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

 

 

 

Nine Things I Learned from 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media. Yes, it’s over.

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

On March 12, I made the decision to consume nothing but Christian media for forty days and to document the experience.  I wasn’t angling for a book deal, or trying to increase revenue by upping clicks on my blog (I make no money off of this blog).  I just wanted to see what would happen if I restricted myself to a steady diet of media created by Christians, for Christians, the kind you could only buy from a Christian bookstore.

Would I grow in some way?  Spiritually?  Physically?  Mentally?  Would it somehow make me into a more sincere and effective Christian?  Would I snap and throw my laptop from my 16th floor balcony?

Well, as of today (due to some international travel that messed up the days a bit) those forty days are finally over, and while I did have to get a new laptop, it was because of catastrophic systems failure in the old one, and not because of a Christian-media-induced mental breakdown.

And that sound you hear is me, breathing.

Deep breaths.

Deep, cleansing, cautious breaths.

My first official non-Christian-made media as I’m coming off the forty days?  Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar soundtrack.

Man, I missed me some Hans Zimmer.

Yesterday, my wife asked me if I’d learned anything over the past forty days, and I’d like to answer her question here, for anyone to see.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE 40 DAYS (AND NIGHTS) OF CHRISTIAN MEDIA CHALLENGE

Over the past 40 days…

1.  You take the good, you take the bad…

I have learned that, like with regular media, there are some really good bits of Christian media and there are some incredibly horrid bits.  The incredibly horrid bits are typically the ones that get the most attention and marketing money, and get sold by Christian retailers.  The really good bits are typically harder to find, but it’s worth the effort.

Balaam and the angel, painting from Gustav Jaeger, 1836.

Balaam and the angel, painting from Gustav Jaeger, 1836.

2.  The Balaam’s Donkey Effect

I have learned to my surprise that God even uses the incredibly horrid bits of Christian media to encourage people.  I have no idea why He does this, but I call it The Balaam’s Donkey Effect.

As Rich said, you never know who God is gonna use.

3.  Misuse of The Balaam’s Donkey Effect

I have learned that some Christian media producers take the Balaam’s Donkey Effect to mean that you can produce media with good intentions alone and God will bless it because of those good intentions.

They seem to forget that the Bible has a lot to say about excellence.

4.  The True Salt and Lighters

I have learned that there are Christian producers of media, true “salt and lighters”, working very hard within traditional media companies to produce great work that is not necessarily obviously Christian.

I’ve also learned that these people don’t get near the attention from within the church as do the obvious Christian media producers.

And this is going to be hard to hear, but I think that it needs to be said:  I have concluded that this is really stupid and short-sighted on the part of the church.

Church, pay special attention to the following statement, because it is a message for you: Support Christians working in non-Christian media companies like they are missionaries, because that’s what they are.  

“But my denomination doesn’t send out missionaries to Hollywood or Nashville.  How do we know who they are?”

Easy.  Do some research.  They’re not hard to find.

And once you do find them, support them with prayers and finances.  Have a Sunday School class adopt them, and send them Amazon gift cards.  Remember their kid’s birthdays.  If they live close, invite them out to dinner and let them talk about their projects.  Creatives love talking about the things they are trying to do.  In short, treat them the way you do your missionaries to Africa and Asia and Latin America.  They are in a mission field that is just as challenging in many ways.

And lastly on this point, don’t just find and support the people working in the more visible fields of Christian media (the authors, the singers, the directors, and such), but also the ones who work behind the scenes (the sound engineers, the DPs, the editors, the key grips, and so on).  It’s just as hard to be a Christ-following techie in media as it is to be a celebrity.  Maybe harder.

5.  The Dreaded Christian Bubble

I have learned that our Christian sub-culture bubble is arguably un-Biblical.  We weren’t called to be hermits living in caves.  How can we show we’re not of the culture unless we’re engaged with the culture?

Recently I was involved in a discussion with a somewhat well-known Christian filmmaker, who stunned me when he said that he’d not actually watched any non-Christian movies in his life.

In. His. Life.

Not even the “safe” non-Christian movies.  He didn’t see any need to expose himself to the films of the world, and didn’t think that it affected his own filmmaking abilities.

Romans 14 tells me that I have to respect this man’s convictions on watching films, and so I do, from a brother-in-Christ point of view.  From a filmmaking point of view, I will be really surprised if he ever actually makes an all-around decent movie.  The odds are stacked against him, since he’s cut himself off from the professional influence of people who really know how to make films.

And we see Christians encasing themselves in bubbles all over the place.  We need to pop those bubbles.

6.  The Need for Christian Media for Christians

I have learned to respect the need for Christian-made media that is made specifically for Christians.  It’s quite nice that we can watch television and surf the internet and listen to music, just like non-Christians do, and grow in the faith.

But I do wish a couple of things would happen with this media:

First, I wish that the ones making media for the Christian subculture would just acknowledge they are making media for Christians rather than pretending that their work is making any substantial positive impact on the wider culture.  The Balaam’s Donkey Effect notwithstanding, I’m talking about being honest and open about the demographics you honestly think you will reach.  The majority of non-Christians in the world have a very low opinion of our music, our movies, and our books.  We need to face that fact.

Second, I wish the ones making media for the Christian subculture would challenge the Christian subculture more, and not just hit all the right beats to make it suitably digestible.  Doesn’t 2 Timothy say something about itching ears?

family7.  Family Friendly ≠ Faith Based

I have learned that we should – for once and for all – draw a big fat line between “family-friendly” and “faith-based”.  I’ve made this point on the blog before, but over the last forty days I found myself longing for a faith-based film that was willing to plumb the depths of the human condition as well as explore the heights, and only found it with The Song.  Faith-based films should be allowed to go mature and dark in order to truly show the light.

Where is the Christian-made Calvary?  Where is the Christian-made Shawshank Redemption?  Unforgiven?  Schindler’s List?  For that matter, why did we need Angelina Jolie to make a decent (if incomplete) version of Unbroken?

The problem is that we’ve shackled family-friendly and faith-based together, and in the process we’ve cut ourselves off from being able to make really good drama.  Only a non-Christian can really tell our stories well, and then we get upset when they don’t tell them the way we want them to be told.

8.  Fear Not

If I can judge the state of the 21st American Christian church by the state of her media, I’ve learned that we Christians seem to be afraid.  Of all sorts of things.

We’re afraid of homosexuals, Muslim radicals, bad parenting, Hollywood, video games, illegal immigrants, the dark side of the internet, atheist filmmakers making Bible epics, the other side of the political aisle gaining political power, magic, public education, higher education, and losing our American freedoms and rights.  To name just a few things.

6a00d8341bffb053ef0133ed1fe566970b-450wiDon’t get me wrong.  Of course we should be concerned about the issues.  Of course we should learn what’s going on so that we can pray about things.

But we shouldn’t be afraid.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

If we truly believe that God is sovereign, then we should live with hopeful anticipation about what He is doing in the world, not in fear that He’s somehow losing control.

9.  The Heart of the Matter

Finally, the most important thing I’ve learned over the past forty days is the importance of starting the day in God’s Word.  I’ve mentioned a couple of times over these past 40 days that I’ve been utilizing the daily devotional written by Skye Jethani, and I highly recommend it.

If you are a Christian who – like me – loves secular media, I strongly urge you to make it a point to start your day in the presence of your heavenly Father.  This will better enable you to meet the challenges found in trying to swim in the tsunami of secular media, and will infuse you with the grace to step into the stream of Christian-made media with understanding and patience.

There are plenty of Christians around the world for whom the Bible is literally the only Christian media they have exposure to, and guess what?

They survive.

And in my opinion, they’re probably a lot better off than the rest of us.

Thanks to all who joined me in this forty day adventure in odyssey.  Come back for my next challenge, The 40 Days (and Nights) of Star Wars Media Challenge.

screen-shot-2014-08-25-at-12-30-30-pm

I’ve got a bad feeling about this…

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.

Suing the Devil • Thimblerig’s Review • Part 2

For some background, and to see part one of this review, click here.

In anticipation of Tim Chey’s upcoming biblically correct film, David and Goliath, I went in search of a film also made by the filmmaker, hoping to get a sense of his style and personality.  That search led me to Suing the Devil, starring Malcolm McDowell as old Scratch himself.

suing_the_devil_xlg“In the film, Luke O’Brien (Bart Bronsen), a washed-up janitor turned night law student, decides to sue Satan (Malcolm McDowell) for $8 trillion dollars. On the last day before Luke files a default judgment, Satan appears to defend himself. On Satan’s legal team are 10 of the country’s best trial lawyers (Dennis Cole, Jeff Gannon, Annie Lee). The entire world watches Legal TV (Corbin Bernsen, Tom Sizemore, Rebecca St. James) to see who will win the Trial of the Century.”

As I usually do with my film reviews, I will start with what I liked about Suing the Devil, then where I think the filmmakers could have improved, and then I’ll rate the movie according to the Thimblerig Scale, which you can read about here.

But before I do that, here’s the trailer.

What I liked:

1)  The cinematography

I’m happy that this is becoming a fairly constant positive when it comes to my reviews of Christian made films.  Suing the Devil looked quite good, with some interesting camera work, and it was obvious that the filmmakers intended for the film to have a feature film quality feel to it.  For the most part, they succeeded.

2)  The humor

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 5.53.13 PMThe film often had a lightness that the subject matter demanded, keeping it from falling into a completely dark place.  Most of the humor was found in the responses of the Legal TV broadcast, with Corbin Bernsen, Rebecca St. James, and Tom Sizemore reacting to the events of the courtroom, but Satan was given some pretty good lines, too – such as his encounter with the zealous Kiss fan in the trailer.

3)  The earnestness

I’m slowly coming around to appreciate the earnestness of Christian-made films.  Unfortunately, earnestness alone doesn’t help make a film a good film, but as a Christian, I can respect a fellow Christian filmmaker wanting to use his or her opportunity on screen to share the faith.  Suing the Devil, as with most Christian-made films, would have benefited from a healthy dose of subtlety and artistry to make the film more accessible for the non-Christian audience, but the sincerity of the filmmakers wanting to share The Message was evident in this film from start to finish.

4)  Malcolm McDowell

suing-the-devil-09This movie rose and fell on Malcolm McDowell, and he earned whatever sum of money he was paid.  He camped it up where it needed to be camped, and he was suitably intimidating when he needed to intimidate.  I especially thought the monologue about the creation of noise to be especially poignant.

“You know what I created, do you?  I created noise!  And like the dumb idiots you are, you worshipped it!  Humans love the noise I create.  Car alarms, motorcycles, leaf blowers, nightclubs, gangsta rap, techno music, everything that creates noise, I invented.  Noise drowns out any thoughts of God.  (noise erupts in the courtroom)  What’s the matter?  Don’t you love the music of hell?”

I shudder to think how these lines would have been, coming from a lesser actor.

Which brings me to what I didn’t like about Suing the Devil.

1)  The rest of the actors

I’m sorry to say, but it seems like Mr. Chey spent the bulk of his budget on getting Mr. McDowell, Mr. Bernstein, Ms. St. James, and Mr. Sizemore.  While a few of Satan’s lawyers were pretty good, most of the other actors performed on the typical Christian film level, meaning disappointingly.

This actually has me concerned for what we’re going to see from David and Goliath, a film that reportedly has a huge budget of $50 million dollars, but with no known actors in any of the roles.  In fact, looking through the actors’ IMDB pages, most have few acting credits.  Unfortunately, Suing the Devil seems to demonstrate that directing green actors may not be Mr. Chey’s strong suit.

2)  The script

Warning: this paragraph contains a big spoiler.

As disappointed as I was by the acting, my bigger problem with the film was the uneven script, which confused me as to what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish.  Were they trying to make a goofball comedy?  A courtroom drama?  A supernatural horror?  An inspirational evangelistic film?  The different styles were thrown together with such lack of subtlety that it turned out being more jarring than effective cinema.

Much of the script seemed cobbled together from old courtroom drama movies, as if they went through the tropes for courtroom dramas and ticked off the boxes.

angry-judgeAmoral attorney?  Check.

Army of Lawyers?  Check.

Chewbacca defense?  Check.

Crusading Lawyer?  Check.

Evil Lawyer Joke?  Check.

Frivolous Lawsuit?  Check.

Hello, Attorney?  Check.

Hollywood Law?  Check.

Insanity Defense?  Check.

The Judge?  Check.

Occult Law Firm?  Check.

Omnidisciplinary Lawyer?  Check.

Penultimate Outburst?  Check.

Stock Legal Phrases?  Check.

Tort reform?  Check.

And then there were the manufactured moments of triumph that just didn’t make sense (everyone erupting into applause when Luke tells Satan he’s going to hell), the on-the-nose sermonizing in the form of dialogue (Satan: “Do you remember the Garden of Gethsemane?  All the disciples were asleep, and he had no one to turn to.  And he still went through with it!  Unbelievable!”  Luke:  “Yeah, what a great guy.  That’s why I owe him, big.”), the cliche’ lines and expressions (Satan actually cries out, “You can’t handle the truth!” on the stand after a particularly strong bit of questioning.  Since they were filming in Australia, I was surprised that they also didn’t have Satan say, “That’s not a knife.  That is a knife.”)

And then there was the biggest disappointment of all.

The ending.

After winning the court case, defeating Satan by trusting God, Luke wakes up to find that it was all a dream.  He’d fallen asleep in the first minute of the film, and then wakes up at the very end, like George Bailey at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, transformed because of the events of his dream.

This worked with It’s A Wonderful Life for at least a couple of reasons.  One, Frank Capra spent time setting up why George Bailey needed to be transformed.  When he comes back in the end, we’re relieved, because we were rooting for him.  In Devil, we don’t know anything about Luke, so why should we care if he’s changed?  Two, It’s A Wonderful Life had the nerve to suggest that supernatural powers were at work to teach George Bailey his value.  For some reason, with Suing the Devil, a movie that spent quite a bit of time preaching about the supernatural and God, it all turned out to be a random nightmare.  The film could have benefited from actual supernatural involvement.

Ironically, the filmmakers promoted the film saying, “At a time when only 60% of Christians believe that the devil exists, the film is exposing the devil’s greatest tactic: that he doesn’t exist.”  But that idea is completely destroyed when the entire film turns out to have been a dream.  After all, the film’s Satan was all a product of the main character’s subconscious, speaking to him from a dream.  So, nothing exposed, nothing gained.  Which was a pity.

Would I recommend Suing the Devil?  Sure, why not?  Especially if you are interested to see the really paradoxical image of Malcolm McDowell hamming it up in a Christian-made film.  You might not love the movie, but you may enjoy Mr. McDowell.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for:  The Golden Groundhog Movie Scale, inspired by a blog post I wrote a year ago, What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking.  In that blog post, I said that Christian filmmakers needed to do five things so that our filmmaking could have an impact outside the Christian bubble.

Those five things included:

1.  Our films need to take more risks.

On paper, Suing the Devil seems like a risky movie.  The slightly psychotic poster, the idea of a person having the audacity to sue Satan, hiring Malcolm McDowell in the role of Beelzebub, in fact the idea of the movie was enough to get the film listed in Wired Magazine’s 2011 list of 28 Summer Movies That Could Rock Your Summer.

But even with all of that, at it’s heart, the movie is just another safe evangelical film, for the Christian audience.

However, for effort, Thimblerig awards 1/2 a Golden Groundhog.

2.  Our films need to challenge our audience.

Considering that the audience for this film was evangelical Christians, I can’t imagine that they were challenged very much.  An argument could be made that the film challenged lukewarm Christians to consider the reality of Satan being at work in our lives, but the fact that it all turned out to be a dream negated that lesson, in large part.  Even the little whisper from Satan at the end wasn’t enough to recover the challenge.

No Golden Groundhogs.

3.  The pulpit is the pulpit, and art is art, and we need to let them be the two different things that they are – in other words, consider delivering the message subtly rather than having preachy, didactic films.

This film was made for the pulpit.  It’s the kind of movie that would play very well in churches and with youth groups.  The film had two clergymen espouse doctrine from the witness stands, the protagonist and Satan himself quoted Bible verses to prove their arguments, and Hillsong worship songs played in the background.

You can’t get much more “pulpity” than that.

No Golden Groundhogs.

4.  Our films shouldn’t give all the answers.

Suing the Devil did not leave any question unanswered, because all the questions were negated when it all turned out to be a dream.  If it hadn’t been a dream, there could have been some questions to be answered – what happened with Luke’s strangely southern-accented cancer-stricken wife?  How did the devil handle his defeat?

But thanks to that whole dream conceit, no Golden Groundhogs.

5.  We are beholden to tell good stories.

Again, this film had the potential to be a good story, but pulled apart at the seams with each passing minute.  However, for having the nerve to try and tell such an audacious story, I would award it half a golden groundhog.

1/2 a Golden Groundhog.

Final tally:  1 out of 5 Golden Groundhogs.

In conclusion, while I admire Tim Chey’s ability to raise large sums of money for his productions, while he seems to be the kind of person I would enjoy spending time with in real life, and while I appreciate that he has managed to produce, write, and/or direct multiple films, Suing the Devil did not make me a fan of his directing, for the reasons listed above.

Where does this leave me, as far as David and Goliath is concerned?   For what it’s worth, the good news for the filmmakers is that I’ve got nowhere to go but up, with regards to my expectations.  As is usually the case when it comes to the Christian-made films, I have the highest hopes that the film will surprise me, but realistic expectations that it will not.

Finally, I hope the fact that I wrote this review doesn’t make me come across as a jealous or carnal Christian (see part 1 of this review to see why I say this).  If it does, however, then I’ll just rest in the satisfaction that my salvation doesn’t rest in whether or not I like Tim Chey’s films, but in the redemptive and finished work of my Savior on the cross.

This post is a part of my 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, where I’m doing my best to consume nothing but Christian media.  This has led me to make some good Christian media discoveries, as well as some real clunkers.

Day 17 down.

Some trivia about Suing the Devil:

Shortly before the film was released on DVD, there was a mad rush on pirated downloads of the film, with over 100,000 illegal downloads of Suing the Devil happening over the course of two days.  When the producers of the film contacted Piratebay and asked them to remove the film from their servers, Piratebay refused, and then their IMDB page was hit by a rush of negative reviews, apparently in retaliation.  Of course, this also gave the filmmakers some bragging rights, that their movie had been illegally downloaded that many times, to the point that they released a press releases telling the story.  No such thing as bad press, right?

Second bit of trivia about Suing the Devil:

In an example of life imitating art, Tim Chey sued Netflix for $10 million dollars for not making Suing the Devil available on www.netflix.com.  Mr. Chey claimed that Netflix had committed “the most egregious act ever committed by a film distributor.”  Unfortunately, the story didn’t end happily for Mr. Chey, as the suit was dismissed by the U.S. district court judge overseeing the case.

Tim Chey’s Suing the Devil • Thimblerig’s Review • Part 1

A month or so ago, I came across a trailer for David & Goliath, a new Christian-made film being released in April.  The film caught my eye because it was a Christian-made film being touted as having an unheard of $50 million budget, and the filmmakers seemed intent on comparing themselves to Darren Aronofky’s Noah, and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, making the heady claim that unlike those atheist-helmed endeavors, their film would be “biblically correct in every way.”

Setting aside the “biblically correct” statement for a moment, a few things came to mind as I watched this trailer.  First, why do filmmakers continue to give the people of ancient times British accents?  Second, why do filmmakers persist in hiring caucasian actors to play Middle Easterners?  Third, why – in the age of CGI wonders – would you make a 50 million dollar feature film about David and Goliath, and then proceed to make Goliath seem so… unimpressive?

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.04.12 AM

One of these is a scary giant. The other is a big Canadian. Which is which?

 

But I was curious, because it seemed like the filmmakers were being very persistent and quite verbose in talking up their film.  So, I went searching for more and in the process discovered writer, director, and producer Tim Chey.

tim-pic-1-427x284Timothy A. Chey is a filmmaker who has been making faith-based films for the past several years.  Some films he has either written or directed (or both) include Freedom (with Cuba Gooding, Jr), The Genius Club (with Steven Baldwin), Final: The Rapture (with several actors I didn’t recognize), and the subject of today’s review, Suing the Devil (with Malcolm McDowell).

Curious, I scoured the internet for anything I could find out about Mr. Chey.  I discovered several print interviews with a variety of Christian websites, and a handful of televised interviews where Mr. Chey appeared on Carman’s talk show (the well-known Christian singer who was quite popular in the 80’s), Christ in Prophecy, and other similar broadcasts.  After reading and watching everything I could find, I was left with a split opinion of Mr. Chey, or at least the Mr. Chey we can see online.

On the one hand, in his video interviews Mr. Chey came across as a good natured and passionate Christian, a man who understands that Christians should embrace cinema, and he seemed like the kind of person I would enjoy sitting around with, talking movies.  I also can appreciate that his movies have reportedly had positive spiritual impact, encouraging believers, and even being a tool that God has used to draw people into faith in Him.

On the other hand, in his print interviews, and sometimes on video, Mr. Chey often played the role of the persecuted Christian filmmaker.   Did he truly experience the sorts of persecution to which he eluded?  Or was this a strategy on his part, to stir up some controversy and make his films more interesting to the evangelical audience?

I really don’t know, but I wanted to address two things that he talked about in multiple interviews, that seem to be a recurring theme in the narrative he paints of David and Goliath in particular, and his career in general:  Hollywood’s response to David and Goliath, and Christian criticism of his films.

In an interview on Godvine, Mr. Chey wrote about the resistance he faced finding distribution in Hollywood for his film, saying “The Hollywood studios have rejected ‘David and Goliath’ for being too Bible-based and religious. One studio executive said, “You mention God in almost every scene.”

The reason why the studios decided they would not distribute David and Goliath was that it was too Bible-based?  It talked about God too much?  It was too biblically correct?

Mom's Not Dead for RealHere’s where I have a problem with this suggestion:  2014, Hollywood’s “Year of the Bible”, was the year that the Hollywood movers and shakers watched several Christian-made projects do quite well, including a little evangelical indie Christian film called God’s Not Dead, which made over $80 million in box office and DVD sales.  Hollywood continued to reel from Mel Gibson’s enormous success with The Passion of the Christ a few years earlier, with most of the studios rushing to create “faith-and-family” divisions in an attempt to exploit evangelical Christian desire for entertainment.

After all, Hollywood is a city built on profit, not ideology.  And considering that neither Noah nor Exodus: Gods and Kings were the box office blockbusters that the studios had hoped they would be, and this was largely because the films didn’t please the evangelical Christian audience, one would think that the studios would greet a well-made “biblically correct” film with open arms.

One would think they would smell the box office cash from miles away.

But according to Mr. Chey, his film was too Bible-based, too religious, talked about God too much, was too biblically correct to qualify for anything from the Hollywood studios but rejection.

Does that strike anyone else as… odd?

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

“Jealous Christians”?  “Carnal Christian movie critics”?  Ouch.

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

“Drooling over Hollywood product”?  Is that just a snarky way of saying Christians who appreciate well-made movies?

Finally, Mr. Chey dropped the bomb.

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

I actually had to read this quote several times to make certain that I understood the ramifications of Mr. Chey’s comments.  If I understood him correctly, Mr. Chey was saying that he had experienced negative criticism from Christians, and that these film critics – because they had been critical of his films rather than just encouraging – were actually “carnal Christians” who would be damned on judgment day.

Because they didn’t like his films?

ytpj63

Having never actually seen any of Mr. Chey’s films, I was now truly interested.  Although as a person who is purposefully critical of Christian-made films, I was concerned that this might lump me into the category of being either a “jealous” or “carnal” Christian.

I ran over to his IMDB page and began looking into his films, especially for the ones available for viewing online (one of the downfalls of living in China).  I passed immediately on his two end-times movies (the most overdone of Christian-made genres), and while his John Newton film looked interesting, I couldn’t find a way to watch it online.

Then this film poster caught my eye.

suing_the_devil_xlg
Suing Satan?  Malcolm McDowell?  A very eye-catching poster?  I was intrigued by the whole idea.  And since Amazon offered streaming rentals of the film, I proceeded to watch.

For part 2, the actual review of Suing the Devil, click here.

This post is a part of my 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, where I’m doing my best to consume nothing but Christian media.  This has led me to make some good Christian media discoveries, as well as some real clunkers.

Day 16 down.

 

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

40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media • Day 4

Logo_FFThis is going to be a short report tonight.  To put it lightly, day four was tough.  I’m just ten percent of the way into the 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, and today I hit a wall.  For the first time, I felt like I couldn’t do this – just limit myself to the things produced by Christians for Christians, because the options were just so limited (especially living overseas) and so often poorly made.

I know that yesterday I was finding the positives in the situation, saying something like “at least there are Christians who are creating,” but today I’m over that.  Today, I’m thinking that just creating isn’t enough.

We need to be creating better and better things.

This is especially an issue for those Christians out there who don’t see the big deal in what I’m doing because they only consume Christian media every day anyway.  There are three problems I see with creating such a bubble for yourself.  First, this isn’t what we were called to do.  “Go out into the world”, remember?  How can we do that if we spend all our time in our Christian sub-culture bubble?  Second, people in the bubble tend to get used to slapping the “Christian” label on everything, thinking that the label alone gives something value.  But slapping a “Christian” or “faith-based” label on something doesn’t automatically make that thing good.  Usually, it just sullies the label.   Third, dealing specifically with filmmakers living in the bubble, I know of a few Christian filmmakers who never watch secular movies.  My question for them is – if you don’t watch good films, how can you hope to create good films?  I just don’t get that.

The thing that saddens me about all of this is that I know that there are so many talented Christian artists who could be making great media, great art, but they’re forced to tailor their work for those Christians living in the bubble, Christians who aren’t interested in being challenged by what they consume.  Their audience wants to grow spiritually, but they only want it to happen by having their beliefs reinforced.  They want to be told that their interpretation of the Bible is the right one, that the idea they have about God is without error, and they’re uncomfortable with the idea of exposing themselves to alternative notions – or even looking at their own ideas in alternative ways.  This means they aren’t necessarily experiencing growth of any kind, but more likely just entrenchment.

And that depresses me on this, the fourth day.

So, with all this in mind, I feel like I’m having to push through this day like I’m ensconsed in some bizarre alien membrane.  I’m trapped, trying to push my way out.

Today, Christian media is not making me feel free, but entrapped.

I’m hoping tomorrow will be a better day.

The Song • Thimblerig’s Review

The_Song_(2014)_Official_Poster

I just watched The Song.

And I’m angry.

I don’t remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to watching a film.  I mean, the credits are rolling, and I just want to punch the wall.  I want to hurl my glass into the fireplace.  I want to take a 2×4 and shatter the windows of the cathedral I’m building.

Why?  What could possibly make me so angry about a film?

It’s simple.  I’m angry that a film that is so inspiring, so challenging, so authentic, so brave, so introspective, and so enjoyable hasn’t been seen by more people, while lesser films – both Christian and secular – thrive.

Make more money than they should.

Win $100,000 awards for being inspirational that they simply don’t deserve.

I suppose if King Solomon were asked to comment on this situation, he would throw his hands in the air and quote himself from Ecclesiastes 1:2: “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”

You should try it sometime.  It really does put things into perspective, doesn’t it?

But seriously, I loved The Song.  I really, really loved The Song.  As you read this review, I hope that this sentiment comes across louder than my anger over my sense of injustice (okay, maybe “injustice” is too strong a word) that the film hasn’t been seen by everyone.  And I hope that reading this blog will encourage you to put this film on your Netflix queue to be watched sooner rather than later.

Trust me, you won’t regret it.

The Song is the story of King Solomon set in modern times, with the protagonist a singer/songwriter named Jed King (Alan Powell).  Jed is struggling to get out from underneath the shadow of his superstar father, David King (Aaron Benward), and is finally inspired to write a breakout hit because of his love for his newlywed wife, Rose (Ali Faulkner).  King’s success and fame pull him away from his wife and growing family, and when the attractive and tempting Shelby Bale (Caitlin Nicol-Thomas) joins his tour, King is faced with hard choices that will radically change his life.

As usual, let me start with what I liked about the film.

1.  The Direction

thesong-group

Director Richard Ramsey, with actors Caitlin Nicol-Thomas, Alan Powell, and Ali Faulkner

I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Ramsey a few months back about his life, this film, and his ideas on filmmaking in the Christian community.  I was impressed by Ramsey’s thoughtful attitude on the subject of Christian-made art, and appreciated that we had a shared dissatisfaction with much of what we – as Christians – produce.

The interview was great, but it also made me incredibly nervous to watch The Song.  What if, after all the fantastic things Ramsey had to say, the movie sucked eggs?  How in the world would I be able to write that review?

Thankfully, that was not the case.  With credit also going to cinematographer Kevin Bryan and editor Jared Hardy, Ramsey made a beautifully shot and cut film.  I loved the style of it, the use of light, the symbolism that was found throughout.  This was a project borne out of passion, and these filmmakers put their hearts and souls onto the screen, a truth that is evident from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

I especially want to note the opening of the film, which is reminiscent of the montage that opens Pixar’s Up.  The first five minutes of The Song is a powerful montage depicting the imperfect life and early death of David King, which serves as a wonderful setup for Jed’s story.  It drew me in, and made me care about what would happen to the son of the King.

The-Song-ali-faulkner-photo-624x266Richard Ramsey has a strong director’s voice, an obvious sense of visual style, and is a definite storyteller.  Based on this, his first time in the cinematic captain’s chair, I definitely look forward to seeing what he does next in the world of feature films.

 

2.  The Story

I was nervous about the premise of the film when I first heard about it, because it came across as almost gimmicky.  The idea of setting the life of King Solomon in the present, in the world of country music?  It reminded me too much of the countless Shakespearean productions that have attempted this sort of thing to a varied level of success.

If I have to suffer through one more version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in outer space or Love’s Labours Lost in a 1920’s speakeasy…

Thankfully, in the case of The Song, the conceit worked.

The-Song-photo-Caitlin-Nicol-Thomas-Alan-Powell-singing-624x260The story of Jed King was solid from beginning to end.  It ably showed his journey from son of a star to happily married man, to big-time success, to frustrated husband, and then the descent.  And the descent was true-to-life, and horrifying.  So often in Christian-made films, the filmmakers seem to live in fear for showing the ugliness and reality of sin, but that was not the case with The Song.  Jed falls hard and far, and we’re voyeurs, watching helplessly as he comes crashing to the ground.

And then we get to see what happens next, which I won’t spoil.  But I will say that it is satisfying.

The Song was compelling storytelling, a fantastic character study, with banjos and fiddles to boot.

Which leads me to my next positive point.

3.  The Music

I want to say a big thank you to music director, Vince Emmett.  Music can make a story more accessible when it’s not just background, when it serves the story almost as a character, and can add power to the punch the filmmaker is trying to land.  The Song did this in spades.  The music – almost bluegrass at times, sort of country at others – helped the movie fit well into a long tradition of musical films such as Dreamgirls, Walk the Line, The Commitments, and That Thing You Do!.

And special props to director and jack-of-all-trades Richard Ramsey, who also had a hand in composing many of the songs along with several other fantastic songwriters.  Of course, a film like this couldn’t succeed without top notch musicians, and actors who could both sing and act, and The Song had both.

You can sample the album here, and follow the links on that page if you want to purchase it.  Having just done so myself, I would highly recommend adding it to your collection.

4.  The Acting

Alan-Powell-as-Jed-The-Song-king-on-throne-photoThe Song has actors who can sing, but also actors who can act.  It seems funny to say this as a positive, but good acting is not a given in the world of Christian-made filmmaking.  For now, that’s just the reality, but I’m hopeful that films like The Song can help dispel that stereotype.  Did they hire actors who could sing?  Or did they hire singers who could act?  Either way, it’s clear that the filmmakers chose their actors carefully, and the payoff was a well-acted film.

5.  The Grittiness

As I said earlier, the film doesn’t shy away from showing the harshness of life, that actions – good and bad – have consequences, that a fall is usually something that happens gradually and with open eyes.  And while the film deals openly with hard issues like sexual infidelity, drug abuse, alcoholism, and the like, it’s never gratuitous.

I think the way The Song handled these difficult subjects could serve as a template for future faith-based films seeking to show the hard stories of the Bible in an honest, open manner.

And this brings me to the second part of the review.  What I didn’t like about the film.

To be honest, the only thing I didn’t like was Jed King’s out-of-control beard.  You have to understand, I’m a beard guy as much as anyone, but it was approaching Civil War, Duck Dynasty length by the end.  At one point, I thought they’d misnamed the film, and rather than calling it The Song, they should have considered The Beard.

THE BEARD

Anyone with me?  Anyone?  No?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I discussed the film with a friend who also watched it today, separately from me, and by my recommendation.  While she basically liked the movie, she felt that it moved too slow, and it was too introspective for her taste.  So, you should watch the movie realizing that things happen at a slow burn, but when stuff starts to burn, it’s worth the wait.

Finally, when I wrote What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking a year ago, I said that Christian filmmakers needed to do five things so that our filmmaking could have an impact outside the Christian bubble.

Those five things included:

1.  Our films need to take more risks.

The Song was definitely risky, taking the audience to uncomfortable places, shining light on dark spaces.  Even the idea of making a film based on a character from the Bible is risky, because it forces us to re-examine our preconceived notions of these characters, to see them as actual living and breathing people who made sometimes tragic mistakes, just as we do.

2.  Our films need to challenge our audience.

Because The Song did #1 so well, it was definitely a challenging film.  Again, we often don’t want to examine the uglier sides of life, but the darkness is illuminated by the light, and provides a stark contrast.  It’s valuable to allow our art to go to these places to help us to understand them, and to avoid the traps the darkness might try to set.

3.  The pulpit is the pulpit, and art is art, and we need to let them be the two different things that they are – in other words, don’t have preachy, didactic films.

As ironic as it might sound for a film based on a person from the Bible, The Song was anything but preachy, at least not in the modern evangelical sense of the word.  The film is full of truth in much the way Scripture is full of truth.  The only reason people might feel preached at in this film is because the film mentions God, examines questions of faith, and was directed by a Christian.  However, those people need to learn to approach films based on the merits of the film, and not their own preconceived notions.

4.  Our films shouldn’t give all the answers.

While it could have been interesting to end the film unsure if Rose takes Jed back, it would have been unfulfilling, considering the romantic nature of the film.  While I am a fan for ambiguity in film when appropriate, it wouldn’t have worked in this case.  Besides, there are plenty of unanswered questions – do Rose and Jed make it?  What happened to Shelby?  Does Jed continue singing?  Sometimes the Hollywood ending works.

5.  We are beholden to tell good stories.

As I’ve already discussed, The Song does this, and does it quite well.

And so, to conclude my review, I’m pleased to award The Song five out of five Golden Groundhogs, only the second time a film has earned such a high score (Believe Me was the first).  Thank you again, Richard Ramsey and City on a Hill, for bringing such a wonderful film to life.

Golden Groundhogs The Song

I watched The Song on the first night of my 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge.  It was a good way to begin the challenge.  Please check back to the blog often to read about my journey.

40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media – Day One Finished

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.29.45 PMThe day started well, with Skye Jethani‘s daily devotional waiting faithfully for me in my e-mail inbox when I awoke.  I read it, and then, since my family has not been doing very well with devotionals lately, I called everyone to the breakfast table.

Together, we read through Jethani’s devotional, which dealt with Luke 23: 27 & 28.  It focused on Jesus’ encounter with the women while he was carrying the cross to Golgatha.  They were weeping for him, but he told them to weep for themselves – and Jethani pointed out that Jesus had the chance to act like a victim, but instead he focused on the true victims, and he challenged his readers to do the same.  It led to a really nice discussion with the kids about times they’d felt like victims.

We went to church, and had a nice service at the international fellowship here in Shekou.  Afterwards, I came home to a quiet house.  My wife and daughter had a girl scout event, my older son was playing at a friend’s house,  and my toddler son had fallen asleep.  I wanted to see what sort of Christian television programming I could find, and went searching.

I quickly realized that watching Christian programming from China was not going to be easy.  Parables.tv – the Christian Netflix, as it bills itself – streams videos, but they are mostly the bottom of the barrel, quality-wise.  I’ll try to give them a go later, but the two that I started watching (some Christian “comedian”, and a really REALLY low budget movie about Samson) weren’t worth pursuing.  I tried Godtube, but again, didn’t find anything.  I perused the Cornerstone Network (home of The 700 Club and similar programming), but wasn’t in the mood for the perfect people in suits who smiled too much and talked too much about people being “anointed”.  I did find something about a Christian sitcom called “Pastor Greg”, but couldn’t find any way to watch it online.  Also, there were rumblings about a sitcom starring Stephen Baldwin, but again, nothing available online.  I checked the religion section on Amazon Prime, and there was absolutely nothing there worth watching.

People producing Christian programming, you guys really need to make your things available online.  Riot Studios, the makers of last year’s Believe Me, were brilliant with this – releasing their film simultaneously in the theaters and as a digital download.

I checked over on Christian Faithbook to see if anyone had acknowledged my new membership, and had a single request for friendship.  I’d even commented on one of the groups, but apparently the faithful Christians of Christian Faithbook rarely visit.

By this time, my toddler son woke up from his nap, and so I had to turn from the Christian media to my son.  My attempts to find decent Christian programming online?

there-is-no-try-only-failOne of the really fascinating things that has happened as a result of my announcing this challenge has been the pity exhibited to me by other Christians who also don’t see much of redeeming quality about the bulk of Christian media.  I received comment after comment from Christians telling me how sorry they are that I’m doing this to myself.

I was also fascinated by the folks who wrote encouraging me to consider all the great artists who are not famous for being Christians, but who were.  Tolkien, Hugo, Christie, etc.  One person even wrote, “there’s no excuse to imbibe bad art when you can have good art at the highest cultural level.”

Truth is, I hope to discover some new good art while wading through all the bad.

Interesting note on the day – I decided to prepare dinner, since I was home alone with the baby, and sat down on the computer to find a specific recipe.  Since I could only look on Christian websites, I discovered there are very few Christian websites that specialize in recipes.  This is ironic, considering how much Christian love to eat.

So, if you are a Christian looking for a niche – there you go.

I ended the day on an extremely positive note – watching Richard Ramsey’s The Song.  Here’s the trailer, if you don’t know it:

This movie is absolutely amazing.  Quite literally one of the best films of 2014, in my opinion.  I’m going to be writing a review on the film tomorrow, but you need to see it.  It was a great way to end the day.

Day 1 down, 39 days to go.

40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media • The Challenge

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

I have a confession to make:  I am a Christian, and I dislike Christian media.

To clarify, I don’t dislike all Christian media, just most Christian media.  I will – on occasion – listen to a praise and worship playlist on Spotify; every now and then a Christian-made film will surprise me as an enjoyable film-viewing experience; there are a handful of Christian writers who capture me with everything they write.  I don’t visit many Christian websites, and I don’t listen to many Christian podcasts.  By and large, I am creatively and artistically unimpressed with much that comes out of the world of Christian media.

But it runs deeper than that.  While I don’t have a problem with the individuals creating the media, I don’t like the various industries that have built up around the Christian faith.  For example, on this blog I’ve argued against the creation of a Christian film industry.  In the spirit of Keith Green and Rich Mullins, I’m vexed that writing praise and worship songs and devotional books is a big business.  I’m most definitely not a fan of the idea of Christian celebrity, because celebrity runs counter to the humble life that Jesus lived, which is the point of the Christian faith.

And don’t get me started on people using Christianity to get ahead in politics.

I haven’t always felt this way.  I think it started when I moved out of the Christian subculture in 1999, the year I moved to Kazakhstan.  Also, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more discerning with both my theology and my artistic tastes.  Finally, I credit the internet, which opened the door to everyone and their mother creating media with their cell phones and laptops, which means that a LOT of the Christian (and not Christian) media being produced is just… for the lack of a better word… poopy.

A few days ago, Lifeway Research published a report that showed that the majority of Christian media is consumed by Christians.  This means that I – as a middle-aged white Christian male – represent one of the key demographics for Christian media producers.

And I don’t like very much of what they’re producing.

This brings me to another confession:  I am a middle-aged white Christian male who loves secular media.

To clarify:  I don’t love all secular media.  There’s quite a bit that I wouldn’t go anywhere near.  But I listen to secular music; I love non-faith-based movies and television; reading good fiction by authors who don’t broadcast their religious beliefs is one of my favorite ways of passing the time, I constantly visit websites that have no overtly spiritual content, and I listen to hours of non-religious podcasts each week.

And I believe that God can speak to me through these materials that have not been created with the express goal of speaking to me about God.

The Idea

But reading the Lifeway report made me wonder:  am I doing something wrong as a Christian by not buying into what the makers of Christian media are selling?  Does it somehow make me less faithful?  Am I missing an opportunity for spiritual growth by avoiding materials made expressly to help me to grow spiritually?

And then the idea came:  what if I only consumed Christian media?  Saturated myself with the stuff?  What would happen?  Would it strengthen my Christian faith?  Would it make me dislike Christian media even more?  Would I discover producers of Christian media who consistently produce good quality work – thus opening my mind and choices a little bit?

jacobs_year-living-biblicallyThere are precedents for an experiment like this.  Over the past few years there have been several examples of writers setting time limits, forcing themselves out of their comfortable lifestyles, and documenting what happens.  A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, Ed Dobson’s The Year of Living Like Jesus, Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Ryan Bell’s A Year Without God, to name just a few.

And so I decided to challenge myself.  If those writers could change things for a year, certainly I could change things for forty days, right?

Still, it wasn’t an easy decision.  I would miss the movies, the programs, the podcasts, the music.  But, it was because it wasn’t an easy decision that I decided to do it.  The day after I started thinking about this, I read an article where the writer said that if God is prompting you to give something up, and you aren’t willing to do it, then that thing may have become an idol.

As much as I enjoy secular media, I don’t want it to be an idol.  So, for forty days, secular media will not be a part of my life.

The Challenge

The challenge:  to live on a strict diet of nothing but Christian media for exactly forty days (and nights), and then in the end, examine the results.

The ground rules:

1)  The Forty Day (and Night) Christian Media Challenge will begin on March 15, 2015 and will end at midnight on Saturday, April 25, 2015.

2)  For the sake of this challenge, media includes films, radio, television, magazines, books, podcasts, websites, and newspapers.  And I will only use media that you would find sold by a Christian retailer.  So, while it can be argued that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a film rich with Christian themes and imagery, it’s not sold in Christian bookstores, so it wouldn’t qualify.

3)  I will still visit and comment on social media websites (Facebook, Twitter), but I will not click any links, stories, or images that take me to any websites that are not promoted as being Christian.

4)  I will use all media as needed for my employment (I’m a teacher) – but not recreationally.

5)  I will do this every day except two.  I’m flying from China to America and back in April, and I will watch in-flight movies during that trip.  The trip will take at least 24 hours, and so I will watch in-flight movies as we travel.  However, if Delta makes Christian-made or Christian themed movies available in flight, i will give them preference.  So the challenge will actually run for forty-two days (and nights).

6)  I will write about my experience existing off of a diet of Christian media here on the Thimblerig’s Ark blog on a daily basis over the course of the 40 days (and nights).  I’ll write about the things I find that I like, and the things I’d liked to have not found.  I’ll record things that I learn along the way, things with which I disagree, questions which are raised, answers that are found, and which Christian-made media has the most potential to reach those who can’t find the choir loft.

The Request

I would love to have recommendations from you – my readers.  Which Christian-produced websites, blogs, news outlets, films, music, or television would you recommend?  Please let me know, because I want to find the best sampling of Christian media to enjoy!

And finally, if you’d like to join me on this Forty Days (and nights) of Christian Media Challenge, please do!  I’d love to have some company, and to hear what others are finding.  Let me know!

Finally, I’d invite you to be a part of the Sacred Arts Revolution on Facebook, and join us as we regularly discuss Christian media.

EDIT:
I finished!  If you want to read my concluding thoughts on this challenge, click here.