Thursday, June 24, 2010

Court Upholds YouTube's Model

Using YouTube video clips in teaching and preaching has been easy and legal for several years. The world is available to the teacher and preacher in short clips with great visuals and excellent audio.

For the past several years I have contended that YouTube, and its owner, Google, provide content for us to use, and that they have been taking responsibility for the legal (copyright) matters. Viacom tested the model with a lawsuit against Google some 3-4 years ago, and until it was settled by the court, my view was that we could legally use the material Google/YouTube presented.

Today a judgment was rendered in favor of YouTube:

"U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton in New York sided with Google Wednesday as he rebuffed Viacom's attempt to collect more than $1 billion in damages for YouTube's alleged copyright infringement during its first two years of existence.

The 30-page opinion embraces Google's interpretation of a 12-year-old law that shields Internet services from claims of copyright infringement as long as they promptly remove illegal content when notified of a violation." (source: Associated Press report as reported here.

This ruling provides us with a continuous source of legally-obtained video material, placing the copyright-verification onus upon YouTube and Google. It is indeed a victory for participatory sharing along guidelines set by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, and the Fair Use Guidelines For Educational Multimedia.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pop Culture, Religious Art, and the Young

I'm just back from guiding a group in Rome, Florence, and Venice. On these trips I highlight the history, art, architecture, and sacred spaces along the way. What continues to amaze me is how young adults love the arts, particularly the visual arts. The major museums of Rome, Florence, and Venice are full of young people of all ages looking intently at the visual treats arrayed in front of them. Many have stood in line for nearly an hour just to get into the museums.

Perhaps more striking is the way popular culture, particularly in novel and film, continues to stimulate this interest. A case in point is the Dan Brown novel, and film of the same name, Angels and Demons. On a previous trip to Rome I saw Tom Hanks sizing up the obelisk in Rome's Piazza Navonna, as they contemplated a scene for that film.

Because of this film, a small, lesser known church like Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, once virtually unknown to tourists, can now be quite full of them at any given time. They have come to see this church featured in the film, and also to notice the two Caravaggio paintings, "The Crucifixion of St. Peter" (1600-1601) and "The Conversion of St. Paul" (1600-1601) in a small chapel near the central altar.

As these particular works of art continue to capture the interest of the young, we in the church might do well to find ways to engage that interest further by preaching with these works of art. Using a copy of these works of art as a starting point, one can use various pieces of the artwork to highlight certain aspects of the stories as presented in scripture, and through the artistic imagination. A final step would be to encourage the congregation's personal engagement with both the art work and the scripture, as they encounter a fresh approach to familiar scriptural subjects.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Screen Styles

There are many options for using screens in worship. This is a view of the front of the sanctuary of the Evangelical Center at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. Notice how the screen is really fabric temporarily installed in the sanctuary. A section of the fabric has an image projected on it. Standing beneath the screen is a man signing the speaker's words so the hearing-impaired may also understand.

Many wonder how a screen might fit into very traditional church sanctuary architecture. This screen is beautifully integrated into the Gothic sanctuary of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Dubuque, Iowa. The art or lyrics projected on the screen easily fit the worship environment. The screen is easily tucked away with the flip of two switches: one to reel the screen into its housing, and the other to pull the housing up into the ceiling.

Screens may also be used in outdoor worship spaces! Above and behind this cross-shaped wooden pulpit is a light-colored painted wooden screen of a small evangelical congregation in San Jose del Cabo in the Baja Peninsula, Mexico. Church members project hymn and song lyrics onto the screen.

Nielsen's Three Screens Report

The Nielsen Company, long known for its data on American television viewing habits, now also seeks to measure and analyze how people interact with traditional media (like television) and newer digital platforms (like mobile phones and the Internet). Nielsen issues a quarterly “Three Screens Report” regarding television, Internet, and mobile usage in the U.S. (See In its Fourth Quarter 2009 report, Nielsen noted that Americans continue to watch more TV each year. The report found that those aged 50 and older watched an average of 198 hours of television a month, nearly twice as much as children and teens, and 38% more than 18-54 year olds, percentages that continue to increase.

The report also found that people are viewing more online video than ever before, with short video, such as YouTube video clips, accounting for 83% of online video viewing. While younger adults to the age of 25 watch much more online video than older adults 65+, older adults are keeping pace with increased use of television, playback video, and Internet, with nearly twice as many people viewing as children and teens. What’s clear from the data is that all age groups within a typical congregation are expanding their use of the “three screens” technologies, and keeping track of “The Three Screens Report” is an excellent way to watch for continuing trends.

As both youth and adults increase their engagement with their “three screens” at home and on the go, will the church find ways to encourage conversations that connect biblical text and theological perspective with the content that church members experience through the stories and messages found in short video and film clips, music, and imagery?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Photography In Worship

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship recently published this article, "Photography in Worship: Picturing God’s Counterstory, Building Community" as a resource for enlivening worship with the imagery of original photography. I commend it not only because I'm interviewed in it, but because the other stories are important to know too!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Digital Natives: A Metaphor or a Reality?

Over the years I have been intrigued with the concept of "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" and have written and taught about Marc Prensky's contribution to our understanding the impact of digital technologies on today’s children and youth, and how teachers (and preachers)need to find new ways to communicate with today’s “digital natives.” [See his work at]

Prensky is an educator who creates videogame-based training tools designed to teach today’s technically fluent children, youth, and young adults. In his ground-breaking article, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”, Prensky coins the term “digital natives” to refer to those who are natural users of computers, video games, and the Internet. Those people not born into this digital world he calls “digital immigrants.”

Although they are using much of today’s technology, digital immigrants retain an “accent” because they were born before the advent of home computers, cell phones, and the Internet. Prensky maintains that today’s educational challenge is for the
digital immigrants teaching in classrooms (and preaching in our churches) to find ways to effectively reach out to the “natives” in our midst.

At his website, Prensky offers downloadable versions of his many articles about today’s youth and how they think differently, and how their brains are changed as a result of their use of digital technologies. When navigating his website, click on “Writings” to go to a number of his free articles, including those with practical suggestions for developing effective teaching and learning strategies.

Prensky has given us a way to understand the shift that has been taking place ever since the development of the radio, the camera, the moving picture, and television: those who use these media are affected by them. He discusses how the“digital” world of technology is changing human brains. If brains are being changed, and if multiple generations of people are now shaped by electronically-delivered content, how does the church harness this force for the sake of the gospel?

In recent years there have been some studies to test this thesis. The recent March 6-12, 2010 issue of The Economist cites research that seems to minimize Prensky’s concept. It’s good to be able to read another view. I recommend this article, "The Net Generation, Unplugged" in the Economist Technology Quarterly. This report of some recent findings will at least help us be aware that no label can adequately summarize the diversity of human experience. I still am intrigued with the digital native/immigrant concept, and think the metaphor bears testing out in our worship and preaching.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Preaching St. Valentine’s Day

If you are not using the Common Lectionary this week, try something on St. Valentine. For a three point visual sermon, find imagery for

1. Introductory theme-building image of a heart-shaped chocolate candy box
2. St. Valentine (drawing, portrait, or stained glass portrayal)
3. Add a picture of a Hershey’s Kiss chocolate
4. Find picture of Milton Hershey with orphans he helped educate
5. Close out with the theme image of the heart-shaped candy box

Additional slides could be of brief scriptural texts, such as the Shema (Deut. 6:4), the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40) or the love hymn in I Corinthians 13:13.

You might begin your message with a description of St. Valentine, his ministry, and how red heart-shaped symbols come to be associated with the day. Next, describe how chocolates come to be associated with Valentine’s gifts (heart-healthy!), and then tell the story of the Hershey Foundation and their important work of providing education to orphans in the 20th century to now. Wrap it together with reference to the scriptural texts and the message of love.

Develop the sermon by gaining background on St. Valentine, the heart-healthy benefits of chocolate, and the Hershey Foundation:

Find information about the Valentine story here and more here.

Those desiring to take a prophetic edge might connect Valentine’s willingness to marry people whom the state/empire determined could not be married to each other, with the willingness of some of today’s clergy and churches to perform marriage/commitment ceremonies for people who may not have the blessing of the state.

Why is chocolate associated with Valentine’s Day? Find out about heart-healthy chocolate in New York Times article and one from the Cleveland Clinic.

How do Hershey’s Kisses relate to Valentine’s Day chocolates? Read the story of the Hershey Foundation and Milton Hershey’s view on stewardship.

Many think of the film Chocolate(2000) for illustrating this theme, and there are scenes that would fit, including when one character comes into the chocolate shop in a cranky mood, and after sipping a delicious hot chocolate for the first time, has a mood change!

To add to the fun, have Hershey’s Kisses in the pews and invite people to enjoy them during the sermon!

Finding a chocolate-scented candle and placing it on the altar/table would add to the ambience!

"The Hurt Locker" Evokes Response

This film clearly deserves the respect it has gathered with nine Academy Award nominations. The story, based on a book written by a reporter embedded with a U.S. military unit in the early years of the Iraq war, centers around the daily experiences of an "EOD" (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) team on hundreds of risky missions to save the lives of civilians and soldiers by disabling high-explosive devices planted in Iraq.

As the film's director, Kathryn Bigelow says, this film and its story is "haunting and pervasive and provocative.” Her purpose, she says, "was just to humanize these particular individuals.” The full interview is from Slant Magazine (6-26-09).

As the story winds down, there is a remarkable conversation at the start of chapter 17 at about the 1:58:03 mark, where J.T. says he is not ready to die, wounded by some random piece of shrapnel and “I bleed out like a pig in the sand.” Worse, he fears no one will care, “I mean, my parents will care but they don’t count. Who else?”

This scene provokes a response to do something for the real soldiers now on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, and for whom many congregations pray on a weekly basis. One way to respond is Holy Joe's Cafe, a Coffee House Ministry where United Church of Christ military chaplains invite U.S. soldiers into informal places where they can receive spiritual care and good coffee.

With this project congregations and individuals support the Coffee House Ministry and send Equal Exchange Coffee to the military chaplains in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. 125 chaplains now participate. Read their blog for the latest pictures and commentary.

Of course other denominations have their own programs, and this is just one way to respond to the feelings evoked by watching The Hurt Locker.

Another way to respond to this film is to read a report by Emily McGaughy, a Pacific School of Religion M.Div. 2009 graduate, on her year-long C.P.E. experience with wounded vets at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto (California) Healthcare System that included 30 hours of clinical chaplaincy and 10 hours of weekly classroom instruction. Her account was published in the Fall, 2009 PSR Bulletin,Volume 88, No. 2 and can be read here.

The Hurt Locker is now available on DVD, and would be a powerful film to show for a church film discussion, which would surely focus on issues of war and peace as prompted by the individual stories in the film, against the backdrop of the real-life experiences of Iraqis of all ages living in their war-torn nation.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Google and Bing Improving Image Searches

Using browsers to search for images has just gotten easier. While many are familiar with Google's Image search feature (input text search terms and then click on "Images" to access image choices), Google now offers something called "Google Image Swirl" that proves stacks of images in response to your search term. While this is in the experimental stage and only offers a limited selection of search possibilities, it's great as a tool for basic imagery and art from well-known artists.

Microsoft's Bing offers another version of this with the new Bing Visual Search which allows you to search images without typing search terms, but simply clicking on a number of categories, such as "famous people", "reference", "sport", etc. Selecting from a category of images then leads to a large number of additional images with a similar theme. Visual Search also adds useful text data as you "mouse over" various images.

Both image browsers will continue to improve with time, and offer visual thinkers more possibilities while hunting for illustrative material for presentations.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Promoting Disaster Relief in Haiti

If your church has a screen, projector, and computer available in your sanctuary, you are ready to immediately promote ways your congregation can assist with the relief efforts underway in earthquake-devastated Haiti.

There are several places in any worship service where visuals can be used to inform, educate, and encourage involvement in mission projects and immediate disaster relief. These could be before the worship service in the form of picture and text announcements; as part of a dedicated “mission moment” time in the service; as an introduction to the offering, and/or during the time when the plates are passed; and in a sermon.

If you have access to the Internet in your sanctuary, you’ll be able to show YouTube video clips from many sources; articles and appeals on denominational websites; photographs of specific schools and medical facilities your church has or is sponsoring, etc. Since people may already be overloaded with visual images from television and their own Internet use, you will want to select visuals that tell the unique story of your church and/or denomination's presence in that country.

My experience has been that adding such visuals to worship services is a highly effective way for helping people better understand the mission causes the church is promoting through special offerings, and will result in much higher participation and generosity of giving.

Showing pictures and video clips of the needs help draw people into the story of the project and make it easy for them to give to support what’s needed. In one mid-sized church I served, we raised thousands of dollars over several weeks for victims of Hurricane Katrina because we were able to show pictures of local people on site in Louisiana purchasing and delivering diapers, towels and blankets from the initial donations provided by our church.

That kind of outpouring for disaster relief had previously been unheard of in that church, and it was clear that the combination of having family of church members on the scene emailing pictures of what they were doing, along with the visual presentation of this in worship, produced generous support. The couple in place emailed us pictures as they purchased and delivered supplies, helping dramatize the urgency of the situation as well as showing the specific ways our congregation’s donations were being used. More gifts followed these pictorial reports.

Having the projector, screen, and computer in the sanctuary made it easy to “think visually” and show the various causes we were supporting, thus making it easy to raise much-needed funds.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Biblical Narratives in Avatar (2009)

When one of the main characters of a film is named “Dr. Grace Augustine”, one’s theological ears need to perk up! Augustine of Hippo was called “the Doctor of Grace.” He and a fellow named Pelagius argued over the doctrine of original sin and the meaning of grace. I suggest that James Cameron was not promoting pantheism in this film, but settling in his own way the ancient arguments about grace and awarding Pelagius (judged a heretic by the church) the winner’s prize.

One discussion thread for Avatar is indeed this: the concept of sin and grace as found in the Garden of Eden in the biblical narrative, compared and contrasted with that found in the garden planet of Pandora. While investigating the ancient debate between Augustine and Pelagius, this study thread would also include evaluating questions raised by various critics concerned about more modern concerns about pantheism, neo-paganism, etc. in the film.

Questions to include might be: What is pantheism? How is pantheism different from eco-spirituality? What is panentheism? What is Mother Goddess religion? What is paganism? Are these to be feared? Why or why not? Where might we find examples of this in the film’s story and dialogue? How does this debate get played out in various church and non-church circles. What are the issues at stake e.g. political, social, cultural, economic, moral, and religious?

Another thread related to this is stimulated by the fact that this story takes place on a mythical planet named Pandora. What is the Greek myth of Pandora about? Is Pandora an equivalent of the biblical Eve? Are the curses that emerge from Pandora’s jar (or, as it is mistranslated, box) similar to those God gives Adam and Eve?

Moving on: the people of Pandora are called “Na’vi.” The biblical Hebrew word for prophet is “nav’i” or “mouth of God.” What does the filmmaker intend to tell us with this reference? How do these people in the movie live and function like biblical prophets, then and now?

The female Na’vi character, Neytiri, gives Jacob a pomegranate-like fruit from a tree. His eyes seem to open up at that point to really behold the beauty of where he is. How does this fruit scene compare and contrast with the fruit scene in the story in the Garden of Eden? How do the two sacred trees in Pandora compare to the two in Eden?

The Jacob and Esau Story

Besides parallels in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, there are some comparisons in the film to the Jacob/Esau story. While the comparisons might be weak and stretched too much, they yet invite some imaginative consideration.

In Avatar, Jacob has a twin brother named Tom. Jacob is translated from the Hebrew to mean “supplanter.” In the film, it was Tom, Jacob’s brother, who was to be the avatar. With his untimely and tragic death, Jacob takes his place.

After seeing Avatar, it is interesting to read the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10-17. There is a communication between one realm and another, heaven and earth, with many winged creatures (angels) flying around. A blessing is given, that through Jacob all the families of the earth shall be blessed. There is divine assurance of ongoing presence and guidance, and then Jacob awakens, realizing he has been traveling between heaven and earth, the “house of God” and the “gate of heaven.”

Later, in Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with the mysterious angel, gains a limp, and has a name change. His new name is “Israel” or one who struggles or strives with God. As some suggest Avatar advocates reverting to some kind of nature-worshiping “tribal existence,” clearly the parallel with the coming tribal confederacy and covenant community of ancient Israel in Jacob’s story might fit…at least in an imaginative and inspired preaching context! After all, the covenant of “shalom” extends peace to every aspect of creation including the land, the water, the sky, the animals, and people!

John 1

A third connection to a biblical narrative might be found in the Gospel of John and the prologue of the first chapter, with its theological concepts of light and word. Light and Word translate into life, as at the beginning in Genesis 1, and both light and word become flesh, a human being, one who embodies word, light and love. Might it make some sense to briefly and lightly touch on the imaginative correlation of the Hindu “avatar” in reference to this Christian “epiphany” to draw out comparisons and contrasts?

Other snippets of interesting material:

a. There are coffin-like structures shown throughout the film, with juxtaposed scenes from a real coffin holding Jake’s brother to the avatar-pods. There is no getting around the themes these evoke: death, life, rebirth, renewal, and transformation.

b. Noting the worship practices depicted in the film: singing at the sacred tree; honoring ancestors; prayer; laying on of hands; the presence of ritual at sacred place.

c. Treating relationships with nature and living things with respect, honoring a sacred relationship. While some may see this as pantheism, it seems more of an honoring of the sanctity of all things. Note the blessing/saying “grace” before taking the life of an animal, and/or the connection with horses and birds as the Na’vi linked strands of hair with the strands and fibers of another’s life.

d. The clash of different systems of belief: one in “military fact” and power, and another in the sacredness of deity and/or nature. There is a clash of cultures: military, natural, and scientific.

e. The relationship of the term “Avatar” in Hindu mythology/ theology with “Epiphany” in Greco-Roman mythology/political theology and in Christian theology.

f. How does the final scene parallel the final scene of Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and what are we to make of it?

g. Just as one world is shown to be of advanced technology, another world is shown as one of advanced spirituality?

h. The Halleluia Mountains figure beautifully in the film and are the closing images as the credits roll. “Halleluia” is “praise God” in Hebrew.

i. The connection with the themes found in Dali’s “Burning Giraffe” as mentioned in a previous blog.

j. The valuable mineral the corporation seeks, with the aid of its mercenaries, is called “Unobtanium.” The unobtainable has a high price.

k. Lines in the film that invite some discussion (I have not found a script yet; these lines are what I thought I heard while watching the film, and I wrote them down in the darkened theater while wearing 3-D glasses!):

“I was a warrior who dreamed he would bring peace.”

“The Great Mother does not take sides-she protects the balance of life.”

“The wealth of the world is all around us.”

“Grace is hit.”

“I’m a scientist; I don’t believe in fairy tales.”

Did Jake call out “holy snake!” as one of the snake-headed creatures flew out of the Mother Tree?

l. The theme song, “I See You” sings of the film’s joyful embrace of conscientious, intentional, life-honoring relationships and the “colors of love.” Where is love in the film? Is the full complexity of the term “love”there, in the biblical sense? Do we find in the film an implied shallow “pantheism” or is it more of what we find in John’s Gospel and the phrase, “For God so loved the world…” Doesn’t John affirm that the world is embued with love? Isn’t love embedded in each creature, all of life, the animate and inanimate?

Daring to Study---and Preach--- Avatar (2009)

There’s plenty not to like about James Cameron’s sensational new film. On the eve of the film’s release in Italy, the Vatican called it “simplistic” and full of “pseudo-doctines…that turn ecology into the religion of the millenium.” See one report of that here.

A New York Times reviewer said the same thing a few weeks earlier, calling the film a “long apologia for pantheism…”

A couple of young men with whom I’d chatted last week said the film was great for the technical effects but not so good as a story, since that has been told and retold many times already. “This film,” one said, “will be remembered for the technology.”

An Onion film review called it “supremely goofy.”

Yet people continue to go see it, and the film is raking in hundreds of millions of dollars from viewers not only in the U.S. but around the world. A recent article spoke of the film’s popularity in places like Russia and Brazil.

I loved it. There were several points where I responded with deep feelings: in the exquisitely beautiful scenes of the graceful, floating tree seeds, for example, and in the horror of metal gunships spewing destructive power upon a pristine Eden-like land. There is little escaping the emotional and physical power of 3-D visual effects joined with full surround sound. At one point I ducked as an object seemed to be flying right at me! At times I wondered how bugs got into the theater on a cold winter’s day, when in reality (virtual reality, that is), they were actually in the movie.

Avatar is a work of art. Unlike many films (I think of the popular The Hangover[2009]), there is a whole curriculum waiting to be drawn out of this film. With so many people seeing it and so many commenting on it, the film is a ready-made study piece. It can be an exciting way to enliven 1) youth and adult education 2) a sermon series and 3) efforts to practice talking together about the media we experience.

As the film's musical theme “I See You” declares, when we look at another living being or at life itself, when we truly look to see, we enter into a sacred relationship. There is much that this film invites. As Tillich reminded the church, intentional theological reflection begins with a relationship with life that then stimulates questions.

At its best, when the church engages the questions honored and provoked by art, it serves as a bridge between culture and biblical theology. We encourage a depth of inquiry by raising questions; we encourage dialogue by encouraging the drawing of comparisons and contrasts between a work of art and the biblical witness; we notice a prophetic socio-political critique and perceive an incarnational embrace of story as parable; we model a way of living,thinking, and being that honors the world, the arts, culture, and history while being faithful to the meta-narrative of biblical tradition.

Part II of my reflections will focus on the mythical/ biblical references I find in the film. While most critics have uncovered the obvious mythical references, most of these same critics are illiterate when it comes to biblical material. They miss the irony of a line from the corporate executive ordering the destruction of the Home Tree and its sacred seeds when he blurts, “it’s just a sacred fern for Christ’s sake!”

James Cameron is more aware than we think when it comes to biblical theology. Those who only see a “theology of pantheism” have completely missed Cameron’s deep—and amusing—theology of grace, with full reference to the ancient/modern Augustinian-Pelagian debate.

Next Up: Biblical narratives in Avatar, plus questions to pursue

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Cameron's "Avatar" (2009) and Dali's "The Burning Giraffe"(1937)

A few hours after watching "Avatar" (review to follow in a day or so) I went to a favorite Costa Rican Cafe for supper. I was seated at a small table near the door that faced a wall. As I waited to order, I noticed directly in front of me a Salvador Dali print with two long figures in the foreground and off in the background a smaller figure. It was of an animal on fire.

This strange and striking image took me back to "Avatar," in which is a short scene of a running horse on fire. It was a picture of pure horror resulting from the cruelties inflicted upon the living beings in the film's Pandora. Was James Cameron making a reference to Salvador Dali?

In the foreground of the Dali print are two long, blue women. The women of Pandora in "Avatar" are long and blue. Dali called his women in the print before me "tail bone woman" and the Pandora creatures did have tails! Coincidence? The collective unconscious at work in the artistic imagination?

Dali used the image of the burning giraffe in his 1930 film, "L'Age d' Or" (The Golden Age) and again in his 1937 "The Invention of Monsters." He apparently saw this as a premonition of World War II, and his burning giraffe is an image of “the masculine cosmic apocalyptic monster.” See my source and a look at the print here. The "monsters" of war in "Avatar" are steel helicopters, the large mother ship-plane, and the massive robotic "soldiers" piloted by individuals inside these walking structures.

Cameron's Colonel Quaritch embodies this "masculine cosmic apocalyptic monster" in the film. This makes him, too, an "avatar" of sorts.

I've been unable as of yet to locate any confirmation by Cameron of this reference to Dali's work. It may be I am stretching this a bit much, but the parallels are very striking.

The juxtaposition of the Dali image with the scene of the burning horse in the film would be an excellent starting point for a discussion or sermon about some of the issues raised in film. An additional image suggestion would be Picasso's "Guernica" from the same time period, and the terrified horse in the center of the painting.

Preaching "Invictus"

The film "Invictus" centers around Nelson Mandela's work to unify and build a post-apartheid nation. The story retells his efforts to encourage the national rugby team to win the 1995 World Cup as a means of bringing the country together.

The film's title is drawn from an 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley that Mandela used for inspiration during his long imprisonment by the South African government. Mandela gives the poem to the captain of the rugby team after a discussion about inspiration:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Invictus, 1875, William Ernest Henley

While this is a poem of one person's overcoming personal challenges, and a hymn to individualism, it is clear that Mandela is using it to feed his dream for a united South Africa. The individual is always in relationship to a community, a nation, and commonly-held goals.

The sport of rugby features prominently in the film. Any team sport is a combination of individuality and teamwork. As such, the sport becomes a metaphor for the challenges facing South Africa during this time. Rugby in this film becomes a metaphor of the struggle for social change, which is often rough and bloodied.

The images of the scrum, and then the individual popping out with the ball to either run or kick, shows the "dance" of the team/group and the individual. Each needs the other. For a good look at rugby in relation to this film, check out this article.

Texts for Preaching "Invictus"

Several texts are prompted by the title, story, and dialog in the film. I'd suggest the following:

Matthew 5:43-48, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..."
Luke 6:37, "Forgive, and you will be forgiven."
Romans 8:37-39, "We are more than conquerors through him who loved us..."
Romans 12:17, "Repay no one evil for evil..."
2 Corinthians 5:20, "So we are ambassadors for Christ..."

Religious References

Aside from a short scene featuring a Congregational Church in the background, and the team's prayer at the end of the match (all of 15 words, including "Thanks for the win. Amen.", there are few "obvious" religious references. Yet the film is full of clippable dialog about fear, forgiveness, individual effort to bring people together, legacies of apartheid and efforts to overcome them, and the need for people to become the change they wish to see. The theological references in the film are vast and the preaching opportunities many!

Short Notes:

1) The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was set up around the same time as this film is set. To understand more of this as background for a sermon, you could go here. This was part of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995.

2) Director Clint Eastwood seems to be focusing on the theme of redemptive non-violence in this film and his Gran Torino (2008). This is an important theme to highlight as so many films take on stories with the "myth of redemptive violence" (see Walter Wink's work on this).

3)Other references to popular culture, for use with a multi-media sermon presentation, can be found here.

[A word about my use of Wikipedia: while some may frown upon it as an academic source, I find it can give a jump-start to your work and get you moving into your topic. Like anything on the Internet, it’s important to read a number of articles to arrive at a fuller understanding. Wikipedia is a great place to start.]

4) As said earlier, the film lends itself to a message about South African apartheid and Nelson Mandela's efforts to bring reconciliation and unity to a divided nation.

5) Another preaching theme could be that of leadership, organization, and inspiration. Examples in the film come from Mandela's understanding of this and his strategies for implementing it, as well as the rugby captain's (Francois Pienaar played by Matt Damon) learning this and communicating it to the rest of the team. Relating this to your own leadership and organization challenges within a congregation might be an application.

6) An important line from the film is something like, "Forgiveness removes fear--it is a powerful weapon..." and this alone can be a starting point for your message. The story shows the intentional work of breaking "the cycle of fear" rather than reinforcing it in the context of the national situation at that time.

This film lends itself as a foundation for a preaching series on themes such as reconciliation, forgiveness, fear, social change, building unity out of diversity, and partnering for greater social, political and/or organizational progress.

There is also much in this film that could be illustrative material for a more general sermon about reconciliation, forgiveness, individual and group effort, the need for inspiration in individual and team challenges.

Once the script/DVD is out, we'll be able to suggest those clippable moments.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Sherlock Holmes" For Lent

The late Doug Adams of Pacific School of Religion advised those wanting to preach and teach with film to use what their people are watching. This was "incarnational theology" by preaching these parables that were already a part of a congregation's awareness.

Last week I saw "Sherlock Holmes" and was aware that it was the #2 most seen film in the US (I'll see "Avatar" this week and comment on it soon!). I did not go to see it with any intention of looking for how to preach it, however. Years ago I read the Sherlock Holmes stories after they were given as a Christmas gift. I'd watched Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the old movies. I'd even gone to the Sherlock Holmes Pub in San Francisco back in the 1970's, and paid homage to 221B Baker Street in London in the 1990's.

The big surprise with this latest cinematic rendering of adventures of Holmes and Watson was that "Sherlock Holmes" (2009) was full of theological references. As much as I've found these in films over the last decades, I don't know why I'd be surprised...but my expectation was that I was going just to see a fun film on a cold afternoon.

I came away from it realizing that it fits perfectly with the Lenten text of the third temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4:8-9. More on that in a bit.

Holmes tells us "the little details are far more important" and it is in the little details where the theology finds its home. Interestingly Holmes uses the term "theology" in a quick reference as the plot unwinds, "I've reconciled thousands of years of theological disparity..." and that would take more parsing than I could put together as the action unfolded quickly. Perhaps a second viewing...or your own analysis....will help draw out the full meaning of what he was saying.

For this particular reflection I'll use Lord Blackwood's line to Holmes from his jail cell early in the film: "You and I are bound together on a journey that will twist the very fabric of nature..." Let's look at some of these twists:

1) The first twist is our first glimpse of Lord Blackwood (played by Mark Strong): he resembles Basil Rathbone! The bad guy in this film resembles Sherlock Holmes in the old movies. Evil masquerades as good, which is indeed a twist.

2) Lord Blackwood intends to twist nature with his quest for power, " create a new future--a future ruled by us." It's the age-old lust for power. Theologically this is a twisting, or a distorting, of the original goodness of God's creation in Genesis 1. The distortion (sin) is a human yearning for power (see the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11) and the age-old creation of domination systems like Pharaoh's Egypt (see Exodus) and Caesar's Rome (see the New Testament socio-political background of Palestine in the first century). That many miss this distortion of power of domination systems as part of the "originating sin" only speaks to our wide acceptance of them as "the way it is."

3)In the movie, Lord Blackwood reads from Revelation 1:18 and twists the words referring to Christ to apply to himself and his quest: "...I died, and behold I am alive for evermore; and I have the keys of Death and Hades." Part of his scheme is to cheat death and become all-powerful.

4)Another scriptural twist in the film is the reference to Revelation 4:7 and "the four living creatures" which become symbols, and for Holmes, clues for the development of Lord Blackwood's evil plan: the lion, the ox, the face of a man, and a flying eagle. New Testament theologians understand that these symbols become associated with each of the four Gospel writers: Matthew=angel; Mark=lion; Luke=ox; John=eagle. Blackwood is twisting the "good news of the Gospels" by associating each symbol with his murderous plots.

5) Blackwood gathers his "disciples" in a church-like structure and has a mock-communion ceremony, giving them a common chalice and telling them to "drink your allegiance here..." It was Doug Adams who has pointed out how the Latin "sacramentum" was the oath of allegiance to the emperor, and to take communion was denying the emperor his worship and instead a commitment to the cause of Christ. Blackwood twists the "sacrament" towards his own version of "a future ruled by us."

6) Another "twist" to the film is that as Blackwood begins to fall in a final fight with Holmes, he cries out, "For God's sake Holmes, cut me loose!" Ultimately the bad guy who has been all about twisting the fabric of nature, scripture, and human power, acknowledges "God" when the chips are down.

7) Little detail: did you catch how Holmes' dog is named "Gladstone"? Without making too much of the names, this "Gladstone" (solid, good news) is in stark contrast to "Blackwood" (not so solid bringer of bad news).

8) Other religious backdrop: Holmes mentions something about "these times of religious fervor" and at several moments in the film there are people demonstrating with signs reading something about "Satan." I'd need to isolate those scenes more to draw their significance, as they were very quick scenes. Yet the theological reference is there, playing off the other scenes.

9) Towards the end, isn't Blackstone wearing a coat reminiscent of the one worn by Max Schreck in "Nosferatu," an early vampire film from the silent era?

Preaching "Sherlock Holmes" in Lent might involve using the Matthew text of the temptation of Christ (the devil offers to give Jesus "all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them...if you will fall down and worship me...") and the flawed human drive for power, dominion, and world domination.

As each of the temptations addresses specific earthly issues (bread from stones=economic power; jumping off the "pinnacle of the temple" and living=religious power; kingdoms=political power) this film offers an entry into the realm of the distorted, twisted human drive "to create a new future-a future ruled by us" where humans are at the center, their systems of domination provide the rule of force and protection of greed, and the word of God is pushed aside.