I Cannot Come (to the Banquet)!

Posted in Theology and Media on June 6th, 2016 by msteffen – Comments Off

“A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests…but they all alike began to make excuses.”  Luke 14:16, 18

I’ve read this parable many times in the past.  There was even a song we sang in elementary school:

“I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now.
I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow,
I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum.
Pray hold me excused, I cannot come.”

For the most part, my reaction to this parable has been shock that people would reject such a great gift: the “certain man” being God, and the banquet being his kingdom (or perhaps the wedding feast of the lamb, mentioned in Revelation).

But reading it the other day, I found myself for the first time identifying with the guests who say they “cannot come.”  “I cannot come, for I am busy developing a video game.”  “I cannot come, for I’m busy with family and household stuff.”  “I cannot come, for I am more concerned about myself and my life right now.”

Later in that same chapter of Luke, Jesus talks about the cost of being a disciple:

“Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”  Luke 14:33

In recent years, I’ve had a strong interest in drawing closer to God: becoming more and more of a disciple and experiencing the fruits of the Spirit in my life.  But this verse is challenging.  I love God.  But I also love my career aspirations, my comfortable American life, and so on.  As I wrote in a previous entry (and as my wife reminded me this morning), Jesus won’t necessarily ask us to give up all these things.  But at the same time, we must be willing to give them up.  God and his kingdom must be sweeter to us, more valuable than anything else in this life.  At moments, I feel hints of this.  But when I’m caught up in excitement for a game project or in dreaming of the house we’ll have someday…well, “You’re really asking me to be willing to give up those things for you, God?”

The key seems to be seeing the value in God’s kingdom.  This morning, while pondering how I could possible become willing to give up everything for Jesus, I thought of the parable of the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44): a man finds a treasure so great, he went “in his joy” and sold everything he had so that he could have that treasure.  Essentially, if we’re really connected to how great a treasure God’s kingdom is, we’ll want to give up everything else in order to have that treasure.  So if the trappings of my life right now are seeming more enticing than Christ, this means I need to work on connecting to who Christ really is, and to what the gospel really means for me.

I can also rest in the fact that God loves me.  He truly wants what’s best for me, and so I don’t need to hold so tightly to the things I think I need.  As for the game project, I think he may even be supportive of it…but it can’t be the ultimate thing.

Free Will vs. God’s Will

Posted in Theology and Media on April 22nd, 2016 by msteffen – Comments Off

I have often struggled with an apparent paradox involving the free will of a believer:

  1. God has given us free will.
  2. God asks us to submit our wills to His will.

Essentially, my question was “Why would God give us free will, only to require that deny ourselves and give it away to him?”  This question often comes up when I am resisting the idea of giving control over to God.  This morning, for instance, I was praying in my car just before walking into the coffeehouse where I am now typing this.  My plan for this morning was to work on some game design for a new project I’m developing.  As often happens while I am praying in the morning, I had the thought that I should really submit my plan for the day to God, and be willing for him to lead me in another direction.  But I didn’t want to.  Most of this week was dominated by teaching my college courses.  Finally, on Friday morning, I have a chance to work on the game project…but if I give that to God, he might tell me to do something else!

I decided to share this struggle with God (always a good idea).  I essentially said something like:

God, I struggle with this concept of free will.  Why would you give us free will, only to ask that we surrender it to you?

Almost immediately, an answer formed in my mind.  It wasn’t in the form of words being spoken (which I have experienced).  Rather, it was the sudden coming together of several different things I’d read at various times.  In essence though, the answer was:

God asks us to submit our wills to His.  But this doesn’t always mean that He’ll ask us to surrender them.

Basically, we should always bring our will (what we’re planning) to God.  Oftentimes, he will allow us to continue to run our own lives as we see fit, provided it’s in-line with the Bible.  But we have to always be willing to let him say “No” and redirect us.

As I thought about it, I realized that this is consistent with how leaders or masters work in general.  A good leader does not micromanage those underneath him.  In this situation, the employee has a good amount of say over his or her particular area of work.  But when the leader does give a firm command, those under him must submit to that command.  I suppose failure to submit to a leader’s commands damages the relationship between leader and subordinate.

The idea of “always submitting, surrendering when asked” also goes with something Dallas Willard said (I believe it was in his book, Hearing God).  Willard said that sometimes the will of God is a point, and sometimes it is a circle.  In other words, sometimes God has a very specific thing in mind that he wants us to do.  Other times, there is a range of possible things that God approves of.  Willard gave the example of his children.  He noted that at that moment he was writing, his three children were at home with him.  One was playing outside.  Another was upstairs reading.  The third was in the living room watching TV.  All three of the children were within Willard’s will for them, however each had chosen a different activity.

I found this answer freeing.  I often worry about whether I am doing exactly what God wants me to do, but at the same time I resist turning my will over to him.  So God offers the best of both worlds: “Always be willing to let me redirect your will.  But if I don’t, then you are free to choose.”  God didn’t create us a robots, but rather as co-workers with him in creation.  He treasures our ability to think and work independently, however we must always be open to being overruled by our Leader.

Upcoming Screenings in April

Posted in Cinetheologian News on April 11th, 2014 by msteffen – Comments Off


We have two screenings of “God of Commerce” scheduled this month. Here is the official blurb:

The Bible is full of warnings against idol worship. Nowadays, we think we’ve gotten past that.  We don’t bow down to statues, so that means we don’t worship idols anymore…right?

Join us for a film screening and discussion, led by Michael Steffen.  We’ll watch a film produced by Michael called “God of Commerce”, and then talk about the questions that it raises, including: Do we still worship idols today?  What false gods rule our culture?  How can we escape them?  Michael will also talk about his media ministry, Cinetheologian, and how we can support it.

Dates and Locations:

April 13th at 9:30 & 11:00am – Ascension Lutheran Church in Thousand Oaks, CA
(In the Library)

April 27th at 9:30am – Calvary Lutheran Church in Solana Beach, CA
(In the Community Room)

“God of Commerce” Shoot

Posted in Cinetheologian News on August 12th, 2013 by msteffen – 1 Comment

This summer, Cinetheologian is working on a new film called “God of Commerce”. It is the first in a series of 1-minute commercial-style films about the various false gods that we worship.

The character of Commerce, played by Cris O'Bryon.  It is staged to look like a "Message from the CEO".“God of Commerce” has a unique structure, as compared to our previous films.  Much of the film consists of various video clips in the style of a television commercial, with a voice-over by a man who calls himself Commerce.  At some point, members of the “Resistance” interrupt the transmission in order to alert viewers that Commerce is deceiving them.

On Saturday July 20th, we shot the part of Commerce.  I directed. Raphael Melgar was our audio engineer.  Kevin Schumacher, a former co-worker of mine, was our cinematographer and lighting designer.  And Jessica served as Production Coordinator.  We took special care to make the footage look very polished.  After all, Commerce has all the powers of the commercial video production industry at his disposal.

Our lighting setup with a Kino Flo light and blacked-out window.In order to achieve this look, Kevin recommended that we use a Kino Flo light.  I was initially skeptical: Kino Flo lights use fluorescent tubes, which made me think of the horrible-looking fluorescent lighting found in office buildings and grocery stores.  But Kevin quickly convinced me that these lights were of quite a different caliber.

We wanted to be able to precisely control the light on our actor, Cris O’Bryon.  So we blacked out the window nearest Cris, and used daylight-balanced tubes in the Kino Flo light to simulate daylight.

Toward the end of the film, it is clear that there is something sinister about the Commerce character.  So we wanted to change the lighting to reflect that.  Kevin came up with the idea that we could place a softbox light below Commerce.  The softbox is tungsten (indoor) balanced, which means that the light is much warmer than daylight, which tends to have a bluish tint.

The Commerce character, with softbox lighting from belowWhen we first see Commerce, the daylight-balanced Kino Flo is at full brightness, with the tungsten-balanced softbox very low.  Both lights were on dimmers.  At the critical moment when things turn sinister, Kevin dimmed down the Kino Flo while Jessica dimmed up the softbox.  The result is that we get to see the transformation of Commerce from benevolent to malevolent.

In addition to their roles above, special thanks to Kevin for the equipment and expertise he brought to the shoot; to Raphael for getting us our location; and to Jessica for taking care of food and makeup, and for her assistance with the lights.  Thanks also to Tonya Lehman, who helped us run auditions, and to St. Andrews Lutheran Church and Pastor Andy Taylor for providing an audition location.

Cinetheologian’s Summer Projects

Posted in Cinetheologian News on July 1st, 2013 by msteffen – Comments Off

This summer, Cinetheologian is working on two different projects: a short film called “God of Commerce”, and a re-edit of an earlier film, Daily Bread.  Here are the details.

“God of Commerce”

“God of Commerce” is a short film about how modern society worships commerce, rather than the one true God.  It is the first in a series of 1-minute commercial-style films about the various false gods that we worship.  Each film will focus on  a different false god—these might include science, knowledge, sex, nationalism, physical attractiveness, etc.  The overall message is that these things are not bad in themselves, but we often substitute them for God in trying to fulfill our deepest longings.

We held a casting session for the film this past Saturday at St. Andrews Lutheran Church near La Mesa.  We had a great turnout, and will make a decision on casting later this week.  We are tentatively planning to shoot later this month, so the next step is finding locations and a crew.

Ultimately, we plan to use this film series as part of a ministry campaign designed to raise awareness about our reliance on idols, and to encourage people to seek the one true God.  Christians and churches are the primary audience, though we hope that some non-believers will be intrigued by this campaign as well.

Daily Bread Re-Edit

Back in 2008, I produced a short Christian film called Daily Bread.  This was prior to the days of Cinetheologian, so it was produced under the name Steffen Studios.  Daily Bread tells the story of a college student name Luke, who begins receiving daily loaves of bread from God.  Inside each loaf is a message, telling Luke what to do each day.

Daily Bread premiered in January 2008 at Ascension Lutheran Church in Thousand Oaks, CA.  With a runtime of 15 minutes, it was shown in place of the sermon.  Two months later, we showed it in a similar fashion at Bethel Lutheran Church in Encino.  We hosted two additional screenings at Christian young adult groups in Bel Air and Aliso Viejo, but since then Daily Bread has effectively been “in the can”.

I had intended to seek distribution for Daily Bread, but hesitated because I thought the pacing was uneven and the audio was unprofessional.  Then I got distracted with getting married, and the whole project was sidelined.  A few weeks ago on a whim, I popped in the DVD and watched Daily Bread again.  Yes, the pacing and audio could be better, but I also realized how many good things there were about the film.  As a video editor I have five more years of experience since 2008, and with Cinetheologian I now have a sound designer who’s pretty good at fixing audio issues.  So I decided that with relatively minimal effort, we could make Daily Bread distribution worthy.  And that’s what we’re doing.

Overtly Christian Filmmaking

Posted in Theology and Media on May 29th, 2013 by msteffen – Comments Off

Last week, I met with a potential cinematographer and we had an interesting conversation about overt Christianity in films. His leaning is to create secular films with Christian themes.  His reasoning is that the message will reach a wider audience if kept subtle.  If we’re too open with our Christianity in films, people might reject them.

This appears to be a very common viewpoint among Christians in Hollywood.  There is some wisdom in it: yes, there is a risk that your film won’t reach as many people if it is too “religious”.  But staying subtle essentially means watering down the message. Star Wars is often celebrated for its spiritual themes.  But this assumes that spirituality is enough.

Sadly, a lot of people seem to think that it is–even Christians.  “Religion is about living morally and being a good person,” so people say.  Given this understanding, it’s no wonder that Christians are perfectly content to leave out any mention of God in the “inspirational” secular films they create.  But I say that spirituality or moral values are not enough.  We need God.  We need His personal presence in our lives.  Anything else falls short.  The world needs to know this.

But isn’t it better to reach a wider audience, even if the message is more subtle?  I used to think so, but now I am not so sure.  Is it really worth reaching all those people if you’re not proclaiming the Gospel?  Perhaps it would be better to reach even just a few people with the full message of God’s redeeming grace. That said, who’s to say we wouldn’t reach a large audience by speaking overtly?  In the book of Acts, Peter addresses a crowd after being filled by the Holy Spirit and “about 3,000 were added to their number that day”. (Acts 2:41)

I do believe God can use subtle spiritual themes in films to open the doors of people’s hearts.  I just think that too many Christians in the film industry are content to leave it at that, perhaps out of fear of being “outed” as Christians.

The key phrase in the argument against overt Christianity in film is “reaching a larger audience”.  For many Christians in Hollywood, this is likely a bigger concern than proclaiming the Gospel.  I must admit I still fall into this trap–it’s the creative side of me that wants my work to be seen.  But I don’t know that we can serve both goals.  If our primary goal is a large audience, then we may have to let go of ministering.  But if our primary goal is ministering, then we may have to let go of appealing to a large audience.  The Holy Spirit might still allow our films to reach lots of people, but we need to stop worrying about this.

Cinetheologian is unabashedly overt, and yet reaching a wider audience has frequently been a concern for me.  Part of the logic is that cinema takes such a large amount of time, money, and resources to produce that it is most worth it when it reaches lots of people.  But I am starting to wonder whether it might be better to focus on really ministering well to just one or two congregations.  Chances are, we would actually fare better than trying so hard to be a grand far-reaching ministry movement.  The Holy Spirit can magnify our efforts if we just focus on saying what we feel moved to say, through the medium of cinema.

The San Diego Film Consortium

Posted in Cinetheologian News on May 6th, 2013 by msteffen – Comments Off

This past Friday, Faith, Jessica, and I attended the San Diego Film Consortium event at the Four Points Sheraton in Kearny Mesa (San Diego).  Here are some highlights and impressions from the event:

It is Refreshing to Be Around Fellow Filmmakers

A real sense of energy is created when filmmakers or other artists get together.  It is so easy to get discouraged when you aren’t connected to that world.  Filmmaking starts to seem impossible when the people in your day-to-day life are doing “real” jobs, such as working in healthcare, education, or child development.  But then you go to an event like the SD Film Consortium and get connected to just how many people in San Diego are making films, and doing it successfully (success, at least in terms of getting their films made and shown–making a living is a separate issue).

Being Christian Filmmakers Kind of Makes Us Stand Out

Faith pointed out that when we told people we’re Christian, people either reacted with interest or as if it was a swear word.  There wasn’t much in-between.  It is both exciting and scary to be so (relatively) unique.

There Are a Lot of Actors, But Emotionally-Authentic Performances are Still Rare

Acting is hard.  I know because I tried it in high school and college.  It takes thoroughly understanding the character you’re playing and then fully becoming that character.  The best actors can authentically portray the emotions felt by that character.  One of the events at the Consortium was a showcase of actor demo reels.  Though there were a few good actors, most of the performances I saw failed at emotional authenticity.  I was not watching that character.  Instead, I was clearly watching someone act.  At one point, I even laughed out loud at what I later realized was meant to be a dramatic performance.  I wasn’t purposely trying to insult the actor’s performance (perhaps I should have tried harder to hold that laugh in) but it was just a natural reaction to a performance that came off as false–comical, rather than dramatic.  To be fair, the director also shares responsibility for an actor’s performance (take Natalie Portman in Garden State vs. Star Wars).  But it may still take a rather rigorous audition process to find good actors.

Resources We Learned About:

  • Digital Gym – A resource for San Diego filmmakers and media artists that provides workshops, equipment rentals, and a place to hang out and connect.
  • So Say We All – An organization for writers in San Diego.  Though film writing is not their specific focus, it may be a venue for meeting writers to collaborate with.

Cinema Band to Cinetheologian

Posted in Cinetheologian News on March 26th, 2013 by msteffen – Comments Off

Cinema Band will now be called Cinetheologian.  How did we get here?  Well, it’s been an interesting few months…

The Band Breaks Up

In December, we successfully completed the Christmas scene we were working on.  Titled Deus In Machina, this film presents an alternate version of the Christmas story: the Designer and his assistant Gabe must find a way to stop the spread of a deadly virus that has infected the System.  Click here to watch it.

We spent the winter working to better define who we are as a ministry.  Central to this was coming up with a Statement of Beliefs.  Several of us were really passionate about this, while some warned that this exercise could prove divisive.  To start out, we each individually wrote our “5 Bullet Points of the Christian Faith”, which are the 5 most important points that define Christianity.  Then we spent several weeks combining our points into a common document that everyone agreed on.  This proved to be a good way to put our beliefs in our own words, rather than simply reciting the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed.

Our work on the Statement of Beliefs seemed to be going really well, but a gradual tension was developing.  There was some fervent arguing between group members.  Eventually, one of our members decided to leave the group.  The ensuing shakeup revealed some other issues with the team.  In particular, we realized that there was a difference of opinion as to whether we were primarily a ministry or a production company.  Some people in the group were primarily interested in filmmaking, while others (including myself) were primarily focused on ministry, seeing cinema as a means rather than an end in itself.

The New Cinetheologian

Given the events of the past couple months, I decided to restructure the team.  The Core Team is now much smaller, consisting of myself (Michael) and Faith, with assistance from my wife Jessica and our pastoral advisor Tim Delkeskamp.  This new Core Team will focus on ministry, story development, and producing.  Several members of the old Cinema Band team will serve on the new Production Team, which will focus on production and post-production for our cinema projects.  These include Jason our composer, and Raphael our sound designer.

The new team structure does not really fit the “band” analogy, where a larger core team did story development, ministry, and production.  Because of this, we are renaming our group “Cinetheologian”, after the name of this blog.  I still think the band analogy could work, provided we were able to find people with the right mix of production, ministry, and story development skills.  But we seemed to be fighting against an established norm: that production crew people just focus on production.  It seems difficult to sell production people on the idea of also being story developers and ministry leaders.  So for now, we’re not going to push the band structure for its own sake–instead we’ll focus on the main thing: ministry through cinematic storytelling.

The advantage of a smaller Core Team is that we’ve been able to make decisions a lot faster over the past few weeks.  We’ve finalized our Mission Statement and Beliefs, and are beginning to brainstorm ideas for our next project.  Our goal is to create a project plan and have it ready to pitch to donors by May 31st.  We’ll keep you updated on our progress.

Cinema Band: Business and Another Film

Posted in Cinetheologian News on November 13th, 2012 by msteffen – Comments Off

November is becoming a busy month for Cinema Band.  The main thing keeping us busy is a short 3 minute Christmas scene that we are shooting this Friday.  This morning, we also met with a business counselor for help on forming as a non-profit organization.

Christmas Scene

Following the completion of our first film, Unveiled, we decided to focus next on creating a shorter scene.  Our storytelling skills are strong, and our audiences for Unveiled responded to this, however we want to focus on polishing our technical expertise, specifically in the areas of lighting and sound.  I mentioned this to Pastor Tim of Ascension Lutheran Church (our pastoral adviser), and he suggested that if we created a 3 minute scene with specific parameters, he could then show it as part of his Christmas Eve sermon.  So that gave us the motivation and deadline to get us moving on this next project.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the theme is God becoming part of His creation, which is what the Christmas story is all about.  We had another collective brainstorming session and came up with a story idea, then Sarah and I drafted a script.  Last Saturday we held auditions, and now this coming Friday, we’ll be shooting the scene in the Kensington area of San Diego.

Business Counseling with SCORE

SCORE is an organization in downtown San Diego that offers free mentoring and workshops for entrepreneurs.  This morning, Faith, John, and I met with Arnie Bertram, a counselor with experience in forming non-profits.  Arnie also has several children who work in the entertainment industry, so he can speak from that experience as well.  Arnie’s biggest advice was that all companies are ultimately “for profit”, even the non-profits.  We need to think like a business and generate revenue, otherwise we will not be able to operate.

I totally agree with this–I want the ministry of Cinema Band to be self-supporting.  However, I am cautious about putting business before ministry: perhaps they need to be very closely tied, but ministry must always be our primary focus.  We are first a team of ministers, missionaries to our culture and the Church.  Every business decision must serve that primary aim.  That said, I need to be careful how I describe us: it is easy to refer to us as a “production company”, but even that is a means rather than the end in itself.

Arnie also told us about several non-profit workshops we can sign up for, which will guide us through the process of incorporation.  We plan to check out the first one, which begins in December.

We Are Afraid of Each Other

Posted in Theology and Media on October 8th, 2012 by msteffen – Comments Off

Many churches have something called the “passing of the peace”, a time where everyone stands up, shakes hands with one another, and says “The peace of the Lord be with you” (or some shortened version thereof).  This past Sunday, as we shared the passing of the peace, I noticed something: many people seemed to be avoiding making eye contact with me, or at least not holding it for very long.  Several people even turned their head away from me before they were done shaking my hand.  Now, I suppose it could just be something undesirable they see in me, but I don’t think so.

I happened to be helping with Communion that same day, holding a cup of wine for dipping their bread.  This time, even less people made eye contact with me, even while I was speaking the words “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”  Most people seemed to focus on the wine cup before quickly turning away.

I can understand the aversion of these congregants toward making eye contact.  I feel some of that aversion myself.  It can be scary to look another human being in the eye, even more so to hold their gaze.  Perhaps we are afraid to let them see inside of us–there is a saying that “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” and I think there is some truth to that.  But it is also unfortunate.  Church is supposed to be a place of community, as well as a place of worship.  We already live in a disconnected culture, where people are more likely to text or Facebook someone than call or talk with them in person.

I think this disconnection leads to us being afraid of one another.  It begins to feel safer to only let people in so far.  When asked “How are you?”, we automatically respond with “Good,” which basically only means that “I’m not in mortal danger and don’t require your immediate assistance.”  But we need community.  This means that we need to fight that fear and reach out to one another, and this needs to begin in the church.

All that said, I have to admit that I haven’t been the best about reaching out to people either.  So often, it seems easier to dart for the car after church, rather than trying to strike up conversations with people I don’t know.  And beyond church, I should actually pick up the phone and call some of my old friends, rather than contenting myself with commenting on their Facebook walls.  I suppose this is something we all need to pray about.