Categories
movies pop culture Theology

Why Christians Should Rediscover Old Movies

I am an Anglican parish priest. In that role, I get to hear some of the concerns of my congregants and other Christians on a fairly regular basis. I know many, many faithful Christians who complain about “all the trash that’s on TV and in movies.” Parents and grandparents in particular worry about the corroding effect that current shows, films, music, and commercials may have on their children.

They have my sympathies. Gone are the days when you could go downtown in the evening with a couple bucks to watch a fun, kid-friendly western, and munch on some popcorn. There’s a fair bit of nostalgia mixed with this kind of moral concern as many of us reflect that what used to be a happy childhood diversion has become a perilous spiritual minefield of gore, f-bombs, sex scenes, and disrespect toward parents (as just a small sampling of Decalogue-breaking inducements springing forth from Hollywood). As the Statler Brothers once opined, “Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?”

I saw a recent article outlining how a growing amount of children’s television will feature characters with sexually immoral lifestyles, a trend that’s been on the rise for a couple years now. This normalization of spiritually sinful practices is of course not new to American pop culture. On the other hand, as Dean Abbott has so clearly argued, modern’s children entertainment seems to be getting notably worse (with even some non-Christians noticing)

Predictably, this creates a good deal of hand-wringing in the pews. I have had more than one parent, grandparent, aunt, and uncle voice frustration that there isn’t anything “wholesome” on television or the movies anymore. Some film companies feed off of this desperation, which is how we get atrocious, embarrassing flicks like God’s Not Dead and Facing the Giants. Too often it feels as if the choice for believers is between morally un-compromised cheese and aesethetically excellent garbage. Many Christian parents are unaware of or are (understandably) unwilling to force the former category on their homes. The net result, though, is that unthinking consumption of every new film or sitcom has become the norm for many.

But why? Perhaps it’s time to admit that this problem is self-created. What motivates our acquiescence and lack of discernment is often nothing more than hype and FOMO (fear of missing out). Even worse, the screen has become an alluring babysitter for many Christians. Faced with the fact that a large amount of American entertainment cannot be consumed in good conscience, what is a “plugged in” Christian to do?

In the first place, Christians need to be the foremost people rethinking the omnipresence of screens in home life. You don’t have to go far to find good reasons why people, especially children, are generally better off outside or buried in a book than glued to a soft blue glow. American culture has a whole especially needs to recover the idea of play, and not the overly regimented, helicopter parented type. I don’t presume to have expert suggestions here, but ought not Christians of all people be willing to take radical steps to counter the inert, pornified, disaffected spirit of the age?  This may mean no video game systems until the teen years, or no smart phones until legal adulthood. Such are matters of Christian liberty and prudence, though I’ve found Andy Crouch’s The Tech Wise Family to be an incredibly helpful guide on such matters.

But there’s another opportunity here. Consider the reality that older films, television, and music were often (at least at a surface level) morally and even artistically better than a majority of what is produced today. It is a tragedy that most American teenagers are completely unaware, for example, of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” movies. It’s a tragedy not only of Christian discernment but of cultural heritage (especially when we consider films and music of particular excellence). Christians should be paying closer attention to old things.

There is a vast ocean of classic movies and music, much of which, if not explicitly spiritual, at least does not actively undermine Christian moral formation. Many of these films and albums are inexpensive. For the cost of taking the kids to a cinema matinee, one can stock up on dozens of excellent movies. Put some time in to study the keystones of American cinema which reach back nearly a century. Request and borrow them from a local library if your budget is tight. Save up and acquire copies of era-defining television dramas that delighted your own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. You can even buy re-runs of Looney Tunes and those pulpy Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoons like Johnny Quest. The threat of “binge-watching” notwithstanding, these options can last a family a long time.

This is an invitation to Christians who love pop culture to become real students of it, by reaching back in the past to preserve and enjoy excellently made things. Perhaps we should think of the steward of film and music as not unlike a discriminating librarian: he highlights and saves that which is best. We all currently endure what John Lukacs called an “inflation of ideas:” more and more works that seem to say less and less. Children as well as adults need to have our tastes formed, matured, and perfected. And that weighty task need not be unpleasant.

Yet again, I think it is time for Christians to be different from other Americans and not be among the heaviest consumers of entertainment media–especially not the newest and latest. Unplug a bit. Build up a library of good films and shows that are examples of good art. It rarely hurt anyone to skip over the latest, shiniest, and untested. I’m not the first to suggest this, and I won’t be the last. But I can’t help noticing that this is what I start thinking about when folks complain about these issues. Pull the plug. Be weird. It’s not going to kill you to miss pop culture references. Take it from a happy homeschool alumnus. The western world is going mad; not need to drive yourself crazy keeping up with it.

Barton Gingerich is an assistant priest at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, VA and a contributor to the Faith and Honor podcast. He earned his B.A. in History from Patrick Henry College and his M.Div. with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

Categories
culture life politics

Billy Graham Rules!

Right now the Big Thing On Twitter™ is the “Billy Graham Rule.” A new debate was flared up by news that Vice President Mike Pence practiced his own form of the rule. Some well-followed progressives wasted no time before lambasting Mr. Pence as a sexist. Some well-followed progressive evangelicals likewise jumped in by chastising the rule and Christians who practice it. Apparently, pastors who won’t meet 1 on 1 with a woman who is not family are guilty of “anti-gospel” objectification.

I’ve defended the Billy Graham rule before. I’ve also written about the many issues I have with the particular quadrant of progressive evangelicalism that concerns itself with “purity culture.” While some of the critiques that come from this space are good and helpful, a suffocating amount of them are, in my view, thinly-veiled gospel revisionism, pretenses for protesting the Bible’s clear teaching on fornication, marriage, and homosexuality. Most of the derogatory comments I’ve seen from bloggers about the BG rule confirm this suspicion. I cannot imagine this kind of hostility against a personal policy designed to protect spouses and families, except hostility that is aimed at a much wider target.

But I honestly have no desire to retread my arguments in favor of a Billy Graham rule. I do favor it, but I don’t necessarily look down on men who don’t. Issues of prudential wisdom require context and nuance. Where Scripture refuses to lay down a binding on the conscience, we shouldn’t either.

I have only one last comment about this whole thing. I think every Christian should ponder the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton:

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert-himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt…

For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

This is the key to understand the dispute over the Billy Graham ruleThe men who I have known that take painful care to avoid situations of either temptation or compromising appearance do not doubt the value of the women in their church. They do not assume that their sisters in Christ are temptresses waiting for an opportune moment of either pleasure of blackmail. Rather, the men in my life who taught and modeled to me the value of the BG rule had a low view of themselves, and they were absolutely OK with that.

It’s this attitude that cuts so cleanly against the grain of contemporary culture. It makes absolutely no sense to Millennial ears why a person would doubt their own resolve, their own courage, their own fortitude, and seek to strengthen themselves through weakness. Such a worldview violates every possible permutation of the spirit of the age, which is: “You are enough, you are in control, and your self-actualization is what will bring you happiness.” This is the mantra of the book club, the religion of the Disney Channel. It is the air we breathe. And it has become so intrinsic to every corner of our culture that we only notice it when someone actually rages against it to the detriment of their career or reputation.

Chesterton’s point is the essence of the BG rule. A high view of my marriage covenant, a high view of the reputation of others, and a low view of myself: That’s what it’s all about. Those first two sound fine in the age of expressive individualism. The third one is heresy, and it is the worst kind of heresy–the heresy that puts the unspoken question into the air, “So what are you doing to do?”

Categories
culture life Musing pop culture

The Shack and the Problem of Christian Entertainment

Look at this headline from a movie review in The Metro:

The evangelical entertainment ‘The Shack’ is almost a real movie

I’m not entirely sure why, but what struck me most about this headline was not the clever zinger, but the term “evangelical entertainment.” When I read that, I thought: “It is?” I suppose I’ve become too habituated to seeing evangelical critiques of the book’s thin theology and possibly blasphemous depiction of the Trinity to remember that, to most of the world, The Shack is what evangelicals mean when they ask for books and movies for them. Mainstream critics label The Shack movie as evangelical entertainment not because it is entertainment that is evangelical, but because it is entertainment that evangelicals consume.

And the question is, why do evangelicals consume it? I haven’t seen any review of the book to make me think that the answer is The Shack’s quality of writing. And, based on the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score of 17%, I don’t believe the reason evangelicals will (in all likelihood) flock to see it is because it is a cinematic masterpiece. The key factor in The Shack‘s popularity isn’t excellence, because it lacks excellence. And the key factor is obviously not compelling orthodoxy or theological insight. So what is the key factor? Why is The Shack “evangelical entertainment” despite the fact that it’s not really either?

One theory: Evangelicals love The Shack because it is family-friendly. And for many evangelicals, family-friendly is just a euphemism for “Christian.” This, I believe, is the problem of contemporary Christian entertainment. Evangelical audiences accept poor aesthetic quality and erroneous theology if both are wrapped up in a veneer of religious respectability.

Consider just how much of evangelical cultural engagement is “discernment lit.” Finding solid evangelical analysis and critique of mainstream movies is much more challenging than finding sites dedicated to telling you how many profanities are used in a given movie. Those publications, by the way, are overwhelmingly recommending that Christians go see The Shack. Now of course these places have their uses. Christians shouldn’t stop caring about content. But when evangelical culture lacks a thriving artistic worldview and instead relies on cottage industries of promoting family-night discernment, we ought not be shocked when what evangelicals eventually own as “their” kind of entertainment is art that is neither theologically faithful nor aesthetically excellent, but merely safe for the whole family. Francis Schaeffer’s guide to Christian engagement of art seems almost quaint by comparison.

I’m not saying that evangelicals should throw caution about worldliness to the wind. But I am asking if big box office returns for The Shack actually represent the kind of Christian culture that we really want. Yes, The Shack is PG-13 with no hints of sexuality and no profanity. Many youth groups will schedule trips to see it with no awkwardness. But is squeaky-clean and deeply problematic for our conception of God and Christianity the kind of trade-off we should be proud of? I don’t think so.

The Shack has illustrated the inadequacies of engaging with pop culture merely with family-friendly metrics. When Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, recently apologized for the moralistic, non-gospel content of his popular show, he wasn’t apologizing for making it kid-friendly. He was apologizing for confusing kid-friendly with Christian. When your only real demand of your entertainment is that it be clean, clean will soon be the only thing you have. That’s not a good thing, as The Shack amply demonstrates.

Listen to this sad thought from mainstream film critic Peter Sobcynski:

As “The Shack” plodded on (it clocks in at over two hours and makes you feel every one of those minutes), I found myself thinking more and more about “Silence,” the recent religious drama from Martin Scorsese that came and went through theaters a few weeks ago. Like “The Shack,” that film dealt with the kind of spiritual crisis that can develop when someone devotes their life to praying to a God that seems more interested in letting you suffer endlessly rather than answering those prayers. But “Silence” took its questions about spirituality and the nature of God seriously, resulting in a spellbinding film that even those without any sort of strong religious background might still find thought-provoking. “The Shack,” on the other hand, is little more than pabulum that invokes all the right words but fails to invest them with any kind of meaning that might allow it to mean something to those not already pre-disposed to liking it. Of course, thanks to the book’s extensive fanbase, there is an excellent chance that “The Shack” will make more money in its first weekend than “Silence” did in its entire run—a thought depressing enough to inspire spiritual crises in any number of moviegoers.

Evangelicals will pack the house for “The Shack” while many remain completely unaware of the existence of “Silence.” The Shack is PG-13. Silence is rated R. But which of these movies is the more Christian movie?

Categories
books culture life Theology

Thoughts on Christian Publishing

On Twitter, Jared Wilson flagged this list of the bestselling Christian books of 2016. I’ve seen previous iterations of this list, and each one that I’ve seen looks frighteningly alike. The gentlest way to say it: the Christian publishing industry is utterly dominated by therapeutic self-help literature. What’s more, the sheer amount of non-literature on the list is staggering; adult coloring books and joke books are all over the top 20, and “Jesus Calling” appears nine times in the top 100, thanks to various editions.

Now it’s always easy to overreact to this kind of thing. The reality is that times are hard for serious, substantial writing, whether Christian or not. Social media technology’s assault on concentration and thoughtfulness does not discriminate on the basis of religion. And the list isn’t all bad; there are plenty of good writers and good books on it.

What I’m more interested in though is the gap between this list of bestselling Christian books, and the evangelical online writing economy. Put simply, the contrast between the work that outsells all other work in Christian bookstores and the work that drives traffic and conversation in the evangelical blogosphere is astonishing. The two worlds look nothing alike. When was the last time you saw an article on your social media written in the first person voice of Jesus, assuring readers of prosperity and emotional centeredness? Have you ever seen a viral relaxation exercise from Desiring God, Tim Challies, Focus on the Family, or even Patheos for that matter?

Sure, there’s some silliness out there. Yes, the lows of evangelical blogging can be really, really low (you’d be better off with a coloring book than some sites I know of). But as I think about it, it just seems to me that even the ridiculousness of evangelical blogosphere is almost always ridiculousness you have to think about. Can the same be said about many bestselling Christian books?

As I look out on the confessional evangelical writing scene, I see a lot of good, even in places where I’d find much to disagree with. There is quite a bit of thoughtful, meaningful commentary out there right now. So when I see a list like this, I can’t help but wonder: Where’s the disconnect? Why am I seeing such a stark difference between the content I inhabit on a daily basis and the content that the average Christian is consuming at bestselling rates? I don’t have an answer for that.

There are a few things I do know:

  • The space right now for creative Christian writers is enormous. There is a real material need in American Christian culture for literary talent. We can’t talk to teenage and twentysomething believers about using their gifts for the good of the body of Christ and only point them toward vocational ministry or the mission field. Christian art matters (it always has), and it requires Christian artists. They won’t grow out of the ground; they have to be cultivated, encouraged, identified, and supported.
  • The impulse in Christian literary circles to divide “theology” from “Christian living” is a terrible rip off. It results in verbose, stiff, academic theology, and shallow bubblegum devotional lit. The sad fact is that some of the best evangelical theology is being produced by people who can’t write, in books that will never be read, all because somewhere down the line we Reformed evangelical types decided the humanities were not relevant in training theologians. Adult coloring books are that mentality’s harvest. This has to be reversed, and it has to be reversed by people who can think deep thoughts about God AND say them in beautifully arresting way.
  • You get what you pay for. These trends in Christian publishing aren’t going to be thwarted by moaning bloggers like me. They’re going to be thwarted by churchgoers who use their income to purchase good books by good writers. And for that to happen, those who are already reading good books by good writers have to tell others about them–including pastors.

I actually believe Christian publishing is primed for a sustained season of excellence, for reasons already mentioned above. But perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way of such a season is the church’s own passivity. For years many evangelical churches labored under the illusion that spiritualized entertainment was going to rebuild American Christianity and fill the pews. It turns out though that not even the church can out-distract Buzzfeed and Facebook. So what now? Maybe we should give the whole teaching thing another go round.

Categories
books life Musing Quotes

The Threat to Reading

One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon–it comes from his essay “Of Studies”–concerns the reading of books: “Some books are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” This is usually taken as a wise or sententious general comment about the worthiness of various texts, but Ann Blair shows that Bacon was making a very practical recommendation to people who were overwhelmed by the availability of books and couldn’t imagine how they were going to read them all. Bacon tells such worried folks that they can’t read them all, and so should develop strategies of discernment that enable them to make wise decisions about how to invest their time. I think Bacon would have applauded Clay Shirky’s comment that we suffer not from “information overload” but from “filter failure.” Bacon’s famous sentence is really a strategy for filtering.

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 110-111.

This is such an important, and liberating, point. You can’t read it all, and almost certainly shouldn’t try. Indiscriminate buying of books to fill out one’s “personal library” looks great on Instagram, but in practically every circumstance, it undermines the very intellectual pursuit it mimics. We instinctively guard the reading life against the threats of internet, TV, et al. But for some of us, the bigger threat to our intellectual formation may be our own vanity. Reading 1 book a month won’t buy many retweets. But between someone who digests 12 pleasurable, meaningful books a year, and someone who reads 1/6 of 50 different books, is there really a question which one is the actual “reader”?

Categories
life Random Thoughts

Thoughts on Being a Dad

The other day a friend asked what I thought of being a new Dad. My answer was immediate: “It’s the best thing ever.” That wasn’t a lapse into kidspeak, either. I meant it literally. In my 28 years of life, I’ve never felt my heart glow warmer and brighter than it has for the last three months. My baby son has brought joy into our family’s home that we simply didn’t know existed. People told me it would be like that. I believed them, at least as much as you can believe people who tell you the Grand Canyon is amazing before you’ve actually stood before its ancient crevices.

I’m glad, too, that my son was born in 2016. If I’m being honest, I do worry about the world Charlie was just born into. I worry that my son has been born into a digital age that uses magic devices to vaporize childlike wonder. I worry that geopolitical tensions are trending toward the unsayable, right when he will be coming of age. I can come up with many reasons why I’d sleep easier if the world were different right now, or if we simply were somewhere else.

But I just said I’m glad he was born this year. The reason is admittedly selfish: Charlie is teaching me that everything matters, in a year and a season of life where I know I would be sorely tempted to believe the opposite. Everything matters, even the smallest, cheapest, most transitory things–especially those things.

I’ve been joking to my wife that having a baby has turned me into a sentimental puddle. That’s probably part of it. But I also think that this year, I’ve seen through the fog of cynicism in a way that I’ve never seen through it before. Why does our contemporary American culture seem to value snark and cynicism so much? Why are the best talk show hosts the ones who “destroy” a particular opinion or a particular candidate? Why are the best tweets the ones that make ordinary life sound ridiculous and meaningless? Why does everyone seem to want to be angry?

A popular internet meme right now says, “LOLnothingmatters.” That’s the E pluribus enum of the internet age. Nothing matters, nothing really, because it’ll all be cached and deleted and rebooted tomorrow anyway. In this vacuum of meaning, outrage and a dismissive “above it all” mentality  are what feel real. Nothing matters, except how stylishly one can declare that nothing matters.

I think this is a species of despair. There are reasons to despair, after all. We millennials were taught by teachers and TV that we had the whole world in our hands. Not true, apparently. The expressive individualism that was supposed to unlock our true selves has only made us lonelier and sadder than any other generation. Politics is hostile and deeply un-empathetic. Pop culture is mired in the stagnation of nostalgia. The only thing many people know they want is to go back in time, when “things were better.”

In this kind of atmosphere, it’s easy to forget what life is. Life isn’t huge moments of history-turning significance. Life is day after day after day of 4am feedings. Life isn’t national elections and What’s Happening In the World Today. It’s the same drive to church, the same walk through the same park, again and again. Our technological age makes us think that what’s really valuable is newness, speed, and cutting edge. Many people spend their life looking for the next “big” thing, the real Moment that will fill their void. What they miss completely is that there is no such Moment. There is no “tipping point.” Instead, there is morning and evening, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. That’s life.

Charlie knows nothing else but this life. He forgets yesterday as soon as it’s over. And that’s how his mother and I have to take care of him. We have to help him live each day for its own sake.

I think that’s what so many Christians miss. We become obsessed with not “wasting” our lives that we convince ourselves that life is the sum total of our majestic, “unwasted” moments. But that’s just not true. A small life isn’t wasted, because life itself is small, not huge. Instead of being busy trying not to waste my life, I have to simply live the life I already have: I’m a husband, a dad, a church member, an employee, etc. My unwasted life happens every day. When I remember this, I don’t panic at elections. I don’t give up on people. I don’t despair, because I know who I am is not dependent on how the world is doing today.

And I’m free to have joy. I can find pleasure in things like my son’s laugh, or our family’s favorite restaurant, or a good book. I don’t have to agonize over whether these things are helping me be “productive” or, in more spiritual lingo, “advancing” the kingdom. The kingdom isn’t Bible study + mission trips. It’s dirty diapers and snotty noses, because that’s where Jesus is.

My boy is only 3 months old, and already he is showing me where Jesus is. Now that’s the best thing ever.

Categories
Christianity culture life pop culture

The True Value of Halloween

A woman once wrote to C.S. Lewis in great distress. It appeared, she said, that England was becoming a very pagan nation. By “pagan”  the woman meant the culture of Britain was reverting back to pre-Christian belief systems of spiritism, idolatry, and nature-worship. She expressed this concern earnestly to professor Lewis to see what analysis or prescription he could give to the state of the nation.

Lewis’s reply was unexpected. “You fear England’s returning to paganism,” he wrote. “Oh that it would!” Lewis explained that, though paganism was false, it was truer than materialism and a much preferable place for a culture to be. A “pre-Christian” culture, Lewis argued, would at least entertain ideas about reality that allowed for the unseen, the metaphysical, and the supernatural. The militant, materialistic atheism of Lewis’s 20th century Oxford had no such upward view.

One of Lewis’s great gifts was pointing that which is so obvious that we probably missed it. Christians have a completely different definition of reality than the rest of the world, but nowhere is the difference more significant than with materialists and philosophical naturalists. The gospel cuts across every rival worldview, whether spiritualistic or agnostic, but for the person who believes that things like resurrections and advents cannot happen in this world, Christianity is totally unintelligible. Christianity doesn’t merely feature the supernatural and miraculous, it demands them. Christianity is an universe in which the otherwordly and metaphysical are not just occasional guests but permanent residents. The Gospel tells us that that the natural world is not the only world; in fact, the natural world isn’t the realest world.

I’m afraid that this fact isn’t just a stumbling block for atheists, but for many Christians as well. This time of year many Americans will be celebrating Halloween. Even as many evangelical Christians have deep concerns with the casual costuming of the demonic and the spiritually dark (and those concerns are valid!), it’s possible that we may have missed an obvious fact: Halloween is one of the few cultural institutions we as a country have left that invites contemplation on the realities beyond our immediate physical world, realities like death, spirits, and evil.

In a way, American thinking about Halloween is more Christian than its thinking about Christmas, a holiday that has been overwhelmingly loaded with secular symbols of youth and and wealth and Western self-satisfaction. What is Santa Claus but a secular savior, a perpetually positive grandfather who stops by once a year to tell you what a good life you are living?

Santa Claus, as a symbol, requires no serious thought about the permanent, the unseen, and the immortal. By contrast, the ghoulish symbols of Halloween may be less “family-friendly” than Santa, but they are grounded much more deeply in fundamental truths about good, evil, and death. There is no jolly old man waiting to give gifts to the good children, either in the North Pole or in heaven. Death, however, is real. Demons are real. Evil is real. In our contemporary society, it’s almost as if the doctrines of Christianity are much more evident in the ghastly images of Halloween than the comfortable, consumeristic images of Christmas.

That is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because, in truth, Christmas is not merely a contrast to Halloween but an answer to it. The deathly realities of October are no match for the advent realities of December. It’s true that evil and death are real, but they are not as real as Immanuel. In Halloween, death takes on flesh. At Christmas, life takes on flesh, as Jesus Christ enters the world to destroy the works of the prince of demons. To lose either of these realities is to filter the gospel through what is ultimately a materialistic, unbelieving lens.

I’m not at all saying that Christians must lose whatever reservations they have about Halloween. After all, if there are indeed spiritual realities in the symbols of Halloween, we must take how we treat such symbols more seriously, not less. There are good reasons to place practical boundaries on ourselves and on our children for how we engage the holiday. And the same is true of Christmas. It is no good to ban Halloween from our families and our churches on account of its darkness, and then celebrate the Christmas season just like our materialistic, legalistic culture. Both Christmas and Halloween have the potential to be nothing more in our lives than monuments to our worship of fun and food. But it doesn’t have to be that way, not if we know the gospel that gives weight and meaning and history and truth to these days.

I’m probably going to see some Christians on Facebook this weekend decry the ugly, offensive symbols of Halloween, and implore parents to remind their children that they must not associate with such things. I won’t protest that. But I do hope that, in an age where most young people grow up to ultimately believe not in ghosts, Holy or otherwise, but mostly in themselves and their own right to self-actualization, we do not despise every opportunity to remind ourselves that life and youth do not last forever.

 

Categories
books Christianity culture life pop culture

Did Gandalf Rescue Evangelicals?

Yesterday afternoon I was watching the live stream of the 2016 ERLC National Conference. Specifically, I tuned into a panel that discussed how evangelicals could engage with art in a gospel-centered way. In the course of the conversation, one of the panelists, Alissa Wilkinson (a film critic that you should read), remarked that, in her view, evangelical attitude toward art has notably improved over the last 10 years.

I agree with that. Having grown up in conservative evangelical culture my entire life, I absolutely have noticed a change in how many pastors, theologians, and those in Christian circles have talked about film, literature, TV, etc. There just seems to be a greater interest right now in talking about art from a Christian perspective than there was when, say, I was in junior high, and buying the “kids versions” of the Left Behind books and the albums of rock bands that were openly marketed as “mainstream alternatives.”

But Wilkinson’s comment got me thinking: What changed? What happened with evangelicals roughly 10 years ago that set these trends in motion? Here’s a theory: Peter Jackson happened. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is, I believe, the most influential factor in the renewal of American evangelicalism’s interest in art.

The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in December of 2001. The timing of that release is important, because just a few weeks before FOTR, the first film version of the Harry Potter novels also premiered. Up to this point, Harry Potter was the most significant literary event in the world, and evangelicals had spent most of their time and energy debating whether it was even permissible to read/watch. There was precious little “engagement” with the biggest book of the century; it just fell, like so many other things did, into trenches of evangelical “Do or Don’t” war.

But when Fellowship debuted, evangelicals were flummoxed. Here was a PG-13 adaptation of a novel written by a traditional Catholic in the latter half of the 20th century. I had never heard of J.R.R. Tolkien when I saw the movie in December 2001, and neither had most of my family or friends. But enough Christians knew about the books to herald the coming of the movies as a significant moment for believers and Hollywood.

There was, of course, an irony here. Many of the influential evangelical publications that had urged believers to avoid the wizardry of Harry Potter took a starkly different approach to Gandalf. The dissonance was unmistakeable. World Magazine, which had studiously criticized the Potter books, preemptively advertised Fellowship as a “family-friendly blockbuster” that Christians should be interested in (and so too with the next two Lord of the Rings movies). Plugged In (Focus on the Family’s media review publication) threw red flags all over Hogwarts, but saw Tolkien’s “Christian themes at work” in Jackson’s films. The difference was, of course, that Tolkien spoke openly about his Catholic faith, while in the evangelical world, you could occupy your day reading chain emails with conspiracy theories about J.K. Rowling’s intentions. Unlike the Potter phenomenon, a lot of believers saw in the Lord of the Rings movies an opportunity to see their “values” on the screen.

The effects were immediate. Lord of the Rings was an enormous financial success, of course, fomenting new trends in cinema and a wave of religiously tinged “prestige pictures.” But more than that, the movies started something in evangelicals. Suddenly it seemed that Reformed Christians everywhere were putting fantasy books on their favorite lists. Shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies my own Bible college made the books required reading. Even Hogwarts started to fare better, with later installments of the film series getting positive reviews in many evangelical outposts. It wasn’t that evangelicals’ convictions had changed, necessarily; it was that Jackson’s movies had broken down barriers between faith and imagination that many American evangelicals didn’t even realize had gone up.

Just a theory, but this does seem to match my own experience as far as when I noticed a new evangelical engagement with popular art. It’s just not possible for me to imagine a round of Christian think pieces on something like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” 15 years ago. Now, it seems so inevitable that it’s actually good parody. Something had to happen for that to be the case.

In my view, Gandalf happened.

Categories
Christianity Music pop culture

How Christian Music Lost Its Sad Songs

worshipJournalist Leah Libresco discovers that contemporary Christian music always keeps on the sunny side. CCM lyrics, it turns out, are so excessively happy-go-lucky that they rarely even mention the darkness of sin or the pain of human suffering–themes that are pretty important to Christianity.

From Libresco’s piece:

I took a look at the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs to see whether Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful. I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics (life and death, grace and sin, etc.) and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.

There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.”

If you’ve listened to Christian pop/rock for any amount of time at all, this shouldn’t surprise you. Turn on your local Christian FM station and the odds are good that what you’ll hear will be a distinctly American mixture of therapeutic spirituality and Christianese self-actualization. In other words, there’s nary a difference between most Christian music and most Christian publishing.

Why is this, though? Why does contemporary Christian music fail so egregiously to capture the range of human–heck, Christian!–experience? As Libresco notes, this hasn’t always been true of Christian music. You don’t even have to go back as far as she does to find evidence of a more honest lyrical culture in Christian musicianship.

In 1995, two albums released on Christian record labels went platinum, an unheard-of feat at the time. dc Talk’s Jesus Freak was a grunge-tinged, hip-hop spiced rock record with brazenly vulnerable lyrics. Look at the words of one of the album’s biggest hits, “What If I Stumble?”

Father please forgive me
For I cannot compose
The fear that lives within me
Or the rate at which it grows

If struggle has a purpose
On the narrow road you’ve carved
Why do I dread my trespasses
Will leave a deadly scar?

Here’s another hit, “Colored People,” one of the most well-known CCM songs about race:

We’re colored people, and we live in a tainted place
We’re colored people, and they call us the human race
We’ve got a history so full of mistakes
And we are colored people who depend on a Holy Grace

Ignorance has wronged some races
And vengeance is the Lord’s
If we aspire to share this space
Repentance is the cure.

These songs weren’t just deep cuts that Christian retailers ignored and superfans enjoyed. Both of these songs are some of the most famous performances from the band. You could probably not find anyone who listened to contemporary Christian music in the 90s or early 2000s who didn’t know these choruses by heart.

 

The other album that went platinum in 1995 was the self-titled debut by Jars of Clay. In my opinion, this is one of the finest Christian albums ever made. One reason: The songwriting on Jars of Clay is poetic, introspective and often gut-wrenchingly honest. Is there anyone who can listen to “Worlds Apart” and not think that Dan Haseltine is speaking for them?

I am the only one to blame for this
Somehow it all ends up the same
Soaring on the wings of selfish pride
I flew too high and like Icarus I collide
With a world I try so hard to leave behind
To rid myself of all but love
to give and die.

If you’re an aspiring Christian band recording your first big-label album, a song about child abuse is probably not on your agent’s checklist. But that’s what Jars did with “He,” a painful and hopeful ballad that captures the emotions of abuse from a child’s point of view:

Daddy, don’t you love me?
Then why do you hit me?
And Momma don’t you love me
Then why do you hurt me?
Well I try to make you proud, but for crying out loud
Just give me a chance to hide away

Again, these aren’t artists and songs from the iron vault of Christian music lore. These are two of the most successful groups and albums in the genre’s history. Do these lyrics sound like they would get airplay on today’s “positive, encouraging, and safe for the whole family” airwaves? Or would they be rejected by record label execs and station managers because they don’t immediately affirm the listener’s comfort and pleasure?

So what changed? What’s the difference between the CCM of 1995 and today? I have 2 answers for this:

1) In the last 20 years, Christian music has become less about artists and more and more about the product. You would hard pressed to find people seriously knowledgable about Christian music who would argue that there is any sort of healthy artist culture in the industry right now. Instead, the industry’s goal is to ship music that can morph like an amoeba into any shape that buyers desire–background noise at youth camp, soundtrack to a PowerPoint presentation, etc etc. That’s why so much of CCM sounds alike right now. So much of what’s being created isn’t actually art–it’s musical copy, meant to be accessorized for the sake of maximum profit.

2) In the last 20 years, Christian music’s “least common denominator” theology has stagnated the music. Because contemporary Christian music seeks to serve an incredibly diverse American religious landscape with what amounts to a single industry, the thinking for a long time was that the best way to make the music accessible was to make sure it didn’t actually say anything. Vague generalities about “grace” and “love” could be received by Presbyterians, Methodists, Anabaptists, and 7th Day Adventists alike. The fear of alienating an audience led many Christian groups and labels to mute theology in their songs. Fortunately, this trend was being reconsidered in the early 2000s through a resurgence of hymns; artists like Jars and Caedmon’s Call released successful hymn projects. But much of CCM never turned from this notion, and that’s why groups like Jars still stand out so far from the rest of the industry.

The decline of CCM is something I grieve. I still have somewhere dozens and dozens of CDs from local Christian bookstores, CDs filled with music that I loved. At its best, CCM was a conduit for expressing the complexities of life in the world and yet not of it. Its artists could poignantly elevate audiences to think that Jesus Christ cared about all of life. Somewhere, though, CCM lost its way, and I have trouble believing that the same industry that gave us dc Talk and Jars of Clay can survive.

Categories
Christianity Music pop culture

How to Save Christian Music

Let me tell you about a recent Christian concert I attended.

There were four bands performing. The first was the warm-up act, a young, shaggy-haired rock band out of Nashville, whose lead singer is, I’m told, the son of a famous contemporary Christian music artist. The boys in this band were talented and had good stage presence; they won over the audience quickly.. From what I could tell, most of their lyrics were either about relationships or the general angst of life (think Foster the People). These weren’t Sunday morning worship songs. I’m sure most people at the show had no idea who the singer’s father was, or even cared. The audience bought the band’s energy and musicianship.

The rest of the artists were the three co-headliners. There was a alt-folk singer who sang about wanting to live forever and sang about that like it was more than a fantasy. Then there was the heartthrob, lanky piano man, whose most powerful song is about depression and sadness; the audience sang loudly with him as he crooned, “You don’t need Jesus…until you’re here.” The final group, a Southern arena-rock band, exploded amplifiers and eardrums with anthems about being “washed in the water” and “singing hallelujah.” The man sitting five feet in front of me held his third or fourth beer in his right hand and made something like a fist pump with the other as the band shredded guitar solos to an impressive light show.

This was no pseudo church service or youth camp showcase. It was a rock show. But it was, obviously to anyone not inebriated, a Christian rock show.

There were no times of “testimonies,” no clear Gospel presentations, and no theological meanderings from the artists between songs. This wasn’t a “worship” time, it was rock and roll time. The only visible Christianity came from the audience; I saw more than one head-bobbing attendee wearing a t-shirt with a New Testament verse on it. More than once during the evening dozens of hands were lifted as someone who was clearly not a “worship leader” sang a song about needing forgiveness and healing.

All of this made an impression on me because  I realized, as a lifelong “insider” to contemporary Christian music, that Christian pop and rock can be, and often is, quite good. When I got home, I felt a new awareness come over me that it is indeed possible for artistic merit and Christian belief to intersect with one another, and sometimes in a way that brings the believer and the unbeliever together. There need not be a choice between “spiritual” and “entertaining.”

I cherish this feeling because it has not been commonplace for Christian music fans over the last several years. Far too many shelves in Christian bookstores have been stocked over the last few years with music that’s produced and promoted merely because it manages to appeal to a particular target demographic that some “Christian record label” executive is trying to slice into. When it comes to quality, the secular acts have a monopoly. The goal is so often not to produce something outstanding in its own right, but to  convincingly ape a superior artist, adding only watery, non-denominational jargon.

The simple fact is that contemporary Christian music has not been good for some time. Christian record labels have inundated the industry with so many copies of both successful secular acts and successful Christian ones (how many new Christian radio singles sound just like that Casting Crowns song you’ve heard 1,000 times?) that the question of what even constitutes a Christian song or a Christian band is a hopelessly self-referential discussion. Christian FM radio is banal; historic music festivals for Christian artists are going bankrupt.  Many of the Christian retailers who were formative in building the industry are now fighting for their own existence, and I would not hesitate to claim that part of that struggle stems from the evaporation of interest in the CCM industry.

But, as in the Gospel itself, there is hope. The artists that I heard at my concert came to their audience as entertainers, song writers and storytellers, rather than worship leaders or evangelists. Their Christian identity was not located in what label represented them a  or what retail chain sold their LP; rather, it was in the art itself. Completely absent from this concert were the trappings of the tragic “modern worship movement,” a fad that is as much to blame as anything else for the stagnation of the Christian music industry. No one came to the show for a sermon, they came for songs and for stories. They left with a little bit of all three.

I’m absolutely convinced that if there is any hope for a Christian music industry–by which I mean an viable marketplace for Christians to make art and entertain while keeping convictions intact–this is where it all has to go. In all my years of listening to Christian radio, I have never heard any of tonight’s artists on it (the final band excepted). Why not? Because the industry is so tied up into its airtight categories, buffered by retail strategies that don’t even work now. That simply will not keep Christian music alive.

If CCM is to survive, it needs more than performers. It needs artists. Real artists playing real songs, written to tell stories and delight all kinds of people from all walks of life. What a contrast this would be to the spectacle of half-talented guitarists strumming 4-chord “worship” choruses that could have been plagiarized from any middle-rate pop love ballad, with all feminine references simply swapped to more metaphysical ones. One of those sights has a future in an increasingly marginalized Christian culture. The other does not.