Back in April, 2011, I posted an article entitled The New Demographic: Christians Who Don’t Like Christian Fiction. It received a good amount of feedback, and currently has over 130 comments. I described this “new demographic” this way:
There seems to be a lot more readers who like stories with “faith” elements than CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) publishers are currently reaching.
Many Christian readers just don’t seem to like most Christian fiction — at least, what is currently being published as “Christian fiction.” I talk to them all the time. This doesn’t mean they don’t like faith-driven stories and desire a Christian worldview therein, they just don’t like the type of faith that drives most Christian fiction stories. Or the types of stories marketed as “faith-driven.” Or the quality of writing, the limitation of subject matter, the genre tilt, the… whatever. Either way, the CBA seems to target a small demographic of Christian readers.
A recent article in Jezebel magazine reminded me of that post. It’s entitled A Journey Into the Righteous, Risk-Averse World of Faith-Based Films. Though the writer seems a tad adverse to evangelicals (and makes sure to signal her dislike of President Trump), her dissection of the genre seems relatively spot-on.
Historically, to make a faith-based—more specifically, a Christian—movie that will sell, you first need the right kind of story, one that’s probably true but not too bleak. It can’t feature characters who do drugs or participate in illegal activity, or who curse too much; otherwise it’ll push your rating above PG. The story should be dramatic, but not too dramatic, and, above all, inspiring. Your audience doesn’t want to go to the movies to feel crappy—the world is crappy enough! Instead, your main character should face some sort of obstacle, maybe an abusive father, or an addiction to pornography, or have their arm bitten off by a shark.
While the article’s focus is on the Christian film industry, there’s very much an overlap between the CBA audience and the Christian film-going audience. As such, the description of the type of product desired by Christian audiences — whether film or fiction — is basically the same.
Alissa Wilkinson, film critic at Vox.com, former critic at Christianity Today, and associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York, agreed that what distinguishes a “Christian film” from a movie with Christianity in it is largely about who it gets marketed to. Evangelicals and conservative Catholics, she said, are mostly looking for entertainment that is “squeaky clean—no sexual content, no profanity, no drugs or nudity or alcohol or anything like that.”
Some elements have become fairly standardized within the genre, in addition to that squeaky cleanliness, ostensibly because that’s what Christian audiences and leaders have expressed that they want to see. “The second piece is usually that it has to be inspirational or uplifting in some way,” Peluso continued. (bold, mine)
Those two elements — squeaky cleanness and inspirational fare — have remained relatively standard for the genres.
Which represents a problem for people like me.
Even though I consider myself an evangelical and am invested in “Christian art,” I can’t seem to locate myself in the target market for Christian films and fiction. I’m that Christian who has no interest in seeing “God’s Not Dead” I, II or whatever. Fireproof did not inspire me. And Samson struck me as feeble. Yes, I have seen a few “Christian films” I liked and thought were fairly well-done. However, I generally have no interest in films or fiction that are aimed at evangelical audiences.
Question: Does that put me in the minority or the majority?
Since I wrote the aforementioned post back in 2011, I’ve managed to publish nine books. The first two were published by a Christian publisher and labeled as “Christian fiction.” I soon migrated away from that genre, but have managed to remain connected to my Christian reader base and many Christian authors and publishers. During that time, nothing has happened to change my perspective of that “new demographic.”
There is a sizable market of Christians who don’t like “Christian art.”
Again, this does NOT mean they dislike “Christian” themes in their movies and books. They do! Nor does it mean they prefer watching films with sex and cussing. They don’t! It simply means that they don’t require “squeaky clean,” “inspirational” art.
While the evangelical market described in the Jezebel piece is alive and well, the article hints at subtle change. Even though “some Christian audiences aren’t willing to step outside their comfort zone,” which results in “a narrow range of topics that a faith-based film can tackle—and from very few angles,” Christian artists and authors continue to create and demand less “predictable” fare.
“This, I think, is what’s fundamentally wrong with most faith-based entertainment,” Christian critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, wrote to Jezebel in an email. “By and large, it’s made by people who for the most part are only interested in saying things they already know, for people who basically want to hear what they already believe.”
“They’re basically telling the same story over and over again,” said Sister Rose Pacatte, founding Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles and film journalist for the National Catholic Reporter, over the phone. “These are films that are aimed at people who are already comfortably religious, that’s what I think. I don’t think they challenge people necessarily to do more for their neighbor. I wanna see people changing things and guiding me in my living room, and with the comfort of my bag of popcorn, and telling me that I need to be involved in the world around me, to change it. Otherwise, what kind of Christian am I? I’m a comfortable Christian. I don’t like films that just make me feel more comfortable.”
But if there is a sizable market of Christians who don’t like “Christian art” and don’t need to be made to feel “more comfortable,” then my follow-up question is: Who is marketing to them?