Where I’ve Been Hiding, Is God Dead? (No, 2! And Seven Stanzas!), Punching Hitler, and Other Miscellany

With gearing up for the move, Holy Week, and more preaching dates than usual for a worship pastor I’ve not had as much time to write here as I would’ve liked. Maybe April will be more fruitful. Here’s a picture of a scary Easter Bunny.

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1) Today is the first day of National Poetry Month. If you’re like, “Naw thanks. Poetry ain’t my bag, broooooo” you’re wrong. Or, maybe not. Who can say? Poetry isn’t for everybody but I say if there’s ever a time to give it a shot why not National Poetry Month?

If you need help getting started with reading poetry The Atlantic is here to help: Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies

And here’s 30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month.

2) On Palm Sunday, Mach 20th, I preached on how God owns everything and made mention of what I call “Put A Bird On It Theology!” Though I wasn’t exactly kind in my take down of Christian Sub-Culture I did try and pull my punches. I get it, we Evangelicals like kitsch (even if we don’t realize it as such). Since that sermon, which you can listen to here, two articles have been published about Christian Movies (maybe the worst offender currently of “Put A Bird On It Theology!”) from two different sources.

Over at the A.V. Club, critic Randall Colburn, posed the question: Can the new wave of faith-based filmmaking transcend propaganda? He asks from a “secular” point of view and I think it is prudent to listen as an Evangelical because so often we just assume we already know everything there is to know about those we want to share the gospel with. Which is the stated point of these movies, yeah? But our assumptions are more often than not straw men we’re waiting to burn in effigy. I’ve had atheist professors at my liberal arts college who wouldn’t be persuaded with the cheap deus ex machina prostelyzation tracts from God’s Not Dead and who are among the smartest and kindest people I know. But, golly gee, Kevin Sorbo (Hercules?!) sure did suck – good thing he died.

Film-wise, it feels like it’s the evangelical community that’s distancing itself from secular audiences. God’s Not Dead had a taunting quality to it—one of its secular characters dies, the other is diagnosed with cancer—and the forthcoming God’s Not Dead 2 exudes the same kind of know-it-all hysteria that Cameron’s Saving Christmas did a couple years ago. Attitudes like that will only draw derision from the other side, and it most certainly has.

…more than a good story, evangelical audiences want to see their values reflected and reinforced on screen. They want their films to tell them they’re right. They want what is, for all intents and purposes, propaganda.

Colburn more fully addresses what he assumes (and I tend to agree with him) the motivations of the Christian filmmakers are and the merits these movies have as art. It is well worth a read, especially if you’re a Christian who enjoys these types of film but have not considered what may be going on below the surface.

From a Christian perspective, the lead film critic at Christianity Today and King’s College professor Alissa Wilkinson, wrote at Thrillist this week: I’m a Christian and I hate Christian movies. I more than enjoy her film criticism in general, especially as an Evangelical who wants something different from a movie than a “secular” audience. Her treatment here is just as critical but maybe more sympathetic. Several choice quotes:

A lot of these are basically well-intentioned kitsch, innocuous in the manner of a lousy conventional rom-com or inept indie drama. But they can be worse than that. I can excuse (or ignore) a poorly made movie. But some of the most popular faith-based movies today aren’t just sub-par entertainment — they’re anti-Christian.

As onlookers laugh these movies off, I stand in the Internet’s corner, wincing and trying not to rail. I can’t just brush it off like others. Christian theology is rich and creative and full of imagination, that’s broad enough to take up residence among all kinds of human cultures. It contains within itself the idea that art exists as a good unto itself, not just a utilitarian vehicle for messages. (In the Greek, the Bible calls humans “poems” — I love that.) There is no reason Christian movies can’t take the time to become good art. Each one that fails leaves me furious.

I once was commended for making music in the church because what point does art have other than being propaganda for the Church? No joke. A respected friend once told me that art has no point other than to be a preaching tool. Ouch. Wilkinson writes,

The part that leaves me angry, and why I’m more frustrated with any bad Christian movie than the commercial manipulation of sour blockbusters like Batman v Superman or Jurassic World, is that Christians live within a system of belief and practice that is meant primarily to be a blessing to people outside the church walls. It is a basic article of Christian belief that all people bear God’s image. We are to exercise the same boundless imagination and creativity that he does. Christians, of all people, ought to push hard against people who try to sell a fear-mongering, illogical, politically driven version of Christianity, where the goal is for your team to win, to prove you’re right.

And Christians ought to especially value exploration and truth-seeking, wherever it’s found. We ought to be making fabulous movies that raise religious questions: who are we? Why are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What should we do while we’re here? And since Christians believe in God’s very aliveness — since our theology suggests that people don’t save others’ souls, God does — and since we don’t have anything to lose, we shouldn’t think we have to swoop in and answer the question before the credits roll.

3) Speaking of film criticism, I tried that hat on to middling results this week with some thoughts regarding Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice over at my good friend Sam Jeet’s blog and it got me thinking about the nature of superhero stories. These are not new thoughts, or particularly deep, these are just scattered thoughts I’d like to explore in more detail later but for the past week I’ve been struck by how the American Superhero is an icon of a generation’s social mores.

In his miracle of a novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Michael Chabon chronicles a fictionalized version of the Golden Age of Comic Books through the lens of two cousins and their superhero, The Escapist. There’s an affecting scene where the cousin who draws and paints the comic, Joe Kavalier, explains his motivation:

The shaping of a golem, to [Joe] was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something– one poor, dumb, powerful thing– exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws.

cap-punching-hitler-630x387.jpgSo when comic books and superhero stories took off during World War Two you’d not have to look far for some colorful strongman punching Hitler in the face or at least a pastiche of Hitler.

580d6ac441fd37d2b0bcd7f2b7f406dd.jpgAfter the war and as comics progressed the culture was perceived to be better and at peace with itself and thus comics became child’s fare. Consider Batman and Robin’s adventures from the 50’s and 60’s.

As the dream of the Baby Boomers gave way to Generation X in the late 70’s and 80’s comic books took a turn to the dark and gritty. All of a sudden the very silly Green Arrow sidekick character Speedy was a drug addict and Alan Moore was writing epic takedowns of the superhero trope with graphic novels like Watchmen.Green_lantern_85.jpg

Skipping over the x-treme 90’s with its pouches and mullets and the 00’s “Hollywoodization” of comics and we’ve come to the ubiquitous Comic Book Movie/TV Show.

You can watch classic DC and Marvel characters on primetime every weeknight on the CW, CBS, Fox, and Netflix. And it seems that every weekend there’s another movie coming out with a flying guy in spandex. 2016 is unique in the amount of infighting the heroes seem to be doing. I’ve seen The Flash and Green Arrow punch Hawkman over on the CW, Daredevil avoid being shot and killed by The Punisher on Netflix. In the cinema, Superman and Batman throw each other through walls and still to come is Captain America attacking Iron Man as Tony Stark says pitifully, “I thought we were friends.”watchmen-2.jpg

I’ve been wondering what our superheroes are trying to tell us with all these grimdark stories of heroes fighting heroes. In a contentious political season, economic collapse seemingly always on the horizon, the threat of ISIS, FaceBook meme wars, YouTube comments one has to wonder if our comic books are illustrating (pun intended) the collapse of our civility. Maybe our superheroes are asking, “Why can’t we all get along? Isn’t that better?” Or, maybe I’m reading too much into it and it’s mostly just cool watching Batman punch Superman.

Batman-vs-Superman-Delayed-to-2016.jpgEverybody knows that Superman would win in that fight even if the movie doesn’t get around to it.

4) Happy National Poetry Month and  belated Easter! I read the following poem by John Updike (“Seven Stanzas at Easter”) to the worship team before service on Easter.

Seven Stanzas at Easter
John Updike

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

The hope of resurrection is not simply that (metaphorically) sad stories will have (metaophorically) happy endings but that (physically) dead and rotting people will be (physically) alive again.

And another scary Easter Bunny.

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Where I’ve Been Hiding, Is God Dead? (No, 2! And Seven Stanzas!), Punching Hitler, and Other Miscellany