“All Saints” Movie Review

(Guest review by K.B. Snodgrass)

All Saints is based on the true story of a dying church in Smyrna Tennessee and the unexpected events that surround Pastor Michael Spurlock, who is spending his first call as an Anglican minister, pastoring the remaining twelve members through the shut-down.

In the opening scenes, we meet the remaining older members of the church with their quirky personalities, and see how their little community has suffered loss as a bigger, more modern church has taken prominence in the community. We can see Michael’s heart, wanting to soften the hard blow his parishioners are preparing for. We realize that Michael and his family are not planning to put stakes in the ground in Smyrna. It is a simple stepping stone for a more prestigious call.

But when a group of Karen refugees from Burma show up one of their last Sundays, Pastor Spurlock becomes interested in their plight. “I’m a pastor,” he claims, “And they’re members of my church.” Even with the plans for selling the building to developers in the works, Pastor Spurlock begins to do what he can for this refugee community, eventually entreating the general council to keep the doors of the church open long enough to attempt a farming venture that he hopes will provide for the immigrants as well as pay the overdue mortgage on the church building and allow it to remain open. The idea for the venture comes as Michael seeks direction and wisdom from God. God answers in a rain shower, which Michael reveals in a conversation with his wife. (No cheesy, wordy prayers spoken by this pastor. They all take place in his heart, or at least the audience can assume that was what happened in his quiet reflective moments).

It sounds like a predictable feel-good movie, but along the way there are many unexpected twists and we are drawn into the story of the refugees, who fought in the jungle wars of Burma before ending up at a refugee camp in Thailand and coming to America. Their endeavors are not without difficulty. They struggle with the same things all farmers do: the need for rain, the cost of seeds, finding buyers for their crops. As the farm takes shape, Pastor Michael’s character is tested, as are his relationships.

The strength of this movie is its plot and script, a story which has already told itself in a way that only God can write. The dialogue is believable, although at times poorly delivered, and the only preaching was where preaching was supposed to be. It is a story about a pastor, after all. Those scenes were kept short but poignant, leaving the viewers to draw their own conclusions.

The themes are buried in a well-constructed script that subtly brings out things we all struggle with. Questions of our duty to the poor and lost, God’s call for our own lives, the way a marriage struggles and redefines itself through trials, and what to do when God allows for a not-perfect ending to your story. Michael clearly struggled with man’s plan versus God’s plans, and is often called out on that question by others. The answer to that struggle is addressed at the end of the film.

Overall, the plot and the script keep the audience engaged enough to put up with what occasionally poorly delivered lines. It took a few scenes for the actors to get their cadence, and admittedly some of the actors feel low-budget. But experienced actor John Corbett raises the bar for everyone and carries the story quite well himself.  After the opening scenes, which include an appearance of Christian comedian Chonda Pierce, the acting falls into a better rhythm. Using the refugees from the actual All-Saints church as actors created an authentic feel.  It was hard to tell that they were acting, as they perfectly played perfectly their roles of strangers in a strange land.

There is humor scattered throughout the film, but unfortunately a lot of the lines that were meant to be funny fall flat due to acting, or perhaps directing. The better humor was in a subtle irony that came out in various ways as characters’ lives intersected, such as the grumpy widower farmer who finds a comradery with Ye Win, the leader of the Karens.

Cinematography was my biggest complaint. In various shots, the framing was such that it almost felt like the camera was being held at an angle. The church itself is a beautiful building, and I wanted the camera to capitalize on the architecture and stained glass windows, but instead it was almost ignored, and at times we saw half of a banner or a strangely framed wooden beam that didn’t fit. At one point a harvest moon made an appearance, but it was mostly a missed opportunity for the artistic glimpse it could have been. There’s also an awkward end of scene shot in which the camera zooms in on a headlight in a rainstorm for several long seconds, taking away from the power of the scene that we’d just watched. Speaking of lights, there were several scenes where the lighting felt artificial, mostly in attempts to make it look dark inside. Perhaps those are personal preferences, but it seemed that the artistic eye of the technicians and cameraman needed a little honing.

I liked the movie. As far as faith-based films go, it was probably the best one I’ve seen since “The Song”. Not just for the story and the realistic portrayal of realistic people who have doubts and failures, but for the gentle reminder it gives of the way God works in every circumstance of our lives. Through lost jobs, marital strife, self-doubt and suffering, All Saints gives viewers a glimpse of the hope we have in Christ. There was no watered down theology to complain about. When the question is raised by Pastor Spurlock’s son Atticus why God would let something fail, Pastor Michael simply answers with a broken, “I don’t know.” But despite the struggles, Pastor Spurlock and Ye Win show us how God uses everyday people and every day situations to accomplish his purposes through faith. The movie doesn’t sugar coat things, but it does leave us hopeful. And who doesn’t want a little hope these days?

K.D. Snodgrass is a freelance writer, an aspiring crime fighter, a wife, and a mother of four. She enjoys spending time outside, reading, and of course, going to the movies. You can contact her at batlancer@gmail.com or visit her blog, The Rough Draft.  

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A Visit to the Apple iChurch

iChurchI’ve really been struggling lately. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression have been overwhelming. It feels as if my operating system has crashed, and I need to have a complete spiritual reboot.

It’s time to visit the Apple iChurch.

The first thing I do is try to sign on at www.appleichurch.com with my iChurch ID, but I can’t remember my password. Is it isaiah4031 or isaiah4110? I try to enter my password a few times. Too many attempts, and I get locked out. Great. Do they have to make it so complicated?

This means I’ll need to pay a visit to the Pastor’s Bar in an actual brick and mortar Apple iChurch building, so I have to make an appointment. When I check online, they’re all booked up for the next three days. But I can’t wait three days. I need to talk to someone today! I decide to take a chance and drive down to the iChurch building and see if I can sneak in and see one of the pastors between appointments.

When you enter the Apple iChurch building, you immediately notice how big and shiny and minimal everything is. The building is has been purposefully designed to be all metal and wood and industrial. Then you notice the indy Christian music being played in the background. Is that Sufjan Stevens? The Brilliance? Propaganda? The next thing you notice is that the iChurch is constantly packed with people. Whoever said the church is in decline has apparently not stepped foot in an Apple iChurch, because they are always filled with people looking for the latest in spiritual help or theological technology. As you look past the simple wooden tables lined with tablets advertising the latest Christian self-help books, you see the goal: A long industrial-sized table with a half dozen pastors sitting on the other side, talking with the lucky few who booked ahead of time. Video screens behind each pastor flash Bible verses and times of appointments.

It doesn’t look good.

Since I don’t have an appointment, I get in a line that stretches from midway through the building all the way back to the massive glass front doors. And like every person in that line, I’m hoping I can get an appointment to see one of the pastors today.

It really doesn’t look good.

I’ve heard that the greeting ministry at the Apple iChurch is one of the hardest ministry jobs in the church. Everyone thinks that their problem is the Most Important Problem In The Building©, and these are the guys who have to listen to sob story after sob story, all with a patient smile on their face. Personally, I don’t know how they do it.

The young man who we are all waiting to meet is wearing one of the simple iChurch t-shirts with a nametag that says “Brock”. Brock has tired eyes, a Bible-shaped electronic tablet, colorful tats going down his left arm complete with Bible verses and biblical imagery, and an impressive super-beard (I remember when goatees were the poils du visage du jour in church ministry, but trends change). Brock is using the Bible tablet to take down personal information (“Can we contact you about tithing opportunities?” he says with a gentle and persuasive smile) but more importantly, he uses it schedule Pastor Bar appointments.

I’ve been in line for about forty-five minutes now, and I’m finally one person away from young bearded Brock. The woman in front me is in tears, probably telling the earnest greeter how her husband has been unfaithful, or maybe that she caught her children experimenting with drugs, or possibly she’s afraid she will lose her job. Whatever it is, she makes it clear through the sobs that she needs someone to pray with her.

But she doesn’t have an appointment.

Brock nods empathetically and tells her that if she’s willing to wait around, she might be able to see one of the pastors later in the afternoon, but there are no guarantees. The woman gets more insistent, saying that she drove for a couple of hours to get to the iChurch building, that she took time off from her job, that she is too busy to wait around. I guess Brock must hear these sorts of stories a couple of dozen times a day. He nods understandingly, and tells her that she can come back in the morning. Doors open at 10:00, and if she arrives by 9:45 she might be able to score a pastor visit if someone doesn’t show up for their appointment. The woman mutters “hipster doofus” and storms out.

Yeah, she won’t be reaching the Pastor Bar until sometime next summer.

Brock seems unfazed as he turns to me and smiles. But I can see that he has been fazed. His eyes are even more tired than they were a few moments earlier.

But I’m ready for young Brock. Standing in line, watching person after person try the same tactic, I figured out the perfect strategy: I will see his empathy and raise him a healthy dose of sympathy and a sprinkling of small talk. That ought to help with those tired eyes, and might just get me past him to the pastors sitting in the back of the room.

I shake my head, wordlessly communicating my understanding of how difficult people can be. I rub my chin, drawing attention to my own beard, letting Brock know that we are beard brothers. Brock visibly relaxes, and I can tell that my strategy is working. He’s already on my side. This will be a piece of cake.

“How you doing today?” I ask, mustering as much Andy Griffith friendliness into my voice as I can. Come on, pal, lay it on me. Before this is over, I’ll have Brock telling me all about his family, his girl problems, and which vaping bar he’s visiting this weekend.

“I’m well, thanks,” Brock says, looking back at his tablet. “What can I do for you?”

Hmm. So much for the small talk. Guess I’ll have to try a more straightforward approach.

“Well, I’ve been feeling pretty depressed lately,” I say.

“Been reading your Bible every day?” Brock asks, looking at his tablet.

“Of course,” I lie.

Brock looks up at me, his formerly tired eyes now piercing. He doesn’t believe me.

“Alright, not every day,” I admit. “But my brother’s always posting these Bible verse memes on Facebook, and I read those.”

“Umm-hmm,” Brock answers, tapping something onto the tablet. “Prayer life?”

“Oh, I pray all the time,” I answer more confidently. This part is true. I’m always asking God for things, and I pray before every meal.

“Umm-hmm,” Brock answers, tapping more onto the tablet. “Church attendance?”

I’m ready for this one. “Oh, I watch all the sermons that Pastor Axl streams. And I listen to his podcast, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.”

main-qimg-c3534d5cb80e20c01a9b117e0b3040fb-cPastor Axl is the founder of the Apple iChurch. He is a former executive from Silicon Valley who left behind a promising career in the tech world to start a church in his garage in Los Altos.

In the past ten years, Pastor Axl has grown the church to be an international powerhouse. He’s loved by progressives and conservatives alike, and is a rockstar in the world of pastors and skinny jeans. He’s been on Oprah, Colbert, Fallon, even sang carpool karaoke with Corden. Mentioning him is bound to score me some points.

“Umm-hmm,” Brock answers. More tapping. He doesn’t appear to be impressed. I try to catch his eye so I can work on my strategy, but he’s not looking up at me any more. Just tap, tap, tap.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Time to bring out the big guns.

Sincerity and desperation.

“Listen, Brock, I really need to talk to a pastor today. If there’s anything you could do to help, I would really appreciate it.”

Brock looks up and stares at me for what seems like eternity. Finally, he nods empathetically, looking past me at the line that is just as long as it was when I arrived forty five minutes before. He is struggling, trying to decide what to do. Did my big guns actually do the job?

Finally, he leans in and speaks in a quiet, conspiratorial voice. “If you’re willing to wait, there is the chance that we’ll have some time open up this afternoon. But I can’t make any guarantees.”

“This afternoon will be hard,” I mutter, panic rising in my chest. Brock does not see me as a beard brother after all. I’m just another middle-aged beard in the line.

Brock sits back up and nods again, saying, “Well, we open tomorrow morning at 10:00, and if you show up around 9:45 you might be able to score a visit with a pastor if someone is late for their appointment.”

Pastor AxlI look back at the Pastor Bar, and see the pastors talking to the lucky few, some praying, some looking at tablets which probably contain a Bible or the latest Christian self-help book, or Pastor Axl’s autobiography, Pastor Axl.

I guess I have no choice.

“Thanks, I’ll be here in the morning,” I say.

As I turn to leave, I hear Brock talking to the next person in line. “What can I do for you?”

Reflections on an American Election

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To my friends who have been supporting Trump:

Congratulations on your victory. You worked hard, and you managed to pull off the upset of the century.

But I need to ask: are you prepared for the way things are about to change? After all, for the past eight years you’ve often claimed the role of victim and cried out about persecution. But with today’s victory, especially since it’s looking like the Republicans will sweep both houses as well, those days are over.

You used to be able to watch Star Wars and identify with the Rebellion, but now that you’ve won, you’ve assumed the role of the Empire. What will you do with all of those Star Destroyers and Tie Fighters?

This brings me to the million-dollar question: what will you do with your victory? Will you treat the other side the way you feel like they treated you these past years? Will you use this opportunity to build up and renew things for everyone, or will you use it to oppress and destroy those who are different than you? My hope is that you will turn the other cheek and approach your newfound position with humility and mercy, and maybe even with a smidge of empathy.

The ball’s in your guy’s court now, and I hope to heaven that you were right about Trump being good for this country. I just hope it’s not true only for a certain segment of the population.

Only time will tell.

But here’s the thing. A LOT of people are incredibly freaked out by the man you just elected, and they presume that Trump will do just what he promised to do, just as you were freaked out about what you thought Hillary would do if she won. And can you blame them? If you’re honest, now you have to acknowledge that over the course of this campaign, your guy said some pretty hateful things about a lot of people of a variety of backgrounds. And with your guy’s inability to demonstrate remorse or even step back from things, he’s opened the door for others to feel free to be hateful too, in his image.

And that’s got a lot of people nervous, whether you think that nervousness is justifiable or not.

The point is, your guy’s got a lot of self-inflicted damage to overcome before half the country will come close to being willing to see him as their president. And it would help if you – as the victors now – recognized and owned that truth, because what you do on a personal level could make a world of difference. I know that the majority of you are good and decent people who have been fed up with the way things have been going, but now you are in the position to make things better for everyone.

It’s on you.

To both sides:

We need to be gracious, both in victory and in defeat. There’s more at stake here than simply getting our party into power, or getting our platforms passed. Living in China these past four years, I can tell you from experience that the world is watching closely. Will this vaunted democracy survive this shocking result? We must show them that it will, and that it will thrive in spite of everything that’s gone on these past several months.

To those of you who feel like tonight was a disaster of epic proportions:

I get that. In fact, I’m having trouble accepting that a Donald Trump presidency is actually a reality that is going to happen. Even as a lifelong Republican supporter, I’ve not been able to get behind Trump during the campaign, and I can’t fathom getting behind him now as president.

But ultimately, I have to. We all do.

The only thing that will make this experiment in democracy continue to work, the only way that it’ll be able to survive, thrive, and have any sort of positive repercussions around the world, is if the world sees us making it work. In this case, it means putting our support behind the president-elect, because he is the president-elect. Not for the sake of Donald Trump, but for the sake of the office that he will now hold. And as big as Trump may think that he is, that office is much, much bigger.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we need to give Trump some sort of free pass to do whatever he wants to do. We still need to hold his feet to the fire, while doing everything in our power to keep him from setting the whole place ablaze. But we need to be united behind the essentials that bind us together, not behind the man sitting in the oval office. We need to give him a chance to show that a good deal of what he promised to do will turn out to have been campaign bluster, and that if given the opportunity, he’ll actually attempt to govern.

Only time will tell.

To my fellow Christians, especially those of us who claim to believe in God’s sovereignty:

Do we truly believe that God is in control? Sovereignty says that Trump only wins if God permits it. That means that our job now, whether we were #nevertrump or #draintheswamp, is to pray for Donald Trump while continuing to work in our little corners of the world to build the kingdom of God. Or, as my friend Shane put it, to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with (our) God”.

Just like we should be doing no matter who wins any election.

Finally, a brief note to my fellow Christians who were strong and vocal supporters of Trump:

Reread 1 Samuel 8. Remind yourself that sometimes God gives us what we ask for, not what we need. Remember that it often exacts a high price when he does.

Only time will tell.

Sola Dei Gloria.

 

 

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Week • September 10, 2016

We’re bringing back an old feature of the blog, Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Week, where we link to stories from the past few days that Thimblerig finds to be of interest. We hope that you will find them interesting, too!

1. Q&A with Corbin Bernsen and his producing partner as Regent’s movie premieres

ily-webRegent University is premiering its first feature-length film, the faith-based romantic comedy “In-Lawfully Yours”, featuring Corbin Bernsen and written by Act One faculty member Sean Gaffney and Robert Kirbyson, and directed by Kirbyson [edited – thanks, Guy]. This is an interesting project, because it’s a low-budget indie film that is forgoing the theatrical route that so many faith-based films attempt, and releasing initially on Netflix.

It’s fascinating to see the variety of methods low-budget faith-based filmmakers are taking to get eyes on their films. For instance, Lifeway films recently bowed its film, The Insanity of God, on 550 screens for one day, and it was briefly the #1 film in per-theater average. In fact, it did well enough that it will have an encore showing on September 19. 

Other faith-based films have attemped the wide-release route, and with the exception of a couple of break-out hits (War Room, Miracles from Heaven), most have failed to make back their budgets.

The choice to have In-Lawfully Yours only on Netflix is an interesting one, and is quite possibly demonstrating the wave of the future for the faith-based genre of film.

Meanwhile, reading Bernsen’s thoughts on the subject is pretty interesting, so click on over and read what he has to say.

2. Pure Flix brings new titles to TIFF

I’ve been really interested to watch the growth of Pure Flix after the success of God’s Not Dead back in 2014. Previously a middling little independent faith-based film company, they suddenly found themselves sitting on a mound of box office gold when the film wound up pulling in over $100,000,000 in combined box office and home video sales. Since that time, the company has expanded in numerous ways: the Pure Flix home streaming service; the Pure Flix U.S. distribution company (by far the most successful faith-based distributor on the market); and the lesser known Quality Flix, the International Sales and Distribution wing of the company.

The second interesting thing that Thimblerig found this week was a story detailing Pure Flix’s efforts to introduce four films at the Toronto International Film Festival, which could potentially lead to international distribution deals for these four films. The two big pictures Pure Flix is pushing includes the upcoming Hillsong concert documentary, Let Hope Rise, and the drama I’m Not Ashamed, which tells the story of Rachel Joy Scott, one of the victims of the Columbine massacre.

cet6ylnw8aepkn8This story interested Thimblerig because it’s a story about Pure Flix, a faith-based film company, on Screendaily.com, a secular film website. And the story is examining Pure Flix’s distribution efforts as if it were any other film company, and not one that is Christian-owned and operated. The story doesn’t contain any belittling, or any disrespect, or any winks or nudges or “know-what-I-means” – it’s business as usual.

But I thought we were at war?

3. Columbine martyr film seeks bold youth revival

The third interesting thing that Thimblerig found this past week was a story detailing that upcoming Pure Flix film, I’m Not Ashamed.

The film is apparently being released along with some pretty serious ministry efforts, including Pure Flix’s partnership with See You At The Pole and First Priority, all to help mobilize young people to see the film, with the hope of begining a “national movement of youth across the country propelled by the movie.”

This is the truly fascinating part of this faith-based movie push that has been going on for the past couple of years – this mixture of marketing and ministry. Christianity and capitalism.

It works this way: a company like Pure Flix makes a faith-based film and encourages everyone to bring vans full of church and youth groups, which will enable the message of the movie to be seen by thousands, but will also mean thousands of seats sold. The company develops curriculum and ministry resources to help underscore the message of the movie with those thousands, and then sells the curriculum for premium prices (with a few notable exceptions: Captive, 90 Minutes in Heaven, Ben-Hur being three).

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-10-48-19-pmThis is what continues to flummox me: a faith-based company like Pure Flix has huge financial success, and yet they continue to sell their ministry resources. The Kendrick brothers sell all their resources, too, even if their last movie made over $100,000,000 in combined box office and home video sales.

As an American, I have no problem with this. It’s an example of capitalism at its finest. But as a Christian, it makes me pause. Imagine if Paul had charged the church at Ephesus for his letter? Or if Jesus had charged entry to the Sermon on the Mount? Since when did we become okay with ministry being about profit over being prophetic? Isn’t that at least part of the reason why the Reformation began?

Join Thimblerig next week, when we’ll be back with three new interesting things.

 

 

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 and a very good deal on the property [edited]; 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

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!

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.