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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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 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.

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.)

 

 

Six Things to do after Downloading a Free Kindle Book

The best thing two things about owning a Kindle (or other e-reader) are (1) that you can carry a ton of books around in a tiny device and (2) so many free books are available.  I purposefully avoided the e-reader experience for years, because I loved the feel of holding a real book in my hands.  However, since I live overseas, I finally took the plunge and I’ve never looked back.

And the multitude of free books you can download on a Kindle!  It’s amazing, and fantastic!  I’ve spent quite a bit of time filling my Kindle with free books.  It’s a brave new world, indeed.

Thimblerig's Ark Cover ArtAnd then last March, I self-published my first novel.  Suddenly, one of those free books out there had my name on it.  And just as suddenly, the books in my Kindle device took on a different meaning.

Now, they weren’t just freebies meant to be downloaded and forgotten, they were dreams put to the page.  Each free book I’d downloaded now represented years of hard work.  Stories that had been taken from idea, to draft, to beta readers, to revision, to hard critiques, to killing the darlings, to more revision, to putting it aside and picking it up three years later, to becoming determined to finish even if it resulted in death, to typing until callouses formed on fingertips, until at last, that final copy emerged.

jpegThis is true of every single free book that you have downloaded, with the possible exception of Baboon Fart Story by Phronk.

And so, I want to make an appeal to you Kindle free ebook downloaders.  These are six things you can do after downloading a free Kindle book if you really want to help the authors who are giving you this free entertainment.

Understand that each step involves a bit more effort and investment on your part, but each will be increasingly appreciated by the author.

1)  Download the book!
It seems pretty obvious, but it needs to be said that if you see a book that looks interesting, go ahead and download it.  Self-published authors really want to see their books climb as high as possible on the Amazon lists, and your solitary download will help that to happen.  So if the book looks interesting to you, go ahead and hit that “buy now” button and get your free book.  That action alone will be doing the author a favor.

2)  Share the free book info with your friends

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 12.27.33 PMA book is only free for a limited time, and so the author is depending on you helping to spread the word in a timely fashion.  After you download, go ahead and share the info with your friends, and water the author’s attempts at grass roots marketing.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, whatever your social media outlet of choice – let folks know that an interesting-looking book is out there for free.  Just use Amazon’s handy share buttons.

3)  Actually read the book!

imgresThis is where it starts to get a bit more complicated.  As I said before, I also have a Kindle full of free books that I may or may not get to, but as we head into the new year, I am making a commitment to actually go through those books and give them a shot.  At some point, they looked like something I might want to read, so I should give them the benefit of the doubt.  Right?  Who knows?  I may discover a great new author!  This happened for me when I downloaded and actually read Marion Harmon’s Wearing the Cape – a great new take on the superhero genre.

4)  Write a review.

For some reason, this seems to be the most difficult step for people.  For example, I’ve given away literally a couple of thousand digital copies of Thimblerig’s Ark since it was first published back in March, and since that time, I’ve had 22 people write reviews.  It’s actually quite simple to write a review, but it might just be one of the most important things you can do for the writer – especially when they are self-published.

Understand, I’m not suggesting that you go all Kirk Cameron on this and inflate the reviews, but if you will actually take a moment and write an honest critique of the story, it will help immensely.  Even if your review is negative, it shows future potential readers that the reviews are honest.

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And don’t be intimidated by the idea of writing a review, because it doesn’t have to go into great depths.  For example, one of the reviews that Thimblerig’s Ark has received says simply, “Loved it….reminds me of Watership Down almost. Reading it to my son now! Good book to read to a class!”, and that was a great review!

5)  Buy the Book.

I know, I know.  The book was free, you downloaded it, shared it with your friends, read it, and reviewed it.  And now I have the gall to suggest that you drop some of your hard-earned cash on a book you’ve read?  As I said before, this is a list that involves increasing commitment.  As a writer, I am very happy when someone reads and reviews my book.  However, several friends told me that they could easily drop the $2.99, and that small support meant the world to me.

But what if the self-published author isn’t your friend?  It will still be a huge encouragement to them if you liked the book enough to actually take the time to invest in it.  Remember, they haven’t been contracted by some big publisher to write – they are writing because they love writing.  And if they are anything like me, they would love to be able to do it full time, and deliver new books year after year.  Certainly your one purchase won’t enable us to quit our day jobs, but it will be an enormous pat on the back and encouragement to keep on writing.

6)  Gift the Book.

And if you really, really liked the book, then take the plunge and order copies for your friends.  Give the print copy of the book as a gift!  Send it to friends for birthdays, or give it to your dad on Father’s Day, or to the ladies in your life on International Women’s Day.

This will accomplish several things.  First, it will be a financial support to the author as you purchase multiple copies.  Second, it will help get his or her writing out there to new potential readers.  Third, it will drive up sales, which will help the author to be taken seriously by others.

And you have to get friends and family gifts anyway, right?  Give a gift to a budding author at the same time.

So,intrepid Kindle downloaders, get out there and collect the free books.  But don’t stop there!  Read, review, spread the word, and actually buy some!  This is what will enable writers to continue doing what they love to do, and you’ll be able to continue reaping the benefits!

Author Nate Fleming at a book signing at the Bookworm, Chengdu, China - summer 2014

Author Nate Fleming at a book signing at the Bookworm, Chengdu, China – summer 2014

And – in the shameless self-promotion portion of this blog post, I’d ask that you go ahead and start by downloading my book, Thimblerig’s Ark, which is available for free until December 28, 2014!

 

Thimblerig’s Ark • FREE Christmas Download!

As a special Christmas gift to you, Thimblerig’s Ark will be available as a FREE Kindle download from December 24 to December 28, 2014 (PST)!  Please help spread the cheer by passing on the good news!  Share this exciting info on all your social media platforms.

If you tweet, you can just copy this onto your Twitter feed starting on Christmas Eve:

You know about , but not the animal’s story. It’s not what you’re expecting. Thimblerig’s Ark, FREE DOWNLOAD!

4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon!

“Thimblerig’s Ark is a really fun book with lots of action and lovable characters.” 4-LAN

“a great read, it kept me interested and I was completely invested in the story!” Lena K.

“Quirky characters set up a gentle tale with a solid message behind it.” Mark L.

“I’d recommend this book to animal lovers who like adventure stories with a touch of comedy.” stansby

“It has been a real pleasure to read this book full of adventure, humor, vivid and well developed characters…” Andrey

Thimblerig's Ark Cover ArtThimblerig is a little groundhog with big problems.

He’s a loner con-artist who’s losing his mojo; the wild dogs who run the forest harass him at every turn; he’s having vivid nightmares of apocalyptic floods; and worst of all, he believes he sees unicorns when everyone knows unicorns are only the stuff of legend.

But what one animal might call a problem, Thimblerig calls an opportunity.

In a moment of inspiration, he comes up with the ultimate con: persuade as many suckers as he can that a world-ending flood is coming; the fabled unicorns have told him where the only safe place will be; and only he can lead them to safety.

All for a reasonable price, of course.

When the flood really does come, Thimblerig has a choice: either save the ones who trusted him, or lose everything.

And that’s when he discovers that his problems have only just begun.

Inspired by an Irish pub song about why the unicorn missed out on Noah’s Ark, Thimblerig’s Ark is a Narnian-style fantasy novel that looks at how the animals all made it there in the first place, focusing on a con-artist groundhog named Thimblerig.

Coming soon:  Thimblerig’s Ark Book Two: Forty Days and Nights

 

The Depressingly Low Expectations Of Christian Filmgoers

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

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

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

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What exactly is going on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep.  Our expectations have grown depressingly low.

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

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

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

Our films are not taken seriously.  

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

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

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

And it’s a huge mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it just doesn’t make sense.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thimblerig’s Interview • Bill Myers

backcoverbill-jpgWith tomorrow being the first day of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, it seemed appropriate that my first Thimblerig’s Interview would be with the very accomplished and successful writer, Bill Myers.

Perhaps best known for McGee and Me!, the popular kids television program and novel series, Bill has also written more than 80 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and he also has experience in film, with credits as an actor, producer, writer and director.

Oh!  And Bill also happens to be a committed Christian.

I recently came across Bill’s work Kickstarter campaign for a film called Forbidden Doors, which you can read about here.  This campaign is raising support for an independent film based on his book series of the same name, Forbidden Doors.

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I was very interested to read about the filmmaker’s plans – that they want to make a film that reaches outside the Christian subculture, a film that entertains as well as shares truth, a film that has “plenty of chills and thrills to keep the audience glued to the screen.”

Curious to know more about the people behind this film project, I wrote Bill and asked if he would be willing to answer a few questions about being a writer who happens to be a Christian in the modern entertainment industry.  He graciously agreed and took the time to answer a few questions.

Please Introduce yourself…

Author/filmmaker, 70 national and international awards including the C.S. Lewis Honor Award. 8 million/books videos sold. And I take none of it seriously, just use it as cred to open some doors. For the most part, I’m the goofy neighbor next door who keeps forgetting to mow his lawn.

How did you get involved in filmmaking?

I saw the power story and parable has to mold and motivate our culture.

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

Sorry for the piety, but I’d have to say the Apostle John. Actually, Scripture in general. There has been no book I’ve found that so accurately captures the heart of God, man, and our world. I’m not talking religion here, but as a work of art, nothing even comes close.

What are your thoughts on the state of filmmaking in the Christian community?

I have very strong opinions which I never make public. I’m happy to sit down with a filmmaker and tell them my opinions and suggestions for improvement of their work (and when asked, do so) but I am loath to discuss their shortcomings publically. That’s like telling the world the flaws about somebody else’s baby. Making a movie is so difficult, we should be required to give standing ovations at the opening credits before we even see the quality.

Considering that most “faith-based” films only play to Christian audiences, what do you think is the key for films made by Christians reaching beyond the Christian subculture?

Stop the propaganda. Stop trying to change your audience. Stop using characters as mouthpieces for your philosophy and make them real with real strengths and weaknesses. Christian films for Christians are mostly to affirm. I get that. With all the tearing down, there’s a much-needed place for encouragement. But if we’re doing projects for those outside the family (and still want those projects to have an eternal impact upon our culture) than be content with simply glorifying God with your art (which is controversial enough in our current climate) and let the Holy Spirit do His part in drawing the audience closer to Him. Exalt God. Let God do the rest.

You are currently raising funds to make a film called Forbidden Doors with a Kickstarter campaign. Please give a synopsis of the film and tell us a bit of the history of the production.

It’s based on my teen book series, Forbidden Doors. A couple teens return to California from the Amazon and discover their classmates, in fact the entire town, is falling under some very evil occult influences. With so much attention toward the paranormal these days and so many misconceptions, it seemed a natural and much-needed project. And since you brought up Kickstarter, here’s our link if you feel like helping out or forwarding it to friends. http://kck.st/1rdb4UI Thanks, we really need it.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced so far in developing the project?

Um, er . . . money.

Forbidden Doors has been described as Christian Horror, which is unusual for a film made by Christian artists. What advice would you give to other filmmakers who want to go down this path in their own stories?

Don’t get carried away with the creep factor. As an old agent once said, “Bad publicity is better than no publicity.” The devil doesn’t care what you say about him just as long as you’re talking about him. Don’t give him too much credit. If kids go to bed at night afraid of him, you’re working for the wrong side. Make sure God not only trumps evil, but does it in a way that we stop fearing that evil and realize we actually have the power to kick its butt.

Do you think it’s possible for Christians to make edgy – even R-rated films? Please explain your thoughts on this question.

The Bible is full of edgy, R-rated scenes . . . but the edginess is never glorified.  I think the reason some Christians don’t make R rated movies falls along the lines of what Paul says regarding stumbling a weaker brother. That’s the tension of being in both worlds…the religious (and I use that term intentionally) and being relevant to a very different culture. Whatever you decide requires careful prayer and expectation of ridicule. I plan to be raked over the coals by secular reviewers who say Forbidden Doors is too tame because it’s too realistic and that there is no gore…and bad-mouthed by the Pharisee element of Christianity that is eager to judge without evaluating my heart and purpose.

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

If you sincerely see it as a ministry (and not some way of being famous or being loved by the world) immerse yourself in God’s presence. Take quality time each day to feed your soul, to dwell in His heart. It’s not your ministry, it’s His. Be flexible to His desires. I want to exalt Christ to the nations, and for decades I wore myself out doing it on my own (while begging God to wake up and get with my plan). Only recently have I discovered His real method:

“Be still and know that I am God. And I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10.

Do you want to exalt Him? Then be still in His presence and know Him. If you’re under thirty it’s doubtful you’ll believe me. I wouldn’t. But don’t take my word for it, take His. If you want to exalt God . . . be still and know that He is. It’s totally backwards and upside down thinking from that of the world. But if you’ve hung out with God for any time, you know upside-down is pretty much His style.

I appreciate Bill taking the time to answer my questions, and hope that the readers of Thimblerig’s Ark Blog will be encouraged and energized by Bill’s advice, garnered by years in the industry.

Finally, I encourage my readers to head over to the Kickstarter page and consider being a part of making Forbidden Doors a reality.

Find out more about Bill Myers at his website

Bill on Twitter: @BillMyersauthor

Bill on Facebook: /billmyersauthor