If the golden rule of visual storytelling is ‘show, don’t tell’, then our 21st century first world church does not a great screenplay make. If you pitched it, it wouldn’t be bought. If you made it, it would flop.
Maybe not in principle, but certainly in the way in which a lot of us are currently churning it out.
I’ll defend the cinematic analogy for a moment. Cinema is up there as one of the last remaining media which can effectively articulate independent thought, and, because if it works it can be rolled out worldwide, you can literally have an experience which is shared from China to Denmark. Moreover, millions of people go to the cinema to open themselves up, collectively and alone, for an emotional, intense, informative or buoyant experience, often weekly. To some a football stadium is church – to me, church is cinema.
So why is so much of church bad cinema?
For a start there’s a problem of characterisation. When I think of the Church, and I’ve known her a reasonable time, I have to admit she is, at best, somewhat erratic. The character of the Church, like God according to Richard Dawkins , has become clouded to the point of unrecognition because she has enacted such contradictions. In collective memory, the Church, God and Christians have been responsible for tremendous good and outrageous evil, healing and savagery, freedom and captivity, education and blindness, generosity and handicap, creativity and the oppression of ideas. And whilst Jesus has maintained at least to an extent his good guy image, albeit a somewhat magical realist one, the Church is, in that sense, one of the most morally ambivalent protagonists narrative has ever known.
So far so difficult. Church holds the keys to the kingdom according to anyone who reads the Bible, but her dark side signals an uncomfortable dichotomy we have to live with, and must live without. All of those attributes belong to the Church as we know it, and – deal with it – so do we.
So I understand why people find it difficult when we expect naivety in dealings with her. And I am also coming to understand the importance of ‘showing, not telling’ her true nature. Words are cheap, and the sleaziest politician(‘s hack writer) bandies them the best. What we need is the fruit of a truly transformed heroine – evidence of a journey from failure to growth. Although the more we trumpet this transformation with fat music climaxes or rosy filtered lenses (hoping for big impact and speedy effect) the less we’ll prove it. This kind of evidence comes one story at a time, yours and mine, assuming we have something to say.
On that note, here’s an irony. Protestantism, with which presumably in some shape or form many of us will be associated, was founded in having precisely that – the need to interact with the nature of church. It has been said that Luther’s reply to the council of Cardinals: “Here I stand, I can do no other…” could “be understood as the first statement uttered in the modern world” – an individual speaking on the authority of his own authentic conviction. However, the writer who makes the observation goes on gently to point to the ways Protestantism has become marked out by protesting not about itself, but against itself. Rather than finding a common definition, we become defined against each other: simply, ‘we know who we are because we are not them’.
The irony is that the modern moment has directly spawned the post modern dilemma in which the Church, along with culture, is currently found. We are so terrified of being implicated that we have buried the people we once wanted to be. We have become so good at saying what we are not, so concerned about who or what we want to dissociate from that, I believe it’s fair to say, many of us don’t know clearly how we think things actually should be anymore. We don’t know what it’s meant to be like, so no wonder our best form of engagement is to turn up, shut up and wait to be told.
Of course, this is the other half of our screenwriting dilemma – we have simply lost the plot. We’re pretty sure it’s there somewhere, but God knows where to find it, and meanwhile, it’s easier to fiddle with one or two incidental scenes than tackle the huge structural problem.
But it is a problem. Losing track of the ‘why’ is a big deal. In all the talk about ‘prophets’, ‘evangelists’, ‘pastors’, ‘apostles’ and ‘teachers’, ‘spectators’ do not feature significantly. But there we are, artists, writers, film makers, musicians, actors, producers, photographers, communicators – making our way in the world, and perpetuating the silence of the Church. Perhaps we’re thinking for now it’s safer if she stays quiet. But what do we think we’re waiting for?
If this thing works then there are more miracles for us now, and we need them. If this thing works then there are paradigms for church which are not so alien to our friends. If this thing works, then it is a lot more active and powerful then we give it credit for. And we so don’t need all the knowledge or answers to start getting on with it. God is a heck of a lot more robust when it comes to dealing with questions, debate and (failed!) experiments than we give him credit for. Personally, I think he loves it.
In a discussion on Faith and Art, a poet made an interesting point. He said that the reason so much Christian art is bad art is because it’s not art at all. It’s propaganda. Secondhand information, spelling out in the most appealing way things somebody has said everyone needs to believe. Art, as we know, comes firsthand. It’s creative and it’s true. It comes from taking what we think we know and throwing it against the sky and the wall and the world a few times to see what works. Don’t we think God is up for that?
I think that sometimes, as a creative community particularly, we have forgotten that we are meant to search out our own material, not simply recycle other people’s. We forget that our faith is designed to be fueled by expectation, contemplation and experience, all three of which are meant to be touched in life as well as Sunday services. They are how we get to truth we can be free with. We forget that Church is our story to show and tell every day.
We need to do more of that. We need to get greedy for it. Because if this thing works, there will be plenty of stories. We just need to put them into action.
Debs Gardner Paterson is a screenwriter and director. She directed award-winning Africa United among others and you can view her IMDB here.
This article was originally written for Artisan in 2010 and is reproduced with permission from artisaninitiatives.org