Books, Film, and Christian Propaganda
Some thoughts are too big for fiction and movies. I was thinking that when I watched God is Not Dead for the first time a few weeks ago. Yes, I put it off for as long as I possibly could. As much as I like to support Christian films (I am a film script writer, after all), I find that I cringe my way through many of them. Though there were some commendable points to the film, the plot was unrealistic and the characters were stereotyped. I mean, really. How many philosophy professors are going to get away with addressing only atheistic philosophers in a university setting? Overlook Kant? Miss Plato? Ignore Descartes? Not likely. Being a mere mortal and not knowing everything, I’m sure there may be a few instances of this in the United States, but I doubt it’s very common. I believe, with all of my heart, that the people who create such films have the best of intentions. They desire to defend the faith and honor God. But there’s really no other way to describe films like God is Not Dead other than by two words—“Christian Propaganda.”
There are several ways I could go about making my case against Christian Propaganda. But I think the easiest would be to describe the philosophy of writing I have developed over the years. It boils down to two options: I can either inject the Gospel into my writing, or my writing can be permeated with the Gospel. I’ll leave you to think about those two options as I continue.
I began writing when I was eleven years old. My parents gave me a journal for Christmas that year, and I thought journaling was a fantastic idea. A couple of years later, I wrote my first short story. It was awful, as most first stories are—terrible character development, humorous interludes that didn’t quite make sense, stilted dialogue…and a really bad premise. At that time, there was a certain wardrobe choice that I had decided to make because I felt it would please God. This made me feel quite different than a lot of Christian kids my age. I naturally assumed they would think I was silly for dressing in such an odd way. Therefore, my story revolved around a family being mocked by other Christians for their clothing choices. As I grew older, I realized that my perceptions were flawed. Namely, I felt odd and uncomfortable in my clothing compared to other girls my age. In my mind, it then followed that they must think me odd. Their criticism was something I conjured up in my own mind and projected onto them. The more I realized this, the more embarrassed I became over that story. I think all copies are destroyed by now. But should you run across one, please have mercy on me! I was only thirteen.
I learned through that particular experience. My writing blossomed and grew as I grew. Depression, loss, music, poetry, the great writers, real-time interaction with people who disagreed with me, and a host of other experiences now informed the topics I chose to write about. As I was finishing up my first novel, I began to think of what to call myself. I was forced to contend with my least favorite word in the whole of the English language—genre. Oh, I hate that word! The problem was that my head was full of stories, all kinds of different stories. None of them seemed to fit any particular category. It felt cheap and dishonest to pick a genre just so I could sell more copies. It felt unfair to the story I was creating. I supposed I could stick my writing under the loose genre of Christian fiction. But then I thought, “Am I an author who writes Christian fiction? Or am I a Christian who writes?” There is a world of difference between the two options, the same world of difference between injecting a story with the Gospel and permeating a story with it. The one requires a mandatory salvation scene whether it makes sense within the context of the whole story or not. The other stands on its own, heavy with the scent of something other-worldly, a place called eternity. Which one do you think would have the most impact?
You see, Christian propaganda requires that Christians be the good guys and everyone else be misguided, nasty and confused. But that doesn’t reflect reality. I am a Christian. I am often misguided, nasty, and confused. Mostly that’s because I’m still fighting my old nature. Besides that, some of the nastiest people I’ve met have been Christians. It wasn’t Christianity that made them nasty. Christ rescued them from a lot of nasty things. You should have seen what they were like ten years ago! The difference the grace of God made in their lives is astounding regardless of their current flaws and ugliness. On the flip side, one of the nicest guys I ever met was the librarian I talked to every week when I went in for my book fix. He was an atheist.
Every story is a slice of life. The writer works within that slice, as his characters act and react to their circumstances. Christian or not, all of the characters have problems, (usually much bigger than losing a stereotypical worldly girlfriend and figuring out how to research for the next public confrontation with the philosophy professor) all of them have back story, and all of them should live and breathe on the page and on the screen. Writers can’t manipulate them into behaving in ways uncharacteristic of them much like evangelists can’t effect lasting change by guilt-tripping people into coming forward during altar calls. Writers can only report. The process that leads to conversion often takes years of work by the Holy Spirit and hearing the truth over and over and over again until it finally clicks. When a writer tries to cram a conversion into that slice of life without proper back story, the audience cries foul and rightly so. Some ideas are too big for fiction and film. Apologetics cannot be properly addressed in a movie. Non-Christians are not always mean and spiteful. Christians are not always the good guys. Within that slice of life, it’s okay to end on a question mark—with the understanding that life will continue for these characters. They may get their acts together. They may not. They may only understand and come to resolution on one main point. The point is, they are replicas of real, breathing, human beings with minds of their own, so like the real thing, we can hardly tell the difference.
And that, folks, is the difference between art and propaganda.
Image Courtesy of Matryosha.