One of the major themes of this blog is Christ in film. Studying the gospel of John has opened my eyes to the presence of Jesus in many movies. I used to think a Christian film must be blatant. The story must promote Jesus directly.
But as I studied John’s use of symbols, irony, double entendre and allusions, I found that the power of the Gospel is often displayed in mystery, riddle, and ambiguity and not just in blatant advertisement.
The Example of Jesus
Jesus taught in parables. He offered the kernel of truth in the form of a mystery which left His listeners to question, ponder and solve. Jesus offered His parables to those who had “ears to hear.”
It is often believed that Jesus taught in parables as a way of illustrating his message. Jesus used parables so people would get his point. But this isn’t what the bible says.
And as soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables, in order that while seeing, they may see and not perceive; and while hearing, they may hear and not understand lest they return and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12 see also Matthew 13:13 ;Luke 8:10)
Jesus taught in riddles so only those who were prepared to see would see. He was the Sower, as in the parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-10), whose scattered seed would only produce in the ground prepared to receive it.
John may not record Jesus’ parables but he does quote the same passage from Isaiah. It comes at the end of Jesus public ministry.
But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him; that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke, “LORD, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this cause they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, “He has blinded their eyes, and He hardened their heart; lest they see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart, and be converted, and I heal them.”John 12:37-40
Instead of parables, John offers Jesus and his actions as the mystery to be solved. This is why John calls Jesus miracles “signs.” The miracles of Jesus aren’t simply powerful acts they are coded messages to those prepared to receive them.
Christians films should follow the example of Jesus in the way he used stories. They should provide answers without necessarily spelling out what those answers are. Christian storytellers, like Jesus, must become comfortable with ambiguity.
Why We Don’t Follow
Evangelical movies (not to mention novels and songs), have tended towards absolute transparency in large part because of the nature of our worship services.
Our leaders primary method of communication is through the direct interpretation of the Word. Teachers and Preachers appear not to like mystery and therefore they train congregations to hate it as well.
While I was putting together the Longing of Man someone asked me if I was going to use clips from the Passion of the Christ? When I told him I wasn’t he looked at me as if I were failing to proclaim the gospel.
Catholics it seems to me have tended to be better storytellers because of the the mystery of the mass. For years the Catholic Church performed all of their services in Latin. Partitioners were left to either interpret the signs and symbols all around them or walk away in frustration.
Surprisingly this on some levels follows closer to Jesus’ teaching style then the teaching methods of the average Protestant churches.
We as Evangelicals in particular refuse to accept such mystery because we don’t want to acknowledge that no matter what we do some will go away empty handed. Some won’t be saved.
Only when we begin to accept God’s sovereignty will we begin to follow the example of Jesus and truly become great storytellers.
Why We Should Follow?
A teacher is never successful unless the student first forms the question in his own mind. But all too often we teach with unstated assumption that others are interested in what we have to say. All great communication begins with addressing the concerns of the audience.
Evangelical preaching has assumed for far too long that people are asking the right questions.
At one time we might have assumed this because the culture was largely Christian. But no more. People no longer operate under the same basic belief systems. And therefore when non-Christians come to our services we find ourselves unable to communicate with them.
More and more we find ourselves preaching to the already convinced as fewer and fewer people come to our services looking for answers.
Christian propaganda films simply push our answers on the culture. “You won’t come to us so we’ll come to you,” is the basic motto of most Christian filmmakers. But without wrestling the same issues, the answers in Christian films become obnoxious to the nonbeliever. And again, even the movie theater, we find ourselves preaching to the choir.
This is why the Christians use of ambiguity and mystery in film is essential.
- By offering answers in the form of a mystery we cause people to ponder the questions that our evangelistic efforts were designed to address.
- By becoming less transparent in our message we open the doors to a wider audience. Christians and non-christians alike can watch our films without feeling exploited.
- By embracing ambiguity and mystery we can begin to realize that non-Christians sometimes get it right. The best Christian films I have ever seen have been made by non-Christians and were rated R. Films like the Shawshank Redemption and Magnolia surprisingly ask the right questions and in some ways point to the right answer. They too can provide a basis for sharing our faith.