Should We Dramatize Jesus’s Life for Television?
Good Monday morning, everyone. We have a big week on the podcast. First up, our inbox is full of emails asking whether or not it’s a good idea to dramatize Christ’s life for television. A listener named Jim asks it this way: “Dear Pastor John, hello, and thank you for this podcast. I’m wondering of the dangers and benefits of watching biblical historical fiction, particularly of television shows and movies about the life of Christ, of him acting and saying dramatized things beyond what we read in Scripture.”
One anonymous man writes to say, “Dear Pastor John, thank you for the podcast. It has been used by God to help me and my family here in Kazakhstan. I would like to know your thoughts on television shows and movies about the life of Christ. Are they helpful or unhelpful? What are your concerns?”
Sam, a church leader, wants to know the place of visuals, particularly screen dramatizations about the life of Christ. One recent show is “beloved by many” in his church, and he says, “I feel that it has enlivened my own walk with God and helped me imagine what Jesus’s world could have been like. This has the effect of making the world of the Bible more accessible to me. But imagination can only take you so far. Can we enjoy shows like this personally, even include them in a teaching context, without violating the second commandment?”
Another listener, Lisa, is less optimistic. She says television dramatizations of Christ’s life “don’t sit well with me.” As she considers Proverbs 30:6 and Revelation 22:18, she wonders if these dramas are “adding to or altering Scripture,” amounting to heresy. Pastor John, for these listeners, do you have any thoughts?
There is no way that I can avoid this question, because it touches on my life. For 25 years — and I still do it one way or the other — when I was a pastor at Bethlehem, every Christmas season, I created and read to the people in worship what we called “Advent poems,” one for each Sunday during advent. The poems took about ten minutes to read. They created a story built around a biblical character or biblical situation in which I invented persons, dialogue, and circumstances that were not in the Bible but were intended to clarify and confirm and intensify realities that are in the Bible, that the Bible itself teaches.
So, the question is not abstract for me. The question is, Was I doing something sinful? Was it wrong to create those poetic, imaginative expressions?
Safeguards Against Distortion
Let me mention the safeguards that I put in place to avoid the dangers of distorting Scripture or replacing Scripture or diminishing the authority of Scripture, and then I’ll give some positive reasons for why I think imaginative explanations and illustrations and representations of biblical truth are not only legitimate, but are even encouraged by the Bible.
Not Adding to Scripture
First, was I guilty of disobeying Proverbs 30:6 or Revelation 22:18, which says that we should not add to the words of God or to the prophecy of Scripture? No, I was not guilty of disobeying those Scriptures because those Scriptures forbid the presumption that one could add scripture to Scripture or prophecy to prophecy. Those texts are not condemning explanation and elucidation and illustration and representation of Scripture that make no claim in themselves to have any Scripture-level authority.
Those texts are condemning every attempt to use words or images or representations that claim to be on a par with Scripture. And in fact, I would say that the Roman Catholic Church is guilty of this error when it elevates the papal pronouncements ex cathedra to the level of infallible biblical authority. That’s my first safeguard.
Second, I made clear that the poems I was reading were not Scripture. I made it clear. They were not divinely inspired. They were not infallible. They were imaginative illustration, explanation, and representation of truth that I saw in the biblical text.
I made this distinction not only when reading poetry but when preaching. My preaching is not Scripture; it is based on Scripture. It uses language that is not in Scripture — all preaching does, all teaching does. It derives any authority that it has from the degree that it faithfully represents the reality put forth in the Bible. So it is with imaginative poetry — or drama, for that matter.
Consistent with Scripture
Third, I promised never to create any dialogue or any character or any circumstance that could not have happened in view of what the Bible actually teaches. In other words, even though I created things that were not in the Bible, nothing I created contradicted what was in the Bible. Everything had to be possible and plausible in view of what was in the Bible. Nothing was allowed to call Scripture into question.
Focused on Scripture
Fourth, I made every effort to draw attention and affection to the same reality in my poems that I saw in the Scripture itself. And fifth, I never replaced expository preaching with imaginative poetry.
In other words, I tried to make plain that God had ordained the expository preaching of his infallible word as central to congregational life and as the main corporate means by which God protects his word from distortion. Through every other form of representation, preaching stood. Preaching remained dominant and essential. And in my case, the sermon was never, not once in 33 years, intermingled with any kind of visual media. I think that’s a bad practice in preaching and is usually owing to a loss of confidence in the preached word to do its amazing work.
Now, those are the safeguards that I put in place to keep from diminishing Scripture or distorting Scripture or replacing Scripture, but I think even more important is the fact that imaginative representations of biblical reality are warranted by Scripture itself.
“Imaginative representations of biblical reality are warranted by Scripture itself.”
Of course, in biblical times, nobody had ever heard of movies or videos, and so nothing directly is said in the Bible about them. But short of that, pointers to imaginative representations and drama are everywhere in the Bible.
First, the Bible itself uses imaginative language that creates pictures in our minds that are not the same as the reality being discussed, but that shed light on the reality by not being the reality itself. We call these metaphors or similes or word pictures or parables. For example, just listen to Jude 12–13 describing the false teachers and the troublemakers in the church:
These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.
That’s amazing! He’s talking about human beings, bad people who are ruining the church. What does he do? He creates pictures in our brains with words like “hidden reefs,” “selfish shepherds,” “waterless clouds,” “fruitless trees,” “wild waves,” “wandering stars.” In other words, he tries to make plain one objective reality by comparing it to a very different reality.
Jesus did this with parables, didn’t he? “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” — like a mustard seed, like leaven, like a treasure, like a merchant, like a net, like a master of a house, and on and on. Or consider the prophets like Zechariah. He sees a reality; he wants us to know the reality. How should he help us see and savor this reality? He says, “I see a measuring line” (Zechariah 2:1–5). “I see a lampstand” (Zechariah 4:1–3). “I see a flying scroll” (Zechariah 5:1–4). “I see a woman in a basket” (Zechariah 5:5–11).
“The job of the preacher or the poet or the teacher or the parent is to help others see and savor reality.”
The Bible does this kind of thing hundreds and hundreds of times. It’s the very nature of language to be different from the reality it points to. The word love is not the same as the reality of love. The word God is not the same as the reality of God. The word salvation is not the same as the reality of salvation. And once you realize that all language is pointing to reality, that the job of the preacher or the poet or the teacher or the parent is to help others see and savor reality, then you realize all the amazing and various potentials that language has.
Then there’s not just imaginative language, but there is imaginative action in the Bible — acted-out dramas of biblical reality. Jeremiah was told to make yoke bars and walk around with this heavy yoke on his shoulders to dramatize the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar on the people (Jeremiah 27:1–22). And Ezekiel was told by God to lie on his left side for 390 days to illustrate Israel’s years of punishment (Ezekiel 4:4–8). And then there’s poor Isaiah. God said, “My servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush” (Isaiah 20:3).
So, my conclusion is that if we pause and ponder why the Bible itself employs so many imaginative means of explaining and illustrating and representing reality, we will see that the Bible itself:
- offers us examples of truth-clarifying, truth-intensifying drama, poetry, language
- encourages us to use language this way
- protects us against distorting or replacing or diminishing Scripture