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Christ at the movies

Art can reflect truth, but only a preacher can preach it

A FEW MONTHS AGO ON THIS PAGE MY ESTEEMED colleague and friend Andree Seu pondered the vexing question of Christians and movies. She came to no firm conclusions, nor do Christians generally display consensus: Some want to engage the culture and some want to evangelize it. Some may believe that movies can do both. I doubt it.

Two decades ago World Wide Pictures, an arm of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, produced a biographical film of Joni Erikson Tada, starring herself. Joni was marketed as evangelism, with the same care and foresight that accompany every Billy Graham crusade: WWP secured screens across the country for a weekend showing and distributed literature to evangelical churches in the targeted areas, suggesting that individual members commit to inviting one non-Christian friend to see the movie with them. The rationale was that folks who turn down invitations to church would gladly park themselves in front of a wide screen.

Anxiety-ridden over my many Great Commission flops, I invited a neighbor to see the movie with me, and just as WWP predicted, she accepted. Joni, let it be said, is a good film-quality production values, thoughtful script, excellent performances, not least by Mrs. Tada. It would have been a great conversation-starter among Christians exploring God's purpose in suffering. As an evangelism tool it was a non-starter, at least for me. My friend, I suspect, felt she was being snookered as soon as the Jesus talk started-afterward she thanked me but carefully avoided any personal application.

Even critically and commercially successful films such as Chariots of Fire, Tender Mercies, and The Mission, which helped make the 1980s the golden age of Christian cinema, had no discernable effect on the culture.

That's not that the Holy Spirit can't or hasn't used them, but His preferred evangelism tool, now as much as ever, is preaching. The tactic of using entertainment to get people to church has probably contributed to the trend of church as entertainment.

What of those who remain outside-can they at least be convicted of sin? Secular Hollywood does a much better job of portraying human depravity than Christians do. But hearing the bad news without the good is like stopping after the first chapter of Romans: It encourages either self-congratulation (Hey, I'm not that bad) or nihilistic despair. A Simple Plan (1998) illustrates the blackness lurking in the hearts of ordinary "good" people better than any sermon. Magnolia (1999) strikingly depicts God's wrath and hints at God's mercy, but without Christ riding to the rescue.

And there's the rub: Christ riding to the rescue is always seen as a failure of art, a literal deus ex machina. True conversion happens in real life all the time, but successful portrayal of it in movies, plays, or novels is almost impossible. I struggled with it in my first three novels (all of which remain unpublished). Even the great Dostoevsky disguised Christ as Alyosha or Sonya or the patient suffering spirit of the Russian peasant. Flannery O'Conner wrapped Him in mad preachers and apocalyptic sunsets. Drama and literature abound with Christ figures, but Christ Himself seldom appears. Why? Because art is by nature ambiguous, symbolic, interpretive-all the things the gospel is not. Art can and should reflect truth, but can't preach it.

At this moment, Mel Gibson is producing a movie version of Christ's Passion that promises to be the most graphic and confrontational ever filmed. Mr. Gibson is depending on the power of the image to speak truth, so much so that he doesn't want to impose subtitles over the Aramaic dialogue. Miracles have been reported on the set. Miracles may be reported in theaters also, but I'm skeptical already: Without a clear command to repent and believe, viewers are unlikely to make a connection between themselves and the Man of Sorrows. Believers may be confirmed in their faith, but to unbelievers it will be just a story, however gut-wrenching. They can bring to it nothing beyond what they already know, and they can't know what they have not heard, and how will they hear without a preacher?

None of this is to say that Christians shouldn't make movies, or see them, or talk about them among ourselves or with non-Christian friends. But we should never fool ourselves into thinking that movies evangelize. Art can show, but it can't tell.