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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.


  • Roger McKinney

    Wow! Well done! Thanks!
    I grew up on the Billy Graham films shown in church. While they get an A+ for message, they also get an A for corn. Does anyone remember the Corrie ten Boom film, “The Hiding Place”? Billy Graham films hit a home run with that one and I thought at the time that they had finally figured out how to do real art with power, but then they went back to their old formula.

    We probably have to go all the way back to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to find good example of Christian narrative. What a shame!

    I have thought about this problem for many years, having attempted some narrative myself and realizing how bad it was. I think the problem is the desire to preach to people. To convince people of something. Non-Christians don’t do that with their art. They assume their philosophy is true and write the narrative with that assumption in mind. So in that sense, non-christian narrative doesn’t try to sell anything. A well-written narrative with emotional power causes people to accept the underlying assumptions uncritically. Non-Christian narrative attempts to re-enforce assumptions rather than sell them.

    A lot of people may disagree, but I think the writers of Pacific Garden Mission’s “Unshackled” are among the best. The acting and writing are great, but the organ music is very corny. A good place to start for new writers would be to tell the story of how becoming a Christian changed someone’s life. If you need some ideas, I recommend “Into the Den of the Infidels” published by Voice of the Martyrs, The book contains powerful testimonies of Muslims coming to Christ, most of whom knew no Christians and had no Bible. The stories are emotionally very powerful.

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, Christians interested in making Christian movies might consider converting good novels into film. I have read that about 80% of all motion pictures are conversions of novels. An excellent book to start with is “Shepherd of the Hills”. The novel is nothing like the John Wayne movie with the same title and desperately needs to be made into a movie.

  • In the case of “Left Behind”, if you start with “dreck” eschatology, why not end up with “dreck” movies?

    More broadly, one of the key problems in this realm is the familiar secular/sacred divide. If one must make a “Christian” film– from out of that paradigm– then all sorts of costs and limitations are imposed on the project.

  • Roger McKinney

    This topic reminded me of something I read about independent films a decade ago. After many visits to the Sundance Film Festival, a reviewer commented that the producer/directors needed to realize the a good film starts with a good script. The weakest elements of all of the independent films were the scripts. It seems that Christian films suffer the same problem. That’s why Christian filmmakers should concentrate on good Christian literature as a source of ideas for films. Christian fiction writers have nothing but story to hold reader interest. Filmmakers tend to rely too much on visuals to the neglect of story.

  • I would urge that we resist creating an “us” versus “them” dichotomy when it comes to cultural mediums. I do not agree that conservatives have ceded “almost all” of the “structures of support” to the Left.

    There are many fine films–or portions of films–that lend themselves well to evangelizing and transmitting Christian values. In my youth ministry I’ve used select parts of “Last Samurai”, and “Glory” to emphasize discipline and (a male sense of) honor, and while certainly not appropriate all or most of the time, popular shows like “Scrubs” and “How I Met Your Mother” can be used to get a message across to teens while maintaining their interest.

    We need not re-create the wheel/structures of support from scratch–such would be a waste of resources. But we do need to put in the time and effort to sift and prepare the mass of media available.

  • John Couretas

    Greg: You raise a valid point. I am not advocating that conservatives set up their own little cultural ghetto where they will produce books and movies and the full menu of cultural artifacts for their exclusive enjoyment. I’m talking about providing support (yes, dollars are a big part of it) to younger artists who would otherwise find a cold reception, or outright rejection, at many film schools, writer’s workshops, etc. Then the young artist — and at this point you don’t need to qualify the term by calling him or her a conservative or affix any other ideological tag — goes out and competes freely in the culture. But there is a vast apparatus of support and promotion around a lot of media that is designed to publicize, recognize, honor and materially assist the work that artists do and if you think that there’s no “us and them” or ideology at play in this then I would disagree with you.

    Do “conservative” artists make their way in places that aren’t for the most part inclined to see the world as they do. Sure. Do “conservative” works get produced or published. Yes. A good example is the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged underway now. Will it be good art? Well, I guess that depends on how good the artists are. Right wing agit-prop is no more palatable than the stuff you see from the Left.

    To Roger’s point in the first comment: I’m rereading the Brothers Karamazov. This is a great novel written by a Christian who took his faith seriously. But it’s not an infomercial for Christianity or Russian Orthodoxy. If that’s what Dostoevsky had set out to do, I would conjecture that the book would have long been forgotten by now.

  • Roger McKinney

    John, Excellent points! I think Christians need to give up on the idea of using art to sell Christianity. Advertising is much better for that.

    I watched an old episode of Star Trek: Next Generation last night in which the Enterprise encountered a planet with a primitive population. The crew was trying to observe the primitives without breaking the “prime directive” to avoid “contaminating” primite cultures, but someone slipped up and the primitives saw Picard and thought he was a god. The important thing about the show was that it never debated the existence of the supernatural. It assumed that even the mere acceptance of the idea of the supernatural was nothing but ignorant superstition. When the primitives started believing in the supernatural again after encountering Picard, the crew explained to them that they were regressing to worse primitivism. Picard explained that humans had progressed beyond the need for the supernatural superstition centuries ago and how much better off they were.

    My point is that the art that advanced atheism did not argue for atheism or against belief. It assumed that atheism was true. The good guys in the films are atheists and their lifestyles are preferred. Believers are portrayed by ignorant fools. So Christians need to quit trying to shoe horn polemics and apologetics into artwork. Put it into a documentary. Art is an emotional medium. It must grab the emotions or it is not art. Good execution, not polemics, produces better art. What grabs emotions? Mostly love and death, but also the struggle against evil. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy knew how to do it. Immitate them.

  • Ken

    I haven’t read all the entries above carefully but it seems to me that the word that is the elephant in the room is “didactic” — and if I’m right about that it’s because of the advice I received forty plus years ago on what a good story should be, and that was “Never Didactic.”

    didactic |dīˈdaktik|
    intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive : a didactic novel that set out to expose social injustice.
    • in the manner of a teacher, particularly so as to treat someone in a patronizing way : slow-paced, didactic lecturing.

    I watched an “interesting” movie the other night. Frank Langela plays an old professor who’s had a couple of notable books but with life in ebb, sits at a typewriter [not a computer — maybe that’s his problem] and hits keys but admits that nothing is flowing. One line of his dialogue goes something like, “a good story develops from the characters. My characters just aren’t doing anything.”

    Flannery O’Connor is probably the best modern example of an artist of fiction with characters that were doing things. And the characters were well enough put together that their actions followed from what we had been given as clues to who they were. Granted they surprised us but never unpredictably, not if one was really paying attention.

    In my opinion, a moral Christian story exists when the actions of the characters lead to a consequence that conforms to the moral values of Christianity. Along the way a lot of stuff can occur and some of it might be R or PG13. But if good is rewarded and evil punished — I’m okay.

    Life’s not always like that but it’s as close to didactic as I think it is artistically safe to be.

  • Roger McKinney

    Ken, good points! I think you’re right. The basic pattern needs to be a good story first, populated with a Christian character or two as the good guy. That’s how the anti-Christian crowd works. They portray the Christian as the crazy and evil guy. Who ever is the “good” guy in the film will cause an emotional connection, not intellectual, with the viewer and create empathy and support for his position. The apologetic is emotional, not cerebral.

    Of course, an interesting twist would be to make the Christian appear to be the bad guy but end up being the good guy. Wouk did something similar in “The Cain Mutiny” but that takes a lot of skill.

  • John Couretas

    In the March issue of Commentary, Terry Teachout reviews the new Brad Gooch biography of the novelist Flannery O’Connor — and offers a new “appreciation” of the artist. Teachout makes the point that O’Connor was no “run of the mill religious novelist.” You wonder, now 40 plus years after her death, how many of her new readers actually discern the religious content in her work. Here’s a snip from Teachout’s article.

    As Gooch makes clear, O’Connor’s religious beliefs were central to her art. She was a “cradle Catholic,” one of the very few novelists of her generation to have been born into the church rather than converting to Catholicism as an adult, and she appears never to have weathered any crisis of faith. What inspired her to write fiction, however, was not her own reasonably straightforward relationship to the Catholic Church so much as the church’s more complex relationship to the world around her.

    Roman Catholicism has long been viewed with suspicion in the South, where evangelical Protestantism in all its myriad varieties is woven into the fabric of a culture that is, in O’Connor’s oft-quoted phrase, “Christ-haunted.” O’Connor, on the other hand, was both a Catholic and an intellectual, a pair of traits that set her as far apart from the common life of rural Georgia as did the chronic illness that forced her to lead the reclusive existence of a semi-invalid.

    Yet O’Connor, to her credit, took the homespun beliefs of her fellow Southerners with the utmost seriousness. Even more surprisingly, she regarded them with exceptional imaginative sympathy, seeking to portray in her fiction the sometimes bizarre ways in which spiritual enthusiasm manifested itself in the lives of people who, lacking an orthodoxy to guide them, were forced to re-create the forms of religion from scratch. As she explained in a 1959 letter:

    “The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically.”

    Her sympathy, she added, arose from the fact that “I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.”

    Hence the ambiguity of Wise Blood, a concisely picaresque novel about Hazel Motes, an uneducated Southerner who longs to free himself from the Christianity in which he was raised but “cannot get rid of his sense of debt and his inner vision of Christ” (as O’Connor put it) and ends by blinding himself in order to better “see” his inner vision of divine grace. What gives Wise Blood its characteristic tone is that O’Connor plays Motes’s desperate struggle for laughs—but without ever making the mistake of viewing it, or him, with contempt.

  • Neal Lang

    Like R.R. Tolkien’s stories, Catholic directors can champion their ideals and principle, even in very “dark” movies such as John Ford’s 1956 classic masterpiece “The Searchers” starring John Wayne as a very “dark” hero. The Catholic Ford used his artistry in this extremely “dark” movie to highlight the triumph of “good” over “evil”, the importance of family values, and force the audience to “examine their consciences” on topics such as biotry and racism. Yet he did so in a movie that is profitable in the threaters and a favorite of millions.

    I believe that is the real trick in getting out the right message – creating art that is at once beautiful, interesting, entertaining, and challenging so that is also popular and rewarding.

  • Julian

    “smuggles an idea into the head by way of the heart”

    this is straight up brainwashing or conditioning. it may be the only way to move forward to the point where people may pay attention to their heads down the line, but this needs to be acknowledged for what it is.

  • Being in the media industry for about 25 years now, let me just add, that some of the worst Christian Media was in the decade of the 70’s to mid 90’s. It has only been recently started to rebound as the Story, the Script and the Characters seem to be getting better. Yeshua would’ve been making movies if he was in this day and age, because He was the best storyteller who lived.
    Here are my thoughts…
    If we are to tell stories about this World we live in, we need to learn how to write as people speak, and react. That’s where many of those Liberally minded artists leave us in the dust. Conservative mindedness is mainly analytical and causal thinking. Primarily we derive the exact opposite of our Liberal counter parts. We think as to Cause-Reaction, where as they React first than try to justify a cause. This manner of thinking has more conflict. We as humans are drawn into conflict, and conflict breeds art either for selfish reasons, or for soul searching and redemptive means to raise above the conflict and draw us out of ourselves. There is more conflict in liberal reaction and the search to justify than there is in a Conservative mindset looking at the consequences. If we learn to write the way we feel, and find the arguments that lie deep within us, than we learn to react more with our minds on the consequences. Writing is a heart matter, attached to the soul. Look at the Psalmist for a good example. At the same time we have to be honest in our reactions, that don’t always reflect God’s holiness, but rather the war that goes on with the spirit. If we reflect on the result and build from the beginning showing the honest conflict, than we will become better writers, and more real to the World.