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.