The real reason Christianity drifted from the mainstream
Updated: Oct 8, 2021
I believe that faith is a commercially viable expression within the mainstream screen-arts. I realize that is not a popular thing to say - even among most Christians - but just because it is not currently a reality, doesn't make the statement false; it just means there are things that need to change.
There are two popular reasons people believe as to why faith in mainstream arts and entertainment is second rate; and both are false. 1) Christian artists are just not exceptional. 2) Faith is a narrow restrictive viewpoint that doesn't lend itself to great storytelling.
The infamous "grapefruit scene" in The Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney and Mae Clarke By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8442643
Assuming that, faith drifted from mainstream culture because Christian artists are bad at what they do, would be theologically incorrect. Theologically, Satan is a counterfeiter, not a creator; therefore creativity comes only from God. If this is true, and it is also true that we have been made in His image, it means that those in true relationship with the Creator would be the true creators. Not to say, those who don't know Christ cannot create, because the bible says that, "God's gifts and his call are irrevocable." The gifts are not dependent on obedience and can be a distinguishing feature upon even those who rebel against him. The distinguishing feature of those who know Him, however, should be their ability to create out of surpassing revelation, born out of intimacy with the King, not imitation of what has come before. This is how you will know them, by their fruit (Matt 7:16). To make a wild broad-brush example of this, I would suggest this is why we are in an age of sequels and remakes; those not connected to the creator don't know what to do next!
But the problem is that artists of faith are not in places of power or influence to do much about it. And even if they were, the current level of understanding around this predicament is so low, that most wouldn't know what to do even if they had the power to change it. This is because the church has failed the culture - and failed its artists. They have failed to nurture the artist, and to encourage artists to do what they were created to do. Artists have for decades been pushed down, brushed aside and kept poor. It is a sad and under-recognized reality, that Christian arts and entertainment has been ransacked by the church, who desire only to use screen mediums to preach and build their congregations, leaving the artist destitute. Sounds incredibly harsh but I will explain my reasons for that statement. It is what I believe to be the reason we find our modern culture at large in dire neglect.
The absence of biblical faith and values in our culture has starved the masses of nourishment and left them like orphans navigating the complexities and pitfalls of life alone. Yes, artists of faith can be exceptional, and faith absolutely does belongs in mainstream culture.
Grappling with these thoughts I began to research how we got here and looked for patterns in history that could help explain our present condition. It became apparent to me from my research that there are two clear historical examples that give precedents that could help us understand.
Dr.Ted Baehr of Movieguide, writes in his book 'How To Succeed In Hollywood (without losing your soul)', that there was a period in the middle ages of Europe when Christian artists began to create dramatic works that represented the idea or the TRUE, the GOOD and the BEAUTIFUL. They were taking the lead from the Roman philosopher, Horace, who prior to Christ merged two ideas set out by the great philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, defining art as something both 'to delight and inform.'
With this idea, these Christian artists of the middle ages began to create works that was aimed to help the illiterate populace understand the gospel. But the clergy of the time felt that dramas overshadowed their sermons and so they outlawed the new expression; kicking artists from the churches, out into the streets.
The second historical precedent that informs our current predicament happened at the turn of the twentieth century when film was emerging as the predominant art-form. Many of the works being put to film had been sourced from the New York stage. I was surprised to learn that by the 1920's, following WWI, films were featuring topless shows, performances filled with curse words, and adult sexually explicit subject matter.
My view of old movies has always been quite proper and often very uplifting, but these quaint films, many of which still live in the public conscienceless today (because of these values), came later. Around 1922, there were several risqué films and a series of off-screen scandals involving Hollywood stars, that prompted Hollywood to realize it needed to make a change and clean up its image.
Of course that change didn't come without resistance; liberal film-makers from the New York stage fought the changes but ended up facing the possibility that many states and cities would adopt their own codes of censorship, and would insist that versions of the films be made to meet their codes for national distribution, unless something was done. Rather than incur the added expense of doing this, it was determined that self-censorship was the preferable outcome, and so the studios actually instigated the change by enlisting the help of a Catholic layman and a Jesuit Priest.
This was not the church as a body, but people of faith that engaged with the studios to help them make the change. And so they came up with what was called the Motion Picture Code Seal, which prohibited a picture from "lowering the moral standards of those who see it".
It is interesting to read the code for yourself, because it doesn't look how you would think it should look. It is nothing like the unwritten criteria by which the faith-based genre seem to be currently working to. There is no mention of salvation scenes. No mention that there must be a scene where the local preacher preaches a message to narrate the religious message of the film. There is no call for Christian actors or Christian characters; none of that! It was just an outline of ethics which defined things they would not approve and things around which they suggested caution and to handle with care.
It made me think of the writings of Plato; who is one of the most important philosophers who ever lived, credited with the invention of the university and the idea that arts represents the ideal. Plato believed that storytelling needed to be governed because he recognized the key role stories play in shaping cultures, promoting desirable behaviors and inspiring action. His most famous work, The Republic, is – among other things – an educator’s handbook. For Plato, the education of a state’s Guardians – its warrior class – was of fundamental importance. In devising his ideal state in The Republic, education is the first issue he considers. And what is the first subject Plato addresses on the Guardians’ curriculum? Storytelling.
"Then it seems that our first business is to supervise the production of stories, and choose only those we think suitable, and reject the rest. We shall persuade mothers and nurses to tell our chosen stories to their children, and by means of them to mold their minds and characters which are more important than their bodies. The greater part of the stories current today we shall have to reject."
Many today would take a very dim view of all this. Plato stands accused of fascist censorship and revisionism. But as storytellers I think we can draw a more positive message from Plato’s intense interest in our craft: he wanted to control storytelling because he understood how very powerful it could be in shaping culture, character and behavior.
I think we need to consider these things. I'm not saying we regress back to them without considering how God has matured our thinking on many topics. There are ideals there that we have progressed beyond such as 'miscegenation' (which is the term for the undesirable mixing of races), but most are fundamentally good values; such as refraining from the use of profanity, brutality or technique's of committing murder by whatever method, that I believe would be a great ethical foundations for artists of faith to begin creating new works from.
It started to become clear to me where the Christian faith had been set a drift from the mainstream. The code was difficult - if not impossible - to enforce. I don't think it was ever going to be a successful system. The advent of television cut the ropes of the church mooring itself to the culture.
Television was quickly seen as a next step beyond radio and preachers began to use the medium to broadcast messages; now with pictures. But, like radio, television was funded by advertising and advertisers soon wanted to ensure best return on their dollar by shaping the content being made. Of course this didn't sit well with the church and so preachers began to raise their own money to pay for air-time. This was the advent of the donor-model, which underpinned the entire economic model by which the'Christian' arts and entertainment industry would function. They didn't want what they produced to be tainted by the secular side of the industry. They didn't want to operated by the same models and they didn't want the worlds money to do it. They thought it clever to be totally autonomous from everyone else. Now, the influence of faith on screen was set a drift, commandeered by preachers who were outlawing story (as they did in the middle ages), no longer beholden to the market. Emboldened by the vast sums of money they could make, by directly receiving donations from far and wide beyond their local congregations, they went off and did whatever they wanted; and their influence on mainstream culture over decades became less and less as the arts and entertainment industry matured without them.
In 2006, when Mel Gibson made the Passion of the Christ, suddenly the church was awoken to the idea of story again. Though, rather than reforming their decrepit model and engaging artisans of faith with proper industry know-how (artist for whom they had neglected for decades), they instead applied the old Christian Television donor-model system to it and forged what we know now as the 'faith-based sub-genre'. Another Christian ghetto.
Still separate from the mainstream that Mel had used to make the Passion such a huge success, they missed the point. Pastors and teachers again commandeered the expression for their own purposes, running the show, maintaining their grip on the funding through their congregations, they became Producers. Artists of faith who were trained in the industry were consulted of course but not given autonomy or control of the purse strings. In fact, many were required to volunteer their talents just thankful that faith based entertainment was in the public consciousness again. Artists of faith were again left poor and powerless in their own field of work. They were given very restrictive guidelines to work within and mostly no rights to own the work they produced.
Church leaders, in the drivers seat again, began to profit (like they had with television) off the hunger the culture had for goodness, truth and beauty in the screen-arts. A desperate and parched culture would feed even on these substandard works for the lack of anything better, generating tens of millions of dollars for those who broke through.
Hollywood were left scratching their heads: how these cheesy independent films were able to surpass box-office on many of their higher profile offerings, had them mystified. The church rubbed their hands together in glee, and the culture remained unchanged. And this is where we find ourselves today.
Artists have been kept powerless in their own field of expertise. Shunned by the dominant liberals in Hollywood and abused by the church they remained on the outskirts, told they are untalented and worthless while praying for God to open the way.
This is the real reason faith drifted from the mainstream. There has been a severe and calculated supernatural attack on the artists of our time. It is time for artists of faith to take back the industry they are called to. To till the soil of our newly global culture, and prepare hearts and minds to be receptive to hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ and living in good virtue as Plato instructed. The church cannot moor itself to the culture like it has, thinking they commandeer whatever medium they choose to influence culture directly from the pulpit.
Artists of faith need to infuse themselves within the culture as empowered leaders within their field. They need to evaluate what led them to such a disastrous place - stripped of power and influence in their own field of expertise - and reform the system with ideas that will unlock new waves of creativity the world is still waiting to see.
Too many artists of faith are either trying to look like the world, or influence it from some church on the fringes outside of the arts and entertainment landscape. Cultural transformation will not happen without first taking the places of authority on the mountain of arts and entertainment itself. You cannot substitute it out - the Lord has made it this way. But in order to take the mountain, we need to know what to do with it when we get there and work back with that revelation from the Lord.
There is no point repeating past mistakes or replicating the counterfeit; we are The Creators Ambassadors, here to execute the wishes of the King. If we don't do it, there is no-one else who can.
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