Having followed the discussion regarding the movie The Butler, I thought I would add my two cents worth. Not about race relations in America–that would take a whole different post with a whole lot of explanations.
What I find interesting is tracking the reactions to The Butler. It is evident that, in the typical style of Hollywood, the creators of this movie played fast and loose with the facts at hand. Portions of the overall experience of life for an African-American during those years were portrayed as if they happened within the life of the family actually named in the film. That these events were very real, that the fear of racial violence was real, and the world was (and remains) unjust should not be in doubt. That such problems echo into our current lives should also not be in doubt. Just as the Holocaust haunts both Jews and Germans, so the racial legacy of America haunts us all.
In truth, The Butler was not a documentary, though. It was a sermon on race in America. Apart from having a definite Scripture reading at the beginning, this is a secular sermon regarding one of the looming elephants in our culture. The difficulty is that by blurring the lines of truth in the little aspects of the film, by creating a fictional butler around the life of a real person, the larger issues are obscured to some of us because of the details. This works in film making, but it falters in one of the keys of sermon building: know your audience.
I am not, however, writing to pile on Lee Daniel’s The Butler. (Even the naming is tad annoying: there was a film in 1916 called The Butler, so they had to rename this one? Really, there was confusion?)
I do think that the questions raised in criticism of historical semi-accuracy for that film point us to a bigger problem. Pastor, if you think the valuable point in The Butler is obscured by the fictional character being born in a different state than his real life inspiration, what about that story you told last Sunday regarding the size of the fish you caught?
Now, some people might be willing to overlook minor adjustments to the details in service of a greater point. After all, if you are able to preach to a 1000 by claiming you’ve done it before, when the nearest was 150, should we fault you? After all, the bigger story is at hand, right? The greater opportunity to do good eclipses the need to be exact on the finer points of details, right?
After all, we only have so many minutes to preach. And if it took compressing facts to make a 2-hour sermon on race, how much more compression should we take?
Except we cannot risk it. Our audience will, eventually, check our facts. And we cannot say that our sermon was meant to dramatize the whole of a situation, can we? Our preaching and teaching must resound with truth, from the Truth of the Word down through the truth of just how many people you really have led to Jesus over the years.
Over the years, I have grown accustomed to Hollywood portraying history with a loose grip: The Butler, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Gods and Generals, The Longest Day… the list is pretty long of films that give us good lessons wrapped with historical laxity. Yet all along, I would admittedly not buy a used car from the typical Hollywood producer, because I assume, based on lives and methods, that honesty is not their forte. Messages are, though.
For we who proclaim the Christian Gospel, honesty and the message are inextricably linked. You cannot embellish the facts of your life, the stories you use to illustrate, or the Gospel you proclaim. If all we have, at the end of the day, is a fictionalized account to prove a point, we are not preaching the Word of God. That, folks, is unacceptable.
A quick clarification: certainly Jesus taught in parables. And parables that are expressed as clearly fictional are a different matter entirely. I am addressing the tendency we see to take the truth and “improve it” for storytelling purposes.