Nothing’s better than pulling up a cheesy Christian movie on Netflix and laughing the night away with your sister. So my sister and I started Christian Mingle: The Movie with the highest hopes that it would be as entertaining as the movies from Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas.
Worst. Idea. Ever.
To catch you up on the plot, the desperate Gwyneth Hayden fakes her Christianity to sign up for ChristianMingle.com (because there are no other online dating websites in the world, obviously) and continue her budding relationship with the plaid-button-up good Christian guy she meets through the site. Of course, his mother and wannabe girlfriend sniff out Gwyneth’s fake relationship with Jesus, which leads to heartbreak, which leads to Gwyneth meeting Him instead — which the opening monologue already told you, so why did you waste a couple hours watching this movie?
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what bothers me most about this movie. The pink, outlined, Times New Roman font? The mother’s Botox overkill? The Christian cliches you didn’t realize sounded so corny until you watched them on the silver screen? The fact that the mother and wannabe girlfriend discovered Gwyneth’s fakery after Gwyneth could not answer the world’s toughest question on the problem of evil with a Bible verse? The other disturbing fact that Gwyneth wears high heels as a missionary teacher in Mexico?
Kidding aside, I puzzled and puzzled over why this movie, like so many other well-intentioned, decently-made evangelical Christian movies, bothered me. I finally found the words over a chipotle chicken avocado melt at Sunday brunch:
What if it’s not a coincidence that evangelical movies are cringingly awful? We blame the evangelical moviemakers for their lack of vision and storytelling, but what if part of the problem is evangelicalism itself?
Because it’s not accurate to say that Christians are bad at storytelling. Christians are some of the best storytellers in the Western literary canon. J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dante Alighieri — almost every single classic author since Christ’s death and resurrection has been Christian or at least steeped in Christianity.
But none of them are evangelical.
They are mostly Catholic, or Orthodox, in Dostoevsky’s case, or Anglican, in Lewis’s — but rarely Protestant, and never, to my knowledge, evangelical. Of course, those three traditions have held longer sway in history and literature than a movement less than a century old, but still.
I don’t mean this to be a hate-fest against evangelicals, as if they’re bad at everything. They’re not. Evangelicals are good at things like nonfiction, marketing, multimedia, preaching, and motivational speaking. But I don’t think they’re good at storytelling.
It’s just not in the evangelical DNA, really.
I mean, evangelicals revere some of the best literature in the world — the Bible — but nobody sits down and just reads it, or examines the poetic structures of Genesis 1 and 2 (unless they’re liberal heretics), or notices the remarkable storytelling of 1 and 2 Samuel. They get in groups and dissect whole passages into tiny chunks that makes getting through an entire book a three-year long process. They study it to death.
And when it comes to great art and literature, many of us grew up without it, because that picture had a nude woman in it, or that movie had a couple F-words, or that book depicted someone’s tragic loss or atheism or sin, and Christians are to avoid any appearance of evil. That’s why we watched PG-rated movies, exclusively. Our “literary analysis” often looked far too much like moralism.
But I don’t blame fundamentalism for chasing the evangelical movement away from good art. I think there’s something inherent in evangelical spirituality — stripped as it is from the larger Christian history, from a sacramental emphasis, from the sensory elements of bells, incense, and spires — that makes evangelicals so bad at storytelling.
Maybe our stories sound cliched because evangelical spirituality only allows for a one-size-fits-all relationship with Jesus?
Maybe our stories are moralistic because our spirituality is moralistic?
Maybe our stories tie up in neat little bows because we’re always trying to tie up our suffering and doubt in neat little bows?
Maybe our characters are one-dimensional because there’s something suppressed in our spirituality?
Maybe our bad guy-versus-good guy is so black and white because our worldview is so black and white?
Maybe our portrayal of atheists, agnostics, Muslims, and nones is so off-base because our religion doesn’t allow us to listen to other people’s narratives?
Maybe our stories are preachy because that’s what’s most important to our faith — getting people to agree with us?
Maybe our stories, music, and art are ugly and trite because we think that truth can be divorced from beauty?
I’m not 100% sure whether this is the fatal flaw of evangelical storytelling — but I strongly suspect it is.