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July 31, 2008

C. S. Lewis and ’Facing the Giants’

Facing_the_giants I have an article in the new BreakPoint WorldView magazine (free subscription available here) titled "C. S. Lewis at the Movies: Learning to Receive." (Blake, thanks for your comment about it here -- I didn't even realize at the time that it had been released!)

The piece examines C. S. Lewis's book An Experiment on Criticism for clues as to why many evangelical Christians today are willing to excuse bad art in the name of faith, why this is a problem, and why we should try looking at art from a different perspective. As my primary example of a substandard work of art, I use the film Facing the Giants.

I want to stress that in the piece, when I critique the work of some of my fellow Christian critics, I'm not at all trying to run them down or show them any kind of disrespect. In fact, I'd like to invite all of those whose work I disagreed with in the article -- and anyone else who thinks I'm giving Giants a bad rap -- to stop by the comment section here and defend their viewpoint. I realize that criticizing a popular Christian film may cause controversy, but I'd far rather we all got together and had a constructive conversation about it than an argument.

So whether you consider yourself a fan or a foe of Facing the Giants, please read the piece and then tell us what you think. And though the article focuses on Lewis, I'll leave you with a quote to ponder from Dorothy L. Sayers (after all, it's far too long since I've given you one): "The only Christian work is good work done well."

(Image © Sherwood Pictures)

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Comments

Tom Gilson

Facing the Giants is on one level a predictable religious story with a *deus ex machina* conclusion. On another level, it is in a most unique way a parable about itself.

The story line is of an underdog school that trusts in God, and by that trust defeats "The Giants" and becomes the state football champion. The story behind the story is a true tale: a southern church trusted in God, and by that trust took on Hollywood and succeeded in getting a passable film widely distributed in theaters.

It wasn't great art, but it was nevertheless a most impressive accomplishment, and not a bad first try at a movie. They're preparing to release a second film, and who knows but that they're going to learn more of the art as they go along?

Anyway, the *deus ex machina* takes on a much more satisfying effect when one realizes that there's a true story paralleling the fictional one. The church faced the giants of the movie business (the business, if not the art), and the church won.

The film was intended to uplift. The closing credits were where it succeeded for me.

Andrea Newell

The application of Lewis' experiment in criticism to Christian subculture art is extremely apt, and I thank Gina heartily for suggesting it. In the case of Facing The Giants, the article Learning to Receive has made me really think about what sort of work the film is.

I watched it in a church with friends. I had been told it was really good. Since I had studied theatre in college, I typically stumble over even small flaws in performances, whether theatrical or cinematic. There were certainly artistic flaws in this movie, I felt them... rather like peas stuffed under layers of mattress.

Because the movie was doing something else to me besides (and likely more than) entertaining me. I can remember the emotions accompanying the movie better than I remember the scenes or (mercifully) the dialogue. I remember frustration, grief, and hope, and relief, and joy, and triumph.

While I remember feeling a kinship with the protagonists, upon reflection I do not believe that the satisfactions of the movie had to do primarily with getting my ego stroked. Indeed, my mind wasn't much on me, or even the characters per se, for most of the film. I remember saying to myself over and over at various points of the story, "Isn't that just like God?" and "Isn't God Good!"

If I am to discover the artistic merits and liabilities of the movie fully, I fear I shall have to watch it again and attempt to receive it differently. What I can say fairly confidently about the film is that I *did* use it-- roughly as Lewis described the use of an *icon*-- an artifact designed to elicit a devotional response. Based on things that other people have said about the film, I suspect that was how many other Christians experienced it, as well.

Now Lewis did not disparage icons or their use in An Experiment on Criticism. He did point out that their artistic merrits were rather extraneous, and perhaps even distracting. To someone who has no interest in the sort of thought they are designed to encourage, an icon will likely appear crude. It would be easy to suppose that the icon itself is an object of worship (and indeed, that is a chief danger of an icon--that it will draw attention to itself away from the true God) if one were not disposed to see what the user sees.

Some suggestions for the application of Lewis' experiment as producers and consumers of Christian cinema in our time:

1. Be clear on your purpose when making a "Christian" movie. If your intent is to evangelize, be aware that it may come off as propaganda. If you are making an icon, it will be more meaningful for those who share your beliefs than for outsiders. If you are trying to tell an engaging story that is artistically well-crafted, you may succeed in both edifying the faithful *and* raising questions for seekers. I rather think The Passion of the Christ was such a movie... but of course, I ought to watch it again to make sure. It is quite possible that I used that film as an icon, too.

2. Read An Experiment in Criticism to see what C. S. Lewis meant by "receiving" vs. "using" art. Then, when you go in the theatre, remind yourself of your intent. Are you trying to experience the film as art or use it for some other purpose? What is your typical pattern-- do you go for the excitement of the event, or is there some specifically cinematic pleasure in the movie for itself?

3. When critiquing any movie, whether Christian in view point or not, be able to receive it first. Be able to distinguish between problems of craft and problems of world view. Otherwise, non-Christians will think that being a Christian means rejecting their tastes rather than rejecting false ideas which are sometimes promoted thereby.

4. If you find a film has the benefits of an icon for you, try not to feel rejected or upset if someone else does not experience it in the same way. It would also be charitable not to denigrate someone else's tastes if they can find some value (whether artistic or iconic) in a film that does nothing for you. This is very much in the spirit of C. S. Lewis' writings on criticism, not to mention a higher authority, St. Paul.


Dan Gill

I noticed all the flaws of the movie, and some of them made me want to grind my teeth. But the effect on the people who watched it was profound and real. Lighten up, folks! Not everyone appreciates art as you do. That is well supported by what passes for art in our museums, and what passes for art on our televisions and movie screens.

I would love it if all "Christian" art were the best art to be found. That is not the case, and I'm not sure if it is supposed to be the case. All of us bring our feeble little gifts to God and lay them at his feet, much as a child presents his mother with a heart made from beads, buttons, and glitter glued to a piece of construction paper.

There is a somewhat elitist bent to this article that I find a little disturbing. It's something that I've noted elsewhere on the Point. Do what you do as well as you can, but realize that others are offering their own gifts to the best of their ability.

Gina Dalfonzo

You don't know how that makes me wince, Dan, because elitism is one of my pet peeves. I've always had a deep horror of it. An elitist is the very last thing I would ever want to be.

I do appreciate how you feel. But if you'll notice, I did acknowledge a lot of things that you're talking about in the article. For instance:

"Lewis wrote—with characteristic humility, never with artistic snobbery . . ."

"That we feel this way, as Lewis would say, is no sign of inferiority."

". . . being able to identify with characters understandably comes as a relief and a delight."

I believe that. I've felt that way myself at times. So I'm not trying to slam, but to analyze and critique a trend that seems to dominate evangelical Christian thought. I honestly believe that it is not doing our faith any favors when "Christian film" is so often used as a derogatory term by the world. Part of that is their fault, but part is ours, and we have to accept responsibility for that.

And I'm particularly struck by something you say that actually seems to support my contention: "Not everyone appreciates art as you do. That is well supported by what passes for art in our museums, and what passes for art on our televisions and movie screens."

YES. Precisely. Now, what if more Christians did make the effort to appreciate art and to teach their kids to do so? Even in small ways, like turning the radio to classical stations sometimes, or reading the occasional book about art, or popping in a Teaching Company lecture about poetry, or anything else that didn't take up a lot of our (admittedly valuable) time and resources?

My own parents didn't have any sort of formal artistic education -- other than childhood music and dance lessons abandoned as soon as humanly possible -- but every time my sister and I showed any sort of interest in music, drama, dance, or literature, they did everything they could to encourage it and to learn about the subject with us. They did it because they believed those things were important and worth learning about, and would be good for us. And they were working with a limited budget and limited time, too. I'll always be grateful for what they gave me.

What would our museums, our televisions, and our movie screens look like, with Christian audiences who really knew their stuff demanding better? Let's dare to dream about how great that could be! :-)

Dan Gill

I don't intend to make this a ping-pong match, batting opinions back and forth. However . . .

Gina, every one of the quotes from the article are followed by, "But . . ." and then the real point is made. We pay lip service to egalitarianism, but don't really subscribe to it.

That's as it should be, perhaps, but I think we must always guard against the elitist tendency. Frankly, what many elites regard as high art, I regard as a waste of time. Who is to say what is better? I can recall no scripture that sets forth what the standard should be.

Yes, we should do our best and teach our children well. But we should also cut people a little slack. There are bigger worries.

Remember that, as part of his humility, C.S. Lewis admitted that most people would not agree with his tastes.

Gina Dalfonzo

I don't want to play ping-pong either (though normally I really like ping-pong :-) ), but I do feel the need to clarify one point. I wasn't trying to pay lip service to egalitarianism but to take into account the opinions of those who disagreed with me, and show a little consideration for their feelings.

Honestly, I don't feel any need to pay lip service to egalitarianism, because I sincerely believe in egalitarianism. My tastes and opinions make me no better and no worse a person than anyone else.

As for Lewis, he did take into consideration that many people would have different tastes from his. But he also pointed out (where, I don't remember just now) that great art is worthy of our respect even if we don't always care for it, and that it adheres to certain standards.

I do appreciate the opinions being expressed here and will keep them in mind.

Dan Gill

Gina, I take your points. And I'm talking to myself as much as to anyone else. Elitism is a battle I fight within myself. Thanks for publishing The Point. It's a good place. And never fear, I will continue to express my opinion--nothing has stopped that in the last 50 years . . .

Steve (SBK)

With the dubious credentials of having not read "An Experiment in Criticism" NOR having seen the movie "Facing the Giants"... I thus proceed.

Firstly, great article Gina to help us think through/dialogue on this issue.

Secondly, great comment Andrea. (Especially the thoughts on 'icons' and your suggestions).

Thirdly, I would almost suggest that Lewis's life work (after becoming a popular author) was to get people to first let the work of art (usually a book for him) influence them, rather than approach it with an idea of what they think it should be. In this sense, he was egalitarian in the extreme (like in Ratatouille, "anyone can cook") - here, anyone can (and should) read. Don't let anyone else dictate what you can enjoy.

Fourthly, I assume Lewis (and I do) would have more sympathy for the amateur who tries to create, than the professional who "*knows* what's good" (as in, those who judged his books based on his faith). In this sense, we would see "Facing the Giants" as people improving their craft, not at the height of their powers. And at the same time, the art produced likely can have a powerful influence on someone without being supreme in every category. (What work of art is, ultimately, flawless?)

Fifthly, following above, good art carries meaning (and, like Andrea says, points us to something else). I suppose this is why art can be enjoyed on various levels. Those who enjoy the craft, per se, and those who see the meaning, and those who are drawn in (or rather, out of themselves).
This is the problem with real art. When it "audaciously" contends to have meaning, people will be upset - precisely because they don't want that meaning to be true. (This is different, I think, from 'art' that is intended to deconstruct/offend, rather than say anything 'meaningful').

So, though I agree that at some level, art is to be enjoyed (not used) - we seldom ever approach art other than with our holistic, or at very least, multi-layered, selves.

I suppose the difficulty lays in what Andrea said:
"3. When critiquing any movie [or work of art], whether Christian in view point or not, be able to receive it first. Be able to distinguish between problems of craft and problems of world view."
Like food, we taste, enjoy, and are nourished. Sometimes, we cut out the parts that we find distasteful... and at others, we don't find out till later how bad the food actually was...

(sorry, this was longer than intended - and did I actually make sense...?)

Matt

The thing that I disliked most about was the subtle prosperity gospel message in the film. Believe in Jesus and everything will turn out ok. You'll have a kid after being infertile, you'll get a truck, and you'll win the championship.

That is why I didn't like the movie.

Sure those things can happen, and God does bless people. However, it isn't as simple as Follow God -> Success in Life.

Wayne

Gina-
I'm brand-new to this sort of dialog, so I'll metaphorically "throw a rock at the building," and hope I hit the right window.

Back story: Alex and Stephen Kendrick are committed Christians who wanted to make "Hollywood-style" films that represent their world-view well, and provide a platform for presentation of it. Their first "offering" was 2003's "Flywheel." They started from scratch, and did it all on a budget of $20,000 or less (which was all spent on equipment--everyone on both sides of the camera worked for free). It was all "home-made," by persons who are not in any way "Hollywood all-stars." The brothers said they were looking for "Flywheel" to have a regional impact, but the film has actually seen moderate reception nationwide.

"Facing the Giants" was their second film. When you compare the two films you can see progression in their skills in many areas. "Giants" is not going to be a threat at the Oscars, but it's pretty impressive for what it is: the second film by a bunch of ameteur writers, actors and filmmakers. It's fair to recognize that these folks don't display the skills of Hollywood's "A-list," but it's also fair to recognize that the film is overall pretty successful at doing what it set out to do, doing it in a reasonably entertaining way, and showing that their "craft-work" is improving.

This brings out several general truths throughout all of the arts. First, art that speaks to its "viewer" doesn't always have to be critically acclaimed to be considered good art. Second, it's OK to like (or dislike) something even if the "experts" hold an opposing view of it. Personally, I liked "Flywheel" and "Giants" even while it was apparent that neither one of them qualifies as a "great" film; at the same time, I'm not going to insist that someone else applaud these films just because they happen to speak to me and my worldview. And that's a third truth: the level of quality can leigitimately be (and ought to be) judged independently of the level of enjoyment something provides.

As far as any type of art is concerned, I hope we'll all be free enough and gracious enough politely voice our opinion about its quailty and "enjoyment level," and politely listen to (and accept) each others' opinions. And, as Christians, I hope we'll all also strive to present the best we can, in whatever "art" we produce (mine is retail sales, by the way...).

MIchael Bowers

Gina, I don't think you should be comparing apples and oranges.

CS Lewis was writing about literature critiquing. Writing requires ONE person to master the craft well enough to persuade a reader toward an idea or thought. Anyone can do it with a lot of practice. And no cost to themselves besides time.

Movies are entirely different. You have to coordinate the efforts of many people at a single time to produce just a few seconds of usable material.

All the people in the movie process make union pay for 12 hours a day over a six to eight week time period.

A pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church felt that there were not enough real Christian films for believers in the marketplace. All Christian films were usually about non-believers who convert at the end. He wanted to make a film for believers as the intended audience, with a conversion story woven in. He passed his vision on to others in the church who volunteered to help him for many hours and days with NO PAY, but as a love offering to God. The digital video equipment was purchased with donations ($100,000) and the movie was written, directed by the paster with the idea. He also starred as the coach and gave acting lessons to the players to make their performances more believeable. God blessed their efforts.

I will agree that there are production companies that feed on the Christian masses, but that it not the case with Sherwood Baptist Church.

Here is a bunch of common people sacrificing their time (not being paid--like every actor in every bad movie there is) in an effort to CHANGE the industry's view of what is acceptable in a Christian movie. And, it worked.

On the AFI top 100 list, there are some movies that DO NOT DESERVE TO BE THERE, but are there because they changed the perception of what is acceptable in the marketplace.

Case in point: STAR WARS has some of the worst acting and writing ever, but it is on AFI's list because sci-fi was not considered mainstream by the movie industry until STAR WARS hit. That movie CHANGED the industry.

FACING THE GIANTS has changed the industry's expectations of what a Christian movie is supposed to be. That's what Sony pictures dabbed it up.

I watched FACING THE GIANTS at the Biola Media Conference with low expectations after learning it was produced by a church. All the media proffessionals and students gave it a standing olvation because they KNEW what a miracle that church pulled off by making a good film. The pastor (director) was there and two Sony Pictures reps for a wonderful Q&A. My only compliant about the DVD is that Sony should have included the Q&A as a special feature.

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