Review of Life Explored
Written by Barry Cooper & Nate Morgan-Locke, and presented by Barry, Nate, and Rico Tice, Life Explored is a seven session DVD-based series that seeks to “show how our deepest desires for happiness can only be satisfied in one person, Jesus Christ”. It is suitable to run in a small group, one-to-one, or even in a bigger setting, like a whole church gathering. When LE first came out I had the opportunity to talk with Nate about his hopes for the course, as well as the process and rationale behind it. You can read that interview here.
Each session features two films, two Bible readings, and one Bible-study: the first film is a ten-minute story piece (albeit with no dialogue or narrative), intended to gently and thoughtfully raise the session’s theme. This is a noticeable development from the format of LE’s older brother Christianity Explored, which I’ll pick up on later.
The quality of these films is second to none; each story is beautifully and elaborately shot, ranging from the dramatic account of a prospector risking his life in the Californian gold rush, to an emotional snapshot of a geisha and her family in Edo-period Japan. Most are fairly intense, although the middle episode provides some light relief as we dive into suburbia and glimpse a tragi-comic account of materialism’s never-ending lure. The other film in each session is a teaching film, with the three presenters taking it in turns to engagingly open up the Bible for about twelve minutes, speaking into the issues raised by the session’s theme – and more on that later too.
Drawing You In
My impression is that quite a lot of UK churches have already begun using LE since its release in September 2016. Some of these would already have been using Christianity Explored – in other words, they’re at home with CE Ministries and The Good Book Company – but my sense is that LE is also drawing in a wider circle of churches.
Key to understanding LE is knowing that it sees itself not as an alternative to CE, but as an additional resource that can be used before someone has done CE. I think it’s fair to say that LE feels like an easier invite than CE – in other words, I can see how someone might give LE a go before they’re willing to commit to CE. That’s probably a result of a combination of factors: on one level the name itself comes across as less exclusive; an invitation to explore the meaning of life feels like less of a commitment than seven weeks studying ‘Christianity’. This is then backed up by the publicity, which asks the non-threatening and invitational question, ‘What’s the best gift God could give you?’ But there’s also the fact that one of the major elements of LE are the ‘story’ films. Though they don’t hold back in terms of intensity of emotion, they certainly change the mood of the session; you almost feel like you’re getting a visit to the cinema together each time!
Good for Everyone
And yet LE is certainly not superficial, basic or merely introductory. That’s because the questions and issues raised are engaging, universal, and soul-searching: What, if you lost it, would make you feel that life wasn’t worth living? What keeps you going in difficult situations? What comes to mind when you hear the word “God”? Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly our conversations became ‘deep’ and personal. We weren’t just sharing knowledge or learning new facts; we were persuasively being encouraged to reflect together on how we were choosing to live our lives.
And that’s where we come to what LE is trying to do, if I can put it like that. Three things to mention here:
- Firstly, the angle LE takes is to ask the question of where we’re looking for lasting happiness. Boom. We all want to be happy, right? I’m engaged straight away. The films and Bible interaction then work together to provoke us to consider whether the things we’re living for are bringing us what we want, or whether actually – and quite strikingly – they might be imprisoning us. The ‘story’ films especially expose this by getting under our skin and positing that we’re each like the different characters in our own ways. And the claim LE gradually then makes is that it is only the triune God of the Bible who can bring us this happiness that we crave. Without realising it, we’re essentially introduced to the Bible’s category of idolatry: the claim that we’re captivated and captured by counterfeit gods, good things that have become ‘god things’. This is adeptly done, and is a perceptive way to connect with those who might freely acknowledge that they effectively ‘worship’ something or someone, but who perhaps may struggle to grasp the idea of breaking God’s commands.
- Secondly, this approach inevitably raises the question of who we think God is – and whether the God we do or don’t believe in is actually the God of the Bible. I think LE does this very powerfully. And this is why, in our limited experience, LE proved to be brilliant for Christians and non-Christians alike – and importantly – Christians and non-Christians together. It meant there was an atmosphere of Christians and unbelievers together talking about discovering who God is, and about how we can all lose sight of this. Whereas other courses can end up feeling quite ‘them and us’ (and to some extent that is obviously important), LE felt like we were all journeying together.
- Thirdly, LE does all this by taking guests through a whistle-stop overview of the Bible’s plot line, beginning in Genesis 1 and ending six weeks later in Revelation 21. The idea is that because most people are pretty biblically illiterate, it’s vital to paint a broad brush-stroke sense of God’s purposes for the world – and how we fit into that. This was helpful, although I think it sometimes felt like the teaching film was quite ‘full’, because the presenters were trying to combine idolatry/character of God/Bible overview.
Leading LE well
LE is definitely worth running as a course, but it is worth being aware that people will inevitably engage differently with the opening films. I remember Nate saying that when they were trialling the LE material it was often the Christians who struggled with the ‘story’ films more than non-Christians. Perhaps that’s because some Christians will tend to want ‘the point’ to be clearer, whereas the aim of these films is more to open up the issues and provoke people. That said, depending on your group, it may be worth gently helping participants to link the stories in the films to each session’s theme. For example, one participant in our group wondered why the ‘story’ film isn’t ever referred to in the ‘teaching’ film. Footage is used, but the presenters never reference it, so that probably means it is important that the course leader does.
Also, it’s worth noting that Episode 2’s ‘story’ film (effectively the first one of the series, given Episode 1 is an introductory montage) is probably also the most confusing. I had a conversation with another church leader recently and it turns out they’d understood the film in a completely different way to how I had (for what it’s worth, I went for an Edenesque depiction of the relationship between God and humanity – amIright?!). Maybe that’s just the joy of art, but, because it’s the first one, it might help to have a little bit of reassuring explanatory input from the leader at some point in the session. There was also a slightly embarrassing moment for me in the final session (#7) when I completely failed to spot something fairly obvious in the opening film, and this was then ‘helpfully’ pointed out to me by the rest of the group. Good for the humility, anyway…
To be fair to Nate & Barry, they’ve picked up on this issue of leading and linking, and have created a really helpful set of ‘Leaders’ Commentary’ videos for each episode, freely accessible if you register your LE course. These were really useful to watch in advance, and I’d scribble a few notes down about how to orchestrate the session well. More information about these commentaries and Barry’s own ‘cheat sheet’, a handy summary version of some the key points in the commentaries, is here.
“God is offering himself to me…”
One participant on our first course put it like this: “halfway through LE the penny dropped, as I learnt that God is offering himself to me.” That’s hugely encouraging, because that’s really the heartbeat of the material: to see that the greatest gift God could give us – and has given us – is himself.
LE feels fresh, whilst being faithful, and is creative in the way it connects, whilst still being clear in the way it confronts. I suspect the more you lead it, the more you’ll become comfortable with leading it – and hopefully the more you’ll rejoice as its drip-drip-drip approach of shining the spotlight on the character of God helps others – and yourself – to find true hope and life and joy in God himself.
You can pick up Life Explored resources, including Leaders’ Packs, Participant booklets, and the DVD, from the Good Book Company here. A trailer is below:
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of Life Explored from the publisher, but I hope this is still a fair review.
As a church we have been working through Life Explored and I just don’t get it, and in fact and really upset and disturbed by last nights Geisha episode. That, without warning, you are about to watch a film using violence and torture. I only got through about 7 minutes before I walked out and have been awake much of the night with the visions of the poor women being beaten and probably raped and the man being tortured. Yet you and others think this is OK and even good? What is with you people?
Our pastor wants to show this to all the groups in the church? There is no introduction or explanation of what is going to happen. I didn’t understand the episode about the Lawn Mower last week either (this is the only other full episode I have been available to see). I don’t understand what it is trying to do. I think the films are too long and on the whole boring.
I wonder if it is a bit like the story of The Emperors New clothes, it is just so clever, that people don’t see what others like me do or is it that I am just thick?
Thanks for this comment Heather. I think you raise a valuable point about the Geisha episode. Perhaps it’s worth feeding that back to your pastor so that a comment may be added ahead of that episode. It would be interesting to hear what those who produced the course had to say too? I can’t quite remember how the film for that episode goes. I remember being very moved by the episode and it’s portrayal of the way the Bible describes sin as something we keep going back to, no matter the damage it causes us. Certainly, the behaviour done to the Geisha is not being commended in the film or episode and, if anything, it is being held up as being horrific. But perhaps a trigger warning could be helpful for some. I’ve known others who have been powerfully moved by the episode, who have shared how it has helped them glimpse something of God’s relentless love for us.
Regarding your point about the films being too unclear or too clever, I think the writers of the course have noted that some hosts may find it helpful to ‘tee up’ each video highlighting some of the issues the film communicates. There is obviously a balance between letting viewers make their own connections and over-explaining, which may be down to the individual context as to what is helpful and what is expected.
Thanks for engaging and sharing honestly.
As a former atheist and now Christian for over a decade, I find this series to be obtuse. The short films look like they cost millions of dollars— all of which could have been spent feeding and housing and clothing the poor or healing the sick. I find them indulgent and, frankly, inside-baseball for Christians.
What reached me when I was a non-believer was personal testimony and vulnerability from others who had gone before me and had overcome “by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony” (Revelation). I would have much preferred these pastors teaching on their own idols and their own trials than watching these costly explorations. Instead they prop themselves up and the pride in their project drips from their teaching, with their off-angle somber staring into the camera. It’s too slick. They are saying life is messy, but they are passing themselves off as teachers from on high because they don’t reveal themselves. Asking us to be vulnerable but unwilling to go to the cross in their sermons.
The “Geisha” episode was the most obtuse of all… because all of the commentary says we’re supposed to consider the woman, and her “returning to the pig slop,” but the short film makes the husband the central character. We don’t identify with her. We identify with him. And he represents God, so we aren’t led to identify with the human in the story.
I find the entire series tedious, pretentious and a tremendous waste of resources.