Friends, I have a confession. I favor watching Breaking Bad over Touched By An Angel; I prefer Mad Max: Fury Road to War Room, and I would rather drill a hole in my head than watch almost anything on PureFlix. Reasonable people may disagree about the artistic merits of the aforementioned titles, and I make no judgments as to your personal preferences. But if I may ask one thing of you, please, stop watching PureFlix.
You may be asking yourself, why do I have it in for PureFlix? No, David A.R. White did not beat me up and steal my lunch money. Neither do I believe God is dead, possess hatred for the church, Jesus, the American flag, or Apple Pie. I suppose I just have a strong dislike for the tasteless, boring, and condescending muck that PureFlix peddles as “God-honoring media.” You might reply that even if it is tasteless, boring, and condescending, that is at least still God-honoring media. To which I reply that it is most certainly media, but I find little about it to be God-honoring.
Francis Schaeffer wrote, in Art & the Bible, that “Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person as a Christian. What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism.” I contend that PureFlix falls woefully short of this standard. What you see on PureFlix is hardly a portrayal of the totality of life with its pain, disappointments, doubt, ambiguity, and tension. Instead, we get a vision of the world, the world God made, that is two-dimensional, lacks nuance, empathy, and serves up easy answers. In short, we get a picture of this world that is unworthy of both the Creator and the creation.
To be clear, I do not mean to impugn the motives or the character of the individuals who are involved in creating the content on PureFlix. Nor do I mean to imply that you should cease watching PureFlix, for now, and forevermore. In fact the type of art I’m referring to can be found in places other than PureFlix, but PureFlix is an aggregator and the most prominent producer of the content I’m talking about. The gist of my argument is that, for the most part, the art promoted by PureFlix hinders the Christian from facing issues realistically and maturely. Accordingly, it would far better serve the Christian to engage with these issues via artistic works that exhibit excellence and merit.
PureFlix and really most explicitly Christian attempts at art are a reaction to the tendency of many Christians to dismiss different forms of popular art as ‘junk’ simply because its subject matter is not explicitly Christian. Accordingly, most explicitly Christian art ends up being what Francis Schaeffer refers to above as a ‘vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism.’
The prime example of this self-conscious proselytizing is the movie “God’s Not Dead.” I will avoid re-litigating the technical flaws of the film and simply highlight some deeper issues. The primary antagonist in God’s Not Dead, Jeffrey Radisson, is a philosophy professor and an avowed atheist who insists his students sign a document declaring God is dead. This is supposed to seem plausible because he is a philosophy professor, and it is assumed that the idea that God is dead is routinely pushed on unsuspecting college freshmen around the country with glee. I suppose if you’re completely unfamiliar with philosophy, that all makes sense. However, as someone who has a BA in philosophy, I can assure you this is patently absurd.
Anyone with even a passing understanding of Nietzsche’s statement that Gott ist tot in “The Gay Science” can tell you the movie is missing the mark. Nietzsche was not saying God had, in fact, been killed. Instead, Nietzsche argued that the enlightenment had created the conditions whereby mankind’s idea of him had been killed. Put more plainly, mankind now understood the universe to be governed by the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. So, Nietzsche is really saying that for modern society, God is no longer necessary. Which, to be quite frank, is true. Can anyone who lives in modern western culture make the case that our cultural institutions and leaders find the divine to be necessary or even relevant?
Moreover, Nietzsche argues that the death of God in the modern imagination leaves society with no foundation of morality. This is not to say that everything Nietzsche said is correct or even valuable for the Christian. My point is that Nietzsche is actually quite insightful about modern society, and his conclusion is that society without its idea of God is a dangerous and chaotic place. This could have been a fantastic jumping-off point for wrestling with the idea of a society steeped in iconoclasm and its consequences. Instead of using this as a bridge of understanding between Professor Raddisson and the protagonist, Josh Wheaton, the film merely makes the point book learnin’ = bad.
But, failing to see how the work of an atheist philosopher anticipates a society unmoored from morality and drifting in its search for certainty isn’t the movie’s only mistake. Professor Radisson is also depicted as a vindictive man who hates God because of his mother’s death. Not only does he hate God, but apparently, he also hates anyone who believes in God because that makes it easier for the Christian to deal with Radisson as an idea and not a human. Thus, the movie fails to wrestle with the idea that perhaps an atheist could come to her conclusion out of an honest desire for truth.
Bertrand Russell, an avowed atheist, is credited with saying when asked what he would say to God should he meet him, “Sir, you did not give us enough information.” Russell’s point was that he did not see the evidence for God, and accordingly, he did not believe in him. Leaving the idea of the evidence for God aside, my point is that Russell did not exhibit some deep-seated hatred for God because of the death of a parent. If anything, the seeds of his rejection of God were found in his intellectual pride. Moreover, I know many atheists who do not believe in God, or even hate the idea of God, who do not hate me in any fashion. The film could have brought Wheaton to the realization that in our fallen and sinful state, we all hate God for one reason or another, but some wear it on their sleeve.
The movie misses the opportunity to depict an atheist who does not come to her beliefs out of a sense of anger and who does not attempt to browbeat her students with her own beliefs. The movie could have laid out the atheist position vigorously with no fear. Do we not believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life? If so, should we not feel comfortable wading into such deep waters as philosophy? What have we to fear from an erudite atheist with a robust argument? Would it not have been the way of Jesus we see throughout the gospels, or the Apostle Paul at the Areopagus, to have young Wheaton speak the truth in love to his professor? To have borne his burdens in love? To come to know his heart, his hurt, and his pain? To have sifted through the arguments for and against God? To struggle to find truth together? That’s real-life; that’s how human beings search for truth. It’s not by grandstanding speeches in classrooms. I love Dead Poets Society as much as the next guy, but the “oh captain, my captain!” moment is a fantasy.
The final point is a brief one. Professor Radisson eventually dies and accepts Christ just before his passing. Yet short shrift is paid to the idea that a man is losing his life. Instead, his death is treated as a good and proper ending, sad, but it makes its point. People’s lives are not a means to an end; they are not merely tools from which we can learn lessons. People are image-bearers of God, and we should grieve the death of other people whether we agree with them or not. This is a film that is interested in making a point, not dealing with people as people. What a blinking neon sign declaring to the world that “we aren’t interested in you, just that you come over to our side.” Is this loving our neighbors as ourselves, seeking transactional conversion devoid of discipleship or love?
Contrast a film like God’s Not Dead with a piece of work like “Wit,” a movie available on HBO. In Wit, English Literature, professor Vivian Bearing is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Vivian’s literary expertise is in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. The movie (based on a play of the same name) follows Vivian’s last months as she succumbs to cancer. But, the central tension of the film is created by Vivian’s misinterpretation of the final line of Holy Sonnet X ‘Death Be Not Proud.’ The final line of the sonnet is, “And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.” As a student, Vivian uses a version that capitalizes ‘death’ and places a semicolon after the word ‘more.’ As a result, she interprets this as a witticism of a man who has anxiety about his death and salvation and is using his words to show off his literary ability. But her professor corrects the punctuation (to the version above), and Vivian telling her:
“Nothing but a breath — a comma — separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause.
This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.”
When Vivian insists that the line is nothing but wit, her professor replies, “It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth.”
Vivian goes on to a long life as a scholar, believing Donne to be using wit to explore metaphysical themes in his poetry but never resolving the paradoxes in those themes. However, as she suffers, Vivian is no longer able to keep Donne’s work or other people at arm’s length. Vivian comes to recognize that she will die, and the issues of truth, goodness, beauty, life, death, and God are issues she must wrestle with. The film is both mournful and possesses a certain elegance of discourse and presentation that is rare. It is hard for anyone, whether Christian or not, to watch such a film and not come away pondering the matter of their own death. It is this state of deep self-reflection that PureFlix should be aiming for but ultimately fails to reach because it is content with giving us the answers.
As Christians, we should be seeking out art that demands we ask the great questions, not art that gives us pat answers. Answers given condescend to the audience and treat them as incapable of reasoning for themselves. Moreover, as we see in God’s Not Dead, they oversimplify opposition, creating straw-man arguments that turn off many who would be interested in authentic exploration. PureFlix and the idea that we must wrestle with complex ideas, questions, and circumstances in our own little Christian safe space is in my mind an acknowledgment that we don’t really believe in the transformative power of the Gospel. Paul swaggered through the Near East, proclaiming, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Romans 1:16. And yet, here we are two millennia later, building straw-ma arguments and avoiding the tough questions of life. Brothers and sisters wade in! We have nothing to fear. We serve the God who laid the foundation of the earth, shut in the sea with doors, and commands the morning. The Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, everlasting to everlasting, almighty God!
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.” (Christian Apologetics, in “God in the Dock”) The most classic example of this, and one undoubtedly familiar to the vast majority of Christians, is the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien did not set out to write a Christian story, nor did he. Moreover, he explicitly repudiated the idea that the Lord of the Rings was a biblical allegory. And yet, Christians are drawn to it. Why? Because it’s a (big) little book written by a Christian. The Christianity in it is latent. Latent means “existing but not yet developed or manifest; hidden or concealed.” Tolkien writes with a hidden Christian foundation, and people are confronted by it and drawn to it even though they don’t know why.
PureFlix says in its mission statement that it wants to “inspire together as a transformational voice in our culture.” Yet, PureFlix’s only cultural cache is as a target for derision. This is not because PureFlix is Christian; it’s because it all too often features poorly made and poorly presented stories. Stories that don’t spark conversation but give easy conclusions. Compare that to the minor industry that is the Lord of the Rings fandom. Tolkien did not need to beat you over the head with an atheist dark lord and a plucky hometown Christian protagonist with all the right answers. Instead, he provided you hints and whispers of a deeper spiritual reality, and your soul is drawn to it.
The same murmurs of eternal realities can be seen in C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, which was intended for adults. Lewis doesn’t write as explicitly about the faith as he does in The Chronicles of Narnia because those were books meant for children, and thus a more explicit message was required. This is not to say that we should not be speaking explicitly about the gospel or even that the gospel has no place in art. But when art is merely a vehicle for a message, it ceases to be art, and if secular becomes propaganda, and if spiritual, nothing more than an expensive tract. Lewis recognized that in calling for more little books with latent Christianity, and exemplifies it in the That Hideous Strength, one of the most sophisticated and beautiful repudiations of enlightenment man’s elevation of himself ever written. It isn’t a book written to denigrate a Professor Radisson; it’s a book written to challenge him and call him toward deeper truths.
So, am I saying you should stop watching ALL Christian media, cancel your PureFLix subscription, and begin binging Breaking Bad? No to the first 2. As to the third… Breaking Bad is one of the five best television shows ever made and an incredible tale about the hubris and pride of one man and the consequences and devastation they bring about, so yes, do watch that.
What I’m saying is that you should begin engaging the actual culture. Don’t retreat into your little Christian hobbit hole and get fed simple tales with easy answers. Go forward in boldness and complete confidence that God has given us his scriptures which are “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV. We should not be afraid to undertake the hard conversations or ask and answer complex questions; we should seek them out. So often, we see these questions are being grappled with in good art. Accordingly, let’s wrestle with the art that forces us to confront ‘man as man,’ as Schaeffer might put it.
Gregg Conley is a lawyer practicing in Atlanta, GA. He has also worked for International Justice Mission, as a door-to-door salesman, a machinist, a soldier, and a carpet cleaner among other things. Gregg lives in Atlanta with Duke his German Shepherd.