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Monday, June 17, 2013

The Pastor and the Man of Steel

I recently saw the newest installment of the Superman franchise, “The Man of Steel.” It was a powerful, entertaining, and thinly veiled allegory for anyone paying attention.

A recent CNN article[1] has described how the producers of the film invited pastors and other church leaders to view advanced screenings and to use studio-supplied notes from which to develop Father’s Day sermons and other church communications. This is not the first time such a marketing strategy has been employed; just a few years ago similar campaigns were launched in conjunction with the releases of “The Blind Side” and “Fireproof.”[2]

The idea is clear: there are sufficient meaty themes and images in “The Man of Steel” to provide preachers and teachers with ample connections and illustrations in their ministries. By “marketing” the film to church leaders the studio might get a bump in viewers. By being “marketed” to, church leaders get a bump in cool points, relevance, and perhaps the ever-shortening attention spans of congregants.

After seeing the film and viewing the notes that have been distributed to many churches by Warner Brothers I’m convinced that we pastors must become better women and men in terms of artistic, literary, and cultural insight. We must become better readers, viewers, and thinkers when it comes to the arts.

Baptists have long been accused of a strong anti-intellectual bend that has become something of a calling card among my tribe.[3] There were days not too long ago when the pastor of a local church was the only educated citizen of the community and the one relied upon for insight and understanding in matters ecclesial and secular. In recent years, though, it seems that Baptists have become something of a “know nothing” party that takes harsh political and social stands on things that ultimately matter little.

Here are some illustrations: I was lucky (unlucky?) enough to live through the boycott of Disney in ’97, the boycott of Waldenbooks and K-Mart in ’95, and the current “great matter” over the Boy Scouts of America. Further, I was a member of a thriving youth ministry in the late 90s through which I went to summer camps where Harry Potter was proclaimed to be the worst sort of witchcraft and personally saw a Pokémon character destroyed because it represented an idol of some sort. Lastly, I recall a sermon preached against the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” which the preacher had never seen.

Ok, so that’s a long list of things that many of you probably remember and cringe over. The point of that list is to demonstrate just how Baptists have engaged with culture in my own generation. I am not trying to categorize these responses as necessarily “good” or “bad,” nor am I conjuring the spirit of Niebuhr and his categories of Christ and Culture. Rather, I’d like to suggest that my Baptist peers and I reclaim something of the cultural literacy that we once had by being smarter, more well-read, and conversant with media than we have been in generations past.

What I think happened is that we took the “tee-totaling” attitude a bit too far. If drunkenness is bad, then we’ll just abstain from alcohol completely. If smoking or chewing tobacco could send the wrong message, then we’ll shun all tobacco. If the relatively recent establishment of a rating system of works of art and artistic expression says something is taboo, then by George we’ll somehow make it a double taboo.

The consequence of such a stance is that we have lost all of our ability to read. We have lost the ability to experience art in all its forms and to interpret those experiences in light of Jesus Christ. We have become so afraid of the media that we assume all media is out to get us. We have become so petrified in our stances against certain moral issues that we have thrown out literature[4] and boycotted movies. There is a broad, bold line between thoughtfully and prayerfully rejecting sin and evil and being some sort of ostrich when it comes to literature, movies, and television. Baptist pastors, at least, should demonstrate the spiritual maturity to know the difference.

I find it sad that Warner Brothers’ sermon notes were necessary. I’d like to think that any Baptist pastor would be able to view the film and weave powerful references to Godliness, to Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, or to the essential nature of God’s fatherhood into a sermon series while the film is in theaters. Unfortunately many will reject the film outright because it comes from Hollywood or will slavishly follow the prescribed sermon outline without viewing the film or prayerfully developing a timely, unique word for their congregations.

It’s not just “The Man of Steel,” however. I recall one pastor preaching from a prepared sermon manuscript by Rick Warren in 2003 during a “40 Days of Purpose” campaign. Other such instances of parroting certainly accompanied church-wide emphases on “Fireproof.”

The pastor must be more than a pulpiteer, more than a counselor; the Baptist pastor must be an individual who can read. We must be the tribe that keeps the classics in print and the newest hardcovers on our iPads. We must be readers of poetry and prose, of fiction and non-fiction. We must speak the languages of journalism and jurisprudence. We must be readers.

Someone will object to this on the grounds that it is wasted energy and time since the vast majority of our congregants do not read voraciously nor do they read deeply.[5] In fact, one may object that since we cannot possibly know the education or literacy level of our congregants we do harm to immerse ourselves in the language of poetry or history for fear of alienating those who cannot or will not follow along. This is certainly a valid point. I am not advocating a return to Victorian-Era preaching with complex and esoteric language. I further am not advocating for the inclusion of poems, literary references, or historic citations in the homiletic exercise. Instead I simply call for pastors to be better people themselves by reading more broadly and more deeply – such education and insight will allow us to find the right phrase or word rather than something that merely suffices. It will allow our verbs to be more vivid and sharp, our sentences to dance more lightly upon the ears of those who need to hear.

I commend my friend and colleague Griff Martin of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge for his desire to see just such a baptism of language in his own congregation. Through book studies that prepare hearers for the sermon each week Griff and his Co-Pastor are keeping their own minds sharp and their congregation’s vocabulary ever rich. Pete Wilson of Crosspoint Church in Nashville uses a similar strategy.

Being able to read has more impact on a pastor than in terms of books, though. My lament over the necessity of the “Ministry Aids” produced by Warner Bros. is more for the state of pastors than any imagined separation of Church and Hollywood. I pray that as pastors we would be able to engage the culture in which our congregants live and speak prophetic words about the things that interest, scare, and inspire them most.

We have no need for preachers who will lead boycotts; we need pulpiteers who speak prophetic words about God’s Kingdom in relation to the themes, stories, and images that our people see and experience. We need pastors who can see “Man of Steel” and not need help from Warner Bros. to see Christian themes throughout. We need men and women who have been so steeped in the Spirit that they can read the things their people see and hear with the eyes of Christ. We need pastors who can read and who do so with the shepherd’s compassion for the sheep – for their good, for their nourishment, for their growth.

[2] There will be a follow-up article on just how awful “Fireproof,” “Flywheel,” and other “Christian” movies are.
[5] Here’s the real issue in taking such a position: remember the mess “The Da Vinci Code” caused? That was in large part because 1) pastors didn’t read it and 2) our people weren’t prepared in such a way to withstand such a fad or “new wind of philosophy.” It was our fault.

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