For The Someday Book

Archive for the ‘pop culture’ Category

Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture by Terry Mattingly, W Publishing Group (Thomas Nelson), 2005, 198 pp.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I have been reading a lot on the topic of evangelism lately. When I purchased this book, I was just pursuing my interest in religion in pop culture (check out the last post about angels on TV). However, in reading it now, I had an eye toward using pop culture as a means for telling the Gospel story using images familiar to people outside the church.

Mattingly is a columnist, and this book is a compilation of his columns over the course of ten years, beginning in the mid-1990s. I was initially disappointed that the book was not a more systematic analysis or sustained thesis, and feared the book would be too random and hodgepodge to be useful. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the disparate columns hung together well. Mattingly is an insightful analyst and critic.

The most important thing Mattingly offers in this book is the conviction that faith matters, and that popular culture matters. Both are real forces in people’s lives, shaping their worldviews for good or for ill. Both deserve to be taken seriously and analyzed deeply. Mattingly demonstrates a level of insight about both that is rare to see. Most people (especially writers/journalists) speak eloquently about one, but ignorantly about the other. The gift of this book is the author’s ability to comprehend both so well, and understand how they speak to one another.

One of the interesting themes that emerges over and over again is the way that attempts to form Christian popular music (Christian films, contemporary Christian music, Christian fiction) rarely get beyond shallow tropes. Because they seek to be positive, to stay within well-established orthodoxies, and to promote doctrine, elements of popular culture labeled “Christian” rarely manage to find the depth of struggle and hope that render them powerful and inspiring. This is why I got turned off years ago by Christian music and just about anything else that can be purchased at a Christian bookstore. It just seemed saccharine and over-marketed, an attempt to sell Christians a bunch of junk because it was labeled “Christian.” Mattingly returns to this theme in several articles:

Since Christendom is built on a story that is literally larger than life, Peacock wonders why CCM is smaller than life. The Bible is full of sin, death, doubt, love, hate, anger, war, lust and other messy subjects. The faith of the ages wrestles with the bad news before getting to the Good News.   — on Charlie Peacock’s book At the Crossroads (7)

Most Christians, he argues in the first chapter, are sinfully content to write for other Christians, to sing to other Christians, to produce television programs for other Christians, to educate other Christians, debate other Christians, and only do business with other Christians. “Shameful,” he writes, “We have failed and are failing America.” — on Bob Briner’s book Christians Have Failed America (69)

By mining popular culture inside and outside the targeted Christian markets, Mattingly uncovers the spirituality and the yearnings at work in everything from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to U2, Carl Sagan and the Veggie Tales. He points out what makes “popular culture” so popular, why it become a spiritual experience for people. Mattingly does not make an argument about how Christians should respond, he simply points out the connections. In other words, if you want to connect with people who live in this pop culture world, here are the things they are connecting to, and this is why they are connecting to them.

As I take time to contemplate evangelism and how to tell people outside the church about the story of Christ, I found this a helpful way of thinking, and full of insight about the quest for meaning in non-Christian sources. It’s a fun read, and light, and invites further reflection.

My family recently cut the cord on cable and switched to Roku (thanks to this advice from a friend). As a result, I have been watching some older drama series on Netflix. There are always shows that look intriguing, but come on at an inconvenient time. The first one that hooked me was Eli Stone, which ran for only two seasons (2008-2009). In that show, lawyer Eli Stone develops a brain aneurysm that gives him visions from God. These visions lead him to his next case, usually an unusual opportunity to help an underdog. Now I’m watching Saving Grace, which ran for three seasons (2007-2010) on TNT. Detective Grace Hanadarko is a hard-drinking, cursing, independent cop played by Holly Hunter. For the first season especially, almost every episode features a sex scene between Grace and a long list of partners, both regulars and one-night-stands. Into her life comes a “last-chance angel” named Earl, who wants to offer her redemption and enlist her help in redeeming others.

I am struck by the contrast between these angel-themed shows and the shows of my childhood, like Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel. Highway to Heaven ran from 1984-1989, with angel Michael Landon and his earthly partner travelling the United States to intervene in people’s lives. They would help, provoke, comfort and encourage people into the right, then move on to the next episode with a completely new set of humans. Touched by an Angel ran from 1994-2003 (alright, not my childhood), and followed the same formula, but with female angels Monica and Tessa.

Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel are notoriously heart-warming. These are the shows that the Hallmark Channel was invented for. While the angels do work with people facing hard human issues like death, divorce, abuse or evil, the angels are always agents of comfort and direction. At the end of the episode, the angels have done their best to help the humans deal with these tough issues, and everything wraps up neatly. Angels are benevolent helpers that offer insight, clarity and instruction in the right course of action. We viewers always saw things from their perspective.

Not so for Eli Stone and Grace Hanadarko. While both of those characters are broken people with broken lives, the angels (or, in Stone’s case, the visions) are anything but clear and instructive. The appearance of the divine in their lives troubles, confuses and mystifies them. Divine intervention is never a full revelation, but a labyrinthine wandering through different clues in search of the meaning of it all, which is never fully revealed. While we (the viewers) receive some gratification from the resolution of their individual police/court cases in each episode, the relationship to the Divine and the meaning of the angels/aneurysms is never fully explained or clarified. We don’t see God’s perspective, only Eli’s or Grace’s. God’s will is a disruptive and mysterious force that haunts their lives, albeit for the better. We are left to wonder about the will of God in ours.

This new perspective is much darker and more uncertain. There is no room for deus ex machina endings, and human characters wrestle with God far more than they obey. In the end, God urges their lives in a certain direction, but seems to offer little concrete aid or support. God is powerless without the partnership of human beings. In one episode of Saving Grace, Grace is held captive, and all her fellow officers are searching for her. Her angel Earl can’t find her either, and summons an “army of angels” to help him search. While there is some indication that the angels leave clues for the humans to find, it’s never clear whether Earl is effective at helping the search or if the officers would have found Grace on their own. Earl cannot protect Grace. Throughout the series, all he offers by way of support or protection is the occasional flash of comforting light from his wings.

Personally, I find this darker, more mysterious version of God’s action and intervention much more in line with my faith and spiritual experience. I’m not sure I believe in angels, and I definitely don’t think they are as benign as Michael Landon and Roma Downey. My parents always watched those older shows, but they just made me roll my eyes. If angels dwell among us, they come to trouble and provoke, not simply to guide and guard. God’s presence in our lives does not simply comfort us through life’s storms—sometimes, it causes a storm, and urges us out into it. God does not just use the gentle and devout. God is more likely to use those like Grace and Eli, wild souls more at home in the bar than the church.

I am still curious about why the shift took place between the older angel shows and the newer ones. What does it mean that popular faith no longer believes in a powerful, interceding God? What does it say about our American attitudes and culture that we believe we are just as effective as God? There is arrogance there, but there is also a recognition of responsibility, that we must engage with God. Why did this shift take place? Are we more comfortable with uncertainty, with unresolved endings? Does it speak to our desire to know God and angels, as long as they don’t impinge upon our choices (good or bad)? Who watches these shows, and what connects with them as viewers?

Addendum: When I wrote this original piece, I was at the end of the second season of Saving Grace. I am now nearing the end of the third and final season, and the show has changed dramatically. Grace seems to have “found the Lord,” and her character has lost its iconoclastic spirit. The show itself has become a lot more like Highway to Heaven in the third season, with characters appearing all over with connections to Earl, and Grace and Earl working together to help them. Real dialogue and story have been replaced by sermon-like speeches where every question has an orthodox answer. Platitudes have replaced probing faith. I’m very disappointed at the triteness of it all.  While I’ll probably go ahead and finish out the last few episodes, I’ve lost the engagement with Grace and the other characters, who are becoming two-dimensional model Christians instead of struggling human beings. (See similar critique here.)

The Jesus of Suburbia: Have We Tamed the Son of God to Fit Our Lifestyle? by Mike Erre. W Publishing Group (Thomas Nelson), 2006, 202 pp.

I picked up this book for a couple of dollars during a quick pass through a discounted bookstore. I did not spend too much time examining it, because I was so excited to see the topic, especially from an evangelical perspective. I had hoped that it would be an analysis packed with anecdotal, textual and theological evidence of the ways Christian subculture reduces Jesus from a life-changing social radical to a feel-good, do-good cheerleader, critique of the evangelical fusion of Christianity and suburban values, and insights into undoing this version of Christianity in favor of a more compelling and challenging vision.

The book met some of those expectations and disappointed me in others, yet it was still a good read. Stylistically, it read more like a sermon or spiritual growth book than a cultural analysis. Think more John Ortberg and less Stephen Prothero. Once I got over what I thought it would be and started appreciating it for what it actually was, I thought it was a very good read. Theologically, it was definitely far more evangelical than I am, but my disagreements over his theologies of scripture and sexuality made my agreements with him about the nature of Jesus far more profound and striking.

Throughout the book, Erre draws sharp distinctions between Christianity and following Christ. American Christianity generally makes us more aligned with the American dream, our middle class compatriots and their attendant cultural values. Following Christ should make us fomenters of revolution, in conflict with the forces of empire all around us. In spite of his role as a preacher in a church, Erre even calls out religion as a major part of the problem. He defines religion as “any system of rules and rituals designed to bring us into relationship with God. It is the idea that somehow we can win God’s blessing through our efforts to do good and avoid bad.” (45) I take issue with Erre’s conflation of those two ideas. Religion is a collection of stories, rituals and rules that have been a path to God for those who have gone before and those walking within them today. It is often true that religious people believe their acts control God’s blessing, but it is not a necessary result of religious practice or belief. Erre sees Pharisees everywhere, and I agree that “Jesus didn’t come to change our behavior; he came to change our hearts,”(49) but I don’t think that necessarily means “Jesus came to abolish religion.” (46)

As the book unfolded, Erre espoused countless ideas that are right in line with progressive mainline Christians like me:

  • Jesus’ message was about welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the rejected, the unclean, “whoever.” Grace means that God’s love, not our actions, are the key to salvation. (Chapter 4: The Scandal of Grace.)
  • Faith is not about a system of belief, it is about faithfulness to the way of Jesus, dedicating our lives to following Christ’s will. (Chapter 5: The Danger of Theology)
  • Living in a created world means that there is no separation between sacred and secular, for everything in this world belongs to God and can be redeemed for God’s good purpose. (Chapter 6: All Things Are Spiritual)
  • Too much religious practice and teaching aims to explain God, rather than proclaim and stand in awe at God’s mystery and majesty. (Chapter 7: Mystery and Paradox)
  • The church is to be a continuation of the Jesus movement today, not an institution to preserve truth. (Chapter 8: The Church As Subversive Community)
  • The Jesus movement claims truth wherever it finds it, in all aspects of culture, not just those labeled “Christian.” (Chapter 9: The Redemption of Culture)
  • We cannot convert people by words and arguments—we must show them God’s love and grace by practicing it and living it out in the world. (Chapter 10: Show and Tell)

The Jesus of Suburbia was a fascinating point of connection for me with an evangelical perspective. Erre and I share many similar concerns over the face of Christianity in America today. While we also have fundamental disagreements on social issues and probably about the way in which the Bible is authoritative, we both understand that Jesus makes radical, life-changing demands upon his followers. We agree that Christ’s followers should always live with a degree of unease in our relationships with the world around us, particularly with anything that resembles the wealth or power of empire. However we understand the peculiarities of theology, all of Christianity is endangered if we accept a diminished, non-threatening, easy-going understanding of Jesus Christ.

(Also, for the record, the book makes no reference or any connection with Green Day’s epic song “Jesus of Suburbia” from American Idiot.)

It’s been around awhile, but I just saw Sunshine Cleaning, starring Amy Adams as Rose Lorkowski and Emily Blunt as her sister Norah. In the movie, the two sisters start a business cleaning up after crime scenes, attempting to make better money than cleaning ordinary homes. Much to my surprise, I kept stumbling upon scenes that were strongly reminiscent of pastoral ministry.

In the first one, captured in the video below, they show up to clean up after a death. All we know when they pull up to the home is that the death was a suicide, and the man was in his 70s.

Rose instinctively moves to comfort the grieving widow. Notice the awkwardness in her face, her posture. She does not know what to say or to do, because there are no words that can be said and nothing she can do to change the grim situation. She just sits by her side and holds her hand so the bereaved woman is not alone.

So much of the pastoral care we clergy offer looks just like this. “Would you like me to sit with you for awhile?” I have asked that question hundreds of times, in hospital rooms, funeral homes, living rooms and courtrooms. Like Rose Lorkowski, I sit awkwardly, silently and uncomfortably with the grieving one for awhile. Like Sunshine Cleaning, there is a service that we clergy perform, with funerals and information and planning. But much of what we offer is simply our presence, holding hands and lingering, unhurried.

Later in the movie, Rose goes to a baby shower for one of her high school friends. Surrounded by married, successful friends from her high school days, she proudly begins to describe what she does for her business. It’s more than cleaning, she says: “We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound, sad… and… we help.” You can catch the line in the trailer below, starting at 2:02, although the visuals are not from that part of the film.

For many people who are not churchgoers, clergy play a similar role. We show up when someone dies, or when their churchgoing parent is ill and hospitalized, and we help. Or at least we hope that we do. Sometimes we just sit and hold their hands, sometimes we offer information, sometimes we sing hymns or wash dishes or plan services. Hopefully, always, we pray.

One other connection, from that same scene: Rose’s description of her life’s work is full of pride and excitement. However, her baby shower audience responds with an awkward pause and blank stares that belie a mix of horror and intrigue. The scene made me laugh out loud. I know those looks. Being a pastor, especially as a woman, frequently makes people uncomfortable in social settings, and sometimes people don’t know what to say about your work. Rose’s description of her work just serves to prove to her that she won’t ever be “one of the gang” again with her high school friends. There is an aspect of that in ministry as well, as we always carry our pastoral persona with us, like it or not.

Sunshine Cleaning was an unlikely source of wisdom and imagery about pastoral ministry, but I take it wherever I find it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, Inc., 2007, 759 pp.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Harry Potter series over the years. I saw the first movie, then picked up Book 2 one night when I was stranded at Midway airport. I have looked forward to the release of each book and movie since then. I went to see the new movie on opening day (not at midnight, but a nice, empty 1:30 p.m. Friday afternoon showing). Before I did, I stopped to reread the book version. As always, the book is much richer. In particular for Book 7, I thought the movie just felt way too fast, so that the audience barely had time to absorb everything that was happening. When you are reading the book, you have the choice to pause and reread that you do not have in a film.

I think what is most compelling about the series is the way Rowling takes classic mythical themes and dresses them up in fresh and creative ways. The Harry Potter series combines all these familiar plotlines and tropes: unloved orphan who discovers he is special, good vs. evil, coming of age, quest, tragic hero with loyal friends, a war story, a sports story, an underdog story, perceived evildoers who turn out to be good, sacrifice of an innocent and many more. These are stories that have been told for thousands of years, because they speak to the human heart in powerful ways. Rowling dresses them up in wizarding robes and creates a compelling new world and new characters to live out those stories. We are captivated and delighted once again.

One of the things that particularly captivated me about the last book was the way it worked like a classic war story. Book 7 (and the movie) both work like all war stories—battle scenes punctuated by waiting scenes and conversations between war buddies about what it all means and why they are doing it. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry and his friends are in the middle of a war against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Some of the battles take place directly with Harry, Ron and Hermione, but there are battles happening on a wide array of fronts. Death is an ever-present reality. In the course of Book 7, characters are dying all the time. From the opening battle on, someone that we have known and loved for all or part of the series dies. But because there is a war going on, there is not time to mourn each loss. Like soldiers at the front, the remaining characters bury the dead, pause for a moment, and return to the front. I am impressed by Rowling’s ability to capture that grinding presence of death and its threat, instead of tipping into sentimentality.

The other part of Book 7 that captivates me is the story of the sacrifice of the innocent. There is an implication from the end of Book 6 (if not before) that the death of Voldemort will also be the death of Harry. Harry the innocent must die, so that Voldemort the evil can be vanquished.  (Warning: potential spoilers ahead, although all details are deliberately vague.) This plays out to completion in the book, but the recent movie is only Part I and does not get this far. You can pick up on some of this even in the trailer below.

This sacrifice of the innocent is another classic story in human history, but it is also at the heart of many versions of the Christian story. In some theologies of the atonement, Jesus was sent by God to be a perfect innocent, so that he could be sacrificed on the cross and his innocent blood could pay the price for our guilt and sin. In order for us to be saved, an innocent life must be lost. (I do not share this theology myself. I would say that Christ’s life and death were the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for us, that Jesus was an example of faithfully following God even unto death, and that the resurrection is proof of God’s ultimate victory of life over death.) While it’s not as blatant as the death of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there is clearly a parallel to the Christian story of willingness to follow the faith unto death, sacrifice of an innocent, and resurrection.

For all the hoopla about some Christians who object to the Harry Potter stories for inspiring our youth to dark magic and devil worship, the story in the end is not far from the Christian story. There is certainly a case to be made that one could read the Jesus story parallel to Harry Potter and use one to interpret the other. While I have not read it, I suspect that The Gospel According to Harry Potter by Connie Neal does exactly that.

Harry Potter is captivating because it takes familiar myths that speak deeply to the human heart, and offers new plot twists, characters and settings to entertain and inspire us. I, for one, am looking forward to the final installment of the movie!

I am addicted to flash mob videos, especially the ones that feature seemingly random groups of people coming together in public places to sing and dance. They just seem full of such joy and beauty and delight. Improv Everywhere does excellent pieces. Some of my other favorites are the Glee-inspired “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music in a train station in Antwerp, Belgium.

But this latest one really got me thinking. It comes from the Opera Company of Philadelphia as part of the Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture. Six hundred and fifty singers gathered at the Macy’s store in downtown Philadelphia and burst into a full-voiced rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. It was awe-inspiring and moved me to tears. Watch it. Please. You don’t want to miss it.

It is my secret longing to be a part of a song-and-dance flash mob someday, because the whole thing just looks like so much fun. This experience at the Philadelphia Macy’s was fun too, but it was more than fun. It brings tears to your eyes, because  the power of the music and the message sweep you up in an encounter with something transcendent. It is sanctified—the voices resonant in that secular space sanctified that shopping center, even if only for a few minutes. I imagine the experience of being there must have felt holy.

And so an idea is beginning to take shape in my mind. Could we in the church take a lesson from the flash mob craze? Could we take an experience of excitement, welcome, even transcendence, directly to people, right where they are? Could we use the flash mob as the newest evangelism tool? Think about it: church folk emerge from the crowd, looking just like everyone else, until they burst into song and dance. The crowd is excited, entertained, intrigued. They want to be a part of it. They see that we Christians have joy, that we look just like they do, that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Maybe they even see God’s presence in the world around them in a new way. Maybe we sanctify a space, just for a moment or two. Maybe some of that crowd wants to be a part of something that looks so fun, so amazing, so connected, so much bigger than one person. Maybe the video goes viral, and more people get the message about a different kind of church, a different kind of Christianity, that welcomes you “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.”

Here’s my proposal:

Let’s do it–at UCC General Synod 28, July 1-5, 2011, Tampa, FL

It would take a lot of people, at least some of them with talent, to pull this off well. But if any church has the attitude, the talent and the sense of humor and whimsy to pull it off, our United Church of Christ does. We could do it on Synod Saturday, at some venue in Tampa, and get video to set loose on the web. What’s the worst thing that happens? We all have a great time, and a bunch of random people get to know something about the United Church of Christ.

What do you think? Are you in? Do you want to participate? Do you have ideas for songs, places, people that would have expertise and ideas to share? I’m serious about considering this idea. If enough friends and followers seem interested, I’m going to reach out and see about making it happen—so let me know what you think!

Today is the opening of a new movie called For Colored Girls, directed by Tyler Perry. The script is an adaptation of a 1975 choreopoem-style play entitled For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange.

I first encountered Shange’s magnificent poetry when I was in college, when I was diving deep into both African-American poetry and feminist literature. Her words and images penetrated deep into my mind and heart, and they still grab me at my core. After hearing about the movie, I spent most of the evening yesterday combing through books looking for excerpts and watching clips from the stage play on YouTube.

The women of Shange’s creation radiate a kind of honesty, strength and vulnerability, a truth-telling and emotional exposure that is absolutely compelling. She creates compassion without pity. One of my favorite lines is: “i’m finally being real/no longer symmetrical/or impervious to pain.” The women Shange writes are real, almost more than real, rich and deep and profound and broken-bending-to-whole.

The poems speak of a deep need to be seen and known and loved, of heartbreak and hope. And, in the end of the play, they find that love—with God, with each other, within themselves. One of the most famous lines in the whole show comes at the end, when the women gather and repeat: “i found god in myself/and i loved her/i loved her fiercely.” That line has echoed through my theology ever since, imagining God dwelling inside me and inside every other person I meet, God embodied in female form, imagining God using my own self, a God whom I love absolutely fiercely. Ntozake Shange and her words have been a shaping influence and powerful point of spiritual connection for me for many years.

Here’s the problem: I don’t think I trust Tyler Perry with Ntozake Shange. As much as I want to see the movie, as much as I want to see any production of these amazing words, I can’t trust the creator of Medea to handle real women with depth and power and passion and compassion. The actors in the movie are phenomenal, and I would trust any of them to honor the depth and beauty of Ntozake Shange’s poetry. But Tyler Perry has made his name dealing in stereotypes, flat characters, slapstick, and witty repartee. I want to see the film, but I am nervous that he will not do justice to the writing, to the characters and the poetry that have come to mean so much to me. Perry has many talents, but can he do this?

I want the world to know about this play, these women, Ntozake Shange. I hope Tyler Perry can introduce them in a way that is as powerful and compelling as the original.

In Shange’s words: “this is for colored girls who have considered suicide/but are moving to the end of their own rainbows.”

What about you? Do you have a connection to Shange’s work? Have you seen the movie? Do you have an opinion?


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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