October 20, 2006

Like a Cliff-Diving Hippo

So, I keep hearing about this new satellite production company: FoxFaith Movies. This looks to me like the first rumblings in the direction of an established Christian movie industry to match the Christian book and music industries. (This is, at best, tangential to the point of this post, but it occurs to me that, while the South may have been the "Sahara of the Bozart" 85 years ago, that title must now assuredly rest squarely upon that segment of society which identifies itself as "fundamentalist Christian.")

Anyway, needless to say I was more than a little alarmed at this prospect, for a number of reasons. I have every reason to hope that any such venture will flop like a cliff-diving hippo. And so I sought further information. I came up with, first, a neat little self-description at the new label's own website, foxfaith.com:

FoxFaith Movies is the Christian moviegoer’s online guide to current and upcoming faith-based theatrical releases from FoxFaith. FoxFaith is a new branded distribution label from Twentieth Century Fox, created to house and distribute its growing portfolio of morally-driven, family-friendly programming. To be part of Fox Faith, a movie has to have overt Christian Content or be derived from the work of a Christian author.

With FoxFaithMovies.com you can use the navigation bar to the left of the screen to click for information about FoxFaith films currently playing in theaters and where to find them in your area . . . We also have a banner in the bottom right hand corner of the home page where you can find out about other family friendly films. Because these are not titles with overt Christian content, they are not Fox Faith titles, but they are Movies that we believe that many in the Christian market will enjoy.

Morally-driven programming? I guess it's the old didactic vs. beautiful debate that's been raging about art since Aristotle. Still, whenever I hear someone talk like this, I always recall the words of Oscar Wilde:

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

"The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium."

No, the real kicker is the requirement of overt (and, apparently, capitalized) Christian Content . . . or having a Christian author as a source in order to qualify for FoxFaith's "high" standards. The adjective "overt" brings to mind particularly alarming visions of gratuitous teary-eyed conversions and half-baked sermonizing splashed all over the screen. Speaking of Christian authors, please to be reading All Truth is God's Truth (1977) by Dr. Arthur Holmes . . . actually, in this case, the title alone should do the trick.

Really, though, I think we have their true measure when they let slip that little phrase "the Christian market." Congratulations, American Christians. Hollywood has raised you to the level of "preteen girls," "dating couples," "horror movie fans" and what have you. They think they have you packaged and pegged and they're ready to make a profit . . . and a lot of you are ready to play along.

A little more rooting around uncovered this article from the LA Times.

Fox might seem an unlikely studio to pioneer a religious label, given its history as a purveyor of salacious TV programming. Yet people in the Christian community say the company has gained credibility as the voice for conservative America through its Fox News Channel.

FoxFaith films, to be based on Christian bestsellers, will have small budgets of less than $5 million each, compared with the $60-million average. The movies each will be backed by $5-million marketing campaigns. Although that is skimpy compared with the $36 million Hollywood spends to market the average movie, the budget is significant for targeting a niche audience, especially one as fervent as many evangelical Christians.

Fox seems to be getting a warm reception from the Christian community. "It is extremely satisfying to be taken seriously," said Nancy Neutzling, vice president of marketing for Word Distribution, FoxFaith's distributor to Christian retailers. "It's like we have arrived."

How ironic (and yet, how very unsurprising) that a news organization that specializes in slanted, yellow journalism should be viewed as the source of credibility for an otherwise undesirable organization. And then there's that head-scratcher about our supposed "arrival." Where has the Christian community arrived? Why did we want to be here?

What, precisely, could make anyone believe that this is a sign of the Christian community being taken seriously? We have been placed in a constraining box of our own making and we will now be exploited by an industry which is proving savvier than we. They will make money from us by selling us what everyone else recognizes as an inferior product (and which should be evident from the amount of money being spent on it as well as from the pre-defined formula for its production).

Peter Chattaway, Christian film critic (that's Christian reviewer of films, not reviewer of Christian films) from Canada, is keeping a close eye on the whole business, as reported on his blog, and had this to say:

This may sound like heresy, but for years, I have said that I am glad we do not have a Christian movie industry on anything like the same scale that we have a Christian music industry.

Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of music that can usually be found only at Christian book stores. But there once was a time when magazines like Campus Life reviewed mainstream music as well as the relatively small number of albums put out by Christian artists. That was what Christian critics had to do if they wanted to engage the culture on some level.

However, in more recent years, as the Christian music scene has grown into the institution that it is today, it has become all too easy for we Christians to focus on our own little niche market and to ignore the larger musical world as a whole.

So far, movies are a different story. They cost a lot of money to make, and there just aren't that many Christian films out there. So one of the joys of being a Christian film critic is that you have no choice but to constantly interact with the world outside the Christian ghetto.

I know that all of these quotes and my commentary on them are a bit scattered, but I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Road to Perdition and Schindler's List are both incredibly moving stories of sacrificial redemption from evil. The Godfather, Parts I and II provide a fascinating study of innocence and noble intentions corrupted through too much power. Amadeus dramatically shows (among many other things) the destructive effects of attempting to trade devoted service to God for self-aggrandizement and success. All of these heart-stopping works of cinematic art, but they are still full of meaningful Christian themes if anyone would just take the time to watch them properly.

This idea that we must pull far, far away from secular art in any of its forms and substitute our own unworthy attempts simply for the sake of having a "Christian" version of what someone else is already doing . . . well, it's just wrong. And the fact remains, the purpose of most Christian "art" is not primarily to glorify God with its beauty or speak to deep truths which resonate within the human spirit, but to drive home a trite, shallow message. If I, as a Christian, don't want to watch the cinematic equivalent of your pastor's latest power point presentation, why would anyone else?

Confession time: When it comes to church services, I have a memory like a sieve. I honestly can't remember a single full sermon that I have ever heard in my life (and I must have been to over 1,000 in my lifetime). And you know what else? That means that a sermon has never offered me anything in the way of a life-changing, perception-altering message. You may blame that on me, and you may be right, but the fact remains. I don't say that it can't be done, I just don't hear a lot of really worthwhile messages coming from a church setting . . . and I've even taken to listening to the talking heads on one of the local Christian radio stations in recent weeks, looking for someone out there who has something important to say. Perhaps this belongs in another post . . . I sense that I am getting off-track.

What I mean is, my life and my ideas have not been changed or even shaped by people behind a pulpit, they have been changed and shaped by conversations, by classes, by books, and yes, by movies. I ache for new things to really chew on, and that's where they are to be found . . . And I'm not really going to manage coherent, on-topic specificity. At this point, I'm clearly just throwing up a smoke screen around the topic I started off addressing.

Anyway, I'm still not focusing the way I'd like to be, but here are a few related links I turned up as I was contemplating this subject:

Christianity Today provides this fascinating compendium of a wide spectrum of opinions regarding Christian movies. It's quite long, but well worth at least a skim.

Columnist Terry Mattingly of the Council for Christian Colleges and universities speculates about the consequences of low-grade Christian movies achieving financial success:

If this film DOES make tons of money, Hollywood may distribute more of them. Do we really want to send the message to Hollywood that the kind of films Christians want will be characterized by poor acting, low production values that are inoffensive, make us cry and also make tons of money? Is this truly how we want to influence Hollywood for God?

Dick Staub tells us where we've gone wrong:

Any Christianity that knows God as savior, but not as creator, will produce "Christians" who are less than fully human and such people will never create good art or care to.

And this is our dilemma as people who love Jesus and art. We live in a culture that loves art but not Jesus and in a Christian sub-culture dominated by a Christianity that loves Jesus, but not good art.

And the people over at getreligion.org wonder if we are witnessing the birth of Contemporary Christian Cinema.

The problem, of course, is that creating this kind of culture is really hard work that takes talent, patience, skill and teamwork — teamwork that almost always is going to include seeking excellence among unbelievers as well as believers. There are, of course, serious (and diverse) networks of Christians already doing fine (and commercially hot) work in Hollywood. They make real Hollywood movies for audiences of normal moviegoers.

The question, it seems to me, is whether we are about to witness the birth of what can only be called the Contemporary Christian Movie industry. Wait, that “CCM” thing has already been claimed. Contemporary Christian Cinema? CCC? Is this kind of niche market strategy (again) a good idea for faith in popular culture?

Do you see the irony? This is a solid niche market. But it will not help shape the mainstream. Also, it is hard to imagine how Contemporary Christian Cinema will reach many people who do not already believe. This is evangelism for the already evangelized.

Posted by Jared at October 20, 2006 04:30 PM | TrackBack