The Kingdom of Heaven is Like . . . An Interview With Thomas Purifoy

January 20, 2009 at 10:03 pm

purifoyOne of the best resources that I’ve seen in a while is the Modern Parables DVD study series. Compass Cinema has recast six of Jesus’ Kingdom parables in modern settings to great effect. Each session is accompanied by a teaching video, study guide and teachers’ supplemental material. Thomas Purifoy is the creator and director of the series. I recently had the chance to ask Purifoy a few questions.

  • Were you raised in a Christian home?

Both my parents were evangelical believers and blessed me with a wonderful Christian upbringing.

  • Were you raised in an artistic home?

Not particularly, although my parents encouraged both my sister and I to pursue the arts.

  • How did you first become interested in film?

My mother has always enjoyed movies, so she was the one who first sparked my interest in film. As I grew up, we would sit for hours watching American Movie Classics.

  • Can you share a bit about your “salvation experience?”

My parents led me to faith at an early age, helping me to understand my sin and my need for a savior. I accepted Christ when I was 8 years old.

  • How has your faith impacted your interest in film?

My faith has had a strong influence on the way I view film, primarily because I believe God created us to work, and that our individual jobs have a unique bearing on the way He is redeeming the world. I believe that work is one of the means through which God is advancing His Kindgom. In light of that, the way that I approach film will have either a positive or negative impact on the Kingdom. Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m pursuing my vocation well, or making the right decisions in it. It’s my responsibility to be self-consciously aware of the way this particular kind of work has an impact on the Kingdom, and how I need to think about the implications of what I do with film.

  • Had you studied the parables much prior to tackling this project?

I had studied them some in regard to other areas of theology, but not in depth.

  • What made you want to reset the Parables?

I have always been fascinated with Jesus’ parables, not only as stories, but also because Jesus chose this particular means of teaching as a vehicle for a third of His recorded ministry. That’s really amazing to me. I grew up learning the Bible through more rationalistic methods of theology, yet found myself always enjoying stories in my personal life. When I began to understand that these stories were explorations into theology, or a type of narrative theology that was intimately related to all the rest of His teaching, then I began to grasp the intrinsic power within them.

On a more practical level, however, the parables are perhaps the most filmable parts of the Bible. Films often work best with short stories, and parables have a solid narrative structure already developed. All that is required is to flesh it out in an accurate way. In other words, Jesus did all the hard work and I’m simply doing a little window dressing.

Finally, I’m a learner at heart, and there have always been a lot of the parables that I didn’t understand. For instance, The Shrewd Manager has been one of those parables that always made me scratch my head. If Jesus gave us these parables for a reason, then they should fit neatly in with the rest of His teaching. Instead, they at times seemed to be the victims of bad 20th-century literary criticism that let the reader interpret the parables however he or she chose, with little regard for the larger context of what Jesus was doing. By spending time on the parables, I wanted to understand them better myself, then begin to correct a lot of general misapprehension.

  • How did you choose the initial parables? How many parables do you hope to film?

I choose the different parables in this first volume for a variety of reasons. First, I tried to choose parables that covered a broad range of theological areas without overlap, such as prayer, loving one’s neighbor, dealing with money, etc. Jesus often taught different parables on the same topics, so I tried to make sure each parable covered a unique area of Jesus’ teaching ministry.

Second, I tried to choose a few parables that were well known, such as the good Samaritan and prodigal son.

Third, I tried to choose some parables that were more difficult to understand, perhaps weren’t as obvious on the surface as to what they meant, and had therefore either been subject to consistent mis-interpretation or simple neglect. I think the shrewd manager, the persistent widow, and the treasure hidden in a field all applied here.

Finally, I felt I needed to include the parable of the sower because it’s the first and in some ways the meta-parable of all the parables. It introduces all the other parables and is the one all three synoptists start out with to introduce that part of Jesus’ ministry. I struggled with it the most, actually. The final result on film, which was a pure act of God’s providence, was not what I originally intended.

As far as your question as to how many, I think there might be 24 of the parables that would translate well to film. The key is having enough narrative structure to translate accurately without wandering off on a tangent.

  • Can you share a bit about the “Cinematic Theology” section?

The term “cinematic theology” came from Ian Kern, my Assistant Producer on the project. The idea behind it, that somehow you can do theology with cinema, was with me from very first film. I am a great admirer of the work of Jonathan Edwards. In one of his posthumous works entitled The Image of Divine Things, he explores the world of natural typology, that is, the way God embedded certain theological concepts in nature. I have been strongly influenced in my view of creation by both his thinking as well as the theological genius of Geerhardos Vos and his contributions to Biblical theology. Vos does an excellent job showing how God structured history and even particular people to encapsulate the redemptive work with which He was changing the world. He shows the marriage between form and content in redemptive history, and I think that recognizing that this is the way creation works is vital to any narrative artist. The fact is, many non-Christians implicitly understand this better than many Christians, and the superiority of their art demonstrates it. I believe that theology is embedded within good art, and hence cinema can certainly be embedded with theology.

As far as the Cinematic Theology section in Modern Parables, the idea behind it is to begin to explore how the medium of film is intrinsically related to the way God has created the world and is redeeming the world. Doug Powell, an apologetics expert and friend, told me that “film is the most Christian of artistic mediums” and I think he may be right. It has the ability to reflect creation in a way that few other mediums do. Moreover, it gives the filmmaker the ability to create new worlds in a way that is respectfully God-like. Being a creator with a small “c” is exactly what God wanted all of us to do, and I think if we see how theology and cinema relate, we are better equipped both to engage that all-pervasive medium as well as to reflect on what God is doing in our own lives.

  • Why did you choose a different cinematic style for each parable? How did you pair the style to the parable?

The simple answer is that I thought it would be a fun way to learn more about each of these filmmakers that I like. These six film are my first filmmaking efforts; they’re really student work. I have not been to film school, so in a way, these short subjects are school for me. As far as pairing the parable to a style, I felt that some stories just fit better than others. For instance, The Shrewd Manager is inherently a comical story, but with a great deal of irony. Woody Allen immediately came to mind. Prodigal Sons, however, is a more complex and interrelated story, and the character of the older son has often been misunderstood. Welles’ ability to look at old things in a new light, as well as his use of non-linear form, seemed to be a good fit. The fact is, you could probably have filmed all these parables in a variety of ways – there is no one right way – but this just seemed right to me. Someone else would have done it differently, and the choice would have been no better or worse. Rather, it’s the execution that matters.

  • What separates this study from other group studies?

The unique aspect of this study is that it seeks to bring narrative films, pastoral exposition, and in-depth Bible teaching all together in one place. You can find all those things in other places, but not together. Furthermore, it’s an experiment that I wanted to try to compress complex Biblical teaching into a small, efficient place. It is hard being a modern teacher and trying to communicate a large amount of information to a large group of people quickly without confusing them. A hundred years ago, this method of teaching would have been completely ineffective. But today, our minds are very, very sophisticated when it comes to visual media – much more so than we realize. If you understand how visual media works, as well as how your learner engages it, then you have a possibility of capitalizing on its strengths to overcome other weaknesses. It’s certainly not good for everything (which is often the mistake people make with film, tv, or video – the medium has many limitations that are ignored).

My goal with this study was to try to take the best of all these worlds and uniquely combine them to create a new learning experience that would take people very deep, very quickly, without them ever realizing it.

  • Anything else?

In closing, I’d say that one of my favorite things about creating the study was just seeing how brilliant Jesus was in teaching these parables, as well as how expansive creation is in terms of its artistic potential. There is great excitement about the way the Kingdom of God is advancing, and it is a great privilege simply to be a very small part of it, while at the same time using a medium that is peculiarly new in the history of the world.

  • Visit the Modern Parables official website