Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"The medium is the message."

Here is an interesting audio interview with Todd Bouldin, founder of Pepperdine University's MFA in Screenwriting. I disagree with Bouldin's theory of the Church's relationship to the secular culture, but the interview did make me realize something. Bouldin started out wanting to make an "impact" for Christ in law and politics and then decided that the media is a more important influence on American culture. This connection between politics and the media helped me see what has been bothering me about the typical theory of how Christians should relate to Hollywood.

In the interview, Bouldin expresses a viewpoint similar to H. Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr rejected what he called the “Christ-against-culture” position in favor of “Christ-transforming-culture” position. (The fun pictures to the left come from this blog post.) This move has become the party line for Evangelicals in Hollywood. The claim is that Christians in the middle part of the 20th Century rejected involvement with secular culture as sinful. But, having been abandoned by Christians and left to their own secular devices, the centers of culture like Hollywood, Washington DC, and Harvard, only got worse and worse and eventually dragged down all of America with them. According to this narrative, the only hope for redeeming American culture is for Evangelical Christians to move from cultural non-engagement to engagement – from Christ-against-culture to Christ-transforming-culture.

But while Evangelicals in Hollywood are still following this party line, many Evangelicals in Washington have changed their view. (I’m not sure about the Harvard folk.) The difference seems to be that Evangelicals haven’t yet tasted any real power in secular media, but they have in politics. The United States had an Evangelical president. There’s nowhere else to go from there. But despite having achieved genuine power (not just the presidency, but many other influential governmental positions), Evangelicals have failed to transform culture. America is just as godless as ever – maybe more so. Some of the founders of the Religious Right have now admitted that they were “blinded by might” and corrupted by the power they achieved. (Here is a nice summary of this theory.) Instead of the Church transforming culture, culture transformed the Church. Baby boomer Evangelicals still seem intent on the old model (witness Sarah Palin), but younger evangelicals seem to understand the failure of their parents’ ideas (they voted for Obama). Many young people are leaving politics behind for direct engagement with the world. They’re less interested in top down transformation of culture than bottom up revolution. Why bother with ineffective politicians when we can, for example, make a real economic difference by living and working in the inner city?

What we are seeing is that Niebuhr’s categories are misleading. Everyone – even those like Tertullian, Tolstoy, and the Quakers who Niebuhr cites as paradigmatic defenders of the Christ-against-culture position – want to transform culture. The question is not should we transform culture, but how can we transform it. The Christ-against-culture position rejects the idea – held by the Christ-tranforming-culture position – that Christians can use the tools of cultural power (e.g., politics, the arts, higher education, etc.) to transform culture. Rather the Christ-against-culture position holds that the Church has its own tools and its own very different understanding of power. On this view, whenever the Church attempts to use the world’s tools, the Church only succeeds in transforming itself into the world. For example, when the Church uses advertising techniques to market itself, it positions itself as just another product to be consumed and ceases to be an alternative to consumer culture. This is what Marshall McLuhan was talking about about when he said “The medium is the message.”

Unfortunately Evangelicals in Hollywood haven’t learned the lessons of Evangelical engagement in politics. Evangelicals still dream of “impacting” Hollywood by lifestyle evangelism (as Bouldin says, “simply being there”). The assumption of this strategy is that if individual filmmakers “get saved”, then culture will change. The problem is that it won’t work. If getting the President of the United States saved couldn’t transform American culture, then why think getting the president of Disney saved would work better? It is mystifying to me that Bouldin could understand that politics can’t transform culture but think the media can.

What if we give up pursuit of Hollywood power for the kind of direct engagement in the world that young people are discovering in the political realm? This would look like making independent films by, for, and about Christians. I’m not recommending cheesy evangelistic movies of the past, but serious (both dramatic and comic) artistic engagement with the issues that matter to us but which secular filmmakers simply can’t understand. What we need is a Christian version of Spike Lee who makes excellent art by, for, and about, African-Americans. This is a Christ-against-culture position. But it is not a call to hide in some self-imposed Christian ghetto. We shouldn’t create a parallel Christian movie studio. That would be like rejecting both the Democrats and the Republicans to create a third party for Christians. Instead we should -- if we want to transform American culture – reject politics/Hollywood altogether and do something entirely new.

There’s nothing wrong with working in Hollywood or Washington, DC as long as we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’re secret missionaries who will have some sort of “impact”. True transformation will have to come from a more radical strategy, the strategy of the Cross. Politics is all about power, but the Cross repudiates power in favor of weakness. That’s why Jesus says thinks like “My Kingdom is not of this world” and “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. You might be able to be a Christian who is involved in politics, but you can’t be a Christian politician who uses the tools of Washington to further the cause of Christ. Similarly, the media is all about money, but the Cross reveals money to be an idol. That’s why Jesus says things like “You can’t serve God and money” and “Sell all you own, give to the poor, and follow me.” Again, you might be able to be a Christian who works in Hollywood, but you can’t be a Christian filmmaker who uses the tools of Hollywood to further the cause of Christ.

Am I wrong? Please let me know by posting a comment. I welcome any friendly criticism you can offer.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't think you're wrong; money and power will always corrupt, whether in Washington or Hollywood.

Nonetheless, because I am an optimist I think I will advocate the Transforming Culture position over isolation, as a part of the Christian witness: you never know who you may influence just by virtue of being where you are. I worry, in your example of a Christian Spike Lee, that too few people would see your film. Would it not be better to make a film that reflects your worldview, and offers a chance to advocate that, to a wider audience that will (hopefully) see your film?

--D. Schulz

The Film Philosopher said...

Dan, thanks for your not-quite-"anonymous" comments.

In response, keep in mind that I am not calling for "isolation" as you imply. That's why I explicitly say it is okay for Christians to work in Hollywood. I agree that "just being there" can have an influence on the spiritual lives of one's co-workers.

What I question is the way Christians have, in your terms, attempted to use films to "advocate" our worldview to "a wider audience". This sort of motive only produces propaganda like the "Left Behind" movies. The Spike Lee example is supposed to give us an alternative to propaganda. You may disagree with that assessment of Lee, but I see him as not so much advocating a position as exploring the particular issues of the African-American experience. Other examples could be Gus Van Sant and the gay experience or Woody Allen and the Jewish experience. All of these filmmakers have their own point of view and they do argue for certain ethical conclusions, but they don't come across to me as propagandists.

The main reason they avoid falling into propaganda, I suggest, is that they are not trying to be "relevant" to mainstream culture. (Well, not in their more artistic films anyway. They do understand the need to make popular movies to pay for their art movies. E.g., "Good Will Hunting", "Inside Man", etc.) Instead of trying to make a movie they think will appeal to "a wider audience", they simply attempt to tell the truth of their experience.

Their films do express their worldview and perhaps will gain some converts, but you don't have to be a part of their community to appreciate these films. For example, you don't have to be black to enjoy "Do The Right Thing", "Malcolm X", or "Bamboozled" (my votes for Lee's masterpieces). At the same time, these movies are clearly aimed at a black audience. They are part of a conversation about what it means to be African-American. But white people are allowed to listen-in.

And I wouldn't call Spike Lee "isolated" as you do. Far more people will see his films than any Christian film other than "The Passion of the Christ." Take the recent success of "Fireproof". It made over $30 million dollars, but it won't turn out to be a classic like "Do the Right Thing" that will be watched for years to come by new generations. Also, "Fireproof" was only a success BY BEING ISOLATED. It succeeded by marketing itself to church groups who already agreed with its message.

I guess you could object that "Fireproof" should be the best example of my theory: a movie by, for, and about Christians that raises questions specific to the Christian experience -- in this case, how can Christians avoid divorce. I would respond by saying that "Fireproof" is not good art (or enterainment, for that matter). And the reason it is not good art is that it is an immitation of Hollywood cliches rather than an exploration of a uniquely Christian way of storytelling. (I don't know what such a storytelling would look like, exactly, but that's why I don't claim to be an artist.)

I short I'm arguing that Christian artists should "be themselves" rather than trying to be what they think secular views want or need. Do you think Milton or Bach or Rembrandt worried about being "relevant" to their secular peers? They simply made art to the best of their ability. And they did so from within a specifically Christian tradition of art, while pushing that tradition to grow into new areas. I guess that's the problem with "Fireproof" and "Left Behind". They have no understanding of the Christian tradtion of art. They're just bad imitations of secular art. There's nothing wrong with learning from good secular art, but we must beware of taking on the secular message along with the secular medium.

etixfilm said...

"...when the Church uses advertising techniques to market itself, it positions itself as just another product..."

To amplify your point:

A lot of current advertising techniques grew out of a materialist/determinist view of human beings. Advertisers believe that a message can more forcefully affect behavior by including emotional appeal via non-verbal methods: music, acting, visuals.

Directly adapting advertising to the Christian "message" creates a bizarre internal contradiction: People are created by God with infinite value --AND-- People are biological machines available for tweaking by anyone who has the right tools.

I suspect that few viewers/listeners would expressly describe this conflict, but most would feel it as a vague inconsistency. Something wouldn't smell right.

Re: Spike Lee
A good example of a Christian version might be Veggie Tales. It began as a home-brew, underground effort. (How the creators lost their company is another story.)

I will forever be grateful to Spike Lee for the achingly wordless scene in his movie Bamboozled, in which the actors apply black-face and you can watch their souls die.

Eric Jacobson
an advertiser