The Gospel According to Saint Matthew
In the late 1960s, while a student at Asbury College, I happened across a foreign film that had a powerful impact on my spiritual formation. Shown across the street on the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary, it was The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964), produced by famed Italian filmmaker Pier Paoli Pasolini. As this avowed atheist himself related, he once found himself with time on his hands in Assisi, Italy, while the town prepared for a visit of Pope John XXIII. Out of boredom, he picked up a New Testament and read through its entire first book, Matthew's Gospel, at one sitting. Struck by its power and the commanding forcefulness of Jesus' personality, he decided to produce a film portrait based solely on Christ's words as recorded by Matthew, with no other mediating text or narrative. Pasolini also selected primarily untrained actors based on the character of their faces; he used background music ranging from Bach to a Congolese Mass; he and set his film in the rugged terrain of southern Italy, which mimicked the harsh landscape of ancient Israel. Although a nonbeliever and Marxist himself, Pasolini faithfully recounted Jesus' miracles and resurrection as related by Matthew.
At the time I saw the film I had no basis for comprehending what a provocative statement Pasolini was making in his secularized milieu. But eventually I learned that leading Italian Catholic intellectuals, while wary of Pasolini's politics and lifestyle, nevertheless came to praise the film. And The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, "in the minds of most critics, is still the greatest, most authentic and the most religious film on Jesus ever made."1 But when I first viewed it I just knew I had witnessed an unforgettable rendering of Jesus as a supremely powerful personality who was frequently angered by prevailing unrighteousness and injustice. And to this day, I believe if one were to stumble upon Christianity exclusively through the eyes of St. Matthew, one would understand Jesus' indignation with hypocrites and unrepentant sinners and his equally pronounced joy over sinners come home as among the most powerful motifs of the Gospel.
As regards missiology, the study of the propagation of the Gospel across cultures, Pasolini's film illustrates that secular agents of culture, in this case even a Marxist, can bear witness to Christian truth. Non-Christian artists, writers, thinkers, and even non-Christian folk practices and religions can harbor clues and lend witness to God's biblical revelation. Missionaries understand this adaptation and "redemption" of culture as contextualization. In Burma in 1819, Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson adapted for Christian use Buddhist zayats, roadside shelters used for relaxation and discussions of current events. Judson and his wife Nancy attended Buddhist services held in zayats to become acquainted with seating patterns and other associated traditions. The Judsons' employment of zayats for Christian purposes quickly led to the first Burmese converts to faith in Christ. Similarly in India in the 1930s, Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones adapted for Christian use the Hindu ashram, or spiritual retreat, leading to Christian conversions among high caste Brahmans. Jones's ashrams also modeled the possibility in India of Christian community freed of race, caste, and political barriers.
The idea that many cultures and folk traditions have embedded within them silent pointers to Christ was championed perhaps most powerfully in the twentieth century in the writings of Canadian Don Richardson, who served in New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s under Regions Beyond Missionary Union. His books, Peace Child, Lords of the Earth, and Eternity in Their Hearts, develop the concept of "redemptive analogies," the discovery and application of spiritual truths derived from local customs and traditions that are compatible with Christian teaching. Don and his wife Carol and their seven-month-old son began work in 1962 among New Guinea's Sawi tribesmen, who practiced cannibalism and headhunting and idealized treachery. Murder and fear of death constantly plagued Sawi villages, which regularly raided one another. Richardson quickly recognized that the concept of a loving Savior who died for all was incomprehensible to the Sawi: "In their eyes Judas, not Jesus, was the hero of the Gospel. Jesus was just the dupe to be laughed at." Finally, however, he discovered a redemptive analogy in the tribe's rarely employed Sawi peace ritual, which involved each warring village exchanging a "peace child" as a guarantor of peace. The author of Peace Child actually witnessed such a ritual and noted that the Sawi "had found a way to prove sincerity and establish peace.... Among the Sawi every demonstration of friendship was suspect except one. If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted!"2 Richardson was able to use this analogy to point the Sawi to God the Father's sacrifice of his son and thereby lead many Sawi to faith in Christ.3
The growth in the United States in recent decades of Christian schools and Christian home schooling has its commendable features. However, the tendency sometimes found in such circles to raise suspicions against all expressions of culture that are not explicitly Christian can actually undermine educational excellence and witness. Not only can such suspicions thwart genuine Christian liberal arts education, seeking God's truth wherever it may be found, they also can rob those educated in Christian schools and home schools of the prospects of discovering "redemptive analogies" in American culture--or in any other culture.
Discrimination in the Positive Sense
It is critically important for any thinking Christian to develop the power of discrimination in the positive sense of the word, that is, the ability to search out grain in a field of chaff, to detect a spiritual diamond in the rough, to uncover a peace child in a cannibal culture. This means that to be Christians with our minds as well as our hearts we are obliged to garner truths from every conceivable and seemingly unlikely quarter.
For several decades now as a student of modern European and Russian history, I have been appalled by the physical suffering, the torture of mind and body, and the death perpetrated upon untold millions of people in the name of Marxism. But at the same time I should not be blinded to the fact that Karl Marx, like an Old Testament prophet, was right to rail against the exploitation of workers that attended the initiation of heavy industrialization in Europe. We should be able to learn from Marx, to discern and discriminate among his ideas, rather than equate him in simple-minded fashion with the devil incarnate.
Speaking of the Devil
Speaking of the devil, biblically based believers take seriously Christ's triple temptations in Matthew 4:1-11. Jesus was truly tempted to turn stones into bread after 40 days of fasting. Jesus was truly tempted with spiritual manipulation, as the devil proposed an angel's rescue if he would but dive off the temple in Jerusalem. And Jesus was truly tempted with earthly power as the devil promised him "all the kingdoms of the world and their glory." These were real because if the devil had not been speaking the truth in these enticements, then the temptations he placed before Christ would not have been genuine temptations. And if Christ had not been truly tempted, then the historic, biblical teaching would be called into question that Christ on earth was not only wholly divine, but also wholly human, facing temptations as do mere mortals. Again, the point to be underscored is that truth and insight that can direct us to Christ may be found in unlikely locations. And for Christian witness across cultures, it would appear to be an absolutely essential exercise, as the ministries of Adoniram Judson, E. Stanley Jones, and Don Richardson suggest.
A Rich Christian Heritage
One of my greatest concerns for Western missionaries serving in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is that "redemptive analogies," readily retrievable, are infrequently employed. Drawing straightforward spiritual and moral insights from the rich Christian heritage of these regions should be a much easier task for missionaries serving east of the old Iron Curtain than it was for Judson, Jones, and Richardson. In Eastern Europe, for example, spiritual truths may be drawn from the prolific and insightful writings of Eastern church fathers (starting with the Philokalia); from the mystic hesychast tradition embodied in the Jesus Prayer (exemplified in the anonymous Pilgrim and Pilgrim on the Way); from Leskov, Dostoevesky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn; from "secular" writers with deep moral insights such as Polish novelist Czeslaw Milosz and Czech dissident dramatist-turned-president Vaclav Havel; and even from heavily censored Communist-bloc cinema.
Moral and Spiritual Reflections in Soviet Cinema
In 1987 filmmaker Elem Klimov, in Farewell, depicted the degradation of the environment and Soviet life in general as he dared to challenge a Siberian electrification project--this in a country whose leader, Lenin, had declared electrification and Communism synonyms. Farewell also more than hinted that the act of flooding the good earth and a church built on it in the name of progress was actually an act of desecration and destruction. Likewise, in 1987 Georgian filmmaker Tenghiz Abuladze managed to steer through landmines of censorship to produce Repentance, perhaps the most celebrated film of glasnost, which not only struck at the very heart of Stalinism, but openly challenged the entire Soviet experiment. At the same time, the film's last line poignantly and hauntingly bemoaned the sacrifice of the sacred that consistently characterized Soviet Communism: "What good is a street if it does not lead to a church?"4
Andrei Rublev, The Stalker, and The Decalogue
In a way, this essay is preface for an endorsement of the work of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski for the insight they bring to bear on Judeo-Christian ethical themes and truths, Marxist censors notwithstanding. Admittedly, these artists produced films that average moviegoers dismiss as "high brow"--not easy viewing by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, their work can point searching audiences toward the gospel as they examine the theme of Christian sacrifice in the body of Tarkovsky's work, especially in Andrei Rublev and The Stalker, and as they wrestle with timeless ethical dilemmas, as in Kieslowski's Decalogue series.
To yield their full treasures, the works of these filmmakers may require patience, careful attention, possibly multiple viewings, and forbearance in their treatment of some subject matter. Without endorsing every turn of plot or portrayal, these filmmakers still deserve careful attention from anyone who would seek to understand East European culture and who would seek to share Christian witness in it.
What Gregory Schreck and Rodney Clapp have to offer in their accompanying articles about Andrei Tarkovsky's uncompromising spiritual vision and Krzystof Kieslowski's moral insights will not readily translate into three-page tracts, four-minute testimonies, or five-minute sermonettes. However, properly digested over time, the work of these film artists can provide compelling theological insights, especially for the region's intelligentsia--and missionaries seeking to reach them.5
Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report