Phil Cooke is a rarity: a Hollywood movie producer who holds a doctorate in theology. He’s the man Christian organizations, churches, and denominations call on to help them engage a post–modern culture. Cooke, the executive producer of the Hillsong United movie “Let Hope Rise,” spoke at the Eastern Territory’s Media Symposium last year just as the documentary was being released. He also took a few minutes to chat with SAConnects (magazine).
Are Christians doing a better job of engaging the culture? We are. We’re improving. Actually, I’ve seen an enormous change over the last decade. I see more and more organizations that really understand what’s at stake. When I come to a conference like this, I see videos produced by Salvation Army divisions and they’re extraordinary. Some of them are just amazing. So I do think that Christians ‘get it.’ They understand the issues much more completely. I’m excited. I’m seeing positive signs.
How is The Salvation Army doing in this area? What I’ve seen here in the Eastern Territory is fantastic. Your studio is absolutely amazing. I think you do a terrific job. The Western Territory has the Salvation Army Vision Network and I’ve been a part of that. The Southern Territory, they produce shows like “Salvation Army Today.” We were in London for the 150th anniversary … and were involved in media there. We were broadcasting live, doing social media 24/7. Everywhere I go to attend Salvation Army events I see some remarkable work.
What are some mistakes we make as Christians trying to engage the culture? I think there are a number of them. I think the biggest one comes out of the fact that we are understandably frustrated that we do not see signs of a dominant Christian culture anymore. When I was a kid, it was perfectly normal to pray in schools. A marriage was between a man and woman— unquestioned. Abortion was out of the question. It was against the law. Just in our short lifetime, we’ve seen so many things completely overturned. We look around sometimes and think what in the world has happened? I think the problem in many cases is we respond out of anger and frustration. And while I understand it completely, nobody changes because you get upset with them. Nobody changes because you yell at them. We have to think about how we approach the culture in a much different way, which is why I think The Salvation Army is so exceptional because what does change culture is when your actions speak louder than your words. A huge segment of the Christian community in America talks a lot, they lecture a lot, they preach a lot, but they don’t actually do a whole lot. I think The Salvation Army leads by doing, and that’s what gets the attention of the culture. You may not be a Christian, you may not like Christianity, you may be a raging atheist, but you cannot deny the impact and the work The Salvation Army does and I think that’s what really opens the door to the culture being interested in listening to our message.
Do you have any ideas on how we can improve? I think we need to learn to speak the language of the culture. I think sometimes in the Christian community we’re a little out of date and old –fashioned. We don’t really understand what makes the culture tick today. I’m a big fan of studying culture. I watch television, I go to movies, I study what’s happening online and in the digital space. I think for us to be effective we have to speak their language. I also think creativity really matters. If you go to Hollywood, creativity is the currency of that culture. Creativity is what really drives that industry. I think this is a remarkably creative generation. When you look at millennials, they are the most visual generation this country has probably ever seen. We have to understand how to use creativity and how to use the visual realm to reach people with the message. Things like that are so absolutely important in how we engage the culture.
What are some of the strengths we can build on in the Christian community when it comes to cultural engagement? Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a quote—“Your life as a Christian should make non-believers question their disbelief in God.” I think we as Christians need to think about how our lives are noticeably different from those of other people. I read a statistic the other day that said 76 percent of people in America don’t know their neighbors’ names. That’s a ministry right there, just going around the neighborhood and meeting people and getting to know them. Start a block party. Little things like that we could do that would have an exceptional impact on the people around us. I often look at Christians, me included, and I think, do I really live a life that’s that different from everybody else? The fact is if we’re living an abundant life in Christ, our life should reflect that. It should be noticeably different from other people and people should wonder about that and that should start questions. The key thing we can build on is we need to start living lives that are different from other people. I think that’s incredibly important.
You recently attended a meeting in Hollywood of several cutting–edge media companies. What did you take away from that? One of the things is digital companies in the secular world, Google and YouTube and companies like that, are living every day to figure out how to engage people around them. Attention is the new currency in that world. It’s all about getting people’s attention. We think just because we’re sharing a great message that we deserve people’s attention. We assume that because we do great work and we love people and we’re sharing the Gospel, that people should listen, but we live in a culture today where that’s not the case. We have to start all over and understand we have to earn the right to be heard. These digital companies that are doing so well today in Hollywood and New York and other places are doing well because they are so focused on how we get the culture’s attention. If we’re ever going to share the Gospel and change people’s perception about who we are, the first thing we have to do is get people’s attention. I think one of the ways is through acts—doing good. Doing the Most Good, if you will. I think doing those kinds of acts definitely get people’s attention. Living an exceptional life gets people’s attention. I think if we focus on doing that even more, it would really make a difference out there. The fact is the Christian community is already way ahead of Hollywood. We’re selling the greatest product there is. We have the greatest relationship there is—with God. We know what it takes to unite people and transform people’s lives. We just need to act on it.
Which Christian movies are doing it right when it comes to reaching the culture? Barna Research did some interesting studies after Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” They discovered that less than 1 percent of the people who saw that movie—and millions of people saw it—actually accepted Christ as a result of the movie. That’s probably the most explicit movie there is about the Gospel. If so few people accepted Christ after a movie of that scale, which is that explicit, that tells me that maybe movies aren’t good vehicles for leading people to God. I think the power of movies, the power of video, the power of short films, is changing people’s thinking. It may not lead people to Christ, but I would like my film, my movie, or my short video, I’d like it to at least make people think a different way. I’d like them to walk away from it thinking, you know, I never really thought about it that way; maybe I should look into that more. Our film about Hillsong, “Let Hope Rise,” I wanted to make a film that you could take an unbeliever to and not be embarrassed at all. Even if they didn’t like the Christian elements, they’d be impressed with the music. I wanted them to walk away thinking, you know, if that’s what goes on inside a church, maybe I should give that a second look. Maybe that’s for me. The movie “Sully” is the same way. It’s a movie about heroism, it’s a movie about going to extraordinary lengths to help people, it’s about caring for people, it’s just about some remarkable qualities that need to be celebrated in America right now.
by Robert Mitchell