Category: Christians working in Arts and Media

The Success of “The Bible’s” Mark Burnett — Minus the Bible Stuff

Faith-filled viewers know Mark Burnett as one-half of the producing team — with Catholic wife Roma Downey — of “The Bible” and its spin-off “Son of God,” along with “A.D.: The Bible Continues,” “The Dovekeepers” and the recent remake of “Ben-Hur.” He and Downey also launched a family- and faith-friendly digital broadcast channel called Light TV (which we reported on here).

People say that Christians aren’t making it big in showbiz, but Burnett proves that isn’t necessarily so.

Of course, his success with faith-based entertainment is built upon decades of producing shows for the mainstream entertainment market. In large part, the credibility he built with shows from “Eco-Challenge” to “Survivor” to “The Apprentice” to “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and “The Voice” allows Burnett to dabble in Bible tales without damaging his showbiz viability.

In fact, one reason that “A.D.: The Bible Continues” went to NBC instead of History Channel, like “The Bible” miniseries before it, was because NBC was in business with Burnett on “The Voice” and wanted to participate in his new venture.

Last week, entertainment trade publication Variety did an extensive portrait of Burnett, who’s currently president of MGM Television and Digital Group, and managed not to mention a word about his faith-based efforts.

But, it’s worth a read, if only to get a sense of how a former British paratrooper and nanny managed to build a showbiz empire. Read the whole thing here, but below find an excerpt:

Burnett has long been established as one of TV’s most formidable and innovative producers. But his career took a new turn 18 months ago when he was named president of MGM Television and Digital Group, after MGM acquired the remaining 45% interest in Burnett’s United Artists Media Group production venture with Hearst Corp. MGM’s total purchase price for Burnett’s banner was around $600 million.

The executive post at the studio was a surprise to the industry. Burnett had always been the maverick head of his own independent shingle, leaving him free to partner opportunistically with networks and studios as projects arose. Was TV’s ultimate entrepreneurial producer really ready to hang up his cargo shorts and IFB earpiece to sit behind a desk? Perish the thought.

Burnett has adapted the job of running a studio division to his own style, with the encouragement of MGM chairman-CEO Gary Barber. He’s typically in the MGM offices once or twice a week at most. He hasn’t given up his hands-on role as executive producer of NBC’s “The Voice” or ABC’s “Shark Tank,” among other shows. Burnett and his wife, actress-producer Roma Downey, travel frequently in connection with various productions and the couple’s many passion projects. And MGM TV’s president still doesn’t spend much time wearing suits.

Image: Courtesy Kate O’Hare

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.

‘Game of Thrones’: What If HBO’s Sexy, Violent Fantasy Is Your Only View of Faith?

“Game of Thrones” fans have kept the faith, but what about the show?

The social media world was abuzz on Sunday, July 16, with the long awaited premiere of the 7th season of Game of Thrones. While many Catholics, Protestants and other faithful question the morality of even watching the show, which is known for its graphic violence, sex and language, one fact that can’t be ignored is that millions of people watch each episode.

For example, from TechCrunch:

In total, the season 7 premiere reached a combined audience of 16.1 million viewers across its linear TV airing, same day DVR playback, and streaming via HBO GO and HBO NOW. That’s a 50 percent increase over the season 6 premiere last year, HBO says.

One things the show is not known for but is very much a part of series is religion. In fact, rather than being godless, the universe of Game of Thrones has too many gods. There are the Old Gods, symbolized by the Werewoods, trees with the faces of humans carved in them. This faith is vaguely pagan and has some of the trappings of Celtic Druids. Then, there are the New Gods, also known as The Seven, but they are 7 faces of 1 God. As many mainstream Christians might figure out, this is much like the concept of the Holy Trinity, 3 persons in 1 God.

The religion of the New Gods has definite connections to Medieval Christianity, especially since the religious of this faith wear clothes strongly reminiscent of nuns’ habits and monks’ robes. Sadly, the show depicts the hierarchy of this faith as righteous bullies who, in seeking the truth and talking about mercy, really focus on shame and power. The evil queen Cersei famously blows up their Great Sept (cathedral) with the High Sparrow (Pope or Patriarch) inside it after he threatens her rule.

A third religion follows the Lord of Light, R’hllor, who is a God of fire and the sun. This faith has the marking of Islam with R’hllor being a sometimes harsh god whose will is mysterious and is to be obeyed, not questioned. To the followers of R’hllor, all other religions are false and will ultimately need to be wiped out. Also, this Lord of Light occasionally demands that people be burned at the stake in sacrifice.

Lastly, there is the Faceless God, whose clergy are an assassin’s guild. This god is Death, the god that, according to his followers, everyone must eventually meet.

Why this matters is that since the show has 25 million viewers, and currently only 20% of the Catholic faithful actually attend Mass each week, there is a good chance more people watched Game of Thrones this past Sunday than the total number of Catholics who went to church in the entire nation. If this series has something to say about faith, be aware that it has a big audience listening. One interesting facet of the show is that it does indeed seem to have something say about faith.

A part of this first episode of the new season that didn’t get as much attention on Twitter is that the show brought up some pointed spiritual questions. These issues of faith came mostly through the character of Sandor Clegane, known as the Hound for his ferocity in battle and loyalty to the king.

He began the series as a notoriously violent, heartless, amoral and cynical character, who after being saved from grievous wounds by a septon (priest) of the New Gods – thankfully some followers of The Seven are shown as good – he seems to be undergoing a change of heart.

In this most recent episode, Sandor has joined a band of Robin Hood-style outlaws who are trying to fight for justice for the common people. The outlaws believe in the Lord of Light, whose followers often do good things when they’re not burning people at the stake. Sandor’s one great weakness is a fear of fire which has plagued him since childhood when he was badly burned as a boy. He makes the comment “Just my luck that I would fall in with a band of fire worshippers” to which the priest of the group replies to the atheistic Clegane, “Yes, it’s almost like divine justice.” This is not lost on Sandor.

The leader of the outlaws, Beric Dondarrion, is famous because he has been killed multiple times, but on each occasion, the priest has brought him back to life by the power of R’hllor. After coming across a cottage containing a dead peasant and his daughter, Sandor accosts Beric with a question “Why you [Beric]? Why does the Lord of Light bring you back to life but not these people? And not this little girl? You are no better than her.”

Now both of these statements make for a scenario to which most people, especially people of faith, can relate. Events happen in our lives – “coincidences”, or “divine providence” the faithful might say – that seem to clearly indicate God’s hand at work. Then, life moves in another direction and God is seemingly nowhere to be found. This ranges from terrorist attacks that kill innocents, to seemingly bad people having good jobs, positions of power, or the luxuries of life, while seemingly good people live in poverty, get passed over at work, or struggle with finances or health. We wonder why? Is God there, if so, does He care?

The key thing for us who believe in Christ is that Jesus helps us understand the answers to these questions. While in each individual case the answer may vary, the important thing is that we ultimately know that we have a good God who suffers with us, and who has suffered for us and, no matter the good or the bad, will never leave our side.

It is interesting to note that a show so popular is asking some of the big questions of life and ones that are very theological. Where interest needs to meet action is that we must take the challenge of getting to know our faith so we understand the answers to such questions and can give a better response than Beric’s, whose only reply to Clegane is “You’re right. I don’t know. I guess the Lord isn’t done with me yet.”

We need theses answers for ourselves… and just in case one of our friends, family or acquaintances happens to be one of those millions of viewers, especially if Game of Thrones is one of the only ways they encounter religion at all.

Tony Sands is the Senior Producer for Family Theater Productions

Image: Courtesy HBO

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.

‘Will’ on TNT: Seminarian Views Racy Series About a Catholic Shakespeare

This summer at Family Theater Productions, we have Holy Cross seminarian Brogan Ryan visiting from Notre Dame, so I asked him to take a look at “Will,” the new Monday-night TNT drama about William Shakespeare, which premiered last week. I reviewed it here, but in short, it’s a fast-paced, racy (for sexual content mostly) look at young Shakespeare in London, complete with punk-style costumes, hair and makeup, and modern music woven in.

But, writer Craig Pearce has done his homework, and much of the background info for his historical characters does have basis in fact. He’s also included, as fact in the series, the long-held belief of many scholars that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic — which put him in peril in the stridently Protestant England of Elizabeth I.

“Will” is definitely late-teens and adult fare, but under the more sensational elements, Ryan has found a deeper meaning.

From the beginning of Saint Augustine’s Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Many might not know the line that precedes it: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord.” This often forgotten, possibly overlooked, statement places the well-known one that follows it in its proper theological and spiritual context. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (1.1) It is true that we as human beings are seekers who often find ourselves wandering the earth chasing our passions, looking for love and meaning and purpose, but Saint Augustine knows the end for which we as humans were created: God made us for Himself. God is the source and proper end of all of our human restlessness. Our passions come from Him and properly followed lead to Him.

In Will, Craig Pearce seizes on and caricatures this very human reality.

In the opening scene of the first episode, we see young Will Shakespeare leaving his family to move to London and pursue a writing career – his heart’s desire. Even though he has a wife and children, his life as a glove maker is not cutting it. “I dreamt this for us,” Will says to his wife as he leaves. “You dreamt this for you,” she responds.

What makes Will such a compelling character, and why I will continue to watch, even through some of the gratuitousness that the first four episodes contains, is that I believe that Will is also trying to live God’s dream for him. Will is not a perfect person and makes missteps aplenty. His passions are raw and unrefined. They need to be directed, guided and purified.

We see (and I was edified by!) Will seeking out his cousin and underground Catholic priest, Robert Southwell, for spiritual guidance and sacramental reconciliation. It becomes clear that Will believes he is serving a larger purpose and working towards a greater end than his own personal wealth, fame and glory. These fascinations of the world are personified in the character of Christopher Marlowe, who has similar passions to Will and possibly even similar abilities, but Marlowe uses them to serve himself. Marlowe’s passions rule him instead of serve him and end up stifling his creative spirit rather than freeing it – a fact we see in Marlowe’s attempt to use pleasure and sensuality to cure his writers block. (It does not!)

Most of the action and drama in the series stems from the conflict and tension that arises from people acting out of their passions. The Catholic-Protestant struggle is a very obvious example of this (the vicious and cruel torture by Richard Topcliffe is in conflict with the stubborn faith and refusal to yield by the underground Catholics. Both hold deep, deep convictions about the rightness of their faith convictions).

Examples of the struggle between good and bad, right and wrong, and grace and evil abound in the series, with Will and others often ending up on the disappointing side of the equation. While these struggles can make for entertaining television, most will find the less obviously answered spiritual and personal tensions more compelling. Struggles with faith, family issues, fidelity, freedom, and finances all work to portray Will as a character who is truly passionate, but also restless.

In what seems like the final, damning straw in a pretty rapid decent for Will’s moral character, Will tells Southwell that he will not help with Southwell’s underground Catholic publishing project. Will wants to focus on his playwriting craft. If we were to hold Marlowe and Southwell as opposite extremes in Will’s moral sphere of influence, it seems like Will has chosen the path of Marlowe – his career and the temporal world over God and the spiritual world, serving his own passions rather than using his passions to serve the Lord.

Whether this is actually the case remains to be seen.

If done well, Will could be a series which captures well the spirit of Augustine. Will’s struggles all point toward a man trying to discern and follow his vocation – God’s dream for him and the proper end for which his passions exist. This is intriguing because it could lead to a story line that we Catholics do not expect. Acknowledging that God has made Will for God’s self means that Will’s ultimate rest – the realization of who God created him to be – might actually lie in writing beautiful plays and poems that bring others to God. His vocation might take him to a place where he is serving the Church indirectly rather than directly. It is possible that Will is not turning his back on God by declining Southwell’s invitation but rather is remaining faithful to God by responding in a different way, like a woman or man who might discern marriage over the religious life or seminary.

Will’s vocation is to be a playwright, not a glove-maker nor a fugitive author. He is restless and at times wayward, for sure, but is also learning that his restlessness is moving him more and more towards the God who made him.

This is my hope, at least, and why I’ll keep watching.

Have you seen the show? Are Ryan’s hopes well-founded? Let us know …

Image: Courtesy TNT

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.

Monks of Norcia: Benedictine Brothers Bet on Beer to Overcome Earthquake Devastation

In honor of the July 11 Feast of Saint Benedict of Nursia (a k a Norcia), let’s check in with the Monks of Norcia, who became world-famous for their Gregorian-chant CD, “Benedicta,” which came out in 2015.

But becoming international music superstars didn’t insulate them from the ravages of nature, in the form of powerful earthquakes that struck their region in Umbria in August and October of 2016. Hundreds of people were killed, many more displaced, and the monks’ home, the 14th-century Basilica of St. Benedict, was destroyed.

Here’s how they describe themselves on their Website:

The Monastery of San Benedetto in Monte is perched above the ancient town of Nursia, birthplace of St. Benedict, founder of Western monasticism.

The Monks of Norcia, who have called the city home since the year 2000, were forced to begin work on a new, seismic-resistant monastery on site of their old monastic grange when a series of devastating earthquakes destroyed their church and home in town in 2016.

The international community of monks who live there are committed to living according to the ancient observance of the Rule of St. Benedict and understand this otherwise tragic moment in history as a call from God to deepen their vocation as men of prayer, conversion, study and manual labor, and to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

But music alone is not enough to make the monks self-supporting, as is called for in the Rule of Saint Benedict, who wanted his monastics to live by the work of their hands. The Monks of Norcia took up the brewing of beer called Birra Nursia, which landed in the U.S. in the spring of 2016 — only months before the quakes.

Amazingly, the quakes spared the brewery, so the monks are counting on thirsty customers buying in stores and online to help rebuild their monastery and their mission to the surrounding area and the world.

From The New York Times:

Led by Father Folsom, who is the prior emeritus, the monks now number 15. They learned beer-making from experienced Trappist brewmasters in Belgium, and began to make Nursia in 2012. The beer’s name was chosen “specifically to help the townspeople, rather than naming it after St. Benedict,” Father Nivakoff said.

“We wanted people to identify the beer with the town,” and to help support it, he added.

Brother Augustine Wilmeth, who was born in South Carolina and serves as the brewmaster, said Nursia was “the only monastic beer in the world that is made exclusively by the monks.”

Other monastic brewing operations, he explained, have grown into milliondollar enterprises with many workers. In Norcia, the monks do everything themselves, producing around 10,000 bottles each month.

Meet Father Folsom, on EWTN’s “The Journey Home”:

And when you have some extra time, here’s a whole documentary, from the pre-quake days in 2012 …

Here’s to hoping they find the time to produce some more beautiful music for the world.

Images: Courtesy Monks of Norcia

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook. Visit our YouTube and Ustream Channels for our contemporary and classic productions.

‘Catholic Central’ Star and Saint Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists

This fall, we’re launching a new Web series, called “Catholic Central,” to teach about the Faith in fast and funny short episodes that are both entertaining and informing — “enter-forming,” if you will — and our hosts are Kaiser Johnson and Libby Slater.

Both Minnesotans, Johnson and Slater are multitalented actors, writers and producers. Slater is also a graduate of John Paul the Great Catholic University, near San Diego, California, a relatively new school that, among other things, specializes in training students in all aspects of media.

Back in 2014, the school produced a video in which a group of students recited sections of Saint Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists, in which the pontiff — himself an actor in his younger days — spoke to hearts and souls of musicians, actors, painters, sculptors, writers, etc.

This mirrors what’s been going on in our in-house studio, as writers, actors, producers and crew people assemble to shoot new episodes of “Catholic Central” — which we’ll be doing again next week, in advance of a Sept. 15 launch.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s Libby and her former fellow students in the video, released in 2014 to coincide with John Paul’s canonization. Watch closely for a fresh-faced Libby:

Click here for the full text of the Letter to Artists, and here’s a taste:

Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is “the art of education”. Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good.

The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which [Polish poet and dramatist] Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.”

This past May, the National Catholic Register published a reflection on the Letter to Artists. The whole thing can be found here, but this is one particularly illuminating passage:

Those of us have felt that artistic “spark” brimming within us — those of us that love to write, to create, to paint, draw and sing — would do well to heed the call upon our souls that this Letter speaks of.

This spark is something divine – let us keep it that way. It is something God has endowed us with, and whether we always acknowledge it or not, it still belongs to him. Let us keep it sacred and use it to set the world on fire for Christ.

But to do this, an artist doesn’t always have to be obvious about it. Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., who’s just joined us on staff at Family Theater, is both a Holy Cross priest and a filmmaker. I asked him about the Letter, and here’s what he wrote back:

JPII’s Letter to Artists encourages Catholics to evangelize through Beauty. Hopefully, this leads to openness to Truth and the Good. My own prayer is that artists may do so, subtly and with veiled language as Jesus did — in some stories and parables he doesn’t even mention “God.”

So, if you want to praise God directly in your art, have at it. But, also know that there are many ways to lead people to the light of Christ, and it takes true talent to do it without your audience even realizing they’re being evangelized.

Images: Courtesy Kate O’Hare for Family Theater Productions/Wikimedia Commons

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook. Visit our YouTube and Ustream Channels for our contemporary and classic productions.

‘The Conjuring 3’: Catholic Paranormal Investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren Return


Hollywood loves horror, and it also loves the idea of the Catholic faith going up against demonic evil — and “The Conjuring” franchise is one good example of both.

The two, and soon to be three, “The Conjuring” films are based on the case files of Catholic paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.

Our own head of production, Father David Guffey, reviewed the first “Conjuring” movie for this blog; and I reviewed “The Conjuring 2” for my Pax Culturati blog at Patheos.

While not everyone in the Church approves of the Warrens’ involvement in the paranormal — Lorraine is now 90, and Ed died in 2006 — the two previous movies featured the spouses relying heavily on their Catholic faith to battle demonic forces.

The first movie ended with this quote from Ed Warren:

“Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”

The third “Conjuring” film is underway, with a June 26 announcement of a writer and producer.

From Variety:

New Line is moving forward on its third iteration of the “Conjuring” franchise with “The Conjuring 3.” David Leslie Johnson is on board to script. James Wan will serve as producer through his Atomic Monster production company with Peter Safran.

Johnson wrote “The Conjuring 2,” which went on to gross $320 million worldwide.

No plot details are available about the new movie, but the franchise has already spawned three spin-offs: “Annabelle” (2014) and “Annabelle: Creation” (due out Aug. 11, 2017), about a possessed doll; and the upcoming “The Nun” (due out on July 13, 2018), about a demon posing as a nun.

As a side note, one of the cases the Warrens consulted on became the two movies — a 1979 original and a 2005 remake — called “The Amityville Horror.”

Recently, while browsing on Netflix, I caught a 2013 documentary called “My Amityville Horror.” It focuses on now-adult Daniel Lutz, who was one of the children in the family that lived in the real Amityville house.

Not sure if it’s still available on Netflix, but the film can be streamed from Amazon Prime Video. Also featuring the reporters who originally covered the story, it’s a fascinating, compelling and even moving study of a man still psychologically traumatized and even haunted by his strange experiences as a child, and the notoriety that resulted from his parents’ choice to make the story public.

The film also features a reunion between Daniel and Lorraine Warren, who reveals that she carried a relic of Padre Pio into the house and claims to have had a vision of the saint. It is comforting to see that Daniel is still connected to his mother’s Catholic faith, and he shares that with Warren.

While Catholics absolutely believe in the Devil, and demonic influences and possession, the world of the paranormal beyond that — from ghosts to evil spirits to clairvoyance and talking to the dead — is a source of theological debate.

Some things in the movie portrayals of the Warrens aren’t in sync with Catholic teaching, but as Deacon Steven Greydanus points out in his review of “The Conjuring 2,” while the theology may be in dispute, the Warrens provide a strong witness.

Ultimately, the most persuasive image of goodness may not be crosses or crucifixes, but the Warrens themselves, who are so decent, upright and loving, they’re almost too good to be true. (How many movies can you say that about?) A spirit of positivity, solidarity and even fun is as important as anything else Ed brings to Enfield. If malicious spirits are drawn to negative emotions, a guitar and a sense of humor might be as useful in their own way as a crucifix in banishing darkness.

NOTE: If the previous two films are any indication, “The Conjuring” movies are not for anyone younger than their mid-teens, because of their intense supernatural violence (which earned both an R rating).

Images: Courtesy New Line Cinema

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook. Visit our YouTube and Ustream Channels for our contemporary and classic productions.