Sunday, October 25, 2015

How the World’s Worst Movie is Technically Christian

Reposted from my Watching God blog on Patheos.

I have a soft spot in my heart (and possibly on the brain) for bad movies. If there’s anything I like more than a good movie, it’s an awful one. And this may be a good thing, given my line of work. While I believe Christian movies are getting better, and sometimes they’re even pretty good, some of them are … well, not.

But would it surprise you to learn that Plan 9 From Outer Space—considered by many to be the worst movie ever—is technically a piece of Christian cinema? No, really, it’s true. Hear me out.
For those unfamiliar with the glories of Plan 9, a quick recap (as near as I can remember): Aliens invade earth and begin raising folks from the dead to, I guess, frighten all of humanity so much that they’d stop making bombs. Here’s how the movie started:

Made by legendary anti-auteur Ed Wood in 1956 (but not released until 1959), this story of zombie-vampirism, space invasion and government conspiracy featured none other than the great Bela Lugosi as, of course, a zombie vampire.
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Bela Lugosi, Plan Nine from Outer Space
Alas, he died early on in the movie, so Wood hired his wife’s chiropractor to fill in. Since the guy was several inches taller than Lugosi and looked nothing like him, the chiropractor (Tom Mason) spent his screen time stooping and covering his face with his cape. But really, that’s just a minor tic in Plan 9‘s shivering mass of terribleness. Given its cardboard gravestones, floating flying saucers and wonderfully weird dialogue, no wonder that it was dubbed in 1980 as “the worst movie ever made” by Michael and Harry Medved.
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Not Bela Lugosi, Plan 9 From Outer Space
Who would’ve financed such a movie, you ask? Well, turns out, the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills. “Ed had convinced them that they should finance a film with the teenage appeal of the time,” writes Susan MacDonald in “The Dreamscapes of Edward  D. Wood Jr.”, “and that this film would then generate the money needed to make twelve films about the apostles of Christ—which were the movies that the Baptist Church of Beverley Hills really wanted to make.” But before the church forked over the money, they insisted that the whole cast be baptized. So they were.
And according to Rob Craig’s book Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films, two of the church’s leaders play gravediggers, uttering these immortal lines:
“Don’t like hearin’ noises—’specially where they ain’t supposed to be any!”
“Yeah! Sorta spooky-like!”
So there you have it: You can look at this little fact as proof that the church helped contribute something truly, utterly unique to the canon of American film … or that Christian movies have been bad for a long time.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Phil Vischer and the Theology of Jellyfish

Originally posted on my Watching God blog on Patheos.
Phil Vischer has always been one of my favorite storytellers. My kids drew up watching Vischer’s VeggieTales—a rare faith-based product that was both seriously Christian and delightfully entertaining—and he’s continued telling stories through his JellyTelly characters, headed by the intrepid big-headed puppet Buck Denver.
But his latest feels like one of the most personal stories he’s told yet.
“You might even call it autobiographical,” Vischer told me.
1008galaxybuckIn Galaxy Buck: Mission to Sector 9 (available onOct. 11 here and lots of other places), Buck has made a career change—from “Man of News” to a phone jockey in a galactic parachurch ministry. And while one should never look down’s one bulbous felt nose at gainful employment, Buck does bridle at spending his days in a non-descript cubicle. He keeps a poster that says “God wants you to do big things,” and he just doesn’t think shipping out tote bags really fits the “big things” bill.
But when he gets the chance to do something really big—hop in a spaceship with his own fearless crew to fix a transmitting station on an (ahem) uninhabited planet—things go Martian in a hurry. A sandstorm whips up. His crewmates disappear. A critical transmitter component is oddly missing. And Buck soon finds himself in the company of a strange, old hermit who promptly tears Buck’s prized poster in two.
He gives the top half—the half that says “God wants you”—back to Buck.
“I need the other half,” Buck says.
“No you don’t,” the hermit insists.
And he takes Buck on a tour of his jellyfish farm—suggesting that it’s the jellyfish who get what we Christians are supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to float on the current of God’s love and take it to where He takes us. Buck doesn’t need to stress himself out over the need to do “big things” for God. God isn’t interested in our performance. He’s just interested in us.
Vischer knows all about trying to do big things for God. VeggieTales, the core product of Vischer’s Big Idea Entertainment, was a runaway phenomenon in the late 1990s. But the company eventually collapsed—a history that Vischer himself unpacks in ablog. “I wanted to build the next Disney,” he wrote in 2004. But to achieve this—to do this “big thing”—required more money, more people, more effort and, as it turns out, a great deal more debt. Eventually the whole thing fell apart after the release of Jonah: a VeggieTales Movie. Big Idea went into bankruptcy and the VeggieTales brand was sold.
“Following God starts with a relinquishment of your own ego, your own goals,” Vischer says. It was a painful lesson, and one he shares in talks at churches and college campuses across the country. Now, he’s teaching the same lesson to the children and families he’s been reaching for most of his adult life, using it as a counterbalance to one of the culture’s most seductive themes.
1008 phil vischerChildren’s programming is often replete with messages about following your dreams, according to Vischer. “There’s the assumption in there that if I want it, it must be good,” he says. “But just because I want something, is it automatically good for you?” Even kids get that that’s not true, Vischer adds, “but once we start using the language of dream, there’s a moral implication.”
Vischer’s trying to simply hang out in the current of God’s love these days: No accident that he calls his new business Jellyfish Labs. And instead of spending months and months crafting a computer-animated VeggieTales story, Buck Denver and his gamut of puppets allow him to turn things around much more quickly and be a bit more spontaneous, too—particularly in his popular podcasts.
He talks about the four years and the millions of dollars he and his team spent makingJonah. When it was all done, the team still had to piece together some extras for the DVD—including an audio commentary featuring Mr. Lunt (voiced by Vischer) and Larry the Cucumber (Mike Nawrocki).
“We ad-libbed the whole thing,” Vischer says, “and it was funnier than the movie was!”
‘Course, being funny isn’t something that Christians always do well, even Christian entertainers. And Vischer admits that it’s a ticklish thing to pull off. “People who make Christian films are usually deadly serious,” he says. They go into their stories hoping to save audiences from hell itself.
I’ve got to save them,” Vischer says, stepping into the shoes of a Christian storyteller, “and hey, that made me just think of something funny!
It makes what Vischer does all the more remarkable, I think.
“I’m not a pure storyteller,” he admits. “I would have a hard time writing a novel—500 pages with some hinted-at lessons.”
Which is fine. As Buck Denver himself might say, God doesn’t call us all to write big books. But Vischer, as a hybrid teacher and storyteller, has found a nice sweet spot for himself, has made a pretty big difference.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Walk: A High-Wire Act That’s Not About Faith (But Sort of Is)

This was originally posted on my Patheos blog, Watching God.
When I was youngish, a friend of mine and I went to check out the Black Canyon of the Gunnison during a camping trip. It looks something like this.
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Photo courtesy Wikimedia
Very pretty, yes? But it’s also a long way down from the ridge of the canyon to its rocky, watery bottom. A really, really long way down. So my friend and I—brave, stupid fellows who once tried to break through the ice on a lake while standing on it—literally crawled on our hands and knees to look over the edge. Heights are not really our thing.
This made me, perhaps, not the best person to see The Walk.
The Walk, for those of you who don’t know, is based on the true story of Frenchman Phillippe Petit’s illegal 1974 high-wire performance between World Trade Center towers. In real life, Petit spent about 45 minutes on that wire, walking and kneeling and lying down on a thin cable of steel 110 stories above the Manhattan streets. In the movie, it felt like a couple of weeks. It’s intended, I think, to be a film saluting Petit’s bravery, ingenuity and sheer stubborn will. Given my mild acrophobia, I just wanted the guy to get caught before he even started his walk. The ground’s not so bad, Phillippe. Really.
Had I been thinking about how this little tightrope stunt would impact me—in 3-D IMAX, no less—I would’ve brought in a bottle of Tums.
This is not a knock on the movie. Really, it illustrates just how effective it is. And even for me, the flick had some pretty beautiful moments in it.
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Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk
For instance, the moment when Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) first steps onto the wire stretching between the two towers. Clouds envelop the scene, and the wire vanishes in a blue-cotton haze in the distance. Petit speaks of the comfort that comes from placing his foot on the wire—how it supports him, how the towers support the wire.
And in that moment, it felt like a picture of faith.
Faith and tightrope walking, oddly enough, have a strange, shared history. Nik Wallenda, the tightrope walker who walked over Niagara Falls in 2012, is a Christian whose faith is instrumental in his work. “I grew up in a born-again Christian family,” he told QMI Agency at the time. “That’s the way I was raised and I find comfort and peace in that.” Loads of preachers have recounted the story of another famed French tightrope walker, Charles Blondin, who walked across the falls in 1860. He allegedly performed many great feats on that line, including pushing a wheelbarrow full of potatoes across it.
“Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?” he allegedly asked the crowd gathered at the edge of Niagara Falls. “Yes!” the crowd shouted. But when he asked for volunteers, not a one of them took Blondin up on the trip.
It’s an illustration, pastors say, of a weak faith: We say we believe, but do we? Do we really?
I thought of that illustration as I watched the end of The Walk—Petit held up by this thin cord. Petit trusted. He had faith.
It was not a blind faith: He calculated the weight of the wire needed, the stabilizers it would require, all manner of eventualities. He’d been a tightrope walker for years, even practicing on wires that his friends would tug and yank, replicating the high winds he might expect 110 stories up. He trusted his skills, his equipment, his friends.
But the stunt required a severe, unblinking sort of faith even so. Any sensible man might still look at the wire—stretched nearly 1,400 feet up in the air—and grow fearful. I mean, how could a sensible man not? But Petit was taught by his mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), that fear and doubt mean death. When Petit feels an inkling of doubt during his training in the movie, the wire shakes and buckles. Sometimes, Petit falls. He has the skills to make it across, no doubt. But if he doubts his skills? Loses heart in the moment? If he lets the wire’s height or length get to him? There’s no way Petit would make it across.
“It’s impossible,” Petit says. “But I’ll do it.”
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Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk
I was reading a story the other day bySalon’Darin Strauss about how difficult it is, in this age of rationality, to have faith. “How, against a contemporary background, do you contemplate the almighty?” he wrote. “Who believes there’s an oasis in 2015’s scattered metaphysical sand?” Some say that it’s impossible to believe in God today. Foolish, perhaps. The ground’s not so bad.
But yet, those of us who believe in God feel our faith underneath our feet, holding us up. We feel the strength of what our faith is attached to. This is not a strange, frightening place; it is life itself. We believe. And we walk.
“The wire is a safe place for me to be,” Phillippe Petit once said. “It’s a rigorous and simple path. It’s straight. You don’t have meanders like, you know, on the ground, in life.”
Funny how walking as a Christian is often characterized in the same way. Rigorous. Simple. Straight.
I can’t claim to be free of fears or doubts. If my faith is a wire, it sometimes shakes. I sometimes fall. But I do have faith—faith that something special is waiting on the other side.