Westminister John Knox Press, 2007. Paper, 174 pages.
More and more, pastors are using scenes from popular movies as sermon illustrations. But pastor Timothy Cargal believes that we need to move a step further by learning to interpret movies, much as we would exegete a biblical text, allowing us to use film as a powerful tool to engage contemporary listeners and connect them to biblical truth.
Cargal makes the case that many in today’s culture are cinematically literate to a degree previously unknown. In fact, he says that film has become an alternate language in our “post-literate” society. He uses the term cinemate (coined by a film studies scholar) “to describe people who have developed a fluency in the ability to determine the meanings created in films by the juxtaposition of images, words, music and sound.”
Recognizing the role of movies in contemporary American culture, Cargal believes that to connect with those immersed in this culture, it’s not enough to draw out isolated movie scenes to use as traditional sermon illustrations. This is the case because, “Like any proof text, isolated scenes can be wrested from their context and thus misrepresent the intention of the film.” Such use, he argues, will undermine our credibility as interpreters of film but also “as an interpreter of culture, morality, and even the scriptural and theological tradition.”
Thus it becomes important for pastors to learn to become interpreters of movies, and Cargal provides a chapter offering tools to enable preachers to enter into a dialogue with a film, as well as helpful insights for analyzing movies in a manner akin to analyzing a text. He then provides a useful section on how to “see a sermon.”
Cargal writes: “Thinking about dialogue with film in preaching as ‘seeing a sermon’ thus involves two key components: ‘showing’ the films to our listeners so clearly that they can ‘see’ – in the sense of understand – the vision created in the movie, and ‘showing’ the sermon itself in such a way that the vision of Scripture and the theological tradition is as compelling and persuasive as a film. Seeing a sermon is ultimately about preaching that enables the congregation to see the world as God sees it and hopes it will be.”
The major portion of the book consists of a series of chapters dealing with individual films. Each chapter includes a theological reading of the film, then a sermon which models Cargal’s homiletical approach. (Many pastors will be surprised at the short length of the sermons, which apparently range from 13 to 20 minutes.)
One thing that will surprise many pastors who regularly use film clips in their sermons is that Cargal discourages their use. In part that is because of the time they consume – if you only preach 18 minutes, you probably don’t want to spend three of those on a clip. But the major reason is that he believes the preacher should not cede control of that portion of the sermon to the filmmaker.
While few of us will regularly preach sermons in which movies play such a central role, Cargal’s book offers helpful counsel to pastors in helping them understand how to interpret film and then to more effectively use those insights in communicating biblical truth in the sermon.