“Confessions of a Bad Christian” – Evangelicals Miss the Big Picture? Really?

Any article entitled “Evangelicals Miss the Big Picture” will get my attention. So I delved into the piece in USA Today with great interest. The writer is William Romanowski, a film studies professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Romanowski surmised that ”evangelicals can influence Hollywood, but their efforts would be more effective and better received if they focused on cultural discourse, not religious conversion.” Hmmm. Discuss. 

Here are some excerpts from Professor Romanowski’s essay. My commentary is italicized.

The Passion’s numbers were an eye-opener for Hollywood. Now, movies with clear religious themes such as Constantine, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and even those without any sort of explicit Christian connection, such as Cinderella Man or The Greatest Game Ever Played, are being pitched by studios to reach the “Christian” market. More specifically, the target is those evangelicals who embraced The Passion with such enthusiasm. Consumers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on religious books and Christian-themed music. The film industry wants to cultivate this market. The problem Hollywood faces as it seeks to maximize this potential audience is that “evangelical” Christians are not easy to define.

I feel your pain. The term Evangelical broadly categorizes Christians with vastly different philosophies but, in theory at least, the same distinct theology. It is our inability to unify over the core beliefs that confuses our message.


A recent MarketCast study co-sponsored by Variety magazine found religious and non-religious people “nearly indistinguishable in their attitudes” about moviegoing, according to a Variety article reporting the results. In fact, these religious folks seem to have a penchant for the sentimental, the melodramatic and the violent (of course that puts them pretty much in the mainstream of American taste in entertainment).

Anyone who has criticized George Barna’s research should send him an apology today. This is what Mr.Barna has been preaching for years. Our faith is making little difference in our day to day existence so our message falls on disinterested ears. Jesus should make a difference. When we show that others will listen.


People of goodwill ought to be concerned with the cumulative impact of a steady diet of American movies that often exalt self-interest as the supreme human value, glorify violent resolutions to problems, make finding the perfect mate one’s primary vocation and highest destiny, and offer material prosperity as the most reliable source of meaning and satisfaction in this life. Such a value system arguably runs against the grain of most religious traditions.


Amen. And I believe that you can boldly go further than arguably goes against the grain. Such values go completely against the grain of the teachings of Jesus. Try sampling the Sermon on the Mount as a little example of how far those values stray from His.


Of course, filmmakers claim they’re only giving people what they want.


Ouch. It hurts because it is true.


Were more evangelicals to think about movies in terms of their faith beliefs, they would actually have an opportunity to not only buy tickets, but also to begin to shape the entertainment industry.


Exactly. If we would support movies like End of the Spear instead of arguing about casting it would make a difference. Hollywood may be perceived as being godless in the evangelical sense but the studios and theaters worship the bottom line. If a movie like “End of the Spear” does well we (the Christian marketplace) will get more movies like that. And maybe the next one will pass our casting critiques. On some days I am sorely tempted to get the “Lord save me from your followers” bumper sticker.


For instance, the Judeo-Christian tradition maintains that all people have dignity and worth because they are created in the image of God, but that they also have a tendency to do evil. Redemption comes from experiences that make people aware of their own brokenness and insufficiency. Films such as Magnolia or The Apostle resonate with this kind of perspective. The characters have a moral ambiguity that fits with real life and makes for good drama — and interesting movies. Both are intended for adults. The best motion pictures transform the real world into an imaginary one with ideals, values, attitudes and assumptions woven into characterizations and storylines.


Professor Romanowski’s  piece takes a philosophical bent that I heartily endorse.


Evangelicals can influence Hollywood when they think of the cinema as an arena for cultural discourse but not a place for converting members of that culture to a specific Christian orientation. In other words, evangelicals’ goal for the movie industry should be to encourage discourse, not merely evangelizing.


Yes. Yes. Yes. We must be creative to engage the culture. That was my argument with the Book of Daniel. What a great way to discuss what your faith looks like versus that “Cops” like family on the show. But instead we boycott. Here is a plan for you. When the culture opens a door to faith discussions…go through it. How complicated is that?


Last year’s Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby sparked debate about euthanasia. This year, Crash deals with racism; Good Night, and Good Luck probes the role of the news media in keeping politicians accountable to the people; Syriana touches on geopolitics and oil; A History of Violence explores the potential presence of violence in all of us; Munich the perpetuation of bloodshed. Religious audiences can engage these films by reflecting on the perspective they represent, yet applying their own religious context. But old habits die hard.


Boy do they. I totally agree with Romanowski’s concept. A discussion on euthanasia and the Scriptural value of the sanctity of life is natural after seeing “Million Dollar Baby.” I am not sure I would seek to place geopolitics and oil into my spiritual basket but most of his examples are intriguing.


Representatives of evangelical groups said they resisted boycotting “Brokeback Mountain” only because they did not want to draw attention to the critically acclaimed film about gay love. And evangelicals are divided over “End of the Spear”, an evangelical production based on a real-life missionary story. Some leaders are encouraging people to see this film about forgiveness, while others are campaigning against it because it stars an openly gay actor.


And that is the enigma of us. What is the classic line from the cartoon Pogo? “We have met the enemy…and it is us.” Evangelicals don’t want to call attention to one movie but they hurt another good and valuable movie (End of the Spear) and in the process call even more attention to the issue in a way that further alienates the church from gay men and women seeking truth.


So what do evangelicals want from Hollywood anyway? Help converting the masses? If so, movies don’t seem as if they’re the most effective forum. Despite all the evangelistic hype for The Passion, a survey by The Barna Group showed that less than one-tenth of 1% of those who saw the movie accepted Jesus Christ as their savior as a result of seeing the film. Likewise, don’t expect a jump in the size of the gay population because of Brokeback Mountain, however much it might foster the national conversation. Only when evangelicals agree to look at Hollywood not just as an evangelistic tool, or a harmless entertainment provider, but also as an important participant in cultural discourse will they understand that as a major share of the movie market, they are in a position to shape that vital discussion.


Hollywood, like it or not, reflects where culture is heading. So climb out of the comfort bunker and get in the battle. Engage the culture by looking for the spiritual aspect of movies and then discussing. Evangelism is a process. In baseball parlance I was taught in my early Christian experience that we must be closers. But the truth is that sometimes we are starters (planting a seed of interest). Sometimes we are middle relievers (watering that growing interest) and sometimes we are closers. Every part of the process is sacred and wisely using the opportunities presented by movies and culture makes sense.  Kudos to William Romanowski at Calvin College. A voice of reason in the cultural desert is like a cool refreshing drink. Paul had a good challenge to the Church at Corinth to put a wrap on this discussion.


I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized–whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ–but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!  I Cor 9,  The Message


Let’s jump in the arena and be in on it. It might even be fun!