Film and Christian Preaching: Toward a Cinemate Homiletic (Part III)

c-2. Application of the cinematic narrative flow for the sermon structure

The preacher now has come up with a basic cinematic sermon idea, theme, or flow from the first stage of the cinematic socio-spiritual hermeneutic. At this second stage, the preacher is to find a fitting cinematic narrative structure extracted from an actual movie for her key cinematic sermon idea and its narrative flow. Earlier, we discussed two main purposes of this practice: to render the sermon as visual and sensory as possible and to have the listener “hear a film, see a sermon.” To present this second stage as practically as possible, the article shows a real example of the know-how below, using the football movie, Any Given Sunday (1999), and the text, Ephesians 6:10-20.

A brief socio-spiritual commentary: Ephesians 6:10-20 in light of the five codes

The Code of Gender &Sex

The text sounds masculine on the surface, especially in its NRSV English translation. In particular, the language of “the Lord,” “mighty power,” “rulers,” “war,” “sword,” “authorities,” “the devil,” etc., all of which are traditionally associated with masculinity, seems to exclude female involvement in the text. The Greek text, however, suggests a very different gender nuance to the same passage. Surprisingly, certain decisive terms that contribute to the passage’s meaning as a whole are feminine in the Greek text: strength (κράτει), armor (πανοπλίαν), struggle (πάλη), flesh (σάρκα ), authorities (ἐξουσίας), loin (ὀσφὺν), truth (ἀληθείᾳ), righteousness (δικαιοσύνης ), readiness (ἑτοιμασίᾳ), peace (εἰρήνης ), faith (πίστεως ), prayer (προσευχῆς), perseverance (προσκαρτερήσει), and a couple of more. At least, in this semiotic aspect, we come to realize that the passage itself is a sort of “gender-inclusive” one, which requires the feminine perspective over the previous dominant masculine reading of it.

The Code of Power, Good &Evil

Just as pop movies demonstrate the problem of evil entangled with the issue of power, this passage straightaway points out the universal evil interwoven with the cosmic powers, rulers, and authorities (v. 12) that try to have spiritual (or physical) control over the faithful and the whole world. This cosmic evil or power, in the case of movies, however, is to be confronted and opposed by the good will and purpose of the faithful. However, as the writer of Ephesians hesitates to say, we do not know yet which side will claim the final victory over the other. The writer, only in full confidence, prays that we, including himself, should become fully armed spiritually and oppose the evil power to the very end.

The Code of Humanity & Divinity

The writer presupposes that we humans are not simple social or political beings. We are much more than that in fact; we are spiritual beings. Since we are spiritual, we can sense the existence of the cosmic evil or powers surrounding our lives and oppose them by our spiritual readiness and armory. Going a step further, the passage reminds us of the divine origin of human beings. The writer believes that when we “take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit,” (v. 17) the word of God will be with us, which possibly means that the divine comes invited into the human soul.

The Code of Money & Material

The language or problem of money and material is not visible in the passage. Rather, when the writer says that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” he seems to have more focus on the non-material sphere. However, this does not simply mean that the writer stays calm and peaceful beyond all troubling, earthly matters. He cannot forget that he is now in prison “chains” (v. 20), which feel very painful. His concerns are very much earthly as well, although not materialistic. Thus, in the light of the code of money and material, it might suffice to say that the writer, by his spiritual awakening and yearnings, avoids the typical problems of fallen human nature often appearing in the forms of greed, lust, loss of self-control, selfishness, jealousy, betrayal, aversion, unreasonable self-elevation and the like.

The Code of Nature &Violence

Several words and phrases invoking violent images might bother some peace-seeking minds, those like “put on the whole armor” (v. 11), “enemies of blood and flesh” (12), and “belt, breastplate, shield, arrows, helmet and sword,” (vv. 14-17). Obviously, the writer wants to use those words and phrases for “purely” spiritual purposes, at least on the textual surface. Still, that “spiritual usage” leaves considerable room for the provocation of violent imagination in the general human psychology.

A possible sermon theme from the brief socio-spiritual commentary

In particular, the code of power, good & evil and the code of humanity & divinity inform us about the ongoing spiritual struggle between good and evil within and outside our spiritual-divine beings. The same two codes also have us realize that the spiritual struggle will not easily end even when we pray hard, get fully ready for the struggle, or think that we have already won it. The struggle is still there in and around us. Yet, it is not that we do not have a hope in the possible ultimate victory. According to the code of humanity and divinity, we have divinity dwelling in human souls as the vital ground of hope, and also the profound feminine aids of that hope (obtained by the approach of the code of gender & sex) strengthen our weak souls in so many ways. In summary, our shaky souls go on their continuing spiritual struggle with evil, yet with a strong feminine-divine vision and hope.

A potential sermon narrative structure borrowed from that of Any Given Sunday

This particular movie’s narrative structure is chosen for three notable, interrelated reasons. First, the movie has a deep humanistic dimension, especially its critical examination of true humanity vis-à-vis unexpected life mishaps. Second, the movie recognizes a bigger life-force hovering as a spiritual aid over the good individual human souls that always strive to be better ones. Third, the movie is, at its core, all about several sound human beings’ struggle to overcome their inner and outer athletic and spiritual challenges that often feel bigger than and superior to their fragile souls. These three overlapping themes within the movie share some weighty things in common with the socio-spiritual commentary of Ephesians 6:10-20 above, specifically in terms of struggles between two opposing spiritual parties. More importantly, the movie’s thematic-narrative structural commonality with the given texts makes this particular movie a top choice. Indeed, these are the two quick, important guidelines for choosing a specific movie (and its narrative structure) for any particular sermon’s narrative flow: thematic and narrative structural commonalities between the two.[1]

i. A literary anatomy of Any Given Sunday’s narrative structure

  • The hero is down, defeated by the enemy ->
  • A new, unlikely hero appears->
  • The new hero gets stronger, yet still has weaknesses to overcome ->
  • The hero comes to a greater realization of his inner and outer strength (including realization of the pre-heroic spirit hovering over individual souls) ->
  • Now the enemies seem to be utterly defeated by the new, strengthened hero ->
  • Yet be careful: The hero still has a critical weakness and the enemy is not utterly destroyed

ii. A possible sermon flow based on Any Given Sunday’s narrative anatomy

  • Our spirits might have been down, or defeated, vis-à-vis the cosmic evil power->
  • Yet, we have a hope of spiritual transformation; our spirits can rise again ->
  • Our spirits can get stronger, equipped with a variety of the feminine-spiritual armory ->
  • Now, we realize that all this spiritual transformation or arming is possible, thanks to the divine Spirit dwelling in our souls as the vital ground of hope ->
  • Now, the cosmic evil seems to be utterly defeated by our newly transformed spirits ->
  • Yet be careful: Our transformed spirits still demonstrate critical weaknesses and the cosmic enemy is not utterly destroyed ->
  • Praying should go on as our own constant spiritual arming

A brief remark

Obviously, digging out a fitting movie narrative structure for each and every sermon is a challenging task and seems very idealistic. This is why we recommend that the preacher develop a steady habit of movie-watching on a regular basis, in order to obtain a rich repertoire of cinematic narrative structures.[2] Yet, we should not forget a more fundamental purpose of movie-watching. We not only watch movies for fun or the acquisition of unique cinematic narrative flows, but also we do this to get more acquainted with the cinematic congregation’s socio-spiritual codes and everyday real life spiritual concerns, which they bring to the church pews each Sunday.

c-3. Barthes’ five narrative codes applied to the sermon composition

From the discussion above, we have now gained a cinematic sermon theme and the sermon’s overall structure. The only remaining task at this point is to write the actual cinematic content of the sermon. As briefly introduced before, we adopt Barthes’ five essential narrative codes cinematically articulated by Nick Lacey in Introduction to Film. We hope that the application of these five codes into the sermon composition helps the sermon become more cinemate in a literary-narrative sense, achieving two primary purposes: 1) hooking the listener’s attention throughout the sermon and 2) fostering the listener’s active involvement in the filmic sermon narrative.

Below, the article briefly copies what Lacey articulates regarding each code (those first introductory first paragraphs in italics),[3] and then makes short comments for the cinemate homiletical use of each, especially utilizing the Ephesian text discussed above. For a more extensive discussion of the five narrative codes in film, I encourage the reader to visit Lacey’s book, pp. 88-90.

Enigma [hermeneutic] Code[4]

This code creates the overall narrative tension of the film that holds the audience’s attention throughout the movie.[5]

  • The primary function of this code is to engage the audience by offering a puzzle and then delaying the answer to the enigma
  • Yet, this delay does not necessarily take the audience to the end of a film
  • Occasionally, enigmas are not answered
  • There are five different types of the enigma code appearing in current movies

The snare style: The style offers information that misleads the audience, as used in Minority Report (2002)[6]

The equivocation style: This both snares and offers the truth, as used in Signs (2002)

The partial answer style: This style stimulates the desire for the full answer, as used in Psycho (1960)

The suspended answer style: It appears about to reveal all but then the narrative turns another way, as used in The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

The jamming style: This style occurs in non-conventional films that refuse to explain all, mostly used in David Lynch’s films like Mulholland Dr. (2001)

A Cinemate Homiletic Comment

A cinemate homiletic is naturally expected to create a certain (positive) narrative tension throughout the sermon, since it seeks to be “cinematic,” after all. There are no good pop movies, indeed, without well-structured narrative tensions. Thus, in the case of the Ephesians text above, the preacher might want to generate an interesting tension when she composes an actual sermon on it. At the beginning of the sermon, when the preacher articulates and develops the first narrative stream of “Our spirits might have been down, or defeated, vis-à-vis the cosmic evil power,” in order to escalate the narrative tension, she might want to say, “In today’s chaotic world, the mysterious evil powers seem to claim all the victories over our fragile lives…the Colorado theater shooting…serial rapists…terrorist attacks…rumors of another war that, we think, would not be possible without an evil influence over our sound human souls. A terrifying concern is that we do not actually know the origin of that cosmic evil. Its identity seems to be completely unknown.” This beginning of the sermon, obviously, generates a positive narrative tension, 1) bringing up the tragic news of the world, 2) exposing the unknown cosmic force, and 3) saying that we actually do not know how to deal with 1) and 2). To be sure, not all cinemate homiletic enigmas would start with the tragic news of the world or would have the sermon beginning as the only place where the enigma is introduced. There would be multiple ways of executing this code in the sermon. Lastly, the enigma code is not a simple puzzle that merely aims to confuse, embarrass, or entertain the audience. The enigma code indeed should function as a particular cinematic hermeneutic, by which both the preacher and the listener approach the complexities of human life (and its meanings) and the deep mystery of the divine working in and out of humanity’s realization of it.

Action [proairetic] Code[7]

This code specifically refers to an event that has a series of logical consequences. So a cowboy drawing a gun is an action code suggesting the probability of violence. The code is intended to help the audience comprehend where the narrative is going and, as a consequence, be motivated to continue watching the film.

A Cinemate Homiletic Comment

In most cases, sermons do not have actual actors in them who make dramatic actions followed by other thrilling actions, except the monological or theatrical sermon narrated and acted by the preacher in disguise of a certain biblical or historical figure, as in the case of African American preaching. Also, it is not the usual case that in sermons dramatic events continue one by one to render the sermon narrative as exciting as possible. Yet still, any well-structured sermon contains a serious series of logical consequences that drive the sermon from the beginning through the body to the end. Those logical consequences sometimes might appear in the form of dramatic actions, other times in the form of exciting events, or in different cases in the forms of verbal expressions or serious logical articulations. In any of the three cases, the point is that the sermon narrative is also proairetic; that is, the sermon flows with something anticipated in or for the next moment. For the Ephesians text, the preacher, in accordance with the action code, might want to make each narrative stream of a. through g. interconnected, especially by having each be an exciting, reasonable anticipation for the next stream. Fortunately, the Ephesians text seems to be well fit for this purpose, since after all, the enigma of evil created at the sermon beginning anticipates a certain resolution of that cosmic mystery that will be revealed throughout the sermon.

Semic Code[8]

While the two previous codes mostly examine the time constrained narrative structure of the film, the remaining three codes, including this semic code, handle the narrative detail of it. The semic code specifically refers to the connotations suggested by characters, objects, and settings, which are all likely to work for the narrative. If we see cowboys with six-guns, we are confident that we are going to see a Western narrative. However, this is not always straightforwardly the case, as in Tears of the Black Tiger (Far Talai Jone, Thailand, 2000). Similarly, a shot of the Eiffel tower immediately tells us that the narrative space is in France.

A Cinemate Homiletic Comment

The given Ephesians passage has a strong advantage in applying the semic code, thanks to rich symbolic images contained within it, like “the whole armor of God,” “wiles of the devil,” “the belt of truth,” “breastplate of righteousness,” “the shield of faith,” “arrows of the evil one,” “the helmet of salvation” and several more. All these, by their spiritual symbolic connotations, can contribute to the tense escalation of the sermonic message regarding the fierce spiritual struggle between the faithful and cosmic evil forces. In the sermon composition, the preacher might also want to use those symbolic images to build great anticipation of the ultimate mysterious entity (e.g., the Holy Spirit) in whose power and authority all other spiritual symbols participate. In either case, what is important is that the semic code and its symbols should function as a significant narrative-leading force.

Symbolic Code[9]

The symbolic code represents a deeper symbolic narrative structure, compared to the semic code’s somehow parochial symbols appearing here and there throughout the story. Filmic narratives are, especially, often about conflict between opposing parties (e.g., good vs. evil). These forces often represent binary oppositions, and so the narrative function of the “hero” conventionally embodies “the good” while the “villain” is “bad.” In certain genres these oppositions can be definitive, such as the monster in horror films. By working out what they represent we can often find the ideological basis of a film. For example, in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-03), the symbolic code places Sauron in opposition to the hobbits. Sauron is represented through fascist imagery, while the communal aspects of the hobbits’ lives are emphasized. The code can appear in many guises within one narrative, for example, the immortal / mortal opposition also articulated in the films.

A Cinemate Homiletic Comment

Since the Ephesians passage itself presupposes a symbolic spiritual dichotomy between the faithful and cosmic evil, the application of the symbolic code in the sermon seems to be relatively easy. Yet, as the preacher develops the sermon theme in full, she might come to the realization of the complexity of that dichotomy, which makes the application of the code much more complicated. To begin with, the symbolic spiritual dichotomy itself is a multi-layered one. It is not simply a dichotomy between the good faithful here and the evil spirit out there. Often, we also find a similar dichotomy within the good faithful themselves. For instance, good faithful people also envisage and do evil on their own, not to blame the influence from the evil spirit out there. In a similar vein, a dichotomy is also found within the bad guys, who also do good things on their own. Now, we cannot but get confused about who is really good or evil. Furthermore, a good and evil dichotomy is found within God as well; God seems to be good in general, but at times God does certain evil too. The God of the holy covenant also asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son in a most brutal way, while the God of Immanuel lets the infant babies get killed by the Roman soldiers right on the day when Jesus was born, or in order to save baby Jesus only. We thus ask, “Is God really good?” In short, the symbolic spiritual dichotomy between good and evil is not as simple as one might think. It has multiple layers in it, and so does the dichotomy of the Ephesians text. The seemingly dichotomous passage should be carefully approached and investigated for its multi-layered symbolic structure.

Cultural [referential] Code[10]

This code refers to the knowledge that audiences bring to a film. Spoofs, in particular, require audiences to know the films that are being referenced. For example, watching Scary Movie (2000) without the knowledge of the Scream (1996-2000) trilogy is probably an (even more) empty experience. Genres too require audiences to possess cultural knowledge, although of course at some point audiences have to learn a genre’s repertoire of elements. Similarly, it is useful to have an understanding of Greek myths and the political climate of the 1990s Balkans to make sense of Ulysses’ Gaze (To Vlemma Tou Odyssea, 1995, Greece-France-Italy).

A Cinemate Homiletic Comment

What do we know about the culture behind the Ephesians text? And what do we know about the similarities and differences between that ancient culture and our own modern cinematic culture, especially around the concept of evil? When we go to any biblical text and perform interpretation on it, the cultural knowledge of the ancient world and comparison between the ancient culture and ours is essential. Ignorance of either one is itself a failure of legitimate interpretation. Thus, this code first 1) invites the preacher to fully participate in the ancient world from which the Ephesians text emerges, 2) to get the right cultural sense of the text, and 3) then explore what that ancient cultural sense means in today’s cinematic world. By this practice, the preacher, when it comes to the actual composition of the sermon, would not forget that the sermon content and ethos should always be placed in constant dialogue and negotiation between two distinct worlds: one ancient and the other cinematic.

A brief remark

As we have noticed, the first two codes—the enigma code and the action code—help the formulation of an attractive cinematic narrative structure. The basic sermon narrative flow that we get from a particular movie (e.g., from Any Given Sunday in our case) is now more enfleshed and makes more cinematic sense. The other three codes, the semic code, the symbolic code, and the cultural code, in turn also help the preacher to be more attentive to the cinemate composition of the sermon content, especially in terms of symbolic or cultural connotations of each action, character, word, phrase and historical context appearing in both Scripture and the writing of the sermon. Obviously, the key task of the preacher, when it comes to Barthes’ five narrative codes, is to ensure the cinematic quality of the actual sermon content. Once again, by that cinematic quality, the preacher hopes to obtain the listener’s keen attention throughout the sermon and also, more importantly, the listener’s active involvement in the cinematic sermon narrative, toward his or her own critical cinematic dialogue with what is being preached.

VI. Epilogue: Challenges

This project starts with a simple yet profound inquiry: how can the Christian preacher preach as effectively as a movie communicates its own agendas and communes with its audience? At first, the whole project seems to be a mere filmic narrative-technical appraisal applied to the preaching performance. As it turns out, however, the project is highly theological as well: e.g., pop movies are a significant locus today of deep humanistic, theological, and spiritual concerns. Indeed, the theological examination of both preaching activity and film provides the common ground on which the cinemate homiletic can develop through a cinematic narrative-hermeneutical dialogue, comparison and negotiation between the two quite different entities.

However, there are several challenges to the further development of a cinemate homiletic. First, the film is a visual presentation after all, while preaching is primarily an oral and aural event in spite of the visual presence of the preacher in the pulpit. Thus, the preacher’s performative and narrative transformation of the visual presentation of the film into the preaching activity is still one of the key challenges that this new homiletic methodology faces. Jana Childer’s Preaching the Word: Preaching as Theater might be a considerable aid in this endeavor, although the film is not among her main theatrical concerns for preaching.[11] Another related challenge is, in a more technical sense, about how the preacher can orally and aurally translate cinematic techniques that make film very unique, those like close-ups, time and space travel, CGI effects, technological sound, dialogue among multiple characters, historical or cultural costumes, etc. There are, of course, no absolute ways that the preacher may adopt and adapt all these filmic techniques. After all, preaching is a different performative genre from film. That being said, however, figuring out any creative ways to adopt those filmic techniques into the preaching activity will be very desirable and definitely welcomed by the cinematic congregation sitting in the Sunday pews. How about a specific art display in the sanctuary that really fits with the particular cinematic sermon theme? How about the inspiring decoration of the pews that reflects the sermon passage? How about the preacher wearing a specially designed costume for a specific character (the Apostle Paul in a moderate Roman tunic)? How about a relevant technological sound when the preacher describes the Armageddon war appearing in the book of Revelations? Multiple ways, besides these, could be available for artistic preachers.

One last considerable challenge and suggestion to the preacher is that the preacher needs to develop her own movie-watching habit for both fun and the critical cinematic hermeneutic. Indeed, both practices should come together. The preacher would not watch the film just for fun, while the seriousness of figuring out the cinematic hermeneutic should not ruin the “fun” of movie watching. The preacher, above all, needs to feel the same emotion that the cinematic congregation does, while at the same time acquiring a critical eye that acutely investigates the public’s cinematic experience as a unique cinemate hermeneutical lens for the sake of the later homiletic interpretation of both pop culture and Scripture.

As the very final words, we turn back to the research question that we asked at the very beginning: what kind of a new homiletic is desired to bring today’s film-saturated people back to the church’s message? This article has suggested the cinematic narrative-hermeneutical methodology as a potential answer to that question. What remains to be seen now is whether this new cinematic homiletic theory will actually succeed in real practice. I warmly invite the readers into this cinematic wager on preaching!


Sunggu Yang, PhD

Wake Forest University


[1] Here is a caution, of course, that not all biblical passages have “pure” narrative qualities in themselves that we can easily utilize for the cinemate sermon; e.g., such prosaic ones as those found in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. Yet still, the same cinemate narrative methodology can apply to those prosaic passages since they still demonstrate their own logical structures as the basic flow of their themes. Thus, when the preacher exegetes and interprets those passages in light of the five socio-spiritual codes, the cinemate preacher’s additional important task will be, sometimes easily and sometimes with hard work, to transfer the logical flows of the passages into narrative structures with her own creativity. In fact, this task will not be hard as one might imagine, since already the narrative itself has a logical quality of flow itself.

[2] We want to suggest that the preacher create a widely ranging repertoire of cinematic narrative structures, at least consisting of 30-50 movie titles from various genres and their narrative structures carefully extracted. We also suggest labeling the narrative structure of each of them for quick and effective use. For instance, we can label Any Given Sunday’s narrative structure as “The Hero and Enemy Binary/Resolution Structure.” Meanwhile, it is no harm to keep in mind that the same cinematic narrative structure can be used repeatedly for different texts as long as each text’s cinemate theme and basic narrative (or logical) structure fits into those of a select movie.

[3] See footnotes 45 and 48 through 51.

[4] See footnote 44.

[5] Eugene Lowry also advocates creating the narrative tension in the sermon plotting. A big difference between his methodology and the cinemate homiletic is that Lowry’s methodology always has a definite (Gospel) answer mostly in the middle of the sermon (an “Aha” or “Whee” moment) or at the end. But, the cinemate homiletic contends that sometimes even no definite answer is ok, and also the answer needs not to be offered at the end always. Lowry, The Homiletic Plot, 26.

[6] Here the term “mislead” needs a short explanation. By “mislead” Barthes does not mean lying about the fact or providing false information. It rather means getting the audience into a deep puzzle, that they might feel later being misled by the complexity of the situation.

[7] See footnote 44.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Childers, Jana. Performing the Word: Preaching as Theatre (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998).

Categories: Features

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: