Category Archives: Media

Magic and Technology in Harry Potter

I just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Let me add a decade-late “amen” to all my friends who avidly read the Harry Potter books while I was busy reading Dostoyevsky and New Testament commentaries (though I have no regrets about time spent in Dostoyevsky… and in at least some of the commentaries).

The HP series was better than I had expected. Honestly: I am blown away. J.K. Rowling totally had me. A hunk of my heart will probably always be in a place called Hogwarts (though a slightly bigger hunk lingers in Middle Earth).

Along with adding much belated hurrahs, I will add a few belated comments on one of the negative aspects of HP’s reception among Christians: the dangers and allure of MAGIC.

I was personally untroubled by Rowling’s treatment of magic (I find HP as an exemplar in the genre Tolkien has called “Faerie,” but more on that anon). I do recognize, however, that in certain cultural contexts (like some settings in nearby Scotland) interest in magic has gotten quite out of hand.

What I want to point out here is that the use of magic in Harry Potter entailed a commentary likely unintended, and perhaps more influential than the discourse on occultic dabbling. I am referring to a commentary on what Jacques Ellul called la technique.

“Magical” is “Technical”

The magic of HP works largely because of technique. To be sure, Harry himself is endowed with special talents, and his wand can seem to have a mind of its own. But for the most part, magic must be mastered and utilized through a rigorous degree of study and applied techniques. The wand must be waved just so, the ingredients for the potion must be measured out then stirred with precision, incantations must be enunciated properly.

Magical is technical.

I really like how Rowling removed industrial era technology from the magical world. Arthur Weasley remains intrigued by Muggle technology, but when it is time for cooking or washing up in his own kitchen, his wife places utensils under a spell. Rather than sending a text to alert the wedding guests of a Death Eater assault, Kingsley Shacklebolt (what an awesome name!) relays the news via his “patronus.”

In spite of the absence of post-industrial and digital technology, HP-magic is in many respects highly technical. Futurologist and Scifi writer Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

His point is that technology can be so advanced that it mystifies us as much as the supernatural power of a love potion or a violent curse. And today, for most of us, the technology at our fingertips (literally) is mesmerizing, awe-inspiring, and, well, magical. The purveyors of technology are quite pleased for this to be the case. (Anyone scrolling through this post with Apple’s “Magic Trackpad”?)

The Magical-Technical Society

When Jacques Ellul used the term “technique,” he was referring to a cultural mindset imperceptible to most of us because it is so all-encompassing. This paradigm tends to view people, raw material, creation, etc. as means to an end; often unconsciously, it tends to elevate productivity over relationality. The acquisition of power through a variety of instrumentation—this is often the result of “the technological society.”

Ellul also reminds us that magic itself, as unscientific and un-technological as it seems, is nonetheless an expression of technique: “Magic developed along with other techniques as an expression of man’s will to obtain certain results of a spiritual order. To attain them, man made use of an aggregate of rites, formulas, and procedures…”[1].

My point here is that magic and technology can be quite comparable in functionality and disposition. And what many Christian critics of HP may have missed is that “technique” may be a more dangerous threat to our world today than occultic dabbling.

“Horcuxes, not Hallows”

Yet through her portrayal of magic, I think Rowling has providing a rather forceful critique of technology and the ethos of Ellul’s la technique. That critique can be summed up in this powerful slogan: “HORCRUXES, NOT HALLOWS.”

Harry and Ron—though not the more sensible Hermione—were tempted by the prospect of wielding the Hallows, those instruments of magical power capable of rendering their possessor “Master of Death.” Their task, however, was to destroy other instruments—the material objects in which Voldemort had embedded fragments of his soul. Rather than lustfully seeking the most powerful technical instrument of the non-technological magical world, the Elder Wand, Harry opted to destroy the objects invested with evil power.

In this respect, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are comrades with Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins. This is because Tolkien’s Ring of Power is what Rowling calls a “Horcrux.” Resisting the allure of power, these heroes and heroine destroyed the evil works of our hands.

The task is technical… and magical.

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (tr. John Wilkinson; New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 24.

“I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.” A conversation with Evan Way from Deeper Well

I first came across their music on a lark, one of those “fortunate falls” of internet browsing and music streaming that yielded a font of good tastes and great content that hasn’t let up since.  You see Deeper Well, a recording arm of Door of Hope Church, fashions themselves as a “Gospel Collective.”  They manage to heard some or most of the creative cats in their care to produce startlingly original, well perhaps not original at all, but at least refreshing, music from, by, and for the Church (and anyone else who’s listening).  Led by pastor/musician Josh White (formerly of the Christian Anglo-invasion-philic pop outfit, Telecast, and Evan Way (currently fronting the sunny vintage pop act The Parson Red Heads) this motley crew has been busy, diverse, prolific, and generous in its mere two or so years of existence.  The result is a wild panoply of scripturally rich, aesthetically integral tunes.  Songs about mystical experience with the living God that beget Spiritual experience.

WHMy entry point into their ever-expanding catalogue came by means of the outrageous cover art for Wounded Healer, a sort of coming out party for this self-styled collective.  Many of the songs formed congregationally and became fixtures in their corporate worship gatherings.  One listen and you get the sense that you’re hearing imminent throwback music, what hippies hoped for before they were tamed by age or hormones or the eighties.  They pulse and throb with immediacy and playfulness.

EaderJust when your ears begin to adjust to the textures, intricacies, and excesses of Wounded Healer, they put out Wesley Randolph Eader’s record, another favorite, but for completely different reasons.  If Wounded Healer takes us back to a Jesus People commune, Eader’s record rewinds the tape all the way back to the Dustbowl.  With the precision of Charles Wesley and grit and ease of Woody Guthrie, Of Old It Was Recorded takes some pretty familiar forms and incarnates them, indeed overflows them, with nothing short of the story of the Good News.

Josh WhiteAll this brings us to their two newest releases, all of which are offered as free downloads, a grace-gift to the public.  In December 2013, they posted an album of reworked, stripped down in most cases, Josh White-Telecast tunes.  Listening to these next to their predecessors really shows the original strength of their writing and how they were built.  In some cases, the songs reveal a superior beauty not unlike a lady without her makeup.  Fresh, innocent, and perfect not despite but often because of their blemishes.

Liz ViceWhat’s even more impressive is when one of these gems gets recorded a third way, given to someone else’s facilities, surrendered to their minor variances, and phrasing decisions.  Take Liz Vice’s shot at “Enclosed by You” on There’s a Light (released TODAY 1/14/14!).  Originally a Telecast tune, then stripped to its bones on Josh’s record, it might actually sound best out of Liz’s soulful mouth.  The rest of the record effortlessly shape-shifts, like trying on clothes at a thrift shop or spinning warped LPs (mostly Shirley Ann Lee, Roberta Flack, the Staples Singers, and Nina Simone).  You want to go back there, wherever then and there was.

I had the chance to chat with Evan Way, Pastor of Worship and Arts at Door of Hope about their approach and some of their hopes.  When I spoke to him in November, I caught him in the middle of an odd stretch where he’d just returned from a trip to Manhattan to perform children’s music in a band at a church, and was about to go on the Portland NPR affiliate to promote his band, The Parson Red Head’s album release.  Music.  Faith.  Bicoastal.  Bipolar.  This mash-up seems to characterize the church’s approach to music, and an offhand comment revealed something of the power of art’s ability and relation to the life of faith, “I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.”  I asked him about some of those bands and some of that intersection.

Hopeful Realism: What are some of your greatest hopes in making this kind of art?

Evan Way: We just want to see music that is good, quality music that is theologically sound, Christ-centered, and scripture-formed.  I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to just react to Christian culture, because even the lousiest Christian music can do good things.  My desire is to see really quality music that can actually transcend boundaries of “Christian music” that someone normally might not give the time of day.

We’re created in God’s image, part of what that means is that we’re creative people who are naturally bent to need to create things and hopefully they’re things that reflect Jesus.  As much as I’d love this music to be great for us to sing together in the church or for the people of the congregation, my heart is for those outside the congregation to hopefully hear it and have it speak to them in a surprising way.

HR: Making something that is musically excellent, that sounds good and has integrity, is pretty tricky.  It seems to me that a lot of Christian producers and musicians don’t know what to do with the imperfections in music that, despite their technical error, actually give a song, or album or moment “soul.”  Frustratingly, it seems like excellence, in Christian music circles, is usually equated with “perfect,” impossible, or fake sounds.

EW: Yeah, you really start getting down to defining what one person means by “perfect sounds.”  Do I think those sounds are perfect sounds?  No, I’d much rather hear a gritty guitar played through a crappy tube amp.  To me that is a more real, more perfect sound.  It’s really been important to us to not try to make these records into something that they’re not.

I know that there has to be more quality Christian music out there.  I haven’t quite solved the mystery of why you can’t find it.  Rather than solve the mystery, we just thought we’d try to make the kind of records we’re interested in and make them available.

HR: Why has giving away your music for free been so important?

EW: I never wanted to do it if we were going to be selling the albums.  The idea is to be generous with the things and the talents we’ve been given…to say “this music is our gift to you.” Our business model has been to create music focused on Jesus and to give it away because it’s never been about us.  It’s very dangerous, the moment you start making money.  You start to think about a bottom line, and not what you’re making.  Giving our music away puts your goals in the right place.

In this we’ve learned a lot from Josh Garrels and his music.  He always gives his newest album away for a year.  After a year, he “retires” it.  This came about because he was making a record and having a hard time, going through a dark season with his career, and he said one day God told him, “if you love me and you’re doing this for me, then give it away for free.”  He did it.  And when he did he had more success than he ever did before.

HR: As a touring musician and as a worship leader, what do you find in common with those two roles?  What’s different?  What do you find you have to unlearn?

EW: When I first started leading, I had to keep reminding myself that leading worship was not like playing a concert.  It’s tempting to forget that you shouldn’t be getting the same sort of attention or glory from putting on a show.  There are a lot of similarities between the two roles, but in many ways they’re totally different.

It’s been interesting how leading worship has affected my playing with the Parsons.  I’ve been focusing more and more about making that band about giving God control and allowing Him to do whatever he wants with it, even though its not a worship band.  Everything we have we have because God’s blessed us.  I view both as  ministry.

HR: Is the music you’re putting out in these albums only possible in Portland?

EW: Maybe more than just being in the city, it’s the part of the city.  Here in the Southeast part there are so many creative artists.  There seems to be a real revival of faith and people really trying to live their faith out.  I don’t think we’d be doing what we are without these people, not only musicians and songwriters, but visual artists, photographers, and filmmakers trying to use their gifts for Christ regardless of how the money works out.  I can’t say that this could only happen in Portland, but I also can’t say that I’ve ever been around something like this before, anywhere else.  A lot of things have come together and God has really brought people together.

Favorites of 2013

As 2013 winds to a close and Auld Land Syne and college football fill our ears and eyes, I (Chris) have always found it a profoundly beneficial and thanks-generating exercise to think back on the year and compile some lists.  Don’t construe our lists as necessarily “best ofs,” there are plenty of those to be had around the internet, rather as favorites- moments or events or artifacts- where each of us has savored something of the goodness of the Lord.  Without further ado…

Andy’s Favorite Hikes of 2013

Catbells, Lake District (England)
CatbellsFor our 15-yr anniversary, Miranda and I spent a few days in the Lake District. it may well be our favorite place on earth. We had a number of good hikes while there, but one that stands out is the hike up Catbells. Though not very high (500 metres or so), the summit affords a dramatic 360 degree view, with Derwent Water to the East, Skiddaw and Keswick to the North, and the Derwent Fells stretching up to Buttermere to the West. At the end of the hike we sat in our Vauxhall Zafire and listened to The Lumineers, a new find at that point. Later that day we ended up in a pub in Ambleside where we played Scrabble over a pint.
It does not get more romantic than that, folks (of course, at 15 years of marriage with 4 kids, just having an uninterrupted conversation is quite a romantic venture).


Loch Morar, West Highlands (Scotland)
Loch MorarSomeone graciously gave us the use of their holiday home on the West Coast of Scotland over the summer. One of our favorite moments of our lives was hiking around the northern shore of Loch Morar. The vistas were of dark green, rugged mountains crowning the water… which is one of Europe’s deepest lakes. And legend tells that it is haunted by the aquatic monster “Morag” (though we escaped his clutches that day).


Camasunary Beach, Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye (Scotland)
Camasunary BeachPossibly my favorite family hike of all time with my wife and kids was on the Isle of Skye during the same holiday trip. We took a ferry to this rugged, massive Isle and parked the car on the side of a narrow strip of road from Broadford to Elgol just after a downpour. We took a path over some gentle slopes and ended up on a ridge granting us views of what ma be the most jagged, rock-splintered skyline I have ever scene, that of the Cuillin Hills. These are not very high by the standards of the North American Rockies or the European Alps, but they are dramatic to behold and apparently quite difficult even for professional climbers. We took a sharp descent down into a valley where we found the abandoned Camasunary Beach. Yes, in blasting wind and 55 degrees F, my kids wanted to wade in the sea. And yes, I had to go with them. But it was glorious, ya know?
We ended the day at a hostel adjacent to The Old Inn in Carbost. Miranda and I were surrounded by our 4 healthy kids who had just skirted the Cuillins on a 5-mile hike. We were sitting at a darkwood table drinking pints of stuff brewed with water straight from the same hills, having just placed an order for fish and chips. It was one of those unforgettable Moments.

Chris’ Favorite Music of 2013

This Side of Jordan- Mandolin Orange

imageI first listened to this record in the car on the way to Black Mountain, NC for a very special trip before Titus was born.  I’m not sure I could pick a better soundtrack for Piedmont road tripping than these delicate Southern sounds. Knowing Andrew and Emily, who make up the band’s core, and Jeff Crawford, who produced it (as well as plenty other of the album’s  fine players), I couldn’t be more proud of them or pleased with such a gorgeous label (Yep Roc records) debut.  I especially appreciate the third track, “There Was a Time,” (maybe a bit of a Neil echo?) with its lovely piano solo and crushing lyrics (“there’s no gold on either side of the Mississippi/no silver in this world left to find/precious metals and precious memories/slip away, slip away from your fingers and your mind”).  In the midst of loss and sorrow, whiskey waltzes, and clovers, TSoJ is a redemption-haunted album, looking for and occasionally even finding hope on Jordan’s banks.

Haw- Hiss Golden Messenger

imageTrue story: a few months ago I sold Mike Taylor (HGM frontman) a bike.  I’m thankful he paid me, but I’m also a bit gratified just to get to imagine him weaving apocalyptic tales as he navigates our fair Bull City on that single-speed.  Haw expands on Taylor’s previous offerings of Southern transplanted Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk.  With a voice like Van and kaleidoscopic writing like John of Patmos, HGM has become an office listening staple.  Maybe, just maybe, Taylor’s bike commuting signals something the record also communicates, a love and a tie to a certain place (the album title shares a name with a river that snakes just south of town). I found and enjoyed in this album the unique merging of some pretty lofty ideas and concepts with mostly grounded, gritty, specific people and places.

Debris- Roman Candle

imageRoman Candle was one of the first “local bands” I got into when I moved to NC. Little did I know then, when I saw them en-trance the packed Cat’s Cradle crowd in support of Wee Hours Revue, that they’d grow into an outfit (now in Nashville, considerably less local) that would follow so closely alongside my own interests and forays into the intersection of theology and the arts. Skip and Timshel breathe the kind of subtle explorations into beauty’s fleeting power and revelation’s mystery that folks like Rilke, Eliot, and Ms. O’Conner articulate most artfully. Logan’s musicianship and production on songs like “Small Time” and “Not Strangers Anymore” doesn’t just prop up those lovely lyrics, but at times actually takes over the storytelling altogether. I can’t recommend this album more. Get lost in the title-track dream and perhaps you’ll find out you knew where you were all along.

Joel’s Favorite Books of 2013

Due to parenting a toddler, remodeling a new home, supporting an entrepreneur wife and some other personal craziness, my reading suffered quantitatively, but I don’t believe it suffered qualitatively. Here are some of my favorite reads.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

GileadI picked up this brilliant novel at the turn of 2012 to 2013, with a subsequent re-reading in the summer of 2013. Man oh man. I loved it for at least 3 reasons.

First, it is beautifully written. I found myself reading, and re-reading aloud just to hear the words roll off my tongue. I know that sounds weird, but trust me. I could easily fill an entire post of Robinson’s beautiful one-sentence masterpieces of language.

Second, Gilead is one of the most profound resources of pastoral theology I’ve come across. Robinson’s main character’s reflections on the work of the pastor were profound, moving, sobering and inspiring simultaneously.

Third, Gilead alludes to John Calvin often. I think this book presents a way of being theologically Reformed that I find to be beautiful, under-appreciated, subversive and right. Much more needs to be said about this. Stay tuned.

Unapologetic, Francis Spufford

unapologeticI’ll join the bandwagon and add my accolades for this fascinating book. Spufford gives an “a defense of Christian emotions.” In and of itself, I find this approach refreshing and interesting.

Though I certainly don’t agree with every nuance, Unapologetic is funny, challenging, unsettling, moving, passionate, and witty. His re-telling of the Jesus story in the “Yeshua” chapter alone would be worth the price of the book. The refrain “more can be mended than you know” will reverberate in my mind’s ears for a long, long time.

 TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age, Andrew Byers

TheoMedia Pic 3Humor me for a second while I play for the home team. Andy Byers is a co-blogger at Hopeful Realism, a very close personal friend, and a mentor in ministry.  In Andy Byers, I think the church has been given an absolute gift of a thinker/scholar and shepherd/pastor. I’m completely biased here.


Chris’ Favorite Moments of 2013


imageThis year has undoubtably been (confirmed by Instagram!) the “Year of the Titus” for us. Since we found out we were pregnant in early 2013, through a hot summer pregnancy, to an early September arrival, and the last few challenging and precious months, we’ve truly known and experienced God’s love, generosity and grace in new ways.  For this reason, the ‘Titus Event’ seemed too big to even belong on a list.

Mako & the Four Quartets (January)

imageThrough some happy circumstances, the Gathering Church was blessed to host internationally renowned artist Makoto Fujimura in January.  Mako was in Durham for the Four Qu4rtets exhibit at Duke and did us the pleasure of speaking to our congregation and sharing lunch with some of our artists. I cannot stress how inspirational his work with IAM, his humility and gentleness, and his imagination for creativity and generativity has been for me and our congregation.

Chickens Lay Eggs (April)

imageLast November Rach surprised me with a very special gift for my thirtieth birthday: three day-old chicken hatchlings. I thus began my illustrious career as a (sub)urban chicken farmer, by naming those three little ladies, born on All Saints Day, after saints (Ambrose, Augustine, & Basil…Brosey, Augie, & Baz respectively). After a tragic hawk incident (RIP Baz & Augie), and the addition of two new pullets (Jackie Joyner Kersey & FloJo!), we moved into spring expectant to hardboil our own Easter eggs. The amount of care, expectation, delight, and learning that took place over that time was really special to our family. It oddly put me and my one year -old girl Noa on similar footing as we went out to the coop day after day looking for the first egg, only finally (in April, pretty late for layers) to discover a lovely brown orb in the laying box that had been so empty for so long. Since, I’ve learned how to cook eggs about 10 different ways and we’ve enjoyed being able to gift eggs to neighbors. These hens have truly blessed our family and taught about everything from grieving to waiting to eating.

2 Funerals and a Wedding (Summer, November)


This year was a bittersweet year of firsts in my ministerial career. In the summertime, I was honored to officiate the wedding of my sister-in-law and now brother-in-law Ruth and Luke Taylor. What a joy to do their distance premarital counseling through Google hangout, and what an honor for them to entrust me with such a task as a newbie! I look forward to seeing God’s Love through their love continue to blossom and flourish in the years to come.  Later in the year I was also honored to lead my first two funerals, the first for someone I never knew when she was alive, the second in November for my dear uncle Danny. Danny’s service truly encapsulated a remarkable and eclectic life of faith, hope and love.  Following a packed church  service with more eulogies than we had time for, we walked across A1A to the beach for a flyover (fitting for a career air traffic controller) and a paddle out (even more fitting for a salty lifelong surfer). The process of and preparation for these funerals has certainly been a source of God’s mercy and a reminder and vision of the sort of Hopeful Realism possible only by means of Christ’s Spirit and Resurrection.

Joel’s Favorite Parenting Moments of 2013

2013 was my first full-year as a parent. Here are some favorite snapshots.These aren’t so much flash-in-the-pan moments, but recurring moments. Sweet and beautiful in their own right.


photo-2My little boy looks at me, shocked, that I would allow such a thing. How often is it necessary to bring discomfort into your child’s life in order to do an ultimate good for them?


Playing chase

photo-3I chase Henry all around our house. There usually comes a point in which he realizes that he cannot run from me, that he will be caught. At that point, Henry stops and starts running toward me instead. There is a metaphor here.

Being loved by him

photoHenry is at the age where he desires to show love to us. Giving not just receiving. It’s been a difficult month (long story) and my wife Mandy was recently overcome with emotion. Henry stopped his playing, walked from another room, approached her, said, “hey” and gave her a hug and a kiss.

I’m learning a lot and enjoying a lot in this parenting journey.

Andy’s Favorite Fiction Moments of 2013

3) Thinking about the critique of media culture in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy.


HP2) Realizing the Triwizard Cup was a portkey while readying Harry Potter for the first time.
1) Revisiting Middle Earth after my wife bought me a hardback version of The Hobbit.

“Media Christology”

My favorite section in TheoMedia is “PART 4 | Media Christology: Jesus, Media Legacies, and Focal Media Practices.” Here are the chapter headings:

The Page-Splitting God Who Rips Sky and Veil: An Interlude”

Gospel and Incarnation: Jesus as the Ultimate TheoMedium

Crucifixion: Cross-Visuality and the Eucharist

Resurrection & Ascension: Word-media, Baptism, and Christ as Mediator

Christ’s Return: Apocalyptic Media and the End of Mediation

What I am trying to do in this part of the book is to reconsider our media culture through Jesus, and then to rethink how Jesus’ life, work, and reign should configure our media practices.

The whole purpose of TheoMedia is to allow the biblical story of Creation–Fall–Redemption and the biblical visino of the Triune God to redefine our appropriation and understanding of digital culture. “Media Christology” looks specifically at how Jesus was himself the ultimate medium of God (the divine Word who became Incarnate) and how his own life compels an array of media practices.

I am currently reading a review copy of Craig Detweiler’s iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives (soon to be released by Brazos). I just read Detweiler’s cataloguing of the religious rhetoric and imagery attached to the founding of Apple, the rise-fall-resurrection of Steve Jobs, and the cult-like devotion of Apple consumers (and let me confess that I am typing this post on a Mac). Apple lovers have appealed to Christological language and imagery in describing Jobs and his products.

It is eerie… even if much of it is in jest.

Rather than recasting Jesus to fit our technological fascinations, I would prefer, of course, that we rethink our technological fascinations through Christology.

That is the point of PART 4 in TheoMedia. As it turns out, Christology has a great deal to say about how we use and understand media today. If you get a chance to read through it, let me know what you think… and help me keep thinking about the possibilities.

Our Primary Source for Sex Ed…? Entertainment Media

Relevant Magazine just published an article I wrote on our culture’s sexual pedagogy through screens. The piece draws on a brief “TheoMedia Note” on sex and violence in my new book TheoMedia.

Since a number of folks are arriving at Hopeful Realism from Relevant’s site, I thought it might be helpful to compile some other writings on sex and culture from the blog. Here is a list:

Preaching on Pornography

Sexology: Porn, Justice, & Redemption

How Pornography Decontextualizes Sex

A Sermon on a Biblical Theology of Sex, and the Distortions of Pornography

This issue of learning about real sex from fictionalized sex is critically important. Let’s be good interpreters of our culture, and rely on solid resources!

Everything Bad is Good For You… Including Preaching

In researching TheoMedia, I read Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You where he takes to task the conventional wisdom that our entire society is “amusing ourselves to death” (so Neil Postman) and reducing our collective minds into media-saturated mush. His claim is that much of this supposedly “bad” stuff in pop-culture is actually helping us to think better. Hence the book’s subtitle: “Why Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter.”

He has made some excellent points.

Let’s take television, for instance. When I was growing up, there were three main networks competing for American viewers. The media-brokers’ mentality towards entertainment seemed to be this: produce shows that demand very little of an audience other than to be entertained. For the most part, the 1980s and 1970s sit-coms offered dumbed down stories that targeted the lowest common intellectual denominator of the watching populace (for Johnson, shows like Hill Street Blues were decidedly different).

Compare this previous TV era with the today’s era of endless cable channels and countless new shows. The most successful television series over the past decade are far from dumbed down in terms of intellectual engagement. For shows like Breaking Bad, Lost, ER, The Newsroom, and even Seinfeld, entertainment is not necessarily easy for the viewers—to catch jokes on Seinfeld, you may have to remember an episode from two years earlier. To follow Lost, you have to endure what feels like insensible plot twists and recall brief character interactions from prior episodes. And shows like The Newsroom and The West Wing demand quite a bit of intellectual brain-wracking along with a textured understanding of politics and current events.

Johnson points to shows like these as evidence that pop culture can actually make us smarter.

I am not sure watching The Newsroom makes me smarter. But what Johnson does demonstrate is that people are not solely entertained by shallow shows with empty plotlines. To the contrary, those series offering difficult, challenging material that engage our imaginations and our intellect are thriving. Not everyone prefers to watch The Newsroom in their spare time, but large swathes of us are willing to endure insensible plot twists and highly intelligent banter between sophisticated, complex characters because the kind of entertainment we most want is entertainment that is meaningfully engaging.

When I watch a film, I have high demands for entertainment. I do not just want to laugh at frivolities. I am not interested in gratuitous “love scenes.” I want the film-makers to make me think and rethink, to engage my imagination and inspire new ways of seeing and perceiving.

Is there anything those of us who are preachers can learn from this?

The Sermon and Good Television: Any Lessons Here?

Perhaps we have something to UNlearn.

It seems to me that many preachers began taking their cues from pop culture trying to make the Sunday sermon entertaining in the way shallow television has attempted to entertain their congregations during prime-time. A lot of preaching was dumbed down. Funny stories empty of real meaning or of any connection to the texts and topics became par for the course.

Steven Johnson might have some wisdom for the 21st century preacher: there are people out there who want to be meaningfully engaged. Not only can they handle difficult content and mystifying plotlines, they are offended when it is not offered. They actually enjoy being entrusted with lofty and carefully articulated material.

Shallow television may well turn our brains into media-saturated mush.

Shallow preaching does the same thing.

But the entertainment industry is picking up on something about human nature: we do not just want to be amused; we want to be meaningfully engaged.

No media form is more uniquely suited for meaningful engagement than preaching. The content of our message demands the highest degree of intellectual wrestling: i.e., There is One God in Three Persons, or a lordly figure has appeared from an ancient line of Kings to end cosmic tyranny.

And no plotline is more insensible and full of more twists than the bullets on this storyboard:

God shows up in the flesh
God gets yanked out of a garden
God gets nailed naked to a post
The Dead God then bursts forth from a grave

[For a post with similar themes, see my “When Preaching Mystifies More than it Explains“]

Should Preaching be Entertaining?

I asked in the previous post if preaching should be entertaining.

My thinking is that preaching must ultimately be, like the Christian Scriptures, engaging. That is, preaching must arrest the mind, heart, soul, and strength (to borrow from the Shema—Dt 6:4) and compel a reimagining of reality and a reanimation of our lives.

In this act of engaging, preaching may well be entertaining.

As noted earlier, Christian critiques of entertainment media need to be more nuanced. I write in the opening of TheoMedia that all media was once religious. This is because “media” are means of communication and self-revelation, and for ancient and modern-day Christians communicative initiative begins with the Triune God. The concept of “media” goes back to this one phrase:

“Let there be…”

God spoke, and thereby employed “media”—specifically, the medium of speech. And by that medium he created the multi-media world of creation. Our God is a multi-media God.

So we need to be careful with our negative connotations of “media.”

Entertainment media, however, has rightfully earned itself a bad wrap in many respects, like when it seeks to engage an audience by appealing to our shallow fancies and our unhealthy curiosities. Sermons that merely titillate to maintain a congregation’s attention are little different from television studios who throw in gratuitous sex and stylized violence to maintain an audience.

This is not the job of Christian preaching. Entertainment is not its goal, but engagement. At the same time, it is okay (and perhaps right!) when engaging preaching entertains us.

But this is not “entertainment” that, as mentioned above, arrests our attention by appealing to base interests and shallow fancies.

What should most arrest our attention is truth. What should hold our concentration is a compelling vision of the Triune God. What should awaken our interest is the urgency of sin and injustice. What should seize our minds and hearts should be Christ crucified and the cosmic scandal of a burst open tomb.

And these realities and convictions are what Christian preaching must offer through the medium of speech.

Preaching will be entertaining at times. It will also be unnerving. And if we are plying the homiletical craft faithful to the subject matter, then it will grasp and hold the attention of those who have ears to ear.

Next Post: “Everything is Bad for You… Including Preaching.” A look at how HBO’s The Newsroom and NBC’s Parenthood model a new mode of television that informs the craft of preaching.