On March 8, 2010

Creating Parables

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time with a visionary guy who cares deeply about following Jesus, and being innovative. And he’s good at it. I’m talking, major music video producer, good at it. He’s produced just about everyone of Carrie Underwood’s videos, and interesting side note, he actually produced the Taylor Swift award winning video that Kayne West made such a fuss about at the awards ceremony.

All that to say he’s a Christian who is very creative. And he’s thinking about making movies.

I remember growing up in Arkansas, movies were always suspect for many of the Christians I knew. We assumed that Hollywood had an agenda that involved getting rid of God and making us all vote for Democrats (or something like that). But lately it’s gotten harder to write off the movies that have been coming out. Think about the Redemption in Slumdog Millionare, or the subversive story that Life is Beautiful or Bella tells. Movies are stories, lens’ that shape the way people look at life. They can be neutral, or bad or very good. But when they are done well they are powerful.

Like Training Day.

Which is a movie of a corrupt undercover narcotics cop, played by Denzel Washington, who has learned how to use the system to his advantage. He exploits people for personal gain, and treats people like commodities. The movie takes place all in one day, and it’s about him training a new rookie cop to do what he does, where he ultimately finds out that the rookie won’t go along with his corruption.

I’ll spare you the ending, but it’s a powerful movie. I watched an edited version of Training Day on cable television, and even watching that version I could tell that it was a rough movie. One that I wouldn’t recommend or let my kids watch. The last word that came to mind was Christian.

But I read an article recently about Denzel Washington that I thought was interesting. Washington was interviewed in Relevant Magazine about his faith and how following Jesus has informed the way he approached acting. This may not be well known, but Washington is actually a devoted follower of Jesus. The entire article was interesting, but what I really appreciated was what he said about his role in a specific movie, Training Day.

Every day when he was shooting this film, portraying a corrupt cop who is getting ahead at the expense of everyone else, Washington would get up and immediately write on his hands a verse. It was Romans 3:23.

“For the Wages of Sin are death.”

He said that he was trying to communicate that one thought. And in his words, “In order show him live in the worst way, he has to die in the worst way.” Washington says on some level he views what he does as a prophet/preacher. And while you might disagree with what movies he’s been in as a professing Christian, here’s my question…Shouldn’t we be glad that Jesus followers are in this industry?

I spent the last few days in Hollywood, and because I was speaking at a church where a lot of people worked in the film industry I got to hang out with people who have a slightly different perspective on this. One guy we hung out with has regular meetings with people like Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, and J.J. Abrams, another is in charge of helping produce Kung Fu Panda II (because one funny, furry MMA Panda movie just isn’t enough). And I have to tell you, I’m really, really glad that they are there. They talked about how people respect them in their work because they aren’t just trying to get ahead, but serve others, which is a refreshing change for their bosses.

I’m glad that people who are developing a radically different ethic centered around Jesus are hanging around this epicenter of influence. This is, at least in part, what it means to be a city on a Hill.

We don’t bury our head in the sand and opine for a previous time. We roll up our sleeves, and like yeast, make a slow gradual difference.

But it’s not just because of the influence we can have, it’s also because of this fundamental part of the Christian story is to, well, tell stories.

Sometimes I think we forget that the very nature of the Scripture is this huge, massive narrative. One that if you had to rate it would be NC-17 in parts (book of Judges anyone?), and PG at others. But mainly the Parables are what get me. Jesus told the best stories. They were stories of scandal and shame, joy and celebration  (Jewish people to this day still consider Jesus one of their best story-tellers). Jesus was the 1st Century Steven Spielberg.

Bono recently made this point about God, He said he was the original movie producer, and the church was the original movie. This after all, says Bono, was what stained glass windows were. They were the church telling a story that words just aren’t big enough to capture. They were creating more than colored glass, they were creating parables.

And maybe it’s time for the church to rejoin that project. We were the original city on a hill after all.

It’s time to make some more stained glass windows.

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  • http://dustcoveredtalmid.blogspot.com/ Dan Gill

    I am right with you on this one, Jonathan. I recently went on a kind of retreat with a lot of very committed, wonderful Christian men. They really are devoted to God, and sold out. I did notice, though, that for a lot of them, giving up movies and TV was a hallmark of faith. I don’t see it that way. Certainly, if either of those are idols, they have to go. And certainly there is a lot of trash out there. But stories are so stinkin’ important! Stories are how people understand truth! I had a teacher once who used to say, “Non-fiction is about facts, but fiction is about truth.” He was right.

    And yet . . . Hollywood does have it in for Christians. We are portrayed almost exclusively as buffoons, bigots, and Bozos. (How’s that for alliteration?) The rampant titilation, the gratuitous violence, the abysmal cursing, and the “I’m going to get mine” worldview are absolutely antithetical to Christians. I try to remember that Satan is the father of lies, and we have to watch for the subtle lies more than the obvious ones. But you are right in that you cannot tell a story about the wages of sin without showing sin. And redemption only comes when there is something to be redeemed from.

    So I’m torn (just as you are when you say you cannot recommend “Training Day”). But I’ll continue to see movies and novels as stories that can redeem or pervert, depending on what they tell us.

    Hey, I’m loving this blog!

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Hey bro Danny, thanks I’m liking it too. It’s a lot easier to respond and post quicker. Me and you think similarly, I have a tough time living in the paradox sometime, and there will always be people who draw the line in a different place than I do. But….

    One response that I don’t think is appropriate is to bury our heads in the sand (or hide a light under a bowl). Unfortunately that has historically been our response. That’s why I’m glad to have been in L.A. and seen godly men and women who were involved in helping to make stories.

    Because after all Jesus followers belong to the best story of all.

  • Bryan Schackmann

    This is one of the reasons that I love movies so much and I watch them constantly! There is always a story within a story.

  • http://www.stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Bryan, good to see you becoming a regular on here. Yeah, if there’s one thing I know about you it’s that you watch a lot of movies.

  • http://www.westcoastwitness.com Wes Woodell

    Dan – the reason Christians are portrayed negatively in Hollywood films is because of the way they’ve responded to Hollywood films. If you were a non-Christian director who’d received a steady stream of hate mail from Christians, been boycotted by Christians, and been picketed by Christians, do you think you’d portray them in a positive light in your films?

  • http://dustcoveredtalmid.blogspot.com/ Dan Gill

    Wes, I think you’re confusing cause and effect. Movies are made from a worldview. That worldview is affected by negative response, but note that it is response. It must have something to respond to. For a filmmaker to lay his anti-Christian worldview at the feet of those who don’t like his anti-Christian worldview is a cop-out. It is akin to those who say “the church is full of hypocrites”, but who really just need an excuse not to be surrendered to God. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

    Now, is the proper response to a negative movie hate mail? No. Not ever. Criticism, yes. Hate, no. Is a proper response picketing. Probably not. There is a case to be made for protest, but it generally just builds publicity for the film in question. (Really, I guess filmmakers should be happy when they are picketed.) Is a proper response boycotting? Absolutely. I will always, and should always consider what I give my money to. I won’t give a cent to a film whose purpose is hatred toward the Bride of Christ. Period. I’m not likely to organize a boycott, but I’ll sure stay away from such a film and encourage others to do so. Hmmm. . . I guess I would organize a small-scale boycott.

  • http://www.westcoastwitness.com Wes Woodell

    Dan – if you’re really interested in this topic, I encourage you to read Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture. That book is a collection of essays written by folks in the film industry, and in my initial post I was parroting what they’ve said.

    There’s a lot about the history of film and the influence it has developed over culture too – pretty good insights.

  • Maynard

    You score again, Storment. I suck at pop culture and usually don’t remember one actor from the next, but Denzel is hard to forget. Interesting tidbit that I do remember reading is that when he was but a child in his grandmother’s beauty parlor and old woman received a prophecy on the spot that he’d be a famous actor. . . I don’t know if there’s a watchdog group for beauty parlor prophetesses, but I think this gal was on to something.

    I’m definitely pleased that Jesus has followers in Hollywood, but I wish that his followers in the rest of America would stop belly-aching about all the sin and corruption coming from there. Yeah, I see it. I get it. I understand. But why are so many Christians whine-bags? It’s annoying.

    It’s as if we just want the world to come to us because we know. . .and we’re right. What happened to evangelism and reaching out and sharing good news and supporting what we do believe in instead of pouting because some Hollywood star or Washington liberal takes a stance that doesn’t fit our culture? . . Which brings me to why I read your blog – you are a relevant voice in what appears to me to be an increasingly irrelevant collective take-our-side-or-else “Christian” mentality.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks Maynard. Part of what I was thinking as I spent time in L.A. was that our culture wars of the past couple of decades just seem to have poor investment/return. I’m not saying this always happens, but too much, Christians can come off as being known for what they are against. And one of the things I appreciated about being there last week was the Christians that I saw pursuing a third way. I heard that prophetess story as well, good stuff.

    Bro. Danny and Wes,

    One guy (who I really liked) this weekend worked at a pretty high level in the movie studios. He’s the same one who was told by his bosses that he was refreshing because he was concerned for other people, not just trying to step over people etc.
    That guy told me that he’s had a few people he worked along side him who would criticize him for following Jesus, or going to church, and his response was classic. He said, “Well that seems awfully closed minded of you.” Which is not a popular thing to say these days, but here’s my point. He said it in a much more relational way. I’m very skeptical of attempting change that is detached from real relationships. And I think that’s what I appreciate the most about the Jesus followers that I was with this weekend. Thanks for weighing in both of you, and Wes thanks for the book recommendation!

  • http://dustcoveredtalmid.blogspot.com/ Dan Gill

    Ditto the thanks, Wes. I’ll look for the book. I fully subscribe to the notion that Christians should be in Hollywood. And not of it? (Insert big, cheesy grin here.) Due to the fact that I’m older than most of the commenters here, I might have a more developed sense of history. The history of the “conflict” between Hollywood and Christians goes back a long way. In fact, the friction existed before there was a Hollywood.

    I was watching “Lost” last night (recorded on Tuesday), and was absolutely floored and moved by the forgiveness and redemption themes in it. I think good changes are coming for Hollywood, AND for the church.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks Bro. Danny, I agree by the way about Lost this week. What a powerful storyline of Redemption. That “I’ll have you” scene was beautiful.

    Also, do you think that Mike Washburn looks like John Locke?

  • http://dustcoveredtalmid.blogspot.com/ Dan Gill

    Whoa! I never thought about the Locke/Washburn connection. But it’s there. And have you noticed that you never see the two of them together? Hmmmmm . . .

  • http://dustcoveredtalmid.blogspot.com/ Dan Gill

    Jonathan, I blogged about that Lost episode the other day. Check it out.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Bro. Danny, I didn’t know you had a blog. I’m on my way to check it out…

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