As part of our ongoing study guide series, we have developed a collection of resources related to an upcoming film about the life of Jesus, Son of God. The film’s producer, Mark Burnett, is an outspoken Christian in Hollywood who produced the successful Bible series and numerous television programs such as The Voice, Survivor, and The Apprentice. Many churches are already planning on hosting screenings of the film prior to its release in theaters on February 28th. Burnett’s team has developed a number of resources for churches who are screening the film in their communities (sonofgodresources.com).
However, these Reel Spirituality resources have a uniquely Fuller focus: Interfaith dialogue. Burnett is a friend of Fuller, so for this year’s Windrider Film Forum, which takes place each January alongside the Sundance Film Festival, we invited him to join us for an advance screening of Son of God … at the Park City Stake Center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. An audience of about 300 Evangelicals and Mormons watched the film together. Before the film our LDS hosts served us a delicious meal, and after the film we engaged in an inter-faith conversation about the importance of Jesus Christ for the world.
Because Reel Spirituality is committed to offering ministry leaders tools for engaging in thoughtful and substantive theological reflection, we are offering here a number of resources that might help you engage in a similar interfaith dialogue. While many churches will host a screening of the Son of God for the purposes of broad-based community outreach, it may be that your church is particularly called to reach out to other communities of faith—those that might not share a set of Evangelical convictions but still hold the person and work of Jesus as central to their identity. For anyone who embraces this calling for constructive dialogue, we hope these resources are both helpful and inspiring.
Q&A With Mark Burnett On Son of God And Its “Non-Denominational” Potential
At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the Windrider Forum sat down with Mark Burnett to discuss his new film, Son of God, and his vision for how a film about Jesus might serve as a starting point for conversations about Christianity.
Windrider Forum: Tell us about the movie. How did you get here and what does it mean to you?
Mark Burnett: This feature film is an amazing tool for churches to open up our hearts and let grace flow into ours. We actually get to see the story of Jesus in an epic, major motion film. The last time Jesus was on the big screen was 10 years ago with The Passion which just deal with three days of Jesus’ life.
WF: You are speaking to all denominations in Son of God. Talk about how you feel this film can transcend denominational differences
MB: For 2,000 years there have been various segments of Christianity, which have come to be called denominations. And there are differences in worship, but there are more things that unite denominations than divide them. And the central point of Christianity is the belief that, without sinning, Jesus is the Son of God and that God came to earth and died for us. God was willing to entrust himself as an infant to human care and to live in a human family. He loved us so much that he entered our experience and was brutally murdered for us. He then was resurrected and let us know how to proceed in the great commission. And that is what this film is. This film is part of the Great Commission. If Paul would have had movies and Twitter, he would have been using them! So we are just using modern tools to evangelize.
WF: Paul had to evangelize city by city, town by town. This film can go all over the world at once. Talk about the global reach of the film.
MB: This film absolutely can travel globally. Because in two hours, by making an emotional connection between you and the life of Jesus, this will be used in almost every country in the world as a tool to invite people in to hear the good news about Jesus. It is easy to invite someone to a film and say “look at this” and let them feel it in their heart and then maybe read scripture to explain who he is, why he died for us, and what we should be doing next.
WF: We are here in Park City as a group of seminarians, pastors, future ministers, and lay Christian leaders. And we are screening this film in the LDS church. This is part of one of the most popular classes at Fuller, where we come to Sundance and experience film and culture on its own terms. Talk a bit about the need for the next generation of Christian leaders that are coming out of a place like Fuller to understand image and the stories that are being told.
MB: Interestingly enough, probably the first meeting I had on the Bible series was with Dr. Richard Mouw who recently retired as the president of Fuller Seminary. He understood immediately. He gave one of the first endorsements for the film and advised us and saw the value of film and television to evangelize. And he really gave us encouragement. I’m hoping that me being here tonight will pass that on and encourage these seminary students to go out there and be the next generation of pastors. They can use film and video to explain and make people feel the message. Because it is not enough just to say the words of the bible. You have to explain it in a way so that you can feel something. What pastors do every week is take scripture and fill in the blanks. Pastors need tools to do this and one of those tools can be film.
WF: What do you think about Fuller and Reel Spirituality creating resources for pastors to take this film out and be able to talk about it in inter-faith contexts?
MB: Son of God can be looked at as a resource. In fact we have a resource site for pastors which is called Son of God resources. And on that resource site we have videos, clips from the film, and a 10 step plan for how to use Son of God in ministry. And it is leaders like Dr. Callaway and others who recognize the value of resources like film and images to enhance the ability to reach people and make them feel something and open their hearts up.
The importance of Inter-faith Dialogue for Evangelicals
The following excerpt is taken from pgs. 111-121 of former Fuller President Richard Mouw’s Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. To purchase the entire book, click here.
We Christians seem to be fond of polarizations. This propensity shows up in discussions about our approach to other religions. Some Christians emphasize evangelizing strategies that are heavily weighted toward explicit convictedness: present the message of the gospel and invite people to become Christians. Other Christians rely heavily on civility: engage in polite dialogue with people from other religious communities in the hope of promoting mutual understanding and cooperation.
The defenders of each of these approaches often don’t get along very well. The evangelizers accuse the dialoguers of sacrificing the gospel for religious relativism; they fear that the unique claims of Christianity will be bartered away in inter-religious dialogue. The dialoguers respond by accusing the evangelizers of a religious imperialism that runs roughshod over the genuine insights that can be found in other religious traditions; they want to avoid a dogmatic spirit.
Do these two approaches need to be treated as an either-or choice? Is it possible to see evangelism and dialogue as complementary activities? I’m inclined to look for some way of integrating the two emphases. Why can’t Christians engage in evangelization while at the same time hoping to gain new understanding through dialogue with other religions?
When evangelism and dialogue become the watchwords of two opposing camps, it leaves some of us very uncomfortable. For example, I find that the dialoguers often explain their approach in ways that leave me no choice but to stay out of their camp. Theologians representing the dialogue cause often do sound relativistic; some of them even insist that interreligious dialogue is an important phase in our “evolution” toward a new “global theology” to which various religions will contribute their particular “hypotheses” about ultimate reality.
I cannot accept a call to interreligious dialogue that rejects Christianity’s claims to uniqueness. And, frankly, I know Jews and Muslims who would also reject that approach. They do not want their claims to theological uniqueness reduced to mere “hypotheses” about spiritual things. There are genuine disagreements between the different religions. In the final analysis, the choice between religious perspectives has to do with mutually exclusive truth claims about reality and goodness. No amount of dialogue will make these differences go away.
But this does not mean that I’m a consistently comfortable resident of the evangelizing camp. My fellow evangelizers do sometimes (and I stress the sometimes) tend toward dogmatism and imperialism—especially in reaction to the relativistic statements of many dialoguers. But that does not mean they’re right in rejecting dialogue altogether.
I want an evangelizing Christianity that is open to civil dialogue with non-Christians. So I look for ways of transcending these polarized positions. There is much to be gained from holding firmly to Christian truth claims while genuinely engaging other people in serious discussion.
It is important, I think, to value both evangelism and dialogue without reducing the one to the other. The two activities have a complementary relationship.
Indeed, dialogue can be an important strategy for evangelism—a fact that’s been recognized by evangelicals who call for “relational evangelism.” In many situations, the best way to evangelize people is to establish strong bonding relationships with them: listening to them, identifying with their hopes and fears, gaining their trust. Then, when we do have the chance to talk with them about the gospel, they can accept our words as an expression of love for them. The empathic give-and-take of this approach is essentially dialogic in nature.
That is good and noble. But it’s important that all dialogue with persons of other religious groups not be merely a strategy for evangelism. We mustn’t set these relationships up in such a way that our efforts will be a failure if the relationships don’t develop into evangelistic opportunities.
Francis Schaeffer, a Christian leader who did much to foster the idea of a more intellectually reflective evangelicalism, talked often about the importance of “co-belligerency.” By that he meant that we should find ways of cooperating with people of other faith perspectives in working for the common good. This would mean, he insisted, we would form ad hoc alliances—working with one group on this cause and with another on a different cause. Interreligious understanding is a helpful means to gain the appropriate information and sensitivities to seek out that kind of cooperation.
I once heard an African Christian leader tell what it had been like for him to turn away from animistic religion to embrace Christ. “There were many things in my tribe’s religious stories that prepared me for the gospel. When I first heard the story of Jesus, it did not strike me as a completely new and strange thing. What I said to myself was, ‘Aha! So that is the answer!’”
This man first experienced Christ as the answer to questions that he had long been asking from within the framework of another religion. This should not surprise us. St. Augustine’s oft-quoted prayer expresses a profound fact about the human condition: our hearts are restless until they rest in God. The spiritual restlessness that characterizes the human quest can find fulfillment only in Christ. Interreligious dialogue can be an important way for us to understand better the ways in which our human restlessness is expressed in different religious settings.
Fuller’s Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue Journal
Small-Group Discussion Guide for Son of God Inter-faith Conversations
Read Matthew 3:13-16 and consider Jesus’ Baptism.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
1) What does it mean to you for Jesus to be the Son of God?
2) Is your answer to this question unique or different than others? How so?
3) In what ways does your faith community reflect this understanding of Jesus as the Son of God?
Read Matthew 16: 24-27 and consider the character of Jesus.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
1) In what ways does Son of God offer a helpful picture of Jesus’ character?
2) What would your faith tradition add or remove from this depiction?
3) If you made a movie about the life of Jesus, how would you develop his character?
4) What would be the most important elements in your telling of his story? Why?
5) How does your understanding of the person of Jesus shape the way you live as a person of faith?
Read Luke 6 and reflect upon the Sermon on the Mount.
Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor ,for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
1) Who are the “poor” and “hungry” in our community?
2) Recognizing our real differences, how might partner together to bless them?
3) Do we have any common “enemies” to whom we might respond in love?
4) In what ways does our shared love of Jesus urge us to work together for the common good?
5) What are the real hurdles in this endeavor? What might be the benefits?
Mark 6: 35-44 and reflect upon Jesus feeding the multitudes.
By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages[e]! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
1) In what ways is God’s economy defined by abundance rather than scarcity?
2) Name a time in your life where you experienced God’s abundance.
3) What practical steps can we take to live as people of abundance in a world of scarcity?
Additional Film-based Discussion Resources from Fuller Seminary