Mainstream Messiah

My friend, Mike, challenged me to blog about Christian media. Like me, he is a creative type who takes his faith seriously. And, like me, he is often frustrated by the Christian media options on the radio, at the bookstore, or in the theaters.

So, in honor of the mega-blockbuster, Left Behind, which is sure to put Nick Cage back on the Oscar platform, let’s start this conversation. Get your two cents ready.

First of all, this topic is highly subjective. We are all critics, and our criticism is often steeped in our own backgrounds, influences, personalities and subcultures. Everybody has their own opinions of musicians, directors and authors, and each person is convinced that their opinions are the standard of quality and good taste.

But can any one person tell any other person what they should or shouldn’t like?

What makes something good? Who gets to decide? You? Me? Album sales? Academy Awards? Professional critics? (answer: Tim Cavendesh from Pittsburgh)

So what about Christian media? Can we make general statements about quality? Hold on, let me text Tim real quick . . .

Moment of honesty here: If someone tells me that a book, movie or band is Christian, I automatically assume I’m going to hate it. And I usually do.

When I was working at Village Christian, I wanted to make a speech in boxers and a T-shirt. No shoes or socks. Monotone. I wanted to tell everyone that it’s all about Christ, then just turn and walk off the stage.

Hopefully they would get the point: The presentation is just as important as the message. A poor presentation can undermine the most powerful message, and a poor message can undermine the most powerful presentation.

What if Atlas Shrugged was full of spelling errors? Or if Tom Cruise had a lisp? Or if Spielberg chose Kirk Cameron to play Oskar Schindler?

When my core values are undermined by what I consider to be poor quality art, I am embarrassed by my own subculture. If it’s not competitive, please don’t put it out there in its boxer shorts.

However, when quality art corresponds with my core values, I am moved. I have been deeply affected by Christian music, movies and books, both fiction and non-fiction. I could list my favorites here, and start in on why they are my favorites, but that would be a subjective exercise.

I have also been deeply affected by secular media which artfully scrutinizes the human condition. I resonate with Dan Haseltine, lead singer of Jars of Clay, who wrote these words about his recent secular album, “Inland.”

“These songs are honest expressions of what life around us looks like. The descriptions of love and pain, loneliness and hope are real to us. It is what frustrates me about the general church audience. If artistic expressions do not have an evangelical agenda, or they don’t explicitly cheer for Jesus, they tend to fail commercially. In my experience, the music with those kinds of agendas is shallow and somehow not ultimately believable to me.”

Yeah, that.

But sometimes I like my media to geek out on Jesus. Sometimes I want somebody like Keith Green in my speakers, or George Muller on my bookshelf, urging me to turn my back on sin  and embrace Christ for all I’m worth. I love my subculture. And sometimes overtly Christian media really speaks to me.

The truth is, I want both. And I want both to be good. Whatever that means.

Hold on. Getting a text from Tim . . .

13 thoughts on “Mainstream Messiah

  1. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power…” 1 Cor 2 something. That’s the first thing that came to mind. It’s not about how talented the person is per se, but whether the Spirit is actually the power behind it. And I suspect quite a lot of what we’re getting isn’t Spirit driven. Paul gave his whole life to Christ’s service, and God used him mightily. But how many people can resist the call of fame? Have these modern artists tossed their award statues in the ocean? Keith Green resented fame. The guy Kurt and I like , Neal Morse, came to the end of his rope and found Christ better. He also laid it all down. Then God can use it. And the Spirit is never lame.

    I think a lot of the “Christian” stuff out there is just self conscious and that kills it not only spiritually but secularly as well. “I’m doing this for Jesus and the world is going to be changed and think I’m awesome.” If you catch yourself thinking that, your work is toast. Self consciousness for any reason is an art killer.

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    • That’s a great litmus test. If the art is inspired by the Creator, it should have a certain quality and power. If the art is inspired by the flesh, even for good intentions, it will be limited to the talent and vision of that performer, for better or worse. The tragedy of Christian art, is that the artist claims to be indwelt by the Creator, yet his/her art is often perceived as inferior. That does not reflect well on our message or reality.

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  2. I have though a lot about why this subject ignites a passion in me. AND, I find myself extremely critical. In this, it is not my goal to bash “christian” media… nor am I deluded enough to think I am the critic of all critics on the subject of media, what is good, what Christians should do and think about it, and even what the Bible says, if it is relevant in the matter.

    Much of my recent thinking is influenced by “Waking the Dead” by John Eldredge. What impacts me, or resonates, is he talks a great deal about how story telling is an avenue of piercing the heart with truth. Jesus included a lot of storytelling in his sermonizing. Why? Because of the truths that pierce the heart and lead to real transformation. You can read me a list of the laws and “shoulds” and “should nots”, but there is not much in that that is really life changing. Tell me a story, and I’m moved. It just seems to be how the heart works. In this, I am so put off at how poor we (Christians) are at storytelling. This includes live theatre as well as cinema, music and visual arts.

    In a somewhat lame analogy, it is as though the christian’s artist palate contains only the primary colors, pure and unblended. These colors represent truth. Occasionally we may blend and try a bit of purple, green, or orange, but only very occasionally. We hardly, if ever, would dare to go so far as indulging in brown… and NEVER black, for this is a dark and evil color, not appropriate for our eyes and ears (funny, some Christian schools will not have black in their uniforms for this very reason). Is this not true of (most of) our music? How many modes are there? How many do we use? Minor keys… that’s a little dark isn’t it. Certainly not appropriate for a Sunday morning. That chorus has to have a tambourine. I’ve actually heard this.

    I could list a multitude of examples and I know this would be fruitless. I think Christians are often satisfied with less. I think we are sometimes too nice.

    By the way, I also like my Christian things as well. I love my Phil Keaggy, Keith Green, Jars of Clay, Frank Peretti (Darkness books only), Tolkein, and C.S. Lewis. I think other Biblical truths are apparent in a more general media… The Passion of the Christ, Les Miserables, Lenny Kravitz (Love Revolution), Mutemath, Lord of the Rings (movies), and YES, Harry Potter. There are many others, but I would would like to see more Christians step forward as actors, writers, producers, painters instrumentalists, vocalists, etc. and dedicate their talents to excellence in telling the greatest stories ever told. I wish I had the talent to do so. Perhaps I am only gifted as Salieri in “Amadeus” to recognize the incarnation.

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    • Oh, and that thing about adding black to our palettes… Funny thing: I was at a writers conference at Mt. Hermon, and Ted Dekker was the night speaker. It was his first time public speaking, and his topic was this very thing. He said that since Christians tend to back away from descriptions of evil, it weakens our perception of good. If the evil is dark gray, good becomes light gray to counter it. The darker the black, the lighter the white. If we can talk about evil as evil, our redemption becomes all the more glorious, and his righteousness stands out in stark contrast, spurring us on to worship.

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  3. I think you’re right, John. I don’t think an overtly “Christian” message will redeem a mediocre piece of art or entertainment. We ought not to sacrifice quality for the sake of message.
    We are admonished a number of times to give our best to God, whether it is in acts of service or in artistic expressions. Whether we are creating a “Christian” art piece or a “secular” one, it ought to be a damn good one, the best we can produce. I don’t think we can make a total piece of crap, put a few “Christian” words or themes, and call it good because it is “Christian.”
    One of my biggest pet peeves as a writer is to read a book I could have written better. Unfortunately, I find that a lot on Christian bookstores.
    I guess my point is that we Christians need to up our game artistically. Our writers, filmmakers, musicians, etc. ought to be strong contenders for Pulitzers, Oscars, Grammys, etc. based purely on their artistic merit. I think our witness would be a lot more effective is the secular world respected us for our craft.

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    • Definitely. Sometimes our best is still not up to standard, but we need to keep working year after year after year at our crafts, and keep growing in our understanding and experience of God if we expect to have any impact on our cultures. Have we settled?

      I also wonder if tagging “Christian” onto media ultimately hurts it before we even start. Most people sit down with music or fiction or at a show in order to be entertained. This is not usually why people come to church (although we seem to be headed that way). When we combine preaching with entertainment, usually both are spoiled.

      However, most authors and directors have something to say, but they do it with subtlety. They let the characters live out the themes organically. I think that Christians tend to be heavy handed, afraid that the message won’t come across.

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  4. My two sense. Casting pearls before swine. (Matt. 7: 6) Now there is gasoline to throw on a flaming ego. Yet Jesus speaks in parables, “because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matt. 13: 10) Much classic music has been presented for the glory of God, but it does not show up on a top 10 radio show. So, besides artistic striving, some more music appreciation would be in order. Bonnie Raitt hits a wonderful blend of excellence, in a basic format, with “Shadow of a doubt”. Great blue notes. “For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8: 26) That’s the Blues, baby!

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    • HA! I think you’re onto something here, Rick. Appreciation. At some level, all that we see and hear and experience is from the “pen” of God’s imagination. Maybe, rather than sorting between sanctified and unsanctified media, we should be observing all of Creation and all of the output of human beings, letting the subtle sermon play out in front of us.

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    • Great point, Michael. We are a bunch of sensationalists! If something speaks to us deeply, we want it to be real, like that kid from Galaxy Quest. Quality directors and musicians can tap into that place in our souls, stirring our belief systems, for better or worse.

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