Over on faithwriters.com, someone linked to the article, “What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking”. A poster there named Lillian raised some issues with my blog, and I thought I would address them here, in case anyone is interested.
My original points are in italics, Lillian’s responses are in bold, and my replies are using a normal font.
1) We need to permit our artists (writers, actors, musicians, filmmakers) to take more risks. And artists, whether you are permitted or not, take more risks. Did you really get into your artistic field because you liked playing it safe? Why play it safe with the most important thing you have to say?
Some artists need no permission to “play it safe.” They prefer it that way. Every Christian artist should feel free to create as per their convictions. To imply that one is less of an artist or flawed in some way because they don’t take “risks” according to this author’s belief is troublesome to me.
Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my article. My intention wasn’t that we should require all artists of faith to take risks. Rather, I was attempting to challenge the church to allow her artists to take risks – as per their convictions.
2) We need to encourage our artists to challenge rather than stroke our sensibilities. A pearl is made when dirt is irritated inside the oyster, after all. And so artists, don’t wait for permission. Start challenging your audience. They will undoubtedly resist you, but we need to be challenged or we’ll stagnate and fade away into irrelevance.
And yet, among the most sold books world wide last year and on the Times bestseller books for months was “Killing Jesus.” Irrelevance? Not as long as God has something to say about it.
First, God is sovereign, and just like He used Balaam’s donkey, He can and will use our attempts to create art in surprising ways. But you have to admit that if we will stagnate if we only expose ourselves to things with which we agree. Nobody outside our little subculture will care what we do as artists, because we’ll be so out of touch.
Before anyone suggests that I’m suggesting that we watch hard R-rated films for the sake of exposure. That’s not at all what I mean. Let me use the Noah film to help clarify my point.
I read testimonies by many Christians who said that they would not see the movie for a variety of reasons, based on what they’d heard:
• The director is an atheist.
• It’s a pro-environment movie.
• The film has rock people.
• The animals didn’t enter the ark two by two.
• Noah has a mental breakdown on the ark.
• Noah gets drunk.
Basically, these people were choosing to avoid having their interpretations of the Noah story challenged. To be honest, I have a great deal more respect for the Christians who saw the film and hated it, and complained about it afterward, because they were at least open to seeing another point of view.
This brings me back to my point. If we don’t like the way people outside the church challenge us, then we should take the reins and challenge each other with the art we produce, à la Proverbs 27:17. Most Christian films don’t do this because the people who make those films are too busy trying to please their core audience (understandably), who largely wish to be stroked and not challenged. It is my contention that filmmakers/storytellers should be freed up to say things that make us uncomfortable, and if the church doesn’t give them permission, they need to be say those things anyway.
Like a prophet.
This makes me think of a favorite story about Rich Mullins speaking to the chapel service at Wheaton College, as told by Shane Claiborne in his book, The Irresistible Revolution. Shane reports that Rich said:
“You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you just have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too…[And he paused in the awkward silence.] But I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”
3) We need to recognize that art is art, the pulpit is the pulpit, and while the two might cross paths from time to time, they are completely different animals.
They are as per the secular world, but for the Christian artist, should they be? What happened to being “light,” “salt,” “being in not of,” and “examples” not “carbon copies,” leading not following.
Yes, yes, yes! A thousand times yes! Of course they should be different! After all…
The pulpit is the place where Scripture should be explained and the Message delivered clearly, without ambiguity.
Art is inevitably ambiguous, depending on the eyes or ears of the beholder to discover the meaning for him or herself.
The pulpit is the embodiment of “tell, don’t show.”
Art is the embodiment of “show, don’t tell.”
In the pulpit, the personality of the preacher shouldn’t matter, because the message is paramount. In fact, if people are more excited about the messenger than the message, then that group may have a problem.
In art, the personality of the artist might be sole the reason for the excitement for the art, and this doesn’t need to detract from the art.
In my original article, I conceded that the two may cross paths from time to time, but that should be the exception, not the rule. I might want to see that guy who paints upside down pictures of Christ on a special Sunday morning, but I don’t want him up front every week (this is a problem I have with some modern worship – but that’s the subject of another article). At the same time, maybe a piece of art will sometimes be on the nose for effect, but if it is a regular occurrence, it will get shut down by those who aren’t into the message being proclaimed.
So, yes. They should be different.
As to Christians setting the example, I would say that is the job of every Christian in every situation. Sometimes we set the example by explicitly sharing our faith; sometimes we set the example by quietly helping someone in need.
This goes for everyone. Does everyone truly understand this? With all the recent criticisms of Noah because it “is unbiblical”, I have to think that lots of people don’t.
Why would an admitted atheist want to take a biblical story and turn it into a non-biblical film? Could it be that Hollywood has discovered a new way to make money by exploiting the Bible without embracing it?
I have to admit before responding to this that I have still been unable to see Noah, because I live in China, and it’s not showing here because it is a film based on a Bible story. That being said, I’d love to know why you consider the film to be “non-biblical”?
Meanwhile, I’ll ask – are these randomly Googled other examples of Noah biblical?
4) We need to be okay with movies that don’t give all the answers.
Says who? Why should we have to be “okay” with it? The overriding stamp of approval is whether we feel God is “okay” with it. I’m still a proponent of God’s opinion rather than man’s.
Re-read my quote and tell me where I said that God’s opinion is not important. Then re-read your quote and see where you wrote that it’s based on what we feel. I would – rather – posit that our okayness with ambiguity should be based on what Scripture teaches. Specifically, look at the teaching style of Jesus. To the masses, he often told stories that the people didn’t get, and they would walk away scratching their heads. Even the disciples, his closest mates, would come up to him afterwards and ask him to explain himself. As Eugene Peterson wrote, Christ was often subversive in the things that he taught. A lost coin? Virgins waiting at the gate? A man beat up on the road? What do these things have to do with God?
And still today, life is often filled with unanswered questions. Why did five-year-old Ben Sauer just die from a rare form of cancer? Why did nearly three hundred miners just get killed in an accident in Turkey? Why did the job I was counting on for next year get suddenly taken away from me?
God has given us lives filled with ambiguity. Maybe, just maybe he has done this so that we will turn to Him for an explanation, like the disciples did. And if no explanation is offered, maybe he is helping us learn to trust His goodness in the face of the ambiguity.
If they succeed in asking some good, deep questions, they might actually open the doors to conversations where answers can be explored.
The Bible is not only to be explored, as if it’s in some artistic laboratory, but accepted. Anything that doesn’t lead to that end is mere entertainment. Entertainment is fine, but let’s not confuse it with trying to communicate truth.
First, how can you accept what the Bible teaches if you don’t explore it?
Second, are you suggesting that the only satisfactory end to truthful art made by Christians is that the Bible be accepted? This is confusing to me, because I’m not really even sure what it means to “accept the Bible.”
If – by that phrase – you mean accept that the Bible is God’s word, then I would say that art can help bring a person to this place, but it will typically not do it by itself.
If – by that phrase – you mean accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, then I would say that the phrase is not a biblical phrase anyway, so it would be irrelevant.
If – by that phrase – you mean accept the core message of the Bible – the Gospel – that God made us and loves us; that our sin has condemned us; that we are separated from Him; that Jesus came and died on the cross to pay our debt and restore the relationship between humanity and God; that we must believe that Jesus was who he said he was, repent of our sins, and receive Jesus’s forgiveness and salvation… so you’re suggesting that all art made by Christians has to end with a call to salvation? Or is it possible that an artist can communicate this message in a subtle way so that a non-believer is willing to be exposed to it, and when they watch/read/hear the story, the Holy Spirit has some room to start pricking the heart?
See, to me, this is the power of art made by people of faith – when well crafted, it has the power to slip past defenses and lay out the truth behind enemy lines. And the art might just need to be entertaining to accomplish this. It might not have a clear gospel call as a part of the entertaining, but it doesn’t change the fact that can still impact, just like the stories of Jesus did.
Artists, isn’t part of our job to provoke questions? Don’t feel you have to end every sentence with a period.
No, but we need be tolerant of everyone’s point of view and preferences. And in spite of my comments, I respect this author’s right to express his opinion.
I appreciate that, and right back at you.
5) Jesus wasn’t known for telling mediocre stories that ticked off all the correct religious boxes. He was known for telling compelling stories that challenged his listeners while communicating God’s truth. Aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus?
Yes, we’re suppose to “communicate God’s truth, not that of a secularist/atheist. I haven’t seen it, but I was wondering, should I decide to see it, will I find any of “God’s truth” there?
Considering that all truth is God’s truth, I believe that you will. And again, if God used Balaam’s donkey, why can’t he use Aronofsky’s filmmaking skills? Of course, I believe it would be helpful to leave your own traditions and personal interpretations of the Noah story at the door before you walk into the theater to watch. Christians don’t own the story of Noah, after all.
I just hope we can figure out how to tell The Story – truly the Greatest Story Ever Told – in the manner in which it deserves, and in such an excellent way that people outside the Christian subculture will receive it.
Can you find the “Greatest Story Ever Told” in the film in question? And why do we need to “figure out a way to tell the story? The blueprint has worked ever since Jesus told His disciples what to do and how to do it. I need to be convinced that relevancy is the answer to rebellion and apathy.
Again, I haven’t seen Noah yet, so I can’t say. As to why we need to “figure out a way to tell the story”? We need to figure it out because the world needs so desperately to hear it. There is a time for using the clear language of the pulpit, but God isn’t limited to communicating His truth through that venue. He can use a novel, a screenplay, a piece of sculpture, a painting, a piano concerto, photography, poetry, 3-D art, and yes… even mime.
And why is relevancy such a dirty word? Especially in this situation, I would equate relevant with excellence. An excellently told story will – by virtue of its excellence – be relevant. And we, as Christian artists, should strive for excellence – and therefore relevance – in every single piece of art that we produce. Because the goal of what we are creating should be to whisper, sing, cry, laugh, or shout out God’s glory for everyone to see.
First of all, thank you so much for reading Thimblerig’s Ark! I hope that you enjoyed it.
I had so much fun creating the character of Thimblerig, and making him truly despicable so that we could be surprised when we wind up rooting for him. Apparently others liked him, too, because many readers have written me asking what happens to him next! Well, if you are one of those readers, don’t go far, because Thimblerig’s saga isn’t over yet. He and the other members of the company will be back for Thimblerig’s Ark, Book Two.
I really have appreciated the feedback I’ve received, at Amazon, on Goodreads, at my blog, and through private messages. And one of the things that I’ve discovered in this process is that I really do enjoy feedback! As I have just started diving into the second book, I would really enjoy hearing what you liked, what you loved, even what you hated. In short, I’d love to hear from you! You can reach me at email@example.com or the website, www.thimblerigsark.com.
Finally, I need to make a request. I’d love to have you review Thimblerig’s Ark. Was there something that you found meaningful? Did you love it? Did you hate it? Some people are thrown off by the idea of writing a review, but this extremely low pressure. It can be a couple of sentences, or a few paragraphs. Either way, I would really appreciate your feedback.
It’s really difficult to get reviews, because folks are all busy and it takes enough time to read a book, let alone the time it takes to craft a comment. But the truth of the matter is that you – the reader – have the power these days to make or break a book. And I would love your help!
You can write your review on Thimblerig’s Ark Amazon page here: http://amzn.to/1sfGN8G
And/or at Goodreads here: http://bit.ly/1l5qgR1
I really am grateful that you read Thimblerig’s Ark, and hope you’ll be around for the second part in a few months!
And if you haven’t read Thimblerig’s Ark yet, what are you waiting for? A flood?
And special thanks to thefutureofink.com for the idea.
There was plenty of controversy connected with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, but that ship has sailed.
Thimblerig’s Ark is still here!
Thimblerig’s Ark is a middle grade novel that tells the animal’s story of Noah’s Ark, and it’s actually been said that Christians will be offended by reading it. Of course, I found this to be ludicrous, but someone felt that way, so – whatever.
If you haven’t, head on over to Amazon and download Thimblerig’s Ark, and find out what I’m talking about!
To celebrate the release of Darren Aronofsky’s film, Noah, we will be offering a special one day free download of Thimblerig’s Ark. March 28, 2014 from 12:01 AM PST.
Please help spread the word!
By Nate Fleming
Nate Fleming’s debut novel Thimblerig’s Ark is a middle grade novel inspired by the writings of C.S. Lewis, the book of Genesis, and an Irish pub song about why the unicorn missed out on Noah’s Ark. During its two free promotional days on Amazon in March, Thimblerig’s Ark reached the top ten of free Kindle books in the Children’s Fantasy and Magic genre, and the top thirty in the Children’s Literature & Fiction genre.
Nathan Fleming still remembers the day the idea for Thimblerig’s Ark came to him. He was sitting in Tommy Condon’s Irish Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, when the band started singing a song about the unicorns missing out on Noah’s Ark because of their foolishness. “I had a hard time reconciling this idea of unicorns getting left off the ark because they were acting too silly to be bothered,” Fleming explains. “I’d always imagined unicorns to be noble and somewhat dangerous. Then the idea came to me that I could try and tell a more serious version of the animal’s story.”
Fleming began the novel in 1999 when he moved to his wife’s native country of Kazakhstan. Over the next several years, he’d work on the story when he had the time, also being busy founding and directing the Kazakhstan English Language Theater, the first English language theater in Central Asia. As the story went through various incarnations, the characters and situations changed, but the unicorns remained the anchor to the tale.
Most surprising to Fleming was the hero, who turned out to be extremely unlikely – a con-artist groundhog named Thimblerig. In the novel, the groundhog is not only in danger of being washed away by the flood, but he’s also in danger of losing his soul because of his lack of concern for the animals of the forest. “The story is really Thimblerig’s story,” Fleming says. “He starts out trying to run the ultimate con on the forest’s suckers, but he is finally confronted by how destructive his own selfishness can be, and he’s forced to change or lose it all.”
The decision to complete the story came fifteen years later when Fleming and his wife, Koolyash, found out they were pregnant with their third child. “I’d been trying to write the story for so long, and realized that it was easier to start something it than to finish it. When we found out we would be having another child, I was convicted to complete it so that my children would have something that they could one day read to their own children.” Fleming set the goal to finish the novel by the time the new baby was born, and when baby Noah came into the world, the manuscript was complete.
Fleming currently lives in Chengdu, China, with his wife and three children. Besides being a writer, he also works at an international school where he teaches reading, language arts, and drama. “Living overseas for fifteen years has given me a unique perspective on the world, and, I hope, the experience makes my writing more accessible to readers from all over the world.”
Nate Fleming’s middle grade fantasy, Thimblerig’s Ark, is available exclusively for Amazon’s Kindle.
Remember, you can download Thimblerig’s Ark for free this weekend from Amazon!
I will always remember China as the place where my third child and my first novel were born.
We came to Chengdu, China with absolutely no idea that we would have a third child, but we were pleasantly (and cautiously ) surprised to find out we were pregnant after being here about two months. My wife and I are both in our early 40’s, with two kids who are already in the double digits, and it was quite an intimidating idea that we’d have another tiny one in our house.
Meanwhile, about the same time the pregnancy was discovered, I picked up my old unfinished manuscript of Thimblerig’s Ark that I’d been working on for nearly fourteen years. Nanowrimo was coming up in November, and I decided that it was time to finally finish the darned thing. Certainly, I could finish it by the time new little baby Fleming made his/her grand appearance, right?
The challenge was extended, the challenge was accepted, and the race was on.
In the first lane was my wife with my unfinished, unpolished, unformed child inside. In the second lane, my unfinished, unpolished, unformed manuscript, also waiting to see the light of day.
And then came the complications.
First, we discovered that the baby had a single umbilical artery, which meant that there might not be enough blood, and the baby could be underdeveloped. Then, we discovered that we had placenta previa, the placenta covering the cervix, and that if it didn’t shift out of the way, it could be dangerous for my wife and my baby, and we’d need a C-section. Then, my wife had a couple of early morning bleeds and was forced to go on bedrest. Then, we found out that the placenta not only covered the cervix, but went up into the abdomen, which would make a C-section very dangerous. And all of this was going on while we were less than a year in Chengdu, China – with no language, little understanding of the medical system, no medical insurance for my wife (long story), and plenty of anxiety and fear.
With my writing, there were also plenty of complications. While trying to write I was doing my best to take care of my wife (who is the real hero of this story). I was taking care of our two older kids (thank heavens for the concept of Dad Bucks, which I found here). I was working full time as an elementary school teacher. I was directing the high school drama program. I was cleaning and preparing breakfasts and lunches and dinners (thank heaven for the friends who helped with supplying meals from time to time, too!). And I was trying to get Thimblerig finished.
As you can see, it was a hard race, and it was questionable if either competitor would actually reach the finish line.
A side note – I have never prayed or been prayed for so hard in all of my life (for the baby mostly – don’t tell the book), and I’ve never been so unsure about what would happen at that finish line. In fact, I felt how Thimblerig, the hero of my novel, must have felt as I was trying to keep him from getting him to the ark. I was throwing everything I could at him to prevent him from making it, and at the same time I felt like everything, every problem, was being thrown at me. There was a strange and – in retrospect – beautiful symmetry to what my family was experiencing, and what I was doing to the protagonists of my story.
But back to the race…
Things were darkest towards the end. Every night I would work on the novel after everyone was asleep, and then when I went to bed, I would pray and beg God to keep my wife from having any more bleeding and that we wouldn’t have to have any late-night runs to the hospital. I didn’t sleep well, I felt nervous all the time, and every time my phone rang while I was at work I was worried that it would be my wife letting me know that she was on the way to the hospital. I wept in front of our church, requesting continued prayer.
At the same time, I was nearing the end of the novel. I’d finally figured out how all the loose ends should tie up, but trying to figure out how exactly how to tie them was nearly impossible. But still, I pushed on.
And then, it happened. The day of the scheduled C-section arrived. Because of our insurance situation, we’d chosen to stay in China, and give birth at Angel Hospital, a private hospital that was extremely luxurious, and yet still cheaper than if we’d flown back to the states with insurance. But as nice as the hospital was, this was a day we’d been dreading. The placenta previa had not resolved and the danger during the surgery was more real than ever. People have died with the complications we were experiencing, and as much as we’d prayed and done what the doctor wanted us to do, there were no assurances that we’d have a happy ending. If the baby was born in distress, they would have to stabilize him/her, put him/her in an ambulance, and rush him/her to the bigger hospital that had a NICU. But the doctors weren’t leaving anything to chance, and when they wheeled my wife into the surgery room, I saw that they had their best staff on hand to help. We said a final prayer, and the surgery began.
I would love to say that the procedure went exactly as planned. I would love to say that there was no need for any of the extra equipment, or the ambulance, or the extra blood we’d had to buy from the central blood bank. I’d love to say that my wife was just fine, that the baby was just fine, that there were no complications, that the surgeon showed considerable skill in bringing it all to a happy ending.
I would love to say it, and I do love to say it, because all of those things happened. The baby won the race.
Noah Abai Fleming was born on June 10, as scheduled, and was as healthy as a little newborn baby could be. My wife, while having extreme pain and discomfort for several days because of the C-section, was just fine. The hospital was incredibly supportive and turned out be nicer than anything we’d ever experience in an American hospital – on all fronts. The relief we felt as a family was so tangible that we could have put it into bottles and sold it at the market. I can see it now – “Relief juice for sale! Get your fresh relief juice!”
Thimblerig’s Ark came in a close second. Just a few days after the birth of Noah, I was finally able to type the two words every novelist is happy to type: “The End”, and I celebrated by kissing my newborn baby and holding my wife.
I’m happy to say that in both cases, the story doesn’t end there. The baby has grown and grown into a healthy chubby seven month old – curious about everything, incredibly eloquent with his one word vocabulary of “ba”, and a complete delight to all of us – brother and sister included.
Thimblerig, meanwhile, has been through a bevy of revisions. After the childbirth we had a quiet Chengdu summer, with most of our expatriate friends having returned to their home countries for the summer break, and so with very little to do, I was able to spend glorious hours in a variety of Chengdu coffee shops, living the life of the full-time writer. Finally, in the autumn, I gathered a team of intrepid beta readers, who gave great feedback, I revised a few more times, and by December, Thimblerig’s Ark was ready to go out into the world.
What does the future hold for these, my child and my novel, both made in China? I don’t know. I hope the best for both of them. For Noah, I hope that God blesses him in every way a child can be blessed. For Thimblerig, I hope that his story is read by as many people as possible.
And finally, and most importantly, I hope I don’t have to have another child to write my next novel. I don’t think I could make it.