July 2009 – Honesty check: Raise your hand if you consider theology dry, dull or even divisive. Keep ’em up. Now, raise your hand if you’ve ever caught yourself more interested in talking theology than living it. OK, now that everyone has come clean, put your hands down and prepare to be challenged by a new Bible study resource that could engage the theologically disinterested, as well as turn talkers into doers.
Modern Parables from Compass Cinema (www.compassclassroom.com) is billed as a “Bible study for people who like movies.” The 12-part series features short films that recast six of Jesus’ parables in a modern context. The strategy is to elicit from contemporary viewers the same responses that the original hearers of Jesus’ parables might have experienced.
“The original Palestinian and Jewish audiences brought an enormous amount of cultural assumptions to a parable that we don’t necessarily bring,” explained Thomas Purifoy Jr., producer, director and screenwriter of Modern Parables. “For example, today calling someone a Samaritan is a compliment. Back then the term was used pejoratively. We hope that our modern re-telling engages people in an immediate, gut-level way that helps recreate the impact that the stories had on the first hearers.”
However, Purifoy is quick to explain that his short films are not the focus of the study, but a tool to point viewers back to Scripture. “This is not a video-driven study,” he contended. “The film simply helps the viewer quickly get deeper into the Scripture text.”
Purifoy constructed each parable study in two lessons: “Understanding the Parable” and “Living the Parable.” In the first lesson, viewers watch the modernized parable, which runs 15 to 20 minutes. Using a leader’s guide, a classroom facilitator then guides the class in understanding the parallels between the modern parable and the Scripture text. The second lesson seeks to apply the parable to real life using another short film that features teaching by a learned pastor.
“I’m a Biblicist from beginning to end,” Purifoy said. “I always want to keep the film subservient to the text. In the process, I want the viewer to forget the new story and focus on the original.”
The message, the medium
The parables project took several years to come to fruition, Purifoy said. He first conceived the idea while a student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. At the time, the creative writing major had dreams of becoming a screenwriter. But that goal was put on hold by a four-year stint in the Navy.
Returning to civilian life, Purifoy once again set his sites on screenwriting. He attended Act One, a nonprofit organization in Hollywood that trains Christians for careers in mainstream film and television. But instead of leading him further into the filmmaking business, Purifoy said the experience showed him what little leverage writers have. That realization eventually led him to decide that the part of moviemaking that suited him best was producing.
Purifoy produced “Samaritan,” the pilot episode of Modern Parables, in 2005 and used it to raise money to fund the other five films. The project was fully realized in 2007 and began to gain traction among Christians about a year ago.
Purifoy’s respect for the Scripture is evident in Modern Parables. He has taken great care to avoid stretching any detail of the re-told story beyond what Jesus’ original text warrants.
“I realized that the structure of the parables offers the filmmaker an opportunity to use cinema in a way that is usually the province of exegetical teaching and preaching,” Purifoy said in explaining his intention in producing Modern Parables. He said that the modernizing of the stories helps viewers better understand the theology that is involved.
Purifoy’s love for the medium of film is also obvious as each video episode is produced in the style of one of his favorite filmmakers, including Orson Wells, Frank Capra, Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen. A bonus for film buffs – although not a part of the lesson plans – is Purifoy’s director’s commentary that discusses the cinematic influences and theological ideas behind each film.
Producing even a short film is an expensive undertaking, Purifoy said. And although a recessed economy has limited revenues, he hopes to begin shooting more parable episodes this summer beginning with an updated version of the parable of The Workers in the Vineyard. Purifoy said a film-based lesson series on the Beatitudes is also planned.
The Modern Parables series is suitable for use in a wide range of settings including Sunday School classes, youth groups, small Bible studies, home school curriculum, family devotions and personal study.
Episodes can be purchased as single DVDs, digital downloads or as classroom packs. A study guide and leader’s guide are also available.
All six films are available here.