Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Hard(ly) at Work

(Click for larger image)

Yesterday's narrow defeat (by one vote) of a proposal to amend the Constitution to ban flag desecration marks the second time in a month that Senate Republicans have lost bids to mangle the Constitution in an obvious attempt to appeal to social conservatives on the cusp of the midterm elections.

Earlier this month, a proposed amendment to ban gay marriage suffered a more decisive defeat, killed on a test vote.

Let's see--proposing amendments to limit free speech, the very patriotic values that they claim to have in mind when insisting that soldiers are dying overseas for a flag that should never be used as a symbol of dissent and a ban on the unions of homosexuals because that in some way invalidates their own unions, joined, I thought, in the eyes of God much more than the eyes of the State--yep, it sure sounds like the Republican-controlled Congress is doing the people's work at this dark, tumultuous and pressing time in our nation's history.

But they're not done yet.

Sporting fancy names like the "American Values Agenda," Republicans are about to launch a pre-election blitzkrieg on abortion, guns, religion and, of course, massive tax cuts during a debilitating occupational quagmire in Iraq. What they don't tout is that the "American Values Agenda" also seems to include smothering congressional dissent on Iraq, endorsing torture, obliterating civil rights, pandering to the Religious Right and ignoring a crippling energy crisis.

Mom, apple pie and shredding the Constitution--it's enough to make me wish I was a Republican again.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Faith in Film: Part II

If St. Paul’s letters are not appropriate means of communicating the gospel, at least in it’s initial stages, what is? It’s a two-fold approach: from the Old Testament, the Wisdom books and from the New Testament, the Gospels.

The Proverbs tradition is one of cause and effect. Do this and this will happen. Don’t do this and this will be the result. Throughout the Wisdom books, the writers beg their readers to choose wisdom and discernment over foolishness and stupidity. Hard as these messages may be, they are still terribly relevant today. Actions--both good and bad--have consequences.

(Ecclesiastes and Job are also not afraid to admit that we live in a fallen and difficult world. They are not even afraid to paint saints angry at God for that pain. Christians lie when they insinuate that becoming a Christian masks one from the world’s pain and heartache. Agony is inevitable. We live in a difficult world. How we respond to that pain is what sets us apart. We must become wounded healers. We must take that pain and transform it to a blessing for others in similar pain.)

Jesus Christ’s life, witness, teachings and ministry is the starting point and springboard for all discussions, all conversions, all ministry. Any witness that does not start with Christ’s love and grace, but instead focuses on God’s wrath and condemnation is inappropriate and ineffectual.

We must begin with the fact that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and reinforce that with the fact that we live in a cause and effect universe. It’s a gospel message of both freedom and responsibility.

Some Christians like to use Phillipians 4:8 when defending their opinions that film is not something in which believers should be involved or participate: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy; meditate on these things.” They defend their position by saying that most films do not reflect purity or loveliness or justice, etc. But they almost always ignore the first trait listed--truth. Think on truth.

Many Christians criticize films for showing the darker side of humanity. But film, more often than not, is a cultural window--it reflects the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. Life is dark, not film.

It is the difference between Descriptive Truth and Prescriptive Truth. Descriptive Truth reveals life as it is, warts and all. Prescriptive Truth reveals how those warts can be fixed and what a redeemed world looks like. Both are truth and both are necessary. One cannot work without the other and we present half-truths is we elevate one over another.

(Christians are just as guilty of false truth. Does anyone truly believe that “the good old days” were really all that good? Christians responding to a supposed slide in morality in films already base their opinions on a lie. The filmic world of the 40s and 50s--when dad and mom ate dinner in formal wear and slept in separate beds and whose children never really misbehaved--was an invention, a lie to begin with. It never existed. Christians have been measuring the decline of film and the world in general by a construct, a fake world that never existed in the first place. They are angry and want to exchange one Hollywood illusion for another.)

What then makes a good film, much less a good “Christian” film?

Following the delineations (minus the theological implications) mapped out by John Boorstin in his definitive, “Making Movies Work” we discussed the three ways in which a film must operate for it to be effective.

Firstly, film must work voyeuristically. This is what the mind’s eye sees. Filmmakers achieve this through cinematography and production design. It has the ability to transport us to other worlds, another time and place, to drop us into other cultures to reveal lives and experiences wholly outside our own. If the integrity of the film’s time and place is genuine and believable, the audience will buy into it.

Secondly, film must work vicariously. This is what the heart’s eye sees and is achieved primarily through the use of the musical score, the screenplay, and, of course, lives and dies with the acting. Is the film emotionally believability, does it create empathy, does it inspire character identification?

Lastly, film must work viscerally. This is what the senses see--the unexplainable gut reaction, the thrill, exhilaration, tension, fear, pain. This sort of psychosomatic response is inspired by the intensity of the imagery and is rarely even something which the viewer is in control of. The film’s editing makes or breaks the visceral reaction.

The best films work on all three levels simultaneously. Usually, if you walk away from a film disappointed, it is probably because the film miss-fired on one of these levels. When a film does nail all three, you leave the theater elated, overcome, emotionally spent, inspired.

It is a holistic approach to filmmaking. It involves the whole person--mind, body and spirit. It is, in a word, Trinitarian. (This also explains why you can leave the theater Saturday night feeling like you have had a genuine, transcendent experience and leave church Sunday morning feeling dull and uninspired!)

But to be able to speak into the lives of non-Christians, we must be willing to first let them speak to us. We must be willing to dialogue with them. We must be willing to hear what they have to say.

Act 17:16 reveals St. Paul in the Athenian marketplace. He is not there to protest their religious writings and traditions. He is not there to boycott their pagan shrines. Quite the opposite. He studied their traditions and beliefs and used them as a starting place with which to begin a thoughtful dialogue about truth. He engaged them in a the marketplace, in a neutral space. He didn’t enter with judgement, but in an interest to have a honest conversation.

We don’t come alongside the culture for relevance sake. We do it because we honestly want and need to hear what culture is saying. We need to hear it’s heart’s cry. Why? Because we have been given the antidote to that pain--the thing in the person of Jesus Christ who will see us through that pain to the other side.

But, at the same time, we must stop counting conversions and start counting conversations. God does all the work. We are merely the movers and shakers who set the stage.

We cannot manipulate transcendence or transformation. But we can create an environment that will give transcendence its best shot. Filmmakers who wish to convey God must first learn to master the art of creating a “wondrous” environment. Then they must discipline themselves to keep their own hands out of it. We mustn't try to conclude someone’s experience. Human nature desperately seeks meaning, and though it is tempting to consistently place meaning on art, we must allow space for someone’s experience to continue and let them own it and further it at their own pace--at God’s own pace.

We need to stop trying to always analyze everything. Feel. Stay in the moment. Savor it. Live in it. Sometimes the heart can understand so much better than the brain. Sometimes the most real experiences are those that are the most unreal. Transcendence speaks to our real selves--not simply our selves trapped in human flesh, but our eternal selves, our souls. It may not be real, but it is truthful.

These are the sorts of films I hope to make in the future. Films that speak to the human condition. Films that reflect both the truth of the world in which we live, no matter how grimy that world, and the truth of God’s power to work in and through that world to bring about the sort of utter transformation only He can bring. You will not find altar calls in my films. You will find catalysts--inception points for God to begin working. I am not interested in concluding the conversation--that is not my job--I am interested in beginning the conversation. Hope, faith, love, redemption, forgiveness, grace, beauty, truth, wonder, mystery--these are what I want to make films about and they will, no doubt, take many forms and shapes. They may not, like the book of Ruth, ever mention the name of God, but He will be present in every sacramental frame--pervading and sustaining everything.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Faith in Film: Part I

"The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way." -- C.S. Lewis in “An Experiment in Criticism”

Last week, I attended a seminar put on by Fuller Seminary entitled “Faith in Film.” Taught by Hollywood screenwriter and Fuller professor, Craig Detweiler, the seminar (and later weekend film festival) was an intensive apologetics and theology course for the seminarians in attendance, and an inspiration for me. It was the perfect educational vanguard as I prepare to begin graduate film school at NYU in less than three months.

It’s interesting, we always talk about Jesus Christ as The Word but rarely ever refer to Him as The Light. St. John 1:4 speaks of Him as the light--the light that can illuminate the darkness, reveal truth and lead us safely through life’s obstacles. And films that show forth that light, His light--be they from Christian filmmakers or not--were the topic of our few, but intense, days together.

Take a sacramental approach to life, Craig told us. Be less interested in proofs, creeds, reason or dogmas. It’s about enchantment, mystery and beauty. The sacred amidst the profane is what being a Christian is all about.

For Plato, all of life was an illusion. Truth was not to be found here on earth. One had to look upwards to the heavens for revelation. Aristotle was different. He believed that life and truth was embedded in everything around us. All of nature cried out with revealed truth. It’s the old debate between Transcendence on the one hand and Immanence on the other and it has filtered down into Christian philosophy to become one of the defining ways in which we view the world around us.

Is God radically apart from and beyond any sort of existence in our material universe, or is He existing and operating within our world, pervading and sustaining everything? If it’s the former, then art is unnecessary because ultimately everything is going to burn apocalyptically anyway. If the latter, then the the world is enchanted with, suffused by, and cannot get away from Christ. Art therefore becomes an expression of the divine all around us. If God is everywhere and in everything, is there truly such a thing as “secular”?

Theaters are the new temples of worship in America. Post-moderns (post-post-moderns?), especially Americans, confront their issues and carry on their cultural conversations in the context of movies. Film, with its massive screens, elevates even the most mundane issues to something of vast importance. We must be willing to wrestle with the big issues. If movies keep asking the questions, are Christians ready with the answers? Are they even willing to engage in the conversation in the first place?

Christians were once the greatest patrons of the arts. Some of this world’s greatest masterpieces came from Christians wanting to reflect the majesty and wonder of God and His creation in art. How have things so changed? Now Christians view art with suspicion and mistrust. This is especially true of film. (Make no mistake, film is every bit as much an art form as literature, painting or music--as with any art form, there is great art and there is bad art.) That must change.

Movies specifically came of age in a very progressive era. Religious reformers and social workers fought for the poor and downtrodden amidst a world in the throws of industrialization and urbanization. Interestingly enough, when film first began, the church saw it as a wonderful megaphone for good. Pastors preached about it’s important in society. That didn’t last long, unfortunately.

It’s time to return to that model. It’s time to realize that films are like modern parables--stories that convey greater truths--to afflict the comfortable and work as artistic trojan horses. If film is the new global literacy, how do Christians hope to communicate if they cannot speak that language?

“Christian” is a noun, not an adjective. There is no such thing as a Christian movie. There is only good art and bad art. Can a beautiful God inspire bad art and what does that say about many “Christian” films?

This is not to say that some Christians haven’t been using film for years. But what have those films looked like? Generally they are flaccid stories with overt altar calls at their conclusions. They are films that preach to the choir, dishonest in their unwillingness to meet the intended viewer--the unsaved--where he is. They tend to deal with sinners’ terrible lives and the hope found in the Christian community. And there is certainly some truth to that, but only partially. Thankfully, newer Christian films are bucking that template. They tend to deal with life’s pain and agony--be it found outside or within the community of believers. New Christian films have begun to stop pretending that there is no fallenness within the Church. We are all ragamuffins in need of God’s transformation.

Protestants tend to make terrible movies because they are solely message driven. They preach at the expense of story, plot or character development. For the Protestant filmmaker, ensuring the message is delivered, no matter what is lost in the delivery, is paramount. Protestants practice a word-based faith; images make them uncomfortable. That is why there is a proliferation of (largely abominable) Protestant Christian fiction, but not Protestant Christian films.

Liturgical Christians on the other hand, tend to make far better movies for the very reason that they are an icon-laden faith. A film’s message is not found within the story, it is the story. Unlike Protestants who are unused to and uncomfortable with symbols and iconography and therefore avoid them, liturgicals suffuse their films with symbols and iconography to reflect God. Their films tend not to overt altar calls, but honest assessments of our world as it is as well as the deeper truths of God’s nature--compassion, forgiveness, redemption, unbridled love and the like.

Consider how the modern church uses the Scriptures (and film) to try and confront a wayward world and bring them to Christ. Primarily, we use the Paulian letters--those epistles of St. Paul (and St. James and St. Peter, etc) that make up the bulk of the New Testament. There’s just one problem with that--St. Paul never wrote his letters for unbelievers.

Think about it. These letters were written to established churches, both for their edification and chastisement when they erred. St. Paul’s audience in all of these letters are already believers. The standards by which he judges them are the standards of someone who has become a follower of Christ--rigid standards indeed, but hardly the standards by which one would expect an unbeliever to adhere. We cannot use private documents meant to discipline the church to judge the world. We cannot hold the world to the same standards to which we ourselves are held.

The contemporary church uses the Bible as a weapon, not a trauma kit. In doing so, we become Pharisees, touting the law to support our superior moralistic claims. In doing so, we also become the very people with whom Christ conflicted more than any other. It was the sinners whom Jesus loved, fellowshiped with, and spent all his time. It was the Pharisees who he resisted and for whom he saved his harshest and most condemning words. The contemporary church needs to look long and hard at its message and its intentions. If Christ were to appear in our midst today, would he say, “Well done good and faithful servant” or “You brood of whitewashed tombs”?

Judge not lest you be judged. We’ve attacked the world for its unrighteousness, all the while ignoring the massive plank in our own eyes. We must repent. We must look to our own sin before the sins of others. I think the world understands that the church sees it as a bunch of unregenerate heathen sinners. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of preaching condemnation, wrath and hellfire. I think they get it. Perhaps it is time for another approach--a new, untried message.

How does Hollywood and the world see the Church--judgmental, intolerant, hypocritical and closed-minded. Who wants to be a part of that!? Certainly not me. It is time for a change. As a church, we are known more for what we are against than what we are for. We have communicated the judgement of God very well; what about the grace?

To be continued...

Truth vs Truthful

For a thing to be truthful, it does not necessarily follow that it must be the truth.

For example:

Bush State of the Union

Bush Sings U2

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Life shouldn't be all Work and no Plays!

I'm feeling a bit guilty for not writing in so long...

The truth is, I have several posts started, though none finished. I have been busy at The Film Snob, getting things ready for NYU, if you want to read some stuff over there.

All that to say that, I'll have some new stuff very shortly, but in the meantime, enjoy this fantastic picture from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Eat your heart out Superman.
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus