Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Similarities between Movies and Worship...

I've been reading brandon's discussion on worship, and it came to mind that one of the potential problems with contemporary worship, in my eyes, is that people want it to be like their movies.

Ultimately, what is desired is something that makes one laugh and cry but ultimately does not really outlast the event itself. Most individuals that I meet would like something uplifting, with the appearance of being challenging. It might be even more accurate to compare many contemporary church services, especially the sermons, to the local nightly news or 60 Minutes.

Even more interesting than the desires that both of these rituals seem to invoke is the growth on these events to become more and more like one another. I should say that the majority of this confluence comes from the churchs' integration of visuals and mood music to create an "atmosphere of worship". In addition to the house bands and laser lights, I have been surprised to see visual scenes crop up during the sermon. So the pastor will be talking about the piece of God, and the projectors will cut from the Bible verse to pastoral scenes of lambs and waterfalls.

Without even getting into the problems that I have with churches no longer asking the congregation to bring and open their own Bibles, what purpose does this projection serve but to act as an emotionally manipulative act? Are the members of the church unable to imagine for themselves what "peace" means?

Even if we allow this trend, I was amazed a couple of months ago to see a pastor mention an experience that they had had, and he actually cut to a flashback. Lo, we see a video in which the pastor engages in a recreation of said event intercut with interview footage of him talking about the event. Is it so hard for pastors and congregations to actually listen to the person who is right there on stage that we need to have a package?

i know that this makes me sound like an old fogey, but I remember sitting and listening to the pastor work as a story-teller. He would craft an entire picture for the listeners. I understand that not all pastors are "great" orators, but must we reduce them to anchors who merely man the desk and present an editorial at the end of the hour, like some Andy Rooney? Have seminaries dropped so low that graduates can get out with a bit of biblical study and a knowledge of how to edit their own video and play three chords on an acoustic guitar?

Must every pastor be a great theologian to be a good leader of a spiritual flock? Absolutely not! However, they should be able to connect with their congregation on a real and present basis. There should be more than an intro and outro framing a 15 minute "Features" story. I want a pastor who is a teacher! I want a Rabbi! Dammit, I want a leader! I know that I live in a college town and that that influences the sorts of congregations that are available, but I don't want a VJ or Mister Rogers (as cool as both these might be in their own way). It would just be nice to walk into a church and find a critical thinker at the front, not a cheerleader.

Monday, October 24, 2005

History and Identity...

I recently drove with my EW (Enduring Wife) to see "A History of Violence." Granted, we were supposed to pay $9.75/ticket, but my lovely EW had complained about the crappy sound/picture quality of our previous experience that we had free passes, yay!

Anyway, that is besides the point. I wanted to write a bit about the message of this film and how I see it interacting with some contemporary issues in the Fundagelical church.

The film is pretty basic. We have small-town, Indiana diner owner who is forced to take action during a robbery. Surprise, surprise...he is super handy with weapons and is soon visited by a Philly tough who thinks he is some hit-man/thug who disappeared years ago. The film centers primarily on the reaction of his family to this accusation and the decision that he must make.

The plot itself is not a super huge issue, but i think that the debate that it engages with is incredibly fascinating. What is identity? Are we a set of performed roles, as is indicated by many PoMo and Post-PoMo theorists? Or, is there an innate identity chosen by God/Nature/the Universe which we can choose to adopt or resist? Or, yet another option, we might be an accumulation of experiences that some how "add up" to us, as some Freudians/Psychoanalytic scholars might perceive?

I am amazed at how a relatively simple film can evoke such strong debates about issues that usually reside only in philosophical or theoretical conversations. Many people have written about the dumbing-down of Hollywood and the increase in stupidity and violence (Michael Medved is my personal nemesis), but it seems that many cannot look through the graphics and see the essential questions that reside inside of many of these narratives.

The most electrifying aspect of films like "A History of Violence" and the ways they address these concerns is that rarely do they come out and present THE definitive answer to these complex questions. One can look at films like "Blade Runner" and its question of humanity and technology or "Memento" and questions of memory and identity. Not only are these thrilling narratives that engage on a visceral, experiential level, but they also can allow for a public realm for those who engage in non-academic inquiries into the nature of their world.

Sometimes this debate and engagement is refused. For example, in our viewing of "A History of Violence," audience members down the row from us were very uncomfortable with the openendedness of the narrative and with a striking rape/abuse/lovemaking scene between Bello and Mortensen. They laughed at inappropriate times and complained loudly over the credits that this was, "The Worst Movie They Had Ever Seen."

I don't want to say that people are not entitled to their opinion, but this reaction shows that a problem with Hollywood is not that it promotes the wrong values or the films are too stupid or too difficult for people to understand. Even "stupid" and "offensive" films can challenge our perceptions. It is that they are unwilling or unable to engage in the dialogue with the film.

Now is this the fault of the film? Maybe/maybe not. It is difficult to approach the dramatic scene between Mortensen and Bello on the stairs and not feel something. The question is"What do we do with that feeling?" Also, "Is discomfort something we accept as 'entertaining?'"

We have been taught that being happy involves having no pain. My pastor once said how excited he was that he could look forward to going to Heaven where we would no longer get tired when he played basketball. I can understand the underlying feeling, but where does the joy caused by the testing of the mind and body that God has given us?

This is not the way that most audience members would look at thing, but the sentiment is important. Why are we so happy when we can "tune out"? My students constantly tell me that I am crazy because I try to force them to think. "Why do I need to think like that? Can't you just tell me what i should write my paper about?"

The same practice goes on in film. We have become accustomed to being told what to enjoy. We have soundtracks, genres, actors, and visual cues that all tell us what to think when. Those challenging Hollywood or "The Media" should be taking up arms against the way that stories are told and accepted, not the message of these institutions. This process has become so standardized most people think that it is "stupid" or "bad" when things do not fall into standard limits.

Unfortunately, the same effect can be seen in independent films. If you want to make a bit of money and garner some critical attention, grab a couple of desparate B-list character actors, make one of them angst-ridden, homosexual, a murderer, throw in quirky but intellectual dialogue, maybe a different editing speed or style, and a digital camera, and you are set. I have no problem with any of these things by themselves, but I do have a problem when they become the standard for a norm.

In the end, as much as I liked "A History of Violence" and the dialogue which it attempts to foster, I, prompted by my fellow-audience members, must not become caught up in an alternative culture that is as totalized as the mainstream one which we mock. We must be prepared to criticize the criticizers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

And I-uh-I will always love YOUUUUU!

No, I haven't forgotten about my blog. I have however been very, very busy with my concrete research. The weekend before last was my big, important prelim exam to prove that I am indeed intelligent enough to write a dissertation without wasting everyone's time.

Since then, I have bee defragmenting a bit. I have been working on a short presentation that I will make to a workshop in Boston in November, and I have had two or three calls for papers that I need to kick stuff out for.

I have, however, seen a good number of decent films that I want to talk about for a variety of reasons including "History of Violence," "The Big Kahuna," "The Station Agent," "Miller's Crossing," and "Love Song to Bobby Long" Unfortunately, they will have to wait until I get my work done.

Until then, adieu.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


I'm so excited. My wife just found out that there is a probably chance of her finally getting hired as a full-time, salaried employee at her job. I am so impressed and proud of her. I remember how sad she was going from being offered the opportunity to take over a very lucrative wedding planning business in Grand Rapids to having to work a temp, data-entry job.

However, she is really good at details and directing people (She can direct me anytime that she wants.), and I was always confident that if she stuck with it that eventually she would be recognized for her efforts.

It has only taken 2.5 years of working full-time PT, hourly, no benefits after getting a good, useful Communications degree to find a job. Granted, I didn't help by moving to a place where employment is not the best.

Here's to wonderful SO's who can really stick it out with the slovenly wretches among us.