June 18, 2013
Superman: Sermon Notes from Exile
Why I wrote sermon notes for a blockbuster Hollywood film.
I wrote the Sermon Notes for the recent Man of Steel blockbuster film. Thousands of pastors took the time to visit a website, enter their address, and download the notes. I am glad that many have found the parallels (and distinctions) drawn between the life of Jesus and the myth of Superman helpful. Countless moviegoers from different faith traditions (or lack thereof) noticed the rather obvious connections between Jesus of Nazareth and Kal-El of Krypton. Hopefully, such comparisons do not detract from either story. My sermon notes were designed to connect (and separate) the superhero film from the enduring testimony regarding Jesus.
Nevertheless, some see the structuring of a sermon around a blockbuster movie as everything that's wrong with church in the 21st century. It is compromised and compromising. Why would we surrender a sacred service to a secular movie?
As someone who likes his church services slow, low-fi, and ancient in origin, I can see why the inclusion of clips from any upcoming movie might be distracting and disturbing. I don't think my sermon notes are appropriate for all congregations and contexts.
I appreciate the desire to keep our churches pure, to keep out foreign idols, to resist the influence of Hollywood. I respect what I see as an Amish commitment to keep things simple. While many churches discuss evangelistic strategies, I always smile when I think about the Amish method. How much do they spend on advertising or outreach activities? The Amish live out their faith so distinctively that tourists make special trips to Lancaster County to photograph them! How cool to think that Christians could be so unique that others will take vacation time just to watch us practice our faith.
I also value the sacramental church tradition that connects worshippers with the otherworldly, sensory aspects of our faith. In Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox settings, the “smells and bells” are designed to take us to a higher plane, to follow a church calendar connected to eternity. Everything builds towards the Eucharist—all is in service of that wondrous “foretaste of glory divine.”
The vast majority of Protestant churches are designed around a message. They build not towards the table, but towards the sermon—where the text of life is put into dialogue with the norming norm provided by the word of God. Some pastors place themselves under scripture by adhering to a lectionary. Plenty have decided to create sermon series connected around a particular book of the Bible or maybe a theme. They may preach about a contemporary issue in an effort to connect the truth of scripture to the situation of their congregation. Contextualization and cultural interpretation are essential skills for pastors adopting this approach.
Such accommodations might be the most biblically informed approach to living “in exile.”For centuries, Christians in the West have enjoyed a position of power. We set the cultural agenda. But now, we find our voice diminished by cultural change and the electronic kingdom of movies, cable TV, and smart phones. Some still preach as if vast swaths of the population are listening. TV preachers may have significant numbers of followers via satellite, Facebook, and Twitter. Others have attempted to maintain cultural leadership within their local communities. And another sector of pastors have decided to adjust in ways similar to the ancient Israelites who were carted off to Babylon.
Living in Hollywood, it is easy to see the church as an important, but marginalized voice. We may hope that the culture notices our sermons, but we also recognize that we are outmatched by two hundred million dollar marketing campaigns and corporate tie-ins that accompany a juggernaut like Man of Steel. Try as we might to ignore it, this big screen product emanating from the electronic empire will bombard us and our children via TV, radio, and billboards.
I think back to how people of faith, living in exile, responded to the empires that surrounded them. Joseph decided to bless the Pharaoh. Moses decided to march out of Egypt. Joshua took up arms to drive out foreign peoples. Jonah resisted the call to rescue people he did not like. Jeremiah challenged his audience to wake up to the new reality (instead of pining for better days). The Israelites were to seek the welfare of the city that overtook them. Ezekiel engaged in street theater to arrest the Hebrews' imagination. Hosea had to turn his private life into a public object lesson.
As an interpreter of dreams, perhaps Daniel serves as the most apt example for working in Hollywood, our (inter)national dream factory. Filmmakers ask an unknown god to inspire them. The muse may be box office receipts, an Oscar, or Art. The best movie directors serve the truth of the characters. Like Nebuchadnezzar, they may not realize what their onscreen dreams mean. So when I am invited to interpret their dreams, I welcome the opportunity. Some may say that Daniel doesn’t take the king’s dreams back to his community. Yet, if those dreams offered encouraging signs to a marginalized people, then I might share that interpretation with a community hungry for hope.
When I find a filmmaker asking all the right questions, I make an effort to come alongside that spiritual search. As Philip came alongside the Ethiopian Eunuch, we can ask people, “Do you understand what you're reading (or creating)?”Our attention (and ticket buying) encourages studios to create even more spiritually informed sagas.
Rather than turn our back on those who are gauging our influence and testing our engagement, I want to affirm their interest. Hollywood is testing our faith. Thanks to thousands of responsive pastors and congregations, the studios are discovering we are as large, vibrant, diverse, and influential as we claim to be. We are finally getting the stories we’ve been clamoring for. The faith, hope and love that arises along with these stories may even get us back on our feet, marching out of exile.
Craig Detweiler is a U.S. author, filmmaker and cultural commentator resident in Los Angeles, CA, who is employed as an associate professor of Communication at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.