Christian Storytelling and Respecting the Medium

“The problem Christian movies is that people go wanting to experience Cinema and not experience GOD!”

That criticism of Christian film, read on a social media post recently, betrays a common misunderstanding of Christian Storytelling.

Cinema is a storytelling medium but many Christians bring Sunday School lesson expectations into it that don’t match the medium. Cinema’s main goal isn’t to experience God, but to tell an engaging story. Now cinema (and any other storytelling medium) can provoke thought and discussion but, just as with the parables of Christ, those lessons aren’t in your face. They’re found in symbols, themes and big ideas of the story.

This brings up another set of misconceptions Christians have about what they think Christian Storytelling should be.

An insightful article on the subject from the OJCCC (an open-source student journal of Christian communication and culture developed by Moody Bible Institute students as a project of the course “Biblical Perspectives of Media and Culture”) identifies 5 misconceptions:

“The primary reason why Christian stories are no good has a lot more to do with a poor understanding of the gospel, evangelism, and discipleship, which is shown by these ideas:

1 | They don’t aim to entertain, but to save.

2 | They are overly marketed to just Christians, who should do no.3

3 | Are portrayed as evangelism tools, to bring your lost friends to (which doesn’t work because of no.1, and people know when they are being sold something).

4 | They seek to be a replacement for mainstream stories, rather than part of.

5 | They rarely show true reality, where someone accepts salvation and things still go wrong.”

Quoting Nate Fleming, writing after he challenged himself to consume nothing but Christian media for 40 days and nights, the author of the OJCCC article writes:

“The problem is that we’ve shackled family-friendly and faith-based together, and in the process we’ve cut ourselves off from being able to make really good drama.  Only a non-Christian can really tell our stories well, and then we get upset when they don’t tell them the way we want them to be told.”

What they’re basically saying is that Church folk want cinema to be like expository preaching or Sunday school lessons. Those formats convey clear information and messages. They may contain anecdotes and parables, but they’re not storytelling formats. I don’t think modern Christians like the subjective nature of cinematic messages anymore than some in Jesus’ day seemed to comprehend His parables.

It’s unfair to criticize folk for going to see Christian movies wanting to experience cinema, because that’s precisely what they’re there for. Do you go to a baseball game to experience God? I played on a soccer team for a Christian school. At no point did our coach tell us we were there to help folks experience God rather than simply playing the game. Yet that doesn’t make sports worthless and many a sports analogy made it into Paul’s writings.

You want to experience God? That’s awesome! Cinema isn’t where that’s supposed to happen any more than expository preaching or a Christian sporting event. Granted, I do experience God sometimes when watching movies, particularly nature documentaries that display God’s glory and imagination, but documentaries are designed to convey information and sway opinions… and experiencing God through those documentaries is a subjective experience. Another person watching the same documentary probably won’t feel the same way I do when viewing it and I may not necessarily experience God during other viewing. And that’s OK, because experiencing God is not the primary focus of that medium.

If you want to experience God, you need to go to your prayer closet or corporately worship with the church. Don’t attempt to impose that requirement on a medium meant primarily for storytelling. Jesus used both subjective storytelling and overt teaching during His ministry. Both have their place and Christian creators should respect the difference.

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