Back in April, I met two of the guys responsible for one of the biggest surprises Hollywood has had in recent years.
Jim McBride and Stephen Kendrick are members of Sherwood Baptist in Albany, a small town in Georgia. This is the church that’s rattled the movie industry by racking up huge box office and DVD figures for their films Flywheel and Facing the Giants – films made entirely using volunteers with no experience of either acting or filmmaking. Last week, Sherwood Baptist hit the headlines again; their latest film, Fireproof, took over $6m in its opening weekend and debuted at Number 4 in the US Box Office Top 10.
When I met them in April, Jim (Sherwood’s ‘Executive Pastor’ – whatever that means – and executive producer of their films) and Steve (who co-writes the films with his brother Alex, who also directs them) explained to me that their aim with their films was “to love on people and give them a good message”, and that their instruction to their amateur cast whilst filming is “Don’t aim for an Oscar or try to be professional; just be yourself.”
The general sentiment I’m getting from friends in the US who’ve seen Fireproof is that it’s okay but not great – but that anyway, that shouldn’t matter because “the message is good.” They’ll complain about the film’s acting and writing being bad, but then say it’s still worth seeing because of what it has to say about marriage.
This is the bit that bothers me. As a kid, it was kind of implied that the more horrible food tasted, the better it was for me, and in the Christian circle, a similar logic seems to apply to works of art: “It’s not great, but it’s got a good message.” Well, similar but different. The food wasn’t bad; I just didn’t like it – although as an adult, I actually quite like green vegetables now. But a lot of so-called “Christian” art is simply just bad – and we’re meant to overlook that because of what it has to say. I’ve wasted enough of my life listening to awful music, reading crappy books and getting chronic bum-ache sitting through terrible plays, films or whatever, then being told to suck it up because “the message is good” (every Gospel singer who’s ever said “Don’t listen to my voice; listen to the words” – I’m talking about you!). Is it too much to ask to have both good quality and a good message?
I’m not saying any of this to have a go at Sherwood. Jim and Steve proved to be really nice blokes when I met them (they even prayed for me – not everyone I interview does that!) and the indie kid within me jumps up and down with unbridled joy whenever some maverick becomes successful without Babylon’s permission (yes, I know Sherwood’s films are distributed by Sony. But Sony came to them, rather than the other way round). When I spoke to Jim and Steve, they complained about the poor quality of other Christian films, and one comment that’s been made by many critics about theirs is that the quality has improved with each new one they’ve made. So maybe there’s hope. Just don’t mention Sunday School Musical to me…