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Reform Magazine | June 25, 2019

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Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘Blessed be the filmmakers’

Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘Blessed be the filmmakers’

Paul Kerensa investigates church DVDs

When I’m visiting a church, I love a browse of the books. I don’t mean the Bibles (although I should browse those more often…) I mean the secondhand books that some churches have in the reception area. In some places, it’s a library. Other churches have brand new books for sale, or postcards, or tea towels, or, in one place, sticks of rock with ‘JESUS’ written all the way through it. Then there are those who go to the next level: DVDs.

Granted, the DVD isn’t as popular as it used to be. It’s almost as old-fashioned as sticks of rock. Nowadays we’re streaming more than an antihistamine seeker in a haystack. But such digital media isn’t easily browsable on a shelf at the back of church, so DVDs cling on for now. Perfect for my post-church perusal.

Christian DVDs tend to fall into three camps. First, there is the small group resource. A preacher or a writer delivers their talk with the assistance of infographics and funky editing. If it gets the point across, I’m all for it. One of the small groups in our church caters for a couple of illiterate members, so these sets are a great use of the medium.

The second DVD category is the modern-day melodrama. They are never any other genre: comedy, sci-fi, horror – forget it. Ultra-American in feel, these contemporary parables star someone you recognise from a TV show, plus actors with names from the Dulux catalogue, like Amber Zest or Meadow Barley. Yet look past the glossy sheen and you’ll find messages of faith, family, miracles, the afterlife and dogs. Dogs feature heavily. No one knows why. It’s not like they go to… no, let’s not ruin things.

My personal favourite Divine Versatile Discs are the third type: the biblical epic. The style here is more from this side of the Atlantic (rarely the Middle East, more often a North African set with an Italian cast for some reason). These films nod back to the swords-and-sandals movies of the 1960s, though nowadays many are more sand-and-sandals.

I really enjoy these. It’s helpful for my feeble mind to picture the sights and sounds of the time, even if it means picturing Noah with Russell Crowe’s face. Since The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood has seen profits in the prophets. The greatest story ever? Sold! Let my people go to the movies, to see Christian Bale as Moses, or Jim Caviezel as Jesus, St Luke, or anyone really – Jim Caviezel could probably play a very convincing Mary Magdalene.

In fact, the recent Mary Magdalene showed that the film industry’s appetite isn’t waning. Quite right too – the Bible is full of characters who would benefit from a moment in the spotlight. The stories have lasted millennia, and crucially for producers, they’re out of copyright. God won’t sue. Not in this life anyway.

But for every blockbuster, there are the flops. The floodgates may be open, but some Scripture scripts sink while others swim. A decade and a half before the Crowe joined the Ark, Jon Voight played Noah in the late 90s. That version bizarrely included pirates and a strange peddler in a boat who sold Noah hard-to-find products. A miss, I feel.

There will always be controversy. Many biblical characters are also revered in Islam, a religion not known for liking visual portrayals of their prophets, hence boycotts and protests. Perhaps that’s why Abraham’s story has been so slow to reach our screens. He’s father to three religions, so there’s a big audience there, but would they all agree on what should be in the film? The circumcision scene might be cut – but then perhaps that’s the point.

Long may the Bible light up our screens and fill those DVD racks. We pray they get the Good Book right (and good luck agreeing on what that might look like…) If we vote with our wallets, Hollywood won’t ignore faithful film fans. Perhaps then we can look forward to Daniel and The Lion King, Jonah and Free Willy, The Italian Job(e) or Ocean’s Twelve Disciples. So long as I’ve got some DVDs to browse, I’ll be happy. And may the name of Jesus be present through all of them, like that stick of rock. For did He not say to Simon Peter: ‘On this stick of rock, I will build my church…’? Maybe not. I need a biopic of Simon Peter to tell me then. Blessed be the filmmakers!

Paul Kerensa is a comic writer, performer and broadcaster

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This article was published in the June 2019 edition of  Reform

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