- Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The modern era has been so rapidly altered by advances in technology that it is genuinely difficult to appreciate how constant such changes have been for human life over many centuries. Technology has always shaped our lives, from the discovery of how to control fire to the invention of the wheel. With each new advance our lives have changed. Now we are living in an age where technological changes alter how we live and work on a daily basis. The computer and Internet have altered life and commerce at a mind-boggling pace, like nothing before.

In the fourteenth century the most amazing new technology was the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith by profession, devised a hand mold to create metal movable type, and adapted screw presses and other existing technologies, to create the prototype of all printing systems. From this beginning everything began to change.

In 1800 a new technology began to take shape. An attempt was made to create what we call a photograph. It wasn’t until the 1820s that success came, but only on the most elemental level. In 1839 photography was introduced commercially. Then, in the late 1880s a new photographic process was created that allowed for a sequence of photographic images to be put together into what we call a film.

So what is it about film that “speaks” so powerfully to modern people? I am not sure there is a single answer yet I am fully persuaded that film has uniquely marked the last century of American culture. Now, in the modern global era, films mark other cultures as well. I saw one example of the power of film in India in the 1980s when I traveled through towns in India over several months. I keenly remember my amazement watching the pour out of large theaters late at night.

But what has film to do with faith?

The Apostle John, near the end of the first century, said that Jesus Christ is “the Word [who] became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). At the center of the Christian faith is a person. A person who is both fully Deity and fully human. A deity who experiences all human emotions, has all the familial ties and stresses that come with them, and who is keenly aware of His God-given purpose to be the climax of all of History. That is a dramatic story!

A story can be told in many ways. “Once upon a time … In a large deep forest long ago …” In the Bible we read, “In the beginning …” The Christian story is told in this same way. Historical events are presented in forms that shape how we see and understand. Seeing and hearing creates lively response. Narratives are found in all forms of human communication, whether in prose, myth or poetry. But here is the point that many have missed. Story is also told through genres like role-play, drama, music and film.

Shakespeare said, “All the world is a stage.” Film has become the preeminent modern stage upon which the actors of our world situate themselves within the great drama of modern life. I am persuaded that this idea of story and metaphor is what makes film so powerful.

Film has a unique and powerful ability to speak into the most complex issues of our day as it communicates to the listener in ways few other mediums can by adding emotion, movement and faces to the story. Film can bring tears to a love a story; it can humanize the hated; it can bring us from the couch to the front lines; it can bring clarity to ambiguity; and it can bring unity to disunity.

One of the most common features of our social, political and religious life is our disunity. We are divided by faith, politics, race, ethnicity and broken families. Yet Jesus prayed for his followers to be united in faith (cf. John 13:34-35; 17:21-24). Can film help people of faith recapture something of this unity?

The new video series, This Changed Everything: 500 Years of the Reformation, does precisely this in a remarkable way. This documentary includes stunning scenes, an outstanding musical score and the sonorous narrative voice of the esteemed British actor, David Suchet. The series immerses the viewer in the world-changing events of 500 years ago. On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther posted a series of theses (disputations) on the door of the University Church in Wittenberg. Within weeks his challenge to discuss church practices sparked crowd-sourced gatherings when the masses read his words in simple German.

A century before Martin Luther, the Bohemian church leader Jan Hus issued a similar challenge but nothing changed. But in 1517 a movement was launched that changed the world. Why? The technology of Gutenberg’s movable-type printing process changed everything! This thrilling new documentary series uses greatly enhanced technology to penetrate the mind and imagination of the viewer. In This Changed Everything you will hear leading Protestant and Catholic scholars provide fascinating insights and pose vital questions about unity, truth, and the future of the Christian church. During the next year, as multitudes remember these events which changed the church and culture dramatically, this film series will help people engage with historical events that unmistakably shaped our modern world. These films will also make this story come alive in new ways, as good history always does.

But how can the story of the sixteenth-century Reformation bring about unity when the Reformation brought about such diversity and division? The answer will take you full-circle, back to the future. Here we see again the power of good film. This documentary draws you into living history through narration, images, metaphor and probing questions. It shows you how we were separated and reminds us of the importance of the questions and debates that marked the sixteenth century. But, as great film does it will lead you into metaphor and imagination through a well-told story. By focusing the questions of the modern era on what unites us, even while recognizing the nature of our formal divisions, This Changed Everything has the power to frame a future that unites people of faith. This future is not Christianity lite! It is a robust, theologically-alert and personally-engaging future. But it is a future that can bring people together in a broken and divided world that sees religion very differently than Europeans did in the sixteenth century.

Many events and documents will mark the remembrance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This film series can help you engage with our shared past, present and future. Could it be that film is the Gutenberg press of our age? If so this film series could provide both the understanding and power that is needed to unite people of faith who have long been divided by bitter debates.

Dr. John H. Armstrong is an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). He founded and became the first president of the ACT3 Network (Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium) in 1991. He is the author/editor of fourteen books (including the forthcoming title, Costly Love, 2016) and a Senior Advisor to Christian History Institute. John is married to his wife Anita and lives in suburban Chicago.

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