“Saturation evangelism”?

The New York Times had a story last week on “saturation evangelism” — that is, on Campus Crusade for Christ‘s efforts to mail a free copy of the 1979 film Jesus to every address in the United States. So far, however, most of the mailings seem to have taken place in the Bible Belt; this is mainly because local churches must raise the money to pay for shipping and handling, and the Bible Belt is where most of the churches are. Still, it does lend the project a certain “preaching to the converted” air.

Martin E. Marty comments on this, and on some of the possible controversies around this, in his latest “Sightings” column.

FWIW, there was a fairly detailed story on the making of this film in Christian Century four years ago, and the New York Times ran a story last year comparing and contrasting the evangelism potential of this film with that of The Passion of the Christ, which had not yet been released. The latter story includes this bit:

Brian Helstrom, who oversees distribution of the film for the Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical denomination based in Kansas City, Mo., described a screening in a village in Phaphamani, an area of South Africa that had been largely passed over by missionaries. Because the town did not have electricity, the five generator-powered lights that Mr. Helstrom and his fellow missionaries mounted, atop a large screen, attracted a crowd of 350. He ran the projector, and watched the crowd react to what was probably the first film they had ever seen, let alone the first they had seen in their own language. “You could see them physically jump back at the sight of the serpent tempting Jesus,” he recalled. “When soldiers whip Jesus, you could hear grown adults crying.” After Jesus’s death, but before his resurrection, a black South African missionary told the crowd that they had a chance to pray and to accept Christ. “He asked everybody who prayed to walk forward and come into light,” Mr. Helstrom says. “One hundred forty-five people walked out of the darkness into light.”

An associate of mine who is active in evangelical organizations finds this sort of thing profoundly disturbing; eight years ago, I remember she objected to a bit in Christianity Today where Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright was quoted as saying, “We’ve taken the JESUS film into places where they’ve never seen a white man, or a movie of any kind.” This struck my friend as terribly insensitive, culturally speaking; and FWIW, I agree.

If the whole point of making this film was to spread the gospel to modern western cultures in their own media, then this film should not be shown to people who have not yet seen movies or developed the interpretive skills necessary for watching films. If you’ve heard the stories about audiences ducking when they saw the first moving images of trains pulling into stations, etc., then you know how easily people can be overwhelmed by new technologies, regardless of their content.

Hopping on to yet another tangent, I saw this film on the big screen when it was brand new, and I bought a copy of Lee Roddy’s novelization that still occupies a prominent place on my Jesus-movies bookshelf. That’s right, a film whose big selling point was that it was for the most part a word-for-word adaptation of the Gospel of Luke was novelized. Kind of like how Fred Saberhagen & James V. Hart wrote Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or how Leonore Fleischer wrote Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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