American Cultural Christianity Roundup • the film edition • January 11, 2017

There have been several notable stories in the world of Christian-made film these past few days, and I wanted to summarize a few of them (and comment, of course) for my faithful readers.

1. The Case for Christ

Deadline ran a story this week about the upcoming PureFlix film, The Case for Christ, based on the successful apologetics book by Lee Strobel. The website ran the story with the provocative title, “‘The Case For Christ’ Teaser: Athiest Vs. Believers, From ‘God’s Not Dead’ Filmmakers

Three interesting points about this story.

First, the teaser trailer was actually released several months ago, but Deadline presented it as if it happened in the past week.

Second, while the title of the story is essentially correct, it does seem like Deadline’s editors are trying to stoke some sort of fires through the headline.

Third, I’m quite fascinated by the current trend in Christian-made filmmaking to take a popular book (even a nonfiction, largely non-narrative one like The Case for Christ) or song (see the other stories discussed in this post) and turn them into narrative movies. This seems like a studio mindset sort of thing to do, because it’s safe. Existing properties and familiar names are always the safer bet for box office returns, but doing this with songs seems to be a throwback to the 70’s and 80’s when it was done with some frequency in secular films (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Convoy, Take This Job And Shove It, Harper Valley PTA, Ode To Billy Jo, etc). But it’s something that has fallen out of fashion in recent years.

And while turning narrative books into movies is nothing new, examples of non-narrative books (like A Case For Christ) being turned into narrative movies are a bit harder to find. How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying did it in the late 1960’s, Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask) in the early 70’s, and more recently, He’s Just Not That Into You.

The Case for Christ is a bit different in that the book does contain narrative elements, but the bulk of the book examines the arguments for and against the Christian faith. It’ll be interesting to see how this material is handled in a narrative film.

Meanwhile, if it is successful, maybe we’ll see faith-based filmmaking pick up this trend and make narrative films for other hit non-narrative books like The Prayer of Jabez or Mere Christianity.

2. I Can Only Imagine

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REX/Shutterstock

Speaking of turning songs into movies, the über-successful Christian song I Can Only Imagine is being turned into a motion picture starring Dennis Quaid, Trace Atkins, and Cloris Leachman.

 

For those who live on Mars, or outside the Christian bubble, I Can Only Imagine is a song that was originally released by the Christian supergroup MercyMe in 2001. The song imagines a person encountering heaven for the first time and being overwhelmed by the reality of being with God and loved ones for eternity. While I’ve enjoyed the song from time to time (even if it is arguably one of the most over-played songs in Christian music) I never dreamed that anyone would consider turning the song into a major motion picture.

I Can Only Imagine has a shelf life that other songs can only dream of. Here we are, over fifteen years after the song was initially released, and it remains in the iTunes top 10 Gospel and Christian song list.  The song has also been named the most played single in Christian radio history.

No wonder someone decided to make it into a movie.

To get an idea of where they will be taking this film (which apparently will tell the story of the writing of the song) you can read this article from Christian Post. That article details Bart Millard’s journey to write the song, and the film will undoubtedly explore that time of his life.

While I’m not terribly keen on the idea of turning a hit Christian song into a film, I’ve generally liked the work of the Erwin brothers in the past. So, I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen the final product, which is due to hit theaters in Spring 2018.

Now I just need to start working on that treatment for Lord, I Lift Your Name On High: The Film

[By the way, if any of my readers are in Oklahoma City, they are filming the last scene of the movie this Friday at the Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall, and they’re looking for extras. Read more here.]

3. God Bless The Broken Road

The Hollywood Reporter recently posted a story about former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson taking a role in another upcoming movie based on a popular song.

God Bless The Broken Road is also an interesting song-to-movie project, maybe even moreso than I Can Only Imagine, for a number of reasons.

First of all, the song is not a “Christian song”, but a country music song that is being turned into a film that falls into the “faith-based” genre.

Second, the original song (first recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt band, and more recently by Rascall Flatts) was called “Bless the Broken Road”, but the filmmakers added “God” to the title. A small adjustment to increase the appeal to the Big Christian Audience or a more complete title, considering the song lyric is “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you”?

Third, the film is being brought to us by various members of the God’s Not Dead team – director Harold Cronk, actress Robin Givens, producers Troy Duhon and Dustin Solomon, distributed by PureFlix. A filmgoer’s anticipation for this film might be directly impacted by that knowledge – in a good or a bad way – depending on their opinion of the GND movies. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing what this team does with a non-GND property.

Fourth, the description of the film in IMDB ends by saying “…the film combines elements of faith, country music, and stock car racing while paying tribute to those who serve in the United States Military.”

Do these categories represent the new four quadrants in American Christian-targeted filmmaking?

4. The Ark Encounter

Finally, in a non-film related note, this past summer I was able to attend the grand opening of The Ark Encounter in Kentucky. I detailed that visit in a review of my experience which you can read here.

However, the folks at the Ark Encounter recently tweeted an announcement about a new display which will be opening soon.

Yes, it is a viscious dinosaur being released into an arena filled with excited fans, like Gladiator meets Jurassic Park. See my review of The Dinosaur Kingdom II for similar displays.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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Branding the Christian Faith • 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media • Day 32

Consumer Jesus by Bangsy

Consumer Jesus by Bangsy

Branding Christianity.

As I enter the home stretch of my 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, I’m struck by the irritating oxymoron that we sell our Christian faith as just another brand on the shelf.

But before I get into that, I want to consider the concept of branding as a practice.

I just returned from a week in Arizona with my Chinese and Korean elementary and middle school students (yeah, I know… the world’s coolest field trip) and seeing my home country through their eyes, I was struck by how intently everyone and everything is branded.

For example, the boys in my group desperately wanted to get to clothing shops like Hollister’s, because the Hollister’s brand is so popular among a segment of youth in China.  They also wanted Gap, Target, Sketchers, Abercrombie and Fitch, and others.  But it wasn’t just clothing, because when we took them out to eat, they wanted to try the branded restaurants – Chipotle, Cracker Barrel, Red Robin, etc.  The one notable exception was the non-franchised generic Chinese restaurant we took them to so that they could experience Americanized Chinese food (which is almost a brand unto itself), and which they loved, to my amazement.

On the one hand, branding makes sense.  You know that you’re going to get the same quality product no matter where you are.  A Starbucks in Phoenix is the same as a Starbucks in Shenzhen.  The Apple computer you buy in Richmond is going to be the same as the Apple computer you buy in Hong Kong.  There’s a comfort in that fact.  There’s security in that fact.

And isn’t that what we’re after in life?  Comfort and security?

[On a side note, this recent exposure to the concept of branding makes me think my next 40 day challenge should be to try and live a brand-free life.  But I digress…]

rebrandingJesusBranding has worldwide power and influence, and so it comes as no surprise that the faithful would seek to take the Christian faith and turn it into another brand on the marketplace.  Want a hamburger?  Go to McDonalds.  Want to be entertained?  Go see the latest Disney movie.  Want spiritual salvation?  Why not try brand Jesus?

The problem is that the practice of branding the faith has led to the less-than-stellar state of Christian media that we experience today.  And yes, after the past 32 days, I can testify that Christian media, even made with the best of intentions, is less-than-stellar.

After all, branding brings comfort and security.

Branding doesn’t encourage risk and asking difficult questions.

And while Christianity does both of those things, most of our media does not.

For a good example of where I’ve seen this, during my week in Arizona I didn’t have time to expose myself to much Christian media.  We were running all day and night (not just shopping, by the way), and the only place I could find Christian media was while driving the van from place to place, in the form of Christian radio “family-friendly” radio stations, stations that are infamous for trying to appeal to the “Becky” demographic archetype.

Not surprisingly, I was completely underwhelmed by what I found there.  But, I’m not a middle-aged soccer mom, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t surprise me.

Here’s the rub with my response to Christian family-friendly music:  I personally know a few Christian musicians and songwriters, and they are – without a doubt – talented people.  In fact, the ones I know have more talent in their little toe than I have in my entire body.  And yet, popular Christian family-friendly music, the kind you hear on our radio stations, arguably the most visible (audible?) part of the Christian brand, is just… bland.

Uninteresting.  Predictable.  Over-produced.  Safe.

And those are not words that I would use to describe the Christian faith.

It seems like Christian music makers are limited by the restraints put on them by the Christian Industrial Complex, which tries to please a certain demographic, and that makes me sad.

But then, that’s the whole concept behind branding, isn’t it?

This practice also underscores my argument that the last thing that Christian filmmakers need to do is allow their craft to be pigeon-holed into some sort of Christian filmmaking industry.  Because at the end of the day, you can be the most talented filmmaker of your generation, but if you have suits from the Christian Industrial Complex above you dictating what you have to do and what you can’t do in order to fit the niche audience’s needs, you will never make a movie that rises above the level of bland.

But again, it all comes back to the bad idea of the creation of Christian brands in the first place.

Can you imagine if the writers and characters of the Bible had been restricted by 21st century evangelical faith-based branding?  If the Christian Industrial Complex had had a hand in what we read today when we open our Bibles?

I think our Scriptures might have been pretty different.  For example…

adameve• Adam and Eve would have been created wearing modest clothing, and the couple would probably also have been wearing complementary Lord’s Gym and His Pain Your Gain t-shirts.

• The story of Noah would have been a nice story about a kindly old man who builds a big boat filled with animals, and saves them from a flood.  There wouldn’t be anything about worldwide devastation, about the death of all other young and old living creatures.  No, it would be something well suited for a Sunday School flannelgraph.

• Forget the whole Noah post-flood-getting-drunk-on-homemade-wine thing.  Welch’s grape juice, maybe, but definitely not homemade wine, and definitely not to the point of getting drunk.

• Abraham would have proudly told Pharaoh that Sarai was his wife, showing the power of his faith, the strength of his convictions, and his respect for the sanctity of marriage.  Then he might have been invited by Pharaoh to speak at the annual Egyptian Men’s Conference.

• The Israelites would have shown much more faith as they wandered in the wilderness.  Making the golden calf?  Out!  Complaining about manna?  Forget it!  Being killed by snakes for their unfaithfulness?  Wouldn’t happen!  They would have been a much more faithful lot, and then Moses would have gotten to go to the promised land, too.

peanut-butter-cup• David dancing naked into the city after the return of the Ark of the Covenant?  Are you kidding me?  First of all, he wouldn’t have danced.  Second, he would have been wearing suitable clothing, including quite possibly the Jesus, Sweet Savior t-shirt along with a respectful pair of dungarees.

• Speaking of David, he wouldn’t have had the whole embarrassing Bathsheba affair.  But if it had to happen, then he would have been excused from his role in leadership until a proper amount of time had passed, and then he would have been allowed back, properly contrite, having learned a valuable lesson, and he would have written a book about his experiences.

• Song of Solomon?  With all that sexual content?  Not a chance.

• And don’t get me started on the prophets.  There would be some serious retooling of those stories needed to make them more palatable to Becky and her friends.

So, what do we do?

Knowing that The Christian Industrial Complex is out there, researching us, trying to figure out what it is that will motivate us to use their services or buy their products, just like Apple, just like Coca-Cola, just like every other branded producer on the marketplace?  What do we do?

It’s really quite simple.  We make a concerted, focused effort to grow in the Christian faith – apart from The Christian Industrial Complex.

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Christian publishers, a Duck Dynasty Bible is too much. Way, way too much. Seriously.

And that means we need to take a page from the Reformation and learn to study God’s word for ourselves.  We don’t need to depend on study Bibles written by the celebrity pastors, famous singers, or even famous duck call salesmen.

Not that the celebrity pastors can’t write worthwhile stuff.  Of course they can.  But we shouldn’t depend upon the celebrity pastors at the cost of not thinking for ourselves.

We must study the Scriptures and learn for ourselves.

The problem is that we’re not doing this.

Last year, Lifeway Research (admittedly part of the CIC) concluded that 19% of American churchgoers read the Bible every day, 26% a few times a week, 14% once a week, 22% once a month, and 18% never read it.

No wonder we’re settling for what The Complex serves us, because we’re not growing in our faith on our own!  We’re expecting others to feed us, and we’re not interested in working for it ourselves.

But here’s the kicker – we’re told very specifically in Philippians that we are to be working out our salvation with fear and trembling!  That doesn’t give the impression that we’re to be concerned with comfort and security, but that we’re supposed to be working!  Yes, it’s work, and it can be scary business, if you’re doing it right.  It’s unsettling!  It’s not at all simple!

And the branding of the Christian faith is just the opposite.

And meanwhile, here I sit, with eight days left on my challenge.  To be honest, I’m really, really looking forward to this challenge being over.  I think I can handle Christian media when I take it in bite-sized chunks, but when I consume nothing else each day, it’s too much.

I long for a Sacred Arts Revolution.

But it’s not all dark, creatively.  There have been some hopeful signs I’ve found in the world of media (specifically music) being made by Christians, but typically outside of the Christian Industrial Complex.

Enjoy Mutemath, Future of Forestry, and Audrey Assad.

 

 

 

 

 

Rich Mullins Interview • Ichthus Festival, 1996

In the midst of the 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, I think a little Rich is called for, as refreshment.

Sorry for the quality of the recording.  It was, after all, the 90’s.

[on moving away from Nashville to a Navajo reservation to teach music to kids] I just kind of got tired of the white evangelical middle class sort of perspective on God and I thought maybe I would have more luck finding Christ among the pagan Navajos.

If I were going to be a good car, if Mr. Ford had invented me and I wanted to bring Mr. Ford glory, what would I do?  I wouldn’t go conquer countries, I wouldn’t plow fields, I would simply be a car.

If I believe that God is good, which I think as a Christian we must, then I have to believe that my life is good whether or not I like it, whether or not I find it particularly pleasant or easy or exciting or what.  If God is good, and if life is a gift that we are given from God, then I must learn to accept my life.

I kind of tend to think that we should be God’s person in the place where we are, and if God wants you to go to Egypt, he will provide eleven jealous brothers and they will sell you into slavery.

Man, I miss him.

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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