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The Temple of the Unknown God

Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor. — J.R.R. Tolkien

We are a people who enjoy a colorful tale, and for the last hundred years, the movie-going experience has fed this appetite. The visual marvel of Avatar may have grossed truckloads of revenue, but small pictures such as Precious will continue to captivate us because it is story that informs, in part, who we are. Among the arts, movies are unique in that they fulfill a need for casual social diversion, yet also are rich conveyors of value and meaning.

For some in the Christian community, the cineplex is competition for the Church, seen in some regard as a worship experience in its own right: dutiful pilgrims gather in a fancy building with ushers and offer up a few coins in exchange for a communal experience of escape and inspiration. In reaction, the Church has historically taken on different roles with regard to film. In the role of moralist, Hollywood’s offerings are filtered through a Judeo-Christian ethic. Films must pass a moral litmus test to be deemed worthy and thus viewable. As the evangelist, the Church assumes the director’s chair, producing movies ready-made for spiritual seekers, complete with a 12-session study guide. But with these approaches to film, the moralist has a limited scope and the evangelist a limited arena.

The opportunity before the Church lies in the other direction. If we are to engage our culture with the person of Christ, we would do well to recognize that there are stories of Christ being told every 90 minutes in the local theater. While not calling Him by name, these stories shine a light on our human condition, the depth to which we sometimes fall, the nobility we are capable of, and the reconciliation we each seek. But in order to be listeners and interpreters of these stories, Christians must be willing to identify the faint image of God within His marred creation, looking for common threads of grace in the stories the world is telling.

The Temple of the Unknown God
In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul engages the citizens of Athens with the gospel through the door of their “altar to an unknown god.” Relocating this scene to any modern city, it’s not hard to imagine the Apostle standing in the midst of our cinematic temples, drawing on his knowledge and appreciation of film, identifying common themes of humanity’s search for hope and meaning, and encouraging his listeners that God “is actually not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27 ESV)

As a Christian and as a fan of film, I feel as though I have missed such opportunities. Each week, friends we hesitate to invite to church will gladly accompany us to the latest blockbuster or hippest indie film. Each week, we sit side by side with spiritual seekers in these temples of the unknown god. Christian filmgoers, who are attuned to stories that have a God-shape to them, could approach the common experience of film with an aim toward missional conversation about deeper human longing, the struggles of our own fallenness, and the hope for redemption.

Gratia Communis
Any discussion on the contribution of the “secular” arts in Christian dialogue meets the following obstacles: Can those who do not know God reveal His truth? Can fallen people uphold divine virtue? Can those who stand in opposition to the purposes of God produce godly fruit?

The set of beliefs typically known as Calvinism do not exactly evoke images of artsy film school students. The Reformed tradition’s somewhat chilly reputation regarding the arts came as a response to the rather flamboyant environment of the Church in sixteenth century Europe. However, in evaluating Calvin’s doctrine of common grace, one finds a vibrant application to the arts and a matrix through which the culturally engaged Christians can address issues in contemporary film.

In A Compend of the Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin expressed his belief that humankind has a sensus divinitatis, an innate sense of God, “naturally engraved on the hearts of men.” Especially at the point of despair or searching, “[the sensus divinitatis] stimulates them to seek him, and dictates concise prayers, which prove that they are not altogether ignorant of God.” Since much of art comes from that place of despair and searching, even the artist most hostile to the things of God cannot separate her craft from the “deepest root which all human life has in God.” (Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism) Because of the sensus divinitatis, no art exists in a vacuum, and one who is searching may find in surprising places common threads, common hurts, and common grace.

The concept of common grace is described by Louis Berkhof in an essay titled, “Common Grace,” as “those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man through His general or special revelation, that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted.” Humankind’s participation in God’s sovereign purposes in the cosmos reveals itself in all facets of life, including artistic offerings. Further, the ability to participate in any way is itself an example of grace. While the results of the Fall are total in the sense that they extend out to every part of creation, they are not total in the sense that all creation is thoroughly corrupt. In other words, as Calvin posits in his Institutes, the Fall is radically broad but not comprehensively deep. It is grace, therefore, that governs the human will to extend beyond the effects of the Fall, and while this gratia communis cannot undo those effects, it provides an opening for God to begin the good work in us by what Calvin describes as “bending, forming, and directing our hearts toward righteousness.”

The impact of common grace on the arts has significant importance as we consider the role of film in meaning making and engagement. Rather than uphold the dualistic myth that “Christian art” can only proceed from Christians, Calvin would maintain the arts are gifts that “God imparts promiscuously to believers and unbelievers.” (Kuyper, Lectures) The heart, molded toward righteousness, will not always produce that which is morally upright, but will produce that which is morally existential. That is to say, common grace generates a product that views itself in relation to the Good. Recognizable stories of God emerge from His marred but present image in film, but these stories may need interpreters. The task of the missionally-minded film viewer is to recognize that this story of God is full of urgency and color and provides an alternate route to that which Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor characterize in A Matrix of Meanings as “a Jesus who for many has been domesticated, declawed, and kept under wraps.” To appreciate God’s story in our stories, we consider a recent film.

The Wrestler
Director Darren Aronofsky created an unlikely and sympathetic hero in his award-winning The Wrestler. The story follows the painful and isolated life of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a one-time great professional wrestler known for his flowing blonde locks and his signature jump, the “Ram Jam.” The viewer gets to know Randy through the opening credits, which highlight the glory days of arena events and pay-per-view specials. As the credits end, we join Randy in the present, his face bloated from steroid abuse, his expression one of sheer self-loathing.

Randy’s daily life is a mockery of his former fame, working for meager earnings while attempting to revive his wrestling career. His old life of accomplishment slipping out of reach, Randy desperately seeks redemption through his friendship with an aging stripper, his attempts at salvaging a relationship with his adult daughter, and his willingness to abuse his body to the breaking point.

But this redemption eludes him, and Randy’s life further unravels. With nothing left to live for other than cheers of fickle fans, Randy returns one last time to the ring, and with tears in his eyes, drops from the top turnbuckle for a final “Ram Jam.”

The Wrestler was one of the best-reviewed films of 2008, and viewers seemingly empathized with this washed-up entertainer. His story, like his body, may be artificially inflated; nonetheless, it is our story as well. At one point Randy laments, “I just don’t want to be alone.” Therein lies the heart of the film and the universal connection we have with Randy: we recognize a need to connect, to belong to something bigger than ourselves. In Randy’s case, the adoration of his fans is shallow, but it’s a connection.

Like his staged fights, Randy’s sense of belonging and connection was an illusion. Engaging people through this film, it would be important to explore what signifies real connection in our lives and where we look for it. Why do we yearn to belong? Where does that come from? Can we only be loved through our vanities and attempts to be lovable? What is the difference between success and significance?

Learning to Become Interpreters
Recently, a friend expressed frustration over his attempts to weave spiritual issues into conversations he has with a colleague at his office. Zach is an attorney working for a Silicon Valley company in a corporate setting where potentially controversial conversation is discouraged.

Zach became a Christian following the death of his father. A favorite film of Zach’s is Field of Dreams, largely on account of the baseball theme and father/son dynamic that echo his connection with his father. When explaining that discussions with his friend at work rarely go beyond topics such as sports, I suggested that a common appreciation for a sports film such as Field of Dreams might allow entry into deeper discussion. He was interested but hesitant. For some, film seems too common or “unholy” to be utilized for spiritual pursuits. With the overwhelming popularity and prominence of film, the Church has a responsibility to equip our people in engaging our world through the medium.

The Old Testament book of Daniel opens with an account of young Jewish men living as exiles in Babylon, immersed in upper class Chaldean life. They were to adopt this new culture as their own, learning the ways of Babylon and learning “the literature and language of the Chaldeans.” (Daniel 1:4 ESV) But despite their immersion in Babylonian culture, Daniel and his peers did not become Babylonian. On the contrary, Daniel’s familiarity with his adopted culture allowed him to be an interpreter of the stories and dreams of Babylon, guiding its king to an understanding of the true and living God.

Down the road from many of our church buildings is a different kind of temple. But inside those temples are people with the same brokenness and the same longings as inside our buildings. If we are willing to learn the language of the Chaldeans and to engage the worshippers of the unknown god, we may be presented with opportunities to be listeners of hurts, interpreters of hopes, and sometimes prophets of truth.