Why Don’t Christians Make Better Movies?

Christians live for one thing-to glorify God through the Gospel of Jesus, or as my church puts it-to glorify God, pursue people. With that in mind, I understand that the focal point of any and all Christian media in some way must advance the Gospel message. But I have one question: “Why don’t Christians make more good movies about Christianity?” I know what many of you think. “They’re not bad. I enjoy them, and besides, the movie’s not the point, the Gospel is the point.” On that last part I agree completely. On the first two, not so much. 

In my entire life, I’ve seen maybe four (4) movies with a Christian message that I thoroughly enjoyed and admired, not only because of the message, but also because of the craft with which the message was delivered: Ragamuffin: The Story of Rich Mullins, The Hiding Place, The Passion of the Christ, and Chariots of Fire. The first three were made by Christians for a Christian audience. Chariots of Fire was not, but don’t judge it until you watch it. If you don’t see a deeply moving story of Biblical friendship and phileo love, then you’re not paying attention. Other than those four, I can’t think of one Christian movie that I thought was smartly crafted, professional, and well-told. I’m no expert, but I’ve seen thousands of films in my life. I know a well-made movie when I see it, even if I hate it.
Christian movies serve to edify the masses of believers because they tell stories with an overt message. But they rarely challenge Christians to think more deeply about their faith, and almost never convince non-believers to listen to the Gospel. In fact, few non-Christians see these movies unless they have Christian friends and relatives who invite them. What they typically see is a varnished, shiny tale about a near perfect saint of a Christian either converting an evil non-believer or standing up to injustice by an evil non-believer. And they often accomplish their goals with simple platitudes and pat answers, watered down from the original Bible message. Even movies such as Fireproof, which attempt to show the flawed human inside the Christian, avoid showing the most difficult consequences of sin. There remains little tension to carry the story, few details in the writing, and no suspense because the audience knows how the story ends when they enter the theater or press play on their Blu-Ray discs. The result is a film that reflects a Christian worldview, but not Christian reality. In other words, these movies show how we want to live our lives, not how we actually live our lives (most of us anyway).
Believers often complain, and rightly so, that Hollywood portrays them as self righteous, arrogant bigots, sleazy con men, or dimwits. But our answer isn’t to portray ourselves as perfect saints with all the answers. It’s time we made more honest movies, like Ragamuffin, that show our pews are really filled with men and women who struggle with depression, dishonesty, lust, drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling, doubt, and any number of other sins (And why shouldn’t they be filled thus? Don’t churches exist to “seek out and save those who are lost”?). Films that show Christians as people who, like everybody else, desperately need the love, grace, and forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ. Smartly written films that show, rather than telegraph, that the work of transformation through Jesus doesn’t end with conversion to Christianity, it begins there. If we don’t, we risk leaving that task to Hollywood, who will control the message and shape opinions about Christianity. They’re better at making films with impact, and they don’t like us. Instead of taking umbrage with Hollywood, let’s admit that some of those unfair portrayals of believers are accurate. Admit that sometimes we can do a better job. Then, make better Christian movies than they do. 
Now, I’m off to see “God’s Not Dead,” which I want to see mostly because Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel hated it.
Peace of Christ,
Jim

So I’m Back

It’s been a few days (okay, almost 2 years) since I posted a blog on this site. Well, now I’m back. I have a lot to say, and I hope you’ll consider my posts thoughtfully and give me some feedback. Sometimes I’ll post about randoms stuff going on in my life. Sometimes I’ll post about random stuff going on in the world around us. If you have something you want to discuss, feel free to contact me and let me know. Until then.

Peace of Christ,
Jim

Some People Just Don’t Get It

They just don’t get it. From the the Catholic Church to Penn State University to the family of the late Joe Paterno, they just don’t understand. Perusing today’s headlines I came across this gem from the AP, “Paterno Family Says Sanctions Defame Legacy”. What?! 

By now, you have probably heard that the NCAA levied some pretty harsh sanctions against Penn State’s football program to the tune of  a $60 million fine, a four year bowl ban, the loss of 40 scholarships, and the forced vacation of 112 wins. It’s that last sanction that must irk Joe Paterno’s family the most. With the vacation of those 112 wins, Paterno is no longer the winningest coach in college football history. That distinction now falls to Bobby Bowden of Florida State. JoPa’s legend is indeed tainted, but not because of the sanctions levied against the university he served for so long.
The statement released by Paterno’s family rightly expressed disgust at Jerry Sandusky’s actions and sympathy for Sandusky’s victims, but cried foul over what they deemed a lack of “due process” regarding the levying of punishments against the Penn State and Paterno before “other investigations” run their own course. They decry the Freeh report, the NCAA, and Penn State University equally as being nothing more than
reactionary entities in the throes of damage control. It seems they wanted to be interviewed regarding the issues at hand or otherwise be involved in the investigation as it happened. I assume these “other investigations” mentioned here refer to the criminal investigations into whether Penn State administration and Paterno covered up the abuse as it went on and should have reported the abuse to authorities. The problem is that these allegations and all their associated umbrage miss the point. The family runs the risk of being seen as more concerned with Paterno’s legacy than the suffering his actions allowed to happen.
But really, that is what happens in situations like this. The institutional leadership of organizations that are faced with this type of scandal close ranks out of fear that the damage to the organizations could be irreparable. But this idea is so short sighted as to be laughable. These allegations almost always come out eventually. When the damage of the allegations is combined with the damage of the cover up, it becomes magnified and takes on a life of its own. Just ask the Catholic Church. After covering up and protecting abusive priests for so long, the Church became guilty of facilitating the abuse that took place. Penn State and Joe Paterno could have prevented years of abuse against an unknown number of victims if they had only chosen to take the hit to their reputations and reported the allegations when they first appeared. The consequences of not reporting the abuse remain far worse now, years later.
JoPa’s family seems to want the world to give Paterno his due for years of academic and athletic excellence while completely ignoring the system that allowed him the impunity to cover up and hide misconduct by his athletes and coaches. They want us to believe that Coach Joe, the man who preached integrity or decades, should either be taken at his word that he didn’t know that Sandusky was sexually abusing defenseless boys on campus or forgiven for a lapse in judgement for not reporting the allegations when he heard them. But we can’t do that because doing that changes absolutely nothing in the system Paterno benefited from during his coaching tenure. Instead of holding the institutional leadership accountable and protecting the innocent, such a tack only perpetuates the problem. Paterno’s family should realize this whenever commenting on the scandal and its consequences. Paterno’s reputation, even his legacy as a coach, is meaningless when compared to the suffering that happened under his watch, some of which he could have prevented. Paterno’s family insults the victims of this abuse when they claim the NCAA’s just penalties in some way “defame” the old coach’s legacy.
As for the supposed lack of “due proces”, he had his opportunity to come clean before a grand jury, but the evidence suggests he stonewalled for a time and finally lied instead. The Freeh Report was developed after a lengthy and comprehensive investigation that included cooperation by local and federal law enforcement. The criminal investigations that are currently taking place could hardly be expected to exonerate Paterno, given the evidence that has already been made public. There is no need for redundancy here. The NCAA had plenty of information on which to base its decision. For once, it acted decisively against a storied institution. But I don’t see the defamation here. At the very least, there is compelling evidence Paterno intentionally chose to protect Sandusky instead of Sandusky’s victims, primarily because doing so meant he was protecting himself and his own vaunted reputation in the process.
This case turns my stomach, and it should turn yours. Nobody wins in such cases, but the biggest losers remain the victims, who had their dignity and humanity stripped away from them. They are forever changed by the trauma of their experiences. What Sandusky stole from them, and Joe Paterno and Penn State perpetuated through inaction, cannot be given back. The only way to prevent future cases like this is to remember, to never forget, those victims every time sexual abuse comes to light. In remembering the victims and their suffering, we gain a more clear-eyed perspective, a better evaluation of priorities, when deciding how to address the issues associated with such perverse actions. No individual’s legacy or institution’s reputation is worth that suffering. Not even Joe Paterno’s.

Why I (am beginning to) Write

One of my heroes died a few days ago.  Ray Bradbury wrote at least 27 novels and over 600 short stories, according to the LA Times.  For me, it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d only written a few words.  He imbued his writing with such awe and wonder, such poetic sensibility that I have remained fascinated by it from the first word I read until today.

I still vividly recall my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Sweatt, reading “The Small Assassin” to our class.  This seems like an odd choice for a class in a small fundamental Baptist school, but it was perfect for us.  We sat on the edges of our seats, amazed at what we heard.  As soon as I could, I got a copy of the story from Mr. Sweatt and spent the rest of the day reading through it.  It was a book titled The October Country, and it included several classically creepy tales, such as “The Dwarf” and “The Homecoming”. I read it a dozen times. It was after this that I vowed to become a writer. It has only taken me 30 years to actually follow through on that promise.

So, why don’t we write as believers in Christ. Sure, there are hundreds of Christian books published each year. So I guess what I really mean is, why don’t we write like a Ray Bradbury? Maybe I’m a bit elitist, but while Christian Living books often have complex, vivid writing, much of Christian Fiction is one dimensional and full of pat answers. It hardly ever reflects real life or contains any tension to carry it along. There are some notable exceptions with Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and even Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind series. These books contain tension, but deal with themes and ideas that fit into more esoteric categories than just plain fiction. Where are the stories that deal in a complex and subtle way with every day issues like financial indebtedness, growing up, death, addiction, and the like? Where is the poetic sensibility in Christian Fiction, the tension, the complexity that we so often see in our secular counterparts?
When I think about the most complex Christian stories I’ve read, I think more about C. S. Lewis than Janette Oke and Francine Rivers.  Those authors meet the needs of many Christian readers, but they don’t seem to tell new stories that stretch the genre in the same way that Lewis did. I love to read Lewis, Tolkein, and Chesterton, but those men have passed into history. Someone needs to take up their mantle, to push contemporary Christian writing up to to the level of the classics. Who will do this?
The answer is, we will. I’m compelled to write not because I believe I’ll be a more complex, interesting writer than others, but because we all need to write to find that person who will. For too long, I’ve been content to sit back and let others tell me their stories. It is time to write stories of my own. If no one reads them or responds to them, that’s okay. At least I will have practiced an important discipline that helped me grow in Christ. For this reason, I encourage you to tell your stories as well.
I often tell my students that “Writing is therapy.” I believe that. Write, and you will understand yourself and your place in God’s plan more deeply and fully. If, along the way, you pen a classic, then that is a bonus. You’ll have given the world something joyous and sublime. But write, either way.
Peace of Christ,
Jim Land

How to Take a Stand

Just the other day, I found myself on ESPN.com reading about Josh Hamilton’s super-hero like season. While reading Tim MacMahon’s fantastic blog entry about Hamilton’s game-winning homer in the 13th inning of Texas’ May 27 game against the Toronto Blue Jays, I looked over the user comments and found a familiar trend: lots of people bashing Hamilton and lots of people defending him–not for his play on the field, but for his faith. While Hamilton is putting together a season for the ages (and one that will make him a boatload or two of money), he will always be associated, for good or ill, with substance abuse and evangelical Christianity. Hamilton messes up occasionally, but still wears his faith on his sleeve. Many fans, it seems, don’t like this about him. I couldn’t disagree more.

As Christians, we are taught to share our faith and take a stand for Godly living. But how do we take that stand in a way that is genuine and reflects Christ’s love and grace? The examples we see in the media, and sometimes in our churches, beg the question “What does it mean to love the sinner, while hating the sin?” Some will argue that a strong stand is necessary to draw a line in the sand and let the world know that we as Christians won’t tolerate sin. Some will argue than we all sin and, therefore, have no right to point our fingers at the sin in others. Something about not worrying over the splinter in someone else’s eye due to the plank in my own.  
One thing we must understand is that the world will always see vocalization of faith as equal to judgement of sin. The fact that believers proclaim their faith implies a superiority of belief in Christ over belief in another faith or lack of belief at all (true, but not easy to accept when you are not a Christian). So, when Josh Hamilton says God told him he would hit a home run during Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the world sees that as an implication that God somehow favored Hamilton over other players on the field. It can be misinterpreted as arrogance disguised as faith. While Hamilton, like most athletes, has a healthy ego, I’m pretty sure he simply intended to give proper credit to the Lord for what was a pretty heroic sports moment. I like his approach here and in other instances, but we can’t be surprised when non-believers push back against these kinds of statements. They don’t understand the perspective Hamilton and other believers come from. It is up to us to explain it to them.
Consider what Paul did in Acts 17. He spoke the truth without variation, but did so in a way that answered questions and reached his audience. He did not judge, he did not condemn, he did not mock, he did not make a political point. He showed God’s passion for us and did so in an intelligent, simple way. He stood before the Areopagus, faced the scoffers, and explained that God established human society in order that “men would seek Him and perhaps reach for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). What Hamilton regularly does and what all believers and followers of Christ must do is remind an unbelieving world that God, our Father, is close, waiting for us to reach out for Him, to find Him, to know Him.
So what does it mean to love the sinner while hating sin? It means that no matter what our goal is–whether building a friendship, talking with the media, or making a political point–we cannot forget that we address real people with real problems in need of a real God; a God we can show them if we don’t let our pride, self-righteousness, anger, or indignation get in the way. If we want to take a Biblical stand against homosexuality, we can’t be so disgusted by homosexuals that we despise them. The same is true when making any righteous stand. We cannot hold the Bible in one hand and a flame thrower in the other. Non-believers have seen this so much they tend to view any open expression of faith with skepticism at best or hostility at worst.
What I admire about Hamilton and others like him is that they possess a genuine faith that they share as a matter of habit. It comes out naturally because it flows from the essence of their spirit. Hamilton is not perfect. His failures are well-documented. But he recognizes and repents of his sin. He doesn’t hide it  nor revel in it. It reminds me that, though I remain deeply flawed, God wants to use me to share His message to the world. Every believer has the right to share that message, to take that stand. And when we do it in love, remembering the people we share it with, some will reach for God because of it.
Peace of Christ,
Jim Land

Welcome to thelandline.com!

If you’ve found this site, it’s probably by accident or  because you know me.  Either way, I hope what you find here remains informational and inspirational.  I plan to fill these pages with news and information you can use in your everyday life. I will discuss current events, entertainment (mostly movies), sports, and the Bible.  That last reference should clue you into the fact that I am a believer in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  So, when I discuss these topics I will do so from a Christian perspective.  That does not necessarily mean that I will be passing judgment on the world.  It simply means that I will examine these ideas through the lens of my faith in Christ.  This faith informs the way I look at the world and its events.  In many ways, it defines me as a person.

A little about me: I am not a theologian or minister.  I am a layman, philosopher, and educator.  That simply means that I will address topics that interest me not from a position of authority, but from a perspective of prayerful thought.  My credentials include a BA in English and an M. Ed. in Educational Leadership, both from the University of Texas at Arlington.  I have taught high school English in the Arlington ISD for the last 13 years. Before that, I pin-balled around from one odd job to another.
But none of that is really important.  The most important thing here is you. How you respond to, or ignore, what I say really matters.  If I haven’t made you think a little, laugh a little, reflect a little, or pray a little, then I’m no better than a monkey on a typewriter.  So, feel free to respond with your own prayerful thoughts.  Please disagree if that’s how you feel, but be nice. This is not the place for vitriol and hate.  What I really want to do is start a thoughtful dialogue.  Nothing more, nothing less.
Peace of Christ,
Jim Land