A Commentary on End Times Movies, and a short review of The Remaining

It’s been a good summer – a good time away from the blog.  But now I’m back.

And the first thing I want to say is – I detest Christian-made End Times movies.

Detest. Absolutely detest.

soupIn fact, if I were made King of the Christian Film Industry, my first order of business would be an out-and-out ban on the genre. My second order would be to outlaw cameos in Christian films by Christian celebrities (I’m looking at you, Robertson family…). And third, I would make Kevin Sorbo take a vacation. I mean, seriously? Have you seen the guy’s IMDB page? I like Sorbo, but I literally cannot find another actor – Christian or otherwise – with as many credits to his name for 2015. Take the family to Hawaii for a few weeks and relax, Sorb!

But I digress from the main topic: my detestation of End Times movies.

teaser-poster-final-the-raptureWhy do I feel so strongly negative about the End Times genre? It’s really quite simple. Regardless of the eternal significance the filmmakers might try to pin on these movies, they are ultimately just that – movies. But so often (as is the case in much of the budding Christian filmmaking industry) the ones making these films place so much more importance on them than they deserve. At the end of the day, End Times movies are nothing more than a filmmaker’s fantasy interpretation of some pretty unclear and continually debated passages of Scripture. In my humble blogger’s opinion, when the filmmakers pretend that they are more than that, they wind up doing more harm than good. Just read any secular reviews of the recent Left Behind movie (2% on Rotten Tomatoes) to see the impact they make on the wider world.

In short, I think Jesus meant it when he said “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Will there be an End Times? I do believe there will be, but I also think we aren’t to spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. If people want to creatively imagine onscreen what the End Times could possibly be, then more power to them. But they should do so with a clear understanding that ultimately they have no idea what will happen at the end, no more idea than anyone else in history has ever had – including Jesus himself, by his own admission.

And yet, people keep making them.

So, when I am forced to watch an End Times movie, I approach it as I might approach an Indiana Jones movie – for the sheer entertainment value, regardless of how much of an IMPORTANT WORK the filmmaker might think he or she is doing.

maxresdefaultWhich brings me to 2014’s The Remaining, a pseudo-found-footage horror film, one of the latest cinematic attempts at depicting the End Times, and a film that – surprisingly – stands out from the rest in many ways, and which I actually found to be quite enjoyable.

The filmmakers may not have gotten Nic Cage to headline their production, but they more than made up for it in with suspenseful moments, effective minimal special effects, and well-written and acted characters who you actually cared about. Taking a page from the J.J. Abrams handbook (Cloverfield), the filmmakers wisely chose to show the impact of the rapture on a small group of friends through a mixture of video footage from the characters and normal film footage. And the conceit, for the most part, makes for some entertaining filmmaking.

First, the trailer.

What I liked about the film

1. The suspense. Without a doubt, the best thing the filmmakers did in this movie was not clearly showing the demons. Keeping the things that are attacking and terrorizing the actors out of sight is one of the most effective tools in a suspense/horror filmmaker’s toolbox. This technique permits the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks which will usually be far worse than anything that could be put onscreen. And especially when you are a filmmaker working on a limited budget, it helps you not have to resort to showing clunky CGI monsters, or even worse, poorly constructed practically made monsters.

Kudos to director Casey La Scala for respecting the audience enough to let us fill in the blanks.

remaining_rapture-eyes2. The rapture itself. In the first few minutes of The Remaining, people just fall as dead, with milky white eyes remaining open, and that’s the rapture. That was it! It was simple, extremely unsettling, and wonderfully effective – especially for what seemed to be a pretty low budget film.

And so much better cinematically than clothes falling in neatly folded piles, like other unnamed End Times movies have done.

remaining-cry3. The acting. The actors did a wonderful job showing us people who were put into an unlikely and desperate situation, where hope was becoming more and more scarce, and paradoxically for some, more and more abundant. While all the primary actors were great, I was especially impressed with Italia Ricci’s performance as Allison, and it was a joy to watch the character’s arc build to an emotional confession at the end of the film.

What I disliked about the film

1. The unnecessary jump scares. The film did the authentic and real jump scares so well, that the unnecessary ones just cheapened things for me. For example, the scene where the characters evacuate to the church basement, and we watch characters get snatched away in the spooky luminous green of night vision, was extremely effective. But the scene when a panicked patient suddenly tackled a character with apparent superhuman speed? Not so much.

2. The mixture of found footage and regular film. Found footage films are at their best when they are entirely found footage (the aforementioned Cloverfield, Chronicle, The Blair Witch Project). The Remaining‘s filmmakers should have made the choice to be one or the other and stick to it. As it was, it seemed a bit like the film wasn’t sure what it was.

3. The preachiness. Considering this is a film about The Rapture, perhaps this couldn’t be avoided, but it felt like some of the “Christianese” conversations were forced. I would have really appreciated seeing the filmmakers approach the spiritual aspects of this story with the same subtlety and finesse that they approached the suspenseful scenes.

At the same time, considering that this film was aimed squarely at a non-Christian audience, the preachiness also didn’t go far enough. Yes, they had characters talking about the need to choose God, but that’s not nearly enough. Why not go in whole-hog, and have the characters talk about the power in the name of Jesus? Forget the generic “god” talk… talk about the Savior. Oddly enough, I think such specificity could have really worked in this movie – and not come off as preachy. But they blew any sort of missional potential in the film by going too general.

In Conclusion

As far as End Times films go, The Remaining was pretty good. It was a effective suspense/thriller/horror movie, with a few good scares and effective special effects done on the cheap. But – as with all End Times movies – films like this should be watched by Christians and non-Christians alike for the entertainment value, not for the eternal value.

Because at the end of the day, they are what they are.

Movies.

Simply movies.

And all of the filmmakers out there planning End Times movies should thank their lucky stars that I remain on the periphery of Christian filmmaking, and not seated on the throne, because otherwise their projects would be shut down well before they started.

Along with Kevin Sorbo’s next job.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 11.01.25 PMGo to Maui, Sorb.  Take a break and go to Maui, and spend some time relaxing on the waves.  Christian movies will still be there when you get back in 2016.

And so will I.

Thimblerig out!

The SCOTUS Ruling and the Early Church: An Encouragement

In recent years, Christians have been pining for a return to first century Christianity. For example, articles and sermons like the following have been seen with increasing regularity:

4 Ways the Modern Church Looks Nothing Like the Early Church

How Can Today’s Church Be More Like the Early Church?

What can we learn from the early church? – Living like the first Christians

It’s a somewhat romantic notion, that we get away from all of the centuries of tradition and added-on elements of the church and return to the simplicity and purity of the early church. But doing such a thing is easier said than done, as it is no easy feat to get rid of traditions and added-on elements that we have come to appreciate and enjoy. And this includes the power that the church amassed in the public arena, especially in the United States.

gay_scotusHowever, with today’s SCOTUS ruling and the subsequent celebrations by all corners of American culture (thanks for the rainbow header I didn’t request, WordPress), things have reached a turning point. We’ve been seeing it coming for years, but today’s ruling which recognizes homosexual marriage across the land has determined that – at least in the United States – Biblical Christianity is now officially counter-cultural.

The recent findings by the Pew Research Center seem to support this idea, that Christianity’s influence is waning in the United States. These findings have been disputed, but I think we can all agree that Christians don’t influence culture in America the way we used to. Given, Christians still have quite a bit of power and influence – we can still impact an election, we still buy a lot of products, we still make up a healthy percentage of the population, but it’s obviously a waning influence.

Just like in the first century.

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 10.38.52 PMIt seems that we Christians are getting our wish, and we may be heading towards a more authentic twenty-first century expression of first century Christianity than we were banking on. We’re losing our influence, and they never had influence. Our hold on political power is slipping, and they never had power. We used to help guide culture, and now our attempts to impact culture are laughable. The culture of the first century didn’t care a whit about Christians, except as macabre entertainment in the colosseum.

The bad news is that the first century church suffered quite a bit of persecution for standing up for their faith, and this may or may not be where we are headed. However, if it is, we need to remember that Christians are guaranteed persecution in Scripture, and we’ve managed to avoid it for a long, long time – while much of the rest of the world has experienced it for a long, long time. It could be that our time has come.

The good news is, even twenty centuries later, we still look back at the first century church as what we want to emulate, persecution and all. They had their problems (as evidenced in the letters of Paul), but they learned and grew. More good news is that the God that they worshipped in the early church is the same God we worship today. He hasn’t changed. So no matter where we find ourselves in America in five years, it won’t change Him, and we can take great reassurance from the truth of that idea.

keith green - no compromiseIt could be that losing our influence and becoming counter to the culture will force us to ask ourselves what we truly believe and if we’re willing to stand for it. It could be that losing our hold on political power will give us a humility we haven’t had in ages. It could be that becoming outcasts will make us interact with the culture in a way many of us have avoided as we’ve built our cloistered walls and hid in our bubbled communities and universities. It could be that becoming helpless in the world’s eyes will push us to treasure God’s Word and study it with more intention and urgency in the same way the early church would have done. It could be that not getting what we want from government or society will compel us to revive our prayer life, and to truly seek Him. It could be that we will become more creative, more innovative, more ground-breaking in our art and our ministries to reach a potentially hostile, potentially disinterested majority.

In short, it could be that losing influence and becoming authentically counter to the culture – truly being forced to become like the first century church – would be the best thing that happened to American Christianity in the history of American Christianity.

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.

9k=

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.