C. S. Lewis at the Movies

Learning to Receive

When the Christian film Facing the Giants came out in 2006, far more interesting than the movie itself were the reactions to it. Mainstream critics were almost universally dismissive—it “feels like an overly earnest church sketch of the type many evangelical congregations use as a teaching tool on Sunday between the worship music and pastor’s message,” wrote William Lobdell of the Los Angeles Times in one typical review. Meanwhile, much of the Christian community welcomed it with open arms. As PluggedIn Online put it, “The messages and stories that God holds dear and wants people to hear make the rest pale in comparison.”

And yet some enthusiastic viewers unwittingly gave the impression that they had enjoyed the film because it was their duty to do so. That impression was perhaps best summed up by Ted Slater of Boundless, who wrote, “Let’s not knock a movie that encourages faith in God.”

The reaction to Facing the Giants was not an isolated incident, but representative of a larger trend—one that has surprisingly wide-ranging implications, not just for the Church, but for the wider community as well. For many years now, a great deal of Christian culture has been valued not for its artistic worth, but for its effectiveness as propaganda and as reinforcement for our beliefs. That emphasis affects not just how we Christians see culture, but how the world sees us—and Christianity.

Oddly enough, one of the best tools to help us understand the problems with this way of thinking is a book by a man who devoted little thought to movies. C. S. Lewis’s unique insight into faith and culture, and the relationship between them, can help us understand where Christian thinking on film and other forms of culture has gone wrong, and how we Christians can form a worldview that truly appreciates the value of both faith and art.

In the opening paragraph of An Experiment in Criticism (1961), Lewis proposes that literary critics might be able to understand better what makes a book good or bad if they reverse their usual method. Instead of judging books themselves, he offers, they might try judging, or at least analyzing, readers: “Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary. Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.”

In short, Lewis is proposing that we judge a book by the motives of its readers—or, adapting the proposal for our purposes, a film by the motives of its viewers. (Most or all of what we learn about Christian film by doing this, however, will also be applicable to the majority of contemporary Christian fiction and art.) He suggests that if we discover that a certain work tends to be “used” rather than enjoyed or loved by the vast majority of its fans—or vice versa—this usually tells us something highly significant about the nature of the work in question.

When Christian columnist Dick Staub wrote an article criticizing Sherwood Baptist Church’s efforts to make and promote Giants, he reported afterward, “The more common reactions were from people who a) loved the evangelistic themes; b) believed we ought to support the effort because it was made by good Christians (‘I thought Dick was “one of us;”’ c) agreed it didn’t meet Hollywood production standards but thought my comments were counterproductive in light of a) and/or b).” One particular correspondent scolded Staub:

What do you expect when the budget is ($)100,000 and the actors are new to the acting profession? I saw the film and there were some scenes that were weak but the story line was exceptional and moving. I saw people openly crying and moved during this movie. They were emotionally involved and impacted. That is more than I can say for the majority of trash that comes from Hollyweird.

In the same vein, Ted Slater wrote the following about Giants:

I’m not ashamed to say that I really liked “Facing the Giants,” that I was moved to tears by God’s redemptive love portrayed through the work of amateur church-going filmmakers.

Sure, some of the acting was a bit immature, and the script may have tied up too nicely for modern sentimentalities, but I was profoundly affected by it. My love for God was piqued. (And isn’t that of more ultimate significance than my merely being in awe of the cinematography or in appreciation of the dialog and plot twists?)

We find that the following are usually some of the motives that lead admirers of Facing the Giants and similar movies to call them “good” films:

  • The explicitness with which the Gospel and related spiritual messages are spelled out
  • The extent to which Christian viewers are able to identify with the characters and situations
  • The good intentions and perceived sincerity of their makers
  • The inspirational value of their stories
  • The lack of objectionable elements such as cursing and explicit sex scenes in them
  • The Christian leaders who have endorsed them
  • Obstacles they have overcome or battles that they are seen to have won (for instance, if they managed to make money despite a small budget and poor reviews)

This is the kind of viewing that Lewis would define as using a work, as opposed to receiving it. Those who use a work of art, he explains in An Experiment in Criticism, “rush hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them.”

Lewis was writing before the emergence of the Christian subculture, which acts as a sort of parallel universe for those offended and disgusted (often justifiably so) by mainstream culture. He was writing about works of art, both good and bad, that existed as part of the mainstream culture of his own day (some of which was also offensive and disgusting). However, his insight into people’s ways of experiencing art helps us understand why the evangelical Christian movement has embraced substandard art so fervently

Lewis wrote—with characteristic humility, never with artistic snobbery—of those who used art “as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of [their] own.” For instance, they may enjoy a certain “narrative” quality in a picture, meaning that they like what the picture is about without really caring one way or the other about the picture itself.

To be moved by the thought of a solitary old shepherd’s death and the fidelity of his dog [as the subject for a painting] is, in itself and apart from the present topic, not in the least a sign of inferiority. The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures is that you never get beyond yourself. The picture, so used, can call out of you only what is already there. You do not cross the frontier into that new region which the pictorial art as such has added to the world.

Christians who laud a film like Facing the Giants for the sort of reason cited above—for instance, because the trials of the football coach remind them of what they went through in their own lives, and how it helped them to pray just as he did—are using it in the way Lewis describes. The idea that the movie brings to them is, “That’s us up there on that screen! We never get to see people like us onscreen, but finally, there we are!”

That we feel this way, as Lewis would say, is no sign of inferiority. Nor is it surprising. In a time when movie protagonists tend to be adorable bed-hopping ditzes, bloodthirsty vigilantes, or some combination of the two, being able to identify with characters understandably comes as a relief and a delight. But the phenomenon goes beyond mere surface identification.

The media constantly tells Christians, in myriad ways, that their faith is either completely out of touch or, at best, is nice to believe in but does not provide any relevant answers to today’s dilemmas. Whether we acknowledge it or not, that sort of steady, relentless drip has an eroding effect unless we are careful. Many of us spend our days making constant mental adjustments and allowances for what we are always hearing, in an attempt to accommodate ourselves to a world that uses an almost completely different frame of reference on nearly every subject that matters to us. Christian media usually takes away that necessity and gives us the feeling that, at last, we are hearing from people who understand us and whom we understand—people who “get it.”

The catch is that we are talking about works of art—whether highbrow or popular. And characters and environments that make us feel at home, while comforting, are hardly enough to make a work truly artistic. As Lewis says, when we are enjoying a work mainly in this way, we are simply enjoying its appeal to what we already know and appreciate in ourselves. You might even say, at least in some cases, that we are simply enjoying having our egos stroked.

What I have said could be said of any of a number of groups trying to preserve their own identity and ways of thinking in a culture that’s indifferent at best, and antagonistic at worst. But there is an even more serious danger for Christians. Judging a film by such factors can tend to lead to an “us vs. them” mentality, where the Christian viewer sees the film as triumphing over the enemies of Christians. This can often lead us to take up an attitude that is directly opposed to the attitude that the Bible teaches us to have.

For instance, Pastor Brian Tubbs wrote of Giants: “The movie is shamelessly committed to faith and family in general, and evangelical Christianity in particular. And this is no doubt why many critics have panned it.” Note that Tubbs assumes that the mainstream critics are thinking the way he does—judging the film on something other than its quality as a film—except he sees them as taking the opposite point of view and being bitter about a Christian film’s success.

To point out and analyze the flaws of such thinking is not to deny that there may be a grain of truth in it. A vein of aggressive hostility toward Christianity exists and makes itself felt in mainstream culture every day. Nonetheless, focusing on it to this extent often leads us to ignore valid criticisms of Christian films, and to become defensive and even judgmental about them—hardly an attitude that makes our faith look attractive to a watching world.

The sad fact is, we tend to dwell so much on this type of conflict that we run a serious risk of, first, building an entire “Christian” culture around it. In his book Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, Daniel Radosh examines the contemporary Christian subculture from his perspective as a secular Jew. Over the past few decades, he notes, “Christian pop culture developed into a truly parallel universe, superficially similar to the mainstream, but separate and generally hostile. One result of that separation and hostility was that evangelicals could be safely ignored by the mass media—which only reinforced their separation and hostility.”

Aside from the futility and sheer wrongness of trying to win over a skeptical world through hostility, there is also the danger of forming a herd mentality that allows for little dissent. We begin to indulge in a sort of Christian “identity politics” instead of engaging in critical thinking.

There is a big difference between using one’s Christian worldview to evaluate the religious and moral ideas that a film conveys, and arguing that everyone should consider a film a great work of art because it conveys religious and moral ideas with which we agree. In other words, the idea that Christians should like a film because it is Christian fails to function as legitimate criticism. In fact, it is the attitude that has helped give Christian film a reputation for being substandard—and, unfortunately, give Christians a reputation for having no taste or discrimination.

The point could be made that secular audiences increasingly have the same problem. But we are the ones who claim to serve a God of truth and beauty. So to secular observers looking on, an “anything goes just as long as it preaches the Gospel” attitude is more off-putting than alluring. If we Christians are simply putting our own home movies, so to speak, up on the screen for our neighbors to see, they are going to be met with the same enthusiasm that neighbors usually have for home movies—that is, little or none.

Going by Lewis’s theories about art and audiences, we might speculate that if we want to change Christian film, we need to start by changing Christian viewers. Right now, we have a sort of dichotomy among Christian viewers, with some watching almost nothing but Christian films and others viewing mainstream culture completely indiscriminately. While there are problems with both practices, one thing that can be said for the latter group is that, at some level, they understand that art and entertainment are supposed to be enjoyed, not used. This is what both fans and creators of Christian films need to learn.

As Reuters/Hollywood Reporter reported in May 2008, Christian films are seeing shrinking audiences and diminishing box-office receipts: “In the years since [the release of The Passion of the Christ], studios that have waged extensive faith-based campaigns have garnered mixed results, leading some in Hollywood to lose faith in the practice.” As it happens, two of the few faith-based films in recent years that performed well are the two Narnia movies, based on the works of C. S. Lewis himself—which, yet again, helps prove just how much we have to learn from one of our greatest writers, educators, and critics. In this case, the lesson is that, just as with non-faith-based films, the foundation of a good Christian film is a good, well-told story.

If the work of Christian filmmakers is ever going to reach a level where it can compete in the mainstream, their viewers are going to have to hold them accountable for making, not propaganda, but art.

Gina R. Dalfonzo is editor of The Point blog.

For Further Reading and Information

Alex Wainer, “Used Art: The Problem of Worldview Analysis,” BreakPoint Online, 25 October 2005.

Alex Wainer, “Beyond the Ratings,” BreakPoint WorldView, July/August 2004.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 060622, “Seeing with New Eyes: Movies and Worldview.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 071106, “What a Good Movie Can Do: Bella.”

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