Monday, April 29, 2013

On Ninja Angels And True TV Enlightenment

I'm a Midwesterner by upbringing as well as a Catholic, though I can't say I really identify with either identity now in my adulthood.  When it comes to the latter, I'm apparently in some very good company.  According to a recent Pew survey, while Catholics still constitution the single largest religious denomination in the United States at 23.9% of the population, a whopping one out of every ten adult Americans is a "lapsed Catholic."  (By way of comparison, the Catholics have lost more members than the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims and "Historically Black Churches" have acquired put together.)

For whatever theological qualms I came to develop with official church doctrine (which I needn't go into here), I quickly came to appreciate one thing in particular about Catholicism as it's practiced in America (and in my hometown of St. Louis in particular, a city known as the "Rome of the West" for its high Catholic population) when I traveled upstate for undergrad college in the sleepy rural town of Kirksville, Missouri.  In a few words, Catholics keep it in church.  I'm not talking about being a "Christmas/Easter Christian", or a "salad bar Christian".  I mean, Catholicism by and large doesn't busy itself with inserting itself into every moment and facet of life, or getting in the face of every passerby even when (particularly when) it's uninvited.

I'm looking at you, Bible Belt of America.

The first week of college was a real wake-up call to be suspicious of every friendly face that suddenly wanted to be my best bud on campus.  Give a Born Again Christian fifteen minutes and the conversation will quickly turn from "what classes do we have in common" to "have you invited Jesus Christ to be your personal savior?"  Midwestern politeness (and a deep urge to end the conversation as soon as possible) kept me from saying, "Yeah, after ten years of Catholic elementary and four years of Jesuit high school education ... me and the JC go back a few years, but I'm glad you had an epiphany last week and saw God in your cereal or whatever."

Outside of the classroom, I can easily say that the two biggest lessons I took from my undergraduate years is that (a) our culture is deeply awash in Christianity, and (b) many practicing Christians are convinced that, to the contrary, our culture is thoroughly godless in general and deeply anti-Christian in particular.  I've never quite figured out how these two things can be simultaneously true, how I could pass by dozens upon dozens of Christian-themed billboards on the four-hour drive to Kirksville, along with enough churches to give practically every Missouri resident their very own congregation of one, only to hear upon arrival that Christians are in fact a persecuted class of citizens in this heathen country.  This, of course, extends to our entertainment industry, which is widely disparaged as a wellspring of anti-Christian messages.

I still don't fully understand why the Christian Persecution Complex is so pervasive, but at least when it comes to the supposed "lack" of positive Christian entertainment, I think I know part of the answer.

Put briefly, many American Evangelical Christians are blind (intentionally or not) to explorations of spirituality and religious themes that aren't "literal" retellings of the Bible they recognize from Sunday sermons. It's one thing to point out that, viewed as a work of literature, the Bible is a confounding mess of conflicting themes and narrative threads that go nowhere, poorly suited for contemporary television or film.  It's another thing entirely to recognize that there are a glut of well-made, challenging, spiritually rich TV shows and movies out there, provided you don't need to be whacked over the head with a wooden cross to recognize them.

Let the sacrilege begin with a scathing review of ...

"The Bible, Based On The Epic TV Miniseries 'The Bible' (Based On The Bible)"

Okay, so the actual title of the tie-in book isn't quite that bad, but it's close.  Amazingly, the book is described on Amazon is a "sweeping new novel by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett", the husband-and-wife team behind the recently aired History Channel miniseries.  The sheer audacity and absurdity of The Bible mini-series was well-lampooned by Stephen Colbert, and I wouldn't pretend to improve on his take down:

The theological problems with casting a Portuguese telenovela beefcake to play a Semitic Mideastern man is one thing; though, that hardly seemed to bother the 11.7 million viewers that tuned in for the final episode (aired on Easter Sunday,  natch).  And for advocates of a "more Christian culture", the ratings bonanza for this cable channel miniseries was cause for massive celebration.

From the "Entertainment" section of the Christian Post:
The Motion Picture Corporation of America is reportedly producing a $20 million, six-hour miniseries serving as a spinoff of "The Bible," titled "Jesus of Nazareth."
"We believe the audience continues to have a hunger for life- and faith-affirming films," Michael Landon Jr., a Christian producer and writer for "Jesus of Nazareth," told The Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview.

Others took the opportunity to use The Bible to rib the alleged "Hollywood Elites", well known amongst the Evangelical set to abhor all things Christian.  From Newsmax:
Biblical productions often confound Hollywood critics. Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” became the biggest R-rated film ever in the United States, earning $600 million worldwide despite woeful reviews.
Though, the inherent problems of adapting a centuries-old religious text is manifest even to those eager to praise The Bible (and The Passion of the Christ) as "mostly faithful to the biblical source material" (Portuguese beefcake and all)  and among the few productions that "doesn't intentionally insult its religious audience."  From David Nilsen, writing for The Gospel Coalition:
Actress Roma Downey, one of the show's producers, said in an interview on The O'Reilly Factor that they wanted to make the Bible "cool" and interesting, especially for impatient teenagers who rarely read. This attitude was on full display in the miniseries, the most egregious example being the two angels who go to Sodom to rescue Lot's family.  After emerging from Lot's house in full armor and blinding the crowd, the angels whip out swords and proceed to slaughter half of Sodom on their path to escape.  One of the angels happens to be of Asian descent and wields two swords at once, officially bringing the "Ninja Angel" into the mainstream (a phrase that dominated social media after the episode aired).
"Come with me if you want to live ... no wait, I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass ...
no, I got one, hold on ..."
How exactly "Ninja Angels" doesn't "intentionally insult its religious audience" is beyond me.  But then, it's also beyond me how a film that is by all measures a mock snuff film could be consistently upheld as the ultimate antidote to all that is ungodly in American culture.

I have to conclude that I'm simply not the audience for The Passion of the Christ.  Not because I'm a lapsed Catholic.  Not even because I'm not a spiritual person.  But because this particular style of storytelling doesn't speak to me.  Yet, critically, this article of faith amongst so many self-described "believers" that Mel Gibson's opus is an island in a sea of anti-religous filth is not just misguided.  It's a recipe for overlooking some of the best explorations of faith and -- indeed -- Christian values that our culture has to offer.

It's Not TV, It's A Powerful Story Of Faith And Redemption

I was recently challenged to back up a claim I made on the message board of an Armond White review of Terrence Malick's To the Wonder (in which Mr. White predictably laments that "agnosticism, atheism and secularism [] dominate contemporary film culture") that we live in "a deeply Christian culture."  The challenger insisted that "there is nothing deeply Christian about Hollywood" and he asked that I provide "some evidence to support [my] theory." I threw out a bunch of examples
  • The Christ-allegories in The Matrix, the Harry Potter series, Superman Returns and (most obviously) the Narnia series; 
  • The overtly Christian protagonist in Book of Eli or even the positively depicted Christian side-character in Contact;
  • The ethical dramas at the heart of Juno (concerning abortion and adoption) or Dead Man Walking (the death penalty);
  • Or even the shlock appropriation of Christian mythology in Constantine or the first and third Indiana Jones movies.
We could debate the merit of any one of these examples, both in terms of their artistic merit and whether the underlying values they express are themselves meritorious.  What is indisputable, however, is that Hollywood produces far more Christian-themed movies than anyone south of the Bible Belt would care to admit.

Yet, beyond the simple (and simplistic) conclusion that our culture is indeed an overwhelming "Christian" culture, it's also true that some of the best artifacts of our culture exploring the challenges of being a faithful, spiritual person indeed don't rely on Christian symbolism ... and for this reason alone they may lumped into the same "agnostic, atheistic, secular" culture that the Armond Whites and Christian Posts see when they look out their stain-glassed windows.

The show I'm talking about is HBO's Enlightened.  Here's a quick synopsis from HBO's home page:
Created by Mike White and Laura Dern, this half-hour comedy series centers on Amy Jellicoe (Dern), a well-intentioned employee of a Southern California corporation who, after flipping out and going to anger-management rehab, emerges with a singular, if at times misguided, mission to make her company more responsible.
No, it's not a church-run rehab program.  No, she doesn't come back Born Again.  No, it's not a Tyler Perry movie.  What it is is an honest, often-times uncomfortable exploration of what it takes to fight for a more "responsible" world, even when our faith and conviction bumps against the realities of modern life.

Just without the Ninja Angels.


I'm about two-thirds of the way through the first season so far, so I can's speak yet to the second (and, from what I've heard, best) season.  But I want to put special attention on Episode 5 of the first season, in which Amy (Laura Dern) hears the story of a mother about to be deported as an illegal immigrant, thus separating her from her two young daughters.  An awkward encounter at work results in an old, "pre-meltdown" acquaintance of Amy's inviting her -- against her will, essentially -- to her baby shower.  Her pregnant friend suspicions that Amy has yet to stabilize emotionally prove well-founded.  Amy shows up late, without any presents to give, and nothing positive to say to the mother-to-be.  Instead, Amy takes the opportunity to give a long-winded, droning sermon on how they all have an obligation to help others like the poor mother about to be separated from her children.  One could easily agree with every word she said, on ethical and political grounds, while still seeing the speech as nakedly self-aggrandizing and totally out of place for the occasion.

Yet, Amy for all her best intentions seems completely clueless that her grandstanding (which, it has to be said, did nothing to actually help the downtrodden immigrant mother) was as unwelcome at the party as Amy was herself.  The look on Amy's face when her ex-friend explodes in her face on the way out is the look of every well-intentioned, misguided soul out there who finds their sincerity met with disdain ... and for completely understandable reasons.

The episode ends with Amy turning the self-reflection that follows into concrete action, bringing a gift to the immigrant family to express her sympathy and solidarity with their plight.  This simple, selfless act actually brought some relief to people in need.  It's far more a Sermon on the Mound than any pathetic speech Amy could give to people in no mood to hear it.

Is this "intentionally insulting"?  Is it "agnostic, atheistic and secular"?  No, Amy is not overtly Christian in any respect, and as the moral center of Enlightened, she is as much antagonist as protagonist (sabotaging her own best intentions time and again as she stumbles her way towards a better life).  A faithful Christian could find a rich vein to tap here -- what obligation do we have to the immigrants in our midst?  How does one reconcile their spiritual values with the demands of an amoral, profit-driven workplace?  Is "ethical living" really just the hobby of the privileged upper- and middle-class with the financial means to attend retreats and make the occasional, proportionally insignificant donation to a worthy cause?

It lacks all the subtly of a two-hour long torture scene. But so long as the Bible Belt judges all culture by the number of times Jesus appears on screen (and how much blood he spills), they'll be missing out on some truly value-rich storytelling happening right now.

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