Last week, American Vision attended the annual CBA (Christian Booksellers Assn.) retail show in Orlando, Florida. Although a wide range of vendors came from all over the world (from “Jesus junk” hawkers to record producers), the majority of those in attendance are buying and selling books. It was interesting to me as I walked around the show floor that even though we are in the midst of a heated presidential election year, many of the big name publishers are featuring new books on the topic of culture. IVP, Baker, Tyndale, Eerdmans, Crossway, and others each have at least one new title that is taking a closer look at the Christian response to culture. This is a good thing to be sure. In fact, many more of these types of materials are needed if the responses to Gary’s short article on the new Batman movie are any indication.
It should come as no surprise to readers of this site that Christians are primarily known for what they don’t believe than what they do believe. The 2007 book, UnChristian, documents this problem quite clearly. The authors claim that Christians are usually perceived as being “anti-cultural” in both their political and social views. Our own (admittedly small) sample size of Batman critics seems to lend credibility to this assessment. Even those who responded in defense of Christians viewing and interacting with the film have tended to miss the larger point of the cultural and worldview implications of it. Christians need to regain an understanding of just how important a good story and effective storytelling are to the reclaiming of the culture. Before this can happen though, Christians (and more specifically Protestants) need to get over their obsession with talking and words and begin to learn how to show and demonstrate through the power of images.
The idea of word vs. image has been circulating through my mind ever since I first saw the powerfully simple film, Bella. As I was writing the review of this movie, it became apparent to me just how far Christians had gotten off-track in their quest for cultural relevance. Despite the fact that almost every city and town in America has at least one seeker-sensitive, latte-serving, 5000-seat mega-church at their disposal, the net effect of all these hip and relevant edifices of coolness is essentially nil. Although these sprawling empires have been quite effective in “keeping it casual” by wearing flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts, they have done little to affect the culture beyond the doors of the church. Although they hold the “greatest story ever told” in their hands, they prefer to offer practical life-lessons and motivational speeches instead. If the church has become irrelevant to even its own people, how can it ever hope to make a dent in the culture?
I wonder how many of the individuals that responded to the Batman article with their moral grandstanding of “not giving a dime to Hollywood,” have been using this same logic when it comes to food or drink. If Hollywood is corrupting our morals and our souls, what do they say about Coke, Burger King, and Hershey’s, which are corrupting our bodies? Do the moralizers use the same abstaining when it comes to avoiding fast food and soda, as they do when it comes to “disturbing” Hollywood movies? Do they refuse to give any of God’s money to these health-perverting companies, or do they hope that people will only notice their piety when it comes to films? Chick-Fil-A has made its mark on the world by offering a better product and superior service. They have also proven that a business model that doesn’t include being open on Sundays can succeed. Because of founder Truett Cathy’s dedication to serving a better sandwich first, he was able to build an international platform from which to proclaim the Gospel. Christians of every profession need to take notice of this, but most especially the ones who find themselves gifted as writers, artists, musicians, and communicators. While we may have the greatest story to tell, we also need to tell it greatly. Substandard movies, novels, and music are nothing more than a substandard foundation for the Gospel.
This is why films such as The Dark Knight resonate so deeply with the culture. It portrays reality, albeit in an unreal world. All humans, Paul tells us in Romans 1 and Romans 7, understand that there is a sin nature simmering just below the surface. Unbelievers try to suppress this truth, but know it is there nonetheless. When Christians make films with flimsy, plastic, and unbelievable characters living in a flimsy, plastic, and unbelievable world, the stereotypes of “church people” are reinforced and become more deeply ingrained in the collective mind of a culture that is at war with the true King. I believe that Bella was a step in the right direction and I was reminded of this again last night as I watched the DVD with my wife. The church must be teaching its people the importance of story and how to balance style and substance. Until that day arrives, the church will continue to make visual sermons and call them movies, but we’ll save that for next week…