Is understanding a movie different than understanding the Bible?

Recently a Christian friend said to me, “I’m not able to understand the Bible when I read it.”

I asked, “Are you able to understand movies you watch?”

My friend replied, “Yes, but that’s different!”

Is my friend right? Do we use a different set of skills to understand movies vs the Bible?

There certainly are some differences! You can more easily convey some things in writing than you can in visual media (and vice versa). Also, the Bible generally doesn’t come with a soundtrack nor does a movie come with cross-references.

However, a majority of the skills you use to watch and understand a movie are actually quite similar to how you’d read (and understand, and apply) the Bible. That’s what we’d expect, after all, from a God who desires that His Word be truly knowable.

Consider the following:

#1: The Bible often uses repeated words and themes in order to point out when something is important and should be remembered. Movies do the same thing. How many times has the last line of a movie simply been a repeated phrase from earlier? How many romantic comedies climax with the girl repeating the exact phrase the guy had said back on the first date? Even this memorable movie quote comes as a direct result of repeated words!

#2: The Bible is full of stories about people. As you read, it is expected that you’ll love them (e.g. Jesus, Joseph, Daniel), hate them (e.g. Eli and his sons, the Pharisees, just about all Israelite kings), learn from them (e.g. Paul, Peter, Jethro), empathize with them (e.g. the woman caught in adultery in John 8, the Psalmists) or avoid them (e.g. the “fool”, the sexually immoral, the Judaizers). Movies make heavy use of this same technique. You get drawn in, identify yourself with some character, and are are often meant to change your life as a result. Consider your favorite movie characters. Don’t you in some ways try to be more like them?

#3: The Bible is full of stories about how the world works and what is true. The Bible talks about the worth of life, of family, of work, of rest, and countless other topics. Movies address the same things. For example: What is reality? What is perseverance? What is worth fighting for? What is it to be falsely accused? What is it to sacrifice? The answers to those questions are meant to teach us more about how to live.

#4: After you watch a movie with a friend, you can discuss what the movie was about. While not everything is easily explained the first time through and may require thinking for a while, you know for a fact that the writer, actors, director and producer fully intended to communicate something. They had a main point that they wanted you to understand and wrestle with. So it is with the Bible. The author (and Author) intended it to be understood and applied.

Much more can be said here, but my conclusion is that the friend I spoke of above can indeed understand the Bible. Moreover, as one who watches many movies, I suspect my friend actually knows a lot more about Bible study than either of us even realizes!

The next time you watch a movie, ask yourself how you know what you know about it. Then determine how you knew that, and try the same technique on the Bible.

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How to Interpret: Determine the Main Point
How to Interpret: Answer Questions
  • Erin Krol

    I wonder if part of why your friend feels this way is the fact that the Bible’s original audience was a group of people who lived thousands of years ago and whose culture was very different than ours. In contrast, modern American movies are written for … us! So for the Bible, there’s that extra step of understanding it from the vantage point of the original audience, before we can start applying it to ourselves.

    • Tom Hallman

      That’s a really good point, Erin. It is definitely possible that my friend was referring to the cultural differences.

      Nonetheless, I do think that there is enough that is clear even to our modern sensibilities that I’d be hesitant to say with my friend, “I’m not able to understand the Bible.” I fully agree that there are parts of the Bible that are hard to understand (even the apostle Peter says so!), but I’d then want to qualify my friend’s statement more.

      That being said, your comment helps me to realize the importance of seeking understanding before making assumptions (Pr 18:13).