Bob Beltz is a minister, teacher, author, filmmaker, and church-planter. In the last 7 years he has been part of the leadership team for Walden Media, a leader in producing major films from the books we love.
From “Joshua,” the first film produced by Walden Media, to The Chronicles of Narnia, Prince Caspian and Amazing Grace, Bob has been involved at some level with all the films the company has produced.
Bob’s research on William Wilberforce led to the formation of a new organization called “World Changers,” which encourages and helps equip individuals to reach out and have an impact on the world. (see www.worldchangersresources.com).
I talked with Bob in between phone calls with his daughter Stephanie, who is 28, and the mother of his first grandchild, Olivia.
CC.com: Was “Joshua” the first film you were involved with?
Bob: Yes, and actually it came out under an old company, Crusader Entertainment, which is kind of where we started. Crusader Entertainment wasn’t intended to be a Christian film company, it was more oriented toward family entertainment.
We had this Joshua project that was supposed to be about the third film that released, and through the normal craziness that happens in the film industry, it was ready first. So it ended up being the first film we released.
My son Baker, who is studying philosophy and music, had a recent paper due comparing the film “Joshua” with what his philosophy of religion class had been studying. His professor didn’t know that Baker was intimately acquainted with the film. He was an extra on the movie.
CC.com: Was filmmaking your original career path? How did you become associated with Crusader Entertainment?
Bob: It was not my original career path, nor is it my current career path, or what I hope to do in the future.
I’m actually an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I got into the film side of things totally because of Phil Anschutz, the owner of Walden Media Productions. I was a friend and also his pastor for many years. So when he decided to try and do something in this film area, he asked if I would come along to be another pair of eyes to watch over things and be an influence on what we’re doing from my perspective.
The company itself is a secular film company, and most of the guys working in it come out of the film industry. They aren’t there for any kind of spiritual or philosophical reason, they’re just there to make movies. My job is to kind of push in a certain direction, but I wouldn’t be doing it at all other than the fact that Phil asked me to jump in and get involved.
Once a month we get together for group meetings. We go through all the projects together at that meeting. Then over the phone and through email we stay connected on an ongoing basis.
I’m involved in every project we do at some level. Certainly at the script level I’m analyzing scripts from the overall mission perspective of what we’re trying to accomplish and deciding what the film’s going to look like.
Anything with spiritual content, like The Chronicles of Narnia or Amazing Grace, I have a much more intense level of involvement than something like “Nim’s Island” that just came out. For that movie, I looked at the original script and saw that it was consistent with our mission statement.
So I have some measure of involvement with everything that Walden produces, but again much more so on anything that has a faith dimension to it.
CC.com: How has that affected you as an ordained minister? Now you’re intricately involved with films, has it had a significant influence on your life?
Bob: The biggest thing was that it got me out of the church and into the real world for a while. Of course, I don’t know if “the real world” is the best way to describe Hollywood, but I think it’s been really good for me.
The tendency for many of us in ministry is to get a little too cloistered. You’re just so overwhelmed trying to keep the wheels on what you’re doing that the tendency is to lose touch with the real world. The other enlightening thing for me was being in the corporate environment and seeing what most guys that sit in church on Sunday morning are dealing with throughout the week.
I know I wake up on Sunday morning and I don’t want to get up and go to church. I want to sleep in. Things like that most guys, and women, that are in the corporate world, go through day to day, and I have a new appreciation for it.
CC.com: Are you back in ministry in the church?
Bob: My ordination is with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and they’ve given their blessing to what I’m doing. I continue to preach, to teach, and to write on a regular basis, and have throughout the whole seven years that we’ve been working on film stuff too.
I’m not on staff at any one church. It’s been a blessing that on a project like Amazing Grace, I’ve been able to travel around the country and speak in a lot of different churches. I’ve also written two books in conjunction with the films. It’s been a really nice integration for me with the film work.
I don’t feel like I’ve left the ministry at all, but that I’ve shifted pulpits somewhat.
CC.com: Would asking you which of the films you’ve done is your favorite be like asking which child is your favorite? Or which one do you feel is closest to your heart in terms of your philosophy, or how it affected you personally?
Bob: I’m a monstrous C.S. Lewis fan, and have been for 35 years, so working on the Chronicles has been amazing. The whole process of getting the rights to them and being involved with them, The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe more so than Prince Caspian, has been such an amazing experience.
That’s probably, in some ways, always going to be the highlight. Sitting the in the theater watching The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, and feeling like I hard a part in bringing that to the screen, then hearing that after the movie 40 million copies of the book were sold, was amazing. There are things about the scope of that that will always be unique.
Joshua will always have a special place in our hearts because it was our first project. I could write a book about making that film, simply because it was the first clash of a lot of people who didn’t understand the subject matter trying to make a movie about it. And I was in the middle of it.
It was fun, and in retrospect, I’ve got lots of stories that are hilarious, but I can’t tell them. Maybe one day.
Amazing Grace is special because I’m also a long-time Wilberforce fan, so that will always be one of my favorites.
CC.com: What film has caused you to dig the deepest philosophically and in your faith?
Bob: Definitely Amazing Grace, for several reasons. It caused me to dig into Wilberforce’s life in a way I hadn’t done before. Going and actually reading his book: “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System Among Upper-Middle-Class Believers in This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity.” That was the whole title.
It was a book that shook England in 1797. It struck me how difficult it was to read because the style of linguistics at the time were so complicated. He wrote in such a way that I’d read a paragraph and have to spend several minutes decoding it. Yet the passages are so relevant to so many things in the church today. It’s a book that I wish so many people would read today.
The combination of the difficulty of it and yet the relevance of it led me to adapting it to contemporary language. I actually re-wrote his entire book, which is a very intense process that forces you to think through things in a way that I don’t think you’d do under any other circumstances.
Then when the DVD came out, we wrote this book “World Changers,” and again, it came from the experience of looking at Wilberforce’s life and asking the question, “What was it about this guy? What was was in his life that enabled him to have the kind of impact that he had?” As I was extracting those things, that’s what I began to speak about as I was out in churches promoting this film.
Consequently, Walt Kallestad, who’s a good friend of mine, and I took that rough idea and translated it into the book “World Changers.” We then launched a “World Changers” initiative a few weeks ago.
There’s no question it forced me to re-think and analyze theologically and pragmatically what this would look like in our lives. It’s practical theology to look at our lives and think how we live out what we believe.
CC.com: How do you see that walked out in your daily life?
Bob: In a number of things. For my wife and I, our family, we have our own abolition issue that we’re personally engaged in. It’s the issue of the “Dalits” in India. I think that the amount of time and intensity spent with Wilberforce has convinced me that everybody needs some kind of issue that God has, through whatever channel or means, put in front of you. That’s the thrust of what I feel like I need to challenge believers with.
Personally, my sense of God’s vision of what I’m supposed to do was atrophied. I think in many ways, I was struggling to know if we were really making any kind of difference.
Without being negative or critical, in the church, so much of your time, energy, and resources are so focused on just keeping the machine going. The purpose of the church is not to be self-sustaining, but to be transformational culturally. It’s almost impossible to do with the structures that are in place.
For me, our engagement with the issue in India has been encouraged, reinforced and strengthened by the things that I’ve been challenged on by Wilberforce.
CC.com: What’s the connection to India?
Bob: Almost 11 years ago now, my wife was a “normal housewife.” Her biggest job was probably trying to keep me sane in the ministry. She got exposed to the persecution issue when Colson and others were putting back on people’s radar that this is a huge issue in the world today. It’s something she wasn’t really aware of, and when she began to get a handle on it, she desperately felt a call to try and do something and engage.
She went to the people talking about it and asked, “What can I do?” No one had any answers for her, so she got on a plane and went to Washington, D.C., looking up agencies that were working on human rights issues. She found people to interview and asked questions like, “What can the normal person do?” It really immersed her in the whole are of human rights.
Initially, she was working in Sudan with Christian Solidarity International. In the midst of that, she was asked to go with a group of women to do an investigative trip to Gujarat, India, where a massacre had taken place. Ironically, it was not Christian persecution, but Hindu extremists who had burned and massacred a group of Muslims.
That was her first trip to India, and through it, she began to be exposed to the issue of the “Dalits,” or the untouchables. Friends of ours were already taking that issue on through a group called “Dalit Freedom Network,” that was working with churches in India and the All-India Council.
This was about the time the Dalits were being given the choice to convert to Christianity from Hinduism. Hundreds of thousands of Dalits were leaving Hinduism because as long as they stayed in Hinduism, their plight could not be changed, because the caste system is what has put them in the position of untouchability.
Even though in theory the caste system is illegal in India, in reality everything is blatantly based on it. That was her initial exposure.
I really didn’t want anything to do with it. I used to feel that every mission trip taken was to extremely difficult third-world countries, and the thought of going to India had no appeal for me.
She came home in love with the Indian people and culture and kept pleading with me to take a trip. I finally went with her and my son, and we got on board with the movement.
All of the royalties from the book Real Christianity that I wrote were given to that movement. So I got more and more immersed in it, but it’s really due to my wife that I got involved.
One of the trips we took, we went with the band “Caedmon’s Call,” and went into villages where they had never seen a white person. The band recorded all of this indigenous music because the Dalits play instruments no one else plays. They came back and did an entire album based on the trip to India, and in the background, there is all of this indigenous music.
CC.com: What common element or thread do you see in your life story that's common throughout your as a minister, filmmaker, writer, and freedom advocate?
Bob: I have kind of a weird call on my life, and I think it’s because somehow the providence of God in everything from my genetic make-up to the experiences of my life have created something that I don’t know what to label.
I’m a teacher and speaker. I’m a writer. I work on films. I work on the foundation side for church-planting projects, so I’m a church planter. I’ve got these four different things that I’m doing that in some ways are very diverse. Some tie together, but filmmaking and church-planting don’t normally go together.
The biggest event in my life was an experience that happened to me about 15 years ago. In the male spiritual journey it’s been called all kinds of things: “The Great Defeat,” “The Crisis of Limitations.” I hit a point where personally I felt like nothing worked for me. It was kind of like the floor fell out from beneath me, and I hit a point where I just didn’t want to operate any longer the way I was operating. At the time, it was primarily pastoral ministry in the church and writing.
Literally, I started praying differently. I used to pray, “Lord, if you’ll open the door, I’ll go through it.” I started I realizing I probably couldn’t find the door if my life depended on it. And even if I could, I doubted I could get through it.
So I started praying, “Lord, if you’ll put me in front of the door, and then open it and push me through, I’ll try to figure out what to do on the other side.” It was shortly after that that all of this film stuff started coming together. It’s kind of an eclectic mix, but at the moment it seems to be what I’m supposed to be doing.
I’m not a big planner any more. I’m just trying to trust Christ day by day and know that He’s going to work things out. I really believe and trust that He’s going to work things out.
I read a great interview with Mother Teresa in “Time Magazine” a while ago. The interviewer asked her, “What’s going to happen when you’re gone?” I loved her response. She said, “Well, that’s not even my concern. I’m just a pencil in the hand of God. He does the thinking, He does the writing.”
I love that, because I know I don’t have the ability to figure it out. But I do have the ability to say, “Lord, I want to be the pencil in your hand. You do the thinking and you do the writing.” Consequently, I think my life has a lot of different colors to it because I didn’t figure it out.
This experience was pretty profound. It wasn’t something I could stand up and teach; it was at a different level. I ended up writing about it in a novel called “Somewhere Fast.” It’s fiction, not a biography. I’m sure there’s a lot of me in it. The protagonist is a guy whose life has unraveled, and after five years of living an unraveled life, he tries to pull things back together.
I made him a defrocked minister (I’m not defrocked myself). I’m a Harley rider, so I put him on a Harley riding Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles trying to put the pieces back together. The book hasn’t been anything like a best-seller, but it’s amazing how many men resonate with it.
I think men in particular hit this point and don’t know what to do with it. There’s really no road map for it. Others have been through it and don’t understand what God was trying to do in it. Others are going to hit it.
For me, the only way to try and communicate and help guys know this is a good thing, was to do it in story form. I’ve learned a lot about the role story plays in the last seven years. It’s a different kind of way of communicating and engaging people.