God’s Descant

September 20, 2012

We are proud this week to feature an editorial from Joseph C. Gallagher. "Joe" joined the Brehm Center this past year as Senior Advisor, Strategic Planning, and Co-Director for Reel Spirituality. Joe brings to his position many years of working in the entertainment industry as Executive Assistant to the President of Universal Studios, the first President of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the special effects production company perhaps most famous for their work on the Star Wars films. Before coming to Fuller, Joe worked for Fox Pictures in various roles including Vice President of Production, Motion Picture Group Vice President, and Corporate Vice President.

He and his wife, Joanne, an actress, live in Studio City and are active in the Presbyterian Church. Joe grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Joe currently serves on the Board of Directors of The United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

We are honored Joe has joined us at the Brehm Center, and we are pleased to begin sharing his years of experience and his wisdom with you, our readers.

The recent tragic events at American diplomatic missions in the Middle East remind us of the awesome power of movies, and, indeed, of all the mass media. While we should not give unmerited attention to the morally and artistically bankrupt “movie” that may have contributed to the deplorable violence, these events compel us to consider questions about the ethical responsibilities of artists and of those who control or influence the content of creative work within the mainstream media.

The Bible counsels that “To whom much is given, much is expected.” When the gift of cultural impact is abused, are people of good conscience called on to rebuke the misdirected influence? Or, are they challenged to generate powerful new embodiments of wisdom and decency and selflessness that will outshine and outlive the momentary dark eruptions? I would suggest that the latter approach is usually the more enduringly fruitful one.

After years in the entertainment industry, many of them at Fox, I started working at the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Seminary earlier this year. The Brehm Center occupies a unique academic and artistic niche in integrating music and the visual arts with deep academic inquiry and innovative Christian worship practices.

The driving distance from Fox Studios in West Los Angeles to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena is twenty-two miles (at rush hour it may seem farther than that), but in many ways it seems closer. The values of the secular movie business and of Christian academia are often consistent. In my view, Judeo-Christian values are at the heart of much of the product produced by mainstream “Hollywood” (the movie, television, and visual media industries). The Brehm Center at Fuller Seminary and its “moving images” initiative, Reel Spirituality, stand as strongly against censorship and in favor of the free creative expression and dissemination of ideas, as Fox, Disney, or Universal.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” Perhaps the difference between Christians and secular artists is that we, as Christians, know the source of that light.

Hollywood is not a repository of bad values. In my experience, it is, in large part, a community of hard working, gifted men and women who love and value the creative work as an end in itself. We also have many artistic friends and colleagues in the movie business who care deeply about having a positive impact on the world, and who believe that their creativity can inspire as well as entertain. That sensibility is, often, seamlessly congruent with the ethics and focus of Brehm Center.

Music is central to the mission of Brehm Center. The phrase - really an image - that resounds in my mind is “God’s Descant.” A descant is a melody sung higher than the “main” melody. A descant is complementary to the main melody, enhancing its beauty and its effectiveness. I believe that Fuller Seminary, the Brehm Center, and Reel Spirituality provide God’s descant in harmony with the finer melodies of the mainstream movie, television, and music industries. To the extent that God’s overarching melody is being composed by artists (Christian and non-Christian), then theologians and ministers provide a descant to that foundational melody. The challenge - one in which I am blessed to play a small part - is to enhance the bridges between the two communities, thereby enriching both. If, as we are told, more people now receive their theology in movie theaters than in Sunday morning services, this is a sacred mandate.

I have had the good fortune of being involved with movies such as the original Star Wars films, that achieved both artistic excellence and a positive societal impact. “The Force” is no match for The Holy Spirit, but Star Wars conveys a somewhat universal message of reassurance in the power of goodness.

Not everything between movies and ministry is easily or comfortably compatible. The secular media celebrate individualism and self elevating victories, transactionally and interpersonally. Movie heroes usually prove their worth, and achieve their popularity, by defeating someone. Stated another way, movies frequently celebrate individual assertion above community or selfless benefits. To what extent does this portray, or even define, the American cultural values that undermine Christian priorities? To what extent does the media’s affirmation of the best secular humanistic qualities undermine the Christian message of sinfulness and redemption? How do values, and which values, influence the decision making process in secular media companies?

The seductive call of the Brehm Center is to engage in addressing these types of questions and to find common ground among artistic colleagues with widely differing priorities. Even more ambitiously, the goal is to engage with partners who will help us create resources that may provide a few answers which positively impact a widening circle of inquiring minds and souls.

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john guernsey
11/19/2012 12:17pm
I'm sorry, you lost me when you said, "Judeo-Christian values are at the heart of much of the product produced by mainstream Hollywood" And then you mentioned, presumably as an example, the commonality of the Brehm Center and Secular entertainment's strong stand against...censorship!?.

I have no doubt there are decent, talented people, working hard in the movies and other arts, but if I look at the standard product coming out of Hollywood, (not to mention, popular music, contemporary gallery and institutional art venues), I definitely have disagreement with your statements. And frankly, I think Christian Arts/Academia could use a little more old fashioned censorship. (i.e. used to be called, civility, maturity, etc).

From what i gather, by looking into the Brehm center, the associated blog, and Christian academia and arts, is that it's being drawn into a low common denominator with secular life; rather than influencing secular life to a higher level.
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