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…”