A local church rents out the Alamo Drafthouse South for a conference on Christians and film
How excited would you get if your friend called you up and said, "Hey, let's go see that Christian film tonight! It's gonna be awesome!"? At best, the thought of a "Christian" film brings to mind that nostalgic memory of suffering through Chariots of Fire with your dad. At worst, images of schlocky contrivances like A Walk to Remember, kiddie inanity like Veggie Tales, or horrific, in-your-face psychodrama like The Passion of the Christ. But what's the reality? Does Mel Gibson really have the market cornered on this one? What's really meant by the term "Christian" movie?
Austin's All Saints Presbyterian Church is attempting to address these questions. The church has rented out the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar for their third annual Growth in Grace Conference. This year's series, titled "Stories in the Darkness: Engaging Film as a Christian," addresses what the church describes as "how movies help us to be human." Will it be about how we should all rush out and purchase the new DVD of The Nativity Story? Apparently not.
With such discussions as "Humanity in a Technological World: Three Sci-Fi Films," planned and presentations that include films ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner to Match Point and The Station Agent, this is not your typical Christian film event. The keynote speaker, Denis Haack, co-founded (along with his wife, Margie) the Ransom Fellowship, a ministry located in Rochester, Minn. Ransom is a writing, mentoring, and speaking ministry that, according to Haack, addresses the "intersection of the historic Christian faith with arts and culture."
Both the Web site (www.ransomfellowship.org) and newsletter (Critique) are filled with articles about culture, music, and books. A large portion of the ministry is devoted to film. The Web site includes pages of film reviews, guides to leading a film discussion group, and film-related resources. While Haack is what can only be called a devoutly committed Christian (their Web site includes a statement of faith that asserts "We believe in the One true Infinite Personal Creator God Father, Son and Holy Spirit"), most of the "culture" that he addresses is distinctly secular. And many of the films discussed are not "Christian," at least not in the traditional sense.
An issue of Critique from 2006 includes more or less positive reviews of Brokeback Mountain and Closer. Haack writes that the films are, "both finely crafted, truthfully told stories, [which] invite us to reflect on the nature of desire." He goes on to assert that, though "there are good reasons for choosing not to see Closer and Brokeback, it is impossible to imagine becoming truly wise without reflecting deeply on desire. How we live with desire, and supremely, what we make the object of our desire will define our character and set the course of our life."
Says assistant pastor at All Saints and Haack's close friend, Greg Grooms: "The common ground isn't religious in these discussions; the common ground really is being human." Pastor and the Rev. Bill Boyd explains his excitement about Haack's ministry, "He's fearless. He thinks as Christians we should be seeking to engage reality, and film helps us to do that. We're not just interested in Christian films, but in film that tells a story about what's true: the good, the bad, and the ugly."
Ever since the box-office explosion of The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood has attempted to engage Christians with movies. Translation: to make some money from a previously untapped audience. Little specialty studios have popped up. FoxFaith, for example, released the ridiculous The Ultimate Gift. And Walden Media, owned by Philip Anschutz, an oil magnate and professed Christian, released the Christian classic The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But while Hollywood rushes to figure out what they can manufacture to get those holy butts in the seats, Christians have been quietly going to movies anyway. Other kinds of movies: difficult, provocative, and even good movies. And they've been seeing their belief system reflected in them.
Austin filmmakers (and Christians) Mike Akel and Chris Mass have a few things to say on the subject. Their locally produced feature comedy Chalk was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and is opening in theatres across the country this May. Says Mass, "The most powerful film to me is not Left Behind." Akel adds, "What we believe is that all truth is God's truth, whoever it comes through. I believe every one of us is made in the image of God. So it's like everybody has a glorious divine touch to them. I don't understand it, but it's mysterious. It's beautiful."
"Take a film like Magnolia," Mass says. "That film speaks to me because life is messy. I know I've lived a messy one, and most people I know have some messes that they've been through. I think that film goes beyond just showing people's crap for crap's sake." He uses Peter Jackson's epic as an example: "Lord of the Rings; the book was written by a Christian [Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien], but it's not like, [affecting a falsetto voice] 'Hello, I'm Jesus.' It just shows this struggle of life, good vs. bad, and these, what I believe to be, eternal truths. But it's not a Christian film."
"Then there are films like Raising Victor Vargas, In America," Akel continues, "these real slice-of-life films that kind of show you that, man, you know, I do matter; I'm unique."
But there will always be people who think that a Christian movie has to include a cross to be worthwhile. And having spent much of his adolescence in the Philippines, where his parents worked as Christian missionaries, Haack is intimately familiar with this conservative mentality. Indeed, one of the major influences on his ministry was "growing up in a fundamentalist family in which the arts and culture were actively discouraged and dismissed." Upon returning to the states for his junior year of high school, he "discovered museums and film and was overwhelmed with beauty and the sense that if my faith truly had nothing to do with these things, then my God was too small to worry about. When I finally understood that these things were not antithetical, but in fact Christianity spoke to them as truly as to spiritual realities, this was an affirmation of life."
Their hope for the conference seems to be to invite questions and provoke genuine reflection. "Christians are afraid of movies; they see them as kind of insidious and foreign and subversive," Grooms says. "My hope is that they can realize that I can indeed watch a movie to the glory of God. There's something that I can learn here, for me personally, and I can get better insights into the minds and hearts of my friends and neighbors that I just never had before."
The Rev. Boyd embraces the idea that people can learn from movies. "Film is a way to learn to talk about what's true and what's not, to learn to have something around that allows deep dialogue, to help us understand what it means to be human," he says. "In the best of films, that's what's happening: They're helping us live. They're acknowledging the difficult things of the world, helping us get things out on the table and helping us live together. As Christians, we're very interested in that."
"A couple of years ago I did a discussion with a group of high school students," Grooms recalls. "I showed them a clip from My Fair Lady and a clip from Blade Runner, and I asked them afterward which was the more Christian presentation. Every one of them said My Fair Lady, because it's bright, happy, and cheerful. I told the students that in a real sense, both movies are offering similar perspectives on human nature: We are shaped by the society in which we live. But Blade Runner is doing it much more realistically than My Fair Lady.
"The idea that this one is Christian because it makes me feel good, where does that come from? The Bible is not a romantic comedy."
Stories in the Darkness: Engaging Film as a Christian
Saturday, April 14, 9am3pm
Alamo Drafthouse South Lamarwww.allsaintsaustin.org