Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture

UP preparing “Angels in the Snow” for Christmas 2015

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Planning ahead. Production began this week in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada on the Christmas-themed Angels in the Snow. The UP Premiere Movie stars Kristy Swanson (who played Buffy in the original film version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and Chris Potter (of the UP series Heartland) in a drama involving two very different families snowbound together in a luxurious cabin during a severe Christmas blizzard. The film is based on best-selling author Rexanne Becnel’s acclaimed novel Christmas Journey and a treatment by Ken Atchity, Chi-Li Wong, and Julie Brazier (who wrote the script). 
UP SVP of Original Programming Barbara Fisher calls Angels in the Snow “a captivating family drama with heart, strong, diverse characters and more than a couple of surprises.” She notes that the film in UP’s Christmas film to go into production this year says it and will be a key component of the network’s Christmas programming slate in 2015.
Synopsis (from the UP press release): In Angels in the Snow, the affluent, yet troubled Montgomery family hits the road for a special Christmas in the mountains.  Workaholic real estate developer Charles (Chris Potter) hopes to mend fences with his wife Judith (Kristy Swanson), a former NY fashion editor, and reconnect with his cell-phone-dependent, squabbling children – Alexander (15, Nick Purcha), Jennifer (14, Lizzie Boys) and Emily (10, Jaeda Lily Miller) – by surprising them all with a getaway to unveil the ultra-modern, luxurious, fully-stocked cabin in the woods that he has designed and built.  Sadly, his good intentions are quickly dashed when a powerful blizzard descends and traps the Montgomerys in their new “dream home.”   With Judith and Charles arguing, little Emily makes a wish that her parents will stay together.  Hours later, as fierce winds batter the cabin, a knock on the door jolts the family awake.  To their surprise, another family – the Tuckers – are shivering on their doorstep.  While unhurt, they are half-frozen, exhausted and in need of shelter from the storm.  Their van slid off the snow-covered road.  High school history teacher Joe Tucker (Colin Lawrence), his wife/nurse Amy (Catherine Lough Haggquist), and their two kids Robbie (16, Kolton Stewart) and Lucie (15, Alexandra Siouras) are grateful to be welcomed in.  As the families wait out the storm, it soon becomes evident that the Tuckers offer an example of love, togetherness and caring that is seemingly gone from the Montgomerys’ lives.  But perhaps the Tuckers’ example – and friendship – can reignite the Montgomery family’s spirit this season.

Angels in the Snow is a production of MarVista Entertainment and Odyssey Media.  The director is George Erschbamer (UP’s My Mother’s Future Husband, Defending Santa).  

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Mat Kearney sings about childlike faith and the grace of surrendering control

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture

Saying it in song. Mat Kearney has grown a following by writing and performing heartfelt songs that are life-affirming. His most recent album, 2011′s Young Love, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Digital Chart and #4 on the Billboard Top 200 chart.

Just Kids, his newest album, came together over the past few years as he toured the world. To get it done,
he constructed  a portable studio on his bus and cut songs all over the globe, including Los Angeles, Sweden and at his home studio in Nashville. His collaborators on the project included MDL [Maroon 5, Justin Bieber] and his frequent partner Josh Crosby.

Kearney recently took part in a Q&A for the press in which he spoke about his songs, his Christian faith and the grace found in surrendering control of one’s life to God.

QUESTION: It’s been a few years since the last record. What has happened in your life in that time and how did those experiences influence Just Kids?

MAT KEARNEY: It has been awhile since I put out an album. Sometimes you have to wonder a little bit to find songs that really resonated with you and come from your heart – and not just trying to write songs that complete a record. I also started producing a lot more, so I was working a lot by myself, with a laptop, backstage at a show, or sometimes I would invite friends over to my house and we would record at my home studio. So a lot of it was me, growing as an artist and as a producer.

Q: This album has a more distinct pop/electronic sound than your past albums. Is that a part of your growth or do you just like being “pop like”?

MK: I think I have always made really beat-driven pop-rock records. I was really exploring a lot of 90s music and music I grew up on. I enjoy changing; I think it’s more fun to try something different than to just do what you did last time. As an artist, you just want to keep creating, keep finding a place that really inspires you that feels fresh and new and keep it exciting. So that is what this record really was — me exploring and finding some really cool creative ground.

Q: The song “Just Kids” seems really personal — why did that song in particular become the title of the album?

MK: You know, getting married and really digging in with another human being can point out your greatest strengths and your greatest weaknesses. And it’s really about wanting to get to that place of grace and redemption and that may happen before you guys learned your bad habits. So “Just Kids” is really a song of me saying “I want to approach you with like childlike faith in the way that I love you and just viewing life that way.” So it’s kind of my story and I kind of tell that story through it.

Q: Tell us about the recording process. I know you did most of the production on your own, what was that like?

MK: I did about half of the record on my own. I worked with some guys in Los Angeles that I met and hit it off with and a guy in Nashville named Josh Crosby, who is married to Britt Nicole, and does a lot of her records. He has just been a friend who has worked on albums with me since “Ships in the Night.” And sometimes when you are by yourself, you can be more honest, more revealing and really ask yourself “What do I want to write about today?” And I have really enjoyed that process of being by myself a lot on this record.

Q: Tell me about One Heart.

MK: There’s that place in our lives where we get a sense of desperation and we are like “I really need something bigger than myself,” and I guess “One Heart” was really written like David in the Psalms where he is saying, “I’m at the end of myself and I don’t have all the answers but I know someone who does and I really need that.” It’s a very humble song.

Q::Tell me about Air I Breathe.

MK: This song, at its core, is my journey battling perfectionism and being in control. I am a micromanager and I love being involved in every detail of my life, but in the big picture you realize how little control you have. “Air I Breathe” is about those moments of surrender where you get to something that is bigger than you and you don’t have answers for it. You are kind of forced to wave your white flag and be like “Okay I can’t control this.” Sometimes those moments can be very freeing because they are humbling. You realize you have been holding onto something and trying to control it when there’s grace available for you that is bigger than your own control.

Q: What have you learned while making Just Kids?

MK: I have learned that if you decide to work out of a home studio, you will annoy your wife a lot, because she has to listen to the songs a hundred times. And being like an insecure artist you’re like, “Babe come listen to this song, what do you think?” And she will come up there and be like, “Are you kidding me? You really want me to listen to this song? I’ve literally listened to it all day. It’s good, now can you turn it down.” (laughs)

Q: Who inspires you musically and spiritually?

MK: Musically, I have been really into some of the stuff I grew up on, like Paul Simon and a lot of like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which is this African vocal group that has worked with a lot of people in Nashville like Charlie Peacock and others. But it’s that real story-telling, fun upbeat groove but then the story can have a lot more depth and can really go to some places. So it’s almost like it catches you off guard and you’re listening to a pop song and then you listen to the lyrics and you are like “Whoa, this is really profound and has a story!”

Spiritually, I’ve been into a lot of Tim Keller – it is always good for an achiever (like myself), to hear the idea that God is way more committed to you than you Him. In your worst moments He’s been there pursuing you. And in your best moments He’s been there supporting you. That is kind of the message of this record — me coming to grips with my own shame, perfectionism and trying to control everything and come into the end of that and realize that is something I don’t have to do.

Q: What artist would be your ideal collaboration?

MK: My ideal collaboration would be Paul Simon — I love him, I grew up on him. I think he’s one of the best lyricists of just being clever. Johnny Cash is a hero of mine. I just love him. Growing up in Nashville, he is one of the legends that formed this town musically. So yea … if I could summon him back — then we would write. (laugh)

Q: Tell me about your tour and what should people expect?

MK: You know…I love creating moments that feel bigger than just like an artist on stage. So hopefully it feels very fun and people are there together and it feels like a moment that is bigger than just going to watch some entertainment. I love making it feel like we are there together. I think one of the things that I carry, and just my goals in life, is just encourage people and make them feel joy and celebrated and they leave feeling like maybe there was stuff talked about that was difficult, but then there was a voice of redemption and grace in the middle of that.

Q: Are you playing all new tracks or some old ones?

MK: You know, I never play all new stuff, because you got to “dance with the girl that brought you” what is that saying? (laughs) You got to play the songs that got you there, so I love playing the songs from my very first record Bullet, Nothing Left To Lose, City of Black and White and others from Young Love. Then I’ll play a good amount of new stuff.

But I just love keeping people on their toes. With my music being kind of schizophrenic – I’ve got ballads, more beat leaning stuff and more rock leaning stuff, that is the fun part of putting on a show I know that if I’m entertained then I know others will be.

Q: Tell us about the bands joining you on tour.

MK: I just brought some friends …there is a band called Parachute, who I have met just living in Nashville being in the same community and friends and I said, “Hey do you guys want to go on the road with me?” and they were like, “That would be awesome!” And there’s another Nashville band called Judah and the Lion, which I’m just a fan of and I think they’re young and excited and they bring passion and just a youthful spirit. I was thinking, “They need to be a part of this tour!” So it should be a Nashville conglomerate out there!

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Author Joe Battaglia talks about “The Politically Incorrect Jesus”

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Living Boldly in a Culture of Unbelief. That the subtitle of The Politically Incorrect Jesus (BroadStreet Publishing), the new book from journalist and Renaissance Communications President Joe Battaglia which I recently reviewed and which inspires Christians (and other believers in timeless God-given principles) to quit succumbing to P.C. pressure and to boldly and forthrightly express the positive ideals Christianity and faith in God offers a seriously out-of-balance world.

Joe, who is a friend of mine, recently answered some questions I had about the , yes, politically-incorrect ideas put forth in his book.

JWK: What inspired you to write The Politically Incorrect Jesus and what do you hope readers take from it?

JOE BATTAGLIA: I wrote “The Politically Incorrect Jesus” because I was concerned about the intellectual dishonesty many well-meaning people embrace in an attempt to mollify the self-appointed PC police in our midst. Stating truth and stating the obvious have suddenly become unacceptable, as now we’re supposed to affirm all opinions, behaviors and attitudes.  

I wrote to Christians in particular, and to anyone in general, dissatisfied with the growing lack of common sense and honesty in our public discussions, upset with the moral decline in civility and carte blanche acceptance of all behavior.  The goal is to get people talking honestly and to foster true dialogue in the public square.

I want readers to think about what Jesus clearly taught and stood for, and to consciously build personal principles that withstand passing public trends. I’d like readers to decide how Jesus might act toward his political adversaries. We may disagree with PC thinking, but we always know that Jesus calls us to act in love.

JWK: You suggest that, despite talking a good game about things like diversity, the political and cultural elites of our day actually derive their power from dividing us. Can you talk a little about what you mean by that and how that is done?

JB: I tried to explain that the roots of politically correct thinking took hold in the fertile ground of unrest in European class struggles of the 19th century. There was so much pent-up anger toward the ruling elites of that day by the common people as to how they were treated (or really mistreated) that class struggle seemed to be the only way to break free from that stranglehold. So, Marxist thinking was conceived to set up an “us vs. them” mentality to fight the oppressive ruling class. It was meant to divide people, so it needed to create a group of bad guys. Division and mistrust is the quickest way to divide anyone. And as we know, this Marxist dialectic fueled the thinking of people like Hitler and Stalin to construct ideologies to create the greatest cultures of fear in the 20th century that led to horrible atrocities. 

Fast forward to today. The cultural upheaval of the 60’s became fertile ground for those wishing to impose their Marxist version of society here in America, so they imported that thinking and began to set up a similar “us vs. them” mentality to pit races against each, older generation against the younger, liberal vs. conservative, etc. Classic Marxist thinking.

The idea was to emphasize differences between people to make them afraid of each other, or to remove national and individual symbols of identity from the public square, or to say that equality meant that no one could disagree with another…all in the name of “tolerance” or “diversity” so no one is “offended.”

But all that does is create misinformation, isolation, ignorance, fear and indifference. And we’re paying the cost of that now in our culture.

JWK: How is Jesus’ notion of diversity different from how the word is defined in our current culture?

JB: When you look at God’s creation, no two things are alike. Not even identical twins are identical. The reason simply is because God’s fingerprints on His creation are as diverse as He is. So, to me, diversity is closer to God’s heart than uniformity.  It has nothing to do with blanket acceptance of all behavior.

Diversity in the politically correct sense is accepting behaviors and positions of any and all kind regardless of whether they contradict God’s laws of creation. Big difference.

JWK: You write that “I know Jews who are Christ followers. I know Muslims who are Christ followers. And I know Christians who aren’t.” Can you elaborate on that?

JB: Sure. We have forgotten that Christ is not confined to or defined by religion. He has nothing to do with religion because he is so beyond religion. But we like to fit him into our box of religions for any number of reasons. Christ presents himself as savior to all people and we would be amazed at who truly wants to embrace Him for whom He really is. I have met people of all faiths and no faith that actually love the Jesus of the New Testament, but not necessarily the Jesus that has been deconstructed to fit into a religious box by so-called Christians.  So, what do we call them? What do they call themselves? Our vocabularies do not leave room for those people.

So, I know people who exist in their Jewish or Muslim worlds or no religious world who act more like Christ and claim to be Christ- followers, while I’ve been surrounded by those who call themselves Christians and act nothing like how Christ calls us to act.

So, who is the real Christ-follower? I use that statement to make the point that we might really think about the Jesus we really follow and trust.

JWK: You say that it’s important for Christians to go beyond the comfort zone of their churches and engage the culture in dialogue — but that there is a difference between finding Middle Ground and Common Ground. Can you explain that difference?

JB: First, we often fear associations with people different than us because we feel that our belief systems might be ridiculed or that we are unsure of our beliefs in the first place. That makes us uncomfortable. In isolating ourselves from others who are different, we fail to realize that God has his people everywhere. And that association would broaden our love of the concept of The Body of Christ, and therefore enable us to appreciate more of what Jesus did for all of mankind rather than just for me.

We have to understand that when culture asks us to find middle ground on issues in order to appease all belief systems, it often means compromise on issues that are absolute for which there is no middle ground. So, it often leads to antagonism between people. The higher ground in these cases is to seek common ground where we can find intersections of reason and similarity that does not force us to compromise and sell out on our faith. This is a much better road to take.

JWK: You write that the PC notion of eliminating concept of absolutes — in terms or right and wrong — has contributed to creating a less secure and more fearful culture. Can you explain? And have the PC Police really eliminated the concept of absolutes or merely replaced one set of precepts for another — that are actually harsher? I mean it seems to me that they can be every bit as absolutist about their own world view and can come down on people pretty hard me who dare say say things are outside the lines they have drawn.

JB: Boundaries are part of the fabric of the universe.  If you do X, such and such will happen. God’s laws are inviolate, and the Word of God is NOT an a la carte menu. As parents, we know that allowing children free will to do anything is not in their best interests. True freedom has limitations.

So, in a PC culture, the more we try to eliminate limitations, and deny the cause-effect relationships of the universe, we, like children, grow up fearful. Love imposes boundaries for safety, not for the denial of pleasure. We are now seeing the results of denying the obvious around us in pursuit of this PC society where everything is OK, and truth is relative (which is absurd). We see more fear, more hate crimes, more deviancy, and so forth.

Things are harsher, as you say, because these new “ground rules” are created simply because of ideology and without love in mind, whereas God establishes laws and the boundaries because of his loving nature.

JWK: You talk about channel surfing in your book — and finding little of value while doing so. It seems to me that part of the problem with television is that — due to cable bundling and the clever use of demographics (which elevates the value of some viewers while devaluing others) — networks are getting our financial support whether we watch them or not. It doesn’t matter if we vehemently oppose what their programming stands for, they still get our money. The free market place is subverted while, over time, they also subvert traditional culture. What I’m asking is, in your view, is the whole TV system corrupt?

JB: Well, let me say that first, we have to understand that as Christ-followers, we are always to be the counter-culturalists. The digital age has created the opportunity for anyone to have their 15 minutes of fame, regardless of what it’s for…whether to uplift or denigrate. So, to me, it’s not just the TV system that’s corrupt, the entire human experience is corrupt without a Savior to exchange that corruption for God’s design of beauty, grace, love, etc.

I know this is taking your question in a direction other than yes or no.  But, remember, Jesus came to redeem the whole of life…because the ENTIRE world groans for a Savior, as it states in Romans.

All the things that we all find meaningful in life exist because of God’s grace. That’s why we must be counter-culturalists so we can be the walking, breathing exhibitors of all that’s beautiful in life.  

JWK: My feeling is that it’s no longer enough to produce values-friendly films and TV shows.  Christians and other believers should utilize new technology to create other alternative delivery systems that reach out beyond the choir while also observing the basic principles of faith — for example faith in a loving God, kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, wisdom and respect for those with whom we disagree. Your thoughts?

JB: Christ-followers should redeem EVERYTHING they touch. And EVERYTHING they think. I use the quote in my book by Scottish statesman Alexander McLaren that “saints are not people living in a cloister after a fantastic ideal, but men and women immersed in the common work of everyday life, and who amidst the whirl of the spindle in the mill, the clink of the scales on the counter and in the hub-bub of the marketplace, are yet living lives of conscious devotion to God.”

Because all of creation, including the science behind all technology and systems, are of God’s design, then we should strive to find and use all methods and tools for the common good of man and the proclamation of the Gospel to redeem all of creation.

JWK: You have a chapter in your book called “Golden Rules or Golden Calves?” I’m wondering if, in your mind, the concept of “golden calves” can be applied to Hollywood’s seemingly endless awards season. Has storytelling become an ego-driven business as opposed to a means of handing down learned wisdom from one generation to another? 

JB: Well, if you have no one other than yourself to glorify, we will always continue to look for more ways of self-aggrandizement in order to affirm our worth. Hollywood HAS TO continually create more awards because their system demands self glorification. The more we stray from Biblical awareness where we find our true security and identity, we will need more opportunities to fill that void and vacuum in or hearts.

Remember, the golden calf was made to supplant faith as the evidence of what’s unseen. The ancient Israelites in the camp needed a reassurance of faith so they chose to create an idol instead of waiting for God to speak through Moses.  We do the same today, as we replace the evidences of God’s creation and design with our own idols.  It’s all about ego now.

Great storytelling has not been the only thing to suffer in this culture.  We are endlessly trying to find the void in true community by posting things on Facebook, Instagram, texting, etc. The addiction is simply because we are wired for community and storytelling. When we no longer affirm that, we resort to the mindless and endless search for establishing community.  And one glaring example of that decline is in the film community, among others. With no faith, we then resort to creating things to revel around.

JWK: How do we push back and win against political correctness without eventually becoming the sort of thought police that we oppose?

JB: By staying grounded and focused on Jesus. That’s it. The church that has lost its focus on Christ has become as virulent an example of thought police as those we complain about. They speak out of condemnation, which is not born from love. Jesus spoke from conviction, which is born from love because He cares for our souls.

Look for these signposts of a hard heart—when our doctrine becomes more visible than our love and when people put litmus tests on who can come to the foot of the cross and find forgiveness. And when we raise the flag or anything higher than the cross. Those are warning signs.

JWK:  You’re known for your support of inspirational cinema. What movies have most inspired you? 

I think there are many movies that have been inspirational without being faith based, and which embody principles of valor, courage, sacrifice over convenience, etc. And humor! I have endless movies that have inspired me.

Now, if you mean faith-based cinema, then I really like anything that Alex and Stephen Kendrick have produced because they are great storytellers. They convey timeless truths, albeit rather simply in some of their early films. All anyone can do is offer God their loaves and fishes to use for His purposes. Their movies have been successful because they COULD convey those messages in such a way that people looked beyond lesser production values at times to see the greater message. And allowed their hearts to see those, as well.  I would caution critics to not become so enamored with great art so they lose sight of simpler art forms that change lives. So, include Facing the Giants and Courageous here.

I think movies like Soul Surfer and When The Game Stands Tall were inspiring because they captured those values I listed earlier… courage in the face of adversity, sacrifice, etc.  Same for October Baby as it illumined the greater issue of the value of every life and put a human face on it. Very inspiring.

And coming up, I think people will find Do You Believe? very inspiring.

JWK: Any TV shows — new or old — that get the Joe Battaglia Seal of Approval?

Well, I go back a few years since I’m a product of the 50’s and 60’s. Whether it’s The Honeymooners to Star Trek to Seinfeld to 24 to 60 Minutes—the ability for writers, actors and journalists to portray menial every day existence in ways that made us all laugh or captured our imagination or kept us on the edge of our seats for an entire show or can give us great behind the scenes stories. Currently Blue Bloods gets my vote as it portrays how men can embrace God and use the name of Christ in prayer rather than in vain, yet also deal with doubt and family struggles.

JB: After this book, what other projects are you working on?

I’m always working on so many projects at once, most of which have nothing to do with writing, as you know. We just finished a remarkable project with the one night Fathom Entertainment event, Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus, which is an exceptional documentary.  And I have another six or seven movies/series this year already that I will work on to create the Christian radio promotion, including Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s A.D. mini-series on NBC .

We’re also helping Luis Palau and his team on their major initiative in New York capped by their day long Festival in Central Park in July called CitiFest.

And, along with a friend of mine, I helped to launch a few months ago a weekly column “Faith Matters” for U.S. News & World Report that speaks of faith in the context of current events from a wide spectrum of disciplines.

On the writing side, I have another two titles for books that I’d like to write at some point in the future…so we’ll see how that unfolds.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

UP TV’s “Dancer and the Dame” is a refreshing, family-friendly cop comedy

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Dancer and the Dame airs tonight (2/22) at 7:00 PM (ET) on UP TV.

Synopsis (from the UP TV website): Down-and-out police detective Rick Dancer, struggling with a personal conflict, gives up on life and his job.  That all ends when he is paired up with an unlikely partner, a police dog Princess, also dealing with post-traumatic stress. The dog helps Dancer make a life changing turnaround. And in response, Dancer does the same for his partner, Princess, as they hunt down the crime lord who killed her partner.
Stars: Billy Gardell (Mike & Molly), Eva LaRue (CSI: Miami),  David AR White (God’s Not Dead), James Denton (Desperate Housewives), Michael Badalucco (The Practice), Louis Mustillo (Mike & Molly), Quinton Aaron (The Blind Side)

Review: A nice change of pace from UP’s usually female-centric romcoms, Dancer and the Dame plays like one of those old TV crime shows where the emphasis was placed on likable heroes, action and humor — as opposed to anti-heroes, violence and dark subject matter.

Billy Gardell has a Kevin James-like charm and vulnerability as Detective Rick Dancer. Dancer was once a larger-than-life hero cop who lost a step or two after a case he was working on went wrong. As the story begins, he is depressed and has gained a great deal of weight (making him a larger-than-life shadow of his former self).  Gardell also has a nice easy chemistry with Eva LaRue who places Nicole, the widow of a murdered cop who is responsible for assigning him his new partner, a female German shepherd K-9 who is herself depressed after failing to save her late partner (James Denton seen in flashbacks) from a gunman’s bullet. Usual good guy David AR White also makes a surprisingly chilly villain as Kranz, the supposed philanthropist who uses his supposed charitable work as a cover for criminal activity.

Dancer and the Dame‘s breezy style is old enough to be new again. It’s both funny and heartwarming to see Dancer and Princess, both of whom have emotional wounds to heal, heal each other while solving a big case. And, without spoiling the ending, I will tell you that you may find yourself with a lump in your throat as you root for the survival of one of the protagonists (you can probably guess which one). With Mike & Molly only getting half season orders from CBS these days (probably to accommodate co-star Melissa McCarthy’s successful film career), I can imagine Gardell (who executive produced) using his downtime to star in additional episodes of Dancer and the Dame. It would actually make a fine family-friendly cop series. Dancer and the Dame is fun, sweet (in a good way) and Highly Recommended.

Dancer and the Dame trivia: James Denton also played a K-9 cop partner in the UP film A Girl’s Best Friend.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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