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Hollywood Director Dallas Jenkins Visits Bethel

Dallas Jenkins speaks at Bethel’s interim Chapel in the Underground Jan. 9 before the on-campus prescreening of his new film, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.

Dallas Jenkins always knew he wanted to make movies. The son of Jerry B. Jenkins—co-author of the famous Left Behind series—Jenkins grew up knowing he could be a successful storyteller through equal parts skill and faith. During his college years, Jenkins spent his spare time creating short films and tinkering with the latest video editing software. He knew these extra efforts to hone his skills would pay off.

Jenkins knew a lot of things, and he had his future mapped out. But soon after graduating from University of Northwestern-St. Paul, Jenkins learned that God intended to bring him on a journey different from the one he had planned. “I find it ironic that of all the students I graduated with, I’ve probably come the closest to doing what I wanted to do,” Jenkins says. “But I would also say that it’s different from what I expected—more different maybe from what many of my fellow students would have expected for themselves.”

Bethel students had the opportunity to not only hear about this journey and glean wisdom from Jenkins’ vocational testimony during interim Chapel on January 9—they also glimpsed the professional results during a screening of his new film, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, later that evening. Students in Associate Professor Artie Terry’s screenwriting class had additional face time with the director, who shared screenwriting-specific lessons and stories during their morning class. “Anytime we can bring somebody who’s a working professional in Christian film onto campus—that’s great exposure for our students,” says Ripley Smith, professor of media communication.

Smith, who taught at Northwestern when Jenkins was a student, and for whom Jenkins worked as a teacher’s assistant, played a key role in coordinating the visit to Bethel. Campus Ministries helped facilitate Jenkins’ Chapel talk, and the Department of Communication Studies, Film Forum, and Northwestern joined forces to host the packed movie screening, complete with popcorn and beverages.

Seated in Bethel’s largest lecture hall, students, staff, faculty and family members laughed and wiped away tears as they went on a unique faith journey with Gavin Stone, the film’s protagonist. Played by “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” actor Brett Dalton, Stone—a washed-up child celebrity—is sentenced to 200 hours of community service at a local church as penance for his destructive and illegal behavior. After starting his new assignment, Stone pretends to be a Christian so that he can trade janitorial work for a role as Jesus Christ in the church play. But as Stone digs further into his role and is accepted in the church community, his fictitious spirituality becomes a genuine faith walk.

Audience reaction to the film was overwhelmingly positive, if not a bit surprised. “There are so many bad Christian movies, and I’ve seen all of them!” independent filmmaking major Emily Lewis ’19 says. “[The Resurrection of Gavin Stone] was different for me, so I enjoyed it.”

Classmate Catherine Carpenter ’18, a media production and relational communication double major, echoed Lewis’ sentiment and said the lessons Jenkins had shared with their screenwriting class earlier that morning were further illuminated by watching the movie. “There were so many great one-liners,” she says. “Watching the film helped me see how, in screenwriting, conversations have to flow naturally. Because sometimes the way it sounds in your head isn’t how it would sound in a conversation.”

Among the film’s other notable cast members are YouTube star Anjelah Johnson, Neil Flynn, D.B. Sweeney, and WWE superstar Shawn Michaels. “I get asked every screening [if all of the actors who worked on the movie are Christians], and I love it,” Jenkins says in response to an audience question after the screening. “And the answer is no. We not only don’t mind working with non-Christians—we actually love it.”

Learning how to connect with and minister to his coworkers was one of the many things Jenkins says God taught him along his professional journey. It went hand-and-hand with his belief that the movies he made could be both explicitly Christian and extremely impactful. “It’s not ‘cool’ to make Christian movies,” Jenkins says. “It’s cooler to say, ‘I’m not a Christian filmmaker, I’m just a filmmaker who happens to be Christian.’”

For many years, that’s exactly what Jenkins was. But, after a “shift in prayer and a shift in focus,” he began seeking God’s will for his work and eventually left Hollywood and landed at Vertical Church Films, run out of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago. It was there that The Resurrection of Gavin Stone became a reality.

During the post-screening Q&A, Jenkins explained to curious students that it was ultimately by submitting to God’s plan that the film’s pitch and funding were successful, and he encouraged students to tap into that submission in their futures. “Make sure that when someone asks you the question, ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’ that your answer is, ‘That’s none of my business,’” he says. He also credits his constant practice and pursuit of new projects—including the small clips he filmed at his church—and tells students to do the same. “If you do something that’s good and something that people want to see, then they’re always going to ask ‘What’s next?’”

Jenkins hopes that his visit will garner attention for the film, which was released in 1,000 theaters throughout the U.S. on January 20. He wants the film to help expunge the adjective “bad” from Christian movies and replace it with “high quality.” With a budget of almost $2 million and the support of Hollywood producers, Jenkins believes The Resurrection of Gavin Stone could be the beginning of a new era for Christian media.

“I’ve always believed that the most important message in the world deserves the most influential medium in the world,” he says. “We need to bridge that gap between church and movies and popular culture.”

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