As some of you know, I am taking a course this quarter at Fuller on Theology and Film. It is illuminating my life and confronting me with so many questions, and so I want to share some of these thoughts with you all. The whole purpose of this course, its discussions, lectures, books, films, etc. is to spark innovative, creative, intersectional ways to generate dialogue between films and churches, moviegoers and Christians, pop culture and the church, the messy, racy, unmentionable realities of life with the Gospel and biblical truth.
The big question that this class has helped me reach is: How did these spheres become so separate and what can we do to bring them back into dialogue?
Ralph Winter, the producer of dozens of world-renowned films, including Star Trek, X-Men, The Promise, etc. is co-teaching our class — AMAZING. As a Christian, he has an interesting and insightful perspective on how to live out your faith as a successful Hollywood insider. My last post was about identity, and I concluded that my identity in Christ has to take precedence over my ethnic and cultural identity in order to find ultimate peace or wholeness. But what do you do when your faith-based identity is not the best way for you to connect with others, do your job or bring about change in the world? How do you allow it to still dictate who you are when you don’t always feel free to display it to others? Ralph said something along these lines in last week’s class, “I don’t hire a Christian plumber, or someone who can share the Gospel or recite Bible verses to me when fixing my toilet. I hire someone who can do the job well, and if he happens to be a Christian, that’s great! If he doesn’t and he does his job, that’s great too.” Obviously, right?
I think about how many “Christian films” have been made that just did not resonate with me, my friends, or anyone except a select few churchgoers. To quote Ralph again, “Why didn’t nearly as many moviegoers cry when Aslan died in The Chronicles of Narnia as when Mufasa died in The Lion King?” What happened? Now this post is not intended to bash “Christian movies”; they do a brave thing, and I have a huge amount of respect for anyone and everyone involved in creating films. The power of storytelling and the skill it takes to create a credible, emotionally engaging on-screen story is tremendous.
The question that certain overtly “Christian films” raise, however, is: When and how do we display the different “labels” of our identity?
We all are defined by multiple spheres of identity, whether they are cultural, ethnic, political, religious, our career, passions, etc., some of which we visibly carry with us wherever we go, some of which are invisible until we choose to reveal them. We are not always free to display the invisible, but still fundamentally defining spheres of identity such as our political or religious identities, especially when they may come into conflict with the context that we find ourselves in. This sounds very obscure, but the reality is that we all encounter this conundrum daily. It is why “sacred” and “secular” are so separate; we have relegated our identities to “appropriate” spheres of life because it is just a little too overwhelming to try and navigate them all at once. The fear of rejection, embarrassment or awkwardness when we display our authentic selves is all too real. But is there potential for art, film, music, literature, etc., to tap into multiple spheres of identity and bring the “sacred” and “secular” into dialogue with one another? Could that even be one of the primary purposes of these art forms — to provide us a medium to engage with the often so incredibly polarized sacred and secular worlds? In the words of Dutch historian and theologian, Gerard van der Leeuw, in his book, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, “Art can be religious, or it can appear religious; but it can neither be Mohammedan nor Buddhist nor Christian. There is no Christian art, any more than there is a Christian science. There is only art which has stood before the Holy.”
When we want to create something beautiful as an expression of ourselves, our values, our identity; the entire process as well as the method or the medium we choose can achieve this. I often find myself getting anxious, frustrated or stressed with the stage that I’m currently at in life, because there is so much I want to do and so many dreams I have that seem so currently unattainable. I have not yet discovered my “vocation” or discovered the means in which to achieve my dreams. Just like a “Christian film” with great intentions, pure motives and a heartfelt expression, my life currently feels like a series of unreachable goals, bright ideas, and idealistic dreams that just aren’t manifesting themselves in the way I would intend. How do I do something that matters and that makes a difference in peoples’ lives? How do I love, serve, and learn from other people in a meaningful way? How do I do something creative and generative with my time, money and effort? How do I purely, effectively and sensitively express my faith through what I do? These are big vocational questions that I am finding myself asking, with the purest of intentions and the deepest desires for good, but uncertainty of the best medium, method or approach to use to answer them.
Maybe Christians and Christian movies are asking the right questions, maybe we’re not. We definitely need to think about it. We need to be open to being wrong or having missed the mark. We need to be okay with new, different and creative expressions of faith, both in ourselves and others. As the church, we need to recognize that there is deeply spiritual and beautiful art, film, music, and literature that sears the soul in a way that overtly “Christian” art, film, music or literature does not, and that our faith-based identities and convictions can be expressed in different, equally valid ways.
If we are asking authentic questions of each other, of our church, of our political affiliates, of our friends, of our culture and society, are we willing to go through the maybe painful, sometimes messy, always uncomfortable process to really seek to understand the answers we might be hearing?
When we confront these questions and realities, are we willing to allow ourselves to be open to new mediums of expression that we might encounter?
How can we grow through this process?
Thanks for reading, friends! xoxo
*image: Mako Fujimura, Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)