Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Christian Cinema ... An Adventure in Missing the Point.

“Are our churches and broadcasts and books and organizations merely creating religious consumers of religious products and programs? ... ”

- Tony Campolo & Brian D. McLaren, Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel

As a film lover and filmmaker, I am ever the student of the craft. As such, I try to invest time in continued education. So, I’ve been reading a particular book: Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics by Michael Rabiger. Let me tell you, it’s a fantastic book loaded with great information about the process of filmmaking and how to go about equipping yourself to best accomplish the work of making a movie. It’s not light reading, but very worthwhile!

Just recently, as I was reading from this book’s section on preproduction and rehearsing with actors, Rabiger divulged some ideas I thought were quite fascinating. He’s addressing the idea of discussing your film’s theme with your cast members early on in preproduction. But what he says has huge implications for the whole process of filmmaking, and specifically very important implications for the Christian filmmakers that have come from the tradition of making films as a means of evangelism.

Rabiger writes, “Telling a story is really a way of constructing a working model of one’s beliefs. If others are moved to conviction, the principles behind the model have been shared, acclaimed, and may be accepted as having merit. That is the best anyone can do.”*

Rabiger is not writing about Christian films here, for sure. But what he says in the above quoted text seems to indicate the potential validity of trying to make films that persuade someone to change their minds or hearts. However, Rabiger goes on to write this:

A thematic purpose for your work need not try to encompass universal truth (“in our Western way of life the rich get richer while the poor get poorer”) or be morally up lifting (“if people would just vent their real feelings, everyone could be free”). Audiences will feel they are being preached at especially when the scope of the film falls short of the global nature of its message.*

Rabiger goes on from there to express that, “Modest, solid, specific, and deeply felt aims are likely to have more impact.”* The point Rabiger seems to be making here, and I think it really applies quite well to Christian films, is that when we try to communicate something as esoteric, abstract, and huge as grace or redemption, a humble film can hardly get a grip on these things, let along wrap its arms around these ideas in an adequate way. And in the face of this recognition, the temptation of the Christian filmmaker is to then spell out what the audience is supposed to be getting from the film, the message or the point of the film. Doing so is just plain bad filmmaking.

What Rabiger suggest to all filmmakers here is that, “By taking a small truth and deeply investigating it, you can invest it with life and indicate larger truths of wider resonance. Put another way, a thoroughly absorbing and convincing microcosm will effectively create a macrocosm.”*

So, think of it this way: Say I want to make a film that tells a story about grace. Rather then get too caught up in all that grace means to me as a follower of Jesus, the better thing to do is to set about telling a very specific story of grace in action. So maybe I tell the story of a criminal who is shown grace by one of his victims. You can really come up with many ideas. The point is, now I have something specific to do. Take a look at the film Brokedown Palace, and you will see a powerful story of grace in action. And in this focused story, the universal implications can come about (if only we could all treat each other with this level of grace and forgiveness, what would the world be like?)

The important point that I think a lot of Christian films I’ve seen miss is that it is better to focus on a very specific story, and let the actions and characters progress naturally through the story. The story itself, if executed well, will generate a deep resounding connection to those things we already naturally long for as human beings. I’m not convinced that cinema is the proper place to proclaim the gospel, but rather a place to explore truth and it's impact on our lives. Obviously as Rabiger has indicated by his statement that a “story is really a way of constructing a working model of one’s beliefs,” the Christian filmmaker is already presenting his or her worldview through the construction of their story to start with. To try to go beyond this, attempting to merge the mediums of cinema and sermons, is to try to make a Frankenstein monster that is both clunky and unnatural in almost every example I’ve seen. Ultimately, to the non-church going audience that might happen upon such a movie (and the likelihood is extremely low, even for such supposedly successful film as Fireproof) this thing that is presented to them is so foreign and otherworldly, it stands no chance of connecting and making any impact. And as such, if the goal of such a film is to proselytize, it is in fact a wasted effort.

Rabiger says something interesting in a previous section just before the section of his book I have been quoting here. He has a section called “Directing by Asking Questions.” He’s specifically addressing how a director can best go about guiding his cast in discovering their characters and fleshing them out. However, what he says I think really is ultimately one of the best ways of directing as a whole, of making a film at all. He encourages the director to give guidance by engaging the cast in dialogue, by asking them questions. I think this is true too of the audience. One can have an amazing impact on an audience by guiding through asking questions, by showing the audience focused microcosms and then asking if this is true of life once they walk out of the movie theater.

Basically, to a great degree, I see this as a cinematic application of the Socratic Method. The reason I think this approach is so valuable is because of what Rabiger expresses in this particular section. He says that, “people seldom forget what they discover for themselves.”**

This is where I have seen so many Christian films fail. They do not provide the audience with an opportunity to discover anything for themselves. There is little or no room for this. The film is too busy blindly telling the audience what to think. Maybe if Christian filmmakers became less consumed with trying to make a point, and more consumed with making excellent films as an act of worship, more films made by Christians would have more of an impact on secular audiences by providing a common meeting ground of appreciation for the cinematic medium. Until then, however, I fear we may continue to make films that miss the point all together of what cinema is.

“Are our churches and broadcasts and books and organizations merely creating religious consumers of religious products and programs? Are we creating a self-isolating, self-serving, self-perpetuating, self-centered subculture instead of a world-penetrating (like salt and light), world-serving (focused on the ‘least and the lost,’ those Jesus came to seek and save), world transforming (like yeast in bread), God-centered (sharing God’s love for the whole world) counterculture? If so, even if we proudly carry the name evangelical (which means ‘having to do with the gospel’) we’re not behaving as friends to the gospel, but rather as its betrayers.”

- Tony Campolo & Brian D. McLaren, Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (pg 12)

End notes:
* Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics by Michael Rabiger, (second edition) pg 287.
** Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics by Michael Rabiger, (second edition) pg 286.


Eric said...

This was great. And ironically, covered the same topic as the chapter I was reviewing today in Douglas Beaumont's book, "The Message Behind the Movie".

The questions you raise about the nature of religious media and it's intentions are serious issues.

Phil Cooke wrote a book recently, "The Last TV Evangelist", which looks at the religious media industry and why it would be bad to lose it. I'm hoping to read it sometime before Christ returns, which is about how long it will take to get through the ever growing stack of books I haven't read yet. haha (Gosh, reading is so time consuming. lol)

The product description for Cooke's book though, at Amazon reads, "An Insider's Look At the World of Religious Media...and What's Coming Next! Religious radio and TV has built massive networks, launched global organizations,and generated billions of dollars in donations. It has allowed Christianity to reach more people in this century alone than the rest of history combined. But that impact has come with a price. Sex and money scandals, political controversies, and the prosperity gospel have taken their toll on the perception of Christians in the culture. Religious Media has Alienated a Generation TV evangelists with fake hair and gold furniture, tasteless programming, and hard core fundraising pitches have reached embarrassing levels, and young people today want nothing to do with it. But a New Revolution is Happening in Religious Media. With more than three decades of experience in both faith-based and secular media, Phil Cooke explores what it will take to reach the next generation, before the entire industry experiences total collapse."

Mikel J. Wisler said...

Thanks Eric! Cooke's books sounds interesting.

Hey everyone else, Eric's blog post he mentions above is really quite great! Go check it out! He even quotes me for some reason. :)

You can read it by going to:
CeaseFireStrategies.net - "My Slice of the Pie" by Eric Bumpus.

Plus, there's loads of other great stuff there all about Christian interaction with culture! Join the forums and discuss things with us!

Raz Cunningham said...

i have many, many thoughts on this piece mike, but i think they can be summed up by saying "perfect title"