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Video: Reformation on video

Video | The lives of the Reformers make for gripping drama

Issue: "The persecuted church," Nov. 1, 1997

For parents who've tolerated their last Halloween and are ready to substitute an annual Reformation Day instead, Gateway Films and Vision Video have put together a package to help move children out of the witches and goblin mode and introduce them to the Reformers. The six-video series, plus printed and videotaped study guides, is designed to preserve the history of the church.

The video on the life and work of medieval Bible translator John Wycliffe, the "morningstar" of the Reformation, is presented with intelligence and compassion. This script demonstrates the tender love of Christ that permeated his ministry. Particularly touching are encounters between Wycliffe (Peter Howell) and common folk, in which he comforts the bereaved and challenges the corrupt by countering superstition and heresy with Scripture.

When this film was broadcast on British television, the audience response was so great that Gateway Films was asked to produce a follow-up program. God's Outlaw: The Story of William Tyndale was the result.

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Tyndale, a prodigiously gifted linguist and scholar, translated the Hebrew and Greek Bible into English, work forbidden by the church dignitaries. As merchants smuggled his Bible throughout England, he was pursued by agents of King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, and Cardinal Wolsey. The production is lovely to watch, with highly detailed costumes and authentic settings supporting fine performances delivered by Roger Rees (Tyndale), Keith Barron (Henry VIII), and the rest of the cast. The dialogue revels in the Elizabethan vernacular, which is a delight to the ear, but young audiences may require an adult's help. Tyndale's martyrdom (he was strangled and burned) is presented with tempered direction.

When Ken Curtis, president of Vision Video and founder of the Christian History Institute, presented John Hus in previews to church audiences, he would first ask how many knew of Hus. The numbers were low, but the response after viewing the film was consistently one of "stunned amazement." While this production is not as polished as some of the others, it is dramatically successful, with Rod Colbin playing the Czech Reformer as he languishes in a dungeon and remembers in flashback style how God used him for spiritual revival and to point to Christ, not the church, as the mediator between God and man. Hus's martyrdom, singing as he was burned at the stake, is depicted without dwelling on graphic visuals.

The Louis De Rochemont production of Martin Luther is the shining star of this series. Director Irving Pichel made this film in 1953, when funding went further, and actor Niall MacGinnis brilliantly conveys the spiritual travails of this monk whose conscience was captive to the Word of God. The film was made in black and white, which was convention at the time, but today the effect is to symbolize the contrast between God's truth and man's doctrinal deviations. Ecumenicals may be shocked at dialogue that criticizes the Roman Catholic church and delivers bracing debates of the issues that define the Reformed faith.

The story of Michael and Margaretha Sattler, leaders of the Anabaptist movement, is depicted by director Raul Carerra in The Radicals. The Anabaptists' disagreement with both the Roman Catholics and Reformers hinged on the practice of believer's baptism. Other issues raised in this discord include the separation of church and state, religious tolerance, and pacifism. The script, adapted from Myron Augsberger's book, Pilgrim Aflame, explores the sincerely held beliefs of all sides and the political and social upheaval that surrounded this tragic episode. Parents need to know that this film contains brief, graphic scenes of human suffering that may be too strong for children to see. The Sattlers were martyred, but their ideas gave birth to the Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite, Brethren, Baptist, and other denominations of the Free Church tradition.

Finally, the videotape titled The Swiss is a 28-minute documentary-style review of the life and work of both Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. While this film is useful for a brief study of these heroes of the Reformation, it serves mainly to whet the appetite for more of their histories. Calvin deserves a film of his own. Providentially, Gateway Films is working on one.


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