Friday, March 17, 2006

God's Gold Tooth: Imperfect Prophetic Films

God’s Gold Tooth: Imperfect Prophetic Films
by Dave Wainscott
Dave Wainscott is chief dreamer of an experimental church in Fresno, California: Third Day (“3D”) Fellowship

"I don't give a flying f#!@* what the critics think about this film."

Can you believe Billy Graham said that?

Of course, he did…


But for some, the above actual quote from a more recent evangelical hero, is the functional equivalent of Rev. Billy cussing a blue streak.

Agreed, TIME magazine has never had to say of Billy Graham what it recently observed about this newer celebrity: "He wears a cross containing relics of martyred saints, but he can swear like a Quentin Tarantino character."

TIME also...correctly!...calls this filmmaker an "ultraconservative Catholic."

Ah, we can obviously we can be talking about no one else but (St.) Mel Gibson.

Who else would follow up a $30 million epic on Christ with a $50 million epic about... the ancient Maya...and call it "Apocalypto." All while chomping cigars, giving gobs of money to charity, and not giving the requisite flying...uh, flying "darn," I or if we reconcile all that.

As if we should.

God will continue to use all kinds of moviemakers....especially the smoking, swearing ones… to confound expectations, push norms and forms, and actively embed Himself (in thin but unreligious disguise) in "secular" and prophetic movies. These God-haunted filmmakers may or may not be Christian. They may or may not even believe in God. They may even smoke Stogies. Even flirt with transvestitism and ditch their wife for a dominatrix like the co-director of one of the most God-drenched and God-used movies of all time. And they will inevitably say things that make religious folk flinch. Things like: "I'm just looking for the gold tooth in God's crooked smile."

Try putting that line on an evangelistic tract!

Where it belongs.

Some will only cry our "Heresy! God doesn't have a 'crooked smile!'" Boycott this movie!"….blah blah yada yada…....and miss the point.

The point? God is shamelessly ignoring taboos and mightily anointing flawed filmmakers, who aren't always "members of the club,” to salt our culture, and draw it gently; sometimes prod it violently; towards Christ. The point? Leonard Sweet is pointed about the point: "It could be that for the first time in history," he offers, "God is more active in the world than the church."

The point? Partly in response to the church being too religious and reductionistic, gnostic and caustic these last several decades, God is passionately committed to meeting people where they are (theatres). He seems to be specializing in bypassing not only where they are not (churches); but also the class that's most gotten in His way (uh, that would be us pastor types). All so he can shamelessly "shame the wise," "become all things to all people to save some"...along with a good measure of "Told you I could speak through an ass if I wanted to!' Hey, don't shut me down yet for those last three quotes; I have chapter and verse for all three. But you probably wouldn't want to follow a God who would tell one of his prophets to marry a prostitute, either.

Besides, that would be rated R.

Like much of the Bible.

In which there is not only a lot of sex and violence; but evidence that God speaks and prophesies through the aforementioned donkey, pagan kings like Cyrus , and acknowledged pagan poets (Acts 17. 22-23; Titus 1.12).

Heck, even rocks cry out.

Maybe this is all Plan 'B." But God often resorts to, and then prioritizes such. He lamented in Ezekiel 30:22: "I looked and looked for someone...and here's who I found: nobody!" That's precisely who He seems to be using again: "nobodies.”

The point? All prophecy, as 1 Corinthians 13 would have it; even at its best and purest is "in part" and "through a glass darkly." In these days the dark glass is literal: the projection lens in many a theatre. In the words of U2's "Lemon," "A man makes a picture; a moving picture. Through light projected, he can see himself up close." Why is it that in our day it is the "secular" "picture-making" men and women who let that light shine more brilliantly than the "obvious" first-choice candidates (filmmakers who are classic Christians)?

Excellent question. It was excellently answered, if a bit more proactively phrased, by Tom Parham in an article, "Why do heathens make the best Christian films":

Secular filmmakers tend to observe life more objectively than Christians. They
see the world the way it really is, warts and all...A Christian filmmaker
wouldn't dare create a Christian protagonist who questions God, who falls or
fails... Christian filmmakers seem to dislike mystery... In our post-modern,
relativistic world, non-Christians often deny the existence of good and evil and
the notion of sin. Yet, non-Christians are often more successful than Christians
at representing sin in film.

By the way, if while reading that excerpt, the thought crossed your mind "Is this writer a Christian?," I can respect that question; but muster all due respect to say: You are still not getting the point if the answer to that question was so all-fire important as to arise so soon. By the way, the answer is "yes."

So thank God that God used the writer anyway(:

In a delightful twist, Parham actually finds that another category of filmmaking folks God seems to effectively and extraordinarily use are not pagans, but the one category that in the minds of some evangelical-fundamentalists is even "worse"(!): Catholics! How can this be?

Three tenets of Catholicism informed their craft and equipped them to excel.
First, an intuitive understanding of iconography gave them a strong
foundation for crafting visual images. Next, they seemed to grasp the
incarnational function of art, which allowed them to give tangible form to
intangible concepts. Finally, their understanding of the sacramental nature of
life helped them relate divine patterns through everyday minutiae. For these
reasons, even lapsed Catholic filmmakers, such as Brian De Palma or Federico
Fellini, tend to be better equipped to focus on religious themes than practicing
evangelicals. This isn't to say that non-Catholic Christian filmmakers are at a
complete disadvantage when creating cinema. But the Protestant evangelical
emphasis on the primacy of "word" has not allowed us to fully realize our
ability to translate the image of God (imago Dei) into moving pictures.

These observations are astute, hugely helpful. And reminds us that the very hungers of our postmodern world match up divinely (should be no surprise) with the very keys the Kingdom and church (at least the Catholics!) hold: visual, incarnational, and sacramental reality.

I am only asking the Church to be consider being the church.

Quick! Name one "officially" Christian film that you can remember (at all), or remember leaving thinking, "Wow, that was a quality, consistently honest portrayal of reality….and non-cheesy, to boot!"

Since that list is short, or blank, I insist that it is allowable to say (pray?) aloud, "I wish there were less cheesy Christian films," If that sounds like a judgement..well, it is! Paul commands us (1 Corinthians 6) to judge fellow Christians, and explicitly forbids us from judging unbelievers. Sigh…why have we gotten it backwards.... again? As long as we are willing to start the judgement with the log in our own eye and life, we are actually supposed to prayerfully and carefully "judge" the life, ministry...and thus art, 0f fellow Christians. This is a judgement on the method, content and cheese-factor of films; not judgement on any believing filmmaker's intent or anointing. I am positive many of these folks are far better Christians than I am. Which is precisely why I beg them to consider that not every movie end so tidily in the "sinner’s prayer" , or tie up all ends so nicely. Romans 8:28 is in the Book, but so is Ecclesiastes. In the Good Book, the prodigal's elder brother and the rich young ruler thew away the keys. To suggest otherwise would be rewriting Scripture and reality. Maybe that's the operative word. Just a dose of reality. But when will the church drop that dose, and realize that there is a whole breed of Christians who are artists, who:

"see their job as preparing unreceptive and probably overgrown ground to be more
open to the sowers who are going to come after I am not going to talk
about (them) if their primary task ought to be pleasing people who are
already Christians. And I'm also not going to spend a lot of time on questions
like 'What exactly does each of them believe?" or "Have they always lived up
what they say say they believe?' I think apart from simply being kind of tacky
and voyeuristic, questions like that betray a misunderstanding of how art works
in the first place. "

These extraordinarily relevant and revealing comments could and should qualm the fears of well-meaning religious folks who tend to major in missing the point. But I fear many will miss not only the pungent point, but the untold blessing in letting art work, for Christ's sake.
Yes, there is indeed a place to ask if confessing Christians artists betray Jesus with their lifestyle; but believe it or not, "betraying how art works in the first place" can lead to nothing less than betrayal of the daring Jesus who is longing to reveal himself through startling fresh, blatantly real, and admittedly imperfect vessels (Last time I checked, that's the only kind of vessels available to him).

That the context of these comments is a specific presentation on the music and motivation of U2 (by Rev. Beth Maynard) does not at all negate the applicability of the comments to filmmakers. Art is art. Maynard continues, referencing U2's work in the 1990s which was laced with irony, and was

"marked by depicting and lamenting humanity's shadow side...including their own
shadow side....(This was) misunderstood by observers, I'm afraid particularly by
Christian observers, who bring to that art the naive thought that any artist who
writes about sin must be in favor of it."

The anecdotally spun story about President Calvin Coolidge, a man of few words, comes to mind. It seems he attending church one Sunday without his wife. When his wife later asked "What was the sermon about?," he responded simply, "Sin." "What about it?" was of course the wife's follow-up. Coolidge succinctly summarized:
"I think he was against it."

Is that the full gospel?

Ask any non-Christian what American Christians believe. The answer is statistically likely to be (Phillip Yancey has actually conducted such and informal survey of seatmates on airplanes for years) something in the ballpark of "They are against sin." But why should we also be against honest parables about sin? Why do we do fear movies like Robert Duvall's gutsy (Hey, what does Duvall believe, anyway?) "The Apostle"? Or a film which promises:

"a thought-provoking road trip through the American South...a world of churches,
prisons, coalmines, truckstops, juke joints, swamps and mountains. Along the way
we encounter various musicians…in Mountain Gospel Churches, and novelist
Harry Crews telling grisly stories down at the dirt track. The film is a collage
of stories and testimonies, almost invariably of sudden death, sin or
redemption, heaven or hell, and no middle ground. And all along the way, a
strange southern Jesus looms in the background. 'Alt country' singer Jim White
reflects on exactly what it is about this baffling place that inspires musicians
and writers, whilst at the same time his muse, or as he puts it, 'I'm just
looking for the gold tooth in God's crooked smile.'

I imagine the Lord explaining to baffled readers of the above promo blurb for a recent film, "I specifically remember you asking for movies about heaven or hell; no middle ground... Here you go, sorry about the R rating…maybe don’t bring the kids, but you didn't think to put any qualifiers in the prayer regarding rating…or church credentials of the filmmaker."

And if you tripped on the phrase "God's crooked smile," as near-blasphemy, look around at his smile as corporately incarnated through the humans crafted in his image. Beautiful and crooked, right? ...Or maybe it's the bold assumption that God smiles at all that terrifies us into terrorism. Or the name of the film that the above promo statement was about: "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus." Or the musician/filmaker's particular bias:

By viewing the world through the church, intensely, passionately, with spirit
and mind, I see the world through a pair of what I call Jesus glasses. If I take
the Jesus glasses off, I'm blind. The difference between me and the other people
in the South is real simple: with every step that I take and every word that I
utter there's a little subtitle which says, "Don't take it too seriously because
I'm wearing Jesus glasses". I can't take them off. I can't not see the world
through that context, but I can remind myself that it's a tainted context of the
Keep those Jesus-glasses on, and stretch your imagine for a minute with Mercer Shurchart:

Imagine yourself on a Sunday afternoon. You’ve just walked into a very tall
building, been greeted with a smile by the same person who greeted you last
week, and ushered into a dark room with seats all facing forward. There is music
playing. You feel reverent. And then the previews start. You are about to
worship at the new altar of technological culture, the movie theatre.
one hundred years of tinkering, film has arrived as an alternate form of
transcendence, replacing in interesting and strange ways the once venerated
position held by the institutional church. Or, to put it another way, the medium
of motion film has finally received its birthright: born right around the time
Nietzsche declared that God was dead, film has now matured to the point that
America is now accepting cinema as the culture’s chief myth maker.... ...From
the long view, it’s an interesting trajectory—five hundred years after the
printing press splintered the universal church into a thousand sectarian
fragments, the new technology of film is bringing us all back into the same room
again. Cinema is now the only real place to air new ideas in parable form, a
safe forum where participants come in with their guard not only down, but also
with their minds open and hungry for meaning. Like it or not, the cinema is
delivering what the Reformers only hoped for, and what that means for the future
of the church is a question that admits of a wide solution.

Delivering what the Reformers only hoped for? That is not an understatement! The gift of God through the media today to meet people at Mars Hill, and return honesty to the ones who are supposed to own the copyright on it, is unprecedented. It's above and beyond a token "Hey, we need to be relevant and show movie clips in church." Of course, we need to do that; though I am not sure I'd be as fearless as one church, whose member wrote to the pastor:

One Sunday you used a movie clip in your sermon. It was a scene from When Harry
met Sally. It must be the most hilarious scene in any movie. Meg Ryan was
proving to Billy Crystal that he couldn't tell when a woman faked an orgasm. I
couldn't imagine seeing that scene in church. Along with everyone around me I
laughed and laughed. The more I laughed though, the more uncomfortable I became.
By the end of the service I was furious. How dare you show something like that
in church? Later I was telling a friend about it who isn't a Christian. She had
never seen the movie and asked me if there was any profanity or nudity in the
scene. I told her no, so she said, "Then why are you upset?"
I couldn't
logically explain it.

It's even above and beyond "We need to find church in the movie theatre.” We need to do that as well. Especially if in the quirky economy of God it is temporarily the "only real place to air new ideas in parable form." Good grief, what more accurate picture of the church at its best could you hope for?

I often start my talks at retreats and conferences with: "Fill in the blank: 'You can sure tell ___ is at work in our secular world nowadays; all you have to do is look around." I am aware the instant and "theologically correct" answer is "The Devil." And even though that case could and should be made...

Buzz! Thanks for playing, anyway!

Wrong least wrong as the first and only answer.

God, the Holy Spirit is "out there," stealth-stacking the deck in our favor. But as John Piper articulately reminds, "The salt of the earth does not to mock rotting meat." It's God who is aggressively active in the field of the world. If your gut answer was "the devil," at least consider that you have missed the point at best; and betrayed Jesus at worst. Thus, our world is sovereignly blessed and laced with God-haunted and God-rejecting films (sometimes in the same production!). Both are signs of the times; and both in part signs from/to God ("The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognize the pivot, that God is at the center of the jaunt," Bono spoke to Rolling Stone,"....And later you came to analyze it and figure it out."); made carefully and carelessly by folks who may or may not be "Christian," but paint and parable an honest Holy Spirited grasping and gasping for reality; and often a "better" and more biblically nuanced picture of Jesus than almost any "officially stamped" Christian film one could name. As one controversial but grounded preacher suggested:

"God decided exactly when and where everyone should live; right down to the
neighborhood. He did this on purpose, precisely so they would seek him from
where they are. They will grope and grasp imperfectly for him, and find him..
They can find him even though he is not far from any of us. 'In him we live and
move and exist.' And as some of your own pagan poets have also prophesied, 'We
are his children.' (Paul in Acts 17:27-19)

Is there a theatre in your city? Maybe you are called to take it as an invitation from God to make pilgrimage. Join the gropers. Thankfully, the controversy over the gay New-Ager who starred in what was supposed to be an "official Christian film" (“The End of the Spear”) of sorts, may have reshuffled the deck and dialogue parameters. And hey, how many Christians were in the "Narnia" movie that churches supported so well? I can probably count them on (at most) one finger. And unfortunately that's the number of fingers churchians will undoubtedly extend to both Mel Gibson ("one of us"? m) and his next film: because "Apocalypto" is:

a) not about Jesus (or is it?)

b) accompanied by Mel's colorful rebuke to the self-righteous.

How about realizing that God has embedded himself in "secular" places and people in these amazing days, and we need not expect people or place to be perfect...or Christian?The Lord has placed some wonderful Kingdom resources online to keep us in touch with spirituality in culture, and in films in particular. Start with Jeffrey Overstreet's “Looking Closer,” Dick Staub’s “Culture Watch,” or Steve Beard’s "Thunderstruck," and see where that takes you. ..and then be the daring one out of ten who return to the crooked-smiling Jesus to give thanks.

Without giving a flying Gibsonian #@*& what anyone else thinks.


  1. Dave, I followed this over from Worldmag, and I confess I was expecting an anti-Catholic screed against graven images or something. Instead, I find one of the best discussions of Christianity and the arts I've ever read. I've got to link this. Thanks!

  2. Joel..awesome..i appreciate that..

    i like your blog, too, Love that "amateur Catholic" button.

    here is Fresno, we Christians..of all types hang out and study at the Catholic bookstore/coffee shop.

    much appreciation

  3. He is underappreciated by many, but Catholic novelist Walker Percy may be one of the most important theologicans of this age (he unfortunately for us, passed on in the early 90s).

    For those interested, his novel "The Second Coming" is a simple masterpiece. "Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book" is marvelous, and Percy's work in Semiotics is seminal. He also was a big Kierkegaard fan and corresponded with Thomas Merton and Flannery O Conner.

    Good reads.

  4. Dave this is brilliant! It's just brilliant, I agree and it makes so much sense... thank you...

  5. "Quick! Name one "officially" Christian film that you can remember (at all), or remember leaving thinking, 'Wow, that was a quality, consistently honest portrayal of reality….and non-cheesy, to boot!'

    Believe it or not, Dave, but I can do that. I never would have believed that it could happen...especially if it had...cough cough...Michael W. Smith in a starring roll. But, it did have Steve Taylor as a director, so that's something...

    But the film to which I refer is called "The Second Chance" and it was actually good. Not just tolerable or palatable, but actually a good movie.

    The people in it were real. The dialogue sounded like real people, even the "sinners" sounded like sinners. Hell, some of the saints sounded like sinners.

    I'm resisting the urge to tell you more about how good it was just so you don't think I've totally flaked out by endorsing a film with Michael W. Smith. But I'm secure in my opinion. Really, I am. I swear. (I still think his music sucks gutter water.)

    Anyway, check it out if you haven't already.

    I'm gonna go watch House of 1000 Corpses.

  6. yessir, St...good film

    and now Steve Taylor is working on the "Blue like Jazz" film w/Don miller


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!