Chip MacGregor

June 26, 2013

Message Versus Craft



Someone wrote and asked a question that is related to my earlier criticism of the movie Fireproof and some of the other religious art I saw at ICRS this year. They noted, “You said that good messages and moral content don’t trump quality… but does quality trump message and moral content?”

A fascinating question. It’s clear that to some (for example, the people who really enjoyed Fireproof) that a good message trumps bad craft. They’re welcome to that opinion, which is why it doesn’t bother me a bit to have someone join in the discussion and say, “You’re wrong — I loved the movie because it moved me.” I just don’t agree — I couldn’t get past the junior high acting and the high school script. So to me, the great message didn’t overcome the bad art.

Looked at another way, I really appreciate the redemptive words to the song “Everything Shines” from the band Great Big Sea, and I wouldn’t enjoy seeing an off-key singer and a bad garage band playing that tune, no matter how sincere they were. I wouldn’t want to spend money to see bad paintings, even if the artist was trying to portray something redemptive.

But the reverse can be tricky. The films of Oliver Stone might be nice to look at and well acted, but the messages range from “angry” to “deeply stupid.” Who needs another anti-American screed from an over-rated hack? Years ago, I thought the movie The English Patient was incredibly well done – great acting, great art, incredible script… and a repulsive message. Life is sacred. Morality does exist. Setting up a scene where two people boink one another while a crowd of people sing in church on the other side of the wall was just  a bit too “in-your-face-you-uptight-religious-people” for me. Similarly, The Cider House Rules was a fairly well-done film, but it’s over-the-top focus on “why we need to be pro-abortion” ruined it for me — in the end, the film didn’t feel like a story, but a piece of pro-choice propaganda. (I know… I shouldn’t bring up the abortion issue — too emotional a topic. Sorry.)

That said, there are plenty of times where art does indeed triumph over the message — think of all those subtle messages in TV’s Law and Order. Or the times you saw political or moral messages presented in a reasonable light through well-written drama. To Kill a Mockingbird caused us to reflect on racism, and back in the 90’s Philadelphia helped Americans see gay people as real people, not as “funny TV gay people.” The books we write and the stories we tell can subtly influence others. We all know that. And, frankly, it’s why I want to represent redemptive stories rather than pornography.

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  • Patricia Zell says:

    I rarely read Christian fiction because real life is rarely arranged in tidy rows. I don’t like to read or hear the words, “Just pray and God will make it better.” I’ve been a Christian for a very long time and I have seen many people pray and their prayers have not been answered. Instead of being encouraged to ask God “Why?”, we’re told God is sovereign and He has His reasons which we won’t understand until we go to Heaven when we die. I won’t write the word I’m thinking–we need to change our focus to asking God for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. The reality is, as long as we have choice, God is not sovereign; however, as evidenced by what Christ accomplished on the cross, God’s absolute love is the greatest force in our world. His love will enable to overcome and to win the victory over loss, death, and destruction. I guess I’m sort of preaching, but, Chip, I agree with you!

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Thanks for sharing your insight, Chip. When it comes to books and especially movies, it seems I can pick quality or message and moral content, but finding both at the same time can be illusive (or maybe I just make poor selections).

  • J.A. Marx says:

    I agree. Totally. Thank you for stating it openly. The phrase “good enough for church work” came to mind, as applied to a church task or presentation. God never did/does anything “poorly crafted” or “junior high-ish.” We are made in His image and should do our utmost for His Highest.

  • Yes! Sometimes I feel like a terrible person for rolling my eyes at a cheesy Christian movie or book but in many ways I feel like they do more harm than good. That’s not how I want the world to see me – as a one-dimensional person who spouts empty platitudes with vacant eyes. Unh-unh. I have way too much personality for that. We’re children of the ultimate Artist. Why aren’t we creating the most incredible art the world has ever seen?

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Amen. As believers, our work should be the best, and we shouldn’t settle for anything less.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    Ultimately, which causes the most damage? Sins of commission or sins of omission? A false message presented so well it infects and leads to death, or a truth trite and blandly impalpable causing starvation?

  • There is room for accommodate both. I refuse to believe that the Creator of this world did not give a good part of that creativity to His own people. Saying yes to mediocrity is saying yes to entertainment for Christians only.

    Why on earth would any non-believer want to watch a poorly made film, read a poorly written book or listen to poorly produced music? As I Christian, I won’t even go there.

  • Rick Barry says:

    Kudos to you and to all others whose goal is provide quality redemptive stories and genuinely affect readers in a positive direction rather than simply making money. (Nothing wrong with making money; it’s merely not the highest possible goal.)


  • Iola Goulton says:

    Yes! I thought I was the only person who didn’t get the fuss about The English Patient.

    • Dawn Hill Shipman says:

      Not the only one, Iola! What a depressing movie and then Mr. Darcy kills himself! Come on! If I’d been warned, I’d have run away and never stopped!

  • Clint Hall says:

    This reminds me of a TED Talk which discusses the What, How, and Why of the things we do and create. People often lead with the What (“I write great books”) followed by the How (“My writing is well-crafted with interesting, thought-provoking characters”), but it’s the Why that connects with an audience. Why did you create this work? What is it that you believe and want to share with your audience?

    This is not to diminish the importance of those other factors. If we believe in our message, we should exert the time and effort to make sure its delivery is well-crafted and of high quality.

    However, if the core belief of the message is not communicated properly or doesn’t resonate with us, we will not connect with the work.

    Great question and great blog.

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