Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Culture and What is does to Us

We are a product of our culture, even of our sub-cultures. I worked for the New York City Department of Probation for 15 years. During my first two years, I wrote numerous letters to many higher-ups, pointing out serious flaws with the system. Typical of whistle blowers, I only received threats for not following the chain-of-command. Even when I did meticulously follow this chain, threats were always the response. When I finally became a supervisor after eight years, I had absorbed enough of the company culture, sometimes in ways that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. At least, I had learned how to navigate those treacherous waters. Writings letters was no longer a part of my vocabulary.

Culture is like a pair of sunglasses. Everything we see is colored by those lenses. It becomes difficult to step outside of our culture even when we know that it is profoundly influencing us. Recently, I saw the movie Courageous and was thoroughly uplifted and touched by it. I cried throughout most of it. OK, I realized that my response had largely been conditioned by my Christian faith. And yes, Courageous is contrived and preachy. If you do the right thing, it demonstrated that there’d only be good results – not exactly an accurate representation of the Christian life, at least in the short run. However, it was filled with so many poignant touches, and they worked so well for me.

I therefore was surprised that Christianity Today (CT) only gave it three out of five (3/5) stars – a mediocre grade. Nevertheless, CT admitted, “While Sherwood [Pictures] tendency toward didactic storytelling persists, Courageous is its most ambitious and watchable film to date.” Nevertheless – 3/5! Why? CT complained that “once the struggling protagonist[s] recommitted his life to God, everything went his way.”

So what? No movie can capture the many twists of our lives. There will always be imbalance and bias! Usually, we find the good guys triumph over the bad, and justice triumphs over injustice, and this pat message doesn’t stop the critics from giving those movies 5/5! Why the disparity?

Meanwhile in the same issue, CT gave Martin Sheen’s The Way, about a pilgrimage along El Camino de Santiago, the highest recommendation – 5/5! Although I enjoyed this movie, its spiritual message was uncertain, unclear and most likely undefined. Nevertheless, it did preach the well-worn message that, “It’s all about relationships” (not shared spirituality).

Circumstances brought four very difficult and troubled people together along the Way. Two were obsessive talkers and two were obstinately angry. Although they collided abruptly, their pilgrimage somehow kept them together. Predictably, they bonded and learned to value and enjoy each other.

We’ve seen this formula played out in countless movies. It’s a formula no less contrived than what we had seen in Courageous. Why then did CT find The Way’s preachy-ness acceptable, while it panned Courageous? This question becomes even more perplexing, when we note that, while so many movies contain the very same overused message as we find in The Way, we seldom if ever encounter the message of Courageous!

Perhaps, this is a case where our culture takes charge of our sentiments and determines what is valuable and what isn’t. Do we actually think that there are neutral standards of judgment? After all, all movies are contrived to deliver one effect or another. Why should CT endorse one contrivance over another, especially when the contrivances of Courageous are truths that CT ultimately embraces? Why can movies preach about the beauty of relationships and not the beauty of God? And why do Christians even take issue with the latter? Have we uncritically absorbed too much of our cultures?

What should we take away from these questions? I think we need to do some digging? Proverbs 20:5 warns us that, “The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.” But why should we draw them out? Why not simply live impulsively in accordance with our cultural programming?

We have a higher calling – to live in accordance with the truth:

• Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. (2 Tim. 2:22)

What should this mean in terms of movie-criticism?

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