Reading Harry Potter… in England

20 Dec Andrew Byers
December 20, 2013

I just finished reading Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. (The Triwizard Cup was a portkey… what?!?! Never saw that coming)

Yeah, I know—I am 13 or so years behind when everyone else made the discovery.

Over the past decade of university ministry work, I have curiously observed my Millennial friends pining away for the release dates of the next book or the next film. Though I claim to be a passionate lover of fiction, my “relaxation reading” over the past several years—crammed into holidays or stolen from an occasional Sunday afternoon, perhaps—was often either research for a book I was trying to write or maybe a handful of pages from more challenging fiction from the likes of Dostoevsky or Hugo.

But finally, Harry Potter has made its way into my hands.

The advantage of missing all the excitement is that I now get to read Rowling’s books in England.

The month I picked up HP and the Philosopher’s Stone (yes, in the UK it is “Philosopher’s Stone,” not “Sorcerer’s Stone”) was the month my oldest daughter entered the local secondary school. She just turned the same age as Harry when he first saw the lights of Hogwarts Castle from those small boats led by Hagrid.

My wife bought the UK version of the series. She did not want any British turns of phrase to be lost from the reading experience. My kids are now more savvy with British lingo than American, anyway, since they spend every schoolday with their British mates and British teachers. They will understand when the magical tents set up for the World Quidditch Tournament come equipped with water kettles (no livable domicile—permanent or temporary—is British-grade without one). And when Ron starts regurgitating slugs, my daughter is appropriately prepared for repulsion by daily experience with slugs. The British slug is perhaps the most common “minibeast” (small animal life-form) that we see over here—of course Ron has slugs coming out of his mouth… we have them regularly coming out of the grass into our garage.

Studying at a British university has helped me understand the idea of “houses” like Gryffindor and Slytherin. And when I attend “formal dinners” at the college I serve as chaplain, I sit at “high table” (sort of like where the Hogwarts staff are positioned beneath that enchanted ceiling). And the very subtle—yet nonetheless present—sense of social status within British society is quite palpably felt while reading about Mudbloods, Muggles, and Purebloods.

And to assure my Millennial friends—those who compassionately lamented my inexperience with the young wizard with the lightning-scar—to assure them that I am getting the fullest experience possible, let me just relate this one anecdote: while watching the first film with my daughter on holiday in Scotland, the actual Hogwarts Express (aka the Jacobite Steam Train on the West Coast Railway) twice passed by our window puffing its cloud of vapor into the air.

So although I missed all the fun and buzz of HP several years ago, I suppose I am happy to have waited.

Another advantage, of course, is that I do not have to wait for a release date….

[Coming: Magic, Christian readings of HP, the occult, and the genre of Faërie]

The Spiritual Life and Divine Assault (When God Hurts Us)

18 Dec Andrew Byers
December 18, 2013

“God sometimes hurts us.”

I said this as I sank with a sigh, exhausted and burdened, into a chair in our living room. Wisely, my wife posed the most appropriate question: “Well, does this happen in Scripture?”

The answer, we agreed, is YES.

God hurts us.

And Christians need a spirituality capacious enough for divine assault. Devotional literature that cannot accommodate a God who at times afflicts his people is inadequate for the biblical vision of the spiritual life.

I am not bitter as I write this—a bit broken, perhaps… but not really bitter. There have certainly been moments over the past several months, though, when I have hammered an ironclad sky with “why, O God?” or “how long, O Lord?”

With such prayers I find myself in good biblical company—spluttering laments are a central part of Scripture’s vision of spirituality. I have written about this sort of spirituality in Faith Without Illusions, especially in what I think is my favorite chapter, “The Way of the Tragic Poet: Worshipful Lament over Cynical Complaint.” But I have had to wade into the waters of lament thicker than I had known when writing the book. As my friend Chuck Hooten said, “you should have seen this coming!”

So where in the Bible do we learn of a God who hurts us?

It is hard to avoid, actually:

“I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.”
(Isa 45:7; see also Lam 3:38; Job 2:10; Isa 54:16; Exod 4:11)

For a specific example, let’s take Jacob. He was a child of divine promise. Jacob was a son of the Abrahamic covenant. Central to his identity in Scripture is a night of combat with God himself (or at least with his angelic representative). Fisticuffs with God: this is what being chosen as a progenitor of the covenant people got Jacob. He did not escape without pain. God gave him a limp. Jacob, the beloved child of the covenant, was disabled by the God who chose him.

Jacob was renamed “Israel,” a name meaning “strives with God.” Struggle and conflict with the divine Lord is intrinsic to being God’s beloved. From Israel the person came Israel the nation. So even the namesake of God’s people implies divine conflict.

Qualifications to what I am writing are immediately required, of course. The struggle between national Israel and God is most often due in Scripture to Israel’s recalcitrance or refusal to obey.

I have also written with verve, I think (both in TheoMedia, at The Ooze, and here at the blog) to qualify that we cannot haplessly attribute atrocities and natural disasters to the divine hand. By no means is God the source of every calamity.

But with fear and trembling over the vast theological unknowns, I still think God hurts us. At least sometimes. At least it certainly feels that way.

I know, I know—this is impious God-talk. But try the latest devotional logic on the poet who cried out, “For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me” (Ps 38:2). Reading Lamentations 3 will split open a gentle piety that defends God’s every action.

Then again, after ascribing directly to God the worst atrocities an ancient city could suffer, the tragic poet writes,

For the Lord will not cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.(3:31–33)

In a stroke of explicit contradiction to everything penned in the previous verses, the poet ends up suggesting that God really does not hurt us, at least not “willingly.”

Such is the spirituality of those who suffer. It makes theology very confusing.

Of course, Jacob would likely disagree with “he does not willingly afflict” us. And while squirming in spiritual pain deep in the night, some of us might disagree as well.

(Now, a transition: Most laments in the Bible transition at some point from grief to hopefulness. This brief lament is no different…. )

Even so, what we hold to when blood gushes from the divine arrow wounds in our soul is that whatever our take on the source of our suffering, the divine Lord plunged himself into it headfirst and drank the razor sharp cup. The worst cup of all. And not long after the cup was emptied, so also was emptied a tomb, that cup’s inevitable consequence.

I admit that most of this blog post does not resonate very well with holiday cheer. But I think it does echo (to some degree) the dark chords of Advent angst. At the heart of this season in the church calendar is a minor key chorus of moans, those of a forlorn nation looking for a Savior who seems hurtfully absent. The cry in the night of a baby, though, has signaled a key change. And those of us limping and pierced with the blows and arrows of the Lord must check out of the cynics’ ward and peer over the edge of that manger. Even if the Child’s coming is like “a sword” that will pierce even the soul of his own mother (Luke 2:35), it is a piercing we need.

Matt Orth’s Tragic-Comedy for the Disillusioned

14 Dec Andrew Byers
December 14, 2013

My friend Matt Orth has written a book. The two of us are both a bit squeamish about squirrelling our way into the powerful marketing mechanizations that give books a prominent showcasing in our society today, but we decided we could at least review each other’s books on our respective slices of cyber real estate (that is, our blogs).

Matt’s review of TheoMedia was very gracious. My own review of his Questions of a Curious Nature: The Incredible Interviews of Annabelle Farrow (henceforth QCN) will be highly positive. This is NOT because Matt is my friend and wrote a nice review of my own book. QCN is one of the quirkiest, oddest, and uncategorizable Christian-themed books that has made its way into print. And honestly: it is also one of the best. (I think I just made up the word “uncategorizable” for the purpose of categorizing it.)

QCN is an exposé of the American Christian landscape. It is a book for those disillusioned with the church… and perhaps for those who blindly do not suffer from disillusionment but need a good dose of it. QCN is no tirade of a cynical Gen-Xer, nor is it a work vindictively typed by Millennial with an ecclesial chip on the shoulder. This book is an exposé of the American church by someone who loves his own local church as much as anyone else I know… and has struggled in the inevitable brokenness years of faithful pastoral ministry always bring.

What is interesting is HOW the book proffers its exposé. QCN is a fictional satire. I am not talking about “Christian fiction” and all that category seems to imply. I am referring to something as wildly creative as Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, but perhaps even more genre-bending.

The book is written from the first person perspective of Malachi Evans. Evans is the cameraman (and husband) of Annabelle Farrow, a rising star in journalism who embodies in her character an admirable amalgamation of sweetness, tenderness, and compassion along with bare-knuckled grit and undaunted daring. In QCN we follow these two protagonists into a series of interviews.

These are not normal interviews. Orth opens up a portal—a narrative rabbit hole, a literary wardrobe—and we follow Annabelle and her husband into a new dimension of reality. Or at least into a place from which reality can be perceived at fresh angles. Annabelle and Malachi are afforded a unique series of one-on-one face time with evil entities (Fear), dead saints (King David and John the Baptist), and a range of contemporary Christians who represent a range of contemporary trends and stereotypes thriving in the American church (like the young and hip pastor Neatrick Funhopper and worship-buzz addict Sidedoor Sally).

This is weird stuff. But what Matt does here works. It really works. By taking us down fun and exciting fictional paths, he casts brilliant light on the church’s twisted ways of thinking. QCN is eerily effective.

But part of the reason is works is because it is so laugh-out-loud hilarious. QCN resists a polemic that places us on the defensive. Instead, Matt appeals to comedy and satire for his polemical strategy and thereby lovingly allows us to start laughing at ourselves for being so silly.

Of course, there are times when I wondered if maybe I should be crying. But the graciousness abounding in QCN accounts for a God who is much larger than the foibles and failings of his Bride.

Questions of a Curious Nature is the most insightful work on pop-Christianity I have come across. And the insights are shared with love. Thanks, Matt, for all the hard work….

JUSTIN CROSS | An Artistic Project We Need to Back… Immediately

03 Dec Andrew Byers
December 3, 2013

Dear Readers:

I have a number of friends God has jammed to the brim with gifts for bringing theology, pain, beauty, darkness, and joy into musical expression. When we deal with the most poignant realities of life, we must regularly appeal to more artistic media forms to honor the complexity and depth. We need songs and poems. We need singer-songwriters.

Justin Cross is one of these freakishly gifted friends of mine. And he needs some help. A good many singer-songwriters live in this odd tension of being gifted for song, yet unable to bring their artistic labors to birth without the practical necessities of expensive studio time and costly technical equipment. Justin has an album and it needs to make an appearance. We need songs that are honest about sorrow and pain yet pulsing with hopefulness, lunging lyrically toward some distant light, however faint.

His project is “Hope Where It Lies.” As of today he is $875 shy of his budgeted target of $3000 to see this album come to life. There are nine days left of the campaign.

I am writing this post to ask you to join me in helping him. It is a plea I can make with absolute confidence in the quality of work Justin is putting out.

Here is the link at indiegogo. And this is Justin describing the album from the indiegogo webpage:

“Hope Where It Lies” is a concept album. It tells the story of a man from youth to adulthood to the deathbed (and beyond?). The songs range from personal and reflective confessionals to rollicking and rowdy protest songs. The story is simple: It’s about a life from beginning to end. It’s about brokenness, heartache, joy, redemption, and (of course) hope.

I should also say that Justin’s work in this album is really special to me personally because he was at my side wrestling with issues of cynicism and disillusionment while I was writing Faith Without Illusions and developing the main idea driving this blog, the idea of “Hopeful Realism.”

This album comprises songs for the hopeful realist, my friends.

If you like what you see at the indiegogo site, check out his page at Bandcamp. Among the offerings, there is an Advent album ready to download….

An Advent Devotional

01 Dec Joel Busby
December 1, 2013

(Throughout the season of Advent, I’ll occasionally post a brief devotional thought. This will be cross-posted from an Advent devotional in the college ministry where I serve. For some general thoughts on Advent, read here.)

Isaiah 2:1-5

1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;

3 and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

5 O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord.

The ancient people of Israel hung their hopes, their identity, their souls on this prophetic vision of the future.

One day, yes, one day, their God would break in and make everything right.

God’s rule and his reign would be permanently established and recognized fully and finally. All nations would participate. Pagan peoples would no longer be feared because they would recognize the God of Israel as highest and best.

Then God himself would rule in personal proximity to his people and this would bring about a true and everlasting peace. Weapons of war would turn to weapons of farming.

The only task left after this final epic act would be for the people to walk in it, and enjoy.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the full realization of this dream lies in the future still. Just as Israel had to wait, so do we. Last time I checked, false worship, sin and brokenness, violence and strife, are very much present in our world…..and in my heart.

Advent is a time for us to long and wait for the realization of this prophetic dream. To anticipate a day of fresh and final salvation. To enter into Israel’s story and to hope for God to enter into ours.

He will make things right cosmically, and personally. Just you wait.

Just you wait.

How I Opened My Class on Paul and his Letters…

17 Nov Andrew Byers
November 17, 2013

[I am currently teaching the Paul section in a module called "New Testament Texts: The Johannine and Pauline Literature" at Cranmer Hall Theological College in Durham. At the beginning of each class, I have tried to offer a scenario of some kind to engage our imaginations and prime our minds to think more contextually about Paul and his ministry. Here is how we began the course....]

Think “Mediterranean.” Some of you have seen it with your own eyes. A warmer, sunnier climate than the one we are used to here in the UK; an exotic place that perhaps soldiers building a wall for Emperor Hadrian in a cold no-man’s-land might wistfully long to return to once Autumn came. This is a world culturally and linguistically dominated by the Greeks of old; and politically and economically dominated by Rome, the heart—the nucleus—of this vast cosmopolitan realm.

All of life is structured within a universally understood hierarchy. Everyone has a place, the gods holding chief position, the Emperor the earthly manifestation of their supremacy; then the Roman aristocracy; and then there is the aristocratic power bases within the localized municipalities throughout this massive realm. Following these elite ranks is a merchant-class, some of whom are quite wealthy; and there are the renown soldiers—retired generals and heroes whose swords so courageously splintered barbarian bones that they now enjoy lands, fame, riches. These members of the upper castes of society are a tiny fraction of the populace.

But they control the populace. There are farmers, craftsmen, temple priests, prostitutes, freedmen, villagers, and slaves. 1 out of every 4 is a slave, in fact. But all these players in this vast society are bound together by recognizing their place in relation to each other. Knowing your place is critical for survival, and one must always cavil and cater to the society-members ranking above you. Everyone has their place.

Interwoven into this complex way of inferiors relating to superiors and vice versa is a dynamic religious life from which no element is untouched. The “many gods” of this realm are visually and culturally inescapable—images of the gods line every city square, temples command the visual landscape, the coinage is marked by religious imagery. This is a society governed by a rigid caste system, saturated at all points by idolatrous religion, and infused with the rock solid political conviction that Caesar is Lord.

But suddenly, there is a ruckus in the market, a disturbance on the crowded hilltop and in the city square, along the side street. A voice crying out, speaking alien words into this well-established web of life, voicing volatile ideas into the tightly woven fabric of this august culture… What this voice speaks is a counter-intuitive word, a destabilizing word, a message that makes no sense, a message that warrants this accusation about its heralds in the Book of Acts: they “have turned the world upside down… acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).

The most vocal emissary of this message, the world-inverting message of the Gospel, is the subject of this course: Paul the Apostle.

In his first appearance in the canon he is no apostle. That initial appearance scene is bloody and grim. A death-scene. He stands as a young man approving the splintering of Christian bones as Stephen dies the 1st death of the church. But soon, the world is being inverted, and over time the Greco-Roman world will not withstand the influence of his message. Every one of us in this room have ourselves been changed by this man’s destabilizing, world-inverting words.

Welcome to THMN2021: New Testament Texts.

Halloween… and the Cosmic Violence of the Gospel (again)

31 Oct Andrew Byers
October 31, 2013

[I am re-posting this because it is one of my favorite pieces of writing on the blog... and because it is Halloween, once again]

This is the day that Evil gets festive press.  Halloween caricatures Evil, dressing it up rather innocuously in ghostly face paint, plastic masks, fake fangs.  This is the day when it is okay to play-act as the terrifying mythical entities that, as we rationally explain to our kids, do not actually haunt the closet space.  This is the day when the numinous darkness takes a celebrated position on the pop-cultural stage.

I am not a Christian crusader against Halloween.  I do not endorse judgment houses as an alternative way to spend the evening.  I take my kids trick-or-treating and I have a blast doing it.  But my Halloween began with a distraught 6-year coming into my bedroom at 3:50 am—”Daddy, I had a bad dream.” I can comfort him with this: “The Gospel is violent.”

The Gospel is violent.

The Gospel is about salvation… but it is also about destruction.  It is the royal pronouncement in the dank, seething dark of a totalitarian state that an unexpected King from distant shores has just appeared in full force at the city gates.  Ring the bells, bang the drums, blast the trumpets: a new Lord has arrived on the scene of supernatural tyranny.  The Gospel is the siren-blaring, bell-clanging announcement that Jesus is here to shake his fist in the face of draconian forces feasting on the living corpses of humanity.  With his divine arrival comes not only saving but also destroying, for although “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Lk 19.10), he also came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8).

The Gospel’s etymology derives from military imagery.  Two armies are waging fierce battle over the hillside while the citizens wring their hands and pray for deliverance from the invading force.  And then, there on the horizon, someone makes out a moving shape, the shape of a man running from the scene of war.  This is the runner, the one come to announce the awaiting fate of those who have sent their husbands, fathers and sons bearing swords and clubs in service of their embattled king.  “Gospel” is the news through heaving breaths and trembling lips that their king has triumphed and that the enemies have been defeated.

The Gospel of Jesus is not about physical violence.  Gospel-violence is directed toward cosmic forces of Evil.  As we find in Ephesians 6:12, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  So wrestle not with other humans, but we do wrestle… and we do so violently.

The Gospel announces God’s gracious reign.  But this Kingdom is not coming into a vacuum.  The Gospel is violent because the reign of God is an assault on other reigns, the reigns of Disease, Death, Darkness and the Devil.  When Jesus cries out at his death in a loud voice in Mark’s Gospel, readers will recall some sense of familiarity with other scenes earlier in the narrative.  This raucous death-howl was the pattern by which the demons fled.  Like Jesus, their departure was with the crying out of a loud voice.  Something terrible and mysterious—something cosmic and violent—is at work when Jesus dies on the cross beneath swirling darkness.

But whatever is going on behind the celestial curtain at the cross, we know that a closed up hole in the ground was burst open on the third day.  This is from my book Faith Without Illusions on the (violent!) Resurrection of Jesus—

When the Messiah vacates his tomb, something is stirring.  Something new and wild.  Something against the establishment.  Death‘s establishment.  At the voice of the resurrected Lord, the cosmic superstructure of evil detects a virus in the system.  A wrench has been tossed into sin’s machinery.  The foundations start to pop with fissures.  It’s time to plug up the leak, to contain the fire, to reseal any open tombs.  Time for chaos to panic.  Time for Satan to go beserk.  Resurrection is God shaking his clenched fist in death’s face. Resurrection is God whispering death threats in death’s ears.

The open tomb of Jesus is a hole in the system that cannot be patched.  The re-creating King has climbed up out of his grave.  He is out there, loose, at large, roaming free—and returning at dawn.  [1]

Halloween can serve as a reminder to my 6-year old that the images of Evil and death that he sees in storefronts or on other kids’ face—however plastic and silly and caricatured—are the images of a fading empire.  Jesus has come to de-fang the secretive, beastly dragon whose breath stinks with human carnage.  And one day, from the seat of a Throne, he will oversee that monster’s binding and eternal imprisonment as the everlasting King.

[1] Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 210-22.


“Media Christology”

25 Oct Andrew Byers
October 25, 2013

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

09 Oct Andrew Byers
October 9, 2013

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

06 Oct Andrew Byers
October 6, 2013

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"]

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