Sunday, February 08, 2009

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 9:16-23
16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

In Ben Hur (1959) we see everything from nativity to crucifixion, all told from the ever popular Roman point-of-view. In The Ten Commandments (1956), everything is numbered: two tablets, Ten Commandments, 11 Oscars and the fifth highest gross of all time (adjusted for inflation). In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) audiences disagreed, ending an era and sending all those centurion costumes into storage.

The era, of course, is the Heroic Age of Judeo-Christian filmmaking. Other names might be the Heston Age or the Christendom Age: and age when the religious certainty of audiences was reflected in the films made. These films, and the churches that sent viewers were larger-than-life, a moment in the history that never really happened before and will likely never return.

Leaping over the long-haired VW bus era of Christian film, we arrive at the Skeptical Age. Life of Brian (1979), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Jesus of Montreal (1989) all typify the Skeptical Age, where doubt, reinterpretation and mockery are the order of the day. All fine films, but a long way from the triumphal certainty of an earlier age. Think of it as Jesus for Baby Boomers, rejecting the religion of their parents and highlighting the humanity of Jesus once more.

Finally, we have reached the Atheist Age of film, with The Da Vinci Code (2006) questioning the legitimacy of the entire enterprise, and poking the Vatican just for fun. Stay tuned for Angels & Demons (2009) and more of the same, with the added science vs. religion debate that popular culture loves. The one anomaly here is The Passion of the Christ (2004): a film I would not recommend. In the film we learn more about Mel Gibson’s extremist Catholic views then we do the story itself. And don’t even get me started on the post 9-11 revival of torture in film (another sermon altogether).

The Atheist Age in advertising began in the UK very recently, with the appearance of a bus ad that read “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The press had a field day with it, owing in part to the fact that the initiator is young and attractive, but also owing to the fact that much of the population of London was tired of seeing months of the “Wages of sin is death” ads on public transit. In many ways, the atheist ads were simply a relief.

The United Church of Canada has received lots of free press this week, with the launch of our point-counter-point ad with the original text and then a second one saying "There's probably a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with thousands rushing to our site to join the discussion. The site is described as “the home of open-minded discussion and exploration of spiritual topics, moral issues and life's big questions.” It became a wonderful note to end the campaign, scheduled to conclude this summer.


St. Paul said “I have become all things to all people.” To the weak, I became weak. To those who live under the law, I became as one who lives under the law. For those who do not, I did the same. I did all of this to proclaim the Gospel, and to share in its blessings.

Paul knew, as we do too, that the power of the Gospel is in relationship. We do not hear the Gospel message of forgiveness and reconciliation in order to accept rhetorical constructs, or creedal pronouncements, or doctrinal accords: we hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ to give ourselves to him. We do not hear the Gospel message to master correct belief: we do it join a community of believers dedicated to walking his way and living as he lived.

There are some who decry “open-minded discussion and exploration of spiritual topics, moral issues and life's big questions” a credo of defeat. They would argue that certainty is the only way forward, that theological questions are settled for all time and that we need only lift them up. Nonsense. Theological debates were settled by consensus, or sometimes at the point of a sword, and it would be an insult to Jesus and his love of conversation to say we cannot be a people of theological debate.

We live, you see, in the Post-modern Age of Post-Christian values. President Obama includes non-believers in his list of Americans, giving them a legitimate voice in the country that was supposed to be the inventor and champion of the separation of church and state. In a post-modern age, I can enjoy my truth without being offended by your truth. A rival truth claim can be always taken in context, and should never threaten unless you are somehow unsure about your own belief.

Let’s take a non-religious example. Apparently America is the greatest nation on earth and the last hope for humanity: Obama said so himself. Now, I could get all bent out of shape every time he says it, or I could consider the context. From his vantage point, it may well be true. From my vantage point, I see something else. Here in the land of the beaver and the maple tree (both pests, by the way) we are clearly the best. These rival truth claims are frequently tested and measured, and you know who mostly comes out on top. But this, of course, doesn’t make the view from Washington wrong.

Immediately you will say “wait a minute, Michael, you’re comparing apples and oranges. Patriotic fervor and religious truth are two distinct things: Religion is an ultimate concern, and surely we can and should be able to settle the matter of sacred truth.” You had a lot to say. Let me try to answer.

Most of us, over a certain age, were raised with “modern” assumptions. In the modern age, everything could be discovered, analyzed and understood. You remember that everything had a hypothesis and a solution. And when this method was applied to religion, people fell away in droves. God cannot be proved, or the effectiveness of prayer, or the words and deeds of Jesus. It didn’t stop people from trying, but ultimately the scientific method did not help religion and the modern age coexist.

So in the Heston Age, or the Age of Certainty, people were told to simply believe. Faith became accepting a set of ideas without reservation. The message of the age was “shut up and enjoy the film. Look, the sea is parting!” In the Skeptical Age, we were invited to explore other possibilities. Monty Python told us that it was all rather silly, so lets have some fun with it. Serious filmmakers like Martin Scorsese said “consider this reinterpretation of the message, previous films got it wrong.” Interesting to be sure, but ultimately unsatisfying.

It would be simple, as I recount all of this, to say that the world changed. But the truth is we changed. We tired of being told to shut up and believe, we tired of the weak and pathetic Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, we tired of mockery even if it was clever and British. We moved through those first two ages to the age we are currently in because (I hope) we became more confident in our belief and less threatened by others. So re-enter Paul.

Paul began his ministry in an age not unlike our own. He understood power, but he wasn’t really part of it. He represented a small religion, in a sea of other faiths and non-believers. He entered into conversation with others, confidant in his beliefs, but respectful of the people he addressed. He used the best tools at his disposal, even if it meant talking about things that were not part of his faith. He was willing to be all things to all people, not in the negative way we imagine this phrase, but in the positive way: meaning that having the conversation was more important that controlling the outcome. In this he was a true follower of Jesus: willing to tell anyone with ears to hear the message of forgiveness and love.

So here in the Atheist Age, we have little cause for concern. There are plenty of people that might check the box that says “There’s probably no God” and visit Wondercafe anyway. That’s the magic of conversation and modern technology. Will they change their minds immediately and rush to Central? No likely. But while they’re at Wondercafe, and while they are involved in some “open-minded discussion” they may make some surprising discoveries: we’re not trying to convert then, we are more concerned with justice than we are with “truth,” we care about fabric of our community, and we are more interested in having a good conversation than being right all the time.

Maybe someone should make a film about that.


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