How shalom, common good and prosperity can come from an unlikely place.
An interview with Gary Stratton by Jon Hirst.
Today we share an interview with Gary David Stratton, PhD, Chairman of the Christian Ministries Department at Bethel University, Teaching Pastor at Basileia Hollywood, Senior Editor at TwoHandedWarriors.com, and Director of the Hollywood Bezalel Initiative. You can follow Gary on Twitter @GaryDStratton.
What happens when you mix Hollywood, the local church and academia? Few would imagine such a concoction, but that amazing mix of influences is what makes up Gary Stratton’s world. As university professor turned Hollywood mentor and consummate advocate for the local church in Hollywood, Gary is On Call in Culture in a fascinating place. When we asked him what he would say if someone at a party asked him what he does, he laughed and gave a humorous response, “I am a college professor that uses the academy to support my Hollywood habit.”
Gary first moved to Hollywood to serve as Executive Director of Act One, a nonprofit that trains Christians to be On Call in Culture in the world of Hollywood. He described Act One’s role this way, “It is a dynamic community of filmmakers who are serious about four things; becoming great artists, excellent professionals, while creating meaningful film and television by the power of the Holy Spirit and prayer!”
While at Act One, Gary and his wife Sue (also a college professor) realized that too many filmmakers of faith were failing to make it in Hollywood, not because they didn’t have the talent, character and calling required for the industry, but because they didn’t have the spiritual and financial support they needed to make the lengthy and arduous transition from amateur filmmakers to professionals who can support themselves in the industry.
Gary and Sue helped foster three new projects to help meet these needs: First, they started an online community TwoHandedWarriors.com, to help young artists and intellectuals interact and find counsel they need to learn to “re-imagine” faith and culture. Second, Gary and Sue are helping plant a community-oriented church in the heart of Hollywood. Basileia Hollywood is a community of faith where young artists, professionals, and non-profit leaders can find the spiritual and relational support they need to survive and even thrive in the entertainment industry and help meet the needs of the poor and oppressed in the city.
Third, Gary and Sue are helping establish the “Bezalel Initiative,” named after the first Holy Spirit anointed artist and teacher in the Bible, (Exodus 35:30-34). It is a think tank of filmmakers, educators, and philanthropists, seeking new ways to identify, train, mentor, and fund young filmmakers of faith at younger and younger ages. Stratton says, “We want to help find, train, and fund high school filmmakers to get into the best film schools in the world, as well as help college and twenty-something filmmakers get the patronage they need to create their first projects.”
For instance, a group of Act One graduates won Doritos best commercial prize for this year’s Super Bowl (Sling Baby), and the one million dollar prize to go with it. Gary gave the church a challenge, “While it is so exciting they won, the Frito Lay corporation shouldn’t be the only place young Christian filmmakers can go to get a million dollars to help them develop as artists. We should be able to find that patronage in the church. Rather than seeing more and more partnerships with corporate America it would be good to see the church rise up. Some of the best art created in the history of the church was when the church was serious about patronage—so that artists will have the time and resources to make art instead of working at Starbucks and eating peanut butter sandwiches.”
Stratton says, “We are trying to identify what it looks like to grow from an amateur, to a professional and then an industry leader in Hollywood; find the barriers that people face when going from step to step; and then create infrastructure to help people make those transitions.”
Gary shared how many Christians are now acting, directing or participating in the creation of the television and movies that we consume. But that doesn’t mean we will have more Christian movies and television shows. Instead Gary talked about how Christians make a difference in subtle ways in the mainstream entertainment industry. For instance, Act One graduates are now winning Emmy Awards and writing for some of the top television shows, and were involved in helping bring The Blind Side, The Book of Eli, and 2012 Academy Award winner, The Artist, to the big screen. Stratton exhorts, “There is nothing wrong with making ‘Christian Films,’ for the church community, we just need to be realistic that such efforts won’t help us be salt and light in a secular society. We can’t sell ourselves short in our belief that the Holy Spirit can empower us to make some of the greatest films, television shows, web series, and video games in the world, and be good citizens and loving neighbors in the industry in the process.”
We asked Gary to share about what being On Call in Culture meant to him. He focused on the idea of connections,
“Being On Call means connecting things that sadly have not been connected for at least a generation. The church has been very insular. Training in the church has focused on training people to serve in the church. A leader in the church is defined as someone who is investing in church programs.
If you are in a culture war mentality then you build the walls high. The world is every bit as much in the Church as it is in the culture. We need a more Jeremiah 29 approach, where people are functioning for the Shalom, common good and prosperity of the cities where we have been carried into exile. Christians either ignore or curse Hollywood. But God wants us to bless it. Like Joseph in Egypt, Esther in Susa, and Daniel in Babylon, God is calling us to be faithfully present, and pray for the welfare of our city.”
Dr. James Hunter describes that faithful presence in To Change the World and it is a powerful way to define being On Call in Culture. Gary believes that our daily actions should create culture rather than react to it. He spoke about the Christian’s role in forming culture, “The best part of Andy Crouch’s book [Culture-Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling] is that we need to be about making culture rather than transforming culture. Transforming culture can become derivative rather than original.”
Gary uses the example of Bezalel in the Old Testament (Exodus 31) to illustrate. Bezalel was filled with the Spirit for artistic craftsmanship and for creating a teaching community. Gary explains, “Your heroes control your culture. We have not celebrated that the Spirit of God was in the artist who worked on the temple. Bezalel and the guys working under him were culture makers. They weren’t trying to redeem Egyptian culture or the culture of Canaan. They were making culture. They were starting with the theological premise and creating things with goodness, beauty and truth and bringing the presence of God into that broader community.”
He explains how the root of the word culture is “cult” worship and that anthropologists realized that what a given society worshiped is what shaped the entire society. The foundational stories (i.e. their creation myth) are what shape the culture. “The church just abdicated that; arguably since the Reformation. Kuyper was a good example of someone trying to push back against that.”
So are you open to being On Call in Culture in places like Hollywood? How are you and your faith community supporting artists who have the gifts and talents to make quality TV and movies? Maybe a good place to start is by connecting with Act One!