But for right now, I wanted to share something a little different. For my Apologetics and Cultural Engagement class, I had to write an article that could hypothetically be submitted to a current publication (like The New York Times or Christianity Today) about a specific cultural issue, either engaging it or discussing how Christians should engage it. So here's my article.
(I don't know why every other paragraph is spaced and sized differently and I couldn't figure out how to change it, so... sorry about that! Also, the original version had footnote citations, but I left those out for this version. Also, I didn't actually submit this to The Gospel Coalition or anywhere else... I just had to say that for the purposes of the assignment.)
AND A STRATEGY FOR CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT IN CHRISTIAN FILM
An article submitted to The Gospel Coalition
Last year, 2014, was dubbed “the year of the faith-based film.” From Hollywood heavyweights Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings to indie features God’s Not Dead, Son of God, and Heaven Is For Real, 2014 marked a milestone in a cultural phenomenon that has been growing, slowly but surely, over the last few decades. The various levels of success of these films at the box office, with the critics, and in popular opinion have sparked conversations in many different circles. Critics and studios scratch their heads, wondering how low-budget, explicitly Christian films can bring in a respectable (and sometimes extraordinary!) return at the box office. Meanwhile, some Christians pledge their allegiance to even the most poorly made films as long as they have a good message, while others bemoan the shoddiness of such films and call for increased excellence in Christian art.Fast forward to the August 28, 2015 release of War Room. The Kendrick brothers’ long-awaited fifth movie followed in the blatantly Christian footsteps of their previous four while boasting significantly higher production value. Reactions to the film are many and varied. A review posted on (now deceased) movie critic Roger Ebert’s website called the film “awful, offering all the forced humor and superficial substance of a half-baked homily,” and claimed that its only goal was “to evangelize by preaching an ideology that requires its followers to view the world in black-and-white terms,” in which endeavor it failed by being hypocritically “righteous and judgmental in the extreme” and failing to grapple with the complexities of life. Kenneth Morefield’s review in Christianity Today concurs: “War Room, like so many Christian films, stumbles [because] the characters and situation are so thinly drawn that even those of us who believe in the film’s ultimate message have a hard time with the package wrapped around it.” Yet many Christians have found that the artistically inadequate film does “some real soul-level good” and consequently are raving about the film to their churches and families. Bad art, preachy message, and all, War Room finished opening weekend at the box office just behind #1 Straight Outta Compton (which showed in three times as many theatres), thanks largely to a strong turnout of highly underserved faith-based audiences.
As a student at a Christian university seeking to enter the film industry (probably working on pictures like War Room, at least at first), I watch Christian films like football fans watch their favorite teams during an uncertain season: rooting for them with everything I’ve got while being painfully aware of their many shortcomings. War Room is, undoubtedly, a bland, overly sanitized and simplified movie with underdeveloped characters. Rather than being a three-dimensional story that wrestles with the grittiness and complexity of real life, the film seems to be more of a glorified sermon illustration in which everything serves the message. That message, however, (a rousing call to fervent prayer and spiritual warfare) resonated mightily with its audience. And here lies the key to reconciling the “bad art” of War Room with its box office success. Ironically, it’s one of the most basic principles of filmmaking (or producing any form of art, really): know your audience.
For years I have viewed Christian-made films as a potential tool for, in Christian-ese terms, reaching a dark world with the light of Christ. I chose film as my career largely because of its influential power in culture. But if War Room was intended to be an evangelistic tool to win people over from a secular society to the Christian faith, it was a sorry attempt. The average non-Christian audience member would be turned off, if not by the already-mentioned artistic deficiencies, then by the pervasive, overtly Christian messages such as the idea that women ought to be submissive to their husbands and “duck so that God can hit them.” The film features an overly generic, affluent family in an apparently post-racial society devoid of any kind of media influence. As such, the Jordan family feels unrelatable to those immersed in the messy, media-saturated American culture. The stakes of the story were not high enough, the plot was not terribly intriguing, and a number of scenes were weakly written and/or acted. Yet War Room’s average turnout per theatre on opening weekend was almost three times that of Straight Outta Compton and the film temporarily hit #1 in the following weeks. Why?
War Room was never intended to be a tool to engage and change culture. It was never intended to be relatable to unbelievers. It was never even intended to be a critically acclaimed film! The weekend after War Room was released, I attended a special screening hosted by Liberty University’s Zaki Gordon Cinematic Arts Center. In a Q&A session afterwards, producer and co-writer Stephen Kendrick explained that the film’s bad reviews didn’t bother him at all. He knew full well the film was preachy. He knew full well that he and his brother Alex were not world-class filmmakers! It didn’t matter, because the film was made for people of faith, not for unbelievers, and thousands of those people flocked to theatres in response.By focusing its message on the church, War Room is not neglecting cultural engagement. It is making a strategic move. According to Steven Kendrick, the church will not be able to effectively reach the world until it does some housecleaning. We the American church are open to the charge of hypocrisy in countless areas. For instance, while we condemn the way the LGBT community twists the Biblical sexual ethic, we have come to turn a blind eye to the issues of divorce/remarriage and premarital sex within the church. Countless other problems and blind spots in the church make the world much less willing to listen to us. No wonder most Americans view Christianity as a religion of condemnation and fakery! The church tends to slide either into legalism or apathy, neither of which results in spiritual growth or an effective witness. War Room appeals to those Christians living a lukewarm faith, spurring them on to a richer, deeper, more powerful life of prayer and faith where God is allowed freer reign to transform their hearts and work in their lives. This will make Christians individually and churches corporately into better examples of authentic unity, grace, truth, love, joy, and faith that will attract the searching, hurting citizens of this world of shadow.
In other words, in response to the charge of being a glorified sermon illustration, War Room pleads guilty. It is not a tool of cultural engagement meant to reach the lost so much as it is a tool to revive the church so that the church can truly be a brilliantly illuminated city on a hill. And in this, the film seems to be succeeding. Countless stories of people setting aside their own prayer room and seeing God work mightily in their lives are pouring in. One woman stood up in the movie theatre asking for prayer, and dozens of complete strangers gathered around her. There are even stories of people coming to Christ as a result of seeing the film. Time will tell how far the ripple effect of War Room will travel.
In the meantime, secular audiences and the more artistically attuned faith-based audiences are still looking for films that not only address spiritual matters but are also willing to grapple with the messy, complex issues of life. War Room has struck one niche, but there are others that have yet to be fully explored. Jon and Andy Erwin, another set of filmmaking brothers, have made decisive strides in this direction with their films October Baby, Mom’s Night Out, and Woodlawn, all of which assume a Christian perspective while achieving a much higher level of artistry and realism than the Kendricks’ films. Christian films do not have to be one-size-fits-all, nor should they be. There can and should be several brands of faith-based films to meet the demands of conservative church families, searching agnostics, and everyone in between.
Was War Room a quality movie? Not really. Did it reach its intended audience? Absolutely. Is it a good model for engaging the American culture? Not completely. It is a good strategic move, but a complete strategy would require more subtle, artistic, and gritty faith-based films as well.