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Why Christian Artists Don’t Want to Be “Christian Artists”

Why Christian Artists Don't Want to Be "Christian Artists"

This essay originally appeared on the personal blog of Alissa Wlikinson, who is chief film critic for Christianity Today. Criticwire thanks her for permission to reprint it here.

From where I sit, the recent discussion about the Christianity that may (or may not) animate Steve Hoover and his much-lauded documentary Blood Brother is especially interesting, because I (a) am a Christian, of an at least moderately evangelical flavor; (b) since March have been chief film critic at one of the largest and oldest evangelical Christian publications in the country; and (c) hadn’t had Blood Brother on my radar until now. I actually had to go back through our archives to see if we’d covered it or even mentioned it in Christianity Today, but it appears we haven’t.

(Everything I say here is my opinion, of course, not CT‘s official position.)

On Criticwire on Thursday, Sam Adams asked, “Do Christian Films Like ‘Blood Brother’ Face Heightened Scrutiny?” He was responding to a blog post by Tom Roston over at Doc Soup that largely was asking an ethical question: should Hoover (and his subject, Rocky Braat) have more clearly disclosed their membership at the evangelical Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ more explicitly?

I haven’t had time to see the film, so I can’t say whether I think the potential connection between the film and faith is as clear as Hoover seems to think it is, or whether it’s more hidden, as Roston suggests in his (good and pretty even-handed) post. What’s more interesting to me is the “why” question: why was the affiliation not made clear? Why did Roston have to do so much investigative journalism to actually find out about the filmmaker’s faith?

In his piece, Sam suggested that “there’s a plausible, non-nefarious reason for it, which is to avoid being the subject of articles like Roston’s.” He continues:

Born-again Christians know, or at any rate believe, that their faith alienates many people, especially in the realm of popular culture, so they learn to speak in code: bands like Creed weave scriptural themes into their lyrics, but deny that they’re a Christian band, because being seen as a bunch of Bible-thumper drastically limits their potential audience. They hide in plain sight, the way George W. Bush peppered his speeches with Biblical allusions that could be easily read by the faithful and easily overlooked by the rest.

He’s at least half right about this. Some evangelicals are convinced that their faith will alienate an audience. I’m not sure the speak in code as intentionally as this implies — it might ascribe more intent to many good Christian artists than they actually exercise. It’s possible for Christians, like anyone, to make and say things that aren’t intentionally religiously inflected (and I know that’s not what Sam meant anyhow).

But I think there’s another related reason — something that I don’t think would be as apparent to those who don’t spend a lot of time around the Christian (especially evangelical) world, though I could be mistaken. But in case I’m not, let me see if I can explain it.

Over the past few decades, Christians, and evangelicals in particular, have been really, really prolific in making pop culture products that parallel what’s going on in mainstream cultural production. The music industry (CCM) is probably the most well-known example of this, but as we know, there’s a Christian film industry, and a Christian romance novel publishing industry, and the list goes on. (Let’s not forget about the existence of GodTube and the mercifully-defunct ChristianChirp, aka Twitter for Christians.)

There’s a legitimate market for products that are created by Christians and specifically intended for Christians to use in Christian-type pursuits, like CDs of music intended for worship, or devotional and prayer books, and things like that. But the parallel culture also extends to things that are more or less sanitized versions of “secular” products.

In high school — this was around 1999 — I worked at the local Christian bookstore, and we had a poster in the store that I think in retrospect was distributed by a Christian record label or association as a marketing tool. It wasn’t just us who had it. Virtually everyone I know who grew up evangelical remembers it, too, and calls it the “if you like this you’ll love that” poster: if you like this secular band, you’ll love this Christian band (because they stylistically mimic the secular band but their content is safe). Here’s the Christian Britney and the Christian Goo Goo Dolls and the Christian N*Sync and the Christian Metallica, and on it went.

Mercifully, a lot has changed since I was a teenager, and a lot of people (Christian, formerly Christian, and not Christian at all) have written about the whole thing, and that’s not what I want to do here anyhow. The point is this: most of these parallel products have been, by definition, knock-offs, and were usually pretty mediocre. And everyone kind of knew it.

So what we have had is a whole market segment characterized by an ethos that said copy those guys over there but change a few things, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s very well made or innovative: we’ll support you because we all love Jesus. Along with that was the sentiment if you don’t support this Christian product and its maker, then you’re harming Christians overall.

I still see this pretty frequently; at Christianity Today we find that critical reviews of Christian movies always garner at least a handful of comments along these lines: How dare you tear down this film? We all need to stand together with those who are making good, wholesome, Christian-friendly movies, since Hollywood clearly isn’t. (Another topic for another day.)

So that’s the cultural landscape that American Christians who want to make movies or music or art or whatever are working in today. I honestly don’t know how clear this is to people who aren’t spending a lot of time around evangelicalism, so pardon me if that all seems really obvious. But basically, on the one hand, there’s a whole market segment that will buy your record, go see your movie, etc., simply because you’re a Christian and there’s Jesus or at least strong Jesusy undertones in your record or film.

On the other hand, everyone sort of implicitly assumes that if you make a “Christian” product, it’s (a) just for Christians and (b) probably not very good quality, even if the message is by some standard or another stellar, because you don’t have to be very good to get people to buy it, and because the industry as a whole has had a fairly shoddy record over the past few decades when it comes to artistry, craftsmanship, innovation, and quality.

[Side point: From a theological perspective, I have lots of issues around the idea that a product can be “Christian” at all. I am uncomfortable with the idea that a cultural product can be converted. A movie doesn’t get baptized or pray or receive the Eucharist. But I digress.]

All that said, because of what I’ve been doing for a living for the past few years, and especially, I think, because I live in New York City, I end up in a lot of conversations with people who are Christian who also make or produce music, write literary fiction, make movies, work in theater or galleries, run magazines, design clothing, and so on. Many of them are working at the very highest levels of their fields.

And some of them do talk about their faith openly. But a lot of others don’t. Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid of being stigmatized, in some fields more than others.

But just as often, what I hear is that they don’t because they’re afraid that the “Christian world” will glom onto them, making them the next poster child for the cause: “Look! Christians can be cool, too!” Then, precisely because the gears are ready and well-oiled, they fear they’ll be sucked into being packaged for “the Christian market.” (And often they want their art to be appreciated because it is well-made, not because a Christian made it and we all gotta stick together.)

Especially because of this: Christians (again, especially evangelicals) have lately been identified as a really sizable, still relatively untapped niche market that can deliver the goods if you get them on board. I did some work on this in grad school and found that at least some people trace this discovery to the fact that The Passion of the Christ is still the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time almost a decade after its release, by a long shot (Box Office Mojo reports that it outpaced the runner-up, The Matrix Reloaded, by over $89 million) — and that this is largely because marketers successfully convinced Christians, including those who (like my parents) would never see an R-rated film ever, that they should go to the film, and got churches to buy block tickets. (A recent, similar case: Lee Daniels The Butler did well partially because it was marketed well to black churches.) At least several of the major PR firms that specialize in marketing mainstream films to faith-based audiences were started around that time (I get a lot of emails from them, as you might guess!).

And that makes sense, commercially. But artists don’t always want to be involved precisely because they want to be taken seriously. One little example: in 2006, the alt-rock band Mutemath sued Warner Bros. for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation after they released their album on their Christian label, Word, instead of as a mainstream release.

It wasn’t all that surprising, since Mutemath was partially made up of members of Earthsuit (which Billboard described as an “unabashedly Christian act”), and since most of their music sales and performances at the time were in the Christian market. In fact, all of the members of the band called themselves Christian. Their lawyer explained it this way: “We wanted total mainstream credibility, and then to have it sold back into the Christian market if it were successful in the mainstream.”

This is all a roundabout way to say that I have no idea what Hoover and Braat, in making Blood Brother, had in mind when they did not intentionally disclose their affiliation with the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ. I do agree with Roston that documentarians might need to be held to a higher standard of disclosure, particularly if the film they’re making might be seen as incomplete if it turns out there’s missionary work going on (especially for the reasons that both critics pointed out regarding the history of foreign missions).  This seems different than, for instance, insisting that Pete Docter disclose his devout Christianity (which is nevertheless something he’s talked about) when Monsters, Inc. gets released, since Hoover is a character in his own documentary.

I also unfortunately don’t have a good answer for Sam’s question about whether Christian filmmakers are scrutinized more carefully than their colleagues who may not be religiously affiliated. I’m sure some Christians think so, and I’m sure some of them believe it’s a sign that Christianity is being persecuted. But I haven’t been as convinced in the last seven or eight years that we aren’t often seeing offense where none is actually happening.

But what I do know is that there’s a bunch of reasons that someone might not want to disclose their faith when working as a filmmaker, a writer, and so on — and that while I wish it weren’t true, at least one reason comes from the faithful themselves.

Necessary caveats: Yes, I know that there are lots of successful, talented artists and writers and filmmakers and musicians, some of whom I know personally, work with high standards of artistic integrity and have been able to be successful both in the mainstream marketplace and in Christian circles. And I also know there’s a ton more to say on this subject.

Useful note: my colleague Ken Morefield, who writes for CT as well, blogged about Blood Brother over at his site and covered some relevant, related issues.

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