I remember dreading the moment when we’d have to start reading Shakespeare during my seventh grade English class. I could understand what I was reading, but never really knew why I was doing it at all, beyond it being part of the curriculum. So is there a good reason for us to read plays, and not simply watch them? Actor and playwright Max McLean and I discuss this and more on today’s episode of Reading Writers.
Also in this episode, we discuss:
How McLean feels about the proliferation of Bible translations;
What he finds fascinating about C.S. Lewis; and
His advice for prospective playwrights and screenwriters.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Reading Writers. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving a rating and review on iTunes. Your feedback really does help more people find the show. Tune in next time as I’m joined by Barnabas Piper for a new conversation on curiosity and the Christian life.
I’ve been a nerd since before there was a “nerd culture.”[1. You know, back when kids used to beat you up for being one.] I’ve always loved comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and all kinds of stuff like that. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of one of the first comics I remember ever reading was an old issue of Marvel’s What If… series, when I was five or six. The issue was about what if Conan the Barbarian was stranded in the 20th century, I think.[2. Admittedly, the details are kind of fuzzy. After all, it was 30 years ago.]
I never really outgrew my love of comics. In fact, as I got older, I was more invested in them. My first job was in a comic shop in Kitchener, Ontario, where I’m pretty I was working for comics. Later, I decided to start making them (true story: one of my major projects in OAC English was a comic book). I eventually managed to get accepted to a private college in New Jersey, one with a special emphasis on comics (because its founder and primary teachers were all professional comic artists).[3. I never ended up going, by the way.]
When our daughter, Abigail, was born, we decided Emily was going to stay at home to be a full-time mom. I had two bookshelves full of graphic novels, plus a number of long boxes kicking about the house. Money was super-tight. So, I made a decision:
I got rid of all of my comic books. Every single graphic novel. Every individual issue.
It wasn’t a wildly valuable collection by any means, but it did pay for our groceries for about a month, plus a couple of other significant bills. Although it pained me, it was the decision that was right for the time, the one I needed to make to honor Christ and serve my family. As a result, I stopped reading comics for a number of years after. Then, in the last year, I started reading them again, largely because Abigail is now old enough to start enjoying some comics herself and I wanted to do something that the two of us could enjoy together.
And it’s great. I still love the art form, even it’s incredibly hard to find material these days that isn’t super-sketchy, though not impossible. But even so, as a Christian, I’ve had to ask myself: how do I navigate enjoying this art form while at the same time trying to honor Christ with what I’m reading? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves about most any art medium, isn’t it? We can ask that of music, of movies, novels and television. I wonder if, to some degree, this is why so many Christians seem to only listen to Christian music, watch Christian movies, and read Christian books—the Christian bubble is easier (at least in some ways), and there’s actually a surprising amount of social pressure to conform.
Don’t unthinkingly and uncritically jump into the Christian entertainment bubble. Don’t have a shallow view of art. Instead, one of the best things you can do is take some time to develop a theology of art—to consider why we create, whether all we create is pleasing to God, and the need for discernment.
First, let’s think about why we create. Ignore for a moment, the question of the specific content being created. What is it that motivates human beings to be creative? Why do we write stories, make music, build and design and shape and innovate—all of which have no natural place in a utilitarian worldview? It’s simple (but not). Fundamentally, we create because God is creative. Creativity is valuable because God does it. He made all the stuff of this universe: from the tiny atoms that make up your body to the moon and the stars (Genesis 1:1-2:2). And we do likewise because we who are called image bearers of God are like him (Genesis 1:26-27). In his book Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer described creativity as being intrinsic to our “mannishness”—that is to our very humanity. And so because we are like God, all of us are creative to one degree or another, whether it’s with a paintbrush or a spreadsheet.…
Now, let’s think about whether all creative efforts glorify God. After all, just because creativity is intrinsic to our nature as human beings and God is pleased when we create, not every creative act is equally glorifying to him. This is, in part, because of quality. I think we’ve all seen that not all creativity is great art. When a song is poorly composed, we know it. When a book lacks a plot, we are not unaware (even if said book[s] wind up selling gazillions). When a movie’s special effects are laughably bad, we notice. And while I don’t want to diminish the efforts of fellow believers, this, unfortunately, seems to be where a lot of the material marketed toward Christians lives. There’s a noble desire to make something that is honoring to Jesus, but it all falls apart in the execution. But if something has been poorly crafted, regardless of the label, guess what? It’s not good, and therefore inherently is not as God glorifying as something that’s very well done.
I don’t really like “Christian” movies. I’ve tried really hard to watch some, believe me. I’ve even tried to like some of them. My wife asked me to go to Fireproof when our old church screened it. I did and did my best not to make fun too much. I saw Courageous during an advanced screening and found it okay, but super-cheese (and the end part was unintentionally creepy, with all the dudes thrusting their hands up at church—it reminded me why we need to study history more). God’s Not Dead looked like a Christian revenge fantasy, so I passed on that entirely. I couldn’t handle super-model Jesus from Roma Downey and Mark Burnett’s series. Heaven is For Real is a fraud (because all heavenly tourism books and movies are)… Are you sensing a trend here?
The problem with most of these is, whenever I see them praised, an important qualifier is added—”Christian”:
“This is the finest Christian movie ever made,” or “The best Christian film of the year,” or my personal favorite, “It was really good… for a Christian movie.”
I really hate that. I hate it when we talk about movies, books and music with that particular qualifier. Not because I dislike the word Christian, obviously. But just imagine for a second that you replaced “Christian” with “golden retriever”, what would you think? Oh crap, it’s Air Bud 17![1. No offense to the Air Bud fans out there. All one of you. Air Bud himself.]
And that’s the thing: I hate when we say “it’s really good for a Christian movie” because we’re really saying it’s not very good at all or it was almost good. It’s damning with faint praise, friends.
Which brings me to a recent experience: Not too long ago, I received an invitation to an advanced screening of Beyond the Mask, a Christian action adventure film set in the opening days of the American revolution. The producers invited Christian influencers from my town (and probably yours, too), in the hopes of generating some buzz and showing the audience a “different” kind of Christian movie—one which they promised had great special effects and action, as well as a compelling story, romance, and the hope of the gospel weaved throughout. I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the film and wondering what I should say about it, if anything. So here are a few things I’ll say, both positive and critical (hopefully constructively so):
1. The movie’s fight choreography, particularly in the early scenes was legitimately good. It was pretty tight and didn’t have that feel of dudes who don’t know how to throw a punch trying to hit one another:
2. They had a number of actual professional actors among the cast.While I don’t mean to sound like being “pro” matters, it seems that the producers were actually trying to get talented and experienced people working on their film. They were clearly not trying to settle for the director’s friends from church or the guy who really loves to be in the drama on Sunday. Particularly worth noting is the always enjoyable John Rhys Davies as the villain, Charles Kemp, best known as Gimli from The Lord of the Rings, Sallah in Indiana Jones, and, of course, the beloved Maximilian Arturo from Sliders.
3. There were a couple of effects scenes that were actually impressive. These happened fairly early in the movie, unfortunately. I really wish they’d been able to save some budget for the end because the final FX scenes are really rough, such as the every end of the film when two characters are jumping away from an exploding windmill. But you could see that they wanted to make something that looked better than your average episode of Power Rangers, which is important.
4. The post-production on the end credits was top-notch. I know it sounds ridiculous to point this out, but seriously—they did a really nice job on the end credits sequence, which was clearly influenced by Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films.
5. The gospel content was ham fisted, and the lack of chemistry was noticeable. When the lead character suddenly “gets” the gospel before the climactic battle, it just didn’t ring true. The same can be said of the romance storyline. I didn’t buy them as star-crossed courters.
6. The direction and editing was a bit muddled. About two thirds of the way through the film, it felt like the director had been replaced or had gotten bored and was trying to introduce some new elements that he’d seen elsewhere because they looked cool. This was particularly noticeable with scenes where the frame rate was altered, which come across as a choppy accident rather than an intentional stylistic decision (again in part because they don’t appear anywhere else). The climatic battle also has a rather abrupt edit that sees the hero surrounded by Davies’ minions, only in the very next shot to be in Davies’ lair, ready to defeat him. The cumulative effect of these issues left me with the impression that the director wasn’t terribly confident in what he was doing. Perhaps it’s because he’s new to the game, or because his reach exceeded his grasp. I’m not really sure.
7. The attention to little details was lacking. Killmer’s hair and make-up, for example, was just right for her—if the film were set in 2015. But she didn’t look like she belonged in 1776. The actor playing Benjamin Franklin’s make-up was noticeable (in the same way that the “aging” make-up on Star Trek was noticeable, and that’s not a good thing). The accents for the time period weren’t quite right for colonial America (I’m pretty sure no one spoke with a Tennessean twang in 1776 Philadelphia). The hero uses a modern bar dart to send a message to his lady love. And the historical revisionism to make everyone less racist stretched credulity…
There were a few other things I noticed but I think you get the idea. I mention these not to be nitpicky but because they take you out of the experience. You can’t be immersed in an experience when you’re constantly reminded that it’s all pretend by little hints of the present.
8. The script needed a serious polish. The story was trying to do too much, and the dialogue was serviceable but wasn’t great. The basic building blocks were all there, but the screen writers could have used a little extra help from a really strong script doctor.
Would I call this a good movie? I’d say it’s not bad. I’ve seen worse movies come out of major Hollywood studios than this, just as I’ve seen stronger indie films. There were even a few flashes of greatness in this movie, just not enough to make me say “wow.”
Mostly, the film reminded me that there is the potential for people to make legitimately good movies that are faith-based if they so choose, which is important. After all, Christians ought to be concerned with telling the best stories, making the best music, producing the best films… this is not an option for us as our God is the Creator, and we are imitators of him. God is excellent in all he does, and so we ought to pursue creative excellence.
It also reminds me, though, that “faith-based” or “family friendly” can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help. Being “family friendly” can get in the way of telling a good story. And if you had any doubt, remember: the gospel isn’t safe. The story of redemption is quite bloody at times. But it’s also true. And it’s always true, regardless of the rating system. Every other story is echoing the one true Story. Every hero is a shadow of the true Hero. So let’s own that. Let’s tell great stories. Let’s try to have the best special effects when we need them.
Let’s make great films, not just great “Christian” ones.
Long before I became a writer, I was a graphic designer (an average-to-good one). Although I don’t do very much design work these days, I still try to pay attention to what’s going on in the industry. And lately, I’ve been really impressed with the quality of cover design and book packaging from a lot of Christian publishers.
Gone are the days of Papyrus with a drop shadow (the default settings in PhotoShop firmly in place) overtop a low-resolution image that was found on this new-fangled contraption called “Internet.” At least in traditional publishing. (There’s still 50 shades of that kind of awful going on in self-publishing.)
But I digress…
Because I’ve been so impressed of late with the quality of work I’m seeing out there, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites:
So what’s so rad about these book covers?
They all use text and iconic imagery very well, which is harder than it looks. Simple is very hard to do well. It’s actually very challenging to put together a cover that only uses type and create something that you want to look at. The designer for Taking God at His Word did a nice job with this, and the icon used for The Gospel at Work is brilliant in concept and execution (again, simple is very hard to do well). Ditto for Made for More. The flat, clean look might be über-chic at the moment, but it’s for a good reason: when executed properly, it’s beautiful stuff.
What I love about Proof‘s look is it captures the old-school hand-drawn typography look really well. When I was in college, one of the teachers made his non-teaching living actually painting store windows and signs in this style. It’s pretty incredible stuff to see and the cover’s a welcome throwback to me.
They’re designs with a little more longevity in mind. They’re not designs that are going to look super-dated in about three weeks (a danger with photo-dependent covers). Yes, they’re all fairly trendy for right now, but clean doesn’t ever really go out of style.
They communicate the big ideas well. You get the idea from Crazy Busy that we’re running ourselves ragged and need some help. Made for More‘s tells us we’re meant to embrace our identity of God’s image-bearers (and not caged by false ideas of who we are). Everyone’s a Theologian shows us as people saturated with the Word of God (or at least, people who should be).
That’s a little of what I enjoy about these book covers. What are a few that you’ve seen lately that have really wowed you?