Faith-based filmmaking is a reaction to large cultural shifts in our country—shifts in the culture of Hollywood, certainly, but also in the culture at large.
When Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments premiered in 1956, no one thought of it as a faith-based film, at least not in the way that phrase is used today. Hollywood had a long history of making films with Biblical or religious subjects—Demille himself made a silent version of The Ten Commandments way back in 1923—and the public was only too glad to watch another one, especially one starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. The same goes for films such as The Song of Bernadette, The Bells of St. Mary’s, The Robe, Ben-Hur, and the television mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth.
But our cultural manners have changed, driven by a loss of faith in the Mystery. The change was already well underway when The Ten Commandments premiered, but in recent decades the shift has become more tumultuous, producing seismic effects. To the point where we can no longer say that we live in a culture where our Christian heritage is the dominant ethos.
As the sage said, all conflicts are theological conflicts, and whether it’s always recognized or not, our cultural battlefield is defined by where folks stand in relationship to God. For this reason, the release of any Biblical or religious film is going to be regarded by both sides as a salvo in a cultural war. Exhibit A: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
In this social context, it is easier to understand and sympathize with the motives of those Christian filmmakers whom I spoke of in my last post, those who make films for the purposes of evangelizing—or re-evangelizing—our culture. But as I also remarked in that post, the danger in using mass-audience filmmaking as a means of evangelization is that if the work does not meet the highest standards of the art form, the film will for the most part only encourage the choir, and at worst consign Christian filmmakers to a cultural ghetto. Of course, God’s grace can go to work through any faith-based film. Eduardo Versátegui, the star of Bella, one of the most successful faith-based films in recent years, reports on his website that Bella has helped prevent over a hundred abortions. Now I think Bella has some drawbacks as a movie, but there are far more important things than movies, and one can only be grateful that such good came from people seeing Bella.
There is more than one way to form culture. A film can influence culture by being a mere tool of evangelization. Yet a film can also influence culture by uplifting the heart and mind with beauty.
Let us assume that Christian filmmakers, granted their evangelical motives, are also trying to meet the highest standards of the art form and make beautiful works of art. This leads to the question: what are the highest standards of the art form? How do Christian filmmakers manifest the beauty of our faith in an increasingly secularized world?
Art is not produced by following a set of rules. But there are principles, and since the heart of a film, as with any narrative art, is its plot (as Aristotle taught us), I believe filmmakers can learn how to tell great stories by turning to great Catholic writers of fiction—especially those 20th-century Catholic writers who had to wrestle with telling stories in a world in which nihilism, as Flannery O’Connor said, is the gas we breathe.
Let’s begin with a few observations from Miss O’Connor, and in subsequent posts consider some other authors.
O’Connor writes this about the Catholic novelist in her essay, “Novelist and Believer,” a point that is relevant to all the arts:
Great fiction involves the whole range of human judgment; it is not simply an imitation of feeling. The good novelist not only finds a symbol for feeling, he finds a symbol and a way of lodging it which tells the intelligent reader whether this feeling is adequate or inadequate, whether it is moral or immoral, whether it is good or evil. And his theology, even in its most remote reaches, will have a direct bearing on this.
Part of O’Connor’s point here is that every novelist, every artist, constructs his work from an estimate of what he believes life is all about. So that if the theology, or lack of it, of the artist does not influence the way in which he sees reality, he is not being true to himself as an artist.
But another part of O’Connor’s point is that, even for the believer, great fiction demands something more than belief. O’Connor speaks of the good novelist’s need to find “a symbol for feeling,” a symbol that will bear the weight of the truth that the novelist wants to communicate.
The finding of such a symbol is a matter of craft, not of faith. It is a matter, as O’Connor argues in her essay, of penetrating reality and finding there the concrete materials by which the truth can be communicated in a way that delights the senses, the emotions, the memory, and the imagination. “Ever since there have been such things as novels,” writes O’Connor,
the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible.
So the Christian filmmaker has an obligation. His job is not to make his beliefs look pretty or feel soothing, but to get his hands dirty with the way things really are. The Catholic artist has a distinct advantage in this, as his faith helps him see the full breadth and depth of reality. Yet because of this he is even more deeply obliged to look at that reality with his own eyes.