Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
Noah is set to deluge theaters on March 28. The fantasy film is inspired by Genesis and directed by Darren Aronofsky. To leak all the puns early: Will the film float, thanks to overall story buoyancy? Or will it sink because of bad construction or poorly weighted evangelical ballast?
Since the early script rebuttal by novelist Brian Godawa, the first trailer, and the ensuing controversy, I’ve been intrigued by the film. Like many Christians, I’ve wrestled with several biblical-movie-related questions. How much alteration of Scripture is too much? Would it would be OK to show a Noah who is less than holy at all times (I think so)? Is it biblical to show that corrupt man is less valuable than God’s created animals? (Surely this was one point of God purging all but eight humans while saving animals. First we fall, then creation suffers.)
Yet other Christian leaders seem to have shrugged and said, in so many words, “Doesn’t matter. Let’s use it as an evangelism tool.” Such was one response, according to The Blaze:
Rather than lambaste the film, [National Religious Broadcasters CEO Jerry] Johnson said that “Noah” should serve as an opportunity for Christians to share their faith.
“Why don’t we turn it into something evangelistic?” he asked.
As a Christian who loves the Gospel, loves evangelism, has even practiced “the Way of the Master” as taught by Ray Comfort, and who loves local church services, I can’t help bristling when someone endorses using a story — good or bad — as a mere “something evangelistic.”
I dislike movies being brought into church. I also dislike church being brought into movies.
Should a film such as Noah sink or succeed, based entirely on some Christians’ judgment of the film as a seaworthy evangelism tool? This the worst of both worlds: questionable policy for movies, and probably bad evangelism. It bypasses man’s chief end to enjoy God in all things — including movies, perhaps even a film with a “parallel world” version of the Flood account in which only God is recognizable. Instead, we’re handed substitute “evangelism tool” notions.
The results are not beautiful. Above the melodic strains of even a good film’s closing credits rises a preacher’s voice urging the audience to take the next step and walk the theater aisle.
I mean this literally. In spring 2007, evangelical movie marketers persuaded me to see Amazing Grace when the film was released in the U.S. I still love this quiet historical story that stars Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, Michael Gambon as Lord Charles Fox, and Benedict Cumberbatch as William Pitt. Geeks rejoice: Mr. Fantastic, Prof. Dumbledore, and Sherlock are in one Christian-friendly and good film.
But not until I viewed the DVD did I actually see the whole story. In the theater showing, the text had just rolled explaining Wilberforce’s career after abolition, followed by a gorgeous rendition of “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes. Then, up in front, rose a young man to give an altar call. What you just saw, he proclaimed, was a story about one man’s struggle against slavery, but aren’t we really slaves to sin? Cue “Way of the Master” questions and a biblical summons to repentance and faith. The audience, most of whom were probably Southern Baptists already, gave polite applause.
I missed the bagpipes, but I admired his dedication. Outside the theater, I tried to tell him so — and found him bored and uninterested in talking with me. Perhaps he hoped someone would approach him who wasn’t saved and already on his side?
Since then, I have wondered if many Christians end up being much like that young man.
First, what stories do we miss onscreen when we’re resolved to find only evangelism-tool movies — then stand before the screen, our backs to the story and our faces to the audience?
Second, are we really even focusing on real people? Haven’t we often invented an imaginary audience? For “them,” our imaginary “evangelism” can stray as much from the source material as some of the best Bible-inspired films have strayed from Scripture.
Noah could be a terrible adaptation of any number of elements: the person and story of God, the person and story of Noah, and the side characters and story-world of the Flood. I can likely live with filmmakers messing up those last two. Others would disagree. But I would suggest that all Christians enjoy the potential right to see or even appreciate a bad biblical fantasy film.
We can do this without adapting the few that some marketers and biblical-fidelity critics imply: that if a film is not “useful” for evangelism, then it’s not useful at all.
I want to ask my usual question of myself and others: What is the chief end of any movie, or of anything at all? Is it evangelism? If so, we will have no purpose in the promised New Earth that only saints will enjoy. And if so, criticisms or support for Noah and other films also fail the test because they don’t include direct salvation calls. In fact, Scripture itself fails such a test. Where are clear plans of salvation in books such as the Psalms or Esther?
Does this view devalue evangelism? No, I’m trying to elevate true evangelism. We must see films and other stories for what they are. We must listen to movies and respect their makers’ intentions and messages. We must listen to actual real-world audiences for their own true reasons for seeing the film. We must see Scripture, life, storytelling and popular culture for greater ends than simply “evangelism tools.”
All these things are not mere tools, as if evangelism was as simple as swinging a hammer at a board. All these things are instead parts, intricate components of the glorious world God created. Perhaps they are truly useful in a larger instrument of actual evangelism. But more likely, these things are useful for the true chief end for which God created everything, the ultimate purpose that saints will still enjoy long after evangelism is fulfilled: to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
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