May 03, 2021

Changing Attitudes to the Gospel through Drama & Film

A few months ago, at Fuller Seminary, I picked up the book, God in the Movies – A guide for exploring four decades of film. The book considers 40 (largely) secular movies that have Christian themes within them, and gives questions for the reader to think about as they watch the movie. I’ve always loved a good story: getting engrossed in the plot, seeing the characters evolve and experiencing the excitement of someone else’s adventure. I’m also fascinated by the way that storytellers play with concepts, explore ideas and convey deep messages about humanity, God and the world through their stories.

The truth is that I, like many people, don’t really love scholarly works, scientific journals, or, dare I say it, theology books; give me a story any day. Part of my role at PAK7 is to work alongside Pakistani Christian storytellers who are exploring how to validate the Christian community without it sounding like a political protest, and who are sharing the message of God’s love in a way that everyday people can hear it… often through a story.

It’s vitally important that Christians do get involved with the telling of their own stories. There have been a number of examples in recent years of others in Pakistan writing Christian characters into their stories, but these often end up frustrating Christian viewers who feel they’re portrayed negatively. Whether that be showing Christians as weak characters, stereotyping them as menial workers, or showing them compromising their faith in some way.

We need to find effective ways of showing Christians as normal characters, people who have good things to offer to Pakistan, and showing the difference that following Jesus makes in their lives. That’s where the power of a story can change the way a nation thinks – when, engrossed in a story, we empathise with characters, and experience an insight that we never had before.

Here are a couple of examples from programs that I have watched and enjoyed, that might interest you:

The Good Wife

The Good Wife is a US TV drama about a female lawyer. Each episode has its own discrete plot, but there are longer character storylines that run throughout the series. One of these longer storylines is that of the lawyer’s teenage daughter, Grace Florrick, who becomes interested in faith. The mother is an atheist and this creates plenty of interesting scenarios for them to discuss matters of faith together. (N.B. I realise the view of creation held by the character in the video may not be consistent with everyone’s understanding but it was the only clip I could find – it is worth checking out the show anyway)

  • She becomes a Christian through one of her friends at school and starts attending a church youth group and Bible study. In season 3 she gets baptised.
  • Her mother is somewhat disdainful of this, but learns to accept and respect her daughter’s views. In some ways, the respect that she shows for her daughter’s beliefs, even though she does not share them, is one of the most abiding memories of the show.
  • She is worried about her parents on a number of occasions and prays for them (which they appreciate, even if it is due to the concern she shows for them more than any belief that God might answer).
  • She assists her mother on some cases that have religious themes and there are some discussions about Bible passages and morality. These are handled thoughtfully and actually seek to explore the overall message of the Bible, not just cherry-picking verses to suit.

It’s not a Christian program and there may be occasional scenes that you find inappropriate, so please read the advisories before watching it with children or if you are likely to be offended.

Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire is now quite an old film, but is something of an enduring classic (no doubt aided by the magnificent and highly memorable soundtrack from Vangelis). Again, this was not a Christian movie, but rather one that featured a Christian, Eric Liddle, and the Jewish sprinter, Harold Abrams – both runners, both with a point to prove. But the way that Liddle is portrayed is a powerful witness to the difference that following Jesus made to his life.

Liddle is a devout Christian; the son of missionaries to China, who intends to return there himself as a missionary. He is also an extremely talented sprinter and begins to see success on the running track… leading to his inclusion in the Olympic squad for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. The film explores:

  • Others’ concerns about his divided loyalties between serving God and running (he argues that running is serving God). “God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure”
  • His decision not to run in the heats of the 100 meters on a Sunday as it is the sabbath and he keeps that day for God. This makes frontpage news as many consider him to be foolish. He forfeits his place in a race that he is one of the favourites to win, because of his honor for God.
  • His relationships with others, where mutual respect exists. “He that honors me I will honor” Jackson Schultz, an American sprinter gives him this note just before the 400m final.
  • At one point he is shown leading an evangelistic event after a running race and sharing the gospel – talking about “running the race”.

He is not weak, he is not compromised; he is likable, principled and honorable – he is also a winner. As one of the characters says in the film “what we need now is a muscular Christian…”; in the same way that they sought to reposition Christians in the public eye through him and his running, we need to think about the role that media can play in showing Christianity in a different light in Pakistan.

I wonder what dramas we will see being made by PAK7 in the years to come? True stories and fictional ones that try to show Christians and our faith in a positive light. Accounts of Pakistani Christian heroes, of everyday people, of people serving God in ordinary ways, of respecting other people’s beliefs, of loving their neighbours. I’m looking forward to seeing what stories local producers come up with – whether it be a cricket drama, or a detective show, or a science fiction series. As local believers begin to tell their own stories and write in believable characters that are following God, I believe that the wider community will begin to see Christians and their faith in a truer and better light. Who knows what God might do through these programs as viewers are challenged in their stereotypes and prejudices – as God, through his Holy Spirit, touches people’s hearts and minds.