Although Hollywood is often attacked by preachers and politicians, many pastors have discovered some film makers are fellow travelers in the quest for the “truth that makes us free.” John Duncan, author of the fine article appearing in the March/April, 1996 issue of Preaching provided many examples of film scenes that could be used to illustrate Biblical passages and sermon themes. Duncan rightly suggested the alert preacher will find many such helps in current films — as sermonizers of years past found in novels and poetry memorable passages that highlighted important points of their messages.
In this article I intend to probe a bit deeper into film and theology by suggesting the need to develop a theology of seeing, one that will be of help both to preachers and to their Sunday morning listeners. Our starting point will be the parables of Jesus, for in what the Gospels of Mark and Matthew make clear was his favorite device, our Master gives us a teaching method that is far more affective and effective than the usual dry, didactic method of other teachers — and of so much preaching.
“Parable,” as most pastors have learned, is from the Greek, meaning “to cast,” or “lay alongside.” The prophet Nathan, in his parable told to King David, laid alongside each other two instances of injustice. David was so caught up in the need to redress the wrong done by the rich man, who slew the poor man’s pet lamb, that his conscience cried out, and thus was trapped when Nathan pointed to the parallel situation in the King’s own life, his lust for Bathsheba that led to the slaying of her husband Uriah.
In the parables recorded in the Synoptic gospels Jesus usually lays alongside each other some aspect of the Kingdom of God and everyday life, the parable often introduced by such a formula as “the Kingdom of God is like…” Jesus took something familiar to his audience and compared it to the unfamiliar, the Kingdom of God. All of his listeners knew of lost coins, sheep and sons; seed sown; growing bushes; weeds; houses built upon rocks and flood plains; and many other situations. Some of Jesus’ parables are brief similes, such as The Parables of the Weeds and of the Yeast, whereas others are more complex stories, such as The Good Samaritan or The Rich Man and Lazarus.
Two other aspects of Jesus’ parables are important, especially as they relate to our consideration of film — their subversiveness and their secularity: Many of the parables were told in situations in which Jesus sought to go against the accepted opinions and mores of his listeners. And few of his parables were, on the surface, “religious.”
As with Nathan’s use of a parable to attack the conscience of King David, Jesus often indirectly attacked his opponents or their views. Not only does a parable get around the defenses of his opponents, but the story parable draws the listener into it, so that he or she struggles with its meaning and application — and then, suddenly, like David, realizes, that’s me! Some cases in point: Jesus’ assault on the spiritual arrogance of “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” — the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” (Luke 16:9-14, NIV). Or, earlier, when he was under fire from the Pharisees for associating with “tax collectors and sinners,” his emphasis upon seeking “the lost” in the three parables of Luke 15.
In such parables, Jesus comes out at a different point than his listeners expected — the very idea that a Samaritan could be a good neighbor, rather than a priest or a Levite, and that a dignified father would agree to distribute his property to the younger son before he had died, let alone welcome the scoundrel back with open arms after the ingrate had run off and wasted everything! Or that a vile tax collector should go down from the Temple (he didn’t even deserve to be allowed in!) “justified,” instead of the good Pharisee! Such is beyond human comprehension or acceptance, the foolish father’s outrageous conduct violating the acceptable norms and boundaries of society. Why, it’s as unacceptable as a nun leaving her regular work in the city to devote her attention to a condemned rapist/killer, telling him that he is a child of God as depicted in Dead Man Walking — when every decent person, including the nun’s own family, was condemning and shunning such “scum”!
As to secularity, virtually all of Jesus’ parables were taken from the “saeculum,” the every day world of the rural peasant — seeds and planting, fishing, losing things, the troubled relations between landlords and tenants, wedding banquets, and such. In the few stories in which religious figures appear, Jesus does not hold them up as role models, but depicts them almost as villains (the proud Pharisee in “the Pharisee and the Tax collector” or the Pharisee and the Levite in “the Good Samaritan.”). Jesus used the familiar (the world) to connect his listeners with the unfamiliar (the Kingdom of God and its strange ethics of loving enemies, turning the other cheek, and freely welcoming back sinners,). In like manner, the preacher can regard certain films as visual parables, films made by that small group of men and women who make films not just for the money but for the sheer joy of it. Such film makers seek to express a view of reality or raise an important issue through their films. They are the parable makers of today. Indeed, Fr. John Culkin, many years ago, claimed that if Jesus were to begin his early ministry in today’s world, he would become a film maker — if he wanted to reach the masses. The great film pioneer D.W. Griffith stated that his purpose as a film maker was “to make people see” — most people being blind to the wonders and joys of the world and to the meanings hid beneath its surface.
Some of the visual parables available at our theaters and video stores are “religious” in the usual sense (Dead Man Walking; Brother Son, Sister Moon, and Tender Mercies), but others, at first glance (Grand Canyon, Boyz N the Hood, Babe), might seem to have little to do with religion. A little probing beneath the surface of such a film as Grand Canyon or Crimes and Misdemeanors, uncovers deep religious concerns, themes of loneliness and alien-ation and a search for transcendence and meaning running throughout.
I should state before going further that I consider only a few of the over four hundred films produced in a year to be visual parables. Most films fall into three other categories: 1. Harmless Junk — films with such stereotyped characters and predictable plots that they really are the same film made over and over. These are escapist fare, best consumed with popcorn and candy. The moral values underlying them are mixed, from a Christian perspective, and the film is too often trite or poorly written to be of any lasting value. 2. Dangerous junk — such as Sally Field’s recent An Eye For an Eye, which, like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, affirms that violent vigilantism is O.K. because the world, including our legal system, is so corrupt that only the lone individual has the power to right wrongs. By the way in which lying, cheating, promiscuous sex and violence are depicted (as cute or funny, or, in the case of violence, as the normal way of settling differences) in this kind of film we see that they are sanctioned by the filmmaker — and therefore are accepted by their audiences, especially the young.
3. Slice of Life Films take us to places where we meet people seldom seen in our respectable churches, but who are out there hurting and seeking meaning and redemption, often in all the wrong places. Prince of the City and Menace II Society are two such films, revealing to viewers used to the safety of the suburbs or guarded urban apartments the raw side of life. Many of these fall into the visual parables category.
Note that I have not said anything yet about film ratings. These tell us little about the worth of a film, many of the worst Dangerous Junk films being rated “PG” (such as the popular Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, a very funny and engaging film, yet one which teaches that lying to parents and other adults and manipulating friends to get your way is not only O.K., but smart and cute!). And some of my favorite visual parable films (such as The Fisher King and A Bronx Tale) are rated “R” because of the inappropriateness for children of some of the content or theme — sexual situations or scenes, vulgar language, or graphic violence.
You do have to be careful when using R-rated films in a sermon or a discussion group, but I have found that a word or two about any offensive content makes it clear to the audience that I am not condoning it. Borrowing from St. Paul, when he was defending his own weakness as a dispenser of the gospel, I believe that some R-rated films are “earthen vessels” containing “treasure” — the treasure being an insight into relationships and values, life and death embedded in one or more key scenes of the film. Christians, and preachers in particular, should be no more scared off by a film’s R-rating than was our Master by the R-, and even X-rated elements in the lives of the outcasts with whom he associated so freely.
Preachers will find more than just a good sermon illustration in a visual parable film, as important as this might be during that struggle to find the best ways of declaring for the congregation the meaning of the biblical text. By seeking how the great doctrines of our faith are fleshed out in the parables of the theater and video store we will discover connections between the ancient biblical text and the contemporary situation of ourselves and our parishioners. Doctrines such as Sin and Guilt, Crucifixion and Death, Grace and Reconciliation, Vocation and Discipleship can form a grid through which we view a film, drama, novel, poem, or even a news story. We become the translators of theology, helping our people move from the conceptual to the concrete, from the ancient world of Scripture to the contemporary world of the parishioner.
Our abstract concept of the grace of God as being an unmerited and unexpected gift takes on flesh when we see, in Grand Canyon, white suburbanite Mack (Kevin Kline) stranded in his broken down car and surrounded by a gang of black teenagers intending to rob him. He had phoned for a tow truck, but it looks like neither he nor his car will be around to receive help. Just as the gang leader is about to pounce on the hapless Mack, the tow truck appears.
The danger must have been obvious to the driver, but he stops anyway and backs up to Mack’s car. As the driver gets out, all the low camera shot allows us to see are his Western-style boots and jean-clad legs, thus raising our expectations of a Rambo-like confrontation — Oh boy, here comes the action! But Danny Glover’s Simon is no Rambo. He merely goes about hooking up Mack’s car to his truck. The belligerent youth are taken aback by this unexpected turn of events. Regaining his composure, the leader demands recognition from Simon, who takes the young man aside. In a gentle voice Mack reasons with the gun-wielding tough, and then asks for a favor — to be allowed to drive off with his client without further incident. Simon’s urban-style turning of the other cheek appeals to the best instinct in the hardened youth. In this brief incident we see grace abounding — in Simon’s risk-ing his own safety to help a client (a white man, at that!); in his method of appealing to the gang, and in their response of letting their prey go. This is the first of many moments of grace in a film that seriously explores the yearning for transcendence of dwellers in the crowded city.
By using scenes from such films in our preaching, and in some of our study groups (many churches are setting up film viewing/discussion groups — we call ours “God and the Movies.”), we preachers can help our people make connections between the sacred and the secular. Theology comes alive because we have developed “eyes that see” and “ears that hear.” We see and hear God speaking to us through an art form that touches millions of lives — and yet few of those in the movie theaters actually “see.” They are like those who listened to Jesus, and then went away upset and puzzled. They come merely to be entertained. (Of course, good parables are always entertaining — not even His enemies accused Jesus of being boring!) And they have been conditioned by years of denunciations of Hollywood by preachers not to expect anything worthwhile from their past-time.
After seeing Places in the Heart I recall hearing people, on the way out of the theater, expressing their puzzlement about the surrealistic Communion Service that climaxed the film. Present at the service were all the major and minor characters of the story, including a black man who had been run out of town by KKK members, those very members themselves, Sally Field and her family — and most surprising, her dead husband and the young black teenager who had accidentally shot him, and was subsequently lynched, at the beginning of the film! How come these absent and dead characters are present in this Communion service? Christians in the audience at least had a clue — in the Apostles’ Creed and in the Communion Prayer of most liturgies we affirm the Communion of Saints, the mystical union of all believers who have died, who are alive, and who will come after us.
Director/writer Robert Benton, drawing on his Texan Christian roots, sets forth this unusual scene to assure us that all the struggle, the agony and the triumphs of the film’s characters, and thus ours as well, are blessed by the God who joins us together in Christ by a bond that no distance of geography or death can sever. But only those with “eyes that see” will understand him. Our task, then, as preachers and teachers, is to equip people theologically to open their eyes so that they will be able to make connections between the Bible and the world.
Some may protest that I am reading too much into films — the age-old preacher-problem of eisegesis versus exegesis. During my doctor of ministry program, when I was interpreting Cool Hand Luke as a Christ-figure film, a fellow candidate questioned my reading of the film, especially its last scene. Luke, played by Paul Newman, had been a rebel in a Southern chain gang, constantly needling and resisting the “bosses,” as the guards were called by the prisoners. After making fools of them in two escapes, Luke is finally shot and killed. This Good Friday killing should have been the end of Luke, but it wasn’t. As the prisoners cut weeds alongside a road, Luke’s best buddy Dragline is urged by the others to “tell us about Luke.” Dragline recounts how Luke was always smiling “that Cool Hand Luke smile of his” — and we see a collage of shots from all the main episodes of the film. Even at his death, Drag declares, Luke was smiling, showing that the bosses could never beat him. “He was a world shaker.”
While Dragline tells what is essentially an Easter story, the camera cuts to a close-up of the prisoner’s chains, and then to his smiling face. Like Luke, Dragline is smiling, strangely free, even though he is shackled. And then the camera zooms back for an overhead shot, revealing that the prisoners are across from the abandoned church where their hero had been shot the night before. They are at a cross-road, and it is the cross which, right in the center of the screen, even when a photo of Luke segues in for “The End” that we see last.
I wrote the film’s director Stuart Rosenberg and enclosed a copy of my thesis chapter on his film. He phoned me, saying “Tell your friend you are right…I spent several hours in a helicopter looking for just the right cross-road for the ending.” He said that at first he thought the symbolism would be too obvious, but I assured him few people I knew had thought about why the film ended with a cross, so he needn’t worry.
But even if the director had not consciously intended to relate Luke’s rebellion against a dehumanizing system and his murder by its upholders to Christ and his Cross, my observations would still be valid. Valid in the sense that art is a dialogue involving the spectator as well as the creator. The spectator sees in a film, such as “Field of Dreams,” a similarity or relationship of the call of farmer Ray Kinsela and that of Abraham the Patriarch — both called forth by a mysterious Voice on journeys they don’t understand fully understand. As biblically trained spectators this is how preachers should approach film, looking for the connections and similarities, careful not to read too much into a film, but, honoring the original intention of the film maker, and then going on to see the relationship of the artist’s story to His Story.
Jesus often said, “the Kingdom of God is like…” Preachers might say, exploring the 9th Chapter of John, “Becoming spiritually blind is like Judah Rosenthal, the rich, respected eye doctor in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. When his mistress threatens to go to his wife, he accepts an offer from his mob-related brother-in-law to have her killed. He is bothered by his conscience, but after a while his guilt feelings go away. He has become spiritually blind. At the same time, one of his patients suffering from an eye disease, a rabbi, had offered him some sound advice earlier when Judah had posed the case as a hypothetical one — the man should confess the affair to his wife and trust her to forgive him. The rabbi loses his physical eyesight, yet spiritually sees clearly. Judah retains his physical vision and his social respectability but in his spiritual blindness has lost his soul. There is much more to this funny-serious morality tale than we can discuss here, but Woody Allen has given us a parable worth exploring in conjunction with Psalms 37 or 73.
The film’s secondary plot concerns Cliff Stern (played by Mr. Allen himself), a good guy who loses the girl and his work to a thorough heel, so that he is much like the prophet Habakkuk searching for answers to the world’s injustice (see Habakkuk 1:1-2:4). I know of one theology professor who uses this film in a theodicy course, few films delving as deep into the subject as this one.
I am not suggesting that preachers use film in every sermon or Bible study, but that they be open to the possibility God might have some thing to say to them and their people even through a film. The God who used the Assyrians and a Judas in His work of salvation, Who spoke through a burning bush and Balaam’s ass, can speak still through unexpected means — if his people “have eyes that see, and ears that hear.” Our task is to be like Eli and help our Samuels hear the divine voice in the dark of a theater, as well as in the temple.
A Few Theological Themes in Select Visual Parable Films
1. Sin/Alienation/Guilt
All That Jazz (R)
Chinatown (R)
Citizen Kane – (NR)
Crimes & Misdemeanors – (PG-13)
A Face in the Crowd – (NR)
2. Crucifixion/Sacrifice/Death
Cool Hand Luke – (NR)
Cry Freedom – (PG)
Eleni – (PG)
Hud (NR)
Lord of the Flies
Quiz Show – (PG)
Treasure of the Sierra Madre – (NR)
Unforgiven – (R)
The Mission – (PG)
On the Waterfront – (NR)
The Pawnbroker – (R)
Gandhi – (PG)
Matewan – (PG)
Silkwood – (R)
The Year of Living Dangerously – (PG)
3. Vocation/Calling/Decision Making
Beyond Rangoon – (PG)
Broadway Danny Rose – (PG)
Casualties of War – (R)
Chariots of Fire – (PG)
Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind – (PG)
Field of Dreams – (PG)
The Long Walk Home – (PG)
A Man For All Seasons – (NR)
Sarafina – (PG)
Saturday Night Fever – (PG version)
4. Grace/Redemption/Resurrection/
Coming to Oneself
Babette’s Feast – (PG)
Dead Man Walking – (R)
The Fisher King – (R)
Grand Canyon – (R)
Priest – (R)
Schindler’s List – (R)
La Strada – (NR)
Tender Mercies – (PG)
To Kill a Mockingbird – (NR)
Zorba the Greek – (NR)
5. Reconciliation/Redemptive Love
The Abyss – (PG)
Babe – (G)
Beautiful Dreamer – (PG)
The Color Purple – (R)
Cry, the Beloved Country – (PG)
The Great Santini – (PG)
Les Miserables (1935 version – NR)
Philadelphia – (R)
Places in the Heart – (PG)
The War – (PG)
6. Justice/Social Concerns
Boyz N the Hood – (R)
Dances With Wolves – (R)
God Bless the Child (NR)
Grapes of Wrath – (NR)
Judgement at Nuremberg – (NR)
Malcolm X – (R)
Norma Rae – (PG)
Network – (R)
Romero – (PG)
The Saint of Ft. Washington – (R)
The above is taken from a much longer list prepared for my Film and Theology seminars. Readers wishing a copy and a sample issue of my film newsletter Visual Parables, should send a stamped, self-addressed envelope (business size) to me at: Bovina Presbyterian Church, P.O. Box 26, Bovina Center, NY 13740.

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