For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles

For the Life of The World: Letters to the Exiles is a recent video series produced by the Acton Institute. The purpose of the series is to help Christians answer the question: “What is our salvation actually for?" This is a question that is vitally important as Christians consider how to engage the culture in an increasing post-Christian world.

The production is comprised of seven distinct episodes, which could be watched in close succession like a feature film or in distinct units as part of a study. Each episode is in the neighborhood of twenty minutes, with a total run-time of about two hours. The episodes pick up distinct pieces of the answer to the central question of why Christians remain on the earth after being saved.

There are several main themes running through the episodes. As the subtitle implies, there is the theme of exile. This theme is drawn from Jeremiah’s encouragement to Israel in Jeremiah 29, which was given before the Babylonian exile but which provides encouragement that God has not forsaken his people and that in the meanwhile the people of Israel were to continue to pursue to common good. This message is timely, as culture appears to be tilting away from a Judeo-Christian consensus. As Western culture begins to look more and more like a pagan Babylon, Christians need to understand how God has called his people to engage the culture when they are outsiders.

The seven episodes mirror a week in the life of most Christians. Episode 1 presents the case that Christians are in exile. This is the hook for the entire series, beginning with the metaphor that the world is a wilderness that needs to be brought under dominion. In this case, dominion means to brought into fruitful production, as a field is cultivated and tended to produce food. Theologian Stephen Grabill makes his appearance as the central thinker in the series. We are also introduced the quirky Evan Koons, the main character of the story. Episode 2 deals with the Economy of Love. This segment covers the importance of the family encouraging a traditional, biblical approach to marriage and family. Amy Sherman discusses the reality that many of the biblical families are dysfunctional, but points out the existence of the deeper patterns of flourishing that follow healthy relationships in the family.

The third episode focuses on Creative Service. This episode celebrates a free market system because it allows people to use their gifts to serve others. The concern with trying to control the complex relationships of the market limits the ability of people to share their talents with others. This is not an endorsement of a libertarian understanding of economics, though, since Episode 5 deals with the Economy of Order. Law is necessary to keep people from taking advantage of one another, but self-regulation is much more satisfying than centralized government control. This episode emphasizes the Acton themes of a free and virtuous society and the rule of law. The key here is that society needs to be self-regulating if the external controls of government are not to be smothering.

Episode 6 explains the Economy of Wonder, in which art, beauty and rest are the central themes. This is the Saturday of the week of many Christians as play, recreation, and gratuitous beauty are the central components. The final episode focuses on the Church. This is Sunday of the week of episodes. The emphasis here is of the love feast, and the beauty of the body of Christ, which prefigures the wedding feast at the end of days. After a week of printed T-shirts, Evan dresses up for the wedding in hipster formal as we learn about the already but not yet nature of the church, prefiguring the Kingdom.

This is an entertaining and informative set of videos. The string of quality thinkers keep the message on target. The writers and Evan Koons’ personality keep the episodes interesting. At times, the audience watches just to see what Evan is going to do next.  The movie is filled with visual stimulation and sometimes visual gags. This is an intriguing way to present some deep theological themes. The entertainment value of the episodes is real without detracting from the communication of information.

The target audience for these videos is Christians in the Millennial and Boomer generation. The films will tend to communicate best to Gen X and younger, particularly with the hipster aesthetic. However, there are a lot of cultural artifacts that will be attractive to the Boomer generation displayed throughout. The perspective of the movie is at times odd, but it communicates well. I would recommend this particularly to college age students, but it could be a useful tool for older youth. The episodic nature and the field guide make this an accessible small group tool.

I liked the approach a great deal. The theology is clear and communicated well. It explains a “One Kingdom” approach to culture succinctly and winsomely. On whole, this is a discipleship tool I would recommend to many others and may use in my ministry at some point.