At this point, everyone is pretty sick of hearing about the Left Behind movie. And I can’t really blame them; I’m tired of remembering it exists too. But before we cue the final notes on the topic, there are a few observations that Christians should be making. For, as the iceberg to the Titanic, so the Left Behind movie is merely the tip of much grandeur issues sitting just beneath the icy water of the cultural era which Christianity is currently navigating. And as it stands we’re not concerned and therefore not steering away. But we really should be, and here’s why:
Firstly, the film got canned by critics. When it was first released on Friday, the composite rating granted by critics was a whopping 3%. Since that time that number has actually dropped to 2%. There’s not much more to say about this because, frankly, it can’t get much worse.
…except that despite getting canned by critics, Left Behind still grossed over 6 million dollars on its opening weekend. While this isn’t necessarily record-shattering, the movie did out-perform some critically-acclaimed films that also opened over weekend, such as The Good Lie, a movie Rotten Tomatoes assigned an average approval rating of 84%.
The point is nothing we didn’t already know: the Left Behind saga isn’t just a book series; it’s an industry. It’s a moneymaking machine in a way that makes the success of the Twilight series look like the self-published diary of a depressed, emo prom queen. And in the same way books like Twilight are written to target specific audiences, so the Left Behind series is a paragon of marketed artwork. And what’s to be understood through acknowledging the multi-million dollar industry that has been built around this book series despite getting canned by critics at every bend and turn, is that the creators of this series aptly set their sights on a particularly lucrative market: Christians, specifically of the American Evangelical variety.
The problems with this reality are infinite.
In common vernacular, prostitution is defined as “the practice of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment.” But this is really just a contemporary understanding of the word that’s been culturally nuanced and derives from a more general meaning, which is:
“The unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for the sake of personal or financial gain.”
Under the true definition of the word, then, what occurs when someone targets a specific audience and utilizes artistic talent solely to get into their target’s wallets is prostitution. And when it comes to Evangelical Christian filmmaking, we consistently witness a mode of artistic expression that is notorious for getting critically canned and yet still makes a good wad of cash in the theaters; enough, at least, to continually motivate filmmakers to produce more such films.
Which begs the question: why are producers, actors, studios, etc. willing to invest in films knowing they’ll tank among critics?
Because, regardless of the critical, artistic appraisal of the product, the money is still there. The Left Behind book series alone, without the miles of additional media contracts that followed, exceeded 63 million despite containing a writing style that one literary commentator claimed “makes Robert Ludlum look like Shakespeare.” This, once again, betrays the bitter reality: it’s not being read because it’s good, just like Twilight isn’t being read because Stephanie Meyer is the 21st century’s answer for Ayn Rand (and God help us if she actually were). Left Behind is being read because if you slap the label “Christian” on a product, you’re guaranteed to draw a crowd, and since this is America, and it is the 21st century, said crowd will have hands reaching for thick wallets.
And when Christians flock to poor products such as the Left Behind films, like they did this weekend, art gets prostituted. Plain and simple. And the blame isn’t just on the producers. Christians may not be the pimps selling girls on a street corner but we are buying the product and thus we are just as guilty if not infinitely more guilty for the problem at hand because we perpetrate the economy that provides for it’s existence.
There is an argument to be made against my accusations. The proposition could be offered that producers behind (what I am arguing is) bad but profitable Christian art such as the Left Behind film are not out for a quick buck. The argument could be made that, instead, they are out to use art as a medium for preaching the gospel and did so to the best of their abilities. And this is a fair argument.
“Many times, that’s how people see Christian art, or Christians making art: They see the art as having an agenda. Christians have really used and almost in some senses prostituted art in order to give answers instead of telling great stories and raising great questions.”
The author of the above quote is Lecrae Moore. Known to hip-hop fans solely by his first name, Lecrae recently became the first musician in ever to land an album at the top of gospel music charts and Billboard 200. In a recent discussion with The Atlantic, Lecrae shared his objection to the notion of Christian art that attempts to sermonize.
But shouldn’t all ‘Christian’ art carry the gospel message? Well, yes, but:
“We’ve limited Christianity to salvation and sanctification. Christianity is the truth about everything. If you say you have a Christian worldview, that means you see the world through that lens—not just how people get saved and what to stay away from.”
Reading Lecrae’s words, one cannot help but think back similar sentiments from Marilynne Robinson, a Calvinist novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for her fiction. When asked in an interview with The Paris Review if she considered herself a religious writer, Robinson responded by saying:
“As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.”
Robinson’s thoughts on the topic may appear to drift into some sort of pluralistic/relativistic take on culture and art, but not if you’ve ever read Augustine. In Chapter VII of his Confessions (and further elucidated in City of God) Augustine lays out his thesis that evil has no substance; it is merely a deprivation of good. Therefore goodness, wherever it appears, is created by and testifies to God. In other words: all good is God’s good. Or, if you’d simply like to quote the traditional doxology, God is that “from whom all blessings flow.”
If that’s the case, then art does not have to scream the gospel message, it does not have to sermonize in order to be ‘Christian.’ Because all good testifies to God. Therefore art that is done well and earns the praise of its critics is more worshipful to God than art that adulterates its medium for the sake of preaching:
“God does not ask for ‘religious’ art or ‘Catholic’ art. The art he wants for himself is Art, with all its teeth”
“Let choirs sing well or not at all. Otherwise we merely confirm the majority in their conviction that…this culture and religion are essentially marginal, amateurish, and rather effeminate activities.”
If an artist is going to pursue art whilst claiming it be for God’s glory, then the art must be done well. If it is not, then the artist ought to feel immense regret. And time and time again, critical reviews of Christian art, whether it be in film, music or literary forms, have betrayed an attitude among us that the label “Christian” covers over a multitude of sins, among them: laziness, mediocrity, and pathetic pursuit of our craft.
And yet, Left Behind grossed 6 million this weekend. And it will probably make a whole lot more.
Perhaps I’m being overtly cynical and harsh (though, in my defense, it’s been noted on more than one occasion that Nicholas Cage “whored himself” to the producers of this film due to insurmountable debt).
But the reality is that artistic expression: poetry, writing, music, films, these are the mediums by which the world will be changed in the post-postmodern age. Politics, religion, economics even education will continue to have less influence on the psychological and philosophical development of upcoming generations; the average teenager is influenced more by JK Rowling and Ke$ha than their local pastor.
And in the cultural conversation taking place, in the war for influence and voice that’s being waged on the battleground of art, Christianity is losing ground without ever noticing it. If American culture is a frat party then Christian art is a pimply teenager with an awkward stare, one who sits with his back to everyone staring into a corner, occasionally turning around to yell things like “John 3:16!” and “You’re all going to hell but Jesus can save!” I’m not saying we need to be doing keg-stands, but perhaps we could learn to dance or at least engage in a conversation.
If not, if Christians are willing to settle and pay for products like Left Behind, then we’re willing to continue to be the joke of the party. If we’re not willing to stand up and say “enough is enough”, if we’re not willing to demand that art be true to itself and worship God as such, then we might as well leave the party, we might as well cordon ourselves in a bubble of Christian bookstores and propaganda, because that’s the only influence we’ll ever have.
And if that’s what we choose, then I pity those of us who have artistic talent, who have the ability to praise God within culture and yet choose to waste medicine on the healthy. Because the end result for someone who hoards God-given abilities doesn’t look too good.
And the prostitution of our talents? Well, I’m willing to bet that won’t make our indictment any lighter:
“But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?…So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
-Matthew 25:26, 28-30