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The only Christian way?

Maybe we should forget A Trip to Bountiful and take a trip to Chicago

Issue: "Attacking the future now," Feb. 22, 2003

WHY CAN'T CHRISTIANS MAKE A MOVIE LIKE Chicago? Wait, let me ask that again, with different inflections each time. The first is plaintive and confrontational; the second, sincerely agnostic and soliciting edification; the third, a didactic heading to be followed by a list of reasons why Christians should NOT. You are about to read the most undecided, 50/50 essay of your life.

OK, there are good Christian movies. Let's recite in unison: Chariots of Fire, A Trip to Bountiful, Tender Mercies, the usual trophies trotted out whenever fighting words fly-and I feel like when my relatives get together and try to come up with famous French Canadians and it always comes down to Jack Kerouac.

But should Christians be in the entertainment business anyway? The theologian Berkouer told us that the significance of this age is evangelism. Nineteenth-century dispensationalists agreed-What's a nice Christian like you doing messing around with culture ("polishing doorknobs on a sinking ship") while people are slipping into hell-and they launched history's greatest missions enterprise to foreign lands.

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That's the good news. But as missionaries headed out, the foreign lands were coming here!-millions of people at a time, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, streaming though Ellis Island and being shoehorned into deplorable housing, and ripe for Christian influence. Elbowing their way right past them at the docks of lower Manhattan were missionaries booking passage to China. What is the kingdom of God anyway? Is it soul-saving alone, or culture-redeeming too?

Franky Schaeffer (the son) says we took a wrong turn back then. "The church (up to our own recent era) ... took a high view of the arts and creativity ... as part and parcel of God's good gift to us as his image-bearers" (Addicted to Mediocrity). He goes on to cite the catacomb painters, Fra Giovanni Angelico, Michaelangelo, Albrecht Durer, Bach, and others (let me add Puritan journalists like Hodgkins and Coverdale, and social activist William Wilberforce), men who were Christians themselves (or lived within a Christian consensus) and saw no dichotomy between composing sermons and composing music or just laws.

If the answer is in the affirmative-that is, if Christians can morally make movies and mousetraps, if an understanding of how to live till Christ returns involves, among other things, taking inventory of one's peculiar gifts in the "body"-then shouldn't we make the best movies and mousetraps we can? And wouldn't that involve daring to be creative (as He is creative), imploding old forms and experimenting with new ones, rethinking whether the straitjackets of style we call Christian are really the only Christian way?

How would you feel about a script that broke free of the trite and hackneyed linear narrative form; that embraced in one grand production history, symbolism, visions, jarring juxtapositions, lots of songs, and graphic descriptions of sex and violence; that painted starkly sin and the human condition? I just described the Bible (see Judges, and Ezekiel 23). I also just described Chicago.

My only point is that things are not so simple. You can check your local newspaper for PG, PG-13, and R, but you won't find a "worldview" rating in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Sound of Music carries a G, and it's a wonderful film brimming with the beauty of God's creation, and I took it home to show my kids-but I had to debrief them on Pelagianism at the part where Maria sings "I must have done something good" (implying that she earned the grace that merited the baron's love).

Lord help me, but I liked Chicago. I loved the artful splicing of courtroom tap-dancing and nightclub tap-dancing. Brilliant, profound. But then again, it's possible my moral compass isn't pointing to true north. It's possible my defense of it as good "pre-evangelism" (setting up the "good news" by first giving the bad news) is specious and self-serving. It's possible that "the lady protesteth overmuch" when she says she goes to movies to keep a finger to the winds of secular culture.

At least that doesn't wash with one guy I talked to. He said, "I've outgrown the idea that I need to see movies to understand the culture ... I don't go to brothels to understand prostitution either."

I am left with more questions than answers-about how one's personal maturity in Christ bears on the ethics of viewing a particular film; about how far a film can go in depicting evil without partaking of evil; about whether a film is required to give hope too, or if it is enough to tell the bad news well; about the difference between zeal for God's honor and narrow-minded artistic fashions.


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