If ever there were a time in which Christians had an influence in the media and arts, it is now. After the success of The Passion and The Chronicles of Narnia, Hollywood has recognized there might be tangible ways to heal their declining box office receipts by catering to an untapped market. Two recent articles in the L.A. Times have uncovered this faith market. The first article announces Fox Faith, a brand underneath the banner of 20th Century Fox, which was launched to both re-brand some of their library (i.e. South Pacific and Garfield) under this label and also to create new films for this market. This article was followed up the next week with one heralding the family friendly Dove Foundation as a gatekeeper to the coveted audience base. Other studios such as Lion’s Gate, Sony Screen Gems, New Line and even the Weinstein Company are taking steps to go after this market.
So this is a critical time. It’s a “for such a time as this” kind-of time. Hollywood is embracing Christians, wanting their feedback, even wanting to make films for them. The tool that has the greatest impact on the way people live their lives is suddenly in the hands of Christians. So why am I scared to death of this window of opportunity?
Let’s pretend for a minute that you are a Hollywood executive and are learning what it is that is “Christian.” You might first try people in Bible robes and then maybe make something dealing with the end of the world because Christians like to dwell on the apocalyptic. But your best guess is to put a dog or a lion in it … maybe include a kid and, above all, make sure there’s no cussing. To put it into a word, make it “safe.” So “Christian” equals “safe.”
Now, let me disclaim. I am a father of two small children and think there is a desperate need for more films and television shows that are labeled “family-friendly.” In fact, if I were to hold up a company doing it right, I would take a page from Pixar, who showed everyone that you could make a film that was not just safe for the whole family but a film the whole family wanted to watch.
However, let’s not confuse “family-friendly” with “Christian.” Let me just tell you as a person who has been struggling, trying to live the Christian life for almost 30 years, there’s nothing safe about Jesus nor His Truth. In fact, be prepared to confront some pretty unattractive things about yourself as He shines a big light on the darkness in you, and then strap on your seat belt and see what happens when you try to live out His commands of loving and forgiving people. If you think Jesus is the guy in that picture with the cute lamb in His arms, then take another look at the dude who preferred the company of tax collectors and prostitutes, who dared to call out the religious people as “vipers” and “white-washed tombs” and who became violently angry at people thumbing their noses at His Father’s house. Jesus told us to take up a cross and follow Him. I don’t think His idea of “Christian” was making sure that our lives are safe from the world.
This is a great time. We have a wonderful opportunity to define what it is that is “Christian” in the media. Instead of being the oddball kid in the hallway at school who runs up to the cool kids halfway through their conversation and tries to forcefully interject a word or two in, we actually have the ability to lead the cultural conversation.
Let’s assume it will be excellent (a big assumption, I know), so what it is it that we have to say? Or better put, what is it they will be hearing from us? We love dogs. We love our Bible characters. We love to leave this earth and leave you here to figure it out. What about hope? What about truth?
At a time when postmodernism has run its course, and we’ve gone through our cynical, deconstructive phase, where do we go from here? I look at movies like Garden State that was popular with twenty/thirtysomethings seeking to purge the real pain of this life and searching for hope. Unfortunately, the only place the movie could find hope was in romanticism. Wouldn’t it be great if Christians led the charge to explore images of real hope … not an inauthentic hope that denies pain, but a hope that comes from something outside of ourselves, from a worldview that believed that there is meaning and ultimate justice?
And then what about truth and the Truth? It’s long overdue that Christian produced something that was true, meaning that the film doesn’t go light on sin and heavy on unearned acts of salvation and grace. This means that we have to get our hands dirty and maybe create some dangerous R-rated movies that show the real dysfunction, pain and suffering of this life and yet have the guts to show grace intersecting the dysfunction and pain. Yeah, we may make some white-washed tomb religious leaders unhappy, because we dare to call something that has profanity in it “Christian,” but I’m convinced that Jesus is much more interested in showing the great contrast between sin and grace. As a friend told me recently, the colors red and white are big contrasts, but beige and white is hardly noticeable. When we reduce the power of sin on film, we minimize the power of grace. The “safe for the whole family” crowd is tired of seeing gratuitous sin. I am too, so let’s make it non-gratuitous.
Most importantly, “Christian” should be defined by truth. For the highly evangelical, I know I just got an “amen,” but let me ask you whether you saw movies like Magnolia or Hotel Rwanda or Dogville and said, “amen.”
The Truth (i.e. the promises and principles of God) that we have been given stewardship over as Christians is dangerous. It is disturbing. And guess what? It is mysterious too, so you can’t box it up as a sermon to put in a film. I would love to see a film that explored the truth about God’s view on sexuality, especially in light of all the false views of it in our culture. But I must be willing to reexamine the truth all over again, question it, wrestle with it and explore every angle. The content that I want to see as labeled as “Christian” in this age of opportunity sets captives free, brings people hope and asks the questions that God can use to draw people to himself.
Recently, I have been helping a gal at Lion’s Gate with their upcoming release, Trade. When I saw the trailer about this film on sex trafficking, I told her that there are so many Christian organizations that are on the forefront of this issue. I explained how helping the helpless is at the core of what is “Christian.” My “Christian” duty became to serve her in getting the word out to Christians and everyone else about this R-rated film. In my mind, wouldn’t it be great to, for once, have Christians get behind a film before its release and claim it as “Christian” and it surprise the world that it is not about the second coming of Christ but about children who are victims of the most evil of crimes?
We, as Christians, are salt. Salt preserves what is good. Salt stings in an open wound, but it heals. We must not allow ourselves to be sugar, which turns into fat. So let’s make sure that attempts to serve the underserved market of “family friendly” do not get labeled as “Christian.” I’m not saying they are mutually exclusive, as many films like Narnia have shown. I am saying that mistaking one for the other is just what Satan would like to do to minimize this window of opportunity to be salt and light through our artistic efforts in the media. That’s dangerous for the whole family.