June 12, 2012

7 reasons movie illustrations are lame

by Jesse Johnson

A good friend of mine recently asked me what I think of pastors using illustrations from movies in their sermons. My friend uses them because he thinks they are helpful in relating to a culture that increasingly has their world view formed through entertainment. In that sense I guess using an illustration from the cinema is a form of condesencion—God uses language to speak to us, we use stories from movies to speak to post-post-moderns.

But I don’t buy it. In my experience, illustrations sparked by the golden screen (or Netflix, or what have you) generally fail, and are almost always unhelpful. Here are seven reasons why:

1) They don’t communicate well. These kind of illustrations almost always go this way: “Ok, so I don’t know if you have seen the Avengers or not, but if you haven’t, Samuel L. Jackson is this one guy—I forget his name—and he is good, even though he is making the other people do things they don’t want to do. Anyway, he has this ledger, but it is not an actual ledger, it is just in his head. And some people have red in their ledger, because they have done bad things. And they need to do good things to get that red taken away. But Jesus, he takes our red away by being our red!” Or something.

It takes a lot of work to even communicate an illustration from a movie clearly. The pastor has to tell a story that was conveyed visually, bring the audience up to speed on something they may or may not have seen to begin with, and then clearly draw out his point—which more than likely was not the point of original scene anyway.

It is difficult to do because a movie conveys its message visually, and over time. There are medium issues here. For a pastor to bring his people into the movie, they have to tell the plot verbally. This takes a while, is generally confusing, and unnecessarily complicated. Ultimately, even if it is told well, it is a long walk for a short drink of water.

2) People haven’t seen the movie. No matter what the movie is, there are people who haven’t seen it that are in your audience. Just because all of your friends have seen Avengers, and other Christian bloggers have declared it the best movie ever, and you have seen it three times, does not mean that all of your listeners have.

Even movies that are cultural icons have this same problem. As inconceivable as it is, there may be people listening to you that have not seen Star Wars. If you are a college pastor, you could have international students in your congregation. They didn’t grow up with HBO, and they definitely didn’t grow up with ubiquitous presence of The Christmas Story on TV. So if you use an illustration from a movie, you have to either lose some of your audience, or waste so much time in your sermon telling the story, that the whole illustration is burdensome. You have 40 minutes; do you really want to waste five of them describing some scene from a movie that probably doesn’t even help your sermon that much?

3) People have seen the movie. And when you start down the movie illustration road, for everyone in the congregation who has seen it, they are immediately critiquing your version of events. Was Samuel L. Jackson really good? Why did he lie to get others to do his bidding? Didn’t he make the Black Widow do bad things to begin with? How come she has red in her ledger, if she was made to do that interrogation anyway?

So you lose/bore the people who haven’t seen the movie, and the ones who have simply spend then next few minutes thinking of all the ways you are wrong. For movie nerds, they get offended, and immediately start wondering what else you are messing up in your sermon. You thought the point about getting red out of your ledger was cool, and that it would illuminate your point. In reality, a handful of people will agree with you, others probably made the connection without your illustration anyway, and the rest of the audience is just wondering why we’ve spent the last four minutes talking about superheroes.

4) Biblical principles in movies are a one-way street. Entertainment, movies, literature, etc., all have value and moral intelligibility as they correspond to a biblical word view. The Bible does not derive its value and moral intelligibility by corresponding to movies. In other words, this is a one-way street, and using movie illustrations in sermons is not going with the flow of traffic.

In evaluating the themes of movies, it is helpful to compare them to events in the Bible. In understanding the word view and implications of a film, obviously applying Scripture and seeing how the two correlate is essential. The Word of God is a flashlight and it illuminates the moral content of every story, even those told in 3-D. To use stories from movies to illustrate passages in the Bible is to hold the flash light backwards. Even if the light is on, and even if it is bright enough, its not going to help you see what you are looking for. The concept of the ledger from Avengers is cool because it relates to a biblical world view. But the concepts of atonement and imputation are not illuminated by comparing them cinematic superhero ledgers.

5) I also have fundamentalist issues with movies in sermons. I eschew the idea of worldly entertainment creeping into the church. I loathe the notion that the church needs producers to make God’s plot really come together. Our people live in an entertainment-driven, visually stimulating world. They are surrounded by movies, art, videos, and a 24-hour news cycle. The church on the Lord’s Day should be an island from that. It should be the place where their instruments are calibrated, and their compass aligns to True North. We should be a refuge from the world, and not act as if we need to borrow the world to make our point.

But my fundamentalism keeps going: when you use a movie illustration, you are unknowingly harnessing yourself to the moral baggage which that movie brings. Take The Christmas Story. You have only seen the TV version (and that—if you are 35-years-old, times seven viewings per Christmas—245 times). It is clean. So you use an illustration from it (materialism never delivers; remember that one time when Ralphie really, really wanted some kind of decoder ring? And he wasn’t happy when he got it?…). But you don’t realize that the actual version of the movie, the version people rent, actually has offensive language all over it. They cleaned that out for TV. And now, on the Lord’s Day, you are using an illustration from a movie that has troublesome language in it, and people in your congregation think that you must approve of that language. You probably let your kids use it too.  Finally, you also have offended not only those people, but the parents who are sitting there with their kids, who do not let their kids watch that movie. And you did all this so that you can make a lame point about materialism?

6) Using movie illustrations fosters biblical illiteracy. Instead of telling the story from Avengers to illustrate the concept of a ledger, how about a story from Kings? Or 2 Samuel? Is there a king, or maybe a general, who did bad things in his life, and who needed to make up for them before he died? Is there a captain who had red in his ledger who had others with enough merit to spare ransom him out of the penalty he deserved? Then use those illustrations instead.

7)  No, these objections don’t apply to literature. This may seem incongruous, but these same objections are not necessarily true of illustrations from literature. While certainly they can apply, often/occasionally it is helpful to illustrate points by using scenes from books, history, Shakespeare, the news, your life, etc. With movies, you are describing a visual scene verbally. With other illustrations, you are describing a written scene (or a scene from real life). That is easier to do with clarity. People don’t critique your description of the scene, because if you describe it with the same words used in the book, you are creating the same picture that was in their mind when they read it. And literature illustrations don’t cater to the lowest-common-cultural-denominator. Using an illustration from the book Braveheart avoids offending parents who don’t let their kids watch R-rated movies, while still letting you feel cool.

Just don’t say, “Mel Gibson, I mean William Wallace…”

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Jeff_sagester

    I’ve always had concerns when pastors have used scenes from movies in their sermons. There seems to be an automatic approval of that particular movie as well as the movie industry as a whole. I don’t separate myself from the world as much as I should – be in the world not of the world – and I do rent movies from time to time, but I want my pastor to show me the meaning of the Bible using God’s word not Hollywood’s.  Thank you for your insight.

    • True. And here is the thing about ministry in LA, where many people are in the industry: They also want a reprieve from it, and beyond that, they have a better understanding of the movie than you, as an untrained outsider, anyway. Using illustrations from things they worked on to illustrate biblical truth just gets weird quick.

  • Yes…but how will the laser lights and the fog machine be utilized? 

  • Mark Applegate

    I say in jest…

  • I too strongly agree that using movie illustrations is a poor idea.  The two make strange bed-fellows, and scripture is always a much richer illustrator than movies.  When I preach I like to use other passages of scripture in unpacking scripture.  Thanks for posting

    • Well said, Jake. A maxim I have often heard: Scripture is the best illustrator of scripture. 

  • #5 nails it perfectly for me.  When you tie in an illustration from a film, no matter how wholesome the scene might be, you bring in all of the other unrelated baggage from the film as well.  This is one of the things that irks me about, of all things, “VeggieTales”, in that when you see Larry the cucumber playing Forest Gump, he’s playing a character in a film that also featured plentiful profanity, sexuality and blasphemy.  So the family watching the Veggies sees Larry as this character and thinks, “hmmm, they reference this film, so it might not be too bad…”
    No different with a pastor using cinematic illustrations as well.

    • Yeah, and it is not just Veggie Tales. Even using a simply illustration, like from essentially any rated R movie, ends up harnessing you to a package that you might not want to be associated with. And maybe that is my own weakness. For example, when someone quotes Shakespeare, I don’t assume that they are ok with teenagers having premarital relations against their parents council, even though Shakespeare features that. Why do I make that connection with movies? I don’t know, but I do. 

      • Gina Dalfonzo

        Which teenagers do you mean? Romeo and Juliet got married before they fooled around. 🙂

      • Guest

        I recently changed churches because I was tired of “Video church”. Of course there are also “R rated” passages in the Bible… murder, rape, adultery. God does not ignore the falleness of creation; the greatest story is that of redemption.

        • I’d hasten to add that the Bible does contain graphic passages, but does so in a way that is not R rated. there is always a purity and moral compass, along with discretion, in how even the most intense scenes are conveyed.

  • Paul Stewart

    Thanks Jesse. I don’t think the issue is isolated with movies alone. It is more about uncreative people drawing bad illustrations from things they are familiar with. If you watch a lot of movies then movies will be what you think of to create an illustration; same thing if your a sports fanatic or have a bunch of kids at home. If you are saturated with the Bible then guess what? Outside of Biblical illustrations, I have l read it is best to use common everyday objects in which everyone can relate. Jesus’ favorite object for an illustration…a rock.

    • True Paul. After reading a book on the war of 1812, suddenly I saw everything as an illustration of something in that book. “Just like the time that Jesus said…”  What I think about is suddenly what I relate things to. Well said. 

  • Fred

    You mean I can’t use that Neo wakened from the Matrix = regeneration illustration anymore?

    • Was it the intro to your sugar stick sermon tucked in the back of your Bible? If so, uh oh. 

  • Bob Schilling

    I think it’s tough to make a categorical case against movie illustrations though I share much of your concern. It surprised me that you didn’t mention that many pastors/churches today don’t simply use the movie as a verbal illustration in the sermon – but they actually show the movie clip. I’m not a fan of it – but in no way is it a “walk out of the service” kind of an issue that it seems to be for some (Ecc. 7:9, 16). I appreciate, for example Alistair Begg’s frequent references to pop culture – usually through classic Rock-n-Roll songs – I’m not a big Rock-n-Roll guy, far from it – and in no way is Alistair endorsing all that the Beatles or whoever wrote and did – but he ‘connects’ with audiences this way. Some purposely use movie clips and such to make a statement against the residual fundamentalism that remains in many circles – and I sympathize with that drive – though I still think that the clip in the sermon is more than unnecessary. Pastors who NEVER refer to a movie over the course of their ministry will convey to their audiences that godly men or women don’t watch movies and I’m not for that kind of cloaked righteousness. Has there not been much good and enjoyment in the advent of the big screen? Rail against the danger as much as we like – the dangers are certainly there, but let avoid the sanctimonious high ground that assumes because a thing is attended with many difficulties – it is to be avoided altogether. Humor in the pulpit, is that OK? Certainly it’s been abused, but it certainly has its place.

    I enjoyed parts of the article – we all agree that we need to be careful and wise, but on a Romans 14 kind of issue, a matter of indifference (and this is why Rom. 14 issues become such areas of contention – because weaker brothers don’t esteem such issues as indifferent – they view them as categorically wrong), I would not criticize with such a broad brush. Share some cautions to be considered and make the case why “YOU” wouldn’t do it and leave your hearers to sort it out themselves.

    • True Bob. Thanks for the balance. I’ll also grant that I could the be the weaker brother here. When pastors use illustrations from movies with immoral content, it bothers me and offends me. So I am in the weaker bro. category here for sure.

    • Music is also a powerful medium, and along with our sense of smell, is often connected directly to memory. When a preacher makes a music reference, I not only have the song stuck in my head (sometimes for days), but a reflexive flashback to memories I’d rather not relive in church when trying to worship the Lord. I could live a very happy and fulfilling life without having the Beatles or Elton John on repeat in my brain.

      Most pop culture references are, IMO, dumpster diving for spiritual Chicken McNuggets. No thanks. 

  • Blake Giddens

    Jesse,  I agree with all your comments except regarding Star Wars.  There is no excuse for not seeing Star Wars and I encourage you to use as many Star Wars illustrations as possible. I mean…”Dark side of the Force” = Sin?  Hello?

    p.s. where are the comments from John Eldredge?

    • Many of my friends would probably lobby for a Star Wars exception clause to this principle, for sure. 

      • The only exception is for Star Trek- “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Seriously, you can’t get much more spiritual than that! :p

  • Shaun Marksbury

    Plus, I’d hate to walk out on a sermon to avoid a spoiler.  Just doesn’t seem right.

  • Larry

    Jesse, Jesse!! you are so on point! Brother if you change up I’m gonna have to “open up a can”…….

    Seriously, what a heart you have brother. There’s is no time to be Biblically trivial when behind “the desk.” Peoples lives are at stake and a reference to Mel Gibson or whomever may be interesting, but has absolutely no power!

    I as well believe, any and all illustrations should be taken from the word of God. It tells you the commitment many “preachers” have (Don’t have) toward mining the scriptures for “nuggets” that breathe Life into a sermon.

    Thanks man! I’m going to get to Immanuel at some point and “slap paws” with you.

  • “Is the sun coming up?! Then put it on the left!” -Nick Fury

  • It’s hard to argue with you when you’re right, but I’ll think of a response to bring balance to the force. I will concede, for now, that of all the arguments that have been made against movie illustrations, this is the most articulate and thought-provoking I’ve encountered. Nuts. I guess I better read the Avengers book before Sunday!

    • Ha. And I’ll also concede that nobody uses movie illustrations like you, Clint. Although I’ll also publicly acknowledge that many of the above points came from you anyway. And also that your illustration from Dorian Gray has remained etched in my memory for almost ten years now as a reminder of how horrifying sin can be. 

      • Gina Dalfonzo

        Ooh, I’d have liked to hear that. I’d bet Dorian Gray would provide some AMAZING illustrations.

  • Guest

    I actually value your opinion Jesse, but I don’t think any of your seven points are necessarily true about movie illustrations.

    • That’s fine. I have room in my world view for people to disagree with my on the finer points of preaching. We can still be friends. 

      • Ben Coussens

        After reading this, I tried very deliberately to think back to a movie illustration that has helped bring clarity to a sermon, and for the life of me, I could not recall a single instance. I know that I have heard the Matrix referred to in many sermons but I can’t remember any of the applicable value of it. This post was extremely well written and very easy to relate to. My one question to you, is how do you decide what to write about? Do all you pastors/aspiring pastors draw topics out of a hat? Cause that would be cool.

  • I think #2 is a big one for me. You always lose part of the congregation. That is why I also stopped using sports illustrations.

    My bigger problem with movie illustrations, or any sort of illustration, is when the illustration becomes the main text of the sermon and some scripture and a Christian platitude is tacked on. Drives me crazy, but it seems to be what the majority of modern preaching has become.

    • Exactly. And that is not unique to movies, but to any illustration. We can milk them too much…

  • Gus

    This is obvious, but ALL of these principles would apply to the deleted scenes and director’s cuts…’ just sayin’! 🙂 

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  • David Oestreich

    I largely agree with this article, but am having a hard time seeing how #4 (the one way street thing) doesn’t apply to literature or, for that matter, anything that isn’t Scripture.

    • Larry Three

       How do I post?

    • Yeah, that is true David. My point with #4 is simply to show that the illustration is not as essential as you think it is. Nevertheless, there is a point for illustrations. The do take things that are familiar to us, and relate them to new concepts we are learning or explaining. So in that sense, they are helpful preaching tools. But just don’t say that they are essential to illuminate a biblical truth for our culture. Does that make sense?

  • In addition to Number 3. Often I seem easily distracted in messages. Too often, I go down rabbit trails that a preacher may not have intended for my mind to go. So, when reference to a movie is made, I tend to continue thinking about the movie even though the preacher has moved on. I think others probably do to and it’s just another way to lose the audience.

  • I can’t help but think of the iconoclastic movements throughout history when this topic regularly comes up.  I wonder what you, Jesse, or others might think of the legacies of those movements, particularly, those that were generated during the Reformation?  Would this inform #6 at all.  I know that a significant critique of this movement was the vacuum that it created for an explosion of new art forms obsessed with subjective individual experience.  Could sermon illustrations be a way to move from a paradigm of the art being viewed by ‘lone perceives’ to one where we as a corporate body can collectively view art and respond to its beauty or lack thereof?

    Also I would summarize your objections #1-#4 into a concept I’ve been thinking about which would be, the “asymmetrical power of image”.  Its difficult to engage with images, our interpersonal communication is fairly limited by speech, but our imaginations aren’t.  I would like to know more, too, about illustrations from other mediums?  What about sculptures, contemporary or classical painting, screenplays, music, poetry?  What if the problem is that we as a church have become aesthetically illiterate?

  • Steve Holley

    In the laundry list of illustrations that you offer in Reason #7, I would heartily encourage the list to be reordered with pastors sharing personal illustrations from their own lives be they successes or failures. I think pastors miss a great opportunity to connect with thier flock with ways in which the Word and walking with Christ has made a difference their life.