Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Horror Movies Revisited

I got a question by email from a Reverend Scott MacDonald, a Lutheran pastor in Maryland. I told him I'd only be able to give him a brief response. I think I need to look up "brief" in the dictionary. Here's a portion of our exchange.

Hello Rev. David,
This is Scott MacDonald, pastor of First Lutheran Ch. in Odenton, MD (LCMS). I know you are a busy man but thought I might try this. I read your article on Christianity today "The horrors" and enjoyed it greatly.

I have a kind of fundamentalist background and found your article illuminating! As a Lutheran (yet thoroughly biblical Christ centered) Christian I now realize the freedom we have in Christ and the use of prudence in Christian living. I have a question re horror (monster) movies and fear or "being scared" as a result of watching. Where the Lord tells us to fear no evil, how are we to make sense of the almost (dare I say) enjoyable tension of the moment, the adrenalin charge, the jumping out of the seat and yet the Lord tells us NOT to fear.

My question comes as I realize the good these movies can bring yet find I enjoy this tension etc. Is this type of "fear" more an emotional charge to be perhaps distinguished from truly fearing evil? Should a Christian "fear" in watching a horror movie? Do you understand my question?

Again I know you are busy but thought I would try to contact you as Scott Derickson is not home today!
God bless
Rev. Scott MacDonald
Dear Scott,

. . . Great question. I'll throw out a brief reply for now, and maybe enumerate the thoughts for simplicity’s sake. I'll also say I'm not quite an expert on the subject, just an interested amateur.

- The Greeks talked about the experience of catharsis when watching a drama. The catharsis was a provocation of the emotions that not only purified them but enabled the person to experience a sympathetic and possibly also transformative encounter--a restoration, a renewal, a revitalization for the viewer. I think that's still what happens with us when we watch movies. We can be purged of things that are false: false strength, false sense of security, false sense of control, false knowledge, false emotion, false images.
Naturally many folks go to a horror movie for the adrenaline charge and experience no genuine transformation; for them it’s just a sugar rush to the brain. But that has more to do with the disposition of the viewer than with the art form itself, I think.

- Professional athletes experience a kind of analogous fear: Olympic sprinters, fencers, mountain climbers. It's a good kind of fear, a fear that can propel you to excellence. Athletes don't avoid the fear, they channel it. So I think with art in general, it's not so much an issue of what kind emotion you experience, but what you do with it, how you let it form you or malform you. All emotions can be perverted. All emotions can become vehicles for redemptive experience.

- I imagine that psychologists or counselors deal with a similar experience. Sometimes they have to encourage a person to face, even to enter more deeply their emotions, what can feel like dark murky emotions on a pitch black night in the middle of a swamp full of creepy sounds and smells. A person is afraid to look at a difficult emotion related to a past experience. Running away or ignoring that fear only postpones the healing.
As counselors we don't want the person to be undone by the fear but to know that Christ can be found in the middle of it and through to the other side of the fear. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.”

- Lastly, I think we have to allow art to be appropriately "play" and not "real." All of art, in one way or another, is an act of playing. We are at play in the fields of the Lord. We play act. We play games. We play with clay. We role play in recovery groups. And so none of us confuses the Second World War with Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." We know one is “real,” the other is "play"; a very serious play, but play nonetheless that confronts and invites us to identify with the experiences of WWII soldiers and the emotions that they produced. We learn to sympathize and in some cases empathize for the analogous horrific, "war" experiences of our own life.

With horror movies we have the Disneyesque smoke-n-mirrors scare of a movie like The Others, we have the grotesque scare of Aliens (which we should fear but which we should also overcome vicariously in the heroine), and we have the psychological and moral fear of morality tales, as with The Sixth Sense or The Mist or Something Wicked This Way Comes.
The service that horror movies can provide is to rouse our deadened, hardened, consumer-addicted, self-indulgent hearts and force them to see, feel, taste, hear, and touch things that should cause us to be afraid, such as the consequences of our words and actions, our hubris and indifference, our dabbling with idolatry and our lusts for power, fame and money. In the face of the dark or unknown or future we should feel humility and a proper dependence upon God. In a sense we should fear, or revere, them as bigger than ourselves. But never should we fear them ultimately.
For the Christian we have no cause to fear anything ultimately. We hear the voice of the angel, "Be not afraid," and we need to believe him. We need to heed his words. Do not be afraid that anything shall undo you. Do not be afraid of death's false threats. Do not be afraid of Satan. Fear the Lord and trust him always.

So is there anything wrong with sneaking up on your little sister and scaring her? I don't think so. (She may not appreciate it and you may get it back, but if you dish, you take.) So too I don't think there's anything wrong with filmmakers who want to scare us in a fun sneakaboo way or in a way that seeks to rouse us from the apatheia of our sins and addictions.

That's how I think for now. It doesn't mean that all horror movies are equal. It doesn't mean I'll go see every horror movie that comes out. But it does mean I believe there is a place for the Christian at the table of horror and that a profound experience of again making our human life meaningful can take place.

I hope this helps somewhat. Hopefully you'll find yourself agreeing and disagreeing with me so that your own thinking can become clearer.



Monday, November 19, 2007

The Seminars & Schedule for the Transforming Culture Symposium

Ok, before I go on to make my very, very, very serious announcement that's pretty much obvious from the heading, I'm going to draw your attention to a pretty stinking funny advertisement, courtesy of my father by way of his Brazilian friend who speaks five languages. It's here. And I had to watch it twice in a row so I could laugh a second time.
The photo is two rockstar friends of mine.

And now for my serious note. This is what I sent out to a few of my closest thousands of friends.

We are pleased to announce the schedule and list of seminars for the Transforming Culture Symposium, held in Austin, TX, April 1-3, 2008. All info can be found at

We ask you please to pass this on to pastors, artists, church leaders and other persons who have an interest in discussing the church's relation to art and culture.

Registration price goes up January 1, 2008, so take advantage of the early bird price.

Thank you and blessings.

David & Larry

The Hill Country Institute for Contemporary Christianity



SPEAKERS : Eugene Peterson, Jeremy Begbie, Barbara Nicolosi, Andy Crouch, David Taylor, John Witvliet.

AUDIENCE & PURPOSE: The symposium brings together pastors, church leaders and artists to discuss the Church's relation to the arts and to artists. If you are interested in exploring the ways in which we can encourage a more theologically informed, biblically grounded, liturgically sensitive, artistically alive and missionally shrewd vision for the Church and the arts, then we welcome you to join us for a stimulating and refreshing two-day conversation.

· The use of Visual Art in the church
· Scripture-telling and the art of Theater
· Spiritual Formation of artists
· Blended worship: "preserving the old, releasing the new"
· Art & Evangelism
· Art & Social Justice
· 10 new ways the Church can become again a Patron of the arts
· Cultivating the Imagination of the congregation
· Perspectives on Preaching Narrativally
· A Biblical Basis for the Arts

THE DESIRED OUTCOME: Our overriding desire is to inspire a movement among pastors and artists to lay hold of God's great purposes for the church. We wish to encourage a more theologically informed, biblically grounded, liturgically sensitive, artistically alive and missionally shrewd vision for the arts. We hope to connect people from across continents. We hope to foster a 30-year dialogue. We want to set loose an eventual J.I. Packer poet laureate and an Amy Carmichael breaking new ground in the field of modern dance. We're looking at our artists making films for Universal Studios, showing in the vanguard galleries, teaching in the college theater departments. We're looking at seminaries with programs in aesthetics. We're looking at a generation of children growing up in our churches getting the kind of nurture that will produce first-rate artists—a Mozart or a Charlotte Bronte.

The hope is for a powerful, grace-filled transformation of the culture.

And that future begins now.

Artists as Agents of Grace. Pastors Rich in Imagination. The Church as a Patron of the Arts. A Winsome and Prophetic Renewal of Culture.

Join the conversation.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Zombie Pastor

This is what I was for Hope Chapel's Fall Carnival, aka our alternate Halloween event that reaches out to our surrounding neighborhoods. My niece, Skye, didn't want to kiss me. My other niece, Bronwyn, cried when she saw me. I thought I was a good zombie pastor.

But when people asked who I was, I said, "I'm Dead In My Trespasses." Scary business that.
In other news. . . .
Emerging Adulthood: "Getting a life"
There's a superb article by the sociologist Christian Smith in the latest Books & Culture where he traces this new phenomenon that's being called "emerging adulthood," a span of years that runs from 18 through our mid-30s. Interesting times we're living in. Here's a quote:
"What has emerged from this new situation has been variously labeled "extended adolescence," "youthhood," "adultolescence," "young adulthood," the "twenty-somethings," and "emerging adulthood." I find persuasive Jeffrey Arnett's argument that, of all of these labels, "emerging adulthood" is the most appropriate—because rather than viewing these years as simply the last hurrah of adolescence or an early stage of real adulthood, it recognizes the unique characteristics of this phase of life.
These, according to Arnett in Emerging Adulthood, mark this stage as one of intense (1) identity exploration, (2) instability, (3) focus on self, (4) feeling in limbo, in transition, in-between, and (5) sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope. These, of course, are also often accompanied by big doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, and disappointment."
My New Best Friend Dallas Willard
Well, I keep liking pretty much everything I read from the old Willard. Here's another tasty bit from the never-ending Divine Conspiracy:

"Currently the minds and souls of Christians and non-Christians alike are constantly hammered by the innumerable fists of an 'information society' and an inescapably media-saturated social consciousness set squarely against the reality of the kingdom of God. Without necessarily intending it, these forces almost irresistibly direct our feelings, imagery, thinking, and belief against the world of Jesus and his Father and against the profound needs and hungers of the human soul.

It is not a matter of conspiracy. It is actually something much more powerful. It is an anonymous and many-faceted structure of 'authority' that stipulates what is to count as knowledge and reality. It is silently but ponderously conveyed by our entire system of education, Christian or otherwise. The essential teachings of Jesus emphatically do not receive its stamp of approval."

Mark Noll on Song, culture, divine bounty, and issues of harmonization

Mark Noll has written a beautiful essay on music. It comes as part of the Christian Vision Project which Andy Crouch edits, and appeared also in the recent issue of Books & Culture. Noll's is the kind of writing I would aspire to one day.

Here's the last rousing portion of the essay:

"The increasing number of such examples makes it possible to imagine a fully harmonious and spiritually edifying service of Christian worship where new Christian believers played Palestrina on the indigenous musical instruments of Burkina Faso, where an African American gospel choir led in a chorale of Heinrich Sch├╝tz, where white middle-class Presbyterians surged with Christian ecstasy to the beat of a drum, where teenaged believers filled up their iPods with the Robert Shaw Chorale, and where learned Western theologians delighted in a nearly infinite repetition of "God is so good, he's so good to me."

That it is possible in these last days—in days of increased cultural self-awareness, cross-cultural contact, intra-cultural antagonism and appreciation—to imagine (if not yet to realize) such a vision means that the miraculous day draws nearer as described by the psalmist millennia ago:

Praise the Lord! … Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Or, we might say today, "Praise him with syncopation and on the beat. Praise him with 5-tones (the Thai xylophone), 12-tones (most Western music), 24-tones (Arab music), and all scales in between. Praise him a cappella, with orchestra, and with drum set. Praise him with works of supernal intelligence and greatest simplification. Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Together."

And now for something different . . . .

How do people get so smart? And when do they have time to make this stuff? This is an ingenious piece of animation.