PHINEAS BRESEE FILM
“PHINEAS BRESEE – PASTOR OF THE PEOPLE”
I can only answer the question, “What am I to do?” If I can answer the prior question,
“Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” –Alasdair MacIntyre
The goal is to present a one-hour feature film on the life of Phineas F. Bresee, the first general superintendent and primary architect of the Nazarene movement. The intention is to tell Bresee’s story in a faithful and winsome way in order to help clergy and laity understand their denominational roots and what biblical, social, and theological impulses (particularly holiness and concern for the poor) motivated a principal founder. We want Nazarenes across the globe to know their founder and to know their roots. We want people to get in touch with the real Bresee.
WHY A FILM?
“Nothing else is more like our dreams” - Robert McKee
Story drives us. Story reminds us. Story gives us a sense of belonging. What is the best medium of the grand enterprise of story? Film. Today’s culture thrives on stories and films. It is on the top rung of communication. We want to touch people through the life of this great man, and the best way to do this is through film. Communication paradigms have changed. Storytelling must not be conveyed simply through the pulpit or even the printed page, but must become thoroughly digital in a range of media platforms to accommodate the needs of a diverse audience. As people see and hear the story, they remember it. They experience it. They live it. To reach Nazarenes within the United States and Canada, a film that focuses on story represents the best opportunity to impact a broad range of clergy and laity with a compelling message.
Nazarenes began their history with a particular mission and message, which created a unique trajectory. Over time, the church’s trajectory has been altered by forces from within and outside the Nazarene movement. Ideas that are not Nazarene or even Wesleyan have influenced our theology and practice—and in some cases have even reshaped notions of our own past. While learning from other Christian traditions is helpful and important, we need to be deliberate and undertake the serious work of understanding what it means to be Wesleyan-Holiness people if we are to be faithful to our original trajectory.
Yet, across the Church of the Nazarene in the United States and Canada, few Nazarenes, even among clergy, know about their history or the people who have shaped the Nazarene movement. Many of our church members and attendees have grown up in other Christian traditions. Individual congregations that have little sense of denominational connection have tended toward generic evangelicalism, which has eroded the self-understanding that characterized the early Nazarenes. As an example, such generic evangelicalism has caused Nazarene leaders to embrace compassionate ministry without realizing their own tradition is grounded in concern for the poor and social responsibility.
Years ago, in a conference of Nazarene sociologists, historian Martin E. Marty warned that denominational drift would continue unless the lives and intentions of Nazarene founders were studied with thought toward contemporary ministry and life.
WHY PHINEAS F. BRESEE?
More than any other Nazarene leader, co-founder Phineas Bresee is regarded as an authoritative figure across the church. Nazarenes who are involved in compassionate, multicultural, and urban ministry often refer to Bresee as their motivation. Younger pastors, especially those who are open to broader theological orientations, see Bresee as a kindred spirit. Bresee is pinpointed by Nazarene historians as clearly one of the outstanding personalities of the Nazarene movement. His story has the timeless ability to connect and inspire Nazarene clergy and laity. Bresee breathed life into our movement and he can do it again!
Several factors in Bresee’s life, if highlighted, would benefit Nazarene clergy:
• Bresee had the mindset of a pastor—from his entry into ministry in 1858 until 1911, when he resigned from Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene, Bresee was first and foremost a pastor. In a fundamental sense, his whole approach and understanding of what the Church of the Nazarene is about was rooted in his pastoral experience. Our system of church governance is rooted in Bresee’s pastoral sense that the work of the church should be orderly and reflect thoughtful practice and procedures.
• Bresee’s success as a minister and leader was rooted in a deep commitment to preaching. Preaching made Bresee persuasive and helped him build large churches. Bresee has much to say to today’s preacher about the task of preaching, especially the importance of lifelong learning for the thoughtful proclaimer.
• Bresee believed in urban evangelism. He believed in starting “centers of holy fire” in all the urban areas of America, which he hoped would be a long-range strategy to bring revival. In addition, Bresee reached out to immigrants and ethnic groups (especially Hispanics, Japanese, and Chinese). He seemed to have no racial or social prejudice.
• Bresee’s life expressed a deep commitment to holiness. His focus on “Christianizing Christianity” resonates with Nazarene clergy who are concerned with how middle-class values and concerns toward affluence have unduly influenced the church and kept our eyes off of caring for urban poor. Bresee felt the deeper Christian life would lead people into compassionate forms of ministry. His involvement with the poor and with the temperance movement was fueled by his notions of social holiness.
• Bresee had an inclusive notion of church that was fueled by a commitment to the deeper Christian life. Bresee’s ecclesial vision was not simply focused on the transient and urban poor. Rather, Bresee’s primary desire was to create churches that were family-friendly and were true community churches, open to all people (the poor, the rich, the immigrant, the immigrant community, racial minorities, urban dwellers, etc.). This is a message our churches and people need to hear!
CLEAR AND COHERENT THEOLOGICAL IDENTITY
The third key strategic priority of the United States and Canada Region is “Clear and Coherent Theological Identity.” The region recognizes that the Church of the Nazarene, especially as it becomes a global denomination, needs to share its denominational story in a way that is attractive to new generations of Nazarenes, in order to “tradition” and “connect” them to the Church.
A lack of connection not only exacerbates theological drift, but affects funding, volunteerism, recruitment, outreach, and other issues vital to a strong and vibrant denomination. As the Wesleyan Holiness Study Project (i.e., Holiness Manifesto) notes, “The power and health of churches has been drained by the incessant search for a better method, a more effective fad, a newer and bigger program to yield growth. In the process of trying to lead growing, vibrant churches, our people have become largely ineffective and have fallen prey to a generic Christianity that results in congregations that are indistinguishable from the culture around them. Churches need a clear, compelling message that will replace the ‘holy grail’ of methods as the focus of our mission!”
In a nutshell, that message is the awesome and unifying power of God’s holiness, a message that compels us to unity, despite differences. In Bresee’s life, we find such an example. We need holiness, and its many facets, to build a stronger theological identity.
A CONCEPTUAL FOCAL POINT FOR A FILM: “A PASTOR TO THE PEOPLE”
During the Second Iowa Methodist State Convention in 1881, Bresee presented a significant address that advanced not only his understanding of pastoral ministry, but also the qualities and character that such a ministry requires. This address will serve as a primary lens on his life and that of the film. The following series of observations from Bresee help define the “pastor to the people” idea.
A pastor to the people is evangelistic – “The pastor must always be evangelistic. It would seem to be a poor ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ that was not an evangel to unsaved men. It would seem a very barren ministry that gathered no souls to the crop.”
A pastor to the people is called to the ministry – “He must have a clear conviction that God has called him to his work. There should be no haste, nor rashness in entering upon this office . . . This is not a work of convenience to be taken up and laid down as we may or may not have other work to do. It is no special sign that a man is called to the Christian pastorate because he has nothing to do, or has failed in other things . . . A true condition of this work can only be drawn from the work of the Son of God. We must stand in the shadow of the Cross . . . And as we gaze upon that dying Christ, and see the glory of the love of God in that marred face—waiting here, the true pastor learns the value of men . . . And feels that ‘This all my business here below to cry, ‘Behold the Lamb.’”
A pastor to the people is a fountain of moral influence and power - “A man who, seeing truth is not thrilled by it, to whose cheek it brings no glow, and who imparts only the truth to others, is not fitted to be a Christian teacher . . . A pastor must be a large-soulded man . . . Large enough to take to his heart all classes of men . . . And he stands especially near to the poor and despised . . . He will have enemies to deal with as well as friends, and his heart must be large enough to love them all.”
To be a Nazarene is to embrace “all classes,” to stand “near to the poor and despised,” to deal with “friends and enemies,” and have a heart “large enough to love them all.”
FILM DEVELOPMENT/SCRIPT - SOURCES FOR A FILM TREATMENT
The following book and magazine sources have been deeply evaluated regarding a film treatment. For the most part, no source is more thorough or helpful than Bangs for understanding Bresee.
1. E.A. Girvin, A Prince in Israel (Nazarene Publishing House, 1916)
2. Carl O. Bangs, Phineas F. Bresee: His Life in Methodism, The Holiness Movement, and The Church of the Nazarene (Beacon Hill Press, 1995)
3. The Nazarene Messenger (This is the magazine Bresee developed in the early years of the denomination).
A team of historians has been consulted on numerous questions regarding a film narrative. A creative team has met with the historical team and contemplate treatments for the film.
A film starts with and ends with the script. It is the most important part of the process. If you have good script you can still have a bad movie, but if you have a bad script you can never have a good movie. We have spent the time to create a script that is compelling and accurately portrays Bresee’s life. The committee listed above has been developing the script for more than two years.
Lights. Camera. Action! The work of production is to get every shot in the can (or on the hard drives, in this case). While the shot list, locations, and each day’s schedule are predetermined; working on set requires a constant flow of creativity, both in the realm of finessing each shot and in problem solving the challenges that will inevitably arise. Historical films are more great fun and this film set will be buzzing with life - actors in costume, horses, wagons, all in or around historical sites and locations.
The Bresee film has been thoroughly planned and developed to have a long-term and purposeful impact on the denomination, especially regarding the principles of holiness and concern for the poor, which is part of our denominational DNA. The impact of the film will continue through numerous, well-established outlets within our denomination, as well as other video and printed collateral.
This film will be made available to all Nazarene churches.
Diane Leclerc, Professor of Historical Theology, Northwest Nazarene University
I am excited by the upcoming film based on the life of Phineas Bresee. It has a historical richness that came from many hours of work by professional historians and theologians; it also has a wonderful script that will allow Bresee to come alive for viewers. It is a fair, balanced, and inspiring portrayal of this incredible man, and appropriately emphasizes the historical events around the founding of our denomination to a contemporary audience who may not know the details of how we came to be. I can say with confidence that this is a very worthy project. The script is well-written and very interesting, while being true to the history of Bresee. There are several moving scenes . . . The viewer will certainly see that God’s hand of providence was on Bresee, as pieces fall into place to take him to the point of deciding to start a new denomination. I am proud to be a tiny part of what will be such a noteworthy contribution to our heritage and to our future.
Steven Hoskins, Associate Professor of Religion, Trevecca Nazarene University
The script is excellent. It is tight, well-written, and professionally done. The choice of story lines is highly appealing and tells many of the back stories of Bresee's life that Nazarenes need and want to know more about as we think about the current ministries and trajectories of our church; and the choice of professional actors will make it an excellent project. In working with the other consultants on the film, I have been impressed that the film will be well-received by professional historians and theologians, pastors, and by our interested laypersons who have an interest in Bresee's life and long to know more. I have been happy to invest my time and church history research budget in helping bring this movie to fruition and lend it my highest level of recommendation and support. We desperately need this film and more projects like it to help our church know its story better.
Stan Reeder, District Superintendent, Oregon Pacific District
It was a delight to read the script of Phineas F. Bresee. I was impressed with the vital aspects of Bresee's life upon which the film focuses. His call to ministry through his encounter with Captain Miller is dramatic. His conversion experience is clearly depicted as he responds to the message of his pastor. His early struggles in ministry will encourage our pastors and people to persevere. The honest depiction of Bresee's struggle with his own arrogance and doubt will resonate and lead our people to their own seeking for the Lord's deeper work of entire sanctification. As the film touches on Bresee's business failure and the humility learned through it, our people will have a deeper appreciation for the humanity of our founder and may be encouraged in their own failures. The depiction of Bresee's desire to reach the poor may re-kindle a heart for the throngs of disenfranchised in our world today.
The film does an excellent job of portraying Bresee's desire to reach across the barriers of culture, poverty and the sorrowful schism between North and South left by the Civil War. This work shows how the Holy Spirit's indwelling power and love can overcome every division. I especially appreciated the attention given to Bresee's heart for the poor—not a heart just to help the poor physically, but his overwhelming desire that they come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. My hope is that this work would be effective in kindling an evangelistic fervor for all souls—it provides a poignant message we need today.
I remember seeing a film about Bresee's life as a young boy—the film was old when I viewed it in the 1970s. I can still vividly see some of the scenes of that film . . . it made an indelible impression upon my memory. It would be wonderful to make a new fresh impression on Nazarenes again today through this film.
Brad Estep, Lead Pastor, Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene
As a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, I am excited for the possibilities that this film about Phineas Bresee affords me in teaching my people about our history, heritage, and theological identity. As I read the script, I noted the numerous places where Bresee’s life intersected important issues that remain relevant in the local church today. Early in the story, Bresee is encouraged in his call to ministry by a respected leader in his community. I reflected about my own call and how it was bolstered through the encouragement of Nazarene evangelists and leaders. The idea of preaching for decision and response comes through as Bresee listens to a sermon and knows that he must “come face to face with God.” Later in the script, Bresee models conscience and courage as he confronts issues and conflict related to abolition and the Civil War. As a pastor, Bresee’s example is challenging and encouraging. I could list a host of other issues that appear throughout the script including: love as our motivation and expression; entire sanctification; emphasis on evangelism; ministry to all classes of people; self-denial and servanthood in ministry; etc. These aspects of Bresee’s life and ministry can be formative, inspirational, and instructive for local churches and pastors engaged on the front lines of ministry. With the power of story-telling combined to the life of one of our great leaders, this film has the potential to compel us forward in ways that are positive, uniting, and effective!
Stan Ingersol, Denominational Archivist, Church of the Nazarene
I have reviewed the script at different points in its development. In my judgment, the finalized script offers a fine presentation of Bresee that focuses on his spiritual life and passion for Christian holiness.
I have faith in the production company’s ability to direct and produce a fine film. When the vision for this film was first presented to me, I viewed several of this company’s short films, including episodes in the series it produced for the Olathe Historical Society. They are exceptional and represent fine filmmaking. I covet such high production values for a film about Bresee.
I sincerely believe that this film will be a blessing to the Church of the Nazarene—that it can and should be used in new member classes and in a variety of other venues.