My daughter asked me a great question… “So… why don’t they all do it?”
Okay, we need some background. My daughter was watching a Youtube video by a creator named “Saberspark.” The Title is, “What Ruined Veggietales: The Tragic Fall of Bob and Larry.” The Youtuber, if I remember right, has described himself as being brought up in a rather conservative Christian environment, but as he got older, he lost his religion, and would now describe himself as an agnostic. (Again, this is by memory. I could be wrong.) He likes to review things, especially animated films. He has reviewed a number of religious animated movies, VHS, and TV shows.
As the Youtuber was telling the story of Veggietales and Big Idea, he gave a surprising compliment. He said that even though Veggietales was clearly religious in content, it was clever and entertaining enough that many non-Christian families would watch it and be happy if their children enjoy it. That is actually pretty unusual. Most of the Christian animation out there is pretty horrendous. It is commonly lazy, on-the-nose, and preachy. As a Christian, I would have strong misgivings of many of them, and if I was a non-Christian, I would work, very strongly to keep my kids away from them.
That is why my daughter asked me, “Why don’t they all do it? Why don’t other Christian producers do this as well. If Christians really want to spread the message of Christ to non-Christians, why would they NOT try to make the works appealing to non-Christians?”
Great question!! I am not sure I fully know. I am not in “The Biz.” But I think there are a few no-brainers here— and I am just the guy to do no-brainers.
- The Engineering Triangle. I used to be a Mechanical Design Engineer. Back then I learned about the Engineering Triangle. The three points on the triangle are QUICK, CHEAP, and HIGH QUALITY. The understanding is that one can have ANY TWO of these. A design can be cheap and high quality, but it will not be quick… it will take time. A design can be quick and High quality… but it won’t be cheap. One will have to have deep pockets. And a design can be quick and cheap, but the result will be low quality. It seems as if the decision for Christian producers is almost without exception to embrace Quick and Cheap. The result is Low Quality. But why would that be the choice? Often the money that is available to invest in religious productions is not great, so Cheap is often a given. But why Quick? I am not as sure of this one. In some cases perhaps there is the view that if one pops out something quick and brings in some money, one can afford to do high quality work later… maybe. However, in Evangelical Christian missions, quick and cheap are often part of the mantra. One must get more “bang for the buck.” Christ is coming ANY DAY so methods that are more developmental, rather than relief, are often frowned upon. A lot of methods of sharing the gospel are heavy and pressuring a quick (and superficial?) decision, rather than focusing on developing a relationship. Quick, easy, and efficient just seem so right, that quality and excellence seem to be irrelevant, or even a delay to real ministry.
- Religious Jingoism. Most Christian producers know who their audience is. Their audience is Conservative, Evangelical Christians. And there is a tendency for many to have a certain… toxic form of militarism when it comes to faith. Paul utilizes the war metaphor, as well as dualism (dark versus light, Sarah versus Hagar, etc.) to contrast Christians from others. Many Christians embrace a strong Us vs. Them. Often Christians are seen as just really really awesome, and non-Christians are seen as pretty awful, caricatures with less nuance than a Charles Dickens novel. Producers end up coddling these people because they are the ones who are going to buy their materials. I know that some like to suggest otherwise, much like with “God is Not Dead” where it is suggested, ‘Bring your unsaved friends.” But what unsaved friends would want to go, much less be impressed by the strawmen to be knocked down by dubious plot devices. Christians often want to hear “We are on the side of right, and God is on our side.” I have heard that 700 Club has long held the policy that it would never share a story that has a “non-victorious” ending, for Christians. That is worthy of some pretty serious condemnation, since it leaves Christians ill-prepared for real trials that often do not have ‘feel good’ endings. But that is what people want. They want to see Christians “dunk” on the (incompetent) “enemy,” rather than explore truth through thoughtful dialogue. Paul may have described the Christian life in terms of war, but he also spoke of becoming like the person he is reaching out to— to be effective. He also speaks of “adorning the gospel” through loving and faithful behavior to non-Christians. Peter speaks of sharing one’s faith not with a Ben Shapiro (make the other side look bad rather than seek truth) form of debate, but dialogue built on gentleness and respect.
- Preservation over Creativity. Creativity is hard. For some people it seems easier than for others, but it is a challenge for everyone. But in religious circles, it can be even more difficult. Years ago, some Muslims decided to make a movie about the life of Muhammed. They put a lot of work into but it, but then they couldn’t really show it, because the dominant view of the more traditional side of Islam is that one should never show an image of their ‘final prophet.’ Christians struggle with that as well. There is certain coding that one must do, or it may not be seen as “Christian enough.” I remember years ago when Amy Grant decided to create a ‘secular’ music album. I remember people acting like she was going over to “the dark side.” I seems like it is easier to go from the other side. If one is a ‘secular artist’ and then decides to act on their own Faith to produce a religious creation, that person is given much greater freedom. For “Christian materials” there is often a strong pressure to say certain things and not say other things. I remember on a “Christian network” a person being interviewed who said that slavery in the Old Testament, and the execution of homosexuals were pure, good, and just. I understand why this person may say this. If the person says there are problems with these things, some people may think one is saying that God is unjust. If one says that there are cultural and historical issues that one must consider, some people will think that one is saying that God changes. One could point out that Jesus said to love our neighbors and express compassion regardless of whether they are like us or different, and regardless of whether they are friends or enemies. Jesus also described Himself as one who liberates and frees those in bondage. Further, the New Testament says that we are not bound by the Mosaic Law. That means that being kind and compassionate to homosexuals, to oppose slavery in all its forms, and rejecting the Law are also absolutely pure, good, and just. But this is pretty subtle, and Christian media is rarely so subtle. It may be easier to be creative as a Christian in a secular setting than within the bounds of Christian arts and media. In essence, Christians may want their media to reinforce their own beliefs and prejudices, rather than make them think. One of my favorite Christian movies is “Silent.” However, I think there is absolutely NO CHANCE that it would have been made by a Christian media company. Its message is too challenging and ambiguous to make it into film within “Christian circles.”
There may be more things, but this is a good starting place for the discussion I think. I have hopes for Christian media, but I do think that media that effectively engages the non-Christian culture(s) will have to work against the system, not with it. May their numbers increase.