Last night I watched Grace Unplugged. It was suggested to me, I would say recommended but that might be putting it a bit strong. The Netflix introduction warned me what I was getting: “Every Sunday Grace performs at church with her ex-rock star father, but she longs to share her talent with the rest of the world”. Despite this preview I was still surprised to hear the film start with the familiar chords of Matt Redman’s Never Let Go. It was going to be one of those films.
I wish it wasn’t. I wish a mainstream film started with a typical church worship service, but this was a Christian film. Quite what makes a film Christian is open for dispute, but this certainly was one, the content was explicitly Christian, and it was squarely targeted at the fellow brethren.
I’m going to spoil it for anyone planning on watching, so if you’d rather not read on, head over to Netflix and then come back.
The plot is predictable, and even in that predictability it is disappointing. It’s a prodigal story with a girl rebelling against her parents and heading off to the big wide world (LA I think) to seek stardom. She’s encouraged to do things that go against her faith, has a shock when she’s set up with a TV star to gain her some publicity – who’s just trying to get her into bed. She fails to write a song she needs to prove she’s not a one hit wonder (she rerecorded her father’s hit song). There’s the requisite good outside influence in the form of an intern who was at a church service she and her father played at some time before, and is surprised at her presence in the secular music industry. When things come crashing down she goes to dinner with his family, and in one of many montage scenes we see her gloom lift and she gradually becomes happier. This leads to her returning to her room, picking up the guitar, writing a great song, and returning home and to church to play before the congregation. The film ends with her and her father playing with Chris Tomlin and engaged to the good intern.
Two things appalled me about this film. Firstly, that the definition of doing the good Christian thing was returning to lead worship and not playing secular music, despite her being good enough to do so (a point well made in the Christianity Today review). This is bad theology, the only glimpse of a better perspective was a comment from the good intern that he guessed there needed to be light in this kind of place. This felt like a self-justification of the genre this film belonged to, Christian art for Christian audiences. The idea of the sacred and the secular that such films play into and feed off is nonsense.
Secondly, her descent into darkness was really not that much of a descent. One scene of her being drunk while on a date, and another empting a bottle of non-descript alcohol while trying desperately to write a song of her own. It meant that her dramatic return to her family and the church was lacking the pathos it needed. One caveat to this point, I don’t think it’s necessary to portray sin in specific defined ways to need redemption, in fact I think it would be interesting to explore what it looks like in the absences of sex, drink, and drugs. But this film doesn’t offer an interesting alternative tale of rebellion it just weakly and unconvincingly hints at the conventional narrative.
Most reviews from Christian websites I browsed raved about its wholesome content and positive Christian storyline. In fact, one complained that it showed her return to the family fold in too simplistic terms, pointedly stating that for many they never return from heathen nirvanas such as Hollywood or Nashville. This is why I really valued the review that Christianity Today produced. Recently they wrote an incredibly scathing review of the new Left Behind film, and then followed it up with a piece explaining how and why they write reviews. Their review included the memorable conclusion: “We tried to give the film zero stars, but our tech system won’t allow it.”
I value it because I trust them not to write puff pieces and say something is good simply because it has the Christian tag on it. Whether a film, or a book, or an album, an artist or musical can be ‘Christian’ is a debate for another day, but sometimes it seems as though the moniker means that we leave our critical faculties at the door and give something five stars for effort regardless of the quality of what is produced. Or rate it positively simply because it doesn’t do the things mainstream films do (drink, drugs, and debauchery).
For many offerings the quality isn’t dreadful, it’s just not great, and doesn’t reach the hyperbole of those promoting it or those reviewing it (which can sometimes seem like one and the same). One recent example was the musical Love Beyond, which I went to see earlier a few weeks ago. To its credit the actors were good, the musicians and dancers talented and it was put on with great professionalism. But I didn’t think it was very good, I thought the script lacked inspiration and it failed to deliver a memorable song, which for a musical is a difficult failing to overcome. Taking the story of the Bible and condensing it into a single evening’s performance is quite a challenge and I credit the effort put into it, it condensed the Old Testament post fall into a single scene (probably the best of the whole show), but then refused to wrap things up succinctly with scene after scene that I thought, and hoped, would be the last. It told the story of the Bible, in parts very well, in others confusingly and uninspired, but as a result it wasn’t novel to Christians, nor accessible to those who weren’t.
The bigger problem came the next day when I read a couple of reviews from others that had been there. They were relentlessly positive, and I felt they couldn’t possibly be from the same performance I had watched. I hesitated at the time and I hesitate now from publishing my verdict, I know (although not well) people involved in the show, and I don’t want my criticism to be seen as a rejection of their effort – it’s far easier to critique a film like Grace Unplugged that I don’t even have the faintest connection to.
In the same way that I don’t want to be unfair to the show I don’t want to be unfair to the two reviews linked above, they may have not found anything to fault in the show, and if they didn’t that’s their prerogative. But something I’ve noticed is that Christians tend to give soft reviews, and as a result this can create a culture where criticism is silently frowned upon.
I’m fortunate to work somewhere which gets sent review copies of Christian books on a fairly regular basis and I have the opportunity to write reviews of what I read. However, often after reading something I decline to write a review because I have insufficient positive things to say. Sometimes the books are bad, but more often they are formulaic and dull – the same book has been written with a different cover dozens of times before. Often the only basis for publication is that the author has a significant profile in the Christian world.
When I have reviewed something, and have the space for more than a very brief comment I usually have something to critique even if I have thoroughly enjoyed and valued it. Because I don’t think it does anyone a service to be unfailingly positive about something simply because it is written by a Christian. If books that are repetitious and full of jargon continue to get amazing reviews they will be bought and publishers will commission more of the same.
Of course, readers have the choice to read what they want, but I think there is also a duty for reviewers to maintain their integrity. Here’s where I make a baseless allegation, my fear is that reviewers hold off criticism because they want to get a book deal, or because they have one, or publications want to attract adverts from book publishers.
What’s ironic is that Christians aren’t known for their avoidance of disagreement. Just visit the internet. We’ll happily offer our opinion of someone else’s, we’ll argue with their point of view, debate the merits or foundation of their position. But something strange happens when it comes to what could be broadly described as Christian art, what Christians have produced we want to support and affirm. I want to do the same, I want Christians to create pieces of art, films, music, books that are remembered for centuries to come. I want us to be culture creators. And I want those pieces of culture created to be for all of society, not just for a warm fuzzy feeling for Christians.
I have certainly valued (even if a little painful to take) criticism of things I have worked on. If I ever write a book I’d love to get great reviews, but I want them to be on merit, I don’t want to get them simply because no one has the guts to say something true.