Last weekend I had the joy of sharing in a special meeting in Newport Beach, California, that was appropriately named the Issachar Project. This small project is the work, primarily, of my friend Andrew Sandlin of the Center for Cultural Leadership. Andrew is convinced that there must be an intellectual and existential coalition of (1) Christians working in Hollywood and elsewhere in the film industry and (2) serious Christian thinkers in the arts.
You may recall that the sons of Issachar are described in the Scriptures as “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Their number was small but their impact was great. This unique gathering included men and women, mostly under forty. The purpose of this group was not to form a “think tank” but rather to explore the neglected dimension of knowing God through beauty and imagination, in other words to explore how we know him incarnationally, not merely intellectually.
Most of the invited participants at this unusual meeting were film and television script writers, producers, teachers of the arts and reviewers. We heard four presentations on subjects like how Genesis 1 provides a storyline for narrative, how we should understand Acts 17 as it relates to the Mars Hill context of our times, and why we should watch films in the first place. Brian Godawa, author of the outstanding, and highly recommended new book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment (InterVarsity Press), was a major contributor to the event, as was Jack Hafer, who produced the fantastic feature film, “To End All War.”
I did not have much to contribute to this event, since I am not directly involved in movies myself. (I am an amateur movie reviewer now and then and I confess a real love for film as a modern art form.) I do believe the active presence of serious Christians in Hollywood is an important step forward in the culture. There is clear evidence that incremental gains are being made through the work of many of those who were present at the Issachar Project gathering.
There were so many gems shared in this meeting that I can’t begin to relate them all. I will list only a few. My friend David Bahnsen, who is a businessman, and a non-film maker like me, stated that he was committed, as I am equally committed, to “the complete annihilation of the sacred and secular distinction.” It appears to me that this is the fundamental problem most conservative Christians have with film. Until Bahnsen’s goal is realized among serious Christians we will not impact the world in a Kuyperian (and truly Christian) sense. Andrew Sandlin reminded us of Karl Barth’s statement, that fits nicely with my own teaching of apologetics, when he noted: “Apologetics is not a prelude to the gospel, apologetics is the gospel.” Several speakers reminded us of the need to understand and use metaphors if we would connect with people. (I am amazed at how badly Christians miss this point when the Bible is so clear about it.) Here was a blunt statement that I resonated with deeply: “You can treat people like crap so long as you are sure you are right!” Whew, that about says it for some modern evangelical Christians who think they believe nothing but the truth and thus can treat other people as they wish. This is precisely why we have so little impact in places like film and television. Another note I took said, “Christians must not resist telling their own story. If we have a story, which we do, then we ought to tell it and tell it well.”
One point stood out to me at several different junctures. The single most important evangelical thinker, at least in getting Christians back into the culture, was the late Francis Schaeffer. His name was cited again and again as the singularly most important pioneer who helped people “see” these issues clearly when Christians were on the cultural sidelines in the 1970s. I don’t think we appreciate Schaeffer enough. His weaknesses, to my mind, are quite apparent, but his positive contribution was huge.
Producer Jack Hafer ended our day on Saturday by giving us three reasons to watch film. (Jack was converted to faith in Christ in fundamentalism and thus had to undergo a real change in life views to enter this industry!) He urged us to watch film for discernment, in order to understand the zeitgeist of our time, the “spirit of the age.” We must grow our ability to discern he argued. Second, we should watch film for enrichment. We need to enjoy life and film can help that to happen. We also need to grow personally and film helps that as well. Bach said this well: “Music is for the glorification of God and the entertainment of the mind.” So is film. Finally, we should watch film for conversation. Citing my fellow Wheaton evangelism professor Rick Richardson’s Evangelism Outside the Box:New Ways to Help People Experience the Good News (InterVarsity Press) book, Jack urged us to look for “soul awakenings” that can come through movies. Movies open doors to conversation and allow us to talk about things that truly matter to people. We were challenged to understand that “We can let the world change us with movies or we can change the world with movies.”
ACT 3 is committed, in its third core commitment, to “advancing the mission Christ’s kingdom by teaching believers and churches to engage both people and culture with the story of Jesus Christ.” Maybe this was why I was present at the Issachar Project. Thanks Andrew Sandlin for having the vision to take on such a culture changing project. I was gratified to be present and to meet so many cool Christians from such a wide and diverse background. I will never watch movies the same way in the future and I will continue to pray for my friends who work diligently within this industry. I look forward to more dialogue and deeper friendships with the folks I met this weekend.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."