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Unplanned meanings – echoes of eternity
Metaphors of redemption
Popular culture provides a huge bridge for us to use. How do many people spend much of their leisure time? They watch TV or movies, read books, and listen to music. Even though it may never have been the intention of the writer or director, there are often eternal truths and parallels just waiting for us to point at. Indeed, we should normally expect to find such echoes in the yearnings of writers.
All stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales,
dramas and movies. They are known collectively as The Hero’s Journey ... A story is a also a
metaphor, a model of some aspect of human behaviour.” [Christopher Vogler]
“... stories ... answer the eternal questions: What is the world really like? How am I to live my life in it? How can I truly be myself?” [Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers]
The journey of the hero(s) is usually ‘redemptive’, in that he (or she, or they) seek a specific goal or situation resolution, for themselves or others, which may only be achievable through hardship and sacrifice.
In all cultures, stories are integral to the way we relate to the world and understand abstract concepts. We are hard-wired for ‘story’. It amazes me to see how children too young to speak more than a few words, can play make-believe and ‘eat’ pretend food from magazine pictures, or follow a simple narrative story. Even more remarkably, babies can also discern friend from foe long before they can talk, according to research published in Nature magazine. Babies of six months were shown a puppet seemingly helping or hindering another puppet climb a slope. Afterwards, all the babies reached out to hold the ‘helpful’ puppet and rejected the ‘nasty’ one. They could not only follow a make-believe narrative, but make a moral judgment about it! It is not surprising therefore that story should be at the heart of evangelism.
Although this site promotes the value of apologetics discussion as a biblical vehicle for evangelism among certain groups of people, it is interesting to find that C S Lewis, of all people, abandoned this method in favor of story-telling! Lewis had written a number of philosophical apologetic books, which are wonderfully argued and remain in print to this day. Yet after losing a public debate with Elizabeth Anscombe, a Cambridge philosopher, he became both depressed and challenged. Biographer A N Wilson says, "The seeds of the first Narnia story were dawning in his mind. Lewis never attempted to write another work of Christian apologetics after Miracles."
Despite the effect that Lewis’ apolegetics books made (and still make) on the numerically small intellectual world, there is no doubt that his children’s books have impacted a vastly larger group: generations of millions of children. He has been able to place in their hearts, sometimes without them really knowing or fully understanding, concepts such as the death of the Lion King on behalf of the sinner, the creation of the world and the Fall, the deception of evil, and the end of the world. His sci-fi trilogy also packs a powerful message. To Lewis, stories and myth were powerful, and he used them deliverably as allegories. Tolkien, whose use of biblical imagery in Lord of the Rings was at first unwitting, observed to his friend Lewis that every myth was “a splintered fragment of the true light”.
MoviesMelissa Mathison was educated in a Catholic school in Hollywood, and worked on the film E.T. During filming, she and the cinematographer suddenly realized the similarities between the plot and the story of Jesus Christ. “His being left on earth, being found, his apostles, dying, the resurrection. We were cracking up when we figured out that one. When we told Steven [Spielberg], he said, ‘I’m Jewish, and I don’t want to hear anything about this.’”
Writer Leslie Hand believes that film producers such as Spielberg are unwittingly God’s messengers for today. Hollywood Jesus takes a similar approach. The same strategy could be used as a major outreach to India, by looking at India’s Bollywood films. Books, plays, music – all contain such parallels. Indeed, almost any secular subject can be used to illustrate truth. Spurgeon’s most famous lecture series was Studies in Candles – two long lectures filled with illustrations drawn from candles. He gave these lectures to show how easy it is to illustrate spiritual truth through everyday objects.
Movies are also a good discussion point with friends and colleagues.
BooksIt is often the case that secular mainstream stories illustrate spiritual truths more clearly than Christian writings. E.T. has placed some eternal concepts into the hearts of a whole generation.
The book I Am David by Anne Holm, is a wonderfully moving tale of quest, longing, and finding. Is it a ‘Christian’ or ‘evangelistic’ book? Well, it presents Christian truths in a powerful story form, and in a way that few writers, Christian or non-Christian, can achieve. The same is true of the books by Robert O‘Brien: The Silver Crown, Z for Zechariah, and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
• More on using literature and plays as a starting point.
MusicAnalyzing the lyrics of contemporary music is another major way to communicate the Gospel to young people.
ArtArt is also questing after meaning and interpretations of the world we live in. Most pictures tell a narrative story. Here is another place to look for meanings and parallels, perhaps using a critical approach similar to the the secular Artchive.
Looking at storytelling and culture in a new wayWe need to be like the men of Issachar, who understood the times they lived in. There are good resources to help us understand the culture around us, such as Damaris and Facing the Challenge.
Francis Schaeffer was an influential and insightful early advocate of the vital importance of learning to understand secular culture and use these insights for the Gospel. An important point made by Schaeffer: looking for meanings within secular books, films and the arts is not the same as endorsing them as wholesome material for all Christians to read or watch. The purpose is not review for Christians, but holding up a mirror for non-Christians to find an element of truth in the books and films they already consume. Someone called by God to be such an interpreter may need to analyze material which includes content that is not particularly uplifting.
With our eyes wide open, we can begin to see some remarkable parallels in the most well-known, or unlikely, stories. A definitive book on the subject is Hollywood Worldviews, and its insights apply equally to other types of story.
The evangelistic strategy of Jesus was almost always (except in the synagogue) to use stories rather than scripture as a starting point. Evangelistic pages (and other media) using this strategy will reach people.
It is also possible to use online short stories and poetry for evangelism.
Take a tour of the HollywoodJesus site, looking at culture from a Christian perspective:
related pages within the Bridge the gap & Using culture menu links
recommended books on culture, including free downloads
valuable online videos about web ministry