Thursday, May 16, 2013

What has Jerusalem to do with Hollywood?

Perhaps one of the more laughable (if it were not so serious) trends in modern evangelicalism is the Movie Sermon. These are sermons delivered in churches where the 'Text' is not from the Bible, but is rather the latest blockbuster movie from Hollywood or wherever. While R.F. Horton in his Verbum Dei proposed that the preacher might find a "Word from the Lord" in the newspaper, that isn't what these sermons are all about; instead they tend to be of the bait and switch method, and usually resolve themselves into a preacher who is barely able to exegete a Bible passage and who is more at home delivering a ridiculous parody of a self-help message with a straight face, unaware of how utterly parodic it is, attempting to draw some inane moral lesson from a piece of Hollywood fiction, or, in the worst cases, trying to draw some relationship lessons from James Bond. In that particular case, as someone who has actually read Fleming's entire output, and the dreadful continuation novels by John Gardner (In which the greatest surprise is that a character is who they claim to be), and Raymond Benson's first couple of continuation novels (when Bond fails to spot that the villain blatantly faked his own death and that the femme fatale is... well, one of the most obvious in history, it's time to stop reading), I find the idea of getting relationship hints from James Bond utterly hilarious on a number of levels. I mean, "long term relationship" isn't in the man's vocabulary. In the films it's made all the more inappropriate by the fact that Bond's marriage (in the hugely underrated On Her Majesty's Secret Service) is followed not only by the death of his wife, but that in the very next film he reverts to being Sean Connery. But I digress, so back to the point. And that is that either we are reading out of the film something glaringly obvious to begin with, or we are reading into it something that we decided we wanted to talk about anyhow and are merely glad of the excuse.

Personally I do not watch films or television looking for moral lessons - it usually detracts from the enjoyment of the actual thing that I am watching. That's not to say that most things don't have a point that they are trying to get across, even if it's something as inane as "don't be nasty to people" - we already knew that was a bad idea, thank you for reminding us. But you see, the big problem with the film sermon is that it ends there; it basically preaches morality, and usually a rather weak, milk-and-water version of that too. It becomes a gigantic Aesop, a moral message, and not a Gospel message. Well, I think that we can leave the Aesop to the film-maker; if the film's meant to communicate it, then it probably does a better job of it than we can, and we may be in the awkward position of pointing out the glaringly obvious, which is never a good idea.

No, as Christians we are supposed to preach the Gospel, we are meant to be about Jesus Christ and him crucified. And that is something that Hollywood does not do, on the whole. So that means that if we look at popular fiction (and I see no reason not to, within sensible limits), we shall be looking at it in two ways; first of all as illustration, and secondly, and more rarely, for echoes of the Gospel of Grace.

Illustration is fairly self-evident; a story in a film, or a scene in a TV show, illustrates a Biblical point, so why not use it to a congregation or audience who will know what you are talking about? Or it illustrates the hopelessness of mankind without the Gospel, or without the Word of God. There's nothing wrong with that, provided that the illustration does its job - that it illustrates, in other words.

The question of echoes is rather more complex; basically it is when a piece of popular fiction, perhaps all unknowingly, points to Christ, or to a truth that is really only opened up in Scripture. The most obvious example to me is the character who, rather than exercise power to destroy, suffers pain, even death, to redeem. The trouble with this is of course that by its very nature this point is hard to illustrate, because the examples always constitute spoilers, and we do not like them. This would be something deep and thoughtful, like the protagonist who must embrace the evil without becoming evil, who must suffer without being tainted, all to redeem those who are under the sway of the evil. And I am thinking of a specific thing here. Let's just say one of the more surprising Christ-figures in popular entertainment.

And here we come upon a very interesting point - namely that very few movie sermons, if any, deal with such things. The thoughtful, the intelligent, the challenging, all those are things you will not hear from pulpits where films and TV are taken as texts. Because that would be far too challenging, of course, for those who come to hear how they should emulate Captain America and not the Red Skull, because if the Church did not tell them that they might be confused.

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