Do Movies Speak Your Language? (Nov-Dec 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Greg Taylor
November – December, 2002

Folks tell Doug Litteral he can’t make a profit by owning a movie theater that shows “Christian” films.

But when the doors of the Barnabas Cinema (also known as El Cine) open in East Nashville, Tennessee, he not only hopes to make a profit but also wants to send checks to Nashville area ministries and friends of his who are missionaries in foreign countries.

Litteral has more beneath his feet than clouds and more to his method than hot air, yet the theater is a bet against conventional wisdom. Still, the naysayers have not blown out his projector bulb yet. “God opened the door exactly when we needed the deposit,” Litteral said. Among his investors in this for-profit venture are Latinos, African-Americans, and Haitians who believe that a movie theater vacant for two years in an older part of the city could come to life anew through films no one previously believed would be marketable.

Forty thousand Latinos live in Nashville, according to the 2000 census, and Litteral sees great potential in the profitability of showing Spanish-language films. But profitability is not the driving force behind his vision. He wants film to be the conduit to change lives. Litteral also plans to show evangelistic films and family films produced by Christian film companies.

In the 1950s Dr. Bill Bright also had a dream to change lives through film: to develop an appealing biblically accurate film about the life of Jesus. Dr. Bright had a vision for millions worldwide—particularly illiterate people in hundreds of language groups—to see the film and be transformed by the visual and verbal power of a film about Christ. In the 1970s Dr. Bright gathered a team of 500 scholars and filmmakers, and after five years of research and planning, producer John Heyman made The Jesus Film for six million dollars. The team of researchers and filmmakers had the following criteria when producing the movie:

 

    • The film must be as archaeologically, historically, and theologically accurate as humanly possible.

 

  • The presentation must be unbiased, acceptable to all as a true depiction of Christ’s life.

 

 

  • The film story must appeal to all ages.

 

 

  • The script must be easily translatable into virtually any language on earth.

 

 

  • The film must be of theater-viewing quality, and effective with both urban and rural audiences worldwide.

 

Sounds like a good hermeneutic, doesn’t it? Any portrayal of scripture—whether in our lives or in a movie—should be as accurate historically and theologically as humanly possible. Furthermore, presentation on any scale should be unbiased and true to Christ’s life, our story appealing to all ages, and our language seasoned with salt and ready to be translated into the heart language of others.

Warner Brothers distributed The Jesus Film in 1979 in 2,000 theaters and millions since have seen the film, which has played a role in their decision to follow Christ. The film was not meant, however, to be contained in the English language or only in the United States.

Since that opening in 1979 the film has been translated into 773 languages, including Arabic, Bengali, Cambodian, and Lusoga. For a full list, see www.jesusfilm.org. Believe it or not the film, which takes its script entirely from verbatim quotes out of the Gospel of Luke, is still not translated into many languages—which is also true for printed Bible translations. Many still cannot hear, see, or read the Bible in their heart language.

I know a woman who has never read the Bible in her own language, but one night she saw The Jesus Film in her own language projected on a large white sheet in her village. She laughed with the others at the funeral in the film when Jesus said the little girl was only sleeping, and she gasped then applauded when Jesus raised the girl from the dead in the movie. The film came to life for the village woman. She thought British Shakespearean actor Brian Deacon, who portrayed Jesus in the film, actually was Jesus and that the little girl was truly raised to life before her eyes. She knew it was somehow a shadow of the reality but believed she had seen the real footage of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I’m not sure I’d set her straight, even if I knew how to explain it to her.

What if we did have actual footage of Jesus Christ—everything the Messiah said and did on DVD? What if the entire Bible were a movie, not a book? Would that be enough for us to believe? Scenes would still be interpreted differently. The film canon would be authoritative for some, but others would say the miracles were special effects or that Jesus had a stunt man. We’d still have the Apocra-Film and scholars would claim that a J-Reel existed and had originally been shown at the Qumran Film Festival and were it aired in prime time today, all would be revealed and all faith dilemmas settled.

This issue of New Wineskins is about faith that we see and hear in films, yet my faith—our faith—is not in film but in the screenplay made flesh. God’s final film was flesh and blood. I believe Jesus Christ is the true footage, yet unbelievers may view my faith as naïve, much the same as my village friend who thought The Jesus Film to be actual clips of the Messiah.

Blessed are those who see more than mere actors on a white sheet and translate the shadows and light into a life-changing message of faith.

Do movies speak your language?New Wineskins

Greg Taylor

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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