Today’s post was written by Paul McCusker, veteran writer and director for Adventures in Odyssey and Focus on the Family Radio Theatre, and author of numerous books and plays. (For more from Paul, check out his website!) Since his work in Christian media has been phenomenal, I could think of no better person of whom to ask the question: “Why does Christian media so often fail, and how can we make it better?”
In the thirty years I’ve spent as a writer I’ve often heard Christians complain about the sub-standard quality of the Arts in modern Evangelical Christendom. The lament is that films, novels, plays, music and all other forms of Art seem to suffer at the hands of well-meaning Christians. I have launched this complaint myself at one time or another. And some might argue that I’ve contributed to the problem, considering my varied career as a writer in some of those fields.
Before we complain too much or too often, I think it helps to ask a few questions just to clarify what we’re talking about. What do people mean by “sub-standard quality”? Sub-standard compared to what? Are we measuring against the secular realm, which certainly has its share of flops (maybe even more if you consider the percentages)? Or are we measuring against something else? If so, what?
If nothing else, we need a coherent definition of success. For example, how do we measure artistic success? Is it based on a sense of fulfillment and experience—a story or song hits in all the right ways for the audience? Or maybe it’s the fulfillment and experience of the artist, somehow shared with others? I once read how the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams stated that he wasn’t sure if he liked it one of his symphonies, but it was certainly what he meant to say when he wrote it.
Are we measuring according to financial success? Is a great story something less than a great story if a lot of people don’t buy it? Or maybe we’re creating sub-standard art because we don’t have the right level of investment at the start? More money means better effort? Or does it?
Or are we measuring according to spiritual success, tallied by the number of people who are drawn closer to Christ in one way or the other?
These are the kinds of questions we must ask before applauding or dismissing the efforts of Artists. I’ve been moved by stories that I knew were not very well-made. Equally, I’ve been unmoved by stories because the flaws were impossible to look past. I’ve shrugged at big-budget films that should have gotten it right and didn’t. And I’ve watched in wonder at low-budget films that combined plot, character and theme in near-perfection.
All these questions aren’t meant to evade the issue. I’ve wrestled with them repeatedly over the years—from project to project, and audience to audience. There are so many factors an Artist in any discipline has to consider. But those factors aren’t always clear to the unwary. And success may only be an elusive hope, no matter what we do. But let’s allow that we should always do our best. Here are a few suggestions how.
I would suggest that any Artist—Christian or otherwise—must know the disciplines of Art. We must learn the craft. Master it, as much as it can be mastered. Do our very best while recognizing our limitations and the limitations of the Art we hope to master. Understand the objective rules of Art while appreciating the subjective experience people will have of it. Learn, learn and keep learning.
We must never do, nor accept, less than the very best, even if people seem to grow closer to God because of it. Well-intended rubbish is still rubbish. God can redeem our very worst efforts, but we mustn’t keep putting Him in a position where He has to. Yes, we can be forgiving about poorly crafted Art, but we mustn’t let that forgiveness excuse the flaws in a poor effort.
We have to remember that every Artistic effort has its own choices and challenges and opportunities for mistakes. The goal is to learn from those mistakes this time in the hope we won’t repeat them again next time. We learn—and we learn again.
It’s not popular to suggest it, but I believe we must understand for whom we write. Who are they? What are they expecting from us? (And if we don’t like the answer to that question, then we may be writing for the wrong audience.) It’s easy to look down our artistic noses at the very people we want to communicate with—especially when they’ve rejected us. Personally, I’m inclined to want to assume the best about my audience. I suspect that they are a lot smarter than me—and haven’t been proven wrong—and try to write accordingly.
None of this has to do with being “successful” in media, by the way. It’s only part of the equation. Our “success” as Artists is often determined by sales-people, distributors, producers, marketers, and a large number of professionals who will impact what we do and how we do it. In that world, we have to learn their rules—and try to play by them—until someone creates new rules for us to learn and follow. That’s yet another reality.
Even as I guest-write this blog, I’m aware that there’s someone looking over my shoulder, representing his audience, determining whether or not I’ve come close to what he asked me to write. And as I wind up, I have to paraphrase Ralph Vaughan Williams once again: I don’t know if I like what I’ve written, but it’s what I meant to say.