If you haven’t read Steve Taylor’s excellent response to Christians who are hostile towards BLUE LIKE JAZZ, go read it here before reading this post any further.
I wanted to say thank you for some of the things you said. It is deeply moving to hear people who are out there getting it done say things like that. It’s like finding a tribe that dances like you do. Don’t worry about the old guard cooking up trouble, either. I don’t think they know any better. This whole thing about faith based movies has been done pretty much one way for a long time, and its the nature of humans to suspect anything new.
I nearly lost my faith in Bible College. I say that without malice towards the school. God led me there, to a place I was thoroughly mismatched with, to prepare me for exactly these things, and I challenged back and I learned, eventually and with much failure, how to challenge without anger, but in love, and how to find common ground.
But at the time, it was awful. I suspect it is not the particular school I was at, but rather the Bible College movement itself. It was firmly a product of its culture, in the American Evangelical Church, in the South, all with good intentions. I first appeared there as a Pastoral Ministries major, but had been harboring a love for movies and television and genre. Because I couldn’t resist, I took a video production class, and it was like coming home. I think I changed my major within days.
I had only been a Christian for a couple of years or so, had only been interacting with one church, had friends close at hand who were like me, and that had been a different culture. I had been brought to the right place to heard the Lord’s call to follow him, now I was going to be refined. As time wore on, the message that seemed to continually emerge from classes and chapels, whether intentional or not, was that if you weren’t going to be a Pastor, Teacher or Missionary, you probably weren’t going to be doing the Kingdom any good.
I was loving my video classes and my bible classes, but percolating in the background, eating away at me, was the sense that the more I opened up my artistic side, the more useless I was becoming to the Lord. Eventually, this led to a full blown existential crisis. Art isn’t just something you do. Being an artist is something you are. Its a way of thinking and seeing, of feeling and sensing, of processing and forming-from-process, and the artists reading this are saying “Amen!” and everyone else is probably confused. Though I write, and consider myself a writer, words are not the natural way in which I think. Images, colors, sounds, a look on someone’s face or music, or movement in relation to something — this is the language of my brain. Then words. When I consider things, I need to express something about them.
This is who I am. I have to make something else about the things I experience.
I am not from an artistic family in practice. My mother plays piano and organ wonderfully, but never publicly to my knowledge. My father played guitar under bridges with his buddies, but he died before I really got to know him. My stepfather is amazing, and comes from musical folk, but he and my mom are pretty practical people. We are very different. I can be practical when I need to be, but left to my own devices I am dreaming in my head and heart somewhere most of the time.
I felt alone at school. I couldn’t find evidence that being an artist, or having the artistic personality was sinful, but I kept getting the vibe that it wasn’t good. I wondered why God had made me this way, if it wasn’t useful to him, which seemed illogical, which became a struggle with whether he was really all he was cracked up to be, or even really there. I eventually decided to keep reading scripture, to keep seeking, and the Lord did indeed move, meeting me in His word, making himself known, and, in hindsight, giving me the space to work my way back to him.
He also brought new mentors into my life, a husband and wife who were kind to myself and to other artistic friends with their hearts and their time. Professors who expressed ideas that were healing, and sometimes in contradiction to the overall tone of things. Wonderful people began to appear who brought different ideas about the nature of the Kingdom and the work in it to the table, which made it a far more inviting place, and which made the possible work of creating feel more like worship, like something beautiful and valuable to God and to his mission. I met my wife, and we got involved in an Anglican church, with a beautiful, sacramental way of thinking and a liturgy bursting with nuance and meaning, a way of worshiping that got its hooks into our spirits quickly and deeply. A church that is at once biblical, and also filled with artsy folks of all stripes.
My wife and I are blessed by community now.
A mentor named Ben instilled into me that well-meaning art might be everywhere, but well crafted art is needed. To work hard, to know the form and function and how it works, and to bring everything you’ve got to your work. All my influences ring with the notion that art must be truthful, underneath whatever trappings it is constructed with.
I’ve been working on a screenplay for a couple of years now. It grew as I grew through painful times and blessed times, and as I grew as a film maker and writer. It has nothing to do with me directly, but it is autobiographical deep down, because it is all the things about my faith that I have had to fight to arrive at.
It ain’t gonna be a family movie.
I’m sure some mainstream Christians would hate it.
If so, I think that just means I did my job.
My wife works for our alma mater. We live on campus as a young couple in the recently constructed apartments, along with some other staff, married students, seminary folk and undergrads. After all that time, I’m still here, and 8 years after it started, I kinda love the place. I’ve gone back to the administrators who I probably gave the hardest time to and apologized. I’ve watched some fantastic changes happen here, and I’ve come to appreciate the reasons that some stuff I didn’t like was around.
Culture changes slowly. The video program I was around for 8 years ago has blossomed and moved more towards graphic arts and traditional film making. Its rounding out wonderfully, while maintaining the great foundation it was started with, with an eye towards bringing the Kingdom’s stories out. While I’m no longer obligated to sit in chapels and I’m way done with classes (my degree is proudly displayed– I worked hard for that thing!), I no longer get the vibe that the Kingdom is quite so narrow. After a drought, students have taken up producing their own plays, I’ve seen bands emerge from this place who create music that is both excellently crafted and spiritually moving.
And you know what? That is a BIG credit to the school, because we received an excellent education in Bible. Top notch. The spiritual content of the conversations I have with friends, the things I’ve seen fellow artists from there create is because of that. Hermeneutics changed my life by helping me change the way I ordered my thoughts and approached understanding an issue, or a text, or anything. It reformed the way I approach comprehension. The faculty across the board are all excellent in majors that aren’t artistic, and the artistic majors that are around are run by really fantastic Professors who know their stuff, and their craft, and they graduate well educated, crafty students. Its a privilege for me, now graduated, to have personal relationships with some of these excellent, wise people. The problem wasn’t unique to the school, the problem was a prevailing cultural notion that some paths are more holy than others. And, pinned to that, a suspicion towards the arts for various reasons. Maybe its a Southern thing? I don’t know. But it’s changing!
Institutions are like people. They are full of conflicting motivations and emotions, hard headed, formed by the culture around them, and God has them as entirely in hand as he does you or me. Institutions need to grow and change and learn and adapt, and sometimes they do.
I suspect a lot of institutions aren’t going to like the art that Christians will be making, and are already starting to make. It looks too different, its a little more raw, realistic about sin and that Christians still have to be imperfect and work through sin, and it will be crafted to stand on its own, no label necessary, as artistic explorations of God and man. I have already encountered some of it from artistic friends, and I hope my own work will live up to how wonderful I think their work is.
Let God handle the institutions. Make your things with a healthy fear and trembling. Try to make it with excellence and be truthful. You have a real, solid place in this Kingdom, and we need you. The more we step out and inspire one another, the more we are iron sharpening iron.
Mr. Taylor, Mr. Miller, thank you for doing what you’re doing. Reading your post today was good for my soul in a deep place, in a deep wound, which might always be a little tender. Rest assured that for some of us you’re doing more than making a movie, you’re inspiring confidence to do it for ourselves, even though we know its going to be weird and different. You guys are iron.