James Harleman learned his sarcasm and skepticism from Han Solo and Indiana Jones; he was taught how to be a man by Shatner and Hasselhoff. G.I. Joe taught him the importance of teamwork. Optimus Prime was his surrogate father. A mopey Bill Bixby and a green Lou Ferigno embodied his teen angst, and Peter Venkman epitomized his bemused detachment from reality. Marvel Comics taught him “with great power comes great responsibility”. But that’s just where his story began.
James lives in North Seattle with his wife and ministry partner, Kathryn, where they hold the Cinemagogue ministry in their church and online. He’s published his first book, Cinemagogue: Reclaiming Entertainment and Navigating Narrative for the Myths and Mirrors they were Meant to Be, on the subject of film, story, and the gospel.
James holds a Bachelors in Biblical Studies and currently pursues studies in English, Literature and Theology. He has written for film review sites like Hollywood Jesus and interviewed film directors including the founder of the Seattle International Film Festival.
An interview with James:
How did “Cinemagogue” first begin for you?
Fiction and fantasy surrounded me since birth, consuming me, my soul immersed in distant worlds and parallel realms. My first memory as a toddler is seeing Star Wars in 1978, and directors like Spielberg were godfathers pouring ideas into my head and heart. “Reality” remained a weigh station between fictional excursions. The ideas in film dominated my spiritual development; Martin Scorsese is quoted as saying movies were the church of the twentieth century, and as I examined my worldview at age 25 I began to see profound depth in this seemingly pithy statement. My faith had been shaped by entertainment far more than religious services I attended growing up.
Ten years ago the “film and theology” program at a church in Ballard fell into my lap, growing from a dozen people to a few hundred attendees. I started cinemagogue.com in 2007 to add more content and host the audio from these presentations, exploring the marketplace of faith and worldviews woven into our entertainment, seeing where cinema meets synagogue and replaces traditional worship and self-development in significant ways. Theological studies and an English literature background became invaluable allies. A growing group of religious leaders and aspiring filmmakers asked me to codify these ideas with a book, so I took a sabbatical to hammer it out.
What is unique to Seattle that fuels writing about media, culture, and faith?
Bad weather doesn’t hurt. Seriously, staring out the window at gray skies makes us dream about more colorful shores, pushing through the grey in search of black or white, seeking truth. We open a book or foster a conversation about those ideas, and some of us get the urge to contribute and create. In C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce the narrator finds himself in the “grey town”, a kind of purgatory from which characters take a bus and visit the foothills of heaven. That’s not to say Seattle is grim and joyless, because our great secret is that we have gorgeous days, great colors, and the foothills of Mount Rainer just a short bus ride away (shhh, don’t tell anyone), but I think some parallels are there. The lack of climate extremes encourages us to seek other extremes in stimuli, including self-expression and creative exploration.
What were the challenges of changing your Cinemagogue vision into a book?
Speaking and teaching had become my stock in trade for over a decade, and I worried about translating verbally expressed ideas into a different channel of communication. Even extensive blogging didn’t make me confident, as blog-sized installments belong to a very different format. I didn’t want the book to feel like a compilation of posts, or simply transcribed class sessions. I wanted it to have a unique flow and feel, to have a life and story of its own.
Additionally, there are some solid books on storytelling and spirituality, film and faith, but most of them are geared toward the scholar or educated filmmaker. I wanted to split the difference: to produce something that would edify a casual moviegoer or seasoned cinematographer, the devout Christian theologian or a casual spiritual seeker, an English major or comic book reader. I spent a lot of time on my knees begging for the right voice, tone, and level of detail to produce something useful to all audiences, something to stimulate a skeptic’s senses but also challenge conservative sensibilities.
What made you decide to self-publish your book? What has your experience been so far with that path?
Self-publishing has been a joy. I knew I had a viral audience with the website, local film and theology events, and those who’d emailed over the years asking for a written resource. This got the material to them faster, and working with an editor and illustrator locally who really knew me helped keep the original intent and vision. Most of all, I knew a few chapters would shock a traditional religious personality, and this way I didn’t face censoring or awkward editing negotiations with certain Christian publishers who would like the bulk of the content, yet balk or blush at the chapters dealing with sex, language and violence in film.
Createspace has provided an overall positive experience and an enjoyable learning curve. If my goal was fame or fortune (insert laugh) I could have pushed and networked harder with traditional publisher connections, but as a kid shaped by Han Solo it’s been fun to go a little more rogue, to smuggle it past the traditional publishing empire and deliver it to those who will benefit now. Self-publishing and viral marketing are the tools of the future. As Mr. Universe tells Mal in Serenity: “you can’t stop the signal.”
What do you hope to accomplish with the book?
I want to change the world, of course. My dichotomous upbringing, this disconnected relationship most of us have with our entertainment, is tragic. It’s such a self-deluded state of existence. On one hand, if someone gets reflective on our personal story choices we’re dismissive: “it’s just entertainment.” However, tell someone that you didn’t like (or hated) their favorite film or story and watch that same face flush with fury, as though you’d just run over their favorite pet. Attacking someone’s preferred fiction is tantamount to declaring war. As we unpack our convoluted affections for recurrent themes in film and fiction, we unravel our own hearts. What we’re beholden to in story reveals what we’re truly seeking in the shared story we call reality. Storytelling has great power, and as Spider-man’s uncle reminds us: with great power comes great responsibility.
I harbor three hopes for three types of reader. Providing new tools for consumers of film, a fresh set of lenses to interpret and enjoy stories (and thus their own story) on a whole new level, is my first desire. I’d also love to see those who preside over others in spiritual matters – teachers, counselors, pastors, etc. – start sifting film for those connections instead of ignoring or avoiding the medium, speaking to and through those shared stories toward applications for truth and living. Lastly, I pray the next generation of storytellers who engage this book gain an increased understanding of their craft, and its origins: why we tell stories and what that tells us about our Master Storyteller.
What books do you have planned for the future?
I have a few follow-up books planned to provide supplemental exploration of different genres, with specificity on how we can decipher and hone our affections for science fiction, horror, superheroes and even chick flicks. My wife will probably co-write that last one with me to keep me honest.
Additionally, I’ve always been fascinated by the monstrous and macabre: Poe, Lovecraft and Howard, with a particular passion for cursed creatures that don’t sparkle. I’m an old school Near Dark and Lost Boys fan: I like my vampires with teeth. I’m enjoying The Passage by Justin Cronin, and although there’s great paranormal fiction by women I think there’s room to put our finger on the pulse of these enduring myths and their metaphors from a perspective that equally engages men. I’ve got the bones of a novel together and plan to pump that out by 2014. You can only study the nature of fiction and structure of narrative before you want to try your hand at it. Despite what they say about instructors, I’m going to see if those who teach, can.
Connect with James on Facebook and Twitter. Please drop by the Cinemagogue website for “an exploration of how our culture lives, eats, breathes, consumes and effectively worships popular forms of narrative entertainment and media.” Find the Cinemagogue book on Createspace and on Amazon.