Christians in the Arts Issue 2: Themes vs. Propaganda

One of the saddest legacies of Christians in the arts is Left Behind, a title very descriptive of Christians in the arts today. The book series certainly made a lot of money in the mainstream and Christian market, so it was only a matter of time before someone decided to make it a movie.

The problem is that the film is essentially a cash-grab, a way of making money based on source material that has already proven a success. I won’t bother going into detail why I don’t like that practice. I have heard that the original writers of the book series were upset with the low-budget quality of the film, and their names do not appear on the credits. I get the feeling that the budget was the reason why the original movie version of Left Behind was available on video before it hit the theaters.

I remember watching the VHS version with the warning to “stay tuned for a special message from Kirk Cameron”. I’m just going to take one sentence to say that Kirk Cameron is considered a joke in Hollywood, but I admire his choice to adhere to Christian movies, even if he could have had a better acting career in the secular market. Anyway, the special message at the end of the Left Behind movie shows Cameron explaining that Left Behind was intended to be released on video first, so Christians can bring their unsaved friends to see it in the theater.

It is clear that Left Behind was intended to be an evangelical device, but this is not the reason that the arts were created. To assume so will turn all art into nothing more than simply propaganda.

This is an easy trap to fall into, and I believed this one. Two decades ago, I wrote a paper about the arts for a course that I took at my church called Christian World View. In this essay, I wrote that the arts should be theme-based rather than story-based. I have since reversed my opinion on this.

There is something about using some book or film to convey a message that just makes it way too preachy, no matter what message you are trying to preach. I used to write skits for my church to convey a message, but I always attempted to balance that with an engaging story. The problem is if story serves theme, then the enjoyment of the story can be easily sacrificed.

I have recently written a book called The Labyrinth House that I began ten years ago, with the idea of a story: a man is trapped in a house where he cannot leave. Without going into too much detail, I didn’t really have any idea of a theme when I was writing it, but when I had finished it, I have figured out what it is about. I believe that the theme of my book makes it worth reading, but I went out of my way not to be preachy about it.

The most difficult part of writing a fictional story is keeping a balance between theme and story, but most Christians will err by emphasizing the message. Worse yet, the message gets so elevated that anything interesting about the story elements is not properly developed.

About ten years ago, I wrote an Easter play for my church that had a pretty complicated story with both backwards and forward chronology. The director, who I respect a lot, decided to put a scrolling effect before the play began. I can understand the director’s decision, as the scrolling effect has been done in a lot of good films. I still hold to my opinion that the scrolling just wasn’t needed. In fact, it spoiled the ending, but I suppose that we didn’t want visitors to our church missing the message.

This is the problem. If one were to relate the arts to life, then I would have to say that the “message” or “theme” isn’t exactly obvious. None of us had an angel who greeted us at our birth and told us that Jesus is the answer. Much of this stuff we found out later, and sometimes we missed the message, often deliberately. What I am trying to say is that if life isn’t obvious in its message, why do Christians make art with such a glaringly obvious message? How can it come across as anything but unrealistic?

As much as I respect Kirk Cameron, I will have to say that the Left Behind film or any other Christian media form shouldn’t be deliberately written to give a Christian message. It would be far easier to just deliver a Christian message, and to use the arts as a candy-coating for the gospel message assumes that people are drones who can be changed with the right book or TV show.

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