Follow me on Twitter @revbrock

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review of "Saving Mr. Banks"

Note: an edited version of this review appeared first on This version emphasizes the relationship between the movie's central theme and the task of preaching.

Our Stories and their Telling

There is one word, one line at the heart of Saving Mr. Banks: “enough.”

The film tells the story of Walt Disney’s negotiation with Pamela Travers, author of Mary Poppins, for the rights to the novel. There are three storylines present in the film, though: Disney’s frustration with Travers’ micromanagement of the production of Mary Poppins, frequent flashbacks to Travers’ own childhood in which we discover that her family life is the true inspiration for her writing, and a minor but consequential interaction between Travers and her chauffeur, Ralph.

Award nominations for Saving Mr. Banks have already poured in, as have the reviews of the film. Many have been moved by the story the movie presents, and it will certainly do well when Oscar time rolls around. But beyond the sentimentality and power of the narrative lies the Gospel itself - the story of our need for redemption and release.

Saving Mr. Banks is about stories: the stories we write and the stories that form us. Disney and Travers push and pull over the text version of something that is bigger than either of them - a story that touches the very cores of their lives. For Travers the story of Mary Poppins is real because it is her idealized resolution to the disappointment she experienced in her own childhood. For Disney the story is a totem, a prize to be won in his quest to give his children good things.

The Gospel is at its heart a story - it is both the narrative of Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection as well as the reality of God’s Kingdom coming near to humanity through Christ and Christ’s Spirit today. It is a story that has a narrative history in the pages of Sacred Scripture and a real experience for those who read and hear it. It is a living thing, this Gospel.

The story of Mary Poppins seems to be a living thing in Saving Mr. Banks. It transforms Disney and Travers even as the story itself was the transformation of Travers’ own experiences. That’s the point - that the story is not confined to the static ink and paper of the book. It has held Travers in its sway for so long that she cannot separate herself from it. It is family to her, just as it is to Disney’s children and so many others across the globe.

Disney, so wonderfully played by Tom Hanks, discovers this point and, in one of the most powerful monologues of the year says,

Give her to me, Mrs. Travers. Trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you. I swear that every time a person goes into a movie house - from Leicester to St Louis, they will see George Banks being saved. They will love him and his kids, they will weep for his cares, and wring their hands when he loses his job. And when he flies that kite, oh! They will rejoice, they will sing. In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again. Trust me, Mrs. Travers. Let me prove it to you. I give you my word.

We preachers tell stories because they are the heart of who people are. We tell stories about ourselves and about our heroes and about our Christ. We are storytellers. We restore order to the broken lives of people who need less propositional preaching and more storytelling. We open the imaginations of our people again and again and again and again because the world boxes them and their God into such small spaces that they have no hope of becoming like the little children who will inherit the Kingdom. We preach to open the doors of the soul so that it may imagine a God who will redeem them, who can redeem their fathers, who can bring hope one more time to people who have forgotten how to dream.

And when we finally come to that moment when we realize that letting go of the past lives that bind us is the painful way, that narrow way to Life, we say with quiet breath “enough.”

Saving Mr. Banks is about the Gospel. It is about the good news that something new can come, something good. It is the story of hurts and loss and disappointment being confronted by the equally painful demand to let go of our dearly-held stories in favor of a new one, one that every man, woman, and child can feel in their souls.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I'm Not in High School Anymore

I have some friends from high school who are precious and dear to me, and we speak often. One is a lawyer in Louisiana, one a nuclear engineer, one a manufacturing manager, and another a minister in Driscoll’s Mars Hill network. Three of these four also served in the U.S. Navy. I could not be more proud of these men and who they have become.

When we were in high school we didn’t fit in. I’m not saying that we were members of a group that could have been labeled “the outcasts;” I’m saying that we crossed so many social categories and boundaries that we were un-categorize-able. We were all strong academic performers, but we also played on many of the school’s athletic teams. We were deeply involved in the NJROTC program, but we made time for other activities like SGA, mentoring, and Quiz Bowl, and church life. We were weird in that we couldn’t be pigeonholed into what have become the standard categories for high school society (i.e. the nerds, the jocks, the freaks, the goths/emos, etc.).

Thanks be to God that we weren’t categorized as any of those things. We were able to see that friends could be made of all types of people, and that we could all work independently of a social group to succeed in school and society. We avoided, for the most part, what could be called the “usual high school drama.”

High school ended, and we went our separate ways. The men my friends have become, I think, have reflected their ability to not be pigeonholed; they have adapted, transitioned, and thrived in just about every way. (Can you tell I’m proud of them?)

I’m so thankful for the experiences that I had in high school, but I’m also thankful for my time at Mississippi College and at Baylor University. The point is that my friends and I have all grown up and left behind the would-be drama of high school to embrace the fullness of life. Since we largely avoided that drama to begin with, the growing up was perhaps less shocking and painful than it could have been.

Now consider a recent post[1] by Lutheran pastor the Rev. Erik Parker in which he likens Evangelicalism to a high school. He calls Driscoll, Piper, and Eldridge the “football team” because “the crowds love them, but most cannot see that they are also the bullies.” Myer and Osteen are the “rich kids,” and Rachel Held Evans is the valedictorian. In Parker’s metaphor the Mainline denominations are the “parents” and “teachers” who “brought them into the world.”

Parker’s central point is that Evangelicalism “needs” the Mainline denominations for their experience and wisdom. The Mainline needs Evangelicalism for its “drama to remind us how important this faith business” is.

Likening the Evangelical milieu to high school, especially when the Mainline is cast as the teachers and parents, is disingenuous and anachronistic. To do so is to portray the Evangelical movement as young, immature, and under the tutelage of the Mainline “adults” who try to mold the students into their own image. Evangelicals are not in the midst of some maturation process that will eventually graduate them to Mainline status; the Evangelical movement is not the Mainline precisely because it cannot become the Mainline.

The Rev. Parker wants to argue that the Evangelicals need the Mainline and vice-versa, but calling those same Evangelicals the students while his own tradition is the great teacher and parent causes “Evangelical” to lose its historical meaning completely.[2] His metaphor assumes that if Evangelicals would just grow up a little bit they would see their “drama” for what it is and merge with the other sober-minded Mainline Christians in our culture.

Further, Rev. Parker misses the irony that one cannot so easily stereotype Evangelicals into his or any other category. There are not “bullies” or “nerds” or “valedictorians” in the Evangelical camp; these believers flow into and out of and among any categories. The Mainline thinks in categories because it has, in many cases, an ordered hierarchy to clearly define those categories. Baptists, at least, have no such hierarchy and therefore are incapable of categorization. If a specific preacher, author, or believer acts in a way that resembles the jock, the nerd, or the freak, then so be it. Trying to cast the entire Evangelical movement as the children in a school with its drama, though, just doesn’t work.

One final note: the Evangelicals don’t need the Mainline in the way that Rev. Parker thinks. The Evangelical movement has been doing its own thing for enough generations now to understand that wisdom and calmness can be euphemisms for apathy and hollow spirituality. Evangelicals are also not blind to the “grey areas of faith,” nor are Evangelicals ignorant of the tensions these grey areas produce. Evangelicals live in these areas every day, just like Mainline believers.

In my own context of teaching high school students and witnessing their drama, I’ve come to understand that “the struggle is real.” More specifically, I’ve learned that the best teacher I can be is the one who invests in the drama, not to chide, criticize, or tell the students to grow up, but because the love of God in Jesus Christ is found in how I respond to that struggle, that drama.

[2] The meaning of “Evangelical” is slippery at best. My dear friend Roger Olson holds out hope for the term, however, in spite of calls by others to abandon the word in favor of something more solid.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Football Fandom Fail

SEC fans worship twice on the weekends: once at the Cathedral on Saturday, and once in Church on Sunday.[1] I grew up in the Baton Rouge area and have experienced this holy season myself - the anticipation, the singing, the offering, and the benediction. Of course, the next day at church I was usually sunburned and hoarse. Some of my friends take their fandom too seriously to the detriment of their careers, families, and sanity. I can name some pastors who do the same, though.[2]

The balance between our sports fandom and our devotion to God has gotten some necessary attention in recent years. Christianity Today made that relationship a cover story in February 2010.[3] Since then other articles in that publication have appeared addressing church attendance as it relates to sports, specifically youth sports.[4] Other Christian publications have also published thoughtful, questioning pieces on our relationship with sports as believers.[5]

The Church in America has responded to our cultural love of sports in predictable ways. Some have done nothing, forcing parishioners to make binary choices between being “faithful” in their attendance on Sunday mornings and taking their kids to practice. Some have changed their entire weekly schedule, incorporating Saturday or Thursday evening worship services to accommodate the commitments of their congregations.

I am personally conflicted when it comes to this topic. I’m a college football and basketball fan. I don’t have children old enough to participate in sports on Sunday, and because I’m a preacher’s kid I generally missed the NFL and other Sunday sports growing up because I was at church all day. I understand the pastor’s frustration of losing attendees to sports practice, but I also am not as committed to attendance as a marker of righteousness.

One pastor has gone too far.[6] has reported on an Evangelical Lutheran pastor who conducted a one-minute Sunday service because he wanted to see the kickoff of the 49ers playoff game.[7] (PLEASE go watch the entire one-minute service HERE) This priest even sported a 49ers t-shirt under his cassock which he revealed Superman-style at the conclusion of his “service.”

I hope that somewhere in the ELCA hierarchy this video causes a fuss. In my own Baptist context, though, where there is no true denominational oversight, such antics would probably go un-chastised so long as the congregation was onboard.[8]

I’m a fan of several sports teams, but to me this is unconscionable. To abandon a service because of a football game is ludicrous, especially in the age of the DVR. This pastor decided that his desires as a fan outweighed the needs of his congregation. They don’t need a perfunctory “ok, that’s great, you are” in the face of their sins being forgiven. They probably don’t “know enough about” the wine and servant hood themes of the New Testament. They certainly do not need a self-service buffet that makes a mockery of the Table. They should have gotten more than the afterthought blessing and a hasty exit.

As pastors we must understand that we are not just fans, just like we are not just members of the congregation. Even in Baptist churches where every member is a priest of the Church, the pastor must conduct his or her life with intentionality and awareness. Skipping out on one of the most visible signs of the congregation’s life to see a football kickoff demonstrates a pitiful understanding of the office of pastor and, more importantly, an unwillingness to sacrifice personal desires on the alter of God’s calling.

Let this be a negative example to us. Be a fan, cheer loudly, support your team. But in the name of Christ do your job. Fulfill your calling. Serve the people. Do not abandon them or their needs in worship and service because your team is in the playoffs. God’s calling is worth more than that, and demands our best.

[1] I think Scott Van Pelt of ESPN said this first, but I cannot find a source to attribute it to him.
[2] These pastors represent the opposite of the argument of article. They are the ones who give up their family relationships and very identities in service to their congregation.
[3] Shirl James Hoffman, “Sports Fanatics: How Christians have succumbed to the sports culture - and what might be done about it” Christianity Today 54 (2010): 20-28.
[4] Ruth Moon, “Game Changer: Pastors Blame Kids’ Sports for Attendance Dips” Christianity Today 57 (2013): 15; Megan Hill, “The Sunday Sports Dilemma”; Mark Householder, Benjamin J. Chase, and Ted Kluck, “Are Sports the Problem? Three Views” Christianity Today 54 (2010): 26-27.
[5] Benjamin J. Dueholm, “Unnecessary Roughness: the moral hazards of football” Christian Century 129 (2012): 22-25; John White, “The enduring problem of dualism: Christianity and sports” Implicit Religion 15 (2012): 225-241; Fabrice Delsahut, “Jeux sportifs et religion amerindienne” Studies in Religion 42 (2013): 3-22; Rush Otey, “Christian faith and sports” Journal for Preachers 32 (2009): 32-48.
[6] I’m sure that there are many, many pastors that take their fandom too far; this one just sent me over the edge today.
[8] Interestingly enough, the congregation in the video seems to be as excited about the short service as the priest.