Friday, July 14, 2006

Christians of the Caribbean

Yesterday I was passing the time watching the last five minutes of Family Feud and mocking the contestants for their cluelessness -- such as when the question is "Name something bricklayers use in their work" and the word "brick" doesn't come to their attention. Of course, when they were asked what parents put on vegetables to get their children to eat them, the first thing that came to my mind was honey. Now, for the record, I have never put honey on a vegetable, have never eaten a vegetable with honey on it, nor have I ever seen or heard of a person putting honey on a vegetable. Nevertheless, that is how my mind works.

Following this stimulating mental exercise, I switched the channel over to see what was happening on the O'Reilly Factor, only to be greeted with the visage of some member of a film ministry website arguing that the recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie has a Christian message. O'Reilly wasn't buying it and neither was I. I listened to the man's points, but in the end, the most that could be said was that the movie contained some general and very sketchy ideas about salvation and eternal punishment that could be made to resonate with some Christian teaching, but the point is that it would have to be "made" to do so. In short, the evidence did not remotely rise to the level of a "Christian message," in contrast, for instance, to the more overtly and intentionally (according to the director) Judeo-Christian symbolism of Superman Returns.

What was really at stake here for the man making this claim was the opportunity to fire another shot in the ongoing culture war. Whether correctly or incorrectly, many Christians feel under attack in our culture and are determined to attack back. Popular culture has become a fashionable weapon in this war.

I am a firm believer in the power of popular culture, for good and ill, and I believe that it is often a significant artistic vehicle for communication of spiritual and theological ideas. But I wonder: why do some Christians feel the need to co-opt every successful film for Christianity? Even if they were able to make the case that Pirates of the Caribbean has a Christian message, what do they expect that to accomplish? Do they expect mass conversions because a few cinematic pirates discussed issues of eternal damnation? Do they think that by associating Christianity with Captain Jack Sparrow, that it will somehow make Christianity more hip to the mall-going crowd?

Popular culture functions best when it is able to generate substantive dialogue about theological and spiritual issues. That substantive discussion, however, gets lost when popular culture becomes simply a tool to serve an agenda. Typically, it has been conservatives (religious or political) who have made the most egregious missteps in this regard. This is because Hollywood has traditionally been a bastion of liberal thinking -- it represents a turf war in which conservatives have lost most of the ground. So many are fighting to retake some territory. (This problem is not solely the possession of conservatives, though. Recently, I read an angry diatribe by a media democrat who was upset by the recent Republican conference that lauded the TV show "24" and engaged several of the creators and actors in dialogue about it. He wanted to claim "24" for the Democrats by insisting that the villainous President Logan was obviously Republican while the heroic President Palmer was clearly a Democrat, even though the show never identifies them as such and President Palmer possessed some traditionally Republican characteristics such as being pro-military and unapologetic about using extreme violence against terrorists. He was even known to willingly violate civil rights in the pursuit of justice. Is that the image Democrats want to claim?)

When popular culture becomes the tool of an agenda, those wielding it often end up looking foolish (like President Reagan who embraced Bruce Spingsteen's "Born in the USA" as the theme song for his campaign because of its seemingly patriotic title without realizing the song is a bitter protest against America's treatment of Vietnam veterans) or they end up getting more than they bargained for. Back in the 90's, Republicans made a big fuss about how Forrest Gump represented Republican ideals. Maybe so, but do you really want to hold up a dim-witted social misfit who only stumbles blindly into success as a symbol for your party?

What is needed in the church's relationship with popular culture is not a Hollywood PR campaign, but a more astute engagement with the material. Our shallow, devotional approach to film short changes both ourselves and the film itself. Films are visual novels and need to be "read" with the same depth and analytical rigor with which we read literature. Learning to do so can open up a wealth of insight and lead to the kind of cultural dialogue that makes us salt and light in the world.


At 1:00 PM, Blogger Ron Cox said...

Two things. First, before the less sympathetic get hold of it, I might beat them to the punch line. You write "Maybe so, but do you really want to hold up a dim-witted social misfit who only stumbles blindly into success as a symbol for your party?" - there is a George Bush joke in there somewhere.

Second, I very much enjoyed Pirates II - and in retrospect I think it had to do with the fact that it was heavy handed with moralisms or politics. Jerry Bruckheimer - here and in his CSI films - knows how to entertain in a way that provides the feeling of substance without the troubles the come with it.

I think what makes the film work (and it does have issues - pacing and a bit too many attempts at connecting it with the previous movie and with the ride at Disney(resort choice a or b)...anyway, what makes it work is the characters and their interaction. Since Pride and Prejudice (stop laughing, damn it), I have grown to appreciate Ms. Knightly for her acting abilities and I think she as much as Depp make the second film borderline great. (And Naomie Harris as Tia Dalma - well, I have faith her career is just beginning).

Its lack of preachyness, its good character development, and the fact that it captures the enjoyable essence of the pirate mythos, make it a very enjoyable film.

Have you seen it?

At 1:01 PM, Blogger Ron Cox said...

that should read "it was not heavey handed"

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Beth said...

What *do* parents put on vegetables to get their children to eat them? Cheez Whiz?

I think one of the more frustrating things about observing people of faith interacting with pop culture is seeing so many viewers/listeners for whom the main agenda seems to be "claiming" a pop culture product for their own viewpoint (or ferreting out all possible information on its creators in an attempt to "prove" one way or the other whether it's Christian - two versions of the same game.)

To me, the meaningful topic is what questions are raised and how, and what symbol system is used to raise them. Great theological questions can be raised without any explicit Christian agenda being present, and I just don't get why that's a stumbling block for so many believing folks. Maybe your culture war connection has some of the answers, though...

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Greg said...

We went out to a movie last night and Pirates was one of the ones we were thinking of seeing, but the timing didn't work out so we went to see "Click" instead. It was a halfway decent comedic attempt to redo "It's A Wonderful Life."

At 11:04 AM, Blogger Greg said...

I agree wholeheartedly.
By the way, I believe the top answers for what parents put on vegetables were butter and cheese.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger KMiV said...

Hey, I heard that Click had Christian undertones! Just kidding.

Greg--great post. I think it would help sometimes if Christians actually watched and listened to the media productions with an open heart. So often we look for messages that really aren't there. Sometimes we just need to enjoy the night out with our spouses and say--what a nice movie.

At 7:47 PM, Blogger Jim said...

I think a big part of the issue is Beth's point that, Great theological questions can be raised without any explicit Christian agenda being present...

Many people don't believe that to be true. And attempts to commandeer popular culture usually end up being obvious attempts to further some blatant Christian agenda that is (even if true) mentioned a few times in scripture, all the while missing the bigger points that Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets made in their sayings and writings.

Instead of using Pirates of the Carribean in an attempt to prove there's going to be eternal punishment, how about talking about the subtle but more obvious messages in Cars and Over the Hedge, or even more political, like in Hotel Rwanda? (I probably shouldn't use that example, since, unfortunately, I haven't seen that film, but it seems appropriate.)

But I guess environmental stewardship, community, and helping people aren't Christian enough...

At 11:20 PM, Blogger Bruce said...

On finding faith in popular culture, I may be wrong but I think it has to do with the fact that we as Christians want to see some kind of "sign" in the world that we are not crazy.

We want some telltale marker that says in effect to the world, "Look and see the ways of our God, our morals, our philosophy of life. If you will just try them ... you will see that they work and are right and true." We are looking for credibility. We hate our inferiority complex. When hollywood puts out a show that we believe confirms (and not just conforms) to our world-view it makes us feel like "wow, I'm not the only one that thinks this way. See world! My way is OK and this proves it."

Plus, so many Christian parents want their kids to be around "Christian" entertainment, so anything that can advance that, they are going to push.

It seems that Jesus had another way. I think we need to get used to feeling like we are nuts in the eyes of non-followers of Christ. Forgive my close proximity to determinism but it seems over and over in Scripture we are reminded that unless God calls someone that person can't hear or see the Good News or else they might turn to God.

We've got to get used to being considered "nuts." We could bring back Jesus himself, but unless God equips the world to see him and accept him, they never will.

The awesome thing is prayer is a much greater weapon than our propaganda.

At 9:26 PM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

What *do* parents put on vegetables to get their children to eat them?

Usually my dad just threatend to open up a can of whoop-ass and I seemed to eat my vegitables just fine. Huh! I guess that answer wasn't number one but everyone knows that it should have been.

At 11:40 AM, Blogger Sam H. Pace said...

Perhaps desperate attempts to attach the Christian message to pop culture demonstrate our lack of confidence in the power of the gospel to save as well as transform lives. It might be nice to see the Christian message become more popular and sophisticated by modern standards. This is not likely. Scripture assures us that our message is foolishness to the world.

There is a battle going on for the minds of this world. That battle cannot be won by claiming our message within the context of pop culture. Pointing people to Jesus via Hollywood might prove to be a disaster. There is a more direct route. We could invite people to hear the Christian message in scripture. Just a thought.

~ Sam

At 4:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Popular culture is a great tool for making connections between secular and spiritual, but you're right -- we can carry it too far and it becomes ridiculous. Jack Sparrow as Father. Orlando Bloom character as Son. Keira as Holy Spirit? Yuck.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Thom said...

As an interesting contrast, the Detroit Free Press columnist ran an article this week claiming Johnny Depp played Captain Sparrow as gay. Anyone can find what they what they are looking for if they simply look hard enough.


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