Saturday, July 29, 2006

What does Hollywood have to do with Jerusalem?

In the last couple weeks, I've been reading some of Tertullian's moral treatises on the bus to and from my Honours Specialist course for Latin. He's been a bracing companion on this bus ride just as I'm sure he was a bracing conversation partner at the time (that would be an understatement!). What I like about him is that, while he is thoughtful and forceful, he really doesn't get into abstractions, but, rather, grounds his thought on what impact does our faith has on our Christian practice in the world. He is, of course, a rigourist and sometimes goes off the rails (especially towards the end of his career), but all too often he asks precisely the right questions.

One of his strengths is confronting the culture. Most of us, insofar as we know about him, know his comment "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem" (I think that is in the De praesciptione haereticorum). That question, I think, is one that we need to keep asking ourself because, at the end of the day, we have to challenge the culture around us and recognize that, however comfortable we are in our secular culture, we are called to a faith and practice which is, more frequently than we might like, at odds with people around us. That means we should be asking questions about what practices and customs we see around us and whether they are consistent with what Christ has taught us.

Take, for instance, his De spectaculis. In this treatise, Tertullian takes a look at the great mass spectacles of his day: theatre, chariot racing, and gladiatorial combats. What Tertullian was reacting to was Christians who believed that they can attend these spectacles without being tainted by the pagan rituals or immoral behavior which one found in these events. Tertullian, predictably, unloads on them. All of these spectacles, he argues, are saturated with idolotry which we Christians are called to flee. All of these spectacles are characterized by immorality that we should not witness, much less participate in. There isn't much give in Tertullian and, here, he is at his rigourous best. It sounds like he was right, but that was then and this is now. What do gladiatorial combats have to do with us now?

I remember asking myself that when I first read the De spectaculis in a graduate course I took on gladiators in the late nineties. While I concede the idolotry implicit in ancient spectacles is no longer, I wonder, to what degree, we are facing a more subtle idolotry: the idolotry of money which drives today's entertainment industry to such a degree that moral considerations are no longer worth talking about. I find Tertullian is asking the questions I think we all need to ask about entertainment today. What does the 'virtual' violence we experience in TV, movies and video games doing to our call to be peace-makers and to turn the other cheek? Is the sexual innuendo and content on TV something that we as Christians should consider harmless, swept by the tide of permissiveness in our society? Where do our Christian beliefs come in when we choose our entertainment options?

Tertullian, at the end of the day, was a rigourist and his solutions tended towards a nearly complete separation from the secular culture of his day. I'm not sure we need to go so far, but I do think we need a little bit of his discernment and challenging attitude to the culture we find around us. What does Hollywood have to do with Jerusalem? What does the secular university have to do with the Church? What does New Age have to do with Christians? The answers to these questions are not rarely simple, but I believe that, as Christians, we need to pose them with the same force and conviction that Tertullian showed so many centuries ago.

Peace,
Phil

8 comments:

Jim said...

Hi Phil,

I hope it is cooler in your part of the world than it is here. I would melt if I could.

It seems to me that the Christian community can best answer the question by deciding what we have to say to Hollywood and then saying it We do not seem to be doing that of late. When I read Tertulian, I think we have not done well for centuries.

There is nothing per se evil about entertainment. But there is something very wrong with music and performances that glorify promiscuity.We should be saying that and things like it. Or so it seems to me.

FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

I'm afraid we're no better up here in Toronto. We hit 36 degrees yesterday, so with the humidex we were closer to 48 degrees C (that's about 117 degrees F). Mind you, the weather is supposed to break tonight, which will be fantastic!

I take your point on how Christians relate to Hollywood, although I would note that there have been groups which have been doing precisely that for decades. They do have a tendency to be dismissed as either religious cranks or prudes. Not that that matters, but it isn't as if Christians haven't tried.

I agree that, intrinsically, there is nothing evil about entertainment. Tertullian, of course, is a rigourist, so he tends to take extreme positions. Yet, if you see what he was reacting to, I think he had some point.

I don't think we have to dismiss Hollywood out of hand, but that we need to take a more critical eye than many Christians wish. I suspect I'm preaching to the choir on this one, but it is an interesting question.

Peace,
Phil

Jim B said...

Phil,

It is supposed to rain here tonight and finally break the heat. Praise heaven!

Points taken. I suppose the problem I see with the various groups I know about, is that they came across as prudish at best and downright extremest at worst.

I recall recently the idiot idea that Harry Potter is the work of the devil because the witches are not executed. One of our fundy TV evangelists actually said that. As Ms. Granger might say, "what an idiot!" At a similar level, the RC's used to publish a list of movies that their faithful were not to see. Now there is a way to make friends.

At another extreme of course, we have, "the gospel according to Mel." A film so violent and cruel it made crucifixion look anti-climactic. Another way to guarentee the secular society thinks we are nutty.

What we need is a way to address Holywood et al, that advances a culture of joy, of fun and not of repressive humorlessness. Our rigorist friend might not agree, but then his view simply wont sell in our pluralist age.

By the by, I live a bit West of Chicago, in a village called, La Grange. Just East of us is the village of Brookfield which back in the late 1800's had a small whistle stop train station named, "hollywood." The wife of a railroad VP saw the station sign, thought it pretty and told her husband. He used the name for a new rail town on the UP in California. ;-) When the mayor of that town thought it would be a good idea to claim merchandising rights for the name, the mayor of Brookfield, which still has a Hollywood commuter stop sent him a note. Suddenly naming rights were not all that important. :-)


FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

I think that, as far as pop culture goes, we have to balance engaging with the culture in which we find ourselves and critiquing that culture from a Christian viewpoint. In that sense, I'm not as worried about appearing loony to pop culture as making sure that we a. know what we're talking about and b. really try to figure out what Christ would say.

Both the reaction of some Christians to the Harry Potter books and to the Passion of the Christ have problematic elements, but they aren't the best examples of engaging with the culture in creative and thoughtful ways. Among the more interesting examples I've run into is the Hollywood Jesus site, which makes an attempt to analyse movies from a Christian viewpoint. Or we could talk about U2 which is a clearly secular band, but whose lyrics employ so much conscious Christian imagry that there is a both a blog and a book featuring U2 sermons. Or for that matter, there is the blog, Modesty Zone, attempts to encourage the Christian virtue of modesty (even if one or two of hte writers go a little overboard).

I highlight those two examples because I think we have to balance the loopy with the engaged. The problems with the Harry Potter example is that many of the more radical critics don't seem to have read the book which rather detracts from the credibility of their critiques. As for Mel, while I'm certainly feel that I've seen enough of the Passion (I saw it twice), I'm not as worried about it looking loopy. Really, all the Passion was was a extraordinarily graphic mediaeval Passion play, albeit with unusually powerful special effects. I do have theological problems with it, but I'm both unsurprised and not particularly worried that it looked loopy to pop culture. It did give a great talking point to engage the culture with, so I'm willing to forgive a fair amount just for that chance to talk.

Anyways, we had rain last night, so the heat has broken here. I hope it has for you as well.

Peace,
Phil

Jim said...

It seems to me there are several questions here. First, what do we, as Christians, want to say to the popular culture? Second, what do we want to see from 'Hollywood?' Third, how do we use our views and reasonable (not deceptive) media tactics to make our views visible in a evangelism friendly way?

Let me focus, brifely, on the third question. I think it is where the question of our 'image' gains some importance. I do not care if someone thinks I am a dinnosaur because I am a Christian, I do care if someone thinks that being a Christian requires turning one's mind off.

So, I am ok with looking, 'loopy' but I wourry about the impact. I am concerned that having some of the real nutcase, "tv evangelists" out there makes us look not loopy but undersirable. I find, for instance, that most of the youg, "neo pagans" I have met can quote Jerry Falwell or Pat Tobertson albeit they are amazingly ignorant of Scripture.

FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

Well, you do come down to the point, don't you?

I have my problems with TV evangelists, although, I note, that I do have a problem when they are used to tar all Christians. Clearly, Falwell and Robertson are hardly desirable role models for how to relate to the mainstream media. Equally clearly, they give ammunition to anti-Christians. I note that they're not always wrong, but frequently their soundbites are awful when you consider their impact.

I don't have easy answers. I find that a gentle approach is usually best in dealing with non-Christian friends, so I suspect the same is true of the mainstream media. That and assuming that they probably won't know that much about what you actually believe as opposed to what they think you believe. Patience here is key. Not having spent time in a media circus before, I can't really say much more.

Peace,
Phil

Anonymous said...

We agree that the TV folk can and are used as a club to batter other Christians. It is certainly wrong and unfair, but then, it is also easy at least in part because of their conduct. I shudder evertime I hear Mr. Falwell begin a statement, "Christians believe...." He generally follows that with something most Anglicans, on either side of the current divide, do not believe. ;;sigh;;

That said, I merely offered them as an example of how not to evalgelize. I can surely think of others. Last week, I was in New York (the tale of my trip home is a hoot) and the hotel had other guests. Jews for Jesus was using it as a base.

Now, I think they are fine people. A bit more evangelical than I certainly, but dedicated, faithful and serious about their efforts. If I cannot walk their path, I can and do respect it.

Their approach to evangelism is confrontational pamphlatering. They take over a street corner, make a lot of noise and push their pamphletes on passers bye. They particullarly seek out and dispute views with more orthodox Jews.

I heard a fair number of uncomplementary comments when they left the hotel and we were awaiting our car. If Paul wanted us to be subtle and all things to all, then they are not cutting it.

Like you, I find gentle and quiet most effective. Maybe that is not the best way, but it works for me more often than I think shouting does.

FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

I remember once, when I first converted, I was watching late night religious programming one night and I ran into Jerry Falwell preaching. He was outlining the particular sins of the Clinton administration (I think this must have been early in their administration) and noted that Clinton had to do things to head off a revival of the Moral Majority. They were (as I recall them)a. abandon a pro-abortion policy, b. get rid of homosexuals in the cabinent and c. support Israel without question because the Bible told them to. I recall not being surprised about the first two, but being a little irate about the third. After all, I reasoned, not only did God generally not give foreign policy, but, since God alternates between cursing and praising Israel in the Bible, I should think the Scriptural testimony is a little ambiguous. That was the last time I listened to even a part of a Jerry Falwell sermon.

As for the Jews for Jesus, I'm have a generally similar attitude about them. I live in a VERY Jewish area and we frequently see Anti-Missionary lectures by Jews for Judaism (who are every bit as pugnacious as Jews for Jesus). So, I had to smile at your reference.

Peace,
Phil