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Understand ‘how the world thinks,’ Hollywood producer urges Christians

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Christian media must take a cue from the Jewish Swiss pen maker who fashioned Hitler’s Mont Blanc pen, said Phil Cooke, an award-winning film, television and video producer who visited Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary April 12.

That cue — subtlety.

Hitler commissioned the pen maker to design the ultimate pen for a man of his stature. The pen maker did so, including a design at the pen’s end. When the pen was held upright and viewed from the side, the design appeared as a snow-covered Swiss Alps peak that Hitler enjoyed from his winter home.

What Hitler never noticed as he carried the pen in his pocket throughout the war: Had he looked down at the pen he would have seen that the mountain design formed the Star of David on the pen’s tip.

“We don’t have to tell the entire story of salvation and deliverance in every movie,” said Cooke, citing the Billy Graham Association’s study that the average Christian was confronted with the gospel 17 times before accepting it.

“The Bible talks so much about planting seeds” and a part of planting seeds effectively involves learning to think like the world thinks, Cooke said.

Cooke gave three seminars and spoke in chapel while at the Fort Worth, Texas seminary. His topics included, “The Biggest Mistakes of Christian TV Production,” “Taking a Message of Hope to a Sight and Sound Generation” and “Using and Handling the Media in Ministry.” He also conducted a special seminar for faculty and staff on “Teaching a Sight and Sound Generation.”

Pointing to the apostle Paul’s example at Mars Hill in Acts 17, Cooke used church historian and futurist Leonard Sweet’s designation for today’s society in encouraging Christians to understand the “pre-Christian” world.

Paul went where religious leaders weren’t going, Cooke noted, and respected the beliefs he found there.

“We can’t go in slamming Hollywood,” said Cooke, adding that Hollywood “is not a monolithic organization set out to destroy the family. They just want to make a few bucks, and they’ll sell their grandma to do it.”

Such a mindset is foreign to Christianity, but Cooke emphasized the need to find common ground with society, reminding Christians not to expect unbelievers to respect the authority of the Bible.

Instead he urged Christians to “live like Christ has called us to live, act like Christ has called us to act, but understand completely how the world thinks.”

Christians should know society’s traditions and beliefs through its books, movies and music just as Paul was familiar with Greek literature and poetry, Cooke said.

Jesus also knew what made the people of his day tick, Cooke said, noting that Jesus was always showing up where people were, be it at parties, the temple square or the marketplace.

Christian television instead often repels secular audiences for a number of reasons, said Cooke, who noted the visual difference between a typical Christian TV station and MSNBC, ESPN, MTV or NBC.

“Those secular stations are concerned about reaching people–they’re looking to get an audience” while many Christian television producers are out of touch with the audience, he said.

Cooke said he is amazed at the number of Christian producers who never watch television.

When channel surfers are drawn to a program, it is usually for only three seconds, and what they see on Christian television too often is poor writing, poor acting and poor producing, he lamented.

Some of these weaknesses stem from poor or nonexistent financing for Christian programming, Cooke said. He recounted the history of Christian television, going back to the 1950s when Oral Roberts, who began broadcasting with NBC, decided against using advertising because advertisers could dictate the content of the show. Instead, he bought his own airtime, beginning a practice in Christian television that continues today–paid programming.

The only way for Christian television programs to recoup costs is to flash 800 numbers and try to sell products, Cooke said, but that does not often finance quality productions.

Too often Christians will spend money annihilating “evil” instead of financing “good,” Cooke continued. A Christian group, for example, offered $10 million to destroy the negative of Nikos Kazantakis’ film “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

“I’ve never been offered that much to create something positive,” Cooke said.

Cooke also noted Christian television’s resistance to change, especially in graphic presentation, which is crucial in a generation that retains 70 to 80 percent more information through its eyes than its ears.

“People look at Christians today and think, ‘That’s not what I want to be like!’ They looked at the early church and said, ‘Look at the way they love each other,'” Cooke said.

One way Christians can improve their image, Cooke said, is to “dump the lingo.”

Language like “breakthrough,” “dominions” and “prayer walking” frustrated a National Public Radio reporter so much while she investigated a church’s prayer ministry that she almost walked out of the assignment, Cooke said.

The phrase “mighty time of fellowship,” which a pastor used to describe an evangelistic Super Bowl party, stumped Cooke’s film crew.

Cooke encouraged Christians to use “simple, articulate, everyday language” just as doctors do with patients.

This is especially important for preachers since 90 percent of Christian television is preaching, Cooke said.

Storytelling must become a part of this preaching, he asserted.

“The filmmaker Ingmar Bergman said, ‘Facts go straight to your head. Stories go straight to your heart,'” Cooke noted.

Yet this Sunday, Cooke continued, “thousands and thousands of pastors will step into the pulpit without telling a single story.”

The three most popular types of programming on network television are movies, episodic dramas and sitcoms–and all are story-based, he said, exhorting, “Learn to tell stories that will change people’s lives.”

Cooke encouraged Christians to expand their vision of Christian programming. “Christian television is not a televised church service just as a light bulb is not a candle plugged into a wall nor is a TV a radio with pictures,” he said.

Christians have great potential to influence Hollywood, as witnessed by what USA Today termed “Omega-Mania,” the hype surrounding the 1999 major feature film “The Omega Code.” Cooke worked as second unit director, handling the action and special effects scenes.

Because of insightful marketing to the Christian audience, the film was the top-performing movie per theater on its opening weekend in America. When Christians bought large numbers of tickets at one Texas theater, its computer alerted other theaters throughout the United States to the “blockbuster.” “Nobody buys advance pre-buys tickets to movies except for ‘Star Wars,'” Cooke said.

The Omega Code has “kicked open the door” for other Christian projects, Cooke said.

“We discovered that if Christians could just mobilize and do some things together, we would revolutionize the industry,” he said.

Cooke added that the head of Paramount Pictures said, “I had no idea that there was this sleeping giant of an audience out there wanting this product with Christian values in it.”

One of Cooke’s favorite projects, a Billy Graham television special called “Starting Over,” proves there is also a sleeping audience of not-yet Christians ready to be awakened by the gospel in a medium they understand. Not only did the show generate 1 million responses for salvation when aired during prime time in 160 countries, seven of which ban Christian broadcasting, it also impressed the “raving heathen architects” working nearby Cooke’s film set.

Cooke often invited the architects to view finished clips of “Starting Over.” Their response: “Man, I didn’t know Billy Graham had that to say.”

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  • Cindy Kerr