Going to the movies
I love going to the cinema. I love everything about it. Film posters, queuing for tickets, entering the semi-dark space, being captured by surround sound, the feature beginning, being invited into another world, all of these contribute to the experience. Sometimes the feature is disappointing, the quality of the acting, or the cinematography, or the central ideas or premises fail to thrill or interest. At other times I am captured, and in the company of many others who are total strangers to me I laugh or cry or wonder. At the end I stumble out, my eyes squinting in the bright light of day, to touch reality again.
Very soon we could be having this cinematic experience in church, in fact you might have done so already. As more and more churches acquire digital projectors and well placed screens in large open spaces, it is becoming possible for movies to be viewed in church buildings, or in the church hall at the very least. Of course there will be careful censorship, not everything will be deemed appropriate for viewing in holy spaces by holy people. However it is very likely that a large number of churches will be showing The Passion of the Christ as a feature presentation sometime in the near future following its release on video and DVD at the end of August 2004.
Viewing The Passion
Mel Gibson's The Passion is without a doubt the most talked about film of the year. To date it has taken $375 million at the box office, placing it in the top ten grossing films of all time. This response is in some measure due to the support and publicity from churches, sometimes buying all the seats in the local cinema. The film offers regular church goers and cinema buffs alike a depiction of the events of the last hours of Christ, including the horrors of the beatings and crucifixion which have meant that it is rated for adult viewing only. Is it a good film? Well the critics are divided,1 as were Christians seeing the film. Many clergy were ambivalent, some even said unmoved. Amongst those I have spoken to were clergy who went only because they were required to have a view or who felt it would be in some way negligent to bypass this cultural event. The laity, sampled from my locality, was much less reticent about the film's merits. Three comments come again and again: the film was true to the story of Jesus in the Gospel 'it showed it how it was'; the most remembered and spoken about scene was the flagellation; and at the heart was a depiction of Jesus' commitment to individuals: 'I was so moved he went through that for me'.
This is not the first film of the life of Jesus. Debate has accompanied every movie related to this theme from The Greatest Story Ever Told to The Last Temptation of Christ. These films all work on at least three levels. Firstly they might be depictions of incidents from a Biblical, historical or artistic tradition, they might in some way be attempting to show the viewer how things were. Secondly they might be illustrative, they might offer us some metaphor or example that illuminates a bigger theme. Thirdly they might be asking questions about life, God and existence. This is not only true of films with overtly religious themes but all movies. Reformed Christians, with the shared history of suspicion of the arts which might include a shunning of the movie theatre by older generations, might be more comfortable with films that purport to depict historical reality in some way ( The Passion ), than with films that ask existential questions through contemporary culture ( The Matrix, Minority Report, Donnie Darko ). Some films in the second category are acceptable because the central metaphors have been strongly influenced by Christianity ( The Lord of the Rings Trilogy ). What should be clear is that the very nature of film means that a movie can never be just simply a depiction or portrayal of events.
One area of criticism has been related to how The Passion relates to the Gospels. Mel Gibson's film includes the basic events of Christ's last hours, including the dialogue as recorded in the Bible. However, it is also influenced by a long tradition of Christian art and reflection, which in this case also includes the work Dolorous Passion of Our Lord the Christ , by the 19 th century Roman Catholic mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich.2 This is important for us to understand for example when examining the criticism that the film is anti-Semitic. To understand how this film might appear to Jewish viewers we must remember the depictions of Jews in medieval art, the mystery plays and also in Nazi propaganda in the 1930s. All of these influence the cinematography and casting of the film. In a movie nothing is straight forward. The selection of the actor to play Christ, whether it is Jim Caviezel in The Passion or Robert Powell in Lew Grade's Jesus of Nazareth , is culturally conditioned. The music, the cinematography, the direction and the editing all constitute interpretations of text and tradition. So it can never be true to say 'it shows it just as it was'.
It is ironic that so many protestant Christians mention the flagellation as the most memorable or affecting section of The Passion. It is a long time since Protestants have so contemplated images of the wounds of Christ. Some examples of these types of images that were stripped from English churches at the Reformation, including graphic images of flagellation, were included in the National Gallery exhibition Seeing Salvation. This was a gallery room through which most people moved quickly. Evangelicals critique churches in the catholic tradition for their use of crucifixes, as Christ is risen and no longer on the cross. Here via the medium of film this area of Christian spirituality is opened and refreshed for contemporary generations. What will be next - a video bank of stations of the cross? I for one hope so!
Finally we note that there is something about sitting in the dark in a movie house that sits well with the evangelical tradition and sensibilities. In the dark everyone else disappears - subject and object come close to each other, excluding all others. Film then is ideally placed to provide both experiential, subjective viewing, and material that forms the basis for analysis. Here then are spirituality and doctrine coming together.3 Quite a number of churches are starting to explore this dynamic, using for example the material provided by Damaris.4 This autumn the study series in your local church could be I, Robot , encouraging film, the works of Isaac Asimov and the Bible to be in dialogue together. Those that use this material describe how people who would never have been interested in reading the Bible, are encouraged to read it and relate to it because of their interest in film.
Jesus and the popcorn culture
We live in times when very many people are movie literate. This is true of children and adolescents as well as adults. The jokes in Pixar films ( Toy Story , Monsters Inc ) and in Shrek demand a sophisticated awareness of a breadth of film. Entertainment and serious thought have come together at the movies in a way they have not done in any other artistic medium. Contemporary film does more than just illustrate life, it provides a shaping narrative or narratives offering ways of making sense of experience. Christian theology has influenced the culture from which the movie has emerged as an art form. It now needs to be active in engaging theologically with the diversity of the product. This task is most crucial amongst the generation that visits a cinema most often, those that watch the most DVDs - the under 25s. Richard Kelly, the writer-director of Donnie Darko describes it this way:
'One of the most gratifying things is that kids, teenagers, love the film so much. Because there's this idea they can't deal with narrative sophistication, but in fact they instinctively handle what a lot of adults can't - that the film's about a high schooler who talks about the Smurfs and philosophy and metaphysics.' 5
So theology and film viewing are no longer just for art-house Christians, it is probably coming soon to a church near you.
In this issue
The first article in this issue comes from Andrew Dawswell. This article supplements his own Grove Book on Ministry Leadership Teams. Here he looks at the Biblical and theological case that supports the development of leadership teams in parishes. He encourages us to see beyond pragmatism to models of ministry that recur as the people of God organise in faithful ministry and mission.
We continue with the second of our articles written under the series title Love your enemies. In this article Howard Marshall traces the religious opposition to the early Church in Acts. He considers whether those who opposed the Christian movement were viewed as enemies, and why it was that conflicts and occasional severe persecutions arose. He describes a Church in mission, expressing love through the declaration of the gospel revealed in Jesus Christ.
The third article is by John Williams. In it he makes a plea for the churches to be listening to those who are not part of the Church, but who are showing a passionate commitment to spiritual exploration. He illustrates his article with references to some popular novels and novelists, as well as to lyrics of some of Britain 's most popular contemporary song writers and performers. He wonders whether it will be possible for churches to be fellow travellers through today's cultures with agnostics and enquirers of these kinds.
And finally Andrew Lord offers us apiece of practical theology written out of his experiences in a hospice as part of his ordination training. In this special location he has noticed small details of life, details of lives lived within a different appreciation of time from that which we live by usually. From this special context he wonders about God and time and prayer.
1: For the best single collection of reviews see www.textweek.com/response/passion_movie.htm The textweek site is outstanding and always well worth a visit.
2: Anne Catherine Emmerich, Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Christ , Tan Books, USA 2002
3: R.K.Johnston, Reel Spirituality , Baker, Grand Rapids 2003
5: Guardian interview Friday 30 July 2004