The Encounter Screenwriter Timothy Ratajczak on God’s Providence, Spiritual Warfare, and “Corny” Christian Media
AP: Today’s interview is a dream to me…I’m here with Timothy Ratajczak, one of the screenwriters behind the tv show The Encounter. If you haven’t seen it yet, get yourself together [laughs]. It’s on Pure Flix, or as some call it, the Christian Netflix, and it’s worth the subscription. I’d even argue that if you’re a fan of Then God Moved, this show was essentially written for you…we’ll get into that later but for now…Timothy, thank you for being here.
TR: Thank you for having me.
AP: I would love to hear about your journey toward initial faith.
TR: Forgive me in advance if my testimony is not as dramatic or earth-shaking as that shared by others on your web site. Each of us has his or her own walk with God, and the LORD does with each of us what he will. As Saint Paul tells us in Romans 9:21: “…does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” But even if we are “common,” God can still call us to do uncommon things.
I was born, raised and educated in the Roman Catholic Church – specifically Saint Casimir Parish in Baltimore, Maryland of which I am still an active member. Because I was educated in Catholic schools and my parents were both very devout in their faith, I grew up in a Godly household. My mother taught me to pray as soon as I could talk, and Bible stories were read to me until I was old enough to read the Bible for myself. Christ was always in my life, and even for a brief period when I stopped attending a church, I never stopped being a Christian.
AP: So tell me abt your professional journey. Do you feel that God led you into screenwriting?
TR: Christians should alway try to live their lives by Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men….” It would be easy to assume that because I work almost exclusively in the faith-based genre of the entertainment industry that God led me specifically into screenwriting. Maybe this is the truth. Certainly, I will one day know the answer.
As a youngster, after seeing my very first movie (“The Wizard of Oz”), I wanted to be a part of that business. To tell stories with pictures and music and dialogue seemed to me to be the coolest job in the universe!
As a student in college, I chose Mass Communications as my major because it included film, television, radio, journalism, advertising, public speaking, everything that had to do with communication. (Since this was before the days of personal computers, smartphones and the internet, we had to use things like celluloid, videotape, pay phones, libraries and typewriters!) All of this taught me much about craft, but sadly, very little about the business. That was a lesson that would be taught by experience. For the next twenty years, I wrote and wrote and pitched and pitched while I pleaded with God to open a door for me. For a long time, I thought His answer was “no.” In reality, the answer was “not yet.”
In 2005, a remarkable opportunity to write a feature-length screenplay for the then- unknown Pure Flix availed itself. I was going to get paid very little money to write the script but the film had a very good chance of actually being produced. The movie ultimately became Hidden Secrets. It was to be a faith-based romantic comedy. Being a person of faith, having a sense of humor and being somewhat versed in affairs of the heart, this was an opportunity that seemed only too perfect for me. I said “yes” and ultimately, God used my “yes” to start a career that He has sustained for over fifteen years.
AP: How has His providence revealed itself within your career thus far?
TR: Well Adira, nothing happens by accident. God has a plan for all of us. Refer to the parable of the talents to see what God gives and what He expects of us in return.
Screenwriting is more than my career. It is my ministry. Not everyone gets called to the pulpit. I have never preached a sermon or shared the Gospel in person to a large audience. But thanks be to God, He has provided a wonderful electronic pulpit that allows me to do just that. And even better, I don’t even have to leave my office!
AP: So, in each episode of The Encounter, protagonists have some sort of transformative interaction with Jesus, who comes to them in the flesh. Obviously, we as believers are transformed by the LORD via the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – but in a sense, believers and non-believers alike also encounter Christ when we come into contact with His church. Looking back, I can clearly pinpoint seeds that were planted in my non-believing self by the faithful… Can you pinpoint any such encounters from your past? How have those personal encounters shaped your storylines?
TR: Without going into too much detail, I can honestly say that all of The Encounter scripts I’ve been involved with were based on – or contained elements related to – actual events in my life. As you know, most of the episodes are based on various Scriptures or parables of Jesus. In Season One, “Just Believe” was based on the story of the daughter of Jairus. “Maximum Mike” comes from the Beatitude that says, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy”. And “Her Final Role” was a tip of the hat to one of my favorite movies, “Sunset Boulevard”, filtered through the Gospel.
In Season Two, “Numbered” was obviously derived from the Prophet Daniel’s interpretation of the writing on King Belshazzar’s wall. “Homeward Bound” is perhaps the most personal of all of the episodes I’ve worked on so far, but I do not feel comfortable discussing exactly why. Viewers however will instantly recognize The Book of Job as the source material.
Then there is the occasional episode — “The Void” for example — where a lot of research was required. I’ve never travelled to the International Space Station, nor do I have any idea what it would be like to be alone and weightless in space. But – believe it or not – there are elements in that story that are personal to me. You would have to know me very well in order to find them.
AP: Speaking of “The Void,” the Encounter’s depiction of spiritual warfare is among its most fascinating elements. What experiences did you and your team pull from while crafting these narratives?
TR: Because our struggle is not against flesh and blood, believers are frequently unaware that they are under attack from the Evil One. In episodes such as “Maximum Mike”, “Delivery” and “Homeward Bound”, we actually see the physical embodiment of evil. He appears in a human form. However, in most of the episodes, the Devil has already been done before the episode even begins. So whether it’s implicit or explicit, we have to remember that the Devil and evil are real; therefore believers must always wear the full armor of God, “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground….”
Now, we have all had more than our fair share of spiritual battles through depression, tragedy, illness, economic hardship, or whatever. And again, I really don’t wish to go into detail about any of mine, but I will say that none of the battles weakened me or destroyed my faith. Quite the opposite. Spiritual battle has reinforced me and strengthened my faith. While I don’t enjoy the skirmishes (or full-scale warfare for that matter) I always keep handy the sword of the Spirit – which is the Word of God.
Please feel free to contact my Encounter colleagues Keith Ray Putman and Darren Scott Jacobs for their personal thoughts. They may be inclined to go into a bit more detail than I’ve been able to.
AP: When I think about christian entertainment more broadly, I see that even the least corny Christian content usually gets a bad rap, both inside and outside of the church. But between The Encounter, The Chosen, and even recent feature films, things seem to be shifting. Filming has undoubtedly come to a halt due to COVID-19, but broadly speaking, how have you seen God move within the industry lately?
TR: Corny! I love that word! There are those who consider “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “The Ten Commandments” to be corny! If I’m THAT kind of corny, I will happily wear it as a badge of honor!
It is my opinion that Christian content is no more or less corny or amateurish than a lot of indie films that were successful with the movie-going public. “Clerks” is a notable example. It’s a very funny – but amateurishly made – movie that established Kevin Smith as a filmmaker and spawned a bunch of better-made sequels. And if you’re old enough to remember “The Blair Witch Project” I don’t need to remind you that it looked like it cost about $13 to make but grossed about $250 million worldwide.
So with today’s digital technology and the availability of professional actors who are willing to work on faith based project (remember, actors don’t always take roles because they believe in something, they take roles because they want to work). And a lot of actors I’ve worked with have taken roles in faith-based films because they wanted to make something that their children or their grandchildren could watch and that they wouldn’t be embarrassed by. So while not necessarily endorsing the theology, they were certainly willing and happy to work on the project.
We live in interesting times. Christians are discovering the wonders or in some cases, the horrors, of streaming content. The dark cloud of COVID-19 may be closing movie theaters and concert halls, but it has opened up a lot of opportunities for streaming platforms. And this has been a blessing for the providers of Christian content and faith based entertainment. I’m happy that Pure Flix was an early adopter of this and continues to provide content for their subscribers. And I’m delighted to be a part of it.
AP: How do you think entertainment fits into the Great Commission?
TR: Oh, entertainment is a huge part of the Great Commission. Throughout history, the Gospel has been preached using whatever outlets were available: letters, books, music, paintings, sculpture – and then with radio, television, movies, tapes, compacts — and now the internet. Because entertainment and various entertainment outlets can be used for evil does not mean that they can’t be used for good. Not all movies are bad. Not all TV shows are mindless. Not all music, thank God, is satanic. But the question is how to tell the difference. And I think what we need to do is we need to do what Solomon did. He prayed for an understanding heart, so that he could tell the difference between good and evil. Christians are told to test the spirits to see if they are from God. And just as everybody can’t drink milk and everybody can’t eat meat, not everybody can watch everything. I strongly believe that if you follow the Holy Spirit and your conscience, you will not be disappointed.
AP: Incredible. This is a great message for me. It’s a great message for all of my listeners. And it’s just a treat for those of us who are fans of The Encounter…to get a behind-the-scenes look at the heart that’s going into the show. You can sense that faith and you can sense that love for God and His word, but sitting in front of you today, it’s just so palpable. So, thank you so much for being here. Regardless of a listener’s vocation, I think you’ve given us all so much food for thought. And you’ve fulfilled my pipe dream!
TR: You have to have a heart for this and you can’t really fake it. And I do believe that the viewers can tell the difference. I know you could, and I’ve heard from a lot of fans who could, and this means a lot to me. I’ve already called it my ministry. And I mean that. I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to get in front of your fans and followers. And I want to say to those of you who are already subscribing to Pure Flix and watching The Encounter, thank you from the bottom of my heart. For those who aren’t subscribing and watching, what are you waiting for?
AP: Truly, truly. Thank you.