Recent years have seen a revival of Bible stories on the big screen.
On a practical level, these stories are good news for movie studios – they’re ready-made material, often familiar to audiences around the globe, and with the kind of spectacular locations and action-packed battles which are perfectly suited to the blockbuster model. But the resurgence of the biblical epic is also, arguably, good news for the church.
2014 saw the release of two very different Bible-inspired movies: Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky, and Exodus: Gods and Kings (pictured above), directed by Ridley Scott. Each of these movies had plenty to offer the church community, both in terms of reflection and outreach.
Aronofsky, a filmmaker from a Jewish background who had loved the ‘Noah’ story since childhood, expressed his wish that the movie would lead to dialogue:
I really think this is the perfect film to bring believers and non-believers together, to develop a conversation between both sides.
While it may have strayed from the biblical narrative, Noah creatively engaged with the questions at the heart of the Bible story. It asked searching questions such as, “What responsibility do we have to care for the world?” And, “Can justice renew as well as destroy?” The movie certainly had contemporary relevance.
As fresh retellings of scripture from the perspective of those outside the church, Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings allowed church audiences to experience these familiar stories in a new way, with some pastors and teachers using clips and features in their services to encourage imaginative engagement. Many are also taking the opportunity to host screenings for people who might not normally attend church, fulfilling Aronofsky’s vision by using the movie as a springboard for deeper discussion.
The “biblical blockbuster” trend shows no sign of slowing. Ridley Scott is now working on a King David movie, while a futuristic version of the Samson story is in development with Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence. There are also smaller art-house films to look out for, such as Last Days in the Desert (likely to be released in 2015), a deep meditation on Jesus’s days in the wilderness that stars Ewan McGregor.
Rather than being anxious about filmmakers “interfering” with biblical subject matter, the church should be excited about the conversations these films can spark.
Of course, it’s not just Bible-based movies which are wrestling with the Big Questions of life. All movies take their audience on a journey. As the characters make choices and face consequences, as we see what kind of world they live in and what answers it offers them, we reflect back on our own lives and beliefs.
A glance down the list of Best Picture nominees for this year’s Oscars gives us stories about:
- Fighting for justice: Selma
- Family and loss of innocence: Boyhood
- Love and science: The Theory of Everything
- Violence: American Sniper
- Obsession: Whiplash
- Nostalgia: The Grand Budapest Hotel
- Prejudice: The Imitation Game
All of these touch on fundamental aspects of the human experience, leading to deeper questions about our place in the world and the meaning of our lives.
The 2015 Best Picture winner, Birdman, exemplifies the potential of a movie to explore what it means to be human. This surreal tale centers on a washed-up actor named Riggan (Michael Keaton) who hallucinates the mocking voice of Birdman, the superhero he was once famous for playing, as he tries to re-launch his career with a Broadway play. Riggan has a tendency to “confuse love with admiration”, and as a result swings wildly between egotism and insecurity while awaiting box office numbers and critics’ praise. In our fame-obsessed age, the movie asks, what does it mean to have true significance? Beneath its stylistic flourishes, Birdman is really about the most basic of all urges: our desire to be loved unconditionally.
When it comes to mining the riches of cinema for use in church ministry, it helps first to have an appreciation and understanding of movies. The church can do more than just “cherry pick” films which have obvious Christian themes or parallels.
If we recognize that making and engaging with art can be a form of spiritual exploration, we can start seeing movies as an expression of that search.
All movies ask moral and spiritual questions to some degree as well as touching on themes such as faith and redemption. When people in the church community begin to think about movies in this way, they’re more equipped for using cinema to enrich faith – and to enrich the lives of others outside the church.
Jesus told stories when he was teaching, and one of the most obvious ways to utilise the power of movies is to incorporate clips or quotes into talks and sermons. Many churches are already comfortable with bringing popular culture into the building in this way – but what about those outside the walls?
Putting on a DVD screening, or organizing a group cinema trip as a fun event, could be a way to serve the community and bring people together. And this is only a small part of the potential movies have. The great Archbishop William Temple said that “the church is the only organisation that exists primarily for those who are not yet its members.”
Movies could offer a unique opportunity to reach and serve those who don’t usually come anywhere near the church but do consider the social, cultural, moral and spiritual questions posed by movies.
“What did you think of the movie?” is often the first question that we ask each other when the cinema lights come up. Churches can create spaces for this conversation to happen in more depth, inviting people who might not otherwise be interested in spiritual questions to join in.
We respond to stories at a far more profound level than we respond to facts or arguments, and the church has an opportunity to be at the forefront of understanding and appreciating culture. Movies are the new mythologies of a society which is as hungry for meaning as it has ever been. Far from being just entertainment, they offer a unique opportunity to shine a light on the things which matter to us most.
- The Church Video Licence (CVL) from CCLI enables churches to show most films in services, in children and youth groups, and during social activities or outreach events. Learn more about the Church Video License by visiting this page.
- North American churches can take advantage of a special offer — the “Summer Movie Ticket” — to get a 3-month license for summer viewing in church events. Click the image below for details or click here.
- The ScreenVue website offers film clip ideas for churches based on common themes. Standard Membership of ScreenVue is free for all Church Video Licence (CVL) holders. Learn more about ScreenVue by visiting this page.
This article was originally published in this post from CCLI UK’s “Worship Corner” blog.