Our kids are at summer camp this week which means that for the past four nights my wife and I have had been faced with the glorious burden of determining what to do with a free evening. It has not been a particularly onerous burden. Casual nights out, leisurely walks, eating supper whenever we want, sleeping in a bit longer than usual, not having to clean up the house nearly as often—it’s been lovely. Of course we miss the kids terribly and can’t wait for them to come home and all that, but still. It’s been great.
Being sans children has also afforded us the opportunity to go out to a few movies. Going out to the movies isn’t something I have done very frequently over the last few years. Many of my evenings are tied up with meetings or kids’ activities, and when they aren’t, a quiet evening at home seems like about the best thing imaginable. So usually, I have very little idea of what is even playing. I can’t even remember the last non-kids’ movie I saw in theatres prior to this week.
But this week we’ve had nothing but time! So, off to the theatres. We saw The Bourne Legacy one night, and then The Avengers a few nights ago. I really enjoyed the first one, but by about halfway through the second I was starting to get a bit bored, I confess. There’s only so much one can take of cars exploding, glass shattering, buildings being decimated, muscles flexing, fists and legs punching and kicking, and arrows, bullets, and cheesy one-liners flying. After a while, it all starts to look and sound the same. Humanity/the world is in grave peril due to the imminent threat presented by terrorists, aliens, genetically-modified soldiers, etc… But—fear not!—there are beautiful, muscular people/superheroes whose fists and legs and guns and brains and motorcycles and assorted otherworldly powers are about to step in and save the day once the requisite number of explosions and chase scenes have taken place, and once the most beautiful and muscular of these heroes has had the obligatory spectacularly-choreographed epic fight-scene with the equally muscular/beautiful/otherworldly “main bad guy.”
As I was walking out of the theatre into a late summer evening a few nights ago, and I was watching the throngs of fellow movie-pilgrims emerging from what I must assume were equally amazing experiences, I wondered: why do we go to the movies? A bit of a stupid question, perhaps, but stupid questions (and the subsequent ramblings they provoke) occur to me all the time. That’s why I have a blog.
Of course, the most obvious reason we go to the movies is to be entertained. We want to see cool stuff that we will never see in our ordinary, pedestrian lives which contain altogether too few explosions or car chases or superheroes or wild nights of responsibility-free passion with impossibly beautiful people. And the moviemakers spare no expense in making sure that we will see plenty of cool stuff. It truly is astonishing what can be created/simulated on a screen these days. We go to the movies because we want to escape. And what better place to escape but into all of these wonderful stories and lives whose chief attribute is often simply that they are not ours?
But I suspect there is more to the story. I wonder, in particular, if in a post-Christian culture that has mostly walked away from church, going to the movies functions something like going to a house of worship for many. There are many parallels, it seems to me. We go to the movies again and again to have a story of the triumph of good over evil narrated to us. The good guys always win, after all. The world is always saved. Few of us, it seems, believe that we are a part of any real meta-story that is good and hopeful, but the need to be a part of such a story must be fed somehow. So we go to the movies.
We also go to the movies to rehearse our conviction that love really does conquer all (no matter how inadequately this “love” might be understood and presented on the big screen). Romantic comedies all offer some variation of boy/girl overcoming some obstacle in order to find his/her “true love”—this glorious state of being that is out there waiting for all of us, if only we can find it and eliminate all of the other things/people who stand between us and its realization. Love, love, love. We so desperately want/need this and we are drawn, like a moth to a flame, to stories of love however confusedly and impossibly their version of love is presented to us on the screen.
We also go to the movies to worship. We bow down to the beautiful, muscular people who repeatedly save our world and find love in the process, we read and agonize over the minutiae of their lives in the pre-movie magazines (bulletins?). We admire their bodies, we pine for their houses and their cars and their trips, we look with longing at their beautiful children, we grant interest to their opinions that is enormously disproportionate to their suitability to offer them. We offer them our devotion and our time. We want to imitate our gods. We covet their lives.
And, of course we give. Oh, do we give! Millions and millions of our hard-earned, increasingly precarious dollars are devoted to supporting and sustaining these houses of worship. In what rational culture would an average actor or athlete command a salary that vastly exceeds that of national leaders or doctors or educators or… pick your useful vocation? If how we spend our money reveals what matters to us, it is clear that there are few things more important to us than that we are entertained. Our tithes and offerings are dutifully collected and promptly poured back into big companies who pay big money to get the beautiful, muscular people to lend their beautiful, muscular bodies to yet more stories of love and good triumphing over evil for our next worship experience.
A bit of a strained analogy? Perhaps. But there are just enough parallels to be mildly unsettling—at least for me. At any rate, the kids are back from camp tomorrow, so I don’t anticipate going out to worship at the movies again for a while.
I am well aware that the chief lesson to be learned from my movie-going experience this week might just be that I might need to watch better, more nuanced movies that actually make some attempt to reflect the complexity and beauty of the human condition. To which my response is… Um, well, yeah.
You make a good point and I suspect you’re right. It reminds me of what we were told about the circus on a recent tour in Moscow, how very important it was to the family life and culture of the city, still, but especially during the Soviet era. Our tour leader said that the circus became like a substitute for church (which was disallowed).
Circus as church, eh? The mind is spinning with the possibilities buried in that analogy… :).
Where the Russians’ substitution was born out of a kind of necessity, ours seems—at least some of the time—to be born out of boredom, apathy, and cheap cynicism. For many in our culture, I suspect, it is easier to silence the questions and dull the pain of existence with entertainment than to face it head on. We are, to borrow the language of philosopher Albert Borgmann, “distracted and idolatrous sleepwalkers.”
Yes, but there are still those more nuanced movies, as you suggested in your postscript which you’ll have to take on. Next time the kids are in camp! 🙂
Indeed. And contrary to all of my bluster here, I have seen a few such movies over the last little while (at home, not in theatres). “Away From Her” and “Of Gods and Men” stand out, but there have been others as well.
One should not, I suppose, expect too much from a movie like “The Avengers” :).
The hot trend I see lately in church construction is churches that literally look like movie theaters. (Um, sorry Ryan… theatres.) Right down to the type of seating, the large screens, etc. I think these churches are deliberately built this way to appeal to folks who are used to going to the movies but not to a traditional church. I have mixed feelings. I see the wisdom in it, and there is nothing in the gospel that says a church building must look a certain way. But I also like the look of a traditional worship space.
Yes, the same trend is observable up here. Like you, I have mixed feelings about theatre-style churches. “The medium is the message” and all that… I can’t help but think that the way that we set up space communicates something—if church looks like a movie, what does that make the people in the pews, er, I mean, the seating? Audience or congregation? I think that theatre-style churches communicate a lot implicitly, whatever the official message might be. I prefer traditional worship space too.
(And I like the way you spell “theatre” :).)
” We go to church again and again to have a story of the triumph of good over evil narrated to us. The good guys always win, after all. The world is always saved. ”
“After a while, it all starts to look and sound the same. Humanity/the world is in grave peril due to the imminent threat presented by sodomites, queers , paedophiles, etc… But—fear not!—there are beautiful, radiant people/angels whose goodness and kindness and prayers and crosses and churches and other assorted otherworldly powers are about to step in and save the day once the requisite number of converts and hymns have taken place…”
Same narrative? and I am by no means coming to the defence of the summer blockbuster. What makes one better than the other?
Yeah, that’s certainly one dominant narrative out there, Tyler. Of course, I think there are other, better, more nuanced, less fear-based versions of the story out there, but this one is certainly alive and well in parts of the world (and, perhaps at least as frequently, in the minds of religion’s “cultured despisers,” to borrow Schleiermacher’s famous term).
What makes one better than the other one? Well, I suppose the first question would be, “which narrative are we talking about?” I don’t think that the narrative you’ve outlined here is in any way better than the summer blockbuster. If we were talking about a more robust version of the Christian narrative, I would say that it is better than the summer blockbuster because I am convinced that it is true (yes, I am well aware that many would say that the Christian narrative is no less of a fantasy than The Avengers… that would require a longer conversation). Good really does win over evil in the end and human beings have a role to play in anticipating and participating in this reality now. The hunger we (apparently) have for these kinds of stories has some basis in how the world actually works and where it is going.
I would also say that this more robust Christian narrative is “better” because it offers a different model of “victory” than most blockbusters. The hero doesn’t just flex his muscles and kick everyone’s ass, he lays down his life for his friends and his enemies. Evil is defeated not through force, but through sacrificial love, compassion, and forgiveness. I realize much more could be said here, but maybe that’s a start.
“I would also say that this more robust Christian narrative is “better” because it offers a different model of “victory” than most blockbusters. The hero doesn’t just flex his muscles and kick everyone’s ass, he lays down his life for his friends and his enemies. Evil is defeated not through force, but through sacrificial love, compassion, and forgiveness. I realize much more could be said here, but maybe that’s a start”
So, we are moving from the Avengers to Batman? (I prefer this because I have always been a DC fan).
I know my switch-up there described a version of Christianity that does not appeal to you (and many others), but I only wished to illuminate the point. Is a more robust version that much better? It is one thing to say “a better world is possible,” and entirely different to say “good will overcome evil.” The former requires action or praxis the other, well, not so much. The belief is based on the assumption that good will overcome. Would you have as much faith if this was never stated?
“The hunger we (apparently) have for these kinds of stories has some basis in how the world actually works and where it is going.”
Or do our stories have basis in how we want the world to actually work and where we want it to go? That is why we need them because when we look around we realize how far we are from what we could be. Could not a problem occur when we are sitting here waiting for Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark to use their fortunes and genius to fight for what we are too lazy or too unmotivated to work towards? We can’t just be sitting and waiting for Superman and his league of Justice.
A couple of things in response:
1. I hope it was clear in my post that I am not denigrating the parallels between the two narratives. In other words, I am not saying that it is a bad thing that the movies we watch share certain features with the meta-narratives we live by. I think it is (mostly) good and unavoidable that they do—it points to a hunger for a good and hopeful story that exists deep within all of us.
2. Re: “A better world is possible” vs. “good will overcome evil,” I think that both approaches require praxis. My convictions about God and the fate of the cosmos in no way absolve me of responsibility to act responsibly and ethically the present. Indeed, I would say that these convictions add urgency and motivation to how I think and act in the present. In a way, confidence in the outcome allows greater free and joy in the pursuit of “a better world” because I know that the outcome does not depend on me. I am a participant, not the one charged with bringing the future about. I would find it exhausting (not to mention depressing, given the miserable track record of humanity!), to labour under the impression that the better world we long and work for is exclusively ours to bring about.
The Christian conviction, as I understand it, is not that we are to just wait around for Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne (or Jesus) to come and fix everything. We always have a role to play in the future that is coming.
My question then is: what is that role? And why is it significant other than personal salvation?
Well, in really general terms, I would say that role is to live now according to what we believe will one day be. So, if I believe that history is moving toward a future of justice, peace, righteousness, love, etc, I will do my best to act that way now.
Why is it significant? I guess partly because we become better people in the process. This is as true for Christians as anyone else—a life well-lived is one in which there is at least some attempt made to order our lives according to our professed values and convictions. I would also say that another Christian conviction is that our lives on this planet are a kind of training ground for the future. We are always becoming a certain kind of person in the decisions we make and the things we do—either the kind of person who will be at home in God’s future of peace, or one that will not.
But, ultimately, what does becoming a better person really accomplish in terms of a pre-determined end game? Why not just do the bare minimum? I guess what I am trying to say is that it is often considered nihilism or what not when speaking about a lack of God, but is this not just a version of nihilism? Meaning is reduced to nothing because our actions would have no significance and change nothing.
” We are always becoming a certain kind of person in the decisions we make and the things we do,” careful! You are starting to sound a lot like Nietzsche! 🙂
Leaving aside the issue of exactly how “pre-determined” Christian eschatology is, why would the nature of the “end game” change things? Isn’t becoming a better human being an inherent good? Doesn’t cultivating certain habits, regardless of how or when or if these habits reach their telos have value on its own? I wonder what Aristotle would say… :).
Certainly. And Aristotle, and Jesus, and Isaiah, and Paul, and Buddha and countless others. I think that all of the great thinkers (and lots of the average ones, probably) have, in some way or another, pointed to the truth that to decide and to act in any direction is to be shaped and formed as a human being.
The nature of the end-game matters because on one hand you are saying that the cosmos are controlled/created by God. Any action within that cosmos cannot affect the end result of goodness. Therefore action is meaningless. In this case all inherent-value is expelled unless we want to concern ourselves with the Platonic dilemma of Good vs God. The proper name of the argument escapes me at the moment.
Without God, or without the belief that good will overcome evil, or that fight even matters we are left with the severe burden of choice and the consequences of our actions. This would be the angst Sarte so wonderfully describes. We are thrown into the world to live for a brief period of time. I’d agree with you that we are wired to want ‘good to overcome,’ but see no need for this desire to be externalized outside of human psychology/biology.
In terms of Aristotle and his telos. The great mover doesn’t need to be viewed as external even though he viewed it as so. It can be viewed in a similar way to Roseau’s perfectibility. From this, I think, we get an image of something better or different than ourselves, even if it is culturally and self defined, that we can ‘move’ towards. In fact, I would even go as far as to say Aristotle’s idea forms is grounded in this belief even if he fully didn’t realize the extent of what he was saying.
I was poking fun with the Nietzsche but you are correct and I think this is where we find a great deal of common ground. It seems we both believe that the human agent plays the most important role (not rules or pleasure) in an ethical life. Putting metaphysics and reasoning aside, maybe throwing on the anarchist hat, I still can’t get over why God must orient this quest when many of his actions appear 100% unethical. My girlfreind is reading Gensis and Job for school and the amount of ‘WTFs’ that come from her mouth only confirm this belief.
Any ways, thanks for the responses. I haven’t talked to anyone about topics like these in so long and it feels unbelievably good. Maybe we are all just hedonists and the pleasure I happen find attractive comes from philosophical debate 🙂
A thought experiment: Suppose science were to someday discover that behind all of our ethical striving and all of our value-attribution, beyond all of our aesthetic hunger there was some impersonal force or reason that was leading us on, motivating our quest for truth, beauty, and meaning. Think of the deist’s “God” or “Reason” or Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.” Whatever. Suppose in some sense, and for whatever reason the universe was discovered to be friendly to what matters to us and to in some sense motivate and reward these pursuits and was heading toward the fulfillment of these things (some kind of a value-laden “Big Crunch”). Would that render all of our action in the present “meaningless?”
Re: the ethics of God’s actions described in the Bible. Well, everything depends upon what one expects when one comes to the Bible, what one considers the Bible to be, how one interprets it. Unfortunately, many Christians have done a poor job thinking about and articulating their views around the nature of Scripture, as well as how it is meant to be interpreted. The Bible is not a flat book where every part is meant to be read in the same way. Unfortunately, this is how it is often presented and viewed (which accounts for no small amount of WTF’s, both inside and outside of the church).
Anyway, I’m off for a weekend speaking engagement and probably won’t be checking the blog for a while. Thanks for the interesting (hedonistic :)) dialogue!