Media and Church Culture

moviesThe year is 2014.  Many faith-based movies are scheduled to be released, including Son of God (February 28th), God’s Not Dead (March 21st), Noah (March 28th), Heaven Is Real (April 16th), Left Behind (September 11th), and Exodus (December 12th).  (I think that it is probably a stretch to call Noah and Exodus “faith-based”, but the basic stories have their origin in Biblical narrative.)  A number of other movies are scheduled to be released as well, including Divergent (March 21st), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April 4th), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2nd), X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23rd), Guardians of the Galaxy (August 1st), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (November 21st), and The Hobbit: There and Back Again (December 17th).  Would it surprise you that I am more looking forward to the second list than the first list?  Well, I am.  Let me explain.

Before I do explain, though, I want to make sure that I emphasize that I am not telling you or anyone else what they should like or see.  I am merely explaining my own perspective.  I never want to poo-poo what another person finds value in.  Also, I should emphasize that I am sharing my own opinion, not that of The Church of the Nazarene, Rocky Mountain District Church of the Nazarene, or Bitterroot Valley Church of the Nazarene.  There are possibly other individuals in those organizations who will agree with me, and there are likely many who will disagree.

Three years ago, I was planning on attending a concert in Missoula called “The Rock and Worship Roadshow”.  It included a number of musicians and bands, including Lecrae, Thousand Foot Krutch, Jars of Clay, and Mercy Me.  Other than Jars of Clay, I was not a big fan of any of the bands, but the ticket was only $10, so why not?  My brother saw the same concert in Colorado Springs about a week beforehand, and he was raving to me on facebook about how great Lecrae was.  He was excited for me to go to the concert and experience this rapper myself.  He was sure that I would love it.  Well . . . I respect Lecrae and what he does, but I don’t like rap.  I’m not anti-rap.  It just isn’t my cup of tea.  It has nothing to do with race.  Some of my favorite musicians are Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk.  I’m just not into rap.

There seems to be an expectation in church culture that everything produced as Christian should be embraced.  I do not share this expectation.  I like what I like, and I don’t like what I don’t like.  And actually, I tend to prefer that the Gospel be communicated and shared incarnationally rather than through media produced specifically for Christians.  What do I mean by “incarnationally”?  Thanks for asking!  Let me explain.

Christian theology, deriving from Scripture, teaches that Jesus is fully God and fully human.  God took humanity upon Himself, truly became human (not just in appearance).  This is what is known as the incarnation.  God presented Himself to us within our own setting and culture, in a way that we could understand Him and have relationship with Him.  Things that are incarnational are things that similarly present the Gospel in such a way that they can be understood within the culture that it is being presented to.  Let me explain further with an example from the Apostle Paul.

Acts 17 tells of a period that Paul spent in the city of Athens.  He initially went there to wait for his team to catch up with him, but when he observed all of the pagan religions and philosophies around him, he couldn’t help but share the Gospel.  He was eventually called before the city council to give an account of what he was doing.  He used that opportunity to continue sharing the Gospel.  Unlike Peter in Acts 2, who shared the Gospel to a bunch of Jews by telling them how Jesus fulfilled their anticipation of a Messiah, Paul used examples from the Athenians own culture to tell them about Christ.  He used an altar “To An Unknown God”, and he used two lines of Athenian poetry that were originally in reference to Zeus and reapplied them to the true God.  He did not neglect telling them about Jesus and His resurrection, but he understood that presenting the Gospel to the Athenians from a Hebrew perspective (as Peter did in Acts 2) would mean nothing to them.  The Athenians were not Hebrew; they were Greek.  In order to accept the Gospel, they needed it presented in a way that they could understand and relate to.  This is what I mean by “incarnational”.

When I look at faith-based movies, for the most part I do not see anything that is incarnational.  I see movies that are made specifically for Christians.  There is nothing wrong with this.  I am glad that movies are being produced that contain good messages and wholesome values.  But when I imagine myself being a non-Christian, I see nothing that will draw me to the theater to see them.  Why would someone who doesn’t believe in God want to see a movie called God’s Not Dead?  Why would someone who does not believe in Heaven have any interest in seeing a movie called Heaven is Real?  I know that I wouldn’t.

I do want to give faith-based movies some props, though.  They have come a long ways from fifteen years ago.  Not only is the eschatology in the original Left Behind movies terrible, they are some of the cheesiest movies that I have ever seen.  Quality-wise, Son of God is light years ahead of the Jesus movie.  I just do not see any real evangelical value in most faith-based movies.  Sure, they are great for giving those who already believe warm-fuzzies (and there is nothing wrong with that), but I do not see what value they have for us in fulfilling our mission.

When it comes to media, I prefer media that is either produced by Christians but not as “Christian” or even media that is produced by non-Christians but still contain strong messages through which the Gospel can be shared.  Alison Krauss & Union Station is one of my favorite bands.  They are Christians, and some of their songs are very Christian-themed, but they are not a “Christian” band.  Another one of my favorite bands is Mumford & Sons.  The status of their faith is up in the air, but there is no doubt that many of their lyrics reflect Christian principles.  One of my favorite lines comes from the song “Roll Away Your Stone”:

It seems that all my bridges have been burned, but you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart, but the welcome I receive with the restart.

Absolutely beautiful words!  Or even Lecrae (who I mentioned above) or Switchfoot (another one of my favorite bands), both of whom are identified as “Christian” artists.  Both Lecrae and Switchfoot tour with non-Christian bands/musicians, giving them the opportunity to share “wholesome” music with those who might not normally be exposed to it.

When it comes to movies, I believe that I can be more effective in sharing the Gospel with something like The Hunger Games than I can God’s Not Dead.  Plus, and I’m just being honest here, I find the former to be more entertaining than the latter.  I’m sure God’s Not Dead is a great movie, and I’m sure that I will see it eventually.  I just do not feel a burning conviction that I have to see it just because it is a faith-based movie.  If you want to see it, great!  More power to you!  I absolutely support you in doing so!  I just also encourage you to find opportunities to engage the broken world where they are at, within the context of the culture.  This is what the Great Commission calls us to do, this is what God Himself did for us, and this is what it means to be incarnational.

Finally, I want to stress that the best form of evangelism is not handing someone a tract, a Bible, or inviting them to watch a movie.  The best form of evangelism is in the example of our own lives: How God has transformed us by His indwelling Holy Spirit, and how we live out the Christ-life by bringing restoration to brokenness.  God’s love, working in our lives, is His love letter to the broken world, and it is that same love that will see His Kingdom come.

A Whiskery Eulogy and Reflection

It was with great sadness that I learned last night of the death of a dear friend.  His name was Whiskers.  He was a fifteen-year-old cat that lived with my parents and youngest brother.

Whiskers joined our family when I was eighteen years old, shortly after the death of our beloved Pooh, who was older than me at age nineteen.  Whiskers was brought into the household as the cat of my youngest brother, Alex, but I’ve always considered him my cat (sorry Alex!).  Or rather, I think that Whiskers adopted me as his human.

Whiskers was a very tiny and timid feline when he first entered our household.  I remember very clearly on his first or second day living with us when he was lapping water from the ginormous water bowl that we had, I thought that it would be funning to gently push him in the bowl with my toe.  The poor creature just sat there and shivered.  It made me laugh and feel like a terrible person all at once.

It did not take Whiskers long to find his confidence and fit into the family, though.  I used to come home in the middle of the night from either working late or hanging out with my friends, and Whiskers would be waiting for me.  He would follow me downstairs to my bedroom for the night.  And even in the years after I had moved out, when I visited my family Whiskers would always follow me around and settle down with me.

Whiskers is the third loss in my parents’ household over the last year.  In February, their 14 year old Pomeranian, Crissy, died, and then in April, their 9 year old (I think?) German Shepherd, Shep, had to be put to sleep.  So it has been a rough year in their house, and it has even been really sad for me from 500 miles away.

So what does it mean when we lose a beloved pet?  Obviously, there is a void left inside us as we adjust to life without our animal friend.  Is there any hope for a reunion someday, though?  I really can’t say one way or the other.  Of course, there are plenty of tales of “kitty heaven” and “doggy heaven”, and the like.  Most evangelical Christianity that I have encountered, though, seems pretty united in the belief that there is no “eternal life” for animals.  A couple notable exceptions are C.S. Lewis and John Wesley.  Lewis speculated that as animals grow in relationship to humans, a sort of identity, sentience, or consciousness might develop, thus allowing animals to attain eternity through humanity.  (See his chapter on “Animal Pain” in his book The Problem of Pain.)  Wesley, in Sermon 60: The General Deliverance, speculated that when “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new’” (Revelation 21:5), this “newness” extends to animal life.  He wrote the following:

But will “the creature,” will even the brute creation, always remain in this deplorable condition God forbid that we should affirm this; yea, or even entertain such a thought! While “the whole creation groaneth together,” (whether men attend or not,) their groans are not dispersed in idle air, but enter into the ears of Him that made them. While his creatures “travail together in pain,” he knoweth all their pain, and is bringing them nearer and nearer to the birth, which shall be accomplished in its season. He seeth “the earnest expectation” wherewith the whole animated creation “waiteth for” that final “manifestation of the sons of God;” in which “they themselves also shall be delivered” (not by annihilation; annihilation is not deliverance) “from the” present “bondage of corruption, into” a measure of “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”  (III.1)

So will I ever again get to see my beloved cat?  I really don’t know.  But if any cat had personality, it was Whiskers.  Regardless as to whether or not he will have eternity extended to him through his relationship with my family, what I know for sure is that going “home” will never be the same without him.

We miss you, Whiskers!

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

So begins the novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien and originally published in 1937, thus changing fantasy forever.  A great thrill went through my spine as I heard Sir Ian Holm’s characterization of the elderly Bilbo Baggins speak these words as he wrote them near the beginning of the first part of Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation, subtitled An Unexpected Journey.  And that was just the start of my almost three hour return to Middle Earth.

I have blogged previously describing how much I anticipated this movie.  I was not disappointed.  Not even a little.  My expectations, which were great, may have even been surpassed.

I do not want to say too much about the movie as I do not want to spoil it for anyone who has not seen it yet.  But I will say a few things.  It is not a straight retelling of the children’s book written by Tolkien nearly a century ago.  Rather, it is an interpretation of it, designed to fit within the cinematic universe that Jackson introduced us to eleven years ago with Fellowship of the Ring.  As such, it is grittier than the novel, but at the same time it is much more lighthearted than the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The visuals were absolutely stunning.  At the beginning, we are shown the city of Dale and the kingdom of Erebor (the Lonely Mountain) prior to the Desolation of Smaug.  These are probably the most beautiful settings that I have ever seen on film.  And then toward the end, we see the eagles rescue Thorin Oakenshield and company.  They are seen a bit in the first trilogy, but in this movie, we see them up close and in amazing detail.  Every moment in between these two bookends is spectacular as well.

There are certain changes from the narrative of the books.  For example, it is originally Gandalf the Grey who explores Dul Guldur and discovers the Necromancer there, but in the movie, Radagast the Brown is given that role.  And speaking of Dul Guldur, in the original story, the shadow comes there and turns the Greenwood into Mirkwood around the year 1000 of the Third Age, but in the movie this happens as the events in the movie are taking place, about 2000 years later.

But none of the changes take away from the majesty of the movie.  I am not certain that they were all needed, but it kept someone like myself, who is well versed in Tolkien’s mythology, guessing what was going to happen next.

The movie has received mixed reviews from the so-called experts, which makes me sad.  One of the major criticisms is the length, but just shy of three hours is not really that long for major fantasy and science fiction movies these days.  It is shorter than any of the Lord of the Rings movies.  Avengers was 143 minutes, and The Dark Knight Rises was 165 minutes, so this wasn’t much longer.  I absolutely loved both of those movies, but I was ready to leave when they reached the end.  I could have kept watching The Hobbit for at least a couple more hours, it was that good.

Another major point of criticism from the “experts” is regarding the 48 frames per second rate that it was filmed, but given that very few theaters are actually equipped to play it at this rate, this is pretty much a moot point.  The vast majority of people who watch it, whether they are watching it 2D or 3D, will be watching it at 24 fps.

In the end, it does not matter in the least what the critics say.  I loved this movie.  It is probably the most amazing movie that I have ever seen.  And I suspect that others will love it to.  I cannot wait to make it back to the theater to see it again.  And again.  And again.  And . . . well, you get the point.  🙂

A Long Expected Journey

December 19, 2001.  Just shy of 11 years ago.  I remember the day well.

At the time, I was employed by Merrill Lynch, working at a home operations office in south Denver.  I had been annoying my coworkers for several weeks.  Months, really.  It was a period of great anticipation.  The movie that I had longed for, well, pretty much my entire life, was soon to be released.

I actually did not plan on seeing The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring that day.  It was released on a Wednesday, and I had youth group that night.  But I longed to see it with every fiber of my being as soon as possible.  However, my coworkers intervened.  They had not endured my excitement only for me to not see it right away.  They talked me into going that night.  I logged onto the website of a theater chain in the Denver area and ordered my ticket for a late evening viewing.

After youth group dismissed, I rushed over to the theater.  By the time I got there, the seating was pretty much maxed out.  I found an empty seat next to the aisle in the front row.  The screen being right in front of me led to an extremely intense experience.  I had a cold at the time, and the combination of my proximity to the screen and the decongestants in my system required me avert my eyes from time to time.  Certain moments, such as the quick drops from the top of Orthanc to the pits of Isengard, were too much for my brain to process.

A year later, I had moved from being a Merrill Lynch customer service representative in Denver to being the youth pastor at the Church of the Nazarene in Casper, WY.  Financial limitations made me unable to attend The Two Towers for several nights, but I got in as soon as I could.  And a year after that, I was there for the midnight premier of Return of the King, the first movie screened in the newly remodeled America Theater (which at the time was the largest screen in Wyoming).  The circle was complete!  Or so I thought.

At the time, the last thing that seemed possible was for Peter Jackson to be able to produce a movie adaptation of The Hobbit.  Movie rights are a tricky business, and it was not very likely that New Line Studios would be able to gain access to it.  Then, Jackson entered into a legal dispute with the studio.  And once things got underway, the Tolkien Estate, which has not been very supportive of movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, tried to halt the production.

Though I am not a Calvinist, I am almost tempted to believe that Peter Jackson was predestined to make these movies.  Against all odds, he was brought back to the helm.  When the studio received the rights, the legal matter between him and the studio had not been resolved.  Once that was taken care of, he was asked to produce, but he would not be able to direct due to other commitments.  Because of other delays, though, the original director, Guillermo del Toro, had to pull out, and the timing was right for Jackson to assume the directing duties.  Thus, the stars had aligned perfectly for him to direct another trilogy of movies based in the amazing mythology of Tolkien.

Why is this such a big deal for me?  After all, several movies that I love have already been released this year.  These include The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hunger Games.

I have several areas of geekdom that define me.  I have never really been a fan of comic books, but I absolutely love the movies based in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Star Wars has been a part of me my whole life.  (I even go by “Luke”, a shortened form of my middle name.  Though the “official” claim of my parents is that this is after Luke of the Bible, given that my father was the major push for this name, I have always suspected that Luke Skywalker was a bigger influence.)  As a child, I was a collector of He-Man/Masters of the Universe action figures (and I have to confess that now as an adult I collect an updated adult line of that same property).  Star Trek has also always been a part of my life.

However, my love for Tolkien’s mythology far surpasses all other fictions.  I do not even remember the first time that I saw The Hobbit cartoon.  Even though the songs from the novel are updated in the new movie, the versions in that cartoon will always be what I hear in my head whenever I read the book.  I remember as I child my father reading The Hobbit to me, and then when I was slightly older him reading The Lord of the Rings.  I have read and reread these classics many times.  I have dug into The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales to learn more about that universe.  I have even read through the 12-volume History of Middle Earth series published by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, containing all of Tolkien’s notes and developments of his mythology over the entire course of his life.  Short of learning to speak and write the languages that Tolkien invented, if something involves his mythology, I can tell you about it.

And now, the day has arrived.  Less than 16 hours from this moment that I am typing, I will begin viewing Peter Jackson’s first movie in his adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  I can hardly believe that the moment has almost arrived!  Soon, I will be taking a long expected journey to An Unexpected Journey.