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Film, media, communication, Christianity, and Veggie Tales

22 August, 2009

Taking some time off for a holiday in Tuscany as well as time off here in London, I’ve not posted anything for about a month.  It’s not that life has been sleepy — in fact, the opposite!  But that’s another set of stories.

I read this interview with Phil Vischer, one of the founders of Big Idea Productions best known for Veggie Tales.  In the interview Vischer makes some stimulating comments about not only his own company’s demise but, in my mind, why it is so hard to make imaginative film today.  By imaginative he means works like those of Tolkien or Lewis.  The context for his comments is addressing how Christian film makers are managing to do their work today.

Here’s a thoughtful comment about film and efforts to integrate film with a so-called “message”:

I’ve learned the hard way that movies are not a great teaching medium. If you want to engage people emotionally, great—but you can’t ever turn to the camera and say, “Now I have three points I want to make about parenting.” You can do that on TV. Sesame Street does that. Dora the Explorer does that every day and nobody says, “That’s not filmmaking! That’s didactic!” The difference is that people do not go to the movies to be preached at. That’s the bottom line. The more you preach, the fewer you reach. What frustrates me with the film business is how much time, energy, and money you have to spend to have the opportunity for two sentences of real transparent meaning.

What makes this line of thought intriguing is that Vischer also believes there must be content or substance to good communication.  His argument, however, is that film rarely communicates in substantial ways.

I’m not  persuaded by his point.  Film can communicate and communicate effectively.  If, however, Vischer means that communication needs to be either propositional or more didactic (and at various points in the interview I wondered if he means this) I can see his point.  My complaint with this is that communication doesn’t have to be uniform or at one level only.

I also sense this is where a fair number of Christian writers, script writers and, well, Christian readers/viewers get so frustrated.  They want substance and communication with substance (fair enough).  But it seems contemporary Christians have lost the ability to communicate fully and with a full range of approaches.  At one point, Vischer admits this:

The movies inspired by the Narnia stories and the Lord of the Rings are also tough test cases. How many Narnias are there? How easy is it to come up with another Lord of the Rings? It’s not.There’s Tolkien and Lewis and then everybody else. Besides, Narnia had a 50-year history of engagement with fans—and a grandfather-clause evangelical exception for the use of fantasy and magic. You can’t get away with that today. Now, if we go to another fantasy world, we need to find Jesus there—literally.

That is why for some evangelicals, the Harry Potter books are seen as being straight from the pit. Even if Rowling says she’s employing Christian themes, forget it. How do you write a Christian fantasy today? I have no idea. I don’t know that you can. I think we’ve killed it. I think we are so concerned with how oppressed our worldview is and so defensive that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner. And thus, we can’t tell the kind of stories that Lewis or Chesterton would have told to share the gospel. It’s kind of depressing, frankly.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien

CS Lewis

CS Lewis

GK Chesterton

GK Chesterton

Yes, “we can’t tell the kind of stories that Lewis or Chesterton would have told to share the gospel.”  I sadly think he is right.  From time to time I have been asked to read manuscripts of what either the publisher or the author assured me was a “promising writer, in the tradition of Lewis…”  Half-way through the material I was either bored or terribly embarrassed — and I hoped the manuscript would never see the light of day.  The material was overly moralistic, reductionistic, predictable and down-right inadequate.  I hasten to add I could not write a novel or imaginative works of communication!

To be very sure, what I was asked to read isn’t all that is “out there”!  I am sure there are some superb writers, some of whom are waiting to be discovered.

This is why I hoped Vischer might have words that will direct some writers in a new direction.  Strangely, at least as I understand him, he drops the ball.

The full interview can be found at the following site: \”Platform Agnostic\”

One Comment
  1. rksouliske permalink

    Nice article and I agree to a point about writing christian movies and such as Lewis and Tolkein… If as an author your intent is to preach the gospel to your audience then dont write a story but instead preach the gospel. The biggest problem with christian media these days is its mostly christians entertaining christians. As a writer your should have a story to tell and if that story contains “magic and fantasy” so be it but dont try to tack on christ as an endorsement to christianize it. If the story has christian ideas and themes then great let God use them within the story as he will see fit and write the story for the sake of the story itself. I’ve had God reveal things to me on touch me in many ways from all kinds of stories and media many “magic and fantasy” based and sadly most where not christian media.

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