And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15)
I finally saw the new release, I Can Only Imagine, with my wife at our local theater on Tuesday night. I have seldom had an experience watching a movie as I did watching this most recent offering of what has become a new movement in producing better-quality Christian movies. I had heard by so many that the film was great, but the story it told truly transcended the production itself, and it was a powerful experience for both my wife and me. Due in large part to the success of Mel Gibson’s movie, ThePassion of the Christ, film companies, both secular and Christian, have begun to reshape the way Hollywood sees the world of Christianity.
It is no secret that movies made by Christians have traditionally lacked both the budget and quality to compete with mainstream Hollywood, but that has begun to change – even if slowly. A number of recent movies representing the biblical worldview have begun to emerge that, at least to this amateur movie critic, exceed previous efforts to produce good quality Christian entertainment. There are still some hurdles to overcome, but there can be little doubt that progress is being made.
Questions such as, “What constitutes good art as opposed to mere Christian propaganda?” are still being worked through, and it is good that we ask them. It’s not that we shouldn’t use entertainment and media to share the gospel. Rather, it’s the heavy-handed, over-the-top way in which it has been done that needs to be re-evaluated. Some of these questions we need to ask ourselves before sharing our art with the world might be a shock to believers who only see value in a direct, frontal assault on all things secular.
First of all, we need to ask, “What makes a movie ‘Christian’ to begin with?” What about music? Is a song only Christian if it shares the gospel? How many times do we need to use the name of Jesus before something is Christian, or is art simply Christian when a Christian creates it? As Gregory Alan Thornbury, Chancellor of the Kings College in New York has quipped, “Christian is a great noun but a lousy adjective.” Just because something wears the badge of Christian does not immediately sanctify it as art or excuse poor production quality. Our God is THE Creator, the author of all that is good, and beautiful, and true, so what could be our excuse for being little more than poor imitators of our secular counterparts?
For one thing, when it comes to making art of any kind, we need actual artists doing it. That’s not to say that evangelistic organizations or large ministries cannot be involved in making movies or engaging in any other form of artistic expression. When they do so, however, they need to bring professionals on board who are genuine artisans and able to avoid the clumsy, transparent attempts at over-stating our case, as, for example, when movie dialogue is used to serve the purpose of getting in the obligatory gospel presentation rather than serving the story the movie is trying to tell. Again, as a career preacher, I am obviously NOT against sharing the gospel! However, if we truly want the world to pay attention, we need to earn that platform through the quality of what we create and not our embarrassing attempts to rope them into a church service at the local movie house. We need to trust that we have more to offer than a direct assault on their worldview.
What sets us apart from the world are the underlying assumptions by which we live in contrast to those which they hold. We have hope for a future that transcends this natural, physical life we live here on earth. We believe in the inherent value of every man and woman by virtue of their being created in the image of God, apart from any considerations of utility or intelligence. We believe in a love that sees past hurt and failure and is redemptive in nature (as I Can Only Imagine beautifully expressed), and we believe in living lives of significance that have their purpose rooted in God’s eternal plan. All of these things can be expressed in ways that are clear without being obnoxious.
Sometimes, of course, it is completely appropriate to be direct. One such example of this is beautifully seen in A Charlie Brown Christmas, in which Linus goes out on stage and quotes from Luke’s account of the Christmas Story. It’s not preachy but tastefully done, and the impact is undeniable. Likewise, a testimony in a Christian concert is completely appropriate when it is natural or can shed light on the inspiration for a song and does not make one feel like he or she been hijacked by amateur evangelists who are more set on converting the audience than performing. The difference between effectiveness and offensiveness lies somewhere in respecting the right of the listener (the consumer of our art) to weigh what they have experienced and trusting God to do what only He can do in their lives. As one person has said, “You can put the Holy Spirit down now. He can walk all by himself!” We needn’t worry that He’s not up to His part in bringing the sinner to Christ.
Lastly, there was one part of I Can Only Imagine that truly touched me. It was the magnanimity of Amy Grant. The all-time, best-selling Christian song that became the title of the movie was to be her comeback hit. However, when the moment came on stage to share the song with her audience, she couldn’t do it. She knew the song belonged to its author, and it was, in fact, that song which put Mercy Meon the map as a recognized force in the Christian music industry. What touched me was the Christian charity she expressed in that act.
I remember when Amy Grant decided to become more of a mainstream artist and not restrict her talents to the Christian world. She was eviscerated by many Christians, and I am ashamed to say that I jumped on that bandwagon as well. Many of us simply couldn’t see that tempering one’s Christian rhetoric in song lyrics to reach a wider audience could be a way of doing what Jesus had told us to do when He said to “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” (Matthew 10:16). Choosing to be a Christian who sang instead of a “Christian singer” was seen as compromise by some of us Pharisaical believers who all but called for a boycott on her music, simply because she tried to broaden her platform. Our mistake, besides unjustly judging Amy Grant’s motives, was in thinking that by wrapping our artists with some kind of exclusive Christian label we could insulate them from worldly contamination.
I think Jesus was more like Amy in His approach. He did not stay cloistered in a monastery or minister in exclusively “Christian” venues but got down in the dirt with ugly, fallen humanity. He was derisively called “the friend of sinners” by the Pharisees but was loved by those who had always felt excluded from the religious systems of the day. Jesus put humanity and warmth into what religion had made cold, legalistic, and sterile. He told stories the masses could relate to and used familiar images to communicate eternal truths. I think that is what Amy Grant tried to do some years back, and I think it’s what this new batch of filmmakers are doing as well. We’ll have some misses along with the hits, and many in the Church will think we’ve sold out to Hollywood by moving toward the silver screen rather than the local church. What they fail to realize, however, is that the world still goes to the movies. Finding creative ways of bringing truth to them on their own ground is one way we can “go into all the world” with good news.
Dr. Randy Bunch is the pastor of West Kern Christian Center, located at 1000 6th Street in Taft, California, as well as a graduate advisor and adjunct professor at Summit Bible College in Bakersfield, California. He is the author of several books, including his new devotional, Immutable: Changeless Truth for a Changing World. For more information, or to purchase your copy, go to randylanebunch.org. For more information on the ministries of WKCC, you can go the ministry’s website at wkcconnect.org.