Hollywood: The modern Areopagus

Hollywood: The modern Areopagus

Spider-Man 3: Bad SpideyRecently, I posted my Spider-Man Bible Study / Discussion Guide. Simultaneously, I dropped a few comments on some blogs that referenced a different Spider-Man Bible Study produced by Fuller Theological Seminary’s professor Craig Detweiler.

Some GodBloggers have been critical of the whole “movie-based Bible study” enterprise. Not surprising, really: using Hollywood movies to teach Biblical truth is a little like using dance to teach worship, or wine to serve Communion. There may be a place for it, but it’s going to generate controversy somewhere.

I’ve been asked before to justify how I could write a Bible study with a movie as its context. After all, if I’m writing a Bible study, how can I presume to use a movie to develop themes? And if I’m so big on biblical theology, hermeneutics, exegesis, and expository preaching, then why would I water down the message of the Bible or jeopardize the faith of weaker brothers and sisters by endorsing a movie? After all, this is Hollywood we’re talking about and nothing good comes from there. Right?

So, I will clarify: any Bible study or discussion guide I write that uses a movie to illuminate and illustrate biblical themes is not an endorsement of that film.

The Debate

So, when Andy at Heart for the Lost posted a blog critical of Detweiler’s Spider-Man study, I offered up my own version and asked for commentary. (To be fair, Andy was re-posting an item from A Little Leaven.)

Instead of actually reading the study (or my study, at least) it seems Andy’s audience is ready to reject the idea outright, for the usual notions of avoiding “fellowship” with “the world.” But, in my view, writing a critical Bible study using a film as its thematic base is not about being unholy or about sullying the Word. It’s about reaching a culture steeped in godless ideology, and subversively redeeming secular entertainment for evangelistic and edifying purposes.

One commenter, Leonard, asked:

How can you feel right about joining God’s Word to us with such an anti-Christian gnostic film?

I feel like Leonard hasn’t actually read my Matrix study before judging it, or possibly even the Spider-Man study. I suppose, though, if Leonard is morally opposed to mixing film and theology in any way, he might be concerned that reading my study would be a sin, that it might jeopardize his eternal future. Its hard to say. But it’s clear he believes I’m engaging in a sinful enterprise.

My position and answer to this question follows. But first a word from John Calvin:

“From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose?”

 —John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, Trans. by William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library). [Calvin makes this statement in commentary on Titus 1:12. — Rich]

There is no truth that is not ultimately God’s truth.

And there is no man perfect and without a hint of sin or untruth in us. If it is acceptable for a rank and vile sinner like Leonard or me to teach the perfect Word of God, and if it was appropriate for the apostle Paul to quote pagan philosophers to teach God’s truth (see sidebar), and if it was appropriate for apostle Paul to stand in a pagan worship center in Athens and use their heathen altar to teach God’s truth, then I don’t see how using a story written by pagans to also teach God’s truth is a sin.

Paul’s nod toward pagan truth:

  • 1 Corinthians 15:33:
    “Bad company corrupts good morals.” (Greek playwright Menander, from a comedy, Thais)
  • Acts 17:28:
    “in him we live, move, and have our being” (Sixth century Cretan poet Epimenides)
  • Acts 17:28:
    “We are his offspring” (3rd century Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus, from Phaenomena)
  • Titus 1:12-13:
    “Even one of their own prophets has said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true.” (Sixth century Cretan poet Epimenides)
  • 1 Corinthians 5:1:
    “There is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans.” (Sadly, pagans sometimes have better morals than churchgoers do.)

More interesting sources of truth:

  • Jude 1:9, Jude 1:14-15:
    Jude cites from the Pseudepigrapha (the Assumption of Moses and 1 Enoch 1:9)
  • Numbers 22, Numbers 23, Numbers 24:
    Pagan prophet Balaam used by God to prophesy the truth
  • Numbers 22:28:
    A dumb animal speaks the truth: “Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”

I suppose my critics might be of the mindset such that when they preach or teach they only use quotes from the Bible, they only use illustrations from the Bible, they only use the text of the Bible in their presentations, and they only ever refer to events in the Bible to make points. If that is one’s philosophy, it would be difficult to say anything other than to simply quote a Bible text and sit down because otherwise we’d be adding to the Scripture and invariably marrying God’s holy Word with sinful ideologies.

“But there’s sin in them flicks!”

Interestingly, though, one major plank of my critics is that secular films portray blasphemers, adulterers, and rank sinners. But I am painfully aware that for all its faults, the heathen Hollywood elite end up painting a more accurate picture of life than the lily-pure world of Christian movies and books where nobody cusses, chews or dates the girls who do. The Christian entertainment industry with few exceptions simply doesn’t reflect the mud, grit, and sin-laden pain of stories from the Bible itself where men rape women, soldiers raze villages, adulterers murder husbands, men sleep with their father’s wives, and friends betray the Messiah.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the sin recounted in my R-Rated Bible it’s this: Sin and error don’t have to be applauded or endorsed to be useful for edification and instruction. Life’s most instructive moments are often found in the errata.

And while Hollywood is not good at showing us the path to purity and perfection, it excels at showing us the myriad ways fallen men fail. What Hollywood glamorizes in film and New York immortalizes in print can be redeemed with the light of the Word. If we would but pay attention.

What are they thinking about?

You see, if you’re going teach others what God wants us to know about how to love him, serve him, worship him and live holy lives, we should spend some time connecting those sacred truths with what people are actually thinking about. Sometimes they’re reflecting on tragedies like the recent massacre at Virginia Tech. Should we also not refer to that event because it was planned, perpetrated, and promoted by a media-savvy godless murderer? Sometimes folks are pondering the most recent Spider-Man or Matrix movie, the latest Ridley Pearson novel, or the latest New Yorker cartoon. If my critics were consistent, we should never mention those things except to denounce them because every word and deed therein are damnable lies.

Perhaps, in my critics world, we should simply pile those things up and toss a match.

Credibility begone! Hello folly…

But you know what happens when we simply denounce everything that isn’t “churchy” and fail to engage? The people listening to us snicker. Because they’ve seen the movies, read the books, and enjoyed the cartoons. And they know that while there are significant problems with them, not every word is a lie. When we superstitiously presume otherwise, we not only lose credibility, we make ourselves look foolish.

Only foolish Christians think they have the only truth. Only foolish Christians think everybody else is ignorant of even the slightest glimmering of light. Only foolish Christians would be so blind.

Please note, I’m not saying Leonard or my critics are foolish. I do think they’re sensitive to the perils of encouraging believers to consume what Hollywood produces uncritically. I commend Leonard and his friends for their care and concern for the mental and spiritual health of believers. Because, really, there is danger in consuming what Hollywood produces uncritically. But these films already shape how people think. It’s up to us to redirect those thoughts, to train people to think critically about the claims made in these films, and ultimately to help them reject the message.

Stop hanging out with sinners!

Leonard continued:

Maybe it is time we remember that as the Body of Christ, we don’t join ourselves to the world. We are in it, not of it. We do not fellowship with the world. Our only real relationship with the world should be one of ministry.

Au contraire, mon frere! Paul encouraged us to disfellowship ourselves from believers who are charlatans. He did not discourage fellowship with pagans, rather, see 1 Corinthians 5.

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.

If we ever hope to have anything relevant to say to pagans and seekers, if we hope to do the ministry you speak of, we need to not only know what sinners are thinking about, we need to enter their thought-space and know what we’re talking about

We, like Paul, should spend some time in the Areopagus of this world pointing at the altars to the unknown gods, saying, “Hey! Look! This thing you built in ignorance actually points to God. Look at it this way with me for a moment.…”

Trivial persuasion

After a few more words, Leonard concludes:

Maybe instead of trying to link the Bible with such things as the matrix movies, we should tell the Body of Christ that they should steer clear of such things and run to God. Trivializing God’s Word for the sake of itching ears is wrong.

I can only assume Leonard hasn’t read my studies, else I don’t know why he’s saying I’m trivializing the Word of God. I don’t believe I am. Otherwise, please point out how, exactly, I am trivializing the Word? Because, frankly, that sounds rather insulting. But perhaps I am misunderstanding Leonard.

I invite you, my faithful readers, to set me straight.

Teaching the Word of God is an awesome and frightful task. (In one sense, the mere act of attempting to deliver the message trivializes it immediately. How can you or I or any sinful man or woman hope to adequately explain an convey all the truth contained in even one verse of the divinely inspired Word?

We cannot. Our very presumption to attempt it is trivializing in itself. Further, by our very sinfulness we soil the Word any time we lay hands on it or attempt to interpret it.

But that cannot be our concern because we have been given the task of not only studying the Word, but teaching it, conveying it, preaching it, and delivering it. That is not only our honor, but it is our duty. It’s our mandate.

So let us leave aside these concerns about somehow gutting the Scriptures by presuming to highlight was is good and what is not good about a film in a discussion guide. I suspect God has the power to preserve his Word and I won’t be single-handedly tearing it down in my lifetime.

In reality, the greater danger is not to the Word itself, but to the films we discuss. My hope is that the moral and philosophical framework behind these secular fables will be redeemed, not that God’s Word will somehow be destroyed.

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19 thoughts on “Hollywood: The modern Areopagus

  1. RT Jones

    Amen! Well said! This a great argument for the fact that Christian theology is not mono-cultural (as, say, Islam strives to be), but must be contextualized in each culture.

  2. DLE


    You said:

    There is no truth that is not ultimately God’s truth.

    I think that’s one of the worst misconceptions to plague the Church. I don’t believe that all that is true is God’s truth. There are many true things that come straight from the pit of hell.

    For instance, it is quite true that men have sex with other men. Likewise, women with women. Absolutely true! But not God’s truth.

    It’s also true that mothers sometimes kill their children. True, yes, but not God’s truth.

    Once again, it’s true that Hollywood produces pictures with moralistic teachings. Do those films represent God’s truth? Not necessarily.

    This conflating of what’s true with what’s truth is incredibly damaging to the Body of Christ, yet it runs rampant through most of Western Christendom. Hardly anyone today is discerning enough to see through the dreck. Most of what Hollywood passes off as spiritually deep is just run-of-the-mill gnosticism or pop psychology. Trying to make something out of what isn’t there doesn’t help us.

    The Wachowski brothers tipped their hand. Christians went crazy trying to find Christian symbolism and truth in The Matrix. The problem was it wasn’t there to begin with. The last two films made that perfectly clear. In the end, we all wound up suckers.

    Pop culture is pop culture. You can spend years trying to find something gem-like in it or you can go to the source. Not enough Christians go to the source because the source isn’t sexy, funny, or entertaining. As a result, they wind up panning for gold in fields of manure when they can have the entire golden city if they just seek it.

  3. carl

    I think there may be value in using pop culture as a basis for outreach but clearly it is not like serving wine at communion. The Bible tells us that Jesus served wine at communion. Using a film that bears a warning label telling us not to let our children under the age of 13 view (and that warning comes from non-believers) is probably something different.

  4. Rudy Garrido

    Great post and great debate. It’s interesting to see how the more we get “Cleaned up” in Christ the more we tend to be like Pharisees.

    WWJD? He would probably Go see the movie with a bunch of fallen sinners and use the movie as a parable to draw them closer to God.

    And then WE would call him a friend of sinners. And maybe throw in Drunkard too. Then we might pray “Lord, thank you for not making me like this man. An R-rated movie watcher.” And on and on…

    Listen guys. If you ain’t getting a little dirty unclogging the toilets of this world then you just aren’t trying. IMHO

  5. Rudy Garrido

    Great Post and great debate.

    I see movies as modern day parables. It’s the language our culture speaks. Use it or not it’s just one more way to reach people. I’m glad you guys are doing what you’re doing. Whatever it takes to reach people. I’m all for it.

    WWJD? He would probably go see this movie with a bunch of sinners and use it to minister to them. What would we do? Probably complain like the Pharisees did. :)

  6. Andy

    All right Rich you came over to my blog () and left a comment to come over here so I have taken the bait.

    I read your well thought-out argument and justification that you have here. I have a lot of experience in dealing with these types of issues where someone uses a Bible verse to justify a behavior or a theology that is clearly not Scriptural.

    John Calvin would have rebuked you sir. It is very unfortunate that relevance is the continual point of justification for why many people including the “Emergents” justify their culturally-sensitive, theologically watered-down teachings. They would insist that you should watch Horror films, Nudity, and extreme violence so that you are aware of what the culture is doing. This is not scripturally supported. Nor is your argument that Spider-Man holds truths beyond what God has already instilled in the hearts of men, and there is little if any of that.

    You contribute to a brother’s sin by endorsing a movie that uses our Lord and Savior as a genie tyrant that puts a curse in the form of evil superpower in Venom. Now you try and compare that to the Old Testament where God unleashed his wrath, there is an extreme difference. That is GOD’s WORD! Spider-Man is not and to try and use John Calvin as your support for “everything” to be God’s word is not at all what he meant.

    Now there are Biblical principles all around us, they are everywhere and in everything, but that does not mean that someone should do a Bible study out of the Quran, or the Book of Mormon, etc. They are lies that the devil has sown, the same devil who has tried to get people to “forgive themselves” rather than fleeing to a savior.

    Now, I did read a bunch of your Spider-Man Study and you address this, but it is hypocritical. You find what you deem are “good truths” or something that you can proof-text next to a Bible verse and then ask some “emerging questions” How did I feel etc.?

    That is not what we are supposed to use scripture for. Please start obeying what your Bible says and use scripture to teach, preach, rebuke, exhort, etc. Quit trying to mesh it into the World so that you can seem “cool” and “fresh” and “relevant”. You won’t have an opportunity to waste time like this if you were in the “church” in another country or worse another time-frame.

    Go and preach the Gospel and quit trying to harmonize it with your love of movies.

  7. Andy

    BTW, I think DLE makes a great point not all truth is God’s truth, I would go on to say not all truth is truth that God would endorse. Especially many of these movies. And Rudy, frankly you are wrong: movies are not modern day parables because Jesus is not making the movies — so they do not have the same level of regard that Scripture does.

    I am going to recommend that we start reading the Bible for the context it was written in, instead of this barrage of proof texting and feeling based interpretation. We need to have a right hermeneutic.

    Finally, RT, do not mistake contextualizing with the culture with compromising or sinning with the culture because there is a very fine line there.

    The Gospel is always relevant, always culturally right and always true. If more Christians spent their time in God’s Word, and out with the sinners preaching the Gospel to them, rather than watching Spider-Man 3 to see how our culture is reflected, we would see revival.

  8. Cindy

    Love the article and the Spider-Man Bible-study!

    After God used Spider-Man 2 (and there is NO DOUBT that He did) to hit me square between the eyes with a powerful message about my own service to Him, I was looking for spiritual metaphors in Spider-Man 3… Boy did I find them. And I was not surprised to find that others had felt and done the same thing.

    While I was waiting in line for hours to see the film for the 2nd time (it was better than the first), I sat with my Bible and wrote verse after verse that came to mind in connection with the story. Of course, waiting so long, I got to talking with folks around me and as it turned out, I was not the only one there doing that!

    But I was shocked to find (well may-be not completely) that there are people out there who can’t see that this is a viable, God-inspired way to teach. Like parables. Surely they don’t think the stories Jesus told were just about farmers planting seeds and people buying real estate…

    Actually, I’ve had some very bad experiences with Christians that sounded a lot like Andy and DLE… Those folks were as harsh and condeming as pharisees… My gut reaction is to not even bother with a debate lest I get sucked into their whirling vortex of legalism. *shudder*

    I’ll be using both SM3 Bible Studies and my own insights to talk to my niece and nephew when I see the movie again with my extended family this weekend.

    Thumbs up again! :)

  9. Cindy

    BTW –

    I came up with some Christian lyrics, put to the very familiar tune of the Spider-Man theme song. With the way they just flowed, and the end results, I believe it was from the Lord.

    The song would be a good addition to your Bible study. Interested?

  10. Pingback: Areopagus | Ars Gratia

  11. DLE

    A thought:

    One thing I continually notice whenever I hear a rah-rah movie critique by believers is that they are always looking for “spiritual” content. They’ll talk about the spiritual content of the movie and people will feel all good inside about that spiritual content, but questions go unasked.

    If no one comes to Christ through the spiritual content of the movie, how much spiritual content does it really have? What of the actual power of that spiritual content, too? Isn’t it just moralism instead of the Gospel?

    We have Christianity today beset by moralism rather than actual Gospel content. Moralism saves no one. In fact, it may be the simplest way to distract Christians and unbelievers from the true Gospel. So many people are trapped in moralism, so it resonates as good when they see it, read it, or hear it. But it may very well be damaging their souls.

    Just something to think about.

  12. Andy

    Rich and Cindy,

    I just heard about the article in Christianity Today. Again this movie is not a Christian Movie.

    What you are doing is called “reader response” you are interpreting something the way you want to do so. For example if you have read the story Little Red Riding Hood, you know it is a story about a girl, her grandmother and a wolf. It is not about Communism, and no matter how I want to interpret it, the author had an intent and it was NOT communism. The producer of this movie did NOT want to convert people to Christianity or help the Gospel in any way, he wanted to be relevant and make money. You are reading into the movie what you want to and it just isnt there.

    The other issue I have with this is if you do this with a movie do you do this with the Bible as well? I would hope not, the Bible was written with Authorial Intent. We read it for what it says and how it applies to us, we do not get to self interpret the Bible and respond to it any way we want. Please take this valuable lesson from Scripture.

  13. Bob Braswell

    Rich, the good news is I disagree with most of your detractors. The bad news is I also disagree with you. I hope I can explain why without being too disagreeable.

    Let me start with you, Buddy. You want to go fishing out where the fish are rather than sticking with the stained glass aquarium. Good! You want to use bait that will be attractive. The end doesn’t justify every bait but I’m willing to say that at least some movies could work. So you’ve got your line in the water and you’ve got your bait wet and maybe you’re even getting some nibbles. But are you prepared at any point to set the hook? Are you even using a hook?

    I’m not arguing that you have to give an “altar call” every time you minister. I am arguing that people have to be challenged with the claims of Christ, and that if you don’t ever come to a point where somebody can reject your message because they just don’t believe Him, then you aren’t really doing what you set out to do.

    Those who have written to take issue with your approach have brought some valid concerns, but in my view they have also missed the point a bit. Your critics are largely concerned with the negative side effects that may accompany your attempt at invading enemy territory with the Gospel. I don’t think our overriding concern can be with side effects (though I think we should be concerned about any strategy where the side effects turn out to be the only effects). I don’t agree that you shouldn’t go into the Areopagus, but if you go there, don’t leave without stirring up the pagans. Some may reject you but others will want to hear what you’re driving at.

    Looks like I’m turning into a real radical in my old age… Better late than never.


  14. Common Swift

    Geesh Rich! Your the only blogger I know who’s readers will bite your head off over how a Bible Study goes.

  15. Andy


    Just to be clear I completely agree with going into the world (enemy territory) to preach the Gospel. The Spider Man Bible study does not help accomplish this, it only waters down the message. Rather I would say lets take the true message to them. The relevancy will be in the message itself. Reaching the lost is so important, unfortunately Spidey is in no way like Paul, Jesus or anything else that is Biblical. I do not want to set a false precedence with unbelievers or believers and that is what these Bible studies do.

    Grace and Peace,

  16. forgiven

    I think the study is great.

    The first time I watched Spiderman 3 it spoke volumes to me and I am glad to see that others saw the same thing.

    To the negative side of the house: if you don’t agree with the study, that is your perogative – pray for those of us that you think are wrong (I can always use prayer).

    Judging and arguing your point is kind of like the plank/speck verse in Luke ch 6 don’t you think?

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