Last year I went to a conference on “Faith, Film, and Philosophy” at Gonzaga University. I gave a paper on what Batman Begins can tell us about the nature of fear and the relationship between justice and revenge. (One of these days, I will post my thoughts about that film.)
One of the keynote speakers was my good friend Ralph Winter, producer of (among other things) the X-Men movies. He gave his standard lecture about advice on being a Christian in Hollywood. His two main points were: (1) Focus on quality filmmaking, not propaganda, (2) Don’t be afraid of dark subject matter since real life isn’t always G-rated.
Now, I don't deny that this is good advice. And I'm not criticizing my friend Ralph. But I do think Christians should be beyond this advice now. People have been saying this same stuff since the 1980s. The problem for Christian filmmakers today is no longer quality. Many of the student films I see at Biola University, Azusa Pacific University, and other Christian film programs are of a very high technical quality. The problem now is what kind of film do you make after you master the craft of filmmaking? Likewise with Ralph's second point. The problem is not being willing to show the darkness. Christian kids these days are really into that. (The class I taught on horror film at Biola was very popular.) The problem is how do you show the darkness truthfully and not just make the world look like a sick place beyond redemption?
The other keynote speaker at the Gonzaga conference was Thomas Hibbs, a philosopher from Baylor University. I highly recommend to you Hibbs’s book Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from the Exorcist to Seinfeld. (A really nice interview with Hibbs can be found here. I am currently reading his follow-up Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption. I'll let you know how it is.) Hibbs argues that recent films have tended to “aestheticize evil”, making it look interesting if not necessarily attractive. He gives examples like The Exorcist, and The Silence of the Lambs. But, drawing on Hannah Arendt's idea of “the banality of evil”, Hibbs argues that these films misrepresent evil. Moreover, he argues that one reason this has happened is that our culture has lost the ability to make goodness interesting and attractive. Think about how much more interesting Batman is than Superman or Han Solo than Luke Skywalker.
I think this phenomenon is partly because, as Ralph Winter points out, real life heroes are not always perfect. But it is also because, as Thomas Hibbs points out, Christians have demonstrated a failure of imagination. We don’t know how to make goodness seem attractive.
This is related to a question Christian media scholar Bill Romanowski poses regarding The Passion of the Christ: “Why did the director have Jesus stand up to invite more scourging by the Roman soldiers? Is this historically accurate, a reflection of Gibson’s theology, or does it disclose a contemporary attitude?” (Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Pop Culture, rev. ed. p. 100). Romanowksi never comes right out and says it, but I think he is suggesting that this is a manifestation of Mel Gibson’s image of masculinity and heroism (compare Braveheart), an image formed more by macho American action movies than by scripture.
This line of thinking led me to ask my students at Biola, what would a truly Christian hero look like? How could you represent a hero with specifically Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? In the context of Amerian cinema, would such a person be a hero or a wuss? Attractive or boring?
Hibbs is right: there has been a failure of Christian imagination. We have failed to imagine truly Christian heroes. The most Christlike movie heroes I can think of are actually Hindus and Buddhists: Think the title character in Gandhi, Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. I might also mention Xander from the finale to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Six, and the title character from MacGyver. All of these heroes use intellect and compassion to disarm their enemies nonviolently and then either reconcile with them or at least bring them to (nonlethal) justice.
Can you think of any other examples? The Biola students hated this question and refused to participate in my discussion. Part of the problem was that I assumed that a Christian hero would be a pacifist. Having been indoctrinated into right-wing politics at their Orange County evangelical churches, the Biola students rebelled at my suggestion that Jesus wouldn't support war or killing, even in self-defense. (Somewhat shockingly, when I confronted them with Scriptural evidence of times when Jesus refused to use violence to protect himself from attackers, the students actually argued that we are not supposed to imitate Christ!) But surely we can all agree that peaceful resolution to conflict is better than violent resolution. So even if one wants to defend the just war theory point that Jesus could condone violence under certain circumstances, the fact remains that we need to do serious thought about how to make a movie about peace seem "cool".
And it is not just the question of heroes. The challenge of the Christian imagination arises in any number of cinematic genres: What would it look like to make a comedy that is not dehumanizing (i.e., that never asks us to laugh at someone's misfortune)? What would a romance look like that doesn't trivialize sex or reinforce repressive gender roles? What would an action movie look like that doesn't aestheticize or otherwise glorify violence? What would a "message movie" look like that respects its audience's intelligence and ethical autonomy (i.e., is not manipulative propaganda)? If there are no answers to these questions, I think we should conclude that Hollywood filmmaking and Christianity are incompatible. But I don't believe that. I trust that great Christian artists can solve these problems, if only they would bother to take theses issues seriously.
So let's engage our Christian imaginations, starting with the concept of a hero. How could we portray a hero who is both genuinely Christian and cinematically attractive? Any ideas?