Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How "Evangelistic" Films Hinder Evangelism

I snapped this in (the formerly communist) Romania in 2008.  Originally meant to be functional rather than beautiful, it is now neither.  Christian artists, take note.

A friend and co-worker, Amy Whikehart, sent me a fantastic article on the conspicuous lack of meritorious literature from Evangelicals.  Here's a couple of dead-on insights:
"But if evangelism must be the primary purpose of everything we write, then a lot of God’s character will remain unreflected—which will, ironically, not help the cause of evangelism." 
"So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture seems even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through the 'Christian bookstore' will show.   Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a Scripture verse tacked under them. 
"Perhaps when our theologians become concerned with the good of the thing made, some of our people will, too."


Click here to read the full article.

C.S. Lewis was an atheist and a highly trained literary critic.  In his autobiography, he said that one of the things that began to turn his heart toward God was the fact that many of his favorite authors (such as George MacDonald) were Christians.  They didn't reach him by speaking Christian-ese, but by speaking his language in his accent.

Peter Hitchens, atheist-turned-Christian, and brother of current famous atheist, Christopher Hitchens, believes that art will  be a more effective means of reaching educated and hard-hearted cynics and skeptics than reasoned argument.  He says this based on his own experience.  His atheism began to erode after being unexpectedly confronted by a piece of renaissance art.

Roger Ebert is currently an atheist.  It's too difficult to imagine his heart being transformed by the current environment of Christian films.


Kyle Prohaska said...

It's an important thing to decide as a filmmaker in the Christian market...whether you're more interested in films that edify the believer, or lean more towards reaching the unbeliever. People disagree a ton on what the latter should look like, and many try to mix the two with decent results, but I drew a line in the sand based on what I see happening.

I've decided to concentrate on edifying those who are already Christians so they can go out and be who they need to be and reach those God has put in their path. I've put less emphasis on making sure that someone in every film comes to Christ so the Gospel is presented Kirk Cameron style. It's not always necessary, and saying it is severely limits what your story can say and the structure it can have.

Christian films (or products like tracks) aren't a substitute for personal evangelism, it's merely at a tool in the toolbox that can be useful.

Personal evangelism should always take place, but when it comes to my filmmaking and who I'm catering to, I'm much more interested in helping strengthen the church from the inside so it can go and be who it needs to be on the outside.

Just my take :) Good post.

Richard Ramsey said...

Thanks for the great comment and the direction your taking with your films. Edifying the church is a wonderful thing! Keep it up!

1 Cor 14:1-4:

The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but(F) even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up."

Jurgen Beck said...

Great post, Richard!

Sometimes it feels that unless we put a label on what we as followers of Christ create, something that clearly shows that the content is "Christian", either by using a verse from the Bible, or by using an overtly "Christian" theme in a film, that it looses validity with Christians.

We are to be both, salt and light, to apply the Biblical concept. Light is clearly visible and is there to lead and give direction. Salt, once dissolved, can only be tasted and not seen.

We need to create content that goes in both directions. Kyle already stated what type of content he creates (in the "Light" category.) Others create content with redemptive messages, but won't distinctly mention God, Jesus, or use Bible verses. Much like what salt would do, that artistic work becomes an influencer on society and culture.

As the body of Christ we need to become less nearsighted and allow those who are called to producing salt-like artistic content the freedom to do so with the full support of the Body of Christ.

Content that points to God, whether overtly or not, is worth creating.

sbhebert said...

Two thoughts:

(1) Check out Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll, formerly of Wheaton (for 27 years) now at Notre Dame, begins his book with this statement: "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is no evangelical mind." He goes on to trace anti-intellectualism amongst American evangelicals from the 18th century through the 20th century. Perhaps the evangelical movement lacks great literature because the evangelical movement is increasingly detached from the great literature of the past: e.g., the Western canon.

I see this in my classroom every day. Students who have grown up in evangelical schools are not only unaware of the Classics (Homer through Hemingway), as their public school counterparts are, but also of the Bible and various theological issues of import. I would argue that this is the result of the cult of self-esteem and the idea that the purpose of Christianity is to "get to heaven," in the parlance of N.T. Wright. (Perhaps this is part of that pragmatism that Whikehart mentions. I don't browse through Christian bookstores much, so I'm not sure exactly what she means here.)

(2) Whatever happened to just writing a great story? Why does it have to be specifically Christian? Certain themes are both Christian and universal (e.g., triumph of good over evil). Lewis made the famous statement that "Christianity is a myth which became fact." In Mere Christianity he talks about how God left "good dreams" for humans as signposts pointing to Him. These good dreams are not necessarily evangelical or even Christian. They are universal.

I'm in favor of good stories. Cf. Lewis, Tolkien, and all the other great Christian storytellers.

Final Question:
What do we mean by "Evangelical"?

sbhebert said...

To answer my final question, I found Williams's operating definition of Evangelical:

"I define an Evangelical as a person committed to Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, a high view of the authority of Scripture, the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the necessity of personal faith in Christ (and therefore the importance for most people of a personal conversion experience, as long as we do not stereotype it) for salvation."

Apologies for that. Not sure I fit his definition. As he mentions in the "No Ranking Names" section of the article, there are writers who used to belong to some of these traditions, but they no longer do. I'm in that category.

Perhaps the lesson that Evangelical authors can learn from Flannery O'Connor is that the Evangelical tradition lacks the richness that liturgical traditions offer. The lack of richness both in theology and worship has pushed me toward the liturgical traditions.

Want to be a great writer? Go Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican/etc.!

OK. I'll stop spamming your blog now, Richie.

ginny martyn said...

Matt Chandler said something like this recently. You made some excellent points. I'm in total agreement. Thanks for this. I'm familiar with the publishing business in both arenas. Sadly, the Christian fiction market is dominated by Amish Romance novels...sigh.

Richard Ramsey said...

Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

I also like what Williams has to say about the pervasive sentiment that the whole purpose of learning [theology] is too eliminate mystery.

Christian artists are likely to come up against a concern, held by well meaning brothers and sisters, that "people won't get it." It's one thing to be clear in our artistic choices. It's another to spoon feed people the moral and meaning of the story.

While Jesus would have emotional responses to people walking away from Him, it seems He rarely goes out of His way to spell things out (John 6, 8, and 10). In fact, He sometimes deliberately obfuscated His teaching.


sbhebert said...

I agree completely with that las sentiment, Richie. "Those who have ears to hear..." — Jesus rarely interprets his own teaching, and when he does, he does so only for the benefit of his closest companions. Cf. the Parable of the Sower. It is part of the prophetic M.O. to speak on behalf of God using symbols that not everyone would understand. Try to read Isaiah and Ezekiel quickly (like you might read a Harry Potter novel) and see if you get anything out of it.

Literature is better when it is multi-layered. (Like an ogre?) We stop reading Aesop at some point because we like the mystery; we like the richness. We progress from milk to cheese(cake).