By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
MORA, NEW MEXICO (ANS – September 4, 2015) — Driving up Interstate 25 in New Mexico from Albuquerque to Mora is a journey of the senses. You pass a modern metropolis (Albuquerque), ancient Pueblos (San Felipe, Santa Domingo, Cochiti, etc.), America’s oldest standing city (Santa Fe, founded in 1609), beautiful canyons, buttes, the amazing eastern slope of the southern Rocky Mountains, and a gentle transition to the Great Plains. It’s a feast for the eyes and mind, poetry of geography.
Recently, I embarked on this adventure, driving to the Magic Canyon Institute for the filming of the finale scene of the movie Priceless, a project of the Australian rock band, For King & Country. A few days before I left, I was able to meet with David Smallbone, father-extraordinaire of the band’s leaders, Joel and Luke. The Smallbone family is well known in the Christian music world, beginning with David’s leadership in the Christian live concert music scene in Australia in the 1970’s, and followed by the worldwide success of David’s daughter, Rebecca, who achieved Christian Pop stardom as Rebecca St. James.
David told me about the excitement and challenges of making a movie, especially the thrill of his son, Ben, standing in as director. He gave me some insight into the screenplay and purpose of the film. I was impressed and engaged with everything David said. And as always, I appreciated my time with him, a gentleman of gentlemen.
As is the case with movie making, obstacles and challenges will arise. Priceless was no different. When I heard that an arid, austere ranch that was to be used for the filming of the finale was leaving the focused director less-than-inspired, I was fortunate enough to offer David some local contacts that are why I love it so much here in New Mexico. Before I knew it, another friend of mine, Marshall Monroe, President of Marshall Monroe MAGIC and social media startup MIXONIUM, offered his Magic Canyon Institute Ranch as an option.
And before I could say “ripper” (an Aussie term for “really great” or “excellent”), the lads from Australia were en route to Mora, New Mexico.
I met up with the team a day later.
To say that the Magic Canyon Institute is a beautiful place is an understatement. It is drop-dead gorgeous. Conceived and molded by Monroe as a sanctuary for Creative reflection, thought, expression, expansion, and action—it has become a mecca of sorts for 21st Century artists and inventors. Because it also has a mission to connect personal and organizational risk management and inspiration to the larger idea of faith, it is really at the forefront of the Christian’s engagement with culture and the creative arts. “It’s like a Cowboy Monastery,” says Monroe.
Founded by Monroe, a former Imagineer and Creative Executive with The Walt Disney Company, the ranch has been used by Christian musicians and artists—along with our secular counterparts—as a place of retreat, repose, and response—equipping all to create their own brand of creative “Magic.”
When I pulled up to the ranch entrance I couldn’t help but breathe deeply; the beauty and expanse was beyond expectations. I could only think to myself, “this is pure Western Americana: Ponderosa pines, creeks, beaver dams, an orchard, grass pasture, cliffs, mountains and endless sky.”
After I arrived, meeting Marshall’s wife, Patty, at the ranch gate, we met up with Marshall. He was wearing a cowboy hat, a weathered bandana around his neck, and driving a well-travelled ATV, very appropriate I thought. Patty and I boarded the vehicle and headed up an impossibly steep ridge hill to the top of the middle mesa. The view was immense. Already working, Priceless film crewmembers were trying out the drone that was used to capture aerial perspectives of the scenes, filming drastic cliffs, treetops, and distant mountain ranges. Director Ben Smallbone and drone operator Cubbie Fink (of the rock band Foster the People) were busy setting up camera path options. I soaked up the landscape, letting the movie people do movie things.
On the way down the mountain, Marshall and I chatted some about the Magic Canyon Ranch and Institute . His was an expansive vision for improving the understanding of creative skill and value in our modern world.
Marshall reflected, “Thomas Jefferson had the insight that as a country we should value creative competency and effort. He knew that if you sincerely value creative work in your laws and culture, then creative people will be able to earn a living, they will be able to feed their families, and they will then be able to do more creative work! He was right. And his vision helped create an explosion of ingenuity, creativity productivity, progress and quality of life that we are the beneficiaries of. Magic Canyon Institute’s purpose is to facilitate not just that raw Creativity, but ’literacy’ about why creativity matters.”
Continuing, he states, “Contrastingly, if there is no valuing of creative work in a culture, and no mechanism to make that value-reciprocity happen, then people, who know that great creative work is hard work, see no reason to put in all the effort of paving a new road or taking risks or pioneering. In any local environment like this, where creative work is not valued, the top talent goes and does something else, while the less competent step in with frantic imitation and copying, and the culture becomes an echo-chamber of weak ideas. I call these anti-creative environments.” China has this quality. As do many states, municipalities, …and lots of churches.”
At this point in our dialogue, I realize Marshall has given the topic of creativity uncommon depth of thought, as would be expected of a former Disney employee who has consulted for Michael Jackson’s Estate, Cirque du Soleil, Venture Capital firms, and the United States Government, among a list of other prominent organizations .
Marshall finishes up his thought: “In an anti-creativity culture, skills do not develop to new levels, ideas do not build on one another, and the arts and sciences become a flat-line. Culture is influenced by creative output, because we require creativity to fuel and re-illuminate core narratives. In that process, the public knows excellence and can smell mediocrity right away. Our goal for the Magic Canyon Institute is to breed excellence in creative competency.”
I ask how the Church should be engaged in the process of creativity.
“Sadly, many Churches have fallen into a disregard for the biblical challenge of creative and aesthetic excellence. In this process, they abandon a valuation of creative competency. They do it for many reasons. Often the stated reason is that the work is “for the Lord,” so artists and creative contributors are not compensated – or if they are compensated, it is at a perfunctory level. Sadly, this, at times, fosters mediocrity because the true artists cannot invest the time to strive for something excellent. In many cases, churches simply do not know what modern creative excellence looks like. Keep in mind that in our world today, creative excellence is a fusion of artistic and technological mastery. It is a pattern language of complex interactions and project delivery. Technical sophistication but maintained and continually renewed, but never at the expense of design quality.
“I should clarify – in many cases, churches think they’re “cutting edge” if they use Facebook or Instagram. In my view of creativity for Christians, they should be inventing the next Facebook or Instagram, not using one that is arbitrated, regulated, and, yes, censored by non-Christians. Christians should not just be mastering the mediums, but they need to be driving them. And I believe working within this new world of possibilities is not taught well, if at all, in our schools.
“Or churches that do succeed do so by applying pressure and guilt to an already overworked staff and team. All of these avenues become the standard practice for many churches. This is a deep issue. Mismanaging, or even exploiting talent in these ways is very much like de-valuing life by legalizing and even advocating abortion. Remember, God is the grand Creator, he values His Creation, and we are made in His image. So creative energy should be treated with stewardship.”
By this time, Marshall is really passionate, as you’d expect. He yearns for a Renaissance within the church, a time when the Church will impact culture in a very distinct and drastic way.
Marshall continues, “As our country moves in a direction decoupled from, or even hostile toward the Christian worldview, the seemingly small issue of culture, art, and philosophy becomes strategic to revival, and I would even say becomes core to survival. A few drops of blue food coloring in a glass of water can eventually turn the water blue, so I am optimistic. But there is much work to be done – and many to educate and equip. So I want to encourage an intentional thought process about how the Church is investing in and contributing to this process, as we breathe new life and creativity within our world.”
I turn to the competitive nature of the arts, particularly within the church.
“I have lived and worked in environments that are extremely competitive, they are extremely fast-moving, and they are filled with brilliant, hard-working creative people. But as tough as those environments are, there remains a foundational respect for creative skill. It is in the law: patents, copyright, attribution, and a culture of intellectual integrity. In this environment, the best people are paid a lot. Michael Jackson’s choreographers make a lot. The art director for Lion King made a lot. Celine Dion makes a ton and a great screenwriter makes a lot.
“If you want a great movie, you pay a great screenwriter. What makes commercial industry in the U.S. outperform Church environments is that they honestly follow a rule of law that respects intellectual property. And talent gets compensated fairly. In churches, there is a plague of plagiarism, and intellectual property is trampled. It is not evil that makes commercial secular art better; it is that they have a superior economic model. So here’s my vision: A New Christian Creative Economy. An ecosystem of new ideas, where creators are encouraged to take risks, where training in technology and art are requisite, where recognition is inherent, not the exception, and where glory is continually given to the source of all Creation.
“This is not a simple process. It will require a new framework for understanding Creative Excellence – in its complex, layered weave of dimensions. This involves the concurrent authoring of design, aesthetics, beauty, romantic narrative, mythology, science, technology, craft skill, resourcefulness, global awareness, and many other factors. I have taken the time to organize these issues into a teachable model, which I call Quantum Leap Mechanics™, and that is what lies at the core of the Magic Canyon Institute vision and mission.”
I prod Marshall further, having him explain this two-model (church vs. world) approach more.
“The low road taken by many in the church comes down to this: an ignorance of, or intentional lack of respect for creative excellence in skill and experience. Very quickly the top talent will disappear and go work where they are valued. It’s that simple. The second stage of this low path is a growing habit of imitation, plagiarism, and mediocrity.
In many cases, this leads to chasing ideas from outside of the Church, copying and using secular cues and clues for misguided internal striving.
“In this low road world, ego and force of personality, rather than competency, will rise to the top positions of leadership and management. Ultimately, the result becomes a dwindling audience, because Christian churchgoers intuitively respect creative excellence. In the absence of sincere creative excellence, fewer folks show up to church, which in turn drives economic struggle for the church. And with the economic struggle comes a redoubled effort to grasp and imitate. At a cultural level, we are seeing the continual increase in “nones,” which is a new moniker for people who have no appreciation for, or allegiance to, any religion. Here it is in a nutshell: this low road is about devaluing the creative artists and thinkers, which deflates the church.”
What’s the solution, I ask.
“The road less travelled!” Marshall exclaims, as we roll down the ridge, on manicured, sun-dappled forest paths in his trusty ATV. I wonder if he timed the comment to test me.
“This is where a church recognizes and compensates sincere talent and creative-innovative output. It is that simple. There would be a sudden revival of creative productivity, ingenuity, and experimentation. Not only does the church depend on it, but our culture does as well. We need new writers like C.S. Lewis, painters like Georges Rouault, poets like T.S. Eliot or George Herbert, and composers like Arvo Part and Bach. But beyond that, we need new Isaac Newton’s, new Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler-types. We need Christians who will Pioneer. And by doing so, they will impact the world with excellence. Letting their light so shine before men.
“Also, it’s important to note that great talent should not, in these systems, be treated like a threat. This can happen – especially in organizations where ego and force of personality have taken root in management. In these cases it will require intervention and soul searching. But in some cases it will require new up-starts and what the Silicon Valley world calls “disruption.” But however it happens, the whole purpose is to elevate the entire system of creative Christian expression. Teams that foster and value depth of experience gain wisdom. In the road less travelled, the A-list talent will return, and God would be glorified in the Highest. And the church rediscovers fruition and abundance.
“A key element here is the integration of creativity with truth, goodness, and beauty. Novelty is not a strategy. But when combined with values, stories, parables, clarity, economy, authenticity, diligence, and community, as so thoroughly espoused in the Bible, we wind up with something vibrant and spectacular.
“And furthering this concept, in an environment where creative skill is valued, a culture of learning is established because greatly-skilled creative people are always great learners. Always – that’s how they got good in the first place! And the learning culture can replace the imitation culture. And the faith-seeking public resonates with the new-found originality.”
Now I don’t know if you’ve had an experience like the one just described—a road trip that takes you on a journey through nature and “natural philosophy,” where the two are so totally intertwined. But I highly recommend it. As Marshall and I descend toward the main house of the Magic Canyon Institute – a majestic adobe hacienda of high ceilings and a wide wrap-around porch – the place is afoot with a flurry of activity. Soundmen, camera crews, directors, assistants, set-dressers, electricians, and the actors and extras are all preparing for the shoot. Marshall leaves the world of ideas and enters a world of practice: shoot locations, angle ideas, and input on color, timing, and atmosphere.
For my part, I head down the road to the horse stables, helping Marshall’s daughter, Hannah, with the three quarter horses used in the film. We wash, brush, and saddle the beautiful, lovingly attended animals. I walk one horse up the road. As I do, I think to myself: maybe this is what the Church needs regarding the arts and creative thought—a cleansing, brushing, and a walk up the hill …towards creative excellence.
Maybe a place like the Magic Canyon Institute will help lead the way. And if you ask me, this would be priceless.
To learn more about the items discussed in the article, click here:
1. About the Institute: https://mmmagic.wordpress.com/about/
2. To learn more about Marshall Monroe: http://marshallmonroemagic.com/
Photo captions: 1) Marshall Monroe. 2) Filming the movie, Priceless, at Magic Canyon Institute. 3) Marshall Monroe, Ben Smallbone, and Joel Smallbone. 3) Marshall and horse at the Magic Canyon Institute. 4) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). As a published author, editor, radio host, recording artist, and visual artist, Brian spends his free time with his three children and wife, painting, writing music, reading, and visiting art museums. To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon .
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