The Common Good
August 2008

Fare for the Family

by Danny Duncan Collum | August 2008

Christian conservatives aim for—and hit—the mainstream sweet spot.

The release of Prince Caspian, the second of the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia movies, has rekindled debate about the intentions of the film’s producer, Walden Media, and its billionaire sugar daddy, Philip Anschutz. Among other things, this discussion shines light on a conservative cultural initiative that is succeeding, even as its political partners face epic defeat.

When we hear “Christian conservatives” and “culture wars,” many are likely to think “feminist-baiting” and “gay-bashing.” But far behind those headlines, some Christian conservatives have also been working on a more positive, constructive program aimed at building institutions that will promote and embody their version of Christian values in the mainstream marketplace. Unlike Republican electoral tactics, this strategy is still working, and working well. And it’s working because it deserves to. It’s not evil, it’s not stupid, and it is in tune with the needs and aspirations of most American families.

Focus on the Family is, of course, one mainstay of this kinder, gentler culture war. True, Focus founder James Dobson has bitten the apple of Republican power politics and taken a leading role in the ugly political culture wars, but that has not yet damaged the wide appeal of the full-service Christian family support system that is the organization’s real reason for being. On long car trips, my own family listens to CDs of such Focus on the Family Radio Theatre productions as Silas Marner, A Christmas Carol, and Les Misérables. When my teenage son wants a new album or his friends are going out to a new movie, I use Focus on the Family’s Plugged In Online service, which offers conservative Christian reviews of thousands of new CDs and movies. Sure, I would quibble with Plugged In’s ideas about what constitutes “anti-social” or “pro-social” content, but mostly the Focus reviewers are concerned about the things that I as a parent am concerned about. The service is useful, convenient, and mostly free of unsightly ideology.

FOCUS ON THE Family also has provided an important promotional network for the recent upsurge of “Christian” Hollywood films. This phenomenon is usually dated to the 2004 mega-success of Mel Gibson’s crucifixion epic The Passion of the Christ. In fact, more than a decade earlier, mainstream Catholics were trying to put Christian values into American cinema with productions such as Romero and the Dorothy Day biopic Entertaining Angels.

But those were small, relatively low-budget human-interest dramas. To really make a pop culture splash you need a $100 million budget (at least), and that kind of money is most easily found on the political and cultural Right. Anschutz made his first fortune in oil and became a major donor to Republican candidates and conservative social causes. He made another fortune as founder of Qwest Communications and took a legal hit for dumping his overvalued company stock.

After the Qwest windfall, Anschutz got interested in producing an alternative to the usual Hollywood sex and violence and founded Walden Media. And, truth be told, Walden Media has mostly done well by doing good. Besides the Narnia movies, Walden has produced inspirational and fairly high quality family pictures such as Because of Winn-Dixie and Amazing Grace, the biography of abolitionist William Wilber­force.

Walden partnered with Disney to make the incredibly expensive Narnia movies. And with Prince Caspian, the franchise seems well-established. Of course, some C.S. Lewis devotees have their own quibbles with what they perceive as the films’ soft-peddling of Lewis’ Christian message. But there was no mistaking the symbolic paschal mystery in the last act of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And if you got that, the spiritual message in Prince Caspian is equally clear. The Narnians and their human kings fail when they go it alone and only prosper when they place their faith in the Christ-figure Aslan, who engineers an Exodus-like drowning of the opposing army. The heroes of the day are the ones who refuse to execute their foe when they have the chance.

Prince Caspian is mostly a typical summer blockbuster, filled with bluff and bluster and special effects, but it does manage to signify something. And it’s hard for me to naysay that, regardless of the source.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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