Media that is specifically branded as Christian—such as Christian rock, or any movies that appear on PureFlix—has a reputation for being bad, to put it lightly. Why is that?
To contextualize this question, I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with producing, consuming, or enjoying “bad” media. You could say I’m antagonistic to Christianity and Christian values, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that their media must be bad too. And saying that Christian media is bad does not necessarily argue that Christianity itself is bad. We can imagine a possible world where atheists didn’t like Christianity but had to begrudgingly admit that Christian media was high quality. In fact, atheists do tend to say positive things about a few specific Christian works, such as Jesus Christ Superstar.
To further motivate the question, I think a lot of media geared towards queer audiences is bad. I’ve watched quite a number of LGBT movies, and not only do they get lower review scores on average, I also have a subjective experience of lower quality. I accept the lower quality, because I’m interested in the genre and representation. But why is it bad? Could Christian media be following similar dynamics, or is it an entirely different beast?
Putting this upfront, I don’t really know much about Christian media. What we call Christian media might more properly be called Evangelical Christian media, and I experienced none of it when I grew up Catholic. All that I have are some questions and speculation.
The first major question is, how does the target audience of Christian media perceive its quality? Do they begrudgingly tolerate low quality media as the price of media that caters to their needs; or do they think that Christian media is great actually?
If Evangelicals truly perceive Christian media as high quality, here are a few possibilities as to why their perception differs so much from our own:
- Our perception of Christian media is colored by our disagreements with the Evangelical values they present.
- Our perception of Christian media is disproportionately influenced by a few particularly bad examples that have been cherry-picked.
- Evangelical Christians have blocked out mainstream media, so they don’t have the same reference point for good quality that we do.
- Or it could just be a true disagreement in aesthetics.
On the other hand, presume that we all agree that Christian media is of low quality. How does the low quality come to be? Here are a few possibilities:
- Christian media just doesn’t have the budget of mainstream media
- Christian media doesn’t need to meet the same standards because there isn’t much competition and Evangelical Christians will consume it regardless.
- The kind of people who are interested in making Christian media come from backgrounds that are unfavorable to quality. For example, they may have less money to finance the media, or less education in acting.
I asked this question earlier on Pillowfort, and the most common answer was that Christian media suffers from very strict genre constraints. Specifically, Christian media needs to rigidly promote wholesome Evangelical values.
Genre constraints aren’t necessarily bad. You could say that LGBT media has the constraint that it must include LGBT characters and have LGBT-positive values. The romance genre of novels is constrained to have happy endings where the romantic couple ends up together. However, it seems that Christian media suffers from far more severe constraints than I had imagined, and might indeed be a different beast from other genres.
To illustrate this, somebody posted an excerpt from The Complete Guide to Writing & Selling the Christian Novel by Penelope J. Stokes in 1998. It describes how Christian publishers started out publishing fiction from all sorts of Christian perspectives, but the audience for Christian fiction narrowed down to primarily conservative Christian perspectives. Then the excerpt describes a series of expectations from publishers, including:
A clearly articulated Christian worldview. A Christian worldview is based on the assumption that God is in control of the universe, and that true meaning and fulfillment life are based on a relationship with the Almighty. This does not mean that bad things never happen, but that evil will be punished in the end, and good will prevail–either in this world or in the world to come. A Christian worldview offers a perspective of a universe that includes spiritual vision, order and moral resolution. Christian writers do not have to blind themselves to reality, but their writing must hold out the possibility of hope.
A familiar but intriguing setting and/or time frame. According to a survey conducted by a major [Christian Booksellers’ Association] publisher, readers are most often drawn to settings they feel comfortable with or that are familiar: American rural/small-town environments (as in Janette Oke’s nostalgia novels), and well-known historical time frames such as World War II, the Civil War or Victorian England. These settings and time frames attract audiences because readers feel they already know something about the era and the environment.
With constraints like those, it’s easy to see how Christian novels might become stagnant. But it raises the question of why publishers have such constraints in the first place. Do Evangelical Christians prefer their books that way, and why?
So that’s all I have, questions without answers. Feel free to add your answers or speculation in the comments.