On Saving Mr. Banks and the contextualization of the Gospel

Over the holiday break I had the opportunity to watch the film, Saving Mr. Banks. I didn’t log onto Rotten Tomatoes and look at any reviews on the simple grounds that any film starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson is well worth seeing. Tom Hanks already proved that he can save Private Ryan, so why not Mr. Banks?

My favorite Tom Hanks film remains Cast Away where he portrays a Fed Ex employee who gets stranded for years on a deserted island, but, in the end, delivers his package. Once I saw Emma Thompson portray Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing and Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility I needed no reviewer to tell me that she is one of the greatest actresses of our time. Putting Tom Hanks with Emma Thompson in the same film may not have produced the famous sexual chemistry between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but it portrayed another classic struggle of all time. It is the struggle between “Form and Function” or “Style and Substance.”

The film brings us into the inside struggle between P. L. Travers, author of the book, Mary Poppins, and Walt Disney over the rights to turn the book into a full-fledged film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. In some ways it is a classic tale of contextualization. How do you preserve the original message of the book while presenting it in a different format (book to film) for a different generation? This is the “form and function” tension. How do you change the form or format while yet remaining true to the original function or purpose of the book? Can Dick Van Dyke dancing between several animated penguins (a major point of contention between P. L. Travers and Walt Disney) help to preserve and communicate the book’s message for many generations, or does it cheapen and trivialize the message so that the substance of the book is lost?

I couldn’t help watching the film, Saving Mr. Banks, from the perspective of the challenge we face as communicators of the gospel. On the one hand, the gospel message does not change. Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross and raised from the dead to deliver condemned sinners like you and me. That basic message does not change. On the other hand, walking into a church today is more like walking into a Starbucks or Panera Bread than walking into a hushed sanctuary or an exalted cathedral.

Pastors today are sometimes asked to speak their message between a bunch of dancing penguins. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that going to ‘church’ in the first century was neither a Starbucks or a Cathedral type experience. As it turns out, both of those expressions are highly contextualized for their respective times.

Occasionally readers of my blog leave with the impression that I am one of those who stand against various moves to contextualize the gospel. The evidence for this might be seen in my criticism of mega-churches or my criticism of contemporary choruses or a host of “gospel lite” expressions which have found their way into my sermons or blogs. However, for the record, let me say that I am actually an enthusiastic supporter of contextualization. I am amazed and impressed by the creative methods Christians have employed to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ. My criticism is not with either the “style” or “form” of much of what I see around us in the contemporary Christian world. What I find extremely disturbing (and which has, therefore, produced quite a few blogs over the years) is when in the name of “contextualization” the substance of the gospel is forgotten or lost.

I would never criticize someone who put the Apostles’ Creed or prayers of repentance to a contemporary tune. But I have criticized those churches which dropped the Creed and prayers of repentance completely because they are not “seeker sensitive.” So, I’m OK with dancing penguins on either side of Dick Van Dyke. However, the moment the film is no longer about Saving Mr. Banks, but about how to fly a kite, then I think we need to step back and re-evaluate if we have forgotten the whole purpose of contextualization in the first place.

The Annual Christmas Pageant

I remember the time when our youngest daughter Bethany first appeared in the annual children’s Christmas pageant in church.  Even though I was the pastor, I was not involved in selecting who would play the various parts.  I knew that our daughter, Bethany, was in the Christmas pageant, but I had no idea what her role would be.  I do remember that landing the part of “Mary” was a sign that you had finally “arrived” at the apex of the acting world in the wonderful world of Christmas pageants.  Other major roles included Joseph, the innkeeper and, of course, the three wise men.  The way our church program portrayed the innkeeper was unusual.  He was portrayed as an angry man who seemed to come out of a set which looked like the Marriott behind him, with dozens of rooms which were probably empty, but he slammed the door in the faces of this couple declaring he had “no room in the inn!”  There were several boys in our children’s program who loved to play that part.  Then, there were the wise men.  They were always the climax of the play.  They got to proudly parade down the center aisle at the close of the service in their bathrobes, excuse me, I mean, first century garb, with paper crowns on their head which had been covered with gold wrapping paper and sprinkled with glitter sufficient to hide the words, Burger King from the crown.  (There was probably a Burger King in Jerusalem in the first century, but Bethlehem apparently had only a Dairy Queen).  The magi would carry “gold” (a brick spray-painted gold), “frankincense” (a bottle of perfume) and “myrrh” (a lump of coal).  Secondarily, landing a part as a shepherd or one of the angels was the next acting tier.  After all, the shepherds were able to carry around the large crooks which could be used to whack and poke people during the pageant practice sessions.  Indeed, putting a tool of potential torture into the hands of an 8 year old boy shows the sheer bravery of the “people called Methodists.”  The young girls who were chosen to play angels got to wear large plastic wings which were attached to their backs.  Even though they were wrapped with tinsel they, too, could be a force to be reckoned with as they spun around and caught an unsuspecting shepherd looking the wrong direction at the wrong time.

Well, there I was the proud parent on the opening night of the Christmas pageant sitting in a metal folding chair waiting for the pageant to begin.  A few boys dressed in black came and pulled back the makeshift curtain (yes, a string of bathtub curtains) and there standing on stage was our daughter Bethany with two or three other small children.   Their faces were beaming out from a cardboard star painted bright yellow which encompassed each of their faces.  It was a large five pointed star with a hole cut in the middle for the face to shine through.  Bethany was a star.  She was playing the part of a star.  Bethany had no speaking part.  She had no acting to do.  She was instructed to just stand on stage and smile and be “as happy as a star.”  I never thought about a star being happy or sad, but if you are going to have a star in a Christmas pageant, it should be a happy one.  I have heard of dwarf stars and red giants and so forth, but it was the Christmas pageant that told me about “happy stars.”  Bethany loved being a star.  For her, as a four year old, it was just great being part of the event.

It was a beautiful reminder to me that night that the most important response to the Christmas event is to step out of the limelight and stand in awe, smiling at the wonderful grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Isn’t it great to be even a small part of this big thing God is doing in the world?