How George Lucas Helped Shape The Christian Film Industry

A long time ago, in a cinema far, far away…

Episode 1:  A New Resource

It is a period of spiritual war…

war-roomWar Room opened up last weekend in 1,100 theaters around the country, and made an impressive 11 million dollars. Not bad for a movie made with a 3 million dollar budget, and the movie’s just getting started.

Made by filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who also made Facing the GiantsCourageous and Fireproof, War Room is the latest offering in the burgeoning Christian film industry (read my thoughts on that idea here), and stands to turn a healthy profit, as all Kendrick-made films since Facing the Giants have done, thanks to good grass-roots style marketing and the legions of loyal Christian fans who consistently turn up to support their films.

Christian filmmakers, Kendrick brothers included, have been learning quite a bit from their secular counterparts these past few years – how to make a film look and sound better, how to help actors act better, and even (on the rare occasion) how to write a better screenplay.

But the thing that really stands out? How to turn a profit.

And this is what has gotten the attention of the big boys in Hollywood.

Of course, making money from art is not a new thing for Christians. Back in the days of Bach and his contemporaries, musicians and artists were commissioned by the church to create, giving us beautiful and important work that continues to be cherished today. Locally, churches have been paying artists for ages to minister as organists, choir masters, worship leaders, and praise band members.

And it’s also not a bad thing. “Don’t muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” Paul said in the book of Timothy. In other words, when people work hard, they should be able to enjoy some of the benefits of their labor. In filmmaking, that means if someone makes a movie, and it earns buckets of money, that filmmaker should be able to have a few buckets for themselves to do with as they please – even if the film is being made as a “ministry” or an “outreach”, and not just as typical profit-grabbing entertainment.

Of course, there are more and more potential buckets available for successful films. We have the obvious box office buckets, but if the film has been distributed in the traditional way, the majority of those buckets go back to the studios and distributors. So another option is the bucket of merchandizing.

And there are lots of buckets in movie merchandizing, even with Christian-made films.

Warrom-DisplayUnlike secular movies, where the merchandizing can run the gamut from video games tie-ins to kid’s meals at fast food restaurants, Christian-made movie merchandizing primarily means the creation and selling of what the Christian marketing world calls resources.

What are resources? One kind of resource is the study guide. These are written so that Christians can watch the film with their Sunday school or small group and then engage in a Bible study inspired by the film, and it’s something that is particular to the faith-based film genre. For example, Marvel doesn’t typically mass produce study guides to the MCU movies, nor does J.J. Abrams write study guides for his films, although they’d probably sell if they did.

[Undoubtedly they’d sell. Note to self: pitch study guide idea to Kevin Feige and J.J. Abrams]

But resources can also mean many other things, from church campaign kits, books inspired by the film, and original soundtracks featuring favorite CCM artists.

And then there’s the typical kitsch and tchochkes – baseball hats, coffee mugs, t-shirts, notepads, plush dolls, little wooden crosses, and the like. I would imagine secular companies have to be impressed by how effective the Christian Corporate Machine has become at taking films from idea to screen to marketplace.

For example, long before it ever bows onscreen, a film like War Room has been so incredibly well-strategized, planned, marketed, and produced, that I’m surprised the ever-popular Chick-fil-A wasn’t signed on for some product placement.

I can see it now… Ms. Clara goes into her War Room to pray, but when she’s sure nobody’s looking, she pulls out a bag of waffle fries and a white styrofoam cup of sweet iced tea emblazoned with that curly red chicken head…

Yeah, maybe that wouldn’t have worked.

Regardless of how they do what they do, it’s interesting to see how Christian filmmakers have joined their secular counterparts in mastering the business of movie marketing cross promotion and tie-ins.

And do you know who we have to thank for the overabundance of “resources” being produced for Christian-made films?

George Lucas.

star-wars-george-lucas-alec-guiness

Episode 2:  The Merch Strikes Back

It is a dark time for movie merchandizing…

Yep, George Lucas.

That George Lucas.

You read it right, dear reader. I’m making the claim that George Lucas is the reason that every time a new faith-based film opens, the Christian bookstores and websites fill up with all sorts of movie-themed “resources” that help bring in more buckets of money for Christian retailers, publishers, filmmakers, producers, marketers, and everyone else involved in making and promoting Christian-made movies.

Most people under the age of 30 probably don’t realize that prior to Star Wars, movie marketing cross promotion was pretty insignificant. Yes, you had the occasional attempt to take advantage of the buzz created by a movie by making a strange toy version, like the odd “for ages 6 and up” shark game made by Ideal Toys when Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 6.48.53 PMJaws became such a monster hit. Certainly, toys and merchandise and even Christian-produced resources had been made based on movies and television programs, but usually with fairly limited success.

And then, when George Lucas took us to that galaxy far, far away, things changed.

The key is found in one of the biggest blunders in movie studio history. Because Star Wars was seen as such a risk, Lucas made a deal with Twentieth Century Fox that he would take a cut in directing fees in return for having all the rights to licensing and merchandising, and then he sold the toy rights to Kenner for a flat fee of $100,000 per year.

Kenner was so unprepared for the popularity of Star Wars that they didn’t make near enough toys for the demand. If parents wanted to buy their child a new Star Wars toy for Christmas in 1977, they were forced to give the child a voucher for Star Wars toys that would not be manufactured and released for months, and Kenner went on to sell a staggering $100,000,000 worth of Star Wars toys during the first year alone.

That’s one hundred million dollars.

Worth of little plastic action figures and such.

For a movie that nobody had wanted to make.

In one year.

Since that time, the franchise has gone on to make well over 27 billion dollars, with only about 4.3 billion coming from the movies. That means around 23 billion dollars of revenue has come from merchandizing alone.

And with Lucas’s innocuous little space opera, not only was a merchandizing juggernaut born, but a new way of making movies as well. Suddenly, films started being greenlit based on how much peripheral material could be marketed alongside it, as well as potential box office.

trekblog1

The Star Trek Happy Meal.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was actually a time when McDonalds and other fast food places didn’t sell Happy Meals connected to movies. In fact, McDonald’s first Happy Meal was an attempt to cash in on the space craze created by Star Wars, and it was based on 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Read this article for more information on the way the Star Wars marketing phenomenon evolved over time, impacting the majority of movies being produced, both then and now, both secular and Christian.

Episode 3: The Return of the Faith-Based Filmmakers

The Kendrick Brothers have returned to their home in Albany, Georgia…

And so now we live in a time where it is standard operating procedure for potential merchandizing to play a heavy role in the making of movies. And while Christians may not yet be at the place of the summer blockbuster, where merchandizing often seems to lead the film, we are definitely at the place where merchandizing is being utilized to bring even more profit to those who made the faith-based film.

And profit is important, even in the Christian film industry.

But I want to end this blog post with a pretty radical suggestion.

If we must have a Christian film industry, what if that industry did things differently? What if the movers and shakers made the decision to not be swept away by dreams of big box office and profit, like all the other film industries are, and like many of the other Christian media industries seem to be? What could be done, if we determined that we were going to be a counter-industry industry?

What if our Christian film industry – as a whole – pulled a Keith Green?

keith-green1Keith Green was a very popular but quite radical Christian singer in the 70’s and early 80’s, who famously (or infamously) gave away his records, telling people to pay what they were able, and he required Christian retailers to give away a copy of his cassettes for free with each one they sold, all to help spread the Gospel. Green’s giveaways reportedly sent shockwaves through the Christian music and retail industries at the time, but Green was known to be an uncompromising person when it came to his convictions.

And if today’s successful filmmakers of faith started insisting on doing something similar, imagine the modern day shockwaves!

What if many of those resources developed for movies made on a shoestring budget, but movies that turn out to be popular enough to go on to rake in ten or twenty or even forty-five times that in box office, were just… given away?

The study guides, the bible studies, the church campaign kits, the prayer journals, the baseball hats, and the little wooden crosses all available for whatever potential customers could afford to pay, even if it is nothing at all.

All to help spread the Gospel.

I know, I know… it’s a crazy idea.

I know Christian producers have to pay salaries, and I’m not suggesting they don’t. I know that Christian filmmakers want to be able to afford to plan out their next projects, and they should certainly do what it takes to do that. I know that some – like the Kendrick brothers – pour much of their film profits back into their home churches, and they should obviously continue to do that as they feel led.

And I know that they all need to put bread on their own tables, and provide for their families, and they certainly shouldn’t be muzzled while they are treading out the grain.

But I’m so frustrated that too many of the other Christian industries appear to be too much industry and not enough Christian. And since the film industry is the youngest of them all, and it’s the industry closest to my heart, why can’t it be the one to change course and do something different, and radical, and refreshing – even if it seems crazy, and unindustrial, and unprofitable?

After all, they thought Luke Skywalker was crazy for switching off his targeting computer when he was making that infamous trench run.

And Luke wound up saving the rebellion.

SZSjFpl

God bless, and may the force be with you…

Always.

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I Don’t Understand • A Reflection

The shootings in Virginia really have me reeling this morning, even as I sit far away in China, and I’m trying to process why.

Of course you have the wasteful loss, with two young people cut down for no good reason. I grieve for their loss, and for their families, and I can’t even begin to imagine the heartbreak and sadness that their loved ones are experiencing right now.

But in this specific situation, I find myself staring at the wall trying to piece together a tiny bit of understanding of what would drive a person to do such a horrific thing, with full intention of not surviving the day.

But understanding is eluding me.

I do understand the factor mental illness might play, and I understand the factor of personal and professional anger and frustrations, and I certainly understand the racial stresses that my country is undergoing. I understand all of that. I really do. But I just can’t begin to comprehend how the shooter came to the rational decision that carrying through an act like this would come close to being the answer to his problems.

He wanted to be liked and respected, as evidenced by the fact that he worked in broadcast journalism, and yet he had to have known that he would end the day hated and cursed by the vast majority of people. He claimed that he had been discriminated against due to his race, and yet he had to have known that his violent and unnecessary act would set race relations back rather than creating any empathy or understanding that might push it forward.

What kind of world do we live in, where such brazen acts of evil are carried out with such disregard? And even more, where the acts are filmed from the first person point of view, uploaded for the world to see, and then watched over and over again, possibly millions of times – watched with morbid fascination, as if it were only a video game or a found-footage movie, and not the ending of two precious lives?

It’s messed up.  It’s just so incredibly messed up.  On all levels.

And I just don’t get it.

And so, it’s times like this that the only thing I can is cling to what Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

And I’m reminded once more how much I long for His return.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

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A Commentary on End Times Movies, and a short review of The Remaining

It’s been a good summer – a good time away from the blog.  But now I’m back.

And the first thing I want to say is – I detest Christian-made End Times movies.

Detest. Absolutely detest.

soupIn fact, if I were made King of the Christian Film Industry, my first order of business would be an out-and-out ban on the genre. My second order would be to outlaw cameos in Christian films by Christian celebrities (I’m looking at you, Robertson family…). And third, I would make Kevin Sorbo take a vacation. I mean, seriously? Have you seen the guy’s IMDB page? I like Sorbo, but I literally cannot find another actor – Christian or otherwise – with as many credits to his name for 2015. Take the family to Hawaii for a few weeks and relax, Sorb!

But I digress from the main topic: my detestation of End Times movies.

teaser-poster-final-the-raptureWhy do I feel so strongly negative about the End Times genre? It’s really quite simple. Regardless of the eternal significance the filmmakers might try to pin on these movies, they are ultimately just that – movies. But so often (as is the case in much of the budding Christian filmmaking industry) the ones making these films place so much more importance on them than they deserve. At the end of the day, End Times movies are nothing more than a filmmaker’s fantasy interpretation of some pretty unclear and continually debated passages of Scripture. In my humble blogger’s opinion, when the filmmakers pretend that they are more than that, they wind up doing more harm than good. Just read any secular reviews of the recent Left Behind movie (2% on Rotten Tomatoes) to see the impact they make on the wider world.

In short, I think Jesus meant it when he said “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Will there be an End Times? I do believe there will be, but I also think we aren’t to spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. If people want to creatively imagine onscreen what the End Times could possibly be, then more power to them. But they should do so with a clear understanding that ultimately they have no idea what will happen at the end, no more idea than anyone else in history has ever had – including Jesus himself, by his own admission.

And yet, people keep making them.

So, when I am forced to watch an End Times movie, I approach it as I might approach an Indiana Jones movie – for the sheer entertainment value, regardless of how much of an IMPORTANT WORK the filmmaker might think he or she is doing.

maxresdefaultWhich brings me to 2014’s The Remaining, a pseudo-found-footage horror film, one of the latest cinematic attempts at depicting the End Times, and a film that – surprisingly – stands out from the rest in many ways, and which I actually found to be quite enjoyable.

The filmmakers may not have gotten Nic Cage to headline their production, but they more than made up for it in with suspenseful moments, effective minimal special effects, and well-written and acted characters who you actually cared about. Taking a page from the J.J. Abrams handbook (Cloverfield), the filmmakers wisely chose to show the impact of the rapture on a small group of friends through a mixture of video footage from the characters and normal film footage. And the conceit, for the most part, makes for some entertaining filmmaking.

First, the trailer.

What I liked about the film

1. The suspense. Without a doubt, the best thing the filmmakers did in this movie was not clearly showing the demons. Keeping the things that are attacking and terrorizing the actors out of sight is one of the most effective tools in a suspense/horror filmmaker’s toolbox. This technique permits the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks which will usually be far worse than anything that could be put onscreen. And especially when you are a filmmaker working on a limited budget, it helps you not have to resort to showing clunky CGI monsters, or even worse, poorly constructed practically made monsters.

Kudos to director Casey La Scala for respecting the audience enough to let us fill in the blanks.

remaining_rapture-eyes2. The rapture itself. In the first few minutes of The Remaining, people just fall as dead, with milky white eyes remaining open, and that’s the rapture. That was it! It was simple, extremely unsettling, and wonderfully effective – especially for what seemed to be a pretty low budget film.

And so much better cinematically than clothes falling in neatly folded piles, like other unnamed End Times movies have done.

remaining-cry3. The acting. The actors did a wonderful job showing us people who were put into an unlikely and desperate situation, where hope was becoming more and more scarce, and paradoxically for some, more and more abundant. While all the primary actors were great, I was especially impressed with Italia Ricci’s performance as Allison, and it was a joy to watch the character’s arc build to an emotional confession at the end of the film.

What I disliked about the film

1. The unnecessary jump scares. The film did the authentic and real jump scares so well, that the unnecessary ones just cheapened things for me. For example, the scene where the characters evacuate to the church basement, and we watch characters get snatched away in the spooky luminous green of night vision, was extremely effective. But the scene when a panicked patient suddenly tackled a character with apparent superhuman speed? Not so much.

2. The mixture of found footage and regular film. Found footage films are at their best when they are entirely found footage (the aforementioned Cloverfield, Chronicle, The Blair Witch Project). The Remaining‘s filmmakers should have made the choice to be one or the other and stick to it. As it was, it seemed a bit like the film wasn’t sure what it was.

3. The preachiness. Considering this is a film about The Rapture, perhaps this couldn’t be avoided, but it felt like some of the “Christianese” conversations were forced. I would have really appreciated seeing the filmmakers approach the spiritual aspects of this story with the same subtlety and finesse that they approached the suspenseful scenes.

At the same time, considering that this film was aimed squarely at a non-Christian audience, the preachiness also didn’t go far enough. Yes, they had characters talking about the need to choose God, but that’s not nearly enough. Why not go in whole-hog, and have the characters talk about the power in the name of Jesus? Forget the generic “god” talk… talk about the Savior. Oddly enough, I think such specificity could have really worked in this movie – and not come off as preachy. But they blew any sort of missional potential in the film by going too general.

In Conclusion

As far as End Times films go, The Remaining was pretty good. It was a effective suspense/thriller/horror movie, with a few good scares and effective special effects done on the cheap. But – as with all End Times movies – films like this should be watched by Christians and non-Christians alike for the entertainment value, not for the eternal value.

Because at the end of the day, they are what they are.

Movies.

Simply movies.

And all of the filmmakers out there planning End Times movies should thank their lucky stars that I remain on the periphery of Christian filmmaking, and not seated on the throne, because otherwise their projects would be shut down well before they started.

Along with Kevin Sorbo’s next job.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 11.01.25 PMGo to Maui, Sorb.  Take a break and go to Maui, and spend some time relaxing on the waves.  Christian movies will still be there when you get back in 2016.

And so will I.

Thimblerig out!

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Get Thimblerig’s Ark at a discounted price!

Thimblerig's Ark Cover ArtFor the next couple of days, you can get a e-copy of Thimblerig’s Ark at a discounted price!  Run over and pick a copy today!

Thimblerig’s Ark • Limited Time Sale!

For a limited time, you can order an autographed copy of Thimblerig’s Ark to be sent directly to your door for the low price of $10.00 plus S&H (saving $10.00 from the Amazon price)!  Just email Nate Fleming at info@thimblerigsark.com for more details.  Offer good until August 10.

You already know about Noah. Just wait until you read the animal’s story.

Click book cover to go to Thimblerig's Amazon page

Click book cover to go to Thimblerig’s Amazon page

Thimblerig is a little groundhog with big problems.

He’s a loner con-artist who’s losing his mojo; the wild dogs who run the forest harass him at every turn; he’s having vivid nightmares of apocalyptic floods; and worst of all, he believes he sees unicorns when everyone knows unicorns are only the stuff of legend.

But what one animal might call a problem, Thimblerig calls an opportunity.

In a moment of inspiration, he comes up with the ultimate con: persuade as many suckers as he can that a world-ending flood is coming; the fabled unicorns have told him where the only safe place will be; and only he can lead them to safety.

All for a reasonable price, of course.

When the flood really does come, Thimblerig has a choice: either save the ones who trusted him, or lose everything.

And that’s when he discovers that his problems have only just begun.

redThimblerig’s Ark was conceived while Nate sat in Tommy Condon’s Irish Pub in Charleston, South Carolina, listening to the band play a song about why the unicorn missed out on Noah’s Ark. Thimblerig’s Ark looks at how the animals all made it there in the first place, focusing on a con-artist groundhog named Thimblerig.

Thoughts on a Visit to Biltmore

My wife and I enjoyed our first visit to Biltmore Estate today, but as I was driving away, I was struck by two things.

House2First, it occurred to me that George Vanderbilt, the millionaire heir celebrated over and over in the Biltmore tours for building Biltmore, really didn’t do very much, except build Biltmore.

That may seem like a lot, but when you compare him to his grandfather, the shipping and railroad tycoon who built the Vanderbilt empire from nothing, and his delightfully mutton-chopped father, who after inheriting the empire, doubled it in just eight years, George was not a success.

George Vanderbilt – who reportedly had no interest in the family’s business empire, simply inherited a fortune, and then spent years sinking it all into building the largest home in the United States.

Given, that home is obviously spectacular, and Vanderbilt’s collections of cultural, artistic, and historical artifacts which fill the place are second-to-none. But the fact that we know about anything at all about Biltmore today says more about the tenacity, efforts, and business acumen of his descendants than it says about those of Vanderbilt himself.

This fact really surprised me.

7265774_114447356931Secondly, I was struck that I – as an average American – live a life that a turn-of-the-century person like Vanderbilt couldn’t have dreamt or imagined, even with his millions, his family name, and his impressive European chateau in North Carolina.

For example, I travel the globe cheaply and comfortably in a day, while a similar voyage would have been much more arduous for Vanderbilt, and would have taken him a much longer time by land and by sea. Vanderbilt may have had an impressive library, but I have every published book in the world at my disposal with the click of a button. I can communicate with anyone in the world in an instant, while it would have taken Vanderbilt days or weeks by post or perhaps by telephone to a few people. I drive my own horseless carriage at high rates of speed while enjoying the wonders of air conditioning and listening to any music I wish. I’ve seen pictures and video of men on the moon, of spacecraft reaching every planet in our solar system, and high resolution images of galaxies light years away. 

To bring it back to Earth, in 1914, George Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of his generation with immediate access to the best medicine of his time, died in New York due to complications from appendi-freakin-citis. And right now, somewhere in a small hospital in middle America, an E.R. surgeon is performing an emergency appendectomy on a person with no money, and that person will likely walk away from the surgery.  

We have vaccines for polio, measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever, rubella, hepatitis, and influenza – all diseases for which Vanderbilt’s money could not buy a cure.

Which makes me ask the question: what will things be like in another hundred years? Here’s hoping for more amazing breakthroughs, technological advances, and another hundred years of us not eradicating ourselves as a species.

All that being said, we enjoyed our visit to Biltmore, and I’ve come up with ten tips for visiting the place.

Thimblerig’s Ten Tips for Visiting Biltmore

1) Biltmore is crazy popular in Asheville in the summer, so visit on a weekday if you are able. But the place is very well organized, so even though we arrived at 11:00, we didn’t have too many lines.

2) Why would anyone bother with valet parking? To feel like a Vanderbilt? Folks, the shuttle service is free and easy, and if you’re really feeling healthy, the walk from the parking lot to the house is less than 10 minutes.

3) Bring a picnic lunch. We had a nice simple lunch we brought with us on a bench during our walk to the lake.  It was fun, and it saved us money compared to the pricey Biltmore eateries (think airport prices on the property).

4) While Biltmore is literally crawling with extremely well-informed guides, the general ticket doesn’t get you any sort of guided tour. Rather, you can pay $10 for a little cell-phone-like audio tour. I would highly recommend this, but would suggest you bring your own earbuds, as the headphones are curiously rationed, and normal earbuds will fit. Trust me – you don’t want to walk around the whole mansion holding the cell phone thing up to your ear. But do the audio tour. It’s worth the $10.

5) Travelling with a child? Leave the big stroller at home and bring the umbrella stroller and a backpack. Lots and lots of stairs everywhere at Biltmore – in the house and in the gardens – and you’ll end up carrying the stroller up lots of those stairs. Much of Biltmore is not wheel-friendly (keep this in mind for wheelchairs, too).

6) If you are travelling with a small child, do the gardens first so that they get plenty tired out.  Our two year old blessedly slept nearly the entire time we were touring the house because we wore him out first in the gardens.

7) Bring a few bottles of water with you. I didn’t see many water fountains, and we got pretty thirsty.

8) Buy your tickets a week ahead from the website, and save $10 a ticket. And if you go this summer, kids under 16 are free. Many B&Bs and hotels have special deals as well, so check with your accommodations before buying from the website.

Wine-tasting9) Stop off at the winery on your way out, as a few sample glasses of wine are a spectacular way to end a long day of seeing how the better half lived compared to your grandparents. It’s also fun to watch people sampling wine, as some of them look like they may have attended wine school in France, and beside them is the guy just gulping down free wine.

10) And if you are travelling with small children, and you spent all day dragging them through several floors of a turn-of-the-century mansion, you owe them at least a half hour at the little petting farm at Antler Hill. The kids can pet chickens and feed goats, which our two year old loved better than Disney. You must stop there.

All in all, a trip to Biltmore is something you should do if you have any interest in American history, and especially if you curious about the way a very small segment of the population lived at the turn of the century. It’s a bit pricey to enter, but it’s money well-spent.

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The SCOTUS Ruling and the Early Church: An Encouragement

In recent years, Christians have been pining for a return to first century Christianity. For example, articles and sermons like the following have been seen with increasing regularity:

4 Ways the Modern Church Looks Nothing Like the Early Church

How Can Today’s Church Be More Like the Early Church?

What can we learn from the early church? – Living like the first Christians

It’s a somewhat romantic notion, that we get away from all of the centuries of tradition and added-on elements of the church and return to the simplicity and purity of the early church. But doing such a thing is easier said than done, as it is no easy feat to get rid of traditions and added-on elements that we have come to appreciate and enjoy. And this includes the power that the church amassed in the public arena, especially in the United States.

gay_scotusHowever, with today’s SCOTUS ruling and the subsequent celebrations by all corners of American culture (thanks for the rainbow header I didn’t request, WordPress), things have reached a turning point. We’ve been seeing it coming for years, but today’s ruling which recognizes homosexual marriage across the land has determined that – at least in the United States – Biblical Christianity is now officially counter-cultural.

The recent findings by the Pew Research Center seem to support this idea, that Christianity’s influence is waning in the United States. These findings have been disputed, but I think we can all agree that Christians don’t influence culture in America the way we used to. Given, Christians still have quite a bit of power and influence – we can still impact an election, we still buy a lot of products, we still make up a healthy percentage of the population, but it’s obviously a waning influence.

Just like in the first century.

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 10.38.52 PMIt seems that we Christians are getting our wish, and we may be heading towards a more authentic twenty-first century expression of first century Christianity than we were banking on. We’re losing our influence, and they never had influence. Our hold on political power is slipping, and they never had power. We used to help guide culture, and now our attempts to impact culture are laughable. The culture of the first century didn’t care a whit about Christians, except as macabre entertainment in the colosseum.

The bad news is that the first century church suffered quite a bit of persecution for standing up for their faith, and this may or may not be where we are headed. However, if it is, we need to remember that Christians are guaranteed persecution in Scripture, and we’ve managed to avoid it for a long, long time – while much of the rest of the world has experienced it for a long, long time. It could be that our time has come.

The good news is, even twenty centuries later, we still look back at the first century church as what we want to emulate, persecution and all. They had their problems (as evidenced in the letters of Paul), but they learned and grew. More good news is that the God that they worshipped in the early church is the same God we worship today. He hasn’t changed. So no matter where we find ourselves in America in five years, it won’t change Him, and we can take great reassurance from the truth of that idea.

keith green - no compromiseIt could be that losing our influence and becoming counter to the culture will force us to ask ourselves what we truly believe and if we’re willing to stand for it. It could be that losing our hold on political power will give us a humility we haven’t had in ages. It could be that becoming outcasts will make us interact with the culture in a way many of us have avoided as we’ve built our cloistered walls and hid in our bubbled communities and universities. It could be that becoming helpless in the world’s eyes will push us to treasure God’s Word and study it with more intention and urgency in the same way the early church would have done. It could be that not getting what we want from government or society will compel us to revive our prayer life, and to truly seek Him. It could be that we will become more creative, more innovative, more ground-breaking in our art and our ministries to reach a potentially hostile, potentially disinterested majority.

In short, it could be that losing influence and becoming authentically counter to the culture – truly being forced to become like the first century church – would be the best thing that happened to American Christianity in the history of American Christianity.

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In and Out of the Fruit of the Spirit: A Faith-Based Film Proposal

 

With the unqualified success of Pixar’s Inside Out, the faith-based audience demands a faith-and-family friendly version. To that end, I propose the following project.

In and Out TitleProject Title

In and Out of The Fruit of the Spirit

Type

Feature Film

Genre

Faith and Family Friendly CGI

Stage of Development

Incomplete Script

Logline

An adventure that takes place entirely within the Spirit of an 11-year-old girl, featuring the Fruit of the Spirit and the Fleshly Nature as characters.

Synopsis

Kylie is a happy 11-year-old Midwestern girl from a devout community in Minnesota, but her world turns upside-down when she and her parents tragically move to the pagan enclave of San Francisco. Kylie’s Fruit of the Spirit – led by Love – try to guide her through this difficult, life-changing event from their place in Spirit Headquarters. However, the stress of the move awakens her Fleshly Nature, led by Pride. Love and Pride engage in conflict over control of Kylie, and when Love and Pride are inadvertently swept together into the far reaches of Kylie’s spirit, the remaining Fruits of the Spirit are left in Headquarters to fight off the fleshly nature and try to restore balance to Kylie’s spirit.

Faith-based producers or investors interested in producing or funding this story idea should contact me at info@thimblerigsark.com to further discuss this idea, and how we can make this dream into a reality.

For more information, click this link.

 

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Passion, Purity, and Pez: A Memory of Elisabeth Elliot

This morning, when I read the news that Elisabeth Elliot died, I was sad, but not for her. I was sad for her family and friends, because I know that they will miss her, but I wasn’t sad for Elisabeth Elliot. If I could live a life even a tenth as full as the life she lived, if I were able to influence even a fraction of the number of people she influenced for the sake of the Gospel, if my life pointed to Jesus even marginally as much as hers did, then I would consider my life to have been well-lived. So rather than mourning her passing, I want to share a couple of memories of when I was privileged to meet Elisabeth Elliot, and I share these memories as a way of celebrating her life.

It was the mid-1990’s, I was in my late 20’s, I was single, and I was living in one of the most beautiful cities on earth – Charleston, South Carolina. I was working full time for the resident theater company at the Dock Street Theater, and I was attending East Cooper Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the area, where I was a regular part of the single’s ministry.

IMG200310293959HIWhen my friend John and I heard that Elisabeth Elliot was coming to town to speak, we – as good Christian singles – recognized the moment as a perfect double date opportunity. This was, after all, Elisabeth Elliot – an actual living legend and hero of the faith – the former missionary who gained fame for ministering to the Huaroni tribe in Ecuador, the very people who murdered her husband and his colleagues, a story made famous in the book Through Gates of Splendor.

Not only that, but Elliot was also a prolific writer, authoring many books that should be required reading for followers of Jesus, including a biography of missionary Amy Carmichael, a biography of her late husband Jim (who most young Christian men want to emulate at some point), and Passion and Purity, which was one of the most convicting books I ever read on the subject of dating – and a book that is possibly one of the most counter-cultural books a person could read these days.

So, yeah… a perfect double date.

Being the complete goober that I am, and wanting to impress my date that night, I brought the ultimate impress-your-date accessories to the Elisabeth Elliot talk: a couple of Pez dispensers. Inspired by an episode of Seinfeld, I offered Pez to my date during the middle of the talk, with thankfully less explosive results.

Afterwards, we stood in line for the opportunity to meet Mrs. Elliot, and while we waited, I commented that everyone seemed to be talking to Elisabeth Eliot very earnestly, pouring out their hearts, sharing deep things in their brief two or three minute audience.

“That has to be emotionally exhausting,” I said, “listening to so many heart-felt things from so many people all of the time. I should offer her a Pez.”

“You should what?” my date asked, laughing.

“Offer her a Pez,” I replied. “Seriously, she would probably really appreciate something different.”

“Offer Elisabeth Elliot a Pez? Elisabeth Elliot? You won’t do it,” she said, and she looked back at John for confirmation. He just smiled and shook his head.

He knew me well.

“Here, you hold Gonzo as a backup,” I said, handing her my second favorite dispenser. Then I turned and started planning what I would say when I reached the living legend. I figured I had about five minutes until it would be my turn.

“This is Elisabeth Elliot we’re talking about here,” my date insisted, no longer laughing. “And you’re going to offer her a Pez?”

“She’ll love it,” I replied. “It’ll thrill her to hear something different.”

 As I inched my way towards my moment with modern evangelical destiny, I began to get nervous. This was Elisabeth Elliot, after all.

I tucked Kermit into the shirt pocket of my blue Oxford and wiped my now-sweaty hands on my pants. Whatever I said to her would have to be simple and to the point. I didn’t want to take up too much of her time. I needed to say what I needed to say, and get out.

And then, too soon – much too soon – it was my turn.

There I stood, before Elisabeth Elliot. The Elisabeth Elliot. The woman who had been married to Jim Elliot. The woman who’d had the strength of faith and character to forgive the people who had taken Jim from her. The woman who had more wisdom, life experience, theological understanding, and humility in her little finger than I had in my entire body.

She looked at me expectantly from her seat at the small, round, wooden table, ready to hear what I had to say. She was so distinguished and regal, but also open and friendly, and behind her, her husband Lars stood like a protecting force. He was quite the imposing figure.

I hesitated.

Maybe I shouldn’t do this? This woman had experienced so much in her life, had helped so many people, and she was more than just a woman, she was also a beloved icon of my faith.

And I was going to offer her a Pez?

I chanced a glance back at my date, and her eyes were wide. She shook her head almost imperceptibly, pleading. Then I looked at John, who stood beside her. He nodded.

His nod said exactly what I needed to hear.

You got this.

Emboldened, I turned and sat down across from Elisabeth Elliot, and launched into my hastily prepared, mostly unrehearsed speech.

“Mrs. Elliot, you have helped so many people through the years with your words and your writing, including me. I have been inspired by your story, and the way that you challenge my generation. But I know you hear this all of the time, and so rather than just telling you, I want to demonstrate my appreciation.”

To this day I don’t know if it was my imagination or not, but it seemed that Lars leaned closer with a concerned look in his eye.

I ignored him and pressed on.

“And so, Mrs. Elliot, I would like to offer you a Pez.”

What happened next happened two different ways. First, is the way it happened in my mind, and second was the way that it really happened.

In my mind, I smiled a charming smile, reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out Kermit. In one fluid motion, I set him on the table in front of Mrs. Elliot, and pulled back on the frog’s head to reveal the lemon flavored candy within. She, of course, laughed with delight and received the proffered Pez. She smiled up at Lars, who visibly relaxed, and then she turned back to me, leaned forward, and placed her hand on mine. Conspiratorially, she whispered, “I really needed this, young man. Thank you for being so clever and unique.”

The moment was magical, and certainly my date was suitably impressed, and at this point, a second date would be assumed. I would walk away from this night a hero, Christianity Today would issue a special edition just to name me one of the 25 under 25 most influential young Christians, and then the pièce de résistance, Billy Graham himself would invite me to The Cove to join him in some North Carolina barbecue.

That was what happened in my mind.

Following is the way it really happened.

I did do my best to smile a charming smile, but when I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out Kermit, his oversized plastic green head caught on the lip of the pocket. I gave a little yank, forcing his head back, and ejecting Pez candies all over the table and the floor in front of a wide-eyed Elisabeth Elliot.

Thinking quickly, I turned back to my date and blurted, “Give me Gonzo! Give me Gonzo!”

il_fullxfull.302083276She shoved Gonzo into my waiting hand, and I whipped back around, set the hook-nosed Muppet Pez onto the table in front of Elisabeth Elliot and pulled back the head to reveal the waiting candy.

I’m sure only half a second passed between Gonzo’s appearance and Elisabeth Elliot’s response, but for me it seemed like time had slowed to a near-complete halt. There I sat, Gonzo in hand, smiling a lunatic smile at one of my faith heroes, and waiting to see if the rest of the incident would play out like it had in my mind.

It would not.

“What… is… that?” Elisabeth Elliot asked, staring down at poor Gonzo as if I were holding a squirming cockroach and not a beloved children’s character.

“It’s Pez,” I stammered. “It’s candy from a cartoon character’s head.”

Seeing that I wasn’t going anywhere until she had pulled a little tablet of candy from under Gonzo’s chin, Elisabeth Eliot reached over and pulled one out, and smiled at me. I’m sure it must have been the same smile she reserved for delusional men on the subway who insisted that they were actually the President of France.

I thanked her, scooped up the other Pez candies with as much dignity as I could muster, and walked past my giggling friends, my only solace being the knowledge that as bad as that had been, my friends had to go after me.

Part 2

beeson20021024finished003-540x350A few years later, I was studying for my Master’s of Divinity degree at Beeson Divinity School on the campus of Samford University. Beeson is an excellent institution of higher learning, a terrific training ground for people looking to go into ministry or pursuing higher education. It is a place of rigorous academic study, and challenging theological settings.

And somehow, I had been elected president of the student body.

Being president of the student body gave me unique access to visiting dignitaries, including Elisabeth Elliot, who spoke in our chapel in May 1996.

At that time, I was dating a young woman from Kazakhstan who was at Beeson working on her Master’s in Theological Studies. I’d told her my Elisabeth Elliot story, and thought that Mrs. Elliot’s visit was an opportune time to impress my girlfriend by seeing how well Elisabeth Elliot remembered that crazy kid in Charleston.

Following her talk, Elisabeth Elliot and her husband Lars sat in the student center, and they welcomed people to come up and talk with her. With my Kermit Pez firmly in hand, and with my girlfriend beside me, I approached the table and asked if we could sit. She smiled and gestured to the empty chairs.

“Mrs. Elliot, you probably don’t remember me, but a few years ago back in Charleston I heard you speak. Afterwards, I was able to talk with you, and when I did, I embarrassed myself by offering you a Pez. Well, since that time, I’ve had a fantastic time telling people that story, and so as a sign of my gratitude, I want to offer you something.”

I glanced at Lars. He didn’t move this time. But he was listening.

I sat Kermit on the table between us, and smiled.

“I’d like to offer you a Pez.”

This time, I was completely confident. I wasn’t trying to be cheeky, my supportive girlfriend sat beside me, and certainly Elisabeth Elliot would remember the incident from before. In my mind, she would laugh, say something like, “I remember you!”, take a Pez, and the story would have come full circle.

I would be a hero, once again. The dean of the seminary would put me on cover of the next newsletter, Christianity Today would put me on their list of the 29 under 29 most influential Christians, and Steven Curtis Chapman would call me to ask if I could teach him a thing or two about playing the guitar.

That was what happened in my mind.

Following is the way it really happened.

“What… is… that?” Elisabeth Elliot asked. Again.

“It’s Pez,” I stammered. “It’s candy from a cartoon character’s head.” Again.

Elisabeth Elliot smiled a very patient smile, and again, she took a Pez. Without having any candies to clean up, it was easy to stand, say thank you, and leave.

“I’ll stay a little longer, if that’s okay,” my girlfriend asked, and Mrs. Elliot nodded. I backed away, wondering what my girlfriend wanted to talk to Elisabeth Elliot about.

They talked quite a while, and my girlfriend ended up invited to Elisabeth Elliot’s hotel for breakfast the next morning to continue the conversation. Turns out they talked about me quite a bit, and they discussed my girlfriend’s frustration that she didn’t know where things were going with us. That I seemed afraid to commit. That I seemed to be obsessed with Pez.

Looking back, I realize that while it might be exhausting to have people come to you constantly, pouring out their hearts, looking for guidance and wisdom at their times of great need, Elisabeth Elliot did this for years, gladly and inexhaustibly. My only way of understanding this is that she must have felt such gratitude towards her Savior, who met her in the jungles of Ecuador at her time of greatest need, and that it was the least she could do.

And so I am not sad that Elisabeth Elliot has died. I’m grateful for her life, for the legacy she left behind, and for the witness that she will continue to be to countless individuals through her writings and her story.

And I smile when I think that she is with Jim and the others, missionaries and Huaroni alike, worshipping and praising the Lord whom she loved so much.

How could I be sad?

By the way, I don’t know the details of the conversation between my girlfriend and Elisabeth Elliot, but I do know that it was a very important conversation.

That girlfriend has been my wife now for nearly twenty years, so it was a very important conversation, indeed.

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