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my filmy Easters

April 6, 2012

First read this wonderful post, Ends and beginnings, by Theophrastus.  And also read the inspired and inspiring, personal comments of Victoria and Courtney.  Here’s my own response.

My wife and I have grown up in the Southern Baptist tradition, her father a preacher, a “home missionary” from Texas to Washington state and then California, and my dad also a preacher but a “foreign missionary” from the USA to South Vietnam and Indonesia.  We both were raised going to church Sunday mornings for the worship service and for Sunday school, Sunday evenings for [her] Girls Auxiliary and [my] Royal Ambassadors [for boys], Wednesday evenings for prayer meeting, and Friday evenings for fellowship time.  At Christmas time, our fathers focused sermon series and lessons around the baby Jesus and the Great Commission for the Lottie Moon Christmas offering to support the Cooperative Program for worldwide missions.  At Easter time, the focus was on the post-passion resurrected Jesus, who preached the Great Commission.

At any rate, we saw Jesus films.  Last night, we were watching television, flipping through the channels, and I came upon The Passion of the Christ, one of the most gruesome of the many bloody scenes.  But I kept going.  My wife asked, rhetorically, poking at deep feelings within me that Southern Baptist preachers kids and missionary kids share:  Are you really going to flip through this sacred scene to that comedy show?  I’ve seen the Jesus film in the village at Easter enough, I think, I said.

The Jesus film is based on the Book of Luke.  Here’s from the website of that film so familiar to me:

Based on the Gospel of Luke, the “JESUS” film has now been translated into more than 1,120 languages, with new languages being added every month. This allows God’s Word to speak to people in more than 200 countries in languages they know and understand.


Every eight seconds, somewhere in the world, another person indicates a decision to follow Christ after watching the “JESUS” film.

Every eight seconds… that’s 10,800 people per day, 324,000 per month and more than 3.8 million per year! That’s like the population of the entire city of Pittsburgh, PA coming to Christ every 28 ¼ days. And yet, if you are like many people, you may have never even heard of it.

There’s this assumption, right or wrong, that if you just get someone to watch, then they will in all likelihood perpetuate this 1 decision per every 8 seconds.  And at Easter, that rate might just increase additionally and exponentially.

What bothers me about this as much as anything is the suggestion that film watching is all one should do, that the film will capture the essence of Easter, that the response that must be right is this “decision to follow Christ.”  The assumption that a film will push anyone into any decision is bothersome, like propaganda is.

And yet, learning about Passover or Easter or Pentecost might better involve the literary rather than just the evangelical Christian missionary filminess.  The warning to Bible readers, who feel pushed by cultural Bible pushers, may nonetheless be this:  you might stop reading the Bible for the wrong reason, just to avoid being pushed around.  So please do read anyway and please just be prepared to be surprised without expectation.  I just love the title of Theophrastus’s post we just read:  “Ends and beginnings”!  Why must there be the finality of this one decision as if that’s it and that’s the only tradition that counts?

Well, I just read Annie Dillard again.  I’m compelled after reading Dillard’s reading of one of the gospels, her essay entitled “The Book of Luke”, on this Good Friday, to end this post with it.  It’s in some ways a beginning for me, another reading from my own experience.  Let it be, perhaps, a beginning for some of you, as you like.

Here is an early excerpt and then her final two pages of her essay propelling some of us to keep on reading (and my apologies for just putting in images at the end, since I’m running short on time, as I get ready for my mother coming to visit for Easter):

Historians of every school agree – with varying enthusiasm that this certain Jewish man lived, wandered in Galilee and Judea, and preached a radically spiritual doctrine of prayer, poverty, forgiveness, and mercy for all under the fathership of God;  he attracted a following and was crucified by soldiers of the occupying Roman army. There is no reason to hate him, unless the idea of a God who knows, hears, and acts – which idea he proclaimed – is itself offensive. In Luke, Jesus makes no claims to be the only Son of God. Luke is….

* * *

When I was a child, the adult members of Pittsburgh society adverted to the Bible unreasonably often. What arcana! Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes? If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it. They did not recognize the lively danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a dose of its virulent opposition to their world. Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them. By dipping us children in the Bible so often, they hoped, I think, to give our lives a serious tint, and to provide us with quaintly magnificent snatches of prayer to produce as charms while, say, being mugged for our cash or jewels.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2012 11:38 am

    This idea of coming to the story via a book or books rather than through movies puts in mind some of my evangelical friends who are big on the various “Christian” movies and speakers – the gospel transmitted through some kind of performance rather than reading and contemplation. It’s not all bad; it did start as an oral tradition after all. But sometimes as the number and type of these hollywood-style “church friendly” movies seems to proliferate in their focus-group-friendly fashion, one feels the sense of that “What a pity…” in the last passage you quoted – where is that essay from, anyway?

  2. April 8, 2012 7:35 am

    Thanks for your comment, Gary! You are on to something comparing the transpositions and media, and yet behind these whether movies or books or oral story telling is the intention of the production that can be most problematic. There’s the assumption that viewers will be magically transported into a state of belief that recruits them into a once and for all decision to “follow” Christ in His mission then to recruit more recruits. In 1994, Dillard published The Annie Dillard Reader, and that’s where I found the essay quoted from above; she is showing how difficult “The Book of Luke” can be. And I dare add that the Greek gospel does not show “followers” of Jesus believing in him or his resurrection easily. Luke 24:45 makes us read – τότε διήνοιξεν αὐτῶν τὸν νοῦν τοῦ συνιέναι τὰς γραφάς – which is a moment of oral speaking by Jesus with his followers in which they look together at what is written, moving towards an “open mindedness” that seems not so gullible as in a brain washing but more studied as in a midrash and as in a Socratic dialectic.

  3. April 9, 2012 3:51 pm

    Is that what Christians leaders seek? To recruit believers on the basis of a long-form commercial? I would have thought that the quality of belief was at least as important as quantity of believers.

    Other religious groups (for example most Jewish communities; Roman Catholics) normally require a potential adult proselyte to take classes and better understand the nature of the religion before admission to the religion.

    Of course, one can understand films as artistic responses to religion, much like the long tradition of painting on religious topics, or composing sacred music. However, I do not mean to equate Christian movies with the Renaissance masters. I cannot imagine a latter-day Eliot writing:

    In the room, the women come and go,
    Talking of Mel Gibson

    I am pretty sure that in these cases, the Book was better than the film.

    Perhaps, somewhere, someplace, a stained glass window inspired a convert. But certainly she was not admitted to the Church on the basis of admiring the colors in that window alone. At the very minimum, it would seem that conversion requires a commitment that goes beyond watching a TV show.

    There is a final irony here — what is one to make of the “stripping of the altars” in Britain, Flanders, Scandinavia, etc., during the reformation. Weren’t those zealous Protestants of the belief that art is not appropriate in Christian worship? What would they make of their successors counting the number of converts per minute that they can recruit with a moving picture? (And what happened to all those impassioned arguments against medieval passions plays?)

  4. April 9, 2012 4:33 pm

    Thanks for your excellent questions, Theophrastus.

    The biggest irony, of course, is that none of the Jesus filmmakers nor any of the showers of this movie were ever themself compelled by a color motion picture with sound to do what they do. Rather, they each one appeal to the would-be perspicuity and authority of the infallible “Word of God” — written scripture, pages of the “Bible” — for the specific instruction to make converts by re-forming what is read and by re-mediating it, then, as filmy “God’s Word to speak to people.” That is, “God’s Word to speak to people” is in this new form, not the form the re-formers relied on. The Jesus movie makers don’t need T. S. Eliot writing either; but if they did, then Eliot would not write poetry; they would hire an actor to play him on the screen with Michaelangelo and Mel Gibson speaking “in more than 200 countries in languages [viewers] know and understand.” (I just finished reading Christian Smith’s book on “biblicism,” a rather severe critique of the practices of many evangelical Christians who get their instructions — for filmmaking and such — from the Bible as “God’s Word” to them.)

    Since you bring up that line, “the women come and go,” I notice how Bettany Hughes is talking of the history of the Church once with women at its heart:

  5. April 9, 2012 11:45 pm

    A lot of mainstream evangelicals would scoff at the idea of special training for a convert, or the idea of ‘quality’ of conversion or the convert. That’s not new – goes back to the revivals of the turn of the last century (and perhaps back to the day of Pentecost?) This goes hand in hand with the divorce of faith and works that has made it very awkward in some circles to talk about actually helping people…

  6. April 10, 2012 1:50 pm

    The understanding of “Great Commission” for Southern Baptists generally and essentially is the mission of gaining converts. Recently, the leaders of the SB Convention seriously considered a name change to reflect this grand purpose:

    “Every entity, every state convention, every local church is just going to have to decide how they can best use the phrase ‘Great Commission Baptists’ as a way of communicating to the world who we are and what our mission is…. ‘Great Commission Baptists’ can be trademarked, … It can become a rallying call.”

    Notice how with the trademark talk, there’s discussion of the brand, the logo, and the advertising.

    This summer, when the SBC meets, there will be a vote on whether to adopt the new name “Great Commission” without legally changing it from “Southern.” What’s prompted this is the declining numbers in church membership and the difficulty church planters face, especially in the USA in the South, where the pro-slavery history of the denomination is well remembered.

    But, Theophrastus and Gary, I’m quite sure that the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and churches are not just buying into or are selling a low-quality conversion theology. A conversion, however it comes about, is a conversion. Training Union and Sunday School, for a growing membership, are still a goal as well. The names of these two functions are changing too, nonetheless. The GAs and RAs (Sunday nights) that I mention in my post, were the children’s instruction (separate for girls and boys) of what was once “Training Union,” a short version of “Baptist Young Peoples Union.” Later, that all was renamed as “Church Training”; today it’s been changed once again and is now called, “Discipleship Training.” What was “The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention” is now “Lifeway Church Resources,” the SBC organization that promotes and produces Sunday School and “Discipleship” materials. Here’s an email interview of David Francis, “Director, Sunday School, Discipleship, Church & Network Partnerships, LifeWay Church Resources”:

  7. April 10, 2012 4:29 pm

    I understand. But the religious education of children or of the adult faithful is a separate question from the education of potential proselytes.

    In particular, with a proselyte, there is a very real question of whether she understands the commitments of the religion she wishes to affiliate with. If she does not then in many religions there is a question of whether her conversion was valid or is automatically nullified.

    By an ancient tradition, a contract can in some cases be annulled if it was entered into under false pretenses or a misunderstanding of the terms of the contract. By similar reasoning, there is a real question of the validity of the conversion if the proselyte did not understand what she was entering into. (For example, one could argue that if the religion was misrepresented to the proselyte, the conversion was not truly voluntary.)

    This certainly was a historical problem with certain Christian missions to indigenous or non-Western peoples, for example. I do not know whether the SBC currently permits adult to be baptized involuntarily.

  8. April 10, 2012 4:43 pm

    For allegations of some recent involuntary baptisms (apparently by independent baptist churches) see–and-salvation

    He begins with a (different) quotation from Eliot (Sweeney Agonistes):

    I’ll convert YOU!
    Into a stew.
    A nice little, white little, missionary stew!

  9. April 10, 2012 5:59 pm

    The issues you raise about proselytizing by surreptitious means and how invalid conversions under false pretenses and misrepresentations might be are important very important issues. They are important not just for Southern Baptists or any group showing the Jesus Film. But they are also crucial issues to be discussed about any religious group that would seek to bring in new members.

    Although the churches in the report you link to share the name “Baptist” with SBC churches, I must say that they are very different in their beliefs and practices from most SBC churches. While SBC churches operate independently, by and large, they are not like these two, “Independent, Fundamental, King James Only.” Generally SBC churches never ever force post-conversion baptisms although the public ritual may be strongly pushed as a requirement for local church membership.

  10. April 10, 2012 6:42 pm

    Kurk, I certainly understand that the diversity of those who go by the name “Baptist.” (And we could make similar statements about “Buddhists” or “Lutherans” or “Muslims” or “Presbyterians,” etc.)

    A person entering a new religion or denomination subjects herself to special laws: regarding tithing, marriage, sexual conduct, diet, required participation in communal prayer, etc. Perhaps in America, this does not matter, because religious bodies have no effective way to enforce most of these laws, but it has a moral impact. Further, to the extent that a religion has a mandatory theology, it seems incumbent on the church to teach at least the basics of that theology to its prospective members.

    As an example, as I understand it, the core statement of the SBC is The Baptist Faith & Message. There are quite a few statements in it that a convert might find troubling; e.g., the requirement for a wife to submit, limits on freedom of expression and academic freedom, and individual dogmatic assertions. I hope that before an adult affiliates with the SBC, that she is aware of what she is signing up for. A simple belief, for example, that “Jesus was a great teacher, and we should be nice to each other” falls far short of mandatory SBC standards, as I understand it

    An analogy might explain my point: if you are born in the United States, or if you are a child and your parents become citizens, then you are automatically granted citizenship. However, if you are an adult, you must educate yourself on at least the basic principles of American civics, and undertake a formal vow. Sadly, that vow is probably incomprehensible to most new citizens:

    I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen […]

    but one can see that the citizen requirements, at least in theory, are supposed to educate new citizens as to what they are signing up for. I hope that new SBC converts — whether they are formally baptized or not — understand what they are signing up for.

  11. April 11, 2012 7:17 am

    Wow, Theophrastus. There’s a lot here to unpack. First, let me say that nobody feels these particular issues as deeply as an SBC PK/ MK. By PK I mean “preacher’s kid” and by MK “missionary kid.” We PKs and MKs are not afforded a choice about which faith community we are born in and are raised in. The church and the world watches to see whether the SBC pastor’s children are going follow Christ or fall by the wayside. The world and the church that the SBC FMB (or IMB) MK lives in, when there’s a transition back to the USA, is not an easy world to find oneself in. (For very complex reasons, two of my buddies when we were undergraduate students after growing up on the mission field decided to take their own lives commiting suicide because of the difficulties. I watched and listened to the surviving parents of both of my dead friends grieve, and how they did. These are not easy issues for those of us who haven’t entirely chosen them.) My own siblings and my spouses siblings, now as adults, still are working out issues related to being MKs and PKs in the SBC.

    Second, I think your analogy to USA citizenship is fair. For Southern Baptists generally, there is a huge emphasis on the “priesthood of the believer” (I Peter 2:9, a New Testament quotation of Exodus 19:6) and on post-conversion “adult [not infant] baptism.” The culture is not one of creeds and ecclesiastical top-down authority. Rather, the push is on autonomy of the individual and of the individual churches. The idea of an adult telling a child when to convert in any coercive way is not typically SBC at all. Instead, the notion of the free and informed convert is very strong. If you’re familiar with the notion of “age of accountability,” then you’ll probably see how important the idea of informed conversion is. (Rachel Held Evans tries to find this in the Baptist Faith and Message here, but I can assure you it’s a strong part of SBC culture: What I’m getting at is that most SBC believers come to faith precisely as one generally comes to citizenship in the USA; there’s a lot that goes into the decision, but not everything can be studied all at once. And although insiders cheer on the eternal decision to follow Christ, rarely does the evangelist trump the general need to understand first that baptism is a post conversion “act of obedience” to Christ alone and that in “a congregation each [freely baptised] member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord.”

    Third, you can see how I just quoted the Baptist Faith and Message but should see also that this is not an SBC creed. Individual SBC churches and the SBC as a whole do not always agree with what is resolved at the SBC Convention annually. Moreover, the denomination continually wrangles over the content of this “adopted … revised summary of our faith.” The committee that formed the most recent revision has very clearly stated: “We honor the principles of soul competency and the priesthood of believers, affirming together both our liberty in Christ and our accountability to each other under the Word of God. Baptist churches, associations, and general bodies have adopted confessions of faith as a witness to the world, and as instruments of doctrinal accountability.” This is quite typical. The SBC culture little tolerates a top-down ecclesiastical polity. That culture celebrates individualism and independence, under Christ, even in new converts. Fourth, the issues of man-over-woman hierarchies in the home and in the church and of academic freedom, that you mention, are hotly debated and extremely divisive in the denomination. At issue is fundamentally what constitutes “age of accountability” and “the priesthood of the believer” and “how the believer understands the Bible for herself and himself,” not what the pastor or the church or the Convention or the latest version of the Baptist Faith and Message says, as much as some would like more “doctrinal [dogmatic] accountability.” It’s rare that SBC evangelists will work to snow the potential believer into jumping into an uninformed and irreversible decision forever. The act of conversion is an act of age appropriate individual agency in SBC culture. (This is why the situation of PKs and MKs is so particularly difficult, I think.)

  12. April 11, 2012 1:33 pm

    OK, well that makes sense (and thanks for sharing such strong personal experiences.) But here is the cognitive disconnect for me:

    * On the one hand you state that SBC de facto policy is that adult converts make an informed conversion (at the age of accountability).

    * On the other hand this post started by quoting a web site: “Every eight seconds, somewhere in the world, another person indicates a decision to follow Christ after watching the ‘JESUS’ film.” And that very web site has a picture of young children raptly staring at a screen.

    I am having trouble reconciling this statements. I understand that The JESUS Film is sponsored by the Campus Crusade for Christ, which is distinct from (but often coordinates with) missionary activities by SBC. So maybe this is just a denominational difference.


    You speak very eloquently on the issue of children born into a strong religious culture; particularly when the parents of those children are prominent in the religion business. You give a powerful witness to the real stresses faced by the children of clergy and missionaries.

    There is, though, a silver lining to be born into a religion. With being born into a religion comes a certain freedom to seriously critique that religion.

    When an outsider critiques a religion, we may accuse him of bigotry (and often that charge is well-deserved; consider, for example, how Jack Chick critiques Catholicism in his tracts.)

    A convert’s position in a religious community is often a bit uncertain; unlike well-established believers, she may feel social pressures to conform to the most orthodox elements of the religion to prove that her conversion was true.

    But a cradle believer’s membership in the religious community is already usually established by religious law — with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Mormons) formal excommunications are fairly rare in most communities. For example, the last prominent Jew to be excommunicated was Baruch Spinoza, and heaven knows that he was not the last skeptical Jew!

    Thus a cradle believer has a certain authority and freedom not available to the proselyte.

    Even automatic excommunication (e.g., latae sententiae excommunication in Catholicism; kares in Judaism) is a private spiritual matter for the member of the spiritual community — not a social issue. In most cases, it may be possible to reverse the excommunication by penance (either in this life or in an afterlife or in a reincarnated life); and the member of the religion may not even agree that she is excommunicated. (Example: Nancy Pelosi has strong views on abortion. According to some conservative commentators, she is latae sententiae excommunicated. Nonetheless, she considers herself to be a Catholic in good standing, she receives communion, and she has audiences with the Pope.)

    If I think of the great religious reformers (I’ll mentioning John Calvin and Martin Luther — both originally devout Catholics — in Luther’s case, even a monk and a priest), they tend to come from within a religion more often than than from without.

  13. April 11, 2012 4:33 pm

    My post was a response to your post on Ends and Beginnings and to Victoria’s and to Courtney’s comments. Unfortunately, I wrote all too quickly.

    The “Jesus” film is in my post a synecdoche for all of the Jesus films I’ve seen. Jesus, or “the ‘Jesus’ film” as it’s called on the website I quoted from, was actually produced long after the “fall of Saigon.” When my family lived in that city, 1968 – 1969, I believe I watched Jesus films for the first time. My father had taken the assignment of director of the Radio/TV/Film ministry for the SBC Foreign Mission Board’s Vietnam Baptist Mission there. In the back of our house, there was a media studio where he worked. He also let us come in after school and, of course, watch. The Jesus movies were played by Euro-American or European actors, who spoke dubbed-in Vietnamese or English with Vietnamese subtitles. It was much later, toward the end of the war, and further north, when my brothers and I watched people in villages watch these same movies. In my post, I probably should have made clear that the famous and ubiquitous “Jesus” film (the one Bill Bright of Campus Crusade made) is not the one I grew up with, although I’ve seen it too. I’ve seen that Jesus film not only in English and in tiếng Việt (Vietnamese) but also in Bahasa Indonesia and in Batak Karo (respectively, the official language of Indonesia and the village language of the Batak people of the Karo tribe, who adopted my parents into respective clans; my parents were in Indonesia, in North Sumatra, as missionaries, after the war ended in Vietnam). I’ve started to watch it in Mandarin, which is a language my parents studied in retirement as they worked with Chinese in the USA. So although I didn’t grow up with this one, although it’s not SBC, there it is in my post. By the way, this same film has a children’s version, a version with an “Old Testament” introduction to more contextualize the life of Jesus in a way that the book of Luke does not, a September 11 version, and an apologetics version on DVD with viewer controlled segments on various topics by experts who are there to refute the skeptics. Online and audio only versions are available too. The claims for “Cumulative Exposures/Decisions Since 1979” are “more than 6 billion” viewers as the “Audience” and “more than 200 million” viewers who “Indicated decisions for Christ following a film showing.” Sigh. I’m out of breath.

    You are kind in your observations about us “children born into a strong religious culture [whose] parents … are prominent in the religion business.” I confess that two of my very favorite novels are Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev. They probably present less of the silver lining in their protagonists that you so astutely mention here. I also confess writing – for a Ph.D. literature course in early American captivity narratives – a seminar paper that is my own narrative of captivity; but captivity, I wrote, by missionaries. (The fun irony there is that many of the authors of such narratives were early missionaries to the New World who were captured and held in captivity by their intended converts, and the stories of the freed captives were advertisements to their missions of the Providence of God in the midst of the challenges of evangelism. For me, I failed to make much of the silver lining, although my story itself of course is an insider’s critique.) You mention Jack Chick, whose tracts may “critique” Catholicism and many other Others; but I don’t think he’s at all an insider of any of those groups he lambastes. On his publication’s website, the biography for him says “he has always had a special burden for missions and missionaries.” I’d never realized that until today. Also I didn’t realize he was inspired by propaganda, that he believes God so inspired him: “One day, Bob Hammond, missionary broadcaster of The Voice of China and Asia, told Jack that multitudes of Chinese people had been won to Communism through mass distribution of cartoon booklets. Jack felt that God was leading him to use the same technique to win multitudes to the Lord Jesus Christ.” My wife and our siblings know these Chick tracts very well – popular youth group leader materials for the youth, even in the SBC churches. The tough thing for SBC PKs and MKs is that born again and born into the family are so blurred. Sorry for going on so long here. I’ll be thinking about Spinoza and Calvin and Luther in a new way for a long time because of your comment, I’m sure.

  14. April 11, 2012 8:11 pm

    Kurk, so many thoughts and images — they all come tumbing together in your above comment. I’ll have to think about what you are saying carefully to respond.

    Here I will limit my comments to one little detail — to avoid any confusion: I did describe Jack Chick above as an outsider. Even though Jack Chick and Hans Kung both criticize the Vatican, we put someone like Jack Chick and Hans Kung in different categories, in part, because Chick is an outsider (a hate-monger) and Kung is an insider (a dissident priest and theologian).

    (I do not mean to equate Chick and Kung at all here — I consider Kung to be a serious thinker, and Chick to be shallow. But their roles also illustrate the insider/outsider divide.)

  15. April 12, 2012 7:17 am

    Theophrastus, Thanks for clarifying your point about Jack Chick, outsider critic. The divide, or even the distinction, between outsider and insider is very important. Insiders may find themselves on various sides. Now I’m thinking of those labelled, sometimes self identified, as translinguals or bilinguals, in the African American community “mulattos,” on the global scene “global nomads” or “third culture” kids, and so forth. In the evangelical religious context, I think of Frank (formerly Franky) Schaeffer, outspoken critic of fundamentalist politically-involved right-wing religion in America, who grew up as the one and only son of missionary apologist Francis Schaeffer and Edith Schaeffer (Edith also a missionary kid who grew up in China). Frank has written a number of books critical of his roots. (Sorry to ramble on here, but I did want to comment in response, however pressed for time at the moment. What you’re pointing out is very significant and extremely important, in my view!!)


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