Christianity Today ran an article this week (November 13, to be exact) explaining the “theology” of the popular novel and movie by the same name, ‘The Hunger Games.’ The article’s author, Laura Snider, draws parallels between the premise of The Hunger Games (which Snider admits “is enough to turn your stomach”) and biblical tenets such as finding the courage to do the right thing, a battle between good and evil, the depravity of human nature, and political injustice.
The storyline of the movie and novels, that twenty-four children are forced to fight to the death on live television, according to Snider, can be used to illuminate Biblical lessons for the reader or viewer. In fact, Snider admits in the Christianity Today article that The Hunger Games is on the short list of books – along with the Bible – that makes her love Jesus more.
There’s no doubt that media of all kinds can be a powerful tool to pick at the heartstrings of human emotion. Art, if done properly, can speak to the very soul. Perhaps it’s for this reason that cinematic movie reviews have become a popular and regular appeal advertised by many of today’s evangelical seeker-friendly churches. Summertime especially is the season for pastors to craft a sermon series around a popular summer blockbuster. And again we see the same kind of cinematic hermeneutic employed from the pulpit and engaged in by Laura Snider. Themes of the conquering human spirit, the depravity of man, the triumph of perseverance, or some other pseudo-Christian motif is dissected from the plot and repackaged to teach some biblical truth.
If this fad is to continue, let’s face some observable realities. Although Hollywood’s mass appeal may play well in America’s churches, the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t take any serious study or introspection to turn any plot, any movie, any novel or any storyline into a biblical parallel. When churches are using last summer’s ‘Wolverine’ as a basis for a sermon series (like it was in at least one church that I know of), any plot can be stretched, molded, or eisegeted into the biblical storyline. In other words, it takes no real genius or creativity to find a comparison between any movie and a lesson found in Scripture. A pastor, for example, might turn ‘Silence of the Lambs’ into a lesson about the persecution of Christian martyrs. Maybe the 90s television series ‘Baywatch’ could be about how Jesus is the lifeguard of our soul. Or just maybe, ‘Transformers’ is about the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to turn us into a new creature in Christ. These suggestions aren’t hyperbole. This is the extent that pastors are regularly going to in order to captivate a secular audience and give them a teachable moment of truth.
Consider the Second Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jared Moore, who is the author of the Harry Potter Bible Study. Moore turns the witchcraft-practicing Harry Potter into a Christ-figure and from it, pulls out the Gospel. I’m sure the intention is good; take an aspect of fallen, secular culture (even something as debase as a story of a child-wizard) and “find” these nuggets of Gospel and teachable aspects of morality. Sometimes this is referred to as “redeeming” culture. Of course, a creative person could “find” (or eisegete) similar themes in almost any story under the sun. I’m sure most pastors could preach a rousing sermon by applying the same strategy to ‘Green Eggs and Ham.’ Somewhere in the country there will probably be a ’50 Shades of Grey’ sermon series, claiming that it parallels the Song of Solomon. You see, it doesn’t take a scholar or genius to find these supposed parallels.
When I posted a link to the article on Lifeway’s “Life Lessons from Mayberry Conference” last week that was published at the Worldview Weekend website, in which I questioned why the Southern Baptist publishing arm was using a sitcom to teach truth and more importantly, why ‘life lessons’ were the focus instead of the Gospel (which is called ‘moralism’), Moore tweeted me to show he had apparently taken exception with my position on account of his Harry Potter Bible study. And that’s perfectly fine – two Southern Baptist can disagree. But what concerns me is Moore’s defense as our Twitter conversation progressed.
Moore claimed that comparing Christ to Harry Potter (which he said is “bringing the Bible to bear on pop culture,” which I’m convinced it’s the other way around), is no different than the types and shadows provided by the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11. Moore is correct in that the so-called ‘Hall of Faith’ is a wonderful passage of Scripture designed to show the types of Savior provided by the Scripture to foreshadow the arrival of the true savior, Jesus Christ. Moore went on to say that his approach is no different than quoting anything outside of Scripture, including my propensity to quote the late Charles Spurgeon. There are a few problems with this.
First and foremost, we see that God used types and shadows of Biblical figures to illustrate Christ. What Moore may be overlooking is that the figures in the Old Testament were not haphazardly thrown together as a tongue-in-cheek illustration of Christ. The details of these individual’s lives and their canonization into Scripture were planned by the Holy Spirit for the explicit and expressed purpose of illustrating the coming Messiah. As weekly pointed out in my 66 Gospels sermons series, these stories of the Old Testament can’t just be used to proclaim Christ, they are designed to proclaim Christ by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, we must see that God’s name and the testimony of Jesus is to be high, holy, lifted up and revered. The ultimate question must not be “is this pop culture comparison effective?” The question must be, “Does this glorify God?” There may be a time to take an example of self-sacrifice we see in the newspapers and compare it to the love of Christ displayed on the cross. The question is if we want to take fictional characters of debase or sinful circumstances and use them to typify Christ. I submit to you that we have a plethora of examples of types and shadows in stories that aren’t written by wretched mortals, but were written by the third person of the Trinity for that specific purpose. It may be one thing to quote a preacher like Spurgeon, but it’s quite another to compare Christ to Benedict Arnold or Darth Vader or some other sinister character from history or fiction.
Finally, we must view the Scripture – and the Scripture alone – as the only sufficient literary work by which we can be born again (1 Peter 1:23). I understand that not everyone wants to hear Bible stories and might be more inclined to hear about Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. But these works of fiction do not cut as sharp as any two-edged sword and they don’t divide asunder soul and spirit, joint and marrow (Hebrews 4:12). They are not guaranteed to be profitable for reproof, correction, or instruction in godliness (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible, however, does all of these things. Why would I invent and cram a non-existent gospel theme into a work of fiction when the Bible has provided us gospel themes in the inerrant work of Scripture?
At the end of the day, jamming purported biblical themes into popular culture isn’t going to undo Christianity. This is not a primary matter of concern. But underlying the conversation is the question of scriptural sufficiency for us as evangelicals. Maybe we should start finding the gospel themes in pop culture when we run out of Bible.