Theology and Art

Christian (Fill in the Blank)

Two summers ago, I heard Rick Warren speak at a conference. Pastor Warren (God bless him) uttered a line in his speech that gave me particular pause: “There is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics.” It’s a significant line in his theology, and it also appears throughout the Purpose-Driven book empire.

It’s a line that goes to the heart of the crisis in Christian identity.

Essentially, Warren is suggesting that something is made Christian when it is clearly labeled as such. Song lyrics (words) are easy to recognize as Christian: do they contain the words God, Jesus, praise? If so, wham! They’re Christian! Instrumental music cannot be “Christian,” in Warren’s view, because how could we ever tell what it is about? If the song itself doesn’t proclaim itself verbally as such, it is not Christian (even if its composer is Christian).

This way of thinking turns the essence of Christianity into a cheap adjective. Slap it onto anything, and voila! You have redeemed the regular and made it holy! But wait—isn’t Christianity more complicated than that?

Christians are way too slaphappy with the name “Christian.” We cavalierly attach it to the most trivial of things. Let’s consider just some of the “Christian” things that populate our culture: Christian bookstores, Christian music, movies, videogames, radio, magazines, publishing houses, Christian Youtube (“Godtube”), Christian MySpace (“MyPraize”), Christian clothes, shoes, socks, paintings, mousepads, cooking utensils, crockpots, you name it….

But what makes any of this “Christian”? What makes one crockpot more suitable for Christians than another? Do we really need “Christian” alternatives in cutlery?

Long ago, Christians decided that rather than trying to influence mass culture from within, they’d take the more passive route and define themselves as a “subculture.” One more subculture among many. There are many reasons why they did this: 1) it’s easier, 2) niche markets make more money faster, and 3) modernity gave rise to the combative, defensive posture of “us vs. them”—an attitude that has defined pop-Christianity ever since.

As a result, “Christian” seemed to become a word best defined by what it wasn’t (i.e. liberal, gay, postmodern, pro-choice, etc…). Somewhere in there we lost our sense of history and tradition and identity—we lost our idea of what “Christian” really means. And if we don’t know what it means, how will anyone else?

The problem is that our society has convinced us that “Christian” is merely an adjective—a descriptive word that usually connotes a conservative, prudish, bigoted fundamentalist diametrically opposed to everything fun under the sun.

But the truth is that “Christian” is much better fit as a noun, or even better—a verb. To be a Christian it to live in pursuit of Christ—to not be satisfied with who you are, but to strive for who you might be. It’s an action-oriented life; it’s a process.

We need to stop demeaning Christianity by treating it like a just another attribute. “Christian” is not like “red” or “tall.” It’s not just a word to describe. It’s a living, breathing way of being.

Stasis and Catharsis in Ten Contemporary Films

In Paul Schrader’s 1972 book, Transcendental Style in Film, the renowned filmmaker/theorist (with a Christian background… he attended Calvin College) outlined his theory for how transcendence is achieved stylistically in cinema. The ultimate embodiment of the transcendent, he thinks, is in something called stasis: “a frozen view of life which does not resolve the disparity but transcends it.” Stasis often occurs at the end of a film, and often in the final shot—when the conflict or “disparity” is not completely resolved, but “frozen” into stasis. “To the transcending mind,” Schrader writes, “man and nature may be perpetually locked in conflict, but they are paradoxically one and the same.”

This “Oneness” is a sort of resolution of the unresolved—an arrival at peace in spite of and because of a deep unsettledness within the soul. I think the concept has echoes of G.K. Chesterton’s notion of “divine discontent”—the idea that we should feel ill at ease with our human situation, and as such more aware of the divine other that will one day right every wrong. Discontent can be divine—and transcendent—when we view it as a sign of the perfect Source (God), apart from which all else is unresolved tension.

Thus, Schrader keenly points out (and I agree), that films exposing glimpses of the transcendent are often those that end on a note that is at once satisfying (catharsis) and whole (stasis), but also still in want. “The static view,” Schrader writes, represents a world “in which the spiritual and physical can coexist, still in tension and unresolved, but as part of a larger scheme in which all phenomena are more or less expressive of a larger reality—the Transcendent.”

Some examples Schrader uses to flesh out this idea include the final, lengthy shot of the vase at the end of Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), or the shadow of the cross that becomes the final shot of Diary of a Country Priest (1950).

I’ve been thinking about current films (films of the last six or seven years) that Schrader might point to as pictures that exemplify stasis—that encapsulate a oneness or transcendence that leaves the viewer wholly affected and frozen in time. These are the films that, upon fading or cutting to black, leave you utterly breathless and emotionally (perhaps spiritually) wrecked. I’m not talking about tearjerkers or films that have shocking trick endings where everything changes in the final shot (don’t get me wrong, I love M. Night Shyamalan). I’m talking about films that leave you both devastated and satisfied, with a final image that is burned into your mind’s eye. Here are a few that are still burning in my mind (warning: spoiler city!):

A.I. (2001): The ending of this film was widely criticized by many for being both too drawn out and too sappy. But for me, it was the perfect, haunting ending to a film that remains remarkably affecting each time I watch it. It is devastating to witness Haley Joel Osment’s sentient little robot boy being forced to live for thousands of years without the human love from which he has come to derive his meaning. In the last scene, he gets to live one last day with his reincarnated mother, before they both cease to exist forever. I’m not sure what it is about this ending (perhaps the immense weight of time, mortality, and existence, which we are forced to consider), but as the camera pans back from the two going to “sleep,” something aches in the pit of my stomach.

Before Sunset (2004): Not all evocative, stasis endings have to be downers. In Richard Linklater’s marvelous Before Sunset (the sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise), the ending—while certainly not providing “Hollywood” closure—offers a breezy, life-affirming catharsis that is both ambiguous and perfectly settled. As Ethan Hawke sits on a couch in Julie Delpy’s Paris apartment, we watch as she playfully mimics a flirty Nina Simone. Then the scene just joyfully fades to black. I can’t recall a film that left me so wholly satisfied, despite not knowing exactly how the story ended up.

Capote (2005): Sometimes the stasis of a film is reinforced by some postscript that comes onscreen after the film’s final image. In Capote, an already wrenching final image (of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a plane, looking forlornly out a window) is enhanced by the words that follow as the screen goes black: “In Cold Blood made Truman Capote the most famous writer in America. He never finished another book. The epigraph he chose for his last, unfinished work reads: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’”

Children of Men (2006): In the case of Children of Men, the most affecting stasis comes from the aural denouement—the voices and sounds of children playing which bookend the film. As Kee and Theo drift out to sea, quietly and away from the chaos of the previous two hours, all appears lost. Theo is bleeding, and soon succumbs. Kee is alone with her newborn baby. Suddenly the rescue boat (“The Tomorrow”) appears, and our hopes are renewed. But instead of providing a full resolution, the images stop there. “CHILDREN OF MEN” flashes against a black screen, with the children’s laughter heard faintly in the background. It’s ambiguous. It’s disturbing. It’s uneasy peace.

L’Enfant (2006): Many of the films by Belgian directors the Dardenne Brothers contain endings in which some sort of cathartic resolution is achieved, but quickly halted (as in, the screen goes black in the middle of some intense, penultimate scene). This is the case in L’Enfant, a film about a man (Jeremy Renier) who does unspeakable things in order to make financial ends meet. The power of this film’s ending is in its juxtaposition to the emotional distance of everything preceding it. Not until the final few minutes does Renier—having been completely broken down—show any emotion at all. This scene provides a stunning catharsis, but very little resolution. And as the screen abruptly goes black, the unifying power of that final image is left for the awestruck viewer to mull over.

Lost In Translation (2003): Sofia Coppola really leaves us hanging at the end of this film. The two main characters (Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray) share an intimate few whispers as they say farewell, and we don’t have a clue what they say to each other! Oddly, though, this unanswered question gives the film’s somber ending a wonderful sense of uncertain hope. Maybe they’ll meet again, maybe not. One never knows with these sorts of evanescenent encounters. As the Jesus and Mary Chain song (“Just Like Honey”) plays over a montage of the empty streets of Tokyo at dawn, and the characters go their separate ways, a morning-after mix of bittersweet joy and existential ache abides. Another day. Life goes on.

The New World (2005): “Life goes on” is a good way to look at the theme of this amazing film from director Terrence Malick. In the film, Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) is put through the ringer, being relentlessly battered by love, change, regret, and ultimately death. Through it all, though, Malick reminds us of new life—of nature, and trees which grow always ever upwards, even when branches fall off. The final shot of the film, then, is a profound encapsulation of this theme. After a stunning closing montage (to the music of Wagner’s swelling Das Rheingold), the final shot looks upwards at a tree, stately and shining in the sunlight. The music stops, a single leaf falls to the ground, and the screen goes to black. Amazingly, the credits roll over silence (initially), which amplifies the meditation over stasis even more.

Nine Lives (2005): This little-seen, remarkably conceived film is really a collection of nine short films—each shot in solitary, 12 minute camera takes, and each with its own stasis ending. Each story is a snippet of one woman’s life, and as such we know neither where they’ve come from nor where they’re going. Because of top-notch writing, directing and acting, however, we invest in these characters enough to be jarred when their segment flashes to black and the next one begins. A couple of the episodes end on especially moving notes (the episode with Robin Wright Penn in a supermarket, for example), but the final one with Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning takes the stasis cake.

The Pianist (2002): The ending of this film is pure catharsis. After two and a half hours of death and horror, our protagonist (Adrian Brody) is finally redeemed, and over the end titles, he performs Chopin’s magnificent Grande Polonaise for piano & orchestra with the Warsaw Philharmonic in a concert hall. Like the beautiful music played throughout the film, it is both sad and triumphant—equal parts emotional release and spiritual requiem for lost beauty and innocence. Very few films’ end titles are so riveting that not a single audience member leaves for five+ minutes. But this was the case when I saw The Pianist.

United 93 (2006): This was the best film of 2006 for a number of reasons, not least of which is its incredibly intense climax and subsequent catharsis ending. After 100 minutes of heart-pumping, visceral filmmaking (the soundtrack is literally rhythmic heart-pumping) we are brought to final ten minutes—a stretch which affected me physically (as in, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat) more than any film I can remember. Then, when the plane finally crashes and the music reaches its haunting home chord, the chaos is silenced and a numb sense of shock and lamentation takes over. I found it hard to move in my chair during the credits.

These are just ten examples that I thought of off the top of my head, but doubtless there are many more. What films do you think of when you think about powerful stasis or catharsis endings?

Top Ten Most Flattering Portrayals of Christians in Film

As a part two bookend to last week’s “Unflattering” list, I’ve been thinking this week about the films that contain the most flattering portrayals of Christians. This was, predictably, much more challenging a list to come up with. Thankfully, however, I could come up with about twenty worthy candidates, ten of which are listed here. Interestingly, only one of the listed films (#7) was directed by an American. One important thing to remember is that these films by no means represent the most Christian or the most spiritual films (that list would be longer, and different)—only the ones that feature characters who are motivated or defined, in some favorable way, by their Christian faith. These are films that portray Christians as passionate, thoughtful, loving, and (in a lot of cases) sacrificial. Here’s my list. Let me know what you think.

10) Land of Plenty (2004): This little-seen, 9/11-inspired film by Christian director Wim Wenders features Michelle Williams in a rare role—a progressive young Christian working among L.A.’s homeless at a skid-row mission because Jesus would’ve done it.

9) Babette’s Feast (1987): Rob Bell is always saying Christians should re-discover the joy of “the long meal.” This film revels in it, as an effervescent group of aging Christians in Denmark prove that God’s grace is never more evident than in a long night of good food and fellowship.

8) Tender Mercies (1983): It was between this Horton Foote-penned film and The Apostle for the Robert Duvall spot on this list. Both films present imperfect people who find redemption through the loving community of the church. Yes, recovering alcoholic country music stars can (and often do) become Christians!

7) Dead Man Walking (1995): I had to include a nun movie in here, and Sound of Music seemed a bit frivolous! Seriously, though, Susan Sarandon’s portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean—a deeply compassionate woman who ministers to a death row inmate (Sean Penn) is a beautiful picture of Christ-like love.

6) Amazing Grace (2007): It’s too bad this film wasn’t just called Wilberforce or something, because it’s really just a biopic about the amazing Christian abolitionist who inspires Christian activism today. And as that, it’s more than enough to relay immense and beautiful truths about God’s guidance, strength, and grace.

5) Becket (1964): Richard Burton’s stellar portrayal of the unwaveringly pious Thomas à Becket (opposite Peter O’Toole’s Henry II in the famous church-state struggle of 12th Century England) offers one of cinema’s most principled and empathetic Christian characters.

4) Into Great Silence (2007): Not for the easily bored (but endlessly rewarding if you can sit through it), this nearly silent documentary probes the psyche of the uber-ascetic monks who live—and love living—lives of worship and solitude in a French Carthusian monastery.

3) Diary of a Country Priest (1951): French director Robert Bresson’s masterpiece of transcendent cinema, Priest charts the everyday struggles of a young priest trying his best to follow God’s will in shepherding a small parish in rural France. The ending will take your breath away.

2) Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005): This Oscar-nominated German-language film portrays the quiet subversion of Sophie Scholl, leader of a student resistance group during Hitler’s reign in Nazi Germany. Her profound faith drives her brave activism and strengthens her when faced with unspeakable horrors.

1) The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): One of the best films of all time, this silent masterpiece from Danish director Carl Dreyer provides an amazingly artful and moving account of one of Christianity’s most inspiring figures. Shot almost entirely in close-up, the film’s striking images—especially Joan’s face—are imbued with the Holy.

Top Ten Most Unflattering Portrayals of Christians in Film

Because top ten lists are fun, and because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how Christians are perceived in culture, I thought it would be interesting to comprise a list of the most unflattering portrayals of Christians in cinema. On a future post I will probably do the same for the most flattering portrayals. Keep in mind that I am not slamming these films; several of them are actually very well made. I’m only pointing out that, for secular audiences watching these films, Christians come across as crazy, annoying, dangerous, stupid, or some combination therein. Thankfully most of these films were not seen by very many people. But even so, I think it’s important to be mindful that they exist—that for some people, this is the only picture of Christianity they have.

10) Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? (2004) Though less hostile than most documentaries about Christians, this incoherent exploration of a much-too-broad topic leaves the viewer as confused and cynical as the disparate talking heads that sound off in the film.

9) Night of the Hunter (1955) This classic kicked off the “fundamentalist Christian as psychopath” trend that has been a favorite in cinema ever since. “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” has never sounded as disturbing as when Robert Mitchum sings it.

8) My Summer of Love (2004) More tragic than comical, this indie film portrays a group of British evangelicals as positively bonkers and dangerous to family dynamics, as one of the church’s leaders (Paddy Considine) pays more attention to prayer meetings than he does his own struggling family.

7) The Virgin Suicides (1999) Repressive Christian parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) in suburbia drive their innocent daughters to suicide. Because not being able to go to prom just does that to you…

6) Citizen Ruth (1996) It’s pretty gutsy to satirize abortion, but Alexander Payne did it successfully in this film, which lampoons both the firebrand evangelical pro-lifers and the equally insane pro-choice feminazis.

5) Facing the Giants (2006) Oops! I thought this was made by Christians!? Indeed, but this horrendous film (which we have Georgia’s Sherwood Baptist Church to thank for) is as embarrassing to Christians as anything Pat Robertson ever said.

4) Saved! (2004) This film relentlessly points out evangelical absurdities, featuring a command performance from Mandy Moore as the Christian school queen bee who spreads Jesus’ love by throwing bibles at people.

3) Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple (2006) To the uninitiated, People’s Temple appears to be just one more crazy sect of fundamentalist Christianity. Which makes this true story of delusion and mass suicide one of the most damaging witnesses to American Christianity in the twentieth century.

2) Hell House (2001) A truly scary documentary about a Pentecostal church in Texas that uses Halloween, buckets of fake blood, and scenes of abortion, suicide, and AIDS to scare hordes of lost kids into accepting Jesus.

1) Jesus Camp (2006) In addition to its portrayal of six year olds speaking in tongues and praying over a cardboard George W. Bush, this film boasts the honor of having grade-A ironic footage of Ted Haggard talking smack about gays just months before his own admission of having solicited a male prostitute.

Harry Potter and the Christian Fear of Imagination

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?"

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

I love this quote from The Deathly Hallows, which comes from the final lines of the “King’s Cross” chapter (aptly titled, considering the not-so-subtle Christian metaphors of the book). I love it because it’s a sort of justification for the whole Harry Potter phenomenon—for all fantasy literature, I suppose. These books are complete and utter whimsy, fantasy, fiction, make-believe, etc. They are fun to read, fun to immerse oneself in, but nothing more, right?

There is a bias towards this kind of literature that assumes—because it is so fantastical and un-like reality—there can be no relevance or bearing on the real world. It is the same bias that dismisses abstract painting because it doesn’t represent anything. People are afraid of the unknown, the imagined, the make-believe.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Christians are so hard on Harry Potter. In addition to being about—gasp—witches and wizards, these seven books are simply a waste of time, they might say. Whereas The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings can be justified as time-well-spent (because of their much-publicized, if a bit over-emphasized, Christian allegorical elements), Harry Potter is just a lot of hocus pocus frivolity.

I spoke with several Christians after I finished Hallows last week, and told them how explicit and wonderful the Christological elements were in the last hundred or so pages. Most of the Christians (who were not Harry fans) responded to this with a quick dismissal, saying “Oh…” or “that’s neat,” or “well, isn’t that how all epic literature ends?” The overwhelming sentiment seemed to be that surely Harry Potter could not end up being Christian—after all these years of polemics between Harry and evangelicals…

But the truth is Harry Potter does indeed have much to say about Christianity—the end of Hallows especially. I can honestly say that J.K. Rowling, like Lewis, Tolkien, L’Engle, Shakespeare, and many others before her, has illuminated the sacred through the mythical, the real through the fictitious.

Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy Stories” of creating fantasy as a “human right” that is endowed to us through the incarnation: “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Lewis went even further in his defense of myth. He eloquently wrote of the gospel as a myth become fact:

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens--at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

~C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, "Myth Became Fact" (1944)

So, I urge you to read Harry Potter, and other books like it, and not feel guilty for wasting time in childish worlds of superfluous fiction. There is much value in the imaginary, and in the mythical. After all, there is much more going on in this universe than our non-fictional, scientific, empiricist minds can articulate.