Friday, March 17, 2006

Much Ado About Jesus

Yesterday I read a post that suggests that, to protest the mistreatment of Jesus in the book and forthcoming film The Davinci Code, to send a message to Hollywood that people of faith want movies that show due deference to their faith traditions, we should not only not go to The Davinci Code its opening weekend, we should instead plan that weekend to go see something more faith- or family-friendly, such as the animated feature Over the Hedge. Box office results for the weekend would thus reflect not simply what Hollywood looks like without a Christian audience but what a Christian audience can do to Hollywood.

Sounds menacing, doesn't it? Setting aside for a moment the debatable question of whether Over the Hedge is morally or spiritually superior to The Davinci Code, I'm troubled by the trend to fight spiritual battles through the sacred act of consumption. It's not new this summer. The Davinci Code is the third major release in as many years to play explicitly to spiritual appetites: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe and The Passion of the Christ both actively solicited whole churches to turn moviegoing into evangelistic events. The Lord of the Rings trilogy missed the boat, from a marketing perspective, but a more organic, grass roots movement contributed to a similar outcome for those films. And as I've discussed over at Strangely Dim, there's no end to the published resources that plunder NetFlix and I-Tunes for sanctified profit. And as I confessed readily, as the author of a book about superheroes, I'm chief of sinners.

Marketplace jihad isn't limited to the film industry; in the months following the September 11 terror attacks, Americans were encouraged to fight evil by buying cars--and those not Batmobiles that we would subsequently drive from here to Baghdad, where we would liberate Iraq, but minivans with side-impact airbags and drop-down DVD monitors, where we would watch Dreamworks movies with built-in previews for family- and faith-friendly films such as Shrek and Over the Hedge.

I guess I'm disturbed that people are so quickly and summarily defining the power of people of faith within the constraints of economics and demographics. When challenged with the idea that people are unlikely to have their core commitments changed by seeing a film that they already know the plot to, such as The Davinci Code or for that matter The Passion of the Christ, one blogger waved her virtual hand and wrote, "The Davinci Code is evil."

But people aren't likely to have their core commitments changed just by such a simple transaction as the willful but ephemeral exposure to or isolation from a teeny weeny little movie or book. The change comes in the charged atmosphere surrounding those little transactions. All this talk of The Davinci Code, all the talk about The Passion of the Christ, forced to the surface people's unspoken and often unconsidered notions about who Jesus was and what he means for today.

Personally, I'm not interested in seeing The Davinci Code; it looks like the kind of thriller that fails to thrill. I'm much more interested this summer in X3, which will explore weighty themes of identity and transformation, and Superman Returns, which will in its own way prompt discussions of good and evil.

In the book Freakonomics, economist Steven D. Levitt shows how real change comes not through the belligerent distribution of funds but through the redistribution of knowledge. I like what he says because he gets an example from Superman.

It seems that the Ku Klux Klan was in a fresh ascendancy shortly after World War II ended. Stetson Kennedy was a white man who saw firsthand the brutality of the KKK exercised against his family's maid; he decided that the Klan was the country's greatest threat.

Kennedy decided to infiltrate the Klan and learn its secrets, planning eventually to make those secrets public. The problem was that the Klan was so firmly planted in the cultural establishment that turning over secrets to police departments, newspapers and other first responders was unlikely to bring the Klan to justice. Kennedy landed on a brilliant plan: he contacted the producers of the Superman radio show, who created a multi-story arc pitting Superman against the KKK.

Within months, millions of kids were playing Superman--the hero--versus the villainous Klan. A few kids would publicly display the secret handshakes and code language of the KKK, until another kid would swoop in, playing Superman, and dispense play-justice against the play-bigots. Suddenly, when adult members of the Klan's secret society would greet one another or make Klan-plans, they looked like they were playing Superman games. They looked stupid; the Klan as an organization looked stupid; bigotry ultimately looked stupid.

I read this story and recalled a quotation from G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which everyone and his mother should read. In this case--and I mean no disrespect--the lunatic represents the author of The Davinci Code:

The lunatic's theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain
them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was
growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments
as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler
outside the suffocation of a single argument.


If people of faith see The Davinci Code as a misrepresentation of Jesus, they may choose to boycott the book or the movie. They may choose to lambaste the author or the producer. They may choose to declare their financial allegiance to more animated features. But perhaps we should rather give the film some air, and shed some light on what's become shrouded in confusion. If we don't hold it in, and if we don't crowd it out, the truth will ultimately come out.

2 comments:

Pete Juvinall said...

giving air to a movie would have killed 'the last temptation of Christ' back in the eighties; the original crappy Jesus story.

My friend James saw the movie, b.c., and was not impressed with it from a purely artistic standpoint and how poor of a job it did telling a story. I suspect that the DaVinci movie will fall under the same weight. My wife thought it was a pretty gripping read, but as 'Left Behind' taught us given a big enough budget most movies tend to pale in comparison to their books.

Personally, I just hate to be played. It disgusts me that Christians are seen as a demographic by Hollywood to either turn on to a movie or turn off an protest it. What will be interesting is how much the pot will be stirred by PR people for the movie to gather support for protests and such.

We'll probably go see it if even for the draw of tom hanks, a promising lead of a story, and that most of my non-christian friends will most likely go see it and will be talking conspiracy theories into the summer.

I've never been really one to shy away from culture to see both the redemption and evil in the messages it sends. As a newer parent, even more so...

Mr Steve said...

What didn't happen in the bible:

Jesus: So these Pharisees don't really understand God's word, so I think it'll be best for us to stand around holding signs telling people that the Pharisees are wrong.

Peter: Wouldn't it be better to confront them and try to show them that they're on the wrong path? Or engage them in public debate so that people could see the truth?

Jesus: Nope. I said protest them.

John: Peter, he said protest. Go with Matthew to an office supply store and get some sticks, carboard, and Sharpies.

Peter: But how is standing around with signs going to share God's word with people, especially those that have spent their lives believing the Pharisees? Shouldn't we use our own knowledge of what the Pharisees teach to show people how it is a skewed version of God's truth?

Matthew (tatling to Jesus): Peter's not helping again.