Is Hollywood Ninevah? (06/05/2003)
Will we rejoice at the responsiveness of the entertainment community or be angered that the rich and powerful have the potential to be forgiven?
A view from an insider and a Vegetable
By Karen Covell
People of faith often compare Hollywood to Sodom and Gomorrah, a cesspool of sin and skin beyond redemption, already condemned. From the early days of film, Christians have adopted the role of moral watchdog, monitoring movie content and launching boycotts. From Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 The Sign of the Cross to Martin Scorsese’s 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ, the religious community has played the role of cinematic policemen, defending God from big screen sin. Yet, our best efforts to condemn Hollywood have mostly resulted in free publicity for films we’ve opposed. Perhaps it’s time to view Hollywood more like Nineveh and less like Sodom.
The new video release of the Big Idea feature film, Jonah: A Veggie Tale, features an entertaining array of colorful graphics and singing vegetables. Yet amidst all the bright banter lies a surprising, often overlooked message to people of faith. As in the Book of Jonah, God sends a prophet to deliver a message of warning and judgment to Ninevah. Yet, Jonah resists the mission, heading in the opposite direction. When he does deliver the message of judgment, Jonah’s frustrated by the Ninevites’ receptiveness. Holly McClure’s review at Crosswalk.com noted, “”I have to be truthful and admit something. I related to Archibald Asparagus’ anger towards the Ninevites. Not only his feeling of them not “deserving” God’s forgiveness, but his anger at God not destroying the repentant Ninevites. But when Khalil scolds him and asks, “Has it ever occurred to you that God loves everybody – not just you?” Ouch! That hit home.”
While Jonah approached Ninevah with a message of judgment, God’s ultimate judgment fell upon Jonah. In our mission to Hollywood, we may find ourselves like Jonah, humbled by massive changes of hearts and minds. Will we rejoice at the responsiveness of the entertainment community or be angered that the rich and powerful have the potential to be forgiven? Can you imagine marching around the Massai tribe and screaming at them for their practice of public teen-age circumcision and threatening to never buy their bracelets again if they don’t stop?! The truth is that these tactics don’t work. As an insider, working as an independent producer here for the past 20 years and married to a composer, I can confidently state that I have never met a person in Hollywood who has become a Christian because of a boycott!
So what is the best way to “reach” or “change” Hollywood? For On Mission warriors, it’s prayer. Oswald Chambers said that “prayer is not preparation for the greater work, prayer is the greater work. We will see mountains move, hearts change and America roll into a full-scale revival – if we pray for Hollywood. Replace any anger, fear or frustration toward the media with prayer, There are even a few established prayer efforts that you can join: MasterMedia International has a Media Leader Prayer Calendar that lists two Media influencers to pray for every day of the year. The Hollywood Prayer Network unifies Christians around the world to pray for Hollywood and the people in it by sending out monthly emails with information, people and shows to pray for. It currently reaches over 1,000 faithful prayer warriors who believe that Hollywood just needs God’s mercy and He hears the prayers of the righteous in order to pour His mercy upon this place. For through prayer for Hollywood comes cultural revival. On Mission readers are encouraged to join this global effort of prayer at www.hollywoodprayernetwork.org.
The only way projects coming out of Hollywood will change is if the hearts of the people producing them change. And it’s more imperative to change hearts than to just have “cleaner” programming. The Production Code instituted in 1934 tried for “cleaner” programming, but it faded away, replaced by our current ratings system. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s efforts to purge Hollywood of communist influence in the 1950s faded away. Every new protest or ban has a season of apparent progress, but over time it fades away. And the cycle will continue until we stop making Hollywood act like Christians and start focusing on them becoming Christians. And that will happen only through prayer.
When a TV network executive recently became a Christian through his relationship with a “missionary” here. He embraced Jesus in the midst of developing an “edgy” sitcom for his network. Once his heart changed he suddenly looked at his script and started editing, cutting and adding until the script became impossible to produce. His response: “Once I became a Christian I just can’t write this stuff any more.” That’s only one miracle among many inside stories of God transforming people who then impact the product. He couldn’t act like a Christian until he became one.
Secondly, the Christian community can acknowledge Hollywood as a mission field by sending more missionaries. Talented people who are grounded in their faith should be encouraged to come to Hollywood. Solid churches in L.A. hold annual commissioning services, recognizing and praying for all their talented, artistic members working in a very difficult mission field. Parents of dramatic or artistic children should not to be afraid to send them to Hollywood. The church lifts up and celebrates young people who feel called to go to Africa, China and the far reaches of India. Are these places safer, or more blessed by God than Hollywood? The Los Angeles Film Studies Centers offers a semester in Hollywood program for students through the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Young people have the opportunity to intern with companies like Miramax, Universal, and Sony while living in a supportive Christian educational community.
NAMB has already come on board to recognize Hollywood as a mission field. They’ve joined the Hollywood Prayer Network’s grass roots movement to change the entertainment industry from the inside out. NAMB just accepted their first full-time missionary to the entertainment industry. Victorya Michaels Rogers, a former agent with a high-powered Beverly Hills firm, now serves as a consultant and Southern Baptist Hollywood missionary. Victorya bridges the gap between Christians outside the industry and professionals on the inside. She states, “People are always telling me they can’t believe there are actually Christians in Hollywood. The fact that there are so few is a shame and partially the fault of the churches of America. Yes, that’s right. The church has “preached” Christians away from the entertainment industry for decades and it’s my mission to help get Christians back! We need Christians here – in the secular television and feature film industry – to be active in producing television series and feature films that will project positive moral values while they simultaneously build relationships here with the non-believers. These are two things that are desperately missing.”
Victorya is as bold in her faith as she was as an agent. She has given away scores of Bibles and copies of “The Day I Met God” (a book that we co-wrote with my husband Jim which tells 32 true stories of people whose lives were transformed when they became Christians. It includes some Hollywood celebrities such as Randy Travis and Gloria Gaynor, to name a few) to her industry associates. Victorya has shared her faith with almost every work associate and she maintained 60 hour weeks while enrolled in Seminary. For years she also taught a 10-week class that we created for Christian industry professionals called “How To Talk About Jesus Without Freaking Out.” The book, by the same name, is available in Christian book stores and it includes many Hollywood stories while training readers to share their faith in a culturally relevant way. “The Day I Met God” is the perfect gift for a seeking friend or associate of any On Mission missionary for, like Hollywood, it depends on the power of story to preach it’s message.
Years ago, Jim and I became friends with a Soap Opera writer whom we met in a Christian group. Shelly signed up for the class we were teaching on “How To Talk About Jesus Without Freaking Out” and all was going well until she needed to write out her personal testimony and tell it to the class. Shelly was the most prolific writer in the room and yet she was the only one who could not write her three minute story. As much as we tried to encourage her no words came. Finally one night, after listening to five people give their testimonies in class, Shelly realized that all of these people changed at some point in their lives. She could not think of a time when she had changed. So, she walked in her house, shut the door and asked God to change her – right there in her dark foyer. And He did. From that moment on Shelly was a new creature. And now, years later, not only are we committed prayer partners but she has her own stories of how being the only Christian on staff of her major Soap Opera has opened up miraculous doors.
Thirdly, embrace the media as a powerful outreach tool for your non-Christian neighbors, friends, family members and associates. Recent movies like A Walk to Remember, Extreme Days, and Signs make fabulous discussion starters. Brian Godawa, in his book Hollywood Worldviews, gives great advice on how to use films and television shows as wonderful tools to discuss God in a relaxed social setting. Godawa says, “Invite friends to begin a movie discussion group. Try to pick movies that will be the least offensive for a wider appeal. Watch different kinds of movies each time… Be a facilitator for the discussion.” Godawa lists potential questions, such as: “What did you like and not like about the production of the film? What about the writing, directing, cinematography and acting? How does the character grow and change and is there redemption of the hero? What themes are explored in the movie? What worldviews are explored in the film? What do you think the filmmakers are saying about the human condition?” Peter Fraser & Vernon Neal remind us in their book ReViewing The Movies, “A film is made by people, individuals working together, and it needs to be evaluated as the collective speech of a group of people, sinful people hopeless apart from grace. Is it truth or does it lie? Here is a crucial artistic question.”
On Mission readers can be creative in using films as outreach tools. Because Americans love to talk about movies, we can use that medium to encourage discussions over a casual dinner and a video. I suggest you choose a film that has impacted you and invite some friends over to watch it. Afterwards, talk about how it moved you. You can start with three powerful yet provocative films that have deep spiritual messages. Signs is a film that deals with real life and death questions. Do your friends agree with the theme that everything happens for a reason and there are no coincidences? Braveheart is a rough film, yet with the most Christ-like character in William Wallace that has been found in films today. An entire evening could be spent just discussing the theme “every man dies, but few men really live.” Amadeus is a classic film which will spark a lively response to Mozart’s submission to God which led him to artistic freedom while Salieri’s greed for fame destroyed him. And you can invite the entire neighborhood over to celebrate It’s a Wonderful Life.
Rob Johnston, professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Seminary, has a monthly film night at his home where he chooses a film with a strong ‘food’ theme and then he and his wife serve that same food for dinner before screening the film. His friends love it and the discussion arises as they eat “Fried Green Tomatoes” or join “Babette’s Feast” or indulge in “Chocolat.” There are many creative ways to make films and/or TV shows a wonderful social/outreach event with meaningful discussion. The surprising, gospel-laced content of R-rated films like Amistad, The Green Mile, Changing Lanes, and The Matrix should encourage believers. If we focus exclusively on the offensive content of films, we may miss the profound spiritual opportunities God has placed before us. Potent, postmodern films like Magnolia, Fight Club, American Beauty, The Road to Perdition and Dogma are drenched with theological implications and evangelistic potential. As Colorado-based author Ken Gire says in Reflections on the Movies, “I would rather be told an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie….Because so much more is at stake then my sensibilities and how they may be offended. Truth is at stake, which means lives are at stake. Not just physical lives but spiritual lives. And not just here and now but for all eternity.”
Lastly, educate yourself on how to approach the media. A new website, Moviemission.com, offers a Bible study guide to accompany upcoming releases. There are many books by respected Christian insiders who have a contageous passion for film and TV. Embrace their passion and know that we will better understand our generation if we truly understand our films: Hollywood WorldViews by,Brian Godawa, Ken Gire’s Reflections on the Movies, ReViewing The Movies by Peter Fraser & Vernon Edwin Neal, Robert K. Johnston’s Reel Spirituality, and the renowned Roaring Lambs by Bob Briner. On the last page of Briner’s book he challenges America with these words: “I recall numerous missionary conventions where young people would be challenged to commit themselves to missions… That same spirit needs to prevail when we think about sending our children into the rough and tumble world of television, film, and other culture-shaping careers. These are the new missionaries that have a shot at turning our nation back toward God. I envision a whole new generation of roaring lambs who will lay claim to these careers with the same vigor and commitment that sent men like Hudson Taylor to China. Will you dare share that vision with me?”
Share the vision with us here in Hollywood. Join us in our spiritual fight to bring revival in the land and believe that “God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn Hollywood, but that Hollywood might be saved through Him.” Perhaps, just like Jonah, we’ll find ourselves surprised by a highly receptive audience.
TV Producer/Director of Hollywood Prayer Network
For more info on Karen and her husband Jim go to www.thrillinglife.com
Co-Author of “How To Talk About Jesus Without Freaking Out” and “The Day I Met God”, Multnomah Publishers