When “good enough” isn’t good enough

May 9, 2009   //   by Alida   //   Books, Creative Discontent, Faith, Reviews  //  4 Comments

One of my primary goals when I was working with the drama ministry at the church was to see it become as professional and high-quality as possible, because what’s the point of putting on shoddy work? Too often, I think that the attitude within the church is, “Whatever we give God, he’ll do something good with, so I don’t have to give my best.” And yes, while it’s true that God makes beauty out of our brokenness, it doesn’t give us the excuse to be lazy or to give less than our best–not only the best of what we currently are, but the best of what we can be, through training, practice, and honing our skills.

(And if I ever end up back in a position of leading the drama ministry at Foothills, one of my goals is to make it a place of training, mentoring, and growth for the team members themselves, as well as a place to use theatre as a ministry to the church and community.)

Mom and Dad gave Colin and I the movie Fireproof for Valentine’s Day. We haven’t watched it yet, but despite not having seen it, I’ve been pretty vocal with my disappointment in it (and maybe I’ll post a review of the movie itself once I’ve seen it, but this isn’t a review of the movie; it’s a discussion of the reactions I’ve heard). I’ve read reviews from sources that I trust, and everything I’ve heard indicates that it’s a pretty formulaic “Christian” movie: overly expository writing, not-so-great acting, less-than-subtle conveyance of its message, and mediocre production value.

Even the opinions of people who liked it have been mixed. They thought it was a good story, but the acting wasn’t the best they’ve ever seen; or they thought the message was good, but it could have been told better.

My argument against it from the beginning has been this: Why put something out there on a stage where it can’t possibly compete with the best that’s it’s up against? Why create something–with a God-honoring message, and with the best intentions in the world–to a standard of mediocrity, where even the people who like it only like it with reservations?

If money’s the issue, create a short film that stands up to the standards of the best short films, enter it in festivals, and get it out there on a different circuit. Or release it straight to DVD, where the standards are lower, and the art being presented isn’t expected to be at as high a level. Or film a movie with a small cast (the film version of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things–like the play–had four characters. It can be done.) and spend the money on a top-notch cast, rather than on a larger cast. There are ways to do it without sacrificing the quality of the art.

Ahem. I’m getting off-topic again, though. 🙂

When Christians make art that presents our faith to the world, we come at it with a significant disadvantage, because people have a preconceived idea about what “Christian art” (or movies, or music, or theatre) is like, and that preconceived idea is, more often than not, that the work is cheesy, outdated, preachy, ineffectual, and so on and so forth. There’s a notion of what the work looks like, and when the work feeds into that stereotype because we don’t do the best we possibly can, it is not only dishonoring in our work as worship, but it reinforces a stereotype that doesn’t need any more help being perpetuated.

Yes, God can work through–and despite–us in anything. Marriages and lives are being changed because of Fireproof, and I’m not disputing that. Still, it can’t be good enough to hope and pray for the best results from work that is less than the best. If God can do amazing things through mediocre work done by imperfect, broken people, imagine what he can do through excellent work done by imperfect, broken people. We’re still the broken part of the equation. That doesn’t change. But the work we do doesn’t have to be half-assed because of it.

Having said that, I found a book that does a lot to support ideas that I’ve been trying to articulate for years. It excited me so much to pick up Addicted to Mediocrity, by Franky Schaeffer, and read, “It is more serious to accept mediocrity in the area of the arts and ideas than it is in the physical world. The price we pay is high.”

That’s an awesome sentence. Think about it. He’s saying that it’s more serious for a Christian in the arts to create mediocre work than it is for a builder who is a Christian to give you a leaky roof. (And I’m sitting in an apartment with a leaky ceiling right now, so I know how annoying–although in this case, fortunately not too destructive–that can be!)

He goes on to say:

The price is the ludicrous defacing of God’s image before the world. The price is abusing and manipulating God-given talents by turning them into mere useful tools. The price is looking only for cheap shortcuts to the fruit without considering the means of getting there. In other words, the price is the integrity of Christians themselves. This leads to Christianity looking ridiculous. The world quite sensibly wants no part of it; after all, “only lunatics vie for failure” (Selzer)…

The idea that “the Spirit can work somehow,” that God can bring something out of it if we just sort of throw it out there, is unjustifiable from those who claim to know the living God and can see his integrity and dedication to quality in his Word and the world around is… Of all people, Christians should be addicted to quality and integrity in every area, not be looking for excuses for second-best.

This is the foundation of what I’ve been saying for years. We have the responsibility to do the best we can–and that looks different in different places. What is “best” for a community theatre production would not be “best” for a Broadway show. What’s “best” for someone in the beginning of his training is nowhere near the “best” of a lifelong professional. All of that is a given. Of course there’s room for varying skills and the context in which the work is being performed–but context must play a part in determining “best.” Going back to Fireproof, it may have been far better in a different medium, but when it’s competing against films that either have the budget to be great (big Hollywood blockbusters) or the talent to be great (some of the really fantastic, low-budget indie films), it has to play on their field.

Does that sound harsh? Are we held to a higher standard than the rest of the world? Well, in some ways, yes.

The Christian world has not even a poor standard, because it operates on a double standard principle. It judges its spiritual activities, in which it includes its media and arts efforts, by spiritual standards, unlike the standards it applies to the rest of life. Thus an art work, song, or whatever can be highly acclaimed because of its spiritual content, even if it is a miserable exhibition of a lazy addiction to mediocrity, which denies those very spiritual facts it is claiming to proclaim…

While the secular world does have much mediocrity in it, its worst sin is its often deliberate bias against Christianity and Christian ethics. To fight this bias effectively and to demand a hearing requires Christian achievement of the highest order. Because of our mediocrity, we Christians all too often provide the excuse the world is looking for to ignore the truth of Christianity.

It’s so important that we don’t get complacent and lazy, forgetting to keep pushing the boundaries of our own skills and of the field as a whole. Why aren’t Christians in the arts (and notice that I avoid the term “Christian artists,” but that’s another discussion entirely) the ones forging the way to new kinds of creativity and expression? And, if nothing else, are we constantly growing, not only as in our faith, but also in our art?

To tie up a bit of a book review here, while I loved this book, I don’t agree with everything that Schaeffer writes. He writes from a perspective of the arts having no place in the church itself, and he vehemently discounts the importance of being involved in a local church. He is also very outspoken against TV, stating that it has no artistic value whatsoever–and while there may be a lot of crap out there, there’s also a lot of really great art on TV, and that’s come a long way in the 30 years since this book was written. He writes from a world where the church was just beginning to accept that it may have been mistaken in condemning the arts and separating from them so thoroughly. This was in the first phases of even contemporary Christian music becoming a major force, let alone any other art form, and there definitely wasn’t the place within the church walls for art to be made.

That impacts a lot of what he writes. He writes as someone who has been hurt by the church, and yet still wants to use art as a fully worshipful expression, and that tentative relationship shows. I think that – at the risk of becoming insular and not creating work that’s in the creative world as a whole – there’s much more of a place for art within the church itself. There’s still a balance, but I don’t think that the answer is to separate from church activities as fully as he suggests. There’s a need to be judicious with time and resources that need to be invested in the creative world, but there’s also a place to push the boundaries of the church and to create viable works of art within that context, too.


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