Try If You Like

If you spent any amount of time in what used to be called “Christian Bookstores,” you might have seen—in the alcoves with the cassette and CD demo listening stations—two-column posters that said “Try If You Like,” listing “secular” bands on one side and sound-alike “Christian” bands on the other. These suggestions were often hilariously bad, sounding nothing like the bands or artists to which they were supposed to be similar. On the wall, you could find t-shirts that parodied popular brands or sayings, putting Christian slogans in their place (if you haven’t seen them, think “This blood’s for you” or “God’s Gym”). I spent hours there searching for, first, tapes, and later CDs on which to spend the money I received for birthdays or holidays, because an aunt of mine stipulated that her gifts be spent at the Christian bookstore. (To be clear, I loved it, and I probably wouldn’t have spent it anywhere else, anyway.) Later, though, the good stuff was in the discount bins.

But the practical effect of those posters (to which I didn’t pay much attention, except to see how far off the suggestions were) and t-shirts and much of the Christian Music Industry in general was to make it seem like all the things that could be purchased in those bookstores were second-rate knockoffs of the real thing: “If you really like this talented and successful band, try this carbon copy that won’t be nearly as good and that all your friends will think is ridiculous!” So it was a big deal when bands like P.O.D. or MxPx made it onto MTV!

Enough has been written about the history of Contemporary Christian Music, including several books. When it comes to “Christian” movies, there have been a lot of think-pieces, reviews, and commentary, but Reel Redemption (2019; available at Faithlife TV) is a great and succinct overview of the history of the interaction of Christians with Hollywood.

Reel Redemption is a video essay, going back to the beginning of film and how a largely “Christian” America received it. It’s a fascinating story that tracks how censors and moralists tried to constrain Hollywood (and largely succeeded at first), to the subversion of morality standards by creative filmmakers, to the rejection of those standards after Hollywood blacklisting and 1960s’ counter-culturalism.

What’s interesting to me is how long it took Christians to carve out a niche (or a ghetto, if you’re feeling uncharitable) for themselves in the film industry. Christian music followed much more closely after the trends of secular music in the late ’60s and ’70s with Larry Norman, Jesus People USA and the Resurrection Band in Chicago, and the Jesus Movement/Jesus freaks in Southern California. But for Christian movies, it seems like it’s only been in the last 15 or 20 years that Christian movies have been widely accessible and discussed. The answer might lie, in part, in the fact that major production companies are not the sole arbiters of what gets made. Indies and small-budget films have many more avenues to market themselves than they did previously, thanks primarily to the ubiquity of the internet.

And yet, access to inexpensive but quality technology, and access to audiences, hasn’t necessarily brought mainstream success—and even when there is success, there are accusations of partisan or political agendas. It’s like the “crossover” success of Christian artists like Amy Grant or Skillet: some applaud and encourage it because it might “reach” unbelievers; while others worry about the watering down of an explicitly Christian message. And from outside the Christian or Evangelical world, there are questions about quality or ulterior motives.

Smith points out that Christian film, like CCM, has essentially become its own genre. It has its peculiar plot points, its narrative conventions, its expected conclusions, its known commodities, its iconography. And it makes money from a very willing demographic, which sees such films as spiritual experiences, buying out entire screenings for churches—and the production companies market to those churches. That, in turn, means that regardless of the quality of the product, the film will be seen as “good” because it has the “right” message.

I can understand that impulse: there is a lot of gratuitous sex, language, and violence in mainstream movies, and you just want to watch something with the kids. Underlying that, however, is an assumption that false doctrine is not as dangerous as all the “bad” things. The movie is nice and there are no bad words and the “Christians” best the “atheists” and there’s a happy ending and everyone gets “saved.”

But not only is that not how the real world works, either with Christians or atheists, the goal is often not to tell a story but to make a point. That flattens the characters into unbelievability, not to mention introducing false understandings of conversion, prayer, or the action of God in the world. The more that Christians dismiss the false teaching because the movie is “wholesome,” the more inclined I am to watch something with smoking, drinking, and cussing. False doctrine will kill the soul quicker than seeing sinners do what sinners do (not—understand—that I’m encouraging the viewing of depravity for depravity’s sake).

Finally, it’s not just the content, or just the art, that makes something worth watching (or reading, or thinking about, for that matter). Stories are worth telling if they’re true to life and if they say something true about living in this world. Sometimes the characters in the stories are going to choose badly, at least as Christians understand things, as they live their lives; sometimes they’ll choose well. But the way that characters act is no more a guide to how we should act than those who populate the pages of the Scriptures. The way either the characters or the filmmaker view the world determines the direction of the story, but I am looking for whether Scriptural patterns are traced or followed, not whether “Christian” is being used as an adjective—which is always, for my money, a sign that something has gone off the rails somewhere.

Just as with music, Christians ought to judge film on whether the objective merits of the art (talent, production, knowledge, etc.) move in the direction of what is good. And that is determined not by whether it matches our own moralistic or political inclinations, but whether the story (intentionally or not) is directed toward a worthwhile end or goal, the telos of a given thing, or of all things. The question of whether a film does that is worth a good discussion, in which people may disagree. But the ghettoization of Christian film is as bad for the art itself as the ghettoization of Christian music. To paraphrase Hank Hill, you may well not be making film better, but making Christianity worse.

Reel Redemption raises questions for both filmmakers and viewers as they think about what those goals or ends might profitably be, outside how profitable the films are or are not.

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