When is the last time you encountered a movie or play (apart from those featuring a talking lion or adventuresome Hobbit) that presented themes of hope and renewal? Perusing the Netflix “faith and spirituality” listing doesn’t offer many points of departure – it’s dominated by Veggie Tales and movies made decades ago. But your theater ticket or Blockbuster card may soon take you to surprising places. Art Within, an Atlanta-based arts and media company, seeks to make the fusion of art and faith a familiar destination on stage and screen.
With the advent of The Passion and Chronicles of Narnia, the entertainment industry has witnessed faith-oriented themes translate into dollar signs, explains Art Within Director Bryan Coley. “As a result,” he says, “we have a great window of opportunity to present the market with new images of what Christianity looks like.” Coley has been waiting for this moment since 1995 when he began Art Within with the motto, “Criticize by creating,” borrowed from Michelangelo.
“I was dissatisfied by what I was seeing in the theater. Mostly, it was dysfunctionality raised to a place of glorification,” remembers Coley. “It’s not enough to criticize – I needed to create in response.” Leaving a thriving career in new media at Turner Broadcasting, Coley gathered disparate and isolated Christian writers to share ideas of how to change the media and, in turn, change the culture.
The Power to Affect Lives
As institutions such as government and the church decline in their influence, Coley sees the entertainment industry as the remaining institution with the power to affect people’s lives. [See related article here.] “I asked myself, ‘In a media-saturated generation, where are we as Christians?’” recounts Coley. “I didn’t want to look back and question why we let this tool pass us by ….” So, Coley and a group of Christian artists began writing scripts to serve as an antidote to the illness plaguing the world of entertainment.
When an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article featured the fledgling arts organization, Art Within came to the attention of Brent Sweitzer, a member of Intown Community Church (PCA) in Atlanta, who was also employed by Turner Broadcasting at the time. After volunteering with the organization for several years, Sweitzer became Associate Director for Art Within, which he calls his dream job. “I was finally able to dedicate my resources full time to something I was passionate about,” says Sweitzer.
The curtain went up on that passion in Sweitzer’s college days, when he first glimpsed Jesus as the Master storyteller. “I couldn’t see myself as a preacher or campus minister,” says Sweitzer, “But I could see myself exploring spiritual issues through story.” Just as Jesus did. Imagine if Jesus had said simply, “God rejoices at a sinner’s repentance.” That didactic approach just doesn’t have the same power as the parable of the Prodigal Son. Why? “Because stories and artistic works resonate with our souls and convey truths in ways that even the best sermons cannot,” says Sweitzer.
Spurring People to Ask the Right Questions
To Art Within, conveying faith through story doesn’t mean quoting scripture, including a pastor in every script, or even producing G-rated material. “We’re not trying to preach,” emphasizes Coley. “We want to write really good stories that will spur people to ask the right questions.” In the tradition of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and J.R.R. Tolkien, Art Within advocates “faith blending” — creating new stories to engage in the cultural dialogue from a perspective of faith. “The kind of art that makes Christians mad only shows the dysfunction, the way life is in our fallen culture,” says Sweitzer. “Art that honors God has to be true to the way things are, but also depict the way things ought to be.”
That kind of authenticity can be uncomfortable. In 2002, Art Within staged Song of the Bow, described as “exploring the fundamentals of love and tolerance when two actors are cast as soulmates, causing one man’s faith orientation and another man’s sexual orientation to collide.” “Homosexuality is a really touchy subject,” admits Sweitzer. “But, if you want to tell a story of redemption, you have to face the brokenness.” Art Within lost one church’s financial support even before opening night – a stinging critique for a non-profit company that relies exclusively on contributions.
Yet the organization has continued to tackle controversial subjects. Art Within’s most recent stage production, War in the Manger, presented a fictionalized account of the actual 2002 predicament when Palestinian terrorists sought refuge from the Israeli army in the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity. The concoction of current scripts brewing at Art Within includes a romantic comedy, an envisioned rise of the black Klan, and a story revolving around karaoke. As the organization focuses more intently on screenplays and marketing them to producers, these and other stories may go from topics of creative brainstorming to topics of water cooler conversation. “We want to bring stories to the screen that people haven’t ever thought about,” says Coley. One to watch for: Bridget Jones meets mega-church singles.
Ultimately, Art Within aspires to do more than create good stories. As Chuck Colson said in his BreakPoint commentary profiling Art Within, “In a post-Christian culture, those who blend artistic gifts with Christian faith can help lead us back to a biblical worldview.” With its goal of fostering the next C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, Art Within hopes to do just that. In the meantime, the rest of us will enjoy the stories.
Susan Fikse is a freelance writer in Atlanta, Ga.