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Why Can’t We Have Nice Things?

 

godsnotdead

The word is out and the fix is in, at least among the faithful: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which opens this Friday, is unbiblical, perhaps even blasphemous, and discerning Christians should probably avoid it. Meanwhile, the Jesus-themed Son of God hit theaters a little under a month ago. Superstar megachurch pastor Rick Warren told his congregation that boosting this film is so important, they should skip church to go see it. And it’s working. Son of God has already risen to 5th place on the list of all-time top-grossing “Christian Movies” (as defined by Box Office Mojo), behind only The Passion and the three Narnia movies. In contrast, Warren warned his 1.34 million Twitter followers to stay away from Noah, misquoting its director in support of his position. Attempts to correct him went ignored, and the comment was retweeted nearly a thousand times. Last week, Son of God was joined in theaters by the evangelistic God’s Not Dead. Even in limited release, God’s Not Dead has already slid into the 15th spot on the top-grossing “Christian Movies” list after a mere three days, and the site predicts that it will likely crack the top ten as it expands into more theaters (admittedly not a very high bar to hurdle).

sonofgodIt certainly seems likely that these two films will continue to do quite well by Christian Movie standards. And yet, Son of God currently has a very poor “37” on Metacritic, and an even poorer “22%” on Rotten Tomatoes, and the critical consensus seems to be that it has very little to offer to any audiences outside of “the faithful.” But, for that matter, what does it really offer the churchgoing crowd? The theatrical release has merely repackaged the “Jesus” portion of last year’s 10-hour The Bible TV miniseries, which was free to watch for anyone with cable. Can this big-screen “Jesus edit” of the miniseries really be anything more than a cynical cash-grab by the producers?

fromthemangertothecrossAnd even if it is, why is there even a market for one more straightforward retelling of the life of Christ? By my count there have been as many as 10 films about all or part of Jesus’s life in the last fifteen years alone. There are many more stretching back even further. One of the oldest surviving feature films in existence, From the Manger to the Cross, is a Jesus movie from 1912, and aside from cosmetic elements like the addition of color and sound, there has been surprisingly little evolution in the cinematic portrayal of Jesus.

That’s over a century of largely moribund depictions of Jesus popping up in theaters and on television every few years. Even way back in 1912, one movie exhibitor lamented, “let me advertise a religious piece […] and it means an off day in the box office.” With nothing new or exciting to bring to the familiar “Greatest Story Ever Told,” the same bland movie keeps getting recycled every few years with a new long-haired, bearded, white-robed actor in the lead role because evangelicals will keep ponying up the cash to see it. The only mystery is: Why?

godsnotdead2Then there’s God’s Not Dead, a movie which draws its title from a popular “Christian rock” song by the “Newsboys,” and its plot from those goofy e-mail forwards about the evil atheist professor and the brave Christian freshman who destroys him with a few Bible verses. Where Son of God is essentially harmless pablum, God’s Not Dead is aggressively peddling a particularly caustic, hostile brand of cultural warfare, wrapped inside a shallow us-vs-them caricature of non-Christians. It’s sitting at an even lousier critical average than Son of God, with a “22” from Metacritic and a “25%” from Rotten Tomatoes.

Obviously these numbers mean nothing to the movie’s target audience. If anything, I presume the “cultural warrior” fans of God’s Not Dead might regard these reviews as further affirmation of secular hostility towards “the truth,” rather than an informed assessment of the movie’s ham-fisted lack of artistry. Perhaps most disturbing of all, at least to me, is that this film’s audience is so insular and out-of-touch that they regard a product that is avowedly preaching exclusively to the choir as a valid evangelistic tool.

noahNoah, on the other hand, is doing quite well critically, if the few dozen early reviews are to be trusted. However, though it may very well make more money than both of the other movies combined (in fact, it will have to, by a healthy margin, if it wants to recoup its budget), Noah will likely be seeing very poor attendance from the niche audience of American evangelicals that the other films are marketed to. This despite the fact that they ought to be the most interested in seeing the first big-budget Bible epic in years (decades?), a movie made by a critically-acclaimed director, and with the potential to start meaningful conversations about matters of faith. Something is terribly wrong.

“An entrance understanding of the gospel rarely creates good art.” That sentence popped out at me in a book I read a few years ago, although it was mostly a throw-away aside. An “entrance understanding,” in this case, refers to a biblical perspective that is focused on the altar call as the culmination of the Christian faith experience; in other words, on the “entrance” into the faith. An “entrance understanding” is different from an “entry-level understanding” of the gospel. An entrance understanding reduces the gospel message to answering a single question: How can we escape hell and get into heaven? The dramatic high point of this narrative is praying the Sinner’s Prayer. The rising action is the sinner’s life without Christ. The falling action is life with Christ.

Imagine if Roald Dahl’s classic children’s tale Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was entirely about Charlie’s life before he gets the Golden Ticket, and the climax was his discovery of that piece of foil wrapped around a Wonka chocolate bar. Or what if the whole Harry Potter series climaxed with Harry being told by Hagrid that he is really a wizard? What kind of story would that be? No Willy Wonka or Dumbledore, no chocolate factory or Hogwarts, no magic or mystery, no wonder. So much evangelistic Christian storytelling is like that, ending at the point where really great stories begin. This is storytelling that “reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club” (or the chocolate factory or the wizard school). Not only is this bad art, it’s uninspiring storytelling, and that’s nothing short of a travesty.

babettesfeastWhat do glimpses of the kingdom of heaven look like on film? Surely not a shallow, low-budget production with a thinly-disguised message that an American church can build a 6-week Bible study around. I can’t help but think here of Babette’s Feast, a film that is basically about a group of elderly Christians who discover the “explosive, liberating experience” that was missing from their entrance understanding of the gospel. After a lifetime of denying themselves what they deem to be “pleasures of the flesh” in pursuit of the higher life of the spirit, the group experiences a radical transformation when they gather for a meal more luxurious than anything they have ever imagined.

At first, they don’t appreciate it. At first, they force themselves to pay no attention to the culinary delights that are melting in their mouths. They are determined not to enjoy themselves, lest their enjoyment lead to temptation, gluttony, sin. But, in spite of themselves, they begin to feel the effects of the food and the fellowship, and the result is a renewal of faith where they had feared just the opposite, and a renewed sense of joy as well. They find that, as one character says, “mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

Babette’s Feast isn’t about what its characters have to do in order to be welcomed into eternal life after they die. It’s about learning to experience the joy of that life together here and now. The movie isn’t “peddling fire insurance.” It’s exploring “joyous participation” in a life that believers and nonbelievers alike can recognize as desirable and fulfilling. It’s about learning that all truth is God’s Truth and all beauty is God’s Beauty, and experiencing a community revival through that realization. This makes it, perhaps, my favorite cinematic parable. It’s a great film, and a deeply Christian film, that effectively demonstrates why Christian films should be great works of art first, and evangelistic sermons last or not at all.

adamsundayschooladamart

Too often it seems Christians find more value in a Sunday school coloring page, say, than in a great religious masterpiece like Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” (After all, the painting features full-frontal nudity, and depicts a scene that is not accurate to a literal reading of Genesis.) What are we doing wrong in our churches that Christians are emerging with such a distorted perspective of the world?

 

themissionImages of “thriving in God’s good world” are everywhere in The Mission, as well. 18th-century Jesuit missionaries work with a South American tribe to carve a piece of heaven-on-earth out of the remote jungle, and the result is a community any Christian would aspire to join. Everyone lives in harmony. There are no possessions. Everyone contributes equally in work and in play. They have systems of education, beautiful churches, and glorious musical talent.

But trouble lurks all around this earthly paradise. European slavers are tired of the sanctuary created by the missions cutting into their profits. As it happens, a threat to cash-flow is just the sort of thing most likely to prompt the colonial governments to write furious letters home encouraging their own governments to put more political pressure on an already-embattled Church. The upshot of all of this is that the Church sends an emissary to evaluate whether the missions shall continue to be protected, but the decision to withdraw Church support has been made in advance.

Ultimately, the missions fall and the natives and Jesuits in the area are hunted into extinction. The glimpse of the kingdom of heaven is tempered by the brokenness of the world around it, a world in which the Church itself plays a role in the destruction. This is another message that Christian Movies frequently neglect. Life in the kingdom of heaven begins here on earth, but expect resistance, and even failure and defeat!

Our fallen human nature and brokenness as believers isn’t always manifested in ways as dramatic and overtly evil as the Church turning over a group of innocents for murder and enslavement. Sometimes it looks more like the recent imbroglio over World Vision International, for example, or like producing and praising a “Christian” movie that “takes every available chance to unfortunately stereotype, almost to the point of offensiveness, every people group represented.” Whatever the situation, however grave or seemingly trivial, these are failures of Christian community and Christian love. And when it comes to the mainline evangelical approach to movies, there is also a chronic failure of Christian imagination, impoverished by sanctimony without discernment, and atrophied from lack of use.

The solution to all of these problems, in my opinion, is a willingness to engage with and have conversations about works of art that do not revolve around evangelism. The ability to tackle difficult and challenging material, and to discuss it reasonably with people who may not agree, is critical to fostering a strong community. Learning to listen to and understand people who are different from ourselves is essential to being able to love them. Broadening our horizons by seeking out and enjoying high-quality works of art is the best way I know to exercise and ignite the imagination, and enrich my theology and my experience of the world around me.

That’s why I am so disheartened by the widespread rush to condemn Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, often sight unseen, by prominent evangelical and conservative voices. It’s not that they’re saying it’s a poorly-made film. In fact, in general, these people care very little about a film’s quality (which they generally lack the expertise to judge anyway) in comparison with its content. Furthermore, many of these sweeping criticisms have been marred by uncharitable half-truths and outright falsehoods. I had intended to link to some of these, but I don’t want to drive additional traffic in their direction, and I have seen so many of them since I first conceived of commenting that the thought of setting that much record straight has become exhausting.

For example, Barbara Nicolosi would like everyone to know that this movie is so terrible and stupid, the only possible reason a Christian could say they like it is if they’re lying for money or attention, and the non-Christians are only saying they like it because they think we won’t, and they just hate us that much. Glenn Beck is confused by the movie because he always thought prophets of God were a really sweet, nice bunch of guys, and Russell Crowe doesn’t seem very nice. Todd Starnes thinks we’re trying “guilt” Bible-believing Christians into seeing a movie that mocks their faith, and clearly thinks we should feel guilty about guilt-tripping people. Ray Comfort has made his own 30-minute counter-Noah movie so we won’t have to go see Aronofosky’s version, in which he mostly wanders around with a microphone asking people what they think about sin and judgment. And the list of “usual suspects” goes on and on.

Suffice to say, don’t believe everything you read about Noah and its supposed apostasy, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of it seems deliberate and malicious. The tone of many of these comments communicates the impression that Darren Aronofsky is not “One Of Us,” and therefore he and his film must be mocked, derided, and denounced for every reason that can be found, or simply made up. Only people who have been approved by these self-appointed arbiters of Christian taste are allowed to distort the biblical text.

I have seen every other film by Darren Aronofsky. Some I liked, and some I did not, but in all of them I recognized a filmmaker who deserves serious attention as an artist. I trust that, even if I disagree with his vision of the biblical account, his talent and his unique perspective may help me see the story through new eyes. If he has made an ambitious film about faith and doubt and judgment and mercy, I want to see it and be part of the conversation about it. I understand people who aren’t interested in joining that conversation, though that saddens me, but people who actively discourage Christians from doing so make no sense to me.

Besides, all of the reviews from people I actually trust are saying that this is a film worth seeing. So here’s some worthwhile reading if you’re looking to cut through the fog of sweeping negativity:

Steven D. Greydanus has reviewed Noah for the National Catholic Register. He begins: “Darren Aronofsky’s Noah pays its source material a rare compliment: It takes Genesis seriously as a landmark of world literature and ancient moral reflection, and a worthy source of artistic inspiration in our day.”

Peter T. Chattaway, who has covered this film extensively for some time, records his first impressions at Film Chat. The post is quite lengthy and detailed, and contains some things that might be considered “spoilers” (insofar as that’s really possible), but it’s a good read. He says: “I am very grateful that this film exists — partly because it has the potential to bring back the Bible epic as a genre to be reckoned with for the first time in almost half a century, and partly because I have learned a bit more about the Jewish tradition while reading up on this film and its source material, and partly because it’s a dynamic piece of filmmaking in its own right, but also because the film takes the Bible seriously and asks us to do the same.”

Alissa Wilkinson has written a fantastic review for Christianity Today. She expounds on several reasons why she thinks you should go see the film, and concludes by “busting some myths” that have sprung up around the production. She concludes: “So the best reason to see the movie is to enjoy it, to think about it critically as a work of art, to learn about storytelling and re-envision a story that for many has become old, stale, and ridden with clichés. Noah is not poorly made or shoddy. It is not political. It is not evangelistic. It is not a theological treatise. Rather, it’s a movie that approaches the level of “good art.” It asks big questions. It explores concepts like grace, justice, pride, guilt, and love. It respects its source material and respects the power of human imagination. It takes a sober look at the evil in the human heart.”

Gregory Alan Thornbury describes his impressions of the movie for The Gospel Coalition.

Finally, Jonathan Merritt contemplates some of the same questions I’ve been asking about Noah and the response it has received. He points out that Noah “was never intended to be a heavy-handed evangelistic tool, but rather good art. And I’m sorry to say that few evangelicals today have an eye, ear, or stomach for such things. Not much has changed since the late Francis Schaeffer wrote […], “I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract.” […] What Aronofsky has done is similar to Rembrandt inserting himself into “The Raising of the Cross.” The Bible obviously doesn’t mention Rembrandt lifting the cross with the executioners more than a millennium earlier, but the artist was making a deeper point. Christians traveling to Munich could boycott the Alte Pinakothek museum where the painting is on display, but they would miss an opportunity for theological reflection.”

I have more to say now that I’ve seen Noah, but I wanted to take some time first to share thoughts on a topic that is never very far from my mind: Too many Christians consistently fail to comprehend the value of a work of art outside of a very narrow, artistically-impoverished range, and in doing so, they deprive themselves of opportunities to enrich their faith and their lives, and they deprive the larger culture of our faith’s unique perspective on these matters.

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~ by Jared on March 30, 2014.

One Response to “Why Can’t We Have Nice Things?”

  1. […] Moviegoings writes in Why Can’t We Have Nice Things? […]

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