(Breaking the Human Nature series, just for this week, to explore this broader Story issue.)
To my brothers in the faith, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, and any other brother or sister from the Sherwood Baptist Church (Albany, Georgia) film ministry, Sherwood Pictures:
I write as an admirer and simultaneous critic of your movies, specifically Fireproof and Courageous, both of which I’ve seen.
On Sept. 26, 2008, my girlfriend and I bought tickets on the very debut night of Fireproof. Inside the theater, filled with Baptists (they love bringing their big white church vans to the movie the-ay-ter!), we enjoyed the film. Many moments made us laugh or be gripped, just as a good story should do. Of course, the theme of “fireproofing your marriage” got through blazing hot, and in fact, the very next day, I proposed to the woman who’s now my wife. Of course, I had already been planning that, but still, the film’s theme helped set the mood.
Just last Sunday, there we were again, surrounded by Baptists, and viewing Courageous. As God-delighters and movie-enjoyers, we were glad to find that you have gotten even better at your craft. Funny moments were funnier, sobering moments more sobering. The story was more complex, the conversion scene more subtle, the acting definitely improved.
Action scenes were better than the gripping car-on-the-train-tracks scene from Fireproof. The bad guys, even though they never cussed, were clearly bad. Cops chased and pounded them. Realistic. At times — and especially for a Sherwood Picture — almost “edgy.”
I’m an aspiring novelist. I enjoy exploring Story from a Biblical worldview. I help run a blog, Speculative Faith, about such topics — especially visionary stories like fantasy and sci-fi. Many of my friends have similar missions: to craft and enjoy stories for God’s glory.
Because we are all characters in God’s true-life Epic Story, the Gospel. Because God Himself in His Word, both implicitly (with beauty in His writing craft) and explicitly (Old Testament literature and Jesus’ parables), endorses manmade, fictitious art and Story. Because unlike nonfiction, only Story can uniquely apply and “simulate” truth in imagined experiences.
Story has power. I think you folks realize this. And in making stories, you have power.
And this is not of yourself. It is God’s gift — the gift of imagination, of “imaging” Him and His truths even when we don’t know it. Nonbelievers can stumble across this, thanks to common grace (as when Paul in Acts 17 quoted a Greek poet who accidentally echoed truth). Yet only Christians discern beauty’s and truth’s spiritual Source (1 Cor. 2:14).
So how come, in both Fireproof and Courageous, you seemed to forget the power of Story?
Example: The quiet opening of Courageous quickly turns thrilling — a man chases his own car, stolen by a crook, and hangs out the vehicle’s window as it careens down the road. Later a stunning moment reveals the reason why the driver was so desperate not to let the crook get away, and shows us something about the character.
But then, seconds after, we catch up with other main characters, sheriff’s deputies. They blatantly ask each other if they could have done the same thing, and for the same reasons.
Seeing as how my point is — to give it away — overstating the case, here’s Example Two. A man in grief after a family tragedy is slowly beginning to recover. Already the audience can tell this is happening, and up until now it’s been (mostly) realistically yet cinematically shown. But already the story begins to overdo it by showing the man arriving at a place he’s been before. There his daughter had once asked him to dance with her, but he had declined. Now he is reenacting that dance. He looks happy. The music is whimsical and the scene almost already becomes schmaltzy. But then he has to start praying, aloud, acting well — but over-explaining to the point of audience-participation squirming.
Might as well flick up a white sign inscribed with the words I Am Now Experiencing Healing.
It’s not just my Story-enjoying snarky friends who’d moan at that, or the movie’s altar-call ending in a church. (Yes, that’s how it ends.) Fellas: everyone got the point! Subtlety is great. You even practiced this yourself in the movie’s well-done (yet obligatory) witnessing scene. So how come the movie bends over backwards to make other things excruciatingly clear?
If God had put His main point in the Bible like this, every book, even chapter, would repeat John 3:16. We’d have no Psalms, no Song of Solomon, no Ecclesiastes, no “he who has an ear to hear, let him hear,” as announced by Jesus as a challenge to explore His parables’ truths.
By contrast, all of Courageous is obviously about Fatherhood. That’s how it’s been sold to Christians. Not “this is the story of four men who band together to protect their families as they protect their city.” Not “this is a story about how men from different paths come together on their mission.” Instead: “This movie is about a Virtue. Give your Support.”
Sure, Christians are great Supporters. It’s instinctive. We are Support Zombies.
But is that the point of a movie? The point of any story? Support it ‘cause it Proves a Point?
Evidently God didn’t think so, in His Word. And in many ways, you don’t think so either. PluggedIn.com quoted one of you gents, Alex Hendrick, from a 2008 interview. You said:
“There are two views [about making Christian movies]. One is that you should let the art speak for itself and let people infer from it what God wants to say. The other view involves using the art to present the gospel in no uncertain terms so that people won’t miss it. There’s a place for both. God has called us to a certain style of filmmaking, and we’re going to stay true to that. Our goal is for it to be natural but clear. We want to have a solid gospel message so intertwined in the plot that it never feels like we’re pausing the movie to preach to the audience.”
That’s fantastic. I’m grateful you’ve thought this out, and — unlike other Christians — do see that Christian filmmakers, and storytellers, have more than one option. And in this, I’m trying to be careful not to expect more from Courageous than you intended to give.
But while much of the film did seem “natural but clear,” the parts I described just weren’t.
The truth-based themes that any great story should Show were frozen to a halt while we were Told about fatherhood, the need to be courageous, and about how God will somehow, someday tell daddy and his teen daughter whom she’ll marry(?). [Biblical citation needed.] We also saw slow pans over the print Resolution the fathers sign to do better jobs at home — and that very afternoon I was stunned to find that framed Resolutions are available at Christian bookstores near you. (The daddy/daughter scene Purity Ring® truly did surprise me.)
That’s one viewer’s perspective, about your own stated goals. But I also encourage this:
As you practice better Story craft, consider trusting the power of Story. Trust it to do what it does best, without dragging seemingly federally required Churchy Content into it.
Christians should hate it when people base church services on entertainment.
They should also dislike when people base entertainment on church services.
Ultimately, doing so doesn’t trust God — the Author Who gave us the Word that itself is sufficient, and gives us all the clear spiritual truths we need.
Ladies and gentlemen of Sherwood Pictures, or any aspiring Christian movie-maker: if we truly believe that, this is freeing! We don’t need to feel guilty if specific calls to repentance and faith aren’t in a movie. We don’t need to think, subconsciously: Scripture isn’t enough; people also need stories to put Bible truths in their minds. Instead, we can fulfill the purpose of Story: to bring others into a truthful, beautiful simulated reality, an experience, that takes us outside ourselves and helps us glorify God our Creator, our story’s Author.
I have hopes for Sherwood’s next film. I hope it will show you’ve led others in deepening your filmmaking craft, simulating Gospel-based living in stories that will honor God and the gifts He gives us.
E. Stephen Burnett