Sunday, March 07, 2010

christianity & hollywood



Christians working in the
entertainment industry
face challenges to their
faith uncommon to other
professions. Some separate
themselves from mainstream
culture, creating overtly
faith-based films, novels and
artwork, while others eagerly
engage with secular culture,
creating media for believers
and unbelievers alike.

Even with these challenges, the devotional needs of
show business professionals are not that different
from everyone else. Like the teacher or businessman
who relies on a weekly small group or Bible study,
there is a growing number of entertainment
professionals finding support and encouragement
through Bible studies specifically tailored to address
their unique challenges.

When Lisa Welchel was starring as “Blaire Warner”
on television’s hit show Facts of Life back in the
1980s, she was faced with the harsh reality of
growing into adulthood in the public eye and
bridging her Christian faith with her career.
Welchel, who had become a Christian at age ten,
had maintained a daily discipline of reading the
Bible soon after her conversion.

“I went to Sunday School at my church, and
they gave us these little envelopes to bring in
each week with our offering. You could check
off on the envelope whether you brought a
friend or if you read your Bible every day.
This really appealed to my pleasing, type-A
personality—I enjoyed being able to check
things off that list!” By the time she began
work on Facts of Life, she was reading
her Bible every day, a habit she says kept
her grounded “like an anchor, no matter
what happened.”

Entertainers often face questions requiring
pastoral wisdom. Will I be compromising my
faith if I take this role? Will I face too much
temptation if I go to work for a summer at this
theater? Am I guilty of selfish ambition? Is my
ego crowding out the Holy Spirit?

Unfortunately, there are little or no seminary
courses that teach pastoral candidates how
to minister to believers in the entertainment
industry. Rev. Joel Pelsue, founder of Arts
and Entertainment Ministries in Los Angeles,
realized in the early 1990s that there was a
desperate need for ministers who knew how
to serve people in television, film and theatre.

Pelsue and his wife, Michelle, were both
pursuing careers in entertainment—he was a
jazz musician and she was an actress—when
they began to notice a gaping hole in many
church ministries in Santa Barbara, Los
Angeles and Hollywood. “I was playing jazz
in clubs in Santa Barbara,” he says, “and she
was producing Shakespeare festival pieces.
In the process, God put us in the midst of
artists who were everything from nominal
Christians to full-on satanic worshipers.
God began using us to help artists find
freedom from the bondage of other religions.
Even when we were dating, God showed us
something special in this ministry arena.”

As the Pelsues began leading people to Christ,
they looked for churches to recommend to
these new believers, and came up short. This
opened their eyes to see a need in the church.
“By and large, people were apathetic,” he
laments, “but even if they cared, they were
ignorant [to the needs of the entertainment
industry]. Ignorance and apathy … it really
frustrated me.”

Pelsue recalls a significant revelation he had
while a student at Reformed Theological
Seminary. “Pastor Joel Hunter, who now serves
at Northland Community Church in Orlando,
was teaching a philosophy of ministry class
I was taking. He said, ‘Sometimes what
frustrates you the most is the very area God
is calling you to serve.’ When I heard him say
that, it totally resonated with me. What I saw
was a disconnection between the church and
beauty, the arts, creativity and culture, which
did not fit the God I know or the God I see in
the Bible. That frustration with the church’s
inability to affirm artists, purchase art, or
even just allow drums in the sanctuary
drove me nuts, and it ultimately
propelled me on this journey.”

For the Pelsues, that journey included
starting Arts and Entertainment
Ministries (aem) in 2004. According to
their web site, aem “was created in order
to bring clarity into the strategic arenas
of faith, creativity and culture.” aem helps
artists wrestle through the challenge of
authentically depicting evil, justice, sexuality,
and redemption in a way that is true, without
erring on the sides of either gratuitousness or
sentimentalism. Recognizing entertainment as
a powerfully persuasive medium, aem seeks
to help artists handle the responsibility of
communicating humanity’s story, for better or
for worse, in a way that is authentic, creative
and beautiful.

One way that aem serves its artists is by offering
“Artist Forums:” small group Bible studies that
are particularly relevant to people in the arts.
They offer a four-part series offering biblical
theology for artists called “Bezalel Principles,”
based on Exod 31:1–11, helping them to better
understand their calling. By studying Bezalel,
artists find that they can and should play a vital
role in helping others worship. To most people,
Bezalel is a relatively obscure character in the
Bible, one of the hundreds of names people
skim past in their “Bible-in-a-Year” reading
plans. However, for those called to the creative
arts, he is a hero.

As Exod 31:3–4 points out, Bezalel was chosen
by God, filled with His Spirit, and gifted “with
skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of
crafts—to make artistic designs for work in
gold, silver and bronze” (niv). The aem study
seeks to affirm creative gifts and callings,
while addressing questions such as, “When
do the things we create become idols?” and
“Is the difference between art and idol merely
semantics? Is it determined by the intent of the
artist, by the perspective of the artist’s audience,
or by a set of standard criteria?” By offering a
forum for these discussions to take place, the
Pelsues provide artists spiritual and biblical
foundations for their professions.

A Bible study with others who understood
the particular challenges facing people in
entertainment was a lifeline for Lisa Welchel
during her Facts of Life years. “I went to the
Church on the Way, and Jack Hayford was my
pastor. One summer, the small group ministry
went on hiatus, but Pastor Jack felt that those
of us in the entertainment world especially
needed that ongoing safety net of fellowship.

So he formed a small group of people in the
entertainment industry, and for about three
years we met once a month.” The group included
Michael and Stormie Omartian, pop singer
Donna Summer and her husband, and Dallas
star Charlene Tilton and her husband. An added
bonus for Welchel was that a young, single pastor
named Steve Cauble was appointed to help lead
the group. Steve and Lisa met there and married
two years later, just two months after Welchel
filmed the final episode of Facts of Life.

Welchel says her small group “was a critical
support system. It was a place we could feel free to
be real, and know that the other members would
protect one another’s privacy.” That safety was a
precious gift to Welchel, who had been “burned”
by people in church who had seen her more
as a commodity than a sister in Christ. “There
had been times when I had tried to be honest in
church, and it ended up in the Enquirer.”

In 1999, across the continent from Los Angeles,
in the other entertainment hub of the world, a
small group of about eight actors began meeting
every Monday night in New York City for Bible
study, worship and fellowship. In the decade
since, the Haven, as it is now known, has grown
to include professionals from every creative
background, including fashion, television, film,
theatre, publishing and more. Actors involved
with the Haven have starred in major motion
pictures, Broadway productions and television
shows, and several have been nominated for
Emmy and Tony awards. Most of the artists
involved with the Haven are not pursuing careers
in Christian media, but rather seeking to be
involved in shows, films and television for both
believers and non-believers. Musicians at the
Haven are more likely to be found performing in
East Village clubs than leading worship at their
churches, hoping that they will be able to “shine
like stars in the universe as they hold out the
word of life.” (Phil 2:15–16). They find examples of
common grace to share the Good News of life in
Jesus Christ.

Bible studies in Daniel and Jeremiah have been
particularly meaningful to such artists. Rather
than withdrawing from secular culture and
creating a Christian sub-culture, these two books
instruct God’s people to become immersed in
the land into which they are planted, albeit as
exiles, and develop relationships from which to
share about God. Daniel, along with Shadrach,
Meschach and Abednego, gained the respect and
favor of the top influencers in Babylonian culture.

They did not compromise their faithfulness
to God, but engaged with those who were not
worshipers of Yahweh, and when the time came
for them to stand up for Him, they were able to
do so in a way that led others to worship also
(see Dan 1–3).

Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah, inspired by
God’s Spirit, instructed the exiles in Babylon to:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and
eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and
daughters; find wives for your sons and give your
daughters in marriage, so that they too may have
sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do
not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity
of the city to which I have carried you into exile.
Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you
too will prosper” (Jer 29:5–7 niv).

God’s people were encouraged not to withdraw
from the pagan culture around them, but to fill it.
Just as Daniel and his compatriots were placed in
positions as cultural influencers, so are the creators
of media today. These culture-makers must be
engaged in the church and given solid, Bible-based
theology to help them approach their crafts.

Over the past decade and a half, new
organizations have emerged to do just that.
Hollywood Connect, for example, is a ministry
that “connects industry believers to people who
have information on surviving the idiosyncrasies
of working in a town that would sooner dash
a believer’s career objectives than strengthen
them.”1 The ministry exists to help believers in
the entertainment industry who are new to Los
Angeles get connected in Christian communities
“quickly and seamlessly.” By offering fellowship
and Bible studies, as well as professional
mentoring, development and networking
opportunities, these groups help Christians
flourish in the mainstream entertainment world.

As Christians become more integrated into
the secular media world, the need for biblical
support and resources will grow. Thanks to Bible
studies that deal directly with creativity and
organizations that help believers become
increasingly equipped to excel professionally
in the entertainment industry, develop biblical
foundations, and spiritual disciplines to approach
their work in a way that upholds godly values—
Christian values in the entertainment industry will
affect not just Christians, but consumers of
culture worldwide

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