Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.
Avril Z. Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and eductaor with over seventeen years experience making films and helping other filmmakers figure out which films to make. As she says in the article below, "while it is good to critique films from a theological perspective, it is equally important that we think about artists who are creating the work," so we're excited to feature Avril's proposal for what filmmakers who are Christians should consider as they decide which stories to devote large portions of the time and talents to. The first entry in her twelve part series—below—lays the foundation for her series. - Editor
It never fails. Every time I tell a fellow Christian that I took a break from my career as a filmmaker and professor to pursue a second master’s degree in theology and film, I get this weird look where they tilt their head to the side and ask “How do those two things go together?" That’s usually an opportunity for me to explain that the discipline is merely a means of using film to study the ways in which theories about our religious values shape us as humans. They usually nod in consideration, and then follow with one of two statements. They either say, “That's interesting. I never thought of it like that.” Or they say “That's wonderful! Because we need more Christian films...” And that's where things get complicated.
I know they mean well, but from that moment in the conversation, I know that we are most likely not on the same page. While I embrace the idea of being a Christian filmmaker (after all, it is just as much a part of my voice as being black and being a woman), I realize that the label comes with much baggage. There is the baggage of subpar, cliché filmmaking that is often associated with Christian film. There is also the baggage of assumptions from the Christian community that because I am a filmmaker, I am going to make films that are safe and family-friendly. Those assumptions can be problematic for an artist looking to challenge the status quo in some way and create films that make people, and the church in particular, think and hopefully have meaningful dialogue.
The label of Christian art itself has an effect on what stories we deem acceptable or unacceptable for artists to tell. On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to visit the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Some of the most elaborate and awe-inspiring historical art and sculptures from around the world are housed there, including one of my favorites, Our Mother of Africa, an entire chapel which depicts a conversation between Mary and baby Jesus and African Americans from slavery through the Civil Rights Movement. It is a wonderful example of religious art in its beautiful form and tells a story of triumph through hardship.
But there is also art that is rooted in a different kind of reality that is offensive or less attractive. In 2013, artist Timothy Schmalz created a sculpture called Homeless Jesus, featuring Jesus sleeping on a park bench. Schmalz said his intention was to “visually translate the gospels,” but some residents in the cities where the sculpture was presented objected to it because they felt it was “disturbingly realistic.” Homeless Jesus and Our Mother of Africa are two valid works of religious art, but they elicit two very different reactions.
Why have many Christians come to expect artists of faith to create “safe” art as if those are the only stories that are considered legitimate? And why are some resistant to engagement when art shows its capacity to disturb and challenge us to think about life differently? Most filmmakers, myself included, have good intentions to tell an authentic story that resonates with the human experience. But that authenticity is not always pretty and sometimes the dilemmas that characters face are in fact moral dilemmas.
For example, in one of my films, Defining Moments, I tried to portray a young teenage girl deciding whether or not she should sleep with her boyfriend. It is a very real scenario, especially if we look at the number of teen pregnancies in the United States (over 270,000 in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Her dilemma is between trying to accept herself the way that God made her and battling against the mounting peer pressure that is influencing her self/body image. The girl ends up sleeping with her boyfriend in order to win his love, despite advice telling her otherwise. When I screened the film at some film festivals, Christians in the audience were upset with the idea of teenagers having sex and questioned my faith.
In the case of my film as well as mainstream films, some audiences may not be willing to journey into worlds that make them uncomfortable and therefore miss the talking points steeped in the moral dilemma. In her book Imagination and the Journey of Faith, Sandra Levy addresses this when she says:
When the poet, for example, opens up some human truth that lies beneath the everyday norm by imaginatively re-viewing and re-ordering the world around us, he or she then runs a risk that hearers or viewers of the work won't "get" the symbolic or metaphorical opening up of their taken-for-granted reality. Such mental "gaps" - created by the artist's pushing metaphor or symbol into novel realms of meaning - can be flooded with new meaning only if the viewers or hearers are able to engage with the art object and are open to the questions thus raised. (Levy, Kindle Location 612-616).
New worlds can only be explored when the audience is open to receive them. Thanks to the emergence of good, thoughtful theological film criticism, Christian audiences are becoming more comfortable with discussing mainstream films that may not purport an explicit gospel message on the surface. Yet, skepticism often still arises for filmmakers who set out to tell alternative stories. As Levy puts it, “how do we judge...the goodness or validity of what our imagination produces?” (Levy, Kindle Location 237-238). In all honesty, I’m not so sure we should judge it. But what is an artist to do when the intended audience is not receptive to the ways in which imagination or creativity happen to manifest? Surely, there are audiences outside of Christian circles that will accept the work, but perhaps a little more work needs to be done when screening to the choir.
Being a Christian is not a safe or easy road. We often make mistakes – we make the wrong choices, we get angry with God, we ignore God, we’re mean to our neighbors. And sometimes we go home and cry about it. That hard road is what interests me the most as a storyteller. And while most of my fellow Christians would agree with me that a life of faith is not always easy, those same people may get a bit uneasy when we start talking about airing our dirty laundry for the world to see.
One of my favorite shows on television right now is a Showtime series called Shameless. It is a story about the Gallaghers, a family on the South Side of Chicago. The Gallaghers live below the poverty line, and their bipolar mother, Monica, abandons the home, leaving the father, Frank, to raise their six children. The only problem is that Frank is a lying, alcoholic, negligent scam artist, who is gone from the home for days or months at a time in order to feed his addictions. As a result, his kids are forced to raise themselves, and we grow to love the Gallagher family and the outrageous predicaments in which they find themselves.
One of my favorite scenes in the show is when Frank loses a friend to pancreatic cancer. He mourns by going on a spiritual quest to find a religion that will help commiserate in his anguish. He goes to confession repeatedly, to the point where even the priest, annoyed, kicks him out. He goes from the temple to the mosque, and no one wants to hear his endless, drunken rants. Frank is left with relatable questions about grief and why God would seemingly take away a life that was so dearly loved. I think many of us can relate.
The show is quite vulgar in terms of its profanity and sexual situations, it is not something that is safe for children to watch. But that moment in the show is worth the hardship of watching the Gallagher’s spiral of dysfunction. Even though I don't have an alcoholic father or a mother who is bipolar, I often feel like I identify with the Gallaghers way more than I do with any character I have ever seen in a Christian film. Why is that? Does its vulgarity make it more authentic? Not necessarily so. For me, the show is a reminder that even in my daily life and relationships with real people, sometimes you have to be patient through the mess in order to get to the revelation. But I wonder sometimes if my Christian community would allow me to write a story like Shameless' without questioning my faith? Should they? And why does their approval even matter?
These are some of the questions that I seek to explore over the next few months in this series. I'm crazy enough to believe that when Jesus says "Come as you are," he really means it. And as a Christian who lives in the world and who doesn't always get it right, I want to tell stories about the people I love and the people who are just like me – the ones who swear, the ones who make poor choices, the ones who doubt, the ones who fear and yet still manage to hold onto or even to question their faith.
This article series is not as much a moral judgment on individual tolerance when watching a film as it is an exploration of the creative process for making films and the boundaries that we may have due to our faith. What determines what stories we tell as Christians? I think this is an important question for us to wrestle with because perhaps some of us are in need of an expansion and redefinition of the term “Christian film.” Is it possible to label a work a Christian film if it does not end with an altar call or if it doesn't evoke a certain sense of awe or beauty? We are still Christian artists even when we make films that are not “safe for the whole family.”
And while it is good to critique films from a theological perspective, it is equally important that we think about artists who are creating the work. What does it look like to have a Christian community that can hold in tension Our Mother of Africa and Homeless Jesus, and see them both as valuable to the discussion about our value as humans? We need the support of Christians who are able to still see God’s presence in the midst of a mess, not only in life but also on the big screen.
Avril Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and educator who teaches cinema courses at University of La Verne and Azusa Pacific University. She recently earned her second master's degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, and she continues to produce, write and direct film and new media. Her ultimate goal is to diversify the film market by educating and empowering aspiring artists; thereby creating a movement of media that represents the true, multi-dimensional qualities of people and speaks to the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or at her website.