What is the Christian take on movies? Can Hollywood be a part of Christian culture? And what about those “Christian movies”? Movie screenwriter Brian Godawa answers these questions and others, in this three-part article.
Jesus said we are to be salt, light, and leaven in this world. You know the concepts: preserving existence and goodness, bringing righteous “flavor,” shining truth in the darkness, and spreading influence. The Christian presence in the world should be much more than example, model, and influence. It should penetrate and transform godless culture.
That’s the culture that you and I live in, every day.
In Genesis 1:28, God commanded man to subdue (bring into subjection, conquer, bring under control, or make to serve) the earth. The Hebrew word Moses used, kabash, connotes hostility between the subduer and the subdued.1 The earth ain’t gonna give in easily. “Sweat of the brow” means it’s going to be hard work with incremental success achieved over time, not overnight.
And this command to dominate is not a destructive one. God did not give us leave to demolish, pollute, and carelessly ignore the consequences of our activities. Biblically, man is a steward of this “garden” we call earth. As the image of God, man’s creative activities are supposed to reflect his Creator. Like God, man is to shape the “formless void” of our fallen world with creative imagination. Like God, his creativity should bring order out of an increasingly chaotic universe, not the other way around.2 Stop the rot!
Our cultural mandate to “delay decay” includes the sciences, economics, politics, and education. These aspects of culture ultimately affect the earth and all the creatures we’re supposed to be ruling over. Science and technology help us harvest and heal the earth and its inhabitants. Economics is the creation and dispensing of wealth, which is achieved through man’s cultivating “the soil.” Everything we do impacts creation and creatures. The cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 is not mere environmentalism, but a wholistic, totalistic, non-military crusade to bring all of the universe under the lordship and crown rights of King Jesus.
But what about art? What about entertainment? Do these leisure time activities lie outside the dominion mandate? My answer is: Exceedingly, abundantly NO!
Art, which includes movies, is definitely a part of God’s command to take dominion. In my book, Hollywood Worldviews (and in other articles on Chalcedon’s website), I explain that storytelling, from ancient oral tradition to modern movies, is all about communicating worldviews which involve how we ought to live. As the audience identifies with a hero’s journey in a movie, so they are guided through a non-rational, dramatic means of persuasion to see what is wrong with the world and how to fix it.
In short, movies are about redemption; redemption affects culture; and culture affects the earth.
But that’s only the first question answered. The second is like unto it, but a bit more difficult. How should the Christian be involved in the movies? Should he separate or infiltrate? Should the believer see Hollywood as Sodom and Gomorrah, or as a mission field of an “unreached people group” who need missionaries to redeem and reform them? Orthodox believers come down on both sides, and I see a value and place for both of them — through this glass darkly.
The separationist claims that God’s people are to be holy, “separated” unto God. To get involved in Hollywood would compromise our morals and the truth. Christian actors in Hollywood are challenged to take their clothes off onscreen, or act in movies that have unbelieving worldviews. Christian writers and directors are forced to “tone down” the truth in their scripts, and certainly are never allowed to make any reference to Jesus except as a cuss word.
Separationists seek to make an end run around the “godless” studio system by funding and making their own movies that can speak uncompromisingly about their Savior and the gospel. They will make “Christian movies” and hold their own film festivals with awards, and offer film rentals at their own bookstores. They seek to combine film with a fidelity to the Scriptures that is not subjugated to godless powerbrokers.
Like Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ, they feel they can make movies outside of the system. These movies are to be so good — and even profitable in their Middle American appeal, while remaining faithful to the Bible — that they’ll eventually outshine their heathen counterparts. And the power and influence of God’s kingdom through movies will grow like a mustard seed, while “Hollyweed” will gradually shrivel up and die as more people are called out of her unto salvation.
There is a place for “Christian movies” (a term I don’t like but acknowledge its usefulness, just like church worship, theological writings, and sacred dance and drama), but there are a few things about the separationist view that trouble me.
Even though we must accomplish some things outside the godless system, that is not the main goal of God’s Kingdom. Biblical separation is primarily external and physical in the Old Testament, but internal and spiritual in the New Testament. The mustard seed is planted in the midst of the garden, not in its own garden; the leaven of the Kingdom is put into the dough of the world, not into its own lump. Under the Mosaic Covenant, the separation of Jew from Gentile was a ceremonial shadow that gave way to the international cross-cultural body of Christ. We are to be in the world but not of it, not out of the world and not of it.
It is one thing to create art outside the system, but quite another to create one’s own ghetto system and black market of propaganda. And let’s be honest, that’s what we have become — a Christian ghetto of separated consumer culture virtually ignored by the secular world. We have Christian films, Christian books, Christian music, bought and sold at Christian bookstores and Christian concerts. Christian this and Christian that, ad nauseum.
Now hear me correctly I am not saying it is all bad: I have written a book for the Christian market to help the church understand movies better. And after all, this is an article for a Christian magazine! I am not negating all Christian art.
What I am saying is that we have devolved from an independent “alternative” source of creativity into a world of separated culture. We have become all but irrelevant to the dominant heathen culture that we are supposed to be penetrating and reforming. Christian subculture, by and large, does not affect the godless. Our great defiant film accomplishments against the secular machine, the “Christian movies” that were made outside the Hollywood system and made some money at the theaters are Left Behind and The Omega Code. Not a good sign. And both of these movies made their money from the faithful.
The box office gargantuan, The Passion of the Christ, was a fluke that was created outside of the Christian subculture. One of the dominant reasons the film became a colossal success, other than God’s providence, is because the man behind it is one of the hugest, if not the hugest, Hollywood system movie star. The ability to make that movie and the quality and form of storytelling achieved in it came from within Hollywood-bred talent, not without. The very brutal and very Biblical violence would never have been created in the Christian subculture. Why? Because Christian movies have their own corruption and moral compromise based on non-Biblical prejudices. And we’ll look at that inpart two.
1. Entry for Hebrew word kabash; Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Accordance Bible Software, R. Laird Harris, Editor (Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1980). The other definitions in the sentence can be found in the entry for kabash in NIV Hebrew, NASB Hebrew and Strong’s Hebrew Dictionaries.
2. Hebrew: barah in Genesis 1:1.