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…

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The Christian Response to Film Critics

screen-shot-2014-11-21-at-2-12-32-pmRemember last December, when Kirk Cameron put out the call to his fans to “storm the gates of Rotten Tomatoes” and help increase the audience score for his Razzie award winning film, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas?  It was Cameron’s attempt to balance the critical reviews, which in the case of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, were abysmal.  Thus, the Razzies.

Unfortunately, for Kirk Cameron, his efforts backfired when word got out to those outside of his fanbase.  Having the faithful bring up the audience score was seen as gaming the system by many, and they decided to do some storming of their own.  Suddenly Cameron found his audience score bottoming out (currently 30%), and his reviews filled with all sorts of derogatory nonsense.

The most recent Christian-made film to be released was this weekend’s Do You Believe?, put out by Pure Flix, the same film company that brought us last year’s surprise hit, God’s Not Dead.  As seems to be par for the course, the film has been receiving fairly negative reviews from the critics (currently 10% on Rotten Tomatoes) and overwhelmingly positive reviews from the core audience (currently 82%).

And predictably, the Rotten Tomato plea has gone out from the folks at Pure Flix to the faithful.

10337720_875483579174765_1755178833449566882_nIn spite of what the anti-Cameronites thought about Kirk Cameron’s efforts, I don’t see anything wrong with encouraging your fans to rate and review your film.  It’s grassroots campaigning, and say what you will about their films, but Christian-owned film companies are experts in grass roots campaigning.  Pure Flix in particular has been hitting the core audience pretty hard these past few months.  They’ve been using all sort of methods to get people excited to see Do You Believe?, posting pictures on Facebook, hosting several advanced screenings for big fans, doing interviews all over the world of Christian media, all in an effort to build word-of-mouth excitement.

It’s a given that the people who make up Pure Flix’s core audience are Christians.  I think it’s also a pretty good bet that they are Christians who primarily interact with Christian media – watching mainly Christian-made films, listening mainly to Christian-made music, and reading primarily Christian-written books.  Therefore, it stands to reason that Pure Flix would help nudge that grassroots audience in the right direction to increase the legitimacy and reputation of the film in the eyes of the world.

After all, don’t most of us feel like the critics are rarely right?  If the critical score is low but the audience score is high, most of us will accept the audience score, because we’re audience, too.  This means that if someone is on the fence about seeing a film, a high audience score might be just what it takes to nudge them into buying the ticket.

Having established that I don’t have a problem with the strategy of encouraging fans of a film to rate and review a film on a site like Rotten Tomatoes, I will say that I do have a problem with the attitudes that many Christians show to the reviews of secular critics.  While Do You Believe?’s Facebook page is full of glowing comments about the film from the die-hard fans, it’s also sprinkled with the victimized viewpoint that the disagreeing critics are either evil, blind, or ignorant.

Here’s an example:

Please go to Rotten Tomatos and Post the Same review there as right now Only a couple positive ones are posted the majority have a Anti-Christian bent/agenda.

And another:

I can’t be surprised that critics knocked it. They are blinded by the ‘angel of light’ the counterfeit. However I thought it was incredibly impacting even a step above God’s Not Dead and I thought that was an awesome movie. These critics need a lot of prayer because I’ve watched movies they destroyed and I enjoyed them and those they rated so wonderfully absolutely horrible. Don’t give up the message will reach many.

And another:

I loved it. Go see it and decide for yourself dont be turned away by the ignorant critics reviews

I do believe that critic bias towards Christian-made movies exists.  I’ve seen it with the reviews of Mom’s Night Out, The Song, and Believe Me, three films that were – in my opinion – the most accessible Christian-made films of 2014.  These three films deserved to be judged on their merits, and not the fact that they were being marketed to the faith-based audience.  But if you read the reviews, it doesn’t take long for the anti-Christian-film bias to become evident.

20512493_main_zoomIncidentally, even The Passion of the Christ only has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 49%, and oddly enough, the highest ranked Christian-made movie is Phil Vischer’s Jonah: A Veggietales Movie (69%).

The problem is, if a bias does exist, then it’s a bias of our own making.  Christian-made and Christian-subculture-marketed films have been so preachy, so poorly made, and so Christian-subculture-focused for so long, that I don’t know when secular critics will be willing to give our films the benefit of the doubt.

We’ve made our bed and now we have to lie in it.

But here we are, living in an interesting time when our films are starting to become mainstream, playing alongside secular films.  This is vastly different than the story with most of our books and music, which tend to stay firmly entrenched within the subculture walls that we build for them.  Our movies have such potential to burst the Christian bubble, but only if we Christians don’t screw it up.

So far, it’s not looking good.

But I’m a hopeful person by nature, and so Christians, rather than calling foul or lamenting the spiritual deficiencies of people you don’t know, I have a few things for you to understand that can help you become an intelligent player in the conversation, as our films gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world.

1)  Film critics know their business.

ebert-siskel-favoritesGet it?  Critics are – by and large – professional journalists.  While there are exceptions, most of the critics you find represented on an aggregator site like Rotten Tomatoes have spent years studying and learning film.  It’s their job, just like it’s the job of the elementary schoolteacher to know 6th grade Mathematics, or the job of a endocrinologist to know hormones.  To dismiss their criticism outright as some form of religious persecution or spiritual blindness is – in and of itself – ignorant, and in doing so you miss out on an opportunity for growth both for yourself and the filmmakers you are trying to support.

The fact is, if the movie has artistic or cinematic merit then the critic will usually acknowledge that merit, regardless of the agenda of the film.  We can actually see this in the current reviews for Do You Believe?, and the fact that most critics are saying things like the movie is well-filmed, Mira Sorvino’s performance is effective, and the car crash at the end is impressive.

However, their job is to look at films critically (thus the name of the occupation).  This means that they will clearly point out bad writing, plot holes, structural difficulties, unbelievable characterizations, and so on.  Again, Christian filmgoers, understand that this is their job.  And guess what?  They actually don’t only score Christian-made films in the low range.  Currently, the number one movie of the weekend was Insurgent, and it only has a 32% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Sean Penn’s The Gunman has a 14% (and he’s *gasp* an agnostic liberal!), and Accidental Love (a film with a star-studded cast and extremely worldly subject matter) has a bottom-scraping 6%.

2)  Practice contextualization.

Paul preaching at the Aeropagus

Paul preaching at the Aeropagus

In missions, contextualization is the process of learning a new culture so that you can learn the best way to present the Gospel message to that culture in a meaningful way.  Christian filmmaking, while not new, has become a new force in the cultural landscape, and we must learn that landscape – both as audience and artist.

How do we do that?  We learn about quality of film by watching acclaimed films that aren’t necessarily Christian.  Since our films are playing alongside secular films, we must understand what makes secular films good so that we can make our own films better.

If you’re comparing the Christian film you’re watching to other Christian films, then you’re making the same mistake of those biased critics I mentioned above.  You aren’t understanding the culture, and you’ll continue to find yourself both rejecting and being rejected by that culture.  Sure, Scripture tells us being rejected is a part of being a follower of Christ, but that doesn’t mean we actively seek rejection by not learning the craft.  Imagine if a doctor was proud that he was rejected for having patients die on his table, saying, “Jesus was rejected, and so am I!  What a happy man I am!”  It’s a ridiculous example, but it’s what happens so often for Christians regarding filmmaking.

I’m not suggesting that a Christian watch hours of R-rated material (although the rating should never be the sole arbiter of your decision process), because there are plenty of critically-acclaimed PG and PG13 rated films.  Watch those films and pay attention to why they’re good.  Read the reviews after you’ve watched to see why they are appreciated.  Disagree if you will, but understand the critic point of view.

In other words, actively watch acclaimed films so that you can understand why people appreciate them, then you might come closer to understanding why our films get reviewed the way that they do.

3)   Let the story be the message

Blaine-Graphic

blaineglobal.com

I’ll keep my final point simple.  As you accomplish #2, I would hope that you would learn the importance of wanting more than just a good message in the films being made for you.  Love the message, sure, but don’t stop there, demand well-told stories.

The clarion call is, “Support Christian movies so that we can send Hollywood a message!”  But here is the problem:  if the message you’re sending Hollywood is that we don’t care what you make for us as long as you include the message, then all you will get will be message movies, poorly made.

That should bother you, especially as you think about my first two points.  But the point has been made over and over again on this blog, as well as other places, so I won’t belabor it.

Finally, with regards to Pure Flix’s latest call for improving the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, the people that love the film should absolutely go and review and rate the film.  But when you do, be prepared for two things:

First, don’t be surprised if the word gets out, and the haters do the same thing to Do You Believe? that they did to Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas.  Just be prepared.

Second, when that happens, remember the message of the cross that the Pure Flix guys were trying to convey in their film, and respond to those haters the way that Christ responded to you when you came to him.  Not with more hate, not with hostility, not with complaints of persecution and abuse, but with love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  Same goes for the critics who may seem as hostile to our message as they are to the medium in which we present it.

Because when you think about it, it’s not our movies that will ultimately transform the cultural landscape – it’s when Christians truly act like Jesus to the rest of the world, especially in the face of rejection.

Unbroken: The Alternate Ending

unbroken_ver4_xlg[Read to the bottom to find my faith-based alternate ending to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken.]

The 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge is on Day 7, and I’ve been pleased by some aspects of this journey (starting a daily devotional habit, discovering some interesting music, connecting with lots of fun people), and disappointed in others (that Christians have this weird fascination with copying the world’s fads, that the big players in Christian media like perpetuating a pretty myopic view of the world, that if our stories don’t have specific “come to Jesus” moments, the Christian media marketers won’t touch them).

Ultimately, I’m finding that I don’t like or appreciate the various machines that exist in Christian media, but I don’t doubt that each machine represents lots of people who are doing their best to live faithful lives for Jesus.

One happy surprise I found was that Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is sold by Christian retailers.  This surprised me, because it was a film made by a filmmaker who doesn’t appear to be a Christian, and (spoiler alert) it lacks a conversion sequence.  My family sat down to watch the film last night, and like so many, we were touched by Louie Zamperini’s amazing life experiences, and the strength that he exhibited time and time again.  The film handles issues of faith carefully and respectfully, which throws a bit of cold water on the idea that the movers and shakers in Hollywood have it out for Christians.

After the past week, I’d say that it’s more likely that the movers and shakers in Hollywood have it out for the corporate, industrialized, politicized Christianity that is so prevalent in America these days.  And with good reason.  Corporate Christianity can be irritating, holier-than-thou, out-of-touch, unintentionally and imminently mockable.  Corporate Christianity (like it’s secular brothers and sisters) loves to stir up controversy, to sensationalize for profit, and they love that the vast bulk of the faithful will eagerly swallow whatever pills they ship out to the neighborhood Christian bookstores.

The problem I have with the corporate side of my faith is that it runs so counter to the faith we’re called to in the Scriptures.  Christianity is supposed to be relational, but Corporate Christianity is driven by profit – not people.  Christianity is supposed to be about humility, but Corporate Christianity is about putting our stars up on pedestals to be loved and admired.  Christianity is about loving your enemies, but Corporate Christianity is about building bubbles so that we don’t have to interact with those who believe differently than we do.

Keep in mind, once again, I’m talking about the machine, not most of the people behind the machine.  My interaction this past week with some of the people behind the machine is that they are doing their best to follow Jesus.  Many of them are incredibly creative, and are just looking for ways to express that creativity.  They are intelligent, passionate, and concerned for those people outside of the Christian faith in a sincere and loving way.

But back to Unbroken… watching Jolie’s film got me thinking, what if some film company that produces films for the typical Christian audience had gotten their hands on Louie Zamperini’s story?  A version that would have pleased the machine?

Just for kicks and giggles, I decided to imagine how that faith-based version of Unbroken might have ended.

In case the PDF doesn’t show up on your screen, you can also click this link:

Unbroken Alternate Ending

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

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

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

Five observations for day five:

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

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

I wish I could download more Christian-made movies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a special rating…

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

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

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

Follow Nate on Twitter, too.  @RNFleming

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

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

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

We need to be creating better and better things.

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

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

And that depresses me on this, the fourth day.

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

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

I’m hoping tomorrow will be a better day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1 down, 39 days to go.

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

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenge

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

The ground rules:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Request

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

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

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

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

What’s Wrong with Christian Media?

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

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

Christian Media Barely Reaching Beyond the Faithful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The missionary smiles and turns to the screen.

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

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

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

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

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

Four out of ten?  That’s pretty amazing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Be Professional.

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

2.  Be Excellent.

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

3.  Be Creative.

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

4.  Be Intelligent.

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

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

5.  Be Ingenious.

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

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

6.  Be Honest.

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

They should talk about it behind our backs.

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

What we do have is Jesus.

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

And that is how we will impact the world.

And now the (bonus +2).

1.  Drop the Secret Language.

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

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

2.  Give the End Times a Rest.

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

Can we just give it a rest for a while?

Please?

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this…

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

And this…

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

Now that’s a movie I’d like to see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does impress Him?  Among things, this…

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

And this…

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

And this…

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

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

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

But let’s keep the idolizing where it belongs.

In front of this guy.

maxresdefault

 

 

Thimblerig’s Interview • Filmmaker Doc Benson

Over the past several months I’ve enjoyed becoming networked with several Christians who are involved in the filmmaking industry, and who have what I consider to be a healthy and balanced view on living your faith out while attempting to create film art for the glory of God.

One of the filmmakers I’ve gotten the pleasure of meeting (virtually, anyway) is Doc Benson, a man who wears many, many hats: producer, newscaster, station manager, voice artist, feature film actor, pastor, church consultant, and restart specialist.  Doc has been involved in media and ministry since 1990, and has recently written, produced, acted in, and directed his first feature-length film, Seven Deadly Words.

One very interesting thing that Doc has done is started an effort to distribute a copy of Seven Deadly Words to every church in America.  This is an amazingly generous undertaking, with potential far reaching impact.  If you would like to learn more about this effort, you can find out more by visiting the website, www.givingchurcheshope.org.

I’m pleased and honored to have Doc Benson be a part of the third interview in my Thimblerig’s Interviews series.

Please Introduce yourself.

Hi, I’m Doc Benson… Director, Writer, and Producer and all around nice guy.

How did you get involved in filmmaking?

While working on my doctorate, I took a break from ministry and became a producer and on-air talent for a CBS news affiliate. I eventually became a TV station manager in a small community in New England.   I had the opportunity to work on documentaries and in “Disappearances” with Kris Kristofferson. That experience solidified my desire to enter the field of film production. Eventually I studied under Dov Simmons (the same teacher of Quentin Tarantino and Will Smith among others). From all this, I crafted the script and production that eventually became the award-winning feature, Seven Deadly Words.

Who have been some of your most profound creative influences as an artist?

Well….Let me think a minute. I’d have to say that I draw on several sources for inspiration. First and foremost I’d have to say Frank Capra. Some directors like to tell stories about unapproachable people … people of the 1%. Capra, with films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was best able to capture the irrepressible optimism and daily courage of ordinary men and women.

I am also a big fan of classic radio programs. The ability to capture an audience and transport them into another time and place merely with the spoken word. Sure, the maxim is “show it, don’t say it”, but if the word pictures you create are not on par with the images you paint, you will lose your audience. Script and story matters.

By the way, I have to agree with Orson Welles when he stated that Buster Keaton’s The General is “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.”

Seven-Deadly-WordsPlease give a synopsis of your film, “Seven Deadly Words”, and tell us a bit of the history of the film.

Inspired by actual events, this docudrama follows the community and the congregation of Egypt Valley Church as they try to overcome the Seven Deadly Words: ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’ The church is out of funds and out of touch with the community. New pastor Evan Bennett sets out to change things for the better with the help of some folks in and out of the church. But there’s a problem… The Haman Family has been running things a long time, and they don’t like change. When their control and ministry comes under scrutiny, the Hamans decide to fight back. Evan and his family soon learn how far one family is willing to go to preserve the status quo.

For almost two decades I served as a pastor, church planter, and restart consultant. I have seen both the good and bad about churches going through change. I’ve even lived through some “horror stories” of my own. I thought I would combine some of those ideas, stories, and debates, and put them together into a film that could tell the story of one church, going through needed change. Folks may be shocked at some of the things that happen, but I am sorry to say that much of the film is inspired by actual events. In the end, however, it is a story about overcoming the conflict surrounding change, and growing in a direction that is Christ centered and ministry focused.

Script development began back in 2011. We assembled the cast and crew in early 2012, and began principal photography on June 9th of 2012. The premiere was held near the end of 2013, with distribution starting in the summer of 2014. We’ve been blessed to have won a number of awards for the project. It was even screened in Cannes during this year’s festival.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project? What surprises did you experience along the way?

Funding was the biggest challenge. We set up an LLC and secured members to invest in the project. Being that it was my first film, we were in uncharted waters. It took some time to find investors with the vision and courage to recognize the potential in the film.   Selecting a location was also paramount. We partnered with Connersville, Indiana, a community that was supportive to the extent that the provided resources for us at no cost and even let us use the city and local business names in the movie. This was a win-win in that we were able to reduce art costs and production expenses, and they gained a promotional boost with every showing of the movie. I strongly believe that these types of partnerships help to boost production value in lower budget films while reducing actual spending.

10933251_644042369054905_1706003274_nProduction wasn’t as big a challenge as you would think. I had very detailed call sheets, shot lists, and script notes. Good planning made the days run fairly smoothly.   Because of our preparations in advance, we often finished with filming by mid afternoon each day. I didn’t want it to feel like an indie set, but more like a SAG set. The professionalism on set gave the cast and crew time to rehearse, relax, and socialize in the evenings. We still finished the entire film, securing all shots we needed plus some, in the 18 days scheduled (six days shooting and one for rest per week). I believe that well rested actors and crew can give a much better performance in fewer takes than a crew working 16 to 18 hours a day on a mismanaged set.

Surprise? I guess I’d have to say the reaction from mainstream festivals. We have received more awards and recognition from secular festivals than faith-based festivals. Maybe it’s because our story exposes areas in church life that need improvement. Folks who have never stepped foot in a church tell us that they can relate to the conflict over the seven deadly words. Some have even told us war stories of personal experiences.   To me, that’s high praise.

What are your thoughts on the state of filmmaking in the Christian community now, and your predictions for where it might go in the future?

We are trapped in a moment in time where church audiences and the Christian-industrial complex tend to prefer movies that don’t take risks. Movies with milquetoast stories and construction make millions, while films that break new creative boundaries barely scrape by. I call these “Godsploitation” films, after the “Blackspoitation” movies of the 1970’s. They are formulaic for a target market with come to Jesus moments and car salesman subtlety.

Godsploitation films continue to be made because they have a ready audience, and investors like ready audiences. It’s a catch 22. We need investors to take chances on redemptive films in new genres, but we also need believers to accept and promote these new movies. Some producers are starting to break out of this mold, but we have a ways to go before we see a wide swath of redemptive films covering multiple genres.

“Faith-based” films are typically also family friendly, but the Bible is often not family friendly. How would you advise Christian artists as they think about portraying the grittier sides of life?  

Yeah. If you made an accurate movie about parts of the Old Testament, it would be boycotted by many churches!

Life isn’t clean. Good guys aren’t perfect. Bad guys aren’t twisting a moustache and wearing a cape. We don’t exist in a Pollyanna world. If you want to make characters that are overcomers in Christ, you need to give them something to overcome. Give them challenges, problems, realism, grit… especially if your target audience includes Pre-Christians.

10887834_644042195721589_1443528046_nBut that doesn’t mean you have to show EVERYTHING in order to make your point. Take horror films: Hitchcock’s Psycho did more to scare me by showing syrup in a drain than any blood soaked slasher film of today ever will. Or how about just before the fight scene between Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. Borgnine sees a photo of Sinatra’s sister, and whispers something in the ear of Montgomery Clift . You don’t hear what it was, but it was bad enough to cause Sinatra to grab a chair and start swinging.  Maybe it’s the radio fan in me, but if Christians want to make realistic films without gratuitous violence or over the top language, take a cue from the masters of the golden age…imply. Your audience’s imagination will do the rest.

Along those same lines, do you think it’s possible for Christian filmmakers to make R-rated films? If so, how would imagine that would look, and what would be the risks?

I think that the movie My Son gave us a window into what an R-rated movie with a solid redemptive message could look like. Unlike many in the church, I felt that the movie probably deserved an R rating for drug use and violence, but that didn’t mean it was a bad movie. On the contrary. Keep in mind that the MPAA rating system is subjective at best and biased at worst. There are many mainstream films that receive ratings lower than deserved.

But really, who cares? Hollywood may release more R rated films, but over and over, studies have shown that PG and PG-13 movies make more money. Remember, you need investors, and investors like proven profitability.

Don’t tell me you couldn’t make that R rated film a PG-13 with just a few tweaks. Drop some of the language. The overuse of profanity is a crutch that weak writers use to create fake tension. Suggest some of the sex instead of just showing it. It will take more creativity, but will be more profitable in the long run and less apt to be shunned by the church community.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers, especially those who are approaching filmmaking as a calling or a ministry?

First, expect to be disappointed. There are going to be many hours of frustration, many dead end roads, and many moments of disillusionment. If you think that the faith-based film industry is paved with golden intentions and receptive hearts think again. There are egos, agendas, and self-centered prima donnas here too. They get away with it by disguising their pomposity in a shroud of spiritual language and religiosity. It will be very frustrating, but don’t let it rob you of your zeal and purpose. Keep the faith.

If you want to make a million dollar feature, show them you can make a successful $200,000 feature. If you want to make that, show them you can make a $60,000 film. To make that, make a great $20,000 movie and so on. Work your way up the path of budget and creativity. Don’t try to start too big, nor should you remain stuck in ultra-low budget purgatory. And for heaven’s sakes, no more shorts!

The other thing I would recommend is figure out what film-making job you are good at, and learn as much about that role as possible. Right now most redemptive films are made using the “Lone Ranger” model…One guy or gal is the director, producer, dp, grip, chief cook, etc. That’s not how the industry at large works. A quality production brings together a diverse staff of talented individuals uniquely gifted in their task. I myself have worn a number of hats, but have focused on directing as my calling.

Collaborative efforts will require bigger budgets, which will require greater investment, which will require better stories and quality to attract investors. Therefore, as we move to collaboration, we will see better movies.   Maybe instead of you and four other people each making an okay 10 grand film, you could work together to make an amazing 50 grand feature or web pilot? Leave your egos at the foot of the cross, please.

Can you tell us what you have planned for any future projects?

0dbc96_97dc63a963ad786760ab12a21d10f6c5.jpg_srz_309_496_75_22_0.5_1Ever since Seven Deadly Words and winning those three best director awards, I have been asked to direct for other producers. I look forward to those directing opportunities and others that may come along.   In the mean time I have another film in development entitled The Publication, which will include actors from SDW as well as talented folks like Lee Perkins from Foxcatcher and Nancy Stafford from Matlock. We are still gathering investment on this one.

I also have other scripts that I would love to direct and partner with a production company or church to make. If a church was interested in becoming a producer of redemptive film, I would come in, help train your people, assist with the production planning, and then direct the film.

The other thing happening is a campaign called Giving Churches Hope. There was so much positive feedback about our last movie and the value it had for church audiences, we are working with several church organizations and non-profits in an effort to give a copy of “Seven Deadly Words” to every church in America. Folks can learn more at the campaign website GivingChurchesHope.org or by contacting me directly via DocBenson.org .

Again, a big thank you to Doc Benson for taking part in this interview, and for giving so much great information for those of us interested in helping Christians excel in filmmaking and other artistic endeavors.

More about Doc…

Doc Benson’s article, The Little Red Hen for Filmmakers

Find out more information about Doc Benson: DocBenson.org

Giving Churches Hope website:  Giving Churches Hope

Doc Benson on Twitter and Facebook: @CuldeeDoc & /EricDocBenson

Seven Deadly Words on Facebook:  /SevenDeadlyWords

Past Thimblerig interviews…

Thimblerig’s Interview of Michael B. Allen & Will Bakke, makers of Believe Me

Thimblerig’s Interview with Author and Filmmaker Bill Myers

Stay tuned to the Thimblerig’s Ark blog for more interviews with artists doing interesting non-conformist work in the name of Christ, and come join the Sacred Arts Revolution conversation over at Facebook!