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anthony_dunn

How to write a good Christian script

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I just watched recently To End All Wars. As I thought about the script afterward I was struck by a number of challenges I am facing in my own screenwriting.

I'm not just talking about the typical challenges facing every screenwriter (i.e. developing believable characters, keeping up the tension during the 2nd act, etc.). I'm talking about those challenges that come with being a Christian working in the medium of film.

I invite anyone interested in joining me in an ongoing discussion (prompted by occasional "conversation starters") in sorting out the challenges of writing a screenplay that is both Christian and good.

To get us started, let me suggest the options available regarding the obviousness of "the message":

There seems to be a spectrum:

At one end is the "In Your Face" option. Typically these are "preaching to the choir" kind of films.

At the other end is the "Keep It All Hidden" option. Typically these films could be just as easily done by a "spiritual" non-Christian (Jew, Muslim, Hindu, New Age devotee).

Should the goal be somewhere in the middle? Am I drawing the lines in the wrong place? This is just to get us thinking about this -- so don't be shy to tell me what you think.

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I just watched recently To End All Wars.  As I thought about the script afterward I was struck by a number of challenges I am facing in my own screenwriting. 

I'm not just talking about the typical challenges facing every screenwriter (i.e. developing believable characters, keeping up the tension during the 2nd act, etc.).  I'm talking about those challenges that come with being a Christian working in the medium of film.

I invite anyone interested in joining me in an ongoing discussion (prompted by occasional "conversation starters") in sorting out the challenges of writing a screenplay that is both Christian and good.

To get us started, let me suggest the options available regarding the obviousness of "the message":

There seems to be a spectrum:

At one end is the "In Your Face" option.  Typically these are "preaching to the choir" kind of films. 

At the other end is the "Keep It All Hidden" option.  Typically these films could be just as easily done by a "spiritual" non-Christian (Jew, Muslim, Hindu, New Age devotee). 

Should the goal be somewhere in the middle?  Am I drawing the lines in the wrong place?  This is just to get us thinking about this -- so don't be shy to tell me what you think.

I'm in the middle of reading "Hollywood Worldviews" by Brian Godawa, who if I'm not mistaken, also wrote the screenplay for "To End All Wars". So far, I'm impressed with what he has to say. Personally, I believe the "Keep it Hidden" option is the more effective way to go but I struggle with wanting to have the characters say what I think instead of showing it through the story. I have to admit I am very much the cliched amateur screenwriter at this stage.

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I'm in the middle of reading "Hollywood Worldviews" by Brian Godawa, who if I'm not mistaken, also wrote the screenplay for "To End All Wars". So far, I'm impressed with what he has to say. Personally, I believe the "Keep it Hidden" option is the more effective way to go but I struggle with wanting to have the characters say what I think instead of showing it through the story. I have to admit I am very much the cliched amateur screenwriter at this stage.

Hey! Welcome. First, let me say that I am still very much in the amateur stage as well. I do not do much at the moment besides read all the basic screenwriting books, subscribe to Scr(i)pt , and trade scripts with other local filmmakers.

Second, thanks for the tip about "Hollywood Worldviews". I'll have to get a copy.

Third, I definitely lean more toward the "Keep It Hidden" side as well.

I recently re-watched Master and Commander. I was struck again by the script's historical and cultural accuracy. In the early 19th century, it would've been perfectly natural for everyone, including sailors and scientists, to refer to the Bible and God in almost an off-handed assumed way.

It has got me to thinking. Maybe the trick is not to go out of the way to hide things, but to have characters (at least religiously motivated characters) casually refer to the Bible or to God without it being a bid deal . In other words, make these matters of faith so much their underlying assumption they need not dwell on it.

What do you think?

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I subscribe to Creative Screenwriting and highly recommend it. I'm not as familiar with Scr(i)pt though.

I double checked and Godawa did write the screenplay for "To End All Wars". I'll have to rent that one.

I thought "Master and Commander" was a good film but I have to admit it ran a little slow for me. From a spiritual standpoint, the sequences that impressed me were of Paul Bettany just exploring and discovering on the islands.

I was thinking of Mel Gibson praying in "Braveheart" and "We Were Soldiers". I think you are onto something about not dwelling on a character's faith. In both films Gibson kneels to pray and then goes about his business without the film commenting on it. Maybe it stands out so much since it's a rarity in those kinds of films.

Two examples of well written Christian characters (at least characters with Christian backgrounds) I was reminded of are President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) on the "West Wing" and Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) on "Homicide:Life on the Streets". Both obviously grew up in the church and seem to casually make references to God and biblical history. However, I think I tend to notice and respond more when their comments start out as an unrelated annecdote or bit of trivia that comes back around to relate to a situation in the story. The writers make it come across as applied wisdom and not preachiness. I bring them up with reservations though since both are also deeply conflicted. Pemblenton even goes so far at one point to say that he and God are no longer on speaking terms and Bartlet curses at God and puts out a cigarette in the Church at his son's funeral. This makes them more interesting as characters but I hesitate to call them godly examples in thier faith. I guess that brings me back around to your original dilema. How to write "good" screenplays without being preachy.

The screenplay I'm working on deals with crime and abuse and some of the main characters are Christian. Part of what I'm struggling with is how to avoid the curse of the Message Movie. "Magnolia" is one that comes to mind that did it right. PTA somehow managed to make some very strong points about the themes and issues but not have it turn into a sappy Lifetime movie. Anyway, hope this helps.

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Two examples of well written Christian characters (at least characters with Christian backgrounds) I was reminded of are President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) on the "West Wing" and Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) on "Homicide:Life on the Streets". Both obviously grew up in the church and seem to casually make references to God and biblical history. However, I think I tend to notice and respond more when their comments start out as an unrelated annecdote or bit of trivia that comes back around to relate to a situation in the story. The writers make it come across as applied wisdom and not preachiness. I bring them up with reservations though since both are also deeply conflicted. Pemblenton even goes so far at one point to say that he and God are no longer on speaking terms and Bartlet curses at God and puts out a cigarette in the Church at his son's funeral. This makes them more interesting as characters but I hesitate to call them godly examples in thier faith. I guess that brings me back around to your original dilema. How to write "good" screenplays without being preachy.

These are great examples of christian characters, as long as one is not depending on enthusiasm from (typical) conservative christians. While I have not even smoked in church, I myself have not been on speaking terms with God (often feeling as if He wasn't with me, and other reasons as well). I remember a horribly blasphemous public outburst against God by Bartlett as well. And yet he rose to the occasion the next season with moving words in a crisis that clearly emenated from his faith. It reminded me of the heights to which Clinton could go when he lost the self consciousness and political angling in times of crisis or sadness (I'm thinking of his words memorializing the Oklahoma City bombing, for example). One's faith is often a jumbled cloth over time and I know I have said things to God and of Him that were He human, would require great amends and work over time to even return to speaking terms. Yet His grace, mercy, and infinite capacity to forgive cuts through much of that injury, such that it is I who must scramble to come to the point that I can handle an encounter.

Therefore, I will be of two minds on the hardsell v. subtle. I think an overt message can be done convincingly, believably, and artistically, though it has rarely been done. There would have to be honesty and no candy coating. The Third Miracle is an example of a bluntly christian content honestly and gloriously done. If one attempts "in your face" with peaks and valleys and maybe only a soupcon of the gooey inspiration that most faith based propagandists (?) seem to require, it could work. The imprtant thing is not to play to any of the crowds with a rooting interest: the cynics, scoffers, evangelists, and pietists. hardsells can work much of the time. Oliver Stone comes to mind as one who practically propagandises and yet is still capable of making a compelling film. I'd like to see an honest, compelling film that wears its faith on its sleeve!

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DanBuck   

I'm a bit more liberal on the matter.

I tend to believe that if you are a christian, who is writing. You are doing all you need to be doing. There should be no effort to instill a specific message in your piece, just portray truth vividly and the truth you portray will be Truth. I am of the belife that the Holy Spirit is still int he insipration business. I think any artist who is expressing the truth of God's universe is being inspired, at least in part, by the holy spirit, whether they know it or not. In other words, I think art by Nick Cave, Arthur Miller, or Baz Luhrman can be as "Christian" as those put forth by Mr. Godowa, Tarkovsky, or Thomas Kincaid. (moreso in that last example)

If we are trying to "put forth" messages in our art, we are short circuiting the exploration of truth that should be happening in ourselves as artists.

That might be the root of the problem. Most Christians think of art as slick presentation of ideas, when I think true art is genuine exploration and discovery of truth by the artist(s) and we get to come along for the ride.

Para example:

When writing my first full-length play I believed I'd be writing a story that would portray the importance of "honesty" even in situations where it didn't seem like the best option. However, I created characters, and a conflict, and I just let them interact with each other, allowing the story to unfold in a way that felt true to the characters and the universe I had created for them. And in the end, the result was much more an exploration of the interplay between grace and justice.

If I had put my hand to the piece in a way to steer it toward a specific message, it would've been tainted.

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DanBuck   

Oh, and I hardly think that The Third Miracle qualifies as overt Christian art. It just happens to be overtly about faith. But so is The Big Kahuna and its written by a non-Christian.

Let's not confuse subject matter with message. Overtly about things of God/faith certainly doesn't mean overtly Christian message.

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DanBuck wrote:

: Most Christians think of art as slick presentation of ideas, when I think true art is

: genuine exploration and discovery of truth by the artist(s) and we get to come

: along for the ride.

That fits perfectly with what I've said elsewhere about the differences between entertainment (serves the self-oriented needs of the audience), propaganda (serves the self-oriented needs of the artist), and art (draws both artist and audience into something other-oriented). Obviously, most films are a mix of these things, but some lean more one way than the other.

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DanBuck   

I remember seeing your thoughts Peter, and for some reason, they resonate so much more truly to me know. Maybe its life experience, and maybe its my short attention span (you said it so concisely this thime) smile.gif

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DanBuck, I agree with your point that if we are trying to consciously "put forth a message" than we run the risk of creating propoganda not art (thank Peter for the distinction -- very helpful smile.gif ). However, can we not all agree that inevitably all art communicates something?

Granted, art frequently communicates at a deeper level than that of other didactic forms of communication, such as a sermon or an essay. Art attempts to communicate at a level not easily reached by words. It goes past the explicit "this is what I want you to hear" to a more subtle "this is what I want you to experience".

Thus, art tends to be much less precise than other forms of communication, often inviting multi-variate interpretations. Also while art tends to be more immediately experienced, it often takes longer to apprehend that which the artist is communicating and its mult-variate meanings tend to be fluid especially over time. (Incidentally this helps me to understand why some, such as Christian fundamentalists, have such a strong suspicion of Christian art. I believe it stems, in part, from an unease about not being able to pin down the artist on an exact meaning or position.)

If it is the case that art communicates something, then what does that mean for art created by a Christian? Is it not the case that any artist who is dedicated to honoring Christ will ultimatley create works of art that are intrinsically different from those who don't? What is being communicated does not need to be (and we're saying shouldn't be) as explicit as a sermon or a theological essay, but it should have a certain quality -- even if it is a slight whiff--- of being "different", because it is ultimately going to communicate truth about Christ and His redemption.

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anthony_dunn wrote:

: However, can we not all agree that inevitably all art communicates something?

I can agree with that, but I would say that the true artist must be as interested in listening through his art as he is in speaking through it. And sometimes there can be something specifically Christian simply in the act of listening, y'know?

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What about the responsibility of the artist for his creation?

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DanBuck   
What about the responsibility of the artist for his creation?

Matt Pope gave the long answer (and a good one).

Here's the short answer:

Be a good Christian and make good art. That's it. Don't try to make Christian Art, don't try to make more Christians with your art.

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Thom   

This is quick and I hope to have time to add more to this discussion.

I read something the other day that used demographics to define art, meaning, who is your audience? Who is your art for? This ends up focusing more on art in terms of marketability but bascially says that if Christians are you target group then you are making Christians art, which, almost by default, means that a non-Christian can make Christian art.

If we serve Christ then he should be involved in every facet of our lives allowing us, as artists, to show all of life under the gaze of God going well beyond Christian symbolism.

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Now, as far as the filmmaker's responsibility goes, if you mean what I'm thinking, you're asking about some moral responsibility to God or your Christian brothers or yourself to tell a story that has some value or is not going to harm others, etc. 

That's exactly what I mean. A number of early responses on this thread seemed to be essentially "The artist should be allowed to do whatever he/she feels like." And yet, we have a higher responsibility to glorify God in all that we do by loving our neighbor as ourselves. Thus, I believe all artists have a responsibility to those they are communicating to. I believe Christian artists have even more of a responsibility.

I can find immense value and meaning by watching the movie Magnolia.  But would I or should I make the movie Magnolia?

Excellent way to make concrete my question.

Jeffrey:Once the work is done, then the artist must decide if the work is appropriate for a larger audience. If so, *which* audience? Does it require any adjustments to become in any way accessible? (A good artist will avoid compromising the integrity of the piece to make it accessible, but will also care enough about the audience to respect their attention.

Maybe certain art forms lend themselves better to this than other. Unless we're talking purely experimental film, filmmaking always has to be done with an audience in mind. Because filmmaking is a collaborative effort. Now, I suppose we could all just write a bunch of scripts and never show them to anyone. But, scripts are eventually meant to be turned into a film. Therefore, producers, directors, actors, etc. all eventually need to get involved. At a certain point, a decision needs to be made "Is this worth making."

How an audience will respond is inevitably going to factor into it. And therefore, the question needs to be asked either during the scriptwirting process or shortly afterward, "What is this trying to communicate?" (Remember, I'm using communication very loosely -- not in a The Message kind of way.)

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DanBuck   
Now, as far as the filmmaker's responsibility goes, if you mean what I'm thinking, you're asking about some moral responsibility to God or your Christian brothers or yourself to tell a story that has some value or is not going to harm others, etc. 

That's exactly what I mean. A number of early responses on this thread seemed to be essentially "The artist should be allowed to do whatever he/she feels like." And yet, we have a higher responsibility to glorify God in all that we do by loving our neighbor as ourselves. Thus, I believe all artists have a responsibility to those they are communicating to. I believe Christian artists have even more of a responsibility.

I can find immense value and meaning by watching the movie Magnolia.  But would I or should I make the movie Magnolia?

Excellent way to make concrete my question.

Jeffrey:Once the work is done, then the artist must decide if the work is appropriate for a larger audience. If so, *which* audience? Does it require any adjustments to become in any way accessible? (A good artist will avoid compromising the integrity of the piece to make it accessible, but will also care enough about the audience to respect their attention.

Maybe certain art forms lend themselves better to this than other. Unless we're talking purely experimental film, filmmaking always has to be done with an audience in mind. Because filmmaking is a collaborative effort. Now, I suppose we could all just write a bunch of scripts and never show them to anyone. But, scripts are eventually meant to be turned into a film. Therefore, producers, directors, actors, etc. all eventually need to get involved. At a certain point, a decision needs to be made "Is this worth making."

How an audience will respond is inevitably going to factor into it. And therefore, the question needs to be asked either during the scriptwirting process or shortly afterward, "What is this trying to communicate?" (Remember, I'm using communication very loosely -- not in a The Message kind of way.)

Who cares how the audience responds. Jesus told people to eat his flesh and drink his blood. People left. Not exactly a good marketing technique. But if its what needs to be said, it needs to be said.

So what if everyone in the world hates your piece, if you are inspired to make the art, make it. Not because of who it will effect, but because you have to!

You're thinking far too bottom line for me. Audiences, producers, and backers need to be thought of after the script is done.

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Here's a good place to start wink.gif

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detai...980133?v=glance

This classic, with a new introduction by Madeleine L'Engle, is by turns an entrancing mediation on language; a piercing commentary on the nature of art and why so much of what we read, hear, and see falls short; and a brilliant examination of the fundamental tenets of Christianity. The Mind of the Maker will be relished by those already in love with Dorothy L. Sayers and those who have not yet met her.

Sayers was part of that Lewis Tolkien and Waugh community in the late 40s, best known for her plays and mysteries.

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Who cares how the audience responds.  Jesus told people to eat his flesh and drink his blood. People left.  Not exactly a good marketing technique.  But if its what needs to be said, it needs to be said.

So what if everyone in the world hates your piece, if you are inspired to make the art, make it.  Not because of who it will effect, but because you have to! 

You're thinking far too bottom line for me.  Audiences, producers, and backers need to be thought of after the script is done.

Regarding your accusations of "marketing" and "bottom line" -- I wasn't suggesting that. I am simply pointing out that all art, but most especially filmmaking, is a collaborative effort. This includes thinking of the audience. All those should be factored into the question of whether a particular creative endeavor is worth pursuing.

Surely you're not suggesting that true artists are those who are so self-absorbed in their own vision that they should inflict upon the audience/viewer/reader, etc. anything they feel like without a concern for its effect.

Btw, you might want to be careful about how you toss about Jesus' words and actions. Christ's call for us to become true disciples is not the same thing as someone saying "I'm going to create this work of art, and I could care less what anybody else thinks about it."

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Btw, you might want to be careful about how you toss about Jesus' words and actions. Christ's call for us to become true disciples is not the same thing as someone saying "I'm going to create this work of art, and I could care less what anybody else thinks about it."

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DanBuck   
Btw, you might want to be careful about how you toss about Jesus' words and actions. Christ's call for us to become true disciples is not the same thing as someone saying "I'm going to create this work of art, and I could care less what anybody else thinks about it."
With all due respect you may want to be careful how you toss around my words. I never said they were "the same" I was merely pointing out that if Jesus was okay with angering those around him with the truth, than considering our audience in the formation of our art is giving them a lot of power that perhaps they shouldn't have.

All I'm saying is that if you're thinking about delivering anything to your audience, you're not making art. I did not mean for my bottom line language to be accusatory. You might be making something rather nice while considering the bottom line, it just won't be art.

Surely you're not suggesting that true artists are those who are so self-absorbed in their own vision that they should inflict upon the audience/viewer/reader, etc. anything they feel like without a concern for its effect.

See your missing the point again. I'm suggesting that an artist isn't inflicting anything on anyone (we'll leave that to church skits and christian pop bands). Art is simply a person allowing others to join them in their exploration of ideas, and the only consideration of audience will be to make sure they can conceivably follow along on the journey. They may hate the journey, they may not fully comprehend its import, but as we learned from my JC example that you were quick to get all "hot under the collar" about, that's gonna be okay sometimes.

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I was merely pointing out that if Jesus was okay with angering those around him with the truth, than considering our audience in the formation of our art is giving them a lot of power that perhaps they shouldn't have.

Tell me if I am understaning you correctly. You seem to be saying "Jesus spoke the truth, not worrying if it would anger his audience. Therefore, we shouldn't be worried about angering our audience." Is this the case?

I did not mean for my bottom line language to be accusatory.

Thanks for clarifying.

...you were quick to get all "hot under the collar"...

My apologies if I came across as "hot under the collar". I assure you I wasn't. Trust me, you'll know when my temperature rises. wink.gif

Art is simply a person allowing others to join them in their exploration of ideas, and the only consideration of audience will be to make sure they can conceivably follow along on the journey.  They may hate the journey, they may not fully comprehend its import... that's gonna be okay sometimes.

Thanks again for patiently explaining further. It helps me see where you and I are in agreement and disagreement.

Let's see if this helps:

We are in definite agreement that true art requires courage. A true artist is one who is willing to share his/her vision without fear of the consequences.

However, I would submit to you that there is placed on the Christian artist a further responsibility to show compassion toward his viewer, reader, listener, etc. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, even when practicing our art.

The real challenge seems to lie in how we maintain one without losing the other. True Christ-like compassion doesn't mean we shrink away in fear from sharing the truth, even when it is painful (which your earlier reference to Christ's words demonstrate). However, having courage to speak our mind doesn't give us the luxury of ignoring the effect our art will have on our audience.

My concern is that several on this thread seem to imply that having a calling as an artist gives the freedom to practice art in an isolated corner without regard of what anyone else says or thinks. This seems very one-directional to me and tempts the artist to fall into self-absorbtion.

Christian art has an opportunity to be distinct from the rest of contemporary art in this critical area-- namely, that Christian art intentionally seeks to enoble and enrich (i.e. bless) the audience by inviting them into a conversation where their own concerns are taken into account as well as the artist's. Is it really a bad thing for Christian artists to consider the effect their art will have on their audience? Where is the harm in that? Does it stop being art then?

(btw, thanks to everyone for their challenging remarks --- at the very least, it is helping me to clarify my own thinking on this matter-- which is exactly what I had hoped for in starting this topic.)

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M. Leary   
Christian art has an opportunity to be distinct from the rest of contemporary art in this critical area-- namely, that Christian art intentionally seeks to enoble and enrich (i.e. bless) the audience by inviting them into a conversation where their own concerns are taken into account as well as the artist's. 

This is easy to say if you aren't a practitioner, which seems to be the missing element in most conversations about the Church and contemporary art. It is possible that in your church you have a gifted artist. This particular artist would be blessed, enriched, and encouraged by a Christian community that would recognize and appreciate such a gift. Some churches do a good job at recognizing such gifts and making efforts to support them. But unfortunately (and this little fable could work from the screenplayer writer just as much as it could for the fine artist), the following scenario tends to happen:

The Church: Hey! You can make art for us right?

Artist: Yes, I am trained in my medium and have been a practitioner ever since I finished school.

The Church: So, can you make us something? We want you to participate in our community with your gifts. Here is 100 bucks for materials.

Artist: Sure, I would love to.

Three weeks later...

The Church: We have gathered here today to witness the unveiling of a piece given to us by Artist.

Artist unveils his/her work to the audience

The Church: Hm. It is...pretty.

Artist: Yes, I have been exploring what Rothko did with color-fielding and find it to be a great way of expressing the formal balances between naturally occuring instances of color.

The Church: Hm. It is a very nice blue. Well, two or three very nice blues. Let's put this in the nursery, the infants will certainly find it relaxing.

Though the preceding was entirely fictional, I have seen it happen again and again. The Church in its local setting should be focused on creating a community that is an embodiment and proclamation of the Gospel. What does art look like in this setting? Well, the traditional definition is that it "intentionally seeks to enoble and enrich (i.e. bless) the audience by inviting them into a conversation where their own concerns are taken into account as well as the artist's." (Which, by the way, is an excellent summation of the traditional answer.)

But is the traditional definition true? What about the artist, gifted by God, that is primarily and singly interested in issues of form and technique? What if such an artist spends a great deal of time on works of art that deal specifically with such issues? Glassblowers, bookbinders, sculptors, and other practitioners of the more plastic arts aren't the only one that fall under such a question. What about the screenplay writer that really wants to write a good screenplay? What if such a screenplay writer is struggling with some facet of the human condition and finds that a story not explicitly "Gospelly" does the job much better than an explicitly Christian one? Certainly as a Christian his/her biases and ethics will leak into whatever is being written. But where does the notion of "excellence" and "brilliance" fall into the traditional answer?

It seems the the traditional answer states that a good Christian artist is someone who is a good artist AND produces artwork that is either explicitly or subtly Christian in tone. At the core of this definition lurks the notion that didacticism is the purpose of Christian artwork. It is the "sharing" of Christian ideas through artwork. In the fable we have an artist who is a very good artist technically, but is not interested in explicitly Christian imagery. They are interested in formal concerns that have arisen in their artwork as they have been practicing the gifts that God has given them. Out of these formal interests have come works of art that people, Christian or non-Christian, have found transcendent, enriching, and worthy of aesthetic consideration.

The above fable could have continued as follows:

The Church: So what does this painting say about the Gospel?

Artist: Well on the one hand nothing, but it does say an awful lot about the relationship of certain tones of blue. On the other hand, everything. As with all of my artwork, I have expressed that there is something divine about certain proportions and tonalities. If anything, I am implying a criticism about Rothko in that his work was done out of a spirit of pure materialism, whereas my work, which takes Rothko a step further, is done out of a spirit of recognition and revelation. I consider such works to be an unveiling of harmonies that lie in and behind our experience of creation. Every time I see someone, Christian or not, consider one of my paintings, I know they are experiencing something Godly.

(and if The Artist were particularly surly he would continue:)

...And the nursery is the perfect place for this canvas. It would bring me great joy to think that young children would grow up looking at it. They seem to grasp beauty as an end in itself much more quickly than we do as adults.

Well, there is a sense in which the Artist just flipped the traditional definition on its head. The Artist just taught The Church that working outside of the confines of purely Christian imagery in artwork can be a profoundly theological vocation. It is The Church that hasn't caught up to the function of various contemporary genres, not vice versa.

This is not to say that Christian imagery in artwork is bad. I dig rote Christian imagery just as much as the next guy. But The Church needs to make room for abstraction, social criticism, AND Christian imagery in its galleries.

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It is possible that in your church you have a gifted artist. This particular artist would be blessed, enriched, and encouraged by a Christian community that would recognize and appreciate such a gift. Some churches do a good job at recognizing such gifts and making efforts to support them.

Actually my church has a number of gifted artists. We have recently supported one of our members, who is an actor, by helping him stage a theatrical version of Shelley's Frankenstein. (For the record, we made no changes to the text and no attempts whatsoever to infuse or pull out a "gospel" message.) Many in my church have also been supportive of my own filmmaking efforts, without placing expectations on what my films should and should not be. I recognize this is a rare blessing. But it is one example of our pastor's favorite maxim: "The Church is the laboratory for faith."

The Church: Hey! You can make art for us right?

I wasn't making the assumption at all that Christian art was being made for the Church. It may or may not. That is irrelevant to what I'm talking about, namely the responsibility of the artist to have compassion on the audience, whoever that may be.

The Church in its local setting should be focused on creating a community that is an embodiment and proclamation of the Gospel.

Amen. But I believe you have what I was saying flipped. In your examples the church is the audience and the artist is someone that is dealing with the church almost as an outsider. In my thinking, the Christian artist is a part of the Church seeking to practice art in compassionate way by blessing whoever his/her audience happens to be.

But is the traditional definition true? What about the artist, gifted by God, that is primarily and singly interested in issues of form and technique? What if such an artist spends a great deal of time on works of art that deal specifically with such issues?

That's an excellent question. As I think about it, I don't believe what I am proposing necessitates the artist can't focus on form and technique. As long as the Christian artist is still seeking to bless the world with his/her focus on form and technique, my proposal still holds.

What about the screenplay writer that really wants to write a good screenplay? What if such a screenplay writer is struggling with some facet of the human condition and finds that a story not explicitly "Gospelly" does the job much better than an explicitly Christian one? Certainly as a Christian his/her biases and ethics will leak into whatever is being written.

Absolutely. None of my screenplays as of yet have been particularly "gospelly". What I'm talking about is not referring to content. In fact, what I'm talking about is one of form or maybe its even better to say attitude/motivation. I am not suggesting we have a checklist of what content would make art "Christian" (i.e. it must contain a reference to Christ, etc.). Instead, I am suggesting a way to think about Christian art that is much less focused on content (which is the traditional way of thinking about it) and more focused on the heart of the artist and the hearts of the audience.

It seems the the traditional answer states that a good Christian artist is someone who is a good artist AND produces artwork that is either explicitly or subtly Christian in tone. At the core of this definition lurks the notion that didacticism is the purpose of Christian artwork.

I agree wholeheartedly with everything you're saying here. That's why I'm desperately trying to avoid what you refer to as the "traditional answer". What I am proposing is a way to think of a distinctly Christian art without falling into the trap of what you describe. By focusing on the attitude and heart of the artist (rather than the content of the art), we can get away from making judgments regarding whether the art is "gospelly" enough.

What does this look like practically? Let's take the painter in your example. I wouldn't expect those in the Church (unless they too are painters) to have much to say about the content of the painting (i.e. the relationships of blue). Again, they probably aren't the best audience for a painter interested in those issues. However, I believe that this painter's brothers and sisters in Christ do still have a place in his ministry. Namely, they can pray for that artist and encourage him to strive to glorify God and bless his audience through his art.

(Please excuse the masculine specific pronouns. His/her is rather tedious to read/write.)

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M. Leary   

What to do about those pesky pronouns. They need to come up with some sort of neuter symbol that can just be used in internet parlance.

I do like what you have to say in response. I should have stated from the outset that I wasn't responding directly to anything you have said in this thread, but rather to the general trend in the way Churches relate to the arts. My wife and I were fortunate enough to go to a church that, much like yours, had a number of gifted artists that were used successfully. It was thrilling to see that in action. An absolutely edifying experience.

Your nuance regarding the heart of the audience and artist is interesting. At the very least it seems that the Christian faith provides a unique backdrop for such an approach. I guess I would respond though with asking how does compassion work? What if a certain screenplay requires a sort of Brechtian distance from the audience? The lack of compassion for the audience by the artist isn't a matter of a cruelty or self-absorbtion on behalf of the artist, but one required by the subject matter. Cries and Whispers leaps immediately to mind in this regard. Thank God that Bergman inserted some distance there between us an his horrific narrative.

I totally agree with your take with regard to films like Irreversible or the photography of Mapplethorpe. Those guys are compassionless charlatans. Such "artists" make your point a very important one. But I am wondering if putting that limitation on the Christian artist can be just as reductive as the traditional didactic approach (which we both think is lousy). Is lack of consideration for the "message" you are delivering (maybe "sharing" is a better word) to the audience really a sub-Christian approach?

Note: I am playing Devil's Advocate here because I am insanely interested in this question and am grateful for this thread.

But what about abstract art. I know your question is regarding screenplays and the like, a fairly specific medium. But I have read and seen a few rather abstract and obtuse screenplays on the stage and in film, so I guess the following still works. (M. D. Prins has a penchant for such things). I have this nagging idea that there is something overtly Christian about filmmakers like Stan Brakhage. His images are so obtuse and opaque that he leaves us two options. Struggle to enter into his work on its own terms and unravel the meanings that lay behind and within it, or just be a spectator and take very little away from his artwork.

We can approach his work much like a 1st century Greek or Roman (or 21st century American) would have approached the parables of Jesus. They were filled odd bits of language or imagery that were completely alien to their current categories. If they wanted to "get" Jesus, they had to truly struggle to piece together what was going on in His teaching. Such a process would require time, contemplation, and at times rote belief. Stan Brakhage's films work the same way. Any abstract art works the same way. We come looking for access points and handholds and scrabble around until meanings begin to click into place. There may be a lot to be said for Christian art taking the same approach. Sure there is compassion in that we are not seeking to do violence to the audience, but we aren't offering them any easy way in. If they want to get it, they are going to have to enter in and discover it.

We all appreciate Tarkovsky as a "Christian" artist, but man, at times he is as abstract as they come in terms of meaning. It takes a long time to tease out the full import of certain scenes in Stalker for example. And Zerkalo? Probably one of the richest spiritual experiences one can have in film, and it makes very little sense on the first few viewings.

Just tossing in a wrinkle to your thoughts...

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