Art, for God’s Sake, by Jason Eaken

23 Aug

I moved to Los Angeles to make movies, because I believe that is what God put me on this Earth to do. I am a Writer. Director. Actor. In that order.

This is an impossible thing to say to any other human being and not explain yourself. It’s nearly impossible to write it, too. The notion of anyone moving to L.A. to be in movies is even more cliché than calling things cliché. Although I know that it is true, I can’t help but feeling I’m either insane or egotistical, or insanely egotistical; and that’s before we bring in God to the equation. There is no small way to say that “such and such” is God’s will for your life. It is declarative and direct and large. So here I am to conflate a potentially egotistical pursuit with God’s plan for my life. It’s a little like saying, “God has told me to be more awesome than you are.” It doesn’t matter that that’s not the case, my point is that the statement is inherently lofty, and it catches people off-guard. There is a look in their eyes for even just a split second, where they’re not sure if you’re joking or not. Nothing to be done but wait. Once they realize you’re serious, an explanation is inescapable.

What you may not expect is that the most frustrating conversations I’ve had about it have been with other Christians. But then, that point of view is sort of the impetus behind this entire podcast of Tyler’s, isn’t it? Because I have a different view of art than other Christians, the explanation can spiral into a bit of an argument. Most Christians assume that because I’m a Christian, it means I want to make overtly Christian films. They assume that anything I write and direct will be suitable for the entire family to view, maybe some glimmering Sunday afternoon after returning from their Sunday School class potluck (and before they march right back to church for the evening service). Perhaps the only thing Christians misunderstand more than the art itself is the artist who made it.

At my last church, when they heard I was a writer and actor, I was approached no fewer than 10 times and asked to either direct the K-5th grade Easter musical or else write and direct scenes for the Youth Group – effectively, to become a Head Drama Instructor for the church. When I would politely decline their faces were some of the most confused I’d ever seen. They all told me some variation on the notion that because God had given me abilities and because those abilities would benefit these particular people, that God wanted me to do whatever it was that they had asked me to do. “Come on! Help out the church! We need you!” This attitude isn’t new. My high school Youth Group started what they called Zoi-Teams, or “Z-Teams” (“zoi” means life). The Youth Pastor helpfully explained that any abilities and giftings we used for our school or community should be used – and used more – for the church (that is to say our church).

These attitudes form a double-edged sword of frustration, and if there is going to be reconciliation between Christians and art, then the matters need to be put to rest. First, there is the position that a Christian who is an artist will want to make Christian art will want to not merely identify himself as Christian through his art, but also confine both his audience and his content to the Christian industry. The second position is that I am required by God to use my artistic abilities for the purposes of whatever church I am attending, whatever those purposes might be and regardless of what I am doing outside of the church. These positions are not merely assumed, they are prescribed and they are taught, and therein lies the issue.

As Christians, we believe that God has a calling for every single person’s life. It is our choice to seek that calling or to fight against it. But there has developed a warped view of what God calls his people to do. Churches and its members place the highest priority on being called “into the ministry,” which is to say, being called to be a pastor or missionary or do work directly for a specific church. What is most odd is that even church members not called into the ministry tend to view it as better. Where has this mentality come from? It’s not in the Bible. In fact, 1 Corinthians 12 says quite the opposite: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in men.” (v.4-6) During the alter calls in my Youth Group, the youth pastor would regularly announce that Suzie so-and-so had been called into the ministry or that Johnny what’s-his-name had been called to be a pastor. They spoke of The Ministry as if that’s where the real Christians went. Never would they have announced that God had called someone to be a writer or artist, because without saying it, the truth was they didn’t really think that was a viable calling. This mentality pervades churches, and the only way they can see around it is if someone announces that God wants them to make, you guessed it, Christian art.

If anyone’s read my previous blog, they know I am pretty negative about Christian art. But my objections are to the quality of the work, not the validity of the calling. If God calls someone to enter the Christian film community and specifically create films for that audience, then that’s the calling and that person has a responsibility to it. My position is that to date, the artists who claim this calling haven’t taken enough responsibility for it. Either way, that’s not the calling that has been placed on my life, and those aren’t the stories I’m going to tell. I’m not here to make “Christian” movies, I’m here to make good movies. I discount no genre or type or style of movie, because if they are good, then all are valid and all have something to offer. I’m here to follow a calling that has been placed on my life. The things I write, the films I’ve made and want to make are stories that appeal to me. If I decline to write something specifically for the church, it’s not because I refuse to use my talents for God, it’s because I’m working on what I’m supposed to be working on, and I don’t have the time to take on something else. If I don’t feel God pushing me toward something, I don’t do it. And it works both ways.

Last fall and winter, I wrote a screenplay with a friend. At the same time, I was writing a short film by myself. I was much more fond of the solo film, I felt like it was more challenging to me personally as a writer. It was new ground for me. At the beginning of this year, I had every intention of making that short film before moving to California. But God set things in motion and brought the co-written movie into the foreground and it became the focus. The more I thought about it and prayed about it, the more I knew that it was the thing to pursue, even though it was more complex visually than anything I’d done, required dozens of locations, a full crew, and endless hours of additional work. Every logical bone in me said I wouldn’t be able to make it, and for the first month I was just waiting for it to fall apart, and then I would go back and finish the other screenplay. It’s been almost 9 months since I touched my solo screenplay. At every turn, when it should have collapsed, when it seemed impossible, God opened doors and avenues and showed favor, and we’ve finished the film – a film I didn’t believe I could make. God pushed me in that direction, and I listened, and it has been something very special. As a result of our work together, my co-writer/ -director moved out here with me. This is a film, I’d like to remind everyone, which has nothing remotely overtly Christian about it.

Now, I do have some ideas for a film set in a church, but it’s not the type of movie most Christians would think of. It would undoubtedly be rated R, which would mean some Christians wouldn’t even see it. Some of the films I’ve made and want to make would be rated R. Some of them will contain profanity, violence, nudity, and other content deemed “un-Christian.” How can it be that I am called by God to make such movies? Why would He call me to those movies instead of Christian movies? Because God is much less worried about the content than the Christian community. I believe God is much more concerned with the context. If I say a certain word that someone dislikes, I don’t care. What I care about is, have I made the movie I was supposed to make? Does this film add anything to the conversation? Is the film honest and true? If it is, then God will be glorified. If it is, then it will find an audience. I hope that audience won’t just be Christians. Because if it is, then I’ve made a huge mistake.

NOTE: Something Tyler thought would be interesting is for me to periodically write a blog update for this to sort of track my experience and progress as a filmmaker in L.A. So look for updates about once a month.

2 Responses to “Art, for God’s Sake, by Jason Eaken”

  1. Robert September 2, 2009 at 6:57 am #

    Your post stirs (re-stirs) questions I've had in my heart for my entire adult life.

    The problem is, I've carried around the same opinions stated here for many years, but something still seems off. Because what you're saying, and what I've said myself over and over again, really boils down to, possibly, the following scenario: at some point, for the sake of making a "real" movie about "real" life, rather than a family-friendly load of tripe, I will be required to ask a woman to show her naked breast, or ask someone to guard the door while we shoot a scene where two people simulate sex with each other, or ask someone to please go and grab some more sodas and sandwiches for us while we finish up the scene where a friend of mine spits the worst kind of profanity to another friend of mine for the sake of reality. I'm with you on the big idea of presenting reality over false pablum, but I'm not so sure that God absolutely blesses the particular, personal compromises we have to make to create that reality just because we feel like we're called to do it. The question that haunts me is: does God really "push" me to capture THOSE things on film in order to be realistic, at the risk of compromising the witness of those creating it, mostly me, whose name is blazoned across it, boldly endorsing it? Is God really proud of me when I make a movie that has as much swearing as Glengarry Glen Ross, just because I am a Christian wanting to reflect how people really talk? I know my questions sound like I think the answer is No, but I'm just wondering out loud here.

    It should be noted that I"m saying such sanctimonious things, while watching, enjoying, praising, and recommending movies like Pulp Fiction, Fargo, and A Clockwork Orange. (Of course, one could make the case that those examples are not attempting to recreate a reality any of us know, in which case, I'm off the hook, and back to being perfect again.)

  2. Robert November 3, 2009 at 11:10 pm #

    Here's the problem with our little blog: there is no discussion. Wow. Lots of isolated little opinions, but no discussion. No back and forth.

    This comment is buried so deep in the archives, I'm sure it'll never be seen again, even by me.

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