Taking God to the Movies

Taking God to the Movies (1): Introduction

Bruce Riley Ashford

No offense intended toward seminary professors, publishers, and pastors, but the most influential theologians in the United States of America are screenwriters, producers, lyricists, and musicians. These Hollywood theologians’ convey their messages through movies, televisions shows, and popular music, which become the lingua franca of the various cultures and sub-cultures of the USA: John Mayer, Jay-Z, and Black Eyed Peas have more access to American homes than Piper, Driscoll, and Mahaney. Quentin Tarrantino, Oliver Stone, and M. Night Shyamalan have had more formative influence than Grudem, Frame, and Packer. Avatar and Taken have captivated more people than Mere Christianity or Knowing God.

Without even realizing it, many people allow movies, music, and television to have a formative role in shaping their worldviews. These media have the power to convey messages, make impressions, and rouse emotions unlike most anything else. They create a narrative world in which the viewer or listener perceives life from the narrator’s point of view. Embedded in that narrative world are memorable scenes, one-liners, and lyrics that give “snapshot” or “sound-byte” summaries of the narrator’s worldview.

In light of the pervasive influence of these media, this blog series will encourage Christians to watch movies with wisdom and discernment, viewing them through the lens of Scripture, and using their stories to open up conversations with others to whom we can introduce the Story of the world. In the next installment (2), we will summarize the biblical narrative, the master narrative of the world, which teaches us how to think about God, the world, humanity, knowledge, morality, history, death, and redemption, and in so doing, teaches us how to view the narratives set forth at the cinema. In the remaining installments, we will (3) discuss the nine elements of a movie’s storyline which help us to understand the movie’s message; (4) expose the storylines of two popular movies in order to illustrate those nine elements; (5) delineate six prominent themes in Hollywood movies, listing under each themes one or two movies that illustrate it; and (6) answer two possible objections to this series and give some concluding thoughts.

Allow me a couple of prefatory notes, however. I first became interested in “how to watch a movie” under the influence of a philosophy professor, L. Russ Bush, who taught us to always think critically, whether we were in a conversation, reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie or show. During his Ph. D. seminar on the modern mind, I first discovered theologian John Frame’s Theology at the Movies and screenwriter Brian Godawa’s Hollywood Worldviews. All three men have influenced my thinking in various ways and I want to acknowledge that influence and encourage the readers of this series to consider purchasing Frame’s manual (available only through Westminster Seminary’s campus bookstore) and Godawa’s book. Godawa’s book in particular has helped me to shape this blog series.

Finally, I cheerfully admit that I am not a professional movie critic. I am a Christian theologian and missiologist who seeks to provide a basic starting point, trajectory, and parameters for watching movies with wisdom and discernment. I do so by offering guidelines for understanding a movie’s storyline and for viewing it through the lens of the biblical narrative. I will not spend much time discussing other significant and influential aspects of cinema, such as sound, lighting, and production. I welcome your comments and hope that you enjoy the series and find it helpful in your endeavor to view the world Christianly.

God Exposed: Awkward Preaching in a Comfortable Age

At Southeastern Seminary, gospel-centered expositional preaching is at the center of the vision for pastoral ministry that we are attempting to cultivate among our students. In an age of gimmicky, atheological, man-centered, self-help drivel–and that’s just in the evangelical pulpits!–we believe that local churches will not be healthy without exegetical, theological, applicational, evangelistic pulpit ministries. To this end, SEBTS and IX Marks Ministries are partnering to co-sponsor a preaching conference at SEBTS on September 25-26 titled God Exposed: Awkward Preaching in a Comfortable Age. Lord willing, this conference will be the first of nine such conferences–one for each of the nine marks articulated in Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and promoted by IX Marks Ministries. The speakers include Danny Akin, Thabiti Anyabwile, Mark Dever, C. J. Mahaney, and Mike McKinley. For more information, check out this link. We hope to see you there.

20/20 Conference, Plenary Session II: C. J. Mahaney

After sensing the leading of the Spirit, C. J. is changing from his original plan and is now preaching from Mark 14: the woman’s anointing of Jesus’ head and feet with costly perfume. He wants us to meditate on the gospel that has so ably been applied by Mark Driscoll in the previous address. The title of C. J.’s message is “Extravagant Devotion.”

An insight from an article of Sports Illustrated written during the Clinton Administration: “we live in an age of profound baloney.” Trite phrases get thrown around too much: “awesome,” “greatest,” “profound,” etc. The point of the article is the trivialization of profundity.

How can C. J. teach us something profound from the Scripture in an age of profound baloney? He needs the help from the Holy Spirit, because unlike the Super Bowl this year, Mark 14 gives us a truly historic moment.

Mark 14:9 is a truly profound statement that is made during a truly historic moment in redemptive history: Jesus promises the woman’s story will be told throughout all history. Why her? How can we be affected by her? Why was this promise made to her?

The passage begins with disturbing revelations about the chief priests: only Jesus’ popularity among the common people restrains the religious leaders from carrying out their plot to kill Jesus. It is only when Judas betrays Jesus at the end of Mark 14 that the religious leaders are emboldened to kill Jesus.

The scene in the center of the chapter is a party full of people who love Jesus, except for Judas, though most believe at this point he too loves Jesus. Simon the Leper (who is apparently a leper no more) is hosting the party. Was Simon once one of those homeless lepers who heard about Jesus and was healed by the Savior? No wonder Simon was throwing a party for Jesus!

John’s Gospel gives us the same party with more details. Lazarus is a guest-he also has a unique story to tell. C. J. would have a lot of great questions to ask Lazarus if he was also a guest-Lazarus had done death! (Very funny comments.) Martha-the servant-is catering the event.

Jesus is present, and he is the reason for the party. This is one festive occasion. No Pharisees have been invited, so there is no reason to anticipate a confrontation during the evening. And then, suddenly, Lazarus’ sister Mary (so says John in his account) breaks the jar of perfume, pours it over the head of the Savior, and there is no ignoring her.

Think about the conversations taking place around the room-it would have been impossible to ignore this public and passionate display of affection for the Savior. The disciples do not react favorably as this scene unfolds. They don’t get it, and they publicly scold Mary and speak to her harshly.

Suddenly, this festive occasion is complete transformed. All conversation has ceased. The environment has become volatile. And then the voice like no other voice speaks on her behalf: Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing for me. Wherever the gospel is told in the whole world, this story must be told in memory of her.

Question: what provoked Jesus to make this promise about Mary, a promise he did not make to any other?

Answer: this story must be told wherever the gospel is preached because of her anticipation of his death, and her most appropriate response to his impending death. Mary uniquely exemplifies the transforming affect of the gospel: extravagant devotion to the Savior. This is the difference the gospel makes. She is an example for the church universal, the church in all ages.

Her story is told so that we might evaluate whether we have been genuinely transformed by the gospel. So that we might evaluate whether we are being consistently transformed by the gospel. Two points of application for us:

1. Extravagant devotion is evidence of genuine conversion.

Mark’s Gospel is written with evangelist intent without. Unlike some in the Gospel of Mark, Mary is “in.” She is what being “in” looks like. Profession must result in affection and obedience-even immature affection and obedience-or the profession must be examined to see whether or not it is false.

C. J. wants to be careful not to cause anyone to worry over their profession, but rather wants us to have assurance of our profession. He speaks to any unconverted in the audience, assuming there are some present. One reason for this conference is to care for you who are lost, to present the gospel to you, to see you transformed by the gospel, and by God’s grace, emulate the example of Mary.

C. J. wants us to examine and evaluate our professions of faith. Is there evidence of affection for and obedience for the Savior? If not, C. J. wants us to be unsettled-and flee to the cross. And cry out for mercy upon our sins.

But C. J. assumes the majority of us are converted. It is evident in the way we sing about our Savior. And that affection is one evidence that we have been transformed by the gospel.

C. J. has been transformed by the gospel. He grew up in a nominally Roman Catholic home, rebelled against Catholicism, embraced the drug culture, and for a period of years he was daily high. The drugs got worse and worse-he did everything but heroin because he was afraid of needles.

He had no interest in the gospel and was ignorant of the gospel. He had no category for “church.” He wanted to recruit others to sin and train them in how to sin. C. J. loved to sin. And he was irritated when his high friends wanted to wax eloquent about the meaning of life. For C. J., the drugs were about the moment.

He was a happy sinner, without restraint.

One of C. J.’s friends was converted in a Southern Baptist church, then returned to Maryland and began sharing the gospel with his friends. By God’s grace, C. J. was one of his friends. His friend asked to meet with C. J. and shared the gospel with him. His friend didn’t know much, but he knew enough: Christ died for sin.

This was the first time C. J. remembers hearing the gospel. The Spirit was working in C. J., and he was converted that night. He was dramatically transformed. His affections were altered. He did not understand the KJV Bible, but he read it diligently anyway (much laughter).

C. J. still had no category for church, but he found his way to a meeting of Christian collegians. They were singing like they had been changed by Jesus. Prior to his conversion, C. J. would have thought these folks were insane. But that evening, he sang with them because he had been saved from the justified and furious wrath of God against C. J. and all of his sins.

C. J. thinks his above-mentioned experience is more or less the norm for the majority of the audience, but he knows there are some for whom this may not be the case. He is pleading with the non-Christians in the audience to trust Christ. He is pleading with Christians to share the gospel with their non-Christian friends. He is urging all of us to study Mary and learn from her example.

Extravagant love is never concealed, but is expressed through worshiping, serving, evangelizing.

If there is affection in your soul for the Savior, it was placed their by the grace of God. The presence of this affection is a means of your conversion.

2. Extravagant devotion is the increasing experience of the converted

C. J. begins with a lengthy illustration about a woman who became convicted that she had lost her excitement for Jesus when she saw someone else who obviously still had that excitement.

Are we still excited about our love for Jesus?

In Mark 14, what should have happened to the others in the room when Mary started pouring the perfume on the Savior? They should have walked over, one by one, and asked if they could pour some perfume on Jesus. He had healed them. He had forgiven their sins. He had raised them from the dead.

Who do we resemble more? The self-righteous disciples? Or Mary?

How can we emulate Mary’s example? How can we be freshly affected by her this evening?

We must review and reflect upon the gospel for extravagant devotion to be restored. C. J. reads a lengthy Spurgeon quote about reviewing and reflecting upon the gospel. The mostly Baptist crowd clearly digs the Spurgeon quote.

We must “dwell with the cries of Calvary” (from the Spurgeon quote). C. J. asks us to close our eyes and listen to the cries of Calvary. He quotes the words of Jesus on the cross. The cries of Calvary were necessary and sufficient for our salvation.

When our affection diminishes, we should go at once to Calvary. When our devotion diminishes, it is because the gospel has been ignored.

What do we review and reflect upon each day? Is it the gospel? We need to custom-design at least some point during our day (preferably at the outset) when we survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died.

The problem is we want to feel deeply without thinking deeply. We want an effortless experience. We need to think on the gospel so that we will be affected by the gospel. We need to take advantage of these means so that we can be increasingly amazed by grace.

This is crucial for our cultural engagement. The world needs to sense the presence of affection for the Savior in each of us if our cultural engagement is to be gospel engagement.

May our engagement be characterized by affected hearts.