator through art, and to impact positively the people I work with. In fact, this last point is a pretty big deal. In speaking with friend and fellow filmmaker, Jedidiah Burdick, he pointed out the importance of often just being there with people on a film set and being salt and light. Maybe you’re not making a film that presents the story of salvation, but anyone who’s worked on a feature film (or even many short films) before knows the potential for a tight, family-like, environment that can develop on the set if guided by people who value that kind of connection. Being at the helm of a film is about more than just the movie you end up making, but about the people you work with along the way! I’ve learned this only by experience.

So back the methodology question . . . I don’t think there’s a prescription for films Christians should be making. Some, like Scott Derrickson, might be making horror films incredibly thought provoking horror films. Others, like Tom Shadyac, might be making hilarious comedies filled with heart-felt truth. I see a wide range here. In fact, a careful reading of the Bible reveals quite the graphic “R-rated” (more like NC-17) material we Christians are supposed to draw inspiration from. {6} Want I might suggest is that any Christian seeking to work in filmmaking, or television for that matter, should carefully examine Scripture and ask tough questions about why such stories are there and what we are to learn from them. Cinema, just as many stories (and parables) in Scripture, presents the opportunity to explore the human condition in unique ways and raise questions about who we are, why we’re here, and what value this life has.

I believe that in many ways, the strongest films are those that present an experience and allow the viewers to question what they’ve seen. They raise the questions in the audience’s mind, present a distinct experience of humanity and the Devine, and allow the Holy Spirit to do the rest. More Believers should be prepared to interact with these ideas, taking the conversation about such films to a deeper level. It is a exiting and engaging thing. We are but at the brink of truly engaging this medium.

I am interested in stories that explore universal questions and themes. I look for stories that have spiritual pointers or markers that will speak to people on a large scale. Film is a great way to examine questions, but not necessarily to answer those questions.
- Ralph Winter. {7}

End Notes:

{1} Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. Pantheon Books, New York, NY. © 2005. Pg 105.
{2} Take from “Raising Hell,” an interview with Scott Derrickson on The New Pantagrual, pg 4
{3} “The Moral of the Story: an interview with Ralph Winter.” Religion and Liberty Magazine, Vol 15, No. 2. Canada. Pg 3.
{4} “The Moral of the Story: an interview with Ralph Winter.” Religion and Liberty Magazine, Vol 15, No. 2. Canada. Pg 12.
{5} “The Moral of the Story: an interview with Ralph Winter.” Religion and Liberty Magazine, Vol 15, No. 2. Canada. Pg 12 - 13.
{6} “I aks people of faith to consider what rating the Bible might generate if filmed verse by verse. Since the Bible would be lucky to earn anything less than an NC-17, I will move past issues of content to the central question of movies and their greater meanings.” – Craig Detweiler, from his chapter on movies in A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture by Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor. Baker Book, © 2003. Pg 158.
{7} “The Christian Behind 'X-Men'” by Kris Rasmussen, published on Beliefnet (

1 comment:

jonnyflash said...

Hi, I really liked your comments, even though I think that you were a bit too charitable towards Ralph Winter's Christian Films. I linked to your blog on my own today: