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Phillip Telfer – The Filmmakers Guild: Evening Main Session

By March 12, 2018 One Comment

Wow! Guild-goers were treated to a whirlwind history lesson on Christians and cinema. You read that right. Christians were early pioneers in using the medium of film for….wait for it….you guessed it…to spread the Gospel!

Telfer started by reminding us that nothing we do is truly original. Everything comes from and originated from the Master Creator — God Himself. Farmers and early artisans worked with what was already created. But God puts His Spirit and the desire to be creative in us. He gives us a craft. He invented it and we’re subject to Him. Therefore, He has the rights to set parameters with it.

Telfer encouraged filmmakers that once we’re given a craft, we’re expected to help others. That’s what the Filmmakers Guild is all about.

But, he warned, good things are prone to go south and filmmakers, like every one of us, can fall into idolatry. Romans 1:25 admonishes us, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is forever praised. Amen.”

“Art flourishes best in the context of freedom,“ noted Alvin Schmidt.

Given the fact that Christians during the time of the Roman Empire were severely persecuted and often imprisoned, Christian art during that time was nearly non-existent. However, there was a bright light amidst the darkness and that was within the catacombs since the only thing Christians could own at the time was burial sites. So think of the catacombs as the Christian’s art gallery.

The pictures Telfer shared of the art within the bowels of the catacombs were breathtaking in quality, creativity, and beauty. The catacombs were chalk full of depictions of biblical accounts, like the fiery furnace, olive trees, the dove, the art of the Lord’s supper and the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus, as well as symbology depicting symbols of Christ as the Good Shepherd.  

Early Christian artisans were on it.

Jumping to the year 313, Constantine injected a game changer — he legalized Christianity. Now they had the freedom for art to truly flourish. Now Christians entered the realm of architecture and music.

The game changer came in 1600 with the invention of the magic lantern, the original slide projector. Christians began using it. David Livingston, missionary to Africa, used it to share the Gospel and it was later used to depict Livingston’s attack by a lion while in Africa.

Then came stereopticons that allowed transitions between slides. It wasn’t long until they combined three magic lanterns to create a dissolving view apparatus. Christians in this time period also used magic lanterns to display hymn lyrics to lead the church in worship. Turns out Powerpoint display of hymn lyrics is so…yesterday.

In 1885, Hannibal Goodwin, a rector in the Episcopal Church in New Jersey, actually invented the first film technology of film base that allowed successive images to be coiled in a long strip.  Can you believe it? A pastor invented film! Christians have been at the forefront of this art form and used it earnestly to spread the Gospel.

Take heart Christian filmmakers!

Ready to gasp…a Christian also established Hollywood. Okay, put your dropped jaw back into place. You read that right. Christian Harvey Henderson Wilcox bought the property along Cahuenga Road beneath the Santa Monica foothills, which were orchards of apricot and fig trees. His goal was establish a ‘model Christian community’ that was distinctly Christian, righteous, and dry — no saloons or alcohol — and land was free to Protestant churches. Though Hollywood grew too slowly for Wilcox to get an adequate return on investment, he became land rich and cash poor.  But that was not before Hollywood became a destination point and an established Protestant community.

Christians are not above critique and cannot expect to call a film ‘Christian’ by simply putting a thin veneer of Christianity on it. Even during the silent film era, Christian films were being watered down. Pastor Caleb Justice said, “You cannot convert a bad feature by a sanctimonious flash.”

Despite the mission creep heading in the wrong direction for some Christian films, Telfer chronicled the history of how well known Christian organizations harnessed film in the spread of the Gospel:

  • The Salvation Army established an outreach called the ’Limelight Department’ at the end of the 19th century.
  • Herbert Booth, son of the founder of Salvation Army, used film to propagate the faith and minister to the poor.
  • Booth used attractions like documentary films and the novelty of film footage of hippopotamuses to draw a crowd and then share the Gospel with the audience.
  • The first radio broadcast by Reginald Fessenden where voice was transmitted through the telegraph was on Christmas Eve of 1906, and he read the account of Christ’s birth from Luke 2 and played ‘O Holy Night’ on his violin.
  • In 1910, Rev. Herbert Jump used film to ‘appeal to the unchurched’ and was a cinema apologist who wrote about the hope of using the motion picture for the kingdom of God. His pamphlets listed 5 ways the motion picture functions as a ‘religious tool.’
  • In 1910-1911, churches used outdoor pavilions to show films and lure the unchurched with motion pictures and open air meetings. You could consider these early movie theaters.
  • Then in 1913, the Edison Company actually supplied films and projectors to churches for illustrated sermons, where pastors would preach sermons alongside moving images.
  • In 1919, the Methodist Church erected a massive open air loving picture screen that was 136 feet high and 146 wide that required a high powered magic lantern to project the pictures. They featured both Hollywood films and missionary films. More than million people were in attendance.
  • The Methodist Church spent $300,000 to send out filmmakers with missionaries all over the world to capture global missions on film.

But none could match the singular success of the film The Stream of Life in 1919. It premiered free at a Casino Theater on Broadway in New York, of all places, and every day leading up to Easter the film packed the theater holding 2,000 people. At the end of the film, a minister would get up and share the Gospel.

Terry Lindvall’s book, Sanctuary Cinema, chronicles the film’s success, “No one was able to duplicate the phenomenal success of The Stream of Life.”

Telfer reminded us that though early film had a powerful impact for the Gospel, film doesn’t replace the sermon — it enriches it and gives it another medium to impact more people.  

Charles Banning asked, “If evil suggestions and wrong ideals and attitudes can be taught by use of the screen, is not the converse possible?”

The answer is, of course. We’re smothered in Hollywood’s lasciviousness and downward spiral into evil.

What Christian filmmakers didn’t anticipate was that a media captivated culture wouldn’t always be content with moral or Christian movies once the screen time of the secular began to erode Christian films and turn hearts away from Christ and toward the world.

So as the novelty of film wore off and the dominance of Hollywood’s technological superiority emerged, mixing sound with the motion picture, the church couldn’t keep up.

What happened? The church left the race.

“The producers recognized that their religious films could not compete with the snappy Hollywood entertainment,” noted Lindvall.

When Hilda Jackson tried to find good films to recommend for children in 1921, she complained of the difficulty of ‘finding the few grains of wheat in the bushel of chaff.’

Another critic warned that children were becoming too familiar with vice. Sound familiar? In fact, Lindvall argues Hollywood has transformed its films into a rival religion.

Hollywood clearly brought film downstream, but who’s willing to swim upstream to win it back for Christ?

Telfer encouraged attendees that they’re part of the solution. Obviously, those in attendance at the Filmmakers Guild are serious about making films for Christ. They’ve come to hone their craft and network to find ways to widen the distribution of Christian films and reach more unbelievers with the Gospel.  

Telfer argued that the rebirth of contemporary Christian filmmaking came when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association established World Wide Pictures and produced Christian films like Martin Luther.

Telfer concluded with scripture from I Peter 4:10-11, “As each one has received a gift, minister to one another…If anyone speaks, let him speak the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it with the ability that God supplies.”

Non-Christians are bold in what they believe, and they’re not ashamed by it. But Telfer challenged Christian filmmakers to be more bold in our beliefs. Early Christian filmmakers were bold. To be bold is to be encouraged or to receive courage.

He asked, “Are you willing to swim upstream?”

Not going along with the current, but swimming upstream.

“It’s worth it.”

Now go do it.

Phillip Telfer is the Director of Media Talk 101 and the Festival Director

Join the discussion One Comment

  • What an amazing history lesson and encouragement. I am thrilled to learn of the role Christian’s have had in the industry. And what a powerful tool for spreading The message of God’s love and His redemption. I was driving down the road this week thinking about how much I wish there was a Christian WV television channel that presented children’s programming (think Christian WV Sesame Street), news, talk shows, dramas, comedy (think Late Night talk show too!)Even the 10 p.m. announcement “It’s 10 p.m. do you know where your children are?” (Remember that?) And the national anthem at sign-off at midnight. And I thought Lord, I don’t know how to do this. And then I come across this story. How about it? I’ll help anyway I can.

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