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Jason Byassee

Jedi or Jesuit?

Looking for God at the cineplex.

Is it cooler to be a Jedi or a Jesuit? A band of Jesuit novices argued this question on the way to see the then-new Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace. The Jedi side had a lot going for it. These twentysomethings had all been raised on the Force, the Dark Side, and Obi-Wan. The rich mythology had not a little to do with their pursuit of mystery and desire to save the world.

Yet Jesuits were cool too. Cool enough to make these smart, attractive, basically well-adjusted young men vow to poverty, chastity and obedience. Another movie added to their sense of vocation: The Mission. They didn't just weep at that film's portrayal of sin, conversion and nonviolence in colonial South America. They signed up with today's version of the Society of Jesus.

On the way out of the colossal disappointment of Menace, the novices were quiet. The Jedi side had so obviously lost that the argument was no longer fun. One finally sighed: "Definitely cooler being a Jesuit."

The pairing of God and the movies, variously construed, has been the subject of a raft of recent books, dozens in the last several years alone. Interest goes both ways—theologically minded writers paying more attention to movies, even as the movies seem to be paying more attention to God—ensuring that our authors have lots to work with. How ought Christians go about discerning God's presence at the movies?

With enthusiasm, according to longtime Calvin College Professor Roy Anker. The movies don't just physically depend on the light shining through miles of film, they also depict well the divine Light that occasionally shines at the edges of things. In Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies, Anker organizes his detailed readings of mostly blockbuster films over the last 30 years around Frederick Buechner's tripartite discussion of the gospel as "tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale." In Anker's hands, great movies become great religious commentary: The Godfather, with its chilling portrayal of Al Pacino's Michael Corleone making baptismal promises as his henchmen slaughter his rivals, shows us tragedy. Robert DeNiro's Rodrigo in The Mission, looking strikingly like Jesus, weeping and laughing at his absolution from the very Guarani whose children he had abducted for slaves, demonstrates the redemptive comedy of the Christian story. The grand, sweeping mythology of Star Wars suggests the extravagant promises of the true fairy tale of the gospel. Anker adds to Buechner's scheme a fourth section called "found." Here, for example, is Kevin Spacey's suburban dad in American Beauty, converted—just before he is shot—from seeing his daughter's friend as an object of sexual conquest. The slogan of that film, "look closer," could describe Anker's overall approach. Movies can help us see "the world as it truly is: resplendent and suffused with a radiant, implacable love that shows itself in the exquisite beauty of the very fabric of the created world."

Anker's enthusiasm as a theological interpreter of the movies occasionally gets the better of him. I don't doubt that Superman's creator meant for Kal-El, his white haired father Jor-El, and the green crystal that teaches the former about the latter to hint at the Christian Holy Trinity. But should Christians agree to so thin an analogue for the Godhead we worship? Is Luke's willingness to die instead of killing Darth Vader really "a perfect rendition of the notion of substitutionary atonement"? Films may be best at showing the faint light around the edges, the numinous spirituality that is broadly interesting to the movie going public, and less at showing the particularities that make specific religions most precious to their adherents. To speak in literary terms, they may do better with Tolkein-style typological allusions to faith rather than Lewis-like allegorical showings.

We might expect an antidote to reading movies as Christian allegory in Robert Johnston's Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film. Johnston seeks a genuine dialogue between Qoheleth and Hollywood. For better or worse, "the sages, the wise men and women of our age are often filmmakers." Their explorations of paradox and contradiction, of how to live life in the shadow of death, function as "modern-day parables."

While the use of Ecclesiastes could provide some greater circumspection as we compare faith and film, the dialogue Johnston seeks often collapses into monologue: filmmakers talk, Christians listen. Quotations from Qoheleth pepper the book but normally as decoration after Johnston makes a film's point. He tips his hand with a chapter about "existentialism" in the 1950s and '60s. That movement's vaguely religious primary themes are those of the movies treated in this book as well: "Life is random, and yet life is precious and wonderful too." Johnston speaks glowingly of "common grace" as the "Spirit's positive role in culture's outworking." While the church has struggled to see this "grace" in the last few years, "given 9/11, the decline of the stock market [!] and the war in Iraq," nevertheless common grace teaches us that "beauty must be found within the terrible or not at all." Such nebulous spirituality is abundant in popular culture and traceable in Ecclesiastes. But it is, at best, the lowest common denominator for a "dialogue" between church and world, like the truncated vision of "diversity" that collapses when anyone dares actually to be different.

In A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture, Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor write in an edgier manner than Anker or Johnston. Detweiler and Taylor point to the importance not just of the suburban midlife crisis film American Beauty but also to the raw and bloody cult classic (and popular smash) Fight Club, which a friend of mine calls a "violent instantation of the Year of Jubilee." They echo Beauty's admonition to "look closer": to "discover the surprising messages God may already be broadcasting through the mass media." Popular culture as revelation?

The authors proclaim that "God has never been more alive in western culture." Stop frowning—things aren't getting worse, they're better than ever! Detweiler and Taylor have a message for church leaders who would absent themselves from the rich conversation about God underway in the public square. They must be conversant with the "new canon, the new literacy, and join the new conversation. Only in this way ... can we allow God to be fully God." Popular culture as intrinsic to the divine life?

Detweiler and Taylor know whereof they speak, living in California, personally participating in the entertainment industry, and teaching on religion and pop culture at Fuller and Biola. Their clarion call reminds me of the Vatican II-era rhetoric insisting that Catholics must leave the cloistered walls of the church and engage the world. Evangelicals must leave comfortable shores and sail amidst the turbulence where lie both risk and adventure. But I wonder. Some Catholics feel they left behind too much in the cloister and blessed too much in the world. These authors have a terrific eye for God in the movies and elsewhere in popular culture. But must we baptize what we find there, or speak of it as revelatory to such a degree that anyone not frequently in theaters is missing out on the very word of the Lord?

It may not be accidental that all four of these authors teach at evangelical institutions. Their books imply a hypothetical disputant for whom any moviegoing at all is sinful or at least problematic. Their response of "movies are where the action is" may be inspired by their experience with students from fundamentalist homes who are just learning to engage with broader culture. From my vantage as a mainline Protestant whose tradition has baptized "the culture" for centuries, even after it stopped asking for our blessing, this sounds like a clarion call for a battering ram through an open door. Of course we're always already engaged with "culture," whatever that is. We go to movies because, well, that's what middle class Americans do for entertainment. Lo and behold, sometimes they talk about God. Should we celebrate, as these authors suggest, reach for the remote, as I'm inclined to do, or something else?

Rodney Clapp may have the best answer. His recent essay, "God is Not 'A Stranger on the Bus,' " included in the Brent Laytham-edited volume, God Is Not, refuses to thank Joan Osborne simply for mentioning God in a popular song. As a Christian, Clapp wants to remind us that the story told about God in that tune is not fully true. To ask "what if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us" may express a profound longing with enough cultural traction to become a hit on the airwaves. But it still represents "religion" as Karl Barth critiqued it—humanity's attempt to lob our projections skyward and then idolatrously worship our own creation. Clapp shows that for the Bible, being one of the "crowd" is not necessarily a laudable station—think of the revelry at Sinai and the demand to "crucify him!" We cannot simply cheer because others do, or even because movies use the "G" word. But case by case we can discern God in specific films, praise what is praiseworthy, and argue with the rest. If we are to have genuine "dialogue," that is.

Some years after their argument about the respective coolness of being a Jedi or Jesuit, what would those former novices now say? Many have left the order, having found the demands of poverty, chastity, or obedience too costly. Others, though they have stayed, seem aged beyond their years (perhaps by too many shouting matches about whether the "conservatives" or the "liberals" are right on some issue or other). However praiseworthy it may be to be a Jesuit, it no longer looks cool either.

But there's the rub. In that Society, in any society of actual humans, there is the chance for both woundedness and restoration. Movies, great as they are, are tightly packaged two-hour segments that are neat and then over. We walk out and the arguments we were having on the way in still linger in the air. But at least with flesh and blood we can ask forgiveness, break bread, hold one another, and worship God. Glimpses of light through film are amazing things, miracles even. We all know the movies rule. But a church gathered around Scripture and sacrament—that's really where the action is.

Jason Byassee is an assistant editor at the Christian Century.

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