Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Learning to Engage Culture as a Christian Artist

Ever since Doug added me as an author on this blog I've been thinking about what I might want to write about that would be beneficial to perspective interns, current interns, and even alumni of our program. I'm wrapping up my time here with only a few months to go and as I take a look back over the last 20 or so months, recounting different lessons God's taught me along the way, a few things come to mind: how to learn in a constantly evolving industry, how to work with clients, project logistics, how to conduct yourself on a crew in numerous circumstances, how to serve in the industry, and of course all the different stages of production and the experience gained by actually doing real projects that get real air time. I thought any one of these things would be a great entry here (and I may write about them in the future) but before I got to writing about any of that, a friend emailed me.


Today, I watched a few movies with my older sister (it's the only way I can reach her on a 'quality time' level of interaction). I was appalled by these choices! Good grief! They were so slanderous of God-I was cringing through the first half of one of the movies. I couldn't watch it with my conscience at ease so I talked to her about how I felt before leaving. Mockery has been seeping in ever so slowly (the occasional exclamation of, "Oh my God!" or "Jesus!"), now noticably, blatant phrases and jokes are used throughout script. I am angry with the film industry and their lack of respect for God!
A question or two dawned on me, and I can't help but wonder why I haven't asked you these before...
-Favorite movie? Favorite director? Know any clean, wholesome movies with plenty of **quality** to them? I'd like to suggest something to my sister that she can walk away from without feeling her conscience has been seared.
-Favorite author? Also, I'm curious enough, do you have a favorite photographer? Anyone's work that truly stands out to you? I feel as though I cannot get enough true quality art and I'd love to learn more. I respect your taste. You have been so insightful. I've benefitted so much from your knowledge in these areas. :) You're just such an enjoyment to be around-full of life and character!


It was after reading this email that I realized that most people we effect with what we learn here are not going to be people in the industry, they're going to be the people who watch our stuff and more importantly who take their cues from our example. With media we have the influence to effect millions with one film, one picture, one book, magazine, whatever; and we have to know how to engage culture as a Christian so that we a) can produce relevant art and valuable messages, and most importantly, we b) maintain a personal standard of integrity that qualifies us to speak up as Christian leaders and role models, because regardless of what we want, that is how we will be viewed and we better rise to meet those expectations or we may defame our Lord.

So first, before I get to the specific questions in the email, let me set up the rest of this post with a window into the way I approach media in general, whether that be movies, music, photography, painting, writing, etc.

Since about my sophomore year in high school I've operated off of this system of media filtration and for about six years it's done a great job of allowing me to stay plugged-in to American culture and even culture abroad without losing my sanctification from the world. It's a simple approach that takes it's cue from Paul the Apostle as he attempts to minister in Athens.

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for "'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, "'For we are indeed his offspring.'
Acts 17:22-28

In these verses we find a magnificent example of engaging culture without being defiled by it and even better--using it to glorify God and expand the rule of Christ in the hearts of men. Paul operates off of a three pronged approach: Accept, Redeem, Reject. He accepts the fact that we need to worship something. He redeems a poem from their culture and uses it to talk about Jesus. He rejected their gods and put Jesus in their place.

For our purposes I will define the three prongs as follows:

Accept: A message you can take in without altering.

Redeem: A message you can 'edit' (as Paul did to the poem he quotes above which is really about Zeus. He made it about Christ.)

Reject: Too full of filth to be of any good.

And trust me when I say this example is only scratching the surface. And although I said I've been operating off of this mindset for some time the language I'm using here is actually from a sermon I heard recently that put this concept into words far better than I ever have been. I encourage you to listen to/read it here.

With all that said I'd like to break up some of my responses under the categories Accept, Redeem, Reject.

Media that I can accept:

The Bible. That's all. The Bible for me is the only thing that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is 100% always dead on. It's the standard for everything and so being should really be the only message I take completely "as is". However to be fair there is a lot of stuff out there that would for all practical purposes fall under this category. Many sermons, Christian articles, Nature photography, and other things that either align themselves wholly with the Word or (like the example of Nature photography) are not delivering a message so much as displaying beauty in a raw form that showcases God's creativity.

Media that I can Redeem:

I would go so far as to say that 80% of what we encounter in our culture, if not more, is redeemable. I say this knowing that there are a lot of factors that determine something's redeemability, like timing, maturity, age, gender, context, etc. In my head I've always used what I guess you could call a "scale of redeemability". It works like this: you take a movie, picture, song, etc. and match it up to the Bible. To do this of course you need a broad knowledge of what the Bible says, meaning, you need to read it a lot. Once you've measured your media against the Bible you can decide how much is redeemable and how much isn't from your scale of redeemability, ranging from "easily redeemable" (Hey I could preach on this whole movie!) to "barely redeemable" (I wish there was more than one good scene in this movie!).

Now comes the question, "How do you know what is easy and hard and how do I know if I can even watch/listen/look at it in the first place?" Well my friends, God gave us common sense, a church body of older experienced brothers and sisters and (most importantly on this issue) A CONSCIENCE for a reason. If you're in the Bible (I believe I said, "A LOT") and have a heart to honor God, you'd be surprised how all of a sudden that question isn't even hard to answer. I could go on for a long time on this and get frustrated at how questions like that are really about "how much junk can I get away with", but in short I'm saying this: Our conscience must guide us in purity and holiness according to the Word or we're just creating another way to be religious--which is stupid. The end.

However, I do feel like this deserves some examples. I'll give one for easily redeemable, moderately redeemable, and barely redeemable.

Easy: Remember The Titans, is a movie that I feel is so forward with value based messages on character, honor, integrity, hard work, and forgiveness you can't help from tripping over illustrations of Christ and what he desires from us without having blatant gospel plugs.

Moderate: 3:10 to Yuma. Though violent and a bit colorful in parts, displays a man who is determined to leave a legacy for his son of Integrity. He tells his son that no matter what might happen, to remember that he was a man who did what was right when everyone else thought doing the right thing was too difficult. And in context, that also reveals a tail of redemption, as our leading character played by Christian Bale attempts to take a life that's ridden with failure and a track record of blatant shortcomings his family has found hard to respect and turn it into a legacy they can be proud of.

Barely: Fight Club. With F-bombs, crude humor, and sexuality throughout you might think this an unrealistic choice for redeemable, even if barely. However, the honest truth is that this film illustrates the condition of young men in America better than just about any film I've seen in a long time. I do mean men though, not teenagers. Fight Club is to 20-30 year old guys what American Beauty is to men 40-55 year old men. It's a mirror that reflects a pretty ugly reality. Fight Club talks about the collective emasculation of men by a society obsessed with advertising, material possessions, and feminism. It connects to men who are frustrated. Frustrated that there is nothing manly about being a man anymore. Frustrated that they have no fathers and are incapable of being fathers themselves...because they're still boys. It's a movie about men who've been lied to, who lie to themselves, and for lack of a better plan they want to tear society as they know it apart, and start over. Other themes include anarchy, the absence or perhaps apathy of God, nihilism, and an overarching satire on American Culture that allows this film to get away with a lot.

So how is it redeemable? It's redeemable because it's not afraid to show the worst in us. The truth is men need to wake up, stop looking to be mothered, and stop allowing advertising to seduce them or define masculinity in place of the Bible. They need to be manly again, and they need to change their world. Does the movie get ugly? Yeah. Does it have the answer to the problems it presents wrong? Absolutely. But sometimes looking in the mirror and seeing something ugly is the motivation needed to change it.

Ok, moving on...

Media that I should Reject:

Pornography, Blasphemy, and hateful material. I don't really want to get super detailed here but there are some things that you simply cannot redeem and I don't think they need a lot of explaining. I mean what are you gonna say to redeem a playboy? Look at the beautiful bodies God designed? Get real.

However, I do realize that this way of filtering your personal media choices leaves a lot of gray area that some would use to ease there conscience into allowing them to view or take in garbage in the name of relating to culture. The only thing I have to say to that is:

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (New International Version)

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.

14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

No one is fooling God, so why try? If someone wants to intentionally do the wrong thing then this whole "accept, redeem, reject" model isn't for them anyway.

And finally, some straight forward answers:

So now that you've had a peak inside my head and an explanation of how I view media I can make my recommendations with only a brief disclaimer. As I stated above, rarely is there any entertainment that can simply be accepted and absorbed without some personal filtering/Redeeming. As Christians we need to be sharp, never letting our guard down, always ready to use any means we can to share the gospel.

Favorite Movie: simply impossible to determine.

Favorite Director: This might be even more difficult to figure out than the movie question!

Recommended Movies that won't "sear your conscience":
Pay It Forward, October Sky, K-Pax, Remember The Titans, Edward Sissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (old one), Count of Monte Cristo, King of California, The Kid, A River Runs Through It, Kramer vs. Kramer...to name a few.

Recommended Movies that provoke thought: Blood Diamond, Gone Baby Gone, Thirteen, Mystic River, Hotel Rowanda...and now I'm drawing a blank. Long post.

Favorite Author: God...but the chase pack consists of authors like William Shakespear, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Walt Whitman, Flannery O'Connor, D.H. Lawrence, Upton Sinclair, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Lewis Carol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, John Bunyan, George Orwell, and more than I feel like listing...

Book Recommendations: The Jungle, Sons and Lovers, On The Road, The Crucible, Short stories by Flannery O'Connor, Player Piano, Slaughterhouse Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Leaves Of Grass, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, and pretty much any book you may find endorsed on my personal blog.

Recommended Photographers: **A quick note on photographers: This is one area that I have been repeatedly frustrated with. I have yet to find a photographer that continually captures my imagination while having a collection of overall modest (or "appropriate") material. So I recommend reading this article and then browsing the links in it.

And there you have it. Post finished. It was a bit rambling and A.D.D., but if you made it this far thanks for reading and I hope to hear back from you with thoughts.

Nathan Weller

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Special guest appearance by Season

Hey guys! I have been thinking about CCM lately as I journal in my quiet times, and Doug said I should post some on here sometime, so I’ll get right to the point. Hope it is a good insight for someone.

If you are a Christian, then you believe that God is the ultimate creator. Well, I challenge you, then: if you think that your dreams and ambitions of being a filmmaker or tv producer (aka, a creator) are something separate from your being a Christian, you have another thing coming. That other thing is your calling.

You may have a good idea of what your specific “calling” means to you. But for just a second, strip away your notions. Think of what Jesus originally meant our calling to be, in it’s simplest form… When Christ had risen from the dead, right before he ascended to heaven, He called us to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. What does that have to do with filmmaking and television and capturing all night for Mark Stepp and auditioning for a part in a romantic comedy? Nothing. Or EVERYTHING.

You are in CCM. You are being poured into, trained, and equipped to be a Christian in Hollywood. You shouldn’t be surprised anymore if God calls you to LA or NY. I remember myself and other CCMers having many discussions about “feeling called to LA,” and “feeling like I could really make it.” We shouldn’t have been so surprised! But never forget what it means to be called. When you are called somewhere, it will only be for the cause of Christ. If you are going for any other reason, don’t go. LA doesn’t need anymore people who have missed the calling of Christ. And it sure doesn’t need anyone else coming in loudly proclaiming to be a Christian, only to be a sorry example in quality of professionalism and/or by their life example.

But my point isn't to discourage you from going, but to encourage you. So if I could give you any encouragement, it is that you have positioned yourself well by being in CCM. You are learning. You have the opportunity to prove yourself in real situations. You are surrounded by Christians who love you and aren't too scared to correct and confront your faults, (and PLEASE, don’t wait any longer to deal with your personal problems. Get it done in that environment, because it only gets harder when you leave).
You have set yourself up for success by being in CCM. Now your challenge is to work hard without complaining, and allow the areas where you are lacking to be poked and prodded and strengthened. Don’t pretend that that is so hard. Overcome it. Bigger challenges await you, and you won’t get to them if you can’t get this smaller mess out of the way.



Sunday, April 6, 2008

In the Beginning...


Here we go.

Thus beginnith my Blog.

I don't guarantee that it will always be linear.
But... I'll do my best to have it make sense.

Who am I?
The Executive Director of the Center for Creative Media
We have nearly 100 people in "CCM." And, we all desire to make great film, television, and new media. We are Christians. But, it is NOT our goal to make great Christian film, television, and new media. We want to make great FILM, TELEVISION, and NEW MEDIA!

Good Christian
Good Mainstream
Good, period.

It is our prayer that God would use us to create stories... pictures... films... tv... webisodes... print art... from our studio... and that we would do it with EXCELLENCE.

Let's start with my heart:
There is room in the marketplace of creative ideas for more perspectives and viewpoints than are primarily represented in the commercial release field today.

It's already been proven that when a WELL DONE movie that contains ideas that most Christians find palatable is released... the audience flocks to it in the millions. (ie., The Passion of the Christ, Narnia) Yet... there still aren't very many releases like these that have hit the big screen.

Why?? Apparently, there just isn't enough good material out there.
Or there aren't enough Christians who are willing to send their beliefs, thoughts and ideas through the main stream production grind and trust that God can see things through to the end in a way that will glorify Him.

("Bella" is an exception... despite less than blockbuster box office... this is a great film! Bravo for waging the fight.)

The Christian film & tv market is generally known for making stuff that just doesn't connect with the mainstream audience. Whether it be because of a mandatory on-screen altar call or an overall lack of production quality... put the label CHRISTIAN on the release and the available audience thins out to just a few folks.

Why isn't there more successful "Christian" film and television made? Money? Politics? Available Talent? Not enough good material out there? Probably all of the above...

The vision of making GOOD film & television as a Christian is indeed LARGE and daunting. (But, with God, all things are possible, eh???) Let's assess the playing field:

Mainstream often thinks that:
Christians are in favor of censorship.
Christians want to limit ideas to only what the Religious Right thinks is acceptable.
Christians haven't lived enough life to tell a REAL story... one with texture and truth that most people could connect with.
Christians are narrow minded and NOT tolerant

Christians often think that:
Hollywood is too dangerous of a place to send their brothers to work (Interestingly sending fellow believers to be missionaries where they could martyred for their faith is honored... but heaven forbid we send them to Tinsletown)
Hollywood is so foul and wicked "we" need to form "our" own industry
Hollywood is controlled by the "Left" and would never let "our" stories be told
Film & Television can be made on a wing and a prayer without the budgets afforded to the mainstream market.

I'll address these issues over the next few weeks.

Like the world of politics these days... these two camps typically are dramatically polarized.

But... there is hope.
A Hit is a Hit.
Success negates all misgivings.

And... it is my contention that believers can be active, effective and artistically relevant participants in the mainstream marketplace. (it has been my privledge to work alongside many of these professionals who already are in "Hollywood." It just seems that there should many, many more of us)

So to make more than an occasional dent in the status quo... we need to raise up qualified, trained, competent, TALENTED professionals who can compete in their fields.

Thus the journey of The Center for Creative Media is underway...

This blog will chronicle the milestones that CCM will cross, bring you stories of the people who
pour every ounce of their heart and faith into their work, and my own personal observations along the way.

Come along....