How do you argue with a good story?
What do the films Pleasantville, Chocolat and Happy Feet all have in common? Tricky one if you haven’t actually seen them, and i should warn you that this will posting will include some plotspoilers (so before continuing, go and see these films).
They are all propaganda.
Now I’ve nothing against that. I don’t mind people expressing their opinions and certainly have no objection to them doing that through art, music, films or whatever. That’s the whole point of an open society. This particularly means I don’t object to anti-Christian propaganda. I’m not especially threatened by that – it is fair enough. But please allow me the right to stick a paw in the air and name names. For i do think that these films (to name but 3) are to varying degrees anti-Christian propaganda. And let me repeat – that’s ok.
The problem is, whereas in a debate in which you can argue your case (hopefully with clarity, tact and generosity), how do you argue with a story? It’s just a story, right? If written well, the characters act and speak consistently. And who’s to say that they don’t convey certain truths and realities? It’s just that when it is caricatures who form catalysts to a story’s development, they present an implicit argument on their own. This is especially the case when an audience’s sympathies are being steered towards those they oppose. In case you are thinking i’m getting a bit convoluted here, let me give you an example from Happy Feet:
Mumble (aka an Emperor Penguin called Happy Feet) is born different – he can’t sing but he can dance. In fact he was sort of dancing while still in the egg. He’s definitely the hero of the piece in what is a beautifully made and impressive film. However, there are powers that be in the penguin community who worship the god ‘Guin’. The fish stocks have run out, and in a primitive religious sort of way, the blame is squarely placed at Mumble’s tap-dancing feet. He is ‘excommunicated’ from the penguin colony on the orders of the waspish Noah the Elder. Noah (a biblical name of course) has a Scottish accent – funny that he’s the film’s only inhabitant of Antartica with such an accent – a sort of caricature of a Scottish Calvinist, I suppose. Noah the Elder sucks the exuberance out of life and makes everyone conform in a depressingly oppressive way. Now, let’s face it, there are people like that in life – and some of them may well be Scottish Calvinists. Perhaps there may even be more than your average amongst Scottish Calvinists. But it doesn’t mean all are. And in fact, i know one or two Scottish Calvinists who are great guys, full of fun and life’s exuberance.
Perhaps it might seem churlish and hyper-sensitive to say all this. I know i’m not alone in detecting this sort of agenda here since there are USA Christian lobbies who have been vocal in their criticism of the film and calling on sanctions, boycotts and goodness knows what else. Quite apart from being pretty useless, i do think such responses are counter-productive (for the reasons implied in the 1st paragraph). Still, it has got me musing. How often does one come across Christian characters in movies and books who are actually people who are to be respected rather than reviled? Sure, there is a lot of ‘Christian’ fiction out there but unfortunately much of it doesn’t seem to get beyond the airport bookstall standard of writing. Instead, these sorts of images become ingrained in people’s minds – and in the absence of actually knowing real life Christians, they become people’s ‘experience’ of Christians. Or if they have a grievance against a Christian they do know, the caricature merely serves to reinforce prejudices.
Now as I say, i have no objection to the right of literature, cinema and art (etc) to tell stories in whatever way. I just want to be able to point out what’s going on and put my own case/point of view. And that is to make the simple point that there is so much more to Christian things than followers of Christ who don’t follow him that closely.
Before i get completely rambly, let me stop with one of my favourite bits in a book i’ve recently enjoyed reading (Donald Miller’s BLUE LIKE JAZZ). He’s not talking about exactly the same thing. But i think it is relevant:
In a recent radio interview I was sternly asked by the host, who did not consider himself a Christian, to defend Christianity. I told him that i couldn’t do it, and moreover, that i didn’t want to defend the term. He asked me if i was a Christian and i told him yes. ‘Then why don’t you want to defend Christianity?’, he asked, confused. I told him i no longer knew what the term meant. Of the 100s of 1000s of people listening to his show that day, some of them had terrible experiences with Christianity; they may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, the term Chrstianity meant something that no Christian i know would defend. By fortifying the term, i am only making them more and more angry. I won’t do it. Stop 10 people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you 10 different answers. How can i defend a term that means 10 different things to 10 different people? I told the radio show host that i would rather talk about Jesus and how i came to believe that Jesus exists and that he likes me. The host looked back at me with tears in his eyes. When we were done, he asked me if we could go get lunch together. He told me how much he didn’t like Christianity, but how he had always wanted to believe Jesus was the Son of God. (Blue Like Jazz, Nelson, 2003, p115)