Cinema & New Media Arts | On Jun 12, 2013
The problem with much Christian worship in the contemporary world, Catholic and Protestant alike, is not that it is too entertaining but that it is not entertaining enough. Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment, the one that tells us, to quote the Book of Common Prayer, that “in the midst of life we are in death.”
It neglects tragedy. Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken. Even the cry “Jesus is Lord!” assumes an understanding of lordship very different than Caesar’s. Christ’s lordship is established by his sacrifice upon the cross, Caesar’s by power.
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Christian worship should immerse people in the reality of the tragedy of the human fall and of all subsequent human life. It should provide us with a language that allows us to praise the God of resurrection while lamenting the suffering and agony that is our lot in a world alienated from its creator, and it should thereby sharpen our longing for the only answer to the one great challenge we must all face sooner or later. Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection.
Yet today tragedy has, with few exceptions, dropped from popular entertainment. Whether it is the sentimentalism of the Hallmark Channel, the pyrotechnics of action movies, or the banal idiocy of reality TV, the tragic sensibility is all but lost. This is further compounded by the trivial way in which the language of tragedy is now used in popular parlance. As with defining moment and crisis, the words tragedy and tragic are now expected to perform Stakhanovite levels of linguistic labor. In a world where even sporting defeats can be described as tragedies, rarely do the terms speak of the catastrophic moral crises and heroic falls that lie at the heart of great tragic literature.
Yet human life is still truly tragic. Death remains a stubborn, omnipresent, and inevitable reality. For all of postmodern anti-essentialism, for all the repudiation of human nature, for all the rhetoric of self-creation, death eventually comes to all, frustrates all, levels all. It is not simply a linguistic construct or a social convention. Yet despite this, Western culture has slowly but surely pushed death, the one impressive inevitability of human life, to the very periphery of existence.
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Yet tragedy is a vital part of entertainment. Aristotle in his Poetics famously argued for the personal and social benefits of tragic drama. The audience, swept up into the vertiginous moral crises, the magnificent flaws, and the catastrophic falls of the heroes, enjoyed the experience of catharsis—running the gamut of relevant emotions—without being agents in the events depicted on the stage. They left the theater cleansed by the experience and knowing more deeply what it means to be human. They were wiser, more thoughtful, and better prepared to face the reality of their own lives.
Of all places, the Church should surely be the most realistic. The Church knows how far humanity has fallen, understands the cost of that fall in both the incarnate death of Christ and the inevitable death of every single believer. In the psalms of lament, the Church has a poetic language for giving expression to the deepest longings of a humanity looking to find rest not in this world but the next. In the great liturgies of the Church, death casts a long, creative, cathartic shadow. Our worship should reflect the realities of a life that must face death before experiencing resurrection.
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The psalms as the staple of Christian worship, with their elements of lament, confusion, and the intrusion of death into life, have been too often replaced not by songs that capture the same sensibilities—as the many great hymns of the past did so well—but by those that assert triumph over death while never really giving death its due. The tomb is certainly empty; but we are not sure why it would ever have been occupied in the first place.
Only the dead can be resurrected. As the second thief on the cross saw so clearly, Christ’s kingdom is entered through death, not by escape from it. Traditional Protestantism saw this, connecting baptism not to washing so much as to death and resurrection. Protestant liturgies made sure that the law was read each service in order to remind the people that death was the penalty for their sin. Only then, after the law had pronounced the death sentence, would the gospel be read, calling them from their graves to faith and to resurrection life in Christ. The congregants thereby became vicarious participants in the great drama of salvation.
There was surely catharsis in such worship: The congregants left each week having faced the deepest reality of their own destinies. Perhaps it is ironic, but the church that confronts people with the reality of the shortness of life lived under the shadow of death prepares them for resurrection better than the church that goes straight to resurrection triumphalism without that awkward mortality bit.
Bonhoeffer once asked, “Why did it come about that the cinema really is often more interesting, more exciting, more human and gripping than the church?” Why, indeed. Maybe the situation is even worse than I have described; perhaps the churches are even more trivial than the entertainment industry. After all, in popular entertainment one does occasionally find the tragic clearly articulated, as in the movies of a Coppola or a Scorsese.
A church with a less realistic view of life than one can find in a movie theater? For some, that might be an amusing, even entertaining, thought; for me, it is a tragedy.