Hollywood has discovered that if a film touts itself as Christian, then there are plenty of people who are willing to pay money to watch it. It would be interesting to see the research, but I suspect this niche received newfound attention after the 2004 production of the Passion of the Christ. “The Passion” surprised naysayers by raking in $600 million at the box office alone. Before that, the biggest grossing “Christian” achievement was Left Behind (2001), bringing in a mere $2.1 million during its theater opening.
These days, we see a smattering of Christian movies every year. Chances are, you’ve seen a few of the most recent success stories. Heaven is For Real in 2014, War Room in 2015, Miracles from Heaven in 2016, God’s Not Dead in 2014, etc.
Last week, I received a note in my email about the upcoming movie All Saints that will be playing in the theater here in Mitchell for a couple of weeks. Curious, I watched the trailer online (allsaintsmovie.com).
Having not seen the movie, all I can say is that it’s about a new minister (John Corbett) who was sent to close a small rural church. And as often happens in this genre of movie, the pastor felt that God spoke to him and wanted him to find a way to keep the church open and bring hope to the entire community.
It seems like a heart-warming, uplifting movie. I don’t want to speak too specifically about this movie because – again – I haven’t seen it. But I do want to share a pastoral concern about this type of movie, and maybe shed some light on why many pastors are cautious about “Christian” movies.
This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. 500 years ago, it was the Lutherans who argued that the Christian Faith is based on the Word of God alone. It was an important point. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that while the Word of God is indeed God’s true Word, He has other words that He reveals through the church. They hold that the Roman Catholic Church is the “living voice” of God. That is why you might see and hear things in the Roman Catholic Church that you don’t find in other churches that bind themselves strictly to the Bible. Because of their understanding of the Roman Catholic Church continuing to speak for God, they are free to believe things that are not in the Bible as long as the Church says it is ok. This includes things like purgatory, indulgences (payment for other people to get out of purgatory), praying to saints, the sinlessness of Mary, and receiving special blessings by praying the rosary. Roman Catholics are not troubled that these things are not explicitly in the Bible because the Roman Catholic Church has given them the magisterial nod of approval.
To be clear: I’m not “Catholic bashing.” I believe any Roman Catholic would agree with what I’ve said here. If I’m wrong, let’s talk about it!
The Lutheran Reformation was based on this fundamental difference. They argued that if we are not anchored to the Bible itself, then we are free to drift off into any kind of dangerous heresy. The issue of indulgences was at the foundation of the Reformation.
So Lutherans, along with all Protestants that followed, hold to a doctrine called Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone. We believe that we must reject any belief or doctrine that does not come from the Scriptures alone. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” This means we reject any speaking of God apart from the Scriptures He has already given to us.
It’s the way God works. He does not speak to us privately, individually, or secretively. Instead, He speaks to us publically, as a community of believers. So if I were to stand in the pulpit and say to you that God spoke to me and said that we should build a pizzeria on the vacant lot across the alley, you could rightly ask me where in the Scriptures God told us that. (Hint: He didn’t. But I do like pizza!).
In the preview for All Saints, the pastor has a moment in a rain storm where he felt God speaking to him and giving him direction for the congregation. This struck me a lot like the old Sola Scriptura debate of the Reformation. But this one is worse, because instead of a church body agreeing that God said this or that, it’s up to one man’s feeling. Can you see how dangerous that could be?
Now, I do understand. It’s just a movie, after all. But movies are powerful, immersive experiences. These kinds of movies catechize us. They form the way we think about our Lord and the Christian Faith. Pretty soon, we’ll be “echoing back” what we’ve heard in the movie.
So what do we do with All Saints and movies like it? Maybe go see them! But be on the lookout for false notions of God speaking to us apart from His written word. See if you can recognize places where the filmmakers promote good, solid theology, but also try to recognize where they do not line up with what God actually says about Himself in His Word.
And if you ever have questions about what you see (as some of you did about The Shack earlier this year), give us a call! We’d love to talk about it.