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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014

This college helps Hollywood tell 'the greatest story ever told'

By Chandra Johnson, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Fri, Aug. 1 5:05 a.m. MDT

 The Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

The Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

(Eric Betts, KSL)

In 1956, a teenage Richard Mouw committed a major violation against his Evangelical faith: He snuck off to a movie theater to see John Huston’s “Moby Dick.”

“Evangelicals have long been hostile toward Hollywood. I was raised in a world where you just didn’t go to movies because that was the devil’s territory,” Mouw said. “We always had this sense of, ‘If Jesus came back and found you in the theater, what would that mean?’ And I thought, ‘He’d be OK with this.’”

As the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, in the early 1990s, Mouw continued to see a chasm dividing the faith world and Hollywood with the release of films like 1988’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Mouw had met writer Coleman Luck, who worked at Universal Studios when some 3,000 religious protesters picketed outside Universal over “Last Temptation.” Luck, a fellow Evangelical, told Mouw the display embarrassed him as a Christian. As author John Fischer documented in his 2002 book, “Fearless Faith,” Luck was bombarded on his way to work by the protesters.

“They were Christians, but believe me, they didn’t look very loving,” Luck said in the book. “My friend … turned to me and said, ‘I’d hate these people if I didn’t know you.’”

Stories like Luck’s inspired Mouw to reach out to Hollywood in a way that would benefit both the entertainment and faith worlds. Through continued collaboration with industry professionals, Mouw spearheaded Fuller’s Theology and the Arts program, which looks to link entertainment and ministry and is now in its 14th year.

Now, Fuller faculty and alumni are working in and with the entertainment industry to learn and educate filmmakers about the faith audience. It’s a journey that’s brought them from their Pasadena campus to Sundance, SXSW and the sets of “Noah” and “Son of God.”

“If we want to constantly be reaching people that are shaped by this, we have to converse with it,” Mouw said. “The seminary has been planted 25 miles from the entertainment capital of the world. How can we not be engaging with it?”

New perspectives

Fuller’s approach to Hollywood may not sound revolutionary, but it was for alums Justin Bell and Tamisha Tyler. Tyler, a 2014 graduate who lives in Pasadena, has considered starting a nonprofit that helps connect the entertainment industry and artists with the church.

“Fuller provided a generous space for me to process what being a Christian and an artist would even look like,” Tyler said. “Fuller is not afraid to be who they are and stand for convictions they believe to be true. But with that, they’re not afraid to go where nobody has gone before. Because they’re willing to be so unconventionally rooted, it gives them an edge to set up shop in unusual places (like Hollywood).”

As the son of an Evangelical preacher growing up in Wheaton, Illinois, Bell saw Fuller as a place where he could achieve his dream of working in the movies and still serve God. Bell’s Fuller training came in handy when his production company, Act One, worked with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey for the marketing of “Son of God.” Bell says Fuller has cleared a path for people to find their way in Hollywood by making movies formed on Fuller’s three pillars of faith: truth, goodness and beauty.

“I hope to make movies that contain all three of those things. I’m interested in movies that challenge and provoke me in my faith,” Bell said. “Cinema ushers you into something and that’s like worship at its best. It brings you into a space that maybe you need to be reminded of and you leave feeling washed anew or inspired to action.”

Bell said that means not being afraid to experiment. Movies don’t have to be strictly PG or about Jesus or the Bible directly to speak to Christians, Bell said.

“As Christians, we get so focused on values, message — and that’s just the truth part, so that’s why I pooh-pooh it a little,” Bell said. “I want to go deeper than that. It’s not that I don’t want to make those movies. But I hope to expand in that space.”

Building bridges

Fuller’s faculty also hopes to expand its presence in Hollywood as a trusted source of information and consultation regarding Christian values and themes.

They’ve already consulted on several well-known projects. Fuller professor and church relations director Kutter Callaway consulted with filmmakers on “Noah,” while pop culture professor Barry Taylor worked as a consultant on Ridley Scott’s upcoming epic “Exodus.” In addition, Callaway said Fuller faculty has been invited to the sets of non-religious movies, like Oprah Winfrey’s civil rights-era drama, “Selma,” slated for release next year.

Hollywood directors and producers, Callaway says, are eager to understand the Christian audience and they're attracted to Fuller’s expertise because its religious viewpoint isn’t confrontational.

“They see Fuller as a place where we’re being thoughtful about consuming media, and that includes, as best as we can, not giving into ideological extremism, especially since you have filmmakers who are genuinely trying to be sensitive to the story,” Callaway said. “Because of where we are, we’re able to have real relationships with these people, rather than just commenting on some movie we just saw.”

For Mouw, the program he helped create two decades ago is also helping Christianity stay relevant without losing itself in Hollywood.

“As Christians, we have a story to tell — the greatest story ever told,” Mouw said. "The fact is, if you’ve got a church with several hundred young people, chances are on Friday or Saturday, they’ve seen a story from Hollywood and then they come to church. How are we going to tell our story in such a way that it really gets through?”

Act One hopes to answer that question by training young Christian writers and producers so they can get experience in the business.

“There are so many people I’ve met in Hollywood that say, ‘You’re the first Christian I’ve met,’” Bell said. “If there’s a Christian out there who feels called to Hollywood, there’s room for you here. And we need you.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson

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