Christian Media

Why So Much Christian Media Sucks

It won’t shock anyone to say that a great number of Christian movies, TV, books, websites, and more are pretty poor.  And while there’s much improvement out there, we still have a long way to go. And it’s not just opinion. The truth is that starting a few hundred years ago, Christians walked away from the arts. As we discuss on the website, there was a time when we were actually patrons of the arts and hired the best and brightest artists in the world to tell our stories. But over the last few centuries, that changed – to the point that the last generation of Christian media professionals – especially those in broadcast media, weren’t creative artists at all – they were mostly preachers.

But I have to hand it to those guys. At least they stepped up to the plate, but it’s why so much Christian media today is still based on sermons.  Now however, it’s a new generation’s responsibility to take that baton, and make a definite shift toward the narrative.

But back to why Christian media sucks. I was reading David Eagleman’s New York Times review of Jonathan Gottschall’s new book “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human” and came across a brilliant statement:

“The dominant themes of story aren’t what we might assume them to be. Consider the plotlines found in children’s playtime, daydreams and novels. The narratives can’t be explained away as escapism to a more blissful reality. If that were their purpose, they would contain more pleasure. Instead, they’re horrorscapes. They bubble with conflict and struggle. The plots are missing all the real-life boring bits, and what remains is an unrealistically dense collection of trouble. Trouble, Gottschall argues, is the universal grammar of stories.”

Eagleman nails what many of us have tried to express, and certainly what millions of Christians want to avoid when it comes to movies, TV, books, and other media: It shouldn’t be about being “clean.”  Some Christian radio and TV stations even advertise that they’re “safe.”

But the great stories aren’t safe – even the best children’s stories. They’re filled with conflict, struggle, and yes, even horror. They don’t shy away from real life. (Oddly enough, that’s something they have in common with much of the Old Testament.)

Christians will never create media or entertainment as long as we’re trying to be “safe.”  It was true thousands of years ago, and it’s still true today: If we want to authentically engage our culture, maybe it’s time to toss the lifejackets overboard and take a risk.

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  1. I’ll be VERY surpassed if this ever happens. It seems that “being safe” is the only thing Christians want. Every time I turn around, somebody in a church is worried about safety-“Think of the children”-sheesh.

  2. You are speaking my mind, sir… as the technical director of a fairly large church in Southern California, it would be easy to get in arguments and lose my job over this issue. “Christians”, for the most part, act nothing like Jesus did… he was not “safe” nor did he beat around the bush or sugarcoat things. This is people’s eternity we are talking about here; Hell is not “safe”, so why should Christians stand off in the corner, afraid to tell people who God is, why He created them, and what their future looks like if they don’t get on board? The mindset you speak of has been deeply trained into what has largely become a ritualistic belief system it’s pathetic. I’m done ranting now 🙂 Thank you for writing this!

  3. Life is messy and Jesus is not a simple antidote for this life’s challenges. He’s the cure for the cancer of the human soul – but we still have to go through the radiation and chemo treatments of this life before we reach the promised land – Heaven.
    If Christians producing shows and films will get real – we may discover an audience outside our church walls.
    Keep speaking truth…until we stop sucking.

  4. Great article. Some of the best stories, including my testimonies, have conflict, terror, etc. because some places on earth are not nice.

  5. I feel that comparing Christian “art” to secular art when it comes to mass media is unfair. There’s more than a ton of bad, poorly executed, poorly plotted, un-challenging TV, movies, music and books. But there’s SOOOOO much to choose from they’re bound to have a couple of hits! I watched Safe House on DVD then The Bourne Legacy at the theater. Both big budget movies with big stars and both virtually the same story that was over the top and ultimately just simple. Then we’re going to compare Facing the Giants to that and say the Hollywood flicks were better because they had blood and curse words? (Oh, and 50 million dollar + budgets.) As believers we’re obviously in the world but that doesn’t mean we’re of the world so we’re not going to make trashy, sexed-up profane movies because “that’s the way life is”. And ultimately we’re talking about “entertainment”, not the one on one lives we’re called to influence for Christ.

      1. Well, to respond to this in my Marine mode, no shit it’s an oversimplification. Look at the title of the blog! What are we comparing specifically then? Since the headline and blog were purposely very vague, I addressed the concept in an oversimplified form. “Christian media suck, secular media good. Get rock, hunt food.” As Job would say on Arrested Development, “Come on!” I read the post, I agree but who will finance the Christian horror? Current “Christian” movies are financed by church’s for the most part so they’re going to call the shots on content. H-wood won’t finance a Christian movie that might alienate Christians b/c that’s where they see there ROI. So they finance lame generic pseudo Christian movies that aren’t any good and point to those and claim Christian movies don’t work. I’m up for a Christian sci-fi action flick (b/c I’m writing one) but it’s a fine line of who the audience is going to be. Few like being preached to and those that do want a clear sermon.

        1. I think we are talking at slight cross purposes. Horror movies as potential creative evangelism does not mean they should be “preachy”. They should fulfill the requirements of the genre first and foremost, and therefore hit their target audience. My own writing (whatever audience, whatever genre) is deliberately not aimed at a Christian audience, nor do the stories exist as a platform for preaching. I do not see the point in writing anything for the sake of merely entertaining Christians in a cosy subculture. However, my Christian worldview is inherent in the writing. That is why we need screenwriters, directors, producers and so on who are Christians working in the Hollywood mainstream – NOT to preach at an audience, but to enable their inherent worldview to permeate their work. Such Christians obviously are working in Hollywood and are having a good effect, but we need many, many more, and in all genres. Horror has been neglected and that is one of the reasons I feel it has so much potential.

          1. Could you give examples of movies or media influenced by a Christian world view? I attended a seminar recently on filmmaking. The speaker said that Hollywood does not make films, it markets them. That is why, according to the speaker, so many bad films come out and yet are successful. My point is that secular media isn’t actually much better but much more. I believe Hollywood gives very clear in your face messages to it’s audience and it’s marketed to a mass audience and that audience includes Christians because for the most part Christians aren’t discerning what they take in for entertainment. Pro-gay, pro-abortion, pro-premarital sex, pro-revenge, etc. That’s the messeges coming through loud and clear from H-wood. So some Christians that have funding make in your face Christian movies, I don’t think it “sucks” as much as it’s just not to the taste of someone like Phil Cooke who gets to be a part of so much entertainment and most of that is top quality in every area. Simon, what do you write? I mean can I see something you’ve written? D you have anything on Amazon, Smashwords, etc? I’m very interested. I’ve written a military action drama script about gang bangers in the Marines. About 4 people in the biz have read it, They all “love” the script but don’t do anything about it. They all love the mentor character, A Christian that doesn’t give chapter and verse but does quote scripture. I don’t think they’ve noticed the character is Christian because they don’t recognize the Bible references. I think this is a more of a “world view” but is not a main plot line nor does he lead the main character to Christ. I think we should start with smaller steps until the idea that Christians are a part of society seems more acceptable.

          2. if you google “George goes to Mars” or “Uncle Flynn” you will find two books I’ve written aimed at the young adult demographic. George goes to Mars has only just been released, but Uncle Flynn has been out a year or so and has attracted some very good reviews (both are available on Amazon and Smashwords). I have written several other books by the way (not just for young people) and a few screenplays. Some of these will no doubt emerge over the coming years.

            As for secular films I think promote Christian values in a much more positive way than “Christian” films, in the last year alone there have been several examples in everything from mainstream superhero movies to artier projects like The Tree of Life and everything in between.

            Additional examples: there is overt Christian content in genre films like Machine Gun Preacher, The Book of Eli, The Rite and the remake of True Grit – a rare example of a remake better than the original, which is interesting considering it reinstated the Christian elements stripped out of the John Wayne version and did better than any other Coen Brothers film at the box office.

            It isn’t just Hollywood either – recent foreign films including Of Gods and Men and Departures contain a far more penetrating insight into faith than many so-called Christian productions.

            Your point about Hollywood is interesting, but I generally think of Hollywood as amoral. It is a business that is neither pro nor anti-Christian, just pro-money. If films that promote anti-Christian themes make money they will make more and vice versa.

  6. I couldn’t agree more. Sadly, it seems that many Christians are constricted by this particularly absurd religious spirit that thinks all entertainment should be squeaky clean. The problem with that is that squeaky clean isn’t real. It is trite, patronising, and even offensively stupid at times.

    The stories in the Bible – and the stories Jesus told – are not squeaky clean.

    Should a story contain sex/violence/swearing etc? It is – and always will be – all about context. Take war films for example. I would argue that it is irresponsible to not include graphic violence.

    Real life is messy, difficult and doesn’t always have everything tied up in neat bundles. That’s why so many “Christian” movies are utterly phony. The audience isn’t stupid. They smell the fake and move on. That’s why as long as Christians are determined to entertain other Christians with watered down, insipid nonsense, we will change the lives of precisely no-one.

    Here’s an article I’ve linked to in the past in the comments section on this blog, and I think it’s worth linking to again. This is an article I wrote defending horror movies as having huge potential for creative evangelism:

  7. Great, Phil…very true. We think God took us out of the reality of the world…and he didn’t. He just gives us very intelligent and wise answers to the most complex problems. It’s much like when the hero finds how to solve the specific conflict that is the central pivot of the whole movie…and then…on to the sequel. haha.

  8. Just read all the comments below–there IS hope and that’s why Kev and I are absolutely committed to helping Truli grow: Because people that are different, creative, Christian, can put there content there, and MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Like Churchill said, “Never give up. Never, never, never give up.” A.W. Tozer, in my opinion the greatest Christian writer ever, said, “This world is a battleground, not playground,” and one of my beloved prof’s in college said, “I’m convinced the only reason God doesn’t call us home after we’re baptized is to win souls for Heaven.” So, to all you Christians out there who are trying to create great content, keep going. Learn your craft. Get great at it no matter how long it takes. Pray for inspiration. And don’t give up, no matter what. We had our own show on a Christian network that was scrapped before it aired, and we’d completed 26 episodes. The Devil tried to stop us, but every day we move forward, and leave the rest up to God. My husband’s art teacher in high school said, “You’ll never make a living drawing cartoons.” Kev’s now illustrated over 200 books and just won Book of the Year for the 2nd time for Creative Child Magazine. Disney scouted our characters and liked them but industry insiders told us that the networks don’t want morals based characters. But you know what–Sun Records wasn’t big when Elvis went in–HE made it big. If you can’t get into Disney, create your own Sun Records! And don’t let anyone stop the work you’re doing for God. Kevin wrote his first chapter book in 22 evenings and it was called “a masterpiece of communication,” and won an award for best youth fiction. We were down after our show was scrapped, now with Truli, our “Sun Records,” Kevin said he is the most inspired he’s ever been and creating the best material of his life. I praise Jesus for inspiring His children with works that glorify Him! We must keep going “until we get where we need to go and meet who we need to meet,” to quote Phil Cooke from a blog a while back. When the road is rough, you must keep going until you get where you need to go, and your creative works glorify Him!

  9. Yes – using children’s stories is such a great illustration of the problem.

    I think something else that’s afoot here is that not only do we want to use art as a way to cover up the pain of life with pleasure, we’re willing to accept small and petty pleasures instead of the deeper, more fulfilling joys that God offers to us. Those deeper joys aren’t to be had easily, for lots of reasons, and if something isn’t easy, then we avoid it. Part of the difficulty that we avoid is the difficulty of careful thought and discernment, which must be exercised when we partake of art (or anything, really). Just hand me something that I know is squeaky clean and that will give me a bit of joy, even if it is small.

  10. Nothing is safe in this life… we are all aware that we live in a fallen world. So how have Christians allowed themselves to be deluded into thinking life is safe and non-conflictual?! It’s no wonder we make media that sucks! The best guests booked on our shows are the ones that have been through hell and back again… they tell the riveting stories, ones our viewers pay attention to, learn from, are encouraged and truly inspired by. These are the stories that we consume and identify with. Great post Phil, great subject to tackle!

  11. I really like your stuff Phil, and I think this message is great for conservative Christians avoiding Harry Potter. But I wonder if you realize how well you are pandering to the ‘Christian culture sucks’ Hipster crowd. Maybe that’s your aim, don’t know… but I think a better way ala Brueggemann’s ‘Prophetic Imagination’ is to energize some examples of people beginning to do it well rather than to nebulously brush the whole Christian artistic community with a ‘see – a weak reference to Francis Schaeffer proves that you guys out there are all lame except reformers like me’. Ughhhh! It’s not so helpful, excuse my frustration. Of course, there truly may be NO possible examples you can think of. So you could always say to your church media director that you’d like to pick up the bill for their cultural learning curve now that they’ve acclimatised to the artistic requests of those various Christian preachers you laud so well.

  12. I hate being the only one here with a descending opinion? YES I TOTALLY agree that some work is sterile, stiff and void of real reality. But I choose to bless those who’s hearts are pure, and continue to provide heart content. The edge has a a very fine line. I will point out, many of the points you make are valid. And if God has called you to create more realistically, be blessed and follow that call, but let us not judge those who create with the love of Christ in their heart, offering their gifts to Him. For they too shall see the kingdom of God, and point many to the cross along the way. We as the church are “called to be different”. IT’S A HEART CHOICE. Many of the greatest movies of all time are G-rated. And I will be quick to acknowledge the bible is NOT G-Rated. But we must not conform to the standards of this world, as we are called do-ers of the word, even proclaiming…”We are IN this world, but NOT OF this world”. If its in your heart, create. But creating just to not be sterile or need more edge… is that your goal? or passion. This is only my opinion and I would be a hypocrite to want to impose my will, but with the world free falling we’ll save more with love and salvation over the gross abundance of a society FULL of reality shows. “For the greatest of these… is LOVE”. I will close with a quote from the book
    Balancing the Christian Life by Charles Ryrie.
    “Why do we want to mimick those who are lost. Haven’t we been saved for a greater cost? Being “in” the world also means we can enjoy the things of the world,
    such as the beautiful creation God has given us, but we are not to
    immerse ourselves in what the world values, nor are we to chase after
    worldly pleasures. Pleasure is no longer our calling in life, as it once
    was, but rather the worship of God.”
    This response is with love in my heart, knowing I am in the minority. This is only my opinion and if you ever do create this content, I promise I’ll be the first in line to watch it. Thank you for caring so deeply and your heart for the lost is very apparent. May God bless your work!

  13. Agreed, Phil.

    We need to create compelling, demographic-appropriate content, pure and simple. “Safe” to me means that somebody is scared. No place for that in creative endeavors– at least not those which have a chance of being successful.

    I say create “smart” content, not “safe” content.

  14. Let’s not forget that there is a lot of secular media that sucks. Being too “clean” and “safe” is not the real problem with Christian media. There are many people in the business who are not working within their God-given talents. When people are doing what they are anointed by God to do, they will produce quality work that will impact the world. Some Christians expect their work to be anointed just because it’s being done “for the glory of God”. They don’t realize that God is not obligated to bless someone’s work if He didn’t specifically call them to do it. A good thing is not necessarily a “God” thing.

  15. Completely agree with you…my major concern is that people will immediately go too far in the other direction in an attempt to show they’re not “clean.” You can take risks, you can push the edge and do it in a way that’s not over the top offensive.

  16. Interesting. I wrestled with whether or not to include some messiness in my most recent young reader’s book. It’s tempting to want to present an idealistic life, but people (even kids) don’t relate to that.

  17. Well said Phil. I’ve been wondering if our culture’s fascination with celebrity scandal is really just a distilled version (pornographic version?) of the conflict in a good story. It’s like we know that conflict is good, but the entertainment industry has found a shortcut to the conflict without the story.

  18. Some of the confusion is that we are using the word “christian” as an adjective rather than a noun. A Christian is a person whose life reflects Jesus’ presence (or at least is supposed to)….once we apply the word as an adjective to “art,” books,” “movies,” etc it all gets weird, basically a marketing gimmick, which is a despicable way to use the name of Jesus (talk about taking God’s name in vain….). Art made by Christians should reflect that they march to the beat of a different drummer, and have a literary history (the Bible) that while it points to a wonderful resolution in the meanwhile lives in a world of the real and broken and often unresolved. Too often “christian” art (to use the term I dislike) is not much more than pure warm fuzzy schmaltz and quick happy endings rather than pointing to a great hope that gives us strength and peace here and now where things are not so perfect. I think the well known poem “footprints” reflects this well.

  19. I live in the Midwest and finally ran from church as we creatives get wrongly branded as being rebellious, too Hollywood, arrogant etc. I spoke to a yough group and walked in wrapped in chains with tags of every sin imaginable while I preached (in total bondage) of freedom in Christ. I noted the Internet Porn tag REALLY upset some people. The lies we tell in church! Bottom line: the kids loved it and responded well. The adults? Not so much. I finally turned from sermons to story telling.

  20. I agree. As a father of 4 children ( ages 3 up to 10) I face a huge challenge of what the world offers for media vs. the church. I see alot of Children Christian Ministries offering things that won’t hold my kids attention and frankly they ( and I) think are lame. I like the Veggie Tales however after 5 years of age most kids ( at least mine ) lose interest. They cannot compete with Sponge Bob, Teen Titans, Fairly Odd Parents, etc. that are on Nick and Cartoon Network. I’m not saying these are horrible cartoons,but I would rather my kids be able to watch good CHRISTian programming. If I put the T.V. on TBN or other Christian Network I get puppets and older people singing some out of touch songs that most kids (maybe not kids that are only exposed to church and sheltered) think are corny. Maybe you would say I should shelter my children more, however that is not the real world. WE need to offer better alternatives to Hollywoods garbage. Like it or not technology and social media are only becoming more of our world and culture and if we want to reach people for Jesus, especially kids and youth, we must develop more Christian media:) I am 38 and have some good ideas however I have no real experience in anamation,etc. I am thinking of going to school for it and pursuing this. I will see how the Lord works it out.

  21. I have seen a fair few christian movies (hubby managed a christian book shop). There are a lot of not so good but some very good. I believe we should acknowledge the good. Movies like courageous and the grace card deal with real life hard issues and are well made. I watched the first movie that the team who made courageous ever made (flywheel). The quality was not quite there but this church was having a go and the story was quite good. They have continued to develop and every movie they make seems to show improvement. I applaud them for continuing to develop their craft even when the beginning wasn’t perfect and I’m sure they coped flack when they made it. I believe that these movies are good examples of the relevant but M rated because of adult themes movies that the christian movie industry is developing. They do not use gratuitous violence or sex scenes but do show real life issues involving violence.

  22. As a non-believer, I can attest that this is true. You’ll never convince me anyway, but you’ll never get a chance with these corny “safe” productions that make me cringe.

  23. Very interesting and timely for me, considering some of the things I am developing. I am most passionate about people seeing those in the Bible as real people, not relegating them to “stories” akin to nothing more than fables. When I read the Bible, the people jump off the pages to me. I wonder how Noah felt knowing that his grandfather lived longer than anyone else and the fact that his great grandfather (Enoch) just disappeared without a trace? I think people would have more compassion for Sarah’s rush to impregnate Hagar if they consider that by the time she had Isaac she was 90 and since she knew God had set life spans to 120 years after the flood, that would mean she only had 30 years with her son. If we put that into perspective today, it would be the equivalent of a 60 year old woman giving birth and then living to be 90. I wonder if Abraham told Sarah about the Isaac sacrifice. I doubt it, and what was that conversation like when Isaac told his mom what happened? We like to keep it “safe” and avoid talking about issues that affect us all – suicide, murder, adultery, rape – those are all in the Bible . I personally relate the events in the Bible unfiltered straight – no chaser. It makes it more relevant.

  24. “It won’t shock anyone to say that a great number of Christian movies, TV, books, websites, and more are pretty poor.”

    You would think that, but some Christian moviegoers are such unaware philistines that unless you call out the movies they like by name, they won’t get it.

    The other problem is that many other countries have mad great Christian movies, but Americans don’t do subtitled movies.

    1. I wouldn’t call them “unaware philistines” – but just people who want so badly for these movies to work, they forgive perhaps too much. But you’re spot on about what’s being done in the Christian media space internationally. There’s some remarkable thinking going on outside the United States.

      1. Sorry to be late. I like your point, but I’ve noticed in many of these type of posts, someone in the comments says something along the lines of “Whatever movies are you talking about? I only see good movies like ‘Fireproof’, ‘Facing the Giants’, ‘Courageous’, etc.” Maybe they are too forgiving, but on the surface they seem unaware. They’ve fallen for the pandering.

  25. Bingo. Also a few more (dozen) rounds of screenplay polish would help for most Christian narrative films. It seems Christian films rush into production with a shoddy screenplay and blame the weak result on acting and directing when the screenplay itself had no teeth to begin with.

  26. I think a great deal of it comes down to labeling. Good luck getting a secular audience to see a Christian film. Good luck keeping a Christian audience if a film is too secular. If locking down an audience is challenging or the audience is too small, then can a film get the funding that it needs to have higher technical standards and better talent?

    Sucky Christian media is a pretty hot topic among my peers. How can we make it good? We’re a team of Ahabs and Ishmael’s looking for that darn white wale of a tale. (Hooray puns, by the way.)

    I could go on about this topic forever! Please post more thoughts about it, Phil!

    1. It’s a great point Anna, and I think some of it is the business itself. A “Christian” film is pretty much a DVD release these days, so there are some real boundaries there that need to be discussed. Thanks for your comment!

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