“Son of God:” From Stained Glass to Silver Screen (Movie Review)

son of god movie poster“Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus originally posed this question to His closest followers, but it’s a question that is as timeless as it is timely.  Jesus is arguably the most recognizable figure of all human history—though He’s also the least understood.

Christianity affirms that the best and truest stories about Jesus come from the four “gospels” contained in the Bible.  Like all ancient biographies, the four gospels were intended to be read as reliable history.  But they were also written to invoke faith in the heart of the reader.  For Christians, the four gospels are the measuring stick by which we evaluate all other stories about Jesus.

These include the stories told on the silver screen.  What separates Scorsese’s dark The Last Temptation of Christ from, say, Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a simple question: How much does the Jesus of the film resemble the Jesus of the Bible? 

The same question could be asked for a recent film.  On February 28, The Son of God opened in theaters.  The film is an adaptation of the Bible miniseries featured on the History Channel last spring.  Roma Downey—one of the producers—even has a role as Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The film opened to box office success, yet reviews were mixed.  Some critics focused on the medium of the film—the acting, storytelling, etc.  Others focused on the message of the film—asking the very same question as above: How much does the Jesus of this film resemble the Jesus of the Bible? 

For some, the answer to the above question is an emphatic “no.”  Sunny Shell, writing for the Christian Post calls the entire Bible miniseries “heretical and blasphemous,” and that The Son of God does a great disservice to anyone who is infected by it’s anemic and sclerotic message of false hope in a false christ.”

In an effort to evaluate the film on its own terms, Eric, Randy, and I made a recent trip to see the film.  The following is not a review per se, but an evaluation of our central question: How much does this Jesus resemble the Biblical Jesus?

IS THIS THE REAL JESUS?

I don’t want to give too much away—though I doubt it counts as a “spoiler alert” when the story is 2,000 years old.  The movie focuses on the life of Christ from birth to death and resurrection—using the disciple John as something of a framing character.

It’s hard to find fault with the film.  The film’s budget was clearly invested in set design.  I greatly appreciated the film’s ability to convey the cultural backdrop of the first century world: the tension between Jews and Romans, the significance of the Jewish temple—even the scenery gave the film a sense of authenticity.

The film highlights the more significant aspects of Jesus’ life—albeit with some creative license.  If we want to get technical, we can highlight a few areas in which the film does deviate from the gospels to one degree or another:

  • Sequence: If you were to write down the events of the film, you’d find their order does not match any of the four gospels.  In some cases, scenes are mashed together: Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32) is interrupted by the paralyzed man lowered through the ceiling (Mark 2:4).  In other cases, events are rearranged from their Biblical order: in John’s gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus early in His career; in the film, he comes to Jesus in the days before the crucifixion.

Should this bother us?  Not really.  It may sound strange to some, but ancient biographies weren’t that concerned about things like sequence.  We expect a biography to start with birth and proceed in chronological order.  Ancient writers weren’t so concerned with this.  In Craig Keener’s 300-page introduction to the gospel of John, he observes that some ancient writers would actually record the same event twice because they paid so little attention to order and sequence.  At the same time, biographies were still counted on to tell reliable stories about a person.  So even the gospel records don’t necessarily contain a precise sequence of events—though they can still be counted on as reliable history.

  • Selective cultural accuracy: In what was surely an effort to translate the first-century world to our own, certain cultural conventions seemed to be westernized for the film.  For example, Jesus taught while standing on a mountaintop (rather than sitting down), they ate while seated at a table (rather than reclining)—some scenes even seemed to nod toward western art (Michelangelo’s Pieta, for example).  It’s hard to imagine a Jesus film that perfectly captures the ancient culture (the language barrier alone would prove difficult).  So while this isn’t a major strike against the film, it is an area of divergence.
  • What does Jesus know?  There were scenes in which Jesus seemed to receive information for the first time.  He seemed unaware of His cousin’s (John the Baptist) death, and He seemed surprised by the reaction of the crowd at the feeding of the 5,000.  The most striking scene was the Last Supper—where Jesus appears to have visions of His coming death.  The Bible indicates that Jesus knew about His death from a much earlier point—it’s actually the turning point in Mark’s gospel (Mark 8:31).  Again, we may credit this as creative license—a chance to convey rich emotion, even.  Still, it raises questions about Jesus’ knowledge of His own destiny—knowledge that the Biblical gospels indicate that Jesus possessed from a much earlier time.
  • The 13 disciples?  This would probably not even be worth mentioning, had other reviewers not been critical of this fact.  Mary Magdalene accompanies Jesus and His disciples—prompting some to criticize the inclusion of a “thirteenth disciple.”  But the film never designates Mary as one of Jesus’ disciples.  And most scholars would agree that Jesus’ immediate disciples weren’t the only ones who followed Him.  Perhaps even the disciples’ wives (Peter was married—Matthew 8:14) came along.  So Mary Magdalene’s prominent inclusion shouldn’t trouble us.  It may even challenge us to look deeply at Jesus’ countercultural treatment of women.

CONCLUSION

Let’s return to our question: How much does the Jesus of this film resemble the Jesus of the Bible?  Very much so, actually.  Are there instances of creative license?  Sure.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The film was a compelling depiction of the life of Christ.  None of the above examples alters Jesus’ central identity as the Son of God.

I agree with the conclusion of Martin Marty, who in an article for the Huffington Post writes:

“Biblical illiteracy is measurably and grossly high. While the main audiences will be the already-convinced people of faith, those surveys make clear that the story is not well known, certainly by the general public.”

Stained glass crossIf you stop and think about it, widespread literacy is a fairly recent development.  Before the invention of the printing press, people relied on art to tell stories and convey meaning.  Stained glass windows, for example, were often used to tell Biblical stories to those who lacked the capacity to read for themselves.  Fast forward to today.  Just as the printing press brought a revolution in the spread of information, so too has the World Wide Web.  There are some who suggest that despite record sales of e-readers and e-books, we are heading toward a “post-literate” society.  Films like The Son of God speak to the heart of a culture that has forgotten the Biblical story, and yet craves and thirsts for image.  Roma Downey—one of the film’s producers, told ABC News:

“We’re aware that many people learn through visual storytelling…And for so many people, people who don’t go to church, people who maybe have never read the Bible, this movie…will be the first time that they hear and see the story of Jesus come to life.”

True, there are many reviewers who suggest that the film “preaches to the choir” on one level or another.  But perhaps that’s half the point.  In the book of Acts, a man named Philip encounters a man reading the story of Jesus as told through the prophet Isaiah.  “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.  “How can I,” the man replied, “unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31).  Our culture—nay, our friends, our families, our neighbors, our children—they will see this film.  They may not absorb its total message.  It’s up to us to ask the question: “Do you understand what you are seeing?”  Because how can they, unless we explain it to them?

The Contagious Gospel: Jesus as a Friend to Sinners

To finally put the last piece on this week’s series of posts, we need to go back to Luke 5.  It’s right after Jesus heals the paralyzed man who’d been lowered through the window.  And, as we saw, Jesus calls Levi away from his life as a tax collector to be a disciple of Jesus – and the “establishment” is a bit concerned about the company that Jesus seems to be keeping.

If your memory is really good, you’ll remember that we learned in Luke 4 (when Jesus read the selections from Isaiah) that Luke’s gospel intertwines the ideas of forgiveness and healing.  It’s what Wright calls “the gift of shalom:” restoring God’s original goodness, or shalom, to each individual, both physically and spiritually.

CONTAGION

But the metaphor of healing can be taken another way, too, can’t it?   You could easily see how sin might be viewed as a contagion – something “dirty” in that culture.  That was the attitude of the Pharisees.  They’d already started whispering rumors about Jesus behind His back.  Jesus even picks up on it: The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7:34)

See, the central lie of religion is this: when the sacred encounters the profane, the profane always wins.  Jesus spent time with some people religion tended to frown upon.  The religious leaders assumed that if Jesus spent time with these people, He must be one of “them.”

QUARANTINE

Religious moralism is so concerned with keeping up appearance that it avoids broken people at all costs.  The problem, as Jesus identifies it, is that healthy people don’t need doctors; sick people do.

Which means that when we look at Jesus, we don’t find a guy who’s actively trying to pursue the “wrong crowd.”  He had a message of hope and healing, and that naturally drew people to Him.  Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, writes:

“Jesus thus defies the conventions of his world by his intimate association with a group of people deemed traitorous and corrupt in his society.  Still, he does not condone their sinful lifestyles but calls them to repentance, transformation and discipleship.”  (Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, p. 102)

There is no “quarantine” procedure for Jesus.  He gets right in and heals their brokenness.  And He does so not by overlooking their sin, but by absorbing it.

JOHN COFFEY: ABSORBING EVIL

Most are familiar with the film The Green Mile, the film based on Stephen King’s serial novel.  The main character is John Coffey, a death row inmate who proves to have an extraordinary power to heal.  When the prison guards discover this power, they sneak Coffey from prison temporarily to see if his power can heal the warden’s wife, who is dying of terminal brain cancer in her home:

The clip shows an unexpected healer, bringing a shocking level of intimacy to this broken woman’s home.  The fracture of the clock, the shaking ground – these things almost seem to call to mind the events of the cross: the earthquake, the tearing of the temple curtain.  John Coffey’s initials are no accident, allowing the film to present us an unlikely Christ figure who absorbs the evil around him, bringing wholeness and purity.

We don’t have time to analyze all of the films themes (including where the film ceases to harmonize with Christianity), but Jesus does something like this: He can offer healing only because He takes evil on Himself through His sacrificial death on the cross.  “The deformity of Christ forms you,” wrote St. Augustine.  “On Him is the punishment that brought us shalom, [wholeness, goodness, peace].” Isaiah wrote.  “By His wounds, we are healed.”

HOW GREAT A DEBT

This is something that no other religious system before was capable of.  Even the various sacrifices of the Jewish legal system were meant only to point to the day when Christ would be sacrificed once-for-all.

In Luke 7, we see Jesus interacting with a “sinful woman.”  The scene is right after Jesus’ complaint that the Pharisees think Him a “drunkard.”  Luke places the story here because he has a point to make: the lie of religion is not always right.  The Jewish laws stipulated that certain people were clean and unclean, just as we saw yesterday.  But when the profane encounters that which is most sacred, the sacred wins.  Jesus brings cleanliness through forgiveness of sins: He is the true and better sacrifice who can do this.

So it’s actually quite shocking when a woman of a “sinful” reputation (many believe her to have been some sort of prostitute) is associating with Jesus.  She anoints Jesus’ feet not only with expensive perfume, but her own tears.  But here’s where it gets messy: she lets her hair down.  In Jewish culture, this was a level of intimacy that was potentially scandalous:

“The woman’s actions…need not be viewed as inherently erotic, but the observers would have viewed that at best as culturally inappropriate…and at worst as so sexually suggestive as to be shameful.  [One commentary writer] points out that loose hair did not in and of itself link a woman with prostitution, and if she were unmarried it produced no stigma at all.  But Simon’s response…clearly implies that her behavior here gave the assembly reason to disapprove of it.”  (Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, p. 133)

When questioned, Jesus tells a story about the magnitude of forgiveness.  Two men owe a great debt: one owes just over two months worth of wages.  The other owes two years.  Obviously the one who had been forgiven the greater debt was the one who showed greater love.  Jesus acknowledged the woman’s “many” sins (7:47).  But because of this great relief she could show love in a way that the Pharisees could not.

INFECTING WITH LIFE

In chapter 8 we see this pattern continue, and Luke gives us two stories back to back in Luke 8:40-56.  One is a woman with some type of bleeding disorder – apparently some type of menstrual issue.  The other is a young girl, only 12, who dies before Jesus can even get there.

Both women remain nameless.  Both are ceremonially unclean: the woman because of her menstrual bleeding, the daughter because she is dead.  And notice in verse 43 that the woman had been bleeding for 12 years, the same amount of time the little girl had been alive.

But despite her uncleanliness, she reaches out and touches Jesus’ robe.  And that’s when the miracle happens.   Jesus does not become unclean from her touch, but by touching Jesus she becomes clean.  When she confesses what she had done, Jesus tenderly calls her “daughter.”

Jesus’ healing does not stop there.  When he gets to the little girl’s home, she has already passed on.  But a touch of Jesus’ hand and the command of His voice lift her from the dead.

The Pharisees were worried that the unclean would infect the clean.  Jesus infects everyone around Him with life.

SPREADING THE CONTAGION

This means that we have a whole new paradigm to look through.  We don’t have to be like the Pharisees, sneering at others while we perform our quarantine procedures.  The gospel teaches us that there is no division between the “good” people and “bad” people, only a division between the proud and humble, the forgiven and the broken.

This is a powerful theme of Luke’s gospel, one that is central to his entire portrait of Jesus.  It is a message that Jesus’ followers are to carry out in their own day and age – to spread Jesus’ message of hope and healing in our own communities.

We’ll close with the testimony of Brian “Head” Welch, former guitarist for the band Korn, now a follower of Christ:

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From Leper to Love

His whole life had been defined by distance.  He was an “outsider,” they told him; a Samaritan.  To this day he still couldn’t remember all the reasons why he and the Jews would never really get along.   “Unclean,” they said, not because of anything he’d done, but simply because he’d been born that way.

Still, he loved God.  He found himself faithfully in the temple in Jerusalem for worship.  At least, he found himself in the part of the temple he was allowed in.  As a Samaritan, he would never be as close to God as the Jews.  He was condemned to stay in the outer courts.  He could remember the inscription in the temple: “No foreigners allowed beyond this point.”  Foreigner.  Allogenes, the sign read.  He knew that if you broke it down, it meant that he came from somewhere else.  Somewhere from which he would never be truly accepted, and could only close enough to see the Jews enter into the inner courts of the temple, hearing their derisive whispers as they passed by this…this…outcast.

And that was when he could come close enough to hear anything at all.  He still remembers the stern faces of the priests as they examined the sickness spreading up his arm.  They muttered words that he didn’t fully understand: sara’at.  Lapra.  “Leprosy.”  Which meant that he now found himself on the outside looking in: his fellow diseased wanderers the only community he’d ever know for the rest of his life.

Warning sign in the temple, meant to keep out "outsiders."

DISEASE

The story of the man in Luke 17:11-19 might have been a surprisingly common one: leprosy covered a wide range of disease, and since it was the Jewish priests who pronounced people “clean” or “unclean” they had the authority to determine who belonged inside and who belonged outside.

So when we meet these ten lepers, they are at a distance from God.  Many today feel distant from God for a whole host of reasons, most commonly from some sense of guilt.  The punk rock band Rise Against sings, “If there’s no war inside my head why are we losing?”  We may not understand or believe in “sin,” but we sure feel its sting.

So it was understandable that they might have expected Jesus to perform one of the miracles He’d now gained a reputation for.  In the last post, we looked at the way that people often come to Jesus or religion because they want or need something.  The same is true here, and Jesus delivers.

The men are sent to the priests: it was the priests who would examine them and determine whether they were, in fact, clean.

PUBLIC HEALTH HAZARD

This was no easy task: Rabbis regarded curing leprosy to be as “difficult as raising a person from the dead.”  The community had strong regulations about disease such as this, especially because contagion posed such a public health hazard.

But it really was more than this; it wasn’t just a concern of hygiene, but a concern of the soul.  In Mary Douglas’ excellent book Purity and Danger, she argues that purity rituals are not, as was apparently believed, linked to matters of hygiene, but instead were directly related to cultural perceptions of clean versus unclean.  As a present-day example, Douglas cites that even before bacteria were scientifically discovered, people intrinsically avoided certain “unclean” objects, persons or behaviors.

Which meant that the real concern was not merely physical contamination, but spiritual as well.  So you can understand why even if these men were, in fact, disease-free, the law stipulated that they could not be declared “clean” unless a ritual sacrifice was made.

Don’t miss that: A declaration of purity required a sacrifice. 

ONLY THE OUTCAST

Now, Jesus knew what He was doing.  He knew that nine lepers had gotten what they wanted.

But let’s do some math.  These nine lepers were unclean, so they were forced to keep distant.  Now they were clean, and could take part in temple worship.

The text makes a specific point to tell us that this man was a Samaritan.  He might have been declared clean, but in terms of temple worship he still was not allowed to draw near – at least not like the Jewish worshippers.  He was the only one who would be declared “clean” from the external stain of disease, but still “unclean” because of his birth.

The scene is breathtaking bold: the man couldn’t draw near to God’s temple, so he throws Himself at God’s feet.  See, unlike others, Jesus was more than just a means to an end: his greatest treasure was not his health, but Jesus Himself.

Jesus commends him in a way that drives the point home: “Has no one returned,” He asks, “except this foreigner?”  If you’re reading that in the Greek, it’s a point that hits you between the eyes.  The word Jesus uses here is allogenes, the same word appearing on the sign in the temple that had kept this man out all his life.  Jesus replaces a lifetime of distance with a future of intimate faith.

CLEAN

In the movie glory, Denzel Washington plays a slave-turned soldier who describes the culture of racism as being “dirty.”  “We all covered up in it too,” he says.  “Ain’t nobody clean. Be nice to get clean, though.”

Each of us is, in one way or another, aware that we are “unclean.”  Lady Gaga sang about this in her song “Judas,” where she talked about using music as a means of “going back and forth between the darkness and the light in order to understand who I am.” Author Lee Strobel says that before he decided to follow Jesus, he felt what he called a “free-floating sense of guilt.”

But remember the earlier lesson from the temple: a declaration of purity requires a sacrifice.

And so this story brings us to the necessity of the cross.  It’s easy to read this and think, “What’s the big deal about all these cleanliness codes?”  It’s easy to think that Jesus tosses them aside as if they’re no big deal.  But they are a big deal.  Jesus doesn’t abolish them; He fulfills them.

He is the true and better high priest who declares us clean.  He is the true and better sacrifice that allows this declaration to take place.  He is the true and better temple that invites even the outcasts to draw near.  Because He is all these things, He alone possesses the authority to declare the impure things pure again.

THE GREAT EXCHANGE

Practically, what this means is this: you can never truly be pure any more easily than this man could stop being a Samaritan.  But because of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, you and I can be declared pure in God’s eyes, meaning that while Jesus absorbs our uncleanliness on the cross, He also gives us the gift of His righteousness so that God would not see our diseased heritage but His Son’s supreme worth.

This is the joy of the gospel.  In tomorrow’s post, we’ll see what that means for Jesus’ followers, and that living purely in an unclean world is more than mere avoidance.

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“Reaching Our Without Dumbing Down” (Part 10): “Ritual and Liturgy and Art”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Her present chapter is entitled “Discovering Our Place in the Story,” which looks at the practical dimensions of liturgy, worship and art.

Dawn argues that performance is the outcome when God is no longer the subject of worship.  She borrows from C.S. Lewis in saying that the best liturgy is one that we are not aware of.  We are to “dance without having to count steps.”  The concern is that the church’s penchant for novelty (in an effort to appeal to consumers) relegates the worship of the church to mere entertainment.

THE VALUE OF AESTHETICS AND CHARACTER FORMATION

Since the time of the enlightenment, there has been a movement away from the majesty of the cathedral to the simplicity of the chapel.  The revivalism of the centuries that followed provided us with the ascendancy of showmanship even amidst two divergent theological contexts.  The seeker-friendly movement of the last few decades is the natural outcome of this, where the Church has blended the artistic expressions of popular culture with those of historic Christianity.  Even the architecture was meant to reflect that of the culture that surrounded it, resulting in churches that looked more like shopping malls, business centers and warehouses than the cathedrals of old.

Churches were motivated by pragmatism and utility.  The need for a “multi-purpose room” outweighed the need for a sanctuary.  And not without reason: the rise of children’s and youth programs with a concomitantly diminishing budget often necessitates such flexibility in building use.

But the end result was the loss of both beauty and sacred space.  Part of the issue we now face is that each successive generation, while deeply shaped by the generation that preceded it, wants to escape the trappings and stale traditions they grew up in.

For the boomer generation, this meant exchanging the stale traditions they had grown up in for the contemporary expressions that have now become normative within the megachurch/church growth world.  We don’t need a sanctuary, they insisted, we need a place that looks just like our jobs and offices.  But the postmodern generations of today are doing the same thing: shirking the traditions of the previous generation in favor of new directions, which, ironically, resemble the traditions their parents had worked to escape from.

And because of this, rising generations place value in such things as beauty and transcendence – often because such things capture or at least contribute to the experiential, emotion-driven faith systems that they possess.

Dawn writes that beauty is inherently valuable, because

“Our increasingly ugly world makes it all the more imperative for worship to remind us of God’s beauty.  Psychologists and sociologists (and even architects) comment on the fact that fewer and fewer people are able to enjoy the beauties of creation.  Poverty leads to city squalor and overcrowding; busyness prevents many from taking time for the beautiful; and modern art often turns to grotesque and violent forms.  Beautiful worship will foster in our character genuine humility and awe at the beauty of forgiveness, and profound thanksgiving that God invites us to share in the heavenly beauty of which we get glimpses while here on earth.” (p. 249)

The problem of course is that “beauty” is often mistaken to rest in the eye of the beholder rather than in the character of God.  The reasons for this are manifold, some of which are cultural, and some of which are religious (pietism, for instance, has taught us to eschew all symbols in favor of strong, personal devotion).  This combined with the penchant for “attractional” worship often leads us to the commodification of beauty.  Beauty is therefore both subjective, in that audiences determine what is beautiful, and beauty is useful, in that it is a tool for attracting people.  While philosophers throughout history have often been guilty of reducing beauty to the point of abstraction, contemporary culture has reduced beauty to the level of fashion.

Dawn therefore cautions that

“Out of concern for character formation, churches must think very carefully in planning the liturgy.  We must not ask, Is this liturgy attractive? but always, What kind of character does this nurture?  Does our liturgy focus on feelings rather than on God’s character, which evokes these feelings?  If so, we will nurture a faith that depends on emotions rather than a faith that can cling to who God is in spite of human experiences of sorrow or estrangement.  Does liturgy focus on the self and lead to pride, or does it focus on God and lead to humility, awe and thanksgiving, and petition?”  (p. 249)

In the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards spoke of God as either being a bonum utile or a bonum formosum, Latin phrases meaning “a useful good” or “goodness and beauty in itself.”  Today’s world renders beauty into a bonum utile – beauty only has value if it attracts people to our church.  But God created beauty to be a bonum formosum – to be enjoyed because it demonstrates God’s significance.  The merchant sold all he had to purchase the pearl of great price.  Jesus tells this story not so that readers would pity such a man, but understand that beauty (specifically, found in God’s revealed character in His kingdom) cannot be measured by standards of utility.

What Dawn is seeking to capture is that worship is beautiful inasmuch as it reflects the beauty of its object.  Worship draws deep emotion not by cultivating emotion itself, but by directing our gaze toward the attributes of God which themselves elicit emotion.  This distinction may seem subtle, but makes all the difference in the world with regard to character development and genuine community, because only such an approach makes much of the character of God rather than merely pandering to the contemporary, fashionable preferences of the world.

ISOLATION AND COMMUNITY

Dawn next articulates the way that isolationism has influenced the way we do community.  She suggests that some are more comfortable in liturgical settings, where ritual does not demand that they be exposed before the scrutiny of others, though the rituals are themselves training them toward community and intimacy.

Her chapter continues in describing various aspects of worship such as the use of Psalms, creeds, traditional faith expressions and even silence as vehicles for genuine worship.

Beauty is one key to reaching the rising generations.  As we discussed in an earlier post, one of the key problems facing the Church is that in the rejection of tradition and symbol, we have lost our ability to pass on our faith to both rising generations as well as outsiders.  But recovering beauty and symbol can be a vital way of reaching others as well as uniting the Church.

Here I am not speaking of resurrecting stale traditions simply for tradition’s sake.  Instead, I am speaking of the value of the Lord’s Table.

In theology, beauty is encapsulated in the framework of God’s redemptive story. Story matters to people in significant ways. Consider the following two quotations on the meaning and significance of story:

“As the biblical story unfolds, it does so in stories and poetry. In fact, approximately seventy-five percent of scripture consists of narrative, fifteen percent is expressed in poetic forms and only ten percent is propositional and overtly instructional in nature. In our retelling of the same story, we have reverses this biblical pattern. Today an estimated ten percent of our communication is designed to capture the imagination of the listener, while ninety percent is purely instructive.” (Colin Harbinson, “Restoring the Arts to the Church: The Role of Creativity in the Expression of Truth,” Lausanne World Pulse Magazine (online), July 2006)

“The new conversations, on which our very lives depend, require a poet not a moralist. Because finally church people are like other people; we are not changed by new rules. The deep places in our lives – places of resistance and embrace – are not ultimately reached by instruction. Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from fear or hurt.” (David Fitch, “The Myth of Expository Preaching (Part 2): Proclamation That Inspires the Imagination,” Out of Ur (conversations hosted by the editors of Leadership Journal), Christianity Today blog, posted July 25, 2006))

The Lord’s Table is important because it connects us to God’s story using the common language of the bread and cup.  We are simultaneously reminded of God’s past faithfulness to His people in Egypt, reminded of the significance of Christ’s redemptive work at Calvary, and are joined together to celebrate the coming work of Christ that is yet future.  Postmodern generations may find immense value in such symbols, and they themselves can be tools to make the old traditions and stories new again, reviving not only tradition and doctrine, but the very hearts of the believing community.

COMING UP

In Dawn’s next section, she explains how worship can be used as a tool for reaching our culture.

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Life Stories

“I’m not sure quite how to put this…but I’m kind of a big deal.  People know me.” (-Ron Burgundy, Anchorman)

“Some things you shouldn’t get too good at.  Like smiling, crying and celebrity.”  (-U2)

So I’m famous now.  For serious.  The local paper did a whole story about me and everything.  You can read all about it here.

I have to admit that it’s always strange to hear your story coming from someone else’s words, but I’m appreciative of the work the staff of the Herald Mail for their time and interest.

But the whole business of one’s life story is one that I feel deserves to be (re-)visited.  Most of the way we relate to the world is through story: whether through literature or film.  Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as if there’s a part of our humanity that wants our own stories to be…well…good.  I mean really good.  Like, “most-interesting-man-in-the-universe” good.

If Shakespeare’s right and we’re all actors on a grand stage, then part of human depravity consists of “method acting:” we have to devise and manage our identity to look good in the eyes of others.  That’s why social networking sites have such an attraction: we can literally create a personal identity by cleverly managing our photographs, likes and interests and even friend lists.

But I recently found some really great stuff in the writings of a recent blogger by the name of Ian Morgan Cron.  You can read his blog here.  The following is from a recent post entitled “Owning Our Stories:

“One thing I have learned in this process is how important it is to “own your story.” I haven’t always done this well, and I fight the temptation to disown parts of my story everyday when I sit at my computer to write. The truth is we all have a past that is filled with mistakes we regret. Others have wounded us, sometimes profoundly, and we’ve done our share of inflicting pain on others and ourselves along the way as well. But rather than own our stories in their totality, most of us engage in some form historical revisionism. We edit out the parts of our past stories we don’t want to own.

[…]

When you leave the most painful pieces on the editing room floor and don’t acknowledge they really happened, you literally become dis-integrated. To accept as a whole package the totality of everything we’ve done and that’s been done to us; to name it, own it, grieve it, celebrate it, this is where Shalom is found.”

I find a tremendous amount of wisdom in this, especially as I find myself getting just old enough to be reflective (wait…is there an age limit to that?).  I think the great thing about the gospel is its ability to weave together the colored yarns of so many different (and often painful) stories, and have the result be something beautiful.

And all with the promise of a “happily ever after…”

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Damien Jurado: Saint Bartlett

Getting some work done today, I found myself listening to the latest album from Damien Jurado, Saint Bartlett.

Good stuff. I’ve been a fan of Jurado since the beginning, and never disappointed. Saint Bartlett has all the indie-folk influences you’d expect from this accomplished singer-songwriter, mixed this time with a little more of a garage-rock element. The end result is slightly harder than previous albums (though in that respect I’m speaking relatively), with a bit more of a layered, resonant sound.

Lyrically, the album draws from the deep well of personal narrative that made so many of the other albums so memorable. The lyrics of “Wellingford” have a melancholy air: “Calling out/ Your voice is an echo./ No words come back but your own,” reflective of the themes of love, loss and spirituality. As a whole the album features songwriting rooted in character, which in turn finds itself in the context of the contemporary world and the many spiritual journeys that accompany it.

Good album. Recommended.

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LOST: Narrative and Meaning (Part 2)

Story. Stories – our stories, matter.

It was the postmodern philosopher Francois Lyotard (apparently named after an unattractive female garment) who said that il n’y a pas d’hors-texte – that there is no “master story” or “metanarrative.” Words like metanarrative sound out there – if not pretentious – but it’s the language of philosophy, so don’t look at me.

A metanarrative is a way of organizing and unifying the human experience. I frequently compare it to one of those photo-mosaic posters you buy at the mall. Stand up close, and all you see are a bunch of unconnected, unrelated pixels and photos.

Stand back, and the image becomes organized into a cohesive picture.

Metanarrative. It organizes our experiences into something that can be perceived, understood and shared. Lyotard (and his contemporaries) rejected the idea. Since some metanarratives (e.g., communism) are fundamentally oppressive, all metanarratives must be rejected.

The irony? The human quest, even in our postmodern times, has been dominated by the search for story and meaning.

One of my favorite fiction writers is Douglas Coupland, in whose latest book, Generation A, we read:

How can we be alive and not wonder about the stories we use to knit together this place we call the world? Without stories our universe is merely rocks and clouds and lava and blackness. It’s a village scraped raw by warm waters leaving not a trace of what existed before. (p. 1)

And for the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, the island became meaningful in the context of their stories, and viewers found themselves increasingly attached to this core group of survivors.

SEARCHING FOR MEANING:

One of the best commentators on this aspect of the show has been Sarah Pulliam Bailey. In a recent article in Christianity Today, Bailey writes:

“In the beginning, “Lost” was simple. A plane crashed on a Pacific island, leaving survivors looking for food, shelter and rescue. But polar bears, skeletons and rattling smoke soon made it clear that this was no “Gilligan’s Island.” As ABC’s critically-acclaimed television series approaches its Sunday finale, aficionados are still crying for promised “answers” to “Lost’s” many unresolved questions. The show’s writers have hooked an invested group of about 11 million viewers, and these devotees want to believe some larger purpose exists in the storytelling, something meaningful that makes six seasons of watching worthwhile. Each week, however, every answer seems to lead to more questions, leaving enthusiasts with grave angst. Yet this is how all of life unfolds. In the end, we may find only an approximation of the truth. The viewers’ search for meaning in “Lost” exemplifies a microcosm of that experience. If we give the writers a little grace and extend some patience, the suspense leading up to the finale of this television show could teach us something about faith in general.”

Bailey, I believe, is onto something. Most of the lavish praise heaped upon the show’s conclusion was in its ability to bring resolution to the show’s characters and relationships. And, conversely, much of the criticism aimed at the show’s conclusion was in its inability to bring resolution to the many important questions raised by the previous seasons.

As frustrated as I am with the lack of answers, I think I’m beginning to “get” the appeal. The stories of the individual characters (through the flash-backs/sideways of the first and final season) are like the individual snapshots of the poster we mentioned above. These images were brought to a cohesive unity through the island and the experiences on it. Questions of time travel, smoke monsters and the source of “the light” are (allegedly) less relevant than the issues of the core characters.

But this also highlights one of the frustrating elements of our postmodern culture: perspectivalism. Perspectivalism means that truth is relegated to the perspective of the individual. This is the “open-to-interpretation” clause, or what some reviewers praise as being the “Rorschach” quality of the show.

A perspectival approach to LOST means that the show is interpreted not in terms of an objective, master story (which would demand answers to those nagging questions), but only through the lens of the characters’ various perspectives. What some, like myself, found so bothersome about the finale, was that it forced viewers to adopt such a perspectival approach, and abandon all previous quests for solutions.

LOST AS MIRROR

Nevertheless, the characters form a valuable link to the audience, who sees in the flawed characters a mirror of their own brokenness. Chris Seay (whose insightful article we mentioned yesterday) writes:

Every one of us bears the marks that Jacob used to describe the candidates. We are all flawed, and we struggle to connect with others in a deep and meaningful way. The feeling that we are alone in this world haunts us, and we believe deep within that if people knew us for whom we truly are, they would reject us. The opposite is actually true: We learn to embrace one another not in spite of our broken state, but because of it… You can live your entire life as a one- dimensional character, holding everyone at arm’s length. But, bare your soul to me about your evil father who stole your kidney and abandoned you a second time as you recover in the hospital, and you have a friend for life.

MIND THE GAP

To bring the conversation back to one of faith, we must remember that Christianity is fundamentally about a story, a story that finds its fullest expression in the person of Jesus Christ. In John’s gospel we read the Greek word exegesato, referring to the way Jesus has made God known (Jn 1:18). The word is where we theology nerds get the word “exegesis,” the science and art of deriving meaning from the text.

Jesus, we might say, is God’s narrative. So for Christianity, truth and story are not abstract ideas, but are embodied in the flesh and sinew of a person. The Hebrew scriptures foreshadow His arrival, the Greek scriptures describe both His life and legacy. It is into this story that He beckons us, offering us bread to break, wounds to touch, and a mission to carry forward.

The call, therefore, is tolle lege – “take and read” – to enter into this story ourselves, and to live in the shadow of a cross, and in the light of a risen Son.

In the next post, we’ll look at what LOST has to say about contemporary cultural expressions of spirituality.

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LOST: Finale Reactions (Part 1)

I totally realize this is more than a week late. But I’ve been sick and you can deal. Also, if you’re looking for explanations and theories, you’ve dialed the wrong blog. Please hang up and try again.

LOST.

The ABC program show has captivated audiences, sparked debates and dominated water-cooler conversations across the country. And last week, the show concluded its six-year run with “The End,” a television event that attracted as many as 20 million viewers.

The show’s conclusion could hardly be called anything but beautiful. But as for whether it was meaningful…well, that seems to be the core issue of way too many debates.

Without stepping into any of those debates (after all, it’s just TV), I want to spend some time evaluating the reaction to the show’s finale, a reaction that – at least to me – has proved far more fascinating than the show itself.

WHO LIKED IT

In an earlier post, I listed some of the philosophical issues that the show would be dealing with in its final season (boy, was I barking up the wrong tree). But viewers didn’t seem to mind the plethora of unanswered questions. In fact, what I heard the show’s fans and producers, is that the mythology of the island is not what the show was ever “really” about, but instead focused on the relational dynamics of the characters.

At first this positive reaction surprised me, given my own desire for resolution to the island’s great questions. But in retrospect, I’m surprised by my own surprise (I know…very “meta”).

  1. Valuing speculation over revelation. Fans appreciate the “open-to-interpretation” element of the show. Today’s culture is much less open to revealed truth, but more open to truth that is discovered through personal exploration.
  2. An increased affinity for mysticism. Reality doesn’t always need to be rational. Today’s culture is okay with unanswered questions, mainly because today’s postmodern world has taught that truth can never be known fully.
  3. Appropriating truth and beauty. Postmodernism tends to emphasize truth as a complex web of related ideas. Hence, science is no more or less equipped to explain reality than is art (a notable difference from enlightenment rationalism). The show’s ability to captivate the audience’s emotions through image, music and storytelling can therefore be more powerful than had the answers be revealed directly.

WHO WAS DISAPPOINTED

And yet, not everyone was satisfied with the show’s ending, still demanding answers to those pesky, unresolved questions. Given the show’s tendency to answer questions without ever really answering them (did we ever really learn what the island is, other than the obscure “cork” metaphor we got this season?), I suppose we should not be surprised.

Among the disappointed is Chris Seay, author of The Gospel According to LOST. In a recent article in Christianity Today, Seay writes:

It seems that our favorite story took a trite turn for the worse at the last minute. Both stories— on the island and in the “flash sideways”—were powerful, compelling, well-written and brilliantly acted. But for the finale to be a complete success, these two stories had to come together as one coherent narrative, and it failed to do that. It is not a cop-out on the level of a child gazing into a snow globe, but it is a cop-out nonetheless.

I suspect many will agree with Seay. As much as we claim that culture has been so strongly influenced by postmodernism, there remains a strong desire for meaning and order. Look at the success of shows like CSI, Law and Order and even House: shows that all seem to state (implicitly as well as explicitly), that reality is meaningful, and its revealed clues can be used to unlock hidden mystery.

This post is one of several. Tomorrow we’ll explore some of these issues further, as we explore what the show reveals about faith and story.

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“Death Working Backwards:” Narnia, Deeper Magic, and Easter

 While truth comes to us in many forms, it is most vividly received in the context of story. It is within the context of story that readers are invited into the literary and emotional landscape, and experience truth through the eyes of its characters.

And this principle holds true for C.S. Lewis‘ beloved Narnia series, which have recently been brought to life on the silver screen. Even casual readers and viewers are now aware that the books reflect a strong Christian theme, and that there is a deep theological richness contained within these pages.

Aslan is an allegory for Christ, who stands in opposition to the White Witch, who holds the fantasy world of Narnia captive – “always winter, never Christmas.” But when a group of children stumble through an old wardrobe to discover this world, it is young Edmund who betrays Aslan and his friends.

“You have a traitor there, Aslan,” said the Witch…

“Well,” said Aslan. “His offense was not against you.”

“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?” asked the Witch.

“Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”

“Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. “Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us?…You at least know the magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill…And so, that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.” […]

“It is very true,” said Aslan, “I do not deny it.”

“Oh, Aslan!” whispered Susan in the Lion’s ear, “can’t we – I mean, you won’t, will you? Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?”

“Work against the Emperor’s magic?” said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

RANSOM PAYMENT

Lewis’ story reflects an older, though historically ingrained theological tradition called the “ransom theory” of the atonement (if you read his “Space Trilogy,” you’ll recall that the lead character of those novels is named “Ransom”).

It finds its basis in Jesus’ promise to “give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The early church, seeking to understand this concept, suggested that mankind is the captive property of the devil. On the cross, Jesus paid the “ransom payment,” liberating man from this bondage.

We rightly recognize that while Jesus and the early writers employed the language of “ransom,” suggesting that God owed the devil some payment is bit of a stretch.

Still, Lewis’ story makes clear the “costliness” of redemption – and even the word “redemption” carries the meaning of “payment” or “exchange.”

As we read on, we see that there is an even “deeper magic” to be counted on.

DEEPER MAGIC

Susan and Lucy had just witnessed the horrific death of Aslan, and were now said to be “walking aimlessly,” unsure of how to proceed.

At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise — a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant’s plate…. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

“Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad….

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

DEATH WORKING BACKWARDS

C.S. Lewis is speaking quite meaningfully of the hope of resurrection – a “deeper magic” than our traditional categories of decay and death.

In Christianity, the cross and resurrection serve a two-fold purpose: to pay the costly price of sin, and to show victory over its consequence, namely death.

Historically, the empty tomb and risen, embodied Savior served as evidence for this event – that faith and hope are built not on idle speculation or sentimental desire, but on the knowledge of the resurrection.

And the joy – the deepest, most fantastic joy of all – is that there is a “deeper magic” available for all of us.

We soon will be celebrating Easter. What is Easter? Easter is “death working backwards.” It is both the celebration of the historical reality of the resurrection, as well as the hope in the future promise of our own.

Adrift (and our soul felt its worth)

They’d been adrift for days.

Plans, it seems, have their own unique way of crumbling, like the exterior of the B-17 bomber over the pacific. His name was Eddie Rickenbacker, and his mission was to deliver a message to General MacArthur who was somewhere in New Guinea.

But now, days later, he and his crew found themselves lost at sea, the wreckage of their plane claimed by the same waves that rocked them endlessly on the swells of the Pacific. Above them was only empty sky. By day they were baked by the suns penetrating rays, and at night the cold salt air raked through their clothes with unrelenting savagery.

Below them was only the curious enmity of the deep, revealed only through fleeting glimpses of fin and scale. And all across, in every direction the needle of the compass could only show them a vast expanse, a heaving desert, an emptiness that at all times threatened to swallow them whole.

And so on fragile life rafts the men could do little more than wait – for what they could never be sure. Perhaps a passing transport would, against impossible odds spot these men. At this point, even the enemy would bring a more welcome sight than another day of this inescapable void in which they had become enveloped.

But a needle in a haystack would be far more easily found than a small group of men adrift in the Pacific – a body of water inconceivably vast and cruelly indifferent to those trapped on her surface.

By the ninth day at sea, the listlessness of waiting had taken a dismal though unexpected turn. Depleted of rations, the small raft of men knew that there was little hope but to succumb to the cruelty of inevitability.

And so armed with only a small Bible, the men conducted an impromptu church service there in the raft, reading the words of the Savior: “Seek first the Kingdom,” all the while wondering if “all things” could ever be added to such a small speck in the ocean.

After the service, Rickenbacker leaned back to nap in the heat.

He awoke to feel a peculiar weight on his head. He could see the startled anticipation on the faces of his companions, leaving little doubt as to what had landed on the brim of his hat.

A sea gull.

A sea gull would mean food. Its meat could be eaten, and its innards could be used as bait to catch fish. Rickenbacker caught the gull that day, and between the bird and a passing rainstorm the men survived for a three more weeks before being rescued.

But the truth of the story is one that should give us pause.

Seagulls only come out to sea to die. And this gull had managed, in the middle of this vast ocean, to locate these needy survivors in the hour of their most desperate need.

Across the void, he found them. He crossed this void, to be a sacrifice for them. He brought with him nothing, but the hope of a second chance.

We are each, in our own way, adrift. We are cut off from land, from rescue, from those we love and from the comfort and stability of solid ground, condemned instead to the rise and fall of a world that tosses us about with cruel indifference.

But at Christmas we remember the miracle of the incarnation – when long lay the world in sin and error pining, God would cross that void to find each and every one of us: alone but far from abandoned, arms outstretched for rescue. And in the middle of this vast cosmic ocean, the Savior finds us, comes to us in our most desperate hour of need, and in His incomparable sacrifice we find provision for new life and new hope.

Across the void, he finds us. He crossed this void, to be a sacrifice for us. He brought with Him nothing, but the hope of a second chance. He appeared, and in a brief moment of time, like the pause before waking, our soul felt its worth.

This Christmas, my prayer is that each of us come to renewed understanding of this story, whispered to us amidst the cluttered noise of the season, and that we come to more fully understand the Savior, God with us, made more vividly real in our lives as we follow Him each day.

Merry Christmas.

Grace and love to you all.