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Faith, Media & Culture

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

The man behind Pure Flix. David A.R. White may be the world’s most-unlikely movie mogul.  Raised in a small farming community just outside of Dodge City, Kansas (home of Gunsmoke‘s Marshal Matt Dillon, as I recall), his father was a pastor in a Mennonite church where, as his bio on the God’s Not Dead website notes,  he accepted the Lord at four-years old.

Somehow, David knew that his future laid in Hollywood and just as soon as he could he headed off to LA where within six months he found himself with a recurring role as Andrew Phillpot on the 199o’s Burt Reynolds sitcom Evening Shade. The show ran for four years and it provided the young White with a launching pad. But only God knew what laid for this this son of a Mennonite preacher who would go on to create the Christian movie-making machine known as Pure Flix Entertainment.

The company now produces over 20 faith-themed movies a year, many of which he stars and/or appears in himself. In God’s Not Dead, the latest Pure Flix entry which opens this weekend (3/21), he plays a supporting role as a pastor who wonders if he’s making a difference. The main story in the multi-plotted film concerns a college student (Shane Harper) forced to defend his Christian via a classroom debate that puts him on the wrong side of his philosophy professor (Kevin Sorbo), who also happens to be an avowed atheist.

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JWK: How did the son of a Mennonite pastor decide he wanted to go into show business?

DAVID A.R. WHITE: Probably from like my freshman year of high school I had this desire to perform and also be involved in the show business industry. And I didn’t know what that was because we didn’t have a drama department in my hometown of Meade, Kansas.  My parents…has always wanted all their kids to go to at least one year of Bible college after high school. I always knew that I was on my way to Moody Bible Institute when I graduated high school. So, I went there just like me my brother and my sister and my dad. Everyone one of them have graduated there. Everyone one of them have met and married their significant others there. After a year, I was the last kid and I called my dad and I said “Dad, I want to leave Bible school. I want to go to Hollywood to be an actor, to be in the entertainment industry. And there was this nice silence on the phone for a while. But my parents were so cool to where they said “As long as you follow the Lord in whatever you do, we support you.” And that was a big step.

Growing up in a Mennonite background, there’s not much media. I had seen one movie in the theater the first 18 years of my life. Going to Moody Bible Institute, there was no drama program…They had a mime troupe. So, that was about it. My parents didn’t really have any idea about what it is that I had in my heart to do but they said “Go do it.”

I moved to Los Angeles when I was 19 and I was blessed. The Lord opened doors. I was on the sitcom Evening Shade six months after I got (there) and then recurred on that show for close to four years before the Lord had started putting me into the Christian film genre which, at that point in time, the only ones who were doing it were World Wide Pictures and a couple of other ones that would do fifty-minute short Christian films. So, I had done a couple of those and then God just kept giving them to me from all these different organizations — from Concerned Women for America, Youth for Christ, Focus on the Family…I would play these lead (roles) in different little movies.

I still was doing the mainstream world but it was kind of just a side thing…I had always loved Christian films. They had impacted my life. When I was growing up, the World Wide Pictures movies would play in our churches on Sunday nights — like every six months a movie would come out. They’d play 16 millimeter prints and something would go wrong. The projector would eat the print or there would be no sound. It was pretty rough but I remember they had an impact on my life and I always thought in high school sitting in the middle of Kansas thinking “Wow! I’d love to be part of that!”

…I remember thinking that and, of course, you throw that out to the Lord and you never know how He will bring things around. Years and years later, here I find myself at the center of doing that exact thing. You know, making films that uplift and inspire the human spirit and that are evangelistic tools for churches all over the country. So, I’m very humbled and blessed.

JWK: Can you tell me about the Mennonite faith?

DARW: Well, we have a joke. The Mennonites make the Mormons look like a pack of Hell’s Angels. Mennonites are very conservative. They don’t drink, dance, smoke, go to movies. I grew up in a very conservative faith-based community. My father had become a believer late in life and he really felt like he looked at all the different groups and felt an affinity toward the Mennonites and what they stood for. He became a Mennonite pastor and that’s how I grew up in it.

JWK: So, growing up in that environment, somehow you decided you wanted to be an actor — and then a director and producer, as well.

DARW: Yeah. I don’t know. That’s that thing that doesn’t make much sense other than I think the Lord puts dreams and desires in our heart and He calls us to do different things. Obviously, the ministry is a huge calling. My father always dreamed that I would become an evangelist. I was always like “No, dad, that’s not what I want to do.” The irony is that the Lord has used the thing that I love for His evangelism purposes.

JWK: Are you an ordained minister?

DARW: I am not an ordained minister.

JWK: How did you start Pure Flix?

DARW: There are four partners in Pure Flix. We all had a very similar vision for what we wanted to build. Pure Flix, obviously, is an alternative to what is on television and in the movies. (We wanted) to make…films uplift and inspire the human spirit (and to make enough of them) to allow people to have a true alternative. Before and when I even started out in the Christian film industry there were so few of these films. There were like maybe three Christian movies a year and they had lower production values. I think we got a lot of flak on the cheese element that was kind of branded (on) Christian films.

So, I believe that it was our passion to make these on a consistent flow, to make enough of them, so that people had an alternative but, at the same time, to continue to push the standards higher. I think we’re seeing that in a lot of the faith films these days. There are higher production values. (We want) to get the best writers possible — writers that work in Hollywood, that have been trained for years and years and years but they want to use their talents for the Lord. (We want) to get the best actors. We have people that work on the huge movies that (also) work on our films. They come over because they have a heart for this and that is the beauty of the Christian family — that we’re all here to help each other. Because of that, the Christian film industry is changing rapidly on the quality side.

JWK: Do you think there are more Christian people working in Hollywood than some Christians imagine?

DARW: I don’t know how many believers there are in Hollywood. It’s an interesting thing when I go to the Midwest. It always seems like God is a given…The majority of people believe in God versus don’t believe in God. (They’re) not necessarily believers and following the Lord but they do believe in God’s existence. Out in Los Angeles (and) the West Coast, certainly, that belief is not innate. The majority of people don’t believe and that’s an interesting difference.

JWK: Did you sense when working on sitcoms and other Hollywood productions that there was actual hostility toward Christianity?

DARW: In different ways there’s hostility, sure, but I can’t say that as a general rule…We live in a darker society it seems than it was 20 years ago. What is normal now, you know, 20 years ago we never would have considered normal. (On) television, the different types of characters and different content that is on on a daily basis is much, much darker, I think, than it was 20 years ago. Whether or not our society is going that way, I’m certainly not qualified to say that but it does seem that way.

JWK: Television has actually gotten darker than the movies in a lot of ways.

DARW: Yeah. You’re probably right.

JWK: You did have Matthew McConaughey thanking God at the Oscars.

DARW: That was nice, yeah.

JWK: Turning to God’s Not Dead, how did this film come to you?

DARW: Well, Pure Flix has a movie ministry. A lot of our films are used in churches throughout the United States for outreach purposes. So, we started talking to a lot of those pastors and asking them what did they feel was missing or what would really help the Body of Believers to do a film about? And it, basically, was if we could make a film (about) what people believe because they felt like there was an epidemic in the country where a lot of Christians don’t truly know what they believe…A lot of believers don’t know what they believe or why they believe. So the fancy word, obviously, is apologetics. We wanted to make a film about apologetics.

Now, the question is how do you do that in a compelling story. Because apologetics can get into a lot of just facts. It can be very dry. That was definitely a challenge. We had the Newsboys as friends and we loved their song God’s Not Dead and we wanted to incorporate that within the film.

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DARW: Rice Broocks wrote a book about the movie and really dove much more into the apologetics off the movie. So, we had a lot of different partnerships going into this film. At the core it’s about a college student who is forced to defend his faith in a university setting. But there’s also a total of six (main) characters and each and every one of them have a different level of belief in God — starting from not believing in God — being an atheist — to my character (who) is a pastor who just feels likes he’s been shelved and that God is not using him anymore. All the different levels of the faith that we try to hit on (so) that it will radiate with each and every individual.

JWK: You have Willie and Korie Robertson from Duck Dynasty in the movie. What was it like working with them?

DARW: We looked for a while for who was going to do that role and their names came up…It took a long time to get them. None of us had watched Duck Dynasty really. We weren’t even aware of it very much. So, we started diving into that and found out that they were on-fire believers and loved the Lord…So, we started reaching out to them and, in the process, they really took to this project and their support has been wonderful. They average eight or nine-million viewers a week. So, obviously their reach in the Kingdom is far. So, we’re thankful that they came on board.

JWK: You also have both Hercules and Superman in key roles. What were Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain like to work with?

DARW: They’re great. Everybody was really great on this film — (including) the lead, Shane Harper. We pray a lot before we cast our movies. We just want the Lord’s leading on this and it’s been incredible along the way.

We did a movie (series) called Revelation Road where we cast as a bad buy Brian Bosworth. Throughout the process of the filming and afterwards, Brian Bosworth gave his life to the Lord and he had a very big salvation. He came to the Lord though those films. So, it’s important for us to pray about who’s supposed to be in it. Even Shane Harper. We auditioned a lot of kids…We knew he was a believer when we cast him but we didn’t know that part of his hobby was to study apologetics. He absolutely loved it and he had been praying for a role such as this.

It’s just amazing to see how the Lord always brings those people in that He feels are right for the film. That’s a huge process in making these — that the Lord would have His way in them, so that the Holy Spirit will truly work through these films and the lives of those who watch (them).

JWK: What do you hope people take from this film?

DARW: This film, I think, brings the individual center stage and it asks us the question what is that you believe? Do you believe in a God or do you not believe in a God? This film is a very evangelistic movie….7oo theaters we’re booked in (across America). We hope that people, church groups, bring their neighbors — people who might not come to a regular Sunday morning service but they will come to see a movie because we live in a sight-and-sound generation. Our culture is impacted by the media. When you go and you sit in a movie theater, you allow the movie to take you to places where you wouldn’t even allow your best friend to take you and that’s a wonderful thing to see how the Lord and the Holy Spirit will work through these films.

JWK: 2014 is proving to be a big year for faith-themed movies — with films like Son of God and Noah. Are you encouraged by the trend or do you see it as more competition?

DARW: I think it’s wonderful. They call this the Year of the Bible because we have so many faith-based or Christian-contented movies coming out. I think it’s wonderful because people really (are) desiring films that can move their spirit more and more. Now, I think it’s important for the (churches) to be wise in what they support.

When The Passion of the Christ came out, all the studios wanted to have Christian faith-based genres. We met with so many different studios. So, many of them don’t truly really want to…tell a true biblical story based in Christian beliefs. So, I think it’s important that as Christians we’re discerning in what we cast our votes to see.

God’s Not Dead is definitely an evangelistic movie. It aligns up with the Bible and that’s why so many churches across America have really gotten behind this (movie). When its trailer aired on (the God’s Not Dead Facebook page), we were the number-one shared trailer for the day in the world. That week I think we shared up to 50-million times because people are hungry for truth. That’s what’s important — that we make sure that truth is being told through the films that we support.

JWK: It there any chance of Pure Flix becoming more involved in television?

DARW: We are actually in development on several different series. It’s exciting to see how the Lord is expanding us out in those different regions.

JWK: Where do you see Pure Flix in five or ten years?

DARW: When we first started, our goal was to provide faith-based Christian content on a regular basis. That’s expanding out now. The movies are getting larger. The reach is getting larger. God’s Not Dead is definitely is our first one that has had this many theaters — 700. We’re excited to follow it up. We’re probably going to do two or three bigger theatricals each year going forward. The Lord has it and we’re excited just to be used.

Note: You can click on Pure Flix Facebook page here and David A.R. White’s Facebook page here.

I’ll have a review of God’s Not Dead posted later today.

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

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