The first issue of RELEVANT debuted in March 2003 and included an article that said, “We don’t need to label something Christian to the exclusion of the rest of the world for it to be good and pure.” That article made the case that the wall between “sacred” and “secular” was an artificial one, that all truth was God’s truth and the “Church” extends far beyond the buildings called churches. One hundred issues later, here’s where things stand.
What movie, album or book has impacted your own faith journey over the last few years?
Jeron Smith: Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation album ignited an evolution for me. The album was released in 1998 at a time when my parents were adamant about gospel being the primary music in our home. Prior to The Nu Nation Project, gospel music wouldn’t have been my preference, but Kirk Franklin orchestrated a sound that was vastly different from anything heard in the gospel genre previously and I loved it. Kirk used a popular secular sound to put the medicine in the candy, which is still an effective method today.
John Mark McMillan: The films that continue to haunt me over the last three years are Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence and the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival. To me, Silence was such a brilliant commentary on the nature of “belief” itself. Arrival is a story of beauty versus pain. It sort of asks us this question: If you knew life/love would be painful would you choose to live it anyway? Also, I’ve maintained a steady balance of Richard Rohr and Jordan Peterson.
Lisa Gungor: I have been profoundly impacted by the Be Here Now audiobook by Ram Dass and The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Klok. The Body Keeps the Score helped me understand trauma in relation to the body. Body work has helped me become more free in the body while Be Here Now has helped me realize who I am.
Amena Brown: Silence And Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro. I had been looking for an advent book written by a woman of color and was happy to find Enuma’s book. She writes daily devotions during advent from a unique perspective. I want to read her book every advent!
Also Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Homecoming. The music! The artfulness! The Blackness! The soul! The spirituality! The joy! The lament! The love! The heartbreak! I really don’t have enough exclamation points to express myself here!
To what do you attribute the rise of faith-based movies like God’s Not Dead?
Jeron Smith: I think faith-based movies are on the rise because we live in a world where horrible things are constantly happening all around us. People want to be uplifted. Faith-based films, and stories in general, are about connection. They have the ability to engage us through emotions and connect us to others. Stories allow people to see different perspectives, look past differences, and so much more.
Derek Minor: I think movies like God’s Not Dead fill the same space that the Christian music industry occupies. It’s primarily a business of selling hope—real or fake—and selling art is the secondary objective.
“‘Faith-based films’ implies that there’s some other kind of film.”
Most people are not OK with life resolving in a messy way and media like this tells them that there’s a clear resolution to the craziness of life. It’s the same reason why the term “Make America Great Again” is so hopeful for some and problematic for others. It’s the clamoring for the idea that America has had this clean and resolute history that has somehow descended into chaos as opposed to America has always been a messy and chaotic place with shifting morality that fits its agenda. It’s a very profitable niche.
Jon Foreman: “Faith-based films” implies that there’s some other kind of film. For me, all great art wrestles with belief. Of course, we know the moniker refers to American Christian films that fit a specific criteria. But it feels a bit small-minded and bigoted to ignore the faithful yearnings of the rest of humanity with our title.
The adjective “Christian” refers to the loving, self-sacrificial actions of following a Savior, not products. Perhaps a commercial product is mislabeled when “Christian” is stamped on top.
Jonathan Bock: I think films like God’s Not Dead are essentially Christian porn. They thrive on our worst instincts as believers— promulgating tropes like “us vs. them” theology, and the ever-popular “American Christians are under attack!” victim status. Watching films like these is like eating two Big Macs in one sitting—might taste good going down, but there’s zero nutritional value.
Lisa Gungor: I’m not a fan of dualistic terms like “spiritual” and “secular.” Anything that tries to label one thing as God and another as outside of God furthers harmful belief systems. Anything that has an “us vs. them” mentality furthers tribalism and oppression. I think there is an awakening happening, a realization that all wells lead to the same water. When this happens, our tribal instincts can kick up the urge to draw deeper lines in the sand, defining who is right and wrong, in and out. I’m all for stories of love and hope, but those stories are everywhere, not just within the Christian framework. It’s all spiritual.
John Mark McMillan: It’s hard to market anything these days. The way people consume media is very fragmented now. Meaning there are few central places to message to large audiences at one time. However, the Church is still a place where people of similar interests and beliefs can be messaged fairly easily. Also, the Christian market will often rally around ideas or values alone while other communities require a little more work to earn their trust. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all saying that Christians are “simple-minded,” but I do believe large groups of believers consume media for different reasons than other communities. I think Hollywood sees this as a big opportunity in a day when it’s hard to get people’s attention. I wish I had a more “spiritual” answer, but I think this is the case.
How can Christian filmmakers engage faith in their work in ways that are honest instead of hokey?
Jonathan Bock: Truthfully, the problem lies not with the filmmaker, but the audience. Historically, there hasn’t been much market for honest Christian films. But with the demise of LifeWay and Family Christian stores, that’s going to change. In the past, every model of a financially successful Christian film required robust DVD sales through Christian bookstores, so their 50-plus-year-old conservative evangelical female audience held a disproportionate sway over what got made. But now, without the Christian bookstores and their pocket veto on content, I think we will start to see a new, bolder era in Christian film.
Jon Foreman: One of my heroes once told me, “God doesn’t need a lawyer, your job is to be honest.”
Fern Miranda: By engaging people from the culture and not just people playing roles or acting. Authenticity is key, people want the real.
Derek Minor: Stop resolving things that don’t resolve. Be brave enough to tackle issues that are messy. Diversify your stories to include the narratives of other people in America besides the white evangelical. The only problem with those suggestions are they are at odds with the core base of that media.
Lisa Gungor: I like stories that give space, stories that don’t just tell me something directly but are a springboard for psychoanalysis. A nuanced story is a truer story because there never really is just a good person and bad person, a good moment and bad moment. Every person struggles with the complexity of being human. Let that struggle breathe.
What are some of the best examples you can think of?
Jeron Smith: The Book of Eli was an incredibly compelling storyline with A-list talent involved. I doubt most viewers would categorize the film as “faith-based” but why not? The Book of Eli is a compelling case study on the enigma of what constitutes a faith-based film. A faith-based audience traditionally requires biblically sound themes, exaltation of God/Christ and general biblical references. The Book of Eli checks all of these boxes.
Derek Minor: The movie Logan is amazing to me. Growing up watching Wolverine claw his way out of so many situations just in time for the credits to roll with him being the hero was very enjoyable. Logan paints him as a jaded hero who has lost faith and made some critical mistakes. He doesn’t have the answers. I think he’s a picture of many of us. He’s done so many cool things. He has so much potential but he realizes that he can only change so much. We all deal with that reality in different ways and that’s the tension.
Fern Miranda: Jerry Lorenzo for his Fear of God campaigns, he uses everyone from Jared Leto to you name it, and conveys a beautiful gospel message through excellent visuals and authenticity. His art and film production is the best example right now.
“Stop resolving things that don’t resolve. Be brave enough to tackle issues that are messy.”
Lisa Gungor: Oh, that’s hard. Countless movies do this successfully. Harry Potter—it shows how Harry struggles with his own “evil,” Lady Bird, PEN15 (not a movie, a TV show), Silence, Arrival, About Time, Easy.
Do you think Hollywood will change in the coming years to better accommodate faith-centric audiences?
Natalie Manuel Lee: Yes. I believe they are doing so now. Hollywood is starving for truth. Hollywood is searching for it. It is our job to feed it to them in a way that they can digest it.
Jeron Smith: Yes. Hollywood responds to the box office and as faith-based films continue to command the support, the more these films will continue to be made. I also think we’re starting to see a bit of a trend of faith-centric films appealing to a more mainstream audience in a way we haven’t seen before.
Jon Foreman: A film is a faith-based initiative. People make films because they believe it’s going to be worth it; it’s going to give them a sense of artistic satisfaction. Or it’s going to make them money. Or maybe it’s going to get them invited to sit at the cool kids’ table.
Who can know why we do what we do? The heart of man is deceitfully wicked above all things. But again … This is America we’re talking about: It’s money that makes the monkey dance. In a capitalistic society, people live out their faith with what they deem worthy of purchase. The films that make money get made again.
John Mark McMillan: Not to be a cynic, but I think Hollywood will follow the money. So if they feel like there’s a way to make movies that believers want to see, they will continue. However, I think much of what it means to be a “believer” often runs against the grain of culture and could be problematic for a largely populist industry like feature film.
What kind of stories do you hope Christian creatives will tell in the future?
Natalie Manuel Lee: Truth. Nothing watered down to protect the Christian world. Films that will make some of us uncomfortable while portraying the Word of God. Films that meet the lost right where they are, not where we want the “perfect” Christian to be. We cannot be concerned about offending anyone with God’s truth, we need to be concerned about doing the task at hand that He has called us to do.
Jeron Smith: I agree with Natalie, authenticity and honesty is my hope. I think you can still create a powerful and feel-good faith-based film that is not unchallenging—we should be acknowledging truth and exploring the duality of faith.
Fern Miranda: More biopics based on true stories of our favorite stars and heroes and their testimonies. That would be huge.
Is “Contemporary Christian Music” dead?
Derek Minor: It’s not dead. It’s just reflective of its base. It will rise and fall with the evangelical.
Amena Brown: I can’t say it’s dead to me. It’s more like someone I knew in high school and only see on Facebook every now and then.
Jon Foreman: This “death” you’re talking about is a death of capital, right? A financial death? Which isn’t really that sad. Money comes and goes, and can’t be a means unto itself.
But if “Christian” is my faith and not a genre to be sold, then it lives on in many, many beautiful ways. Many of my “contemporaries” are making truly heartfelt, aching, reaching songs that I would argue are every bit as alive as any genre present or past.
Fleurie: I don’t think CCM is necessarily attracting people under the age of, let’s say, 30—you know, people who didn’t grow up in its peak. The sound hasn’t necessarily evolved much, whereas the sound of—and I’m being careful with what I say because so many people I love are in that genre—but these bands have found a sound that connects with their audience and a lot of these bands haven’t necessarily ever evolved that sound.
John Mark McMillan: As I said with film, Christian audiences will often rally around values and ideas above the work itself. This doesn’t mean that the music or film isn’t good. That’s really not for me to say. But it means that people consume it for different reasons. The CCM audience, more so than others, consume music for the message and meaning. Because of this, they get a lot of support from church organizations, donors, etc. and from places that other genres can’t depend on. This is a huge benefit in a day and age where music can’t be monetized for its own value. So for this reason alone, I think CCM will prevail.
Fern Miranda: I don’t think it’s dead. It’s just naturally transitioning into the next generation’s music. The next generation has to get their chance to say what CCM is. No matter what, it’s a natural progression. Eventually batons will be passed, and gatekeepers will be replaced with others who will know how to communicate with this generation and easily cater to their wants and needs because it will be us. Who knows us better than us? It’ll be so beautiful when CCM starts playing this generation’s music, and hip-hop is more accepted as a norm. That will be a beautiful day.
“I don’t care about your faith if I don’t believe you first.”
–John Mark McMillian
Why do you think faith-centric (yet still mainstream) artists like Chance the Rapper are having so much success?
Derek Minor: Chance is dope! What’s made him popular isn’t his faith. His faith is an additive and is secondary. People tolerate that from him. I think the majority of people don’t care about his faith at all. Also, his path never went through Christian infrastructure. Once you go through the infrastructure of Christian music, you’re marked for life for better or worse.
Jon Foreman: The truth will set you free. We all want that. We see someone saying it like it is and we want to hear more.
John Mark McMillan: First of all, the music is great, and Chance is super likable. More importantly, Chance is “believable.” Not sure how to quantify “believability,” but that’s the difference in artists like Chance and some other faith-based artists. Personally, I don’t care about your faith if I don’t believe you first. Some call this honesty or authenticity. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s the foundation for any decent work, in my opinion.
Fleurie: I don’t know. I think artists like Chance and Kendrick are singing about their lives and their stories and it’s relating to a lot of people, but I think it’s a different mindset and motive behind creating in general. I think most people in the past who signed to a Christian record label were—whether they were told this or they instinctively felt called to this or whatever— focused on creating music that would inspire people to faith. Their mission wasn’t to tell their story. They may have told their story at moments, but personal creative expression wasn’t king. It was secondary. It wasn’t, I just have a song burning in my heart and I’m just going to put it into the world and see what happens.
I don’t think that artists like Chance and Kendrick are worried about pastoring people in any way. I don’t think they were going into the studio saying, “My mission is for people to see Jesus illuminated and for them to know who He is and for them to believe.” I think they’re like, Hey, this is my faith and if you resonate with it, that’s awesome. If not, have a great life.
Amena Brown: In Black music, many mainstream artists incorporated their faith into their music whether they were Christian, Muslim, Five Percenter or other religions, so Chance is following a long-held tradition in Black music. I think music that incorporates the holistic human experience becomes successful because it resonates with people’s humanity and is able to address the holy, the sensual and the mundane without compartmentalizing them. People want to see their humanity reflected in music: faith, love, sex, heartbreak, spirituality, grief, doubt, happiness, questions.
Lisa Gungor: His music is honest, vulnerable, he is a likable person, his lyrics are funny, it’s a fresh sound. As far as him having success in the faith-based world goes: Christians like it when people from the “outside” speak about God.
When we see someone speaking faith language in mainstream music, we like claiming them as our own, we like seeing the “light in the darkness,” it strikes a chord. It validates our beliefs. Also, some faith-based circles just really want Jesus to feel cool, so Chance does that for them.
What lessons can Christians in other creative industries learn from how naturally Christians in the music industry have incorporated their faith into their work?
Derek Minor: Good question. Going back to God’s Not Dead and Christian films, I think many Christians in the Christian space are naturally doing what others in mainstream spaces are doing. The music or thoughts that many of the most popular artists make in CCM is true to who they are. The guys that hop in CCM and don’t make authentic music usually are rejected and become jaded by that base. It’s just a niche market.
Jon Foreman: Be honest. Tell your story. Live out the self-sacrificial love of The Friend, Your Maker, Your Savior. Spend time seeking the Kingdom of Heaven rather than chasing after the fool’s gold of any finite game.
Is the era of “Peak TV” dead?
John Mark McMillan: I have no idea. But I will say that my kids don’t know what a commercial is.
Jonathan Bock: We’ve not seen “Peak TV” yet. Just wait. There are still another dozen TV platforms getting ready to launch. And until some of those platforms implode, every one of them will need more content, not less.
Fern Miranda: One of my favorite internet producers said that YouTube is gearing up to be Gen Z’s TV. That means all the content creators that don’t fit within their guidelines will no longer be allowed on the platform. 2020 marks the year when Gen Z will represent a large portion of the world’s buying populous. So basically, if content creators are not also creating their own platforms, they will die with the commercialization of the internet.
What TV show from the last 10 years has engaged faith in the the most interesting way?
Amena Brown: Greenleaf engaged a lot of church and faith nuances, and particularly Black Church and faith nuances, in an interesting way. I also thought Mary Mary’s reality show engaged faith in some interesting ways as well.
In certain ways, the series Catfish engaged the ability to want to believe and have faith in someone even when the odds were telling us otherwise. I love this show! Catfish is worth a study in its correlations to how and why we “believe.” Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
Lisa Gungor: Crashing. The Office.
How can people navigate the overwhelming number of options for television?
Jeron Smith: There’s a lot of clutter out there but also a lot of quality storytelling that is educational, inspiring and time-worthy. I would actually urge people to consume content that might be outside of their typical comfort zone—sometimes it can open eyes to other realities. Stories can help us to understand ourselves and each other better and help to find commonality with others.
Jon Foreman: Not sure. I’m not a hater. I’m sure there’s a lot of great stuff to watch, I just find so many other things to love!
(Turn it off and meditate! Take a walk! Pray! Spend time with your family!)
Beyond shows about the actual Bible, how can Christian artists and filmmakers produce content that will connect with TV viewers in the future?
Jon Foreman: Tell the truth! Self-sacrificial love is the story again and again.
Lisa Gungor: Inclusion is big. People are tired of one kind of person filling the screen. Nuanced characters show the complexity of the human condition
And as far as the future goes, we need TV that urges us to take care of this planet or TV will be the very least of our concerns. Many faith-based circles still don’t believe our climate is changing. If there was content showing the changes in a creative way, maybe more people would change the way we consume.
Jonathan Bock: Jesus provided us the model to deliver the message of God and salvation by speaking in parable and metaphor. Up until now, we’ve tended to use faith as a sledge-hammer. We have to be wise as serpents! To paraphrase Rachel Held Evans, we need to start to see the Bible as a conversation-starter, not a conversation-ender. That holds double true for entertainment audiences.
Natalie Manuel Lee: Creating truthful content that is inclusive to all. I agree with Jonathan, we need to start to see the Bible as a conversation-starter, not a conversation-ender. We don’t need to create fantasy content of what “should be,” we need to create content of what is now and then what should be. And what should be is the Word. Let that be [what] defines our time.
What does the next generation of artists need to keep in mind as they strive to tell the truth?
Fleurie: I think the first thing is just quiet the noise and get away with God. Not just to ask What’s my calling? Learn how to be in solitude. Turn off your phone. Turn off all the screens. Learn how to be intimate with God in a way that you’re quiet enough, that He can share with you His heart and what He’s seeing in the world and what He wants to use you for. And also just so that He can fill you.