How to Improve Christian Fiction

In 1953, playwright Arthur Miller wrote a play about the Salem Witch Trials, called The Crucible, which was really an allegory for the dangers of McCarthyism. Now, to fully grasp what Miller was attempting to accomplish requires a little background. During the late forties and early fifties, the United States, due to the advent of the Cold War, was in a Communist panic. Government employees underwent background checks to determine if they were affiliated with any Communist or Fascist organizations. Nowhere did this “Red Scare” hit hardest than the entertainment industry. Hollywood began effectively blacklisting anyone accused or known as a Communist sympathizer. Several actors, directors and producers were forced out of Hollywood on little more than unsubstantiated accusations, not to work for many years to come.

It was at the height of this toxic atmosphere, that Arthur Miller penned The Crucible as a rhetoric against false accusations and the “Nazi State” the Red Scare was producing. In the play, a teenager becomes infatuated with a married man. After learning she can’t have him, the teen accuses the man’s wife of witchcraft. The play was a brilliant alternative to outright criticism against McCarthyism, which, by itself, could put one under immediate suspicion.

Now, I’m definitely not suggesting that Christianity is the new Communism in America or in Hollywood. However, there are moral and political stances that Christians hold these days which do run contrary to those agendas that Hollywood seems intent on pushing. Currently, any stance that runs contrary to the current societal norms are met with an intense firestorm on social media and immediate backlash form social interest groups.

So, with the current climate in mind, I want to propose a few tactics (to steal a phrase from Greg Koukl) that can assist a Christian writer, director or filmmaker in producing a piece of work that can stand true to Christian morals and make it past gatekeepers with a quality project that glorifies God. Keep in mind that these ideas can work for plays, movies, songs, books and practically any media or fine arts. One thing to keep in mind is that in Matthew 10:16, Jesus commanded his disciples to be “shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves” (NASB). We should stay smart regarding the ways of the world while making sure not to get stained by the world.

  1. Emphasize the Plot and NOT the Program

Moviegoers are wary of the Christian agenda when it comes to Christian films. Invariably, the plot, characters, setting and most other factors have traditionally played second fiddle to the underlying message or theme of a Christian movie. When a moviegoer attends a Christian movie, they expect to be struck with a flat-out gospel message at one point or, at the very least, a portrayal of Christian morality as the good guy and secular morality as the bad guy. This characteristic of Christian movies can be so evident that the bad guys (atheists) are reduced to little more than one-dimensional villains, complete with crooked mustache and black cape. Meanwhile, the good guy (ie. The Christian) is a paragon of virtue, with practically no faults to display. One of the reasons for this glaring lack of depth in characterization is the overwhelming emphasis on the message. But when we display atheists or the antagonists as moral monsters, we reduce any chance we have attracting people to hear the truth. A Christian wouldn’t want to see a movie where they were portrayed as the moral monster (which they are to a good extent). Now, that’s not to say that a movie shouldn’t have a protagonist as well as an antagonist but if the story revolves around real-life situations, the characters should reflect a well-rounded sensibility and not just serve as a means to further the message. Which brings me to my next point…

  1. Be Charitable with Opposing Points of View

Contrary to what some believe, Christianity is not wish fulfillment. It’s based on a historically-verifiable man named Jesus, His teachings, His death, burial and resurrection and the continued teachings of the Holy Spirit. And, it’s stood up to every opponent and stood strong for over two thousand years. That means an artist doesn’t have to paint the antagonist as a cardboard villain. They can be real people with very real objections to Christianity. And that’s fine. Why? Because there are very real Christian answers to the objections to Christianity. Too often, the antagonist is portrayed as an angry buffoon, easily set on the right path by a late in the game brush with death or an encounter with a miracle they can’t explain. And, while these events do happen (And I’m not trying to lessen the fact of their significance), more often than not, an opposition to Christianity can be boiled down to a misunderstanding of the Bible or an objection that has been sufficiently answered a million times over. Atheists and agnostics aren’t idiots. It is simply degrading to portray them as such.

  1. It is Not a Sin to Show Intelligence or Creativity

One portion of a movie that I admire most is when it teaches me something I never knew before. I also enjoy not being talked down to and especially appreciate when the main character utilizes creativity and ingenuity to overcome an obstacle. Why? Because I like to be surprised. You know what I don’t like? I don’t like when I can call every twist and turn that a movie is going to make. (Okay, I lied a bit on that. It makes me feel like a big man when I can call out the twist early). But while people may enjoy the predictable in everyday life, they want something totally unpredictable in their movie-going experience. People will see a movie at the theater more than once or purchase a DVD of a movie that pays its viewer in new experiences and new insights on each sequential viewing. They’ll read a book a dozen times over to escape to that fully-realized other world. The intelligence and creativity that God indwelled in us should be on display in everything we create.

So, how does one go about indwelling their creative work with intelligence and creativity?

  1. It’s ALL about the Plot and Characters

Imagine if Arthur Miller had written The Crucible, which possessed a great analogy for the current crisis, but no one came to see it because it was boring and predictable, included characters and situations that nobody could relate to, or was downright hostile to a part of its audience. Now, granted, a lot of successful movies portray the antagonist as a complete caricature of reality (I’m looking at you “Inherit the Wind.” And the judges in the Crucible weren’t the most admirable either). But what The Crucible had it packaged in some seriously intelligent and creative analogy. So, it was about the message, but packaged it up in a thoughtful and intelligent script. The characters had believable motivations. They were three dimensional and possessed obvious faults as well as admirable characteristics. And the moral of the play was an object lesson that could and does transcend the era for which it was produced. Is there a time when false accusations didn’t produce a climate of fear? Are there any false or incriminating accusations floating around today that we could draw parallels to?

  1. A Good Christian Character

There are many Christians in movies and television today. Unfortunately, the way they’re portrayed is either as being extremely ignorant, hateful or hiding a secret and destructive sin. Christians are not the good guys any way you look at it. It would be nice if, in the middle of an intriguing story, the main or secondary character was a Christian who also wasn’t a doofus or a secret antagonist. Wouldn’t that be refreshing? Here’s a guy or gal, doesn’t need to be a pastor, who is a Christian and is extremely rational and likeable. Now, to make things interesting, you’d want to flesh the character out, but stay away from the clichés. Christianity has a public image problem when it comes to Hollywood. And that makes sense due to the differences in morality. But making a character in an otherwise neutral script a Christian would go a long way in rectifying that stigmatism.

  1. Throw in a Good Conversation

I was watching “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and the main character who is bitter because she lost a daughter is being addressed by a priest. At one point, she just lays into him concerning the sexual crisis of priests in the church. Wouldn’t it have been nice (and probably a little more realistic) to have him carefully and lovingly respond to this accusation rather than just sit there like a guilty buffoon? People are always talking about God, the afterlife, pain, evil in everyday life. Why? Because pain is real and death is feared. And there are people who have been hurt by Christians who do dumb things. But the important thing is that Christians should have responses to these accusation in real life, so why don’t these same conversations show up in movies and shows as well? One word of warning though, don’t try and shoehorn a good conversation where it doesn’t belong. It’s great that your character can defend the resurrection of Jesus, but in a movie about aliens attacking earth, it’s probably not a good fit.

  1. An Intelligent Allegory is Always in Order

Remember the first paragraph about Arthur Miller? There’re a few reasons why I brought that work up. I’ve always wanted to write a story that was an allegory for a current issue. So, I wrote Life Unworthy of Life, a book about the Nazi’s T4 Project, aimed at sterilizing and destroying German physical and mentally handicapped. The story was an allegory for abortion and the view that some abortion proponents defend that unless the quality of life is 100%, then it’s not a life worth living. The right allegory can make your audience consider any current social issue and consider it from a Christian perspective if you write it well. An allegory in the right hands can be effective in winning over a multitude of opponents. With that said, an allegory handled heavy handed can be devastating and can actual hurt your cause. The most important factor in developing the allegory is to be as creative as possible.

  1. Write with your Audience in Mind

Do you want to write a movie with a positive Christian message that’ll be seen by a lot of unbelievers? Write something an unbeliever would want to see. I’m not talking about gratuitous sex, language and violence. But I am talking about a compelling and new story that would attract your next-door neighbor (if your next-door neighbor isn’t a Christian). Write a superhero story or an action or comedy script. Not all Christian scripts have to be about biblical characters. There are a variety of movie types and it would be nice to see Christian filmmakers dabble in genres that are not strictly drama.

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