I was sitting in the bleachers waiting on my son to finish baseball practice when a man sitting near asked, “What’s that you’re reading? Is it a Christian book?” I paused, trying to think of the best way to tell him I was reading a work by a Puritan preacher from the 16th century. When I said, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by an old Puritan theologian named John Owen,” he looked at me like I’d spontaneously grown two additional heads. “Isn’t he the guy who wrote The Scarlet Letter?” he asked. “I understand those people could be a little crazy with their witch hunts and everything.”
Unfortunately, that response is a pretty accurate summary of what people today think of when they hear the word Puritans.
Like many other Reformed believers in recent years, my life and doctrine have been affected deeply by the Puritans, and I’d love to see far more Christians, like my friend in the bleachers, learn from those people who sought to take every square inch of life captive to the glory of God. At minimum, the Puritans might surely benefit from some positive PR. Some help is on the way in an upcoming documentary on the Puritans and Puritanism, Puritan: All of Life to the Glory of God by Media Gratiae in association with Reformation Heritage Books and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
I interviewed Matthew Robinson, director of Media Gratiae and the film’s executive producer, and Stephen McCaskell, the film’s director, about how the project came about and why everyday Christians should care about the Puritans. The movie will make its world premiere at the upcoming TGC 2019 National Conference, April 1 to 3 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
What’s the story behind this documentary? Whose idea was it originally, and how long has it been in the works?
MR: Reformation Heritage Books is a distributor for Media Gratiae projects like the Behold Your God series and the Martyn Lloyd-Jones documentary Logic on Fire, so a great relationship has existed between our two ministries for years. One recurring conversation was the need for a popular-level, feature-length documentary that would take the Puritans, place them in their historical and geographical context, and make them accessible to the average person in the pew. Basically, when a Christians asks, “Why do you like to read those old dead guys so much?” we wanted a film that we can put in their hands and that can serve as an easy on-ramp for beginning to appreciate the Puritans. One day in late 2016, Joel Beeke expressed a desire to make the project a reality, and it quickly grew beyond just a feature documentary to include new books, a series of multimedia teaching sessions on the Puritans, and more. I immediately reached out to my good friend and fellow filmmaker Stephen McCaskell to direct it. He has worked with Media Gratiae on several projects since way back in 2014, and I have the utmost respect and appreciation for his work (including Through the Eyes of Spurgeon and Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer).
SM: We’ve been working on Puritan for nearly two years. The big challenge story-wise is the unstructured nature of Puritanism as a movement. Scholars differ on when the Puritan era began and ended, who’s in and who’s out. And then there’s the issue of running time. We’re trying to tell a story with its roots in the 16th and 17th centuries, and branches extending into our present age—and do all that in around two hours. If you try to cover everything, you exasperate the audience, so you have to find a strong central narrative that drives the movie forward, and be ruthless in pruning content that doesn’t serve that aim. We had an outstanding team to work with, including Barry Cooper, whom I’ve worked with before on Luther and Discipleship Explored. He wrote the screenplay and crafted the central narrative, which is the backbone of the film.
These projects require a large time commitment—often up to two years. Why the Puritans? What makes them fodder for so a massive undertaking as this film?
SM: For us, it felt timely because of the connections between the historical moment in which we find ourselves and the one that gave birth to the Puritans. Puritanism was born in a moment when Reformed theology was taking hold in Christian circles. The printing press made the gospel much more mobile than it ever had been before, just as the internet and social media are doing now.
The movement gained strength when Christians were kicked out of their jobs, forced to resign, and increasingly persecuted—just as they are now. The Puritans were also motivated by an increasing disquiet at the way Christianity was being misrepresented by leaders in the state church and in the highest ranks of government. That same disquiet grows in many Christians today. And just as William Perkins trained a generation of Puritans, so today there are an unprecedented number of Reformed seminaries—not to mention church and parachurch ministries—which are raising up a new generation of Reformed theologians, pastors, and laypeople.
MR: When I started attending Christ Church New Albany, one of the things that made an early impression on me was hearing the members talking about what they’d been reading that week, and how much they’d been helped by the likes of Samuel Rutherford, John Flavel, Richard Sibbes, Thomas Boston, and so on. When titles like The Bruised Reed or Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices were mentioned in conversation, a collective word of affirmation would be heard all around. I remember asking someone, “How do you all know these authors? Do you have Puritan trading cards?” But the truth was that dog-eared copies of Puritan paperbacks and whole sets of collected works lined the walls of the members’ homes, and they had been reading through them both individually and also corporately for many years.
One of the first “book studies” I took part in at the church went through John Owen’s Communion with God. Individuals would read the chapter on their own during the week, then gather in homes for a discussion led by an elder. It was mind-blowing. From that point forward I started devouring the Puritans and lining my own walls with them. Not only have I personally benefited from them so much, I’ve also seen the effect that having elders who read, commend, and give away the Puritans in their congregation can have on strengthening and deepening a local body. I want to see that happen in churches and families all across the world.
Take me through a bit of the movie. Who is featured, and what aspects of Puritanism does it cover? Whom did you interview for the movie?
MR: For the feature film we interviewed Albert Mohler, Conrad Mbewe, Geoff Thomas, Gloria Furman, Ian Hamilton, Jeremy Walker, J. I. Packer, John MacArthur, John Piper, John Snyder, Kevin DeYoung, Leland Ryken, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, Michael Reeves, Rosaria Butterfield, Sinclair Ferguson, Stephen Nichols, and Steven Lawson. Of course, Joel Beeke serves as our guide in the film, narrating our journey through the ages. We cover a lot of ground, beginning with the Reformation, going right through the movement, and then tracing the spirit of Puritanism through to the current day. To keep us from losing the viewer in a long list of dates and strange place names, I envisioned us using a timeline and a map that would constantly help the viewer place the people or activities we are discussing in their geographic and temporal context. We reached out to Jorge Castaneda at Ordinary Folk in Vancouver to bring that visual device to life, as well as the rest of the animation in the film, and they did an absolutely stunning job. Add to these animation sequences Stephen’s cinematography and interviews shot all over Great Britain and the Continent, and we have a visually stunning film.
We also wanted to avoid making a documentary that recounts the historical facts about the Puritan movement but fails to recognize the hand of God and his zeal for his name behind it all. I hope our supporters would expect nothing less from a Media Gratiae project. Our narrator and interviewees were great at making warm spiritual application throughout the entire story.
You can’t say everything that could be said in two hours, and I am fully prepared for people on all sides to complain we didn’t talk enough about this or that issue, person, movement, and so on. But I feel good about accomplishing what we set out to do: to make a film that glorifies the work of God in his church, inspires and challenges us to love and live more for Christ in every area of life, and hopefully serves as that “on-ramp” for untold thousands of people to engage the Puritans. For some, it’s just a matter of beginning to read the men whom the men they read are reading. For others who haven’t heard of the Puritans (apart from associating them with Thanksgiving or more nefarious connotations), this could be an introduction that literally changes their lives for the better.
SM: When you say the word Puritan, you typically get strong reactions. Puritans come to us through publishers like Reformation Heritage Books, but they also come to us through Christian music like Propaganda’s song “Precious Puritans” and through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. So we take that head on. The film is not hagiography. We love the Puritans, but that doesn’t mean we have to airbrush them. We ask some tough questions around the issue of slavery, for example. And John Piper gives a particularly memorable take on that issue.
But it’s sobering to remember that we have blind spots just as they did.
Talk about your own interest in the Puritans. Are there certain figures among who will stand out in the film? What did you learn about the Puritans and Puritanism while working on this project?
SM: We give a decent amount of airtime to most of the big names. My introduction to the Puritans came through Charles Spurgeon (whom we discuss in the film as a latter-day Puritan). As a young boy, Spurgeon devoured his grandfather’s library that was full of Puritan books. If you’ve read any Spurgeon book, you’ll see he quotes them frequently. The first Puritan he introduced me to was Richard Sibbes. Shortly after reading The Bruised Reed I fell in love with them, and now I always have a Puritan book on the go. One of the most moving sequences in the film is when J. I. Packer quotes Valiant-For-Truth in The Pilgrim’s Progress: “My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage . . . ” Coming from the mouth of Packer, who has fought the fight so long and so faithfully, it hits hard.
What do you hope this film will accomplish? Are there any surprises for those who’ve long been readers of the Puritans?
SM: There are plenty of surprises. To experience the whole sweep of Puritan history in a two-hour sitting like this—zooming out and surveying the macro as well as the micro—draws out themes that I think many of us have missed. My hope for Puritan is that for those two hours, people will start to see the world through their eyes. And hopefully, when the film ends, that vision will persist.