(Re)Creating Church History to Teach the Faith

Jeff Hendrix (Oregon, Wisconsin, USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Rev. Jeff Hendrix holds a Masters Degree in Digital Storytelling from Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, as well as a Masters of Divinity from Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, Mankato, Minnesota. He serves as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) and is currently producing a documentary for the 100th anniversary of the reorganization of the ELS. His prior experience in (re)creating history includes producing digital exhibits at the Historic National Road Museum in Indiana as well as an unpublished documentary on Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark.

If you visit a state or national park or site with historical significance, chances are you'll visit the "interpretive center," something that visitors generations ago may have simply called the "museum" or "historical center." Whereas museums collect and display a series of documents and facts, interpretive centers translate or "interpret" these documents and facts in order to tell stories.

However, one thing is always lost in translation: the emotion of the original event. So many interpretive centers try to recreate emotion through staging and effects. Historical documentaries work the same way. They aren't just simple timelines filled with facts, they are emotion-filled narratives. Ken Burns' documentaries may be the pinnacle examples of this [classics include The Brooklyn Bridge (1981) and The Civil War (1990)].

In general, that documentaries tell emotional narratives isn't a bad thing: Documentaries would be awful if they were void of emotion and weren't formed into narratives. After all, our lives are narratives filled with emotion. The problem appears when the viewer is led to believe that history can only truly be understood in light of a person's experience — in other words, when history is allowed to become subjective rather than objective.

This has some important implications on church history and especially Bible history. Bible history is objectively important. Jesus died on the cross objectively. How someone feels about that event is irrelevant to its overall consequences (of course, by subjectively denying its relevance, that person cuts off the benefits of the cross to themselves).

The documentary I am currently producing is a film about the reorganization of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the centennial of which is coming up in June of 2018. As I worked on the pre-production phase especially, I had to answer one significantly important question. I hope my thoughts on this can be of benefit to others.

How do you create a compelling documentary where the goal is teaching objective church history?

1. Find your point of view

I said earlier that it's a problem for objective church history when it is viewed as understandable only through someone's subjective experience. History is objective — facts don't change. Yet, part of that history is the personal experience of the people who lived it. An event that was good for one person or group was very likely bad for another. But just because two groups experienced different things, doesn't mean we can't look into history and see objectively what happened.

In the case of the ELS Centennial documentary, since we're telling 100+ years of history, the point of view will obviously be that of the ELS as a whole.

2. Find your perspective

A perspective is similar to a point of view, but more focused keeping in mind the intended audience. A perspective allows us to create an interesting narrative of historical facts.

In covering 100+ years of history, there are many directions you can go to tell the history. What factors impact the modern audience the most? What perspective should we take on the facts?

Should we take an ethnic perspective? Perhaps how the largely Norwegian ancestry of the ELS affected the history of the Synod? That could make an interesting story since the largest ethnic group of Lutherans in the CELC in America is of German ancestry. But is it really relevant?

Should we take a missions/growth perspective? Perhaps how the ELS expanded from just over a dozen pastors and churches in 1918 to well over a hundred in the same amount of time? It would be easy simply to note the great things the church has accomplished since its reorganization. But is that who we are as a church body? What about the rather mundane things that have been done throughout the years and the many faithful people who simply lived their vocations?

Or should we take a theological perspective? Some might view this as the "boring" perspective, with ideas that would simply "go over the heads" of many people. And yet, theology is the one thing we have in common with the founders of the synod. Theology is relevant. This perspective actually allows us to bring some other perspectives into it; the theology of early Norwegians is ours, by virtue of their sacrifice and our inheritance. Our greatest accomplishment as a church body is our heritage of faith.

3. Find the story

As narratives, documentaries need to have the same elements as traditional stories. Stories have a structure which includes characters (protagonists and antagonists), conflict, and resolution. Documentaries spanning a long period of time may not have characters in the traditional sense. The protagonist in the case of our documentary is the Evangelical Lutheran Synod at large.

The overarching conflict in our documentary is the ever-present temptation to forsake Biblical truth for outward blessings of unity, growth, and outreach.

The resolution (spoiler alert!) is that the Synod over 100 years has been able, with God's help, to hold firm to biblical truth and the confession on which it was founded — though not without struggle.

4. Focus on snapshots in history

The goal of our film is for it to be shown in all of our churches next summer during a worship service. As such, it has to be very short, like 20 minutes short. (By the way, I'm still trying to figure out how to tell 100 years of history in 20 minutes).

We obviously can't cover everything, so we must focus on "snapshots:" Certain "scenes" throughout our history that illustrate the struggle over biblical confession.

5. Get (re)creative

Focusing on snapshots brings up another difficulty: we don't have media from some of these scenes. Pictures of church gatherings were few and far between 100 years ago. Even the pictures we do have are most often either headshots of pastors or group photos of a couple dozen people at a church service or convention. Not impossible to work from to show conflict, but not great either.

For us, there was one important scene in our Synod's history that tops the rest: the actual reorganization. For those unfamiliar with the history of the ELS, the Norwegian Synod was actually founded in 1853. It was reorganized in 1918 when the large majority chose to unite with other church bodies without true biblical unity (this church body eventually became the ELCA). Only a handful of people were left to reorganize the Synod on the old confession.

The circumstances surrounding this event are quite interesting. The small group deciding to reorganize had set their meeting date and location to be the middle of June in Lime Creek, Iowa. However, three weeks before, because of fear of national loyalties during World War I, the governor of Iowa issued "The Babel Proclamation" which forbade the use of any foreign language during public meetings in the state. This was a problem because many in the church spoke primarily Norwegian. So because the Lime Creek church building was located one mile south of the Minnesota state line, the entire assembly hiked one mile north to cross the state line to hold their discussions in the Norwegian Language. Their services, including a communion service, were held at the Lime Creek Church in English.

Since we don't have any photos of this event, we chose to recreate it at the original location. The pictures accompanying this presentation illustrate this process.

For the shoot, we had to do a number of things with the help of the current members of the congregation:

  1. Return the sanctuary, as much as possible, to its 1918 state. This meant removing flags (besides the American flag looking different today, the flag wasn't introduced in churches until World War II due to another period of fear over national loyalties), removing speakers, hiding an electronic organ, removing banners, relocating the baptismal font to the center aisle, lighting a vintage kerosene chandelier, and finally segregating men and women on either side of the church.

  2. Find an exterior location that could serve as the meeting place. Logistically, using the original site wasn't an option, and being a low-budget documentary, renting a large period canvas tent was out of the question. We chose to forego the tent and use an area on the northeast side of the church property.

  3. Locate props. A couple of old Norwegian Bibles and Catechisms help to add some authenticity to our scenes.

We chose to film our walking shots and a few others in slow motion, adding a sense of drama to the scene.

6. Make it personal

Despite being about the synod at large, the ELS is a synod made up of individuals. In this way the story of the ELS is very personal. There have been many men and women over its history to undergo significant hardship. Our film focuses on a few of them. And yet the greatest theologian in our history is no more important part of the synod than the youngest infant today.

The goal of our documentary was to show the unchanging theological heritage of the Synod. But technically, the synod as such can't believe. A synod can't have faith. Only individuals can have faith. Only individuals can pass on the faith. In this way the documentary will challenge viewers to emulate the example of those who came before, and to hold to the truth of God's Word.

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Ben Lundsten 2017-10-22 6:34:43pm
It's great getting the insight into creating something like this. There are so many factors that play into doing something like this justice. What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced? Is there anything you would change about the project if you could go back and do it again?

Also, I'm wondering with your reenactment, did you have speaking roles? There is a recent documentary on HBO, The Jinx, and it employs one of the most impactful uses of reenactments I've seen by making them purely visual with high attention to set design, cinematography, and camera movement. The ethical choices in the implementation of their reenactments are questionable, but it doesn't take away from how well the used a common, but necessary trope of documentaries in a beautiful way.

I can't wait to see the final film! Thank you for sharing your process behind this great project.
Jeff Hendrix 2017-10-23 7:17:36pm
Thanks Ben!

Planning for this began even before I came on board by the now sainted Rev. Mark Harstad, who was head of the ELS Centennial Committee. When I got brought on, it was very much his vision - and it was great - but lengthy. One challenge has been the fact that the documentary has always been the product of the ELS Centennial Committee - and I'm not a committee member, but rather simply the producer. So, sometimes there have been "creative differences." But I really have nothing to complain about compared to directors being brought in to fulfill the vision of the studio, such as Marvel Studios. That said, I would have started sooner especially with the preproduction on the actual Lime Creek shoot. We had enough volunteers, but not as many as we had hoped. There's no good mode of communication in the ELS to lay people. Pastors are usually the gate, and I can say first hand, that they have too much on their plate to worry about everything going on everywhere. I think it would have helped actually for us to plan and promote the shoot a whole year in advance at the previous Synod Convention.

We had only one speaking role. There's a fantastic line from a sermon preached by the Rev. Bjug Harstad that I think is key to understanding the motivation of the group. We had his real life descendant, Prof. Adie Harstad, fill in for him. Everything else we did was visual. Sounds like I need to check out HBO for The Jinx.

Thanks again!
Ben Lundsten (Christians Forward) 2017-10-24 5:13:09pm
I'm incredibly excited to see this! From what I've seen and heard it sounds like it was a great production. If it is successful do you think it would lead to more opportunities similar to this and if so would you be interested in doing it again?

Also, Jinx is good, but has some ethical flaws for sure! Just a heads up.
Jeff Hendrix 2017-10-24 5:20:05pm
Short answer: I hope so, and yes. :-)
Paul Grubbs (Martin Luther College) 2017-10-28 5:54:39pm
Rev. Hendrix,
This backstage pass to your project on behalf of the ELS was great - both the preliminary conversations you shared about finding the appropriate focus and your description of the actual production. Your explanation would provide a valuable template for a group considering something parallel for their own church, school, or larger body. In addition, I was not familiar with the Lime Creek episode and thought it would be a fascinating focus for a film celebrating "the unchanging theological heritage of the Synod."
An aspect of your piece that I found especially provocative was your advice against over-emphasizing the subjective: "Bible history is objectively important. Jesus died on the cross objectively. How someone feels about that event is irrelevant to its overall consequences." This reminded me of parallel concerns raised regarding some types of music or other worship components that can dangerously shift the spotlight onto our
human response to God's grace rather than the stable, unchanging reality of the cross itself. I had never before considered the possible pitfalls related to documentary filmmaking that you highlighted in this section.
I had a few questions regarding items shared in your piece:
You mentioned that Rev. Harstad's original vision for the piece was lengthy - did early plans include highlighting several different episodes in the history of the ELS or merely providing a more complete account of the Lime Creek account? If early plans included juxtaposing this event with others, what were some of the candidates under consideration?
Also, you said that you were primarily involved during pre-production, and I couldn't be certain from your account whether you were present for the actual shooting at Lime Creek. If so, I was curious about what you learned from watching that process unfold. I am guessing that there are questions and concerns that a team only recognizes once they are on the ground translating a set of plans into an actual draft on-site.
Thanks for your contribution to the conference!
Jeff Hendrix 2017-10-31 12:24:11am
Thanks for the comments. I think the subjective/objective tension is something that is especially prevalent in our postmodern society; but it really started even before this. It's all too easy to shift into theologically subjective thinking when it comes to art of any sort - music, painting, video, etc.

Rev. Harstad's vision was probably going to be about 45minutes in length if fully fleshed out. He merely had the outline done, no script, and no perspective/point of view from which to tell the story. That's when I came on board and I had a few ideas initially on how to do this...

There's another interesting event that takes place at the Aberdeen Hotel in St. Paul, MN. This was where "the remnant" from the former church first gathered when they were first considering starting a new Synod. It was here where the IDEA of the reorganized Synod was born. We only have a few records of this event. The original concept we had was to fictionalize this event, writing dialogue and drama between participants at this meeting as they discuss pros and cons of starting a church body over again. I have to imagine the room got pretty tense at times. During appropriate times, we would cut from the fictionalized event to the actual documentary/narration portion of the film. For instance, we do know (if I am remembering correctly) that there was a Missouri Synod member in that room. The LCMS representative encouraged the men to hold fast to Scripture and actually advised the men to NOT join the LCMS. This would have made a great departure point to talk about the break with the LCMS that happened 40 years later. The climax of the film was to be the men in that room finally deciding together to reform their Synod, and then cutting to a reenactment of the Lime Creek reorganization.

Unfortunately, this idea was short lived. The ELS Historical Committee decided after this that they wanted to show the documentary within the context of a worship service and that 45 minutes would be much too long. So we had to slim down what we were doing. Lime Creek is now the main event we're focusing on, using it as somewhat of a departure point.

As to your second question, I actually directed the on-site production. A colleague and now Bethany professor, Kurt Shrader, was the director of photography. We had to hold back on some firm planning until the day before, when we scouted and did some set-up. I wish again that we had more advance time, but scheduling is always tough. As a result, some things looked different in my mind than what we shot, but overall the shoot went very well. We had few enough re-enactors that it was management, but enough to make it look believable.
Jeff Hendrix 2017-10-31 12:27:22am
I just noticed what I wrote can be taken two ways: "The climax of the film was to be the men in that room finally deciding together to reform their Synod." That reform should be "re-form" their Synod, not "reform" as in what Luther did 500 years ago tomorrow. :-)

Tim Weddle (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 2:49:40pm
Reverend Hendrix,
I was fascinated with this read. Thanks for sharing such an interestingly unique task to those of us here and for showing a brief taste of what it's like to actually film a recreation of over 100 years of history. It is incredible to see the challenges that come upon creating a documentary, and think you very nicely stated the issues you face producing this - the struggle of making it objective, making a unified yet personal point-of-view for each viewer, and doing it all on a tight budget. I recently produced a small-scale play on the MLC stage this last winter, and I can (to a lesser extent) understand the kind of struggles you must be facing in regards to this situation. I noticed you mentioned having to alter the appearance of the interior of Lime Creek's church. How did the congregation respond to the request to coming in and doing all this work?
Beside this is another concept you captured eloquently and that's the idea of objectivity (which I touched on briefly previously), especially in regards to Church history when you said, "Bible history is objectively important. Jesus died on the cross objectively. How someone feels about that event is irrelevant to its overall consequences (of course, by subjectively denying its relevance, that person cuts off the benefits of the cross to themselves)." While training to be a teacher in the WELS, I am subjected to professors who explain the danger of biased textbooks and films, as well as inaccuracies that can skew student viewpoint and understanding. With that, what are some challenges you might face within creating a narrative for the ELS in keeping it objective? I would imagine it somewhat difficult to do with harsher feelings toward those who would see the church fall.

Thank you again for the contribution. This was extremely interesting to me and I'm praying for success!
Jeff Hendrix 2017-11-01 4:55:47pm

The congregation was great. A few members showed up to clean and light the historic kerosene candelabra (and made sure we didn't burn down the church in the process :-) Otherwise, it was our small crew that altered the church's appearance where we could - some things weren't possible to change (The historic stained glass windows from the church were stolen in the 1970's and never replaced; we obviously couldn't help that). At the end of our shoot, we made sure to put everything back. As in all productions, we try to "leave the place better than you found it."

An "antagonist" if there is one in the film would be F.A.Schmidt, the man responsible for the election controversy and ultimately the split in the Norwegian Synod. Obviously we in the ELS look not so favorably on him, which is subjective. If we took his point of view, obviously things would look very different. So there is some level of subjectivity in the film and that's inescapable, but this is why facts are important, because they are objective.

Hope that helps, although I'm not sure if that answers your question much though...

Blessings on your studies at MLC!

David Young (Holy Trinity Okauchee, Wisconsin) 2017-11-01 3:53:34pm
It is a beautiful thing, when a synod can look back to how they have 'walked together' for 100 years, trusting in the ineffaceable grace that has been given to them. I am thankful to see that you are carefully considering how best to make it both objective and personal, emphasizing how faithful followers of the Way of God respond to the message of God's grace and pass it on to those who do not yet know it. With this presentation you struck a passage from Scripture into my brain (Romans 6:3-4). As we are buried with Christ into death through Baptism, we strive to live our lives to the honor of His holy name. This includes staying true to our heritage of faith; an inheritance from God and His Word. So your point that Theology is relevant is absolutely spot on. God's blessings as you wrap up production.

A question, if I may add one:
You stated the predicament as to what direction you wanted to take with this film. My question is: What kind of impact do you want to have with your audience? I gathered this is a video you will be showing in ELS churches across the country, so I assume your target audience is that of ELS members; men, women, and children of all different backgrounds. These are men and women who would appreciate the effect of the ethnicity of Norwegian ancestry on the formation of the synod; these are people that would appreciate seeing how God's people hold firm to biblical truth and to the confession on which it was founded. However my thought was-Would a congregation not be further encouraged for outreach if you took a missions/growth perspective? Would it not be ultimately beneficial to trace the story of how God increases his kingdom of believers through his people? A good objective message to get across could be that 'God uses his people to accomplish his will-the salvation of all people here on earth'. I pray that the ELS is not only thankful to God and strengthened in their faith, but encouraged to share the 'reason for the hope that they have'. (1 Peter 3:15) As Paul quotes Isaiah 52:7 in Romans, "How can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news?'

Thank you, for all that you are doing. God bless you.
Jeff Hendrix 2017-11-01 5:16:37pm
Thanks for your question. The impact question is a big one. You cited that I mentioned theology is relevant. That's really the impact I want to have. I remember a professor once saying something along the lines of "Doctrine is practical." Doctrine is our basis for what we do. It's how we formulate and shape our practice. I think there's a misunderstanding out there that for something like a congregational Bible study, doctrine really doesn't matter; that we need to go straight to practical stuff. Some may think they know it all already, and some may just be pragmatic and want to skip the introduction. But without the understanding of doctrine, practice nearly always goes south, which then comes back and affects doctrine. So, I would like to instill a love for doctrine/theology. A good understanding of theology will necessarily lead to putting that into practice.
Whether or not I can do that through this in 15-20 minutes, only God knows. :-)

Also, it is good to be encouraged, such as what would result from a growth perspective. That would arguably make more of an emotional/compelling story. But encouragement isn't necessarily linked to emotion. In fact, emotion can sometimes get in the way of seeing God's promises. That's part of the "subjectiveness" I would like to get away from.

This has impacts on other areas of church life. Some want to "hook" Christians into the church, through something as far out as emotional contemporary worship or even something as seemingly harmless as Christmas traditions. But using emotion to keep people in church is dangerous, because in Christian liberty, different churches do things differently and different Christians like different things. The danger is that Christians will be trained to be more connected to the subjective experience/emotion of one little thing a church does rather than the object of everything the church does, which is Christ revealed in the Word of God. That's tangental to your question, but relevant, I think.

Anyway, thank you again for your thoughts!
Eric, Reese, Jenna (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2017-11-04 3:49:44pm
Hi Jeff,

This was an excellent behind-the-scenes look into your project! When it comes to enjoying documentaries like this, I often to forget asking myself what efforts went in to creating it. It takes great dedication to portray things as accurately to history as possible, and you are taking great care to do so. It was especially fun to read about recreating the original scene of the reorganized church – specifically recreating the scenes inside the sanctuary and outside utilizing the church property. Getting to learn about the creation/reforming of a synod we commune with doesn’t happen often, so it’s quite a gift to get to learn about that through projects like your own.

When it comes to recreating these scenes, how do you decide what details are included and what ones are omitted? Was there a process you or a team went through to help select what historical snapshots to portray, and how to portray them? If possible in future projects, would you want to capture more scenes from that 100-year history? If so, what scenes would you want to capture and recreate?