Pastor Steven D. Martin went to First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to start a contemporary worship service. He had done that before, but as he contemplated the large screen at the new church, he felt something was missing.
Steven D. Martin, pastor and filmmaker of “Theologians Under Hitler.”
"I could see it had possibilities that I wasn't utilizing," Martin recently told EthicsDaily.com. "I thought it had potential, but at that point I didn't know how to tap it."
About that time in 1999, desktop computer video tools were seeping into the mainstream, and Martin, who said he always loved computers, began fiddling around with the technology.
"I got pretty enthusiastic about it," he said, adding that his interests in music, photography, technology and faith began to converge.
"All that kind of stuff started to meld together when I took this contemporary worship job," he said. "I got the idea to do a promotional video for the church for a fund-raising campaign in the fall." The resulting 12-minute video wasn't bad, he said, and it encouraged him to do more with video technology.
Martin, who holds a business degree from the University of Tennessee and master of divinity from Emory University, was interested in Muslim culture in his native East Tennessee, and he decided to use filmmaking as an excuse to get his head in the door of several mosques.
"Doing that with a camera on my shoulder made sense," he said. As he was working on the ethnographic documentary in the summer of 2001, most public TV markets weren't biting on its potential.
Then came the Sept. 11 attacks, and TV stations began scrambling for material about Islam and Muslims.
"At that point," said Martin, "my show became a hit record." The documentary, "Islam in America After September 11th," played on public television in 45 markets, reaching roughly 70 million households.
Martin has produced other documentaries on topics like genocide and cloning, but his most recent, "Theologians Under Hitler," had long been a dream.
Based on the groundbreaking book by Robert P. Ericksen, the new hour-long documentary explores how three prominent German theologians eventually sided with Adolf Hitler's regime.
Ericksen's 1985 book, Theologians Under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch, is "not a narrative work," said Martin. "It's a fairly difficult academic read."
The filmmaker's task, then, was making it accessible to general audiences and giving it a narrative arc.
"I wanted to invite the viewer into the circumstances around Hitler's rise," said Martin.
Joined by frequent collaborator Michael Pinner and friend Andy Sneed, Martin started working on the documentary about three years ago, but moved into full production in September 2003.
Martin shot the documentary using a combination of widescreen digital and super 16 millimeter film formats, and he edited it on a Macintosh computer. He financed the project through personal funds, proceeds from previous projects and cash from small fund raisers.
He traveled to Germany twice for the documentary and was able to count work on the project as part of his continuing education for the year.
His congregation remains supportive.
"We had a screening in the church a couple of weeks ago that was very big," he said. "They're some of my best supporters."
Martin's production company, Vital Visuals, hopes to launch "Theologians Under Hitler" in numerous public TV markets this fall. Meanwhile, he hopes to generate buzz for and screenings of the program.
"We want invitations," he said. "We want to come out and present this stuff to churches and other venues."
The opportunity, Martin said, is enormous.
"As polarized as the country is right now, as churches are having to decide if they're Democrat or Republican, as pastors are trying to lead some civil discussion of Christianity in context of a divided country and what it means to be a Christian in context of a divided society," said Martin, "this program gives you a very safe opportunity to do it."
Discussing current events at church often feels dangerous, "but you can talk about history. You can talk about the Nazi period," said Martin. "I think the film gives one a very safe environment to have that discussion"
"Theologians Under Hitler," according to Martin, "opens up the discussion to talk about what it means to be uniquely Christian in the world today. And I think that is the most crucial discussion we can have today in the church."
"I want people to think about what it means to love one's neighbor," he added. "I want Christians to think about what it means to follow the Sermon on the Mount."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Read our review of "Theologians Under Hitler."
The documentary's Web site, with more information, is here.