Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable: Reason #9

Stories Like This One

Earlier this month, an evangelical kerfuffle exploded when the Presbyterian Church (USA) – a mainline denomination that isn’t even necessarily evangelical – elected not to include the recent hymn In Christ Alone in their upcoming hymnal.  Since this is old news, I won’t recount the entire saga here, but please believe me that this uproar has exposed the most insipid, disingenuous, and moronic side of evangelicalism, mainly because of Timothy George and (for an entirely separate disgrace) an interdenominational group of Baptists.  Because explaining the idiocy of the various parties can get somewhat complicated, permit me to break this down via pertinent questions:

 1) Why would the PCUSA exclude such a popular hymn?

It all begins with the PCUSA bizarrely concluding that one of the most popular hymns of the past few years should be excluded because they felt that the line, “Till on that cross, as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied,” was an explicit endorsement of Anselm’s ‘satisfaction theory’ of the atonement.  Anselm taught that God was like a feudal lord who needed to avenge an infraction against his honor, and that’s why Jesus died.  In many ways, essentially, Anselm’s view equates God with an Islamist father who restores the family honor by beheading his own promiscuous daughter.  For some reason, the PCUSA felt that it was within their prerogative to omit a hymn which can be (mis)interpreted thusly from their hymnal while neither condemning the song nor forbidding individual presbyteries/congregations from singing it.

 

1A) Why is this embarrassing?

For one thing, unless you’ve studied theology at the advanced undergraduate or graduate level, you haven’t heard of Anselm, so I’m pretty comfortable saying that the PCUSA hymn committee (um, not their formal title, so we’re clear) are among the first 100 humans to make that philosophical leap.  Which would seem to make their rationale for omitting the hymn as ivory-tower elitist and out-of-touch as a rationale could possibly be.  It would also seem to make their assumption that including the hymn would be endorsing Anselm more or less crazy.  With the emphasis on the more side, which is embarrassing.

Additionally, it’s also worth at least a cursory mention that Anselm’s idea – as unsettling as Jesus receiving an honor killing may be – is not generally regarded as heretical.  Commonly endorsed?  Not really.  Heretical?  Nope.  It fits with much of scripture, so while the PCUSA are surely within their rights to omit perfectly valid songs from their own hymnal, it’s not really clear what the problem with Anselm’s view would be, even if we assume that the authors of In Christ Alone were actively smuggling obscure medieval theology into their work.  [And if you’re making that assumption, well, be embarrassed.  Really.]

 

2) What does this have to do with Timothy George?

Nothing.  Or at least it didn’t, until Dr. George used ESP to determine that the real problem was the PCUSA’s discomfort with God’s wrath, after which he wrote about it and started an internet riot of PCUSA-bashing amongst evangelicals.  Google it yourself; a veritable host of apoplectic evangelical joined him in denouncing mainline cowardice on the matter of God’s wrath, which they further assume is an implicit rejection of substitutionary atonement (to be clear, this is not an argument George himself makes.  He sticks to wrath).  Which means that to the extent that this is a kerfuffle at all, it’s George’s baby.  Which means it now has everything to do with Timothy George.

 

2A) Why is Timothy George such an embarrassment?

That’s not a very nice question!  Shame on you!

 

2B) What’s embarrassing about Timothy George’s (and other evangelicals’) role in this instance?

Well, there are a few problems with Timothy George’s take on the PCUSA.  For one thing, the hymnal – as the PCUSA has since pointed out – will have myriad songs involving or even centering on God’s wrath.  So they’re not hiding from God’s wrath, and to the extent that they are rejecting a theory of the atonement, the evangelical take is totally wrong: the PCUSA is not implicitly rejecting substitutionary atonement; they’re explicitly rejecting satisfaction atonement.  George’s ESP appears to have failed him, and it’s always embarrassing when that happens.

For another thing, George is the dean of a major evangelical seminary (Beeson), and he appears to have missed the obvious (to the PCUSA, I guess) connection to Anselm, and well, that has to be professionally embarrassing.  Clearly, the PCUSA ivory tower is vastly more elite than Tim George and Beeson.

A third problem, of course, is that George & co.  – filled as they are with the fruit of the spirit, such as love, peace, and forbearance(!), to name three – appear to want to be offended.  Why else would they jump to conclusions about the PCUSA and wrath?  Why else, when the PCUSA clarified that it was really all about Anselm, would their response be to assume – even with some open accusations – that the PCUSA is lying?  The only conclusion I can draw from all of this is that they must want to sow division amongst Christians, perhaps in the assumption that they’re doing someone a favor (I’m sure someone will suggest they’re “taking a stand on a vital matter!”).  This dogged determination to think and see the worst in the PCUSA is an embarrassing disgrace.

 

3) How did the Baptists get involved in this one?

As the PCUSA actively sought ways to include In Christ Alone in their hymnal, they realized that the line to which they object had been rendered in a Baptist hymnal as, “Till on that cross, as Jesus died/ the love of God was magnified.”  The PCUSA thought that was an admirable dodge of Anselm, and asked the song’s right-holders if they could do the same.  Which is when it came to light that the Baptists never bothered to get permission for that change, and would not have received it if they tried.  They apparently just ignored the copyright on the song, changed what they wanted to change, and started selling it everywhere they could.  So much for intellectual property, I guess.

 

3A) Obviously, that’s embarrassing.  Did they really do that?

Yes indeed.  They altered the artists’ work to suit their own sensibilities.  Which is definitely vandalism.  Also, it’s a little bit like theft, since they’ve taken someone else’s work and altered it – they may have paid for the rights to use the song, but in changing the song, they stole the artists’ control over their vision, which in this case was a song to Jesus.  So they stole two men’s gift to Jesus, changed it, and acted like they had permission to do so.  Illegal, wrong, and ohmygoodness embarrassing for them, us, and bipeds everywhere.

 

4) Can you put those pieces back together for me?

Sure!  To recap: the PCUSA is/was in the process of choosing what songs they want to pay their own money to publish in their own hymnal for use in their own churches, but Tim George and a bunch of evangelicals who have nothing to do with this process have decided to use the PCUSA’s autonomous choices as a reason to cast accusations and aspersions upon them.  In the name of Christ.  Without even considering that the PCUSA might be telling the truth, and might also be permitted to spend their own money however they see fit.  They just assume the Presbyterians are heretics and liars, and go from there.  Better yet, this divisive engagement is supposed to demonstrate the superiority of the faith of George et al., fruit of the spirit apparently notwithstanding.

Also, it turns out that the Baptists don’t respect intellectual property, which basically makes them thieves, vandals, or both.  The good news, however, is that they appear to be better at medieval theology than Tim George.

 

5) Anything else to add?

Yup.  Since this is my blog and my angry screed, permit me to add what should be relatively clear at this point.  Incidents like this one make me embarrassed to be identified with the label ‘evangelical.’  The PCUSA should be free to omit whatever they choose to omit, without needing to justify it to the evangelical peanut gallery (and even if their justifications are odd and involve medieval theology).  Evangelicals – particularly leaders who have the influence and platform Timothy George does – should try to manifest at least some of the fruit of the spirit in their public ministry, and actively looking for affronts against the kingdom is childish, churlish, and arguably disqualifying for church office, even when they’re not flagrantly misrepresenting the viewpoints of others (which they are here).  The entire conflict should never have happened, and it only goes to reinforce the common notion that evangelicals are insufferable hypocrites when a story like this ends up in the Washington Post, USA Today, or the Huffington Post (and this one ended up in all three).  So we all end up looking like idiots, even before it emerges that the Baptists defile intellectual property.  Yet another reason why evangelicalism makes me uncomfortable.

2013 Summer Movies, Part II: The Sequel

If this summer’s blockbuster movies have been overwhelming disappointments, there have been a few quiet successes among the smaller movies, at least from the perspective of the studios and their bottom lines.  One such success has been The Heat, in which Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock team up for a buddy-cop movie, with McCarthy playing the unhinged, Mel Gibson-in-Lethal Weapon character, and Bullock playing the straight gal to both her antics and some truly obnoxious (but possibly accurate) Boston accents.

This summer’s runaway hit, however, has been the horror flick The Conjuring, which has nearly septupled its budget (and is still going).  While that’s certainly not as profitable as some of the summer’s ‘big’ movies (Despicable Me 2 and Iron Man 3 each made significantly more money), the rate of return on the studio’s investment is pretty impressive (7x and counting!).  So while it appears that much of America may view this as the summer in which Despicable Me 2 was the biggest hit and Johnny Depp’s career hit the skids, the studios may remember this as the summer in which horror trumped action movies.

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I seldom go to see horror movies, but I watched The Conjuring last weekend, and it reminded me of something I learned in seminary.  Not a theological truth, mind you, but rather a sociological curiosity.  You see, although I attended a conservative evangelical seminary, I still convinced one of my professors to let me write a major research paper that hinged on an evaluation of 1970s Blaxploitaion cinema.  I won’t bore you with the details of the paper (it had to do with Black Theology, the 1970s cultural milieu, and the limitations of Marxist Analysis, which I admit made it rather out of place in an evangelical context), but for those of you unfamiliar with the Blaxploitation films, there was a 5 or 6 year window covering the late 1960s and early 1970s in which Hollywood discovered that if they made grindhouse films starring African Americans and explicitly incorporated the racial anxieties of the moment into those (typically) violent films, African Americans would hand over stacks of mammon to watch them.  And so the world was given Shaft, Foxy Brown, Superfly, Blacula, and a host of other films with influence that has lived on in American culture, even among many who’ve never seen them.

[Also – and this is a bit of a digression, but I feel like it needs to be said – these films are controversial for several reasons, most of which are predictable (they’re violent, they’re often racy, the language is filthy), but one of which is far more uncomfortable.  Life in America is always complicated by race, and films that deal as explicitly with race as these do raise questions, particularly when they’re funded and/or directed by white people, as many of these were.  Grindhouse films are exploitational by definition, but the idea that one could/should exploit race for profit should make you squirm a little bit, and that’s before we ask whether these films were offering an outlet for simmering anger or playing to animalistic stereotypes in that quest for money from one particular race.  Like I said, it’s a digression, but it needs to be said.]

At any rate, I bring this up to say that one lesson I learned in the course of researching that paper was the fact that many people attribute the death of Blaxploitation cinema to the release of another surprise horror hit: The Exorcist.  Even though the brief Blaxploitation moment made studios a fair amount of money, and even though the movies made have lived on in American cultural memory, the whole movement trickled to a halt within a year or two of The Exorcist’s release, and many people see a connection.  The argument goes something like this: studios made Blaxploitation films so they could make money from African Americans, but African Americans showed up in droves to see The Exorcist, just like everybody else.  So studios learned they didn’t have to make movies a certain way to reach certain races, which meant they didn’t have to cast non-white actors at all anymore.  Instead, Hollywood just started making horror films and ceased production of the Blaxploitation niche films altogether.  So The Exorcist killed Blaxploitation.

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The Exorcist was released 40 years ago this December.  As such an important film (it not only killed Blaxploitation, but it was the first ‘modern’ horror film), I assume most of you have seen it, so I’ll limit my summary to noting that it tells the story of the demon possession of a child and the subsequent (and difficult) exorcism of that demon by a pair of Catholic priests.  Grounded as it is in the realm of the possible – the Catholic church really does perform exorcisms, and many people (including me) really do believe in demons and demonic possession – The Exorcist resists the unreality of later horror flicks (Freddy Krueger may be a terrifying character, but dreams don’t kill, amiright?) and never becomes so farcical as to be funny rather than scary.  Simply put, it’s not frightening so much for what it is (a movie about disturbing stuff) as for what it could be (an experience you could conceivably witness in person) and what it says about you (there are invisible, terrifying, and malevolent forces in the world that are vastly more powerful than you).

Without spoiling the plot, almost all of this is also true of The Conjuring, a fact that I assume correlates to The Conjuring’s Exorcist-like box office surprise.  Alike in their emphasis on the spiritual (The Conjuring even ends with a quote from the man whose story it tells that is essentially a call to faith in God), these two movies demonstrate that while virtually everything else about the movie business has changed in the last 40 years, people will still pay to be frightened by a depiction of spiritual warfare.

That being the case, The Conjuring made me wonder (and remember, I’m not expert on horror flicks).  Would The Conjuring or The Exorcist have been remotely as successful if evil triumphed in the end?  There’s a certain ambiguity involved in the endings to both movies, for what it’s worth (so I don’t think I’ve spoiled anything), but ultimately, both stories end with wins for God (or at least, for a sensationalized Hollywood take on God), and I think that matters.  After all, a scary story rooted in unreality is simply a scary story, and the final outcome probably doesn’t matter too much.  But if a scary story is rooted in reality and evil wins, isn’t it essentially a celebration of the demonic?  And doesn’t that celebration come pretty close to a form of worship?

It’s a moot point, I suppose, in the case of The Conjuring or the Exorcist, because of how they end.  But now I’m curious.  How much of the success of either depends on their respective endings?  Does the American movie-going public care about the ending?  What does it say about them/us if they do not?  Would most people be just as happy to get a scare from a movie celebrating a triumph of evil forces that actually exist?  I’m not sure I want to know, but it’s definitely been on my mind.

2013 Summer Movies Part I: The End of the World

This summer’s movies have sucked.  I realize that’s a subjective statement, and of course not every movie has been awful, but if you’ve been paying attention, you probably know what I mean.  The big movies – the ones on which movie studios rely to make their budgets for the entire year work – have been uninspiring, uninteresting, and in many cases, unwatched.  Which means that this summer could potentially remake the movie business altogether.

The recent evolution of the movie business has led studios to make films with bigger and bigger budgets that are supposed to offer larger and larger returns.  The idea is that a movie with a budget of perhaps $150 Million can sometimes earn hundreds of millions in profits – and conceivably into the very low billions, although Hollywood studios are notorious obfuscators about their actual profits – but only if it has certain ingredients.

So what’s the key?  International box office.  Success still almost always begins in the United States, but bigger movies make higher profits from overseas, and the highest earning movies make the most from international markets.  So profits depend on movies that people in Japan, India, and Sweden will pay to watch, hopefully over and over.  Problematically, however, people in Japan, India, and Sweden have different cultural histories, value different historical heroes, and live very different lives.  A smaller film – one made for ‘only’ $35M, for example – probably has more talking and less ‘blowing things up,’ which means it requires more understanding and enjoyment of one particular culture.  A bigger film, as we know, probably has a movie star whose name everyone on earth knows (Will Smith, Tom Cruise, etc.), and a lot of explosions in the process of a larger struggle that doesn’t take too many words – which is to say, too much cross-cultural understanding – to explain.  So blockbusters appeal to more of humanity, and generate more profit.

Which brings us to this summer.  This summer, Hollywood has offered blockbuster (blockbusteds?  Blockbustereds?  I think we’re going with blockbustereds.) after blockbustered about the destruction of earth.  Which makes sense; if you want a movie plot that should appeal to the maximum slice of humanity, the near-destruction of all of humanity seems like a safe bet.  Apart from a few unhinged Muslim extremists and Buddhists who no longer want anything (including, I imagine, the survival of humanity), who objects to saving the world?  So we have Oblivion, World War Z, Pacific Rim, and a host of other films in which humanity’s survival is threatened, which hypothetically appeals to everyone, and should therefore lead to mountains of Southern-California based lucre.  Should.  Are not.

The problem, by the way, is not that the movies are terrible.  I affirm again that I think they are, but so are all of Michael Bay’s Transformer movies or most of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and terrible still sells if you get the formula right.  So while there is a problem threatening to remake the movie business, it appears to be completely divorced from film quality.

The problem, surprisingly (or not), is that Americans don’t care about the destruction of humanity.

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Remember, profitable films more or less always start those profits in the USA.  And while it is possible for a film to lose money domestically but make money internationally and be profitable overall, it’s not possible (yet) for such a film to be profitable at a rate of return that justifies the risk to the studio.  So Americans have to buy a blockbuster’s premise, and one thing that appears clear at the moment is that Americans are not interested in watching the world narrowly avert destruction this summer.  Maybe on Netflix this winter, perhaps.  But not now.  We just don’t care about that plot, no matter how many movies offer it.  If humanity’s going down, America doesn’t care.

The question is, why not?

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It’s possible that America is just tired of watching the same movie over and over again, so we’re not expressing contempt for all of creation by expressing our ambivalence about its filmed destruction.  But our friends overseas would probably object to this justification.  For one thing, there’s the question of American intransigence on climate change.  This may be (bizarrely) controversial in the U.S., but most foreign countries take human agency in climate change as an article of faith and live greener than we do.  We don’t, and that looks to them like we don’t care that humanity’s going down.  So our disinterest in the movies reflects our geopolitical disposition, at least from their perspective.

There’s more, too.  In this post-Cold War era, we don’t worry too much about planet-wide nuclear warfare.  Many other countries, however, lack our ambivalence about the dangers of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and the citizens of such countries are very aware of who developed such weapons first.  They’re also very aware of which is the only country to ever actually visit that horror on another people in warfare, and which country maintains the largest functional arsenal of such weapons today (Look, I’m not going to bother researching whether we or the Russians have more weapons, because I don’t believe for a second that theirs – or the Chinese for that matter – are as likely to work as ours, and if the weapons don’t work, they don’t count).   In this case, it’s not necessarily that the world sees America as not caring about what happens to humanity; it’s just that the world doesn’t find much persuasive evidence in all of this that we do.

We could also mention the frequency with which the American military gets sent overseas for one reason or another, and regardless of whether or not such missions are justified (and to be clear, I often think they are), we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that fighting at least one conflict every decade is completely alien to the life experiences of nearly every other people on earth.

Add it all up, and I think it’s safe to assume that much of non-American humanity will see our disinterest in this summer’s “earth goes down” movies as America being America.

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My reflections on this summer’s movies have me wondering.  If Christians are supposed to be salt and light, and if America is a country filled with Christians, should the larger world that we’re supposedly salting and lighting see us as more than jerks who don’t care if they live or die?  Still worse, of course, is that this summer’s movies also leave me to wonder whether or not Americans really do care if all of creation crashes and burns.

It’s not a strictly evangelical – or even religious, for that matter – issue, but it is one that I find particularly troubling.  The evidence presented by this year’s movies may be entirely circumstantial, but that doesn’t disprove its veracity, which should lead to some evaluative pondering with respect to the efficacy of the American Church’s collective salting and lighting.  Do Americans care about the rest of humanity?  And does the presence of millions upon millions of Christians in the United States influence the answer to that question in any way?  This summer’s movies may suck, but they still make me think.