This article is about the Christian message in art and film.

Source: Christian Renewal, 2006. 2 pages.

The Pulpit and the Silver Screen

Now that the hoopla over the movie version of The DaVinci Code has died down, Christians can ask themselves if there was any substance to it. Did anyone lose their faith after seeing the movie? Assuming that he even sat through the movie (critical opinion mostly unified on the fact that it was boring), any Christian who "lost his faith" as a result either didn't have much faith to begin with, or his faith was in something other than the true Christ. The same probably goes for those who read the book. A more interesting question may be the func­tion of art, particularly movies, in our society: do they merely reflect the cul­ture, or do they influence it? Can they rise to some level beyond mere enter­tainment?

A personal experience: in 1982 World Wide Pictures, an arm of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, pro­duced a biographical film of Joni Erikson Tada, starring herself. Joni was openly marketed as evangelism, with the same care and foresight that goes into every Billy Graham crusade: WWP secured screens across the country for a weekend showing and distributed literature to churches in the targeted areas, suggesting that individual members commit to inviting one non-Christian friend to see the movie with them. It's easier to get unbelievers into a movie theater than into a church, after all.

Anxious over my many failures to carry out the Great Commission, I invited a neighbor to see the movie. As WWP had predicted, she welcomed my offer; most stay-at-home moms with two small children will welcome any offer to get out of the house for an afternoon.

I was surprised and relieved that Joni was a good movie-quality production values, thoughtful script, excellent per­formances, especially by Mrs. Tada her­self. It would have been a great conversation-starter among Christians ques­tioning God's purpose in "random" accidents that change one's life forever. But as an evangelism tool it was a non­starter, at least for me. My friend proba­bly felt she was being snookered as soon as the Jesus talk started. On the way home, she thanked me for the afternoon out, but carefully avoided any personal application of the content.

WWP produced other evangelistic fea­ture films, some of them as good as Joni, that ended up playing mostly in churches. But the 1980s also saw the release of several highly-regarded commercial movies with strong Christian themes or sympathetic Christian charac­ters: Chariots of Fire, Tender Mercies, Trip to Bountiful, The Mission. Compared to other times and titles, the eighties were almost a golden age of "Christian cine­ma." But it was a golden age that had no discernable effect on the culture.

That's not to say that the Holy Spirit has no use whatever for movies, but His preferred evangelism tool has not changed: preaching and teaching. The tactic of using entertainment to get peo­ple to church has probably only acceler­ated the trend of church as entertain­ment, featuring skits, special music, and (inevitably) film clips.

What of unbelievers who would never darken a church door anyway – can they at least be convicted of sin by a dramatic presentation of it? Secular Hollywood does a much better job of portraying human depravity than Christians do, and doesn't always glamorize it. A Simple Plan (1998) illustrates the blackness lurking in the ordinary "good" people better than any sermon. Magnolia (1999) strikingly depicts God's wrath coming due in the lives of several Los Angelinos on a sin­gle day. But hearing the bad news with­out the good is like stopping after the first chapter of Romans: it encourages either self-congratulation (Hey, I'm not that bad) or nihilistic despair. All movies can do is hint at God's mercy, but without Christ riding to the rescue the mercy is always pending.

And there's the rub: Christ riding to the rescue is always seen as a failure of art, a literal deus ex machina. True con­version happens in real life all the time, but a convincing portrayal of it in movies, plays or novels is almost impossible. Even the great Dostoevsky disguised Christ as Alyosha (The Brothers Karamazov) or Sonya (Crime and Punishment) or the patient suffering spirit of the Russian peasant.

Flannery O'Conner wrapped Him in mad preachers and apocalyptic sunsets. Drama and literature abound with Christ figures, but Christ Himself sel­dom appears. Why? Because art is by nature ambiguous, symbolic, interpre­tive – all the things the Gospel is not. Art can reflect truth, often powerfully, but can't preach it.

Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, (which I have not seen) was billed as the most graphic and confrontational "Jesus" movie ever filmed. Gibson famously relied on the power of the image to speak truth, so much so that he didn't even want to impose subtitles over the Aramaic and Latin dialogue. Miracles were reported on the set, and miracles predicted in the theaters: rap­turous evangelical leaders who attended advance screenings were expecting (or at least hoping) that the film would spark a worldwide revival. While there may have been individual conversions or renewals, revival didn't happen. That's because, without a clear com­mand to repent and believe, there was no necessary connection between view­ers and the Man of Sorrows depicted on the screen. Believers could be con­firmed in their faith, but to unbelievers it was just a story, however gut-wrench­ing. They could bring to it nothing beyond what they already knew, and they could not know what they had not heard, and how could they hear without a preacher?

I believe that Christians should be as actively involved in the arts as any other segment of society – more so, even – but they need to understand what art is and what it is for. Beginning fiction writers are always told to "show, don't tell." Exposition (telling) is the death of art. (It doesn't do much for simple entertainment either, as movie-goers who forked over $10 per ticket to The DaVinci Code discovered.) Art exists to illuminate, not to explain; the minute it starts explaining, it stops being art. As illumination, it can gladden or crush the heart – but can't pierce it, as the hearts of the 3000 Jews at Pentecost were pierced by Peter's clear exposition of Jesus as their promised Messiah.

I pray that Christian novelists, screen­writers and movie-makers will multiply in our society, but for evangelism, noth­ing will ever replace the pulpit and the word. Art can show, but it can't tell.

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