When Christian Art Is Prostitution

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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%.

So what?

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.

Except that:

“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.”

At 34, Lecrae is the first artist to simultaneously land an album at the top of Billboard and gospel charts.
At 34, Lecrae is the first artist to simultaneously land an album at the top of Billboard and gospel charts.

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.”

Robinson, a devout Protestant, has won multiple awards for her fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Robinson, a devout Protestant, has won multiple awards for her fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize.

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”

-Jacques Maritain

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“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.”

-C.S. Lewis

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

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Willen De Poorter's depiction of The Parable of the Talents.
Willen De Poorter’s depiction of The Parable of the Talents.

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What’s Left Behind When Christianity Goes To The Movies

Subtlety. Beauty. Intrigue. Mystery. Wonder.

These are all words that come to mind when one thinks about “art.”

So where are all these things when it comes to popular Christian filmmaking?

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Uh. Yeah. I’ll say.

On Friday, the long anticipated remake of The Left Behind movie was released in theaters. Previous to its release, I wrote in length about some of my theological concerns with the film. But what I didn’t mention was how concerned I was about the quality of the upcoming film. Because, let’s face it, when it comes to Christian filmmaking, we don’t have a great track record. But I kept silent about my fears because I’ve been wrong before (case in point: I recently mentioned that Pluto isn’t a planet, which, evidently is no longer true).

But, alas, my apocalyptic fears seemed to be well placed. Left Behind was released in theaters today. And, despite a large budget and several big-name actors, the film is already getting canned by critics:

“…the true apocalypse of this new Left Behind—what makes it far worse than that bad original—is that it’s a soulless Christian movie starring Nicolas Cage. Which is ironic, since the idea of “soul” is such an integral part of Christianity.”

So that kinda hurts.

And it goes downhill from there: Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 3%. Nope, there’s no digits missing from that number: three-percent. Just to put this in complete perspective: the same website also reviewed Grown Ups 2, Adam Sandler’s putrid sequel concerning which one critic remarked: “..in the first five minutes, a deer walks into the star’s bedroom and urinates on his face. It’s all downhill from there.”

And yet, RT gave Grown Ups 2 a composite rating of 7%, more than double Left Behind.

And what’s the justification for the horrible ratings?

“At best, Left Behind is shoddily made sensationalist propaganda-with atrocious acting-that barely registers as entertainment. At worst, it’s profoundly moronic.” 

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“…featuring local-cable production values and dialogue that seems written by a crack team of Sunday schoolers…”

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“One need not be a Godless heathen to find fault in Left Behind’s message-delivery system: It’s a fire-and-brimstone sermon wrapped in the tissue of a bad disaster thriller…”

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This seems to be a trend in Christian filmmaking: we seem to think that the cinema is our opportunity to preach to people who wouldn’t otherwise want to hear a sermon. But the reality is if someone doesn’t want to hear a sermon on Sunday morning when we’re making them free espressos and giving them a gift-bag at the door then the same crowd certainly won’t want to hear a sermon when we charge them $10 for it on a Friday night.

And if you think I’m being too critical just look at the ratings for Christian films over the past few years. God’s Not Dead: 17%Facing the Giants: 13%...compared to those Nick Zano’s 2008 Fireproof looked like a rockstar with a composite critic rating of 40%. And everyone on this list looks brilliant compared to Persecuted, which opened in July and as of right now has a RT rating of, I kid you not, 0%.

“Well, it’s persecution!” you’d say. “Culture just hates us because of our faith so of course they’re going to hate our films!”

To which I would reply: spare me the nonesense.

There is persecution of Christians in the world but it certainly isn’t in the United States and certainly doesn’t consist of getting a (well-earned) 3% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Furthermore, Christians can and do succeed just fine in pop culture. I give you Switchfoot a band consisting of members who are profoundly Christian. Yet, despite of (or, I should say, because of) their faith, Switchfoot has a music career that spans two decades, have sold millions of records and won multiple awards, among them a Grammy and 12 San Diego Music Awards. They’re incredibly popular among culture, and yet also Christian. 

Then there’s writers like Marilynne Robinson. A sincere and deeply intellectual Calvinist, Robinson’s literary works have earned her a reputation as one of the greatest writers of our time, securing her a coveted Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Robinson comes from a school of writers that also includes Flannery O’Connor, a novelist and short-story writer whose work is still held as the best in its genre over fifty years after her death. Said O’Connor:

“I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic.”

Culture doesn’t hate our faith, it just hates our agenda. And it doesn’t appreciate Bible-thumping disguised as art.

Unfortunately, what’s so often seen in Christian filmmaking, and is reflected in many reviews of the Left Behind movie, is just that. It’s the trading of any subtle evangelism and beautiful ascetics for a Bible-thumping attitude, using the medium of film to scream: “HEY WE’RE CHRISTIAN AND THIS IS CHRISTIAN AND YOU SHOULD BE CHRISTIAN TOO!”

And that’s the best case scenario. Worst case scenario, Christian films such as Left Behind, and this spring’s release of God’s Not Dead,  trade what should be love, humility and sincerity in their messages to culture for not-so-subtle undertones of: “We’re right! You’re wrong! Nah, nah, neener, neener!”

And so we gather our non-Christian friends together, drag them to the theatre, make them sit through a couple hours of  another movie critics review as “a lifeless film, void of anything remotely human, God-like, or authentic.” Then we drive them home while they shoot us strange looks from across the car, wondering if we’ll be making a pit stop at a meeting with the next Jim Jones on the way. When drop them off we invite them to come to church and they politely refuse before retreating into their home, like a prom date who doesn’t want to get kissed, and locking all their doors and windows.

Meanwhile we sit in the car, snap our fingers and wonder: “Well dadgummit, why didn’t that work?”

Look, truth be told, Left Behind, like some of its predecessors, will probably make a lot of money this weekend. Because Christians swarm to these things. I mean, c’mon: we love a “Christian” movie! When a faith-based director rises above the filth and grime that is Hollywood and produces a film ringing of Christian virtue and truth, we couldn’t imagine anything better!

But we should.

We really, really should. 

Because what reviews of the Left Behind movie and a train-wrecked tradition of filmmaking betray is that we’ve really lost touch with our mission as Christians. It’s one thing if we want to use film to simply preach to the choir, so to speak. If the goal of Christian art is to inspire and sing our own message right back to us, so we can all nod, clap and be gleefully entertained… well, then okay. We’re doing a good job.

But if that’s the case then we’re also not Christian. Or at least, we’re not acting like it.

Because the mission of believers, the mission of the Church, is not to preach to the choir but to go out on the streets, the highways, fields and towns. The mission of Christians is to go out into culture and speak through it and to it, not with the force and bluntness of a hammer upside one’s head, but with subtly and intrigue, with a sense of wonder that causes people to stop what they’re doing, look up, and say “huh…maybe I should follow the guy they’re following.”

The goal of Christians should never be just to preach our message back to ourselves, but to speak it out into the world. And if the way we’re speaking it isn’t working, then we need to change our tactics.

Based on these film ratings, I’d say that needs to happen, and it needs to happen yesterday.

Christians can and do perform well in many other spheres of art and culture. And their faith shines through in brilliant and magnificence ways: their works inspire wonder, intrigue and desire. They attract non-Christians and Christians alike and leave all with sense of mystery, gently pulling the scales back from their eyes and allowing them to glimpse the world that exists beyond materialism, immediate gratification and even self-will.

And good art does not come at a cost of evangelism, good art does not require that we lay aside our Gospel virtues and take up secular humanistic standards so as to produce something deemed “valuable” or “beautiful” by worldly standards. Rather when done properly, good art has evangelism flowing from it naturally and effortlessly, like a river that’s finally been undamned.

The tragedy is that, as of now, many traits of good art are void when Christianity hits the big screen. And when that happens, it’s not just an abstract notion of art that suffers. Rather its the beauty and invitation of the gospel message that also gets left behind.

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Why Christians Should (Not/Never/Please Don’t) Use The Left Behind Movie For Evangelism

Below is an exhaustive list of all the reasons Christians should use the Left Behind movie as an evangelistic tool to convert unbelievers to Christianity:

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Yeah…so, here’s the thing: 

Uh. Yeah…No.

 

Tomorrow, the long awaited dreaded remake of the Left Behind series will be released in theatres. Over the past several months, there’s been much chatter among Christians about how great this movie will be as an Evangelism tactic, logic which flows from the same stream of thought that says a nuclear arsenal is important for world peace. At the forefront of such endorsements are sentiments such as those expressed by Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson who praised the film saying:

“…opening the door to unbelievers has never been so much fun.”

But anyone who’s read the books, seen the first movie or seen the trailer for this movie has to wonder what on earth Robinson is talking about. The Left Behind series depicts masses of people dying, planes crashing, apocalyptic terror and wrath descending upon the earth, and- have you not heard?- Nicholas Cage staring down the screen at regular intervals. What, exactly, is Robinson’s definition of “fun”? It all sounds a bit terrifying to me.

I’ve already written (rather long-windedly) about some seriously dire implications of the Left Behind series that all Christians should consider. But theological differences aside, I always take serious issue with any Evangelical tactic that is based primarily on fear. The idea of filling a room with people who don’t believe in God so they can witness a depiction of all the peril and terror they will face if they don’t convert to Christianity is just short of being classified as an emotional Crusade. It’s psychological manipulation, forcing people to make a decision based on the potential of dire consequences.

Furthermore, the basis of Christianity is not a fear of God. True, it is necessary. But do not forget what James says: even demons know God exists and shudder; even demons have a fear of God- but it doesn’t do them much good.

Because fear does not propel someone to give up everything they have and follow a lonely rabbi into the pits of poverty and despair. Fear does not prompt someone to be meek, a peacemaker, and humble to the point of self-denial. Fear does not propel you to take up your cross and follow Christ.

On the other hand: love does.

Christ never used fear as a persuasive tactic. Rather he utilized real, transformative, and relevant love. Love that was present, love that was selfless and humble with dirty hands, tired eyes and a crown of thorns.

The Left Behind series doesn’t depict such love but trades it for violence and wrath. Again (lest I be misheard) God will judge. But blunt, in-your-face proclamation of the coming judgment is not the means of conversion portrayed in the gospels or acts of the early church. And its foolhardy, to say the least, to utilize it as such now.

If you want to go see the Left Behind movie on Friday then cool, fine, go for it. Grab popcorn, a slushie, find a babysitter, have a ball. Personally, I’d sooner spend my time and money on an underwater basket weaving class than this movie… but we can still be friends.

But please, I beg of you: don’t turn to your non-Christian co-worker and ask if they wanna hang out then buy them a ticket. Don’t let your non-Christian friend’s one view of Christianity this weekend be one that instills fear; don’t let their one perspective of the Christian God be witnessed through a lens of wrath, violence and pain. And for heavensakes, please don’t call that “fun.”

Or at least don’t believe that this is something that will produce true love for God, true conversion to his flock. Because love, not fear, is what wins people to Christ, it always has and it always will.

So save your money, save your time, and spend it one something else. If you must see the movie, fine- but please, leave your friends behind.

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Other Articles On Left Behind:

TF: How Not To Do Evangelism- Slacktivist

The One’s We ‘Left Behind’- After Lunch Theism

5 Things To Consider Before Taking The Left Behind Movie Seriously- Formerly Fundie

 

 

 

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