Confession time. I have to admit, I haven't been the biggest fan of Christian-made movies in the past. And it's for all the reasons you've likely heard: Bad acting, overly preachy/cheesy dialogue that would never happen in real life, special effects that are at least 10 years behind mainstream films, and overly simplistic characters (with either no development or hyperspeed development).
While I will be the first to say that I'm glad people are passionate about what they do and why they do it, it was near impossible for me to get into the films for all those reasons. A good, believable story with realistic characters that speaks to some felt human need will draw me in almost every time.
No, I'm not saying that salvation isn't a felt, human need--I'm just saying the way it's played out doesn't echo what plays out in our daily lives. Perhaps the rationale there is that the filmmakers are hoping that life imitates art, but more often than not, art that's best appreciated is something that imitates experiences we know from real life. I digress.
The year 2014 has been different. I'm not sure what happened, really. I think perhaps enough Christians out there realized that there's more to moviemaking than just the apocalypse or conversion story-type films.
OK, brief break. Click the raptor image below to watch an awesome video... it proves my point.
All that behind us, this past year was incredible, and I'd like to point out three of my favorites so far:
This film is pretty much the best faith-friendly movie I've ever seen. It's real. The people have real problems and are very flawed in many cases. The music is top-notch, and it is moving. The acting is spot on. The script is believable. And to top it all off, it's based on the life of Solomon. Alan Powell has shown us that beyond the boy-band sheen lies some grit and fight as an actor. The film evoked tears at the screening I watched, and I can't wait to see it again in theaters. The message of "life is hopeless without God and without love," resonates without it being specifically spelled out, like many movies of the past have done.
How much fun was this movie? I'm a dad, so I could instantly relate to all the parenting issues displayed throughout (although my kids aren't quite the tornadoes that were in this movie). Patricia Heaton from The Middle and Everybody Loves Raymond was great as a pastor's wife, and lead character Allison (Sarah Drew from Grey's Anatomy fame) really sold the whole "trying to be the perfect mom" thing. I loved that there was some preachiness therein that didn't seem forced, and that at the end of the day, imperfect people realized that only with God could they really measure up. Great message, incredible comedy (I was busting up laughing) and something that's not embarrassing to bring non-Christians to. Oh, and Samwise Gamgee is in it--I mean, Sean Astin is in it!
I came into this one expecting standard Christian cinema, to be honest--and I was totally surprised at home a fairly simple plot setup--putting God on trial--could turn out to be so emotional, heady and natural feeling. Sure, there were some moments that harkened back to unrealistic dialogues and situations, but by and large, it was encouraging to see a very believable character in Shane Harper's Josh living out what it means to be as gentle as doves and as wise as a serpent (VERSE). Oh, and this was clearly Kevin Sorbo's best acting of his career, in my opinion. While it at times oversimplified the mindset of atheists (it's not always because of what God did or didn't do in their lives), and there were some gaping plot holes, I left with an overall feeling of hope and, probably most poignantly, camaraderie amongst fellow believers seeking to represent our faith honestly and gracefully.
Honorable mention: Noah
Just kidding, guys. I know that could really fire you all up. Here's the deal. Sometimes Hollywood tries to court the faith-based wallets, and doesn't do all their homework. Films like Noah and Constantine are the result. If Noah would've changed all the characters' names, it probably wouldn't have ruffled as many feathers, because as a movie, it was pretty interesting to watch. I just had to constantly remind myself that it wasn't at all a biblical depiction.
Of course, there still are plenty of great faith- and family-friendly movies I haven't seen yet, including another music-based film, The Identical, Heaven is for Real, Ragamuffin, Left Behind, and football films When the Game Stands Tall and 23 Blast. (You can learn more about these films on our Movie Trailers page on NRT.)
All of these seem to have strengths. Some of those are strong actors. Others are strong stories and scripts. Others are the boldness to present some heavy subject matter (not always positive and encouraging).
I don't know about you, but I'm perhaps disproportionally excited at where things are going in faith-based filmmaking. What's your favorite Christian-friendly movie?
Over the years, I’ve discovered a dangerous phenomenon with people’s musical tastes. It can’t be cured by conventional means. It sets in at around age 30, and can last until… well… death.
Yes, MPD--or Musical Plateau Disorder--is a common condition that affects millions of people worldwide, transforming them from the musically curious to the kinds of folks who say, “It’s not the way it used to be!” while angrily shaking their fist at young whipper snappers.
Are you suffering from this disorder? Here are some warning signs:
You’re more familiar with an artist’s album from several years ago than those from this year. You can name all of the songs from Thousand Foot Krutch’s Welcome to the Masquerade, but have yet to even check out the band’s “Born This Way” from that new album you can’t name. Extra warning signs if you think TFK covered a Lady Gaga song.
You aren’t exploring new artists. Maybe you think that the smoky, soulful voice of Lauren Daigle isn’t necessary because you’ve already got Dara MacLean. Making small compromises like this opens the door for MPD. Beware. Also, if your music discovery only consists of what you hear on the radio, you may run the risk of MPD exposure. “I Can Only Imagine” is a great song, but one must consider if there are new songs out there that can move you similarly. And exploring outside of “signed” artists into the mysterious world of independent bands certainly provides a strong defense against MPD.
You get completely bent out of shape about a lead singer change and decide to stop listening to said band before remotely giving the new lineup a chance. The phrase, “No, it’s not the same without [fill in the blank],” is a self-evident remark that reveals a very aggressive form of MPD. The past two years since Kristen May has taken over Flyleaf has revealed a lot of people suffering from acute MPD. It’s really sad to see cases that are so severe that it leads to childish, Internet trolldom--especially when they're missing out on some pretty incredible music in the meantime. I’ve also seen it with people who used to follow Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline and Hawk Nelson. If this is you, it’s not too late to re-open your musical mind.
You listen to worship music and say, “That has way too much synth!” or, conversely, say, “I can’t stand this Mumford and Sons style of dancing around the campfire worship!” These, my friends, are called trends in music, and while you’re entitled to your own tastes, the moment you set yourself against a prevailing trend, you put yourself at extra risk of developing MPD.
You’ve stopped attending concerts. I know some incredible 50-somethings (and older!) who aren’t afraid to have their ears ring for several days in order to rock out at Creation Festival or other big-name shows. As soon as you start to feel like concerts are “for the kids,” or aren’t worth the trouble, watch out. Concerts are good vaccinations against MPD (especially if they’re bands you’ve never seen live), and we know what happens if you aren’t properly inoculated.
Now that you know some of the warning signs, I trust that you’ll take this information and respond properly. MPD is a serious problem, and only through education, together, can we put an end to this epidemic once and for all. Please share this to spread the word. Thank you.
About two weeks ago, I posted a simple question on my personal Facebook wall--a question that was fueled by a number of current events.
Violence, death and racial tension in Ferguson. The brutal rise of the ISIS caliphate. A new, troubling ebola epidemic in West Africa. The reality of a new Cold War with Russia and the specter of a third world war. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Highly publicized (and perhaps glorified?) suicide.
These were the things that have ruled the airwaves as of late, and were in the forefront of my mind as I posted the question: "If you had to summarize the narrative in world news these days in one sentence, what would it be?"
There were lots of responses, but the first response immediately struck a chord in my heart.
"We're all going to die."
From what I know of the person who wrote it, they weren't being funny or over-the-top. And in my own analysis, I completely agree with that assessment. (I mean, it's going to happen to us all eventually, right?)
While some people will see those five words as a reason to be afraid and to "take necessary precautions" and whatnot, the people of faith should see that as a reason to refocus on what's important.
We had that focus 13 years ago today, on Sept. 11, 2001, when our concepts of safety, security and our own invincibility crumbled in the rubble of the World Trade Center towers. Our mortality was in full view as we realized that our well-planned Western world was entirely vulnerable.
And while many got angry in the wake of those events, I'd wager to say many more started praying. At a time when we all realized tomorrow wasn't guaranteed, it became crystal clear for many of us that an uncertain future required a rocksteady Savior.
In the face of so many threats these days--both from within and without--we need to walk with the intensity of those days 13 years ago, not out of fear, but out of adequate perception of our reality.
You know, the end could be near. All of these threats could snowball and become the pages of Revelation unfolding in our lifetimes. But even if not, the end is always near. Tomorrow is never guaranteed.
Memento mori, which is the title of Flyleaf's second album, means "remember you will die." The Bible is clear that it's better to hang out at funerals than parties, because only when we realize the brevity of life can we truly be effective in it.
So what do we do with that? Will we just be content being consumers, listening to Christian music, buying Christian CDs, wearing Christian T-shirts? Is it enough to just be positively encouraged? Or is there more for us out there?
For our part, our heart is that these songs--all this stuff we present you with each week on our website--would not be an end unto themselves, but a soundtrack to the life you're called to. Let these be encouraging anthems that begin the healing process when you're beat up out there. Let them be signs to you that at the end of the day, you're not alone. You're in the company of billions of believers from throughout the ages who learned to number their days, and did something with them. And, most importantly, you're in the company of the Creator Himself, and the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
One of the other responses to my Facebook question was, "There is no plan."
It certainly feels that way, and the narrative given by a world that's lost its way certainly supports that. But, rest assured, there is a plan.
You're that plan.
How you carry out the purposes and plan of God is as unique as your DNA, and to hear otherwise is an affront to the Creator. Reach the world with love, forgiveness, reconciliation, social justice, teaching Sunday School--whatever! Live a good story with God. That story always involves the saving of many lives. It always involves others.
On Sept. 11, a lot of people didn't go to work. They couldn't, because the tasks they'd accomplish there just seemed so insignificant in light of what was happening. Instead, they wanted to be with (or call) loved ones. That says something about our perspective when faced with our mortality. See what happens when you follow that logic.
I think that's why last week's blog post resonated with so many people (more than 40,000 of you). There are a lot of us who are tired of just doing church. We're tired of getting hung up on petty infighting and finger pointing when there are still people out there without homes, without food, without hope, and most importantly, without Jesus Himself. The Good News needs to continue to be just that.
Have you ever seen the "Mean Tweets" segment of Jimmy Kimmel Live? For those of you who aren't aware, it's a portion of the show where celebrities read excessively negative or just outright mean posts about them that have been posted on Twitter.
Many of the posts are people's casual comments about public figures' appearances or their general dislike of them. For example, actor Mark Ruffalo read the following tweet that was directed at him: "Really, Mark Ruffalo? That's the face you're going with?"
The segment shows that in this Internet age, people see celebrities as products or ideas rather than actual human beings, and their real-time reactions--which range from angry to sarcastic to slightly rattled--show that even words from "regular folk" to the "celebrities" carry weight.
Sadly, this disconnected trolling of people in the spotlight--people with whom they don't remotely have a relationship--has found a home in Christian music and entertainment.
I've seen it a number of times in my travels on NRT and our various social media--TWICE this week.
"I will never listen to her," one commenter remarked. "I won't be supporting her music," another said. Others wrote her off by calling her "Katy Perry 2.0" And others still took the opportunity to attack her Catholic faith.
I'm sure all these comments would make Audrey stop in her tracks and go, "Oh yeah! You're right! What was I thinking!? I totally should be serving the Church! Because they're so supportive!"
The rampant judgment and pontificating on Audrey's "real motives" was so bad that one of her good friends and even her husband had to weigh in.
They will know we are Christians by our... incredibly harsh rhetoric?
Of course, that wasn't the end. The next day, news of Switchfoot's surprise new EP came with an announcement that they'd be touring this fall with Gungor. What came in the comments section of the Facebook post was nothing less than a full-scale assault on both bands.
"So, you've got Gungor who questions the Bible, and you've got Switchfoot who doesn't want to be classified as a Christian band, touring together," wrote a commenter. "Sounds about right."
"Switchfoot is no Christian band," another summarized.
One of the biggest attacks levied here by fellow believers from the comfort of their keyboard was that Michael Gungor is a heretic because he believes the Genesis account of the Bible is symbolic, rather than literal. Despite the fact that Michael Gungor claims a saving relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, they say that because he "doesn't believe the entire Bible," he isn't a Christian and has no place making music for Christians.
While Michael Gungor's delivery certainly could use some softening when conveying his opinions, the fact of the matter is, the people denouncing the faith of Gungor, Switchfoot, Audrey Assad, or ANY band, pastor, celebrity or anyone with whom they come in contact are deciding to ignore an important part of their own Bibles.
Take a moment and read this. Heck, even skim through it if you're hurting for time.
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person's faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written:
"'As surely as I live,' says the Lord,
'every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.'"
So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.
One of Audrey Assad's detractors had this to write in order to damn her, but instead paints a rather ominous warning to all of us: Those people who "knew about Jesus will be judged more harshly than those who did not."
Think about the non-Christians out there sending those mean tweets. And then think about the people who get on Facebook and Twitter and craft fiery rhetoric that proves why someone isn't a real Christian and is going to Hell.
Who again will be judged more harshly?
Look, it's OK--and healthy!--to have disagreements. The ridiculous statements of Victoria Osteen as of late are a really great example of when it's not only OK to speak up, but where speaking up is much-needed. The line is crossed, however, when people start putting themselves in the place of God, claiming to know human hearts and their eternal destination. That, in my view, is far more dangerous than not believing in a literal 6-day creation. Jesus would probably agree.
Are you not a fan of a band's music? OK. Do you have some disagreements in theology? That's fine, too. Do you not like some of their antics or public activity? Go ahead, see their fruit and make a personal decision not to listen to music or attend a concert. That's quite alright.
But to decide that someone is damned, has renounced their faith or otherwise is fueled by secret, evil motives crosses a line that, no kidding, the Church simply should not and must not cross.
You want to know which Christian musicians really aren't Christians? Too bad. You can't know. But instead, how about praying for them?
OK, let’s play a little game. I’m thinking of an album. It has been out for a little while now, but it’s certainly still considered recent. It’s put out by a fairly well-known entity in Christian music. It has a pop-worship edge to it, and it has “Brave” in the title.
If your answer was Shawn McDonald’s Brave, Moriah Peters’ Brave or Bethel Music’s You Make Me Brave, you’d be right. (For those with good memories, we can throw in Nichole Nordeman’s Brave too.)
Of course, things are changing, and now the focus has turned toward that just released, much-anticipated new album by that high-profile artist that has “Oxygen” in its title.
You know the one… or two, I might say: Oxygen by Lincoln Brewster and Oxygen:Inhale by Thousand Foot Krutch.
When I first caught wind of these similar titles from both the “Oxygen” and “Brave” camps, I cocked my head to the side like a puppy dog. I thought to myself that either these bands were copying one another, that the Nashville bubble is spreading around the same ideas or that those themes are soooooo in right now.
Upon further analysis, I think there’s another, more likely option. These aren’t trends. They’re themes--themes God feels passionately about and wants to communicate to the Church.
In a recent interview with Moriah Peters, I asked her about the fact that her album title is so similar to others released in such a small window of time. Here’s her answer (watch from 7:40 until 9:26).
That really rings true for me. While Christian music is an industry, and a business for sure, we have to remember that at the heart of what’s going on here is one of God’s primary ways of communicating with His church (at least in our culture). And these artists care about being conduits of His heart.
Think about it. At a time when there are plenty of things in the world to scare us and make us disheartened, or at a time when we can feel pressured not to live for God in a world that is increasingly against Him, the message for now--for these days--is be brave. Stand firm. Put on Christ as your strength and your shield.
This is a theme, not a trend, in my view. Because even when Moriah knew that other artists were doing the same thing, she couldn’t back down from “Brave” being the title of the record, because God had impressed that upon her so deeply. She had nothing to gain, and much to lose from sharing a title with at least three other records--two of which had been released the same calendar year!
(Side note: The theme has found its way elsewhere in music, too, from Sara Bareilles to J.Lo to Josh Groban and beyond… there's something to ponder there.)
And a great companion to that message, that theme is that of “Oxygen,” which basically reminds us that our core need to truly live is Jesus. Not only do we need Him more than we need to breathe (another reference--ha!), but our desire is to breathe HIM in. That’s captured not only on the two releases that came out within a week of each other--from Brewster and TFK--but from the title Carrollton’s 2014 release, Breathe In Deep.
So let’s see this for what it is: a theme God is weaving throughout His Church that we are to be brave in Him, and to do so requires a supernatural dependence that allows us to live the abundant life that changes the world for Jesus.
What other themes are you seeing in Christian music or worship songs or albums? What else is God speaking to His people through them? Let’s keep the antennae of our eyes, ears and hearts up so we can perceive what the Spirit is speaking in these times!
Here’s my "Brave Oxygen" Spotify playlist I put together, which features the aforementioned albums (minus Lincoln Brewster’s) and some other similarly themed tunes you’ll enjoy!