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

RichMullinscropThis weekend marks eighteen years [edit: now twenty-one] since the death of singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, who died tragically in a car accident just outside of Bloomington, Illinois on September 19, 1997.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Value of Authenticity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Value of Artistry

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Value of Having a Unique Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Rich wrote…

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

4. The Centrality of the Love of God

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

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

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

© David R Banta

© David R Banta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Day 5 of the 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge

5-hand_woodelywonderworksI decided from the beginning of this challenge to be honest in my daily reports.  Whatever I was experiencing, I was going to record, for better or worse.

So, yesterday was on the worse side.  Sorry about the downer.   Today was much better.

Five observations for day five:

1)  The tiny little men who live in the internet really do pay attention to what you do when you’re online.  If you spend your time looking at a lot of Christian media, the tiny little men will notice and start shifting the adverts around until you get more and more adverts for Bibles and Chris Tomlin music, and fewer ads for Budweiser and Viagra.  Thanks, tiny little internet men!

2)  Watching streaming television or movies in China is more frustrating than sleeping on a bed with scratchy sheets and a couple of hungry mosquitos buzzing around in the room, while someone sits nearby in a squeaky rocking chair softly humming “Baby, Baby, Baby” slightly off key.

I wish I could download more Christian-made movies.

3)  I’ve been spending a lot of time perusing online Christian bookstores these past five days, and I’ve decided that Christian consumerism is a funny animal.  On the one hand, there are many wonderful products that are created and sold to build up and encourage followers of Jesus to be better followers of Jesus.  On the other hand, they say that over half a billion dollars in Bibles alone are sold every year.  Half a billion dollars.  Just for Bibles.  So, that would mean in my 12 year old daughter’s lifetime, over $6,000,000,000 of revenue has been generated in Bible sales alone.

The big business side of Christianity makes me feel just a bit icky, and this challenge is exasperating that feeling.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 10.41.22 PM4)  I mentioned in my first post that I’m a big-time movie soundtrack guy, so these past five days I’ve really been missing my Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, and Christophe Beck.  But, I’ve actually found a Christian film composer whose work I like!  His name is Ben Botkins, and you can hear some of his compositions on soundcloud.  I found him because of his work on a recent indy Christian film about the life of Polycarp, called – wait for it – Polycarp.

Any Christian filmmakers out there looking for someone to score your new film?  Give Ben a listen.

5)  Christian filmmakers can make misleadingly good movie posters.  This has caused me to begin watching several movies that I think will be decent based on the professionally produced movie poster, just to find out it was filmed on a hand held camera.

Yeah, Samson, I’m looking at you, bud.

Therefore, I recommend we come up with a new ratings system for faith based films.  Sure, the MPAA will make their own ratings if the film is released theatrically, but I think we need something to help folks like me understand what we’re getting before we put down our hard-earned coconuts.

My suggestions, which I propose should be called the Thimblerig Ratings System:

Rated N (newbies) – the film was made by newbies.  Their hearts were in the right place, but they had no money, no training, and it shows.  Only watch if the filmmakers are your friends or relatives.  Lots of overt Gospel talk.

Rated V (veterans) – the film was made by veterans, who were only just newbies a couple of  years ago.  They made a couple of trainwreck movies, and learned from their mistakes, managed to get some funding, and so they’ve improved.  You still wouldn’t want to watch this film with anyone who isn’t also a die-hard Christian, but it’s a bit more entertaining for the choir.  Still lots of overt Gospel talk.

Rated P (preachy) – the film is pretty good technically, so they must have actually hired some professionals to be behind the camera.  The film is still very preachy, so unless your non-Christian friend really loves you, don’t show them this film.  Still lots of Christianese being spoken, and lots of overt Gospel talk.

Rated A (amazing) – the film is amazing!  The Gospel is there, but as in the parables of Jesus, you might have to work a bit to find it.  The film is well acted, well scripted, well filmed, and well directed.  You can freely take your non-Christian friends to see this film, and it will definitely provoke some good seed-planting conversation afterwards.  There may be some non-family-friendly elements, but it services the story, so get over it.

And a special rating…

Rated HMJ (Help me, Jesus!) – never mind about anything else, the writing in this film is so poor that you want to fill your ears with honey, cotton balls, and centipedes to avoid having to listen to the corny, canned, Christianese dialogue.  I mean, the dialogue is not even as good as the dialogue used by George Lucas in Star Wars Episode 2:  The Attack of the Clones, and that’s saying something.  Buy a copy of this film and then bury it deep in the ground.

That’s it for day 5.  Tomorrow, I’m excited that my family and I get to watch Unbroken for Friday Family Movie Night!  (available in Christian retailers!  Yay!)

Nate is taking part in The 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge.  Read about it here, and follow along for the next 35 days.

Follow Nate on Twitter, too.  @RNFleming

What’s Wrong with Christian Media?

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Lifeway Research recently released a study that examined the use of Christian media.  The results showed that the vast majority of Christian media is consumed by – hold onto your hats for this, folks – Christians.

Christian Media Barely Reaching Beyond the Faithful

This doesn’t come as a surprise.  Media will typically be consumed by the target audience, and in this case, why would a person who is not a Christian care to listen to a Christian podcast?  Why would they be interested in reading a book about Christianity?  Why would they spend their time watching Christian television programs?

It seems like the logical thing to do here is to circle the wagons.  After all, if the Christian family is consuming most Christian media, then we should just keep creating media for the family!  This is how business works, isn’t it?  You identify your target audience, and then push your product for that audience.

Given, the study does show that some of our media is being consumed by people outside the church – like a positive form of collateral damage –  but we should count those people as frosting on the cake and keep on doing what we do when we do what we do.

But hold on, hit the brakes, stop the engines, turn off the lights… there’s a slight problem with all that.

Did Jesus tell his disciples in Matthew 28:19 to “go back into the church, close the doors, and make disciples”?

No.  Of course not.  He said “Go into all the world…”  Go.  Get out of your comfort zone.  Stop naval gazing and get out into the world where people need the message of hope that we find in the story of Jesus.

Christian media should deal with finding the lost, and not just massaging the found.   What are the “Christianese” words for this?  Witnessing?  Sharing?  Evangelizing?  We’re supposed to be engaging with the world outside of the church, not just circling our wagons to protect the women and children.

Look at it this way.  Imagine your church supports a missionary family living in some foreign country.  The missionary family comes home on furlough, and visits your church to share about the progress of their work in this foreign country.

The missionary husband sets up a powerpoint presentation in the fellowship hall after the pot-luck dinner, and starts showing slides of the family’s work.

“We’re so grateful to be serving in our host country, and blessed to be able to share our work with you today.”

The missionary smiles and turns to the screen.

“In this picture, we’re having some missionary neighbors over for dinner.  We like to have other missionaries over for dinner regularly.  This next picture shows us at our bi-weekly Bible study with some other missionary families.  Oh, you’ll love this one – it’s a picture of us worshipping on Sunday morning at our church, which is only for missionaries.   Hmm….  this is our neighbor who isn’t a missionary… I’m not sure how that picture got in there.   Ah, here!  This next picture is better – it’s our missionary office, where we work with other missionaries.  Finally, here’s a picture of our kids going to their missionary-kid school.  It’s missionary run, taught, and attended.  They just love it there.”

That missionary probably wouldn’t be supported by the church for much longer.

So, we want our missionaries to engage with the culture around them, but for some reason, we seem to be perfectly comfortable that Christian media is only reaching other Christians.

And Christian media isn’t even doing that very well!

RNS-CHRISTIAN-MEDIA bTake Christian movies for example – one of the categories where the results were considered the most encouraging.  The Lifeway study shows that four out of ten people said that they watched a Christian movie in the last year.

Four out of ten?  That’s pretty amazing!

Well, it seems like an encouraging number until you remember that eighty-three percent of the American population identifies as Christian.

Eight out of ten people consider themselves Christian, and four out of ten people watched a Christian movie last year.

Let that sink in.  Less than half the Christian population of America watched at least one Christian movie last year.

So, what does this all mean?  Should we shutter all the Christian bookstores?  Boycott Chris Tomlin concerts?  Send Phil Vischer snarky letters for hosting a podcast with a Christian point of view?

No. Of course not.  (Although sending Vischer snarky letters about his ukelele might be warranted…)  There’s nothing wrong with producing media for ourselves.  There’s nothing wrong with producing media for small segments of ourselves.  People do that every day, all over the world, in all walks of life.

But as Christians, we shouldn’t be content with that.

So, if you are a person interested in Christian media and interested in changing those statistics reported by Lifeway Research, here are 6 (+2) things that Christian media must do better to catch the attention of those people who normally wouldn’t care.

1.  Be Professional.

If something is good in media, it’s not because it is good by accident, or because someone prayed for it to be good and God miraculously made it so.  Things are good in media because professionals have been hired to make them good.  Christian film producers have finally started to realize this, raising enough money to enable them to hire pros to help shoot their films, and the result?  Christian films are finally starting to look like well-shot films.  People in the world outside the church respect professionalism.

2.  Be Excellent.

Maybe this is a part of being professional, but if you’re involved in Christian media, then you shouldn’t cut corners.  If you’re a self-published writer, then revise, revise, revise.  Give yourself time to do the best you can possibly do with your efforts.  Want to be a filmmaker?  Cut your teeth on shorts before moving to features.  Watch a LOT of movies – and not only Christian made movies.  Read scripts.  No matter what area of media you feel drawn to, take the time to become excellent.  Say what you will about the world, but the world appreciates and is drawn to excellence.

3.  Be Creative.

This is where we often drop the ball with Christian media.  In our rush to get our message out, we tell sloppy stories.  We create one-dimensional characters.  We allow our faith to handcuff us, which is not why we have our faith.  “It was for freedom you were set free…”  Remember?  That includes the freedom to be creative.  Try to look at the world in a different way, in a real and authentic way.  Especially when you consider those people who believe differently than you do.  We call God the Creator, not just because he created everything, but because He is also so incredibly creative.  Go, and do likewise, because people outside the church are attracted to true creativity.

4.  Be Intelligent.

We’ve all seen the near-constant parade of apparently unintelligent Christians in media.  People hosting programs who have trouble putting together intelligible sentences; faith-based scripts that seem not well thought-through or properly edited; embarrassingly discourteous or rude commenters on the internet; self-published novels that are so plotless and pointless that they make one wish that self-publishing were as hard and expensive as it used to be.

Our reputation for being unintelligent has been well earned by these things and much more.  Write intelligently, direct intelligently, comment intelligently, create intelligently.  God may use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, but that doesn’t mean we should aim to be fools.  Christians in media are the front lines for changing the intelligence perception with the media they create.

5.  Be Ingenious.

Christian media is known for trying to take something the world has done and recreate it in a faith-friendly way.  The world gives us 50 Shades of Grey, Christian media reacts with Old Fashioned.   There’s a good article about this on Vox, written by Brandon Ambrosino.  I’d also recommend the article he cites by Alissa Wilkinson.

The point is that Christians in media need to be ingenious.  We should lead rather than follow, set the standard rather than chasing after the latest fad or trend.  We should aim to take the world by surprise with our ingenious and unique creations.

6.  Be Honest.

Finally, one of the best weapons we have at our disposal as Christians in media is honesty.  As we interact with people who aren’t in the faith, they should see this about us – as we interact with the media, they should notice this about us.  As we write, direct, act, talk, sing, produce, film, record, edit, draw, or whatever it is we do, people should recognize it in us.

They should talk about it behind our backs.

And if they do?  That’s okay.  We should have nothing to hide, and no reason to hide.  We don’t have to pretend to have it all together, because we know that we don’t.  We don’t have to act like our families are perfect, because we know that they aren’t.  We don’t have to act like we have all the answers, because we know that we don’t.  And that’s okay.

What we do have is Jesus.

And if you’ll pardon my brief use of Christainese, we have his forgiveness, his mercy, and his grace.   And He gives us the ability to live openly, transparently, and honestly – in life and in the media we create.

And that is how we will impact the world.

And now the (bonus +2).

1.  Drop the Secret Language.

Christianese – the secret language of Christianity.  The moment you fall into using the secret language, you lose potential interest from people who don’t speak it.  If your Christian media is inundated with Christianese, you need to make some changes, or you might as well just create your media in Klingon for all the good it will do you.

To find out more about Christianese, go to the Dictionary of Christianese, or read a good article about it here.  And then cut it out.

2.  Give the End Times a Rest.

What do we know?  Jesus will return.  How?  When?  We have no real idea – just theories and interpretations.   That means that our Rapture books and movies are just the Christian versions of The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Road, or any of the other dystopsian end-of-the-world stories you want to pick.   And they’re not nearly as compelling, well told, or well made.

Can we just give it a rest for a while?

Please?

(Actually, having said that, a Christian dystopsian story that absolutely nothing to do with the Rapture or the anti-Christ could be a really interesting read.)

 

 

Atheist George Perdikis, co-founder of Newsboys – A Cautionary Tale against Christian Celebrity

This morning while I was having my coffee, this headline came across my Facebook page:

I Co-Founded One of the Most Popular Christian Rock Bands Ever… and I’m Now An Atheist

173880Curious, I clicked it, and read a testimonial from George Perdikis, one of the co-founders of Christian mega-group, The Newsboys.

As I read this article, a few things that Perdikis said popped out at me.

I always felt uncomfortable with the strict rules imposed by Christianity. All I wanted to do was create and play rock and roll… and yet most of the attention I received was focused on how well I maintained the impossible standards of religion. I wanted my life to be measured by my music, not by my ability to resist temptation.

And this…

The Christian music scene is populated by many people who act as though they have a direct hotline to a God who supplies them with the answers to the Universe. There seems to be more ego and narcissism amongst Christian musicians than their secular counterparts.

And this…

The truth is — from someone who knows what went on then and what goes on now — the Newsboys aren’t as holy as they profess. Instead of wearing a mask of “righteousness,” they should acknowledge that they are struggling as much as everyone else.

Now that’s a movie I’d like to see.

It’s one of the unfortunate truths of life that we Christians love having Christian celebrities as much as the world loves having theirs.  Read 1 Corinthians 1:10-15 and you’ll see that even in the early church Christians had the bad habit of idolizing other Christians.  But unlike the world, Christians typically add unrealistic expectations to our idol worship: holding our idols to perfect standards that they – and we – simply cannot keep.

This is true with Christian singers and musicians, church pastors, academics, athletes, writers, and many other high-profile occupations.  These are our Christian idols, and while they may desire to point people towards God, we quite often nod in agreement about their proclamations about God and then spend the bulk of our time dwelling on them – the idols themselves.

blog-concert-02In their defense, I know that many inadvertent Christian idols hate this.  They work hard to be accessible and to spend time with the people who come to their concerts or lectures, to be real people.  But as hard as they might work towards pointing people to Him, we still adulate them and hold up as super-spiritual superstar role models.  It’s as if their ability to play chords on a guitar, write catchy or poetic lyrics, write a compelling novel, or put together an effective Bible study somehow makes them extra-special to God, gives them unique knowledge about God, and designates them especially worthy of our praise.

And then, when it turns out that they are just as messed up as the rest of us – when, for example, their sin becomes public – we toss them to the curb for not living up to the standards we – the Christian audience – have set up for them.

And then we move on to the next Christian celebrity to idolize.

Actually, I feel somewhat sorry for our Christian idols, because they have to deal with our adulation.  As funny as it might sound to our fame-craving culture, I can’t imagine anything more difficult for a Christian than actually making it in a field that exposes them to celebrityism.  Unless you are truly grounded, with a team of non-celebrity friends close by who will warn you when you’re starting to wander off the ranch, you will live in constant danger of believing that you are as wonderful as everyone around you tells you that you are.

holywoodA few weeks ago, I wrote a post called 3 Reasons Why a Christian Film Industry is a Really, Really Bad Idea, and I would make this my fourth reason.  As we stand on the edge of a new Christian Film Industry thanks to the successes of 2014:  do we really want to do the same thing for Christian filmmakers?  Do we really want to create a new cadre of Christian film actor idols?  Christian film director idols?  Christian film producer idols?

We have an opportunity in filmmaking by Christians – a relatively new animal – to do things differently than we did with music and publishing, and I believe part of that comes from not creating an industry around Christian film, but building up professionals from within the existing industry – as missionaries.  Not celebrities.

We have the fresh possibility of intentionally seeing our filmmaking artists – no matter their level of success – as children of God, who are constantly battling their own flesh-driven thorns just like we are, who are the same as we are in God’s eyes, even though they may be able to turn a phrase in a special way, look good on camera, or have a unique eye behind the lens.

Christian filmmakers, part of this fall on you, too.  As you begin to achieve success in Hollywood, stay firmly grounded in the truth that God isn’t impressed that you wrote a feature length script that has been picked up to be made into a film.  He isn’t impressed that the film you worked on for five years was the surprise of the season and brought in a surprisingly high box office.  He isn’t impressed that you made it onto the cover of Variety or Hollywood Reporter.  He isn’t even impressed that you won an Academy Award.

What does impress Him?  Among things, this…

Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”.   Matthew 18:2-4

And this…

Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.  ‘And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment.  “And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”  Mark 12:29-31

And this…

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.”  John 15:4

Fellow Christians, we must stop idolizing other Christians, no matter what their calling.  They’re people, just like you and me, using their gifts to the glory of God.  When we idolize them, we set them on a path that is potentially destructive for them, that could lead them and us away from Him – the only one who deserves our praise.

So admire our Christian artists, academics, writers, and pastors; appreciate and enjoy their gifts; pray for them, certainly.

But let’s keep the idolizing where it belongs.

In front of this guy.

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Remembering Scottish Musician Martyn Bennett

Martyn Bennett.

Do you know the name?

If you know Scottish music, it’s a name you might know.  If you know Scottish music, it’s name you should know.

His could have been a name that most all would have known, regardless of our fondness for music from Scotland.  There are some names that deserve to be known.  But life has a way of writing our scripts in surprising and sometimes cruel and tragic ways.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before I tell you more about Martyn Bennett (the bloke in the picture in the header, picture credit to B.J. Stewart) and why I’m writing about him, you need to hear him.   I think we’ll start with the first track from his second album, Bothy Culture.  The song is called Tongues of Kali.

Oh, and make sure you turn up the volume.

How I heard about Martyn Bennett is a bit of a story.

My wife and I were married in 1998 on New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh, the day of Hogmanay (the last day of year in Scottish).  It’s also the day of one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in the world, as Edinburgh is transformed for one night into a citywide mix of free concerts, dancing, celebratory kissing, and the kind of joyful revelry that should always happen on New Year’s Eve.

173505-street-party-thousands-of-people-descend-on-edinburgh-for-hogmanay

The crowds at Hogmanay.

Considering we had a small wedding that included only five, we made the decision that Edinburgh’s festivities were actually our wedding reception, with thousands of guests and music and fireworks.   As night fell, I put on my rented kilt, and my new bride and I headed out to see what the city had arranged to celebrate our new marriage.

Weaving our way through the festive crowds, we came upon a stage on a fairly empty city square being prepared for a concert.  We had no idea who would be performing, but since few people had yet stopped at the spot, and since I saw different kinds of Scottish musical instruments being handled on the stage, we decided to park ourselves and enjoy watching people until the concert began.

A man with baggy camouflage pants and long hair in dreadlocks came out on stage and started tuning instruments, creating an immediate disconnect for me.  He didn’t fit my image of a traditional Scottish musician.  With the dreads, he looked more like a reggae artist.  Were we really about to ring in the new year in Scotland with reggae music?

But since he was tuning pipes and the other Scottish instruments, it had to be Scottish music, right?

The crowd had started to build, effectively trapping us at the front of the stage, and so we had no choice but to wait and see.

When the performance started, I was transfixed by what I heard coming from the musicians onstage.  It was most definitely Scottish music, but it was infused with club beats and samples and sitars and syncopated rhythms and sounds like I had never heard before.

This was music.

Music full of passion.

Music full of life and energy.

It wasn’t safe music, like some other attempts at blending traditional Celtic music with modern sounds.  It was raw.  It was risky.

muso-rest-in-peace_martyn-bennettIt was, I discovered, a musician named Martyn Bennett.

And things just got better.

My wife, who is a native of Kazakhstan, started squealing (yes, she squealed) and hopping up and down as she realized she’d seen the dreadlocked musician perform at the state opera house in her home city of Almaty, Kazakhstan just a few weeks earlier, when he and a small group of musicians had travelled there as guests of the British Consul.

It was like a special gift, to have the band at our wedding reception be so fantastic and unique, and to have them playing a return engagement especially for my wife.  Well, at least to us it was especially for my wife.

Photo credit Sadie Dayton

Photo credit Sadie Dayton

The concert that night was unforgettable, especially when midnight came, and the city erupted in a massive fireworks display.  Bennett led the now overcrowded square in a traditional singalong of Auld Lang Syne that segued into an audience-pleasing high energy song that would be well-met in any rave.  We danced and celebrated well into the night, one of the best nights of my life, and an amazing way to start our married life.

In Edinburgh, in the days that followed, I managed to find a copy of Bennett’s Bothy Culture, which we would listen to frequently, fondly.

Soon after, my wife and I moved to Kazakhstan, where we lived for fourteen years.  One day in 2005, I decided to hunt down information about the dreadlocked musician that we had enjoyed so much that New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh.  I loved the CD, and wanted more.  We would be returning to the U.S. for the summer, so I went searching, knowing I would stand a pretty good chance of tracking down any new music in the states.

To my heartbreak, I found that Martyn Bennett had died on January 30 of that year at the ridiculously young age of 34.  He’d died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which he’d been fighting since being diagnosed in November of 2000.

I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t imagine it.  That energetic, creative, driving force, who I’d watched blow across Hogmanay like a hurricane – was gone?

grit-albumFrom what I’ve read, as Martyn’s illness weakened him, he became unable to tour, and eventually had to stop playing his instruments.  But this didn’t stop him from recording his final album, entitled Grit.  Bennett described the idea of Grit this way:

Split between the songs of travelling people (Roma) and the Gaelteachd traditions of the Hebrides (Grit) brings together by far the strongest links to the ‘real’ folk culture in Scotland. Virtually all the songs and narrative were sampled from vinyl records or from original quarter-inch tape recordings, the sources of which were mostly recorded from 1950 onwards…

Rhythmically and sonically I have gone to great effort in this recording. In recent years so many representations of Scotland have been misty-lensed and fanciful to the point that the word ‘Celtic’ has really become a cloudy pigeon-hole. This album was a chance for me to present a truthful picture, yet face my own reflection in the great mirror of all cultures.

When I found out that Martyn Bennett had died, it’s hard to describe how devastated I felt, considering I had never met the man.  I really didn’t even know much about him.  And I hadn’t even taken the time to drop him a note thanking him for the important part he played in the start of my marriage.

His music had travelled the globe with my family several times, and I’d never tried to let him know.

That’s the kind of thing we think about doing, but rarely ever do.  And we almost always wind up wishing that we had.

So, Martyn, this is my note.  We’re coming up on ten years since you were liberated from your suffering, and this blog post is my attempt to honor you, and thank you for all the joy and pleasure you brought to so many people in the too-short time you were given to share your gift.  Especially the joy and pleasure you brought to us.

And it’s also my attempt to help more people to know your name, and your music.

Because yours is a name that deserves to be remembered.

Martyn Bennett lived a full life, pursuing his dreams of preserving the musical heritage of Scotland’s past while embracing the progressive nature of Scotland’s musical future.  He was a classically trained musician, a meticulous musical perfectionist with a love of sampling and house beats.  He was – and continues to be – an inspiration to countless young musicians across Scotland, and beyond.

www.martynbennett.com

Please read more about Martyn’s life in his own words, by reading the bio he wrote on his blog.

Also, read more in depth about Bennett’s life from Herald Scotland journalist, Rob Adams.

Finally, enjoy some of the music of Martyn Bennett, then share it with others.

Extreme biker Danny Macaskill’s The Ridge, with soundtrack Martyn Bennett’s Blackbird from Grit

Hallaig, from Bothy Culture, and the award winning short film by Neil Kempsell

Swallowtail, a more traditional song by Martyn Bennett, with scenes from Man of Aran

Sky Blue by Peter Gabriel, the Martyn Bennett mix.  The last recording Bennett made before his death.

And if you have the chance, try to see GRIT: The Martyn Bennett Story.