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?