For it is by grace you have been saved...

Monday, February 17, 2014

Preachig Lessons from Peter Jackson

I've mentioned numerous times here how slow/behind times I can be.  That's why I just got around to seeing the new Hobbit movie over the weekend.  Truth is, we don't go to the theater often, and when we do it's usually the bargain shows.  But since my wife had the youngest at a 4H even all day Saturday, the middle two and I thought it was a good time to go see some Tolkien. 

To be honest, while it was a fairly good movie, it was my least favorite so far of Peter Jackson's interpretations of Middle Earth.  I'm not the first to point it out, but this film was the least faithful to the book of any of the five films made so far.  Expanding the book into three 2 1/2 hour movies wasn't a great idea, in my opinion, and they stretched quite a bit to make this one that long. 

The most notable issue, apart from adding characters that simply didn't show up in the book, was the great lengths Jackson and Co. went to to tie all this in with the Lord of the Rings material.  From the darker tone, to the inclusion of storyline meant to remind us this was part of a more epic series of events, the added material actually did more to distract from the Hobbit's story.  But I'm no movie reviewer. 

I am, however, a pastor.  And it dawned on me as I was churning some of these thoughts around that Mr. Jackson and I are in a similar business here.  We are concerned with taking the text and presenting it to a "modern" audience.  While there are obviously serious differences in what we are doing, I did begin to apply some of what I was thinking about the Hobbit adaptation to how I present the Bible week after week.  And here are some positive and negative lessons I learned. 

First the positive.  

1. Context.  While trying to connect the events of the Hobbit to the Lord of the Rings saga may have been a bit much for a movie storyline (in my opinion), it is a helpful reminder that these events were not stand alone events in the Middle Earth universe.  Making  those connections is, in the end, a helpful thing. 

Much more so for Scripture.  When teaching any text, it's always good to remember that this is not an isolated passage.  It happens in context of real historical events, and more importantly, it takes place in the midst of God's redemptive history.  Loosing sight of the bigger picture can cause us to miss the real point of the text sometimes.  I need to keep the big picture in mind. 

2. Flawed Heroes.  Bilbo may be the main character, but I've always thought Thorin was kind of the "hero" of the tale.  A king on a quest to reclaim his kingdom, restore the fortunes of his people, etc.  While all a noble cause, Thorin is far from perfect.  His own greed and ambition get the better of him at times, and Jackson did well to highlight that in the film.  Likewise, Bilbo, Gandalf and the rest all have their shortcomings, none of which is hidden. 

When presenting biblical characters to us, God never shies from their flaws.  Moses, the reluctant leader and former murderer.  David, the adulterous letch who kills to cover his crime.  Samson's ego.  Paul's misplaced passion.  On and on.  We have a tendency to subject biblical characters to hero worship, and while we should never overemphasize their flaws, we shouldn't ignore them either.  It reminds us that we are all alike before God, weak vessels, broken vessels, to be used for His purpose and His glory. 

Now, some "negative" lessons

1. Don't Live on Past Success.  In some sense, I think Mr. Jackson is believing his own press.  The success of the Lord of the Rings movies has convinced him that he can always make the epic more epic.  Sometimes, less epic might be better.  Doing more and bigger of what you've already done isn't necessarily the best thing. 

Likewise, as a pastor, last week's sermon is over and done with.  If it was a "hit", I don't need to work to repeat it, or think that this "hit" will sustain me for the next month.  I need to get back into the text and work to be faithful in presenting this text and then the next text, and so on.  Which leads to...

2. Stick to the Book.  Again, most of the negative press for this latest Hobbit film was the fact that it went so far afield from Tolkien's original text.  Adding new characters, new story lines, delving deeper into the darker aspect of it all...  While as my son says, "it was still a great movie," the purists will be a bit put out. 

When it comes to Scripture, this is of paramount importance.  Stick to the Text.  Let the point of the the text be the point of the sermon.  I don't have the freedom to play with things, to be "creative" in an attempt to make the whole thing more entertaining, etc.  Which leads to a similar by slightly different idea...

3. You Can Entertain, but Miss the Point.  Mr. Jackson may have made a fun, entertaining movie, but I think he missed the point.  The Hobbit's tale, while containing some darker images, was overall a lighthearted adventure.  While Lord of the Rings is a more world wide epic struggle, this was supposed to be the more fanciful tale of a Hobbit of the Shire and his adventure with the dragon.  I think the overload of Orcs and the high body count of the film misses much of what Tolkien was after.

 In our effort to "reach" people and keep their attention, and draw the crowds and so on, we can end up missing the whole point as well.  It's not my job to entertain as a pastor.  It's not my job to draw crowds and then do whatever it takes to please them.  I am to preach the Word, in season and out.  Preach the Gospel and leave it to God to change hearts. 

4. Longer Isn't Always Better.  If we believe the stories, the original intent was a two parter.  That got extended into a trilogy, because that's the Hollywood standard I guess.  And besides, you can make more money that way.  But 2/3 of the way into the 2 1/2 hour movie, I actually found myself glancing at my watch and wondering how much longer it would go.  I'm not saying it was a boring movie.  It wasn't.  But I really think the added material I've mentioned, while serving a purpose (I guess) really made the thing unnecessarily longer than it needed to be.  Again, I think maybe we're trying too hard for the "epic" aspect. 

As with my preaching, I don't think I need to worry about cutting it short, working to entertain or please people, but at the same time I think it's wise to know when to quit.  Longer sermons aren't necessarily better sermons (though, of course, the opposite is also true).  It goes back to the text.  Preach the text.  When it's done, be done.  I had in my mind for a long time that sermons had to be a certain length, and if they didn't make it, I'd go back and try to add some more "filler."  Just preach the text.  If it's 35 minutes one week, but only 25 the next, and maybe closer to 40 the next, oh well.  Just don't keep it going for the sake of feeling like you have time to fill.  

Well, those are just some snippets.  Each one could be discussed at length, and I thought about turning this into a whole series of posts on the issue.  But then I thought about that whole "longer isn't better" thing and figured I'd just hit the highlights.

In the end, I came away with one overarching thought though.  I don't have any more right to "judge" Mr. Jackson's film making than people in my church have to "judge" my preaching.  We all have our opinions.  But I'm sure he made the film he set out to make, and that he's quite satisfied.  For me, if I can faithfully share the gospel of Jesus Christ, and can stand before my King and know that I preached the message He wanted me to preach, then it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks. 

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