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Sacramental vs Sentimental Film

November 18, 2005

Who makes the best Christian films? A lapsed-Catholic former-evangelical at Libertas   has some good analysis regarding this article that makes the case that heathens and lapsed Catholics make the best films:

First, an intuitive understanding of iconography gave them a strong foundation for crafting visual images. Next, they seemed to grasp the incarnational function of art, which allowed them to give tangible form to intangible concepts. Finally, their understanding of the sacramental nature of life helped them relate divine patterns through everyday minutiae. For these reasons, even lapsed Catholic filmmakers, such as Brian De Palma, or Federico Fellini, tend to be better equipped to focus on religious themes than practicing evangelicals. This isn’t to say that non-Catholic filmmakers are at a complete disadvantage when creating cinema. But the Protestant evangelical emphasis on the primacy of “word” has not allowed us to fully realize our ability to translate the image of God (imago Dei) into moving pictures.

The iconic, sacramental and incarnational aspects of film cannot be understated. No other art form can so effortlessly and economically evoke a person’s inner state, and also sweep you away with the wonder of created things. In film, words can often get in the way.

Why is it evangelicals have yet to make exceptional popular art in this country? Perhaps anywhere? Years ago I began to notice that all my favorite writers and filmakers were either Catholic or Anglican. Maybe there’s something to this Transubstantiation biz after all! But I think there’s a practical explanation as well. In Catholic and Anglican churches, the Liturgy is basically the same as it’s been for centuries. If you want to make art, you better find somewhere else besides Church to put it; that is, take it out into the world with you.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, are all about bringing people into the building. And because it stifles their precious individuality, they’ve thrown out almost all elements of the Liturgy, leaving a gaping hole to be filled. Consequently they make a lot of art for themselves to be used in Church by Christians as an aid to worship. This has not been good for their art, because not all art is appropriate for worship. Thom Parham burns a lot of synapses trying to explain a theological reason why "non-Christians are often more successful than Christians at representing sin in film", but I think the reasons are often far more mundane: You don’t want to be caught making something that you wouldn’t want to show in Church. The result is often phony, "doctrinally correct" art with an awkward humanity that fails to connect, or with an equally phony sentimentality that is even worse than the standard Hollywood variety, because the human element of it is so cerebral and word-based. Hollywood loves formulas, but TULIP does not seem to be one of them.

There are worse ideas – like bringing in bad art in from "the world" and treating them iconically. I’m thinking of one Church I read about that was playing songs by bands like the Go-Go’s as worship. Eeek!

Good art is inherently incarnational, I think, in that it shows the universal in the specific.  Like the bread and wine that is raised for all to see, it is sacramental, not sentimental. The sacramental is open to and easily grasped by all; the sentimental is closed and only understood by those "inside". Evangelicals will never make great films unless they turn themselves outside and make movies that will play outside Church. Remembering that not everything in the world needs to be appropriated for worship probably wouldn’t hurt either.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Shay permalink
    January 31, 2009 7:51 am

    This is a great post. Sorry I didn’t find it 4 years ago! Thank you.

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