The Sermon on the Mount Proposal

mountsermonI think that we can all agree that the Church in America is a bit of a mess right now, and so I – a simple blogger though I be – want to propose a simple solution. If all followers of Jesus, regardless of denominational background, would agree to what I am about to propose, we might just be able to start turning things around.

The first part of my proposal is this: set aside the month of April. No matter what you and your church have planned, just set it aside. Does your church follow some sort of liturgical calendar that helps you plan the focus of your worship? Set it aside for April. Do you have a big sermon series planned for that time? Hold off until May.

“Wait!” I can hear some of you saying. “The first Sunday of April is Easter! Does this simple blogger realize this?”

Of course I do! That’s why I chose April! And yes, I know that you probably have something big planned for that day. Special music, a drama maybe – and maybe you’ve already put down the deposit on a rented donkey. Well, keep your normal big plans in place, but pastors should plan to preach something else than what they’ve already planned, and I’ll get to that something else in a moment.

But before I do, keep in mind that for this to work, everyone has to be in on it. Catholics, Baptists (all stripes), Episcopalians, Presbyterians, churches of Christ, Non-denominationals, Pentecostals… everyone.

And it needs to be across the racial, cultural, political, and language lines, too. The saying goes that the most segregated hours in America are on Sunday morning, and so this is something that needs to happen no matter what your congregation looks like. Are you a Trump supporter? A Never-Trumper? A Republian? A Democrat? A Libertarian? It doesn’t matter. For this proposal to work, it needs to involve anyone and everyone who claims to follow Christ. EVERYONE.

Speaking of which, maybe you are a person who considers yourself a Christian, but you don’t feel the need to go to an organized church. For the month of April you should. Maybe you’re an Easter/Christmas Christian, and you’re just not interested in the other fifty Sundays of the year. Well, you need to include church on your schedule for the month of April. You’ll be there for April 1 anyway, so just keep coming for four more Sundays.

It’s just a month, and it’s really important.

But what happens in April? What is this big proposal that I’m making, and insisting on as being so very important and potentially groundbreaking? This is the best part, because it’s really easy.

I mean, really, really easy:

0aa652a49b5ad0e46c6d029b4cc782b3--laura-james-james-darcy

Sermon On The Mount, 2010 By: Laura James

I propose that every Christian in America spend the month knee-deep in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.

That’s it. That’s all I’m proposing.

I’m simply suggesting that we Christians in America, all of us, commit to spending one month collectively wrestling with Jesus’s words about what it really means to follow Him. That we work through the Beatitudes, and find out who is truly blessed in God’s eyes. That we learn about true murder and turning the other cheek. That we – all of us – sit and listen to Jesus’s tough teaching on how we respond to enemies and figure out just who is supposed to take care of the needy, and how to pray. Forgiveness, mercy, worry and fear – the sermon has it all. And we all need a refresher course.

Because folks, the Church is in trouble, and not because of some outside threat. We’re in trouble because of the way we’re treating each other and the way we’re treating those outside the church.

We really need Jesus to help us to see this, and the Mount Sermon could do it.

That’s it. That’s my simple proposal. And while I know that it’s probably impossible that we could pull it off…

can you imagine what might change in our country if we did?

***edit***
If your pastors aren’t into changing their preaching plans, then go ahead and commit to a personal in-depth study yourself, or get a group together to do it!

 

 

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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!

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…

It Almost Begins… 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media

I just posted this on Facebook:

Here I am, 10 minutes away from the start of my 40 days of Christian Media, and I’m starting to feel nervous.

This is going to be a long 40 days.

And after spending Saturday preparing for the next forty days, scouring the internet for Christian media that I think I could consume and not feel physically ill, I’m seriously concerned about what will happen over the next month and 10.

I have subscribed to Christian Faithbook – the Christian equivalent to Facebook.

I have subscribed to Godinterest – the Christian equivalent to Pinterest.

I have subscribed to Parables.tv – the Christian equivalent to Netflix.

I have subscribed to every podcast hosted by Christians that I think sounds the least bit interesting to a person who loves film, creativity, the arts, humor, and culture.

I have cleansed my iPod of all secular music and podcasts.

I spent the last hour before the challenge began watching the last episode of The Flash – one of my favorite television programs currently being broadcast.  I’m seriously bummed that I’m going to miss the premiere of the new season of Community, which starts in just a few days.  I’m not at all sure what I will watch during lunch, since I’m used to watching old episodes of The Office, Community, and Parks and Recreation.

And I’m spending my time leading up to midnight listening to Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar score, the soundtrack – the music – that I’m going to miss the most over the next forty days.

I plan to wake up tomorrow and start my day with Skye Jithani’s With God daily devotional, and do so for the next forty days.

And it’s now 12:01 AM (China time).  The 40 Days (and Nights) Christian Media Challenge has begun.

See you on the other side!

Nate

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this…

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

And this…

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

Now that’s a movie I’d like to see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does impress Him?  Among things, this…

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

And this…

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

And this…

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

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

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

But let’s keep the idolizing where it belongs.

In front of this guy.

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9 Things Hollywood Can Do To Make The Perfect Faith-Based Film

Dear Hollywood,

I know something about you.

Don’t worry, it’s not about a new scandal, and you haven’t been hacked again, as far as I know.  It’s simply this:  you have been trying desperately to figure out how to crack the faith-based film formula, and while you have had moderate success here and there (even a broken clock is right a couple of times a day, right?) you’ve also had plenty of misfires.

I know that you are frustrated.

It must be so disheartening!  After all, everyone knows the formulas for your non-faith-based films that have served you so well: indy Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey; Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat; Robert McKee’s Story, but like Indiana Jones in his hero’s journey, you’re staring at a pile of amazing treasure, and you have the enormous obstacle of a great chasm in the way.

And you don’t have a whip.

wpid-dsc_0314-noexifThe wealth you could accumulate with that formula in your hands is unimaginable, and I know that you’ve thought about it.  With the knowledge of how to successfully tap into those middle America faith-based box office ticket sales, you could finally add the new wing to your beach house in Malibu.  You could finally buy that new candy apple red Jaguar F-type R you’ve had your eye on and park it in your driveway for everyone to see.  You could finally get that plastic surgery you’ve been dreaming of, ever since Renee what’s-her-name got so much publicity for making her big face change.

But you just don’t have a whip.

Well, breathe a sigh of relief my friends, and schedule your consultation with Dr. Grossman, because after months of research by the tireless staff at the Thimblerig Institute for Faith Based Film Studies©, with untold hours spent watching a variety of faith-based film successes and failures, guess what?

We’ve done it.

We’ve cracked the formula.

We know what you need to do.

And we’re giving this information away, for free.

This won’t be as earth-shattering as the mythical memo sent by Christopher Vogler while he was working for Disney, but these nine things might be just what you were looking for.

So get your assistant to take notes.

9 Things Hollywood Can Do To Make The Perfect Faith-Based Film

1.  The Perfect Christian Film needs to look good.

This first point seems pretty obvious, but the history of faith-based film may lead you believe that Christians like films that aren’t shot and edited well.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Recent films have proven that Christian audiences want their films to look as good as Hollywood’s best, so don’t try to save money by hiring a kid just out of film school.  Pony up the dough and get competent, experienced people to shoot, sound, and edit the film.

Don’t worry.  You’ll save money on acting, as the mass of faith-based audiences don’t seem to mind amateur actors, especially if said actors play supporting characters, and they are outspoken Christians in real life.

Save more money and get your cousin who went to music school to compose the soundtrack on his Yamaha MOX6 keyboard.  The score is inconsequential as long as you can get a few songs by current contemporary Christian musicians to play over the opening and closing credits.  That’s the stuff the audience will eat it up.

Look here for some recent popular CCM options.

2.  Message is King.

samuel-goldwyn-producer-pictures-are-for-entertainment-messagesGood news!  You can also save money on screenwriting, as typical faith-based audiences are mostly concerned about the message rather than the story.  That being said, it’s important that you run your message by a few friendly Christian leaders to make certain that it’s kosher before releasing the film, which will also probably get you some good bullet point quotes you can use to further promote your film.  And while certainly the film should have some entertaining moments of drama and comedy to keep the audience engaged, ultimately you can forget Samuel Goldwyn’s Western Union quote.

It’s all about the message!  Say that to yourself a few times to let it sink in.

3.  How to Write Characters for Faith-Based Films.

Since we’ve established the importance of the message in faith-based films, we should take a moment to explain what should take place in the creating and writing of characters, so as to avoid confusion.

KEVIN-SPACEY-American-BeautyThe protagonist should be noble with few flaws, and the flaws he or she has should be pretty minor.  We don’t want any Lester Burnhams (Kevin Spacey in American Beauty) or Colin Sullivans (Matt Damon in Departed) sneaking into the casts of our faith-based films.  And if you make the bold choice of having the protagonist wrestling with his or her faith, something miraculous should happen to help convince or reassure the hero that he is following the right spiritual pathway.  Forget suffering servants, the faith-based audience wants the hero to live in victory!

As to the antagonist, it is helpful if the antagonist is written to be fairly one-dimensional, with underdeveloped motivations for being opposed to the hero or the faith that the hero represents.  The antagonist exists solely to stand in opposition to the protagonist, and we needn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on the motivations.

Also, seriously consider having the antagonist pray the prayer of salvation at the climax of the film, possibly even right before he or she dies.  Yes, that would be a big encouragement to the audiences, even if you have to sort of force the situation.

Such an ending is highly recommended, and should not be considered hacky or manipulative.

4.  More on the Writing…

I know, for something that doesn’t seem to be so important for faith-based films, we are spending quite a bit of time on the subject of writing.  Isn’t that strange?  But research is research, so we continue.

There are several things that you may be used to having in feature film scripts that you don’t need to spend too much time worrying about in the faith-based scripts you will develop: symbolism, metaphors, allegories, subtlety, structure, interesting narrative, poetry, innovation, creativity, ambiguity, unanswered questions, analogies, euphemisms, paradoxes, satire, irony…

oh, you get the idea.

Just avoid being provocative, and focus on being on the nose and didactic, and you’ll do well.

5.  Christians like their celebrities, too.

korie-and-willie-robertsonIf you can get a celebrity to cameo in your film, it will be a sure draw to the box office.  It can be a singer, an actor, a sports star, a reality TV star, a journalist, or even a pastor!  As long as the celebrity is an inoffensive household name in Christian homes, they don’t even have to act well!

Christian or not, having a pseudo-famous name attached will somehow make the film seem more legitimate, and if there is some question about the faith of the celebrity, it will also get the faith-based audience talking about the film as they wonder hopefully if the celebrity is a Christian, too!

More publicity for your film, right?

6.  Faith-based = Family Friendly.

DoveApprovedSealBlueHiResA faith-based film should always be viewable by all members of the family, which means that it should avoid rising above a rating of PG.

That being said, you can potentially get away with a PG-13, but that should probably only be for scenes of mild violence, or a mildly bad word or two if you’re being really edgy.

But you should definitely avoid the temptation of making a film that shows the unfiltered ugliness of sin or the unbridled passion of love, so that you might earn the coveted Dove Seal of Approval, the earning of which indicates to all of your potential audience that you have successfully made an absolutely inoffensive movie.

7.  Movies Based on Bible Stories

Don’t do it any more.

Trust me on this.

Just don’t.

8.  Speak the Language.

gift_of_singlenessIf you were going to make a film for a teenage girl audience, you would make certain to use current idioms and expressions in your film to help make the film more accessible.  In the same way, make certain to pepper modern Christianese throughout your film, and you will be loving on your faith-based audiences, showing them true fellowship, even in the buckle of the Bible belt.

To help you with this, I refer you to the excellent online resource, The Dictionary of Christianese.

9.  Help the Audience Spend Money.

If you’ve been to ComicCon, you know that those fans love to spend their money on merchandise that ties into their film obsession, and faith-based audiences are the same.  So make it easy for them!  You might not be able to make an action figure of your movie’s characters, but you could always have a well-known pastor write devotional materials connected to your movie which will be sold in Christian bookstores all across the fruited plains, and would sell like autographed dancing Groot Bobbleheads at ComicCon!

In fact, if you do the devotional material first, you can write your movie based on the material and not the other way around.  After all, don’t forget that it is the message that matters.

6977lDoes your main character wear a special piece of Jesus jewelry?  Merchandise!  Does he or she (usually he) say some sort of catch phrase?  Slap that bad boy on a t-shirt and make it merch!  Get that merch into Lifeway and Family Christian Stores!  But don’t just stop there, also get it into WalMart, Target, and other major retailers who will sell anything to make a buck.

Everyone makes money, and everyone is happy!

There you have it.  If you are a clever, intrepid, go-getting Hollywood producer, you should be able to take these tips and blaze the trail for conquering the faith-based film market.  The heavy lifting has been done for you by our crack team at the Thimblerig Institute for Faith Based Film Studies©, and now all that’s left for you to do is to take it and make it a reality.

Shhhh… can you hear it?  Is that the purr of a Jaguar’s engine?

 

 

 

 

Interstellar: The Ultimate Christmas Movie

My family loves Christmas movies.  Each year, we can’t wait for Thanksgiving to be over so we can finally dust off the Christmas movie collection, and start the annual reviewing.

Some of our favorites are probably also some of your favorites: Home Alone 1, 2, & 3 (we won’t speak of 4 & 5); The Santa Clause 1 & 2 (we won’t speak of 3); Fred Claus; ElfNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; A Christmas Story; The Polar Express; and of course, Scrooge – the Albert Finney musical version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Over the years I’ve realized that I love these movies for the same reason that I love Danish Wedding Cookies at Christmas: because of the memories.  They remind me of my childhood, sitting with my family in the glow of the glittering lights of the Christmas tree, watching the Grinch steal from the Whos down in Whoville, while enjoying my mother’s homemade Danish Wedding Cookies and a warm mug of hot chocolate.

And I appreciate that most Christmas movies deal with important themes.  For example, A Christmas Carol is about redemption, Home Alone is about the value of family, and Elf is about… Elf is about… candy?

But a funny thing has been happening as I’ve grown older.  I’ve carried on the Christmas movie watching tradition with my kids, and as we’ve sat down to re-watch beloved holiday classics each year, I’ve felt less and less satisfied.

This year I’ve finally figured out why.

Like Buddy the Elf’s four major food groups (candy, candy corn, candy canes, and syrup), most Christmas movies are sweet, but not nutritious; they can be quite tasty, but they’re not very filling; they are stuffed with empty calories when I’m longing for proteins and vitamins and minerals and something to help me stay healthy and alive.

Presents, leg lamps, someone trying to destroy Christmas, someone trying to save Christmas, the latest flying sleigh technology, updating Dickens, computerizing Dickens, Muppetizing Dickens, Bill Murraying Dickens, missing reindeer, flying reindeer, reindeer with attitudes, violent kids left home by themselves, and any one of the hundreds of interpretations of Santa Claus… what’s the point?

There are certainly exceptions, but for the most part, each tries to be bigger and shinier and more colorful and festive than the last one, but most Christmas movies wind up ultimately small and dull and monochrome and lifeless when you hold them up to the light of the season that they are supposed to represent.

Which brings me to my new favorite Christmas movie.

Not only is Interstellar my new favorite Christmas movie, but I contend that it is one the best Christmas movies to come out of Hollywood in years.  Accidentally.  Obviously, Christopher Nolan didn’t set out to make a movie that had the least bit to do with December 25, but inadvertently, he did.

And then some.

To really help explain what I mean, let’s go back to the idea that most Christmas movies are too small.  Interstellar is the polar opposite – a big movie, dealing with big problems, big solutions, and the nature of the universe.

You can’t get much bigger than that.

Because of the mind-crushing size of the universe, most of us don’t spend much time pondering it.  Interstellar did, imagining that humanity needed to find a way across the universe to another galaxy, and the only possibility of crossing the vast distances from galaxy to galaxy would be through the bending of space and the creation of a wormhole.

Interstellar, released in the fall of 2014, made us stop and think about the nature of the universe, and our place within it, while Christmas movies at their most shallow only ask us to wonder if we’re going to get a Red Ryder BB gun or a Turbo Man action figure, if Santa will get all the presents delivered on time, or – at their deepest – how much of a difference we make in the lives of those around us.

Just what is the nature of the universe, and what is our place in it?  Think about that question for a second.  And then watch this video.

That expansive universe is the playground of Interstellar.

But the video also explores the complexity of the microscopic universe, which makes me think that I wasn’t exactly right when I mentioned that Christmas films were too small.  In some ways, they aren’t small enough, choosing to gloss over important details on their frenzied way to become the next holiday classic.

Oftentimes the smallest details can be the most important.

In Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan lived in the details, forgoing the use of massive amounts of green screen that most of his contemporaries overuse in such films and using half as much CGI.  He had 500 acres of corn planted in the Canadian outback, built models of spaceships, sought out the most alien looking backdrops in actual physical locations, and went to the trouble of having Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist, serve as scientific consultant for the film in an attempt to have the scientific details as accurate as possible (read this for a fascinating article about the colliding of the science and the filmmaking in the making of Interstellar).

And the heartbeat of the film is the small, touching story of the relationship between a father and a daughter.  With all the huge set pieces and impressive special effects, the film boils down to the love between Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain/Ellen Burstyn).

It may not be nearly as impressive as the “twin paradox” of Nolan’s film, but I think I have proven my point that Interstellar is simultaneously a huge movie and a small movie.  However, I still haven’t proven that it deserves to be my favorite Christmas movie.

But before I go there, I need to pause and qualify something about myself, as there is still a fact about me that might have a direct impact on the argument.

I believe that this amazingly, mind-boggling, incomprehensibly unfathomably enormous place that we call the universe was created.

By God.

If you disagree with that statement, you’re more than welcome to continue reading, but you will be disagreeing with the foundation of my argument.  Please go on enjoying Interstellar as good science fiction cinema and It’s a Wonderful Life or Die Hard as entertaining holiday flicks, but you can forget about me and this blog post.  After all, I’m not trying to argue for the existence of God, nor am I trying to prove some “Young Earth”, “Old Earth” argument.  I’m simply trying to explain why Interstellar is my new favorite Christmas movie.

The car comes skidding to a halt as the believer response comes almost immediately:  “Interstellar doesn’t mention God at all, and actually seems to go out of its way to avoid talking about God!  How could that possibly be a Christmas movie?”

My simple answer is this:  look at the list of the top 25 Christmas movies from Rotten Tomatoes and tell me how many of those movies don’t mention God, and actually seem to go out of their way to avoid talking about God.

Point taken?

With that question out of the way, let’s head back out into the universe, and in case you’re wondering, we’ll not go gently into that good night.

The God of Scripture created the universe, and any open reading of the Scriptures will support that idea.  For example:

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Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 3.04.59 PMThinking back to that video about the size of the universe which is theorized to be at least 46 billion light years across, it blows my mind to imagine that the God we read about in Scripture is the same God who made it all (for more about the size of the universe, visit this fantastic site.)  This is one of the reasons why those of us who believe in that God also want to worship him, because of the idea that He is so indescribably immense that He can make something as indescribably immense as the universe.

But it doesn’t stop there.  That same God is the God of the details, as well.

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But even that’s not the end of it – the immensity and infinitesimality of the universe.  Those are only the parts of the universe that we can experience with our senses.  God is also the God of the unseen creation – what we might call heaven.

What do we know about heaven?  Most people have an opinion of heaven, based on their own hopes.  People see it as a place full of puffy clouds, with angels playing harps, and everyone getting the things they wanted to get down on earth.

But what does Scripture tell us about heaven, as another part of God’s creation?

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Some of the language of heaven in Scripture is poetic, and some is literal.  Regardless, when you read these and other Scripture passages about heaven, you come away with at least a few basic ideas about it:  Heaven is fantastic; heaven can accommodate a lot of people; and experiencing heaven will involve giving all of one’s attention and worship to the One who made heaven and us.

So, we’ve established that according to the Scripture, God made the universe and everything in it, and God made heaven, and God reigns over it all.  While this might be nice to consider from a theological standpoint, it still doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding how Interstellar could be connected – even loosely – to Christmas.

Hang with me.

The connective tissue is found in identifying one key player who we’ve not mentioned yet.  Who was there with God while all of this was being done?  Who was there while the hairs on our head were being counted?  While the stars were being hung in the sky?  While the foundations were being laid in the Father’s house?

SACRED HEART OF JESUS—The Sacred Heart of Jesus is depicted in a modern painting by Stephen B. Whatley, an expressionist artist based in London. (CNS photo/Stephen B. Whatley)

SACRED HEART OF JESUS by Stephen B. Whatley

Jesus.  The Creator.

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Jesus.  Who transcends time.  

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Jesus.  Who transcends space.

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We need to stop and consider Him for a moment, this person we’re talking about.

According to Scripture, Jesus was there at the beginning, “with God… and was God”, making all things, speaking things into existence as The Word.  He made everything in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, all things were created through him and for him, from the farthest galaxy to the smallest quark, and everything in between.  He made them.  He was Lord over the heavens and earth before time began.

And he chose to leave it all.

To become one of these.

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The one who created the heavens and the earth, now helpless.

Utterly Dependent.

Without knowledge.

Unable to feed himself when hungry.

Unable to wipe his own bottom after a big poop.

The Word of God, who spoke the universe into creation, unable to say his own name and having to learn again how to speak.

How to roll over.  How to crawl.  How to walk.  How to run.

The one who ruled over the place where there was no pain, suffering, tears, or death chose to enter into a reality as a helpless, tiny baby on a insignificant little rock in the farthest corner of the universe where he would experience pain, suffering, tears, and death.

Why?

Why would he do this?

Was it a grand experiment?  The Christ grew bored in heaven, and so he decided that becoming a human would be an interesting experiment?

Was Christ like King Richard in Ivanhoe, who disguised himself as a wandering knight as he sought out adventure?

No.

It was a rescue mission.

88gyasi2910aLet’s return back to Interstellar for a moment.  In Christopher Nolan’s film – as in reality – space is vast, empty, and lifeless.  At one point early in the film, Romilly (David Gayasi), one of the scientists, is having a difficult time adjusting to the idea of being in a small spacecraft voyaging through the deep regions of space, and so pounds on the side of the ship in frustration, and exclaims, “Millimeters of aluminum— that’s it!  And nothing within millions of miles that won’t kill us in seconds.”

As far as science has been able to figure out, there is nothing out there like what we have here.  Our tiny little home, our “pale blue dot” as Carl Sagan called it.  Scientists posit that there might be others out there, far distant planets capable of sustaining life, and while we’re hopeful that other planets exist like our own, right now this is the only show in town.  The only place that God created with beings like us, beings made imago dei, in His own image (Genesis 1:27).

And what do we bring to the table?

In Interstellar, Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) nails it.

Keyes, Greg (2014-11-11). Interstellar: The Official Movie Novelization (Kindle Locations 1055-1057). Titan. Kindle Edition.

Keyes, Greg (2014-11-11). Interstellar: The Official Movie Novelization (Kindle Locations 1055-1057). Titan. Kindle Edition.

And we get a glimpse into the rescue mission here.  He created us on this pale blue dot, and for some unknowable reason, He loves us.  We’re told this over and over in Scripture, with perhaps the most famous passage being this:

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And how did we repay him?  By rebelling against him, and insisting on doing things our way.  From the very beginning, humanity has been characterized by arrogance, pride, lust, vengeance, greed, anger, hatred, evil.

And this evil that exists in each of us is what keeps us from being able to be with him.  After all, Scripture tells us this very important truth about heaven:

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Unfortunately, that means the door is closed on all of us, because all of us are impure, we’re all shameful and deceitful.  And so we needed rescuing.

And who better to rescue us, than the One who created us?

And just like Christopher Nolan’s wormhole opened the doorway to a far away galaxy, Jesus Christ’s decision to be born a baby, to live the sinless, perfect life that we were unable to live, and then to die on the cross in our place opened a doorway that enabled us to cross from this world to his.

la_ca_1023_interstellarWhen I compare Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar to any of the films that we typically watch at Christmas, those movies come up woefully short.  They are timid, they are insufficient, they don’t inspire wonder or awe, they don’t give us any sense of the majesty of the world and the universe that God created.  They don’t give a hint or a tease about the condition of humanity that would necessitate the need for Christmas.

I’ll still watch them, and I’ll still enjoy them for what they are, and if I get up the nerve, I might even try to reproduce my mother’s Danish Wedding Cookies for my own kids, but they don’t come close to pointing me in the direction of the one who was born in that stable two thousand years ago.

Interstellar did that, in spades.

Thank you, Christopher Nolan, for making a big, bombastic, small, heartfelt film that made me remember a certain little universe-creating baby born in a manger in Bethlehem.

Thank you for pointing me back to Jesus.

Because He is the one I seek.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Reasons Why a Christian Film Industry is a Really, Really Bad Idea

“Too little, too late.”

That’s the phrase that kept coming to mind as I started to write a blog post where I, as a Christian, was going to argue against the building of a Christian film industry.

After all, Christians have been trying – on some level – to create a Christian film industry since movies began, and some would argue even earlier.  There were the Billy Graham films of the 1950’s, the apocalyptic Thief in the Night movies of the 1970’s, and a smattering of attempts by different Christian filmmakers during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but these movies barely registered on the radar of people outside of the church.  As far as Hollywood was concerned, Christian movies were provincial affairs, unworthy of notice.

Mel-Gibson-and-Jim-Caviez-007Then in 2004, Mel Gibson shocked everyone to attention with his blood-soaked account of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus – The Passion of the Christ, a film that cost 30 million to make and earned over 600 million.

Hollywood finally stood up and took notice.

It was as if Gibson, by successfully tapping into the largely untapped market of the “faith based audience”, had singlehandedly uncovered the fabled lost golden city of El Dorado, and the L.A. conquistadors immediately set about strategizing how to best invade and conquer this shining city on a hill.

The Armani-suited conquistadors didn’t waste time, but began attaching themselves to little-known Christian filmmakers who seemed to appeal to the Christian masses, eventually inking deals with the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof), Pureflix Entertainment (God’s Not Dead), Cloud Ten Pictures (Left Behind), and many others – helping provide the finances and distribution channels that would permit these filmmakers and film companies to continue making and marketing their products for the Christian audience.

And in the past couple of years we’ve seen several well-known individuals from outside the filmmaking industry also try to tap into the Χριστιανός zeitgeist – Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck, Willie Robertson, to name a few – all doing their part to try and build up a Christian (or politically conservative) filmmaking industry in their own image, or at least one that lines up with their own personal theological interpretation of the faith or political ideology.

And now, here we have this little blog, a small voice crying in the wilderness, making the argument that creating a Christian film industry is absolutely the last thing that we Christians should be trying to do.

THREE ARGUMENTS WHY A CHRISTIAN FILM INDUSTRY IS A REALLY, REALLY BAD IDEA

1.  The audience – we want them to hang about, don’t we?

A Christian film industry would only succeed in driving the unchurched audience even farther away than they already are.

Hollywood stood up and took notice with Gibson’s “little indie film that could” because of the massive Christian support.  This huge group of people supported The Passion in a way they hadn’t supported a film before.  According to a Barna survey, roughly half of the movie’s audience identified as born again Christian, and the film was widely backed by Christian leaders of all denominational backgrounds because of the heavy lifting done by Mel Gibson to get them on board.

But the interesting thing about The Passion was how it was also seen by people who didn’t consider themselves religious.  That same Barna survey mentioned that one out of three Americans claimed to have seen the movie, a pretty stunning feat for any film.  Mainstream, indie, secular, Christian, whatever… any filmmaker would dream of numbers like that.

Isn’t that something?  The Passion of the Christ had an incredible return on its investment (both financially and spiritually), and while it was marketed to Christians, it was a movie everyone wanted to see, regardless of their faith.  In fact, I first saw The Passion in a packed movie theater in Almaty, Kazakhstan back in 2004, surrounded by people who had little to no idea who Jesus was, and they were blown away by the film.

But the faith-based movers and shakers seem to have forgotten the wide appeal of Gibson’s film.  Christian films continue to be made squarely for Christian audiences – and if some non-Christians happen to get dragged to the film by their Christian friends, then good on them, but the movies aren’t made for them.

Here’s the rub: if the movies were playing in churches, I wouldn’t have a problem!

But the movies aren’t playing in churches.  They’re playing in cinemas.  In malls and multiplexes.  Where people who don’t go to church like to go on a Friday night.

That’s the problem.

left behindWhat do these people see on their Friday night out?  They see Left Behind (RT score 2) playing beside Fury (RT 78) and Birdman (RT 94).

They see Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (RT 0) playing beside Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (RT 73) and Disney’s Big Hero 6 (RT 89).

If you aren’t seriously bothered by those comparisons, then I really wonder if you’re paying attention.

And with every subpar film effort made to expressly please the Christian masses, the respect of the non-Christian for our art and – yes – for our faith – goes down.  Just look hereherehere and here.  Those are films made in our name, folks, and you can almost hear the sounds of doors closing as the unchurched audience sees what is done in our name, and checks us off their list of groups to be taken seriously.

The creation of a Christian film industry will not improve this, and conversely, I contend that it will entrench us deeper into our misguided acceptance of poorly written, preachy, unambiguous films with underdeveloped low-dimensional characters, and cartoonish, moustache-twirling non-Christian antagonists.

2.  People don’t like message movies.  Seriously.

A Christian film industry would excel at creating movies that are heavy on message and light on story and character development.

After all, that is what we’ve been creating, almost exclusively, since the dawn of so-called Christian filmmaking.

But here’s the crazy thing: people don’t like message movies, especially poorly made ones.

elysium-dvd-cover-36Remember how angry Christians got when the rumors hit that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah would be a pro-environmentalist screed?  Why?  Because Christians disliked the message.  Neil Blomkcampf and Matt Damon’s Elysium was roundly blasted by conservatives.  Why?  Because they disliked the film’s liberal message.

The message of a movie should be like the caboose of a train – carried along by the other elements of the film – story, dialogue, character, cinematography, acting – and not the other way around.  The message of a well-made film will hit you hours later when you’re lying in your bed, while the message of a poorly-made message-heavy film will steamroll you over while you’re sitting in the cinema.

Granted, if you like the message that the message movie is presenting, you might fool yourself into thinking that you like the movie, but odds are you really only like the message and you’re tolerating the movie.  Again, if we are producing these films only for ourselves, and we’re showing them in churches on Sunday nights or at youth retreats, then we should feel free to knock ourselves out and preach away.

However, we aren’t making our Christian message movies in a vacuum.  The world is watching, and they are not getting our message because they don’t like our message-heavy movies.

3.   Further self-isolation is a big, short-sighted mistake.

A Christian film industry would drive us to close our ranks even more than we already have.

After all, the hard truth is that people who aren’t Christians already rarely read our books.  People who aren’t Christians already have little to no interest in listening to our music.  They typically don’t visit our blogs, subscribe to our magazines, attend our universities, shop in our gift shops, tune into our television programming, or take advice from our talk shows.  They’re rarely interested in attending our churches, our Bible studies, our home groups, our prayer meetings, or our revivals.

We’ve done quite a good job building a subculture for ourselves, isolating ourselves from the influences of the world, but in the process we’re also isolating our influence from the world!

newswAnd now we find ourselves stuck in the gravitational pull of a cultural black hole.  Religion has always been a huge factor in public discourse in the United States, but since a height of relevance in the 1950’s, Christian cultural influence has been in a steady decline.  In another study, the folks at Barna have shown that this decline will continue so that, unless something changes, by the time my one year old is college-aged, he will be in the definite minority.  I should say that he will be in the minority if he is following Christ – and it is my daily prayer that he will be.  But my son will need to know how to live and work in a post-Christian world.

And that post-Christian world that is coming will have very little interest in supporting or encouraging a Christian film industry.

THE ALTERNATIVE TO A CHRISTIAN FILM INDUSTRY

Believe it or not, I’m not saying that we should never make films for Christian audiences.  We should!   They should be fantastic films, just like films made for any subculture can be fantastic!  But that should not be the focus of our efforts.

Rather, we should focus on those Christians trying to make it in Hollywood right now – writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, CGI gurus, etc – who are currently studying and working in the Hollywood system, who need to be built up and encouraged by the church while the church still has the resources and relevance to be able to support them!  Rather than insisting that they produce middling message-heavy stories for Christian audiences, we should be encouraging them to learn how to tell their stories and live their lives within the system that will be there in the future.

We should be building these believing artists up so that they can have an impact on the lives of the unchurched writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, and CGI gurus with whom they work.

We should be helping them to make movies whose posters would be proudly displayed on any mall cinema or multiplex.

We should be helping them get the training and experience and connections that they can use to make films that would have big premieres on red carpets with paparazzi and gowns and tuxedos and limousines.

We should be providing them with the proper tools and support so that the movies they make can be well-made enough to be nominated for Critic’s awards and People’s Choice Awards and Golden Globes and Oscars.

Instead of putting all our money and resources into creating movies that we can enjoy in our isolation, we should be investing in our filmmakers who are out on the mission field of Hollywood, helping them to make movies that can take the cultural landscape by storm, that can hit the widest of audiences, and trusting God to use those efforts to reach the unchurched audience how HE would reach them.

After all, we are called to live with that unchurched audience, not in closed ranks, regardless of how much influence we have.  We aren’t to be conformed by the world (Romans 12:2), we shouldn’t be of the world (John 15:19), but we are to be salt and light in the dark world (Matthew 5:13-16) and bearers of a great light to the people who walk in darkness (Isaiah 9:2).

Maybe, just maybe, in our generation or the next – that great light will be seen flickering with 70MM projection on an Imax screen, to thunderous applause.

Below are a few good places to start if you want to find some Christians to support in Hollywood.   Just click on the logo to go to the organization’s website:

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The Depressingly Low Expectations Of Christian Filmgoers

This morning Darren Doane, the director of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, posted the following tweet:

https://twitter.com/TheDoane/status/535594602338983937

What’s happening for Doane and Cameron’s movie at Rotten Tomatoes is similar to what you’ll find if you look at many of the recently released so-called faith-based films: extremely low critic ratings and unreasonably high audience ratings. Let’s look at some of the results of other Christian-made films:

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What exactly is going on?

Is there a secular critic bias out there that says if a film is released with a hint of “faith-based”, it will be treated differently than a movie of a different genre?

Even if the movie is brilliant, it will not get a fair shake?

Is there a faith-based audience bias out there that says if a film is released with a hint of “faith-based”, the quality of the movie will be given a free pass as long as it portrays Christians in a good light, talks positively about Jesus, or has Scripture passages used in a semi-appropriate fashion?

Even if the movie is terrible, it will be received positively if it meets the criteria?

Personally, I think there is a bit of both going on.  Yes, there are secular critics who will not approach a Christian film without adding the caveat, “…for a Christian film”.   But one hopes that a critic will be able to separate that particular bias from what they experience on the screen and write a candid review that explores the positives and the negatives of the film.

And yes, there are plenty of Christians who will gladly support anything as long as what they are seeing on the screen reinforces or promotes what they already believe.  Thus you have hundreds of positive reviews on the Left Behind website from ordinary people who make the movie sound like the best film ever made, rather than the enormous cinematic shamble that it was.

But critic bias is by far the less alarming and less surprising issue of the two on the table.  I’m much more disturbed by the way so many Christians will line up around the block to embrace any movie that builds up their worldview – regardless of the film’s quality.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that many Christians have become so needy to see their points of view on the screen that they’ve become blind to what makes for a quality film at all.  At least that seems to be the case, considering the way we rally behind so many poor filmmaking efforts, treating them like the best thing since the last poor filmmaking effort.

Yep.  Our expectations have grown depressingly low.

There has been a two-pronged effect on Christian-made films that I see as a direct result of the low expectations of the target audience.

First, the low expectations force the filmmakers to sacrifice good storytelling on the alter of hitting all the right beats to please the Christian audience.  I’ve discussed this point before, in my article What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking, so I will move on to the second point.

Second, the low expectations damage our potential to be taken seriously by people outside the church, as they see us vehemently defending films that are so badly produced.

Our films are not taken seriously.  

What did George Costanza say about Christian rock on Seinfeld?  “I like Christian rock. It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians who think they’re so cool and hip.”

If George were still around today, he might also say, “I like Christian films.  They’re positive.  They’re not like those real films…”

We did it to ourselves with a Christian music industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture, we did it to ourselves with a Christian publishing industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture, and now we’re trying to do it to ourselves again by building a Christian filmmaking industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture.

And it’s a huge mistake.

This “circle the wagons” mentality does little to help with building the kingdom of God, but does much for building up walls between the church and the greater culture.

In his Salon article entitled, Christian right’s vile PR sham: why their bizarre films are backfiring on them, writer Edwin Lyngar says some pretty damning things about what is happening in American culture as a result of this past year’s Christian filmmaking efforts.  Lyngar says:

The people who create and consume Christian film are neither mature nor reflective. They are at their core superstitious, afraid and tribal. They self-identify overwhelmingly Republican and shout about “moochers” while vilifying the poor. They violate the teachings and very essence of their own “savior” while deriving almost sexual pleasure from the fictional suffering of atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, Hindus, and even liberal Christians. To top it all off, the stories they tell themselves are borderline psychotic.

Is this what it means to be salt and light to a dying world, that the followers of Christ come off as ‘neither mature nor reflective’?  That we’re seen as ‘superstitious, afraid and tribal’?  That our stories are viewed as ‘borderine psychotic’?  I realize that this is just one man’s opinion, but I don’t think we Christians can afford to dismiss opinions like his, because I don’t believe that his opinion is so uncommon.

And it all comes back to the depressingly low expectations that we have for the art being produced by us, for us, and in our name.

The irony is that Christians would be the first to stand up and say, “High expectations breed high results, and low expectations breed low results!” with regards to most things in life:

Education?  Aren’t Christians known for homeschooling our kids because we have high expectations for their education?

Employment?  Aren’t Christian employers known for holding employees to higher standards?

Ministry?  Aren’t we disappointed when people in positions of ministerial authority don’t live up to our high expectations?

And yet when it comes to filmmaking – as evidenced by the overwhelming support given to many of the not-so-great faith-based films that were released this past year – our expectation for quality Christian art is shockingly low.

And it just doesn’t make sense.

Meanwhile, not only was the director of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas out this morning stumping on the social media platforms for people to speak out at RT, but the man himself, Kirk Cameron, posted this on his Facebook page:

 

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I can appreciate the grass roots campaigning of Cameron and Doane, and I haven’t had the chance to see Saving Christmas yet to speak to the movie one way or the other, but what about this…

What if – instead of just flocking to a film’s Rotten Tomato page and putting up happy reviews to support the filmmakers – we showed that we have the capability to use our higher order thinking skills, and write critically honest reviews that discuss both the good and the bad about the film?

What if – instead of just flocking to the Facebook pages of filmmakers who believe the way we believe and gushing about how much we love their movies, or flaming about how much we disliked the movies, as the case may be – we do the same thing and give them constructive feedback so that they can improve the next time out?

What if Christians do the really heavy lifting and raise the bar on our expectations for films made in our name, helping our filmmakers by expecting them to make great movies that even the secular critics would have a hard time dismissing?

Folks, unless we start to adjust our expectations, unless we break the model set for us by the music and publishing industry, unless we start doing our best to pursue excellence in the films we are allowing to be produced in our name, we might very well find Mr. Lyngar’s heartbreaking prophecy coming true.

The fundamentalist community will continue to shrink until they start telling themselves—and those they hope to win over—more honest and humane stories… Christian film with its cardboard characters and heavy-handed messages will only drive an increasingly diverse and media-savvy populace away. Failing a profound change of heart, the best this community can hope for are films so bad no one will bother to watch them.