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Evangelism using popular culture as starting point
Forgetting to use God’s gift
Suppose God sent you a letter. And in it, He offered you a gift – a simple evangelistic approach similar to the parables that Jesus used. Something that would engage with people’s interests, and employ a common language and experience. Would you want to use it?
We are convinced that this is exactly God’s heart, and that He does indeed offer us a resource which is grossly under-used for ministry: contemporary culture – ie. the world of film, TV, music, theater, books. “You mean, worldly entertainment? No way.” Here’s why:
- It is a major leisure activity, and a deep need
Most people spend a considerable proportion of their leisure time in this world of story. It’s how we build an understanding of the ourselves, people, the world and life itself. It is remarkable how we are wired for story and imagination. A small child not yet able to speak can appreciate simple story, play make-believe and ‘eat’ food from a picture, knowing perfectly well that it is a game. Almost all truths (apart perhaps from those within pure mathematics or philosophy) only become meaningful by picture language – “this is the same as...” Leighton Ford has observed, “It’s been said that next to food and drink, our most basic human hunger is for storytelling.”
- “That Frodo Skywalker... somehow it rings a bell”
Many stories – maybe most good ones – 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 behavior.” [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] Read more about The Hero’s Journey (sometimes called the ‘monomyth’).
The journey of the hero 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 Christopher Booker’s hugely significant book The Seven Basic Plots, he takes this analysis further, and convincingly argues that almost every story contains one or more of seven basic archetypal plots.
Contemporary culture is a common language, with worldwide reach. Popular characters and their dialogue have entered our language, from Shakespeare onwards. “Beam me up, Scotty.” “ET phone home.” “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Because this common language is not religious, it is not threatening to outsiders. It’s a neutral area where we can meet together and is one example of the Bridge Strategy.
- Renewed every month
It’s also a language being renewed every month. With every new movie, music track or book released, we have new examples that will resonate with many people around us. A majority of our friends and peers are likely to see the latest blockbuster movie release, or to know the lyrics of the latest pop hits.
Within almost all stories, we find that the hero’s journey reflects remarkable parallels with spiritual truths. These embedded echoes of eternity are everywhere. Why should this surprise us? God created us to have imagination and creativity. Even in a fallen world, people desire meaning, and respond to themes of sacrifice, struggle and redemption. God’s nature and plan are reflected in creation (Psalm 19:1-5, Rom. 1:20), and humans are created in his image, so we also would expect much human creativity to reflect something of God’s purposes, even unwittingly. A foundational book about this redemptive analogy concept in a mission context is Don Richardson’s book Eternity in Their Hearts.
Starting, not finishingChristians have tended to be moderately good at reaching the ‘once-churched’ – those with some measure of Christian knowledge and background. We are far less successful at reaching the ‘never-churched’. A problem with many gospel presentations is that they are ‘finishing’, ‘sealing the deal’ proposals, rather than ‘idea starting’, ‘intriguing the lost’ question posers. People who don‘t even know there‘s a ‘deal’ available, or who have rejected formulaic agendas that do not relate to them, are not ready for these. An understanding of how people become Christians, as illustrated by the Gray Matrix, is very helpful.
Here’s a parable to illustrate this: if we see the photograph above of a rusted nut as representing the closed or veiled mind of a non-follower of Jesus, a wrench alone may not be sufficient to start the nut turning. But the application of penetrating oil (a wonderful image of the Holy Spirit, smuggling understandable truths and longings deep into the recesses of the heart) may well start the turning process – ie. a spiritual journey.
Different approachesThere are different approaches we can use, depending on the nature of the story or song lyric.
- Finding redemptive analogies
There may be one or more unexpected parallels: a seeking for meaning in life, an imprisonment and ransomed escape, a personal sacrifice to enable the good of another character, or the struggle between forces of good and evil.
Few stories are intended to be full allegories, such as the Chronicles of Narnia. Many others contain very obvious spiritual parallels (Lord of the Rings, The Green Mile, Les Miserables). Sometimes, these parallels were never intended by the author or film-maker. Stephen Speilberg was shocked when the blindingly obvious parallels in ET (the hero coming down to earth, being recognized by only a few, healing, death, resurrection and return to another world) were pointed out to him. At other times the parallels may be more fragmentary, but just as powerful.
Children’s books frequently contain redemptive parallels. Look at classic stories like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Velveteen Rabbit, Thomas the Tank Engine, and many more.
Set aside time to watch Jeffrey Overstreet in this 45-minute Christian Arts seminar. His insights on storytelling and embedded truths are valuable:
- Analyzing motives, themes and ideas
If you studied English literature at school or college, you will be familiar with this approach. It provides valuable insights into characters, their motives, and consequences of their actions. We can also look into the writer’s mind and worldview, and consider why she wrote the way she did. As Christians, we can be commentators on these aspects from a Christian worldview, without preachiness or criticism.
For instance, BBC TV recently serialized Tess of the d’Urbevilles. Make a Google search on that title, and you will find many commentaries and analyses of the story. But not a single one from a Christian worldview, gently critiquing Hardy’s negative fatalist views. (He was, incidentally, brought up as an evangelical.) What a missed opportunity!
Popular song lyrics are of course far shorter than stories. Yet many echo some longing of the human heart, the need for love and relationship, or a social commentary on the surrounding world. Often they speak of issues of pain and rejection.
This is a major opportunity, yet virtually unused, to reach the young, who inhabit a world of popular music.
Learning to see the parallelsMost people are not really aware of parallels in stories they hear. We have noted how Steven Spielberg was unaware of the parallels in a film he was making!
Some films may offer a less complete reflection of truth, but are no less valuable as a starting point. For instance, Spielberg’s Artifical Intelligence and Walden Media’s I Am David are moving depictions of the quest for rediscovering a lost parent. Even an all-action shoot-em-up film like Terminator demonstrates the cyborg hero played by Arnold Schwarzenegger laying down his life voluntarily to free the others. Finding such clear parallels in stories are the rule rather than the exception! We need to have our eyes prayerfully open to look for these ‘echoes of eternity’. Sometimes they only become clear after leaving the movie theater. It may help you to summarize the story on paper, perhaps in a diagrammatic form, and then write in the parallels as they become clear. Brainstorming with others can help too.
Making the transitionOf course we must sensitively and clearly make the transition from the echo to the truth it portrays. The story of the woman losing a coin, for example, has no resonance until Jesus provides the connection: “it is the same as...”
How we do make the transition depends on circumstances. In conversation (face-to-face or on a social networking site such as Facebook), we have the opportunity to say, “this reminds me of...” and see if a conversation develops. On a blog or a website, we can take a longer time to make a more reasoned explanation.
Preachers and youth leaders can use this approach in an evangelistic setting, and illustrate their talk with video clips taken from movies. Trailers and clips are available free from Wingclips and Damaris.
What not to doWe must resist the temptation to turn our writing into a review of a film’s (or song’s) appropriateness for a Christian audience, or indeed a review at all. (There are many online resources doing this already.) We are not writing for Christians. We are engaging with non-Christians who have already seen the film or heard the music. Whether it contained violence, bad language or other inappropriate behavior, whether we liked it, or even if we feel it is a good film or not – these are all outside our purpose. Our only brief is to find redemptive themes or other starting points, and shine a spotlight on them. Listen to the two podcasts below for more on this principle.
Recommended podcasts, videos and newsletters•Facing the Challenge’s Seize the Day podcast frequently covers these issues. Listen to these two short sample audios:
• Pollard on Film is a Damaris resource: short videos helping people to think through the movies, which can be republished online or downloaded for use in meetings and seminars
- CT at the Movies is a free weekly email newsletter from Christianity Today looking at themes in the latest movies, though primarily for a Christian audience.
- Damaris newsletter offers valuable culture-watch insights into movies and music.
- HollywoodJesus provides regular outsider-friendly reviews and comments on latest releases.
The definitive book advocating that we engage with popular culture and use it for evangelism, and providing convincing biblical support for this strategy. Watch Stevens speaking in this 4-minute clip
• Review/find it
The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost / Hirsch, Hendrikson 2003.
A vital understanding of how the culture is changing around us. Review/find it
Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema, Tony Watkins, Damaris/Authentic 2007. Understanding movies and how to relate to them.
• Review/find it
Hollywood Worldviews, Brian Godawa, InterVarsity Press 2009. Further valuable understanding on the nature of film.
• Review/find it
Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories, Daniel Taylor.
This very readable book offers vital insights into the nature of stories, and why we need them. Watch Taylor speak in this 3-minute video clip
• Review/find it | Watch more video clips by Taylor
Who is using this approach?Evangelists and pastors share their insights and biblical support for the importance of this strategy:
- David Buckna writes regular quizzes based on popular culture – usually films or music
- Dave Bruce started the HollywoodJesus site which draws parallels from major movies
- Tony Watkins works with culture-watch group Damaris and is author of Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema and the shorter free ebook Using Film in Christian Communication.
- Leslie Hand draws parallels from movie storylines – she calls this “interpreting the movies”
- Pastor Robb Almy explains how he uses this tool in church ministry, and why it is biblical, not strange or even ‘of the devil’.
- Is this not watering down the gospel?
No, it is just an appropriate ‘way in’. We are meeting people where they are at, using the language they understand and the imagery they are familiar with. The Gray Matrix and Engel Scale help us here, to understand at what level of spiritual understanding our audience is.
- This strategy should surely lead into a clear and biblical presentation of the gospel (though of course free from jargon that an unchurched person will not understand) and which point them to the depth and breadth of the good news, which John Piper summarizes in the video above.
- Is it a gimmick?
What is a gimmick? Is telling stories in the open air a gimmick? What about lying on your side for 390 days (Ezekiel 4). And in his time, Spurgeon was condemned by some for using the ‘worldly’ method of handing out flyers telling people of meetings. Of course, there can be embarrassing ‘trendy vicars’ from non-biblical streams of the church who create bizarre events with little apparent spiritual purpose.
- Is it appropriate to refer to the films, songs or books of non-Christians, whose personal lives may be, well, dodgy?
Well, Paul quoted from secular poets a number of times, without implying acceptance of their worldviews or personal lives. It does not imply explicit approval of a writer, actor, producer or composer. If you only wish to engage with culture produced by people of unimpeachable moral rectitude, then you should no longer read Dickens or Victor Hugo, Twain or Shakespeare. You wont’t be able to admire the paintings of Holman Hunt, or listen to the music of Bernstein.
Although we must carefully assess all the culture we consume – and four of the five book recommendations above cover this in detail – 1 Cor. 5:10 points out that we should not cut ourselves off from non-Christians, or “...we would have to leave the world”.
Potential outside the West: Bollywood, Iran and animeThe world of story is universal, and this approach is vital in any country or language. For instance, movies are hugely significant in India, and can be easily used as an evangelistic starting-point in English, Hindi or other languages. Most people are unaware that Iran has a very rich tradition of story-telling and poetry going back for millennia, which now manifests itself in a vibrant film industry producing whimsical and touching films that are a sheer delight, and ideal starting points for evangelism.
There is potential in Japan to use this approach for anime films as well as with the manga and haiku art-forms directly. You may not be familiar with the anime cartoon art-form from Japan, but these films have become increasingly popular in the West, through the work of film-makers such as Studio Ghibli providing films with an English soundtrack. Check, for instance, Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky or Spirited Away. In anime, there is touching combination of thousands of years of Japanese story-telling tradition and worldview, with the familiar universal themes of story-telling. Redemptive themes abound, along with the frequent assumption of a spiritual realm, giving us ideal starting points to use.
related pages within the Bridge the gap & Using culture menu links
recommended books on culture including free downloads
valuable online videos about web ministry