Thimblerig’s Interview • Phil Cooke, Producer of The Insanity of God and Hillsong: Let Hope Rise

14978955I recently sat down and started to read the bestselling book, The Insanity of God, and found that while it was easy to pick up, it was nearly impossible to put down. The book is part life-story of Nik Ripken (not his real name) and his family, telling how they wound up as missionaries/relief workers in Somalia during the 1990’s, when the civil war was raging. It goes on to explore how watching the tiny Christian population try to survive in the middle of unimaginable difficulties changed him, and after leaving Africa, the calling he had on his life to try and learn more about the struggles of the persecuted church in the world – a calling that led him to many different “closed” countries – where he interviewed dozens of Christians for whom persecution was a part of daily life.

The book deals with real persecution, not the “Starbucks red coffee cup” kind of persecution most of us know in the west. Needless to say, the book is a challenging read, and is important to read so that we can better understand what our brothers and sisters are experiencing in other countries.

I was thrilled when I read that Lifeway Films, in partnership with the International Mission Board, was making a documentary based on the book. Real-life stories like this are much more inspiring and challenging then the fiction accounts of American persecution that we’ve seen in theaters over the past several years, and this is one of the first major films of its kind, a documentary exploring the trials of Christians around the world.

A bit of research led me to some more thrilling news when I found out that Phil Cooke was attached to the project as an executive producer. I’ve followed Phil for many years, and have long enjoyed his perspective on faith and the arts. I wasted no time contacting Phil to see if he’d be willing to answer a few questions about the film, and he was gracious enough to take the time to do so.

THIMBLERIG’S INTERVIEW WITH PHIL COOKE

Why don’t we start with a little bit about you, Phil. Who are you, where did you come from, what do you do now, and how have you gotten to do it?

2015132Cooke-1167edit I’m a pastor’s kid from Charlotte, NC who never had a call to preach myself.  However, as a teenager, I loved to make films.  My friends and I took my dad’s Super-8 movie camera and produced war movies, mafia movies, space movies – all kinds of terrible films.  I went to college as a music major (remember, I was a preacher’s kid), but a student in my dorm saw my film reels and invited me to the film department to learn to edit.  A professor was there who asked if he could show one of my films in his class.  When the film ended, it started a discussion, and the thought occurred to me that if I can do something with a camera that makes people talk like this – then that’s what I’m supposed to do with my life.  I’ve never looked back, and today I’m the founder of Cooke Pictures, a media production and consulting company in Los Angeles.

Who have been some of your biggest spiritual or theological influences?

My father was a huge influence on me.  He was a great student, had multiple graduate degrees, and taught me the value of reading.  My first job out of college was an assistant film editor on Francis Schaffer’s famous film series “How Should We Then Live?”  So I became a huge fan of this thinking.  Then I worked with Oral Roberts at the peak of his media ministry.  But probably the most influential influence has been our long time pastor in Los Angeles, Jack Hayford.  In my book, he could be the Protestant Pope.

How about your biggest creative influences?

As long as I remember I’ve gravitated toward creativity.  As a kid, I was always the guy who wrote the sketches for “skit night” at camp.  As far as influences, I take in everything.  I study advertising, I’m a museum hound, a movie buff, and a hardcore reader.

What are your three “desert island” films?

That’s a tough one, because I don’t think of films in that way.  But three I couldn’t live without would probably be The Godfather, The Seventh Seal, and Citizen Kane.  I’m also a big fan of campy science fiction films from the 50’s and 60’s.

Speaking of films, you’ve produced two that are coming out in the next couple of months, with The Insanity of God playing in theaters on August 30 and Hillsong: Let Hope Rise releasing on September 16. Starting with The Insanity of God, what can you tell us about this film?

4817_the-insanity-of-god-poster_AC09Nik Ripken was a long time missionary in Somalia, but when his son died in the field, he began to question what it was all about.  Traveling to the most desperate places on the earth, Nik began to see things he’d never realized before – especially the levels of Christian persecution that are out there.  Another producer, Craig Martin brought the book to my attention, and we felt it was a story that needed to be told.

Reading The Insanity of God, a book which so clearly portrays the suffering of the persecuted church, had a profound effect on me. If you are willing, can you talk about the impact producing this film has had on you?

During the filming, I had a number of moments where I saw just how unserious I have been about the gospel.  In America, we launch a boycott when we can’t say a prayer at the beginning of a high school football game.  But overseas, people are being raped, beaten, tortured, and beheaded everyday for their faith.  Their commitment is so far beyond anything I’ve ever had to give.

Considering all of the talk we hear in America about the loss of religious freedoms, what would you say a film like The Insanity of God has to say the American church?

First – we need to do more to help.  These are our brothers and sisters, and we can’t sit idly by and continue watching.  Second – although right now it’s nothing like what’s happening overseas, believe it, it’s coming our way.  There’s no question in my mind that we’re seeing Christianity being more and more marginalized in our culture, and I don’t think it will be long before it gets very serious.  I’m reminded of the recent quote by Catholic Cardinal Francis George:  “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

Turning to your other film, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise is a much different film, and has been billed as a “theatrical worship experience.” Can you unpack that idea a bit?

hillsong_let_hope_rise_xlgI’ve been a long time friend of Pastor Brian Houston and his leadership team at Hillsong Church and had the opportunity to teach the entire church staff in Sydney a few years ago.  Their worship band, Hillsong United has sold out the Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden, and Red Rocks, and is one of the most popular bands in the world.  In our research for the movie, we discovered that 50 million people sing Hillsong music every Sunday!  So producer Jon Bock first developed the concept, and I helped raise the money, and we started working.  Essentially, the movie is a behind the scenes look at their most recent world tour.

What were some of the challenges and joys of making a feature-length film about a worship band, albeit a very successful worship band?

Money.  It’s always money!  Feature films simply cost a great deal to produce, market, and distribute that it’s critical that you have an idea that audiences will be interested in, and we believe we have that in Hillsong, which has become a global brand.

Turning from the specific to the general, what are your thoughts on the state of the faith-based film industry and where do you see it heading in the future?

IMG_0873I’ve been involved in both Christian and secular media for a long time, and I’m very gratified to see that Christians are finally understanding the importance of telling a story well.  In the past, most Christian producers got so wrapped up in the message, they often put that message inside a very unappealing package.  But today we live in the most distracted culture in history, and the competition is simply too great.  How we tell the story is just as important as the story we tell.

Do you have any advice for Christians looking to get involved in the entertainment industry – faith-based or otherwise?

Yes – be the best at whatever you do.  In Hollywood, nobody cares if you’re a Christian or if God called you to make a movie.  But if you’re a great actor, director, writer, or whatever – that will get their attention.  Once they respect your talent, they’re more likely to be interested in what you believe.

Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share with us? What’s on the burner?

Phil at CBSOur company – Cooke Pictures – is largely a client driven media production and consulting company, so we’re always involved in amazing projects.  Just a few of our current clients include The Salvation Army, the YouVersion Bible App, and The Museum of the Bible (opening in Washington, DC in 2017).  Beyond that, we’re talking to a number of major secular networks about television projects.  Honestly, my great passion is feature documentaries.  I wish more Christians understood that with a limited budget, a fascinating documentary can be far more influential than a badly produced drama.

Finally, where are the best places people can go to keep up-to-date about your activities (Twitter, Facebook, etc)?

My blog is at philcooke.com, I’m on Twitter and Instagram at @philcooke, and I’m on Facebook as well.

To find a theater near you that will be showing The Insanity of God, take a look here.

Hillsong: Let Hope Rise will have a wide release on September 16.

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Reel Life Imitates Real Life? Really?

godsnotdead2-1Pure Flix has posted the list of court cases they show at the end of God’s Not Dead 2 in a post entitled “Real Life Imitates Reel Life.” (Actually, it should have been the other way around, since the movie was supposed inspired by events in real life. But, that’s not so important).

As you might know, God’s Not Dead 2 deals with a teacher who is sued for discussing Jesus in a history class. The film has been described as being a “wake up call” that is “ripped from the headlines.” As a part of proving the legitimacy of the film’s premise, the filmmakers chose to show a long list of court cases that supported their case.

The interesting thing is that if you look over the list, twenty-three of the cases were situations where a Christian sued someone else, and only eleven were situations where a lawsuit was brought against a Christian – as happens in the film.

And it’s even more interesting that none of the cases mentioned dealt with a teacher being sued for mentioning Jesus in a high school history class, or any other similar situation. In fact, only one case involved a classroom (Brooker v. Franks), and that was a case where a student sues their university. Incidentally, that case was also in the list given in the credits of the first God’s Not Dead.

In Brooker v. Franks, a student was given an assignment that went against her religious beliefs (dealing with adoption and homosexual couples), and so she sued the university, and the university very quickly settled the case out of court. This all happened over ten years ago, and you can read more about it online by searching for “Brooker v. Franks.” I’d especially recommend that you read the professor’s point of view, as he is also a Christian, and claims that he allowed the student to do a different assignment.

But things get more interesting when you look at the bulk of the cases. Thirteen of the listed cases dealt with issues of homosexuality and twenty-two dealt with abortion/healthcare issues. If the filmmakers had chosen their fictional protagonist to take a stand based on her convictions on one of these issues, it would have been a much gutsier move. As it is, the story in the film is just fantasy, and the court cases mentioned, when properly scrutinized, don’t seem to do anything to bolster the legitimacy of the film’s premise.

gods-not-dead-2-1And considering the storyline for God’s Not Dead 3 that was teased in the end-credits scene of GND2, it seems like that film will have even fewer legal precedent legs to stand on.

Thoughts?

After writing this, I came across a more thorough examination of the cases over on Patheos’s The Friendly Atheist. A reading of that more complete dissection demonstrates that Pure Flix’s inclusion of the list of court cases doesn’t actually help their argument at all. But, I suppose just having the list breeze past makes the core audience feel better, because if it’s up there, it must have deep meaning, right?

Thimblerig’s Guide for Watching Christian Films (for People who aren’t Christians)

Christian films.

Fifteen years ago they were found almost exclusively on the shelves of Christian bookstores. Online streaming at that time was virtually non-existent, they didn’t typically play on the regular movie channels, there wasn’t a “Christian Film” section at Blockbuster video, and the odds were that if you were outside of the Christian subculture, you would never see a Christian movie.

And then, in 2004, everything changed.

The Passion of the Christ, the highest grossing independent film of all time, sent an electric jolt through the American film industry. Realizing that an audience actually existed for movies that talked about the Christian faith as something other than a punchline, the major Hollywood studios wasted little time setting up “faith-based” divisions to try and figure out how to best exploit service this previously-neglected demographic.

posterSince then, non-religious theater-goers have seen more and more “faith-based” films being advertised on the coming attraction posters of their local cinemas. Films with ecclesiastical names like “Heaven is for Real”, “God’s Not Dead”, and “Ninety Minutes in Heaven” starring well-known Hollywood actors such as Nicolas Cage, Greg Kinnear, and Jennifer Garner were – for the first time – sharing the stage with typical secular films.

In this brave new world, a regular Friday night movie-goer could walk up to their local megaplex and inadvertently wind up sitting in a movie made by Christians, largely for Christians, and walk out afterwards feeling as if they’d just watched The Big Short without Adam McKay’s explanatory fourth wall breaks.

And so, as Lonely Planet helps guide confused travellers wandering the globe, I’ve developed this guide to help non-religious folks understand what might have just happened if they accidentally wandered into a Christian film.

thimblerigs-film-reviews

*caveat – these are generalizations, and specific Christian films may or may not follow these guidelines. Thimblerig accepts no responsibility for such films.*

1) Christian Films are often written in Christianese

The first thing you need to learn when visiting any country is how to say important phrases in the local dialect. Watching Christian films is no different, as our films are peppered with the dialect of the early 21st century American Christian, a dialect known as Christianese. And for some reason, we don’t do subtitles.

[Note to Pureflix: consider adding subtitles to God’s Not Dead 2]

how-to-speak-christianeseSome basic samples of Christianese that you may encounter in our films:

“Does he know Jesus?” – “Is he a Christian?”

“Does he really know Jesus?” – “If he’s a Christian, why doesn’t he go to church?”

“She’s lost, and needs to come to Jesus!” – “She’s not a Christian, but she should be. And she should attend church regularly.”

“You need to ask Jesus into your heart.” – “You need to become a Christian.”

This is usually followed by “The Sinner’s Prayer”, a prayer that a person recites to become a Christian. This a controversial prayer in Christian circles, because it is not Biblical, meaning that it’s not found in the Bible.

“They have a heart for the lost.” – “They want people who aren’t Christian to become Christian. Oh, and they want them to attend church regularly.”

“God is telling me…” – “I have an opinion that I want to share with you, and by putting God’s stamp of approval on the comment, it will have weight and gravitas. Even if it is just my own opinion.”

“I’m blessed!” – has different meanings, depending on the context. If the person has just gotten something good, it means, “God’s given me some good stuff!” If it is said in response to a personal inquiry, it means, “I’m doing fine, thank you.” Ultimately, it’s an attribution to God for whatever is happening in the Christian’s life.

So, in a Christian film, you might find dialogue like this:

This is just a cursory introduction to the language of many Christian films. For more detailed information about the Christianese dialect, I’d recommend that you visit the Dictionary of Christianese.

(Incidentally, if anyone in the Christian film industry would like to option my Bob and Dave script, please let my people know.)

2) Christian films typically tell much more than they show

One of the most important lessons a traveler can learn when exploring a new part of the world is the importance of saying “I don’t understand” rather than “that doesn’t make sense.”

And if there’s one thing about Christian films that doesn’t make sense to people it’s our propensity to tell. Yes, our films tell. They tell, tell, and tell, and then they tell some more, much more than they show, breaking that cardinal rule of storytelling.

“There’s too much exposition in that Christian film,” the secular critics complain. “They tell us everything!”

However, just as you have to take culture of origin into consideration when watching a foreign film, the Christian film viewer who is not actually a Christian should take the culture of origin into consideration.

And Christian culture loves exposition.

I mean, loves exposition.

preaching-1The best example of this is found in a style of preaching called “expository preaching,” where the preacher spends days or weeks studying a passage from the Bible in depth, and then on Sunday morning, they stand in front of the congregation (audience) and explain everything the passage has to say, verse by verse – sometimes word by word.

The preacher will go deep into the cultural and historical significance of the passage of Scripture, even down to the meaning of certain key words in the verse’s original language of Hebrew or Greek.

The idea behind this is that if one can come close to understanding the original meaning of the ancient document, one might better understand what God intended by that Scriptural text, and better figure out how it can be applied to our lives today.

Oh, and by the way, we Christians also love application.

So, in a nutshell, we explain the message very specifically in church so that there is no chance of confusion, and so that the listener can apply it to their own lives. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the uninitiated that we do the same in our films.

Rather than criticizing our films for being over-expositional, maybe secular critics should critique how well our films handled that over-exposition.

3) Christian films are generally Christian wishes being fulfilled cinematically

It’s important to understand the mentality of people when you visit a foreign country. What do the people of that country hope for? What aspirations do they have? How do they view the world?

Some people misunderstand the Christian mentality. They think that we’re a bunch of “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by” people, avoiding reality and clinging to a fantasy about a benevolent old guy who lives in the clouds.

That’s not the case, though. Christians know the reality of the world. We know perfectly well that things can be really, really bad. That things can go south in an instant. But we also know how we wish things were (or in Christianese, how we pray for things to be). So, our films are typically a strange amalgamation of reality and fantasy wish-fulfilment.

For example, we know it’s tough to raise kids, and so our films have no problem showing struggling parents. But we also love a good redemption story, and so in our films someone prays and the runaway kid will make a big personal change (Christianese, repent) and come back home, prodigal-style. This is what we wish would happen with every errant child.

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 3.10.14 PMWe also know that marriage is tough in reality, and that not all marriages survive, and so our films will show the difficulty of marriage. But we also believe that God can repair any relationship, and so in our films someone prays and ultimately our film marriages work out. This is how we wish marriages would always work out.

In reality, we know that God always answers prayer but that sometimes the answer is “No.” But in our films, we like to focus on when God says, “Yes!” For example, someone prayed to win the big game? Check, game won. Someone prayed to restore the broken marriage? Check, marriage restored. Someone prayed for the sick person to be healed? Check, healing has happened, and death has been defeated.

We like our films family friendly, non-offensive, and easy to watch. We like our films to make us feel better about ourselves as Christians. We typically avoid subjects like the certainty of death, the reality of doubt, and the in-the-dirt nastiness of the mistakes that we make in life. It’s just nicer when things turn out alright, isn’t it?

If you love happy endings, you’ll love watching our films.

4) Christian filmmakers are not infallible 

No country you visit is perfect. You know that amazing 5 star hotel, right on the beach? Just a half mile down the road you’ll find people sleeping in hovels and working for pennies. That tourist site that houses ancient ruins that you’ve always dreamed of seeing? It’s all managed by a corrupt government of cigar smoking fat cats who could care less about the orphans running on the streets.

It’s the same with Christian filmmaking. Our filmmakers are not infallible, and they will make strange decisions, and they will focus on curious things from time to time. You don’t have to forgive us for that, but we do hope that you’ll understand.

godsnotdead2-1For example, if you are paying attention to Christianity in America right now, you might notice that many church leaders are promoting a persecution narrative for American Christians (rather than for global Christians who are actually being persecuted). This might be perplexing to you, because you know that American Christians actually have incredible freedom to practice their religion. But the narrative is out there, and it’s even worming its way into our films.

You see, for the longest time, American Christianity has been the big kid on the block politically, financially, culturally, and other -ally ways, but it’s not the case any more. We American Christians are still coming to terms with the fact that we’ve lost power and influence, that our voices aren’t as loud as they used to be, that people often simply don’t care what we think any more.

And we’re certain that – as a result – persecution is coming.

And even though we’ve had our expository preachers tell us that according to the Bible, persecution is a guaranteed part of the Christian experience, we are still terrified that it will really happen. Because we like the “Christians are victorious!” narrative. Remember our wish-fulfillment filmmaking? We want to wind up on top, even though that pretty well goes against everything Jesus taught.

If you aren’t a Christian, then our cries of persecution in America probably seem ridiculous to you, and might even serve to create more and more animosity from you towards us.

And in a height of irony, I can imagine the animosity building to the point that our focus on making movies that stoke the fires of fear could actually turn out to be the catalyst for actual persecution. In other words, I can imagine that our fear of persecution could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wouldn’t that make an interesting Christian film?

5) Christian films are hopefully evangelistic

Countries that have bustling, successful tourist industries convince people that when they visit, they will never want to leave.

Christian filmmakers have a similar goal with their films. If you are not a Christian, they hope that their films tells about the Christian experience so clearly that after watching you will also want to become a Christian (Christianese, give your heart to Jesus). 

“Really?” You say, befuddled. “Then why use all of the insider language that I don’t understand? Why break the traditional rules of storytelling to the point where I’m too distracted by exposition to see the value in being a Christian? Why all this talk about persecution when all I see is Christians making noise? Why does it seem less like these Christian films are trying to attract me, and more like they’re trying to push me away? Why do they make it so hard?”

I know, I know. Reaching you with our films seems more like an afterthought, and your becoming interested in Jesus as a result of our films would just be some sort of religious collateral damage.

The only thing I can say is that Christian filmmakers are working in a business. An industry. And they have to serve multiple masters, just like all filmmakers, and that affects the films that are made, no matter what the hope of the filmmaker might be.

Christian filmmakers have to please their investors, who are usually also Christians. And they are often Christians who love expository, on-the-nose, don’t-mess-around preaching. They can be less interested in artfulness and more interested in admonition. Their purpose is communication usually at the expense of craft. Their goal is to put out the Message, and the medium is simply utilitarian, like a jeep or a Swiss Army knife.

Also, since Christian filmmaking has started to become big business, the filmmakers also have to please the secular studios, who might be footing the bill for distribution or marketing. And the studios need to be convinced that the product that the Christian filmmaker is developing is going to put the behinds of the Big Christian Audience into the cinema seats.

who-is-your-audienceThis means that Christian filmmakers have to ultimately please that Big Christian Audience.

Make one misstep, and the Big Christian Audience won’t turn out, and the filmmaker might not get the chance to make a second faith-based film. Play his cards right, and he stands to make a 2000% return on his film’s initial investment, which will make everyone happy. His career will be set.

So you can see, that even if a filmmaker has a heart for the lost, and a desire to see thousands of people come to Jesus, her ability to make a film that would actually be evangelistic is restrained by the forces pulling her in other directions, forces that – ironically – want to be evangelistic, too.

6) And by the way, we make a lot of End Times movies

Statistically speaking, if you accidentally walk in on a Christian film, it’s likely to be a movie dealing with the end of the world, or the End Times. This might be connected with #4, and I’m not going to say a lot about it other than to say that for some reason, we have a certain segment of the Christian filmmaking community that is absolutely fascinated with the end of the world.

This is even though in Matthew 24:36, Jesus himself told us that nobody will know when the end will come. Go figure.

You can see an amazing IMDb list of Christian End Times movies here.

Thimblerig’s Guide to Christian Films is woefully incomplete, but what do you expect from a blog article? If you truly want to see an actual guide, then feel free to start me a crowdsourcing campaign, or put me in touch with the fine folks at Zondervan, and we’ll see what we can do.

Meanwhile, may this guide help the next time you stumble into a movie starring Kirk Cameron or Kevin Sorbo, or the next time your well-intentioned Christian friend invites you over and pops in a movie made by a pair of brothers named Kendrick. Maybe, because you have some insight into their culture and mindset, you’ll better appreciate their intentions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.04.12 AM

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does that strike anyone else as… odd?

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

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

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

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

Finally, Mr. Chey dropped the bomb.

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

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

Because they didn’t like his films?

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

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

Then this film poster caught my eye.

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

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

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

Day 16 down.

 

Persecuted • Thimblerig’s Review

Continuing my series of reviews on 2014’s films made by Christians (the so-called “faith-based” films), last night I watched Persecuted, which was released theatrically this summer.  I want to get right to the point about this film.

What I liked about Persecuted:

Christians are finally become more technically proficient in the way we shoot our films, or at least in hiring people who know how to shoot a film.  Persecuted looks pretty good – being shot, framed, and edited well.  The cinematography was by Richard Vialet, and editing by Brian Brinkman.  I’m glad films made by Christians are finally starting to look as professional as secular films.

Christians are also finally finding the funds to shell out on quality performers.  In this case, the film has some familiar faces – including veteran actors James Remar in the title role, Fred Thompson as Luther’s Father father, Bruce Davison as the sinister senator, and Dean Stockwell as Luther’s ministry accountant.  [Sidenote – as a fan of Quantum Leap, I sure hope Stockwell was well paid for taking what was such a minor role.]  I’m also glad that Christian films are finally starting to be more professionally acted.  We must be learning something about the production side of things, which is good.

Finally, Persecuted is not a bad thriller.   It’s not necessarily a good thriller, but it’s not bad – certainly not bad enough to deserve the ridiculous 0% ranking that the film has gotten on Rotten Tomatoes.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t put the film much higher.

Why wouldn’t I go very high with my own RT score?

There are several reasons, and they mostly fall on the shoulders of writer/director, Daniel Lusko.

Technically, while the film was shot well, there was entirely too much darkness in this film.  This – coupled with the dark soundtrack – made it irritating to watch.  Perhaps – since the film ends in the light of day – the darkness was an attempt at symbolism?  If so, it didn’t work.  Not at all.  Honestly, it came across as an attempt to cover a low budget (which I can’t really say, since I curiously can’t find the budget of the movie reported anywhere.)  Regardless of the reasons, it was just unpleasant to watch – the speeches given in darkness with a single spot on the speaker;  just about every interior shot was in darkness, again with very focused lighting; it could have potentially been more powerful to have dark deeds being done in the light of day.

Second, the casting.  As much as I appreciate the career of James Remar, he was simply not the right actor for the role of John Luther.  Not even close.  Here’s why:

First, he’s supposed to be the son of Fred Thompson?  Really?  How old was Fred when he had him?  Ten?

Second, Luther’s wife appears to be about forty, and according to his IMDB page, Remar is nearly sixty.  Yes, older guys can marry younger gals and have children at an older age, but it just seemed too much of a stretch.

Third, considering the mistakes Luther makes in misguidedly trusting the people around him, he should have been a much younger man.  It would have made a lot more sense to have him as a very forty-something successful evangelist who is in over his head, thus trusting the counsel of the sinister senator, buying the accolades and weird backstage pep-talks of his second-in-command, and being stubborn about his faith to a fault, so that the experience teaches him humility.  As it is, I’m not sure what Luther learns over the course of the movie.

But I can forgive miscasting.  The thing I have a hard time forgiving is more philosophical.

I’m so incredibly bothered that someone would have the nerve to make a fictionalized movie with the title “Persecuted”, imagining possible future persecution of a fictional evangelist in America, while Christians are actually being persecuted in Iraq, North Korea, Central Asia, and many other places around the globe, right now.

I’m amazed that the filmmakers decided they needed to create a fictional story about John Luther, an American pastor, being hunted down by the U.S. government for refusing to support “The Faith and Fairness Act”, a multi-cultural religion law, when there is an actual American pastor who has been held in prison in Iran for the past two years for the crime of sharing his Christian faith, a person whose story is much more compelling and heart-breaking, because it’s true.

The more I think about it, the more bothered I am by the film’s fictionalized storyline, and not for the reasons the filmmakers hoped.  On the film’s website, we’re asked to be challenged by Persecuted “to consider how (we) would react if—and when—attempts are made to limit (our) own religious freedom.”

But the film doesn’t really do that at all.

Rather, the film looks at one man who – standing up for his faith – refuses to support a pluralistic religion bill that his senator friend (apparent friend) is proposing, and has his life and ministry torn apart as a result.  It seems to me that the film is more a lesson on being wise about the people in whom we put our trust, and not so much about limits on our religious freedom.

So, to back off the philosophical problems I had with this film, I’d like to go back to the writing.  I really, really had a problem with the writing in this film, and it was mainly because the film made several promises it didn’t keep.

First, there were the flashbacks to Luther’s conversations with his granddaughter daughter.  In those flashbacks, a relationship was set up between Luther and the girl, but we never saw her again.  Why make this relationship a big deal, but never give the audience the payoff?  You mean to tell me that in the end it’s more important that we see Luther surrounded by his ministry’s board than his family?  What that tells me is that the characters didn’t matter – just the Point the filmmakers were trying to make.  It was a setup with a disappointing lack of payoff.

Another promise that wasn’t kept was with the senator.  Here he was – the big scheming senator – the guy who was putting Luther through all this hell – the main antagonist – and he’s offed in a heartbeat by order of the president, and Luther’s nowhere nearby when it happens.  Are you kidding me?  This is the guy that arranged Luther’s whole predicament, and he doesn’t even get to be a part of the climax?  It should have been the senator, deciding to get his hands dirty, chasing Luther up the mountain.  It should have been the senator that Luther is FORCED to kill to protect the FBI agent.  But no, it’s this nameless strange assassin – the dog on the senator’s leash – who is in the climax for some inexplicable reason.  What a misfire on the filmmaker’s part.

This brings me to ANOTHER set up lacking a payoff… when the FBI agent was talking to Brad Stine’s character – asking him suspicious questions about the senator, it seemed like the FBI was quietly investigating the senator,but it was dropped, never discussed again.  Why?  What was the point?

The lady in the ministry van, who loans Luther a phone, and then she’s gone?

The drug addicts who witnessed Luther being set up.  We see them for a moment, and then they’re gone?

The young priest who drives Luther away from the bad guys, uploads the incriminating video, and then he’s gone?

Luther’s shot in the friggin’ back – with a hole in his spine – but he still drives away and fights to the bitter end?

The man's shot in the middle of the back, and he's still going on?  Is this Rambo?

The man’s shot in the middle of the back, and he’s still going on? Is this Rambo?

I could go on, but the longer I’m thinking about this movie, the sloppier it seems.  So, rather than continuing to nitpick the problems, let me look at my five standards for filmmaking by Christians, as written about here, to see how Persecuted stands up.

Films made by Christians should take risks.  

Considering that Christian filmmakers haven’t tackled the political thriller genre that much – unless you include the end-times movies – I’d have to give props to the makers of Persecuted for trying a unique mashup of genres.  However, it’s unfortunate that the film was rather paint-by-numbers political thriller, with no genuine surprises or twists to surprise or shake the viewer.  This was unfortunate, and meant that ultimately, the film was not very risky.

Films made by Christians should challenge the audience.

If the audience was the “faith-based” audience, there was no challenge here.  Yes, the filmmakers stated that they wanted to challenge the audience to imagine a time when we’re losing our religious freedoms, but it didn’t succeed.  Perhaps because it was so focused on one man’s story, and he was put there by his own lack of judgment in the character of those around him, it just didn’t feel prophetic or even relevant.  If anything, the core audience who saw this film were probably the folks who already think that politicians are sitting in Washington trying to figure out how to bring about the destruction of all Christendom.

And the character of John Luther is supposed to challenge us in our faith, but with all he’s going through, Luther remains robotically steadfast – which is admirable in real life, but disappointingly uninteresting in a character in a film.  After discovering his father’s unfortunate death, the only crisis of faith Luther appears to have is standing on the cabin porch and screaming, “Are you not true to your name?” and then he’s back to the business of surviving, with nary a tear shed.  His father was executed, for heaven’s sake!  Because of the choices that Luther made!  The man should have a moment of brokenness at some point, but he never seems to arrive at that point.

Art is Art, the Pulpit is the Pulpit

This film preaches all over the place, with a disturbing mixture of Christianity and conservatism.  It would have been more appropriate to call the movie Didactic: The Movie.  That’s all I have to say about that.

Films made by Christians should raise important questions

On the one hand, it could be argued that Persecuted raises the question – what will happen if your government turns against you?  But is that really an important question to raise?  Our country is so polarized that the question is a hot button question, feeding the paranoia of the kind of Christian who think Left Behind and God’s Not Dead are brilliant movies just because they talked about God in a nice way.

But for those Christians, I don’t think it’s the kind of question that really needs to be raised.  Ragamuffin came a lot closer to asking the right questions – looking unapologetically at the personal struggles of a Christian icon.  Believe Me – using self-depreciating humor – made Christians look at themselves and ask important questions about how well we think things through.  Mom’s Night Out, asks Christian moms at the end of their rope to consider what really matters.

These “faith-based” films all asked more important questions than this Persecuted, a film which wants to be a lot more important and relevant than it really it is.

Christian films should tell good stories

I think I’ve already shown that Persecuted falls woefully short of this.  If the filmmakers had cast a younger lead, if they’d followed through with the promises they made, and if they’d filmed a few more scenes in the light, it might have been a stronger story.  Unfortunately, it failed.

A test I always put to a faith-based film is to ask this question – would I be happy to show this film to friends who don’t attend church?  Showing Persecuted?  Nope.  I wouldn’t do it.

jonah_a_veggietales_movieAnd in conclusion – while I don’t put a lot of stock in the RT rating system when it comes to “faith-based” films – I think we, as Christians, should pay attention to what the secular reviewers say – since we should desire our films to reach beyond our Christian subculture.  I find it fascinating that the highest rated “faith-based” film I could find at Rotten Tomatoes was Phil Vischer’s 65% scoring, “Jonah: A Veggietales Movie.

The lesson I take from that?  Christians need to make more movies with talking vegetables.

And by the way, if you don’t, you should really listen to the Phil Vischer Podcast.  It’s the most intelligent, reasonable, and entertaining culture-examining podcast by Christians that you’ll find.

Even if Phil does insist on playing that annoying ukelele.

Reclaiming the Anchor of Hope

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately.

It’s a good word, isn’t it? No one I know dislikes the word, unless it is preceded by some form of “I don’t have any” or “I’ve lost all”. And even then, we usually mourn that someone is without hope.

A Hopeless Dawn 1888 by Frank Bramley 1857-1915

When hope is taken away, it creates a visceral response in us, doesn’t it?  Something is wrong in a world where hope has been lost, and that’s the thing – it does have to be lost. It’s like we come factory made, ready-loaded with hope – and we have hope until someone gives a reason not to.

But I don’t want to focus on the loss of hope.  There’s enough darkness in the world that revels in the destruction of hope.  Rather, I want to focus the presence of hope, what that means, and how we can avoid losing it.

We all want hope, don’t we?  And it doesn’t matter our place or situation in life.

The Blind Girl - John Everett Millais-1856

The Blind Girl – John Everett Millais-1856

The teenager, thinking about university?  Hopeful.

The nervous guy, about to propose to his girlfriend?  Hopeful.

The young woman, waiting to see if she got the job?  Hopeful.

The married couple who are trying to get pregnant?  Hopeful.

The older couple just entering retirement together?  Hopeful.

And we find themes of hope scattered all around us; in music, in art, in film, in literature.

For example, The Shawshank Redemption, one of my all-time favorite films, has a strong theme of hope.

We find the theme of hope coming back up again in one of my brother’s favorites, Hitch.

http://dai.ly/x16u6h9

And then there’s this…

The world – as seen through the lens of Hollywood – gets it.  Hope is a good thing!

And then we have popular music, which is full of songs about hope.  For example…

There’s the Script’s Hall of Fame.

Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.

Sarah Bareilles’ Brave.

Alright then.  So I think we can all agree that hope is a good thing, that it is something that we should all be encouraged to have, and that we should be encouraged to express our hope.  So what then?  What’s your point, Nate?

I want to turn the page for a moment to find my point, and look at the idea of hope from a Christian perspective.  If you aren’t a Christian, just hang with me.

In the Christian faith, hope gets an added boost in that it’s one of the triumvirate specifically mentioned by the apostle Paul in his famous “love” chapter of 1 Corinthians – the one that lots of people, Christians and otherwise, have read at weddings.  In that chapter, Paul clearly lays out the power of love (to borrow from Huey), but ends with:

And now these three remain (or last, or endure): faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Think of all the other good words that Paul could have put into that verse as the things that will remain.  He could have mentioned all of the “fruit of the Spirit” from Galatians 5:22 as enduring: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control.  But he didn’t.

Only three things will endure through anything, and they are faith, hope, and love.

Do you get the power of what Paul is saying here?  When everything else is gone, these things will last.

Hope remains.

Isn’t that amazing?

When the sky is darkest, and the tempest is about to break, hope remains.

When your world has fallen apart, hope remains.

When the one you married has left you behind for a newer edition, hope remains.

When the bank account reads negative, hope remains.

When the doctor gives  you the last prognosis you ever wanted to hear, hope remains.

And to put a more global perspective on this…

When a group of thugs has rampaged across your country and you’ve lost everything, hope remains.

When the earthquake destroyed everything you ever knew or cared about, hope remains.

When the ever-present threat of terrorism has you living in fear of going to the market, but you have to go to get food, even then hope remains.

But here’s where we run into a problem with hope.  Where do we get it?  Where does it come from?  What kind of hope can survive all the crap that the world throws at it, able to remain?

Think about the screenwriter in Hollywood who is putting his hope on his ability to write the next big script, and properly play the networking game to get it made into a film, thus making him a success in his field.

Think about the surgical resident who is putting her hope in her hard-earned skills, and through her sheer determination to be able to overcome the biases and stereotypes inherent in the system so that she will be able to become a fully qualified surgeon and do what she’s dreamt of doing.

Think of the farmer who is putting his hope in the weather, that the rains will finally come and he’ll be able to actually have a harvest this year.

Think of the unemployed single mother who is putting her hope in the government to provide enough money to pay the rent and feed her kids.

Think of the displaced refugees – who have lost their ancestral homeland, who have lost family members to hatred and ignorance, who are hated for what they believe.  And so they put their hope in the military of another country to come in, clean house, and set things right again.

Do you see the weakness in these hopes?  Like ships dropping anchors in sandbars – they are all examples of people putting their hope in things that are malleable.  They are hoping in things that can and will change in a moment’s notice.  They are hoping in things that may not actually be dependable at all.

And a hope built on something that isn’t dependable is a weak hope.

It’s a hope that can be stripped away.

It’s a hope that will fail.

And that’s not the kind of hope that Paul was talking about.  Not even close.

Remember, the hope Paul’s talking about is one of the three things that will last, no matter what.  This is a hope that nobody can take from you, even yourself.  This is a hope that will never fail.

In the first centuries of her existence, the church was undergoing fierce persecution at the hands of the Romans.  To be able to meet clandestinely and safely, the followers of Jesus would mark a location with an anchor.  It was a symbol that looked innocuous enough, but held the image of the cross, and so the believers could use it freely.

Anchor, fish, and Chi Rho symbols. Slide Photo by Ferrell Jenkins, 1975.

Anchor, fish, and Chi Rho symbols. Slide Photo by Ferrell Jenkins, 1975.

The anchor represented safety and security, and the image of the cross it contained reminded the believers that they could find their safety and security – their hope – in the Jesus who died for them on that cross, no matter how hot the heat of persecution became.  They knew that He was the one they could count on, even when the difficulties, the tragedies, the hardships of life were threatening to capsize them.

They knew that if their hope was in Jesus, it was like a ship who drops anchor and finds purchase, and is able to ride out the storm without being dashed to pieces on the rocks.

And so, as I sit here, pondering hope, pondering the ultimate source of hope, I’m challenged to reconsider where I get the hope to which I’ve been clinging.  

Me?  I’ve been hoping on my friends, my family, my work, my gifts, my abilities, my dreams…

I’m challenged to let go of these temporary things that I’ve been depending upon, good things though they may be, and to reclaim the kind of hope that Paul was speaking about, the kind of hope that sustained those early Christians in the face certain death.  I’m challenged to place all my hope in the anchor that holds, to have the kind of hope that remains.

To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out what this means.  It’s a journey, after all.  Into uncharted waters.

But if I’m going on a journey, I don’t go alone.  I go with the faith and hope that I have a dependable anchor, an anchor that – as odd as it sounds – loves me.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

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