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Baptist filmmaker answers call to serve God in Tinsletown

HOLLYWOOD (BP)–Each year, hundreds of young ambitious actors, singers and entertainers look for a sign — the Hollywood sign to be more specific. Leaving their homes, their families and familiar surroundings to venture into the murky waters of the Los Angeles film industry, many fail in their attempts to fulfill dreams of fame and fortune.

While many Christians avoid Tinsletown all together, there is a growing number who have moved out west not to be discovered, but to answer a call bigger than any casting director could make, like Jimmy Duke, assistant director at Inter-Mission, a Christian film organization.

Drake, a 1998 graduate of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said the entertainment industry is a mission field that has been neglected by Christians for far too long.

“Christians are always complaining about the content of television and film, how horrible it is, the sex and violence, and all the propaganda but what they don’t understand is if it weren’t for the Christians in the industry right now it would be a whole lot worse,” says Duke.

Duke says that for what does get out to the movies and to television, there is much more that does not make it to the theatres and prime time because of Christian executives who are saying no. He says these are the people who need prayer and support.

“It disturbs me that so many people don’t understand that,” says Duke. “It’s so easy to complain. It’s a lot harder to do something good.”

Raised in a Southern Baptist home in Memphis, Tenn., and a Christian since he was six, it was at age 14 that Duke received a “distinct yet generic” call from God to go into the entertainment industry while attending a summer camp.

“This was really shocking to me at first because I had really thought I wanted to be a teacher,” says Duke.

Duke went on to attend Union after high school, though he struggled with the decision to major in theatre instead of education. Enormously influenced by Christian studies professor Paul Jackson and Christian ethics professor David Gushee, Duke also discovered a great mentor in communications art professor David Burke.

“Mr. Burke always pushed us to strive for excellence and get away from the mediocrity. The greatest lesson he ever taught me was to never settle for second best,” says Duke.

Duke feels that the church as a whole has settled for second best and has been playing catch-up for far too long.

“God is a God of excellence,” says Duke. “He wants us to do the best we can do, to the best of our abilities. As Christians, we need to be the ones on the forefront, we need to be the groundbreakers and leading the way, instead of following.”

Duke found his calling to the entertainment industry encouraged when he applied and was accepted for the last semester of his senior year at the Los Angeles Film Study Center, an offshoot program of the American Studies program sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). While there in L.A., Duke took classes designed to help refine his craft in filmmaking and production and worked as an intern at Tolin-Robbins, the largest producer of kids programming for the cable network Nickelodeon.

While completing the program, Duke continually felt God’s confirmation that L.A. was where he needed to be, and after returning to Union to graduate and receive his diploma, back to Hollywood he went.

“Coming from the Bible-Belt, L.A. is definitely different,” says Duke. “The people in the industry are mean. Honestly. But other southern Californians are actually, in my experience, pretty nice.”

For more than a year, Duke worked for Warner Brothers in their international promotion department. After turning down an offered position at Warner, Duke worked as a production assistant for several different projects, and was soon hired by Inter-Mission, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to build up the body of Christ professionally, spiritually, and personally.

“Inter-Mission is a great organization to work for. It combines my two passions, both the entertainment industry and ministry,” says Duke.

Founded in 1987, Inter-Mission is comprised of nearly 3000 skillful professionals who have a love for Jesus Christ, a passion for excellence and a desire to effect moral change on popular culture. The agency sponsors four major quarterly events each year as well as a monthly industry café. In addition, it hosts an annual Oscar night bash in March, a National Day of Prayer event in May, a spiritual retreat in July and various other writer, actor and industry related workshops. Currently, an average of 400 to 700 industry professionals attend Inter-Mission events.

“I really believe if the church had not abandoned this medium, we would not be where we are today,” says Duke. “That’s a sad testimony but it’s the truth.”

According to Duke, Christians as a whole are now playing “catch-up” to the current industry trends and quality standards.

“Unfortunately, any time you’re playing catch-up it’s going to take you a whole lot longer.” What Duke’s organization as well as others are faced with is “getting other Christians up to speed with what’s going on.” He says that the majority of Christians around the country doesn’t understand and comprehend the spiritual battle that is taking place in Hollywood.

“The only way we’re going to reach popular culture is that we live with it, eat it and drink it, so we can understand and meet the needs of the lost right where they are.”

Duke makes one thing very clear.

“I am not interested and many Christians out here are not interested in being known as ‘Christian filmmakers’ or ‘Christian entertainers,'” says Duke. He says the word Christian is not an adjective, it’s a noun.

“I’m a filmmaker who wants to make films and incorporate my Christian world view.”

To the student who is thinking about working in the industry, Duke has some advice.

“Pray, pray, pray,” says Duke. Just as someone who was going into pastoral ministry might pray, Duke says people wanting to go into entertainment need to pray just as hard.

“Pray as hard as you can that if this is not what God wants you to do, that He will slam the door shut, and take the desire away.”

Duke also suggests that students need to get as much experience as possible before making the trek out West.

“Take acting classes. Take creative writing courses. Take screen-writing courses. Above all, you’ve got to learn your craft. Nothing preaches the gospel more effectively than excellence and people will sit up and listen to the message if you’re good at what you do.”

To adults and parents who hesitate to let their children pursue their creative ambitions, Duke has a warning.

“If you are a parent or youth worker who are discouraging kids, shame on you. You are to blame for the immoral slide that is taking place,” says Duke. “We have to get Christians out here who are eager and excited about making a difference, and we have to get them out here to be good.”

Duke said “people are waking up.” He points to the rise in the number of churches with drama ministries, those that are embracing Christian music, and doing more things to engage culture.

One of the ways Duke is personally attempting to engage culture is by developing an independent film that will be based on the concept of grace, for which he is currently looking for financing. He is also in the process of developing a television project that he is hoping to pitch to the networks very soon. A member of Mosaic Baptist Church in L.A., Duke serves as one of the drama directors, and was the director for this year’s Easter program.

Two statements which Duke lives by says “relevance to culture is not optional” and “creativity is a natural result of spirituality.”

“Our churches have to learn how to embrace the creativity of our people,” explains Duke. “We have to learn to embrace the creativity of our kids. Give them the freedom to express creativity, and encourage them to do it. If we don’t, we will never reach the culture at large.”

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  • Sara Horn