Create Culture, Not Subculture

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.

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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.

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  • Ryan Bogard

    I just have a problem with spending millions of dollars on a film that only sorta tells the gospel. If we make a film shouldn’t the example be a good story that also tells the gospel? I love the Sherwood Baptist Movies I love that they tell the entire truth without making excuses.

  • Dean P

    Excellent article. But they should’ve just labeled this series of articles “Film” Two Views: Two Kingdom and Neo-Calvanist.

  • coffeecupkat

    As a working creative, and a Christian mom who is raising two kids with creative gifts and aspirations, this is so relevant. So thanks for that, Mike.

    I wrote along similar lines recently when I explained why I don’t write “Christian fiction.” Subculture is always an “eggshell world.”

    Pursue great stories. Pursue excellence in craft. Pursue Christ in your own personal walk.

    Everything that rises must converge; if you pursue the best in all things, I can’t help believing your creative work will eventually converge and point to The One Who Is Best Above All Things.

  • Lori Devine

    The problem is that to many Christians, reality has looked so much like the world for so long that they have no idea what a Christian worldview means. We are commanded to come out and be separate, yet we blend and look exactly the same. And then when a film maker truly tries to portray what “come out and live separate” looks like we grab our guns and shoot them down and call them preachy. I enjoy the Sherwood movies too. They are not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ. We shouldn’t be either.

  • Hal Dixon

    I have found the Sherwood movies surprisingly believable, even though none of the characters (except Kirk Cameron) are professional actors. “Fireproof” and “Courageous” have a level of impact that Hollywood can’t approach, precisely because they feel so real.

    • Melody

      I don’t know if I would go that far.

  • Kevin Subra

    “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.”

    I think this is a false distinction. Movies are a medium of communication, a method of overt influence, in a way that engineering or construction is not.

    I am for any truth-relaying movies, in theme and plot, whether they *preach* or not. Such themes much propagated by some righteous heroes of the past (to some level or another) do promote “good.” However, to engage the culture evangelistically (with the idea of converting people to belief in their Sin Bearer), the Word *must* be preached. “Faith [belief] comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”

    I would add to this that films that claim to be specifically “Christian” in their stated purpose and content, and are advertised as such *are* claiming something beyond a *good story* are really obligating themselves to *preach* more openly than those that do not.

    I believe that the Sherwood films are excellent stories, and have worked to do a *great* job interweaving both story with message. To leave off the message (or make it so vague that it is not discernible) is a great loss of opportunity.

    This does not mean that there is no room for improvement. Sherwood Films is improving but still needs improvement (as my review shows Others that claim to have some declared message, in my view, fail miserably on the basis of their own claims (such as October Baby

    May we get more *good* movies and moviemakers. May some weave the saving truth in with a great story.

    • Cliff

      “I am for any truth-relaying movies, in theme and plot, whether they *preach* or not.”

      Can kingdom work include fiction? Can a Christian produce a work of fiction – without overt message or allegory – in such a manner, that the beauty of the work is a testimony to the Creator?

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  • Jessica

    I love this and agree. So much Christian art is bad art. I once heard Barbara Nicolosi, screenwriter & founder of Act One, speak on Christian art and how Christians should have the best art, because we are to reflect the Master Artist. It’s always stuck with me.

    Instead of making films, writing books, and producing music that is sub-par we should be focusing our craft and not seeking to make a subculture.

  • Melody

    Can you imagine a film that the world would watch but they sneak in a believing character that people would love? Instead of one that everyone in the film all gets their lives fixed by God and they live happily ever after because they chose that path. Can you imagine trusting God to reach people that He wants reached instead of trying to slam the story home to people that have already been reached for the most part. Christian writers certainly wouldn’t write a story like David’s. Why it has adultery and violence in it.*gasp*
    I do watch some inspirational movies with the hope that I can get to the end without choking on the cheese.

    I have a son that makes and has made films since very young. I trusted him with the camera, now he has his own. He does it just as the writer in the article suggested. He makes so many. He makes them for school projects and he makes them for church youth projects. They ask him to do it.

    He is a kid that I can have endless discussions with about the point of view and how it sifts with scripture whether it is a movie that we have watched or real life relationships. I’m very aware that in another Christian family he would not have the same freedom in Christ to develop him the gift and talent God gave him.

  • Shawn

    Good thoughts!

    Remember Christ’s example to us: to the public He said “the Kingdom of Heaven is LIKE…” and then told a story that implied things but was NOT the gospel smacking you broadside. Only to His disciples would He reveal meaning. So to be like Him, tell stories with meaning and truth.

    On a side note, it’s amusing to me that ‘and the word became flesh’ also applies to script writing and filmmaking :-)

    • Kevin Subra

      Shawn, what you say is true, but not exclusively so.

      Whether you accept that Matthew 13 (where much of the “the kingdom of heaven is LIKE” shows up) is at a turning point where Jesus began to tell things only in parables without explanation, Jesus certainly earlier spoke to the masses in very clear, understandable terms (such as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Jesus also spoke clearly to individuals (John 3,4 for example) and to the masses (John 5 and following) without parables or unexplained metaphor.

      I would also would modify your comment on “and the Word became flesh,” as the passage in John one goes on to say (v.18) that “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has DECLARED [Him].” Jesus became flesh, indeed, but not just to act out stories, but to directly declare the truth of God.

      I agree with you, but add to what you say.

      Further, the purpose of speaking in stories without explanation was a way to HIDE truth from people as seen in Matthew 13:34-35, not to PRESENT it.

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  • James Ayers

    I’m very thankful for the discussion that’s taking place on this. I’m still very much in the process of chewing it over.

    I think one of the problems with subculture Christian films is that there’s a very slim chance that the non-Christians I know would ever willingly watch them.

    We often find that students, within our context, are fairly discerning when it comes to what they watch (by this I mean they’ll watch what aligns with their own tastes/worldview). If they think a film’s going to be ‘preaching’ a message to them they’re not very inclined invest the time to watch it.

    In contrast films like ‘Avengers Assemble’ (UK title) has been watched by almost all my non-Christian friends. It exists as a cultural artefact and by watching and engaging with it we can draw out some of the implicit desires and aspirations of our culture.

    I think this is important for two reasons:

    1) We learn about what our culture believes, the stories that are being presented as an alternative to the gospel . We can reflect on this and use conversations about the film to talk about how the gospel of Jesus speaks a better, true word.

    2) As Mike Crosper states in another article he’s written – ‘We tell redemption stories because – regardless of whether we know it or admit it – we live as fallen people in a fallen world, hungering for a saviour’. We can affirm certain elements of the narrative that line up with the gospel, albeit imperfectly and imprecisely.

    In the Avenger’s there’s a clear desire that evil needs to be punished, justice needs to be dealt, and people need rescuing by something/someone (who is able). I can easily see, within the context of my friendships, how a conversation about the gospel could arise from such themes.

    And best of all what Jesus did for us on the cross, and the promise we have in his resurrection, is not some work of fiction – it actually happened, it’s a real and certain hope.

  • Chris L

    You say do not make sub culture. I agree, living in a Christian bubble on earth thou appealing does not reach souls.

    I however disagree with Christians making films that you are wishing were not “preachy”. So a Christian makes a film that is full of Godly character what in Titus is called correct doctrine. (Correct living)

    However how does that Christian get the message of Christ to the people? The world will leave the theater and say O wow what great attributes, that’s an Oscar film, I wish more films were like this.

    However was Christ told of? The Christian can see Christ in the movies only because the word was first preached to us by men who did not hide from speaking.

    Being in the culture does not mean shutting your mouth of the gospel. Its means relaying the gospel in terms the people will understand.

    Creating a subculture is Amish living. We need to define what a Christian culture inside the world culture is. Speaking to world with out the gospel does not save souls, but separating ourselves from the world does not save souls either.

    So your on the right track with your blog, but still off a bit.

    Just my thoughts.

  • casey

    I don’t believe that art, like other professions mentioned, is necessarily intended to “preach” or “evangelize”, though it can. An engineer’s work can preach and evangelize through his integrity, hard work, quality work, and personal reputation…but not because the building has an icthus in it. I think art can be similar.

    It is true that art almost always (or maybe always) communicates something…but so do we in our everyday lives. Not everything or every time we communicate does it need to explicitly preach the gospel. It would be difficult to work if we thought every conversation had to include it.

    What is said and reflected in art should never be in conflict with the gospel, but it doesn’t have to be a full gospel presentation. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

    There is much that we experience and communicate about God’s world that is not the full gospel, though if what we experience is actually true (the pain of poverty, for example) it is a part of the larger picture that climaxes in the gospel. Not every story, every message, every thought…has to communicate the whole of reality and explicitly point the the gospel to be real and glorifying to God. But to the extent that it is honest to God and his reality, well done, and not mixing in error it can be good and useful.

    Preaching and evangelism are those mediums which must be by nature more explicit and complete in their communication…for that is what they are for. Art’s creative and expressive modality is different though the messages and effects can overlap.

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  • rg

    Well, I guess it comes down to the familiar “prescriptive” vs “descriptive” argument. I wish Christian film makers would feel less pressure to be prescriptive. There’s real merit in leaving unanswered questions, exploring imperfect characters, mimicking the real messiness and complexity of actual life. Presenting an open-and-shut case with an exposition and resolution is less likely to leave the viewer pondering what has been seen. It’s far better to have them thinking seriously about what they’ve witnessed, allowing content to “fester” and mature within their minds – even if the film leaves them slightly hostile to the content. Jesus’ parables had some real grit, not all with happy endings – we’ve probably become rather immune to them.

    I disagree that movies need to have “messages” or points – it is enough to explore. The difference is that a Christian filmmaker will have audiences exploring potentially fruitful thought avenues (although it could be argued that even a nihilistic film could leave a viewer pondering and rebelling against that worldview – cf. Ecclesiastes!).

  • JohnPaul

    Praise God for this article. I’m a full time, young film maker and I needed this. Don’t Discard Drama For Words was similarly edifying.

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