When cultural tension builds to a point where you can't stand it any longer, where do you point the finger of blame? Many Christians love to point their finger at the moral decay in films and television programs, or at "Hollywood."
In 1999, a group of Christian producers and writers in Hollywood determined that the agent for change must come from within the community. They didn't want to infiltrate or conquer Hollywood, but to transform it. So they banded together and formed a nonprofit group called Act One. Today, six years later, they have scores of trained alumni who are working in the industry. Various faculty members from Act One who live in the middle of the cultural transformation wrote essays. This collection is a series of well-done, thoughtful chapters about what Christians are doing to change the culture from the inside.
The film and television credits of the various contributors read like a Who's Who, and anyone who watches television or movies will instantly recognize these names. The continual theme is a cry for professional excellence yet with a solid Christ-like foundation. For example, Dean Batali, executive producer of Fox's "That '70s Show," writes, "Too many Christian writers I have met only know Christians as judgmental, narrow-minded, and hypocritical. The Christian characters we see on TV simply reflect that."
Each of the eighteen chapters provides a different perspective and voice to the question of how Christians can be involved in Hollywood. I loved the chapter that Dr. Thom Parham, associate professor at Azusa Pacific University and author of scripts for "JAG," wrote called "Why Do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?" The answer is pretty much the same problem we find with new novelists who want to write Christian fiction. The Christian novelist is so focused on their "message" that they become preachers (boring) instead of storytellers (fascinating). There is a severe warning for this type of message-driven writing. Dr. Parham says, "The result is more akin to propaganda than art, and propaganda has a nasty habit of hardening hearts." It's the exact opposite of what most Christians want from their writing.
I could feel the personal pain and heartache in the chapter from Karen and Jim Covell, "The World's Most Influential Mission Field," when they write, "Only about 2 percent of media professionals go to church or synagogue. Hollywood is an isolated society, ignorant of --- and often hostile to --- Christianity." Then the Covells provide a series of practical steps for involvement. Or Janet Scott Batchler who, with her husband Lee has feature credits such as Batman Forever, provides five reasons not to come to Hollywood. They include a desire for riches, to become famous and have power, or even to succeed for the Lord. Instead, Batchler cries for excellence, a servant heart, and a love for people who are unlovable.
These various Christian professionals who are active in the Hollywood community have produced an excellent resource. The titles for the chapters are eye-catching and draw the reader into the text, such as "The $10 Billion Solution" from Charles B. Slocum, who is the assistant executive director of the Writer's Guild of America. Some of the essays are more motivational while others explore practical issues about writing an excellent story. Anyone who wants to be a part of transforming the media from the inside out should get this book --- and read it repeatedly until the pages are dog-eared, written in the margins, and various sections highlighted for emphasis.
A key message for the reader of BEHIND THE SCREEN seems to be summed up in Jonathan Bock's "Love the Cinema, Hate the Sin": "Changing Hollywood will require two virtues Christians habitually lack --- patience and persistence. We'll need to set our eyes on the long-term prize of righting the ship of mainstream culture by bailing it out one bucket at a time. But we'll get there, the world will marvel at our great works once more."
Reviewed by W. Terry Whalin on November 1, 2005