My personal Christian journey began well before my teenage years, and many things influenced my path towards growing in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord. It was a slow journey with many steps along the way, and many hurdles as well, before I began to really take Christianity seriously, but it seems from the moment I could talk I was always a philosopher. Though I was born and raised an Orthodox Christian, my family was not particularly religious or philosophical or even educated. So wherever and whenever I found a kernel of gold somewhere, I treasured it. The few who know me know that I am still the same way, because I have found for me that this is a tried and true method. Among my early pre-high school influences I could name a few people that had a major influence on me, and possibly even a few books. But nothing influenced me more in my journey as a Christian than the media, specifically television and film, since media can mean many other things.
I understand that there are many Christians who may find this confusing, since to them television and film are seen to be as more on the evil side of influences, especially for youth. This is something I have always disagreed with, by personal experience. I have found that if you're raised to fear something, your life will be lived in fear, which I find unhealthy. My personal opinion has always been that nothing can influence you deeply unless you are inclined for it to influence you (influence is usually based on deep human experience), and if you are inclined towards good then you will get good out of something no matter how evil it may seem, but if you are inclined towards evil then evil will be its fruits even if it appears good. And this not only goes for the media, but for everything. Life offers many opportunities to choose between good and evil without the media, as it always had throughout history, so the weak will fall one way or the other, and the strong will grow if it is in their will to grow. It is not my intention here to defend my influences or the media with simplistic answers, but only offer this as food for further reflection.
Below is a list of ten ways (with video links in the titles), of many, in which the media influenced my early Christian journey:
As a child, like most children, I loved watching cartoons. Before there were networks entirely devoted to children's programming, most kids would only have the chance to watch their fill of cartoons on Saturday morning, which I did. After school was another great time to watch cartoons for a few hours. But my favorite cartoon program in the early 1980's, when I was about 5 or 6 years old, was a cartoon I discovered in the morning at 7:00 am which I could watch every day before school. This cartoon was called Superbook. Superbook, also known as Animated Parent and Child Theatre, was an anime television series produced by Tatsunoko Productions in Japan in conjunction with the Christian Broadcasting Network in the United States. The series chronicled the events of the Bible's Old and New Testaments in its 52 episode run. I will not get into the details, but this show was a tremendous influence in my life. I had seen every episode and because of it I knew every major story in the Bible. This series was so influential that it made me buy my own Children's Bible, which beginning around 7 or 8 years old I read every night before bed. When my friends would come over they would make fun of me for having a Bible next to my bed, but I didn't care because I loved it. Superbook for me was one of the biggest reasons not only for loving Scripture, but for knowing it as well as I do. It helped me appreciate and be excited about the stories before I got into the meat of the book.
Probably the most influential after-school cartoon for me when I was about 7 years old was He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. He-Man was not necessarily a Christian cartoon, but it was influential on me because it was the first time I got into a series where good and evil were clearly separated, as well as virtue and vice. It was also about transformation, where a young man named Adam, who was lazy and cowardly, would transform dramatically as He-Man by fighting evil with courage and strength. The clear delineation between good and evil, darkness and light, virtue and vice portrayed in this show was also very influential on me to become the type of person I wanted to be.
As a child, and even still as an adult, I have always loved holidays, and when I was a child Christmas was my favorite. Yes, I loved the presents, the music, the tree, the lights, the school vacation, etc, but from a very young age I also started a unique practice. When I was very young I would always try and stay up till midnight on Christmas Eve to capture a glimpse of Santa Claus. By the time I was about 7 years old I discovered, through a great loss of innocence, that there was no Santa Claus, but this did not deter me from still loving Christmas. I wanted to hold on to the holiday as much as I could so I would try and stay up all night watching Christmas programs on TV. And when I was very young I noticed a movie that came on every year around 2:00 or 3:00 am called A Christmas Carol. Despite it being a black and white movie, I loved it. Growing up, this was my favorite movie, and I watched it in as many versions as I could. This movie taught me many things as a child, but most especially the idea of repentance from evil and selfishness and the joy that selfless sacrifice brings. I still watch it every year on Christmas Eve and it is still a major inspiration to me, and I have read the novel by Charles Dickens many times and make every effort to see the play every year around Christmas time.
From the time Thanksgiving rolled around and the networks began airing Christmas specials, I was right there in front of my TV taking them all in. It didn't matter what kind of Christmas program it was, I watched it. But my second favorite after A Christmas Carol was A Charlie Brown Christmas. Believe it or not, I had actually read the cartoon book before I saw the special, so when I saw it on TV I appreciated it even more. The main influence for me of this show is that it hit such seemingly adult themes, such as Charlie Brown's depression and angst, that it gave me something to really identify with. I was always a deep thinker who wanted more out of life than what the superficial world offers, and in this cartoon the main character seemed to be going through the same thing I felt. It also taught me that there is great beauty in humility. One thing it taught most however was about the true meaning of Christmas. Linus' rendition at the end always had me confused, but I always knew he was talking about Jesus and His Nativity, and this always helped me focus on what Christmas was really about from a very young age.
It is hard to name just one horror movie, but if I were to narrow it down to three, I would choose The Exorcist, Poltergeist and Ghostbusters. I saw all three of these movies at a very young age, and all three scared me a lot. They scared me, but they also fascinated me. I would turn away often, but I would always go right back to them. In fact, I saw all three, especially the latter two, many times when I was a young child. If horror movies taught me anything, it was that the supernatural is something very interesting. I wanted to know more about it and what inspired these films. They would always leave me wondering what was fake and what was real. If you were to ask me back then if I liked horror movies, I would have said no, but deep down I also knew how fascinated I was by them, especially the supernatural ones.
My fascination and fright of horror made my experience watching The Seventh Sign all the more interesting. This was the first R-rated movie I had ever seen in the theatre in 1988, when I was about 12 years old, so it was pretty exciting. The story however blew me away. As mentioned earlier, I had known much about the various Bible stories by the time I was 12, but this movie opened my eyes to a story in the Bible I had not read about in my Children's Bible - the story of the end of the world. Scripture was being quoted often throughout the movie, especially the Book of Revelation, which I had not heard about, but one verse written out was Joel 2:29. When I got home I looked for a real Bible to find this verse. My sister had a King James Bible someone gave her, so I took it and flipped through the entire book looking for references contained in the movie. And I found many interesting things to confirm the truth of the apocalypse, to my horror. This was not only the first time I ever opened up and read a real Bible, but it also opened up to me the fascination to return to it again and again until I read and understood the whole thing.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out in 1989 and I saw it in the theatre. I did not have happy memories about Indiana Jones, because I had also seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when I was much younger in the theatre, and that movie had scared me so much that it caused my family to walk out of the theatre in the middle of it. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was different however. It had more comedy and was not as dark as the previous one, but it also had an adventure I could better relate to, since this time around Indiana Jones was going in search of a Christian relic, specifically the cup Christ used at the Last Supper. Not only did the story fascinate me, but this movie inspired me a great deal to study history, archaeology, and even my own personal faith.
Though I am typically not a fan of depicting Jesus in film, the best portrayal I had ever seen came one night in Holy Week when I was about 12 or 13. As I mentioned earlier, I loved holidays, and Easter was no exception. This particular Easter happened to be a year in which Eastern and Western Easter coincided, so the specials on TV in this rare instance coincided with our Holy Week. On Holy Thursday night, to get in the spirit of the week, I saw that the movie Jesus of Nazareth was on and was going to play over three nights, since it is a 6-hour movie. I decided to watch it, even though I knew I also had to go to church and probably would not watch it all. Within the first hour it mesmerized me. One thing that captured me most especially was its constant references to Old Testament prophecy, and how Jesus fulfilled these prophecies. This was a new concept for me, and I knew that if this was true, then this would establish Christianity as fact. Not only did this movie greatly enhance my Holy Week experience, but it changed my life and my perception of Christ. It also made me all the more want to study Scripture to find out more how Christ fulfilled all these prophecies.
The Story of the Other Wise Man I am referring to was a 30-minute cartoon that I saw early one Christmas morning, though the movie is also good which I saw a few years later. It is based on a book by the minister Henry Van Dyke called The Other Wise Man written in 1896. I saw this around when I was 12 or 13 and it reminded me of another cartoon they would show us in Elementary School that had a major influence on me called The Little Prince, based on the short story of Oscar Wilde. These stories taught me greatly about virtue and sacrifice and selflessness perhaps more than any other up to that time. It brought saintliness to real life for me, and for that it was a major influence on me.
10. The Egyptian
This movie is based on the historical novel by Mika Waltari which was published in 1945. I believe I saw this movie around when I was 14 years old after browsing around the video store. Being fascinated by the Bible, I wanted to watch every Bible movie I could, so I picked The Egyptian. At first I was a bit bored by it because it was not a story out of the Bible, as I had hoped. But as I watched I observed another character I could relate to, who was searching for the truth in an environment which was hostile to the truth. I saw characters who sacrificed even their lives for the truth and even left society to cultivate the truth within them. It has a very subtle Christian message, but powerful, and till today remains one of my favorite films.
There are many other movies and shows I could name that had a major influence on me, but these are among the most memorable of my young life. Over the years I have continued to appreciate this medium of communication not only as a learning experience, but for offering stories one can relate to and even just be entertained by. Of course it is not the highest form of communication, but it played a role in my life and continues to play a role in a major way. The media is only one of many means towards the end rather than an end in itself. I like to compare it to Plato's Allegory of the Cave, where knowledge is dispersed in many levels and many forms before one can appreciate ultimate truth and see everything in proper perspective.