Yesterday, I ran across two news articles, from Christian sources, which seemed to be pitting art that seems to decry the subtle “morality” approach in order to appeal to a broader audience, at the expense of presenting the Gospel in one form or fashion. It was blatantly portrayed that way from one of the founders of the Veggie Tales, Phil Vischer:
I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity.
Granted, teaching morals isn’t the same thing as Christianity. You can believe and teach morals without being Christian about it. But I would propose that Veggie Tales did do so with a Christian background. Now, if the founder was saying that he personally had approached it purely from a moralistic standpoint, and that’s what he thought Christianity was when they were doing them, certainly he was wrong for doing so. Christianity is much more than a set of morals to follow. But the article seems to then imply that what they were teaching wasn’t Christianity because they didn’t have much in the way of Gospel presentations in it. So the claim is the kids weren’t taught the Gospel through them, just morality. Which may be true, but does that make it not Christian? More on that in a moment.
And then later I ran across a much more balanced article in dealing with the movie, October Baby. The reviewer, obviously a Christian, praises the movie on several fronts, but laments that the Gospel wasn’t presented any stronger.
Christian films too often seem to find themselves in a place of limbo, somewhere between moralism and preachiness, between downplaying or assuming the gospel by saying too little and appearing preachy by emphasizing or over-emphasizing the gospel. If a film only vaguely references faith—a Scripture passage here, the obligatory church scene there—we will complain that it says too little. If a film explicitly references the gospel—the whole gospel—we will say that it is too preachy.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that while October Baby shares a good and powerful message, it comes perilously close to moralism by only vaguely referencing the gospel.
Once again, a good example of quality Christian art, and while the author of the article acknowledges the difficulties in hitting it just right, feels this movie needed more of an overt Gospel message to it and that it came “perilously close to moralism.” But that misses the whole point. This film, a decidedly pro-life message, has the chance to reach across faith lines and address that issue with people of other faiths in ways that will touch their heart. To have any kind of overt attempt to preach the Gospel, no matter how low keyed it may have been played, would have gone counter to that primary goal. And yet religious folk, in the Evangelical community especially, just can’t get past Christian art that doesn’t always have the goal of presenting the Gospel, even when it is obvious that’s not its main goal and mission.
Here’s the deal. In a carpenter’s toolbox, there are all sorts of tools. Depending on what you are building and the specific piece you are working on, different tools will be called for at different times. One set of tools to lay the foundation. Another to cut and put up the frame, another to roof it, another to drywall it. And so on. There is not one tool that does everything. If you back a cement truck up to a frame and start pouring, you’ll be tearing it down and starting over. Likewise, the best way to catch fish isn’t a hammer, but a hook and bait. No work of art can do all things needed. All works of art shouldn’t have the same goal, to preach the Gospel.
Veggie Tales was good at what it did: teaching kids about Christian morality. It wasn’t designed or focused on teaching the Gospel. Could it have been? Sure. But my guess is it would have appealed to a lot fewer kids and adults, not been as popular, and not had the impact it did have on children growing up hearing their favorite Bible stories told in an engaging manner. How is that not Christian? Any parent who held that up to their kids, saying, “This is what being a Christian is all about,” is the one to blame. They are responsible for making sure their kids learn the full Gospel, and how the morality fits into it. Not Bob the Tomato. Veggie Tales was designed to fill a specific need, not say this is the totality of Christianity.
In the same way, October Baby was trying to communicate a message in a non-preachy way about abortion. It may very well reach some non-religious people with its message because the Christianity in it isn’t “in your face.” For the goal it had, attempting to slide in the goal of communicating the Gospel to non-Christians would have done more harm than good to the main goal.
While I certainly agree that there needs to be Christian art that can skillfully and clearly express the Gospel message through film, books, and art, that should not be the only goal. And even in casting the nets out for the Gospel, you approach it as St. Paul did in Athens. Sometimes you first get the interest, get people to thinking, adjust perspectives, so that when they do come across the Gospel, they are open to it instead of automatically rejecting it. Sometimes you have to do more than cast seed. You have to plow. And that means not being overt about it right at first. And it should be an accepted and important goal that some art is designed to be subtle and open ended, to get people to start seeing things in a new light. And let God worry about getting the Gospel to them.
But I think this attitude that it must always contain the Gospel message in a fairly overt form is what will keep Evangelicalism from really using the arts to get their worldview and message across to more than a limited number, because it is a one-size-fits-all approach not only to the Christian life, but to evangelism and art itself.
Even Jesus didn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach in spreading a message that often people would walk away thinking either, “I have no idea what this man is trying to say with his pretty stories,” or “Wow, He’s a great moral teacher!” He was willing to be misunderstood, to not speak plainly, to let people get the wrong idea about what he was saying, to not overtly state what He was saying, because He knew that those who had ears to hear, would hear and respond. Why would we not have the same approach to our art in spreading the message of Christ? And why are segments of Christianity so ready to call Jesus’ method non-Christian?
What lines would you draw in the sand on what Christian art must contain to be Christian?