On Saving Mr. Banks and the contextualization of the Gospel

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

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.


  • An Excellent Word, and completely “Contextualized” for your message and audience! (Smile!)

    By-the-by, if you’re getting criticism from both sides on this issue, or others, there’s a very good possibility that you are right on target and you’ve done a great job of putting your message in a very good context for your audience!

    I greatly value my student and staff experience at ATS! My experience there is a major part of the foundation of my ministry as Executive Director of Appalachian Mission Initiative Incorporated.

    God Bless You Dr. Tennant! I seldom comment but I am very thankful for your blog and for your Presidency at ATS!

  • Al Gwinn says:

    So very well said! May the Lord raise up more real thinkers!

  • Chris Pettit says:

    “Pastors today are sometimes asked to speak their message between a bunch of dancing penguins.” I love this line. As our church moved past the ugly split between contemporary and traditional in order to come back together as one family, it was critical that both “sides” understood each other’s context. The hushed sanctuary helped the elders prepare for worship, while the videos and skits taught the younger audience in ways they could relate. Throughout that period of transition, there were many times I felt like I Dick Van Dyke! I believe we were successful because at the core, the message remained unapologetically the same.

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