In Their Own Languages

In Their Own Languages

"Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver I've bought your soul, I ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God."

These are the words the kind bishop speaks to Jean Valjean at the beginning of the film version of Victor Hugo's literary classic, Les Misérables. The bishop said these words after Valjean, a convicted felon, had beaten and robbed him of his silver the night before. Come to think of it, aren't these words the church might also say? But why say them when we can show them, backed by a digital soundtrack and professional actors, to help tell the epic story of God creatively?

By using film and music media, the church speaks the language of a new generation.

And doing this says, "We understand that God is at work not just inside the church walls but outside them as well." Media use also adds interest for a maturing generation by reminding them that the gospel can, and must, be told in new ways. And it bridges the gap between the Church and a seeking generation, suggesting that the Church and the gospel are actively engaged in conversation with, and not at war over, today's culture. Multimedia also becomes a model for people today, who are certainly consuming media, to listen actively and to evaluate content in light of their emerging and growing faith.

If Jesus were to preach in our churches, I am convinced that He would use these same creative methods. I imagine Jesus, as He is teaching in a church, saying, "My Father's love is like ... well it's like this story, or it's like this man, or this child, or this ... scene from a film!" I can imagine Paul doing the same thing, hearing him talk to those Athenians about an emerging Athens band and the deeply spiritual undertones in their music, and using that as a bridge to a conversation about the gospel. Or picture Daniel, going to a concert and then hitting his knees asking God to help him use this medium to speak heavenly truth. I like to use the phrase, "this band (or film producer, or person) may not be a follower of Christ yet, but it seems their music (or story, or life) asks questions about faith that many of us ask."

We must be careful not to endorse empty philosophy or suggest that the medium itself is the gospel. But we must be just as passionate about pointing out when and where God is at work in the world. Isaiah was right—the whole earth is full of His glory. Today's media could be a new conduit by which the Spirit of God begins drawing people into eternal relationship. I had an early exposure to this thinking when my friend and mentor, the late Dana Walling, played a song by the band, Police, "Every Breath You Take," and suggested that this song reflects God's watchful love for His children. Then I listened to the Eagles asking "Desperado" to "come to his senses," and I wondered if they had taken that line directly from the parable of the prodigal son! Any fan of the band U2 has watched them blend faith and music throughout their career, most recently with their song "Yahweh."

When Paul penned his letter to the church at Philippi, he gave us a wonderful tool with which to measure our media intake and use in the church: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Philippians 4:8). This verse has often been used as a gate in the church, to keep out anything not overtly "Christian." Certainly in the realm of media and music, many have quoted Paul's famous statement. However, if we look at the context surrounding this verse, we see that Paul uses words and phrases such as, "let your gentleness be evident," and "do not be anxious ... but present your requests to God," and "the peace of God ... will guard your hearts and minds" (Philippians 4:6-7). I believe Paul is suggesting a tension in living out faith in society.

Closer study of the words Paul uses here provides some interesting revelation. Clearly his choice of words came mostly out of the church context of his day and could be interpreted as meaning anything that is overtly Christian in its tone and content. A few words, specifically "admirable" and "excellent," came out of the Hellenistic culture and were words that the Greco-Roman philosophers of Paul's day used to describe art in its varied forms. It is as if to say, "The culture at large finds these things good, so we can also learn from them."

This is how God is at work today—appearing in things that are excellent and admirable, and asking the Church to identify and redeem film scenes and song lyrics as the heavenly art they are.

Being culturally relevant while remaining doctrinally pure has always been a focus of the Church. New hymns, the organ (once called by some the "devil's box of whistles"), other instruments, amplified sound, billboards, direct marketing, web sites, E-mail, cell phones, contemporary lighting and seating, and video projection were all attempts by the church to change methods without changing message. If holiness is measured by the quality of love we have for God and our neighbors, then certainly changing our methods to get our message across is a powerful way to communicate that love to an unbelieving but curious world.

Often in the church, instead of thanking the entertainment industry for helping us tell the story of God creatively, we say, "Well they didn't go far enough," or "They certainly took liberties with that one." It's not the world's responsibility to place meaning on art, it's our job to do so as the people of faith. Let's look at what God is doing in the world with media and redeem that for the church. This is applicable around the globe. Find ways to lessen the "us and them" rhetoric between the church and the world. Dispel the rumor that the church and everything in it is good, and the world and everything in it is bad. As a pastor and communicator, I see God at work in the world every day, providing tremendous resources that communicate at a level my words cannot do alone.

Jim Manker is lead pastor of Aurora Church of the Nazarene in Seattle, Washington.

Holiness Today, Sept/Oct 2008

Please note: This article was originally published in 2008. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.