By David Millikan

The mixture between religion and art in Australia is troubled by the demands of evangelism. Listen to Christian and Islamic radio stations in Australia and you will see what I mean. In so many of them you can feel the overwhelming intention to proclaim the message. You can sense the reason the station exists is to preach and save souls. Evangelism rules and art comes second. This is radio out of a world which says a believer’s first responsibility is to tell others the truth about Jesus or the way of Islam. The trouble is, the more you go down this track the less you achieve your end. Which is where art and one’s attitude of the world outside your religious community comes into the picture.

What makes a good religious film? If the answer is the message, then art takes a second place. I was part of a Christian lawyers gathering where the Bishop said: “You are lawyers because God has chosen you to proclaim the gospel to your profession”. So evangelism was their first responsibility. I would argue they should first be good lawyers. There are values and principles in Christianity which go to the heart of jurisprudence. If you take the Bishop’s call to a meeting of radio producers, proclaiming the message becomes the first objective. If you take that to the extreme you simply read the Bible or the Koran on air. That has been put to me many times: “You don’t need to use artifice, the word of God is more powerful than a two edged sword. It is able to break through all defences and pierce between bone and marrow. Just read the word, it needs no defence, it will make its own way.”

What lies behind this is a theology which separates the religious community from the world outside its walls. It is a form of dualism which constructs two worlds battling for the souls of humanity. That world contains the seductive half-truths and lies which masquerade as the truth but lead to destruction. If you see no ultimate value in the world outside your religious community, you will not see its beauty. You will not treasure the great moments of insight and wonder which art can produce. The art which changes the soul is not about propaganda.

Evangelism and the pursuit of great film making are uneasy bedfellows. The first obligation of the film maker is to honour the demands of the art itself. Art has a relationship to beauty and transcendence. I am not suggesting that all great art has to be pretty or nice. Indeed the best of art is often deeply confronting. It can disturb us in ways which are almost inexpressible. How that happens changes from time and place. We are children of our times and no culture is entirely lost to the hunger for meaning, and truth and God.

Chick Corea has been a Scientologist since 1968. He has often talked about the central role the strange teachings of L Ron Hubbard has played in forming his music, not just in giving him certainty about his own journey but in showing him what beauty is. I shrink away when I hear him talk like this. But then Corea is a supreme musician, he has a big and serious vision of the world and he has a restless creative genius. If he is playing the music of Scientology then he is one of their best evangelists.

In the Religious Short Film Prize we are looking for that elusive quality which is so difficult to describe but which is immediately recognisable. It may be strident and urgent but not preachy. It may be angry but has the sympathetic feeling of a fellow traveller. It does not strive to conform art to its message, but shows humility in the face of the great tradition to which it belongs. Great and courageous art knows that all truth is God’s truth, even if found in the mouth of the devil.