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.

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 5: The Evangelical Missional Church

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 5: The Evangelical Missional Church

By Keith Whitfield

At a recent conference, Tim Keller addressed the challenges of evangelism in a post-modern context and gave six principles on how to pursue evangelism in this context. The first principle was “Gospel Theologizing,” and what he meant by this is phrase that all theology should articulate the gospel message. He says our theology should be an exposition of the gospel, and our presentation of the gospel should be situated within the biblical story. In order to engage the post-modern society, he argues, the gospel must fit into a coherent story that interrupts all of life. Ed Stetzer echoes this point as he emphasizes the need to be aware of the changes in our culture and the need to realize that proclaiming the gospel in the West is like cross cultural missions.

The Gospel in the Evangelical Missional Church

In the evangelical missional church, there is an effort to recast the message of the gospel. The recasting does not involve a change in the nature of the gospel, but it rather involves situating the historic orthodox gospel message within the Christian worldview so as to make the gospel clear, coherent, and holistic. Mark Driscoll models this when he writes that to “understand the doctrine of Jesus’ death on the cross, also known as the atonement, we must connect it to the doctrines of God’s character, God’s creation, human sin, and the responses of God to sin and sinners” (Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches, 29).

What you find in Driscoll’s words is that the gospel message entails the doctrines of God, sin, and God’s response to sin. He affirms that a historic fall affected all humanity, leading everyone to committing sinful actions. He affirms God’s holiness and just punishment towards sin. He affirms that God deals with the problem of forgiving sin by satisfying His holiness and justice through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. He argues that this view of the atonement matters because “Salvation is defined as deliverance by God from God and his wrath” (Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches , 34).

This approach to the gospel is related to older approaches to gospel proclamation, like The Four Spiritual Laws booklet: (1) “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life,” (2) “Man is sinful and separated from God,” (3) “Jesus Christ is God’s provision for man’s sin,” (4) “We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” However, the new trajectory among missional evangelicals is to situate gospel truth within the story of redemption. The evangelistic impact of this approach is that it offers a story that can confront and challenge the alternative stories people are trying to live.

In a short article, “How Can I Know God?,” Keller argues that the gospel requires that people understand three things: “who we are,” “who God is,” and “what you must do.” The story of redemption tells us that we are created by God and for Him, but we have sinned against him. It also tells us that God is just and loving, and these two characteristics of God come together in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Finally, the story of redemption tells us what we must do, which Keller captures in the words “repent,” “believe,” “pray,” and “follow through.”

Regarding ministry to our changing culture, Driscoll asks, “In our fast-paced and ever-changing culture of insanity, many Christians are prone either to cling to yesterday or to run headlong into tomorrow searching for a home. What’s our goal?” He answers himself,

The gospel requires us to proclaim and embody the full work of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has accomplished four things which people long for. First, Jesus takes away the sins that separate us from God so that we can be connected to God, which fills our spiritual longings. Second, Jesus takes away the sins that separate us from each other so that we can be reconciled to each other as the church, which fills our social longings. Third, Jesus forgives the sins we have committed, thereby cleansing us of our filth, which fills our emotional longing for forgiveness. Fourth, Jesus cleanses us of the defilement that has come upon us through the sins of others, which fulfills our psychological longing for healing, cleansing, and new life (The Radical Reformission, 82).

Evangelism in the Evangelical Missional Church

One of the key features of the missional approach to evangelism is a shift from program-driven and attractional evangelism to relational and missional evangelism. This shift is stimulated by the realization that people are not able to convert from one worldview to another by a mere decision. Rather, they need established relationships where the credibility of the gospel can be demonstrated. Stetzer and Putman write,

What we are discovering is that those who are effective in breaking the code understand that there has been a radical shift in how we do evangelism. We can no longer just appeal to people to come ‘back’ to an institution of which they do not remember being a part. With this fading memory, proclamation evangelism has decreased in its effectiveness. Asking people to literally change their worldview after simply hearing the gospel, with no previous exposure to a Christian worldview, is usually unrealistic. While churches that effectively evangelize the unchurched/unreached do not abandon proclamation evangelism, they set it in the context of community, experience, and service (Breaking the Missional Code, 84).

With this cultural change, the evangelical missionals realize that they cannot simply ask people to say yes to a presentation of religious truths. The task of evangelism is pursuing the process where people’s thinking and worldviews change. Evangelism then must become more process-oriented and relationally based, where the gospel truths are lived out before their eyes in the lives of others and the gospel reality is worked out in their own lives. The process approach assumes theological convictions. First, it maintains a belief that God is at work in the lives of lost people. Next, Christians should build relationships with people and value them. Third, it is important to listen and learn where God is at work in people’s lives. Fourth, we depend on God to lead us in how to share with people about the gospel and help them connect the gospel story with their own story.

“Missional,” for the evangelicals, is a strategic disposition towards its culture that directs how the church seeks to fulfill its calling. Stetzer says, “missional means being a missionary without ever leaving your zip code” (Planting Missional Churches, 19). Driscoll captures this vision in these words, “a radical call for Christians and Christian churches to recommit to living and speaking the gospel . . . to continually unleash the gospel to do its work of reforming dominant cultures and church subcultures” (Radical Reformission, 20). For Keller, missional means attempting to communicate so that non-Christians will understand the gospel. Its vision involves retelling the culture’s stories with the gospel, training lay people to “think Christianly” in public life and vocation, and creating counter cultural Christian communities. Keller sets forth this vision to demonstrate that what God is doing in the church through the gospel is radically different than what is happening in the culture around the church (“The Missional Church“). The gospel that he is referring to has at its center a substitutionary atonement and a call to repentance, and thus, for the evangelicals, being missional demands pursuing the spiritual conversion of individuals.

Keith Whitfield is pastor of Waverly Baptist Church in Waverly, Virginia, and a doctoral student in theological studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This post is fifth in a series of six articles.

My Reflections on the 2009 SBC Annual Meeting

It is possible years from now that we will look back on the 2009 SBC in Louisville and see it as a historic watershed moment in our history. It is possible that on the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Conservative Resurgence (CR), we will have witnessed the natural and hoped for outcome of the CR in the genesis of a new movement of God among His people in a Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) that signaled a new day in the advance of the gospel across North America and to all the nations of the earth. I know this is my heart’s cry and desire.

Southern Baptists recently concluded what I thought was one of the most encouraging annual meetings we have had in years. I believe there are many reasons Southern Baptists should be excited about the direction the SBC is heading. I thought it would be appropriate to offer my personal reflections on the Louisville Convention and note some of the highlights of this year’s meeting.

I believe the Pastor’s Conference was one of the best in recent memory. Many people expressed similar sentiments to me. Southeastern was ably represented by evangelism and student ministry professor Alvin Reid and by adjunctive professors J. D. Greear and Ed Stetzer. David Platt brought one of the most powerful messages I’ve ever heard at a denominational meeting. One former SBC president told a friend of mine that David’s sermon was the best he’d ever heard in his four-plus decades of attending Pastor’s Conferences.

I am pleased with the way my dear friend (and SEBTS alum!) Johnny Hunt presided over this Convention. Bro. Johnny is a godly husband and father, a fervent evangelist, a faithful expositor, a model pastor, and a denominational statesman. All Southern Baptists should be thankful for the way he is leading us. I was also pleased to see another SEBTS alum and former faculty member Stephen Rummage elected to serve as our Second Vice President.

I am very encouraged by the number of younger faces I saw in Louisville. No doubt part of this was due to the close proximity of Southern Seminary, but I talked to many young pastors and seminarians who came to Louisville because they are excited about a Great Commission Resurgence. I was thrilled with the attendance at the two “Nine Marks at Nine” sessions and the Baptist 21 Panel Discussion, both of which attracted hundreds of young Southern Baptists. This bodes well for our future.

I am thankful that my close friend Al Mohler felt led to make the motion that President Hunt appoint a GCR task force to study the denomination and bring a report to the 2010 Convention in Orlando. I am thrilled that the messengers voted by an overwhelming majority (at least 95%) to approve Dr. Mohler’s motion. I am also humbled that Bro. Johnny asked me to serve on the task force with some of the godliest, most gifted Southern Baptists I know. Pray for us as we get to work with the important job the Convention has assigned us.

I am glad to see Southern Baptists are reaching across generational and theological differences to unite around the GCR. I heard messengers of many ages and backgrounds share their enthusiasm for the SBC’s future. I personally spoke before gatherings of younger ministers and SBC Calvinists who are longing for a GCR. I believe the tribe of Carey, Judson and Spurgeon type Calvinists is growing. That is a good thing! I was delighted to see former Convention president Frank Page publicly speak in favor of Dr. Mohler’s motion, despite their differences concerning particular details of theology that should not divide us. That’s a picture of the type of Great Commission unity we need in the SBC!

Before closing, I do want to address some of the criticisms of Southeastern Seminary and my leadership of the school. I think this is something I need to do. A number of motions and proposed resolutions expressed concern about my relationship with Mark Driscoll and Acts 29. Many of these concerns were based upon information that has been circulated around our Convention in the last six months in the form of Baptist Press articles, blog posts, and position papers. Some of that information was erroneous or outdated. Some of it is accurate, but my opinion usually differs from those raising the concerns. So, let me speak plainly and from my heart.

I appreciate Mark Driscoll and Acts 29. Southeastern has no formal relationship with either, but I am thankful for many aspects of both ministries. I think there is much that our students can learn from them. Mark and I have become good friends, but I do not agree with everything Mark says or does. In particular, I disagree with some of the language he has used in the pulpit in the past (though not in several years!) and I am uncomfortable with his position on beverage alcohol. I do appreciate his courage to tackle the difficult book The Song of Solomon and to address sexual issues with the adults in his congregation who have serious and important questions needing answers. Many of you know I have had a similar ministry through Marriage and Family conferences for years. I also wrote a book on the Song entitled God on Sex. Now it is the case I have chosen to address these issues in a different manner than has Mark, and at certain points I think he might have addressed some sensitive sexual issues in a more careful manner. But, I believe we can learn from those with whom we differ, and on the whole I believe Mark has much to teach us about missional living, theology-driven ministry, and culturally relevant expositional preaching. I also think our students, and Southern Baptists in general, are mature enough to treat Mark Driscoll (and every Christian leader) with appropriate discernment.

I want to remind our readers that good seminaries continually expose their students to diverse opinions, including the opinions of those with whom we disagree. There are few textbooks, guest lecturers, and even chapel speakers with whom I am in 100% agreement! Several times in the last decade the SBC annual meeting has been addressed by speakers who differ with Southern Baptists, including Condoleeza Rice (a Presbyterian who describes her views on abortion as “mildly pro-choice”), James Dobson (a Nazarene) and Bill Bright (another Presbyterian). Individual Southern Baptists also learn from others every time they read a book by Augustine, C. S. Lewis or John Stott and every time they listen to a sermon by John MacArthur or Chuck Swindoll. It is a healthy thing to interact with and appreciate fellow Christians with whom we have theological differences and even strong disagreements on secondary and tertiary matters.

Let me invite any of our readers who have concerns about Mark or Acts 29 to do three things. First, make sure your criticisms are up-to-date rather than rehashing issues that were settled several years ago. Second, acquaint yourself with the doctrinal convictions of both Mars Hill Church and Acts 29. Finally, please note that all of the Driscoll addresses are available online at our website. I would encourage you to listen to them as well as an interview David Nelson conducted with Mark last spring. I think you will be blessed and encouraged by what you hear. If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to email me or call my office. I would be happy to talk with you, listen to your heart, and hopefully put your concerns to rest.

I remain very hopeful about the future of the SBC. I hope you will join me in praying for a Great Commission Resurgence among all Southern Baptists.mobi onlinemobi online