Category Archives: Culture

Why I Love Springfield

parkcentralsquareIt’s no New York City. And yet, it’s no New York City. Heck, it’s not even Atlanta or Seattle, but you can actually afford to live here. You can get a great education that won’t take you decades or the life of your first born to pay back. Some of the best espresso drinks you’ve ever had will cost you less than $3. And though it’s a small, midwestern city, thanks to its several universities and colleges, there’s plenty of diversity to explore as well. There’s only a few spots in this great country of ours where you can find street preachers, massive belt buckles, boots, hipsters, skateboarders, folks of the more friendly variety holding hands, and topless women (no joke) all within steps of the same city square–Springfield is definitely a card carrying member of that very small, exclusive club.  It also won’t take you more than 20 minutes to get anywhere in town you may want to go, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised on how many even more intriguing finds you’ll pass on the way there.

Hammons_HallYeah, it’s no Los Angeles or Miami, and the closest swimmable beach may be more than 600 miles away, but you’ll find some of the nation’s finest lakes and fishing just minutes from town. It’s probably no surprise, then, that this “Queen City” is also home to Bass Pro Shops. But if you’re not the outdoorsy type–no worries, as there’s plenty to do inside as well. Hammons Hall serves as home to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and an impressive selection of traveling Broadway theater presentations as well as community arts initiatives and performances featuring talent from Missouri State and the surrounding collegiate community. This small Bible Belt city is also home to a community theater and event center called The Shrine Mosque (though it’s history is tied to the Masonic lodge, not to Islam). Not to be forgotten is the 11,000 seat John Q. Hammons Arena that serves as a home to Missouri State athletics as well as a host of other entertainment events. The historic Gillioz Theater, restored in 2006, has become another magnet for great entertainment events and concerts. The new O’Reilly Family Events Center on the campus of Drury University serves as the home of the Drury Panthers and another venue for select events and concerts throughout the year. The 8,000 seat Hammons Field serves as the home of the Springfield Cardinals, the AA Texas League affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.   Evangel University is also home to a couple performance venues of note including the Ashcroft Activities Center and Evangel Chapel. And last, but not least, is the 3,500 seat (4,000+ for concerts) W. E. Dowell Fieldhouse on the campus of Baptist Bible College (also known to students as “Life Change U”) that serves as the home of BBC Patriot Athletics. It boasts a new state-of-the-art fitness facility and also serves as home to the annual “Fellowship Week” meeting of the Baptist Bible Fellowship. Needless to say, with all of the venues available (and I’m sure I missed a few), there is no shortage of events or entertainment in my new hometown.

IMG_8395Also serving as the headquarters of two significant Christian denominations (Assemblies of God & BBFI), there is no shortage of houses of worship. Here you’ll find everything from small, country-style churches that have been around for decades as well as large, flagship representatives of their denominations (High Street and James River are examples) and everything in between. The culture wars are also alive and well in Springfield. As home to a large state university (25,000+); a progressive, youthful population; and plenty of representation from that “old time religion”, my new hometown can be an interesting clash of cultures. If you’re looking for a good place to see where both extremes of the culture wars clash and, interestingly enough, seemingly coexist–Springfield is a great study (and example, perhaps) in many aspects of modern sociology.

Springfield boasts a strong economic engine with a diversity of employment opportunities in healthcare, education, transportation, manufacturing, telecommunication and finance. In addition to the sizable employment available through the Queen City’s multiple educational systems, it also serves as the headquarters for Prime Trucking, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Bass Pro Shops, the Cox and Mercy Health Systems as well as a number of call centers for the telecommunications and finance industry. With all that, the area also boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the region (currently 4.7%) and nearly one full percentage point lower than the current national average.

One of the most understated benefits to the region is a diverse and equally interesting topography. Being from New England (not known for its large, open spaces), I find the large open spaces to give a sense of unlimited potential in proportion to all that available sky. Being well situated in the Midwest, there’s no shortage of wide open plains, but yet, sitting on the northern foothills of the Ozarks, while they’re no Rockies, there’s plenty of vertical to climb and explore as well. You also have to love the 4 seasons weather. There’s a little something for everyone, and if the old saying is true, “if you don’t like the weather, just stick around a day or two, it will change”–Springfield embodies that old saying as well as anyplace I’ve ever lived.

You can hardly mention Springfield without thinking about some of the most unique dining establishments you’ll find anywhere. Of course there’s the long standing Lambert’s (home of “throwed rolls”-literally, they throw them at you). Then there’s an instant classic that’s hit the city in the last couple years called Hurts Donuts. I can promise you, you’ve never seen a donut shop quite like this. Located in downtown Springfield, just one block from the square, you’ll find the most unique sugar saturated concoctions you’ve ever seen including a trademark bacon/maple donut (yes, you read that correctly–go ahead read it again and now confess that lustful fantasy). HurtsAnd if you’re looking for burger dives, Springfield has to be on the top of the list. With places like Grad School (yes, that’s the name of the joint) and its signature “Full Ride”, and Casper’s famous Chili Cheeseburger, you can’t go wrong (except for the screeching sound of your arteries slamming shut). If I’ve already made you hungry, check out 417 Magazine’s annual “best of” for more tantalizing tastes with some more upscale and healthier options including some leading “farm to table” features as well. With over 1,000 restaurants in the area, even the pickiest should be able to find something to purr about.

With all of that said, my favorite part of this surprising little city is its people. The people of Springfield come from a variety of backgrounds and in many ways embody the best of what the Midwest, the Southwest and the South have to offer. I’ve found the people here to be friendly without being syrupy (being from New England, syrupy is still hard to get used to), confident without being arrogant, as well as possessing a quiet contentment while being enterprising and innovative in creating better lives for themselves and their community.  I’m glad to call Springfield home, and if you could see what I see, I think you would too.

If you’ve lived or visited Springfield before, what are some of your favorite places and memories? What would you say is most attractive about your hometown?

For more detailed information on what this great city has to offer, visit http://www.liveinspringfieldmo.com/ and enjoy this short video.

 

 

 

Blue Notes

photo by Greg Betza on flickr

photo by Greg Betza on flickr (CC)

“What you do doesn’t matter,” said that subtle, yet unnoticeably evil voice in my head one tragic Sunday morning last year. Most of the time, in my personal opinion, we give Satan far too much credit for many of the evils in our life that we are more than capable of creating ourselves (unfortunately, I know this all too well from experience). However, this morning was different, but I can only see that in hindsight now. At the time I didn’t know where it came from, but it was clear as a bell and I bought it–hook, line and sinker. Much of the back story of this day you can find in my post here (“When I Lost My Faith”).  You see, the day before this, a very dear friend (of the romantic kind) took her own life unexpectedly (having had a rare but recent relapse with the effects of PTSD). Not only was she a romantic interest, but she was a bright hope in what had been an otherwise very trying year for me. She was one of the kindest and most selfless people I have ever known. She loved Jesus and she loved her daughter at a depth that I have rarely seen. She was the poster child for inspiring. But she was gone. Even still, her sweet, precious teenage daughter was left without her mom. Needless to say, I was crushed to the core and so was my faith. Even still, the following day was Sunday, and the voice I heard came to me just as I was rolling into the parking lot to help facilitate the worship of hundreds of people that morning.

All I could think about in that moment was “You’re right. Some people will like what is presented today and some people won’t. They’ll all keep their scorecard in our upscale Atlanta suburb and pat themselves on the back for having done their religious duty, go home to their perfect suburban lives, and all the while my heart is shattered and a precious teenage daughter woke up this morning without her mom.” Of course that wasn’t true either, as some of the most devout believers I have ever known would be in that congregation that morning and most wouldn’t think that way, but some did and Satan always has a way of making ten sound like a thousand. Even in our upscale Atlanta suburb, wealth was no refuge to brokenness. Brokenness can exist in any socioeconomic environment and there were plenty of people hungry to see Jesus that day as well. But I bought it (the lie) that day like I never have before. That one lie started a downhill spiral for me that looked more like a negative “G” roller coaster than any hill I’ve ever seen. It stole my hope, my purpose and unfortunately, even my identity. I shouted questions at God louder and faster than any AK-47 ever could. You see, “sovereignty” sounds great in theory until it touches you or someone you love. “God has a plan…” yada, yada. Really? I wanted no part of that plan.

Fast Forward: God placed some of the best people in my life in the days and months following to truly be the hands and feet of Jesus to this hurting heart. Don’t get me wrong…it took a while and many repeated attempts (along with some really poor decisions), but slowly God opened my heart to seeing Him once again, but this time with new eyes, and better yet–a new heart. Please don’t misunderstand me. I still struggle with what happened that day. I may never completely understand the “why”. I’m still not convinced that it was “God’s plan” either. I believe a battle was lost that day, but I do know Who ultimately wins the war. I am more convinced of that than ever.

In the days following I found myself several times on “the other side” of the platform as just a regular, wounded child of God struggling for faith in a place where I needed to hear from Him like never before—and ironically, the lie that I believed that ultimately led to my downfall–it was its antithesis that ultimately led to my return. I was moved in worship in the most unexpected places. I discovered that brokenness doesn’t care about the style of music or what the worship team was wearing that day or even how cool the lights looked, but it does care about transparency, truth and grace.

There may have been people “keeping score” on those days too, but I was too broken to notice or care. Because some folks decided instead of “doing church” for the power brokers, and instead, being the church for the broken, my life was once again transformed. All I needed was Jesus, and in many cases, Jesus is exactly what I found. I didn’t need the latest from the “worship wars” or the “culture war”–I just needed Jesus.

In music there’s a term for sharps and flats that are not found naturally in the key of the music–they’re called “accidentals”.  In Jazz, sometimes these are referred to as “blue notes”. It’s what gives a lot of jazz and blues its characteristic sound. A great band leader knows how to use these “accidentals” to create and respond with something more rich and moving than the notes normally found within the key. In American history however, these “blue notes” often stemmed from pain and oppression. While none of us would wish for pain or oppression for anyone (especially ourselves or a loved one), take a moment and think about the beauty and colors that have come from these “accidentals”. What if God can take the blue notes of our lives and in return gives us something more colorful and deep from which to draw? Blue notes in the hands of amateurs can sound out of tune and off color, but in the hands of a Master, they can add a richness and depth to the music that wouldn’t have been there without them. Holding on to blue notes by themselves does nothing—they’re just notes with no context, but if looked at through the song of faith in the hands of the Master, they can have purpose and meaning that you otherwise would never see.

So, worship leader (or ministry leader), what you do does matter and it often is messy, but you are the ones who help people give their blue notes to the Master so He can create something better with them. Only, please do it with excellence and grace as if people’s lives depend on it–because they actually do. But you don’t bear that burden alone. Just show them Jesus and walk with them on the journey, no matter how messy—God will still make the music.

What “blue notes” is God making music with in your life? Share your story in the comments. Someone needs to hear it.

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If you or a loved one are battling with the thought of suicide, please seek immediate help. No matter how desperate you may feel, this is not the end of the road and God will use your story for your good and His glory. Hang on and please seek help. You can find help from a friend, a pastor or from one of the resources below.

*Resources for PTSD and suicide prevention:

1 (800) 273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Hotline

National Institute of Mental Health

The Samaritan Institute

Association of Certified Biblical Counselors

 

 

A Simple Outline for Engaging Culture

love_wins

photo credit www.whitehouse.gov

Culture is often defined as the attitudes, beliefs and customs of a group of people. While attitudes and beliefs shape the culture, it is primarily the customs that help to identify it. It is these “customs” (actions) that ultimately fuel the culture wars that exist in our world today. In light of the recent “flag” issue and especially, the recent Obergefell same-sex marriage case in the Supreme Court, I’ve been thinking on how people of faith can do a better job of engaging culture in a time where, in many cases, we seem to have lost our relevance.

Since the mentioned ruling, my social media feeds have looked like the Confederacy went to war with a Skittles factory (I’m sure you’ve seen the memes as well). We all have strong feelings on these issues and I don’t assume that all of us even share the same views. However, regardless of our view, if we want to help shape the behaviors of people that believe and act differently than our particular “tribe”, then we may want to think about how we engage and influence the culture around us (especially if you find your “side” in the minority, something that many Evangelicals today are having a hard time getting used to).

In the story of Daniel in the Bible (Daniel chapter 1), we observe a young man who suddenly found himself in the minority of a hostile government. Daniel willingly subjected himself to much of the culture of his new authority, but for some reason (not explicitly stated in the text), he felt that partaking of the meat and wine allotted to him would “defile” him. He had a strong faith in God and a strong personal conviction that went contrary to the culture he suddenly found himself in. So what did he do? He set out a challenge with the king’s chief of staff of whom he had already found favor (might I add, probably not by demanding his “rights”). He chose a different diet of vegetables and water and suggested that the king’s assistant observe Daniel and his friends for 10 days and see if they were not at least as strong and healthy as those who were served the king’s diet. As the story goes, at the end of 10 days, Daniel and his friends indeed appeared stronger and healthier than their peers. Because of this, they were permitted to continue on their selected diet while the others continued with the king’s demands. I think there are a few simple lessons here that could help people of faith better engage a culture that may seem increasingly hostile to it.

1. Work for the Common Good

Daniel’s objection was personal, not political. What Daniel did not do, may say more about his “excellent spirit” than even what he did. Daniel did not start out by protesting how “defiled” the king’s food was or how wicked the people were that ate it. Daniel did not demand that everyone else also believe or behave (eat) as he did (even after his diet proved more advantageous). He did not say “I told you so” when he was right. He did not rally a protest campaign among his buddies against the “king’s meat”.  He simply lived and illustrated Micah 6:8 as he “acted justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with his God.”

Daniel appealed to the common good of his captors. When we appeal to the common good of all people, it checks our motives and gives us a platform for influence. The king gave a decree for a reason and Daniel was submissive to that (political/common good) reason until it caused him to bring (personal) defilement upon himself. I’m sure he must have grown nostalgic for the “better days” of Zion and must have been uncomfortable living within the culture and confines of his new found pagan kingdom, yet, he submitted himself willingly to it’s authority for the common good with one personal exception. He also appealed to his captor’s desire to please the king and alleviated his fears by allowing for a measurable evaluation of the suggested alternative. 

2. Find Common Ground

Daniel searched diligently for common ground with his captors. He was wise enough to allow for a plan that benefited both sides. Common ground is not necessarily compromise. Through Daniel’s wisdom, not only did he keep himself personally pure, but he also helped his captors, or otherwise enemies, to benefit from his plan as well. In finding common ground, Daniel helped to spare both his life and made his adversary look good in the eyes of the king. Throughout the rest of the book we find Daniel was not only a willing participant but a leader in many aspects of the Babylonian culture, though he never strayed from his faith or compromised in his personal worship (Daniel 5:11). 

If people of faith want to gain influence within a culture that is increasingly hostile or at the least is no longer actively friendly to much of the Christian message, it may be time that we actually learn from Daniel’s example or even heed Jesus words and “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” At the end of the day, every human has the basic need to feel safe, be loved unconditionally, be respected and to feel like their life has significance. We all want the same things out of life, we just may disagree on where they come from. We lose common ground when we forget this and appear angry, whiny and selfish and we lose our ability to influence, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If the church and people of faith were known more for what we are for than what we are against, we may find that we regain our voice in the public square. When our lives are filled with hope, joy and a genuine concern for others we attract the right attention as people ask us “…to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15). If we’re looking for common ground, below are a few things gay, straight, black, white and most civilized people can agree on. How can we join together to help with these:

  • At least 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced labor and bonded labor.
  • About 2 million children are exploited every year in the global commercial sex trade.
  • Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • 6.9 million children under five years of age died in 2011, nearly 800 every hour.
  • 99 percent of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
  • 1.6 billion people — a quarter of humanity — live without electricity.
  • The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percentaccounts for three-quarters of world income.¹

Maybe we can start here. I think we can agree on that.

3. Tell a Better Story

It only makes sense that (along with God’s help), Daniel carried himself in such a way that his captor, though a cultural and religious polar opposite, deep down inside was for Daniel. While it’s obvious from the text that God worked in his captor’s heart, Daniel was wise enough not to get in the way.

Dale Carnegie said “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” If you have ever been in sales at all you also know that internal pressure produces action but external pressure produces resentment. Leon Festinger formulated the cognitive dissonance theory in 1957 at Stanford University. He stated that “when attitudes conflict with actions, attitudes or beliefs, we are uncomfortable and motivated to try to change.” This means that people will naturally act in a way that is consistent with their beliefs, attitudes and values. When these all connect, we live harmoniously, but when they don’t, we feel dissonance to some degree or another. We may feel awkward, uncomfortable, upset, or even confused (take Peter and his vision of the great sheet in Acts 10, for example). To reduce this tension, we will often go to extraordinary lengths to change our attitudes, beliefs or behavior, even if it means doing something we normally wouldn’t want to do.

Simon Sinek, in his groundbreaking book Start with Whyshares how corporations and movements have created lasting influence and change as a result of their “Why”. Motive Matters. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. I can tell you one thing people definitely don’t buy is self(ish) preservationism. That’s a horrible “why”. If people sense motives of self preservation from those trying to influence them, they can sniff that out a mile away. If you are going to influence anyone, as the old saying goes, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Christians, of all people, should know that the only thing that can provide lasting hope and joy is a relationship and identity rooted in Christ Jesus. It’s time we started behaving like we actually have it. While I believe healthy marriages to be the foundational institution of society, I also know that marriage alone does not make one happy. In time, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will find that out as well, and I, for one, want to be there for them when they figure that out.

We are where we are today NOT because of a Constitutional anomaly or even judicial activism but simply because, over time, one perspective on an issue managed to tell a better story. While one side was making arguments based upon an unshared religious viewpoint and self preservationism, the other was telling the story of real people and appealing to the basic human needs of love, respect and justice. Jesus himself even said “…for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8 KJV). I wish not to make light of the potential cultural fallout of the magnitude of the Obergefell decision, however, after nearly 2 millennia, I still think that Paul, in his context of the Roman empire, was up against a steeper cultural climb than we could ever possibly know in America today. Even in the midst of all of that he leaves us these words in his epistle to the Romans (Romans chapter 1 seems to be the point of greatest conflict in the same-sex marriage issue, oddly enough):

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. 11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. 12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. 13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! 17 Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18 Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. 19 Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the LORD. 20 Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” 21 Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.” [Rom 12:9-21 NLT]

Let’s start there. Because after all, Love really does win.

¹http://www.compassion.com/multimedia/poverty-fact-sheet.pdf

A Question of Citizenship

“…That there should be no schism in the body; but [that] the members should have the same care one for another. 26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” 1 Corinthians 12:25-27

By now we are all fully aware of the horrific act of terrorism that occurred this last week at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. There is no one that I know that has even made any kind of attempt to justify the actions of the accused (and rightfully so, as there is none). However, my heart is heavy with the constant debate I see all over the news and social media regarding the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag of which the accused used to help communicate and symbolize his hatred. I debated as to whether to put my voice into the arena on this one as it seems to have been already over done, but I just feel that I must. I want to acknowledge a couple things first:

  1. I have friends on both sides of the “flag” issue. I hope you will all continue to be my friends when I am finished here.
  2. I acknowledge that most people who display the Confederate battle flag are not consciously racist.
  3. I live in the South (and have now for most of my adult life) and appreciate so much of its culture and heritage. I tell people all the time, “I wasn’t born here, but got here as fast as I could.”
  4. I am no fan of political correctness or revisionist history.

Ok, now with all that out of the way. Let me just ask a simple question. “Why?

Just pause and ask yourself “Why do I feel so strongly about my position on this?”.  The sad truth is that no matter our position, or even the outcome of the flag’s continued or discontinued publicly sponsored display, there is nothing I can write here and nothing we can do to bring back the 9 precious souls whose lives were stolen in this tragedy. How we respond to each other moving forward, however, could have an enormous impact on future generations.

I am personally not easily offended. But in reality, what would I have to really be offended about? I have grown up in a white majority with a faith that (in the broadest sense) is also shared with a majority of my fellow countrymen. The amount of resistance I have felt for my faith or my ethnic heritage (I wouldn’t even dare call it “persecution”) is minimal. I think I missed an invite to a party for a co-worker once and I’m still not sure if that was due to my faith or a bad contact list. I neither feel guilt nor am I necessarily proud of this. It simply is what it is. It is the lot I have been dealt and it has come with some forms of privilege of which I am thankful. That is not the story for all of my friends, however.  The fact that I am even writing this piece proves that. The heritage for many of my other American friends comes from quiet submission to unjust labor, beatings, lynchings and death simply because of the color of their skin. Was that the experience of all? Of course not. Were there “benevolent” slave owners that treated their “property” with respect that were also simply products of the system and culture they were born into as well? Absolutely. We can always find exceptions on an individual basis, but when it comes to the institution of slavery itself, there were some prevailing theologies and philosophies that helped to keep it intact.

Before you set forth the argument of “states rights” and “Constitutional integrity”, take a moment and read this excerpt from the Texas Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union: 

“…By consolidating their strength, they have placed the slave-holding States in a hopeless minority in the federal congress, and rendered representation of no avail in protecting Southern rights against their exactions and encroachments. They have proclaimed, and at the ballot box sustained, the revolutionary doctrine that there is a ‘higher law’ than the constitution and laws of our Federal Union…

…We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable…

When I think that just a few generations ago, this was the prevailing thought in much of the territory that fought under the Confederate battle flag, and just one week ago we witnessed a heinous act motivated by, yes, an extremist view of this philosophy, I have to ask myself, why would I want to defend this? The answer is: I don’t. The fact of the matter is there is a ‘higher law’ than the Constitution and while I cannot defend lawlessness nor the abuses of power that also ensued from the Northern powers, I am thankful that there were people in that time that viewed their heavenly and Kingdom citizenship with higher regard than that of their own country for the sake of their fellow brothers and sisters.

I love my country, but it’s not perfect. I also find great solace in the protection I receive from our Constitution and am now glad that my brothers and sisters of African heritage, in theory, have that same protection too. However, I’m most thankful for the ‘higher law’ that gives ultimate freedom and it was that law that these 9 brothers and sisters were studying the night they met their Creator. While I’m sure many good men and women who fought for the Confederacy gave their lives for their own noble causes, I cannot in good conscience defend the continued display of a symbol on public property that stood against the ‘higher law’ of my faith and fought to preserve the bondage of men, woman and children who were born to have abundant life and freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

What Can Make Christian Films Better

lego_camera_moviesI recently came across this post  by Nicholas McDonald and it challenged my thinking. As someone who has worked with artists and as someone who may have some creative tendencies myself, it can be often too easy to take the “what’s wrong with Christian films” approach, especially after a recent unpleasant experience with a film that claims to be “Chrisitian”. Sometimes the artist within me wants to spew my unadulterated thoughts all over the internet like an explosion of space junk that might make me feel better for a moment, but does little to help the problem. So, thank you, Nicholas for reminding me that there may be a better way.

Having watched a recent “Christian” film, I left with many thoughts I wanted to express, most of which were not provoked by the content of the film but it’s use of the medium. Most of the thoughts were negative, but I also recognized some excellent art within the film as well. But rather than make this post my own review of one particular film, I want to add some more general thoughts to what I hope to be a continuing conversation throughout the Christian community on how we all have a responsibility in helping to make better (Christian) films.

1. We need more filmmakers who are Christians

“Christian” art has been around for a long time. One could make an argument that, in general, at least in Western Civilization, Christian art has done more to influence culture than any other artistic influence (think Handell’s “Messiah”, or Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, etc.).  And while a lot of so called Christian music gets a bad rap, I would argue that the Church has also done more to propel singers and artists into careers in the music industry and art music than any other institution would ever dream (even many modern pop stars got their start singing in church or even in making “Christian” music).  But this isn’t so in the film industry.

Dreams are often born in childhood. Yet if you were a child in church anywhere from the early 1900’s even through today, you most likely heard your share of sermons from the pulpit of the evils of Hollywood and the gutter other wise known as the film industry. It comes as no surprise then, that until recently, we have not had a major influx of Christian filmmakers.  This has been born out of a philosophy that began to take root in evangelical churches in the 80’s of the more “neutral” nature of a particular artistic medium (mainly music at that time) and that the words were what made something explicitly “Christian”. This philosophy has now carried over into the young, fledgling Christian film industry as well and is partly what rubs many (film critics and movie goers) the wrong way.

You see, while we are beginning to tout the roll of martyr in our culture when it’s convenient politically, we are still a pretty sizable bunch. Actually, one could argue that we are the largest “special interest” there is when it comes to film marketing and relatively speaking, we’re a pretty supportive group by those standards. Here’s the problem:

  1. We (Evangelicals) now want to see Christian films (20 years ago, many weren’t even “allowed” by their church’s teaching to darken a movie theater)
  2. We are a relatively “new”, yet sizable market.
  3. We have relatively few sources to provide these films for us.
  4. We are often left with 2 options:
    • Trust non-Christian filmmakers with experience and large budgets to make these for us and put up with their “artistic license” (especially when it comes to explicitly biblical themes–think Noah, Exodus, etc…).
    • Support lesser-experienced film makers with smaller budgets and fall short in competing with the Hollywood elite.

Christians aren’t the only ones to make bad films. There are TONS of bad films (by anyone’s standard) made each year by non-Christians, but the worst among those don’t get seen by the masses because the film industry has a well-established filtering process and most people won’t go and support poorly made films. Yet, Christians often do. The Christian film maker has a unique advantage over his peers in that his interest group WILL support his film if it has the “right” propositional agenda and can get marketed by the “right” ministry conduits, even if it doesn’t qualify as good art. Like any special interest, however, the artist is forced to pander to the desires of his audience, which in this case desires mostly propositional truth devoid of much of what is considered good art (tension, conflict, contrast, passion, indeterminate, etc.), because even if he’s capable of creating good art, his audience (the one paying the bills) often can’t handle it. BUT by having more Christian filmmakers, we will increase the odds that even the propositional films will be better made and that an increasing number of filmmakers will take the risk to make more artful films with redemptive themes.

2. We need to more carefully consider the audience

Nobody likes a bait and switch, but that is largely what has given Christian films a bad name in the eyes of the general public and even among a friendly audience. There have been too many propositional films that have marketed themselves or wrapped themselves in different clothing leaving a poor taste in the mouths of those who had a different expectation.

Recently I remember purchasing tickets to another local mega-church’s Christmas production. It was marketed fairly heavily (and well) and I had great expectations going in hoping I could also learn something (as I was also at that time producing large scale Christmas events). I paid $20 for the ticket and another $20 for a friend to attend with me. There were some cool elements to the program, but it attempted to do too much (story wise) and had me looking for the exit door about 30 minutes in from sheer boredom. To make it worse, after over 90 minutes of yawn worthy production time the pastor of the church got up and spoke (preached) for another 30 minutes. I just remember thinking if I felt this way (as one who was all for what they were trying to do), what did the person who was simply expecting a Christmas Extravaganza think? I felt at the end like I had paid $40 to attend a church service. Now, most people get it–it’s a Christmas program and it’s likely to carry the story of Christmas (hopefully anyway). But there is a big difference between selling tickets to a show (with the idea of “outreach”) and having people feel like they paid good money to hear a preacher (for 30 minutes) when that’s not what they were expecting.

I can’t imagine the financial pressure of having to squeeze every last dime out of potential revenue just to make a film happen in the first place, but too often the Christian film industry trades short term gains for long term losses in this case. I personally do not have a problem with propositional films, but if you’re going to make a propositional film (one that’s main goal is to prove a largely religious viewpoint) don’t wrap it in the form of art or secuar entertainment. Here’s a list of the top 10 “Christian” movies of the last 3 decades. Their box office success seems to further prove the point.

Rank Title Studio Lifetime Gross /Theaters Opening / Theaters Date
1 The Passion of the Christ NM $370,782,930 3,408 $83,848,082 3,043 2/25/04
2 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe BV $291,710,957 3,853 $65,556,312 3,616 12/9/05
3 The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian BV $141,621,490 3,929 $55,034,805 3,929 5/16/08
4 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Fox $104,386,950 3,555 $24,005,069 3,555 12/10/10
5 Heaven is for Real TriS $91,443,253 3,048 $22,522,221 2,417 4/16/14
6 God’s Not Dead Free $60,755,732 1,860 $9,217,013 780 3/21/14
7 Son of God Fox $59,700,064 3,271 $25,601,865 3,260 2/28/14
8 Soul Surfer TriS $43,853,424 2,240 $10,601,862 2,214 4/8/11
9 The Nativity Story NL $37,629,831 3,083 $7,849,304 3,083 12/1/06
10 Courageous TriS $34,522,221 1,214 $9,112,839 1,161 9/30/11

The top 4 movies are beautiful stories, well made, with redemptive themes that appealed to a much broader audience. The rest are either propositional movies where it’s clear from the title (i.e., Heaven is for Real, God’s not Dead) or it’s religious content is made clear in the title. The only exception at #10 is Courageous, but having been associated with Fireproof, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. I don’t think most people have a problem with Christian movies in general even if they don’t agree with their premise, but I think we do ourselves a disservice if we’re not at least honest about it.

We need to write better stories

Admittedly, my perspective on this is more as a consumer than as one who has lived in the industry. Having been a part of producing a few short films, I do understand the enormous amount of work and planning involved just to create something on a smaller scale. So, I applaud anyone with the vision, guts and fortitude to put themselves out there and create. Keep creating. Keep growing. Keep going. My experience has been more on the music side of the Christian entertainment industry and one thing I’ve learned regardless of budget, process or production–it’s all about the song. Great production can’t hide a lousy song. In a similar fashion, a great movie is all about the story.  You can wow people with cool special effects for a few minutes, but it’s a great story that captures the heart. A heart that’s been captured in art is a heart that’s been influenced. We can’t forget that. So whatever the motivation for filmmaking, it will be accomplished best when told with a great story.

I think the Bible is full of great stories that haven’t even been tapped yet. Many of them would have to be sanitized so much to make them “Christian” (oddly enough) that they may never make it to the big screen. You could make a whole series out of the life of David (there have been some attempts), but you probably couldn’t bring your kids to see it. Or what about the story of Ehud and Eglon? That sounds like something more from Game of Thrones or Star Wars (a la Jabba the Hutt). Needless to say there are so many stories and themes that haven’t even been tapped by modern filmmakers yet. Let’s unearth those or learn from them and create stories that capture the imagination and the heart. We’ll all be better off for it.

We need to be more comfortable with artistic tension.

As consumers of “Christian” films, the more comfortable we get with actually seeing good art in a redemptive context, the more Christian filmmakers will be inclined to take the risk of making great art. Unfortunately, the larger evangelical audience is more content with screen versions of 1970’s flannel graph and feeling good about receiving validation of their beliefs from a space that they believed for so long was “of the devil”.  But if we want to truly influence a different audience, it’s not going to be done by sub-par art marketed with bait and switch tactics. We need to tell great stories (redemptive, yes) created in the form of good art. For most people outside the Evangelical bubble, the medium is the message. We can’t ignore that. The Bible itself is full of tension. Ideas like the sovereignty of God and the free will of man have spawned more denominations than we can count, but there’s no question of the Bible’s influence despite the tension or because of the tension (perhaps?). We may be content with pandering propositional films to a friendly audience, but if we want our art to change the world, we need to be comfortable with the tension that involves. A film shouldn’t have to make the choice between being “Christian” or being great art.  However, if the audience would allow, perhaps it could be both.

 What would you add to this list? What do you think is missing or should be added to films that express faith? 

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