Using Movies in Teaching and Preaching

How can the average priest or pastor use movies in ministry? This article offers some practical pointers.

Previous generations might have used a flannelgraph to illustrate a sermon for children. Any generation in any culture can teach by telling a story, as long as it is appropriate for the culture. But for our postmodern, postliterate age, movies are one of the most helpful resources for teaching and preaching.

There are three ways in particular that I use movies in my own teaching and evangelism:

1.      Analogy

Jesus said, \”The Kingdom of heaven is like . . .\” and told a story. So for us, we may say, Sin is like this, or, The coming of Jesus into the world is like that.

In an internet poll, The Shawshank Redemption was voted the best movie of all time. Although there is a lot of violence in the movie, there are some wonderful scenes too. In one of these, Tim Robbins, playing an unjustly imprisoned banker, has been trying for years to persuade his congressman to donate some used books to the prison. Finally, the congressman responds, and, among the books, Robbins finds some records, including a set of Mozart\’s Don Giovanni. He is in the warden\’s office at the time, so on impulse he locks the door, puts the record on the turntable (remember those?), and then switches on the prison PA system so that every prisoner can hear the music. As the prisoners stop whatever they are doing and listen spellbound, Morgan Freeman, the movie\’s narrator, says, \”For one brief moment, every man in Shawshank felt free.\”

The coming of Christ into our world was a bit like that. He too had done no wrong, but he came and shared our conditions. He too brought a song of freedom that drew everyone to him. And he too was shut down by the authorities who understood the implications of the song. It\’s not a perfect analogy, of course. There are none. But it does illustrate a couple of important points about who Jesus is. And that\’s a good beginning.

2.      Stating a problem

Robin Williams\’ movie, Patch Adams, begins with the se haunting words:

\”All of life is a coming home. Salesmen, secretaries, coal-miners, sword-swallowers, all of us. All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home.\” 

This theme of home and homelessness is never picked up again in the course of the film, so we are left to speculate whether by the end of the movie Patch Adams has in fact found a place he can call \”home.\” Maybe we are meant to conclude that it is the hospital he founds where his principles of medicine can be practised.  We don\’t know for sure.

Yet this theme of home, homelessness, and longing for home, is one that speaks to our culture very deeply.  Does the Gospel have anything to say to it? Of course, supremely in the story of the prodigal son.  Thus while the movie may not answer its own question, it is very helpful in raising the issue in such a clear and compelling way.

3.      An allegory

Some films, because they adopt a story line that sets up a problem then resolves it, bear some resemblance to the shape of the Christian story, with its motifs of creation, fall and redemption.

The Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show, did this very effectively. Truman is the star of a 24-hour a day soap opera based on his life, except that he doesn\’t know it. But in the opening scenes of the movie, he increasingly gets the sense that something is not quite right with his world (the same sense that Neo has in The Matrix).  Into his artificial world comes a young woman, Lauren, who tries to convince him that his life is only make-believe, and that there is another, bigger, more real world \”outside\” the one he knows. The powers-that-be, of course, do not want Truman to know this, and Lauren is forcibly whisked from the scene. Truman\’s curiosity, however, has been aroused, and he sets off to discover Lauren and the possibility of a bigger world than the one he has know.

The shape of The Truman Show is thus (a) something is wrong with the world (b) an Outsider comes to tell us the truth about the world and what is wrong with it, but is removed by those in power and (c) the main character sets out on a pilgrimage to find truth and the Outsider who told him about it.

A most helpful resource for using film in this kind of way in teaching and preaching is Videos That Teach: Teachable Movie Moments from 75 Modern Film Classics. It is by Doug Field and Eddie James (Zondervan 1999). The book is primarily intended for use in youth groups, but its applications are far wider. Each two-page section offers (a) a theme, such as anger, making a difference, consequences, justice or prayer (b) a summary of the relevant movie (c) precise instructions for locating the pertinent section (d) several relevant Bible passages and (e) half a dozen helpful questions to get discussion going. I have to confess, the book is a kind of Coles Notes to spiritual themes in the movies. But my guess is we\’ve all known times when Coles Notes are the best place to start.