My guest on this episode of Voices In My Head is Stephen Tobolowsky. Stephen is one of the leading character actors in film today. USA Today listed Stephen as the 9th most frequently seen actor in movies; he has appeared over 200 movies and television shows. See here for credits.
“In Basement Psalms Live, the talented Rick Lee James, presents the truth of the Psalms through music – raw, beautiful, emotional, honest and artistic. James invites you into a journey through the earth-bound movements of our faith: from lament, to lessons, to thanksgiving and to praise. His heartfelt live performance is a beautiful soundtrack to rhythms of the real-life, life to the fullest, that Jesus points us to in the Gospels.” – Matt Litton
Recently a movie called Courageous was released in select movie theaters across the country. I haven’t seen this movie but really enjoyed other films that the producers have made including “Fireproof” and “Facing the Giants.” As a believer I found these movies inspirational and they even made me very emotional. They are certainly better than the low-quality, low-budget Christian films I grew up seeing in church.
I applaud the efforts of believers to make not just films, but good films. I think quality is very important especially in the jaded culture that we live in. I play music that is definitely written from a Christian worldview and I do my very best to make it good quality even on a limited budget. I realize it’s not accessible or appealing to everyone. As much as I would like to write the music the whole world sing, I just can’t get away from my calling to write about the love of my life, God.
Obviously I wrote those lyrics to be provocative and make believers think about what God they really serve.
Many people love their country and also love God but true believer’s know God doesn’t favor one nation over another. Every life is precious to God from unborn Americans to murderous Al-Qaeda terrorists. To love the U. S. A. to the detriment of another nation is to not love God, and if we choose to love our country more than Christ then we do commit idolatry. All this is to say that I have no problem with Christians making art for other Christians. But should Christians only make art for other Christians?.
As I said before, I haven’t seen courageous yet, but some movie reviewers got me thinking about some things. All of these quotes were taken from various national reviews posted on RottenTomatoes.com:
“While the filmmaking is fairly competent, Courageous is overall worthless to anybody who doesn’t subscribe to its dogmatic agenda.”
“Courageous literally preaches to the converted, delivering ham-fisted messages of responsibility to the most receptive audience possible.”
“The many topics raised – gangs, drugs, immigration, absentee parents, poverty – are examined with didacticism and platitudes instead of by mining their inherent complexities.”
I don’t know if these reviews are fair, but they do bring up my main complaints with most “Christian”art. We don’t allow ourselves to be accessible to anyone who doesn’t already believe the way we do. We literally preach to the converted. We talk about sins and social problems without examining their roots and complexities.
Why is it that we allow Hollywood Movies, and secular writers to do the work of the church for us, and then we cast judgment on them for confronting us with the very things we should be bringing to them? The truth isn’t always sterile and lovely. Prophets in scripture were highly offensive and were never met with popularity by the religious establishment. Why does it seem like the real prophetic words addressing our culture are not words from the pulpit but words from the cinema?
A couple of years ago I sat in a movie theater watching Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece “Gran Torino” and I couldn’t stop crying as the credits rolled. All I could think of was John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. After everyone else left the cinema I found myself in a prayerful state asking God to forgive me for any racist stereotypes I may have in my heart and for not looking deeper into people’s needs, choosing only to see their faults. I saw Jesus in the outstretch arms of Clint Eastwood’s racist, profanity spewing character Walt Kowalsky. The film has many deep levels and shows us that the wages of sin is death and that violence always leads to more violence. Ultimately I saw the movie as a profound love story about a man who was clearly in the wrong about many things in life, but he becomes transformed by agape love into a selfless symbol of the cross of Christ. Some believer’s would never see this movie because of the language, and I can’t fault them for it, but I’m also not sure the movie could have been as effective without it in showing who Walt is and the world he lives in. it’s not a Christian movie but Christian spirituality and imagery is interwoven from beginning to end.
Many secular filmmakers seem to be doing our job for us in the parable department. Here’s a list of secular films with Christian messages compiled by Thom Parham at CERC.org. It’s not exhaustive and ends around 2004 but they are all critically acclaimed movies.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Tender Mercies (1983)
Places in the Heart (1984)
The Mission (1986)
Grand Canyon (1992)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Dead Man Walking (1996)
The Apostle (1998)
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
The Iron Giant (1999)
Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002)
About Schmidt (2002)
Changing Lanes (2002)
In America (2002)
Bruce Almighty (2003)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Now here’s a list of the films made by Christians, and most are quite unwatchable. (Most but not all).
Entertaining Angels (1996)
The Omega Code (1999)
The Joyriders (1999)
Left Behind.. The Movie (2000)
Carman: The Champion (2001)
Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 (2001)
Mercy Streets (2001)
To End All Wars (2001)
Hometown Legend (2002)
Left Behind II:’ Tribulation Force (2002)
Finding Home (2003)
Parham asks a great question, “If Christians want to make successful films that incorporate their worldview, why not learn from those who are already doing it — non-Christians.”
Frank Capra, a Christian director of movies like “It’s A Wonderful Life”, was hugely successful in marketing his movies to mainstream audiences. He did a wonderful job of portraying themes of the gospel without turning his movies into a Billy Graham crusade where everyone has to say the sinner’s prayer before leaving. Art is intended to be parabolic, not blatant and Hollywood film directors understand that. A lot of Christian artists don’t seem to get that.
Aren’t the very best paintings the pieces that make you stop and consider what you are looking at? The really good ones have you grappling with meaning. They don’t leave you when you walk away from them. It’s the difference between art by Thomas Kinkade and art by Banksy. KinKade’s work is beautiful but doesn’t change your thinking. Banksy, on the other hand, grabs you by the conscience and makes you re-think your life choices. Both are art, but only one really does art’s job of inspiring an individual to think differently. One shocks while the other soothes. One impresses while the other implores. One makes you feel fuzzy and one alienates. (I mean no disrespect to Thomas Kinkade, who has more talent in his pinky that I will ever have).
All this is to say, I want to see great films, great music, and great art being made by Christians. I even want to see it made for Christians. But, I also long to see brave, true, reality based art made by Christians that can stand up to the test of time and rival it’s secular counterparts with creativity rather than preachyness. Christians serve an amazing creator and should be the most creative people on the planet.
My songs aren’t where I want them to be so I’m certainly not casting stones. I just think we could all do better. Can Christians make good art and be glorifying to God without saying Jesus name in every lyric? Let me introduce you to some people who do just that.
My friend Michael Logen is such a great singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter. I’m envious of his ability. I have always known him to be a person of great faith and a generous spirit. If you spend 5 minutes with Mike you will find he reminds you so much of Jesus you would swear he was related. Mike makes great, great music. It’s deep, beautiful, heartbreaking, and joyful. People who record his music are not people like Bill Gaither and Chris Tomlin. His music gets recorded by the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Matt Kearney and has found its way into many of the TV shows you and I watch. I think God loves his music and I know that such creativity would not exist without God supplying it to Mike.
Eric Vinson is one of the godliest and humblest people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. His heart for serving God puts me to shame. He is another songwriter that amazes me. He writes rich, beautiful harmonies and smart lyrics that really take you to another place. He also has written music you may have heard on TV has shared the stage with some of the top talents in Nashville. I wish I was more like him. His music isn’t preachy but man it’s filled with God stuff.
These are guys who get it. They make good art because God gives them a big world to write about. They see the beauty of God in a sleepless night and a Ferris Wheel. I want to be more like that. I want to make good art that glorifies God yet also engages the culture. I have a long way to go but like the verse below says:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. — Phillipians 3: 12
Let’s keep pressing on Christians. Let’s not just make Christian art, let’s be Christians who make great art.