Two weeks ago I spent some time talking to Erwin McManus, the well-known pastor of Mosaic in Los Angeles, the author of several books, and the creative force behind Signs, a new series of short films (Earth, Wind, Fire, Wood, and Water) distributed by David C. Cook.
Signs represents a transition for McManus: He has been involved with writing and appearing in video series before (such as CRAVE and Wide Awake), but this time he also served in a directorial role and thereby more actively shaped the final result. And while McManus has been the lead pastor of Mosaic for the last 20 years or so, he’s currently pursuing a calling to create art, which will eventually include feature films. As a result, McManus told me Signs “is very much a direct expression of who I am as a communicator, writer, storyteller, and a director. So the imagery, the narrative, the aesthetic, everything about the films is really deeply connected to who I am as a person.”
Sermon to Screen
The deep connection is rooted in the origin of Signs as an extended series of teachings McManus delivered at Mosaic more than a decade ago. “I did a month on wind, a month on water, a month on fire, a month on earth, a month on wood,” he said. “And frankly, I had enough material to speak for a year on water, to speak for a year on wind, and so on from Scriptures—I just condensed them to four or five weeks.”
The series was so personal and fitting to be adapted for Signs, McManus said, because of its unique point of view. “It was probably the first time that I did a comprehensive series that took people into the way I see the world, the way I see the Scriptures, the way I see humanity and spirituality.”
“It was a way of teaching an entirely new way of seeing and engaging the Scriptures organically,” he remembers. “I think it’s more true to the text than a linear, rational Greek mindset. It’s really stepping back to a more Hebraic relationship to the Scriptures.” McManus went on to say that the series had a significant impact on the depth and breadth of Mosaic at the time, opening the eyes of both believers and non-believers and calling them into a deeper exploration of Christ and the gospel.
When I asked him how difficult it was to adapt a month’s worth of sermons about each the five elements into Signs’ five short films, McManus simply laughed and said, “It was impossible!” Instead, McManus and the production team set out to create a series that would move and provoke people through compelling stories and life-giving truths from the Bible by focusing on very specific ideas from the original sermons. The goal—rather than to offer the Church another Bible study resource—was always to create something that would be viewed in discussed in groups of people at different places on their spiritual journeys.
A Different Approach
“There’s already great stuff [for churches] out there. I don’t know how you do that better than NOOMA did it with Rob Bell. How do you speak more directly to the Church than Francis Chan did with BASIC?” McManus asks. “Why do the same thing? I’m strangely non-competitive in that way. I really like asking, ‘What’s the unique thing I can do that maybe no one else would do?’”
Here McManus identifies an important distinction for the Signs series. It’s comprised of five short films, five works of art that, although each bears a message, are not intended to supplant a 45-minute exegetical sermon. The films inspire, inform, and ask questions, but their full weight isn’t felt unless communal reflection follows.
“Each film has a core narrative inside of it,” McManus explained, and the hope for the series is that each of the narratives provides a spark of revelation to its audience. For example, consider Wind, the second short film in the series.
“Wind, has a sub-narrative,” he told me, “it’s a love story. I wanted to pick one of the more intimate images that we have in the Scriptures where the word pneuma translates as ‘spirit’ or ‘wind’—in the most beautiful way it’s also connected to the word ‘chest.’ When God breathed life into man, it was like the first kiss, it was mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. We built the narrative around that kind of imagery—the breath of God saves us when we’re drowning.”
Art and Apples
In talking to McManus his dual passions for art and for people to know God are evident, but Signs marries these passions in a way that’s often more nuanced and cinematic than what we might’ve come to expect from resources produced by the Church, for the Church.
“I tried to make sure that the narrative inside it was accessible,” McManus said. But at the same time, he didn’t want to be explicit or too on-the-nose with the ideas he was communicating. “Somebody was talking about how if you show an apple, that’s design. If you write the word ‘apple,’ that’s design. But if you show an apple and then write ‘apple’ underneath it, that’s not design.”
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “a lot of times Christian art—music, film, literature—both shows you the apple and writes ‘apple’ underneath because they want to make sure you don’t miss that it’s an apple.” In the case of Signs, the narratives and visual metaphors speak and serve the message, but they don’t scream. Again, this leaves a lot of the work to the viewer and his or her community—sharing questions, answers, observations, experiences, and insights.
If you’re an artist or a minister—or perhaps a hybrid of the two like McManus—experience Signs for yourself. Share the art with your community and allow the ensuing conversation to strengthen your connections to God and others. As an ancillary benefit, the series might also change your approach the next time you’re called upon to communicate “apple.”
View the trailer for the first film in the Signs series, Earth:
Scott McClellan is the Editor of Echo Hub and the Director of Echo Conference. You can follow him on Twitter: @scottmcclellan.