Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What's in a Name?

Over at The New Republic, Timothy Noah tries to make sense of the religious label "Christian."  What is the difference between a "Christian," an "Evangelical Christian," a "conservative Christian," a "conservative Evangelical," and a "Fundamentalist Christian?"  And how does this all relate to "Christian" films?  When did "Christian" become a synonym for conservative?  If I had the time or inclination I would try to define these terms as I see them and do Noah's historical homework for him, but for now I will just direct you to his piece.  One warning:  it raises more questions than it offers answers.  Here is a taste:

Frank Capra, whose films express Christian themes of solidarity with working people and contempt for the pampered, indifferent rich, was a lifelong Republican. The small-c word “christian” meant “charitable” or “compassionate.” It has now fallen into such disuse that one Web site defines it, disapprovingly, as “someone who leads an outwardly Christian life, but does not acknowledge Christ as savior”—in other words, a lousy hypocrite. 

Plenty of Christian films have been made in the past, but a lot would be unacceptable to today's “Christian” market. Just about every film that Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese ever directed comes heavily weighted with Christian themes, but these are typically expressed in the context of violence, cruelty, and psychological disorder, and often have scenes featuring nudity, sexual intercourse and/or (especially in Scorsese's films) foul language. John Ford's film adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath is, like the novel, remembered mainly as a rabble-rousing depiction of the hard life of farmers driven off their Oklahoma land to the false Eden of California. I wouldn't guess that Focus On The Family would approve. But The Grapes of Wrath is steeped in Christian imagery. (One of the characters, for instance, is named “Rose Of Sharon.”)

I could go on. Broadly speaking, of course, nearly all of contemporary western culture is rooted in Christianity and the Bible one way or the other, if you trace it back far enough. So the idea that Hollywood needs to create small subsidiaries to attend to some niche it calls “Christian” seems absurd. What Hollywood is really doing is creating small subsidiaries to attend to Christian conservatives. And why not? Conservatives like movies, too, and maybe some of these will be good. But let's call them Christian conservative films, because everyone knows that's what they are. Evangelicals shouldn't get to claim one of the world's great religions as their exclusive property.

This reminds me of the time when I played Springsteen's "Born to Run" to a bunch of first-year college students and told them that it was a Christian song in the way that it reflected a Christian theology of sin and restlessness. ("Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee....").  It was a hard sell to students raised on groups like Jars of Clay, Casting Crowns, Newsboys, Jeremy Camp, and Big Daddy Weave.