Movies, Books and the Great Story

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Frodo and Sam, characters from JRR Tolkien's epic story, the Lord of the Rings

Christians have long viewed Hollywood with suspicion as a corrupting influence for children. There is too much sex, violence, and coarse language in movies, books and on television. As parents we are right to filter the stories our kids read and the movies they watch. But where do you draw the line? How do you decide what is appropriate and what isn’t?

While I am wary of Hollywood, I must confess that I love movies because I love great stories. As Christians, we shouldn’t fear stories because stories are God’s turf. It has been said that all good stories are loved and embraced because they remind us of God’s Great Story. Think about the story arc of the Bible. God creates a paradise, but that paradise is destroyed by betrayal. God, the hero of the story, refuses to accept things as they are and by struggle and sacrifice defeats the powers of evil at the cross, restores creation and in the end gets the girl, his church. Running through the Bible are themes of love, betrayal, redemption, forgiveness, hope, courage, risk, friendship, the journey and struggle. Now think of all the movies you’ve seen. Which of them lack these themes?

This is why I’m drawn to movies and books as a man, but also as a father. I want to expose my kids to great stories, great books and great movies, because I want them to grow to love the Great Story that these lesser stories echo. The question is, how do you identify a great story? These decisions are far more complex that simply limiting my kids to “Christian” books and movies (much of what  is marketed to Christians is frankly junk), or coming up with a litmus test (are there swear words, sensuality, violence, drug/alcohol abuse)?

I do have absolute standards when it comes to younger kids. I don’t want to expose my nine year old to foul language because she will probably start repeating it. She is also too young to deal with issues of sex and love no matter how compelling the story may be. But what about older children? If we said, “no violence, no sensuality, no drug/alcohol abuse, no foul language” then we would have to keep them from reading the Old Testament which has all of these things. When it comes to choosing movies and books for my older children I don’t first ask is there sex, violence and vulgarity, I ask: Does this story make the good attractive? Does this story portray evil and its consequences for what it is, or is evil glamorized?

The series Friday Night Lights features a brooding, bad-boy, heart-throb character (so my wife tells me) named Tim Riggins. Tim is a flawed character portrayed with Biblical realism. He’s a womanizer, an alcoholic, and a criminal, yet you see flashes of God’s image within him. Tim’s story is told with all the dark consequences that flow from his sinful heart so that you are moved to pity, not worship him. At the same time the story moves you to root for that goodness and true manhood to emerge.  It finally does when Tim takes the fall for his older brother and does five years in prison, so that his newborn niece would not grow up without a father. Here is a series with references to teen sex and depictions of drugs and alcohol that I recommend to my older kids. Why? Because it is good story. It echoes God’s story of redemption, makes the good attractive and is honest about the wages of sin.

Again, we must also remember to take the maturity of our individual children into account. The movie Gladiator is a great story that paints a powerful picture of true, courageous, and sacrificial manhood, but a ten year old boy may not be ready for the graphic violence that runs through the film. It’s a great story, but it’s not age appropriate.

I have come recognize that great movies and great books are an important part of discipling children. Chosen wisely they can, as CS Lewis called it, “baptize the imagination.” He recognized that the stories he was raised on shaped his heart to love the themes of self-sacrifice, love, loyalty, and redemption that when he picked up the Scriptures he fell in love with the Great Story and its hero, Jesus Christ.

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Finding God in Nature

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See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that Solomon in all his splendor was not dressed like one of these.

Passing on the faith to children was never meant to be limited to classrooms and churches. Teaching and learning was to happen naturally as families lived life together. Why? Because God is not reserved for that spiritual part of ourselves, he is Lord of all creation and His presence permeates every part of our world. How can we communicate this truth to our children? One of the best ways I know of is looking for those spontaneous moments where God is encountered out in the world, in nature.Psalm 19 tells us:

Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.”

The trouble is, we are usually too busy to notice. The other night I took a walk up the street to the Tripp farm at dusk and I was moved by the vibrant greens of the wet grass in the twilight and the clouds tipped with deep reds and pinks. It’s there every night, yet I rarely see it. And the thought occurred to me, if I only I had one of my kids with me share this moment.

Consider some of these God-moments that were triggered by nature …

 Psalm 8:3-4a When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place. What is man (humanity) that you are mindful of him?

Psalm 139:17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. [Imagine standing on a beach or in the middle of a desert and coming to this realization.]

The Fall colors are coming soon, consider carving out some space in your family’s schedule to be out in God’s world and be watching for Him to show up.

Telling Bible Stories to Children

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Moses encounters God at the burning bush.

Telling the stories of the Bible to our children is a vital part of passing on to the next generation our faith in Jesus Christ. We know from the Old Testament that Israel drifted away from God when the forgot all that they had down for them. Fortunately, children are wired to love stories. More importantly, they remember them. The difficulty for us comes not in the telling of the stories, but in helping our kids understand what these stories mean.

That is why it is important that we as parents properly understand the purpose of these Bible stories. We Americans are a practical people and we tend to approach the Bible in the same way. We read looking for some principle some truth that we can apply in our lives right away. Consequently, we handle the Bible like an Aesop fable looking for a “moral of the story” tacked on at the end. What was the point of the story of the Tortoise and the Hare? Slow and steady wins the race. What’s the point of the story of David and Goliath? God can do big things through little people. The story of Joseph? It’s never a good idea to brag, you might get sold into slavery and never see your mother again. It’s bad for parents to play favorites. When you are faced with temptation, run away! If you are faithful to God, God will bless you.

Now there is a kernal of truth in these Bible story applications. That’s not the problem. The problem is that none of things I mentioned are the central point of these stories. Here’s what I mean. At the end of the gospel of John, John reveals to us why he wrote his collection of Jesus stories.

“But these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

Did John want his readers to be obedient to God? Absolutely. But what was the purpose of his book? The Gospel of John was written so that we might have a deeper trust and faith in Jesus Christ. Why? Because John understood that we don’t obey God because we don’t trust Him. That’s why the Bible is not so much a book about what we do, it’s a book about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We must remember this as parents. The goal of Bible stories is not teach our children to behave, it is to inspire them to a deeper love and trust in Jesus Christ.

Let’s take the example of Joseph. The point of the story comes at the end. “You [Joseph’s brothers] intended to harm me [Joseph], but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20) The real story is that despite Joseph’s pride, Jacob’s lousy parenting and the treachery of Joseph’s brothers, God used these failures to put Joseph in Egypt at just the right time to save his family from starvation. Do you think you can trust a God who can do that? Do you think this God can save you?

This leads us to the central question in every Bible story. How does this story point us to Jesus? Just as God used the sin of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers to bring about their salvation, God used our sin, our rejection of Jesus, and our nailing him to the cross, to bring out about our salvation.

May our children see Jesus in the stories that we tell.

Welcome to Pacific Union Family

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It is a privilege for the church to work with your children as Sunday School teachers and youth leaders to communicate the gospel to them in terms that they can understand. As great an honor as that is, we recognize that we are not the primary influence in your child’s life. You are. We are the assistants, but you are the primary teachers. Deuteronomy 6 lays out a vision of how the faith was to be passed down from generation to generation.

Deuteronomy 6:6-7 These commands that I give today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

In other words, the faith wasn’t to be learned exclusively in a classroom, but in families as they lived life together. Your child spends an hour and a half a week at church, but they live life with you.  As a parent who has struggled with teaching the faith at home, I know full well that it is one thing to know what we should do, it is quite another to know what to do.

That’s where this blog comes in.  We want to provide you with ideas to try and  resources to empower your important mission to disciple your family.  Our hope is that this will become a two way conversation.  Leave comments.  Let us know what works and what doesn’t.  Have an idea?  Feel free to pass it along.  None of us are experts.  We are all journeying and struggling together to work out what it means to pass on the faith to the next generation.

Psalm 78:3-7 … what our fathers have told us.  We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done … so the next generation would know them … Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but keep his commands.

Pastor Nate Hall

Pacific Union Congregational Church

Westport, MA