My Review of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter Theme Park

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Welcome to The Ark Encounter, the Answers in Genesis Ark Park, located in Williamstown, Kentucky. The centerpiece of the Ark Encounter is the enormous Noah’s Ark replica, built 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, 7 stories tall, and reportedly the largest timber-framed structure in the world. The Ark Encounter is also one of the more controversial theme parks built in the United States in the last several years, largely because it is a government-supported tourist attraction with a decidedly religious focus and an end-of-the-day price tag of $172,000,000.

IMG_6062My family I visited the Ark Encounter on July 7, 2016, the park’s official opening day, with some friends. I wasn’t there as a life-long Answers in Genesis supporter, nor was I there as a life-long anti-AiG protestor. I was there because I love the story of Noah’s Ark, because we happened to be in-country and only seven hours away, and because I frequently write about the state of American Cultural Christianity on this blog. Visiting the new flagship of American Cultural Christianity (see what I did there?) on opening day seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, even at $40 a pop for my family of five (the baby was free).

But surprisingly, as I’ve been thinking about what to write regarding Ken Ham’s big boat built in the bluegrass backwoods, I’ve been struggling. Do I write a simple report of my trip? Do I tell my thoughts about the controversial displays – the dinosaurs in cages, the explanations of Young Earth ideology, the mannequins of Noah and his family?  Do I respond to the protestors who congregated around the exit from I-75, frustrated by AiG’s alleged non-scientific view of the origins of the planet, and who seem to have made it their mission to see the Ark Encounter fail as a theme park?

I decided not to delve into any of those topics, but rather, to give a simple list of the positives and negatives of this theme park as I see them, as I do when I review Christian films.

Positives about the Ark Encounter

1. The ark itself

AiG attempted to build a replica that was the size of Noah’s Ark according to biblical instructions (300 cubits by 50 by 30), and the scope of the project is stunning. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe what it’s like, standing underneath the replica, looking up at that massive stern. The experience really did bring the biblical account to life.

As you can see by the pictures, AiG’s attention to detail with the ark is unarguably impressive. When they could, the builders used very old shipbuilding techniques, a feat that must have been a massive undertaking. One can’t help but admire the craftsmanship and dedication that went into the construction of the replica ark, by people who – in many cases – were doing it as an expression of their Christian faith.

2. The “Fairy Tale Ark” and the living quarters displays

The Fairy Tale Ark display really caught my attention. This was a simple room filled with children’s books about Noah’s Ark. At first, I thought the room was going to be celebrating that the story is taught to children, but I quickly realized that the purpose of the room was actually to condemn the trivializing of the Noah’s Ark story.

I was completely caught off guard by this display, and it really resonated with me. For the longest time, I’ve been amazed that a story about the destruction of the world was often told as a children’s story, and even in Thimblerig’s Ark, my middle grade novel for which this blog is named, I tried to capture the seriousness of the flood and not make it cartoonish. I was glad to see that the AiG people felt the same way.

That being said, seeing what that room represented surprised me, considering how much Ken Ham and AiG disliked Darren Aronofsky’s incredibly mature Noah film, even devoting a two hour video review to critically dissecting the film. It’s been a while since I watched the review, but I think they must have at least appreciated that Aronofsky shared their serious approach to the event.

The second display that impressed me was found on the third deck, and it was the AiG representation of what the living quarters on the ark might have been like for Noah and his family. This was another section where an impressive amount of attention was given to detail, and a great deal of thought given to what life may have been like for people at that time.

Since one of the main complaints about Aronofsky’s Noah was that he took too many liberties with his film, AiG appeared ready to head off any criticism about their own filling in of details with a rather lengthy explanation of their view on taking artistic license with biblical material.

IMG_6217Here are some images of the living quarters, where you can see the craftsmanship and detail that went into the creation of the displays.

3. The tenacity of Ken Ham and AiG

Ken Ham and the AiG people fought doggedly for years to get the funding to build the Ark Encounter: They raised millions through private donations; they were determined to participate in a Kentucky tourism tax rebate program, going so far as to take the fight to court; they were persuasive enough to convince the little town of Williamstown to give them a break on property taxes, a good deal on the property, and a massive interest-free loan; and when the attempts to raise donations didn’t seem to be doing the job, they gave supporters and investors the opportunity to purchase high-risk bonds for thousands of dollars a pop, and supportive investors apparently turned up in droves to do so. atheiststoAiG_zps5c32d784When their detractors were celebrating the project’s demise, Ham and company kept working, and they ended up having the last laugh as the park opened on July 7.

Say what you will about Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (and there’s plenty of people out there saying plenty of things!), but you have to admire their determination and tenacity to tell the story they want to tell in the face of massive opposition (even if they do go too far in response from time to time).

And I should say that as a Christian, I can’t argue with the desire of the folks at AiG to expose as many people as possible to Gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus said:

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Creating something like the ark does draw people in (although I question Ken Ham’s claim that 40% of attendees will be non-Christians – most non-Christians I know aren’t the least bit interested, and most of my Christian friends are only moderately interested), and the Ark Encounter might very well result people coming to faith in Christ.

After all, Scripture has story after story of God using unexpected and sometimes even foolish means to accomplish His ends. In this case, even though the secular society sees something like the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum as complete and utter foolishness, and many authentic Christians agree with that assessment, as a Christian I can’t discount the possibility that God can use these things to bring people into a relationship with Himself.

More about that later.

4. The Ark Encounter’s economic potential

I’m not sure if this section should go in the positives or negatives, but I’ll go ahead and add it as my last positive. A segueway into the negatives, if you will.

Kentucky has one of the worst state poverty rates in the country, and Williamstown is among the lowest for any town anywhere. Having a major tourist attraction in this region could potentially help the economy in the long run, and this was one of the big selling points that Ham and AiG used to get the state and the town onboard with the controversial tax rebates and interest-free loans. The Ark Encounter’s sister attraction, The Creation Museum, helps make the case as the attraction has drawn nearly three million visitors in its nine years of operation, and having the two attractions so near to one another is a draw for many people who might not come to Kentucky otherwise.

Furthermore, Ken Ham has stated multiple times that the Ark Encounter could potentially bring a couple of million visitors in its first year alone. Having said that, it should be noted that others claim that those high numbers were purposefully inflated to make the park more attractive to investors. Whether or not it was purposeful, I can’t say. But unfortunately, with only 30,000 people reportedly visiting in the first six days, it doesn’t look like the end result will be anywhere near a couple of million.

That being said, my family must have spent close to $1000 in travel, lodging, food, and the Ark during our four day excursion, and there were hundreds of families at the Ark Encounter on opening day. That’s a lot of money injected into the area. Critics counter this idea by pointing out that the Ark Encounter has taken money away from the state through lost tax revenue and interest payments on that huge loan, and that it will be years before that loss becomes a gain for the local economy. And if the Ark Encounter fails, it will never be a gain.

This is a very complicated issue, and you can read a detailed account of it here, and the Answers in Genesis point of view here, and then you can make the decision for yourself.

Negatives about the Ark Encounter

  1. The displays

Other than the two displays already mentioned, most of the displays were pretty underwhelming. I saw posters explaining the AiG interpretation of Scripture, the AiG explanation of how the earth could be 6,000 years old, supported by a few television-sized video monitors. I also saw a few exhibits demonstrating what life might have been like on the ark for Noah and his family. There were also several fake animals in cages (including the infamous dinosaurs… I didn’t see the unicorns), but they didn’t really do anything, so they weren’t terribly interesting.

Considering that Ken Ham was bragging that the Ark Encounter would compete with Disney and be “beyond Hollywood”, and furthermore that he continually emphasized that the park had been designed by the person who had designed the Jaws and King Kong rides at Universal Studios, I was expecting more bang for my $160 bucks. See, the park is heavy on attempts to proselytize visitors and educate them about Creation theory, but extremely light on entertainment.

I’m assuming that as time goes by, more displays will be added, but they need to be more than just posters on the wall or the odd mannequin. The ark needs to be a dynamic, moving place to visit, and they shouldn’t just rely on visitors being impressed by a big boat, because that wears off quickly and won’t bring people back. I know that AiG has plans for a Tower of Babel, a first century village, a theater, and other things, but right now the Ark Encounter needs to bump up the entertainment factor if they want their numbers to be sustained.

Here are some simple ideas that AiG can use for free: (1) have actors wandering the decks in costume and in character, interacting with visitors. (2) Have much more multi-media, maybe even 4-D films that help you to experience what it would have been like to be in the flood. (3) since AiG loves dinosaurs so much, use Ken Ham’s Aussie connections to get dinosaur puppets from Erth to be a part of the experience.

The bottom line? There are a thousand things AiG could do to make the Ark a “must-see” park for everyone and not just believers, who are currently the only ones interested in visiting. Part of that is to make the place entertaining as well as informative. After all, it’s not the Creation Museum, so loosen it up a little! Make the experience more immersive and interactive and maybe even add some levity and fun, and even I might be convinced to return.

2. The sole focus on apologetics as ministry

As I walked around looking at the displays, I kept my eyes open for anything that would indicate that there was any sort of charitable component to the Ark Encounter, this ministry that was taking so much money to build.

IMG_6235Perhaps a portion of the ticket sales would go to help the poor in Kentucky? Maybe AiG would give you the opportunity to donate to help build schools or hospitals in some developing country as you buy your official Noah’s Ark cubit in the gift shop for $19.99 a pop?

Surely there would be something in this Christian theme park that reflected the charge of a Christian to help the poor?

But I saw nothing, and while it did disappoint me, it also didn’t surprise me. After all, as I said before, the Ark Encounter is for-profit, and after operating costs, every dime that is spent on visiting the Ark Encounter will undoubtedly go to pay back the massive 68 million dollar interest-free loan that was given to AiG by the city of Williamstown (which – interestingly – has a poverty level of 18.3%) and to return the investment given to those who purchased the bonds. This certainly makes business sense.

But does it make ministry sense?

3. The evangelistic component

Along those lines, I’ve said multiple times that I admire that Ken Ham and AiG have placed such a high priority on their projects sharing the Gospel. They have put an impressive amount of time and energy into building what they call “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of this era of history.”

But having visited the Ark Encounter, having walked the halls, examined the displays, and seeing what they have to offer, I can’t help but question how much of an impact this outreach will have on non-believers.

I’ve spent the past couple of days scouring the internet for any examples on non-believers visiting the ark, and in that time I’ve seen several reviews from visitors whose views weren’t in line with AiG when they visited. Reading their reviews seemed to indicate that none of them were convinced of anything afterwards, even after they were treated very respectfully by Ark Encounter and AiG employees.

This led me to expand my search for any skeptics who had been convinced by the Creation Museum, since it has been around for nine years. I found plenty of negative reviews by Atheists and Christians alike (here, here, and here – just to show a few), and I did find a couple of anecdotal examples of children from Christian families telling their parents that they wanted to follow Jesus as a result of visiting the museum, but I didn’t find any stories of skeptics or non-believers having any sort of change of heart from their visit to that attraction.

Sadly, if anything, the argument could be made that the typical response of non-believers to the Creation museum was having their skepticism reinforced by the visit. Watch this video for an example (and there is a bit of salty language):

The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter both seem to suffer from the same problem that plagues most of the Christian films I review. They want to be evangelistic, but their impact outside of the faithful appears to be negligible.

Incidentally, I freely admit that I could be wrong about this. There could be scores of people who have come to faith as a result of their experiences with the Creation Museum, and there could be scores who will because of the Ark Encounter. If so, and if someone would like to provide evidence that I’m wrong about the evangelistic impact of the Creation Museum on skeptics, then I’ll gladly retract this point and have my positives outweigh my negatives.

4. The Cost

While I admire the tenacity, determination, and heart for evangelization of the people behind the Ark Encounter, I’ve also struggled with the fact that they are doing an Ark Encounter at all. Such a huge sum of money for building a theme park? My struggle finally came to a head one morning last May when I opened Twitter and found an AiG Tweet touting the benefits of building a Noah’s Ark theme park right next to a Tweet from J.K. Rowling’s charity Lumos, talking about their push to raise money to help orphans.

Seeing the two money-raising efforts side-by-side took my breath away. On the one hand, as a Christian, I respect AiG’s effort to share the Christian faith. On the other hand, as a Christian, I’m horrified that believers have struggled and fought and spent years raising an enormous amount of money to build a for-profit theme park replica of Noah’s Ark.

And it warps a part of my brain that it’s been done in the name of Christian ministry.

At this stage in the project it may be a tired argument (although I wouldn’t call it a stupid argument, as some have), but I can’t help but think what else could have been done with that money that might have had even more of an impact, if not on propagating the Creationist viewpoint, at least in sharing the Gospel and demonstrating a valuable apologetic, by meeting the physical needs of the poor and sick.

For example, over on Twitter, @branthansen wrote this:

Brent’s Tweet represents the heart of my struggle.

But didn’t Jesus command his followers to make disciples and to teach? Isn’t that what the Ark Encounter is doing?

As I said before, Answers in Genesis claims to have obeyed that command by building the Ark Encounter, and they have a point. People visiting the park will be exposed to the biblical teaching that the world is a damaged place, and that Jesus’s life, ministry, and death on the cross is the answer to fixing the damage.

At the same time, Jesus also said this:

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So, what do we do with this? First, some counter arguments:

1. Giving to the poor is not AiG’s wheelhouse. After all, AiG’s stated mission is to help people learn how to defend the Christian faith, and building an attraction like the Ark Encounter is one way to go about doing that.
2. God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills”, and $172 million dollars is nothing to Him. As a friend wrote to me, “If Ham spends $100M on a colossal mistake, God is not one dime the poorer, nor are His plans set back by a day.”
3. I don’t personally know the Ark Encounter supporters, investors, or AiG employees, and I don’t know what they do with their private money. For all I know, they give more in a month then I give in a year, and the money given to AiG was on top of their already generous contributing to all sorts of worthy charities.
4. Christians should never endeavour to do big things for large sums of money? What if a Christian filmmaker successfully raised $172,000,000 to make a big blockbuster film? Would that make me “struggle”?

These are all good questions, and all good points. But they don’t change the fact that this sort of money raised in a for-profit ministry venture makes me uncomfortable, especially when there is so much need in the world.

And it leads me to ask the question: Would Jesus build an Ark Park, or would he turn over the tables in the gift shop?

I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know.

My final thought on the Ark Encounter: would I recommend a visit?

Christian or not, the ark itself is magnificent and is really something to be seen. But considering the cost of a ticket, there needs to be more going on to make it worth the expense, especially if you’re bringing a family. Once the park gets the zip lines up and running, once they get a few more (hopefully entertaining) displays in the ark, once they get a few more animals in the petting zoo, I’d say give it a go.

This is true, even if you’re not a Christian, or if you are a Christian but not a young-earth Creationist. Just be prepared to talk to your kids about what they will see, and to talk about why they will be seeing it. It can lead to some really interesting conversations about different belief systems, and different ways of interpreting Scripture. And yes, Bill Nye, it can even lead to discussions about science.

At least it did with my kids!

And if you do decide to go, and you agree with me on the charity/cost issues, then do the job that AiG should be doing and donate a matching amount to the tickets you purchased to a worthy charity of your own choice, preferably one that works in Kentucky.

I’d recommend a charity like the Christian Appalachian Project.

Thimblerig’s Visit to the Ark Encounter

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I’m posting the pictures today, and will be back in the next couple of days to write up my actual thoughts on my family’s visit to the Answers in Genesis Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky. I’ve captioned the pictures, so you can get a sense of my thoughts from that, but more details will follow in the review.

Meanwhile, enjoy the pictures!

Thimblerig’s Interview • Phil Vischer, Creator of Veggietales

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PVP_card_squareThe Phil Vischer Podcast is one of the few podcasts I listen to consistently. I love the thoughtful conversations about important topics, the relaxed and comfortable atmosphere created by hosts Phil Vischer, Skye Jethani, and Christian Taylor, and the humor. There’s a lot of laughter each week, and considering all the difficulty and trouble in the world, a good dose of laughter is a welcome addition.

Phil is best known for creating Veggietales, as well as for voicing many of the characters on that long-running video series. He has an amazing story, and you can read about it in his fantastic book, Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables. I’ll also link a video from Biola University at the end of the interview, where you can watch Phil talk about the rise and fall of Big Idea Productions. It’s well worth your time. 

I’m so grateful that Phil agreed to take a few minutes to answer some questions so that readers of this blog can get to know him better. I highly recommend that you give his podcast a listen, and also consider joining Phil and the gang in supporting their new Patreon page so Phil can do all sorts of new and fun things!

Phil, most people know your work, even if they might not know your name. Why don’t we start with a little bit about who you. Who are you and where do you come from?

aboutHi, I’m Phil!  I was born in Muscatine, IA, moved to the suburbs of Chicago when my parents split up while I was in junior high, and now live in the vicinity of Wheaton, IL with my wife and two youngest kids.  I make stuff.  Vegetables, puppets, Bible-teaching videos, podcasts and such.  I used to think of myself as a filmmaker, but now I really think of myself as a communicator.

Can you tell us some of the folks who have influenced you the most creatively?

Walt Disney and Jim Henson, obviously.  (Animation and puppets!)  But also Monty Python and the films of Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers and Tim Burton.  I tend to favor witty Brits for some reason.  (Terry Gilliam’s bizarre British children’s film Time Bandits was a huge influence on me.)

How about your spiritual or theological influences?

C.S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton (I tend to favor witty Brits), as well as N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Henry Blackaby and A. W. Tozer.

What are your top three favorite films, and why?

That’s tough.  Three films that I love … Gilliam’s Time Bandits, Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou and The Hudsucker Proxy.

Speaking of films, we talk about Christian films quite a bit on the Thimblerig’s Ark blog. What are your thoughts on the state of the faith-based film industry and where do you see it heading in the future?

We seem to be in the same position as the Christian music industry in the mid-1970s.  Sales were growing and artists started to realize that Christian music was something you could actually do for a living.  Like – for real.  That brought a huge influx of new artists, expanding the industry greatly through the 1980s and into the 1990s.  New record labels, better distribution, higher quality production, more talented artists.  By the late 1990s, Christian music was so good that new artists realized they could sign with secular labels and pursue much broader audiences.  They didn’t need the Christian cocoon to survive, and so Christian labels began to atrophy even as Christian artists made more impact on the world.  This same dynamic could be happening now with Christian film, where suddenly it appears that Christian filmmaking is a viable business.  Right now we’re building the Christian infrastructure (marketers, distributors, financiers).  But ultimate success would be to discover we no longer need distinct Christian infrastructure – that Christian filmmakers are proficient enough that they can move seamlessly in the secular film industry.  That’s a ways out still, but it’s a good goal.

You obviously know your way around family-friendly entertainment, but considering that the Bible is often not very family-friendly, can a Christian artist create content that is not family-friendly without compromising his or her faith? If so, how would you recommend they go about it?

THP3254Sure – there’s a fair amount of non-family-friendly art created by faithful Christians.  I’m thinking of horror films in particular.  Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the two Conjuring films are two examples of Christian filmmakers succeeding in bringing their point-of-view to art that will never get shown in churches.  The fact that horror films are the example shows something very important:  There has to be an audience for the stories you want to tell.  Scott Derrickson in particular made Emily Rose because it represented an intersection between stories of faith and stories that the world was interested in seeing.  Exorcism.  Horror films are easy to market.  Just like Kendrick brothers films are easy to market.  A non-family-friendly faith film in another genre might be much, much harder.

Turning to your podcast, “The Phil Vischer Podcast” has been one of my favorite podcasts for the past couple of years, although I’m still not a fan of the ukulele. What made you decide to start a podcast, and what have been your biggest challenges as you’ve sought to build your audience?

I can’t answer your question until you apologize to my ukulele.  He’s crying in the corner right now.  I was having these interesting conversations in my head (I’m an introvert), and sometimes at Q&A sessions with college kids after speaking.  I thought I should share those conversations with more people.  As for building an audience, we haven’t really done anything.  As a result, our audience isn’t terribly huge!  But it’s still fun.

Recently, you celebrated your 200th podcast episode. Congratulations! Having started my own podcast that lasted all of five episodes, I know that 200 episodes is quite the accomplishment. On that episode you talked about your new Patreon crowd funding account. Can you talk about what led you to creating the Patreon page, and what some of your plans for using the support you raise?

maxresdefaultI got to the point where the podcast probably needed to get more organized if it was going to continue – which meant I needed a little help.  Which meant I needed to pay someone for that help.  Which meant there needed to be a source of income.  We’ve talked about sponsorship before, and may still do that, but Patreon was a better first step.

Do you have any final advice for Christians looking to get involved in the entertainment industry – Christian or otherwise?

Just do it.  Make stuff.  It’s really easy to make stuff, develop a sensibility and a voice.  Use YouTube and Vimeo and iTunes to get your work out there.  The key is to begin making stuff for zero or near zero budget to see if your sensibility can attract an audience.  If the first thing you want to make is a $40 million feature, forget about it.

What are the best ways people can follow you (Twitter, Facebook, etc)?

Yes and yes!  Go to philvischer.com.  Sign up for my emails.  I’ll then follow YOU all around with email!

Twitter:@philvischer
Facebook: /PhilVischer

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Phil!

You’re welcome!  Keep on rigging your thimble!

That we will, Phil. That we will.


 

The God’s Not Dead $100M Lawsuit

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god is not deadAccording to the Hollywood Reporter, David A.R. White and Pure Flix are being sued for God’s Not Dead. For $100,000,000.

That’s one hundred MILLION dollars.

And no, they are not being sued by a horde of angry atheist philosophy professors. Rather, they are being sued by a duo of fellow Christian filmmakers.

Again.

The new lawsuit is brought to you by director and producer Michael Landon, Jr (the son of Little House on the Prairie‘s Michael Landon – not relevant, but interesting) and writer Kelly Kullberg, wherein they allege that Pure Flix used Kullberg’s story ideas without proper credit or remuneration in God’s Not Dead.

The suit can be seen here in its entirety if you enjoy reading legal documents. If you don’t, I’ll summarize.

According to the suit, Kullberg and Landon wrote the script for a film called Rise, based on the story of a fictional Christian university student being harassed by an atheist philosophy professor. At some point while the script was being developed, Kullberg pitched the idea in detail to a potential investor, that person went on to share details of the story with Ted Baehr from Movieguide®, and Baehr shared those details with David A.R. White while they were on some kind of a “working vacation.”

The suit alleges that White and others in Pure Flix had been struggling to break story for Proof, an apologetics film they’d been developing, and this was the subject of his and Baehr’s discussion on said vacation. Further, the suit alleges that Baehr went on to tell White elements of Kullberg’s story that had been told to him by this potential investor, perhaps unaware that these elements were the intellectual property of Landon and Kullberg.

The next thing you know, Pure Flix drops Proof and not long after makes God’s Not Dead. That movie, as we all know, went on to make buckets of money (the suit says $140,000,000, but the internet says it is closer to $100,000,000). Either way, the overwhelming success of God’s Not Dead enabled Pure Flix to expand their operations exponentially; they developed a distribution wing that allowed their films to open wider than ever before, they became more involved in film production, they expanded their presence in the overseas market, and perhaps most significantly, they started a Netflix-esque home streaming service to attempt to meet the needs of the enormous faith-and-family-film demographic.

Interestingly, a similar lawsuit was brought against Pure Flix last year for $10 million. In that suit, producer John Sullivan and writer/actor Brad Stine alleged that they had also developed a script that closely followed the God’s Not Dead story line, the aforementioned Proof. But in their case, they had actually been working closely with White and Pure Flix to develop the script before they’d been dropped like a soggy eggroll.

[editor’s note: the suit doesn’t actually say anything about a soggy eggroll.]

Kullberg alleges that White was so inspired by the ideas behind Rise that he pulled out of Sullivan and Stine’s script, hired new screenwriters to write God’s Not Dead, and the rest is history.

On the one hand, it’s interesting that in both cases, White allegedly heard details from both story ideas, and details from both versions wound up in the finished product of God’s Not Dead. In Landon and Kullberg’s case, the similarities are pretty staggering, and it makes quite a compelling argument that it could very well be a case of copyright infringement.

On the other hand, people come up with similar ideas all the time, especially in Hollywood. Just look at these somewhat recent examples: Jobs and Steve JobsUnfriended and Friend Request; Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. In the case of the atheist professor and the Christian student, both Landon & Kullberg and Sullivan & Stine developed the same basic idea independently. Not to mention that that variations of that story have been floating around for years.

So, what do we do with this? Is it typical Hollywood shuck and jive, just with a somewhat “sacred” bent? Is it another example of how absolute financial success corrupts absolutely? Is it more proof that Christians in business are just as susceptible to temptation and greed as anyone in business?

Is it another example why a Christian film industry is a bad idea?

Maybe. Maybe not. But it is a situation worth looking at as a cautionary tale (regardless who might be right, and who might be wrong), especially for Christians who are looking at getting involved in business or the arts, or just about anything where windfall profits are a possibility.

Meanwhile, those of us on the outside will sit back and watch how it plays out. Personally, I’m rooting for this to be resolved amicably, and then for Pure Flix to do the very meta move of developing this as the plot for God’s Not Dead 3.

Written by all six screenwriters, of course.

By the way, click this link to find some more details about the development of Sullivan and Stine’s screenplay by screenwriter Sean Paul Murphy, who was working with White and Pure Flix to help develop the script along with his writing parter, Tim.

[edit: Some people have commented that if the script wasn’t copyrighted, then Landon and Kullberg really don’t have a case. If you read the entire suit, you’ll see that Rise was copyrighted. The suit says, “Kullberg registered the Rise screenplay with the Writers Guild America in 2010 and with the United States Copyright Office in 2012.”]

The Act One Writing Program… Is It Worth It?

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I’ve had several people contact me and ask me to share my experiences with the Act One program. Rather than just cutting and pasting my response to this question into different emails, I thought I would just post it here to answer the question once and for all:

Is Act One worth it?

Before I get to that question, let’s start with a little teaser about Act One, in case you aren’t familiar with the organization.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I have lived overseas for the past fifteen years. I chose to attend the Act One Writing Program back in 2007 while living in Kazakhstan and working with the Kazakhstan English Language Theater (KELT). I had dreams of expanding KELT to include filmmaking, and so I chose to take part in the writing program while home for the summer.

Unfortunately, when I returned to Kazakhstan after taking the program, life stepped in the way, as it is want to do, and I had to put the film plans on hold. I continued writing and theater production, but was forced to watch my filmmaking dream wither on the vine.

Now I live in China, where filmmaking is growing in leaps and bounds, and I have long-term plans to resurrect that dream. I’m developing a few live action film ideas, and I’m also adapting my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, into an animated feature screenplay.

But this leads us back to the question: was Act One worth it? As a person whose route to the film industry has been anything but direct, would I recommend that hopeful Christian artists spend the money and a month in L.A. working with professional film industry people, studying the process of writing or film production with Act One?

The short answer is yes, to both questions.

My Act One experience was transformational for me as as a writer, and my short time there also had a profound impact on my life as a Christian. That month in L.A. helped me see how artistic endeavors could be more than ego aggrandizement, and the huge potential for created art to bring glory to the One who created Art.

Any believer who is considering entering into the film industry (or even believers who just want to develop their own artistic sensibilities when it comes to film) can find great benefit from investing in the Act One program.

Just as I did.

The three reasons why I feel this way:

1)  The Friendships and Relationships Developed

My involvement in Act One has led to some great relationships with people who are in Hollywood, working in the film industry. Getting to know them, I have developed the utmost respect for people living their faith in the trenches, and I see them as missionaries as much as anyone I’ve met while living and working overseas. My Act One friends helped me edit my first novel, dialogue with me frequently about my thoughts on Chrisitan filmmaking here on the blog, and even taught the excellent screenwriting class I took at Asbury last year (Andrea Nasfell, writer of Mom’s Night Out and other films).

Without Act One, I would have been hard pressed to know any of these people.

2)  The Power and Value of Story

Act One champions the power and value of story, and this is something that Christian filmmakers need to learn. While you could probably get much of what was taught in class from a book, there was the added and very real benefit of sitting in a classroom with twenty other passionate students, all working through the same issues, listening to stories by film industry professionals. I felt, for that month, that I had found my people – people who loved movies, loved talking about them, analyzing them, dreaming about making them. And we went on a month-long journey together.

As a class, we spent time looking at examples of strong cinema storytelling and having discussions about why those examples were strong. We learned how to develop and pitch our story ideas, including holding a pitch session with actual producers. We heard stories from successful screenwriters and producers, where they told about the challenges, difficulties, and rewards of pursuing this particular line of work. Act One brings in top of the line talent to teach and get to know students; faculty with years and years of collective experience, and we soaked up every day.

My only regret was that the month was too short.

3) The Diverse Christian Perspective

As much as I loved developing the relationships, as much as I soaked up learning about the power of story, the best thing about Act One was that everything was done from a Christian perspective. Believers from all different backgrounds took part both as students and as teachers, and I felt right at home in that atmosphere. It reminded me of my experience living overseas, where the differences of our denominations and traditions weren’t as important as our being faithful Christians in difficult or stressful situations.

I was also relieved that Act One wasn’t trying to train us to go out and build a Christian film industry (although the program certainly equipped us to be a part of faith-based filmmaking), rather they were training us how to survive and thrive as Christians in the secular film industry.

That being said, my relationships in Act One also introduced me to several weekly Bible studies and prayer groups in the Los Angeles area, helped me get to know many of the great churches that are hard at work ministering in those parts, and led me to learn about many of the other fantastic Christian organizations ministering in Hollywood, such as Hollywood Prayer Network and 168 Film, to name just a couple.

So, is Act One worth it? Even if you don’t wind up living in a 900- zip code? Well, I couldn’t be farther away from the biz, but since 2007, but I’ve used what I learned at Act One over and over.

I used it in developing Thimblerig’s Ark as well as other projects both published and not.

I used it while working with the theater in Kazakhstan.

In my writing classes here in China, I use it quite often, taking students through intense novel and short story writing.

I use it when analyzing films with a critical mind.

Along those lines, I use it all the time when putting my thoughts together for writing about the Christian Film Industry for this blog, with much of what I wrote in What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking coming directly from what I learned in Act One.

And so, yes, Act One is absolutely worth it. It’s worth the money you pay, it’s worth the time you spend away from your family, it’s worth the mental energy you will bring to the table. And if you have the desire to be a part of the film industry and to do it in a way that is true to your faith as a Christian, it is most definitely worth it.

I just wish I could do it again!

To apply for the Act One Writing Program, click here. And while I didn’t take the Producing & Entertainment Executive Program, I’ve heard good things about it as well. Click here for more information.

NOTE: The deadline for applying for the 2016 summer program is May 25, 2016, so don’t delay!

And by the way, nobody from Act One asked me to write this. I just really believe in the program.

Twitter Responds To Clinton’s Venn Diagram Fail

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I don’t usually post political items, but this is just too amusing, and so I can’t help myself. A few hours ago, Hillary Clinton’s twitter page posted this.

Now, in case you are wondering exactly what that tweet means, you wouldn’t be the only one. It seems that Mrs. Clinton is trying to use a Venn Diagram to promote the idea of Congress doing something about universal background checks, and somehow it has something to do with 90% of Americans, and 83% of gun owners. But, something went wrong with the execution.

i-do-not-think-it-means-what-you-think-it-means

This is one of those golden moments that Twitter could not allow to pass unnoticed. And I don’t care if you are for Hillary, for Trump, for Bernie, or for Flavius Octavius von Imasillyman, you have to appreciate the humor of it all.

Here are some of the responses offered by the Twitterverse:

And then there’s this…

And this…

See, Twitter wants to make sure that the Clinton campaign understands that the point of a Venn Diagram is to help you to understand something better, not make it even more confusing. And so, there was plenty of help proffered.

For example:

And this…

And this…

And because the power of the Venn Diagram had now been shown to the Twitterverse, others started trying to use it to their own benefit. Like this Seinfeld fan page:

And this guy, who was looking for the Venn Diagram to help provide some answers for his struggling marriage:

And this person who wanted to show that a Venn Diagram can even help you understand other countries!

So, thank you Twitter, for helping end the week on a high note. And whoever it was in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign that made this error, don’t worry. Truth be told, the internet’s got your back.

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • May 17, 2016

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It’s been a slow few weeks, and considering I have a personal boycott of anything having to do with the presidential election and I’m tired of people arguing about bathrooms, I thought I would reinstate the old “Three Interesting Things” I’ve found recently as I’ve been jumping around the internet.

Today, I’ll be writing about Lecrae, Phil Vischer, and The Flash.

1. Lecrae Signs a Deal with Columbia Records

lecraeThis is tremendously exciting news for a number of reasons. But for me, I’m excited because it shows that secular companies recognize and reward artistic excellence, even when it comes from *gasp* Christians.

This news also flies in the face of the American persecution narrative that is so popular in certain Evangelical circles these days. If things were so bad for American Christians, would one of our top artists be getting deals with major labels?

Let’s take a moment and look at this particular artist.


Over the past few years, Lecrae has had songs reach #1 on the Billboard charts, won two Grammy awards, and has appeared on secular national television performing his music (see the video above). These things wouldn’t have happened if he cared about his artistic integrity less than he did sharing his faith, and I think his story should inspire all Christian artists to work hard on achieving excellence in both things.

Believing artists, take your craft seriously, do it with all excellence, and the world will notice and respond.

2. Phil Vischer’s Patreon Page

You might know Phil Vischer as the creator of Veggietales. Well, I have been a loyal listener of the Phil Vischer podcast for the past couple of years, which I wrote about in a past article. I highly recommend this podcast for those of you who want fun and reasoned discourse on all sorts of important issues. Phil and his co-hosts Skye Jethani and Christian Taylor do a great job breaking down stories of the day and discussing them from a Christian perspective.

Recently, Phil announced that he was starting a Patreon account so that the podcast gang can branch out and do more. I’m personally excited to see what this might mean, and am happy to encourage Thimblerig readers to consider supporting Phil’s Patreon as well.

So, if you aren’t familiar with Phil and his podcast, go check it out!

3. The Runaway Dinosaur

CiM_J7dUoAAK_JaOkay, technically, this isn’t a news story I found online. It’s an episode of my family’s favorite television program, The Flash. And if you don’t watch The Flash, know that it delivers, week after week.

My family loves it, my toddler thinks that he is the Flash (see the video below), and I’ve been consistently impressed by the way the show delivers action with heart. Grant Gustin is the perfect Barry Allen/Flash, and in this past week’s episode (directed by Kevin Smith), the show outdid itself, taking us to places we’ve never been before. And darned if I didn’t get a bit teary-eyed by the way they wrapped up Barry’s time with the Speed Force. Great job to Gustin and the cast, Kevin Smith, writer Zack Stentz, and producer Greg Berlanti.

If you aren’t watching The Flash, then what are you waiting for? Binge the past two seasons and get caught up in time for the summer hiatus.

Photo by Christopher Patey

Photo by Christopher Patey

Having said that, I do have one word of criticism for The Flash and the other superhero programs produced by Greg Berlanti, and I’ll mention it in the off-and-not-likely-chance that he reads this article.

Mr. Berlanti, I appreciate that you are committed to diversity with the programs you produce, attempting to represent all different aspects of our society. For example, I thought it was bold and brave that you made the potentially controversial choice to have the West family be African-American rather than Caucasian, that you’ve consistently had strong female characters as well as male, and that you have quietly introduced homosexual characters, all in an attempt to reflect society.

But, in my opinion, you’ve left out one group of people, and it’s pretty glaring.

Where are people of faith?

Almost 90% of Americans identify as religious, and yet we see no people of faith (not counting ancient Egyptian religion) in any of your superhero programs. No character turns to their religious beliefs to help them grapple with receiving super-powers, no character mourns the loss of another character by praying in (or out of) church, no character reads any sort of sacred text as inspiration or goes to a priest to discuss what is happening in the world, no talking heads discuss the theological ramifications of super beings in the background on Central City talk shows.

It’s a pity, especially when a nuanced handling of the topic could increase the potential power of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, putting them over the top of being great dramatic/action television.

So, Mr. Berlanti, as a “fan of faith”, I’d love it if you’d consider representing my people in your programs as well.

By the way, here’s my toddler (Noah, the fastest three year old alive) recreating a Flash sprint through the ferry terminal here in Shenzhen, China, complete with the slow motion scenes. And yes, we are planning on getting him a Flash costume when we are back in the U.S. this summer.


Thanks for joining us for Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day! Look for a new episode next week, and feel free to share your own interesting stories!

An End Times Movie in Two Minutes

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We Christians just love our end times movies.

We’ve done bunches and bunches of them, from the classic A Thief in the Night trilogy to Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind movies to Nic Cage’s Left Behind movie reboot to movies with subtle names like Final: The Rapture and Tribulation and Revelation Road (1, 2 & 3) and The Apocalypse and The Remaining and Blink of an Eye and Pre-Trib! The Musical

That last one might not be real.

But, if you look at the bulk of Christian-made movies out there, and how many seem to deal with this topic, then you would have to conclude that we Christians must just love our end times movies.

But maybe you’ve never seen one of our end times movies, want to know what the big deal is, but don’t actually want to sit through 90 minutes of a Christian film? Well, Thimblerig comes to the rescue! If you watch this two minute clip from Community’s third season, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what our end-of-days movies are all about. In fact, Dan Harmon pretty well nails it.

Although I must admit that the Community clip does have a bit more nuance, subtlety, and artistry then our usual attempts at showing the end-of-days, but I think you get the picture.

Meanwhile, if you want to see some of my reviews of a couple of end times movies…

Here’s Left Behind, which was awful.

And here’s The Remaining, which was actually pretty good.

Young Writer Chronicles: Students Around the World Discover a Love for Writing

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I was pleased and honored to be asked to write an article for the National Novel Writing Month about my experiences as an international educator taking students through NaNoWriMo. Here is an excerpt from that article, with the link to the whole article at the bottom of the page.

Young Writer Chronicles: Students Around the World Discover a Love for Writing

by Nate Fleming

tumblr_inline_o6x334JM8u1r0x68m_500I fell into NaNoWriMo backwards, through Script Frenzy, a program sponsored by the nonprofit behind NaNo from 2007 to 2012. In Script Frenzy, a writer would write the first draft of a screenplay over the month of April. At that time, I had aspirations to be a screenwriter, even going so far as to take a screenwriting course in Hollywood over the summer of 2007 to help me down this path.

My biggest obstacle to a screenwriting career was geography. That summer I’d come to Hollywood from my wife’s home country of Kazakhstan, where I was teaching in an international school. Central Asia is not exactly the best place for a writer to live if he wants to break into Hollywood, is it? So, on the advice of a screenwriter friend, I turned to NaNoWriMo. If I couldn’t be in Hollywood to sell my screenplay idea, perhaps I could write a novel, and that novel could sell itself! In 2008, I decided to set aside November to work on making my screenplay into a novel.

downloadAlthough I didn’t finish the novel that year, I enjoyed NaNoWriMo so much that in 2009, I decided to try and see if I could fit NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program into my international school’s curriculum. That year, with the approval of my administration, I piloted taking a valiant class of fifth graders through the month of writing, and it was maddening, exhilarating, insane, and immensely rewarding.

My eyes were opened as I saw students who had previously struggled to write a paragraph effortlessly filling pages and pages of a first draft. It also unlocked writing in other classes across the curriculum, and writing was coming easier for these students in history, science, and literature classes. It was revolutionary! The doors had been opened, and my students suddenly believed that they could write! It was almost magical!

To read the rest of the story, go here.

 

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