(Warning: there may be some movie spoilers in this week’s post.)
This weekend was halloween. I decided that I would get involved by watching a scary movie, which is quite a thing for me, because I am a coward when it comes to those kind of movies. I am the guy in the cinema who is looking down into his pop corn, or doing that thing where you’re looking at the screen but not focusing your eyes, so you don’t have to look at the monsters about to the eat the little girl. For example, I recently went to watch a scary movie with friends and I found the one other guy who was as chicken as I was. We sat next to each other sharing my ipod for the frightening scenes. People chasing each other down dark hallways isn’t nearly as unnerving with a Black Eyed Peas soundtrack to it.
Fellow spineless movie goers should give it a go.
Turns out it wasn’t actually that scary, but I did get some interesting stuff out of it.
The premise is that there are 3 Catholic priests who have been ordered to translate a scroll found with the Dead Sea manuscripts. It is written in Aramaic and as they continue to translate they are more and more convinced they have found a text written by Jesus Himself. After passing on the work to their superiors the whole project is suddenly shut down and the translators disbanded, mostly because of one passage.
In the text, Jesus is supposed to have written:
“The Kingdom of God is inside you, and all around you, not in mansions of wood and stone. Split a piece of wood… and I am there, lift a stone… and you will find me.”
The story goes on with one of these priests dying and ‘possessing’ a young woman in order to get this text, which the church is suppressing, out to the world. The idea is that Jesus never meant the church to become about buildings and institutions, but rather to be about the spreading of the Kingdom of God, this alternate reality Jesus came to announce. This threatens the church and causes a desperate scramble to cover this stuff up and ensure the survival of their institution.
There is one specific scene where a Russian priest, one of the original translators, is standing in a beautiful cathedral, ranting away to Gabriel Burnes’ character about how he doesn’t believe in the need for any of this any more, and he doesn’t need an institution to connect him with God. I forget the exact wording but I do remember being struck by the scene.
I know this is a fictitious story, but a few things struck me.
One is that I think this is something Jesus would have actually said. It seems to fit with His message and mode. He spoke about ‘breaking down the Temple and rebuilding it in three days’, which we know, from hindsight’s vantage point, was His way of saying that the Temple system was going to be destroyed and replaced by something which He would begin with His resurrection. But is this just about a new covenant? Or is there something more specific going on? Is He pointing to the fact that this old system of emphasizing buildings, rituals, structures and hierarchies was to be abolished and replaced by something very simple, started by a group of fishermen who would get people to meet in organic communities? Jesus never instructs them about ‘how to build a church’, ‘who to select as pastors or priests’, ‘how to have a service’, ‘how to form a committee’. Everything He taught them related to living life together and effecting the world with positive change by connecting it to God… without heavy religion. In fact every time He comes up against this heavy religion He seems to be tipping tables over, or making whips, or calling them some pretty rough names.
It seems Jesus wasn’t a fan of this stuff… and yet that’s exactly what we went on to build.
The second thought that hit me was that this notion is everywhere. Popular culture is awash with commentary on this disparity between what Jesus did, and what the church stands for in many instances.
I also watched ‘Angels and Demons’ this week; the new Dan Brown movie. Wasn’t that great a movie to be honest, but it also had some interesting elements. At the core of this story is a deranged cleric who is willing to go to great depths to protect what he sees as the ‘sanctity of the Catholic church’. Over and over again in the movie Langdon (who is the Atheist symbologist trying to unravel the recent spate of crimes) comes up against the rigorous religious rituals held for hundreds of year by the Catholic church, and it’s no accident that the writer and director keep putting them in front of you to represent a block to things like ‘justice’ and ‘human goodness’.
It seems that the stories we are telling in popular culture, when it comes to the church, are about a clutching need to control and suppress any opposition; a kind of desperate and insecure ‘circling of the wagons’.
Before the Protestants among you assume that’s good negative attention for the Catholic church who are so religious in your minds, do you really believe the rest of the world sees you any differently? Just go and watch movies like “As it is in Heaven”, “The Invention of Lying”, “Religulous”, “Jesus Camp” and “Saved”. Even stuff like the “Golden Compass” series makes a clear enemy of the religious institutions.
This is in sharp contrast to the early church who, according to Acts, “enjoyed the favour of all the people”. Not that ‘popularity’ is the goal, but it does speak volumes about our posture in the world, and the stories that are being told about us should be enough to get us asking the tough questions.
The third is the battle we have ahead of us; for all those who resonate with the need for a complete ecclesiastical overhaul. The resounding feeling I had coming away from these movies is one of trepidation, and a kind of preemptive weariness. I know we have so much to lose by giving up our structures and hierarchies, our institutions and our brands of ‘heavy religion’. I know that because I have been there. In fact it cost me my job at the end of the day. I can only imagine the fear for someone who has to support a family with their church salary. How could someone like that follow their conscience? Would it be wise? Would it even be right? Isn’t it better just to shut up and ride it out? And because so many have so much to lose from the questions I am asking in this blog, I know that resistance has been, and will continue to be fierce.
I don’t want to give up though. Not because I am persistently anti-church, quite the opposite. It’s because I am so pro-church that I want to see it become everything it should be; to drop the distractions that keep it from being the positive force it should be in the world. I don’t know how to do it yet, or what my role is, but this blog feels like a good place to start.
I want to live to see the day popular culture is telling redemptive, peace-bringing, grace-extending, and life-giving stories about the church, because that’s what they see in us.
(Thanks to those who posted last week. Was good to hear from you.)