Be Careful, Little Ears

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The city windows reflect sunlight.  They illuminate the pocked and broken edges of sidewalk slabs laid end to end in a trailing grid that binds roads into blocks from which towers of steel and concrete shoot hundreds of feet into the sky.  Tires tread the streets and feet tread those sun-illuminated gray pathways.  Here is the scent of a leather briefcase, there the sound of a cell phone ringing.  My attention drifts between women with pressed dresses and high heels and men in Armani wearing Swiss time pieces on their wrists.  Handshakes, laughter, luxury sedans, and giant sky scrapers, the temples of wealth, commune together here on Wall Street.  Of course, these scenes do not dwell here alone.  Old army boots jut out across those same sidewalk slabs.  Here a stream of alcohol trickles sideways.  There, urine cuts a sister path from under a slumbering mass of grime, and grit, and skin, and soul.  Cardboard signs of old men, young women, mentally ill, and frauds all lie strewn about their creators.  “Need bus fare.” One broadcasts.  Another says, “Fought for my country, but it didn’t fight for me.  Anything will help.”  Some need transportation, some need food, and some have no physical need at all, but are there for the handout.  All need love.  If one looks over the cast of companies and characters that inhabit this world, one might just miss idealists, but there they sit.  Beanies and beards, plugs in their lobes and piercing here and there, but in their midst a bearded man with a djembe drum wearing an off-white tee sits talking to them.  What is he saying?  I drift closer hear the words:

“… just strolled past him to his car.  This wealthy man did not once look at the poor beggar he stepped over as he went to buy, sell and trade.  The wealthy man had the chance to donate to charity, but did not.  He had a chance to volunteer at a local inner city school tutoring kids, but he did not.  He had the wealth needed to give this beggar a full meal for every day of his life, but did not once help him get a single morsel of bread.  Not one cracker.  Most of all, he deprived him any kind of interaction.  He simply stepped over him.

“The story goes that this wealthy man opposed social programs for the poor.  He paid for political ads to cut health programs.  He believed food stamps to be a disincentive to work.  He did not support the work of private charities either.  In fact, he despised all the poor he navigated around every day to get home.  At city hall, he complained about their loitering and backed a resolution to remove them from the public streets.

“Years passed and the poor beggar died of exposure, and it just so happened that the same week, the wealthy man crashed his car and died.  The poor man was caught up to be in heaven with his grandparents, his parents, and his siblings.  The wealthy man went to hell and lived there in the flames.  The wealthy man called out across the void of space and time into heaven saying, ‘Please, give me something to drink, for it is hot in this waste land.’  The beggar’s grandfather shouted back at the wealthy man, ‘You had comfort while you were on earth, and my grandson had none, but now he is comforted and happy, and you are to live in grief.’”

I listen on as this group of idealists and hipsters discuss with the storyteller themes of justice and injustice, rights to property, responsibility to fellow humans.  “What does it mean for life to be fair?  Does God create disparity?  Does man need to fight it?  What does it mean to have comfort?”

A new voice draws my attention to my left.  It rings in clarity and with alarm.  “You are being led astray by this stranger!  The Bible clearly states that the dead sleep!  They do not go to Heaven or Hell when they die!  They go into the ground!  See how stealthily the enemy works his little bit of falsehood into his story!  See how he wishes to fool you!  This is blasphemy, for a God of love would never make such a system!  See how he speaks against God!”

As I listen to this man, I wonder.  Does he see himself as relevant?  It is clear that those within the conversation do not.   One man shakes his head and grins at his companion.  Another straight up asks the newcomer who invited him in the first place.  A girl turns to a young man she holds hands with and derides, “That’s what you sound like when you try to talk to my family about Nascar, babe!  Clueless!”

The newcomer does not understand, and he continues on to point to texts, to books, and to anecdotes to try and convince them of his point.  His uncle’s friend knew a guy who fell prey to believing in life after death, and it led him to séances and spiritualism.  He had seen people drawn away into deception by such false teaching before.  The people around the story teller simply shake their heads, pat each other on the backs, they thank the storyteller for the discussion, and then they disperse to go their separate ways to try and fight for a more just world.  They leave the ranting man behind, not because they are rebellious toward him, but because he is simply not relevant to the conversation.

Our minds are tricky.  A devout fundamentalist Muslim’s conscience may warn against giving up female genital mutilation.  Slave owners believed they were preserving the God-ordained order to which God entrusted them.  We are easily fooled by confirmation bias, and often we mistake this bias for the work of our consciences.

When Harry Potter came out, we endured a cavalcade of books and videos denouncing the books as evil.  Some are afraid of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, George McDonald, and all the rest.  It hasn’t stopped either.  The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Percy Jackson have brought out similar responses from the Christian community.  There are people who build their whole idea of ministry on the practice of carrying on an irrelevant dialogue with popular culture.  They see Satan at work in every new film or book.  They frame every quote from literature in a literal Biblical context rather than dealing with quotes in the contexts of the narratives in which they dwell.  Most of all, they ignore the greater realities of the effects of pop literature on the world around them.  When actual research replaces anecdote, the world sees the ways that these stories can positively change attitudes.

At the end of the day, it is no sin to be irrelevant.  The man ranting at the story teller and the hipsters on the sidewalk is not evil or bad.  However, there is a consequence.  When we hear what we want to hear, and when we don’t actually listen to the contexts of the stories and ideas around us, people simply leave.  We have proven ourselves irrelevant, so what reason do they have to stay?  When a person is irrelevant, people don’t stay around.

So be careful, little ears, what you hear, be careful, little ears, what you hear, for you have biases and perspectives which may render your ideas irrelevant, so be careful, little ears, what you hear.

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Rudolph, Hermey, the Shepherds, and the Island of Misfit Toys

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Musty… A mixture of straw, manure, and mold.  That’s what I remember from my first interaction with sheep.  One of the boys in my one-room Adventist school was the son of a shepherd and our class went to his sheep farm to see the sheep.  My most vivid memory of Levi is of him pinning me to the bathroom stall wall and saying hypnotically into my face, “I’m your friend.”  I don’t remember being entirely convinced.  Upon visiting the sheep farm, one of them kicked me.  I wonder if I would have had the same impression of sheep today if I had grown up tending them.  If you have ever been in 4H club, your hobby experience was probably pretty different than mine was growing up. I have never known the joy of bottle feeding a calf or having a pig to call my own.  Also, you might have a slightly better idea of what the challenge of managing sheep is like.  From my singular experience with both smell, and the kick, I think I might overestimate the difficulty of modern shepherding.  None of us, however, would really have the authority to talk about what it was like to be a shepherd in Jesus’ time, for it is a world so different from ours as to render much of our understanding impotent.  I’m willing to bet that it was stinky, but to the people of the time, sheep were money, and money was life, so perhaps they thought of it like we think of the smell of a crisp new Benjamin.  Or maybe they still thought of it as just the stench of a smelly sheep.  Either way, just as today we often do not manage our 401ks, the wealthy people of Jesus’ day didn’t manage their sheep.  They had others do it for them, then judged them for what tactics those shepherds had to use in order to compete in their jobs.  As Kenneth E. Bailey states in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, “For the Pharisee a ‘sinner’ was either an immoral person who did not keep the law or a person engaged in one of the proscribed trades, among which was herding sheep.”  Shepherds, then, were outcasts in a very real sense in Jesus’ day, and while we must be careful not to assume too much about how they felt about their place in the social order, Jesus addressed the outcasts’ needs, and they loved him for it, so one can make the jump that it got to them sometimes being different and looked down upon.  This brings us to Rudolph.

Do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?  Robert May and Romeo Muller ask us, in their 1964 classic Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, to consider outcasts.  One of Santa’s elves, Hermey, is an outcast because he wishes to be a dentist rather than build toys.  Rudolph, of course, has a shiny nose, and his peers shun him for his difference.  Hermey’s reaction to being shunned for his life choice is as honest as any outcast in the real world.  He exclaims to Rudolph that he “[doesn’t] need anybody” and that “[he’s]… [he’s] independent” (00:21:43).  Rudolph claims the same independence, and so Hermey suggests that they be “independent together” (00:22:00).  Herein lies the first lesson of the film for unaccepting churches.  Misfits will leave, and it does not take much to make this happen.  As the society at large accepts and empowers misfits, churches should not be surprised when they leave unaccepting environments to seek out accepting environments.  Whether it’s an evolutionary biologist who is compelled by his or her own intellectual honesty to be a misfit, or a homosexual who is designated by nature to be a misfit, or a punk rocker, or an a film maker, or a homeless woman, or a drug addict, they all will seek independence together if they do not have a place in their one-time spiritual home.

As Hermey and Rudolph leave their home, they encounter a prospector in search of silver and gold.  They encounter an abominable snowman, and they encounter an island of misfit toys.  Outcasts who leave their churches will encounter many different perspectives – many different kinds of people, some driven, some potentially damaging, and some who have been damaged.  The abominable snowman is a danger, until he is rendered safe by Hermey’s skills, and the prospector risks his life for friendship rather than for silver or gold.  This is the second lesson that the church can learn from this story: that when people allow to serve each other with their gifts, everyone changes.

The most poignant example of redemption comes at the end of the story.  All of the misfits are reunited with the wider community.  Hermey becomes the dentist for the North Poll, Rudolph becomes the leader of the team with his red nose, the misfit toys find new homes where they make children happy, and even the abominable snowman finds a place in the community.  The third and perhaps best lesson the church can learn from Rudolph is that through accepting community, everyone is redeemed and all gifts are celebrated.

And what of me?  When I look in the mirror, I find someone who is eager to have a diverse community, brimming with life and spectrum, but if I probe that just a little, I find someone bitter toward the wider faith community to which I belong.  Am I ready to return home and join Santa’s reindeer team after seeing how it has rejected the misfits in the past?  The legitimate side of me looks at exclusionary language used by church leadership and concludes that it is not yet safe for misfits to return, but there is a vindictive, dark, bitter side of me that wants to punish my church for what it has done.  Without my willingness, and all misfits’ willingness, to return, stand, join in, and forgive, healing and redemption cannot happen.

The shepherds could have ignored the angels, saying, “If this is the Son of the God whose people have relegated us to be outcasts, then why should we go and see him or worship him?”  They chose to go.  They chose to show up despite being disenfranchised.  What did they receive in return?  Many things, one of which was a chance to be at the ground level a movement to mainstream misfits.  I hope that’s still what the movement is about.

I wonder what ever happened to Levi.  I hope he learned how to gain friends without pinning them against bathroom stalls.  Even if he didn’t, however, perhaps someday he still will.  I didn’t foresee redemption for the abominable snowman when I saw Rudolph for the first time.  Perhaps Levi’s sheep will lead him, just as I find God’s church leading me.

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“Heaven | The First War”: The Next Epic Christian Film?

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Animated Christian projects have always been a hit or miss for me. I remember as a kid watching television shows like Hanna-Barbera’s Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible where Derek, Margo, and Moki took me back in time to the stories I would hear about in the Bible. I also remember the epic scenes of the DreamWorks’s film The Prince of Egypt and the beautiful musical pieces from the sequel Joseph: King of Dreams. A few people before my time might remember a Japanese series called Superbook that tried to chronicle the Bible’s Old and New Testaments in its unique animation style.

However, as interesting as those series were to me, there were many others (who will remain nameless) that were corny or poorly produced. Very rarely have I found a Christian animated feature that was high quality in both its aesthetics and its message (even fewer can be described as epics). That is, until I came across an interesting project currently in the works titled, Heaven: The First War.

The official press release says that “a team of young Christian writers and producers are collaborating with experienced Hollywood talent to create an animated feature-length action film.  The film … portrays the biblical story of the first war in heaven, the fall of Lucifer, the battle between forces of good and evil, and the impact of sin’s origin on the human race.”

However, when I looked at the concept and the potential of this project, I thought, “If done the right way, this has the potential to be one of the most exciting and high quality animated Christian films ever!”

Consider this talent: the voice and casting director, Ned Lott, has worked with Disney and Pixar. The arranger/conductor, Larry Kenton, has worked on films like The Day After Tomorrow, Ratatouille, and the new Star Trek movies, and helped compose the score for the Grammy-winning film Up. Also, you video gamers out there might have heard of a little game called The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Yeah, he helped compose the soundtrack for that game, too… no big deal.

That’s just to name a few of the people tentatively signed on to this project. You can see more talent currently assembled at the Heaven: The First War website.  This film has some serious potential.

Incredibly, through some great connections in skaMEDIA, I was able to interview the producer and screenwriter for the film, Delroy Brown.

Delroy, a native of the beautiful island of Jamaica, grew up in the Cayman Islands where he played semi-pro basketball for the national team. He currently lives in Indiantown, FL with his wife and kids where he works as a web-developer along with working on his passion, screenwriting. I was able to sit down with him for a web interview to discuss this upcoming project, as well as what he hopes to accomplish through its creation.

NF: Delroy, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about this project. Heaven: The First War is an exciting concept to bring to the big screen.

DB: No, thank you for having me.

NF: Can you tell me a little about your involvement in this film and why this particular choice for an animated film?

DB: Well, my role in the project is main producer and screenwriter for the film. The main reason why I wanted to make this movie is, well I’m a Seventh-day Adventist, but no matter what side of the religious spectrum, liberal or conservative, all of us have wanted to do a project on the Great Controversy.

(Side note: The Great Controversy is the title of a book written by Ellen G. White, a prominent founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which details the battle between Christ and Satan from its very beginnings in Heaven through the ages and its eventual conclusion.)

What I’ve seen done in the last few years is that everyone is trying to condense the entire history of the Great Controversy into one film or one project. I thought to myself, “Really?  That’s cheapening the Great Controversy,” in the sense that there is so much material in there; we could easily break this up into 10 or even 30 different films. There is no need to force everything in one film.

So instead of doing a film on the entire Great Controversy and hitting all these different points, I really wanted to start at the inception and give people a good overview: “Hey, this is how it started, this is how it began.” Everything else after this fact is the fallout.

Snippets from the trailer - characters are not the final concepts.
Snippets from the trailer – characters are not the final concepts.

NF: What’s different about this movie as opposed to what people may read in The Great Controversy?

DB: Actually, nothing is different. When our director, Hendel Butoy (former Disney director and current professor of animation at Southern Adventist University), who directed The Fox and the Hound, Rescuers Down Under and Fantasia 2000, read the screenplay, he said, “I can tell that you took painstaking effort to stay as close as you can to what Ellen White said about the events that happened in Heaven before the fall.”

The reason I did this was because, as a filmmaker you can take “creative license” to do whatever you want to do, you know what I mean? (laughs)

So I thought to myself, “Should I take creative license or should I take what we love in the story of the Great Controversy and simply bring that out?” I thought this would be the most appropriate. To take the whole mood, background, dialogue, and everything that surrounded this and bring it out into a screenplay and eventually on the big screen.

If this story is beloved by millions and millions of Adventists, I think there is potential for many people around the world to fall in love with this story too.

This was really evident when Ned (Lott) and Larry (Kenton) read it. They said, “We’ve never read anything like this in our lives. This is amazing!” It’s funny because afterwards they asked me, “What’s your budget look like?” I said, “2.5 million.” They looked at me in shock and said “NO, NO, a project like this needs at least 40 million!” and I said, “Okay…” They said that a story like this is so unique and good, and demands that we go all out on a project like this.

NF: You really have an amazing group of people collaborating on this project. How did this all come together?

DB: Aw man… first off, I’m glad that I’m not a very intelligent individual (laughs).

I say this in the sense that, if I knew what I was getting into, I might not have gotten into it. God has definitely blessed in bringing all these people on board. All I did was have an idea about bringing the Great Controversy to the world. Then I went to the ASI  [Adventist Service Industry] Conference and someone introduced me to Brenda Lane, our music director and Brenda just opened her contact list and before you know it, we had what we have today.

There are also a few big names out there that would be on board with this project to do voice acting, but we can’t say anything at this time [until we secure the necessary funds through Kickstarter to begin producing this movie].

But seriously, we have this idea of not just taking this movie nationwide, we’re thinking global. Really, if this were to happen, it would be the single biggest evangelistic effort that the Adventist church has been a part of in decades. So, it’s really exciting.

NF: I have to ask, why Kickstarter as opposed to another form of funding?

DB: The reason why we did this crowdsourcing is, first of all, you get an awareness out there that this project is happening in a very big way. Secondly, we wanted to keep creative control of our project, 100%. We didn’t want corporations or people coming and saying, “We’ll give you this money if you change this or do that.” We want to keep this as real as we possibly can.

There’s a saying that I love which is, “Life imitates art.” And if what we find [in the Great Controversy] is true, then this is really exciting. We don’t want to change things because of people coming in with hidden agendas or politics. So we thought, “We need the public’s support of this project if it’s going to take off.”

Thankfully, we’ve had many people from different faiths and backgrounds supporting us so far.

Concept art for the film. Some allusion to popular video game franchises but, not this is not the final concept.
Concept art for the film. Some allusion to popular video game franchises but, not this is not the final concept.

NF: If you were to get funding in this initial phase, what would be the next step?
Our next step would be to immediately move into our studio, storyboard the entire screenplay, and start working on a trailer. From there we would look to secure distribution rights, start hiring actors and animators, develop the characters and the rest.

NF: Anything you would like to say to people that are considering giving but are not sure about supporting this project financially or otherwise?

DB: I’ve watched big-name movies like Noah recently and many other Christian films that Hollywood has put out, and it’s always one of two extremes: either the films are subpar, or they are way off with the messages that they’re trying to convey. There is a huge disproportion between movies made for strictly entertainment value vs. edification, it’s ridiculous.

Plus, Christians need to put their money where their mouth is. As much as Christians say they love Jesus and want to support creative outreach ideas, they don’t support evangelism to the secular world when it comes time to help with their pocketbooks.

Look at the hundreds of millions of dollars that are raised with no problem to make movies that misrepresent, mock, and degrade Christianity, Christian beliefs, and Jesus, versus the challenge of making high quality animated Christian films. Anybody in Hollywood will look at Christians and say, “These people aren’t serious.”

This is frustrating to me because it’s true: Christians will think twice about supporting a Christian film, but won’t think twice about spending $20 to go watch a movie made by Atheists about Christianity.

As mentioned earlier, although ultimately seeking a 40 million-dollar production budget through investors, the team has turned to Kickstarter.com to raise a $300,000 early production budget by December 29, 2014. Kickstarter helps creative projects generate funding through large numbers of donors often giving smaller amounts. Supporters receive incentives related to the film, and pledges are only fulfilled if the entire funding goal is reached.

The campaign can be viewed by clicking here or copying the following link on your browser:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/heaventhefirstwar/heaven-the-first-war

I hope that you’ll strongly consider helping them achieve their dream.
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