One day, a well-meaning Christian asked C.S. Lewis a very small-minded question. Lewis, the writer of the classic Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe fantasy series as well as his space trilogy, was asked why, as a Christian, he wasted his time with fantasy and science fiction stories. Lewis replied that he did so to get past the "watchful dragons of society", the defenses most people have against anything that feels religious, especially if their past history with religion is tainted by negative experiences.
As someone who makes his living making films and telling stories, I have long been interested in figuring out how best to connect with people on both an emotional and intellectual level in my work. I have also often wondered why so many of the stories being created and consumed by Christians very rarely connect with audiences outside of the Christian faith. Or put more simply, why are the only people watching Christian movies Christians? I guess the most obvious answer is with another question: why would a non-Christian actually want to watch a Christian movie?
When I was younger and all puffed up with self-righteous bluster, I took pot shots at the "Christian ghetto" as if it had done me personal harm. Christian music was a second rate, Christian movies were a joke and Christian books were lame. But as I matured and actually entered into this world of telling stories, I realized a few things. One, telling good stories is hard. We like to say that Christians need to tell stories as well as the world is telling them, but then again, the world is telling a lot of terrible stories too! But there also seems to be a struggle that is singular to the Christian mindset, and it is no small thing to have to deal with. In fact, you not only have to deal with it in yourself, but in the industry gatekeepers as well.
I am talking, of course, about the constant wrestling match between the story and its ultimate message. This is a uniquely Christian struggle, and I think it's because of how our entire faith-experience has ultimately been framed by the church experience. For many Christians, faith means church. And church carries with it a few ironclad elements: 1) it must never offend anyone; 2) it is interested only in finding and giving answers; and, 3) everything is centered around a very clear, very defined message. It should come as no surprise, then, that our Christian stories all too often carry these same elements in their DNA.
I have had a few interesting experiences with some of the gatekeepers of the Christian entertainment industry. My films have proven very popular over the years, but they have also existed in large part outside of the "normal" Christian channels. This isn't because of some noble artistic decision on my part (I want as many people to see what I create as possible), but rather because my films don't really adhere to these elements. My movies are designed to poke you—to present you with people and situations that might make you a little uncomfortable and cause you to ask big questions about your own faith. I have always been far more interested in questions than answers, and my film journeys embrace those questions and mysteries. And while I make no bones about having a very clear message in my films, I have always said my No. 1 priority when telling a story is to entertain you.
To my point, I have had buyers of major Christian chains tell me that if I would only remove a particular person from my films, they'd then be able to carry them in their stores. I've also had other gatekeepers tell me they were very interested in carrying my films, but would it be possible to remove the references to miracles so their main audience wouldn't be offended? Let's just say those were fairly short conversations...
For some reason, the vast majority of our Christian stories all have one thing in common. They all feel like church. But I'm not sure our stories should feel like church. I mean, Jesus' stories sure didn't. He told stories about people being beaten to death, spending time with prostitutes, people of faith being hypocrites—basically, he was brutally honest when dealing with the human condition.
I'm not sure what the answer to all this is, other than to pray that more Christian storytellers begin to go after honest stories well told, and that more Christian industry gatekeepers begin to embrace the fact that their audience might not be as spiritually limited as they think (or if they are, maybe they need a good spiritual poke!). If we don't change, we will simply get more of the same. And while our stories might make money, they won't be changing any lives, because the only people consuming them will be the people who already agree with the message. Our art will remain outside the gates of relevance, because it will continue to be gobbled up by the watchful dragons of a world that is dying inside, but doesn't want their stories to feel like the church they're pretty sure they don't want.
Darren Wilson is the Founder and CEO of WP Films and the creator of various films, including Finger of God, Father of Lights, and Holy Ghost. His newest TV series, Adventures With God, can be seen on various Christian networks around the world and purchased at his website: wpfilm.com, as well as his newest book, God Adventures.
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