I’ve done a number of posts lately that discuss how spiritually driven media professionals and creative communicators should engage the culture. The question that won’t go away is: How should we engage the culture? Do we become the audience’s friend? Do we debate and argue? Should we be willing to offend?
During the last 20 years, the gay community’s media strategy has been masterful and worth studying. Gay actors didn’t just pop up on screen out of the closet, nor did they protest or boycott networks that didn’t give them access. They began first by getting into the system. Gay writers, directors, and actors worked their way in without any fanfare or criticism. They became respected in the industry as excellent artists. Then someone introduced a character who didn’t date, or wasn’t married – but was lovable and funny. And we thought he was great. We really liked him. Next, the character was more effeminate – not offensive in the least, and very funny. Once again, we loved him.
Next they crossed another line… then another… then another, until being in the closet isn’t even an issue anymore. Actor Rock Hudson nearly went to his grave in the closet, and Richard Chamberlain and Tab Hunter waited until their 70’s to tiptoe out. But today, gay actors can enjoy mainstream success on network television.
But it happened slowly, almost under the radar, with a brilliant strategy of having quality writers and directors create characters who were admirable. How can you protest something or someone who’s so likeable and non-threatening?
I’ve always felt there was something in that approach for Christians in the media. That’s why we’re helping Christians achieve influential positions in the culture, and we engage rather than protest or boycott. That approach has generated some criticism, and I’ve defended it on shows like MSNBC’s Scarborough Country and CNN’s Paula Zahn. And as “The Da Vinci Code” proved, when Christians engage, even though the movie is a huge box office success, it got believers into the conversation. It brought the issues into the public square in a positive way, and as a result, hundreds of books, videotapes, DVD’s, and other teaching resources pointing to the truth came out of that controversy.
But I’m reading Dorothy Sayers, one of my favorite writers (1893-1957). She was one of the famous “Inklings” – the informal group of writers at Oxford that included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. In her book, Letters to the Diminished Church, she writes:
First, I believe it to be a grave mistake to present Christianity as something charming with no offense to it. Seeing that Christ went about the world giving the most violent offense to all kinds of people, it would seem absurd to expect that the doctrine of his person can be so presented as to offend nobody. We cannot blink at the fact that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, was so stiff in his opinions and so inflammatory in his language that he was thrown out of church, stoned, hunted from place to place, and finally gibbeted as a firebrand and a public danger.
Powerful stuff. In our present day efforts to embrace the culture, we’re careful not to offend, and I wonder if that has taken some of the distinctiveness out of the faith. Do we live a faith that’s toothless with no power? Are we worshipping Tony the Tiger when we should be worshipping Aslan?
Granted, most of the people Jesus offended were the religious folks. When Jesus was confronted by sinners or the suffering, he was far more tender and gracious. There’s no question that he saved his most fiery volleys for the hypocritical types within the faith.
Also, understand that when I talk about offending, I don’t mean for stupid reasons. Wildly colored hair, prosperity preaching, Jesus junk product offers, cheesy, out of date approaches and styles – no one has the right to be stupid in their presentation of the Christian faith. I’ll be against blue curtains, bad hair, gold furniture, and plants on Christian TV programs until the day I die.
What I’m talking about here is presenting the reality of the Christian faith. One of the great memories I have of Billy Graham is his constantly saying, “The Bible says…” as if to say, “Hey – these aren’t my rules, they come from a bigger source than me.”
But today, we hear Christian leaders try everything in their arsenal to defend a point of doctrine without even actually citing the authority of the Bible. We think the audience will “relate” to it better, when it may actually be positioning the Christian faith as just another “lifestyle choice,” and not the raging fire that transformed the Western world.
There’s no question that I’ve seen more lives changed in Hollywood because people were loved into the kingdom. But that’s on a personal, one-to-one level. Many pastors today preach an exceptionally soft approach to the gospel, and as a result, have millions of fans (yes, fans), and sell millions of books. But do these “fans” actually understand the consequences of their faith decision? Do they understand what’s being demanded of them, and how difficult the future as a believer might be?
My point is that I wonder in our positive desire to embrace the culture, are we losing the very edge of the greatest story ever told?
In our movies, TV, and other media, which approach do we take?
Are we trying so hard to be hip, cool, and contemporary, that we’ve lost sight of the fact that the Christian faith is compelling, not because it’s nice, happy, or positive, but simply because it’s true.
I think if we really believed that, it would dramatically change the way we present the Christian message.