Does Jesus Christ “meet people where they are”?
If He did, should Christian artists do the same? If so, what does that involve?
Such questions affect all storytelling, music and films made by Christians, including our fantasy and science fiction.
I got to thinking about it today because last weekend, USA Today reported that actor Robert Duvall — though not a Christian, as far as I know — is making two films with themes about forgiveness and human kindness. But neither includes specific Christian elements.
These films don’t march viewers into church or drop them to their knees in prayer. Rather, they reveal broken people, lost in pain — anger, loneliness, addiction, poverty or staggering sadness — whose lives are rebuilt by small acts of love and kindness, what Psalm 51:1 calls “tender mercies.”
—From Holy-wood’s next big hits, USAWeekend.com, Aug. 8, 2010
That article notes the smaller successes of specifically-Christian-marketed films such as Facing the Giants and Fireproof, but contrasts those with the much-more-successful film The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock.
And it’s not just non-Christians who are making lower-case-I inspirational films with Christian-ish themes.
The next Blind Side may be Like Dandelion Dust, which opens nationwide in September. Mira Sorvino and Barry Pepper star in this wrenching adoption story in which no one prays, no one mentions Jesus by name, no one converts. But the millions of readers who scoop up every title from evangelical novelist Karen Kingsbury will recognize Like Dandelion Dust immediately as one of her many best sellers.
So that leads me to wonder … if a story includes moral values, but not even a hint of:
- Mention of Jesus Christ by Name
- Conversion, past or present
- Jesus’ goal to build His Kingdom through His Bride, the Church
… What, exactly, makes it a Christian story?
And by promoting such stories as Christian stories, are we not implying to those who have not repented and accepted Jesus that so long as they accept Moral Values such as love, forgiveness or even repenting (to one’s fellow man), they’re spiritually okay?
Two Christian brothers are helming the Kingsbury film adaptation, the article said. They want to make movies with “universal” themes, such as sacrificial love. That’s wonderful, and we need stories like that — stories that promote discussion about deeper truths, getting the conversation started. But it’s like the “intelligent design” movement: very helpful in getting the conversation started and even some controversy stirred, but what good does it do to know there’s a Designer if you don’t also know Who He is?
Few would argue that every single Christian story need to have the Gospel in it, start-to-finish. If they did, I would argue that Bible books themselves rarely do this. Instead they reveal more of the Gospel account, bit by bit, as God works His sovereign plan.
But shouldn’t some of our stories honor and include the start-to-finish Gospel, and even such cliched elements as prayer, church attendance and (gasp!) conversion? (I’d argue for more overtly Christian characters whose past conversion acted out in the present, instead of making every story’s climax a Pray This Prayer moment. This is more realistic, but not often done.)
If not, Christians may be guilty of overcorrecting too much toward the “Jesus met people where they were” side.
Yes, Jesus was the incarnate Word, God Himself,who physically met humans where they were. But even a summary reading of His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) makes it clear He didn’t come to affirm people, emotionally and spiritually meeting them where they were. Rather, He raised the bar. He made it clear God expects more of them. His clear meaning: you can’t do this without Me.
For Christians even to imply otherwise in their preaching, music or storytelling is to be more “spiritual” than Jesus was. And as Rebecca Miller recently noted, it’s to fall into the same trend of “safe” storytelling that really isn’t safe.
… “[S]afe” fiction is the most dangerous kind because people are disarmed, no longer alert to possible ideas that may foster a false worldview.
Ideas, of themselves, are not dangerous. I can listen to atheist Christopher Hitchens in a debate about the existence of God and be unaffected by his worldview because I am alert.
Ideas that float in under the radar, however, are another thing. They enter unchallenged, co-exist with the truth, and someday after they’ve been fortified, may even challenge the truth to a shootout.
Media has taken this approach to introducing a shift in worldview through “safe” stories for the last thirty years at least. But the reality is, “safe” Christian fiction is no more safe than the media brand of safe.
Stories that show sin conquered by love and forgiveness, and even repentance, may have echoes of Christ. But if we’re all echoing, who will tell of the Source of the Gospel call?
Should we all be “good cop” Christian artists who get to tell the Good Parts Version of the Gospel, leaving it to “bad cop” pastors or evangelists to fill in the parts people don’t like as much? And if we don’t tell the whole story, aren’t we guilty of promoting only more Moralism?
Sherwood Pictures’ film Fireproof may have been corny in spots, obviously low-budget, slow-moving, and have dialogue with far too many name references (“Dad …” “Son …” “Dad …” “Son …”). But at least viewers got the Gospel in Fireproof. They may get the fruits of the Gospel, and even Hard Subjects, in any of Duvall’s films, or the apparently non-specifically-Christian Kingsbury story adaptation. But they won’t get the whole Gospel — with the much-tougher “your main problem is with God, not people” parts included.
Do we even need “Christian” movies to get the conversation started? Isn’t conversation already going, aided by epic stories such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Dark Knight, Star Wars and many others — or, for that matter, the death, sin and suffering we see in the real world?
Might we instead need more realistic, well-done, God-glorifying stories that specifically present Jesus, yes, by Name, and yes, with the Gospel?