When I was in high school, a friend of mine decided that he was going to attempt to watch every single movie on the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies of all time, which, if I remember correctly, he succeeded in doing.
There are some on the list that I’ve never heard of, some that I’m surprised to see on the list, and some I’m surprised aren’t on the list at all (The Matrix, Braveheart, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, just to name a few).
And many of the movies on the list are ones you would think of. The Godfather (#3), Schindler’s List (#9), Star Wars (#15), E.T. (#25), Jaws (#48), The Sound of Music (#55), The Silence of the Lambs (#65), Forest Gump (#71), and Rocky (#78) are just some of the highlights.
But the most surprising thing about the list, by far, is what movie they have listed as #1.
According to the AFI, the #1 movie of all time, is: Citizen Kane.
Now, in case you are reading this and haven’t seen this movie, let me give you an idea of what it’s like. But first you need to do a little prep:
1). Go get a bucket of paint and a large brush (a roller will also do).
2). Find a large wall in your home or office that you would like a different color.
3). Paint the wall.
4). Find something to sit on.
5). Sit on it.
6). And then, to get the full Citizen Kane experience, watch the paint dry.
I’m serious. It is one of the slowest, dullest, most boring experiences I’ve ever had. It was long, it was in black-and-white, it draaaaaagged on forever, and in the end, the “shocking” “twist” was so anticlimactic, I believe I actually laughed-out-loud for real. Here I was, all geared up to watch the greatest movie of all time and all it did was leave me sleepy and bored.
So, of course my next logical question (and what you’re probably wondering right now) was: Why in the world is this the #1 movie of all time?!?!?!
I mean, there are no incredible computer generated special effects, no soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer, no intense mystery to solve, no famous movie stars, no award-winning make-up artist, no best-selling book it was based off of, and no clever dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin!
How did this happen?!?!
And the answer to this question lies in a single word: Context.
Citizen Kane is believed by the American Film Institute and many others to be the greatest film of all time for one simple reason: Context.
Context is defined as: The interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.
A perfect illustration of context would be humor. There is a certain context in which certain humor is accepted and appropriate…and a context in which it is not.
A joke about finances might be funny to accountants or stock brokers, but not to a 5 year old. In the same way, a joke about farting might be funny to a 5 year old, but not…actually farting is pretty much hilarious no matter what your age. But you get the idea.
Another example would be clothing. Shorts worn to a job interview would be considered “out-of-context”, white at a wedding is not appropriate, and a tux at McDonalds isn’t wrong or bad…but people would definitely consider it not in the right context.
Citizen Kane came out in 1941. At that time, there had never been a movie of its caliber. It had ground-breaking, never-before done cinematography, completely original music, and one of the first unexpected, emotional plot twists ever done in film up to that time. And there were numerous inventions of technology that were created for the movie that had never been done before: It was the first movie ever to use “deep focus” which meant everything in each shot was in focus (not just one object or character), it was also the first movie ever to use “low angle shots” which showed the ceiling, it was one of the first movies to use flashbacks throughout the film to tell the story, and it was the first movie ever to start the movie with the final (chronological) scene and then come back to it at the end. It also had special effects, makeup, and soundtracks elements that had never been done before. Finally, it was written and directed by the same man, Orson Welles, who also acted in the film as the main character. It was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won for Best Original Screenplay.
So, every good movie that you and I have enjoyed since then, and many other movies we’ve never heard of, have been made possible and significantly influenced by this one movie.
And suddenly, the reason that it is considered the greatest movie of all time makes sense. Regardless of its comparison to the special effects in The Dark Knight or the screen play of The Social Network or the cast of Oceans 11, Citizen Kane has arguably had the most impact on film as a whole than any other motion picture.
But it is still super boring so if you’re going to watch it, I recommend having a lot of Red Bull in your system and some sort of game on your smart phone cued up.
The truth about context is: Context is vital to understanding.
Understanding the context of someone’s childhood or home-life can do wonders for understanding them as a person. If you find out someone at school is violently mistreated at home, you can find yourself giving them extra grace and love when they’re attitude is edgy. If you find out your friend’s mom has cancer, you’re going to be extra sensitive about how they’re doing and your language around subjects of terminal illness.
Context gives us understanding.
And it’s the same with Scripture.
The Bible has context.
Here’s an example:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. – Matthew 6:19-24 (TNIV)
So this passage starts with talking about treasures in heaven, and ends with a somewhat famous phrase about how you cannot serve two masters: you have to pick between God and money.
But then in the middle of these two passages, Jesus starts talking about healthy and unhealthy eyes. Many translations use the terms having a “good eye” and having a “bad/evil eye.”
Why would Jesus give a random anatomy lesson in the middle of talking about money?
Now generally this middle verse is interpreted as being about what we view with our eyes. What we watch will influence our hearts, which is true.
But when we seek to understand the context, the truth of this passage gains some depth.
You know how we have modern day slang sayings like: “He totally killed it.” “She’s hot.” or “That’s the bomb.”? (if you’re a child of the 90’s, as I am). And we all know what these mean because we’re a part of the culture where they are spoken.
But think what it would be like for people who are not from our language culture and how they might not get exactly what we’re talking about if they heard us say that, unless they understood the subtleties of our ‘sayings.’ They would be worried somebody was killing something or an attractive person had a fever or some random object was going to blow up. Why? Because they don’t understand the context.
Well, just like we have sayings like these, so did people 2000 years ago. In Jesus’ time there were slang sayings that people would use just like today.
And one of these phrases or sayings was about a “good eye” and a “bad eye.” Having a “good” or “healthy” eye was a slang term that meant you were generous. In the same way, having a “bad” or “evil” eye meant that you were selfish and possessive about your wealth, money, and possessions.
So all of a sudden, understanding this opens up the meaning of all that Jesus is talking about. He starts by saying don’t worry about worldly possessions, and instead build up for yourself treasures in heaven. Then He uses some modern slang to help people understand that generosity and giving does great things for our heart and soul and spirit. And selfishness does great harm and damage.
By understanding the context, the deeper truth of this passage comes to life!
And there are numerous examples of this throughout Scripture.
This post is already too long so I’ll just talk about one more:
In the book of Jeremiah, a conversation between God and Jeremiah is recorded:
The WORD of the Lord came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
“Ah, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.
Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”
“I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied.
The LORD said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watchingto see that my word is fulfilled.” – Jeremiah 1:4-12 (TNIV)
This one’s a little like: What?! Where’d the almond comment come from?
I mean, this passage starts out with God talking to Jeremiah about how He’s chosen him and gifted him and blessed him and called him for this amazing purpose to speak to His people, then he talks about almonds, and then concluding with telling Jeremiah that He will be watching.
Well here’s the context:
The Hebrew word for ‘almond’ is the word: shaqed (pronounced: shock-aid). And very similarly, the Hebrew word for ‘to keep watch’ is: shaqad (pronounced: shock-add).
So through a play-on-words, God is having a little fun with this passage to let Jeremiah know that even though He’s called him to a very difficult mission, He will be with Him.
God basically said: “Hey, Jeremiah, every time you see or think of shaqued (shock-aid), remember that I am shaqad (shock-add) over you.
How cool is that?!
It’s totally going to change the way you snack at parties now, isn’t it?
And all of this because of one thing: Context.
Context brings understanding.
And through digging into God’s Word deeper and deeper, we can more get to know our Lord, His teaching, the truth, and His love.
And now, my gift to you (*SPOILER ALERT*): Here’s the twist to Citizen Kane: It’s the sled.