By: Mark Edwards
Each January our youth take a hiatus from our normal age-specific Christian education classes. Instead, middle school students, high school students, and adults met together for an all-ages Sunday School class. Following upon last year’s four-part series on Faith in Fantasy (Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and Star Wars), we decided to turn our eyes this year to Faith in TV. While the selections for Faith in Fantasy were fairly easy for us to choose, we had a greater dilemma concerning which TV shows to focus on. Some shows that are well known have less interesting theological content (Jeopardy, for instance), while other shows that are less popular offer much to talk about (Lost or Breaking Bad). We wanted to discuss shows that a good percentage of people have either seen, or are likely to see, and that are making an impact in critical circles either because of simple popularity or their impressive content. In the end it also largely came down to finding good presenters who were passionate about particular shows.
The four shows we focused on were The Simpsons, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, and The Wire. In terms of attendance the best attended session, by far, was on The Simpsons, though even after 27 seasons many had never seen an episode. Downton Abbey drew the largest number of fans, but most of these were adults. The middle schoolers largely were absent from this session. I understand why they weren’t interested, but think it a shame all the same. It was a delight to see passionate adults talking with such care and detail about the small ways in which grace, love, and prayer were displayed at Downton. The Wire and The Walking Dead drew smaller crowds but still generated good discussion on prayer and what, as Christians, we ought to want our representation of faith, hope, and love to be on TV. We did omit the worst of the foul language from clips in The Wire, but in the future, I would recommend not doing this. Such things need to be discussed and the church should be a mature enough place to do that. It also is simply the way in which the experiences of those lives are conveyed.
The greatest lesson I’ve learned is that people want to talk about stories they love. Things like Star Wars, Downton Abbey, and Harry Potter are deeply engrained in our community and it was meaningful to discuss their themes in a Christian context. Though each show had its loyal followers, turning attention to shows that multiple generations have seen provided the best way to open up discussion across the ages. I would encourage organizers and presenters to poll their congregations carefully to see what books, films, or music are well enough known to have a fairly fluent audience. If shows are widely familiar, a presenter only need to select a few clips and serve as a traffic controller for the ensuing discussion.
We also found that providing biblical passages that correlate to clips and themes is a great way to open up the Scriptures to people in a new way. Providing Psalm 23 and suggesting that Frodo’s journey is reminiscent of it, allows people to think from that common base. It also equalizes those who have deeper biblical literacy with those who are less fluent, since all have the text in front of them.
Ultimately the goal of such classes should be, I believe, to encourage us to see the ways in which God’s redemption of this world is made known in places beyond the walls of the church. Just as Christ taught in parables, so too can we use the parables of the popular book, film, and music to illuminate God’s redeeming grace.
Mark Edwards is director of youth ministry at Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton, NJ. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.