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.
Christian filmmakers have a tough job. They have to display something that is normally told, which can make something we usually want to be explicit a bit more ambiguous than makes us comfortable. So here is some advice for Christian filmmakers as they weather the difficulties of their trade.
Don’t tell me, show me.
Incarnate your worldview in the structure of the story, not into speeches from the characters. Let the dramatic choices, not verbal pronouncements, carry your message. Drama shows us the results of a lived-out worldview. Showing the consequences of human choices will be more powerful than a preached lecture or sermon of what I should or shouldn’t do. Film is a visual dramatic medium, not a verbal rational medium, so act accordingly. Spelling things out through the dialogue text rather than the subtext results in preachiness. The more the audience has to figure out for themselves, the more they will actually internalize the story and its meaning.
Value the art as equal with the message.
I know, I know, all Christian artists think they value both the craft and the content. But in my experience, they often fool themselves. When it comes time to make a decision for the story or the “message,” they will go with the message every time. Why? Because they feel obligated by God to communicate a clear “message,” or else they have wasted their time. They do not realize that the story itself, along with its style and craft, is part of the message. If we understand the nature of beauty as a theological imperative we would see that truth is ultimately incarnation, which is dramatic embodiment. The Word became flesh. Word and image, style and content, are equally ultimate.
The pitfalls that Christians easily fall into come from their view that a story simply carries a message, like a hollow shell, as if a story can be discarded once the message has been received. But this is also a non-biblical notion. Narrative theologian Kevin Vanhoozer explains in The Drama of Doctrine, “Narratives make story-shaped points that cannot always be paraphrased in propositional statements without losing something in translation.” If you try to scientifically dissect the parable, you will kill it, and if you discard the carcass once you have your doctrine, you have discarded the heart of God.
To be sure, stories contain messages. All great writers communicate a worldview through their writing, and they usually do so deliberately. The good filmmakers understand they must allow the imagination to carry them down paths where they are afraid to go. That frightens rationalistic modernist Christians. Which leads to the next point.
Don’t be afraid of ambiguity.
“Christian storytelling” suffers from an inability of Christians to admit the ambiguity of life. They think that since they “have the truth,” they should have answers for all the problems. If they leave any loose ends, they may fail to honor the truth, or worse, communicate the opposite of what they believe.
That may be well-intentioned, but there’s just one problem: It’s not truth. And it isn’t biblical. Did God give Job the answer to suffering? No. Sorry. Is everyone God killed in order to make David king or Jehu king guilty of capital crimes? Nope. Sorry again. Do we really know for sure what the Nephilim of Genesis 6 are? Really? Or the urim and thummim? Is anybody really foolish enough to say he knows without doubt just what Revelation’s symbols all mean? How about Ezekiel’s visions? God has seen fit to leave a lot of his own Word to us mysterious and ambiguous. We should not be afraid to do so as well in our stories.
Ambiguity and unanswered questions make the audience open to the storyteller’s vision. I’m not saying “there are no answers,” “we can’t know truth,” and all that postmodern nonsense. I am saying that if you portray your redemption in a story, and it gives all the answers and solves all the problems, your propaganda may encourage some of the faithful choir members, but those of us who know better will not believe you. In life, too often, bad guys do get away, Christians are jerks, good guys can be permanently scarred from a tragedy, questions remain unanswered, lies triumph over truth, the murderer is never found, and so on. And that leads to the next point.
Honestly entertain opposing worldviews.
Practice seeing the world sympathetically through the viewpoints of all your characters, especially those with whom you disagree. Don’t try to prove a point with your movie—-try to explore a theme from all angles. This is not to deny your story a viewpoint. Of course your worldview will be the hermeneutic from which you write and towards which you communicate. But an honest hermeneutic of anything from literature to life acknowledges that there are weaknesses in its own imperfect human interpretation and strengths in the opposition. So exploit those strengths for every character, not just your own viewpoint—-and do so especially for your villain.
Be honest with the weaknesses of your own viewpoint. Don’t be afraid to air the dirty laundry of your worldview. If your worldview is really the truth, you shouldn’t have to worry about proving it by hiding its weaknesses. The truth can stand on its own. And who knows, maybe you have something to learn from your opponent anyway.
Caricatures are created when authors, actors, or directors judge their character instead of embracing what is true within that character. Even the serpent in the Garden of Eden was partly right. No one, and I mean no one, looks in the mirror and sees a “villain.” Every villain—-indeed, every character—-sees himself as the hero of his story; so write them, direct them, and act them that way. Then you will be authentic. Painting a villain as desiring to do evil results in a cardboard cutout. Every evil man has a certain logic to his system once you grant his faulty moral premise. So try to find that logic and portray it as reasonable as possible in its best possible light. This is the flipside to the truth. If it is really evil, its attempts at hiding behind justifications only make it look that more diabolically clever, but diabolical nonetheless.