Christianity Goes to the Movies

Two “Question-Posing” Lives

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I love movies.  I always have.  I think it’s “cultural.”  I grew up in Southern California in the shadow of the studios and the sound stages.  And so this time of the year I try to see all of the movies that are contenders for the Academy Award for the Best Movie of the year, and, at least in my mind, both “Unbroken” and “Selma” deserve to be in that category.  These are two terrific films.   My love of history makes me partial to both of them.  The stories they tell are both important and compelling. Their cinematic quality is clear, the performances of the actors in them are among the best that I’ve seen all year long.  But what makes both “Unbroken” and “Selma” matter so much to me is that they are both movies about Christians and Christianity.  And what’s most striking to me about this fact is that neither one of them is a “preachy” religious film.  Thank-you very much!

At Northway we’ve talked a lot this past year about how we as Christians are supposed to live “question-posing lives.”  This is the really useful category that the Mennonite theologian Alan Kreider has written about frequently. He explains that New Testament evangelism has two components: “Incarnation” – “living hopefully and interestingly,” and then “Explanation” – “verbal articulacy that points to God that is our testimony to God’s saving grace and life-transforming vision that God has shared with us in Jesus Christ.”  I think that our reluctance to be evangelistic, at least in part, can be traced to the popular reduction of evangelism to “Explanation” alone. We think that evangelism means that we’re supposed to go around telling random people about Jesus unsolicitedly when in fact what we’re supposed to be as evangelists are people who are always prepared to “give an account for the hope (and the faith, and the love, and the peace, and the joy) that is in us” (I Peter 3:15).  People are supposed to look at us and see our hope, love, joy and peace – “question-posing” qualities one and all – and ask about them.  When they say, “Why are you like that?” That’s when the door has been opened for us to point to Jesus Christ, to the big difference that He makes in our lives, to how He is the real source of the love, joy, hope and peace that they are seeing.  And this is what both of these movies do.  Both “Unbroken” and “Selma” are stories about people who lived “question-posing” lives.  As Loren Mead of the Alban Institute put it in his book, the two American spiritual giants of the mid-20th century were both Southerners, both Baptists, and both preachers – Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr.  And these two men are main characters in these two movies, even though one of them – Billy Graham – is nowhere to be found in the story that the movie – “Unbroken” – told.

blackAs Grant Wacker put it in his “Houses of Worship” essay for the “Opinion” page in the Friday, January 2, 2105, Wall Street Journal“The movie and the book about Louis Zamperini’s life skimp on the pivotal role of a certain preacher.”  The man we are just given a few glimpses of at the end of the movie – the man who was finally able to forgive his enemies and then go back to Japan to actively work for reconciliation with his Japanese captors after the war was the man who went forward at the 1949 Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles when his life was spinning completely out of control with hatred, anxiety and substance abuse to give his heart to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Louis Zamperini’s “question-posing” nobility was the fruit of a life firmly rooted in God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

So was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “question-posing” courage and tenacity.  The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s was Martinborn in church and it was led by people like Dr. King who were accustomed Sunday after Sunday of “pressing hard into the presence of the Living God” where they caught a glimpse of a different kind of world, the world of justice, freedom and righteousness that God always intended for us and for all people.  This is what fueled their struggle.  They knew God in Jesus Christ.  They knew who this God was and what this God wanted.  And they went out looking for ways to actively cooperate with God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

“Question-posing” lives are the fruit of lives that have been “rooted and grounded” in the saving love of God in Jesus Christ.  All of the “hopeful and inspiring” things that Dr. King and Mr. Zamperini did – the things that movies are made of – were not what made Dr. King and Mr. Zamperini Christians.  No, Dr. King and Mr. Zamperini did all of those “hopeful and inspiring” because they were Christians; because they knew God and were empowered by Christ’s indwelling presence in their lives to try to refashion the world so that it would better reflect God’s will and ways.

An absolutely brilliant essay on “The Social Function of ‘Coram Deo’ [Being ‘in the presence of God’] in the Thought of Kierkegaard” by the South Korean theologian Seung-Goo Lee (The Journal of Reformed Theology I [2007] 153-177) summarizes the argument I’m making here as well as anybody I have read does –

The only way we can see people without any discrimination is to see them in the presence of God… If everybody has this vision of seeing people in the presence of God, then there could be a fundamental transformation of the world…  People who have a social vision try to change the external realm in a direct manner through a revolution or gradual progression of socio-politico-economic structures.   There can be and are some changes in this world using such direct methods.  But such methods could not bring the fundamental change of the world…  Christianity tries to bring about the fundamental change through the inner change of each individual… Helping others to love God (helping others to be in the right relationship with God Coram Deo) is the greatest, the only beneficence one human being can do for another… To help every person in the world love God is the greatest thing one can do for another.  This is the only way we can practice the eternal equality of human beings. (176)

To see how this works, and what this looks like… go to the movies. DBS+

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