If that title offended you, have a seat and let’s talk. Christians have been making lousy books, movies, and more for decades. Yes, yes, yes, some good, even great pieces have come out and I could easily recommend some.
But the bad ones are still being made. We’re still making bottom-of-the-barrel films that deserve their terrible reviews. No, it’s not because Christian art hated by the mainstream. That’s why it’s unprofitable, not why it’s bad. Our stuff is bad all on it’s own.
Yes, I said “our.” I am a Christian. But I’m also an artist. I don’t claim to be an amazing, life-changing writer, but I do have a commitment to art, something I don’t see in many Christian writers. Instead, I see the five following people.
1. The Preacher (Mr. I-Have-A-Message)
Let’s start with the obvious. Christian media, by and large, is preachy. In part, that’s understandable; we have a message we want everybody to hear. And we spend so many Sunday mornings listening to someone preach without interruption that we think this is the context for all Christian messages.
But this isn’t church. It’s a book. It’s a movie. It’s music. It’s art. People don’t like being talked at. For most people, lectures are only acceptable in school, and even then, most wish the teacher would just shut up.
Not only is this annoying, it’s ineffective. Listening to speeches and reading them are two of the weakest ways to reach somebody or even make them remember it. Yes, there are powerful writers and speakers in the world, but guess what. Most people aren’t compelling speakers or writers. Just because it’s meaningful to you doesn’t mean it will be to others.
Even when the target audience is Christian, preachiness is almost always unacceptable. Again, it’s art, not a lecture hall. Yet I’ve seen plenty of books and films where characters go to church or talk to the Christian Know-It-All and you may as well skip this scene because you know what’s coming next: a sermon. And you have to sit through all of it.
Enough. It doesn’t work.
2. The Evangelist (The guy who doesn’t know what “target audience” means)
A subdivision of The Messenger, The Evangelist is the most insufferable kind of Christian writer. Okay, to be fair, a great writer can pull this off, but 99% of Christian media writers bomb when they try this because they forget who they’re writing to.
Who is supposed to hear the evangelical, come-to-Jesus message? Christians? Of course not. If they’re a Christian, they already know this stuff, right? The people who need the message are the ones who haven’t committed their life to God.
So…why do evangelical messages seem tailor-made for those who don’t need it?
This is just bad marketing. If you want a non-Christian to read this message, you have to make your media something they would watch/read/hear. No non-Christian is going to read a book that’s nothing more than a tract. They won’t watch a movie with horrible acting and be enticed by the alter call. And trust me, they can tell when a Christian song is coming on by the first few bars, and they’ll switch the radio station.
What use is a life-saving message if nobody hears it? Non-Christians aren’t stupid; they can see through thinly-veiled agendas. Christians may say amen and hallelujah, but did you really write your story to get a pat on the back from people who already agree with you?
3. The Transparent Allegorist (Bargain-Bin C.S. Lewis)
Speaking of things thinly veiled, how many of you have ever read a book or watched a movie and immedately knew who the Jesus charact–oh, everybody! Yeah, I thought so. Even non-Christian writers use this trope, but you know what? It’s usually entertaining when they do.
Christians? Not so much. They write the allegory and forget to write anything else. They seem to say, “If I write an allegory, that will make a good book/movie.” Congrats. You just joined the ranks of M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Bay, and every paperback romance writer. If I just do this one magic trick, I’ll be awesome.
Allegories are not automatically awesome. Usually, they’re cheap and obvious ways to send a message (see numbers one and two). Writing is more than any one tool.
Some Christians may say, “Jesus used allegories.” First of all, Jesus wasn’t writing novels or movies. He was preaching. Preaching is okay when you’re preaching. Second of all, Jesus followed the Allegory Effectiveness Test.
Here’s the test: if you take away all the spiritual meanings, does the story still work? Would a non-Jesus shepherd leave ninety-nine sheep to find one? Yes. Would a non-Jesus Samaritan help a Jew who was robbed and beaten? Unlikely, but it’s at least physically and logically possible, and it would be just as shocking as Jesus’s point was supposed to be.
Aslan wasn’t just Jesus. He was also Aslan.
4. The Uncreative (The Bible Thief)
I would not have believed this one if I hadn’t seen it, but some Christian writers are so strapped for creativity that they copy and paste sections of the Bible to fill their gaps. I don’t mean scripture references, callbacks, or even readings. I mean they use the Bible’s material as their own.
One writer I saw made a Jesus-like character who was not Jesus, but spoke and acted exactly as Jesus did. They took a section of the gospel and had the not-Jesus Jesus character play that section out. What the what? If he’s not Jesus, but he’s an allegory of Jesus doing exactly what Jesus did…then why not just write Jesus into the story at that point?
In the second Left Behind book, a Jewish rabbi speaks to the Two Witnesses and the three of them essentially play out John 3, where Nicodemus speaks to Christ. Sometimes, their conversation is word for word.
Pathetic. That’s the only word I have for it. Pathetic. Either the allegory is so shallow it wouldn’t soak paper, or the writer simply can’t think of their own material so they use the Bible because they think Christians are stupid enough to swallow anything with Bible verses in it.
That’s not just bad writing. That’s practically plagiarism.
5. The Bottom-Liner (The just-plain-bad writer)
The number one excuse for bad writing in Christian media: “It honors God.”
Is that why it’s bad? Or because it’s bad? There are some seriously nasty implications here. It seems to say that Christian art is meant to be bad. After all, you just have to write something that says God is good and you’ve done your due diligence. No further effort required.
Worse yet, it’s an excuse to shrug off criticism. “Oh, they’re just angry because I honored God. Everybody hates Christian movies simply because they’re Christian. But I honored God, so I don’t have to listen to what anybody says about it.”
People…this is the exact same mentality as the studios who pump out every new Transformers, Call of Duty, or teen paranormal romance. It doesn’t have to be good; it just has to sell. Art is sacrificed for money. This is wickedness. But when Christians sacrifice art, it’s righteousness?
This “honoring God” argument implies that God is separate from art. That he cannot be found in the colorful painting, in the transcendent melody, in the carefully-chosen word. But if we say that God created the world, then everything around us proves that crapping out on art is no righteousness.
To be fair, many Christian writers do their absolute best and fall short. That’s honoring God. But it’s a lie to look at bad writing and call it good because it’s “holy.” A woman who sings off-key for Jesus may honor Jesus, but she’s still off-key and no amount of reverence is going to change that.
So let’s stop kidding ourselves. Let’s stop praising the lowest forms of entertainment by slapping a “God” label on them. Books, movies, even video games can be great platforms for messages. But it takes a skilled artisan to do it right.
And if you can’t do it right…well, look around.