Still addicted to mediocrity

The title alludes to Franky Schaeffer’s 1980-something manifesto against the general unseriousness of Christian art, broadly defined and understood. This is an evergreen lament for a handful of thinkers, writers, and artists who (wish they could) align themselves with Christianity.

The latest lament is voiced in the person of Scott Nehring, writing at Relevant (via Andrew Sullivan):

The term Christian film has become synonymous with substandard production values, stilted dialogue and childish plots. Why is Christian film no more than a side note to modern culture? Why are Christians left behind?…

Rather than developing organically, the average Christian film is more pushy and sanctimonious than the global-warming agenda movies. Violence is almost non-existent, salty language never happens, unmarried people never struggle with lust and evil is never very bad, because showing various forms of sin is not allowed. By movie’s end, everyone is converted with no residual issues. Life is reduced to an after-school special with prayer thrown in for good measure. For me, this is where the dry heaving begins. …

It is a tough argument to think modern Christians cannot handle a simple kiss or rough language when God allowed Joshua to slaughter thousands behind the walls of Jericho. … Christian artists cater to us, give us what we want, what we prefer, and Christians’ expectations have tended to not stress biblical truth, moral clarity or technical achievement, but a watered-down, unrealistic view of the world.

The entire excerpt is here. It’s taken from a book-length work on Christianity and film: You Are What You See: Watching Movies Through a Christian Lens.

I don’t have a lot to say about this. I just found it interesting, particularly Nehring’s suggestion that, contra the typical assumption from within pious Christianity that it’s “the world” that gives people what they want and Christianity speaking hard truths of timeless value and eternal consequence, the cultural products of American Christianity actually demonstrate a fixation with producing predigested, psycho-spiritually unobtrusive pablum to people presumed to be too dense or incurious to want anything more serious or interesting or … relevant.

And I think southern gospel is inevitably implicated in this dynamic, at least insofar as so much of the sg world is built around stylized rejections of “the world” and oversimple accounts of salvation of redemption and unproblematic erasure of all pain and suffering and difficulty and confusion.

For me at least, gospel music succeeds most effectively when it slips of the short chain of these unimaginative preconditions. That this slippage should so often allow the music to break free from the narrow enclosures that so many artists and performers try to place around their music and its possibilities and potentials seems right and fitting.

After all, when you listen closely, southern gospel is a style of music - and emerges from a cultural tradition - that’s built around the celebration of a messy, complicated life of striving and suffering in a world of woe. The songs of this tradition always end with God in all sovereignty triumphing over the worldly messiness, and that’s undoubtedly how most folks would like things to be … it’s just not where most of us live, most of the time.

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Comments

  1. Bob wrote:

    I would argue that the problem is with our preconceptions. Nehring says ‘Christian films are bad’, but when “To Save A Life” comes out with a PG-13 rating, one could argue it’s “not a Christian film”. Yet it has a powerful Christian message and in my opinion should be viewed by every teenager. And it did quite nicely - made for $1 million and grossed $3.7 million at the box office.

    In 2007, country singer Rodney Atkins had a #1 hit with the song “Watching You”. It had a wonderful message about what it means to be a good example, and features a story of a child learning to pray from watching his dad. It would never be considered a Gospel, or even a Christian song. But the message is unmistakable. Unfortunately, many Christians would miss the song because Atkins also sings worldly songs like “Farmer’s Daughter”.

  2. pk wrote:

    I just finished a great book ” A Song To Sing,A Life To Live” Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice, by Don and Emily Saliers. Very well written and digs deep into the celebration and gift of the music we listen too. It’s not about sgm but about the music of the church, all of it.

  3. Sherri wrote:

    I really like Jason Crabb’s new song, “Sometimes I Cry”. It’s nice to have a little realism.

  4. Hector Luna wrote:

    “How To Save a Life” may be an exception, but I tend to lean towards Nehring in this case. I have often thought the same. What if someone made a movie about Joshua. Or David, including the portions of Bathsheeba, Amnon and Tamar, Absalom, and so forth. Or the entire book of Judges? Song of Solomon? That’s far-fetched I know, and you could make a case for anything but the Bible is full of reality. That includes horrible stories of sin and injustice. God can still shine beautifully in portrayals of these horrible realities. Just because Facing the Giants was a Christian film does not mean it was “actually” moving.

  5. JLL wrote:

    I just can’t read the phrase “Christian film” without seeing “Thief in the Night” or “A Distant Thunder” in my head. Nightmares for days after seeing those in the mid-seventies in church. Looking back on those today? Unspeakably bad–almost laughable.

  6. steven wrote:

    @JLL

    I agree! I remember seeing those films (the entire series) in my highschool years…to this day, i still get the creeps when i hear the music from it.

    Stupid Patti and her screaming

  7. Tom Gervat wrote:

    There’s something to be said for the “realistic songs”, although they can tend to get a bit melodramatic and preachy. The bottom line is that if we mainly look at the messiness, it only gets worse and we’re less able to help those who are sinking with us.
    But when we look to Him, we can see a way out as we’re changed from glory to glory into His image, and get strong. At the risk of sounding simplistic, I would
    nevertheless say that in the end, it isn’t all
    as comlicated as we would like to make it. “Unless you become as a little child….”

  8. Irishlad wrote:

    The people behind Christian films are not afraid of offending God,they’re afraid of offending other narrow minded so called Christians.

  9. BUICK wrote:

    The Cross and the Switchblade w/Pat Boone and Eric Estrada. YUCK (even back then) !!

  10. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    Artistic mediocrity is secondary to the bigger problem of Christians having no discernment in what they are told is a “Christian” movie, song, book, etc.

    The mere fact that something is available for purchase at a Christian bookstore doesn’t make it a Christian work (I’m looking in your direction, Joel Osteen). Similarly, not every song, movie, or local church puppet show that claims to be Christian actually is.

    The problem isn’t artistic mediocrity in and of itself, as Christians have proven over and over they will support/buy/promote any work they are told is “Christian,” regardless of whether it actually is or whether it sucks. Ergo, why would a Christian artists/musician/filmmaker strive for excellence when they can be fat and happy selling mediocrity?

    The last sentence is particularly applicable to southern gospel artists, whi are generally fatter and happier than other Christian artists.

  11. steven wrote:

    great commentary Soli Deo Gloria!

  12. DRL wrote:

    #1. Interestingly enough, we performed the song “Watching You” at our church on Father’s day Sunday morning. There’s a line in the song that talks about his 4 yr old son saying a “four letter word that started with S.” I must confess, I was not excited about singing that line on the platform of a somewhat conservative Baptist church. I have to listen to those 4 letter words every other hour of the week. I’d like church to be someplace where I can get a break from the filth of the world for at least a couple of hours.

    That may speak to why most “christian” music and film avoids those types of language and reality-based situations. I don’t think it’s a situation where “modern Christians cannot handle a simple kiss or rough language.” It’s just that I get plenty of that trash everywhere else in society. If something is going to be marketed as “christian” and potentially be shown in church, is it too much to ask that we can refrain from having to have that type of language and scenario assaulting our senses? Do you seriously think that film has to depict a child rape and music has to be full of swearing to be considered good quality? Would my comment be better quality if I threw in some bad language? It’s not the lack of bad language, lust or violence that makes poor quality and to try to make that argument is pretty f***ing shallow!

  13. Anne T. wrote:

    The people behind Christian films are afraid of offending Non-Christians!!

  14. cynical one wrote:

    What percentage of “Christian films” are ever seriously watched by the un-churched? By seriously, I mean that they watch them anticipating a real movie.

  15. art wrote:

    Would “The Apostle” count as a Christian movie? How about “Tender Mercies”? Robert DuVall rocks, even if I’m not sure how to spell his last name.

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