Like many Herald-Leader readers, I have read my fellow Life + Faith columnist Paul Prather's recent columns about the movie Fireproof with great interest, but probably from a different perspective.
As an arts and entertainment journalist and critic who covers faith-based pop culture, I know that criticizing art made in the name of Christianity or other faiths can be quite a minefield. If you say something negative, no matter how constructively, some people invariably take it as an insult not only to their taste but to their faith.
That can make it a little bit hard to do what Paul was doing, essentially writing an aspirational column asking: Shouldn't we as people of faith strive to create art that doesn't just advocate our point of view but stands on its own as great art?
Many, many times, Christianity and great art have come together. Just think of the music of J.S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and other composers who wrote religious works, or some of the great visual art in works by Michelangelo that represent biblical images. That has not stopped happening
In modern music, artists including Phil Keaggy and Switchfoot make faith-based rock 'n' roll that can stand with anything on the mainstream charts. Whitney Houston's death has reminded us of the great influence that gospel music holds in numerous forms of modern music.
Christian pop is a genre that has long labored under the criticism that it is not as good as mainstream music. I know that has made some people angry and resentful — and it hasn't always been the most constructive or best-informed criticism — but I think it has helped to strengthen a genre that wanted to prove not only that Christians can make modern music about faith but that they can do it really well.
With one-third of the world's population identifying as Christians, it stands to reason that there will be great artists among them.
But the fast lane to mediocrity is when we assume that good intentions automatically equal good results.
A story that has stayed with me over the years came from a former editor of a Christian publication. He said that early in his career, he accepted an invitation to meet an aspiring singer-songwriter to listen to her music. They got together, she played him a recording of her song. It was awful. He said he tried to tell her as gently as possible that it was not good and that he couldn't possibly publish anything about it. She got very upset and asked, how could he not like her song when it was given to her by God?
Talk about putting the critic on the spot.
Critics are often perceived as being in the role of tearing down, but I contend that the best ones are in the business of building up the people and institutions they review, even when they are pointing out what they think are shortcomings.
The criticism of Fireproof is nothing new to art produced to advocate for Christianity or any number of other religious, political or social causes: The movie is more about advocating a point of view than telling a compelling story. Fireproof never really becomes entirely engaging as a story and simply comes across as a message: that God is an essential part of a successful marriage.
Numerous times when I have reviewed movies, plays and other material, I thought I was being beaten over the head with a message and wanted to write, "Maybe they should have simply written an essay, an op-ed piece or an advocacy book." Art created solely to advocate an opinion rarely succeeds.
There have been great Christian movies, but in most cases, I really don't know whether advocating a Christian message was the purpose of making them.
Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Oscar winner for best picture, leaps to mind, with its compelling story of two men and how their faith played into their athletic pursuits. Then there's The Mission, the 1986 winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, with Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro as Jesuits who ultimately sacrifice their lives trying to protect a remote South American Indian village from slave traders. More recently, last year's Soul Surfer was praised by mainstream critics and did well at the box office with its true story of a young woman who, through her Christian faith, triumphs after a shark attack.
All are cases where storytelling strengthens the message of faith.
I have not seen Higher Ground, the film Paul recommends, but based on what he wrote, I plan to.
One thing I always tell people is that a review is one person's opinion. In the case of critiques from major publications, that should be a person who is knowledgeable about the field he or she is writing about and has extensive experience observing.
If you saw Fireproof and loved it, if it spoke to you and in some way changed your life, that's great. Nothing we or any other critics say should change that.
But if someone happens not to like it or any other art made in the name of Christianity, that should not bring the person's faith into question.
As a Christian and a professional arts journalist, I have never seen or heard anything, even Handel's Messiah, that I would say you must love to be a Christian.
But I will always be excited to point out work I think is excellent and will not be afraid to address things that could have been better.