Not too long ago, I gave an assignment to a class I was teaching on Christian history. It was a biography on St Augustine. I was pretty excited to introduce people to a good friend whom they had (more than likely) never really met. He is a titan of the faith and has, over the years, become one of my best acquaintances. Yes, this guy comes fully stocked with baggage. And yes, some of this baggage was lacking in modesty. But that is how it is with all my friends. They don’t have it all together. They never have. All of the greats of the past. Whether in theology or lifestyle, if you want to get to know the real thing, you are going to have to wade through some waters that are going to be far outside your comfort zone.
I was somewhat discouraged when one person came to a part of the book that described Augustine’s problems with sexual promiscuity. There was nothing too gory as Augustine never felt the need to describe any details. However, this person thought it unwise to let other Christians read this side of Augustine, especially the teens. “They might be encouraged to do the same,” this person said. “I just don’t think they should be exposed to a ‘hero’ who lived such a life. I just want to hear the good stuff about Augustine.”
It is hard to make it through this life with an eye only for “the good stuff.” Really, it is very hard to define “the good stuff.” First (and please forgive my postmodern cliché), your good stuff is not always my good stuff and your bad stuff is not always my bad stuff. Second, is it even possible to see the good stuff without the bad stuff?
Let me take a turn here . . .
I hate Christian movies. I can’t watch them. Every time I do, I begin to get dizzy and need to find my vertigo correction pills. Why is this? I suppose it is a number of things. Of course there is the usual: the acting is terrible and stilted, the cameras predictable and boorish, and the post-production sound and music integration cliché and clumsy. But there is one element that is worse than all others: The story. Why? Well, I can’t believe I am saying this, but it is too “Christian.”
Let me back up (forgive me for going all over the place here).
I love movies. I love television shows. I love to escape my own world and live in another world for a time. Although I am not watching too much TV or movies these days, there is one show I don’t miss: The Walking Dead. This post-apocalyptic show about zombies is breaking record after record in audience numbers. It is quite a phenomenon that such a show would have so much popularity. After all, it is about zombies! Are you kidding me? Fifteen million people watch a zombie show? It is the most-watched basic cable drama in history. Why? It makes sense for me as I am a post-apocalyptic nut. But why have so many people joined in front of this screen? Well, of course the acting is great, the budget allows for some incredible special effects, and the story is absolutely intriguing. But there is more to it. It is about the human condition. It is called drama. Not action, not horror, but drama. Unrealistic as the world around these apocalyptic survivors may be, the intrigue is that the show enters into humanity and drops the bombs of real life, real struggles, real hurt, real pain, and real disillusionment. And the solutions to these problems are not wrapped up in a nice red bow. The conflicted drama is left unsolved or ongoing. Zombies are not real, but the drama surrounding them is. And we like that.
Many people don’t watch movies or television. I know many people who don’t even own a TV. I respect that a great deal. But what I don’t respect is when those who don’t own a television (for their own reasons) idealize their situation, as if they have reached the pinnacle of sanctification in this area. You see, God created creativity! It’s his. He owns it. I say that I love to “escape my own world,” and some interpret this as an irresponsible neglect of my own world because I cannot cope with my life. This might be correct. In many circumstances, I admit it is correct. But not always. Entertainment as a whole is a great illustration of how some Christians throw the baby out with the bathwater. By the time we realize the baby is out, we try to put it back in, only to realize we are far behind the times. We don’t know how to wash this baby, so we just do what we can and present it to the public. But it is rarely good. I like to escape into the lives and imaginations of others. I like to celebrate the image of God as expressed in entertainment. I think he owns this world.
In the entertainment industry, Christians are fickle and prude. We are scared to show the human condition with all its warts and open wounds. We are scared that we are going to encourage people to sin. We think that every line, every scene, and every sound has to contribute to a story that hands life back to people clean and prepped, glowing with niceness. Don’t get me wrong. It is not just about happy endings. It is about drama. It is about real drama which often hurts to watch and creates situations with which we are not comfortable.
Reading about the details of Augustine’s promiscuous life is entering into his drama. We can’t clean life up too much and still expect people to identify with the cleaned-up story. And isn’t that what all this is about? Creating identity? Identifying with Augustine is one thing. Identifying with the questions of what true humanity is, issues of governmental control, and the deepest evil of the human heart in a world filled with the walking dead is another. People are in a battle in a fallen world. How does one create true identity in such a situation? Solutions are not always easy and they don’t always come with a nice red bow.
Why do Christians allow their kids to read the Bible? After all, it is filled with much more violence, sex, and bad behavior than just about any other book I’ve read. Adultery, incest, rape, murder, war, deceit, and real apocalypse – it’s all in the Bible. What if the Bible were made into a movie? What do you suppose it would be rated? I am sure that we evangelicals would have to do some massive editing to fit it into even a PG-13 rating. But can we really suppose that we should edit God? Do we edit real life?
We often use the word “gratuitous.” It is a good word. It means “uncalled for,” “overboard,” or “unwarranted.” We talk about gratuitous sex, language, and violence in the entertainment industry. I don’t like gratuitous stuff. Why? Well, because it is . . . gratuitous. It is unneeded. While I think that the Christian entertainment industry makes some bad movies, don’t get me wrong. There are some terrible flops that the secular world puts out which are filled with over-indulgence. We don’t need or want gratuitous behavior. We want real life. However (and please don’t miss this), I think that most of the Christian movie industry is gratuitous in a different way. We talk about gratuitous bad behavior. But what about gratuitous good behavior? What about gratuitous endings? What about gratuitous hope? What about gratuitous love? What about a gratuitous God who fixes too many things? Is that really life? Is that really our God? One thing is true, it does not look too much like the stories contained in God’s Scripture.
I like good things. I like hope, joy, and reconciliation. But you know what hits closer to home for most of us? When we learn to live even though those things are hard to come by or nonexistent. When we learn to live with a deep groaning and sighing that may not appeal to too many felt needs. Life does not always have a happy ending. People don’t always change. Salvation of a loved one is sometimes not found. God is sometimes silent. Sometimes life is rated R. I don’t like Christian movies (for the most part), because I don’t identify with them. They have too much gratuitous hope. And this is just as sinful (if we want to go there) as gratuitous sex. The bathwater is dirty and sometimes the baby needs to be too. It’s called life. Not gratuitous. Just life. Hope can be found in a much more creative way with bows left off.
Now let’s talk about creativity. . . Maybe next time.