Friday, March 31, 2006

The Golden Age of Television

It has always amused me that people who attack television as a negative influence and proclaim a desire to give up watching never seem to express the same desire to abandon seeing movies, as though the movie is somehow a higher art form. In the past, such a distinction might have been possible to maintain, but not anymore. Television has experienced a monumental revolution in quality over the past 5-7 years. Of course, I am not suggesting that there no longer exists morally degrading shows on TV. The bad always coexists with the good in any medium. What I am suggesting is that good television has, in the past half decade, gotten immeasurably better.

Part of this is due to the cream of the Hollywood crop (writers, actors, directors) realizing that television allows them creative opportunities that film could never accomplish, such as the ability to develop characters and plot lines over the course of twenty-two episodes rather than having to try and cram them into two hours. Consequently, many of the top artists in their fields now employ television as the canvas on which they now express their art.

So I was intrigued to find confirmation of my theory in the newest issue of Entertainment Weekly. In an article titled "TV is King!" EW's film critic (notice this is written by a FILM critic) argues that what appears on television today is of greater quality than what is appearing in movie theaters. She writes:

Any episode of any Law & Order is better than half the feature-length dramas released each week. Any episode of The Office is better than 80 percent of the comedies. Any episode of The Wire is as good as anything nominated for an Oscar. Television is where interesting indie filmmakers like Michael Almereyda and Darnell Martin go to direct episodic dramas when Hollywood runs out of uses for them, where Crash writer-director Paul Haggis goes after he wins an Oscar, and where great actresses like Jean Smart and Stockard Channing go to dazzle when they age out of Hollywood's camera range. It's where I go every day for cultural grounding, amazed at what point-and-click riches there are to be found while sitting in my sweatpants.

In line with this, here is my list of what I consider the ten best dramas on television right now.

1. 24
Provides more suspense, dramatic tension, and adrenalized action per minute than any film released in the last ten years.

2. Lost
Part mystery, part morality tale, part spiritual meditation, all genius.

3. Battlestar Galactica
This apocalyptic space drama offers intriguing reflections on religion and the quest for meaning and purpose in the universe.

4. Smallville
This show is about much more than simply the birth of a superhero. It is preeminently a show about how fathers shape the lives and destinies of their children. (Jonathan Kent and Lionel Luthor shape their boys in quite different ways.) The very first episode of this show set the tone for its emphasis on moral and character development. Young Clark Kent is walking into the first day of classes at high school when he drops his books. Lana Lang picks one up and says, "I see you are reading Nietzsche. So, what are you, man or superman?" Clark Kent replies, "I haven't decided yet."

5. Veronica Mars
Clever dialogue and great acting combined with intricate mysteries.

6. Invasion
A roller-coaster ride of a story that also works as an allegory about the strangers among us.

7. Gilmore Girls
To be honest, I have never watched an episode but I do have four seasons of the DVD's to pour through this summer. I include it here because of all the high praise I have heard from others and, especially because if I didn't, I would have to answer to my sister and niece.

8. Supernatural
One of the few televised attempts at horror that genuinely succeeds at being scary.

9. CSI
A show so culturally influential it has spawned articles on the "CSI Effect." Also the favorite of some college president's I know.

10. Everwood
A quality drama with strong characters that regularly addresses moral issues in all their complexity.

One final note: In the same issue of EW, Stephen King writes an article titled "Confessions of a TV Slut," in which he confesses to having ignored TV much of his life until he recently came to recognize the dramatic increase in quality. He lists the six shows to which he is currently most addicted, four of which find a place on my list as well (Veronica Mars, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, 24).

Monday, March 27, 2006

Stephen King's Religious Stories

I was putting my daughter in bed awhile ago and as I was pulling the blanket up over her, she said, "Daddy, tell me a scary story." Ah, the scary story. Children love the scary story -- the suspense, excitement, the thrill of being scared in an environment that is at the same time safe and comfortable (kind of like Burger King -- the fat content in the Whopper is terrifying, and yet eating it makes me feel all warm and cozy).

But many adults love scary stories too. This is a fact that Stephen King knows well and it has made him quite a bit of money. During the summer of my nineteenth year, I read "IT," after which I refused to go near a storm drain for the next six months. My friend Brant, who read the book at the same time, discovered that chance encounters with balloons tended to ruin his day ever after.

Recently, I finished reading a Stephen King novel titled "The Wolves of the Calla." It is the fifth book in a seven book series called "The Dark Tower." It got me thinking again about why people are drawn to fantasy stories that have an edge of the horrific to them.

Andrew Greeley, Roman Catholic priest, Professor of Sociology, and author of the book God in Popular Culture, has a theory. He suggests that fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories are ultimately religious stories. Now the pairing of Stephen King with religion to many might make about as much sense as a union between Janet Jackson and Paul Tagliabue. Stephen King's stories are populated with zombies, vampires, demonic cars, and child-eating clowns. But notice he does not say "Christian" stories. By "religious" he means stories that are all about meaning and hope. As if to test his theory, Greeley once attended a literary guild cocktail party in New York and Stephen King happened to be present. According to his book, Greeley approached King and questioned him about his writings. The conversation went like this:

GREELEY: You’re writing religious stories.

KING: Of course I am. Most people don’t believe me, but that’s exactly what I’m doing.

GREELEY: Anyone who writes about hope is writing about religion.

KING: Absolutely.

According to Greeley, some of the features that mark these as religious stories are the emphasis on hope, the achievement of salvation through suffering, and the dualism of good versus evil.

In The Dark Tower series, which is a mingling of the fantasy, horror, and western genres, a group of gunslingers journey across several worlds in a quest to save the Dark Tower, which represents the nexus of all worlds and reality, from the clutches of the evil Crimson King. It is an apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil for the salvation or destruction of the world. "Wolves of the Calla" is indeed a story about hope and so, according to Greeley at least, it is a religious story. This battle between hope and hopelessness is perhaps best revealed in the following exchange between Walter, an agent of the Crimson King, and Callahan, one of the protagonists of the story:

"No one's above ka, false priest," the man in black spits at him. "And the room at the top of the Tower is empty. I know it is."
Although Callahan is not entirely sure what the man is talking about, his response is quick and sure. "You're wrong. There is a God. He waits and sees all from His high place."

It is not my intention to recommend these novels. If you are not a fan of horror or fantasy novels, you probably will not take to them. But they serve as another reminder that just as with the violent and frankly terrifying parable that Jesus tells in Luke 19 in line with the expectation of his kingdom (check out verses 22-27) or Revelation's violent visions of demonic entities, religious stories may come in surprising packages.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Does Christianity Need a New Language?

In his book Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, Robert Johnston suggests that theological discussion is more likely these days to occur following a movie than a sermon. To support his point, he quotes Ken Gire as saying that movies give their viewers "an experience of transcendence" more consistently than many worshippers find in church. In his review of Reel Spirituality, Princeton professor C. Clifton Black responds boldly to this point by stating: "Gire may be right. If so, something in Christianity has gone terribly wrong." (Theology Today, July 2001, p. 274).

This whole issue may not make much sense to those who view film and television shows as nothing more than "entertainment." Until church members break free of this restrictive evaluation of film and tv, they will likely find themselves sitting among congregations whose median age is rising faster than an audience at a Tom Jones concert, wondering where all the young people have gone.

Now I am not saying that we need to turn our worship services into a spiritual version of the local cineplex, although some have done so. Ironically, I have never been greatly in favor of the use of film clips in worship, in part because they are often used so poorly as just an aid to prop up bad preaching. But Black's question continues to hover: what has gone wrong in Christianity that people, particularly younger people, are engaging these Hollywood stories more effectively than the communication of the church?

Pierre Babin, a specialist in Christian communication, has stated that "audiovisual-oriented people [are] being born, and we [can] no longer speak to them as we had spoken to them in the past." People being born today are coming into a very different world than many of us entered into. It is a world that trains them to think and communicate in a visual, story-driven way. There is a reason why people today become so emotionally invested in a show like Lost or allow a movie like Star Wars to consume their life (as I once had a student confess to me that "Star Wars is my life"). Stories are the means by which a culture creates meaning and shared identity. In an earlier post, I raised the issue of why TV matters. One answer is because it matters to the young people in our culture and churches. These are the stories that speak to their soul in a way that many churches are not. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, recognized this when he said that he had no interest in creating a show that would be forgotten as soon as it was over, but he wanted to make a show that would be loved, that people would have a need to see.

What is the church to do? Many church leaders are struggling to communicate in a meaningful way with the younger members of our society, but finding that the messages and methods that connected in the past are no longer doing so. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a moment of prophetic insight, suggested many decades ago that for Christians to continue to impact the culture, they would need to find a new language. He says:

All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew . . . It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming, as was Jesus' language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power. (Letters and Paper from Prison, 300)

How can the church discover (or perhaps recover) this new language? Might Hollywood give us a clue? One of the reasons why the stories of Hollywood resonate so powerfully with the youth of this country is because many of the people producing them understand the power of story and metaphor for communicating in today's culture. These are elements that we have long neglected in the church because story and metaphor deal in indirection and implication rather than direct propositions. They show rather than tell. And yet story and metaphor are one of the primary methods of communication in Scripture (psalms, prophecy, parables, apocalyptic). There are not a lot of sermons I've heard in my life that I can recall to this day, but the few that I can are sermons that engaged the language of story and metaphor (several by Mike Cope from my days at the College Church).

My students sometimes accuse me in my classes of raising more questions than I answer (especially when I teach "Revelation" which is an intentional strategy), and I am basically doing that here as well. I don't know what the solution is, but I do know what some of the questions are. Such as: Do we in fact need a new way of communicating in the church? Is this the time for the language revolution of which Bonhoeffer speaks? If so, how do we create this new language? How can we embrace story, metaphor, and symbolism in a way that allows the gospel message to speak to our culture with renewed force and power?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Church Sign Evangelism

We've all driven down the street and seen those church signs that cause us to do a double-take. For reasons inexplicable to me, some churches are convinced that their evangelistic needs are well-served by publicly displaying such convincing arguments as "Stop, Drop, and Roll Won't Work in Hell" and "Santa Claus Never Died For Anyone."

Well, our Church History professor here at Rochester College, Keith Huey, is a man with way too much time on his hands. Recently a new website was brought to his attention where individuals can create their own church signs ( Thus it became something of a moral imperative for him to spend an afternoon devising a variety of church signs, which subsequently found themselves taped to various doors all over our office building. I include some of my favorites below. If you are bothered by any of these and wish to voice your displeasure, I can gladly supply you with Dr. Huey's email address.

Keep in mind, these are FAKE church signs and are not to be assumed to bear any resemblance to any actual churches living or dead.

However, my personal all-time favorite FAKE church sign comes courtesy of "The Simpsons," which I have adapted below:

Of course, after I mentioned this to the esteemed Dr. Huey, he felt the need to adapt it to his own purposes as follows:

Monday, March 20, 2006

"My City of Ruins": Lament Part 2

(For part one on this topic see the post on "U2 and Lament")

Friday morning I opened my USA Today (America's newspaper of choice)and found an article that has made me return to this topic of lament. First, some background.

In 2001, Bruce Springsteen wrote a modern lament about his beloved hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey. Once known as the "Jewel of the Jersey Shore," Asbury Park used to be a thriving city, one that inspired Springsteen's 1973 debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ. Since then, the city has fallen on hard times, a mere shell of its former self. The boarded-up windows, abandoned buildings, and decaying structures testify to a city in rapid decline.

Mourning this state of affairs, Springsteen composed a lament titled "My City of Ruins." (This song was written before 9/11, but after came to represent New York as well - but that's a post for another day). The imagery of "My City of Ruins" recalls that of another lament over a city in ruins: Lamentations. The author of Lamentations bemoans the desolation of his beloved Jerusalem and offers a plea of faith for its renewal.

In my earlier post, I suggest that rock musicians have done a better job than many Christians of comprehending the relationship between lament and praise. This is nowhere more true than with Springsteen who has described his own music this way:

The stanzas are the Blues; the chorus is the Gospel.

The Blues are the modern descendent of lament and you can hear the ancient lament of Lamentations funneled through the blues when Springsteen sings:

The church door's thrown open
I can hear the organ's song
But the congregation's gone
My city of ruins

But Springsteen, like Bono, knows that faith is not the antithesis of lament, but a component of it. Thus, the Blues of the stanzas give way to the Gospel chorus. The hope of renewal rings out as Springsteen sings in the chorus:

I pray for the faith, Lord
(With these hands)
I pray for the strength, Lord
(With these hands)
Come on, rise up!
Come on, rise up!

"My City of Ruins" is a lament song/prayer for the renewal, the rising up, of Asbury Park. Lament derives from the faith that such renewal is possible.

So on Friday morning, I open my paper to see an article on the renewal of Asbury Park. The rebirth has begun and the city's future is bright once more. Lament once again ushers in praise.

If Christians continue to shun lament in favor of a "pie-in-the-sky, all's well with the world, happy-go-lucky, have your best life now" approach to Christianity, then I wonder if we will be missing out on that which helps to ground our faith and give it substance. After all, how can you sing "Come on, rise up!" if you refuse to sing about being down.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Why TV Matters

Bashing TV is a common hobby among the elite despisers of American popular culture. The charges are endless: It rots your brain, it degrades the moral fabric of society, it causes violence, aggression, flabby wastes, epileptic seizures, and unnatural cravings for fruit roll ups and the McRib sandwich.

Who hasn’t heard people brag about giving up TV for a year or six months or, in the case of some friends of mine, two hours? We have convinced ourselves as a society, and especially those in the Christian camp, that television is a cancer eating away at our most treasured values.

Now granted, any medium whose history boasts “My Mother the Car” and “Temptation Island” has a lot of explaining to do. But let’s face it, if it weren’t for TV how would people know which beer frogs prefer or the favored car insurance of geckos? So maybe there is a case to be made for television. In fact, I would like to begin the case for the defense by offering a few humble thoughts on the role of television in society.

Anthropologists, psychologistis, and other such -ists will state that one of the primary ways that a society shapes its values, creates identity, and forms cohesion is through the stories it tells. Stories provide definition for what we struggle to put words to. They create a kind of map for the world and teach us how to navigate it. This was a function of the stories of Greek mythology, It may also be a reason why God chose to communicate to us so frequently through stories.

Now the primary generator of stories in our culture today is television. Television has become the new literature of our culture. Television critic, David Bianculli, has even coined the term “teleliteracy”, suggesting that to be literate in our culture today means to be literate in the language of television. Is he right or wrong in that? I don’t know, but I think he is right in directing us to the fact that visual stories have become a far more dominant means of communication in our culture than the written stories of literature. The advent of TV on DVD means also that televised stories no longer disappear at the end of their run but are now accessible in libraries and stores for generations to come.

As with any form of communication (and certainly literature is included here), there exists great potential for creating both stories that inspire and stories that debase. As a means of communication, television is morally neutral. The valuation derives from its use.

And with increasing regularity these days, artists are using television as a means for initiating moral and religious discourse. A couple of years ago, I published a book titled “Televised Morality: The Case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in which I suggested that the description of heaven in an episode titled “After Life” was more theologically profound than most sermons I’ve heard on the topic. Likewise, the final episode of the first season of Joan of Arcadia offered a meditation on the meaning of lament (the episode was appropriately titled “Silence” as in the silence of God) that has continued to stay with me two years later. When was the last time you could say that about a sermon? The show Lost currently offers viewers a weekly lesson in the nature of redemption, while others like Battlestar Galactica present the search for meaning neatly wrapped in an apocalyptic package.

This phenomenon raises several questions which I’m sure will pop up repeatedly in my posts here. I do not wish to get into those now, but only to leave you with two for further reflection. How can the church most effectively engage this conversation? And what does it mean for the church when some of the most influential and powerful discussions on issues of religion and morality are being generated not by the church, but by Hollywood?

U2 and Lament

I recently returned from delivering several lectures at the Abilene Christian University lectureship. I did three lectures on “The Church Goes to the Movies,” “Hollywood Morality,” and “Fairytales, Violence, and the Dark Things.” However, the lecture that has most stayed with me is my Sunday night coffeehouse lecture on “From Rage to Ecstasy: U2 and the Psalms.”

The thought that I can’t shake is the difference between what church members see in the Psalms and what professional musicians see. In recent years, Christian songwriters have turned to the psalms for inspiration and our current song books now overflow with the words of the psalter set to music. Yet, have you looked at those songs closely? They are exclusively, singularly, praise songs. By contrast, blues musicians and rock stars like Bruce Springsteen (“My City of Ruins”), Michael Jackson (“Will You Be There”) and especially U2 (“40”, “Love Rescue Me,” “Peace on Earth” etc) have also mined the Psalms for inspiration; yet, when they do so, they turn almost exclusively to the laments.

What do they see in the laments that we in the church do not? What are they embracing that we are so afraid of? As musicians, are they recognizing a power to the lament psalms (which, by the way, are ancient songs) that the church cannot dare admit? My theory (and I would love to hear others) is that lament psalms are about brutal honesty before God. Despite our advertising slogans, we in the church have never been very comfortable with brutal honesty when it comes to our relationship with God. Because brutal honesty means admitting that we don’t have it all together, that a relationship with God can often be rocky and tumultuous, laden with confusion and, sometimes, even anger. Communicating this to the outside world is not good evangelism . . . or is it? Is “good news” the message that if you become a Christian, then all will be right in your life and with the world or is good news the message that God’s faithfulness is not about removing all pain, difficulty, and confusion from your life, but about remaining true and steadfast through it all?

Blues and rock musicians gravitate to the laments because rock and blues have always been about brutal honesty; about facing the difficulty of life head on and dealing with it. Maybe the church can learn something from that. Just as the lament psalms in Scripture often conclude with praise, likewise U2 frequently balances their contemporary lament songs with songs that praise the blessings of life and the goodness of God. In this, I suggest that U2 is more faithful to the spirit of the psalter than has been the church because they take seriously the fact that the faith that laments and the faith that praises is the same faith.

Why I Blog

That is the question I have asked myself as I pondered entering this vast universe of electronic communication. Why would anyone care what I think about the latest episodes of “24” (pure genius) and “Beauty and the Geek” (a completely different kind of genius) or the world’s best barbeque (Memphis style – Corky’s in particular, if you must know). These are interesting enough thoughts, I suppose, for those in need of such thoughts, but they would be insufficient to spur me to write on a regular basis because, to not put too fine a point on it, I am lazy. Why chain myself to a keyboard when it is so much more fun to read the latest issue of Ultimate Spider-Man.
If I was to enter this arena, I needed to know why. So after several minutes spent wracking my brain, I have decided that these are the 4 reasons why I decided to blog.
1) Community.
For all of the criticism of the Internet, one of the things it does well is the creation of a virtual community. Now virtual community should not be a replacement for real community any more than the Kroger generic brand of Lucky Charms should replace the real, glorious thing. But over the last year, my teaching load has turned rather heavily to graduate courses and Greek courses, as a result limiting my exposure to the broader student body. Now I am not complaining about this as a rule since there are several occasions where the broader student body should be avoided, but I do feel lessened by the loss of that connection. I hope that this enterprise might allow me to stay connected to students in some small way.
I also suspect that most human beings are a curious riddle of contradictions. I, for instance, am a very private and introverted person, yet I crave community. If this blog allows me to encounter and connect with others beyond the student body of my college, then I will be a happy hermit.
2) Avoiding the “dinosaur” label.
At my college, I teach a course titled “Youth, Media, and Religion” in which we explore the intersection of religion with popular culture and electronic media. In short, this blog is one feeble attempt to stay only three steps behind my students in this area.
3) Pop Culture: The Serious and the Absurd
As someone who teaches courses on pop culture and religion, I frequently find myself assaulted by thoughts on both the seriousness and absurdity of our culture. Unfortunately, unless I am teaching a class at that time where such thoughts are relevant, they are quickly replaced by other more significant thoughts such as “What’s for lunch?”
So I hope to use this venue as a way to get these thoughts out of my system, preferably before lunch.
4) Practice makes writing less bad.
For an author, I have been writing surprisingly little lately. I would like to blame this on the time pressures of having young children and the stresses of teaching, but the truth can found in the first paragraph of this entry: I am lazy. If blogging on a semi-regular basis can ignite a writing fire, then I will be well-served.

So what you can expect from this blog are frequent rants and maybe even an occasional insight on both the serious and the absurd in American culture. That is, when I take time to write. After all there are other important things in life that demand our time. In fact, I think I hear the latest issue of “Ultimate Spider-Man” beckoning.