To understand the challenges that evangelical media and mainstream media pose to one another and the challenges that changing technologies pose to the evangelical community is to understand the nature of new media in a very real way. In their book, Understanding Evangelical Media: The Changing Face of Christian Communication, editors Quentin J. Schultze and Robert H. Woods Jr. compile numerous essays that address various evangelical media including radio, television, film, comics, video games, theme parks, and merchandising.
In his introduction to the collected essays, Schultze writes, “A lot has changed since 1990. The idea of mass media has been replaced by networked media. Narrowcasting has replaced broadcasting. Media power has become democratized; low-cost digital production lets younger evangelicals tell stories in multiple venues. And this only begins to scratch the surface” (15). However, he and Woods recognize that the challenges that emerge from this changing digital landscape have ancient roots, tracing back to the early church and the ways in which Christians did or did not interact with “mainstream culture.” Most importantly, this book is not an attempt to tell readers, religious or not, what to think about mainstream or evangelical media, but rather encourages faithful conversation about and production of those media. In fact, they recognize that the term evangelical itself is not easily defined. The diversity of articles and wealth of evangelical responses to and interactions with media described therein testify to this reality.
In terms of popular culture and our discussions here at Pop Theology, a couple of the essays are worth mentioning at least briefly. In her chapter, “Thinking Outside the Tribal TV Box,” Kathy Bruner discusses evangelical television programming. She recognizes first and foremost that the main problem that many critics of the media have with it is that it preaches to the choir. Yet, when the choir is as big as the diverse evangelical community is in North America, this is a safe bet. According to various reports, “more people tune in, however briefly, to some form of Christian media than actually attend church monthly” (47). Bruner outlines several goals that supporters of Christian television hope to accomplish: fulfill the Great Commission, teach and disciple, calm believers in turbulent times, and provide wholesome, family-friendly fare (48-50). However, she notes that producers of evangelical programming do not approach these goals in any original fashion, but simply mock mainstream successes which in the end negatively affects their goals. Thus, critics cringe over evangelical media because it often embodies cheap grace, is highly politicized, turns servants into celebrities, employs questionable fund-raising practices, contrains creativity, preaches to the choir, has little impact beyond the community, and dilutes face-to-face evangelism (50-52). Yet the challenges that face mainstream television–the growing success of internet programming, YouTube, and the like–confront evangelical television as well. Yet, ironically, in these challenges might lie future success for this tribal media. Bruner writes, “[…In] an era of technological democratization […] preaching to a niche audience has become key to almost all media success. […] It is now theoretically easier to serve particular markets, both Christian and mainstream” (55).
Paralleling many of the realities of evangelical television programming, Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke discuss “Moving from Film to Digital Movies,” in the evangelical film industry. As he is want to do, Lindvall pays close attention to the history of religious film and the history of religious responses to film which pave the way for contemporary iterations of both. He well knows that evangelicals have been simultaneously the strongest supporters of film and its staunchest opponents throughout the years. For the most part, throughout their history, evangelical films have sought to instruct or evangelize; however, the authors also note that contemporary productions seek to entertain as well. Films like Holes, Facing the Giants, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Nativity Story, Left Behind, and One Night With the King “contributed to a revival of interest in films, providing an alternative in film viewing for evangelical families” (61). On the other hand, they also realize that evangelism might still be a key ingredient, given the success of The Passion of the Christ and evangelicals’ responses to and uses of it, all of which helped the production of some of the films listed above. Like their television counterparts, evangelical film producers also copy mainstream success like horror or action films. Yet within these mainstream successes, Lindvall and Quicke highlight the Christians who are working within Hollywood to create quality productions. They conclude their essay by highlighting the influence of The Passion and how it, at least for a time, changed Hollywood’s opinion of religious fare. As their title suggests, they are keenly aware of the doors that digital filmmaking opens for less lucrative producers, as evidenced by the success of Sherwood Pictures. They recognize that this might just be the future for religious filmmaking in the 21st century.
In his chapter, “Evangelicals’ Quest to Find God’s Place in Games,” Kevin Schut discusses the evangelical tribes’ relationship with games ranging from board games to digital games. While the controversy around RPG games like Dungeons & Dragons ignited an evangelical fury, Schut notes that Christians, from the start, wrestled with whether or not to attend or participate in games (although the Roman gladitorial arena was much more violent!). Again, this particular media mirrors television and film in that evangelicals take a variety of the same stances against games: rejection, appropriation, or imitation. However, online or real-life communities develop around games, especially board games, in ways that film and television do not easily allow. Schut notes how evangelicals have created their own versions of Dungeons & Dragons style board games, and most recently, their own version of The Sims or Grand Theft Auto in Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Schut recognizes that beyond these cheap imitations, Christians also work in and make significant contributions to mainstream video games. He notes that Robyn and Rand Miller created the mainstream blockbuster Myst, a compelling, non-violent computer game. Schut concludes that evangelicals will not continue to make successful contributions to this media until they abandon simple, moralistic concerns for the sake of creativity, originality, artistic excellence and integrity. He argues that good games can exist “with not an ounce of Scripture or explicitly religious veneer” (208).
These are just a few of the interesting essays that fill Schultze and Woods’ collection. Again, the other contributors point to similar realities in advertising, marketing, theater, publishing, and the internet. After examining all of these essays, Schultze and Woods arrive at a few unfortunate conclusions:
- Evangelicals are predictable
- Evangelicals avoid self-criticism about tribal media
- Evangelical media generally lack originality
- Evangelical media feast on the flock
- Evangelicals express narrow concerns about media morality
- Evangelical media lack ethnic diversity
- Evangelicals share mainstream society’s focus on technology over stewardship (282-285)
Ironically, however, some of these criticisms actually explain evangelical media’s success, specifically its tendency to “feast on the flock” and its predictability. Evangelical reactions to Sherwood Pictures’ productions show that this audience is perfectly happy to know what they’re going to see. Moreover, they appreciate having their theological worldview confirmed by a wholesome alternative to secular Hollywood.
Despite these faults, Schultze and Woods also outline a way forward for evangelical media in the 21st century:
- Develop informed, critical stances regarding new and older media
- Offer timely and well-deserved praise
- Think outside the tribal box
- Consider how non-Christian audiences will receive the content
- Reach out to the margins (285-286)
In the end, Schultze and Woods, along with their contributors, achieve their goals. Their introduction and conclusion do not tell us what to think about particular productions, but rather encourage us to think about the whole evangelical media endeavor. The chapters in between will certainly spark the desired conversation and critical engagement with these productions and between critics. In the end, Understanding Evangelical Media is a great resource for teachers, students, artists, and laity who are interested in the intersection of religion and popular culture.