Editors' Note: Reflecting on the movies produced by Sherwood Baptist Church, Andy Crouch imagined the scenario where "one or two Christian kids with real talent somewhere in this vast land are going to see these movies, get the sacred-secular dichotomy knocked out of them at an early age, move to Los Angeles, work their tails off, dream, fail, and try again . . . and one day make truly great movies." What would these movies look like? What advice would you give to a Christian screenwriter, director, or producer who wants to make a film with artistic excellence from a Christian worldview? The Gospel Coalition posed these questions to writers, filmmakers, and artists to reflect together about Christianity and film.
The question itself is open to misinterpretation. Christians and non-Christians alike tend to hear "Christian worldview" and assume that this refers to Christian film as a subculture, a genre of its own, focusing on strongly redemptive and openly evangelistic or biblical storylines (for example, Fireproof and the Left Behind series).
In the arts generally, there's an assumption that the Christian artist's worldview should result in overtly "Christian" content, where in other vocations, we rarely make the same requirement. Most of us aren't concerned if a homebuilder sees all the world under the rule and reign of God. We're far more concerned with whether he has character and can be trusted. We would not expect an engineer to work an ichthus into each of his designs, but (metaphorically speaking) we expect exactly that out of Christian artists, filmmakers, and musicians.
The alternative to this cloistered attitude is to challenge Christians to excel in their respective industries, including filmmaking. As James Davison Hunter argues in To Change the World, if we want to exercise influence in culture, we need to go to the center, the institutions where it's most profoundly shaped. Instead of standing outside (in a subculture) and speaking in, we need truly excellent artists to go into the heart of cultural production---in this case, the Hollywood and New York film scenes---transforming it from the inside out.
Tell Great Stories
Filmmakers are storytellers, and Christian filmmakers should (vocationally speaking) focus first and foremost on telling great stories. Works by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have stood the test of time and gained influence not so much because of their theology but the quality of their storytelling. In Tolkien's introduction to a later edition of The Lord of the Rings, he says he despises allegory and fiercely argues that his goal in the development of the series was to create a believable world and tell a compelling story. That should be an end enough in itself.
Preachiness in films is always obnoxious, whether it's from evangelicals or Michael Moore. People go to the theater with the hopes of being told a compelling story, and when the urge to get a message across trumps the need to tell a good story, the film suffers and the audience cries foul. They came for an adventure and they got a sermon. But this is exactly what many Christians think of when they talk about "Christian" filmmaking.
A good story, on the other hand, can carry profound redemptive themes and portray the agonies and ecstasies of everyday life in ways that a sermon can't (not to say that it's superior, just different). If Christians who knew how to tell great stories could gain positions of influence in the centers of filmmaking, they could positively influence the culture of film.
They would gain a foothold in the contemporary imagination that has subtle but strong influence on the formation of attitudes and habits in our culture. They could change the norms for what's acceptable or required in serious films. It's sad that great shows on cable television and films that want to compete in the Oscar race are compelled to achieve a certain level of sexuality in order to be taken seriously. (This is a broad generalization, of course, but it serves to illustrate a place where change could occur.)
They say that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. This is as true of filmmaking as it is of anything, and it's the final thing that I'd say to a Christian who wants to be the next Spielberg or Soderberg. If you want to make films, then make films. Make them badly. Make them with iPhones and flip cameras, edit them on a laptop or in a computer lab at your middle school. Make lots of them and don't worry about whether or not they're good until you've made 10 or 20. Even then, don't worry when they're bad. Look for the things you've done well and figure out how to apply those lessons to the entire next project. Keep going and pressing on in your spare time. Chase down the craft of storytelling like you're stalking prey in the woods. You'll start with just glimpses in the underbrush, evidence that you're close, a flash of it here and there. Keep at it and someday you'll catch one.
Mike Cosper is pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Crossway, 2014), Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel (Crossway, 2013), and co-author (with Daniel Montgomery) of Faithmapping: A Gospel Atlas for Your Spiritual Journey (Crossway, 2012). You can follow him on Twitter.