Thursday, April 27, 2006

Are Lost, Alias, Invasion Too Intellectually Demanding?

As a follow-up to my previous post, I came across a newspaper article yesterday by a television critic (Robert Bianco) attempting to explain why Alias and Invasion have struggled to hold onto the audience of Lost, which preceeds them on Wednesday night. Although there are no doubt other factors involved as well, his suggestion is that these three hours of televsion demand too much attention from the audience. All three series require active intellectual engagement in order to follow the complex interweaving of plots and subplots, the extensive character development, and the employment of metaphor. No show currently combines all three of these better than Lost, prompting Bianco to claim this is "why Lost may be the best show on TV at the moment."

Whether right or wrong, it is an argument that illustrates the rapidly improving state of serialized television today. Back in the days of Three's Company and The Brady Bunch, it would be hard to imagine anyone arguing that fictional television shows demanded too much mental work from viewers.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Television vs. the Book

Let me start out by saying I love to read. I read almost anything I can get my hands on (academic works, novels, newspapers, magazines, comic books) and I read at all hours of the day. You would be hard-pressed to find a stronger proponent of the benefits and wonders of reading than myself. However, I am also an avid TV watcher. (People sometimes ask me how I have time to do both. I have found that it helps to do both simultaneously, a wonderful skill I trained hard for during my many years of graduate school).

As a staunch defender of both enterprises, one of my pet peeves is when elitists argue that the act of reading a book is superior to the act of watching television. (Please notice my emphasis on "act." I am not talking about comparing content -- that is another discussion). The arguments are familiar and, when coming from avid readers, often hypocritical. Television viewing is contributing to the obesity problem in America, they say, because it makes people sit in sedentary fashion on their various couches. All the while, of course, readers are burning numerous calories as they sit in sedentary fashion on their various couches holding a book. If we really want to counteract the obesity problem, we have to be serious about giving up television AND reading.

Or, literary elitists suggest that watching television is an anti-social activity that cuts us off from necessary human interaction. They are able to say this because sitting alone in a chair with one's face stuck in a book is a highly social activity.

Perhaps the one that gets to me the most, though, is the claim that reading is an intellectually active exercise while watching TV is intellectually passive. "You just sit and take images in with no intellectual or emotional engagement," they say. "You are a passive receiver rather than an active participant," they helpfully add.

People who say such things are people who do not watch much TV (at least not good TV). Those who do know what an active exercise, emotionally, socially, and intellectually, it can be.

Some Evidence:

I was not a passive viewer when the 2005 NFL Playoff game between the Steelers and the Colts nearly put me into cardiac arrest (for those who do not know, I am a lifelong Steelers fan). I have friends who regularly yell, scream, and jump up and down while watching TV, sometimes even when sports events are on.

I think of the social and intellectual benefits of sitting in a dilapidated graduate dorm room in Memphis with Tony, Bruce, and George, while The Simpsons sparked communal laughter and dialogue about the truth of its satirical worldview.

I think of Dave in Atlanta, and how every Friday night we would gather to watch and discuss The X-Files and The Practice. Group television viewing has replaced the book club as the place for social and intellectual engagement. Engaging in dialogue over a book requires locating someone else who has recently read the book. If not, it requires extensive summarizing of the plot (after which the other person is still ill-informed) or waiting an extended period until they finish it. By contrast, all across the country people are gathering together for Lost parties or communal 24 viewings and discussing as they watch. Television provides an immediacy of active intellectual engagement with others that reading simply cannot possibly attain.

Television is a family activity where members do more than passively sit in a room together. They engage the show together and discuss it both during and after. Television likewise creates a kind of national community through the "watercooler" effect. A nation may be hopelessly divided over who killed Nicole Simpson, but they will band together in unity to discover who shot J.R.

On an individual level, good television stimulates thinking. Two years later I find myself continuing to revisit and think about the episode called "Silence" that concluded the first season of Joan of Arcadia. My initial viewing of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode, "Once More, With Feeling," provided one of the single most provocative TV viewing experiences I've ever had. Likewise, the Buffy silent episode "Hush" still has me dwelling on its message about nonverbal communication. The mysteries of Lost regularly present viewers with a mental puzzle for them to dwell on and discuss throughout the week.

There are benefits that come from reading that cannot be replaced by television viewing; but the reverse is also true. The problem with comparing TV viewing to reading is that they are completely different enterprises that engage us in different ways. I suggest we need to appreciate the value of both. I would write more but the latest John Sandford novel and the recent episode of 24 beckon me.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Passion of the Saved!

Hollywood-induced Christian schizophrenia seems widespread. How else to explain that Christians consistently complain about the amount of violence coming out of Hollywood and yet, as a recent study indicated, Christians tend to go see violent movies in the theater more often than do non-Christians. Of course, the inconsistency works both ways. Has anyone noticed the irony in the fact that so many Hollywood artists and producers who regularly flood the market with violent content were some of the most outspoken critics of The Passion of the Christ due to its violent content?

One week ago USA Today (America's newspaper of choice) published an article on the front page titled "Hollywood Turns to Divine Inspiration." The point of the article is that religiously-themed movies are flooding the market this year and thus, to some extent, re-shaping the Hollywood landscape. Given Hollywood's long-standing aversion to movies with substantive Christian content, this may come close to qualifying as one of the signs of the apocalypse. For many Christians, though, this represents an answer to prayer.

But when dealing with Hollywood, I think these same Christians are learning to be careful of what they pray for. Because when you play in Hollywood's sandbox, they may help you build a castle, but then they will just knock it down. These believers applaud when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe hits a theater near them, but then weep and wail when it is shortly followed by The Davinci Code.

We've seen this before. A few years ago, church members were doing somersaults of joy when The Passion of the Christ hit the screen. Just a few short months later, though, another Christian-themed movie came out called Saved! The producers of this film thought that their movie would benefit from The Passion feeding-frenzy because it proved that Christians wanted to see movies with Christian content. Boy, were they wrong. Saved! was savagely attacked by many Christian reviewers and denounced by churches. What the producers of Saved! failed to realize was that Christians do not want Christian-themed movies; what they want are movies that present a pristine, idealistic, uncomplicated and unrealistic vision of Christianity.

The problem with Saved! was that it did not do this. (A little disclaimer: I have not seen Saved! and so what I say is based only on what I have read about the film). Saved! is a satire of the Christian high school experience. As such, it pokes fun at Christianity with the intent of revealing certain truths about it -- both positive and negative. I find it interesting that the positive reviews of the film by Christians that I was able to find came from individuals who had attended a Christian high school and claimed that the film captured the essence of the experience in all its complicated reality.

I am not recommending this film, as I have not seen it, but I like the way that it exposes the difficulty that Christians are having with identifying just what our relationship with Hollywood should be. As I see it, two different camps have been staked out on this issue, both of which are represented by quotes in the USA Today article. The first comes from a minister in Arizona who applauds the increase of faith-based films, stating, "We're looking for things that help us deliver our message." That right there is the heart of the problem. Too many Christians have abdicated their responsibility to Hollywood. It is the church's job to get its message delivered, not Hollywood's. If you hope for Hollywood to deliver your message for you, of course you are going to be upset when movies like Saved! and The Davinci Code come out because they are not delivering the message you want. The first step to dealing responsibly with Hollywood is to stop expecting Hollywood to do our job for us.

Only when we learn to let go of this unrealistic and misguided expectation, can we begin to recognize the real value that Hollywood's product can have for the church. We are pointed in this direction by a man who speaks as a member of the Hollywood community. J. J. Abrams, the creator of Alias and Lost, a show which regularly examines faith issues, states: "We're seeing more religion in mass entertainment because it has become so topical. Given all the conflict in the world based on religion, I think there's a real hunger for that kind of dialogue." He's right. There is a hunger out there for religious dialogue. The value of film and television lies not in its ability to communicate our message for us but in its insurmountable ability to create dialogue about issues of life and faith. They do not deliver the message for us, but they can get the conversation started. And, ironically, movies like Saved! and The Davinci Code may do a better job of opening those avenues of dialogue than do movies that simply repeat the Sunday sermon.

Is Buffy the new Hamlet?

Historical perspective is an interesting phenomenon. When I was a kid I thought Ultraman was the coolest show going, but now it seems awfully cheesy, even by today's Power Rangers' standards. The simple passage of time allows us to see things in a new light. Popular culture certainly represents this phenomenon. It is often mentioned how Shakespeare was considered something of a populist and not all that well-received by the cultural elite of his time.

While reading a biography of C. S. Lewis (The Narnian), I came across a passage that got me thinking. The author, Alan Jacobs, discusses how the modern novel as a literary genre is a relative newcomer on the literary scene (about 300 years old) and has, consequently, had to struggle for acceptance. He says that for the first hundred years of the novel's existence, people viewed it as a lightweight and inconsequential piece of popular culture that paled in comparison with epic poetry. As such, the works of people like Charles Dickens were held to be mere entertainment and not real artistry. Of course, eventually perspective shifted and the novel is now credited with contributing numerous examples of classic literature.

I can't help but wonder if we are in the midst of a similar cultural shift with respect to film and television. How much of the negative evaluation of film and particularly television is due to objective analysis as opposed to culturally constructed biases? In fact, the historical perspective appears to be shifting already . Whereas film and television was long denigrated by academics as nothing more than lightweight entertainment, now numerous academics are treating film and television as pieces of art requiring academic study. A small group of academics are even suggesting the creation of a canon of classic television, in which select television shows would be treated with the same reverence and academic interest as classic literature. Many of these same academics argue that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the new Shakespeare. I am not willing to go quite that far, but I don't deny their point.

Steven Johnson is a science writer who looks to have written an intriguing book (thanks to Emily Dial-Driver for turning me on to it). The title says it all: Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. He suggests that film, television, and, yes, even reality shows are engaging us in beneficial ways. I hope to read the book over the summer and offer a series of reflections on it as I go. But for now, I leave this thought behind: Two hundred years from now, will people be looking back at shows like Lost, Gilmore Girls, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the same reverence that we study Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dickens, and Poe?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Faith, Science, and The Simpsons

In response to my post on "The Worship of U2, Part One", my friend Bruce left a comment questioning the relationship between post-modernism and science. My reply to his comment began to grow so long that I just decided to adapt it here as a post. As I am not an expert on post-modernism, my comments are part guesswork, but I think he is right in exposing the often inconsistent attitude that post-moderns can have towards science and other products of a modern worldview. I think, however, that this is natural. Very few people are wholly consistent in their worldview and I suspect that most are really a mixture of modern and post-modern thinking. This may be part of why the term "post-modern" is so highly problematic in the first place. In fact, I think this inconsistency has marked the relationship between faith and science as well. Christians are quick to attack science as an unholy discipline whenever it appears to impinge on cherished beliefs, but then praise it to high heaven whenever it appears to support cherished beliefs.

One of my favorite representations of this dichotomy comes from The Simpsons in an episode dealing with faith vs science (although I think the application of post-modern vs science works here as well). Following the purported archaeological discovery of an angel skeleton in Springfield, a riot between pro-religion and pro-science people breaks out . Moe is part of the pro-religion mob which is running around attacking science as an outdated and failed discipline. Of course, this being satire, the character of Moe functions here as a representative of the often inconsistent Christian worldview with respect to science. In one scene, Moe loudly proclaims in response to a televised news report on science, "Science. What's science ever done for us? TV off!" (as the TV responds to his voice command). Later, Moe helps to lead an enraged mob in an attack on scientific institutions in Springfield. As they are setting fire to the Museum of Natural History, a dinosaur skeleton falls and pins Moe to the ground, prompting Moe to exclaim, "Oh, I'm paralyzed. I just hope medical science can cure me."

Later, this leads to a court trial in which Lisa is accused of having destroyed the angel skeleton. Judge Snyder announces that in addition to addressing this potential misdemeanor, the trial will also settle "the age-old question of Science vs. Religion." When the skeleton is found intact, Judge Snyder issues his decision: "I find the defendant not guilty. As for Science vs. Religion, I am issuing a restraining order. Science must stay 500 yards away from religion at all times."

That of course is not possible. Worldviews are not simply replaced by another one like switching out spark plugs in a car. "Post-Modern" is certainly a misnomer if it is taken to represent a brand new worldview that is uninfluenced by what came before. Most younger members of churches are really, I think, I curious blend of older and newer ways of looking at the world. That may be where the challenge lies.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Worship of U2, Part Two

As increasing numbers of young people are becoming disillusioned with organized religion and are turning to more subjective expressions of spirituality, church leaders are desperately struggling to engage them in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, no blueprint exists for how best to go about it. Consequently, some attempts succeed while others go horribly awry. I think contemporizing worship, as important as such a thing may be, is seriously misguided if it is taken to be the solution to the problem. One difficulty is that it can lead to the church becoming too heavily influenced by the culture rather than being a prophetic voice to the culture. This results in churches with McDonald's drive-throughs attached to their buildings and ATM's in the church lobbies (I am not making this up), or churches that turn the worship assembly into a spiritualized version of the AMC Plaza, thus creating a Christian form of one-stop shopping. I can't help but think of the church in Kansas that decided to entice young people with beer by holding weekly meetings in a local bar. When the church becomes dominated by marketing strategies designed to fill seats, we have gone seriously off-course. When the church becomes indistinguishable from the culture around it, it ceases to be the church.

Having said this, I'm not quite sure what to think of a recent development that was brought to my attention (thanks to Patrick Mead for turning me on to this). An article in the "Scotsman" refers to Episcopal churches that have created "U2 Eucharists" in a stated attempt to attract more young people. First off, it worked. These Friday night U2 Eucharists have been attracting as many people as typically attend their Sunday morning services. The service involves the use of U2's music within the context of a prayer service.

My response to this is somewhat mixed. In line with my previous post, there is a fine line between worship and idolatry that can be easily blurred and I wonder where a U2 Eucharist stands with respect to that line. Is this simply an attempt to utilize the language of the culture as a way to open people's eyes to God or is it a well-meaning marketing ploy that obscures the distinction between fandom and worship? I don't know the answer to that question so I will leave that up to whoever reads this. I do, however, find it ironic that Bono has become more of a prophetic voice to the church than the church currently is to the culture. As of late, Bono has made a career out of calling Christians to task for failing to live out an authentic Christian existence characterized by helping the poor and seeking social justice. There is great irony in a church using U2's music as an attraction to get people into the church building while Bono is trying to use his music to get Christians out of their church buildings and into American ghettoes and African villages.

On the other hand, I am intrigued by the Episcopal church's use of U2's music. Two of the songs included in the service are "Peace on Earth" and "40", both laments. Since we in the church have such a paucity of lament songs in our hymnbooks, perhaps we need to look outside of them to find the words to lament. In fact, one of the Episcopal church leaders interviewed for the article suggests that it is only a matter of time until some of U2's songs become a part of the church's authorised hymnal. That would be an interesting day. This past weekend I spoke at a retreat in which I lectured on the role of the Psalms in U2's music. During the worship period after, Chris, the worship leader, led us in singing a medley of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and the contemporary hymn "Open the Eyes of My Heart." The seamless blending of these two songs perfectly captured the seeking language of lament and the confidence of faith, thus more faithfully representing the spirit of the Psalter than virtually any current hymns in the church's musical canon.

I'm not sure where all of this is leading, but it seems to me that as churches continue to seek creative ways to engage the culture with the gospel message, some of which will lead to success and others to widespread embarrassment for the entire Christian community, it will at least be anything but boring.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Worship of U2, Part One

I am not sure anyone really knows yet what exactly post-modern spirituality is, for the whole phenomenon strikes me as being like someone who takes a photograph of a raging river -- as soon as the picture is snapped, the subject has already changed. But one characteristic that experts in the field point to is that post-modern spirituality involves a rejection of institutionalized religion in favor of a more open, less constrained spirituality.

In this sense, I suppose U2 represents a form of post-modern spirituality. Their lead singer, Bono, once commented that religion is what's left over after the Spirit has left the church. Of course, much of this sentiment derives from the highly charged political context in which the members of U2 experienced religion growing up in Ireland. Regardless of the cause, the result has been that Bono turned to his music as his form of worship to God. Their concert tours over the past half decade have increasingly taken on a worship feel to them, prompting Bono during at least one concert to comment, "This is church." It is hard to argue his point when Bono's quotations from Scripture merge with U2's songs to the point where sometimes the two are indistinguishable.

But there is a danger here as well. It can be a moving experience to watch Bono live, vocally praising God to a chorus of 15,000 cheering people. Yet that is also the point: at what moment does the worshipper become the worshipped? Bono no doubt sees himself as a worshipper when he sings his songs to God, but that's a distinction that can be hard to maintain when 15,000 fans are screaming his name.

I lay this foundation here because, in my next post, I want to address the double-edged sword of Christian appropriation of U2 in worship.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Terminator and the Dragon

Good stories persist. This is why I can still read "Where the Wild Things Are" to my children thirty years after my father read it to me. And good stories, what one might call living stories, are adaptable. They are able to conform to the times, change with the setting, and thus live to speak anew another day.

One such story is the combat myth. Most ancient Mediterrannean cultures possessed a version of this story which deals with combat between the forces of good and those of evil (typically represented by a dragon). One Greek version of the combat myth is the Apollo-Leto story. Leto is a pregnant woman about to give birth to the god Apollo. Python, a dragon, learns of a prophecy that Apollo will grow up to destroy him. So Python, the dragon, pursues the woman to kill her and the child, but Zeus intervenes and rescues the woman. She gives birth to the child who then defeats the dragon.

This was a popular story, told and retold in the literature of the time, depicted on vases and coins and through sculpture. In short, one could say it was part of the popular culture of the day.

We find a version of this story in Scripture as well -- Revelation 12. A pregnant woman is pursued by a dragon who wants to kill the woman and her child because it knows that the child will grow up to defeat it. But God intervenes and rescues the woman, and the child grows up and defeats the dragon (Rev. 12:1-11). John here takes the story of Christ (the child) and retells it in the form of a popular story from the culture as a way of getting his audience to hear the story of Christ in a new way. Paul does much the same thing when he relates the story of God's involvement with his creation by reciting Greek poetry about Zeus (Acts 17:28).

We encounter this story anew today as well, with a little help from Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator is simply a modern version of the ancient combat myth. In the place of a dragon, we meet a "terminator." If you are familiar with Revelation 12, the story of The Terminator should be a familiar one: A pregnant woman is pursued by a destructive creature from outside our world because it knows that the child is fated to destroy the machines who will one day take over the world. But as the terminator pursues the pregnant woman, another from outside our world intervenes and rescues the woman so that the child can live to fulfill his destiny.

The Terminator is a new apocalyptic story that is basically a retelling of an old apocalyptic story. Good stories never die but are constantly reborn. (Although it would probably be a service to humanity if someone could find a way to kill off the American Pie franchise.)

Lost Spirituality

Lost's creators have a habit of doling out relevant information in the midst of red herrings and ambiguous clues. This only adds fuel to the fire for speculators who hope to unravel the mysteries of this island, which seems awfully well-populated for a place that no rescue ship can find. In fact, the existence of the Others (a mysterious group of people already inhabiting the island when our plane crash survivors arrive), has been a prime source for the rumor mill. One of the prevailing theories that has been passed around for Lost is that the island is really purgatory and the crash survivors are all there to find a measure of redemption for mispent lives.

On last night's episode, one of the Others offered an intriguing statement that might (or might not) support such a theory. The conversation between Locke (one of the crash survivors) and the man known to us as Henry Gale (one of the Others) went about like this:

Locke: God only knows how many of you there are.
Gale: God doesn't know.
Locke: What?
Gale: God can't see this island anymore than the rest of the world can.

It is interesting to note that Gale does not deny God's existence, only His involvement in the events of the island. However, Gale's perspective is somewhat countered by that of Eko, the former African drug lord turned priest, who seems to believe that God is very much active on the island.

Studying the spirituality of Lost could be a very fruitful enterprise, but the difficulty is compounded by the paucity of clear answers to the mysteries of the island. But maybe that is part of the benefit. To an extent, Lost forces viewers to search continually for an understanding of how its world works and the role of God within that world. And is that not exactly what all of us do on the island we inhabit?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

About Caritas

I have been asked why I chose to name this site "Caritas." The suggestion for the name actually came from my good friend, Ron Cox, Religion professor at Pepperdine, thinker extraordinaire, and general co-conspirator. The more I thought about the suggestion, the more it began to take hold because I realized the name will work on multiple levels.

First, "caritas" is the Latin word for "loving kindness" (used as the translation for "agape" in the Vulgate). It points to the perfection of the human spirit as a reflection of the glory of God. It is also one form of the Greek word for "grace." As such, Caritas represents the religious angle of this blog and my attempts to find hints of God's grace within popular culture.

Second, Caritas is the name of a karaoke bar run by Lorne, aka Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan (from whom a quote adorns the top of this page) on the TV series "Angel." So the name not only represents the religious interests of my blog but the pop culture interests as well.

Third, the point of this karaoke bar named Caritas on "Angel" is that whenever patrons get up to sing, Lorne, who is kind of psychic, is able to read their soul and their future while they are singing. I particularly enjoy the fact that whenever Angel himself gets up to sing, he always chooses Barry Manilow tunes. So this third angle represents the idea that this blog is a place where I reveal my own self through my writings, but also hope to reveal, in a sense, the soul of popular culture.