Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • May 17, 2016

It’s been a slow few weeks, and considering I have a personal boycott of anything having to do with the presidential election and I’m tired of people arguing about bathrooms, I thought I would reinstate the old “Three Interesting Things” I’ve found recently as I’ve been jumping around the internet.

Today, I’ll be writing about Lecrae, Phil Vischer, and The Flash.

1. Lecrae Signs a Deal with Columbia Records

lecraeThis is tremendously exciting news for a number of reasons. But for me, I’m excited because it shows that secular companies recognize and reward artistic excellence, even when it comes from *gasp* Christians.

This news also flies in the face of the American persecution narrative that is so popular in certain Evangelical circles these days. If things were so bad for American Christians, would one of our top artists be getting deals with major labels?

Let’s take a moment and look at this particular artist.

Over the past few years, Lecrae has had songs reach #1 on the Billboard charts, won two Grammy awards, and has appeared on secular national television performing his music (see the video above). These things wouldn’t have happened if he cared about his artistic integrity less than he did sharing his faith, and I think his story should inspire all Christian artists to work hard on achieving excellence in both things.

Believing artists, take your craft seriously, do it with all excellence, and the world will notice and respond.

2. Phil Vischer’s Patreon Page

You might know Phil Vischer as the creator of Veggietales. Well, I have been a loyal listener of the Phil Vischer podcast for the past couple of years, which I wrote about in a past article. I highly recommend this podcast for those of you who want fun and reasoned discourse on all sorts of important issues. Phil and his co-hosts Skye Jethani and Christian Taylor do a great job breaking down stories of the day and discussing them from a Christian perspective.

Recently, Phil announced that he was starting a Patreon account so that the podcast gang can branch out and do more. I’m personally excited to see what this might mean, and am happy to encourage Thimblerig readers to consider supporting Phil’s Patreon as well.

So, if you aren’t familiar with Phil and his podcast, go check it out!

3. The Runaway Dinosaur

CiM_J7dUoAAK_JaOkay, technically, this isn’t a news story I found online. It’s an episode of my family’s favorite television program, The Flash. And if you don’t watch The Flash, know that it delivers, week after week.

My family loves it, my toddler thinks that he is the Flash (see the video below), and I’ve been consistently impressed by the way the show delivers action with heart. Grant Gustin is the perfect Barry Allen/Flash, and in this past week’s episode (directed by Kevin Smith), the show outdid itself, taking us to places we’ve never been before. And darned if I didn’t get a bit teary-eyed by the way they wrapped up Barry’s time with the Speed Force. Great job to Gustin and the cast, Kevin Smith, writer Zack Stentz, and producer Greg Berlanti.

If you aren’t watching The Flash, then what are you waiting for? Binge the past two seasons and get caught up in time for the summer hiatus.

Photo by Christopher Patey

Photo by Christopher Patey

Having said that, I do have one word of criticism for The Flash and the other superhero programs produced by Greg Berlanti, and I’ll mention it in the off-and-not-likely-chance that he reads this article.

Mr. Berlanti, I appreciate that you are committed to diversity with the programs you produce, attempting to represent all different aspects of our society. For example, I thought it was bold and brave that you made the potentially controversial choice to have the West family be African-American rather than Caucasian, that you’ve consistently had strong female characters as well as male, and that you have quietly introduced homosexual characters, all in an attempt to reflect society.

But, in my opinion, you’ve left out one group of people, and it’s pretty glaring.

Where are people of faith?

Almost 90% of Americans identify as religious, and yet we see no people of faith (not counting ancient Egyptian religion) in any of your superhero programs. No character turns to their religious beliefs to help them grapple with receiving super-powers, no character mourns the loss of another character by praying in (or out of) church, no character reads any sort of sacred text as inspiration or goes to a priest to discuss what is happening in the world, no talking heads discuss the theological ramifications of super beings in the background on Central City talk shows.

It’s a pity, especially when a nuanced handling of the topic could increase the potential power of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, putting them over the top of being great dramatic/action television.

So, Mr. Berlanti, as a “fan of faith”, I’d love it if you’d consider representing my people in your programs as well.

By the way, here’s my toddler (Noah, the fastest three year old alive) recreating a Flash sprint through the ferry terminal here in Shenzhen, China, complete with the slow motion scenes. And yes, we are planning on getting him a Flash costume when we are back in the U.S. this summer.

Thanks for joining us for Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day! Look for a new episode next week, and feel free to share your own interesting stories!

Advertisements

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist • Preview Chapter 2

They made it to the ark, but the danger has not passed.

Someone on board the ark is not what they seem, and Thimblerig discovers that there are plans afoot to steal the Seed of Asarata, the key to life after the flood. Now, to save the seed and the future, he and his company of animals will have to steal it first, right out from under the noses of Noah, the humans, and the wild dogs who protect it.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist

For a preview of chapter 1, read here.

Chapter 2

“C’mon Bunco, get me out of here!”

Soapy, the copper-furred orangutan, held onto the bamboo bars of his cage and watched hopelessly at the pygmy elephant standing outside pulled futilely at the twine tied around the bars with her trunk. The two were founding members of Thimblerig’s company of animals, and two of the other con artists who had made it onboard the ark after encountering the unicorn.

“I’m working on it, Soapy!” The pygmy elephant grunted. “You’re supposed to be the pickpocket. Can’t you do anything?”

“It’s tied too tight!” Soapy slapped the bars and flopped down on the floor of the cage. “This is so wrong! I didn’t do anything!”

A flurry of white feathers flew past the pen, circled above, and landed on the top.

“Morning, all,” Shi Lau said. The white duck, also a member of Thimblerig’s company of animals, moved aside so that a midnight-black raven could land beside him, and he almost tumbled off as the room shifted, a regular occurrence as the enormous ark was being continually tossed around by the massive storm outside like a toy boat in a puddle.

“Morning, Shi Lau,” Big Bunco said, sitting down and wiping her brow with her trunk.  “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Yonah,” Shi Lau answered, turning to the raven. “He came for some figs. Yonah, say hello to the mammals.”

“Hello, mammals,” the raven squawked, waving a wing.

“What’s the word?” Shi Lau asked. “Soapy still complaining?”

“Complaining? I’m standing up for my rights!” Soapy countered. “I don’t deserve this!”

The duck poked his head through the bars and laughed. “Quit your griping, Soapy! You got caught in the bird section and you lost your privileges. Don’t you know actions have consequences?”

“Oh, shut your bill, Shi Lau!” Soapy snapped back at the duck, taking a swipe at the billed face, but the duck yanked his head back out before he could be hit.

“Hey, don’t be angry at me,” Shi Lau said. “Be angry at the doves. They ratted you out to Kid Duffy.”

“Don’t remind me,” Soapy said. “Dirty fink wild dog.”

“As if they didn’t mess things up enough in the forest,” Shi Lau said disgustingly, hopping off the pen and sailing down to the ark floor beside Big Bunco. “Lousy wild dogs.”

Before the flood, the wild dogs had been the undisputed leaders of the forest, but they had been anything but benevolent. Ruling over the other animals with fear and intimidation, they had kept everyone firmly under their paws. When the flood came and washed everything away, everyone had expected that life would be different, but they were still being ruled by Kid Duffy, the only surviving male wild dog.

It seemed like nothing had changed.

“I was just trying to make a trade!” Soapy shot back.

“Yeah, Duffy’s not big on black markets,” Shi Lau answered. “He likes things organized.”

“At least he let you be down here with us,” Big Bunco said cheerfully. “He could have stuck you back up with the rest of the apes.”

“Who would he get to carry me up there? The doves?” Soapy grumbled. “And since when are you such an optimist?”

“What’s wrong with being optimistic?” Big Bunco said. “Things could be a lot worse, you know!”

“How could it be worse?” Soapy asked, slapping the bars right behind Big Bunco’s head. “I’m stuck in a cage!”

“For starters, you could be stuck outside the ark!” Bunco said, standing up and facing the ape. “I don’t remember you being that great a swimmer!”

As if to underline her statement, the storm made the ark shift again, throwing everyone out of balance. Ignoring the sensation, the two friends glared at each other through the bars, the tension was as thick as the heavy rain constantly falling outside.

“So where’s Sheila?” Shi Lau finally asked, referring to the ever-idealistic kangaroo who was usually around. “I’m surprised she’s not here making you feel even worse.”

“Oh she was here, alright,” Soapy said. He flopped back down again, an orange-fur heap on a bed of yellow straw. “She told me not to be upset, but to…”

“Trust the unicorn!” they all said at once.

“Tabitha and Mullins took her to check on Elbridge,” Big Bunco said, returning her attention to the stubborn knot of twine that kept Soapy encaged. “But I think they were just trying to give Soapy some relief.”

“At least somebody cares…” Soapy complained.

“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” a familiar voice said, and they all turned to see Thimblerig step out of a shadowy recess in the wall.

“Ha, ha.” Soapy replied, brightening up. “You better have something to make me feel better.”

“Yeah, where are the figs?” Shi Lau asked, flapping down to the floor beside Thimblerig, trying to poke his bill into the pouch slung over Thimblerig’s shoulder. “We’re getting tired of the grub they keep giving us up in the aviary.” The duck pulled back suddenly, an unpleasant, wrinkled look on his face. “What’s that smell!”

“It’s nothing!” Thimblerig said, pushing the duck away. He plopped down, his back against Soapy’s cage, pulled the empty bag over his head, and tossed it to the floor. “I struck out.”

“Again?” Shi Lau squawked. “I thought you said you could take those reptiles for a bagful!”

“I could, and I still can,” Thimblerig muttered, in no mood to be grilled on his failed con.

“If the figs on Asarata were coulda’s, then all the forest would go hungry,” Shi Lau replied, shaking his head and looking back up at the raven. “Sorry, Yonah. No figs.”

“No worries,” The raven answered, obviously disappointed, but also relieved that he didn’t have to stick around. “I’m going to take off. Don’t want to end up in a cage! See you later, mammals!”

Thimblerig watched the raven flap away, and then turned to the duck.

“Bringing strangers down here for figs? Seriously?” he asked.

“What?” Shi Lau said. “He’s a good egg!”

Everyone groaned, and Thimblerig sat back against the cage, pulled a piece of straw from the floor and started sucking on it.

Over the course of their journey to the ark, the duck had been a constant thorn in Thimblerig’s paw, complaining and doubting him every step of the way. Of course, he’d been right that Thimblerig was a no good con-artist, and the fact that he’d figured him out was probably what bothered Thimblerig the most.

He had been a con. One of the best in the forest, no doubt, and from the start he had intended to take the little company of animals for every fig he could get his paws on, but Thimblerig’s attitude towards them – including the duck – had changed.

The unicorn had seen to that.

“Maybe the raven’s fine, but I think we’re best off just sticking with each other,” Thimblerig said. “Better the wild dog you know then the one that you don’t.”

“Speaking of wild dogs, Thimblerig, can you talk to Kid Duffy? Talk him into springing me?” Soapy’s doleful eyes peered through the bamboo cage. “You were a leader, so maybe he’d listen to you.”

“He’s still a wild dog,” Thimblerig huffed. “He won’t listen to anyone.”

“Except the humans,” Big Bunco said.

At the naming of the humans, everyone grew quiet and nervous, as if by mentioning them one would appear.

The humans.

They walked on two legs, had little fur of their own, and were incapable of communication beyond grunts and making unintelligible sounds. Yet, it seemed that they were the ones who had built the ark, and they were undoubtedly the ones who were in charge.

“Forget the humans, and forget Duffy, we don’t need them,” Thimblerig finally said, standing. “We don’t need anyone.”

“Where you going?” Big Bunco asked as Thimblerig turned to go.

“I have no idea,” Thimblerig said, his voice weary. “So I guess I’ll go lie down.”

The other animals watched with concern as Thimblerig trudged down the big animal-filled room heading towards his own little pen.

Big Bunco found Thimblerig laying on the straw in small pen, staring up at the glowing firegems dotting the rough wooden rafters above. She had to hold onto the wooden slats of the pen with her trunk to keep from being knocked down as the ark rode the massive waves outside, but the groundhog didn’t seem to be bothered it in the least.

“A fig for your thoughts,” she said, sitting down beside him, glad to be lower to the floor where she was less prone to nausea.

“It didn’t bother me, Bunc,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “It hurt my pride a bit, but not really.”

“What didn’t bother you?” she probed gently.

“Blowing the game down in the reptile room,” he said, shifting on his bed of hay. “Can you believe it? I blew a game with an easy mark, and it didn’t bother me.”

“You seemed bothered when you came back up,” she said.

“Yeah, but it wasn’t about that.” Thimblerig sat up, resting his weight on one arm while he looked at his friend. “Ever since what happened out there, nothing’s been the same. My priorities are all out of whack. I’m not the same since before… him.”

Big Bunco nodded. She’d been feeling the same way. Before the flood she’d been content with her comfortable life as a grifter. But her interaction with the believers and her encounter with the unicorn on the road to the ark had her questioning everything. Her priorities, her hopes, her plans – none of those things seemed to matter any more.

“I’m thinking about leaving it all behind,” Thimblerig said, immediately getting Big Bunco’s attention again. He lay back down on the hay and resumed his staring at the ceiling. “The whole racket. I think I’m done.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Done with what?

“Being a con,” he answered. “The whole bit.”

“You’re going straight?” she asked, unable to believe what she was hearing.

“Yeah, I think I am,” he replied, his voice getting stronger. “I just have this feeling that it’s not supposed to be my life anymore, that Tannier Isa wants me to do something different, but I’m just not sure what.”

Big Bunco felt like she’d just been knocked in the head with an oversized tree trunk. Thimblerig the groundhog, going straight? Was that even possible? She wanted to laugh, to tell him that animals like them couldn’t just change, no more than a zebra making the switch from stripes to spots.

But she couldn’t, because as much as she might deny it, she’d felt it in herself.

She didn’t know if any of them had really changed, or if it was just being trapped on a giant hollowed-out tree trunk in the middle of a world-destroying flood, but she had a strong urge to avoid the topic. She needed to get away.

“That’s great, ‘rig, really,” Big Bunco said, standing, trying to keep her voice from shaking. The ark pitched from the stern, nearly knocking her back down, but Thimblerig jumped up to steady her. “Will I ever get used to being on the water?” she laughed, feeling shaky in more ways than one.

“We won’t be here forever,” he answered. “The unicorn has a new life waiting for us on the other side of the storm. Trust me.”

For a moment, Big Bunco felt swept up in the fervency of Thimblerig’s words. Could it be true? She realized with a mixture of horror and amazement that she actually did trust him, and the truth of that trust gutted her. After all, the first rule of being a con was: trust no one.

“I’ll see you later, ‘rig,” she said, breaking from him and moving towards the opening of his pen. “Got to go help Soapy break out of his cage.”

“Hey, Bunco?” Thimblerig stopped her. “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say anything to the others. Not yet, at least.”

“Sure, ‘rig, whatever you say,” she replied. He smiled and gave her a quick wave, and then settled back down onto the hay.

She shook her head as she wandered away from the groundhog and back towards her friends. She had some thinking of her own to do.

Look for another excerpt in the coming weeks.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist will be released on May 1, 2015.

Want to read Thimblerig’s Ark before the sequel is released? Get your copy by clicking on the cover below!

Click book cover to go to Thimblerig's Amazon page

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist • Preview Chapter

They made it to the ark, but the danger has not passed.

Someone on board the ark is not what they seem, and Thimblerig discovers that there are plans afoot to steal the Seed of Asarata, the key to life after the flood. Now, to save the seed and the future, he and his company of animals will have to steal it first, right out from under the noses of Noah, the humans, and the wild dogs who protect it.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist

Chapter 1

“What do you say, pal? You in, or you out?”

Thimblerig the groundhog stared across the makeshift table, trying to read the emotionless eyes of the big green iguana, a feat which was extremely difficult. But Thimblerig didn’t have the luxury of being picky these days.

These days.  Just a couple of weeks earlier, the days had been a lot less complicated.  Back then, Thimblerig had been a simple grifter, plying his trade under the enormous branches of Asarata, the Queen of the Jungle, the great fig tree.

And then he met Tannier Isa, the supposedly mythological unicorn king, and everything changed.

It all happened so quickly, too.  One moment, he had been minding his own business, playing his modest shell game for the few figs it could win him, trying to keep his prime spot by the base of the tree, and the next moment he was the leader of a small group of animals, running for their lives from the wild dogs who ran the forest.

And craziest thing of all? He’d gone from mocking the feeble-minded suckers who claimed to believe in unicorns to being a die-hard, certified (or certifiable?) believer himself. Not just one of them, but a leader of a whole group of them.

It had only been a week since he and his little group of believers had scrambled onboard the ark just before the decimating waters had struck. Now he spent his time trying not to think about the world’s destruction happening on the other side of the wooden walls, and getting used to being tossed around like a cub as the ark navigated waves as large as mountains.

And so Thimblerig stole away from his pen in the mammal section and snuck down to the reptiles in attempt to avoid thinking about all of that. And to see if he could win a few figs.

Old habits die hard, after all.

Thimblerig’s nose wrinkled as a terrible smell wafted by. The reptiles had been given a large room deep in the bowels of the great ark so that they could be cool and enjoy the darkness, but unfortunately, the ark had been engineered so that all of the animal waste slid down empty pipes and made its way to the very bottom, a level below the room in which he stood.

How can the reptiles stand it? Thimblerig thought. Maybe their noses work differently than everyone else’s?

“Just give me a minute,” the iguana answered, pulling the groundhog back to the game. He stared down at the three shells sitting on the small rough plank of wood before him. Thimblerig knew exactly what the iguana thought, exactly where he thought the pea sat, and he also knew that it didn’t really matter, because the pea sat exactly where Thimblerig wanted it to sit.

That is, tucked safely under a claw on his right paw.

“Ask for a minute, and I’ll give you two,” Thimblerig, the consummate showman, called for all to hear. “So that your guess may be right and true.”

He looked up at his reptilian audience. Many stared down from their perches on the beams above, some watched while clinging to the walls. It gratified Thimblerig to see so many pairs of glowing eyes looking with curiosity down at his game out of the darkness. If he could get used to the smell, he could really clean up in a room like this, a room filled with gullible believers, unaccustomed to the con. I could get away with anything down here, he thought. No humans, no Kid Duffy, no nobody.

Thimblerig gulped. No nobody indeed, just a room full of animals who – in the wild – would enjoy having a plump groundhog for breakfast. They can’t eat me on the ark, he reminded himself. It’s against the rules.

But as an animal who had made his living breaking the rules, this thought didn’t necessarily make Thimblerig feel any better.

“Alright, I’m in,” the iguana finally said. He reached his snout into a little pouch around his neck, pulled out a dried fig, and dropped it on the table beside the shells. “It’s on the right.”

Thimblerig had rehearsed it a thousand times. “Are you sure?” he asked, crestfallen. “You don’t want to pick the middle one?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” the iguana replied.

“Not the one on the left?” Thimblerig asked.

“I said I’m sure!” the iguana spat, impatient.

Good, good, Thimblerig thought. Emotions lead to mistakes.

“Well, I’m not so sure,” Thimblerig goaded. “I’ll see your fig, and raise you one.” Thimblerig reached into his pouch, pulled out two of his dried figs, and set them down carefully beside the iguana’s lone fig. And then he smiled.

The iguana stared at Thimblerig, either sizing him up or imagining him as breakfast. Thimblerig did his best to lizard-stare the iguana back, not permitting himself to be sized.

Finally, the lizard’s tongue flicked, and Thimblerig knew he had him.

The iguana was pulling out another fig when a screeching voice pierced the darkness of the reptile area.

“Lagar!?!”

A female iguana came stomping through the crowd, scattering reptiles to the left and right on her way to Thimblerig’s makeshift table. Seeing Lagar with his head in his fig bag, the table with figs on it, and a groundhog standing before it all, the female immediately knew what going on.

“You’re betting? Losing all our figs to a furback?”

Lagar slowly drew his head out of the bag, revealing a face full of emotion: Fear.

“No, it’s not like that…” he muttered, with trembling voice.

How humiliating, Thimblerig thought, suddenly glad he didn’t have a mate.

“It’s not like that,” she mocked, moving up so close to the male iguana that her flickering tongue lashed Lagar’s face like a little wet slaps. “We get two figs a day, and you’re dropping them on the table like they grow on trees!”

“Well, they do,” Thimblerig said. And if he had been capable of reaching into the air and pulling words back into his mouth, he would have done it.

“What did you say?” she said, turning to the groundhog.  Over the female’s head, he saw that Lagar was shaking his head, ever so slightly. A warning?

“I just said that figs do grow on trees,” Thimblerig stammered, not enjoying being the target of that withering iguana gaze. “Fig trees, to be exact.”

The female hopped up on the table and stuck her big, green, scaly face right into his smaller furry one. “And do you see any fig trees, furback?” she hissed.

“Um, no,” Thimblerig admitted.

“Then take your rotten figs and your rotten games and get out of here before I call that wild dog to come down and take care of you!”

With a final flick of the tongue, she leapt off the table, scooped the figs into her bag, and pushed her emasculated mate off into the darkness, followed by the rest of the reptiles.

It was only after they’d gone, and Thimblerig was able to breathe again, that he realized that she’d just made off with his two figs as well as her mate’s. Alone with the darkness and the stench, the only light coming from the glowing firegems embedded into the walls, Thimblerig packed up his shells and kicked the wooden board aside.

Yeah, the unicorn had definitely messed up the groundhog’s mojo, and then some. The crazy part was that there was a time when having one of his games self-destruct so spectacularly would have decimated him, but now he wasn’t so bothered by it.

Maybe it’s time to try a new line of work, Thimblerig thought, turning and heading up the ramp back towards the other mammals in the levels above.

Look for another excerpt in the coming weeks.

Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist will be released on May 1, 2015.

Want to read Thimblerig’s Ark before the sequel is released? Get your copy by clicking on the cover below!

Thimblerig's Ark Cover Art

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

Christian films.

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

And then, in 2004, everything changed.

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

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

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

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

thimblerigs-film-reviews

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

1) Christian Films are often written in Christianese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Christian films typically tell much more than they show

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

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

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

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

And Christian culture loves exposition.

I mean, loves exposition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Christian films are generally Christian wishes being fulfilled cinematically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Christian filmmakers are not infallible 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t that make an interesting Christian film?

5) Christian films are hopefully evangelistic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woodlawn, War Room, and Unity

Living in China has its benefits – great food, meeting new unique people almost daily, and easy proximity to other equally interesting Asian countries, to name a few things. But considering I am something of a cinephile, the one big negative is my inability to see new American movies unless they are among the 34 movies chosen by the Chinese censors to be screened here.

This unfortunate situation is compounded by the fact that I write film reviews of a very specific, narrow genre of film – the so-called “faith-based” film genre, and faith-based films never make China’s cut of 34 films (but they could… read here to see how). This means I never get to see the films I like to review until months after everyone has stopped talking about them, which doesn’t give me a lot of capital in the relevance market.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.20.50 PMAnd so, with that understanding, I set out to review War Room and Woodlawn, two of the bigger Christian-made film titles that have recently been released to the home viewing market.

These are an interesting pair of films, and their splash into the culture was also interesting, for similar but opposite reasons. First, War Room, a little, relatively inexpensive film made by the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous) did what Christian films rarely do, and made a huge return on its initial investment (budget of $3M, current box office $72.1M) even though it scored poorly with critics (34% on Rotten Tomatoes). Then, two months later, Woodlawn, a big football movie by the Erwin brothers (October Baby, Mom’s Night Out) set in early 1970’s Birmingham did something Christian-made films never do, and premiered to several mostly positive secular critical reviews (currently 83% on Rotten Tomatoes with 12 reviews), even as it failed to earn back its budget of $25M.

photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock

“I said right hand on green, Alex! Come on, pay attention!”

This intrigued me to no end. Not so much the story of War Room‘s success, as Alex and Stephen Kendrick are the closest thing Christian filmmaking has to a sure thing. The brothers could release a home video of their family playing Twister while dressed like Imperial stormtroopers, and the Big Christian Audience would still turn out in droves.

Actually, I’d probably watch that.

No, I was more interested that an openly Christian-made film replete with overt Christian themes and messages could be received positively by secular film critics, but be relatively ignored by the coveted Big Christian Audience. Especially when one considers that certain vocal members of the Big Christian Audience regularly blast secular critics as being biased against Christian-made films.

So, fickle Big Christian Audience, why didn’t you guys go out and see a film made for you that the critics actually liked? I don’t get you, and I can only imagine the frustration Christian filmmakers feel, trying to figure you out.

But I digress.

post_reviewsI was finally able to watch Woodlawn this past week with my kids, and for the most part, we enjoyed it. I could understand the critical response to the film, with Frank Scheck at The Hollywood Reporter writing that the brothers delivered “a feel-good, real-life inspirational story in a mostly engaging fashion.” And Joe Leydon at Variety, “the overall narrative mix of history lesson, gridiron action and spiritual uplift is effectively and satisfyingly sustained.” Even Tyler Smith – who, as the host of the More Than One Lesson podcast is a Christian reviewer who doesn’t give Christian films an easy pass  – wrote that with Woodlawn, the Erwin brothers had “thrown down the gauntlet for the Christian film industry.”

Of course, all the reviews also pointed out that the film was not perfect, and there were some problems (not the least of which was the tiresome “the government is persecuting Christians” subplot), but ultimately the critics judged Woodlawn on its merits as a film. And since the conclusions were mostly positive, I think we can all agree that that is real progress in the arena of faith-based filmmaking.

So kudos to the Erwins for the accomplishment, even if Woodlawn wasn’t the Christian blockbuster you were hoping it would be.

But when I went to write my review of the film, a funny thing happened. Being late to the game was a problem once again. But this time it was because for every critique or compliment I’d think about writing, I’d remember that I’d read that same thought – usually more eloquently expressed – in one of the reviews published last fall, when people were actually writing reviews of the film.

In short, I didn’t have anything new to say about Woodlawn. And I didn’t want to write a review when I didn’t have anything new to say. It was a good lesson for me to avoid reviews until I’ve seen the movie, even if I have to wait a few months. You got that, God’s Not Dead 2? You’ll probably have until the summer before I get around to you, unless you want to send me an advanced screener…

I was walking home from work, about to throw out the idea of writing about Woodlawn altogether, when something hit me. No, it wasn’t a bus or a bicycle, (although that is a real danger here in China) but rather it was a big plot point of the film, and a parallel from the film to the true story of the two sets of filmmaker brothers, the Erwins and the Kendricks. And I knew what I wanted to write about.

That is, unity and the mindset of these Christian filmmakers.

imageBefore I get into that, let me go back to Woodlawn for a moment. You have to remember that this film is based on a true story, and the truth is where it derives most of its power. For example, when Sean Astin’s character shares the Gospel with the entire team, and the entire team responds to his call to choose Jesus, an event like that really happened. When, in the film, the team dedicates their season to Jesus – win or lose – that really happened. When, in the film, Woodlawn’s rival team also hears Hank’s message and chooses Jesus as well, that really happened. When, in the film, the two teams become one in Christ, even as they play each other in the championship game at Legion Field, that event really happened.

It’s really important to remember that while the Erwins had to take some creative licence on certain details for the sake of the film, the large events really happened. And that is powerful. Actually, that’s where the potential power in Christian-made films really lies – not in creating unrealistic Christian fairy tales where we show what we would like to see God do in the world, but films that show the world that God really does “show up,” and when He does, He does some pretty amazing things.

Even in the lives of our Christian filmmakers.

If you think about it, the story of the Erwin brothers and the Kendrick brothers could be the same as Woodlawn‘s pre-faith football teams. Two sets of filmmaking brothers, both trying to help establish Christian filmmaking as something to be taken seriously, both enjoying a reasonable amount of success, both trying to connect with the same broad, fickle demographic.

They could be bitter rivals.

Maybe they should be bitter rivals.

But they’re not.

And this is a testimony to the unifying nature of the Gospel.

wl1aRemember the climax of Woodlawn? The big championship match between Woodlawn and Banks, the historic game that brought huge crowds out to Birmingham’s Legion Field in 1974? The interesting thing is that in the film, the game wasn’t noteworthy because of who won or lost the game. It wasn’t noteworthy because it featured two of the best high school players in the nation. It wasn’t even noteworthy because of the record-breaking number of people who came out to see the game.

No, in Woodlawn, the game was noteworthy because of the way the unifying nature of the Gospel brought these two rival teams together. Certainly both teams wanted to win, but the film demonstrated that what really mattered was that both teams were playing in a way that demonstrated the power of God in their lives.

In the same way, of course both the Kendricks and the Erwins wanted their respective films to do well in the box office. In his video essay, “Woodlawn Keynote: This Is Our Time“,  Jon Erwin even talked about the need for Christian filmmakers to be thinking in terms of creating blockbusters with explicit Christian themes and messages, and it was obvious that he was hoping for Woodlawn to take off the way that War Room had.

But for reasons only marketing people might be able to definitively figure out, it didn’t happen. The Big Christian Audience that flocked to War Room and even God’s Not Dead largely stayed home when Woodlawn premiered, even though Woodlawn had all of the requisite beats for a faith-based film, was better received critically, and had many of the same Christian film movers and shakers behind it.

But here’s the cool part – days after Woodlawn was released, the Kendricks posted this on their facebook page:

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 2.50.59 PM

A couple of weeks later, Stephen Kendrick posted this picture on Facebook:

kendrick

The Kendricks were doing their part to let their audience know that Woodlawn was in their wheelhouse, acting as if the Erwins weren’t the competition, even if they were players on a different team.

Even if their films were competing for that same demographic.

The Kendricks were communicating that there was something bigger going on then winning bragging rights for box office success.

And then, as I researched the Erwins, I found that for every interview that mentioned the success of War Room in general or the Kendricks in particular, the Erwins responded in kind.

For example, in one interview Andy Erwin responded to a question that referenced War Room like this:

[We are] honored by those that have plowed the way like Stephen and Alex Kendrick … and so many others that have worked hard to prove there is an underserved market. Hollywood has taken notice and as one of us wins, we all win as Believers in the industry. War Room has done amazing and we are excited to be up next. God is on the move!

Certainly the argument could be made that these filmmakers don’t have a choice but to put on a publicly supportive face, that the circle of successful Christian filmmakers is so small that they have to get along, that even Hollywood filmmakers act like they get along because you never know who you’ll be working with (or for) in the future.

But for the sake of argument, and because I typically like to think the best of people, I’m going to imagine that this display of unity between the Kendricks and the Erwins is not typical Hollywood flattery and apple polishing. Rather, these men are striving to live Jesus’ call for his followers to be unified (John 17:20-23), for the ultimate goal that the world would know Him.

401_401_5And their story inspires me, even as I try to live out my faith. This display of unity in the face of a variety of wins and losses (both box office and critical response) inspires me to do my part to seek unity within the family of God where I am. And it makes me ask; do I look at the work of fellow Christians and see competition to be beaten, or do I see their success as my success, and their failure as my failure, because we’re brothers and sisters in Christ on a common mission in life?

And to put an even sharper point on the question for me, do I even see this when I look at the fickle Big Christian Audience, and all of the people who attempt to service that audience with films, with music, with books, even with the Christian kitsch and tschokies?

What about the Christians who hold different political beliefs than me?

What about the Christians who are in different denominations than me?

What about the Christians who are different races than me?

Do I even champion unity with these people, for the sake of the Gospel?

Do I?

Ouch.

Back to Woodlawn and War Room, neither film is perfect, and to be perfectly frank, neither film is my kind of film. In fact, if I were a “brother” from either family, I would want take these films in much different directions. But while I may not be an Erwin or a Kendrick, I am glad to know that these men are still my brothers in the family of God, and I appreciate that they’ve taught me something important about my faith in the way they live their lives.

In an interview with gospelherald.com about Woodlawn, Jon Erwin said:

Woodlawn is a story about one team making a decision to love God and love each other. What if what we see now began to multiply and what if everyone made the decision to love God and love each other – what difference would that make in America today? If we lived out the sentence that Jesus said 2,000 years ago – “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love each other as yourself.”

Amen, Jon.

Amen.