These days it is quite common to be shown a film clip as part of a sermon or Bible study.
It may be a famous scene from a classic movie, or a YouTube download of an advert that has gone viral. For many Bible teachers it is second nature to integrate technology and multimedia with their message.
However, using film as illustration stops short of a more important task facing the church. The reality is that many people are digesting the messages and being led by the morality of the movies they watch.
Films do more than entertain. In contemporary society, powerful messages are being conveyed by what is watched on television, cinema, and the Internet. Some of these messages are good, and some are biblical and healthy. But plenty of ‘hollow and deceptive philosophies’ are promoted in this form.
Rather than simply using film as a form of illustration for the gospel, the church must engage with the message of the movies. What worldviews lie behind the stories they tell? What lifestyle is encouraged or promoted?
When Peter challenges us to defend our faith against the critics, he tells us to give an answer to ‘everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3.15). A key point in this verse is sometimes missed. We are supposed to be answering the questions people are actually asking, not questions we wish they would ask!
Discovery through media
We can discover the questions people are asking through media. In what way is Christianity, or the supernatural, being portrayed in movies? What questions are films asking and what misleading answers might they be giving?
Some films offer a bleak and nihilistic worldview (Crimes and Misdemeanours) while others delight in the ambiguity of our postmodern age (Life of Pi). There are films that pose alternative accounts of creation (Prometheus) or life after death (What Dreams May Come). Some films clearly aim to take a swipe at Christianity (The Invention of Lying) but others can be allies in apologetics. The search for forgiveness (Atonement) or the problem of evil (Tree of Life) all have powerful celluloid treatments. We can only wait with intrigue the forthcoming Noah with Russell Crowe. Will it promote a biblical worldview? Will it promote a neo-pagan environmental ethic? Either way, it will generate questions – and we need to be prepared to ‘give an answer’!
Observing their customs
Some preachers are well equipped to engage the questions of a previous generation. Some still live in the era of the Puritans. Apologetics demands that we are equipped to engage the questions of today. There are many helpful resources for this task. I would highly recommend Ted Turnau’s Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective and Brian Godawa’s excellent Hollywood Worldviews. Tony Watkins offers a discerning look at film in Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema and the website Damaris.org provides a wealth of detailed material on specific films.
When Paul prepared to preach the gospel in Athens, he took time to observe their customs, culture and ideas. I have no doubt that Paul would have watched movies in the contemporary world. He would have taken time to engage with their underlying messages, values and questions in order to reach the world in which they play such an influential role.
Chris is lecturer at Moorlands College and pastor of Alderholt Chapel. His books include Confident Christianity and Time Travel to the Old Testament published by IVP.
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