Tim Chey’s David and Goliath • Thimblerig’s Review


2014 saw the release of some major Bible-themed movies, movies backed by serious Hollywood studios, movies involving household name actors, directors with impressive filmographies, and budgets in the hundreds of millions.

Financially, the movies did respectfully, but they failed to make any sort of connection with the elusive “faith-based” audience – the audience willing to come out in droves for movies like God’s Not Dead or the films of the Kendrick Brothers.

The cry went out from faithful filmgoers everywhere, complaints that the films were not biblically accurate, that too many liberties had been taken, that our sacred stories should never have been entrusted into the hands of nonbelievers, and that one of us needed to do a Bible story properly, to show the world just how amazing our stories can be.

Veteran director Tim Chey answered that call, purportedly raising over 50 million dollars so that he could make a movie version of the story of David and Goliath that would be true to the message found in the Scriptures, and do all the things that Hollywood had been unable to do.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out the way Chey – and Christian filmgoers rooting for that longed-for faithful rendition – might have hoped.

Rather than being a film that can stand up against the best Hollywood has to offer, David and Goliath is just a truly dreadful film. It’s bad in a way you can’t really even imagine. The cinematography is terrible, the script is a repetitive mess, the editing is bewildering, the acting is amateurish, the special effects are bizarre and make no sense, the soundtrack is forgettable and depressing, the pacing is irregular and jarring…

And yet, even with all of that, I wholeheartedly recommend that you watch this movie, because I guarantee you will never see a film like this again in your life.

In. Your. Life.

David and Goliath first appeared on my radar back in March, when someone sent me a link to the trailer for the film. This particular trailer caught my eye because it was connected with an Indiegogo campaign, where Chey announced he would be raising money to fund the theatrical release of the film. Apparently, no Hollywood studio wanted to distribute David and Goliath because Chey’s film was too biblical, too religious, and mentioned God in every scene, and Chey was determined to get the film into theaters.

Considering that we had just lived through “The Year of the Christian Film“, and Hollywood had not been able to crack open that elusive “faith-based” demographic, why wouldn’t they want to distribute David and Goliath? Especially if it was going to be “biblically correct in every way“, which would surely draw the coveted Christian audience?

Something didn’t make sense.

Before I saw the trailer, I had never heard of Tim Chey, and so I started tracking down interviews and stories about him. However, the more I learned about Chey, the more conflicted I felt. On the one hand, the filmmaker came across as well-spoken, passionate, dedicated to filmmaking, and strong in his faith. On the other hand, I was disturbed by his strongly negative attitude towards Christians who responded critically to his films.

I wrote about this back in March, and want to repeat one section of that article before I get to reviewing the film.

In one interview, Mr. Chey complained that his films were being mocked by “fellow jealous Christians… saying the acting was bad, script was horrible.”  In another interview he said that one of his personal weaknesses was “not loving those carnal Christian movie critics who continually stab Christian filmmakers in the back.”

“The mistake Christian filmmakers make repeatedly,” Mr. Chey continued, “is they give into their fears of being maligned by the carnal, world-loving Christian who drools over Hollywood product…”

“One person wrote me and said 7 people went forward to receive Christ after showing ‘Gone‘. I can just imagine these carnal Christians rolling their eyes at the horror of that. But the true horror will be on Judgment Day when Christ says to them, ‘Depart from me for I never knew you.’”

Watching David and Goliath and being critical of the viewing would make me a “carnal Christian”? Reviewing a film and writing about bad acting, directing, or screenwriting would put my soul at risk?

It’s an understatement to say that Chey’s ideas about the untouchable nature of his filmmaking are skewed. This is especially odd when you consider that Chey is an educated and accomplished individual, having studied law at Harvard, film at USC Film School, and as a filmmaker with several Christian movies under his belt.

Since I was unable to catch David and Goliath during the limited theatrical release, I decided to pass the time by watching a couple of Tim Chey’s other films (Suing the Devil and Freedom), and while I felt that both had some positive elements to promote, both also had negative elements worthy of critique. Read my review of Suing the Devil to see what I thought.

And then, I was pleased to receive this message a few weeks ago from the David and Goliath Facebook page:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.39.08 PM

Yes! The moment had arrived. And so, as soon as I was able, I placed my order on iTunes, and downloaded the film. Then last Wednesday night my family became one of those 55 million homes, settling in to see how this epic story would be handled.

And trust me, it was handled. Oh, how it was handled…

David and Goliath • Thimblerig’s Review

Three things I liked about David and Goliath

1. The audacity of it.

photo from Wikipedia

(photo from Wikipedia)

There is something to be said about going all out with a passion project. The old saying, “swing hard or go home,” comes to mind.

And this is a textbook example of an audacious project! Who makes a 50 million dollar non-studio Bible film with no big name actors? Who takes the cast and crew of an independent epic-sized film all the way to North Africa to do the filming? Who starts not one, but two Indiegogo campaigns in an attempt to raise money to self-release a film of that size and scope, announcing that it’s a Bible film that no studio will touch because it’s too Bible-based?

Chey made big choices, filmed big scenes, and tried to do something big and maybe even admirable in attempting to tell the famous story of David and Goliath. Even if it seemed to overwhelm him in the end (more on that later); the attempt was bold and audacious, and part of me can’t help but admire the kind of chutzpah that would undertake a project like this willingly.

2.  Miles Sloman’s performance as David.


Miles Sloman, a dead ringer for Michelangelo’s David, is apparently a theater guy, having gotten his start at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and going on to take part in the Oxford School of Drama.

Sloman is a man with very impressive theater credentials who was obviously seriously invested in his role, which he infused with an innocence and earnestness that was entirely appropriate for the character of David. If you read this interview, you’ll see that he appears to be a professional who is very serious about his craft.

It must not have been an easy job to carry the lead role in a movie of this scope, especially in your first film role, so props to Sloman for doing his best with less-than-stellar material and circumstances.

morocco-desert-map-conde-nast-traveller-27feb14-andrew-macgregor3.  The location.

It was nice to see a film based on the life of David shot on location in a different part of the world than, say, the deserts outside of Los Angeles, which would have been an easier and much less expensive location for recreating Bethlehem – especially for an independent Christian film.

That being said, one can’t help but wonder if the decision to film in North Africa was at least partly based on how dramatic it would look in the press releases.

Historically, Chey has done his best to harness the power of the press release when it came to promoting himself and his movies. For example, when Suing the Devil was found on a notorious pirating website, Chey and his team contacted the pirates to request that they remove the torrent. This led to a war of words with the pirating community and ultimately to Suing the Devil being illegally downloaded over 100,000 times. Chey responded with a press release lauding the downloading attack as a “tremendous compliment,” promoting Suing the Devil as “one of the most illegally downloaded movies ever.”

This time around, in the case of David and Goliath, filming in North Africa gave Chey the chance to spice up his press releases with claims that “…the director and producers risked their lives during the filming… from angry mobs, killer bees, death threats from Islamic extremists, and the outbreak of the Ebola virus.”

Did those things really happen? I can only assume that they did in some for or fashion, which makes me think that Chey should have had a second crew making a documentary of this filmmaking attempt. Now that would have been a movie to see.

But I still must admit that the Ebola thing has me a bit confused. There weren’t any known cases of Ebola in North Africa during the recent outbreak, so how did that outbreak risk their lives, any more than any of the rest of us? Unless Chey was referencing the one case of Ebola that happened in the UK, and since David and Goliath was partly made in London, that could be what’s going on.

My Main Critique of David and Goliath

My list of problems with this movie is pretty extensive, as you could see in my opening paragraphs. However, all of those issues would have been much less problematic if the filmmakers had relaxed and just told us a good story. But David and Goliath fails miserably in this regard, and somehow takes one of the most exciting stories from the Old Testament, and turns it into an extremely tiresome and dull film.

And this, to me, is the film’s greatest problem.

If we are going to compete with the big boys with our own Bible epics, then good intentions will never be enough. While Chey may have set up to make a biblically correct counterpoint to Noah and Exodus, what he ended up making was a movie where the audience had to entertain themselves by looking for horse whinnies and computer generated snafus (more on that later). Say what you will about Hollywood’s attempts, but at least they understand the value of story. They entertain.

David and Goliath had endless repetitive scenes of David standing on a rock reciting Psalms. It had endless repetitive scenes of Goliath spewing his so-called taunts, the same taunts, over and over. It had endless repetitive scenes of David talking to people about his desire to face Goliath, and people trying to talk him out of it. It had endless repetitive scenes of King Saul or his general addressing the troops. It had endless repetitive scenes of people looking off into the distance with concerned looks on their faces. It had endless repetitive scenes of the bad guys (dressed in black, so that there was no confusion) acting like bad guys.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 10.46.47 PMAnd the big climax, when David and Goliath finally meet in battle? It was literally minutes of the two stalking each other in circles, not doing anything but talking – Goliath talking the same bizarre trash he’s been talking the whole movie (more on that later), and David reciting the Psalms. And it went on and on, for minutes. Nothing happening but this, for minutes.


A very interesting imagining of David meeting Goliath. Oh, what could have been…

And this was supposed to be the climax?

I just don’t get it. Here we have one of the most famous underdog stories in human history, a little 14 year old kid going up against a monster-sized killer, and winning, and somehow it was rendered into a boring chore, a tedious slog of a movie. Why is this? How do we mess up Bible movies so often, when they are so important to us?

Ironically enough, I believe it is because they are so important to us that we can’t do them justice. In this case, the filmmakers were so focused on being “Biblically correct” that they seemed to be paralyzed by that goal. They couldn’t find a way to make an entertaining 90 minute story, because entertaining was incidental to their desire to preach. And in their failure to do the first well, they failed to do the second.

When are we, as Christians, going to realize the God-glorifying value of letting a good story tell itself? If we believe so strongly in the sovereignty of God, shouldn’t we be able to trust Him to use a well-told story to draw people to Himself? Especially if the story is from our sacred Scriptures, it should be infinitely doable.

God’s been doing it for years through the movies of Hollywood (Chariots of Fire, Schindler’s List, The Shawshank Redemption, Unforgiven, Calvary, to name just a few), and Christian filmmakers need to realize that nothing neuters a good story faster than when your goal is to preach rather than just tell the good story, while trusting the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

My dream is that at some point, some enterprising Christian filmmaker is going to let a Bible story tell itself, and when they do, God will use it to rock the world.

To conclude, earlier in this review, I insisted that even though David and Goliath is not very good, it is a movie that people should watch. I stand behind that assertion, and it is because some of the choices made by the filmmakers were just so unusual, so random, so unexpected, that they became the most interesting reason to watch the film to the end.

And while the story as presented didn’t succeed, these things did entertain me to no end. I call this section…

Three things I liked about David and Goliath (that I wasn’t intended to like)

1.  The homage to Young Frankenstein

The first thing I liked (that I wasn’t intended to like) involved sound editing.

Specifically, horse whinnies.

Let me explain.

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite movies was Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and one of my favorite running gags in that film was the “Frau Blucher” horse whinny bit.

David and Goliath had a similar horse whinny that repeated quite often in the film.  Over, and over, and over again, actually.

And over.  And over.

Again and again.

You’ll have to watch the film for yourself to experience this, but my children got tired of counting at 40 horse whinnies. It was so excessive, that I couldn’t stop laughing at the pure, Brooksian ridiculousness of it.

And then suddenly, fifty minutes into the film (52:52 to be exact), the whinnies just… stopped. It was as if the horses suddenly lost the will to whinny, because they had been whinnying almost nonstop up until that point. Were they afraid for David? Was it a silent protest that nobody else would help him? Whatever the horse motivation, for the last 35 minutes, they were completely silent.  No more horse whinnies.

What happened to the horses?

2.  The economic use of horses

Speaking of horses, David and Goliath used computer trickery to add people and horses to scenes. Crowd scenes were bolstered by the addition of extra people in red or black, and smaller scenes were made to look busier by the addition of people and horses crossing in front of the action. Thus, pivotal scenes looked more bustling and crowded without having to have a literal cast of thousands.

It actually reminded me of what George Lucas attempted in the re-released Star Wars trilogy, making Mos Eisley look like more of a crowded spaceport by adding in all kinds of business around Luke’s landspeeder.

And we all know how well that worked for Lucas.

But computer trickery is not what I liked. What I really liked was that David and Goliath didn’t just have several horses crossing the screen in front of the action, but the same horse, a horse I like to call Spot – the busiest acting horse in Morocco.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 8.05.54 AMSpot crossed in front of the action, over, and over, and over again. He came from the left… and from the right. He came at an slight angle, and he came right across the screen. All throughout the movie, the same horse.

But it was definitely Spot, which you can tell by looking at his backside.

Just as we had been counting horse whinnies, when we realized it was Spot each time, we had a new game of “Can you Spot Spot?” and it happened too many times to mention.

To illustrate these two points, take a look at this video clip. And keep your eyes open for Spot!

3.  Less is More, or Biblically Correct?  Really?

Sometimes in filmmaking, the filmmaker needs take big chunks of idea and boil them down to the essentials, for the sake of the film. In the case of David and Goliath, Chey took the only recorded speech of Goliath in the Bible:

Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

And in his effort to make a film that was “biblically correct in every way”, reduced those words from the Bible down to this:


Which Goliath screams very loudly at the Israelites over, and over, and over again.


And over.


And again.


And over again.

And occasionally Goliath would vary his taunts by mixing in one of the following, just for fun.

I see you! Come down here!  I hate your guts! There’s no place to run!

To close, I want to reiterate that this is a truly poorly made film that should be viewed by many, many people.

First, it should be viewed by Christian film students everywhere as a cautionary tale against biting off more than you are able to chew.

Second, it should also be viewed by Christian producers as a cautionary tale against thinking that having elevated spiritual goals in filmmaking, as admirable as those goals may be, will somehow magically transform your film into something worthwhile.

Third, it should be watched as an argument that Christian filmmakers should consider focusing first on telling good stories, and then trust that God will deliver the message that He wants to deliver, rather than thinking that you have to be so on-the-nose in your storytelling. Because while that may work in preaching, being on-the-nose is death to storytelling.

So, if you fall into any of those categories, go and rent the movie today. Or, if you just enjoy watching bad movies, you might enjoy this as well. Otherwise, give it a pass, and wait and see if Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange) makes the movie based on the life of David that was rumored to be on the drawing boards a few years ago.

Now that would be a good movie.

And  I feel compelled to say a couple of things directly to the David and Goliath team, for what it’s worth:

First, please stop playing up your films as if they are more than they truly are. I don’t know if you legitimately encountered all of those dangers in North Africa, but I do know that it was somewhat disingenuous for you to advertise David and Goliath as the “#1 independent film” when it was released, especially when it was the only independent film that was released that week. And this isn’t the only time. Spinning the Suing the Devil downloads into some sort of compliment, promising top of the line special effects for David and Goliath and openings in 1,500 theaters before you have any sort of distribution deal in place, you use hyperbole quite a bit in your PR.

That may work in fooling people who don’t pay attention to see if the reality lives up to the claims, but some of us do pay attention, and it’s really irritating, and unnecessary. Just make good movies, and all of the spin won’t be necessary.

And second, please understand that being reviewed critically is a part of the filmmaking game, and it is typically not personal. You are not being persecuted when you are reviewed negatively, nor is it a sign of spiritual bankruptcy on the part of the reviewers. Trust me, Christian reviewers such as myself are just waiting for our brothers and sisters to make movies we can laud, and hold up to the world as examples of fantastic filmmaking. Truly we are! Read through my reviews and you will see that when I think a movie is well-made by Christian filmmakers, I blow my horn loudly and proudly in support of that film, because I want to see it happen more an more.

It just doesn’t happen that often when it comes to so-called “faith-based” films.

And when you think about it, that’s the biggest shame.


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4 Things Christian Artists Can Learn From The Life Of Rich Mullins

RichMullinscropThis weekend marks eighteen years since the death of singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, who died tragically in a car accident just outside of Bloomington, Illinois on September 19, 1997.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Rich’s life had a profound impact on me. This is true for me as a Christian, as an artist, and as a man. I’m not alone, as evidenced by the continued interest in his life nearly twenty years after he “went out like Elijah,” as well as the continued popularity of his music.

As I realized we were getting close to this date, it got me to thinking about Rich. I knew I had to write something about him, but I’ve already told the story of the time we met (A Memory of Rich Mullins), and I’ve also already written about the profound impact Rich had on my first novel, Thimblerig’s Ark (Thimblerig the Ragamuffin).

So what could I say that hasn’t already been said?

And this morning, as I walked to work, it hit me.

What would Rich have to say to Christian artists today, living in the internet age as we do, with our instant communication, immediate access to anything in the world, and the hyper-commercialization of everything from Christian music to Christian books to Christian movies? How would he have us measure success? By number of downloads? Likes or shares or follows or upvotes? Hits on a webpage? Or would it be something else?

In this blog post, I will look at Rich’s life and music with these questions in mind. I do this with full understanding that I am no expert on Rich Mullins, but I am a person who admired Rich and the way he lived his life, and the way he lived out his faith.

I hope that readers will read this post through that particular prism. And I would encourage you to take the time to listen to all of the songs I’ve linked as you read, to fully experience the music of Rich Mullins today.

4 Things Christian Artists Can Learn From The Life and Music Of Rich Mullins

1. The Value of Authenticity

One of the reasons Rich’s music resonates with so many people is the authenticity that he poured into his lyrics. While he gained fame by writing Awesome God, one of the most popular and oft-performed worship songs of the past thirty years, I’m more drawn to Rich’s songs that went to a personal level, songs that asked heart-wrenching questions, made uncomfortable confessions, disclosed relatable doubts, and repeated admissions of his flaws and his human weakness.

These were the songs that made Rich stand out from the crowd.

And especially when considering the so-called “culture wars” that take so much of our time, we need a strong reminder of the value and strength found in practicing a bit of humble self-examination, as well as a willingness to admit just how screwed up we are.

For example, take Rich’s song, Hard to Get, that tries to figure out God’s silence.

Do you remember when You lived down here?
Where we all scrape to find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away?
Well I memorized every word You said

Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath
While You’re up there just playing hard to get

And then there’s one of my favorite songs, Hold Me Jesus, which Rich wrote after facing some intense temptation during a trip to Amsterdam with his musical partner, Beaker.

Well, sometimes my life just don’t make sense at all

When the mountains look so big and my faith just seems so small

So hold me, Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf

You have been King of my glory, won’t you be my Prince of Peace

In both these examples, we see an artist who isn’t afraid to explore his own weaknesses and frailty, both in song and in life. This sort of authenticity made Rich a refreshing voice in the world of 80’s and 90’s Contemporary Christian Music, and it’s something we desperately need today.

Imagine if we were as open about our sins, the temptations we face, our failures, both in our art and in our lives. What if our art reflected our utter dependence on a God who doesn’t toss us aside because of those sins and temptations, but holds us closer in spite of them?

Imagine the power in our art if it did a better job reflecting our inadequacies rather than painting a picture of a people who have it all together, a people with moral and cultural superiority. What could God do with that?

Because I think we know – and I know the world knows – that the truth about us ain’t pretty.

2. The Value of Artistry

One reason Rich was able to succeed at being an artist with an overtly Christian message was the fact that he was also a seriously talented musician who wasn’t afraid to buck trends and take risks when it suited his artistic vision. This not only endeared him to Christian audiences, but also gained him respect from the secular world.

While these days it’s not so revolutionary to have unusual folkish instrumentation in music, in the synth-heavy CCM world of the 80’s and guitar-riffed early 90’s, what other CCM artist was featuring a hammered dulcimer? Who even knew what a hammered dulcimer was back then, outside of Appalachia?

Yes, Mullins was passionate about God, but he was also a consummate musician, and a master lyricist (the last two ideas he would have rejected vehemently, by the way). And since film is the artistic medium I’m most passionate about, this reminds me how I long for a community of filmmakers who really love the Lord, but who also love the medium of film the way Rich loved music, and who can talk about both with a Rich-like affection and understanding.

I long for a community of Christian filmmakers who can talk about story as well as salvation, technique as well as the Trinity, and Kurosawa as well as Koinonia.

I long for a community of Christian filmmakers who have a vision for producing well-crafted films that honor God in their story and subject matter, films that will challenge the audience in new and unique ways, and who are willing to buck the trends of faith-based filmmaking to bring that vision to the screen.

In short, I long for a community of filmmakers who will be to Christian film what Rich Mullins was to Christian music.

3. The Value of Having a Unique Voice

And the coal trucks come a-runnin’
With their bellies full of coal
And their big wheels a-hummin’
Down this road that lies open like the soul of a woman
Who hid the spies who were lookin’
For the land of the milk and the honey
And this road she is a woman
She was made from a rib
Cut from the sides of these mountains
Oh these great sleeping Adams
Who are lonely even here in paradise
Lonely for somebody to kiss them
and I’ll sing my song, and I’ll sing my song
In the land of my sojourn

There’s no mistaking a Rich Mullins lyric, especially in his last few albums.

Rich combined his love of God, the Scriptures, nature, and his own struggles and experiences in a way which made his writing apparent. The songs he came up with were the opposite of commercial, unlike anything being produced at the time by other Christian bands, and yet he was a huge commercial success.

I can’t speak for the rest of Christendom, but I can say that – for myself – I long for the authentic. I want to experience art that doesn’t provide easy answers. I want to experience art that pricks my conscience, that shows beauty and wonder at what God is doing in the world. I want art that reflects all aspects of my faith, from my doubts to my joys to my failures to my awe of the power and majesty of God.

Rich did this. With his unique voice, and vision, and view of the world, he did this consistently and masterfully.

A perfect example of Rich’s ability to create art that was deep and yet still accessible is one of his most commercially successful songs, which he co-wrote with Beaker. This is a song that – as a chorus – is still regularly sung in churches today.

Sometimes by Step, from the album, The World as Best as I Remember It, Volume Two.

Sometimes the night was beautiful
Sometimes the sky was so far away
Sometimes it seemed to stoop so close
You could touch it but your heart would break
Sometimes the morning came too soon
Sometimes the day could be so hot
There was so much work left to do
But so much You’d already done

With this song, Rich and Beaker managed to do something that seems impossible. They wrote an infinitely singable chorus that sang the praises of God, and then surrounded it with verses that vividly and beautifully painted a picture of the worship of that same God.

As artists, we need to seek out the unique voice that we’ve been given, and not be afraid to apply it to what we create. This is especially necessary if we are laboring in a commercial field, because just as God used Rich in all his uniqueness to do something nobody would ever guess (Rich definitely doesn’t look like a rock star), He can use any of us.

As Rich wrote…

And you never know who God is gonna use
A princess or a baby
Or maybe even you or me.

4. The Centrality of the Love of God

My final point may seem evident, but it needs to be said.

If you are a Christian artist pursuing art that is labeled “Christian” or “faith-based” or even “spiritual” for any reason other than in response to the love of God, then there’s a good chance that you are in the wrong business.

Are you looking for fame? Then you should move to Hollywood or New York and give it a go just like everyone else. Don’t try and piggyback on the niche popularity of Christian books or music or theater or film or (fill in the blank) in an attempt to be the Next Big Christian Thing.

© David R Banta

© David R Banta

Consider that Rich, at the height of his music career, when his records were selling thousands of copies, decided to do something that most people would consider to be suicide for a CCM musician. He left Nashville and moved to Wichita, with the ultimate goal of moving to a native American reservation where he would teach music to kids.

And he did it in response to the love of God.

Are you seeking to gain fortune through Christian art – profiting off the generous dollars of your brothers and sisters in the name of ministry? I’m not talking about just trying to put bread on the table or pay back students loans, but actual fortune for the sake of fortune. Profiting off the cross of Christ.

Consider that Rich, not wanting to be tempted by the immensity of his success, arranged that all of the money earned from his music would come to his church, and the church would pay him a living wage, and then give the rest to charity. Reportedly, Rich never knew (and didn’t want to know) how his music sold, or how much money his concerts earned. He reportedly just didn’t care.

And he did this as a response to the love of God.

Now, with all that being said, I think that probably, if Rich were able to speak to us today, he would tell me to stop focusing on him. He would tell me to stop wasting time dwelling on his accomplishments, or his songs, or his life.

I think that Rich would probably tell me to start focusing on the one thing that really matters most: The love of God.

The reckless, raging fury that they call love of God.

And so that is where I will end this blog post, focusing on the love of the One for whom Rich lived, and created, and sang.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
I cannot find in my own
And He keeps His fire burning
To melt this heart of stone
Keeps me aching with a yearning
Keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God




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Christian Responses to Secular Film Reviews • What NOT To Do

War-Room_300Specifically, War Room.

Mostly unedited comments from alleged Christians to a critical review of War Room. Follow the link above to read the review and see the comments in all of their glory.

“This review is laughable in it’s hatred of Christians and by the numbers, people are fed up with anti-Christian bigotry.”

“If you are unable to set aside your own beliefs and base the movie off of its own merrits, you should not be reviewing movies.”

“I never listen to reviews like this for a valid opinion about a film. Do you know why? Because any film review that talks about the evangelical agenda has an agenda of its own which is anti-faith and anti-God.”

“I hope [the reviewer] has the courage to challenge the God he will not follow to see how He responds to an honest, open-minded and humble seeker”

“The Godless in Hollywood hate that anything that pushes back on their statist agenda is more than welcomed by the general American public.”

“I am not surprised by your Hollywood critique of War Room.”

To the reviewer: “…all you’ve got is name-calling, slander, maligning, gossip, trash-talking and other sins of your tongue, which is the only obviously remaining weapon of a godless, atheistic lost sinner with no real weapons.”

“I only logged on to this to see what the guy had to say. He is a non-believer. What do you expect? … As for the reviewer . . . throw a rock into a pack of dogs. Who yelps?”

“To a spiritually dead, hollow progressive this film is an affront to the pathetic lackluster purposeless life that their 5star reviews cater to.”

“The lost in our midst need to see this movie.”

“This Critic… is a moron.”

“What part of “made $11 million the first weekend with a $3 million
budget” did you miss?”

“Predictable bigoted review. Try some Preparation H for your butt-hurt…”

“Don’t hide behind your silly claim that you are some kind of movie critic. If you don’t like such movies, don’t go. Your loss. I wonder if you go to church regularly (not too busy are you?)”

“It’s disgusting how the blogosphere conspires to bash Christian movies. You don’t want to see a faith-based movie? Don’t buy a ticket for one.”

“The entire problem with Hollywood is that they are accepting on everything EXCEPT faith based films. If they would have an open mind and actually watch the film for what it is & do away with all of the vulgarrities & sexual story lines, there would be a major change in Americas society!”

Some random thoughts after wading through the morass of that comment page.

1) Christian commenters, you complain about a Hollywood anti-Christian bias, and then you go and act like this? Are you familiar with the term, “self-fulfilling prophesy”?

Internet Christian Living 101:  The comments you make on websites like this will either draw people closer to Christ or push them away. The truth of the matter is that if I wasn’t a Christian, most of the comments on the page I referenced would make me glad that I wasn’t, and would push me further away.

Christians, remember James 3:7-12, and replace “tongue” with “keyboard”, and you’ll get the idea.

2) Yes, a Christian-made film has made it to the #1 place in the box office, and if that makes you proud, then you also have to be prepared for that film to be disliked and even trashed by secular critics. That’s a part of the game. This is even more relevant for reviews written about movies aimed at the evangelical Christian audience, and not necessarily because of a religious bias (although that certainly exists).

Rather, I contend that the negative reviews are written because our films generally don’t hold up to the best of Hollywood standards. They just don’t. You can deny that, or you can encourage filmmakers to up their game, but until the quality of our films change, they will continue to be critically reviewed.

And it will continue to not be pretty.

4cfdefdc-5bc2-4281-9d00-7b9135a2cd40-Inez-Harrell3) The comment, “It’s a film made for Christians, so what did the reviewer expect?” holds absolutely no water. War Room is a Sony Pictures production, not a Sherwood Baptist production. It was released by a secular film studio into a thousand secular theaters, marketed for release by a secular marketing company, advertised on secular television, websites, and newspapers.

We didn’t seem to have a problem with any of that, but for some reason, when a secular reviewer gives a negative review of the film, we have fits of righteous indignation?

Brothers and sisters, if we’re going to run with the big dogs, we have to be willing to suffer a nip here and there. And if we can’t handle the idea that our films might be critically reviewed by secular critics, then we should consider pulling out of the secular film business altogether and only show our movies in churches and summer camps.

4) I am more concerned that an apparetly non-Christian reviewer would have such a visceral negative reaction to our films than I am that they write about that visceral negative reaction. What happened to being a “pleasing aroma”?

5) Along those lines, if you are one of the people who is impressed by the box office returns of War Room, imagine the box office if the Kendrick brothers weren’t satisfied to only make message movies aimed at the evangelical audience. Imagine if they intentionally made movies that attracted people outside the Christian subculture, and didn’t simply see them only as collateral damage. Imagine the box office, and not only that – imagine the potential eternal gains.

It kind of blows the mind.

Next movie, maybe?

#5) Finally, brother and sister Christian, don’t attack critics. Just don’t. You have no idea how stupid it makes all of us look, and how unappealing it makes the Christian faith appear to be. Engage critics in friendly discourse, argue points of good filmmaking, permit them their own opinion, but stop using the review’s comment section to question the critic’s eternal destination or to preach Scripture at them.

Just stop, I beg you.

Christians, we need to grow up and do better. Believe it or not, the world is watching.

Incidentally, the same reviewer also gave Fifty Shades of Grey an abysmal review. You don’t find the comment section of that review filled with angry messages from BDSM fans, or even fans of the books.

maxresdefaultThings that make you go “hmmm”…


It made me sad to watch this video with the guys at Collider.com, and especially to hear John Campea’s reasoning for not reviewing faith-based films – at least partially because he didn’t want to open himself to the kind of negativity he saw on the Cinemablend review.

And if any of those original commenters on that original review of War Room happen to read this, I hope that you feel plenty ashamed for blackening the name of Christ in the way you responded. Do you realize that people outside the church are talking about your misbehavior, and it’s not in a way that is bringing glory to God in any way, shape, or form?

I think it’s time you go into your War Room and repent, brothers and sisters. And I don’t mean any of that ironically.

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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.


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.


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.


God bless, and may the force be with you…


Update 1:  I just found out that the producers of the upcoming movie, Captive, are giving away a ton of resources on their website.  All the sorts of materials that are being sold on the War Room website are free for the Captive folks. I was already looking forward to seeing Captive, and now it’s even moreso!  Good job, Captive!

Update 2: I’ve heard some encouraging news.  Apparently, Giving Films – the production company behind the upcoming film, 90 Minutes in Heaven, have committed to giving all the profit they make from the film to charity.

That’s what I’m talking about.  Way to go, Giving Films!

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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.


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.


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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