Last week I heard a statement of a sentiment that is oft repeated: "The World" "sends you messages" about what will "make you happy" or "this is how you should live". This kind of talk is rampant throughout "religiondom" and is the motivating force for much of Christian media. "We must counteract this affront to our worldview and morals" the concerned religious say. "We have to get our message out there because otherwise people will just believe Hollywood--or whatever media they see as the bad guys".
Michael Medved has built a career on this kind of thinking. I've seen his stuff and it's well done, compelling, and makes you think. He talks about how Hollywood has an anti-Christian "agenda" and then sites many movies where this is the case. He also points out that "Hollywood" produces a majority of R-rated movies every year, even though those are not the ones that turn the biggest profit. He considers this evidence that "Hollywood" is not in the entertainment business but in the business of attacking solid morals.
With that as the foundation, let's start to break this down.
1. The World/Hollywood does not "have an agenda". People in the world and Hollywood have agendas, and certain films have agendas as well. But there is no overarching flood of anti-Christian/religion material out there. In Medved's documentary that I saw, he pulled his "anti-Christian" clip examples from movies I've never seen or heard of people who had. This is an important point to keep in the back your mind for when I come back to it later.
2. I can't, off the top of my head, think of a single film that had an anti-Christian message. In fact, all the great movies have messages that tend to be very positive. "Truman Show", "Citizen Kain", "The Princess Bride" all have very positive messages about life, happiness, and even some aspects of morality. But as for specific messages about what happiness is or how you should live, there is very little. Instead, films at most show a person who is happy or living well, and viewers decide if that makes sense or not. There is not preaching on the subject of living life.
Even movies like "Saved!" that bash religion merely demonstrate the problems with the institution and many of the people who profess faith. I wouldn't consider a single person in that movie to be acting Christ-like. It is unfortunate that they don't have someone who is Christ-like, but it doesn't surprise me. How many people do you know who act like Christ? I know precious few and am all too aware of how little I emulate Him myself.
3. While watching a documentary on "Basic Instinct" (yes, that movie with sex, nudity, and more sex) I was blown away when a "gay rights" activist started to decry Hollywood's "anti-Homosexual agenda". 'What?' I thought. 'Hollywood is anti-homosexual? Where do they get that?' In fact, from what I've heard from the religious around me, Hollywood has a very strong pro-homosexual agenda. What was going on?
Turns out that religious people aren't the only ones who feel attacked by the media. In fact, you can feel attacked by just about anything. A few days ago I heard about a complaint from a guy because someone wanted to include the image of a Confederate Flag in a video. He made it very clear that there is still too much racial discrimination to show such a throwback to slavery. It doesn't matter that the Civil War wasn't about slavery (however, slavery became a huge theme, and has been made even more prominent by us "Northern Folk" since we won) or that the Confederate Flag for the video was poking fun at country singers. Just because people can get themselves offended does not mean that something is offensive. To be fair, if people are getting offended, there is need for tact and courtesy, which all of us (including Hollywood) lack from time to time.
4. But what about the fact that so many movies are rated "R" and films like "Brokeback Mountain"?
I watch a lot of R-rated movies because most of them are about subjects that are actually interesting. Filmmakers want to shoot movies that mean something and comment on life. They allow us to experience life in a way that we normally do not see. We can then ask questions of our views, ideas, and ourselves as to how we would hope to respond to such situations. And for all the talk about "Brokeback Mountain", did you see it? I did, and it wasn't anything to talk about. A bunch of sweeping landscapes, a homosexual sex scene, and then a movie exploring the themes of love (not even homosexual love) with two characters that are terrible at loving... if you draw that much from it.
What does all this mean?
First, Christians make media for the wrong reason. Our films are terrible because we are making movies in response to something Hollywood isn't doing. We want to preach because we believe that Hollywood is preaching. Hollywood is telling stories well. It turns out that stories seem to be the best way to pass on values for a couple of reasons. Stories show life and how it works, what is good and what is not good to do, and what works. Instead of showing how Christianity works better than any other approach to life, we make movies like "Facing the Giants" where we spout out truisms and preach messages instead of telling a story from life. Now, unfortunately, when we actually do try to tell a real story it seems fake because we have lost our credibility and no one believes we're for real. If you want evidence that this is true of all media, when someone in Hollywood tries to preach they make a flop... or get a Nobel Peace Prize. The great movies that stand the test of time tell stories, they don't preach.
Second, we need to stop demonizing the media. We give them far too much power. I've heard over and over again that parents don't let their kids watch something (like, "The Simpsons") because it's "evil". It's not evil. Not even close. Sure, it may not be the best thing in the world, especially if you're not into that style of humor, but most Bible study and Sunday School materials are worse from a literature standpoint and contain less truth. The ideas and criticisms in the world today aimed at Christianity are widespread. The media may make the points more cohesive and pointed, but the critiques are the same as they were a couple thousand years ago. These issues are not hard to overcome, and the ones that are must be considered if we hope to keep the faith of the intellectual.
Third, it's time for some new stories. I've been asked before what Christians can do to turn the tide of the media and make movies that change people for the better (because movies can do that). I reply with the reminder that good movies are good stories told well. What contemporary story demonstrates the validity and power of living a Christ-like life? I don't know of a single one. Christianity must become life changing for us as Christians if we hope to change anyone with a film we make.
There is hope, though. The power of movies like "300" comes from a tale from long ago. We have tales like that as well. We could use someone with the gonads to make an incredibly awesome movie of David's Mighty Men; just, please, if you do, don't title it "30"... I've had enough of Christianity trying to take the creativity of others and just putting a Christian label on that. We're better than that.
At least, we should be.