Out of My Mind: John Wayne, Jesus and Me

As I was passing through the bookstore the other day I saw something called The John Wayne Movie  Bible Study. Apparently, this is just one title in a whole line of products which uses old television shows and films for Bible study. It all started, I believe, with a series based on the Andy Griffith Show. Now there are Bible studies based on I Love Lucy, The Beverly Hillbillies, the Dick VanDyke Show, Gilligan’s Island, Bonanza and Spiderman. If Nick at Nite got religion and started a Sunday school, I imagine it would look something like this.

 What first attracted my attention was the large, black and white photograph of John Wayne wearing his trademark cowboy hat. “Oh, a John Wayne DVD collection,” I thought to myself. “Maybe this would make a good Mother’s day gift.” I was immediately drawn to the display. I love John Wayne films. My favorites are the three in the cavalry trilogy directed by John Ford: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. I never tire of these films. What better tribute for my wife on mother’s day?

But as soon as I saw the words “Bible Study” my disposition soured. I never even bothered to pick up the box and look at it. How do I explain this? I love the Bible. I love John Wayne movies. You would think this would be a match made in heaven. Yet somehow the juxtaposition of these two things seemed to cheapen them both for me.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that, not only have I been complicit in the trend of using video in my teaching, I was ahead of the curve. Many years ago, before digital video made it easy to show movie clips during the sermon, I began a message on prayer by showing a brief segment from the movie Aladdin. In those days the VCR was cutting edge technology and the only screen available was the church’s television set mounted on an AV stand. My rather obvious point was that we should not view God as our personal genie and that we should not treat prayer like a magic lamp. I was quite impressed with myself. Up until the point when the congregation moaned as I was about to stop the movie to begin my sermon. “Can’t we watch the rest?” someone asked. If one of the children had asked the question, I would have understood. But this was one of the church’s elders. I learned an important lesson that day. Never follow Robin Williams.

The people who publish the John Wayne Movie Bible Study consider film and television to be a contemporary form of parable. They may have a point. Movie is the predominant mode in which we tell stories in our culture. But there are some fundamental differences. One of the most significant is the oral nature of Jesus’ parables. Both video and parable employ story but biblical parables are language based while video is image based. I may be making too much of this, since the metaphorical nature of parables also gives them a kind of visual quality. Still, the medium shapes both the message and the way it is received by the audience. Neil Postman warns: “A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium will increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?”

What do you think? Does the use of video help or hurt your preaching or teaching?

4 thoughts on “Out of My Mind: John Wayne, Jesus and Me

  1. John,
    As someone who is generally technically adept and who rends towards technology, I too find the mixture personally revolting. As you said, it cheapens both the gospel and the media.

    I remember laughing so hard I snorted when I heard of the Andy Griffith bible study. (Seriously?) Is this what we’ve come to? Remove the Bible as the core of our study and make a fictional character the spokesperson of truth?

    Is that really the right way to proclaim the gospel?

    Hmm. What does that say about veggie tales (of whom I am a fan)?

    Somehow I see an acceptable break in that Griffith (and John Wayne) were not trying to teach the Bible, while the vegetable characters in the aforementioned series are.

    I have a singular goal when it comes to preaching: Communicating God’s word in such a way as to rebuke, correct, train or teach in righteousness.

    Ultimately I fear that wrapping the gospel up in a character based bible study does more to conceal than reveal the gospel. Subsequently softening the blow of God’s words so much that they are trivialized.

    I’ll admit I may be wrong-headed in this. But the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    1. The interesting thing about Vegi-tales (which I admit is amusing) is that it is primarily cleverly packaged moralism. They could be shown in most religious contexts without any offence (and without any gospel). That may be unfair but it is my impression.

      1. Well that is certainly true. It’s part of the reason they have been so well received. People love moralism, as long as it doesn’t trample on their perception of what is moral.
        But there again, I wouldn’t use the veggies as a Sunday School curriculum, just a fun and safe show to watch with the kids – just like Andy Griffith.

  2. The picture at the top of the post reminded me of the Christian t-shirts I detest that riff off of an existing brand to carry a “Christian” message. The one I remember was based on the Snickers satisfies campaign and said something about only Jesus satisfies.
    My experience has been mixed with video and media in teaching. I’ve had much better results with teenagers and college-aged than with adults. The key for me has been a good transition or link between the video and the message.

    One good example (not from my own teaching) was using a scene in Groundhog Day to illustrate futility with Ecclesiastes. Most of the audience had seen the film already so it was easier to transition back into the message by asking questions prompting the audience to think. The teacher asked, “during the daily grind, do you feel like you’re living the same day over and over – that it’s all in vain? Do you think that’s how Solomon felt? What breaks you out of your daily grind?”

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