Monday, October 22, 2012

Ben Affleck Teaches the Church A Lesson

by Ben Howard

During the summer between my junior and senior years in college I worked as an intern at a small church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was difficult at times, but ultimately a great developmental experience. One of the more bizarre experiences involved one of the leaders at the church. He took me out to lunch one day and decided to lecture me about how I needed to be a better salesman. He used that classic line, "You're a salesmen and you've got the greatest product in the world!" I stared ahead and nodded politely while inwardly I shook my head.

It bothers me when churches try to market or sell themselves. I understand it, but it still bothers me. They've decided the gospel is something you consume, but that's not true. It's something you live. Something you inhabit that changes you into who you are meant to be. It's living art and art isn't something you consume, it's something you engage with.

I think churches and movie makers have a lot in common. There are mega-churches and blockbuster directors utilizing cliches and big budgets to make their message consumable for the masses. There are indie-chic auteurs and hipster churches that dazzle with artistry, but lose the thread under a thick layer of pretension. There are hack filmmakers who make the Left Behind books into movies and there are hack churches who tell people to go see it.

But this can be a good comparison too because sometimes churches, like filmmakers, can do amazing things. So today, I want to take a lesson from the making of a great film and see what churches can learn from Ben Affleck's latest movie Argo.

1) Tell Your Story

The first lesson of good movies and good churches is to simply tell the story. That's the reason you are there. You are being invited to be a part of this story.

Argo tells the story of a CIA mission to rescue six Americans from Iran in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis. It's a good story and Affleck, the director, trusts the story to keep the audiences attention. He doesn't need gimmicks or explosions or any other ancillary pieces of movie magic. He just needs a good story.

Christianity has that. It is an amazing story. It is a story of creation, brokenness, liberation, power, exile, redemption, death, resurrection and reconciliation. It is the story of everybody and anybody filled with peril and grace and honor and loss and tension and love. It carries itself, you don't need to convince people to pay attention. You just have to tell the story.

2) Know Your Context

Argo does something really interesting in its opening sequence. It tells the story of the Iranian people leading up to the storming of the embassy in 1979, not the story of the United States. It explains the context of the country and why it might seem like a good idea to someone to use violent force against innocent US citizens. Essentially, it tells you why the story's ostensible villain isn't necessarily evil.

This is a vital lesson for the church. First, the church must deal with its own historical context and it's important that the church own this history. It must understand that it has occasionally been the villain, but that's not the same as being evil. It must also understand that those outside the church are neither evil nor the enemy of those inside the church. They are people too with their own specific motivations.

3) Pay Attention to Detail

During the end credits of Argo they show side-by-side comparisons of the actors and their real-life counterparts. The resemblance is remarkable. There are also photographs from the era shown beside shots from the movie which make it clear the level of research and prep that went into this movie. The movie is set in the 1970s in Iran and it feels like it. It is entirely possible to be immersed in the story because you know that everything has been crafted with such care.

This one in particular speaks to me. I'm bad at preparation and detail. I like to do things from the seat of my pants and usually it works out well, but not all the time. When I fail, I fail spectacularly. I also realize more and more that it's easy to tell when something isn't important to someone because of the lack of focus on details. Details show dedication. It shows importance. Churches are by and large volunteer groups and so details often go overlooked, but they are vital in the success or failure of a church. Pay attention to details, it shows that you care.

4) Show, Don't Tell

I'm going to get a little nerdy here. When I watched Argo I realized that there is a pretty major sub-plot that was entirely cut out of the movie. This subplot involves the drinking problem of Ben Affleck's character Tony. I would bet that there are two or three scenes on the cutting room floor that directly address this issue, but they aren't in the movie. In fact, there isn't any dialogue in the movie about Tony's drinking problem, but there are pictures. You see him waking up with empty beer cans in the background, you his reaction to the lack of alcohol in Iran, you see him swipe a bottle of whiskey, these are all things you witness.

One of the great lessons of writing is that, when you can, show and don't tell. It's one churches have always struggled to learn in their context. We talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about love and grace and hope. But loving is hard and being gracious is hard and hoping for things unseen is hard. We say all the things we wish we believed and then we go out the door and show off what we actually believe. We need to learn to show, and if we can't show, then it isn't even worth telling.

5) Have Fun

Argo is a fun movie to watch. It's adventurous, it's tense and it can even make you laugh when it wants to. It was serious, but it was enjoyable.

Dear fellow Christians, please remember that at the end of the day you should be happy. At the end of the day, no matter how difficult life may be it is a ultimately a gracious gift. It is good. It is fun. Let loose and have some fun. Enjoy yourself and live the story.


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

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