In commenting on our discussion of Christian cinema (see posts immediately below), some visitors brought up a couple of interesting points. One is that any kind of Christian movie ought to be acceptable to both critics and audiences, and the other is that the economic realities of making Christian films today require a more encouraging stance than Barbara Nicolosi and I seem to have taken regarding Facing the Giants.
Clearly both these observations are well-intentioned, but I think that adopting these recommendations would greatly harm any nascent Christian cinema, rather than helping it.
Let’s examine them individually.
First, the premise that any kind of Christian cinema ought to be good enough for Christians, with the implied corollary that any Christian film is at least better then what Hollywood puts out, ignores an imporatant reality: what is on the surface of a film does not always reflect what it all actually means. Many Hollywood films and TV programs, despite their often shabby surfaces, carry meanings that Christians should find quite appealing. If you have any doubts about this, click on the "Movies" and "Television" categories on this page and take a look at some analyses of Hollywood products showing how easily they are misinterpreted if we concentrate solely on surface imagery.
The other side of this issue is the fact that an openly Christian movie can carry underlying messages and assumptions that are at best dubious, as in the Left Behind series (especially to non-Evangelicals), or are outright false, as appears to be the case with Facing the Giants.
Hence, it is clear that the ideas behind Christian films should be approached with the exact same attitude toward which we look at the ideas behind mainstream cinema. Let’s call it enlightened skepticism.
As to the second point, that Christian cinema requires encouragement, I submit that this is precisely what Barbara Nicolosi and I are both trying to accomplish. As I noted in my Weekly Standard review of Ms. Nicolosi’s latest book, one of the contributors rto that volume correctly notes that
Christians are "of the lineage of Michelangelo, Raphael, Shakespeare, Lewis, Tolkien, and Caravaggio," and that "there was a time when Christians were the undisputed masters of art and literature." As many Christians have withdrawn into a "safe" religious subculture, "Mainstream culture has moved on without us, and the world of entertainment has coarsened in our absence."
If we are to encourage people to create art that is both fully Christian and of high aesthetic quality, we must be willing to criticize their products fairly and honestly. Otherwise, they will have no incentive to try to excel, and we will end up with dreck—and garbage with a Christian patina is still worthless.
We do artists no favors when we pretend that good intentions are more important than results. Yes, good intentions are laudable, and we may well acknowledge people’s intentions. But it cannot stop there. Bad art is bad, and we should tell the truth about it. Nowhere does Scripture tell us to bear false witness about our neighbors, even if we wish to do so to spare their feelings. A lie is a lie.
Pretending that substandard work is in fact good is a sure way to destroy an artist. Think about it this way: if you were coaching a child at basketball, and their shot mechanics were wrong but they were trying hard, would you really say that they’re doing it right? Even if they were badly missing all their shots? To do so would be a contemptible thing.
The same is true with artists of whatever stripe, and it is particularly important when trying to nurture new artists and forms. To pretend that they are doing just fine when they’re missing all their shots simply ensures that they’ll never make the big leagues. Instead of artists on the order of Michelangelo, Raphael, Shakespeare, Lewis, Tolkien, and Caravaggio, we will get complacent, pointless junk. And that would be worse than having no Christian cinema at all.
There is room in society for both high art and pop culture, and both have an important place and can be highly salutary in their effects. Yet both must meet quality standards if they are to have a good effect on people. And it is up to critics and audiences to encourage artists to try to reach the very highest standards in whatever form their work takes.
Our job as critics and consumers is to tell the truth, with our pens and pocketbooks. If we do that, the artists will find their way, and real creativity will flower. If not, the torrent of lies will kill them all.