What I want you to know. Which is everything.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Born Again Artist

Lately, I've read some pretty scathing reviews of the movie, The End of the Spear a story about a couple of missionaries who travel to a remote part of Ecuador to bring Jesus to those poor unfortunate souls who call themselves the Waodani tribe.

I don't want to give a full review here because I haven't seen the movie. See the excellent reviews by the Venerable Priest and the ACU Optimist's Sarah Carlson, sister of Great Blogs of Fire regular and film critic.Dan. (Sarah Carlson is also the name of a person I worked with one summer at a church camp in Arizona, but she spelled "Sara" without the "h" at the end. This is beside the point.)

These reviews are by people who would consider themselves, and whom I consider Christians, probably even Evangelical. Both of these reviews describe The End of the Spear as being bland, cheesy, without depth, relevance or any effort at a legitimate work of art chronicling the incredible stories of these missionaries. Both Carlson and Priest cite the film as not giving due respect to the lives of the missionaries involved.

While these reviewers are probably right and I'm not going to see this movie based on them, I can't help but identify with Christian artists. Somewhere there is a balance between making entertainment that is accessible to secular audiences without alienating Christian artist, but express the artists' Christian perspective. In the ACU Theatre department we concentrated quite a bit of effort on this problem. The mission statement of the department reflects this problem as does a quote that appears on much of the ACU Theatre recruitment material. I can't find the exact quote but it was something to the effect of this: "Where are the artists who will represent Christ to a desolate and lost world with artistic integrity?" The actual quote was better put, but that is the large question for a big portion of the Christian arts community. When writing a play I am often met with the dilemma of appealing to both secular and Christian artists. My play Arizona Rose, for example has undergone numerous rewrites, some for the simple reason that I was unable to resolve this issue. On the one hand I didn't feel that the issues presented would be relevant to a secular audience, but some of the material might be offensive to many Christians and therefore no one would ever see the play. But, how does an artist remain truthful without offending Christians. I mean really, everything offends some Christians!

There's got to be a balance out there, though. Some movies like Passion of the Christ and The Ten Commandments have been accepted into mainline film circles as quality films despite their religious themes. Two things, though, make this possible. First, mainstream audiences are more likely to accept stories that are direct translations of the Bible. People see it as historical and not in your face evangelising. Second, these two films were made by directors who had already proven themselves in mainstream filmmaking. Another thing that helps Christianity based or religious themed films is if they cause more offense to the Christian community than to the secular one. In these cases many movie goers are apt to jump to see what all the fuss is about.

But the bottom line is that a movie has to be good. And to be good it has to be able to move more people than just your fundamentalist religious zealot, who seem to be content with the dreck they play on TBN. To me this means that I have to continue doing what I'm doing without worrying whether or not someone is going to take offense because my play contains cuss words on the same page as a character professes Christ. That's for that character to hash out and if you take offense to that then you are simply taking offense to real lives being lived. So those who took offense that a priest has an openly gay son and has a very personal relationship with Jesus, himself, see the art for what it is: a representations of someone's reality and not the white-washed cookie cutter brand of Christianity that you want to believe exists, but doesn't.

So, what is the greatest mistake the makers of The End of the Spear made? I can tell you without even seeing the movie that they neglected one very important sector of movie-goer. Christians who care about good art.


tine said...

Kyle, great post...I love that quote they use in the department also. I have it framed and in my portfolio. I wrote a post over a year ago that included it and several others that speak to this...adam also commented on that post and left me another quote...here's the link

priest said...

a hearty amen, Bullmartin.

i had a conversation with a Catholic man once, whom I love and fellowship with. He was telling me that out of Catholicism came guys like Da Vinci and Michaelangelo and such. Then the reformation happened, and largely in opposition to the iconic nature of Catholicism, we begin to see not so great visual art, but a renaissance in music. This can be seen even today. In Protestant circles, our buildings are generally ugly, but our music is quality. Go over to the Catholic church, and their buildings far outdo ours both outside and inside, but their music remains simple chants and monotone choruses.

What is exciting is that postmodernity is ushering in a both/and approach to the visual and musical gifts that God gives his people. There may still be a lag effect on both sides. Arguably, Mel Gibson (a free Catholic) is the forerunner of those in the faith in Hollywood. But at the same time, the music I listen to that has to do with faith is often from folks of Protestant heritage.

What I'm getting at is that Protestantism is just now beginning to wake up to the reality that we live in an iconic culture, where thought and idea is transmitted through the screen. As you pointed out, we've got a lot of catching up to do. But as you noted, we're asking the right questions. And the right questions, to me, are everything.

tine said...

i didn't really finish commenting, but i totally agree with you...there are many movies that speak to me about "spiritual" things that are not labeled "christian" movies...however, they have themes of redemption, love, grace and mercy...i have found that ocassionally, in books and movies and music, the artists stumble onto ultimate truths that can only come from the Lord, and so whether or not the art is explicitly "christian", it still resonates and speaks to your soul...

when trying to create good art that does speak of true redemption, isn't it also necessary to accurately portray the pits from which we must be redeemed?

i am thankful that you share this view, because you are a gifted writer, and your desire to create good art, along with your desire to glorify the Lord can coexist!

Rosco said...

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By the way, I like your blog. I can tell you're a christian just by the things you say. Stay strong!

Jason said...

I'm not sure what you were trying to say in that post. I got that you struggled with the practice of being a "Christian artist", but what does that struggle have to do with that particular film? Do you think that they were presenting a Christian story in the medium of film? Do you think they were makiong a film that happened to have Christian subject matter? Having not seen the film myself, I can't say, and I find it hard to believe that you could either.

By the way, I think there are a lot of Christian films that are successful with more or less overt Christian themes and ideas. For example, "The Last Temptation of Christ" is one of the most powerful Christian films I have ever seen, despite the controversy surrounding its premise.

Also, what makes film "Christian"? Is it the filmmakers? Subject matter? Themes? I hear the debate about Christianity in art, and I recognize that it is an issue that must be discussed, but I honestly don't know if we all agree on the foundational elements for holding such a discussion.

Kyle said...

How often are foundational elements actually agreed upon. Isn't that usually what people argue about.

I agree, Jason, that many films have Christian themes without being overtly Christian. When I say Christian movies I'm talking about premises that are fundementally Christian. This movie is about missionaries who's soul purpose is to preach the message of Christ. Although, apperently the filmmakers are really vague and dance around the issue of Christianity so the reason for them being there gets muddled. I am only repeating what others have said, though.

I only mentioned the film because of other blogs I've read. I didn't want to stay on the film for too long because I haven't seen it, so I don't have much to say about it. But the ways other's have talked about made me think about this struggle and I wanted to discuss the larger issue. I hope that answers your questions.

I know that it was a little rambly and unfocused but I was writing it whist trying to keep an eye on unruly teenagers.