Friday, August 27, 2010 Defenders of Whatever

In the comments to the last post, Trumwill wrote about agenda-driven entertainment:

The really preachy stuff with a sermon at the end with music playing is not nearly as successful as shows that more thoroughly investigate issues and then gently guide you to the conclusion, being interesting and entertaining the whole way.

I would submit as a generality that propaganda makes bad art.  There are exceptions of course; Philadelphia succeeded artistically even though it was transparently pro-homosexual agitprop.  But usually, propaganda hit pieces suffer the fate of Rendition and disappear without a trace.

The converse question – does good art make more effective propaganda – brought to my mind the movie Bridge to Terabithia.

BtT, faithfully adapted from the Katherine Paterson’s Newbury medaled book, concerns two children: a boy, Jess, from a working class churchgoing family; and a girl, Leslie, from an upper-middle class family with no apparent religious convictions.  The two children use their imaginations to turn a stretch of woods into an enchanted forest with magical creatures.  The young boy, in particular, uses this fantasy world to help him cope with various stresses at home and school.

The subject of religion comes up in the movie when Leslie attends church with Jess’s family.  Leslie finds Christianity to be aesthetically pleasing but dismisses the idea that God would send anybody to hell.  Later – SPOILER ALERT – when Leslie drowns while attempting to visit the enchanted forest alone, Jess seeks assurances from his father that Leslie wouldn’t really go to hell, and his father replies that she would go to heaven for being a good person.

Now, on the one hand, BtT is obviously pushing a universalist message contrary to orthodox Christian teaching.  On the other hand, the movie’s handling of the subject was as fair as one could reasonably expect.  A sympathetic character accurately presents the doctrine of Original Sin, and – to my ears – presents it far more compellingly that the sentimental rebuttals.  Jess’s father is a rough, practical man who mocks his son’s artistic ambitions, but these are in context more attributable to class limitations rather than religion.

So the question is, does BtT “thoroughly investigate issues and then gently guide you” to a universalist position?  Does it do so effectively? 

To answer this question, I turned to and found three articles that discuss the movie.  While these articles discuss the film’s artistic merits and compare it to the children’s book, nowhere do they raise the issue of its universalist advocacy.  (This isn’t just me being hypersensitive:  here is a liberal website that had no trouble getting the point.)

While I am glad that Christian art criticism has come a long way from when it merely counted episodes of sex and violence, I’m not sure what use it is if it can’t spot instances of heterodox theology.  I can appreciate that, given Paterson’s background (she was the child of missionaries to China and the husband of a Presbyterian pastor), this was a book and movie that Christian reviewers wanted to like, and indeed they are likable.  But does a disservice to its readers when its writers either can’t spot or don’t care about a subtext running contrary to the Gospel.


Novaseeker said...

My guess, Phi, is that they saw the universalist message well enough, but compared to most other films saw it as being, on balance, a positive film. I think that given how reviling so many films are from the Christian perspective, something like BtT, while obviously problematic, gets some praise for being relatively less so. At least that's my guess. And I agree that even if this is the reason, it's pretty useless for a Christian magazine to be reviewing a film like BtT like that.

At the same time, I don't think films like The Golden Compass got a free pass from the Christian press -- but then again that film/book is much less subtle and more or less directly attacks Christianity.

Φ said...

Novaseeker: Well said. TGC is an example of a film whose propaganda made it a commercial and artistic failure.

Jehu said...

The most effective propaganda is what I call 'Histogram Distortion'. That is, you make the high-status and sympathetic characters in the movie holders of the view or status marker that you're trying to push. You do the converse with what you're trying to suppress, making your opponent archetypes appear 'uncool'. Thus, all your gay characters will JUST HAPPEN to be sympathetic, and your anti-homosexual characters will of course be uncool. The position of your antagonist will just HAPPEN to be undercut by him being a child abuser, etc. Frequently, you can bolt this content on without changing the artistic core of the story.

Φ said...

Jehu: We see exactly this kind of propaganda in BtT. Leslie and her parents are portrayed as happy and whimsical, while Jess is unhappy and his father is stressed. From what I understand, Ayn Rand and Philip Pullman also use this method frequently in their books.

We see a similar distortion in media with regard to race. Like how the medical doctor or computer programmer will always be black, for instance.

Anonymous said...

It's a book for girls. I read it as a child and hated it SO much. I'm not averse to tearjerkers, but even as a child I despised the girl and found no reason to mourn her foolish, useless death. Give me Lloyd Alexander any day.