Modern Parables: Living in the Kingdom of God is an original Bible study curriculum designed for people who like movies and is just the first in a planned series of film-driven studies on the parables of Jesus. The films are geared towards use for youth groups, small groups, evangelism or even home schooling curriculum. Volume 1 features six of Jesus’ parables, told anew through film and set in a contemporary context.
The 12-lesson study combines cinema and theology in short dramatic films that exegete (or explain) Jesus’ parables. In other words, just watching the films helps teach the historical, grammatical, contextual and interpretive elements in the parables.
Modern Parables lets people grasp the parables at an immediate, gut level. This emotional immediacy enables them to engage the Bible in a powerful and compelling new way.
Each parable is covered in two lessons. The first lesson is geared towards understanding the parable. Viewers watch the dramatization, ask questions about it, teach and then discuss the parable. In the second lesson viewers watch the application video, ask questions about the application video and then review the film and discuss the parable. Each of the application videos features a different pastor (some of whom you may recognize) simply providing basic teaching about the parable and then bringing a few words of application.
Here are the six parables covered in this volume along with a brief description and a trailer for each one.
The parable of the Hidden Treasure is told through the story of Jeff Smith who was having a really bad day trying to sell a horrendous piece of property until he found oil oozing out of the ground. The comedy of the set, this quick-moving and funny piece asks what we would be willing to sell in order to gain great treasure. It is “a light, screwball comedy filmed in the style of Frank Capra. We tried to find funny, heartwarming characters who represented middle America, then built a story around them.” The application video is provided by Dan Doriani of Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis (You may know Doriani for his commentary on James, part of the Reformed Expository Commentary set).
The story of the Good Samaritan is told in the context of an old man who is assaulted and left for dead (though the assault takes place before the story begins). A group of church kids, a deacon who is also a doctor, and a youth pastor all pass him by. It is an Arab man, eyed suspiciously by everyone else, who eventually comes to the old man’s rescue. This video was awarded as the Best Narrative at the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival. According to the creators, it is a “tribute to the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. We kept the camera still and tried to frame shots simply and with sensitivity to mise en scene. Our score uses a chamber ensemble for a more classical, austere sound.” The application video features George Grant who pastors Parish Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee. You may remember Dr. Grant for his contributions to the Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinsim DVD.
The Shrewd Manager
The Shrewd Manager deals with one of Jesus’ strangest parables, and one that is most difficult to understand. In this adaptation, a farmer plays the role of the shrewd manager, finding a way to make all the neighbors love him before being fired from his job. The movie relies on exaggerated rural accents, old school folk music, and a little bit of humor. Calling this an ironic comedy, the filmmaker says, “The Shrewd Manager tips its hat to Woody Allen with its long takes, simple zooms, and dry humor. We shot the film in Adairville, Kentucky and used a number of townspeople for extras.” Frank Lewis of First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee handles the application, explaining and applying the parable.
The Widow and the Judge
The Widow and the Judge tells the well-known story of a widow who kept coming to an unjust, uncaring judge begging for justice to be served. Eventually, though he cares nothing for the woman, the judge hears her case even if only to be rid of her. The filmmaker says it is “based on the style of the film To Kill a Mockingbird directed by Robert Mulligan. Set in a small Southern town and presented in black and white, it attempts to paint a gentle portrait of an old widow. The film also bears the slight influence of Frederico Fellini’s masterful 8 1/2.” The application is handled by Gene Mims of Judson Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Sower turns to a different genre of film—the documentary. This one is “shot in the documentary tradition starting with Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov, and continuing to present. Although the documentary has seen many forms throughout its history, we have attempted a simple, self-narrated exploration of a farmer and his field.” In this film, an elderly farmer simply explains what he has learned through a long career of sowing and harvesting wheat. He leads the viewer through his fields, showing wheat that has fallen in rocky soil, wheat that has fallen among the weeds, and wheat that has sprung up to produce a great harvest. Jeff Schulte of ChangePoint in Anchorage, Alaska shares some points of application.
The final film of the set is easily the best-known of Jesus’ parables. Prodigal Sons tastefully and stirringly tells the story of two sons, one of whom takes his father’s wealth and runs away, and the other who continues to honor his father, though more in word than in deed. The younger son blows his wealth on wine, women and song, and soon finds himself working in a morgue. Meanwhile, the older son remains with his father, turning his back on his profligate brother. This film “has been influenced by the work of the great Orson Welles. With its non-linear structure, its constantly moving cameras, its oblique angles, its sequence shots, and its direct narration, the film seeks to pay tribute to one of America’s greatest directors.” It has a powerful, powerful ending. Scotty Smith of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee provides the application and builds upon the teaching of Tim Keller, that this parable points to two different kinds of prodigal sons, the relativist and the moralist.
The films are entirely suitable for family viewing and, in fact, once we watched the first, my children pretty well demanded that we watch the rest. So we watched all six of them in an evening and spent right up until bed time discussing what the parables mean and asking why Jesus would share those stories. As the films began to play my children would suddenly grasp the story, remembering it from the Bible, and would find themselves absorbed in them. The only thing parents may want to watch out for with the children is the word “whores” shouted near the conclusion of the Prodigal Sons film (as in “he spent all his money on cars and whores…”). This word is, of course, implied in the story so does not seem out of place.
Of course this films are not intended primarily for children. Though I have not been able to use these materials in a Bible study setting, I suspect they would prove exceedingly useful for that purpose. Both a Teacher’s Guide and a Student Book are available. The DVD box set includes the DVDs, an Audio Teacher Prep CD, a Teacher’s Guide, and Student Book. The DVDs also feature director’s commentary which I found very interesting.
I think some of these stories impacted me on a level that the original stories have not for some time. It sounds terrible to write this, but somehow, through repeated retelling and study, so many of the parables have lost some of their punch. But to see them in a new context challenged me anew to grasp their significance. And, I thought, this must have been how Jesus’ disciples felt as they heard the stories for the first time. I may not understand what it was like to hear a story in which a Pharisee passed by a bleeding, injured man, only to have a Samaritan stop to help him, but I can feel some of that impact in watching a deacon and a youth pastor walk on by only to have an Arab taxi driver comfort the man and care for his needs. And maybe I’ve never really paused to consider what it would be like to find the hidden treasure and to sell everything I own to get it—my computer, my car, my television and my wife’s china. These films caused me to pause and to think about such things. And for that I am grateful. While I would not wish to make it sound like there is anything wrong with the biblical accounts, I do think a fresh retelling of the stories can be very beneficial.
I’m grateful for this series of films, a series which I learned about only recently. I am thrilled to know that it is only the first in what is intended to be a set. I’m going to watch these films often and am certain I’ll enjoy watching them again with my children. I hope I will other opportunities to use them. And I’ll wait impatiently for Volume II.
Buy It & Learn More
If you’d like to learn more about the films, you can visit modernparables.com. From there you can buy the videos and other material. Under the “Try” button you can try out two of the lessons and under the “Explore” button you’ll find an interesting “making of” section. There is lots of material to find. Amazon shoppers may wish to order from Amazon.