Tuesday, November 29, 2005

My interview with Steve Beard of Thunderstruck.org

"Thunderstruck has always been a spiritual hangout for those who are curious, confused, or confident."--Steve Beard

One of my regular stops on the Web is Thunderstruck.org, the blog of Christian film critic Steve Beard. As a news person, I view the site as a wealth of links to things I need to know in order to keep in touch with what's going on in our culture.

I got curious about how Steve compiles all those links, and how he ended up being a film critic, so I requested an e-mail interview with him. Steve graciously agreed, and here's the interview:

CINDY: First of all, tell me about yourself. What is your background, and how did you become a movie critic?

STEVE: I grew up the son of a preacher man in Orange County, California (the poor version of what is seen on television). My friends and I surfed, skateboarded, and played in a roots rock band called the Belvederes. Shortly after college, I moved to Washington D.C. and was a research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Fourteen years ago, I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to edit Good News magazine. As a writer, I began to turn my attention to the way in which faith emerged in pop culture – television, rock music, film, and comics. Doors opened up for me to write for publications such as Charisma, Risen, The Washington Times, and World. I began writing on film and music for NationalReview.com, The Phantom Tollbooth (tollbooth.org), BreakPoint.com, Spirituality.com, Beliefnet.com, and RelevantMagazine.com.

Two years ago, I wrote lengthy biographical essays on Bono, Johnny Cash, and Al Green for Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced Twelve Music Icons (Relevant, 2003).

CINDY: I've called your blog, thunderstruck.org, sort of a Drudge Report from a Christian worldview. How did it come about?

STEVE: You are very generous. Originally, it was merely a collection of my own writings. Soon, I started posting articles that I thought friends of mine should check out. What began as a trickle of articles dealing with faith and pop culture in “secular” or mainstream publications is now steady stream – enough to keep me very busy. It did not take long before the articles and the website was being checked out by more than my friends and I began getting notes from fellow travelers from all over the place.

Thunderstruck has always been a spiritual hangout for those who are curious, confused, or confident.

"What you see on there is what I am reading about"

CINDY: The variety of links on your blog is amazing. How do you find those links? Do you invest a lot of time in searching for them?

Depending on my deadlines, I spend several hours per day checking out all kinds of websites that may have something that fits within my interests.

Are there any specific criteria you use when seeking links for your blog? Anything in particular that makes you go, "Yep, that's going on the blog!"

Although the blog is focused on faith and pop culture there are all kinds of articles that do not fit within that category. I love fashion, BBQ joints, Oakland Raiders football, traveling, and Cajun food. I’ve had articles on the history of the bikini, record reviews of Social Distortion, the ministry of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as Krispy Kreme Donuts. None of those subjects fit into a particular category but they are all things that I love. There is nothing clinical about Thunderstruck. What you see on there is what I am reading about, whether it is regarding the legalization of pot for medicinal purposes or the rise of teenage pregnancy. On the same day, I posted an article by Andrew Sullivan supporting gay marriage, as well as one from Mitch Romney opposing it. I was reading both and I thought that everyone else should. Just because I post an article does not mean I support the ideas behind it. It simply means that I think it is worth reading.

"Thunderstruck is devoted to pointing out the way in which faith expresses itself in art and culture"

CINDY: Your site is all about the popular culture. Why should Christians care about what’s going on in the popular culture?

STEVE: Our culture has a voracious appetite for spiritual engagement – even in our entertainment. We are far more mystical than we realize. The music, the movies, the TV shows that we watch reflect that. There are tons of programs that deal with heaven and hell, murder and justice, sin and redemption. We may not agree with them all, but at least they are bringing up these important topics. Thunderstruck is devoted to pointing out the way in which faith expresses itself in art and culture—The Matrix, Switchfoot, Bruce Almighty, U2, Lord of the Rings, P.O.D., Joan of Arcadia, and Johnny Cash.

I began the site about five years ago and it has just kind of taken off. There is an entire generation out there that blurs the line between the sacred and the profane in a way that previous generations didn’t. It seems to me that Christians should be able to engage our culture regarding movies such as Walk the Line, books such as The Da Vinci Code, The Purpose Driven Life, or Kanye West’s hip-hop or the latest album of The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

Some of my church going friends get angry and frustrated when Hollywood does not act like the church. Whoa, who ever said it was supposed to? Hollywood only cares about one thing: Money. Unfortunately, some preachers are the same way.

CINDY: Your list of musical favorites includes very few "Christian" groups. Do you think contemporary Christian music is inferior? What could it be doing better?

STEVE: Ouch. Ironically, I became a believer because of the friendship with some guys in a rockabilly group called Wild Blue Yonder and a punk group called Undercover. I like to blur my worlds. Perhaps that is more indicative of the state of my soul than the quality of Christian music. I have some friends that really hate Christian music. I don’t; I just don’t listen to it. But when I listen to Buddy Miller or the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s new record, it sounds like worship music to me. The same goes for Johnny Cash, hard rock-rap like P.O.D., Switchfoot, Lifehouse, or even some of Elvis’s gospel stuff. I still find certain U2 songs to be the kind of transcendent jump start I need every day. I listen to Dylan’s gospel albums and a lot of the Blind Boys of Alabama or even old blues stuff from Blind Willie Johnson or the Rev. Gary Davis.

I appreciate what Jars of Clay did when they played at Live8 in Philadelphia. We need more of our faith-based bands to mix it up with the mainstream artists.

CINDY: What's wrong with Hollywood today? What's right?

STEVE: Great question. I tend to see the glass more full than empty. Hollywood is far more responsive today than they have been since I have been a movie buff. I know that the some writers remember a time when every script was given a thumbs up or down by a Christian agency in Hollywood. Those days are long gone. Make your peace with the past and move on.

Wasn’t it great the way that Nightcrawler could be a fully Christian superhero in X-Men 2 without everyone breaking out in hives? I loved that. He was blue with pointy ears and a tail and quoted the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. No one poked fun at him. He was not a superficial, stereotypical Christian. It was so organic.

There is only going to be one Passion of the Christ, but there are many more Matrix-style movies to be made.

OK, this is a biggie, but maybe you could give me an in-a-nutshell kind of reply. How should Christians most effectively be sharing their faith in today's world?

It is very rare that a painting, book, film, or television broadcast actually brings someone closer to God. However, they can all nudge, probe, prod, entice, or inspire. We need to be able to use the world around us –nature, entertainment, sports, philosophy, politics— to engage our culture with the big questions. Why are we here? Where do we go when we die? Does it matter if we tell the truth?

In all actuality, it is very rare to find someone who made a decision to follow God based on some form of media. Usually, people are drawn to God in tragedy or despair or in rare, quite moments of contemplation. They are often introduced to God through someone around them who loves them and loves God.

Does the single mom down the street know that she could call on you to watch her kids in an emergency? Does your alcoholic brother-in-law know that you will come pick him up at a bar so that he does not drive home drunk? All I am saying is that we need to be vulnerable, available, and grace-filled to those inside and outside the four walls of the church.

I believe in making our case in the public arena but I shudder when I see some of the preachers who get picked to represent our side on television. We share our faith with open arms and smiles and winks, not with wagging fingers, swinging Bibles, or clenched fists.

CINDY: What do you hope your readers get from your blog?

STEVE: The reason I began Thunderstruck was to show my friends—those who believe and those who do not—that the entire world (even The New York Times) is writing and pondering stories that used to get ignored or relegated to the “Religion Page” found at the back of the sports section on Saturdays. I hope that they use the articles on the site to think about the big questions in life. I know that she is extremely unpopular with everyone in the Church, but what are we supposed to do with this comment from Madonna: "I'm constantly trying to figure out what my place in the world is. That search was obviously instigated by the birth of my daughter. In my film, I talk about how I woke up one day and thought, 'my God, I'm about to have a baby; how am I going to teach my child what the meaning of life is when I don't know myself?' If she asks why she's here and who is God or why are people suffering, I want to have answers. And I want to ask those questions, too."

Do we ignore her because she has offended us in the past? Jesus would be bummed if that were our response.

Has your blog changed your life in any way?

STEVE: I’ve met a lot of great people along the way. It has been a blessing, I am told. I’m glad.

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