The Intersection of Faith & Popular Culture, Part One

If you're a follower of Y'shua (Jesus) here in the 21st century, it's a no-brainer that there are some things about our culture that we simply need to avoid if we want to live pure and Godly lives. When we reflect on this we might be reminded of the words of a nice Jewish boy named Paul, who admonished his friends in a place called Philippi,

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things." Philippians 4:8 NASB

Is it possible to cleave to Paul's admonition when confronted by today's popular culture? Sadly, for many followers of Jesus, the answer is no. There are those in the Body of Christ who would say that our response to popular culture should be to avoid everything in popular culture, for fear we might encounter anything which might be remotely worldly. At the risk of offending some readers, I honestly can't say I agree with this stance. We're called to be in the world and not of it -- but we are in it. I have never forgotten a good friend of mine commenting one night that rather than shielding his children from the world, he would much rather have his children be exposed to the dirty reality of what it is like. When I asked him what he meant by that, he explained that he felt strongly that through being exposed to the world (and its sin and wickedness), his son and daughter would have their faith challenged and would grow in that faith as a result.

As we rise to meet the challenges of sharing our faith in the 21st-century, I think that is becoming well-nigh to impossible for us to ignore the opportunities we have to use popular culture as a bridge to engage in spiritual dialogue. Through the themes of faith and God found in movies, television, and even comic books, I believe it is possible for us to reach otherwise unreachable people with the love of Jesus. In my last post I talked about a television show, Joan of Arcadia, which centered directly around God and faith. In this post I'll discuss possibilities for spiritual dialogue in film. Part Two will examine the possibilities found in comic books and graphic novels.

In his book, The Hollywood Project, author Alex Field points out that,

"Film is, for better or worse, the twenty-first century's dominant form of popular literature. Like verbal storytelling and the oral tradition, theater, narrative fiction, and the music before them, movies dominate our culture's literary landscape almost entirely."

I'll disclose before going further that I am a NUT for the movies. One of my friends often accuses me of being able to quote every movie ever made. That's not quite true, although I can quote from a lot of movies. For a long time, I've been fascinated by how we can find God in the most unlikely of films. Christians often complain about what comes out of Hollywood, and I can't disagree that there are a lot of worthless movies being released each year, but there are also a lot of films which are suffused with rich themes of faith. So powerful do I find the possibilities for initiating spiritual discussions through film that here at our Jews for Jesus branch in Fort Lauderdale, I've started Faith in Film, a series of film screenings followed by discussion of themes of faith and God.

So how does one use a movie to talk about faith themes? How do we go from film to God? My Comp/Lit professor in college always used to put it succinctly: "start with the basics, people!" In the case of a movie, that basic is always the story. Jesus himself recognized the power that lies in stories. His parables were stories intended to provoke a spiritual response from those who listened to the tale. Is not the Christian faith built upon an story that ushers those who give heed to it out of the ordinary realms of their lives and into the realm of the Spirit, and the kingdom of God? The story of any particular movie may be a launchpad to talk about love, forgiveness, bitterness, friendship, reconciliation, or a host of other themes which can then lead to the Word of God.

In the 1999 movie "The Straight Story," for example, viewers are introduced to the true story of Alvin Straight, a 73-year old man with bad hips and failing eyesight, who makes a 370-mile trip across Iowa -- riding a John Deere lawnmower! Alvin makes this 6-week journey to seek reconciliation with his brother Lyle, who has suffered a stroke; Alvin and Lyle have not spoken to each other in ten years. Alvin explains this estrangement by saying, "It's a story as old as the Bible, as Cain and Abel ... anger, vanity, mixed with liquor. I want to make peace." So off he goes, at 4 miles an hour, on a road trip that will take him 6 weeks. Along the way, the hardships Alvin encounters are many: his friends try to talk him out of it, his hip gives out, and the lawn mower even breaks down.

Those Straight encounters on his journey are often troubled with the same issues of anger, bitterness, or loss that he has set out to put to rest. As he seeks healing, Alvin helps those he encounters to start their own journey of healing. When a pregnant teen runaway tells him she has run away because she is afraid of her family's rejection, Alvin shares a story of a game he taught his children long ago. He would hand them a stick and ask them to break it, which they did easily. Then he would bundle the sticks together and ask the children to break them again, which they couldn't do. "That bundle -- that's family," Alvin tells the runaway. In the morning, the girl is gone, but in the place where her sleeping bag was is a bundle of sticks.

When Alvin finally completes his journey, we realize that his physical journey has only mirrored what has happened in his heart. When he arrives at his brother Lyle's home, Lyle stares at the weathered John Deere lawnmower his sibling has ridden for so many weeks and asks, "Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?" Alvin's answer is simply, "I did Lyle." The movie closes with the two brothers sitting together in peaceful silence, reconciled at last.

The beauty of a movie such as "The Straight Story" is that it contains a story that many people can relate to their own lives and families. With a powerful themes of family and reconciliation, it lends itself well to a discussion of what reconcilitation is in God's eyes. One might discuss how the peace Alvin and Lyle experience at the end of the movie compares to the peace of God. and perhaps one could discuss "The Straight Story" in the context of a Bible verse such as the following:

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation ... " 2 Corinthians 5:18 NASB

These are all launch points to talk about faith and spirituality, and this is of course just one example of a film one could use for that purpose. There are many more movie examples than I could fit into one blog post -- in fact, they could take up a blog in their own right!

I'm always eager to discuss and compare notes on various films. This past spring, I had a great conversation with a pastor who pointed out some amazing spiritual dimensions to the classic Paul Newman film "Cool Hand Luke." In what ways have you, dear reader, been able to use film as a stepping off point to discuss God, faith, or other spiritual themes? Got a favorite film that you've found useful? Share!

In the meantime, if you're interested in examining more about faith in films, try Movie Theology: Movie Reviews & Resources, a website maintained by Gordon Matties at Canadian Mennonite University. I'd also recommend Damaris CultureWatch.


Anonymous said...

What a great post. I have thought for years that this was an excellent way to include non-believers in (Bible) studies/conversations., as well as engaging youth. I once asked a group of young people to watch Jimmy Stewarts great performance in "Harvey" with Harvey a metaphore for the Holy Spirit. They got it- and we had a great time discussing the film from that angle. Though the metaphore does break down as the movie gets towards the end, and although it moves quite a bit slower than present movies, we had a great evening together and we were all glad to have spent the time together. Even out non-churched guests had a good time!

Chad said...

Wow ... Harvey as the Holy Spirit. I would never have thought of that connection, but it makes sense, and it makes me want to Netflix "Harvey." :-)

Jack Goldenberg said...
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