Having summarized several aspects of Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart last October, I want to turn briefly to Nathan Hatch’s work in Democratization of American Christianity which should help to create a better vista of how our current doctrines and practice are be compromised by individualism.
Hatch attempts to show how the democratic spirit of early America set the tone for the American church as it took on the spirit of the age. This democratic spirit emerged in three profound ways. First, American’s rejected the traditional separation between clergy and laity where power and virtue was transferred from the educated elite to larger body of individuals.1 Apart from the well educated elite and tradition, individuals were free to explore their “spiritual impulses” thus defining faith for themselves. Filled with democratic hope, Christianity was to become a liberating force for all people from authoritarian structures. From these beginnings, Hatch says that three tendencies emerged for American Christianity: 1) mingling of diverse and contradictory sources, 2) fragmentation, and finally inversion of authority. American religious experience mirrors what was taking place in the name of equality and freedom both at a national level and within its constituents by the systematic and simultaneous raising of the common individual by casting off oppressive authority and placing that authority into the hands of each person. A largely untrained people became the prime interpreters of scripture, now taken from the oppressive hands of educated clergy revealing a populist common-sense or self-evident hermeneutic.
 Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 9.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 35.
A year or so ago, someone near me rejected a proposed brochure because its central focus was of a stained glass image of Jesus the good shepherd. She cited the Old Testament prohibition against graven images from Exodus. Now I am aware that this argument is still alive and well in certain Christian community, but I was startled to find it so near me. This strange series of events made me consider the nature of an image of Christ and the portrayal of his humanity. Some years ago I had the opportunity to engage certain fundamentalist Baptist pastors about such matters who are ardently opposed to images of Christ even though they had certain didactic purposes, which they consented to. Their main claim was that once you had said that this is Jesus, you would also have to explain that this is not Jesus because it only portrayed his humanity.
So how do artists get off with imaging Jesus?
To my fundamentalist interrogators I would now respond with wisdom I did not possess then, that one may have well passed Jesus on the road or in the market wholly unawares of his divinity. Our eyes have been trained by faith to see the divinity within Christ and yet N.T. Wright suggests that few, if any, Jews of the time would have expected the Messiah to be divine.
Another complicating factor concerns our Western intellectual heritage of emphasis on the written word, and for descendants of the Reformation that is seen in the written Word. While Luther was not as condemnatory of images as Calvin and Zwingli, he kept a wary eye on them. I cannot help but wonder how these emphases, so strongly rooted within Protestantism, has perpetuated this anti-image and iconoclastic tendencies within our Western version of Christianity.
Returning to the woman who rejected the brochure with images of Christ, I wanted to ask her what she thought of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion. Did she enjoy it? Did she even see it? Are there Christians who praise the film and yet reject still images whether painted or sculpted? Do those who praise the film and reject images see their duplicity? What is it for them that sets the film apart from images? Are not those who act as Christ not more potentially misleading than the static images which are surely other than the humanity Jesus inhabited?
These are questions I am posing to my class this coming Monday. I am interested to hear their responses after their readings.
In the recent weeks I will admit that I have been slacking off with my posting schedule. Class and work have been a little overwhelming. But that does not mean that I’ve not been thinking about the films I’ve been watching. We have seen a few remarkable films as of late.
I Am Legend – I remember seeing the preview for this film in the theatre before Ocean’s 13 and immediately I wanted to see the film. And yet, the film preview says little about the actual movie. I have had this fantasy since I was a kid about being able to go anywhere, into everyone’s homes and look around. If I was the only person left, where would I go? What would I do. I think that is what intrigued me about I Am Legend. In actuality, the film struck me as a strange cross between solitary and forgotten Tom Hanks character of Castaway and the cult classic from 1969, The Night of the Living Dead. Theologically what struck me about IAL was certainly the sacrifice of the one that many could live. Smith’s character becomes a sort of Christ figure through that sacrifice. One of the other keys themes centers in the topics of anthropology and what makes someone human. Without giving too much away, we are right to consider what are the quintessential marks of humanity, and without those marks, what do we become?
Freedom Writers & Gridiron Gang – Both films tackle the violent nature of inner city youth culture and how our society can train and educate these broken young men and women. Both are loosely based on true stories where one individual through personal sacrifices and dedication to these impoverished young people invests in them giving them hope. Gridiron Gang uses the football, still a violent sport, to inspire a team mentality to overcome the divisions of individualism and competing gang mentality. Freedom Writers overcomes the same challenges but through a more generous and caring self investment through their teacher played by Hillary Swank. Both are worthy films to explore how racism still divides us today and the violent nature of our youth culture. Gridiron Gang recalls both Coach Carter and Remember the Titans. While Freedom Writers recalls Stand & Deliver, Lean on Me, and most notably Higher Learning but also many others.
These films are needed reminders of our responsibility towards the other. In many ways, Freedom Writers is about calling and vocation. Swank’s character ends up divorcing her husband played by Patrick Dempsey as she has taken on 2 part-time positions to pay for supplies for her students that the district cannot or will not give her. But one of the key exchanges is his lack of understanding of what in many ways is played out like a calling upon her life. He selfishly fails to understand her commitment to these kids because they are not, from his perspective, her responsibility. The film suggests that these kids have been largely disowned by everyone who encounters them and she becomes the only one who invests her life into them from which a mighty change in their personal life is portrayed. The theme of vocation in a poignant scene with Swank’s father played by the grizzled Scott Glenn, that this calling is a burden upon her. Not that this weighs her down, but is her role to carry and fulfill. This is a beautiful image for the pastor and Christian in general. There is a certain burden and heaviness of life that comes with matters of faith, education, missions, and preaching. I have felt it as I prepare my lessons. I have felt it in my unworthiness and lack of knowledge. It defies casual understanding. She states that in this role, she feels most like who she was created to be. What a wonderful image and thought. For us, as Christians, utilizing our unique giftedness to care for and serve in God’s Kingdom, we will meet challenges but we will simultaneously becoming who we were meant to be in ways we cannot even fathom when we begin.
This is a rather late addition to the Fight Club series I did a month or so ago, but upon reading The Rule of Saint Benedict this week one short passage stood out, as if I had seen a mirror of this in action recently. Rule 58 states,
“When anyone presents himself to be admitted as a monk, they shall not easily give him entrance; but, as the apostle advises: ‘Make trial of the spirits, to see if they are of God’ (1 John 4.1). If he is importunate and goes on knocking at the door, for four or five days, and patiently bears insults and rebuffs and still persists, he shall be allowed to enter. He shall stay in the guest-room for a few days. Thence he shall go to the cell where the novices study and eat and sleep.”
This Benedictine initiation practice is meant to deter those who are not prepared to undertake such a life change. This is not meant to be easy. After several days of waiting through insults and denials, they still persist in their desire, they may be allowed to enter. I have heard of a Rabbinical tradition that may do similar things. Those who wish to convert to Judaism approach a Rabbi who rebuffs them. If they return three times, they may undertake with seriousness their conversion. In Fight Club, we see young men coming to stand outside on the porch of the Paper Street house waiting to enter. They are verbally and physically harassed about being to young, fat, or blonde. Once they have stood the appropriate time, they are asked if they have brought the needed supplies of black clothing and personal burial money. Once entered they receive a ritualistic head shaving, thus leaving their old beauty of the world behind. They form a new army and take on its uniform.
I wonder how many American Christians would actually put up the waiting and rebuffs to become a Christian? Does the Church allow too easy of conversion? Would any church actually rebuff someone today who came seeking? What can our churches learn from the novitiate or catechumenate processes?
This past week one of our class viewings was the delightful comedy Keeping the Faith which picks up on the plethora of priest/rabbi jokes that seem to circulate. It tells the story of 3 inseparable kids growing up in New York City until Anna, played by Jenna Elfman, leaves her two boys Jake Schram, played by Ben Stiller, and Brian Finn, played by Edward Norton after their eighth grade year. Stiller’s character grows up to be a rabbi while Norton’s character becomes a Catholic priest. Many years later, but still in the infancy of their ministries, Anna, now a high-power business woman returns to New York for work and looks up he long lost childhood friends. What ensues are crises faith, falling in love, conversions, and questionable ethics.
Going in, I asked my students to read articles on love, sexuality, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and pluralism from the Musser & Price New and Enlarged Handbook on Christian Theology. I also asked them to read Beth Newman’s article “Pluralism as Idolatry.”
One of my questions of the film and filmmaking in general, is what should we expect from them in the portrayal of religion? Should I expect them to give an accurate portrayal? Can we appreciate the film on its own merits and still be dissatisfied with its shallow portrayal of religion?
Notes on the positive:
Fr. Finn is a young priest who seems to be inspiring his congregation, at least by sight in terms of growth. He had brought a sense of renewal to this apparently dying congregation. Fr. Finn is an interesting portrait of a priest as well. In one sense, this film is about calling and the challenges of ministry. We see a very human priest facing the challenges of celibacy. It is cliché these days to portray a faithless priest as pedophile or sexually active among his congregants. Keeping the Faith walks a fine line. Brian certainly falls in love with his childhood friend Anna, makes a pass at her, but still remains true to his vows. At the highpoint of poignancy, the elder priest comforts Brian by telling him that he had fallen in love at least once every decade of his ministry. But he says to the young priest that each day it is a choice, in marriage or ministry, to be faithful and fulfill your vows. The scene goes like this,
Father Brian: I keep thinking about what you said in seminary, that the life of a priest is hard and if you can see yourself being happy doing anything else you should do that.
Father Havel: That was my recruitment pitch, which is not bad when you're starting out because it makes you feel like a marine. The truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one thing you could be. If you are a priest or if you marry a woman it's the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it's a choice that you keep making again and again and again.
It is a welcomed word for both those who are married and serve in ministry. It is a helpful corrective to the “feeling” of love, and Brian’s own definition of faith as feeling.
Notes on the not-as-positive:
My feeling is that the portrayal of religion is ultimately shallow. Brian, in a sermon defines faith as,
“The truth is, I don't really learn that much about your faith by asking questions like that...because those aren't really questions about faith, those are questions about religion. And it's very important to understand the difference between religion and faith. Because faith is not about having the right answers. Faith is a feeling. Faith is a hunch, really. It's a hunch that there is something bigger connecting it all... connecting us all together. And that feeling, that hunch, is God. And coming here tonight, on your Sunday evening... to connect with that feeling, that is an act of faith. And so all I have to do is look around the room at this packed church... to know that we're doing pretty well as a community.”
Not only does he define faith based something as fickle as feeling he connects vital faith with numbers. Not that this is particularly unique to our society. Rather, in many circles this is heightened by the health and wealth gospel as well as our addiction to self-help resources. Faith, for Brian, is about us and not about God. I do not want to reduce faith to pure rationalism, and feelings are a necessary part of the life of faith. But his succinct definition would seem to truncate the historical definitions of faith.
Similarly, the required readings for this film were intended to help students consider our cultures pluralism. Does Keeping the Faith simply show the existence of a plurality of religions or does it suggest in a typical postmodern fashion, that all faiths or spiritualities are equal and can be chosen at random as long as it is useful to ones life? Are the interrelations between Brian’s Catholicism and Jake’s Judaism simply friendship between the two acknowledging the gulf in between or are they just two options in the spiritual marketplace?
Another comical scene in the film takes place when Brian, distraught on a bender shares his story with a local bartender. In this scene we get an insight into the very complicated religious plurality of human lives.
Father Brian: You're a Sikh, Catholic Muslim with Jewish in-laws?
Bartender: Yes. Yes. It gets very complicated. I'm reading Dianetics.
Father Brian: Don't blame you.
Additionally questionable, Brian, along with Rabbi Schram want to bring their religions into the 21st century…“old world religion with a new age spin.” Both run up against religions steeped in tradition. Jake seems though to take it on more directly with the introduction of non-Judaic practices into the communities spiritual life. He also runs up against their expectation of a rabbi. He too receives wise words from an elder that people want to be lead into the next century and change rather than pushed. People like their traditions because they give them stability that orients them in the world. So while both young men want to push their congregants to keep pace with the changing world, they hopefully learn the value of tradition along the way.
I have seen this film numerous times and yet have not come to a conclusion on the films view of pluralism. I do feel it is a valuable film to explore topics of vocation, love, tradition, family, conversion, similarity and differences of faith and religion; but also pastoral ethics, revitalization and many more.