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 first article in this series, "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. Avril's entire series is archived here. - Editor
When the hit show Breaking Bad was about to air its series finale, there was much commentary floating around the internet about the impact of the show. One blog post in particular, entitled “Why Christian Filmmakers should be Breaking Bad,” argued that the show was a good model for exceptional storytelling, and that Christian writers should take note because it showed both the ways in which pride leads to destruction, and the consequences of evil within the human heart. The author challenged Christian filmmakers to break out of clichéd characters and happy endings, and instead “write stories void of hope and filled with despair” in order to achieve more authenticity that still has a moral bent, much like the Bible itself. Walter White, the writer argued, is written as a likable character in need of medical help before he becomes a notorious meth dealer; yet, his character is designed in such a way that by the end of the show, audiences are poised to see his demise.
Taking the author’s advice might present a moral conflict for some. Walter White and his alter ego "Heisenberg" may work as cautionary tales, but as Christians, do we really want to create stories and characters that have no hope? Furthermore, what would happen if a similar arc unfolded in a Christian character? Although we may not have ever been a drug dealer, many of us share common traits with Walter White such as pride and greed. Yet, if someone were to write a Christian character with the same sinful qualities as Walter White, shouldn’t redemption be a requirement for the story’s conclusion? In light of this series regarding what stories Christians should tell, the Breaking Bad post caused me to think about the challenge that comes with writing about imperfect people, particularly those who are part of a faith that is rooted in love and hope.
In 1991, Robert DuVall released a film about a flawed man with a temper. He loves his family immensely, but upon learning of his wife’s extramarital affair, he pummels her lover, Horace, in the head with a baseball bat, sending him into a coma. He runs away from his crime, and leaves his wife and family to go and establish a new life in a different part of town.
The significance of Duvall’s character in that film, The Apostle, is that he is also a charismatic Pentecostal preacher bent on preaching the gospel wherever he goes. His character, Euliss “Sonny” Dewey, is on a significant quest for redemption, however, whether or not he achieves that is a bit ambiguous. Sonny is an evangelist – in the beginning of the film he stops when he sees a terrible accident on the side of the road and questions the passengers, who appear to be near death, about their faith and where they will go when they die. And even under the murky shadow of attacking a man (who does later die), he builds a new church, preaches the gospel, and keeps asking for God’s guidance every step of the way.
People praised the film for its authenticity of character and place. Roger Ebert commented that, “Sonny is different from most movie preachers. He's not a fraud, for one thing... Sonny has a one-on-one relationship with God, takes his work seriously, Sonny is flawed... with a quick temper, but he's a good man, and the film is about his struggle back to redemption after his anger explodes.”
Some Christians questioned the authenticity of Sonny’s faith due to his violent actions. Yet, in a world in which Christians are often ridiculed for being hypocritical, it is important to consider why Sonny was able to get away with being so flawed in the eyes of audiences. Hypocrisy was less of an issue than the humanity of his struggle. Sonny epitomizes the best and worse of a believing Christian. He is fervent in his beliefs, yet he is broken and far from perfect. He eventually begins dating another woman even though he is not divorced from his wife, he grieves over not being able to visit his aging mother while he is in hiding. Yet, he does not spend the bulk of the movie wallowing in guilt. It is not a cautionary tale in that sense. Instead, he carries on. He tries to build a new life. He baptizes himself in the river as a sign of restoration, and then he rebuilds. He drives around picking up locals for church on Sunday, and leaves food on people’s doorsteps. He starts a church and walks out the gospel the best way he knows how. Sonny shows his vulnerability when he is alone with God, but rarely with outsiders. His actions mirror the complicated reality of being in the world but not of it, and of living with one’s wrongs.
Telling a story like Sonny’s requires us to write the Christian story as one full of contradiction and ambiguity. It forces us to write ourselves the way we really are which can be uncomfortable, because such a portrayals might be less than flattering. But just as viewers saw evil in Walter White and wanted him to pay the consequences for his actions, they also saw the relatability in his human flaws, which made his journey one worth watching. Similarly, viewers saw Sonny’s vulnerability in the midst of his own sin and, as a result, were able to see an authentic faith.
Another show, Rev., a BBC television sitcom that now airs on Hulu, wonderfully shows the complexity of Christian people who are flawed but faithful. The show features Adam, an Episcopal priest who manages a tiny congregation in a failing urban parish in London. Through his sincere efforts to be a trusted mentor to congregants and a compassionate citizen within a diverse community, it becomes evident early in the series that Adam is genuine in his love for God and his flock, while being equally as overcome by the failures within his own humanity. In the beginning of episode one, Adam is taunted repeatedly by lewd construction workers who seem to take pleasure in prodding and publicly humiliating the new priest in town. He takes the gracious approach and ignores them most of the time, but by the end of the episode, after enduring several days of the mounting pressures that come with running a church with little to no resources, and navigating through the annoyances of church polity, Adam finally can't take it anymore and yells to the construction workers to “F-- off.” It is an honest moment that makes this priest one of us, and by that point in the show, the audience sympathizes with him enough as a character to understand his frustration. Adam is equally as honest in his conversations with God, as he often has scenes where he talks to God about his internal misgivings, his doubts, and even his wrestlings with his own behavior.
Characters like Sonny and Adam bring to life the reality of Romans 7:15-20, where Paul questions why he continues to do the very things that he knows he should not do. Their stories bring to life what pastors like Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber have been trying to get us to believe about ourselves, that “When it comes down to it, the church is for losers. We connect to each other and to God through our shared brokenness, not through our personal victories and strengths and accomplishments.” Our reluctance to show this brokenness in Christianity and in Christian art points to a larger problem that lends itself to why we only give weight to certain biblical narratives, and why we would rather hide the details of such brokenness when writing new stories. But Bolz-Weber says that that is counterproductive to a relationship with God:
In conservative Christianity, there’s this question, “How is your relationship with the Lord? Do you have a right relationship with God?” I’m more and more convinced that right relationship with God is just standing naked in front of our Creator and receiving the love as broken people. Right relationship is confession and forgiveness, allowing God to be the forgiving, redeeming God that God wants to be for us.
Altering our views on relationship should also alter what stories we tell, and as a result it should alter how unbelievers perceive our relationship with God. Transparency about the tension between faith and circumstance can speak volumes about our lived reality.
As storytellers, are we brave enough to let people to see us as the flawed human beings that we are? Or do we want to settle for entertainment that only scratches the surface of what it means to be loved by a God who forgives? If we really want to impact the film industry, we need more stories that will reflect the fullness of who we are as humans and as Christians. Maybe creating stories and characters “void of hope” is understating the issue. To create characters like Walter White is to confront what actually lies in our own hearts, both good and bad. To create characters like Sonny and Adam is to acknowledge that God knows what's in our hearts—no matter how bad we break—and somehow chooses to love us and have a relationship with us anyway. That in and of itself is the hope that some people need to hear.
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.