All this talk about movies in the circles I move in, alternately warning of how immoral they are and encouraging young Christians to get more involved in creating them—to be better "culture-makers"—can be very confusing.
The reality is just as confusing. If aspiring Christian actors, screenplay writers, and directors want a star on a sidewalk somewhere, they must participate in the movie business, and that is a dark proposition. Sunglasses, sports cars, $5,000 dresses, tabloid shockers—getting into movies requires profound, personal exposure.
In the remote and recent past, Christians have been "conflicted" about popular entertainment from the start. The first permanent Roman theatre was built by Pompey in 55 B.C., and at the peak of the Roman Empire there were over a hundred public theatres in existence. The Ludi Romani, annual games which were a centrepiece of Roman culture, began as a religious festival and became a theatrical spectacle with hundreds of actors and musicians. The early church expanded in the shadow of all this.
By the time the Roman Empire fell, its theatres, amphitheaters, and circuses were disbanded. To Christians they represented not only pagan religious values but depraved, decadent lifestyles. John Bunyan's depiction of Vanity Fair indicates that the Christian attitude toward such festivals, and arguably toward urban culture in general, changed little during the millennium that followed. Even the Latin root, ludi, from which the modern word ludicrous derives, had become more closely associated with foolishness than with games.
There are principled reasons that Christians distrust theatre. The very act of dressing as someone other than oneself, speaking words that aren't one's own, might be seen as bearing false witness. Even more unsettling, an actor might play a bad person who does sinful things. A Christian in the audience wonders: Are actors absolved of evil deeds they merely mimic? How can I justify watching a group of people who are wearing makeup and pretending to be other people? Play-acting? Theatre could be seen as lacking the Spirit-led earnestness of life in Christ.
This basic dilemma is captured in an anecdote from a friend who, as a high school student, was deeply moved by a youth group viewing of The Cross and the Switchblade. He writes: "I saw how the Christianity I was being taught in middleclass suburbia, which seemed a bit academic to me, even though I held it to be true, was actually vitally important to people trapped in lives not nearly as sheltered and safe as mine. It made Christianity seem bigger to me. David Wilkerson impressed me a lot, and I began to think about becoming a missionary of some kind, like him."
Then, there was the problem of distinguishing spectacle from reality: "I was convinced Erik Estrada (an actor who played the role of a convert in the movie) must be a Christian, because how else would he be able to act out the tearful repentance and salvation scene so convincingly? Years later, I found out that he was not a Christian. At the same time, I realized that if he was not, and a person was able to put on such a convincing act of 'getting saved,' it called into question many of the alter call and campfire rededication experiences I'd witnessed."
Learning to disconnect can create problems of its own. Another friend writes, "I think I realized my love for film when I was fairly young in that I was able to get lost in a parallel universe void of consequences. Death Star blows up . . . you don't see the funerals. Who weeps for Greedo? Don't know or care."
Misrepresentation of reality
A Christian might have the same kind of problem with fiction, poetry, and theatre—any work of culture, high or low, that requires ironic detachment on the part of its audience. Irony itself is based on incongruity. Irony is a calculated misrepresentation of reality, a kind of lie told to get at the truth. As these anecdotes reveal, a literalist interpretation can be as dangerous as one that is purely aesthetic or escapist. Ideally art will summon a response that balances recognizing that it is suspended from reality, and understanding that it also has some bearing on reality. The poet John Keats' famous term for this was negative capability.
Christians in the 21st-century media culture find themselves in a quandary that is not exactly a new one, nor is it merely historical. It is, however, complicated by the advent of new media. Our culture is dominated by new kinds of popular entertainment that are not only more layered with irony than ever before, but more accessible. Like "the Force" in Star Wars, they are everywhere, surrounding us, penetrating us—binding our culture together.
The history of new media began in the middle of the 19th century with the first recorded sounds and images, and it gave way to a radical shift in forms of entertainment. In the not too distant past—some readers may even remember—Nickelodeon movie theatres, 78 rpm records, Brownie cameras, and other technological marvels sparked public curiosity. When Charlie Chaplin arrived in Hollywood, it was a frontier town full of hastily erected buildings. How quickly times have changed!
It took just a couple of decades for every small town in America to build a "picture house" where kids could spend a dime on Friday night to see the latest Gene Autry or Bing Crosby flick, and then for radio and TV to become ubiquitous. More recently, these technologies have expanded to pay-per-view, MP3 players, video phones, and YouTube. So, yes, times have changed. Yet consider also how they have stayed the same. Western culture has been obsessing over recorded sounds and images for over a hundred years.
Among the forms of popular media, video still reigns supreme. Almost all of us have multiple televisions in our homes. Many of us even have DVD players mounted in the ceilings of our minivans and SUVs, and we frankly can't imagine a family vacation without them. We have video iPods and video phones; we can watch ESPN on our way to work. Our sports stadiums and concert venues display footage on JumboTron, and our public places are full of television monitors. CNN has a network devoted exclusively to viewers waiting in airports.
In the midst of all this it's hard to isolate the impact of feature movies on Christian viewers, or the need for Christians to be involved in traditional cinema. There is no standard or status quo, and no obvious benchmark for success.
Think about Andy Samberg, maker of the short comic videos that started appearing on Saturday Night Live two years ago. When his parody of a hip hop music video, "Lazy Sunday" (popularly known by its chorus, "The Chronic-what-cles of Narnia") showed up on YouTube, hundreds of thousands of people linked to it from MySpace, Facebook, or their blogs, or simply mass-emailed its URL to their friends. Samberg was already a semi-regular on SNL. The success of "Lazy Sunday" and of subsequent videos and sketches has guaranteed his place on the cast to this day. Culturally speaking, "Lazy Sunday" had as much of an impact as any feature film that came out in 2005—arguably even greater than top-grossing Revenge of the Sith—and Samberg is a minor celebrity.
Ideological engagement without a front line
Although Christians might not know exactly what they're getting into when they talk about "getting into movies" or bringing the gospel of Christ to bear on the film industry, the mission is still an important one. Just because there's no front line and no clear objective doesn't mean there's no ideological engagement taking place.
For one thing, video culture can have a damaging effect on people, young or old. One way of going into the movie business is to help minimize that damage. Hopefully it's obvious that that doesn't mean merely protesting "offensive" movies like The Last Temptation of Christ, just as it doesn't mean merely filming Christian stories, à la Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. A complex problem requires a sophisticated solution.
Another dear friend confesses: "The most formative experience I've had with movies is watching Kids when I was thirteen. Changed my life—for the worse. I wanted to be one of those kids roaming around Manhattan, stealing "40s" from Chinese grocery stores, sneaking into swimming pools atop apartment buildings, and having frequent, unprotected sex. Thankfully, I never got there, but the movie did—I mean this—set me down a destructive course that I've never completely gotten off of." That's a terrifying confession to read, especially for parents of teenagers.
My own reaction to Kids was very different. I saw it as a cautionary tale, a gallery of horrors of urban teen life in America during the mid-1990s. There was nothing particularly seductive about it, partly because I had seen some of that drug and sex lifestyle firsthand and knew it led to ruin. Also fresh in my mind was the suicide of Kurt Cobain, front man of the band Nirvana, who personified gritty, sexy, druggy teen culture. Nirvana's most famous song was "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Then, again, I was twenty-four years old when I saw Kids, eleven years older than my friend who struggled so mightily with it. I was also just entering seminary. It seems apparent enough that if I had been able to impart some life-wisdom to my younger friend, he might not have been pushed so far off course. I might have been able to help him see that the point of Kids is not to glorify the lifestyle it represents, but to warn against it. There's also a sensationalist aspect to Kids that, once recognized, can be objectified and pushed to one side.
So, part of "getting into movies" is becoming involved in education. It is important for young people who are deluged by video to have older people who are well read, "well viewed," and probably pretty smart about culture in general to lead them in discussions about the things they're watching. Everyone has to learn how to read at some point, how to strike that Keatsian balance between regarding something as an aesthetic object and letting it into the blood. Video, like any form of art, must be allowed into the blood in just the right way or it can cause irreparable damage. Much of video culture should be shunned altogether, although it's never pointless to discuss what exactly it is or why it should be shunned. Thoughtful people don't shun out of hand.
On the other hand, some aspects of video culture should be embraced, and just as thoughtfully. Many movies that aren't explicitly Christian can give us vision, inspire us to be better people, and it's important to know why and to be keenly aware of where the message becomes less than biblical.
Another friend writes, "For me, the release of Star Wars was huge . . . I think there was a big part of me that desperately wanted to know that I could go on a journey like that, snag me a princess, and knock down a few storm troopers along the way. I loved that Luke had to trust in something outside of himself, bigger than himself. I loved the turning of the tide, brought about by the repentant Han Solo, flying the weather-beaten Millennium Falcon. He was a swaggering regular guy without a uniform who made the difference in the end."
No surprise there. Star Wars is one of the most inspirational movies of all time—especially, it seems, for Christians. Soon after the movie came out in 1977, many thought they'd seen Jesus Christ in Luke Skywalker, and in his light saber the sword of righteousness. Some even said that Darth Vader, Luke's father who had gone over to the "dark side," represented Israel, and that Luke's mission was to win him back to true faith. Even as recently as two years ago, radio personality Dick Staub published Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters, a book designed to help enthusiastic Star Wars trilogy viewers distinguish between the movies' Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian elements.
My friend's reading of Star Wars, though comparatively tame, seems more manageable. He picks up on the more universal mythic elements of the movie without tethering them too tightly to any specific belief system, and that's okay. It has to be okay. C. S. Lewis's essay, "Is Theology Poetry?", in The Weight of Glory, argues that Christianity adheres to a mythic structure much like any Norse or Greek mythology. Yet, "if Christianity is only a mythology," he admits, "then I find the mythology I believe in is not the one I like best."
An elder at my church in St. Louis recently told me that all those old Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn movies inspired him to sign up for fencing when he got to college. Such an influence should not be regarded as merely foolish or whimsical or even overly romantic. Admiring heroes is something that humans do. Lewis populated his books with heroes. The Bible itself is full of heroes. Personally, I found my heroes in The Hardy Boys mysteries—Frank and Joe seemed an illustration of I Timothy 4:12: "Let no one despise you for your youth."
Human art touches upon things eternal
As confused as Christians are about entering culture, and as heavy as the mandate is to transform it into something that pleases God, it may be best to remember that we enter it not only as Christians but as humans.
My friend who admires Star Wars writes, "We need to know that we are part of a calling or quest that is bigger than ourselves, that someone more powerful than us has sent us out, and that in the end, the world will be saved as a result of our Quest; that our tiny, flawed effort can be part of the turning of the tide. These aren't Christian longings, they are human longings."
C. S. Lewis echoes this idea in The Great Divorce when he says that becoming a Christian actually means becoming more human, transformed to be more like Christ—more curious, vulnerable, exposed, and in the end more sympathetic to the people around us. To Lewis, Heaven is a place more real than earth, and it would seem to follow that works of art will have even more significance there than they do on earth.
The purpose of movies, like all of literature and art, is to break us down to our core identity—to show us that we're not alone, that our experiences are not unique. There's comfort in that. At the same time movies have the power to lift us up, to help us transcend this life and develop a vision for what might lie beyond it. Good art always pulls us both earthward and heavenward. As Jacques Maritain once said, "Poetry is spiritual nourishment. But it does not satiate, it only makes man more hungry, and that is its grandeur." The same might be said of movies.
So Christians are called to be "culture-makers," not merely to provide answers or to evangelize the heathen, but because we are like Christ. We know the importance of incarnation, of being pulled in two directions at once. We enter the worlds of Hollywood celebrity and YouTube video alike with the belief that human art touches upon things eternal, bolstered by the assurance that what matters on earth also matters in heaven. God's will will be done in both places.