Visiting Liberty University

Visiting Liberty University

Saturday, November 7, 2015

War Room and a Strategy for Cultural Engagement in Christian Film

Hey guys! I know, I know, it's been FOREVER since we've posted anything. What can I say? Life happens. There are about a million blog posts I could write right now, if I had the time... This semester has been absolutely wild and God has taught me so much!

But for right now, I wanted to share something a little different. For my Apologetics and Cultural Engagement class, I had to write an article that could hypothetically be submitted to a current publication (like The New York Times or Christianity Today) about a specific cultural issue, either engaging it or discussing how Christians should engage it. So here's my article.

(I don't know why every other paragraph is spaced and sized differently and I couldn't figure out how to change it, so... sorry about that! Also, the original version had footnote citations, but I left those out for this version. Also, I didn't actually submit this to The Gospel Coalition or anywhere else... I just had to say that for the purposes of the assignment.)


An article submitted to The Gospel Coalition

            Last year, 2014, was dubbed “the year of the faith-based film.” From Hollywood heavyweights Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings to indie features God’s Not Dead, Son of God, and Heaven Is For Real, 2014 marked a milestone in a cultural phenomenon that has been growing, slowly but surely, over the last few decades. The various levels of success of these films at the box office, with the critics, and in popular opinion have sparked conversations in many different circles. Critics and studios scratch their heads, wondering how low-budget, explicitly Christian films can bring in a respectable (and sometimes extraordinary!) return at the box office. Meanwhile, some Christians pledge their allegiance to even the most poorly made films as long as they have a good message, while others bemoan the shoddiness of such films and call for increased excellence in Christian art.
         Fast forward to the August 28, 2015 release of War Room. The Kendrick brothers’ long-awaited fifth movie followed in the blatantly Christian footsteps of their previous four while boasting significantly higher production value. Reactions to the film are many and varied. A review posted on (now deceased) movie critic Roger Ebert’s website called the film “awful, offering all the forced humor and superficial substance of a half-baked homily,” and claimed that its only goal was “to evangelize by preaching an ideology that requires its followers to view the world in black-and-white terms,” in which endeavor it failed by being hypocritically “righteous and judgmental in the extreme” and failing to grapple with the complexities of life. Kenneth Morefield’s review in Christianity Today concurs: “War Room, like so many Christian films, stumbles [because] the characters and situation are so thinly drawn that even those of us who believe in the film’s ultimate message have a hard time with the package wrapped around it.” Yet many Christians have found that the artistically inadequate film does “some real soul-level good” and consequently are raving about the film to their churches and families. Bad art, preachy message, and all, War Room finished opening weekend at the box office just behind #1 Straight Outta Compton (which showed in three times as many theatres), thanks largely to a strong turnout of highly underserved faith-based audiences.
       As a student at a Christian university seeking to enter the film industry (probably working on pictures like War Room, at least at first), I watch Christian films like football fans watch their favorite teams during an uncertain season: rooting for them with everything I’ve got while being painfully aware of their many shortcomings. War Room is, undoubtedly, a bland, overly sanitized and simplified movie with underdeveloped characters. Rather than being a three-dimensional story that wrestles with the grittiness and complexity of real life, the film seems to be more of a glorified sermon illustration in which everything serves the message. That message, however, (a rousing call to fervent prayer and spiritual warfare) resonated mightily with its audience. And here lies the key to reconciling the “bad art” of War Room with its box office success. Ironically, it’s one of the most basic principles of filmmaking (or producing any form of art, really): know your audience.
      For years I have viewed Christian-made films as a potential tool for, in Christian-ese terms, reaching a dark world with the light of Christ. I chose film as my career largely because of its influential power in culture. But if War Room was intended to be an evangelistic tool to win people over from a secular society to the Christian faith, it was a sorry attempt. The average non-Christian audience member would be turned off, if not by the already-mentioned artistic deficiencies, then by the pervasive, overtly Christian messages such as the idea that women ought to be submissive to their husbands and “duck so that God can hit them.” The film features an overly generic, affluent family in an apparently post-racial society devoid of any kind of media influence. As such, the Jordan family feels unrelatable to those immersed in the messy, media-saturated American culture. The stakes of the story were not high enough, the plot was not terribly intriguing, and a number of scenes were weakly written and/or acted. Yet War Room’s average turnout per theatre on opening weekend was almost three times that of Straight Outta Compton and the film temporarily hit #1 in the following weeks. Why?
War Room was never intended to be a tool to engage and change culture. It was never intended to be relatable to unbelievers. It was never even intended to be a critically acclaimed film! The weekend after War Room was released, I attended a special screening hosted by Liberty University’s Zaki Gordon Cinematic Arts Center. In a Q&A session afterwards, producer and co-writer Stephen Kendrick explained that the film’s bad reviews didn’t bother him at all. He knew full well the film was preachy. He knew full well that he and his brother Alex were not world-class filmmakers! It didn’t matter, because the film was made for people of faith, not for unbelievers, and thousands of those people flocked to theatres in response. 
      By focusing its message on the church, War Room is not neglecting cultural engagement. It is making a strategic move. According to Steven Kendrick, the church will not be able to effectively reach the world until it does some housecleaning. We the American church are open to the charge of hypocrisy in countless areas. For instance, while we condemn the way the LGBT community twists the Biblical sexual ethic, we have come to turn a blind eye to the issues of divorce/remarriage and premarital sex within the church. Countless other problems and blind spots in the church make the world much less willing to listen to us. No wonder most Americans view Christianity as a religion of condemnation and fakery! The church tends to slide either into legalism or apathy, neither of which results in spiritual growth or an effective witness. War Room appeals to those Christians living a lukewarm faith, spurring them on to a richer, deeper, more powerful life of prayer and faith where God is allowed freer reign to transform their hearts and work in their lives. This will make Christians individually and churches corporately into better examples of authentic unity, grace, truth, love, joy, and faith that will attract the searching, hurting citizens of this world of shadow.
      In other words, in response to the charge of being a glorified sermon illustration, War Room pleads guilty. It is not a tool of cultural engagement meant to reach the lost so much as it is a tool to revive the church so that the church can truly be a brilliantly illuminated city on a hill. And in this, the film seems to be succeeding. Countless stories of people setting aside their own prayer room and seeing God work mightily in their lives are pouring in. One woman stood up in the movie theatre asking for prayer, and dozens of complete strangers gathered around her. There are even stories of people coming to Christ as a result of seeing the film. Time will tell how far the ripple effect of War Room will travel.
In the meantime, secular audiences and the more artistically attuned faith-based audiences are still looking for films that not only address spiritual matters but are also willing to grapple with the messy, complex issues of life. War Room has struck one niche, but there are others that have yet to be fully explored. Jon and Andy Erwin, another set of filmmaking brothers, have made decisive strides in this direction with their films October Baby, Mom’s Night Out, and Woodlawn, all of which assume a Christian perspective while achieving a much higher level of artistry and realism than the Kendricks’ films. Christian films do not have to be one-size-fits-all, nor should they be. There can and should be several brands of faith-based films to meet the demands of conservative church families, searching agnostics, and everyone in between.
Was War Room a quality movie? Not really. Did it reach its intended audience? Absolutely. Is it a good model for engaging the American culture? Not completely. It is a good strategic move, but a complete strategy would require more subtle, artistic, and gritty faith-based films as well.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Open Heart Surgery

If you know me, you know I like to talk. A lot. I learned to talk long before I could walk, and I haven't stopped since. It's only been in the last 5 years or so of my life that I have gained some measure of self control over my words, and that's solely by God's grace!

I'm also by nature very literal. I'm like the story book character "Amelia Bedelia" who sprinkled baby powder on the furniture she was told to dust and put doll clothes on a raw chicken because she was told to dress it. I use my words very literally and I tend to interpret everyone else's words the same way.

For a long time these two traits of mine caused countless problems. I said whatever I thought, exactly how I thought it, only to discover that, apparently, that's not a socially acceptable way of communicating. My life became a cycle of:

Open mouth.

Insert foot.


I also found myself endlessly confused by people whose first language was sarcasm. I used to hate getting teased, because I didn't understand that, for most people, teasing was another way of saying, "I love you." I took every comment at face value, and I took them all personally.

I couldn't understand why people wouldn't say exactly what they meant. And I found myself incapable of saying things I didn't mean. Even now, I can't type something like, "Praying for you," at the end of an email unless I actually have been praying for that person over the last few days. I've had to find tactful, less blunt ways of saying what I mean, and sometimes I've just had to learn to hold my tongue.

Because nothing bothers me more than the proverbial elephant in the room. Nothing agitates me like misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Have you ever had a time where something just wasn't right in your system? Maybe you had inexplicable bouts of fatigue, or your heartbeat wasn't regular, or you had strange aches or pains that just wouldn't go away. It's easy to put off going to the doctor for things like that. About a year ago, my friend's dad waited months before going to the doctor, only to discover that he had a potentially terminal form of cancer. (Praise God, after chemo and surgery he is now cancer-free!) Maybe the issue isn't anywhere near that serious, though. Maybe a couple of weeks on antibiotics, a few months of physical therapy, or adding a vitamin supplement to your diet will solve the problem. Maybe all you need is to drink more water, get more sleep, and exercise!

Regardless, the issue will not go away unless you address it. Until you tell someone, "Hey, something's wrong," and describe your symptoms in detail, you'll suffer needless discomfort or pain and risk serious long term consequences. A diagnosis is crucial, and a misdiagnosis can be deadly. Once you acknowledge that the problem exists and figure out what's wrong, you can take care of it. To quote whoever said/wrote it first, "The worst part is not knowing!"

To me, personal relationships work exactly the same way. People aren't perfect. Stuff goes wrong. Issues arise. No one wants to talk about them. So the problem just sits there and festers, until one day, it bursts. At that point, there's usually not a lot that can be done to fix things, kind of like appendicitis. Or maybe the problem is more like a cancer that grows secretly and silently, draining away the life of the relationship and eventually killing it altogether.

I'm not suggesting that you tell anyone and everyone about your issues, but at some point you have to tell someone. It's good to talk with the people directly involved in the issue. It's especially NOT good to gossip with uninvolved people about the issue. But you can at least tell the "innocent bystanders," "It's not you. There's something else going on, but I can't really talk about it right now." That way they don't sit there for days... or weeks... walking on eggshells around you and worrying that maybe they said/did something wrong when you really have no issue with them!

Sometimes, issues require measures as extreme as open heart surgery. Surgery is messy, painful, and delicate. It requires weeks... or months... of recovery time and therapy afterwards. But the end result is (hopefully) always worth it. My mom had double bypass open heart surgery when I was 6 years old. She was born with a heart anomaly that had gone undetected for 30+ years of her life but could have caused her death at any time. Basically, God wired one of the main arteries supplying blood to her heart "wrong." After the surgery, Mom was hooked up to all kinds of freaky wires and tubes for days. When she came home, it hurt her to laugh or cough because her whole rib cage was sore, and she had to do physical therapy to get her heart strong again. But she has had no problems with her heart ever since then. The issue was identified and fixed.

Not all relationship issues require measures as extreme as "open heart surgery." If you catch the issue early enough, sometimes all you have to do is make a short apology. Sometimes there was a simple misunderstanding that can be easily cleared up with a little honest communication. But sometimes the communication required to mend a relationship is difficult. It can be messy, painful, and delicate. Recovery can require months of diligent effort. But it's ALWAYS worth it.

All relationships are built on communication. If you don't talk with someone, you don't get to know them. (Notice I said talking WITH, not talking AT. I used to just talk AT people. I'm still learning how to listen and let other people talk, too!) When communication suffers, the relationship suffers. And it takes a good deal of potentially unpleasant communication to restore and rebuild the relationship.

I'm not suggesting you attempt open heart surgery with a chainsaw. (Which would be my default.) Successful surgery requires caution, precision, and lots of wisdom. Unless you're careful, you can cause a lot more damage than repair.

But again, (please believe me) the benefits of a successful relationship "surgery" are always worth the risk and the mess and the pain.


I speak from personal experience here; in the last 5 or so years there have been a number of times that I've learned about an ongoing issue between me and a friend. In each of those cases, it was profoundly unpleasant to deal with the situation, but it was a relief to bring the issue out into the open, define it, and work towards resolving it. In the process, I grew and matured as a person and learned a LOT about my own faults and tendencies. And in most of those cases, my friendship with the other person blossomed and developed in an amazingly beautiful way that would not have been possible prior to "diagnosing" and "treating" the problem.

The more I get to know people, the more I have found that most of them are afraid of looking too deeply into their own hearts or those of others, and are even more afraid of others looking into their hearts. It's like they have an attic or a closet somewhere that hasn't been opened in years... it's all dark and dusty and who knows what's in there! Deadly afraid of what critters and skeletons might be lurking beneath the cobwebs, people keep the door to the closet sealed and don't let their friends anywhere near it.

So maybe there are lots of cobwebs and dust bunnies in your heart. Some mold and a colony of cockroaches, perhaps. (Ew, gross.) Maybe even a couple of skeletons.

OK. So what?

Everyone else's closet has weird, messy, scary stuff in it, too. I promise, you're not the only one. 

And guess what? I'm convinced that behind the skeletons, under all the dust and cobwebs, there's a beautiful sculpture or painting. Priceless, really. The work of a master artist. Hiding in the back of the closet underneath all the garbage, waiting for all of the junk to be pulled out and thrown away so that it can come to light.

But guess what? To uncover that gorgeous masterpiece, you have to open that mysterious closet and dig out all the skeletons and clean away all the dust. That's going to be a messy process. But if you bring a couple of friends along to help, it won't be quite so bad. And you'll discover a treasure that is more than worth the mess, if you're willing to get your hands dirty for a little while.

This is why I love talking to people. This is why I try to put spending time with people right near the top of my list of priorities. I want to help people discover the beautiful treasures hiding in the back of their closets.

For whatever reason, God made me so that I'm not afraid of other people's junk and the clutter. Those skeletons you're so ashamed and scared of? Yeah, they're dead. They happened, but they're not alive anymore. They can't do anything to you anymore. They're just dead bones, ready to be thrown out and buried as far away from you as the east is from the west.

Which, by the way, is exactly where Christ buried them when you gave Him the title to your house. He doesn't see the mess. He sees the masterpiece. And He'll help you air out your dingy little back closet and turn it into a showroom for His love and grace.

If, that is, you have the courage to open the door.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The "With" Factor

This blog has been silent for far too long. This has been bothering me for a couple of months. We started out intending to post weekly, but evidently that hasn't happened. I tend to get irritated with myself when the plan or vision I embarked with "fails." This has happened entirely too many times in my life, in my opinion.

But the primary reason I've "failed" to communicate on this blog has been because I was spending a lot of time with people, in person, at college. And that has not been a failure.

The cello family--or most of them, anyway--after an end-of-the-year game of Sardines.

My Dad used to always tell me, "People are more important." This was his oft-repeated reminder to me in the time-crunch and stress of dance productions, when I turned into a big hairy control freak and started putting details and logistics above loving people. 

I didn't really understand how important -- and practical -- that mantra was, though, until I went to Liberty. Suddenly I found that it was infinitely more important to spend my time pouring into people and listening to them than it was to worry about schoolwork. There have been SO many times this last year when Rachael and I watched hours of planned homework time drift out the window while a friend or hall-mate opened up about something close to their heart.

Us with our sweet roommate, Shirley.

And every single time, it was worth it. I don't regret how I spent my time on any of those evenings. And amazingly enough, it never really cost me in the way of grades. Strange things would always happen; my Business Law chapter would be the half the length it usually was, or my Theology teacher would unexpectedly give us a free quiz grade just for showing up to class (and sometimes let us get Starbucks and have class outside; that's always a possibility, too).

As my SLC (Spiritual Life Coach) would say, "What are the two most important things? God and people." My Dad has emphasized that for years: The two greatest commandments are to love God and love people. We have a bit of family terminology called the "With" factor. It refers to spending quality time with people. Sometimes the most valuable thing you can give to someone is your time, regardless of what the activity is.

Our SLCs, prayer leaders, and some friends from our hall who came to our last orchestra concert of the year.

Loving people, utilizing the "With" factor, has been my focus this year, more so I think than any other in my life so far. I'm so grateful to God for the changes He has worked in my heart to bring me to this place, and for the ability He has given me to love others with His love. I also recognize that I need to apply this same principle of love and quality time to my family, not just my friends.

But that's the second greatest commandment. 

The first greatest commandment is, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength."

This semester, that mandate has largely fallen by the wayside in my life, and I've felt the difference. Whereas last semester I experienced God's presence and love in amazing, vibrant ways almost daily, I have drifted through the spring in a largely complacent, apathetic doze when it comes to spiritual things. 

And that needs to change.

I started reading through the Old Testament a few weeks ago, when I was still at school. I've tried to do this 2-3 times before, and I don't think I've ever made it through the Pentateuch in chronological order. Certainly not past Judges or the Samuels. Hopefully this time I'll make it through to Malachi by interspersing some NT readings along the way. But anyway, that's not the point.

As I've re-read the familiar passages of Genesis, I've tried to focus on what they reveal about God's character. Today I read Genesis 25-26, which chronicles the death of Abraham and the birth and early lives of Jacob and Esau. What God pointed out to me, though, were a couple of phrases He spoke to Isaac in the middle of all of that. Twice in chapter 26, God speaks to Isaac and confirms that the covenant He made with Abraham is valid for Isaac as well. 

"Stay in this land for a while," God instructs Isaac in Gen. 26:3, "and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham."

Later in that chapter, Isaac has been driven away from the land of the Philistines by Abimelech's herdsmen because they are jealous/afraid of Isaac's power and wealth. After digging several wells, most of which are stolen by Abimelech's herdsmen, Isaac reaches Beersheba. "That night the Lord appeared to him and said, 'I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.' " 

What stood out to me was that in both instances, God says, "I will be with you," or, "I am with you," BEFORE He says, "I will bless you." God's presence -- the "With" factor -- is of primary importance. You've probably heard the saying, "Seek the Giver, not the gift."

God was WITH Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and when they sinned, they hid from Him and were eventually driven from the garden. Enoch "walked WITH God" before God took him away. King David cried, "Do not cast me out of Your presence, or take Your Holy Spirit from me." Isaiah prophesied the coming of "Emmanuel, which means God WITH us."

The significance of the tabernacle and the calling of the nation of Israel was that God literally lived among His people again. His presence came down on the Tent of Meeting in a cloud of glory. Whenever the cloud lifted, the people packed up and followed it. Wherever God's presence, as signified by the pillar of cloud or fire, stopped, the people stopped and set up camp.

As a child of the Internet, I sort of pictured God's presence as a Wi-Fi hot spot. His people desired to have access to Him and communication with Him, so they moved wherever His presence was, just like we seek out coffee shops and other areas that give our laptops, tablets, and phones free access to the Internet.

Speaking of which, having a smart phone makes it much harder for me to be still and quiet before the Lord. I roll out of bed in the morning to turn off the alarm (on my phone) and the next thing I do is check for new text messages, emails, and Facebook updates, when I really should be sitting wtih God and letting Him prepare my heart for the day ahead.

This is what convicted me in my devotions today. In Genesis 26:23-24, Isaac travels to Beersheba and God appears to him. Then, in verse 25, "Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well."

God spoke to Isaac. In person.

In the Old Testament, this didn't happen every day. The patriarchs did not have the Holy Spirit living inside them like we do today, as believers in Jesus Christ. This was a big deal.

Isaac has encountered God's presence, and like his descendants will do in the desert of Sinai four or five centuries later, he stops and sets up camp. He does not hurry to move on. He memorializes the place with an altar, seeks God's presence again by "calling on the name of the Lord," pitches his tent, and digs a well.

Do we do this today? Do I do this? Do we stop and soak up and sit in God's presence? Do we actively seek it out? Or do we run around all day with our own agenda and tune Him out? I know that's how I live my life, day to day. Most days, I'll pray, but it's a one-way deal.

I don't take the time to stop.

And listen.

And be still.

And just SIT in God's presence.

God desires time WITH me just like I desire time WITH my friends. In fact, He desires it SO much more than I do. And those times spent with Him are always so sweet and refreshing. But it's easy to forget, to get caught up in the rush and bustle and the noise and chaos of our crazy, crazy lives. Not to mention our electronics!

This summer, I want to seek God's presence like Isaac, then stop and "pitch my tent" and just soak Him in. I pray you will, too.

God bless.