Brennan – the full length trailer

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Since I seem to be on a trailer kick this week, I’d like to share this one that just dropped.

By David Leo Schultz, the maker of Ragamuffin, the biopic of singer Rich Mullins, Brennan is film about Brennan Manning, the author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, the book that had a profound impact on Rich Mullins, and by extension – on all of us who loved Rich Mullins.

While I wasn’t a huge fan of Ragamuffin, I appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, and appreciated that they created a renewed interest in the life and work of Rich Mullins. I look forward to seeing where they take the story of Brennan, who was at least as compelling a person as Rich – maybe even more.

Also, I’m glad to see that Brennan is going to have some humor in it, which was one thing that I felt Ragamuffin lacked.

My review of Ragamuffin, in case anyone is interested.

4 Things Christian Artists Can Learn From The Life Of Rich Mullins

RichMullinscropThis weekend marks eighteen years [twenty five years now] since the death of singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, who died tragically in a car accident just outside of Bloomington, Illinois on September 19, 1997.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Rich’s life had a profound impact on me. This is true for me as a Christian, as an artist, and as a man. I’m not alone, as evidenced by the continued interest in his life nearly twenty years after he “went out like Elijah,” as well as the continued popularity of his music.

As I realized we were getting close to this date, it got me to thinking about Rich. I knew I had to write something about him, but I’ve already told the story of the time we met (A Memory of Rich Mullins), and I’ve also already written about the profound impact Rich had on my first novel, Thimblerig’s Ark (Thimblerig the Ragamuffin).

So what could I say that hasn’t already been said?

And this morning, as I walked to work, it hit me.

What would Rich have to say to Christian artists today, living in the internet age as we do, with our instant communication, immediate access to anything in the world, and the hyper-commercialization of everything from Christian music to Christian books to Christian movies? How would he have us measure success? By number of downloads? Likes or shares or follows or upvotes? Hits on a webpage? Or would it be something else?

In this blog post, I will look at Rich’s life and music with these questions in mind. I do this with full understanding that I am no expert on Rich Mullins, but I am a person who admired Rich and the way he lived his life, and the way he lived out his faith.

I hope that readers will read this post through that particular prism. And I would encourage you to take the time to listen to all of the songs I’ve linked as you read, to fully experience the music of Rich Mullins today.

4 Things Christian Artists Can Learn From The Life and Music Of Rich Mullins

1. The Value of Authenticity

One of the reasons Rich’s music resonates with so many people is the authenticity that he poured into his lyrics. While he gained fame by writing Awesome God, one of the most popular and oft-performed worship songs of the past thirty years, I’m more drawn to Rich’s songs that went to a personal level, songs that asked heart-wrenching questions, made uncomfortable confessions, disclosed relatable doubts, and repeated admissions of his flaws and his human weakness.

These were the songs that made Rich stand out from the crowd.

And especially when considering the so-called “culture wars” that take so much of our time, we need a strong reminder of the value and strength found in practicing a bit of humble self-examination, as well as a willingness to admit just how screwed up we are.

For example, take Rich’s song, Hard to Get, that tries to figure out God’s silence.

Do you remember when You lived down here?
Where we all scrape to find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away?
Well I memorized every word You said

Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath
While You’re up there just playing hard to get

And then there’s one of my favorite songs, Hold Me Jesus, which Rich wrote after facing some intense temptation during a trip to Amsterdam with his musical partner, Beaker.

Well, sometimes my life just don’t make sense at all

When the mountains look so big and my faith just seems so small

So hold me, Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf

You have been King of my glory, won’t you be my Prince of Peace

In both these examples, we see an artist who isn’t afraid to explore his own weaknesses and frailty, both in song and in life. This sort of authenticity made Rich a refreshing voice in the world of 80’s and 90’s Contemporary Christian Music, and it’s something we desperately need today.

Imagine if we were as open about our sins, the temptations we face, our failures, both in our art and in our lives. What if our art reflected our utter dependence on a God who doesn’t toss us aside because of those sins and temptations, but holds us closer in spite of them?

Imagine the power in our art if it did a better job reflecting our inadequacies rather than painting a picture of a people who have it all together, a people with moral and cultural superiority. What could God do with that?

Because I think we know – and I know the world knows – that the truth about us ain’t pretty.

2. The Value of Artistry

One reason Rich was able to succeed at being an artist with an overtly Christian message was the fact that he was also a seriously talented musician who wasn’t afraid to buck trends and take risks when it suited his artistic vision. This not only endeared him to Christian audiences, but also gained him respect from the secular world.

While these days it’s not so revolutionary to have unusual folkish instrumentation in music, in the synth-heavy CCM world of the 80’s and guitar-riffed early 90’s, what other CCM artist was featuring a hammered dulcimer? Who even knew what a hammered dulcimer was back then, outside of Appalachia?

Yes, Mullins was passionate about God, but he was also a consummate musician, and a master lyricist (the last two ideas he would have rejected vehemently, by the way). And since film is the artistic medium I’m most passionate about, this reminds me how I long for a community of filmmakers who really love the Lord, but who also love the medium of film the way Rich loved music, and who can talk about both with a Rich-like affection and understanding.

I long for a community of Christian filmmakers who can talk about story as well as salvation, technique as well as the Trinity, and Kurosawa as well as Koinonia.

I long for a community of Christian filmmakers who have a vision for producing well-crafted films that honor God in their story and subject matter, films that will challenge the audience in new and unique ways, and who are willing to buck the trends of faith-based filmmaking to bring that vision to the screen.

In short, I long for a community of filmmakers who will be to Christian film what Rich Mullins was to Christian music.

3. The Value of Having a Unique Voice

And the coal trucks come a-runnin’
With their bellies full of coal
And their big wheels a-hummin’
Down this road that lies open like the soul of a woman
Who hid the spies who were lookin’
For the land of the milk and the honey
And this road she is a woman
She was made from a rib
Cut from the sides of these mountains
Oh these great sleeping Adams
Who are lonely even here in paradise
Lonely for somebody to kiss them
and I’ll sing my song, and I’ll sing my song
In the land of my sojourn

There’s no mistaking a Rich Mullins lyric, especially in his last few albums.

Rich combined his love of God, the Scriptures, nature, and his own struggles and experiences in a way which made his writing apparent. The songs he came up with were the opposite of commercial, unlike anything being produced at the time by other Christian bands, and yet he was a huge commercial success.

I can’t speak for the rest of Christendom, but I can say that – for myself – I long for the authentic. I want to experience art that doesn’t provide easy answers. I want to experience art that pricks my conscience, that shows beauty and wonder at what God is doing in the world. I want art that reflects all aspects of my faith, from my doubts to my joys to my failures to my awe of the power and majesty of God.

Rich did this. With his unique voice, and vision, and view of the world, he did this consistently and masterfully.

A perfect example of Rich’s ability to create art that was deep and yet still accessible is one of his most commercially successful songs, which he co-wrote with Beaker. This is a song that – as a chorus – is still regularly sung in churches today.

Sometimes by Step, from the album, The World as Best as I Remember It, Volume Two.

Sometimes the night was beautiful
Sometimes the sky was so far away
Sometimes it seemed to stoop so close
You could touch it but your heart would break
Sometimes the morning came too soon
Sometimes the day could be so hot
There was so much work left to do
But so much You’d already done

With this song, Rich and Beaker managed to do something that seems impossible. They wrote an infinitely singable chorus that sang the praises of God, and then surrounded it with verses that vividly and beautifully painted a picture of the worship of that same God.

As artists, we need to seek out the unique voice that we’ve been given, and not be afraid to apply it to what we create. This is especially necessary if we are laboring in a commercial field, because just as God used Rich in all his uniqueness to do something nobody would ever guess (Rich definitely doesn’t look like a rock star), He can use any of us.

As Rich wrote…

And you never know who God is gonna use
A princess or a baby
Or maybe even you or me.

4. The Centrality of the Love of God

My final point may seem evident, but it needs to be said.

If you are a Christian artist pursuing art that is labeled “Christian” or “faith-based” or even “spiritual” for any reason other than in response to the love of God, then there’s a good chance that you are in the wrong business.

Are you looking for fame? Then you should move to Hollywood or New York and give it a go just like everyone else. Don’t try and piggyback on the niche popularity of Christian books or music or theater or film or (fill in the blank) in an attempt to be the Next Big Christian Thing.

© David R Banta

© David R Banta

Consider that Rich, at the height of his music career, when his records were selling thousands of copies, decided to do something that most people would consider to be suicide for a CCM musician. He left Nashville and moved to Wichita, with the ultimate goal of moving to a native American reservation where he would teach music to kids.

And he did it in response to the love of God.

Are you seeking to gain fortune through Christian art – profiting off the generous dollars of your brothers and sisters in the name of ministry? I’m not talking about just trying to put bread on the table or pay back students loans, but actual fortune for the sake of fortune. Profiting off the cross of Christ.

Consider that Rich, not wanting to be tempted by the immensity of his success, arranged that all of the money earned from his music would come to his church, and the church would pay him a living wage, and then give the rest to charity. Reportedly, Rich never knew (and didn’t want to know) how his music sold, or how much money his concerts earned. He reportedly just didn’t care.

And he did this as a response to the love of God.

Now, with all that being said, I think that probably, if Rich were able to speak to us today, he would tell me to stop focusing on him. He would tell me to stop wasting time dwelling on his accomplishments, or his songs, or his life.

I think that Rich would probably tell me to start focusing on the one thing that really matters most: The love of God.

The reckless, raging fury that they call love of God.

And so that is where I will end this blog post, focusing on the love of the One for whom Rich lived, and created, and sang.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
I cannot find in my own
And He keeps His fire burning
To melt this heart of stone
Keeps me aching with a yearning
Keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God

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…

Rich Mullins Interview • Ichthus Festival, 1996

In the midst of the 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, I think a little Rich is called for, as refreshment.

Sorry for the quality of the recording.  It was, after all, the 90’s.

[on moving away from Nashville to a Navajo reservation to teach music to kids] I just kind of got tired of the white evangelical middle class sort of perspective on God and I thought maybe I would have more luck finding Christ among the pagan Navajos.

If I were going to be a good car, if Mr. Ford had invented me and I wanted to bring Mr. Ford glory, what would I do?  I wouldn’t go conquer countries, I wouldn’t plow fields, I would simply be a car.

If I believe that God is good, which I think as a Christian we must, then I have to believe that my life is good whether or not I like it, whether or not I find it particularly pleasant or easy or exciting or what.  If God is good, and if life is a gift that we are given from God, then I must learn to accept my life.

I kind of tend to think that we should be God’s person in the place where we are, and if God wants you to go to Egypt, he will provide eleven jealous brothers and they will sell you into slavery.

Man, I miss him.

40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media • Day 3

Anyone get why this picture is here?  20 points to the first person who can tell me in the comment section.

Anyone get why this picture is here? 20 points to the first person who can tell me in the comment section.

Here it is, the end of the third day of my challenge to consume only Christian media, and I’ve survived.

Not only survived, but I’ve actually learned something, I think.

I’m ashamed to say it, but taking part in this challenge has brought home to me the obscene amount of media that I consume on a daily basis, without even realizing it. As if waking up from a dream, I clearly see now that from morning until night, I’ve got somebody else doing their level best to manipulate or influence me in some way.

“Buy this product! Be scared of this threat! Believe this ideology! Curse this leader! Praise this celebrity! Think like I do! Achieve! Agree! Purchase! Comment! Consume!”

watch-tvThe craziest thing about this is that just a few years ago, we were taking in a fraction of the media that we consume now. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, we had four television stations, a morning newspaper, a collection of books, magazines, and records, and on the occasion of something really good to see, an infrequent trip to the cinema.

Now, we carry all of those things around in the device in our pockets.

And we’re constantly staring at the little screen.

And taking in the noise of it all.

Having nothing but Christian media to consume has forced me to turn my back on 95% of the noise, and my subconscious desire to see the vacuum filled has been foiled time and time again these last three days. It’s certainly not been from a lack of trying, but from a lack of much to interest me coming from the world of Christian media.

51VzxrUA+NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Yes, I have found some things that I like.  I’ve enjoyed listening to a few good podcasts (Steve Brown, etc; More Than One Lesson; Christ and Pop Culture); I’ve started what seems to be an interesting novel (The Green Ember by S.D. Smith); I watched The Song (read my review here); and I began developing the habit of waking up every morning to Skye Jethani‘s daily devotional – which also includes a good reading of Scripture.

I’ve also spent hours wading through all sorts of Christian media that hasn’t interested me in the least.  Some, because of the content, and most others because of the quality, or lack thereof.

But I think this has been a good thing.  Even though there’s not much to interest me, I have been impressed by how many Christians are still out there creating.  This, I believe, is to be celebrated.  Rather than just consuming the noise, they are trying to create something that offers a counterpoint to the noise.

After all, there is the off chance that God will do what He did so often in Scripture, and use our weakness to show his strength, and even our often unimpressive media to draw people to Himself.  Does that mean He desires us to make bad media?  Of course not.  Might it mean that He wants us to do our best, depending on Him along the way?  I think so.

Yes, God uses some pretty foolish things and pretty inadequate people to point others to Himself.  Who knows?  He might even be using this blog!  Wouldn’t that be something?

To celebrate that idea, I leave you today with one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite singers (Christian or otherwise). Enjoy, and be about the business of being creative – no matter what you do.

By the way, I’d just like to point out that it’s been about one year since I published my first novel, Thimblerig’s Ark.  My own attempt to create a counterpoint to the noise.  I’d love to hear what folks think about it!

FINAL

A Word on Artistry for Christians from Rich Mullins

On Sheila Walsh’s Heart to Heart show back in 1992, Sheila asked Rich Mullins what the point of his concerts were – what he hoped to convey.  Rich – sporting a real happenin’ hairstyle – answered:

You know what I think, mostly music.

A lot of people think that as a Christian musician, when I write a song I sit down and say, “What really spiritually significant thing can I say here?” and I really don’t believe in doing that. I really think that you just try to write really good songs. And if you are a Christian then your faith is going to affect everything you write.

So it’s not a matter of sitting down with a little agenda and coming up with a song that is very spiritual. I think if you’re anything like a spiritual person then your writing will be spiritual writing. If you’re a Christian that will affect whether you’re a carpenter or a plumber or a housewife or a secretary or whatever. If your faith doesn’t have some impact on your work, it’s probably because you have no faith.

This is a perfect response, and applies to those of us trying to write movies, books, poetry, plays, or any other art form as people of faith.

It’s a great interview, and you can watch the whole thing here.

A Memory of Rich Mullins

This evening I finally had the chance to watch Ragamuffin, a biopic of Rich Mullins that came out earlier this year, and want to assemble my thoughts about the film before I write my review.

But watching the film brought up a favorite memory of a time when I had the opportunity to sit down with Rich over cake and cups of cherry Koolaid in a little church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Please allow me to fill the time between watching the film and writing my review by doing a bit of reminiscing.

Was it the spring of 1996?  I believe it might have been.  A student at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, I was in my mid-20’s, single, and a huge fan of the music of Rich Mullins.   One afternoon I was sitting in the computer lab at school when a couple of friends rushed in and asked if I wanted to go to a free concert that night at a local church.

“Who’s performing?” I asked.

“Rich Mullins,” they answered, excited.

I laughed.  “Guys, I listen to WDJC every morning on my way to school, and if Rich Mullins were coming to Birmingham “Buckle of the Bible Belt” Alabama, I would know about it.”

“It’s sort of a secret concert,” one of my friends whispered conspiratorially.  “It’s only for people who work with youth, and so the church didn’t advertise it publicly.”

In the end, I decided to go, even though I figured I’d walk into the church to find some overweight, middle-aged, southern gospel evangeli-singer who happened to share a name with my favorite Christian artist.  But being young and single and in seminary, I didn’t have anything better to do.

About five of us piled into a car and drove to an unfamiliar part of Birmingham where we parked in the lot of an innocuous Baptist church.  The dozen or so cars already there confirmed to me that we would not be seeing the Rich Mullins that evening.  But, of course, we couldn’t come this far and not make sure.

We entered the nearly empty church, introduced ourselves to the woman at the door as seminary students and youth workers, and sat down to see what would happen.

About ten minutes passed, and then the door at the front of the sanctuary opened, and a short barefooted man walked in, followed by a tall, lanky blonde guy.  I’m sure we were all sitting with our mouths wide open as we saw that it was not – in fact – an overweight, middle-aged, southern gospel evangeli-singer.

It was the real deal.

It was Rich Mullins.  The Rich Mullins.

We were sitting in the third pew, just a few feet away in a church with about twenty other people, as Rich and the blonde guy (who turned out to be Mitch McVicker) walked up to the mic, slung on their guitars, and Rich started talking.

He sang and told stories, he talked about the need for Christian music to actually be about Jesus,  and it was about ninety minutes of mid-20’s single seminary student heaven.

But the best part was yet to come.

When the concert was over, we approached him cautiously, not exactly sure how to talk to our hero.  As we approached, he turned and smiled and stepped over to us with a smile on his face.  After telling him that we loved the concert, one of us nervously stammered that we were all in seminary (which I’m pretty sure he called cemetery, but I could be wrong), and so then he asked us our church background.

Since Samford is a Southern Baptist affiliated university, most of the guys were from that denomination, and they said so.  When they told him, he laughed and said, “Hey, do you know why Southern Baptists don’t have sex standing up?”

Time stopped.

Did the guy who wrote Awesome God and Sing Your Praise to the Lord really just ask us about Southern Baptist sexual positions?

Of course, we just sort of shook our heads, not sure what to say.

With an impish twinkle in his eye, Rich Mullins delivered the punchline.

“Because they don’t want God to think that they’re dancing!”

The woman who had greeted us earlier walked up, probably wondering what brilliant remark Rich Mullins had made that had caused the five nice young seminary boys to break out into laughter, and told us that we could join Rich for cake in the fellowship hall, if we would like.

“Yes ma’am, please and thank you!” we enthusiastically responded, and then followed them down the hall to the fellowship hall where we were able to sit on folding chairs and enjoy cake and cherry Koolaid with Rich Mullins.

We each took turns asking him questions, and he was incredibly patient and personable, talking to us in turn, telling more jokes as the night went on.  It didn’t occur to us that this was the man’s life – sitting with fawning 20 something Kid Brothers of St. Frank wannabes – answering the same questions over and over again.  But it probably didn’t occur to us because he seemed to enjoy it so much, too.   He was overflowing with good graces, authenticity, and openness.

What a night.

Looking back on how we left that evening, I can see why he always had so many young guys gathered around him.  From that brief time, I could tell that he was the kind of person you wanted to hang out with, because he was so inviting, so full of humor and wisdom, so full of life.

My review of Ragamuffin will come in the next couple of days.

Replying to Some “What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking” Questions

Over on faithwriters.com, someone linked to the article, “What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking”.  A poster there named Lillian raised some issues with my blog, and I thought I would address them here, in case anyone is interested.

My original points are in italics, Lillian’s responses are in bold, and my replies are using a normal font.

1) We need to permit our artists (writers, actors, musicians, filmmakers) to take more risks. And artists, whether you are permitted or not, take more risks. Did you really get into your artistic field because you liked playing it safe? Why play it safe with the most important thing you have to say?

Some artists need no permission to “play it safe.” They prefer it that way. Every Christian artist should feel free to create as per their convictions. To imply that one is less of an artist or flawed in some way because they don’t take “risks” according to this author’s belief is troublesome to me. 

Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my article.  My intention wasn’t that we should require all artists of faith to take risks.  Rather, I was attempting to challenge the church to allow her artists to take risks – as per their convictions.

2) We need to encourage our artists to challenge rather than stroke our sensibilities. A pearl is made when dirt is irritated inside the oyster, after all. And so artists, don’t wait for permission. Start challenging your audience. They will undoubtedly resist you, but we need to be challenged or we’ll stagnate and fade away into irrelevance.

And yet, among the most sold books world wide last year and on the Times bestseller books for months was “Killing Jesus.” Irrelevance? Not as long as God has something to say about it.

First, God is sovereign, and just like He used Balaam’s donkey, He can and will use our attempts to create art in surprising ways.   But you have to admit that if we will stagnate if we only expose ourselves to things with which we agree.  Nobody outside our little subculture will care what we do as artists, because we’ll be so out of touch.

Before anyone suggests that I’m suggesting that we watch hard R-rated films for the sake of exposure.  That’s not at all what I mean.  Let me use the Noah film to help clarify my point.

I read testimonies by many Christians who said that they would not see the movie for a variety of reasons, based on what they’d heard:

•  The director is an atheist.

•  It’s a pro-environment movie.

•  The film has rock people.

•  The animals didn’t enter the ark two by two.

•  Noah has a mental breakdown on the ark.

•  Noah gets drunk.

Basically, these people were choosing to avoid having their interpretations of the Noah story challenged.  To be honest, I have a great deal more respect for the Christians who saw the film and hated it, and complained about it afterward, because they were at least open to seeing another point of view.

This brings me back to my point.  If we don’t like the way people outside the church challenge us, then we should take the reins and challenge each other with the art we produce, à la Proverbs 27:17.  Most Christian films don’t do this because the people who make those films are too busy trying to please their core audience (understandably), who largely wish to be stroked and not challenged.  It is my contention that filmmakers/storytellers should be freed up to say things that make us uncomfortable, and if the church doesn’t give them permission, they need to be say those things anyway.

Like a prophet.

This makes me think of a favorite story about Rich Mullins speaking to the chapel service at Wheaton College, as told by Shane Claiborne in his book, The Irresistible Revolution.  Shane reports that Rich said:

“You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you just have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too…[And he paused in the awkward silence.] But I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”

3) We need to recognize that art is art, the pulpit is the pulpit, and while the two might cross paths from time to time, they are completely different animals.

They are as per the secular world, but for the Christian artist, should they be? What happened to being “light,” “salt,” “being in not of,” and “examples” not “carbon copies,” leading not following.

Yes, yes, yes!  A thousand times yes!  Of course they should be different!   After all…

The pulpit is the place where Scripture should be explained and the Message delivered clearly, without ambiguity.

Art is inevitably ambiguous, depending on the eyes or ears of the beholder to discover the meaning for him or herself.

The pulpit is the embodiment of “tell, don’t show.”

Art is the embodiment of “show, don’t tell.”

In the pulpit, the personality of the preacher shouldn’t matter, because the message is paramount.  In fact, if people are more excited about the messenger than the message, then that group may have a problem.

In art, the personality of the artist might be sole the reason for the excitement for the art, and this doesn’t need to detract from the art.

In my original article, I conceded that the two may cross paths from time to time, but that should be the exception, not the rule.  I might want to see that guy who paints upside down pictures of Christ on a special Sunday morning, but I don’t want him up front every week (this is a problem I have with some modern worship – but that’s the subject of another article).  At the same time, maybe a piece of art will sometimes be on the nose for effect, but if it is a regular occurrence, it will get shut down by those who aren’t into the message being proclaimed.

So, yes.  They should be different.

As to Christians setting the example, I would say that is the job of every Christian in every situation.  Sometimes we set the example by explicitly sharing our faith; sometimes we set the example by quietly helping someone in need.

This goes for everyone. Does everyone truly understand this? With all the recent criticisms of Noah because it “is unbiblical”, I have to think that lots of people don’t.

Why would an admitted atheist want to take a biblical story and turn it into a non-biblical film? Could it be that Hollywood has discovered a new way to make money by exploiting the Bible without embracing it? 

I have to admit before responding to this that I have still been unable to see Noah, because I live in China, and it’s not showing here because it is a film based on a Bible story.   That being said, I’d love to know why you consider the film to be “non-biblical”?

Meanwhile, I’ll ask – are these randomly Googled other examples of Noah biblical?

http://www.daniellesplace.com/html/bible_themes_noah.html

http://www.artistichandsoffaith.com/?p=917

http://www.dltk-bible.com/arks.htm

http://www.freehomeschooldeals.com/free-printables-for-kids-noahs-ark-coloring-pages/

4) We need to be okay with movies that don’t give all the answers. 

Says who? Why should we have to be “okay” with it? The overriding stamp of approval is whether we feel God is “okay” with it. I’m still a proponent of God’s opinion rather than man’s. 

Re-read my quote and tell me where I said that God’s opinion is not important.  Then re-read your quote and see where you wrote that it’s based on what we feel.  I would – rather – posit that our okayness with ambiguity should be based on what Scripture teaches.  Specifically, look at the teaching style of Jesus.  To the masses, he often told stories that the people didn’t get, and they would walk away scratching their heads.  Even the disciples, his closest mates, would come up to him afterwards and ask him to explain himself.  As Eugene Peterson wrote, Christ was often subversive in the things that he taught.  A lost coin?  Virgins waiting at the gate?  A man beat up on the road?  What do these things have to do with God?

And still today, life is often filled with unanswered questions.  Why did five-year-old Ben Sauer just die from a rare form of cancer?  Why did nearly three hundred miners just get killed in an accident in Turkey?  Why did the job I was counting on for next year get suddenly taken away from me?

God has given us lives filled with ambiguity.  Maybe, just maybe he has done this so that we will turn to Him for an explanation, like the disciples did.  And if no explanation is offered, maybe he is helping us learn to trust His goodness in the face of the ambiguity.

If they succeed in asking some good, deep questions, they might actually open the doors to conversations where answers can be explored.

The Bible is not only to be explored, as if it’s in some artistic laboratory, but accepted. Anything that doesn’t lead to that end is mere entertainment. Entertainment is fine, but let’s not confuse it with trying to communicate truth. 

First, how can you accept what the Bible teaches if you don’t explore it?

Second, are you suggesting that the only satisfactory end to truthful art made by Christians is that the Bible be accepted?  This is confusing to me, because I’m not really even sure what it means to “accept the Bible.”

If – by that phrase – you mean accept that the Bible is God’s word, then I would say that art can help bring a person to this place, but it will typically not do it by itself.

If – by that phrase – you mean accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, then I would say that the phrase is not a biblical phrase anyway, so it would be irrelevant.

If – by that phrase – you mean accept the core message of the Bible – the Gospel – that God made us and loves us; that our sin has condemned us; that we are separated from Him; that Jesus came and died on the cross to pay our debt and restore the relationship between humanity and God; that we must believe that Jesus was who he said he was, repent of our sins, and receive Jesus’s forgiveness and salvation… so you’re suggesting that all art made by Christians has to end with a call to salvation?  Or is it possible that an artist can communicate this message in a subtle way so that a non-believer is willing to be exposed to it, and when they watch/read/hear the story, the Holy Spirit has some room to start pricking the heart?

See, to me, this is the power of art made by people of faith – when well crafted, it has the power to slip past defenses and lay out the truth behind enemy lines.  And the art might just need to be entertaining to accomplish this.  It might not have a clear gospel call as a part of the entertaining, but it doesn’t change the fact that can still impact, just like the stories of Jesus did.

Artists, isn’t part of our job to provoke questions? Don’t feel you have to end every sentence with a period.

No, but we need be tolerant of everyone’s point of view and preferences. And in spite of my comments, I respect this author’s right to express his opinion. 

I appreciate that, and right back at you.

5) Jesus wasn’t known for telling mediocre stories that ticked off all the correct religious boxes. He was known for telling compelling stories that challenged his listeners while communicating God’s truth. Aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus?

Yes, we’re suppose to “communicate God’s truth, not that of a secularist/atheist. I haven’t seen it, but I was wondering, should I decide to see it, will I find any of “God’s truth” there?

Considering that all truth is God’s truth, I believe that you will.   And again, if God used Balaam’s donkey, why can’t he use Aronofsky’s filmmaking skills?  Of course, I believe it would be helpful to leave your own traditions and personal interpretations of the Noah story at the door before you walk into the theater to watch.  Christians don’t own the story of Noah, after all.

I just hope we can figure out how to tell The Story – truly the Greatest Story Ever Told – in the manner in which it deserves, and in such an excellent way that people outside the Christian subculture will receive it.

Can you find the “Greatest Story Ever Told” in the film in question? And why do we need to “figure out a way to tell the story? The blueprint has worked ever since Jesus told His disciples what to do and how to do it. I need to be convinced that relevancy is the answer to rebellion and apathy.

Again, I haven’t seen Noah yet, so I can’t say.  As to why we need to “figure out a way to tell the story”?  We need to figure it out because the world needs so desperately to hear it.  There is a time for using the clear language of the pulpit, but God isn’t limited to communicating His truth through that venue.  He can use a novel, a screenplay, a piece of sculpture, a painting, a piano concerto, photography, poetry, 3-D art, and yes… even mime.

And why is relevancy such a dirty word?  Especially in this situation, I would equate relevant with excellence.  An excellently told story will – by virtue of its excellence – be relevant.  And we, as Christian artists, should strive for excellence – and therefore relevance – in every single piece of art that we produce.  Because the goal of what we are creating should be to whisper, sing, cry, laugh, or shout out God’s glory for everyone to see.

A Hard Ragamuffin Word from Rich

Rich stood up in chapel and said, “You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great.  We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus.  But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too… [And he paused in the awkward silence.]  But I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.” 

As told by Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical

Thimblerig the Ragamuffin

“We should be astonished at the goodness of God, stunned that He should bother to call us by name, our mouths wide open at His love, bewildered that at this very moment we are standing on holy ground.” 

– Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

rich mullins, old churchAs an artist and a Christian, I have been heavily influenced by writer Brennan Manning and his book, “The Ragamuffin Gospel”, as introduced to me by the late singer Rich Mullins.  The thesis of Manning’s book is that we need to re-examine our concepts of God’s saving grace, and realize that when Paul writes in Romans 3:23 that all have sinned, he means that all have sinned.  Not just the ones who we stereotype as sinners, but all.

This is the Greek word πᾶς, which means: each, every, any, all, the whole, everyone, all things, everything.

x114198_6_big.jpg.pagespeed.ic.NJQHgWkE3xThose of us who have been raised in the church often forget this – spending too much  time condemning others (in our innermost thoughts, if not in our words and actions) rather than engaging in the incredibly fruitful exercise of truthful self-examination.

Personally, when I look honestly in the mirror, I see an incredibly screwed up person who is loved by God because God has chosen to love the unlovable.   As Manning suggested in The Ragamuffin Gospel, we are like ragamuffins, dirty, unkempt kids living alone on the street, begging for bread.  And God saves us despite of who we are, not because of who we are.

3D T'rig Cover no shadow smallerManning’s ideas are found at the heart of Thimblerig’s Ark, my middle grade novel.  Thimblerig, the groundhog protagonist of the story, is as unlikely and unlikable a hero as one could expect to find:  He’s greedy; he’s self-absorbed to the point of not caring a whit about others; he’s willing to lie or cheat or steal to get what he wants out of life…

…and he’s the one chosen by the unicorn to lead the other animals to the safety of the ark.

Sound familiar?

Like so many of us who come to recognize the depths of our wretchedness, Thimblerig can’t fathom that he would be saved from the coming destruction.

“You’ve made a big mistake,” Thimblerig said. “I should be at the bottom of your list, not leading anyone to safety. The choices I’ve made…”

“Such as?”

The way the unicorn was looking at him, Thimblerig felt shame. He hadn’t felt that emotion since the last time he’d seen his groundmother, and he didn’t like it. Not one bit. Maybe confessing his bad choices would help alleviate the emotion somehow. He took a deep breath, and then spoke.

“I’ve cheated and lied. I’ve taken advantage of animals who had nothing, stealing their last fig right out of their mouth and congratulating myself for my cleverness. I’ve spent my life looking out for nobody but myself, not giving a rip what happens to others. And you think I should be the one to lead these other animals? Well, you’re wrong. It’s as plain and simple as that. You’re wrong!”

Thimblerig's Arc_3 (1) copyTannier Isa stepped up close to the groundhog so that their faces were inches apart. Thimblerig could see his worthless face reflected in the onyx pool of the unicorn’s eye.

“Let’s get something straight, Thimblerig,” Tannier Isa said forcefully. “When I say I chose you for the job it’s not because I see some redeeming quality in you that makes you worth choosing. Not at all. I say it’s you because you are the one that I choose.” The unicorn’s voice softened a bit as he pulled his head back. “Yes, you’ve made bad choices, Thimblerig, but don’t be defined by those choices. Be defined by my choice. And I choose you to lead.”

May that be true for all of us, that we will be defined by the fact that He chose us – not by the choices that we’ve made.  Because deep down, we’re all ragamuffins in need of the grace of the savior.

Please download a copy of Thimblerig’s Ark for your Kindle by visiting Amazon today.