Eyes to See – Jesus in Film

Jake Wampfler (Scottsdale, Arizona, USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Rev. Jacob Wampfler is an associate pastor at Shepherd of the Desert in Scottsdale, Arizona. He previously served as associate pastor at Faith Lutheran in Topeka, Kansas, for six years. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Jake grew to love the outdoors and being active. As such he is an avid football and baseball fan, a hiker, and a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also the co-host of the Cinema Bros podcast with his brothers Sam and Josiah, an Army veteran, a Topeka Top-20-Under-40 nominee and the co-creator of the Faith and Film Festival at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. His love for film began as a young movie theater projectionist and continues to this day. He believes that we can see Jesus everywhere, especially in film.
"The Gospel event has spilled out into the world. We can see Jesus anywhere if we only open our eyes to see him."

The above quotation was spoken by a beloved seminary professor, Rev. Dr. Francis Rossow – "Rev" for short. I remember the first time I heard him speak those words with his booming, God-like voice. I sat in the hallowed halls of Concordia Seminary St. Louis, pencil in hand, taking diligent notes. It was my second year of study in the Masters of Divinity program, and I signed up for Rev's class called "Literature and the Gospel" with eager anticipation. Tears welled up in my eyes when he spoke. Unknowingly, with one phrase Rev had explained what I had felt in my heart, in the deepest parts of my inner-being, since I was a young boy with my King Arthur books, Star Wars VHS tapes, and even my Batman cartoons. I didn't just see King Arthur and his Knights; Luke, Han, Leia, and Vader; Batman and the host of villains that surrounded him. In all these stories, I saw Jesus. I saw his grace, his sacrifice, his never-ending pursuit of claiming God's people as his own from the Evil One. And no matter where life's road has taken me, I have always carried Rev's words in my heart. We truly can see Jesus anywhere if we only open our eyes to see him.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

Since seeing films like Star Wars for the first time, I have always sought Jesus, my Savior, in film, narrative, and story. You might say it's how I'm wired – it's just how my brain works. Cinema, these moving images with light, music, and sound, have captivated me endlessly. And frankly I don't see that ending any time soon. My tastes have become markedly more refined, I'll grant you that. But I try never to forget where I come from, where my film roots reside. Yes, that began with Star Wars, but that also extended to the boxing ring with Rocky, deep into the magical forests of Japan with My Neighbor Totoro (my grandmother hosted foreign exchange students from Japan), and even went back in time with Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, and the Marx Brothers. Each new story, for me, was an opportunity to compare and contrast what I was seeing on-screen with what I knew about Jesus. In my estimation, that is a lifelong endeavor. And it's a task that has the potential to help others see Jesus who may not even know him yet.

As a 34-year-old pastor, husband, brother, and son, my film palate is diverse and eclectic. I often prefer little-known indie films to blockbuster fare, and I took a shine to South Korean cinema long before Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite stormed the Oscars earlier this year. My favorite film: In Bruges. Directed and written by an Irish-British playwright, it tells the story of a hitman who botches a job and must flee to hide in Bruges, Belgium. His target was a priest during confession, but he accidentally killed a little boy as well. So he hides in Bruges wanting to die yet wanting to live. It's one of the most deeply religious and spiritual films I have ever seen in my life.

Martin McDonagh's In Bruges

Along with a friend and colleague, I started a film festival at my seminary alma mater that seeks to help others see what I have seen for so long in film. My co-creator Heather Davis is an LA based writer, speaker, and composer, truly a kindred spirit in relation to film and narrative. In fact, we first bonded on Facebook over the film Calvary, a spiritual sibling of sorts to In Bruges. As such, over the course of these past years I unwittingly have made myself a sort of apologist for finding themes of faith, spirituality, and theology at the movies. Without a doubt, the more I've discussed, written, and contemplated this sacred topic, the Spirit of God leads more people like Heather into my life and I into theirs. It's an aspect of this journey that simply cannot be overlooked – film has the power to bring exceedingly unique and different people together.

Two films that were especially formative on this journey have been Martin Scorsese's Silence and Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life. The former is based on a book of the same title by Shūsaku Endō about Portuguese missionaries in feudal Japan. The latter is about Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant who refused to fight for Nazi Germany during World War II and as a result was sentenced to death. Much to my dismay and sadness, these films went largely unseen by secular and Christian audiences alike. Silence brought in just over $20 million in box office numbers, and A Hidden Life a paltry $5 million. But the numbers are not what truly matters. What pains my soul is that a pair of the most prolific and accomplished living film directors released, in my estimation, two incredible vehicles for the communication of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the 21st century. Sadly, both films went largely unnoticed. In an increasingly digital world, it's my sincere belief that films such as these are gifts from our Creator. They give us powerful avenues through which to communicate the Gospel. But even more, they are also incredible works of art that in and of themselves display the nail marked hands and feet of Jesus.

Martin Scorsese's Silence

I have to be honest with those of you who are reading this – I'm truly not very smart. But what I lack in knowledge, I make up for in being a voracious learner and student. As such, I've surrounded myself with the writing of prominent Christian film critics and writers, all of whom yearn to see faith, spirituality, and Jesus in film as well. If you're so inclined, check out the writing and blogs of Alissa Wilkinson, Abby Olcese, Josh Larsen, and Joel Mayward to name just a few. Abby joined us for our very first film festival at Concordia Seminary St. Louis last year and I find myself stunned every time I read her insights and commentary on films of all genres. To that end, I was recently emailing with Joel Mayward about preparing this very article you are reading, in fact. I reached out through his blog, and he was kind enough to email me back mere hours later. Reflecting on my above point about films like Silence and A Hidden Life, Joel said in his email response:

"Regarding your apologetics presentation on film and theology, and A Hidden Life and Silence, I can offer two brief comments which are hopefully helpful to spark your thinking. First, there is a distinction between film as theological reflection about God (moving from humanity to God) and film as potential revelatory encounter with God (moving from God to humanity). I think cinema has the capacity to do both, but the distinction and movements are worth parsing out. Some films are directly or indirectly asking questions about God, existence, meaning, faith, etc., and I think A Hidden Life and Silence both do this. But some films also have the capacity to move or affect us in deeply spiritual ways through the affective audio-visual form, where it seems like God "speaks" through cinema, sometimes without overtly religious/theological content. This is where ... we might find theological significance in 'secular' films. Second, I think we need to treat film as film, and not as a 'text.' In particularly Protestant traditions, with an emphasis on the Word, image and movement and sound are often neglected or misunderstood. So, how can we appreciate Christ as both Word of God (John 1) and Image of the invisible God (Colossians 1)?"

Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life

While Joel expressed far more above than I can possibly address, I want to move into my final point and a challenge of sorts for you, the reader. Joel and others like him see film not simply as an instrument, but even as a form of theological reflection in its own right. The first step to understanding this better is starting with films like Silence and A Hidden Life. While there are certainly others worth mentioning in that vein, I truly believe these two films in particular give us an excellent starting point. They are overtly "secular" films that communicate Gospel truth. In fact, it may be difficult to fathom, but Scorsese and Malick are two of the most spiritual filmmakers in the history of cinema when you look at their bodies of work. Once we have begun to grasp the depth and beauty of films like these, then we might begin to explore the vast array of moving pictures that communicate other truths about sin, humanity, our brokenness and need for redemption, and even how we might walk more closely with one another as the body of Christ and serve our neighbor with love and grace.

We can see Jesus anywhere, if only we open our eyes to see him. As Rev spoke those words to me years ago, I share them with you today. And if I could be so bold, I would even paraphrase the end of John 20 in line with Joel Mayward's words above. The Old Testament tells us that even the trees of the field will clap their hands; the very rocks will cry out if God's people are silent. And so it is in these films, we see the very truth of God's Word and his Son, Jesus Christ. These flickering images in all their beauty and wonder were made that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in his name.

As I say to all my film friends – happy viewing. And as I say to you as my brothers and sisters in Christ – Jesus be with you, now and always as you seek what he has in store for you next.


How to watch the films recommended in this presentation:

In Bruges – HBO Max streaming, available for rent on VOD (Amazon, Google Play, Apple TV, etc.); also available on Blu-ray and DVD

Silence – available for rent on VOD (Amazon, Google Play, Apple TV, etc.); also available on Blu-ray and DVD

A Hidden Life – streaming on HBO Max, available for purchase on Amazon VOD

The "Just Watch" app can tell you where films can be viewed on a variety of platforms.
The IMDb website is also helpful.

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Judy Kuster (conference moderator) 2020-10-19 4:14:19pm
Thank you for an interesting article that got me thinking. I have not seen most of the films you mentioned. I remember that the Star Wars films (which I have seen) had individuals writing about the spiritual nature evident in them. But as I was reading your interesting article, three films came immediately to my mind –
A Patch of Blue – a 1965 black and white film starring Sidney Poitier and Shelley Winters about a blind young woman and an educated black doctor who befriended her.
The Good Lie – a 2014 film I have watched many times about Sudanese refugees has obvious Christian values expressed by refugee men being sponsored in the US and a friend still in a refugee camp still waiting for a sponsor.
Wonder – about a young boy who was teased dreadfully about a physical difference.
All had themes (at least in my viewing) of sin and grace.
All three have moved me to tears.

You may be interested in taking a look at several of the films Pastor David Locklair has reviewed on the Blog in the Christ in Media website. Check http://christinmedia.org/blog/
Jacob Wampfler (Shepherd of the Desert) 2020-10-22 10:15:16pm
Thanks so much for your comments Judy! Believe it or not, I haven't seen any of the films you mentioned, but I am adding them to my list. The one I am most familiar with is WONDER, and I know a lot of families and schools have used that one to teach valuable lessons about bullying and acceptance of those who might look different than us. I also looked at Pastor Locklair's reviews on the Christ in Media site...it's always great to see others engaging with film through a faith lens! You'll probably be interested to read my comments to Kelsey below, because I would really like to highlight that superhero films highlight certain aspects faith/theology in film, but there are many other Gospel metaphors that are communicated in film as well. Blessings, and again thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Kelsey Boucher (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2020-10-20 8:37:48pm
I enjoyed reading your article Rev. Wampfler and it led me to think about certain films that I have seen that employ Christian themes without verbally stating them. I have not seen the films you mentioned, Silence and A Hidden Life but when I watch them I will look for the themes as you described. Some of the films that I have seen that communicate "Gospel truth" as you mentioned are Narnia, Harry Potter, and Avengers Endgame. All three of these films stood out to when I watched them because of this exact reason. The main character, the hero sacrifices themselves for the other characters. This is an excellent example of how we are saved by the self-sacrificing love of Christ. It is perhaps the oldest narrative of any story ever told. In our society, the world ignores and denies the love of Christ but when you look closer or listen carefully, you can see Jesus' narrative woven through the fabric of every culture. The good guy sacrifices everything, the bad guy loses, and everyone is safe in the end. I especially liked this quote from your article and I believe it rings true for many films in modern America, "(these films) communicate other truths about sin, humanity, our brokenness and need for redemption, and even how we might walk more closely with one another as the body of Christ and serve our neighbor with love and grace.
Jacob Wampfler (Shepherd of the Desert) 2020-10-22 10:35:12pm
Hi Kelsey! Thanks so much for reading and commenting, I truly appreciate it. I liked that you highlighted films such as THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, HARRY POTTER, and the Marvel films, because they use the Gospel metaphors of sacrifice and/or substitutionary atonement. I would also like to mention, however, that there is an amazing thing about film- that's not the only Gospel metaphor that we see when we watch movies! If you read Scripture, for example, there are a wide variety of Gospel metaphors that run throughout. Scripture speaks in terms of adoption, redemption, restoration, honor, power, healing, truth, and glory in relation to the Gospel of Jesus (just to name a few!). And if we start to broaden our lens, I think, we can see all of those themes on full display in film. Taking your example even begins to bear that truth out, I think. If we want AVENGERS: ENDGAME, we see themes of adoption and the relationship we have with our God and Father between Tony Stark and Peter Parker. When we look at Bruce Banner's story arc, we see a longing for redemption and healing. When we look at Thor, we see someone who is on a quest to restore his kingdom and people to their former glory. The characters of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY always hit me right in the heart too- they are a broken, messy group of rag-tag heroes trying to find their place in the galaxy and doing their best to contribute to something bigger than any one of them. Even in one film, we can see the multi-faceted and incredible nature of the Gospel. And I think that when we start to open our eyes to see Jesus, like I mentioned, we can see these Gospel metaphors in just about any film we set out to watch. It's an amazing opportunity, and I'm so glad you are looking at film through a faith lens along with me and many others!

Thanks again for reading and commenting, blessings on your continued film viewing- definitely check out SILENCE and A HIDDEN LIFE when you get the chance!
Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2020-10-23 5:50:15pm
A thoroughly stimulating article, Pastor Jake. I'm trying to understand more clearly what it means to "see Jesus anywhere" A while ago when I taught some courses in Greek Drama, I asserted that the great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and especially Euripedes were theologians since they were writing profoundly about the situation of humans in a moral universe. Since they were writing centuries before the first Christmas, they can't have known Jesus, but do we "see Jesus" in the performances of their writing? Is it only Christian believers who can "see Jesus anywhere" or can those who do not believe in Him see Him in the films you list? Does this ability come to every Christian, or must we be taught or trained in some way to do it? Can you explain more about what it means to see Jesus anywhere, and how people learn to do this?
Jacob Wampfler (Shepherd of the Desert) 2020-10-23 6:55:38pm
Hi Tom! Great questions all around. You raise some fascinating points about Greek Drama and the tragedians you mentioned above. I would assert that yes, we can certainly see Jesus in their writing as Gospel metaphors are universal and far-reaching (I mentioned this above in my response to Kelsey as well). Scripture tells us that God's law is actually written on our hearts, and so just as the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for example, looked toward the promise of the Messiah, it's entirely possible that others in antiquity did the same in their own way and with their own words.

In relation to film, I would also assert that even those who do not necessarily identify at Christians can see Jesus in film as well. A good example of this is Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, and director of the masterful FIRST REFORMED. His faith has gone through it's ups and downs over the years, and in relation to an interview with his alma mater, Calvin College, he said "...am I a Christian? I'm working on it." In addition, a favorite showrunner and writer of mine, Kurt Sutter, uses incredible religious imagery and specific references to Jesus in his shows SONS OF ANARCHY and THE SHIELD, along with his film SOUTHPAW. Finally, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is actually an outspoken atheist, but his films MOTHER!, NOAH, THE WRESTLER and THE FOUNTAIN all contain striking religious imagery and Gospel motifs throughout. As such, even shifting from filmmakers to the film criticism community and the average filmgoer, we all have the ability to watch film through a lens of faith in Christ- skeptics and doubters included. And that's where I would assert that film can be a powerful vehicle for communicating the Gospel, like I mentioned in my article above!

Finally, I'll share one last thing concerning your last two questions about how we can learn to see Jesus in film. I asked Rev. Rossow this very question one time, about how we can not only hone our ability to find faith themes in literature and film, but how we can become better preachers and writers using these themes as well. His response was simple, "Read a lot of good books and watch a lot of good films!" This kind of work is only learned in the school of experience, for my money, and it takes learning and growth to change the lens through which we view film. But I think it's something all of us can do, over time, and it's truly a worthwhile endeavor as we learn how to communicate the Gospel to the ever-changing world around us.

Again, thanks so much for your comments and for inviting me to be part of this conference!
Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2020-11-01 8:47:23pm
Pastor Wampfler, thank you for your energy!

Here’s one of the nice things about an online conference – in a face-to-face conference, if you have a question in a session you have to raise it then and there since once the session is over you go on to others and probably won’t see the presenter again. But in this online conference, when Pastor Wampfler recommends we “start with” the movies Silence and A Hidden Life, I took the time during the last couple days to watch them, and now I am able to come back with some reaction and questions.

This will be a preliminary reaction, since these films are powerful and take a while to process. They have a lot in common: magnificently made, long (2:43 and 2:53 respectively), beautiful cinematography, and with a similar theme: enduring suffering for one’s beliefs. These are not easy films to watch, and I spent the last half of each wishing it would end soon. But I am not sorry I endured. Much more could be said about each film but I want to focus on the Wampfler question: Did I see Jesus?

(No spoiler alert: I’m not giving away endings.) I saw a great NEED for Jesus, in the unrelenting cruelty that was depicted. I saw characters doing things that reminded me of things that Jesus did – testifying by his actions to the truth, being accused in a tribunal and making no reply, enduring diabolical temptation, sacrificing what is most dear on behalf of others or for principle, treating others with kindness even though persecuted, many other similar things – these are what I think Pastor W would refer to as “gospel themes.” It wasn’t hard to see these things, particularly as one familiar with Jesus’ life.

What I didn’t see was the gospel itself. There was little mention of Jesus in either film and no explanation of what he did for us. The Christian believers in Japan were depicted as cult-like, interested in holy objects and ritual, particularly confession and absolution – at least this depicted forgiveness, but it was connected with the priest not the cross. There was no apparent teaching, no instruction, no Word of God, not sure they even had a Bible (though admittedly that would have been hard for them). They looked forward to Heaven, but it would be easy to conclude that what they thought would get them there was their perseverance, not what Jesus had done for them. The main character made no attempt to testify about Christ, his work, his resurrection, no preaching of sin or grace as Jesus did to Pilate and Paul did to those who imprisoned him, though it seemed he (and the film) might have had many opportunities to do so. (In this connection I am reminded of screen-writer Jas Lonnquist’s comments in GOWM 2016 spring about how hard it is to get “Jesus” into Hollywood productions – see “Writing: Challenges for the Christian Screenwriter”). The Austrian farmer and his wife (it is implied though not stated) were Christians but while his faith may have motivated his sacrifice, it might have been just not wanting to hurt innocent people. Are Christians the only believers who suffer wrongdoing patiently for their beliefs? Certainly we admire the main characters, and pray thankfully we have not had to endure what they did, but do we learn from their stories how God has wrought our salvation?

I don’t think anyone who doesn’t already believe in Jesus will walk out of these films proclaiming faith in him, and for that reason I would hesitate to exalt them to near the level of Scripture by applying John 20 (“These movies are made so that you might know Jesus is the Christ…and have life in his name.”). What they would do, I hope, is provide an opportunity for a Christian believer to engage a friend in discussion about the films (“Why in the world would anybody willingly suffer that way?”) that could then lead to an explanation of the gospel, of what Jesus has done to rescue us, God’s plan for our salvation, how we have life in his name. It’s through that testimony, then, that the Holy Spirit can lead people to believe that Jesus is the Christ.

In short, I think I am saying that Joel Maynard’s first distinction, film as “theological reflection about God (moving from humanity to God),” though profitable, will always be incomplete, lacking revelation, and risking the impression that such human reflection by itself is adequate for knowing God as he would have us know him.

Jake, you and I share a common motivation to guide people into examining Christian themes in films, though I suspect maybe our “minds are wired” differently so our approaches differ. I explained mine back in the 2016 fall GOWM conference (see “How Christian Was That Movie” there), in which I began by insisting that ideally to be considered Christian a film should convey an explicit presentation of the gospel, but then backed off to concede there might be other ways a film might earn that designation. IT MIGHT BE THAT YOU AND I END UP IN THE SAME PLACE but by different routes. I’m much interested, if you have the patience and grace to explore it, in your view of the difference between our approaches.

Links to previous GOWM conference archives are on this conference’s front page. I want to watch In Bruges next.
Jacob Wampfler (Shepherd of the Desert) 2020-11-05 5:22:45pm
Hi Tom! Thanks for sharing your thoughts above...there is a lot here to discuss, certainly, and much of it is difficult to address in this format. I think, to your final point, that you are correct: our minds are likely wired differently and our approaches differ as we look at film and how we see the Gospel manifested in particular films specifically.

To get at this from another angle, perhaps, I would share the film criticism theory of one of my most beloved critics: Roger Ebert. Ebert was well known for his simple approach to film criticism which has, I think, been somewhat lost in recent years. His critical lens was simple: did the film accomplish what it set out to do? When I look at a film like SILENCE or A HIDDEN LIFE, for example, I don't think that those films are necessarily made to proclaim the Gospel outright or even bring people into a relationship with Jesus. That may happen, but I don't know if that's the desired intent of the filmmaker. What I do know, however, is that each film shares a story of struggle, doubt, and suffering connected to faith in this man Jesus that both you and I look to as our Savior. It's a peripheral approach, perhaps, to sharing the Gospel...and it a world that struggles to understand who Jesus is and what he came to accomplish, I think these two films stand above the rest in their sheer ability to open our hearts and help us experience Jesus in a new way. I've run into many folks from across the faith spectrum, from devout Christians all the way to outspoken atheists, who have been moved by both of these films in ways they never thought possible. That's a "win" in my book, and I think it also means that Malick and Scorsese are onto something, especially in relation to Joel Mayward's words about how film can function as theology.

Another piece worth sharing- Rev Rossow had three "levels" at which he taught us to view any book, film, or piece of art in relation to Gospel themes. His categories were explicit Gospel connection, possible Gospel connection, and unlikely Gospel connection. He would assert that you could still find Gospel themes even in the last category, although it's likely that was not the author/creator's intent. An interesting framework to view any film, I think, and one I wanted to share with you that didn't quite make it into my presentation.

Thanks again for engaging the films I mentioned and for commenting as well...if you're watching IN BRUGES, be ready for a very unique experience to say the least!
Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2020-11-08 2:56:55am
Good points, Jake, about the different ways a film might open a path to a gospel discussion. The films you reference do that indirectly but certainly with power.

I did watch In Bruges! We have actually visited Bruges (Brugge, as our friend there preferred) and enjoyed the city a lot – which was an important theme in the movie too. With a wild plot line and top-notch actors (though for a moment I thought I was watching Harry Potter again), and some subtle humor in Martin McDonagh’s Academy Award nominated writing, this was a movie one could enjoy. Central to the plot was considerable depiction of depravity – after all, Ray and Ken, the main characters, were hit-men operating in a milieu of violence, drugs, and worse (not even including the F-word which – somebody counted – averaged more than once a minute in this 107-minute movie). The depravity served its dramatic purpose as the ground from which the plot twist emerged, when surprisingly one of the characters chose to put himself in extreme danger to save someone else.

What did I see that could be Christian themes?

Again, the great need in the world for Jesus, in the “lost” people this film is all about.
The Law written in hearts, since even these depraved people follow a kind of code of honor.
Some spiritual longing in everyone. Ray and Ken, prompted by their tourist visit to a gallery where they view Hieronymus Bosch’s vivid depiction of hell, recall vaguely some childhood teachings about hell and purgatory and they discuss it, though not seriously. One wishes they could have taken the 45-minute drive down E40 from Bruges to Ghent to view Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb, which would have exposed them to the Gospel not the Law.

So then what does the viewer see when witnessing a main character, whom we have grown to like, put himself in grave danger selflessly to help another? Do we see Jesus? Possibly. But instead someone might observe, “See, there is a little bit of good in everyone, in even the most wicked person” – which is not a Biblical message. It will take a Christian talking to a friend after seeing this film to make this film experience into a real gospel presentation.

Jake, thank you for prompting all this thinking in me – in us; it continues. And I've seen some great films I would not otherwise have experienced.
David Martin (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-03 10:58:56pm
Rev. Wampfler,

Thank you for the article. I appreciated hearing your thoughts on finding Jesus and gospel messages in the film. After reading through the article, and looking back at Rev. Dr. Francis Rossow’s quote that you gave in the beginning, I took a moment to think about what you said. I started thinking about the different films I have watched and how I can see Jesus, or parts of the gospel in films in those films. You made the point that many writers and directors don’t even realize that they are putting Jesus or messages from the Bible in films. As I read through the comments, I saw that you said to Mr. Kuster that God’s law is written on our hearts. I think that is a great explanation of why writers and directors do this.

You said you always look for Jesus and messages from the Bible. I was wondering how much you usually find when watching films. Can you normally find those messages pretty easily, or is it like you can find them because you are looking for them?

Thank you again for your message on how we can find Jesus everywhere and furthermore how we can find him in films.
Jacob Wampfler (Shepherd of the Desert) 2020-11-05 5:08:16pm
David, thank you so much for your heartfelt comments! To your first paragraph, yes, I think you're absolutely right. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Jesus always seems to be showing up in the little details of film and TV in my experience. Authorial intent is only one of many reasons that Jesus and/or Gospel themes may show up in any given work of art. However, as with any literature or art (similar to Scripture in fact!), there is the author, the "text," and the reader/viewer. That is in no way meant to take away from the authority of Scripture, but I use it as an illustration to point out that we may pull something from a film that others might not have noticed before. It sounds like you're trying to do that in your own recollection of past films you've seen...lean into that inclination as much as you can!

To your second piece, since I started this practice as a young boy it comes very naturally to me to look for Jesus and Gospel motifs in TV and film. I would assert that they are frankly everywhere if you're keeping your eyes open and listening/watching to see how much Biblical imagery has permeated into the fabric of almost everything we view. There are, of course, varying degrees to which we see this per my comments to Tom above...but once we can start to discern the different levels, then we become better at incorporating film in our day to day faith conversations given my comments below as well.

Thanks again so much for reading and commenting...I truly appreciate the dialogue and conversation!
Katlyn Schwab (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-04 3:04:00pm
Rev. Wampfler,

When I was young, my dad and I often enjoyed the “geeky” movies together. One film that was mentioned earlier in the comments, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, my dad and I particularly loved. After reading your ideas regarding Christ in films, I recalled what my dad had told me after watching “The Chronicles of Narnia” for the tenth time. He pointed out how closely the life of Aslan paralleled with the life of Christ. After reading your article, I kept thinking about all of the other secular movies that my dad and I watched throughout my childhood. This really got the gears turning in my mind, and now I am trying to recall all of the films that I’ve seen in order to see parallels between them and Christ. Thank you for these new ideas.

After reading your article, I want to consider how we, as Christians, can use films for new outreach opportunities. I think it is especially important for us to relate to people when we talk to them about Christ. Could we use secular films that have parallels with Christ to help share the gospel with others? What are your thoughts regarding outreach and film?

Thank you again for these new thoughts and views on secular films. It is quite a compelling and thought-provoking message.
Jacob Wampfler (Shepherd of the Desert) 2020-11-05 5:37:52pm
Hi Katelyn, thanks so much for reading and commenting! I really appreciate your story about the Narnia films. My mother read the books to us when I was growing up, and she was always sure to connect Aslan to Jesus with us in her explanation of what she was reading. One of the most masterful, powerful, and simply astounding portrayals of Jesus' sacrifice is the stone table sequence in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." The sheer heart wrenching beauty with which Lewis walks the reader through the darkness to the light of Good Friday to Easter Sunday is frankly unparalleled in any other work of fiction, for my money. It's the gold standard for explicit Gospel connection in literature for a reason, and I go back to Narnia often for reminders of how the Gospel can be so simply and wonderfully communicated in story.

Per my comments to David above, keep leaning into that inclination to find Gospel themes in secular film! It's a worthwhile exercise, in my mind, and one that can benefit both our devotional lives and our witness to the world as well.

To your question about using secular film as opportunities to share the Gospel- yes, absolutely! I look at this, in some ways, similar to St. Paul's address in Acts 17 to the Areopagus. Where there was a statue made to the "unknown god," Paul used that as an opportunity to share the Gospel. In a similar fashion, where we see Gospel themes in secular film - and in fact anywhere in the world - we have plentiful opportunities to point to the grace and love of Jesus. Just a though, perhaps, to further the conversation...I hope that's helpful in some way!

Thanks again for reading and commenting, I really appreciate the wonderful discussion!
Aser AVa Seifu (EECMY School of Jazz Music, Film and Media, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) 2020-11-07 4:39:59pm
A very great insight, Jake Wampfler, Thank you for sharing, I really agree how cinema is creating a vital role in spiritually communication. Since I am from a very conservative community, Africa (Ethiopia), mostly when we have such kind of discussion how much films communicate us gospel, even if we have different view and observation, most of us agree on it has really impact and meaning for Gospel, but the challenge is understanding the representation in sound and openness, otherwise the debate and the fear creates more confusion than the understanding we expect from the story. I would love to read more the critics from your colleagues, since I am from Film and Media College, and our college is a Theological Seminary it will help us more to learn from you. Thank you , again.
Jacob Wampfler (Shepherd of the Desert) 2020-11-10 5:12:34pm
Thanks so much for your comments Aser! You raise a fascinating point about the benefits and challenges of using film outside of an American context, which adds a whole different layer to my article and the idea of finding faith/Gospel themes in film. I would love to connect with you more on this any time...be sure to check out the Faith and Film Festival through Concordia Seminary St. Louis and also you can find my email on Shepherd of the Desert's website as well. I'll include links to both below!


Joshua Pahmeier (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2020-11-09 11:46:38pm
Hello Rev. Wampfler–great article! As a movie fanatic myself, I found it an incredibly fascinating read. I have a few thoughts after reading your article. For one, I cannot believe Silence garnered practically zero attention. Given the fact it was directed by Scorsese and features Andrew Garfield (an underrated actor, in my opinion), Liam Neeson, and Adam Driver, I find it absolutely shocking that it did so poorly at the box office. I am curious what studio produced it–perhaps a smaller studio produced it which lead to the low box office numbers. Regardless, I cannot believe it did not fare better. Given the actors in the film as well as your commentary, Silence is definitely going to be added to my watch list. Applying your thoughts to other various movies that I have seen, it is crystal clear that a hero-sacrifice narrative exists in many movies. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is practically perfect throughout the course of the movie, striving to be moral in everything he does (making the comparison to Jesus' life and actions even easier to make). Yet, he sacrifices himself by flying the ship/missile at the end of the movie into an iceberg. In Pixar’s Wall-e, Wall-e actually does sacrifice himself for all of humanity. Though both Steve Rogers and Wall-e recover from their sacrifices, it holds true that Christ’s sacrifice is emulated in movies today. When a sacrificial scene takes place in a movie, I often find them very emotional. As you had suggested, perhaps the reason I find these scenes to be emotional because they subconsciously remind me of Jesus' sacrifice. I believe that a case could even be made that a sacrificial-arc occurs in 2019's Joker. I understand this very well may be a stretch, especially as Arthur Fleck clearly acts wrongly on multiple occasions throughout the movie. However, a hero arc is made in which Arthur’s actions lead to uproar in Gotham City. According to the narrative the film is attempting to create, this is for the betterment of the citizens. But still, even in this anti-hero movie, we see this same pattern that you recognized-characters attempting to do something bigger than themselves. This common narrative is incredibly reminiscent of Jesus. Though the hero/main character does not necessarily have to sacrifice themself, it is for the betterment of the other characters–just as Jesus did not have to die on the cross, but did, for the betterment of mankind.
Jacob Wampfler (Shepherd of the Desert) 2020-11-10 5:25:12pm
Thanks for commenting Joshua! First off, to your point about Silence...unfortunately, the studio doesn't really give us an explanation for the lack of interest in the film. Paramount distributed the film in conjunction with Studio Canal, although I think the press and overall rollout of the film was generally lacking. They really gave Scorsese the keys to the kingdom, however, in making this film in the first place. It was a passion project of his for more than 20 years, and I'm glad that the film lives on through both digital and physical media. I think the culprit, in many ways, is three-fold for American audiences especially: the film's overall length, partial subtitles, and difficult subject matter. American Christian audiences, especially, prefer much "lighter" fare in the realm of overtly Christian films (i.e. God's Not Dead, etc.). American audiences, in general, prefer 90-120 minute blockbuster fare as well, which also makes Silence a tough sell for the general movie-going population. With all that being said, I'm so glad you've added Silence to your watchlist...let me know if you want to have some further discussion about the film!

To your second point about hero-sacrifice motifs: right on! I would refer to my earlier comments in this thread to Kelsey as well, just to restate that sacrifice/atonement is only one of the thematic Gospel motifs that we can find in secular film. I appreciate your mention of Joker as well, because we definitely can see Christ figures and Gospel motifs even in anti-heroes and overtly evil characters. In some ways, they also present us with a foil to Jesus himself, so we see Jesus in the converse of the character presented on-screen. That's definitely the case with Joker and films like it...In Bruges, which I mentioned in my article, functions much in the same way for my money.

Thanks again for commenting, please let me know what you think of Silence once you watch it! Also be sure to check out the Faith and Film festival through Concordia Seminary for more discussion like this!