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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Faith-Based Filmmaking, Part 1

The very prospect of faith-based filmmaking by Christians raises a fascinating question: what is the relationship between filmmaking and evangelization?

The question arises with some force when we consider  Christian filmmakers, some of them even Christian pastors, who make films expressly to evangelize.

Consider the new film, The Grace Card, starring Louis Gossett, Jr., about an embittered police officer whose life is changed when he is assigned a new partner who also is a Christian pastor. What I have to say about this film is in no way meant to be a review of it. In fact, I haven’t even seen the film. And the same goes for the two other faith-based films I discuss below. My only interest, for now, is in what the makers of these faith-based films have to say about their motives for getting into the movie business, and the sorts of questions these motives raise.

The Grace Card, as we read on the film’s official website, is the vision of Dr. David Evans, a Memphis optometrist and founder of the faith-based production company, Graceworks Pictures. Dr. Evans also directed The Grace Card and served as the film’s executive producer. The film was made in conjunction with Calvary Pictures, a ministry of Calvary, a Church of the Nazarene led by Pastor Lynn Holmes in Cordova, Tennessee.

The church-as-production company-idea has gathered steam in recent years, largely due to the success of the films made by Sherwood Pictures, a production company associated with Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. The third of Sherwood’s films, Fireproof, starring Kirk Cameron, was made for half a million dollars and grossed an impressive 33 million, making it the highest-grossing independent movie of 2008. It was the success of Fireproof that inspired Dr. Evans to make The Grace Card

And Dr. Evans was not alone in being inspired. Friends Church in Yorba Linda, California, a non-denominational evangelical megachurch, is now at work on its own film, Not Today, about a spoiled young American on a trip to India who is drawn into a search for a little girl sold to human traffickers. In an interview with PBS, Pastor Matthew Cork had this to say about the purpose of Not Today:

It wasn’t just to make a movie, because we’re not in the movie business. We’re a church. But as a church we do have an obligation and a responsibility to tell the message, and so we believe that this was the best way for us in what God had gifted us with.

In the same story for PBS, Dr. Evans had this to say about the aims of The Grace Card:

We want, number one, for God to be glorified through this movie. We want to plant seeds that result in people demonstrating forgiveness and extending grace. That’s something we all need to do on a larger scale.

Finally, on the official site of Fireproof—a film about the renewal of a damaged marriage—one finds a page with the title: “5,740 Marriages Have Been Ignited by Fireproof,” followed by a long list of fan comments thanking the filmmakers for helping them  with their marriages or with some other aspect of their lives.

It was, reportedly, Sam Goldwyn who said: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Behind this bon mot is the thought that movies aren’t supposed to send messages. They aren’t supposed to teach—even if what they have to teach is something about God, or a grave injustice affecting many innocent lives. The point of movies, Goldwyn no doubt wanted to say, is to entertain.

To which the Christian might retort: Christ himself spoke in parables. Christ himself used stories to communicate his message. So why shouldn’t his followers do the same, and use the most popular modern storytelling medium, film, to do it? 

And in making this point, the Christian would be absolutely right.

Christians shouldn’t be blamed for wanting to use stories to witness to the faith. They shouldn’t be blamed for wanting to glorify God, as Dr. Evans hopes to do with The Grace Card, or for wanting to raise awareness of human trafficking in India, as the makers of Not Today want to do.

However…these good motives should be distinguished from what’s necessary to the craft of filmmaking, in particular, filmmaking for mass audiences grouped together for the purposes of entertainment. For this is the arena that movies like The Grace Card have chosen to enter. Christ told parables, but he didn’t tell bedtime stories (or none, unfortunately, that we know of). Parables such as the Prodigal Son, in other words, were told by Christ in the context of preaching, not in the context of a Saturday night’s entertainment. It’s important to see the difference between these two contexts, because while it’s senseless, even impious, to ask whether Christ might have told a better yarn if he had developed more of the back-story on the prodigal son’s brother, it is not senseless or impious to ask whether a movie made for mass audiences seeking to be entertained, even one made by Christians, is doing all it should do as a work of art.

One of the dangers in confusing the context of preaching with the context of entertainment is that Christian audiences can become rather slack in what they’re willing to accept as a satisfying work of art. For too many, if the film is made by good people with good Christian motives, then they tend not to think about, or not be so critical of, the quality of it. But we should be concerned with the artistry of faith-based films, and not let financial success, or even evangelical success, make us complacent with the way things are done. For again, to make a film for mass audiences, whatever other motives are in play, is to attempt to make a work of art that entertains, and there is no excuse for the Christian to aim at anything less than the highest standards this art form demands.    

Which brings us to the key question: how to do this? How can faith-based Christian filmmakers witness to their faith while also being true to their craft?

Great art is always in the details, of course, but some general principles can be culled from the writings and observations of some great Catholic writers—and that’s what I’ll be doing in my next post later this week, with the help of Dante, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. 

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