Not long ago, my soon-to-be father-in-law wanted to treat my partner and me to a movie that recently came out. He loves movies and, as a film scholar, I do too. However, as soon as I discovered that he had chosen a “Christian” movie, I began to think of ways to get out of going. But let’s put a pin in this for a second.
Besides being highly critical of agenda-driven movies from an academic perspective, I am fairly new to the idea of so-called “Christian” products. I was certainly aware of them when I was growing up, but, while I was raised Christian, my parents were vehemently against the trend of making “Christian” versions of secular products. Church friends sported “Enjoy Jesus Christ” t-shirts that shamelessly stole the Coca Cola Company’s “Enjoy Coca Cola” slogan, and “Christ King” shirts that ripped off the iconic Calvin Klein branding of the mid-1990s.
Similarly, I didn’t listen to much Christian music or watch Christian movies. I was raised on ’70s rock and Alfred Hitchcock films, and avoided the cozy Christian bubble that contained so many of my childhood friends and divided the world into a Christian = good, secular = bad binary. However, I was encouraged to look for God in what entertainment I consumed, so I read The Lord of the Rings and watched The Matrix accordingly.
I loved the challenge, I suppose, of bending a secular product to meet my set of beliefs. I was, in effect, fashioning my own “Christian” product from a secular template as I read and watched and applied my very limited theology to what I consumed so that I felt comfortable. Without realizing it, I was doing exactly what I believed those logo thieves were doing: forcing God into a product to justify my enjoyment of it.
I have since explored issues of faith and how often consumerism ignores or rejects those who might also partake. My experience of faith – the way I understand God in my life – may differ from yours, but that does not give me the right to dismiss it. However, the practice of Christianity – how Christians apply God to the world – is something else entirely. If your practice of Christianity enables you to judge, ignore, or “welcome, but not affirm,” that is not okay with me.
So, I was dreading seeing this movie. While my upbringing certainly led to assumptions about the lacklustre quality of Christian entertainment, I also feared it would try too hard to appease consumers who didn’t want to think beyond a certain brand of Christianity and that it would assume a version of God I didn’t recognize.
My fears were confirmed not only because of the movie’s gosh darned hokeyness (which definitely contributed to my dislike of it), but because of its assumption of a middle class suburban version of God and its unabashed, saccharine whiteness, staunch cis-hetero (as opposed to trans and/or LGBTQ2A+) representation, and blatant ableism. This movie does not represent the God I grapple with, and I was angry (though unsurprised) about it.
I wanted more representation of non-white, non-heteronormative folks. I wanted more women and more characters moving through the world in ways adapted for their different abilities. I wanted to not be hit over the head with a Jesus-y message that seemed to apply only to straight, white, able-bodied cis-men. For me, the lack of these things occluded any kind of positive message the film might have been promoting.
Other folks in the theatre, including my father-in-law, obviously enjoyed the film and recognized their idea of who God is. But, what struck me was that, even though I wasn’t expecting to find the God I sometimes follow in that movie, I looked for God anyway.
But why? Why do we try to find God in what we watch/read/wear in the first place? I wonder if it’s partly our fear of irrelevance. The glut of Christian films like the God’s Not Dead franchise suggest that Christians need to argue for our faith, and Jesuit priest Paul Lickteig, in his article “The case for (and problem with) Christian movies,” says that Christian movies “continue to be well received because many Christians perceive a threat: namely, that other voices in contemporary culture will overwhelm traditional expressions of Christian belief.” Of course, while such Christian consumer culture attempts to overtake secularity in their messages that argue the case for Jesus, it also has no problem using the secular to promote its message to the secular world (hence, those “Enjoy Jesus Christ” tees).
Perhaps an even more crucial reason that Christians try to find God in popular culture is that we want to be reassured; to have elements of our faith reflected back at us is to have that faith affirmed. Many of us want to know that we believe in the right God, or that we follow God the right way. Most of the (conservative, white, heteronormative, cis-gendered, able-bodied) people in that movie theatre wanted to see themselves on that screen and to feel safe and justified in who they are, even if I didn’t.
I find it increasingly difficult to find what I’m looking for in what I consume. I’m not looking for redemption, but for connection. I want to see God in the unsteady, unsure places, in the emotional dregs where I so often find myself. I want to find the God that hangs around with trans folks and queer folks and people of colour and people who are unsure of God’s existence or favour.
Christianity has never been for those in the centre, but rather exists for the marginalized. As a white woman, I have experienced some marginalization, and I rail against the gendered hierarchy that some Christians promote. But, as a friend and ally to those who are more marginalized than I am, I’m angry that Christian consumer culture not only silences those folks, but often offers them as exemplars of sin. I’m angry that something meant to promote love is so often used to sell intolerance or, at the very least, ignorance.
The type of Christian consumer culture that rides the coattails of popular culture is flawed because it is dishonest. It rebrands existing structures to fit narrow parameters that do not offer stories of faith so much as overly simplified narratives of Christian isolationism. While this might stem from the fear of contemporary culture overwhelming “traditional expressions of Christian belief,” as Lickteig says, it seems that the greater problem is that these products and their proponents overwhelm the basic Christian tenet that we are to love everyone fully and honestly, regardless of our comfort levels. Ironically, I see this dramatized most fully in secular facets of popular culture, and I’ll continue to look for connection there.
Mandy Elliot is a cinema scholar and adjunct lecturer in Winnipeg, Manitoba.