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”). (more…)

For those following the University of Notre Dame controversy, this moving article over at First Things poses a compelling question at the end – a question that each member of the Board of Notre Dame (meeting today) ought to ask themselves:

There have been many things written about the honors to be extended to President Obama. I’d like to ask this of Fr. John Jenkins, the Notre Dame president: Who draws support from your decision to honor President Obama—the young, pregnant Notre Dame woman sitting in that graduating class who wants desperately to keep her baby, or the Notre Dame man who believes that the Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion is just dining-room talk?

Read Lacy Dodd’s “Notre Dame, My Mother,” at First Things.

Blog author: rnothstine
Thursday, April 30, 2009
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roose3Brown University student Kevin Roose has written a largely sympathetic and often amusing outsider’s account on the spiritual lives and struggles of conservative evangelical students at Liberty University. Roose, who took a semester off at Brown, decided to enroll at Liberty posing as an evangelical for his book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Possibly setting out to write an expose of sorts on Liberty’s quirky Southern Baptist fundamentalism and the students efforts there to gear up for the culture wars, he unsurprisingly finds a much more complex story to tell.

Complex because Liberty students, like most evangelical Christians struggle with temptation, relationships, and the trials that go with being an authentic believer living in a fallen world. In regards to Roose’s own preconceived notions or stereotypes, listen to his own words:

All in all, the Liberty students I’ve met are a lot more socially adjusted than I expected. They’re not rabid, frothing fundamentalists who spend their days sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls and penning angry missives to the ACLU. Maybe I’m getting a skewed sample, but the ones I’ve met have been funny, articulate, and decidedly non-crazy.

In fact, Roose’s account does a good job of demolishing the left’s stereotypes of places like Liberty, a school where you can probably find some absurd stereotypes about Ivy League schools. Roose, by a twist of fate, actually ends up conducting the last print interview of Liberty’s president Jerry Falwell before his unexpected death a few days following Roose’s hour long sit down session with Falwell. This is where the author who was once a foe of Falwell because of his many public statements, decides Falwell is more “complex” and points out a good deal of his compassion in the pages of his book. While he still disagrees with Fallwell’s brand of ministry and politics, Roose can’t but help admire his authenticity:

Realizing that Dr. Falwell isn’t a fraud – as troubling a notion as that is – has helped me solve one of the great mysteries of this semester. For months now, I’ve been puzzled by the thousands of good, kind-hearted believers at Liberty who follow a man who seems, to my mind, to be almost unredeemable. They like him, I’m learning, because he’s a straight shooter. In a half century of preaching, Dr. Falwell has said some outrageous things, and he’s angered Christians and non-Christians alike, but he’s never revealed himself as a hypocrite. He’s never been caught in sexual sin, and he’s been transparent in his financial dealings as you could reasonably expect. And in the world of televangelism, a world filled to the brim with hucksters and charlatans and Elmer Gantry – type swindlers, a little sincerity goes a long way.

The book is a great account if one is looking for funny tales and anecdotes about evangelism, the Liberty dating scene, the teaching of young earth creationism, and Christian fundamentalism in general. There are also spiritual lessons to be learned. I believe each reader will pull different lessons and truths from this account.

I’ve noticed the Emergent Church movement has embraced Roose’s book and Roose himself calls the Emergent Church, “A growing brand of evangelicalism that de-emphasizes political issues like abortion and gay marriage and seeks to return to a more spiritual form of Christianity.” This of course is a wildly sympathetic view of the Emergent Church, because some evangelicals who question the practice of de-emphasizing substitutionary atonement, hell, and doctrines like justification by faith would definitely disagree with the idea that the Emergent Church is a “return to a more spiritual form of Christianity.”

At any rate I can relate to some of what Roose experiences from my own seminary experience. Although I came in as a believer and graduated as a believer I bristled at some of the legalism associated with a Wesleyan Holiness school and worked to tame my tongue around others. Sometimes I felt like I was trapped in the endless mandatory spiritual formation in the small groups that accompanied many courses. There were many a days I felt like an outsider. But when I had problems with a decision made by the administration or from all the busy work that at times seemed unbecoming of a graduate student, I was buoyed, like Roose, from knowing and being in fellowship with some great Christians in my seminary community.

While I’m a conservative evangelical, like many evangelicals I’ve been both amused and frustrated with an element of fundamentalism. Sometimes its rigidity can appear like an eternal plague of locusts, causing me to flee wherever it lands. But if this book reinforced anything for me, it’s a very basic truth, and that is as an evangelical I love God’s people and I grieve for lost souls. I found myself wanting to minister to the troubled souls described in Roose’s book, and of course Roose himself. According to this AP article he even thinks about joining a church.

Since leaving seminary, like so many others, I’ve struggled with areas of ministry, but one thing I think I’ve always been blessed with is an ability to preach and exhort God’s Word. I can remember sitting in preaching class and my professor said, “You have to preach John 3:16 every sermon. You might have to use different passages and find different ways to say it, but the central message should be a John 3:16 one.” I agree and when I look out on a deeply troubled and complex world, it’s important to see people as the image bearers of God, and that they were created for fellowship with the Triune God, and there is no love like God’s love. And ultimately the toils and trials of this world have already been decided by the victory of Christ over sin and death. And that is indeed news worth sharing.

In “The Real Culture War Is Over Capitalism,” Arthur C. Brooks argues in the Wall Street Journal that the “major cultural schism” in America today divides those who support capitalism and, on the other side, those who favor socialism. He makes a strong case for the moral foundations of free enterprise and entrepreneurship and points to the recent “tea parties” as evidence that Americans still favor the market economy. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, says Americans are revolting against “absurdities” like the bailout of General Motors that will be financed with ballooning budget deficits and trillions in new federal debt. He writes:

… the tea parties are not based on the cold wonkery of budget data. They are based on an “ethical populism.” The protesters are homeowners who didn’t walk away from their mortgages, small business owners who don’t want corporate welfare and bankers who kept their heads during the frenzy and don’t need bailouts. They were the people who were doing the important things right — and who are now watching elected politicians reward those who did the important things wrong.

Voices in the media, academia, and the government will dismiss this ethical populism as a fringe movement — maybe even dangerous extremism. In truth, free markets, limited government, and entrepreneurship are still a majoritarian taste. In March 2009, the Pew Research Center asked people if we are better off “in a free market economy even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time.” Fully 70% agreed, versus 20% who disagreed.

He also points out that the government has been increasingly “exempting” Americans from paying taxes, an intentional strategy to create a larger class of government-dependent citizens.

My colleague Adam Lerrick showed in [the Wall Street Journal] last year that the percentage of American adults who have no federal income-tax liability will rise to 49% from 40% under Mr. Obama’s tax plan. Another 11% will pay less than 5% of their income in federal income taxes and less than $1,000 in total.

To put a modern twist on the old axiom, a man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart; a man who is still a socialist at 40 either has no head, or pays no taxes. Social Democrats are working to create a society where the majority are net recipients of the “sharing economy.” They are fighting a culture war of attrition with economic tools. Defenders of capitalism risk getting caught flat-footed with increasingly antiquated arguments that free enterprise is a Main Street pocketbook issue. Progressives are working relentlessly to see that it is not.

Read the “The Culture of Charity,” the Spring 2007 interview with Brooks in Acton’s Religion & Liberty. Watch a 16-minute video interview with Brooks recorded at the Acton Grand Rapids office in May 2008

What’s behind the extremely high unemployment rates in black communities? Anthony Bradley traces the root of the problem to declining educational achievement. “Sadly, because of America’s exploding government program menu, the virtue of ‘getting an education’ has all but been eliminated in low-income black neighborhoods,” he writes.

Read the commentary at the Acton Institute website and share your thoughts below.

“America has been cashing checks on the promise of future Social Security checks, and on the promise of an endlessly robust housing market,” writes Jonathan Witt in his commentary this week. “But somewhere along the way, too many of us stopped funding the checking account with its principal asset: young adults who work hard, pay into the Social Security system, and buy homes for the families they themselves intend to raise.”

Read the commentary at the Acton Institute website and participate in the discussion below.

No, conservative and Christian are not synonymous, but in the context of the cultural impact of Hollywood, there’s a lot of overlap. For Christians interested in engaging this field by pursuing both technical and moral excellence, there is an outstanding organization called Act One.

Writer Andrew Klavan, picking up on a theme he addressed at Heritage Resource Bank, posted an essay titled “Toward A New American Culture” on his Pajamas Media blog, Klavan on the Culture. Excerpt:

We need to build a New American Culture, and turn our backs on the culture of the state. We need to stop according respect or credence to reviews and awards that are used as social engineering tools to force the culture into anti-American state worship. We need to build an infra-structure of funding, review attention and awards to give praise, purpose and prestige to those artists who stand outside the MSM’s climate of opinion.

It would be wrong to say too much about what such a New American Culture would look like. Individualism is the very essence of both conservatism and art. But I think we can say that such a culture would reflect and uplift the values and perspectives that made the west and America the greatest and freest places on the globe; it would put forward an image of man as our founders knew him to be, flawed and sinful yet capable of striving toward dignity and salvation through self-reliance and sacrifice. It need not be—it should not be, in my view—squeaky clean or restrained by some new Hays Office production code of what the audience should be allowed to see. Sensationalism, sex and violence have been part of the arts since art began. Artists are entertainers, after all, not policy wonks.

In truth, there is only one essential principle our new culture needs to remember and embody and it’s this: liberty is better than slavery. This principle alone implies a moral order and a human purpose. It makes a small state better than a big one. It makes America better than, say, Saudi Arabia. It makes a religion based on “love thy neighbor,” better than one based on submission. This principle alone will guide us away from mealy-mouthed self-abasement to balanced self-criticism and praise amidst our search for the dignity, strength and morality befitting free men and women.

We welcome guest blogger Bruce Edward Walker, Communications Manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. This week’s PBR question is: “How should conservatives engage Hollywood?”

It is true that liberal depictions of dissolute and immoral behavior are rampant in modern cinema and justified as the desired end of hedonistic tendencies, but conservative critics too often come across as cultural scolds, vilifying films and filmmakers for not portraying reality as conservatives would like to see it. For many conservative critics, the only worthwhile contemporary movies made are adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series or those that feature Kirk Cameron in a starring role. The verisimilitude inherent in all compelling storytelling is neglected in favor of presenting idealized worlds in which a clearly defined good always overcomes easily identified evil.

Such an approach is simplistic and insults those of us that can recognize the presence of moral themes in the works of Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor and Tom Wolfe, and don’t automatically blanch at cursing, violence, sex and nudity when it serves a real dramatic purpose. Humanity, of course, is fallen and it’s foolish to expect conservative audiences to respond only to films that depict all marriages as salvageable, all protagonists as heroic metaphors for Christ and all heroines as virgins until the wedding night. Reality teaches us that these scenarios are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Felix culpa – the fortunate fall from whence one can experience God’s grace – is the phrase St. Thomas Aquinas used to explain how God allows evil to exist in order to allow for the greater good of His redemption. For all the decadence he depicted, for example, French poet Charles Baudelaire was perceived by none other than T.S. Eliot as still entering the Church albeit through the back door. (more…)

One of the more interesting discussions at last week’s Heritage Foundation Resource Bank meeting in Los Angeles was the “Hollywood Conversations” session with screenwriter and novelist Andrew Klavan and Lionel Chetwynd, a writer, producer and director. Both men pleaded with the gathering of conservatives — social, political, economic — to stop beating up on Hollywood ad nauseam and to do more to support good work by conservatives.

Here’s the gist of the argument from a recent Klavan interview on Big Hollywood:

We have to just take it as given that the mainstream venues are against us, the awards won’t go to us, the reviewers will attack us — sometimes without even admitting why. We have to speak up for ourselves, we have to review each other, honestly and fairly, we have to buy the books that stand up for what’s right-assuming they’re good, assuming they do what they’re supposed to do, entertain, tell good stories. We have to understand that the media is our enemy — the enemy of the American idea, our founders’ ideas — and we have to make our own arts, and celebrate our arts and reward our arts. And then we’ll see who wins in the marketplace.

Both Klavan and Chetwynd said that there are far more conservatives in Hollywood than most people imagine. Yet the conservative think tank, cultural and political culture does little to recognize and encourage them. Compared to the cultural left, conservatives in entertainment have few award ceremonies, prizes, and regular reviewers who support good projects. As an example, they cited the recent HBO film “Taking Chance” as one work that deserved far more attention on the right than it got. The story, about a military escort officer accompanying home the body of a Marine corporal killed in Iraq, drew 2 million viewers and became the most-watched original movie to debut on the network in five years.

A scene from HBO's 'Taking Chance'

A scene from HBO's 'Taking Chance'

Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Big Hollywood, told the Resource Bank blogger session that Hollywood conservatives practice a “big tent” inclusiveness with none of the internecine feuds so common in Washington. He predicted that more conservatives would “come out of the closet” in Hollywood (he has 200 bloggers on his site) but that they could use a lot more support from the wider conservative movement.

This week’s PBR question is: “How should conservatives engage Hollywood?”

Share your answers in the comments section and look for answers from PowerBlog contributors throughout the week.