Electric Jesus and ‘Faith-Based’ Films

John J. Thompson

Chris White spent over a year exhibiting Electric Jesus, the musical comedy he wrote and directed about a Christian hair-metal band in the 1980s, before it came to streaming platforms last November. (Check here to see if tickets are still available for an April 11 screening at Fuller Theological Seminary, where White will be in attendance.) The film threads a particularly interesting needle. Is it satire? Is it “faith-based”? Like the band in the story, is this movie caught between a rock and a hard place?

For supporting roles, White landed Brian Baumgartner of The Office and Judd Nelson of The Breakfast Club. I worked on Electric Jesus as both its Music Supervisor and a historical consultant, assisting White as he navigated some interesting challenges. Below is our conversation about what he learned from the experience.

TC: Why did you choose to set your story in the Christian rock subculture?

Chris White: The world of Christian rock inspired me as a kid and continues to fascinate me as an adult. I wanted to make a rock-and-roll movie, and no one had ever made one about a Christian band—let alone an ’80s Christian hair-metal band. I knew that culture, figured I could bring that world to life in a real way, even if it seemed strange to people who never knew of it.

TC: Were you at all concerned that Electric Jesus might be construed as a “faith-based” movie? How do you distinguish what you are doing from what most faith-based films try to do?

Chris White: Oh yes! It’s so strange. If you have Christian characters in your film that you don’t set up to be ignorant or villainous, a lot of people assume you’re pushing a Christian agenda. Isn’t that crazy?

I blame Christian artists for that perception. Most so-called Christian movies and music make Christians out to be spiritual superheroes . . . or maybe gently flawed, but ultimately good. Christ followers in Christian media struggle with relying too much on their good works, maybe. Or being so right, they struggle with pride. Often, the Christian characters in faith-based movies don’t have any flaws at all. Can you imagine?

But even worse, there’s this thing in faith-based movies where we have to stick the landing on a sales pitch for Jesus, a tidy resolution, or maybe an inspirational message that assures us if we are good Christians, our lives will turn out OK. What nonsense! The heroes of the Bible keep telling us that God’s people live in struggle, that we are never enough, that a faithful life is one of sacrifice, mourning, loss. And yet, Christian media keeps insisting on these Jesusy TED talks.

I hope that when people see Electric Jesus they see their own lives and struggles in my characters. That they identify with them, laugh with them, hope with them, cheer them on, and weep for them when things go wrong. And then, when the movie lands in a kinda weird place—a hopeful place, but also a kinda wonky place—I hope that people sense something true about it. And respond accordingly.

TC: You wrote some funny but still thought-provoking hard-rock songs with Daniel Smith to go into this film. How hard was it to thread that needle between comedic value, emotional impact, story development, and world-building? And have you found that those songs have made it either more difficult or achievable to reach beyond the Christian subculture?

Chris White: Daniel Smith is a brilliant, brilliant songwriter. My lyrics, written in the voice of a 15-year-old youth-group kid, exist in contrast to that brilliance. They’re totally sincere, but also . . . so young. The theological musings of a child. Or at least, that was my aim. In doing so, I’ve been surprised how the songs do assert a kind of gospel wisdom in spite of themselves.

Threading the needle wasn’t hard. I just had to love the character who was writing and singing those lyrics. And I do! He was me! That’s become increasingly rare these days, finding complicated, not fully arrived characters in film and television, crafted with empathy, love. Not to mention, too often teenage characters are written with the mind and voice of the middle-aged screenwriter who is telling the story. Like, wise beyond their years and cool beyond their capability. For Electric Jesus, I had to guard against that. The characters came out of me, onto the page as themselves. Cringey, weird, awkward . . . all of it. They were my youth group friends and I, as best I could remember.

"There’s this thing in faith-based movies where we have to stick the landing on a sales pitch for Jesus."

TC: Does it seem that the mainstream audiences you encountered on the film-festival tour are more likely to embrace this film and accept it at face value than Christians?

Chris White: We have noticed that audiences in places that are more post-Christian culturally are more eager to laugh and have a good time with Electric Jesus. Places where we’ve screened the film where Christian culture is more dominant, those have been screening audiences that were a little slow to warm up.

There’s also this thing where Christians who hate faith-based movies, once they find Electric Jesus and watch it, it takes them a minute to figure it out. They’re so on guard against Jesus propaganda films, religious sentimentality, prosperity-gospel movie tropes that when they finally realize Electric Jesus is just a rock-band movie about Christians, instead of feel-good, code-reinforcement for Christians, they are a bit unmoored. Confused. One guy in particular told me he had to rewatch the movie once he realized it wasn’t trying to sell him something faith-y. The moment he realized my ambition was artistic storytelling rather than Jesus propaganda, he was able to let his guard down and engage with it, love it.

TC: Do you have any words of wisdom or counsel for other aspiring artists who seek to create art that defies easy categorization?

Chris White: Keep defying easy categorization. Don’t think about the audience, who will buy the art. Stop thinking of how you justify the art you feel compelled to make. Create the art you want to see, that speaks to you and your family, friends, colleagues. Make your work specific. Honest. True. This is the only way.

And for believers who are in the business of selling, promoting, pushing art made by Christians, for God’s sake, please stop telling these artists what you think will sell, what the audience wants. Stop leading them away from their visions, what inspires them. You want to see a renaissance of Christians making art? Let these people make true things. Your job is cultivating, leading an audience to these works.

The current market for film and television lends itself to niche-driven, specific, and unique work. It’s actually what breaks out, what sells. If you are a Christian and a filmmaker, musician, painter, dancer, actor, comedian, novelist . . . whatever, your mandate is to tell the truth. Be excellent. Know and express your craft to the fullest. If you want to make “content,” go work at an ad agency. If you want to make art, you gotta be brave!

Topics: Movies