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PBR: Cheesy Christian Movies and the Art of Narrative

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Writing on the Big Hollywood blog, Dallas Jenkins asks the question: “Why are Christian Movies So Bad?” Jenkins, a filmmaker and the son of “Left Behind” novelist Jerry Jenkins, points to a number of telling reasons for the glaring deficit in artistic accomplishment, what you might call the dreck factor, that is evident in so many films aimed at the faithful. Jenkins’ critique points to something we’ve been talking about at Acton for some time: the need for conservatives to understand and master the art of narrative, not just the rhetorical skills that have served them so well in politics and policy. Jenkins says:

The problem is that everyone knows good art should always put story and character above message. Message films are rarely exciting. So by their very nature, most Christian films aren’t going to be very good because they have to fall within certain message-based parameters. And because the Christian audience is so glad to get a “safe, redeeming, faith-based message,” even at the expense of great art, they don’t demand higher artistic standards. So aspiring filmmakers who are Christians have little need to perfect their craft, and Christian investors have little need to spend a lot of money because the message is going to be most important anyway. Add in the fact that the average heartland Christian couldn’t care less what a critic thinks — if anything, they assume they’ll feel the opposite of a movie critic — and you’ve got even less incentive for Christian filmmakers to be obsessed with quality.

Or, as producer Samuel Goldwyn has often been quoted as saying, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

Does the left make “message” movies? Sure, all of the time (think of just about any George Clooney picture). And these agit-prop productions frequently bomb. But Jenkins is is correct in pointing out that generally speaking the cultural right still hasn’t mastered even the rudiments of cinema storytelling. This is a grave problem because America’s chief myth making industries — feature films, television entertainment, book publishing, popular music — are largely the province of the cultural left. Then again, if you’re in that camp, you could plausibly argue that, “We’re just better at this stuff.”

The power of narrative lies in its ability to reach the whole person, the heart and the head. It begins by creating an effect on the emotions — moving a person — and can register indelibly in human memory. Thus, narrative can serve as a powerful means of communicating ideas, but not primarily in message form. It works at a deeper level, sometimes tapping into the mythic consciousness of an entire people. That is why narrative is essential for political mass movements; once you get the hearts and the minds of the people excited, you can then move their feet in the direction you want them to go. Most recently, this political narrative form has been used artfully by candidate and now President Barack Obama (see “Obama and the Moral Imagination”).

Rhetoric, the Aristotelian art of persuasion, aims to convince with all of the argumentative tools — evidence, inferences, claims, etc. — useful for a dialectical exchange. Rhetoric begins by making an appeal to the mind; narrative to the senses. Yet, because the human person is an integrated being of mind and heart, rhetoric also has available to it some of the tools of narrative. Aristotle made room for Pathos, along with Logos and Ethos. You think here of some of the best political oratory and speech making — Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech in 1940. Or Edmund Burke’s stylistic method of combining thought, image and sentiment in the best of his work.

This power of narrative to convey ideas in a deeper fashion is what David Michael Phelps, in “The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story,” was driving at in the Spring 2007 issue of Acton’s Religion & Liberty quarterly. Phelps writes that …

… those who argue with narrative logic, or Story, have easier access to the hearts and minds of the masses than those who rely solely on Syllogistic Logic. Scholars who form ideas largely use syllogistic logic, deduction. And while Syllogism is a critical tool in coming to the truth of things, it isn’t necessarily the best tool in conveying the truth of things. Stories, on the other hand, contain a totality of an idea along with a unifying beauty, an emotional power that smuggles an idea into the head by way of the heart. Or to put it another way, an idea can be the corollary of an accepted artistic unity. This is why novelists and filmmakers can be such powerful convincers – they rely on the totality of their presentation to make their ‘argument.’ Both Story and Syllogism are important, but in the age of visual media, Story is increasingly important to convince those “who have no time to argue.”

The 19th century French short story writer Guy de Maupassant understood this. “The public,” he wrote, “as a whole is composed of various groups whose cry to us writers is: ‘Comfort me, amuse me, touch me, make me dream, make me laugh, make me shudder, make me weep, make me think.’ And only a few chosen spirits say to the artist: ‘Give me something fine in any form which may suit you best, according to your own temperament.'”

At last week’s Heritage Foundation Resource Bank meeting in Los Angeles, the main panel discussion touched on the problem of narrative. Lawrence Mone, president of the Manhattan Institute, said flatly that conservatives just don’t do story and metaphor very well.

To get into the game, conservatives need to build the cultural infrastructure necessary for training and supporting young artists who will affirm what Russell Kirk, in his essay titled “The Moral Imagination,” described as the “enduring things.” But conservatives are only just now turning the first few spades of dirt for what will be a massive building effort. Kevin Schmiesing on this blog pointed to the Act One program. The Compass Film Academy in Grand Rapids, Mich., also deserves a mention. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

In “Story Time,” an article published in Manhattan Institute’s City Journal last year, screenwriter and novelist Andrew Klavan laments the fact that so many conservatives seem to have given up on the culture.

Culture, in the true sense, is … the whole engulfing narrative of our values. It’s the stories we tell. Leftists know this. These kids get an earful from the Left every day. Their schools serve up black history in a way guaranteed to alienate them from the American enterprise. Their sanctioned reading list denies boys the natural fantasies of battling villains and protecting women from harm. Any instinct the girls might have that their bodies and their self-respect are interrelated is negated by the ubiquitous parable of celebrity lives. And I hardly need mention the movies and TV shows that endlessly undermine notions of manly self-discipline, feminine modesty, patriotism, and all the rest.

Conservatives respond to this mostly with finger-wagging. But creativity has to be answered with creativity. We need stories, histories, movies of our own. That requires a structure of support—publishing houses, movie studios, review space, awards, almost all of which we’ve ceded to the Left.

There may be more profitable businesses in the short run. The long run, as always, depends on the young. If you want to win their hearts, you have to tell them stories. I have reason to believe they’ll listen.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.