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?