Modern Parables: A New Approach to Kingdom Theology
- Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Like most people, Thomas Purifoy has always enjoyed the thrill of watching a really good movie.
But unlike the casual fan who only buys a ticket to whatever popcorn flick happens to be buzzworthy at the moment, Purifoy made watching films from every era a priority. In fact, during the summers of his high school years, he’d watch two or three a day, a practice inspired by taking a class in “Film and Literature.” During the hours he’d spend watching selections from the American Movie Classics channel, Purifoy quickly became a fan of everyone from famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, one of Woody Allen’s biggest influences, to Orson Welles, who directed Citizen Kane, which is often regarded as the best movie of all time.
“When I first watched Citizen Kane, it was in a class at film school in Arkansas. When the teacher basically explained how the film was done, I finally began to understand how movies worked,” Purifoy says. “You always watch movies growing up and enjoy them because it’s such an immediate art form. But as I realized how they were actually constructed, well, that really intrigued me.”
During the summer between Purifoy’s junior and senior year of high school while watching Bergman’s Sjunde inseglet, Det (The Seventh Seal) from 1957 and Persona from 1966, the proverbial lightbulb shined particularly bright. Ultimately, Purifoy began to realize how film can be used as a medium for religious communication because Bergman’s work “explored how a Christian would actually do this, even though he wasn’t necessarily coming from a Christian point of view.”
“That was the point that really pushed me in the direction of having a hands-on interest in film and filmmaking,” Purifoy says. “I saw how a movie could be used artistically in a worldview perspective, not simply communicating the four spiritual laws or anything along those lines.”
An Unconventional Path
Even with his newfound love of film, Purifoy didn’t immediately high-tail it to the bright lights of Hollywood after high school graduation, however. Instead, he pursued more education, majoring in English and Creative Writing at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. While he explored different mediums of creative expression, movies were never far from his mind, though. For his honors thesis, Purifoy dug into screenwriting, focusing on a group of local fugitive poets.
Leaving the potential for colorful life experiences wide open, Purifoy’s post-grad plans also didn’t exactly follow a conventional path for a guy interested in film either. For the next two years, Purifoy spent his spare time working on screenplays and stories while serving as an officer on an amphibious ship for the U.S. Navy. Then after spending a year and a half with a Naval Special Boat Unit with the Navy Seals, it was eight years after graduation when he decided he’d leave the Navy and focus on screenwriting exclusively.
But Purifoy’s stint in Los Angeles didn’t last long. After attending the first class of Act One: Writing for Hollywood, an organization that helps train and mentor Christians for careers in mainstream film and television, he moved to France where he taught high school and eventually served as a director and instructor of Old Testament and Philosophy.
After returning to the States in 2001, Purifoy made his way back to Nashville and four years later, Purifoy and a friend eventually started their own production company, Compass Cinema. Less than a year later, Purifoy put his multitasking skills to the test when he produced, directed and co-wrote Samaritan, the first short film in what’s now the Modern Parables film-based Bible study curriculum series.
Where the Past Meets Today
Given his 15 years of experience teaching Sunday school and background in film, Purifoy wanted to create a universal study that could appeal to “almost anyone” regardless of his/her denominational affiliation, age or religious background. Inspired by Jesus’ parables, he didn’t simply long to put a modern spin on these time-honored stories. Instead, he hoped to provide “different explorations of kingdom theology.”
“In a sense, these really are message films. But they’re also a little different,” Purifoy shares. “Jesus didn’t use storytelling in a way to explain what He was trying to say. They are pieces and parts of His theology. The modern pastor tells a story as a stepping stone of what he’s about to get into in the message. In many ways, Jesus was actually doing theology with His stories because it went part and parcel with what He was saying.”
Instead of simply telling a story with Modern Parables, Purifoy hopes these “sometimes radical” accounts will cause people to investigate the implications of the stories for their lives. “The goal isn’t to get the moral of the story. It’s to discover how does it work out in a day-to-day way. How is the theology transformative?” Purifoy adds. “We hope to open people’s eyes to what the original intent is on a storytelling level. Really, the parables are ready-made pieces of narrative theology. So we tried to stay as accurate as possible in the recontextualization to bring them to a modern audience.”
Revisiting The Prodigal Son
In the latest two installments of Modern Parables, which recently released on DVD in Lifeway Christian Bookstores and through Focus on the Family’s website, Purifoy investigates a familiar story with all sorts of modern-day implications in the 20-minute short, The Prodigal Sons. As a tribute to Welles’ work, the film features longer, uncut scenes and non-linear scene structure. And for those of us who won’t notice those little cinematic touches, Purifoy’s hopes that The Prodigal Sons will connect far beyond the typical emotional level
“Ultimately, the film is used as a hook. The ultimate goal in watching is to get people to understand—and live—the parable,” Purifoy says. “We hope it opens people’s eyes so they can experience some emotional and intellectual resonances. Maybe it’ll even give you a perspective you haven’t had before.”
Set at a large and prosperous healthcare company not unlike those found in any given city today, the wealthy father’s two sons, Andrew and Jake, work for him of course. The older son, the classic Type A-personality that’s dedicated to hard work and the achievement that comes with it, wins a huge account worth 15 million dollars. Meanwhile the younger son just doesn’t have time in his social calendar to work that hard, so he spends his days golfing and in the company of pretty women. Deciding his rather limited corporate life isn’t really the life for him, the younger son eventually asks his father for his share in the company. And despite the counsel of his board and the hit the company might take financially, the father grants his younger son’s request anyway.
Of course, everyone knows what happens next, but there are still hidden themes that are particularly worth noting. One of the truths that’s uncovered is one that Scotty Smith, founding Pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tenn., thinks the church could stand to hear. In the featured commentary section of The Prodigal Sons, Smith says the real issue is pride versus humility. “There are more older brothers than younger brothers in today’s church.”
For Purifoy, the account is yet another intriguing reminder of how things work in God’s economy. “Ultimately, it is a parable about two lost sons whom God is seeking. Jesus is calling self-righteous people to examine themselves in light of their relationship to God and their brothers.”
For more information about Modern Parables or to watch the trailer for The Prodigal Sons, please visit www.modernparable.com.
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