Recently, 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.
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!
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.…”
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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