Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Exorcist and Frightening Faith

In honor of its 40th anniversary, The Exorcist was recently re-released on Blu-ray, complete with a director's cut and a special little book that has who-knows-what sorts of horrors in it. Grace Hill Media—an organization that helps market largely secular movies to Christian audiences—sent me a copy. It's sitting at home now, and I honestly don't know when—or if—I'll be able to watch it.

See, The Exorcist is the scariest movie I've ever/never seen.

When I was about 16 or 17, I "watched" the film with my best friend. He and I would often watch horror flicks together, and the moment felt right (to my friend, at least) for us to watch of the most horrific, notorious flicks of all time. We popped in the tape at about 2 a.m. and, about 20 minutes into it, I decided the story of Regan's diabolical bodymate was going to be waaay too intense for me. I feigned sleep for the rest of the flick.

But it proved to be impossible to sleep—what with the sounds of retching and cursing and my friend saying, "Dude! Did you see that?!"

"I'm asleep!" I kept saying. But I kept peeking, too. And while I didn't see all of The Exorcist, I saw enough to know that the other horror flicks I'd seen before were mere child's play. And I've never quite had the courage (even though I review horror flicks all the time) to re-screen it.

Some may wonder why Grace Hill was involved in marketing The Exorcist—an R-rated movie about a possessed, profane, upchucking pre-adolescent—in the first place. It's not the sort of film that most Christian audiences gravitate toward.

And yet, the film—as scary and as profane and as disturbing as it is—has some deeply faithful elements.

The Exorcist book, published in 1971, was based on the real-life exorcism of Roland Doe in 1949, and the book's author William Peter Blatty is a committed Catholic. In 2011, he wrote (for Fox News) that the book wasn't even supposed to be all that scary. He writes:

That I am regularly hauled out of my burrow every Halloween like some furless and demonic “Punxsatawney Phil” always brings a rueful smile of bemusement to my lips as I lower my gaze and shake my head, for the humiliating God’s-honest truth of the matter is that while I was working on "The Exorcist," what I thought I was writing was a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story – in other words, a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through -- and to this day I haven’t the faintest recollection of any intention to frighten the reader, which many will take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying, scale.

The Exorcist (like this year's The Conjuring) isn't just a goosebump generator: It's a film that insists to its skeptical audience that good and evil are real and tangible. That there is both a God and a devil. That there are powers beyond our comprehension, just as the Apostle Paul told us. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood," he writes to the Ephesians, "but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

These things are not often dealt with in your average romcom or Oscar-bait dramedy. Of the typical movie genre, only horror allows such an in-your-face examination of these sorts of themes and almost begs for spiritual soul-searching.

In a 2005 interview with Christianity Today, Scott Derrickson (director for the well-regarded The Exorcism of Emily Rose) said this:

To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It's about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we're not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear. And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I'm talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don't do these things. It is a genre that's full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things.

But many Christians, particularly in Evangelical circles, don't see horror as redemptive at all. In fact, many believe it's a bit of a black hole—leading viewers toward dark and demonic themes. And while Derrickson admits that a little bit of balance is in order, he's a little bit surprised that Christians don't cotton to horror more.

"To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it's unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that's something that a lot of Christians don't want to do."

Let me be honest: I agree more with Derrickson than some. And honestly, I like a good scare now and then. I'm not nearly as apt to watch horror as I was in my younger days, but I still appreciate a well-crafted, creepy movie. I might even watch one tonight while handing out candy.

But The Exorcist? Sorry. Not tonight. There are some fears I'm not quite ready to face.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Gravity, Grace Unplugged and God

I got a call from a reporter from a Christian media outlet yesterday who wanted to talk a little about the movie Gravity and some of the spiritual themes I found there (which I wrote about for The Washington Post). Toward the end of the interview, he asked me a simple but very ticklish question: Is Gravity more effective in drawing people to Christianity than Grace Unplugged?

Gravity, released last weekend, is the best movie I've seen so far this year—a technical and artistic achievement that'll probably be in contention for an Oscar or two or 10. Grace Unplugged, also released last weekend on about 500 screens, is an explicitly Christian movie whose makers will likely watch the Academy Awards on TV, just like the rest of us.

But the question wasn't which movie is better. It was which movie was more effective as an evangelical tool. It's a variation of a question that Christians—at least Christians who think about movies a lot—have been asking for a long time. Should movie-making or, more importantly, movie-watching, Christians be more concerned with art or message? Is it better to tell a great story, like Gravity? Or a GREAT story, like Grace Unplugged?

My answer, in essence, was this: Do we have to make a choice?

Now, let's rewind a bit and scrub clear a potential misunderstanding—that Gravity is a good movie and Grace Unplugged isn't. Grace is quite good by Christian movie standards. The filmmakers should be proud of their product.

But it ain't Gravity. It doesn't pretend to be. And I think that's just fine.

Christians tend to split off into two camps when it comes to movies.

On one side, you have the movie idealists: They're the ones who believe that Christians should support clean, often explicitly Christian movies to send Hollywood a message. This is not to say that artistry is not important: Every Christian moviemaker wants to make a good one, and every Christian movie-goer wants to see a good one. But they're not going to compromise the message for the sake of the art. And for many, a great message is indistinguishable from great art. I've heard from many folks who believe Fireproof was robbed of a Best Picture Oscar.

On the other side, you have the more artsy Christian moviegoers. This is not to say they paint all the time. Rather, they'd argue that the greatest story ever—the story of our faith—should be told with the very best craft, and anything less is selling our faith short. Top-notch talent and artistry are essential, not optional. They tend to be more comfortable with what we'd call at Plugged In "questionable content"—sex and violence and cursing and whatnot—if it effectively furthers the story. A story worth telling is a story worth telling well, they'd say. And if you tell it badly, it may do more harm than good.

Personally, I lean a little toward the latter philosophy, even though the organization I work for tips toward the former. But in my six years working for Plugged In, I think I can see the value in both.

We all mean well. But we sometimes, I think, run the danger of forcing God into a box. We can think that there's a "right" way to spread our story and that, in itself, assumes that God prefers to show himself only under certain conditions. But to me, saying there's only one right way of telling God's story is like believing that there's just one right tree, or one right season. If God made them all, doesn't that imply that all are equally valued and, in their own ways, beautiful?

In the same manner, God made us all different, too. We love different foods. We like to play different games. We're moved by different things. It's in our God-given design. And I think that God shows Himself to us in ways that we can best see Him—even if the view looks a little differently for each of us.

That's not to say that I believe God is OK with cinematic beheadings. Or that he doesn't want His love conveyed in the most persuasive, most beautiful way possible. I'm just saying that He's remarkably adept at showing Himself to us in unexpected ways. God, I believe, can work His way into almost every story—even when the storytellers are as imperfect as we.

What is more effective—Gravity or Grace Unplugged?

The answer, I think, is yes.