Modern Parables: Living in the Kingdom of God (Cinematic Theology)

Article by   January 2008

I have to admit that I am pretty skeptical when it comes to "Christian" films. Too often, films producers major on the "Christian" part and leave the art of good filmmaking and story behind. Too often they are cheesy, sappy, maudlin, or blasphemous. Some figure that unless someone gets saved and everything turns out right in the end, then it can't be Christian. I won't even mention the hidden Bible ciphers, revealing of the antichrist, and action/adventure "Christian" films. It's easy to be skeptical.

Then there is the attitude among some evangelicals about the use of film in culture. Attempts to be "relevant" to culture by applying Christian subtext to commercial films falls flat as well as the endless discussion about narrative elements that fail to take into consideration the very way in which the art of film is utilized and the film is conveyed. The Christian community has a tendency to lay "claim" to various films for its own purposes (i.e. Mel Gibson's The Passion as the "best evangelistic tool the church has had in 2000 years"--one wonders how the Church survived without movies to share the faith). If one adds in the databases of film scenes from major movies available for pastors to match sermon themes with Hollywood moments, skepticism abounds.

Needless to say, I was skeptical, but interested, when I first heard about the Modern Parables series from Compass Cinema when the project was in its early stages. What caught my attention was the people involved--men with a strong foundation in the Word and theology, men of great integrity, and men who were an integral part of RUF (Reformed University Fellowship) at Vanderbilt University. I was, and continue to be, greatly impressed with their work--especially Thomas Purifoy, the writer, producer, director. He has gathered a wonderfully dedicated and talented team.

Modern Parables: Living in the Kingdom of God are short films that retell "the stories in new settings and fresh, dramatic ways. These short films will surprise and challenge you as they surprised and challenged Jesus' first disciples." Since parables are not just moral stories, they cannot be separated from Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of God. Jesus began many of the parables with the phrase, "The Kingdom of God is like..." because the following parable is a lens through which to view different aspects of the Kingdom of God by taking everyday elements and using them to teach abstract truth.

Each of the six films in this series/curriculum vary greatly in style and approach but all with high artistic standards. Samaritan has more of the feel of European cinema with little dialogue but rich in symbolism and imagery. Hidden Treasure is a Capra-esque lighthearted look at what it means to sell all you have for great treasure with joy. Widow and Judge is a black and white film that evokes 1950's era filmmaking about the persistence of prayer. The other stories are The Shrewd Manager, The Sower (a documentary style), and Prodigal Sons.

Thematically and theologically, Thomas Purifoy casts all of the significant theological, pedagogical, and cultural elements of the original parables in a modern setting. After seeing the films, one is challenged to conceive of a more effective, or even equally effective, means of conveying the original intent. These are not just moral tales of doing good, or working to be a good hearer, these stories of Jesus have the pastoral and teaching role of instructing in matters of Kingdom living. Not only do the stories of these films cause viewers to wrestle with these hard sayings, but the art of the films also demands the viewer to contemplate the story at deeper levels.

Through camera angles and lenses, music, dramatic emphasis, high quality post-production, and a myriad of other tools in the filmmaking arsenal, these films work well. Some of the acting is uneven, but there are also some outstanding performances. Compass Cinema actually dared to work with children and animals in their initial films--brave indeed!

The films come with a Teacher's Guide and a Student Book that provides theological and Biblical insights, discussion questions, and helpful comments about the film itself. Each film is paired with a shorter Application video in which various pastors talk through the significance of the parables. I am currently teaching through the films as a short series in a Sunday School class, and the response has been overwhelming and positive. Students are looking at these familiar stories in whole new ways and being challenged by them.

The material and information in the ancillary books is helpful and instructive. From the teaching perspective, a little more direction on how to present some of the theological points would be helpful. Point after point is right on target, but the delivery of the information is left up to the teacher. Many teachers would have no problem with that, but some teachers with less experience teaching or with film might desire a bit more defined classroom helps. These lessons and films work wonderfully in discussion based situations.

I am excited about this project and whatever future projects Compass Cinema undertakes. The attention to detail, the theological integrity, and the artistic merits of Modern Parables far excels the norm for Christian film endeavors. You can check out the project and view trailers and samples at www.modernparable.com

Thomas Purifoy and Jonathan Rogers, Ph.D / Nashville, TN: Compass Cinema, 2007
Review by Greg Wilbur, Chief Muscian, Parish Presbyterian Church, Franklin, TN (Greg Wilbur composed two of the soundtracks for the Modern Parables project)

 

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