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Can Entertainment Be Evangelism?

"How can we tell kids about The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan, in a way that will make sense for them?"

Ellen White has a lot of choice words to say about entertainment. For example:

"The world is teeming with errors and fables. Novelties in the form of sensational dramas are continually arising to engross the mind, and absurd theories abound which are destructive to moral and spiritual advancement."--4T 415 (1880).

If you're like me, you can't help but agree with her. Most movies and shows (seemingly especially ones geared towards kids) seem to be full of unhelpful messages. Rebellion against parents and authority in general, the deconstruction of religious belief, tolerance of or indulgence in sinful lifestyles, and encouragement to seek help in occult practices are common themes in childrens media.

Yet, stories as told by novels, plays, movies, television shows, and radio programs have firmly become the preferred way our society communicates ideas. Of course, Seventh-day Adventists have never shied away from mass media communication: we've long used magazines, radio programs, and even television programming to spread the Gospel and the Three Angels Messages of Revelation to the world. And in recent years, there have been more and more attempts to help translate Seventh-day Adventist history, theology, and culture through movies.

I think of some unhelpful attempts like the movie (that I hope you don't go watch after reading this) The Road to Wellville, which is a crude, secular attempt at a comedy about Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Battle Creek Sanitarium. I can imagine efforts like this helped our church to understand that in an economy of media and ideas: we can either have stories told about us (and in the case of Wellville, that is a bad thing) or we can tell our stories ourselves. As a result, we have seen some recent attempts by our church, to do just that.

The first attempt that comes to mind is the limited series The Record Keeper--a steampunk-inspired dramatic retelling of The Great Controversy, which focuses on interactions between angels as they try to navigate the question of whether God is good or not, behind the scenes of major biblical stories. A lot of heady philosophy and theology is discussed, various languages are employed, and though the series largely takes place in one room, there are some powerful ideas communicated through the dialogue and acting. One particularly heart-wrenching moment takes place during the flood, where an evil-leaning angel is accusing God of being evil, while the good angels are crying over the depravity of human beings necessitating such grave consequences. Legend has it that this was a production that was supported by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, until the final product was revealed and a few of the artistic licenses (violent fighting between good and evil angels, unsettling appearances and attitudes of evil angels, a being who is assumed to be God is portrayed as a woman) made church administrators put the halt on the official release of the series. Nevertheless, you can still look it up and watch it in its entirety on YouTube.

The most famous attempt, currently, has to be The Hopeful. Having recently been released in theaters across the country, this film is a re-telling of the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and has been endorsed by the North American Division as evengelism via cinema. This is the first effort of its kind for our church, which is huge for a culture that has long told people that their guardian angels will not accompany them inside of a theater (don't worry, that's an apocryphal saying that is not found in the Bible, nor Ellen White's writings). Of course, some detractors are still quick to point out that the actors in the movie are not all Seventh-day Adventists, and that this is a problem. But the director of the film assures concerned individuals that professional screen acting is not a skill just anyone has, and it's not a field of study and profession that Adventists typically go into. Perhaps, after The Hopeful, we will see a change in that reality.

Nevertheless, for those of us at local churches and conferences, there are still many questions of how to deal with entertaining things. Brother or sister so-and-so doesn't like that we have the kids act in a drama production for Pathfinder Sabbath, because of quotes like the one at the top of this article from Ellen White. Mind you, Auntie Ellen did have a lot of criticism over how drama productions were handled, but if we're honest, we do too. This costume is inappropriate, this way of acting seems to be glorifying sin, this message isn't clear and is hurting more than helping. I have, personally, experienced plays in churches that were not so much an asset to spiritual programming as they were an excuse for people to have fun. These productions turned out silly and nonsensical at best, and theologically damaging at worst. At the same time, we try to have empathy over the fact that young people (if they are involved in the production) are not ever going to be professionals, and no person is perfect enough to deserve to play the role of Jesus in any play.

But Ellen White does give this counsel, which is helpful to navigating the way we handle dramatic productions in church. "Will it make those who acted their part in it more spiritually minded? Will it increase their sense of obligation to our heavenly Father who sent His Son into the world at such an infinite sacrifice to save fallen man from utter ruin? Was the mind awakened to grasp God because of His great love wherewith He has loved us?"--2MR 236. There is merit to drama productions, movies, television shows, etc., if the answer is yes to these questions.

I remember years ago, when I was a camp staff, I was tasked with acting the part of an aged Jacob, grappling with the loss of his son, Joseph. Emotions ranging from sorrow, to passive anger at the other sons, to realizing his lost son really was alive, to resistance to change in moving to Egypt all impacted me as I prepared for and performed the role. One summer, I played a demoniac, angry and abusive at first, then agonized when being exorcised by Jesus, and then changed into a loving and thankful person after the demons had left him. I physically ached and was emotionally drained every week when my scene came up. It caused me to reflect a great deal on the cost of giving my life over to bad and evil decisions. When I was a student at Andrews, I played the role of Jesus for the Passion Play. Backstage, before the crucifixion scene, the makeup assistant squirted fake blood onto my forehead (under the crown of thorns), and she squirted too much and it dripped down into my eyes. I cried real tears up on the cross, due to the actual pain it caused. My grandmother told me she cried too, when she saw the scene. I was Jesus, to her, in that moment.

The point being: I have personally been spiritually impacted by the roles I've played. I have personally felt more drawn to Jesus because of acting in plays for ministry purposes. And I have also seen the impact these plays have had on those who have been present to view them. Not all productions are good productions. But I have enough evidence that it's a noble effort, and worth employing for ministry.

At Camp Wakonda, we strive to teach kids about the Gospel and about the Great Controversy in our productions. We use original scripts that are both Bible-focused and uniquely Adventist in their view and theology. Our Camp Staff are not professional actors, and those who direct the plays are not professionals either. They are also not perfect, sanctified, human beings: which is the case for any person ever, so we have empathy for them as they act and try to represent spiritual things. But I have cried, more than once, over the way that our Summer Camp staff have portrayed biblical truths to our campers. And I have seen the Gospel click in young minds, those young minds change and decide to act differently, and even decisions made for Bible study and baptism because of the scenes portrayed in camp dramas.

This summer, our theme and play (Back to the Garden) are centered around The Great Controversy. A fictional character, the false prophet Steve, finds himself travelling through time with Jesus (although he doesn't know it's Jesus for much of the play). As he experiences the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man, the resultant sin and flood, the exile of his people due to Israel's sins, how Jesus dies for his sins, and how this inspires people for thousands of years after to stand up for the Gospel: Steve is changed. Steve is a stand-in for the person in the audience: we all need to realize that sin exists, that it affects all of us, that Jesus has a plan to eradicate sin, and that He is inviting us to be a part of that plan. It is our hope that, as campers view this production, they will find themselves going through those phases and feeling their need for Jesus and His calling for them to spread the Gospel as a result.

Please continue to keep these efforts in prayer. Our Summer Camp staff will arrive at Camp Wakonda soon and start to prepare for their roles in this year's production. The Hopeful will continue to be an evangelistic tool that you can use as you share about Jesus and the history of our church. And when your Pathfinders storm the local church platform, give them a chance: even their amateur acting may be what someone needs to see to come closer to Jesus. After all, 60,000 people from all over the world are storming Gillette, Wyoming this August to watch Pathfinder young adults put on a production on the life of Moses. May God guide us, as we continue to find the best ways to express the Bible and Jesus through entertaining methods.

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