"I Know It When I See It"
By the way, Rumplestiltskin says hello. I ran into him during my vacation from the blogosphere. He's well, but I had to bring that up to explain my absence. Forgive me, I'm back. For now, at least.
If you're not already aware, I am the pastor of a church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (CityChurch) which seeks to be a church that desires cultural engagement rather than cultural retreat.
I relay that little tidbit because I received an email this morning from someone who had attended a recent event that our church had sponsored. CityChurch hosts a monthly series called Cinema Vérité where we show an important film on the big screen at our local art house theatre, and hold a discussion. The person who wrote the email is from another local church, and wanted to know why a church would show a film like Magnolia – not an invalid question, if you've ever seen it.
What follows is part of my response to him (edited in order to make sense to you, dearest blog-reader):
CityChurch desires to be a people who encounter regular, normal people who don't know Jesus, or who have never even heard the gospel in the first place. We don't expect people to come to us, rather we go to them in the form of our people developing relationships that they have through their neighborhood, their family, their work, their local coffee shop, etc. We believe that the church is about people and that people must be very gracious and winsome in any relationship when it comes to engaging someone with the gospel.
The reason I say that, is because that's one of the reasons we sponsor Cinema Vérité. Other than the fact that it gives us the opportunity to show great films, it is simply a way to enter into the discussion about humanity, life, God, death, morality, purpose... the list goes on.
We leave the "safe" confines of our church, and enter into a public art house, show good films and open up the floor for discussion. Furthermore, while I enjoy seeing these films, the purpose of Cinema Vérité is not to show movies with our Christian friends and have a good time. We're wasting a lot of time, money and energy if that's the purpose. It is intentionally a forum that is a safe place for non-Christians – together with Christians – to discuss this stuff. Usually for the first time.
Surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly), the proprietors of Cinema Paradiso (the theatre) are on board with what we're doing. They were originally nervous about Christians coming in and doing what Christians normally do (preaching at, seeking to convert, judging), but they have seen that we have been gracious in our discussions... raising more questions than we answer... prodding people to seek God as he is revealed in the Scriptures.
And that's why we showed Magnolia. When you watch the film in its entirety, you have the opportunity to see that it was far and away the most "Christian" film we have shown, and will show for some time now – the discussion that followed gave proof to that as well.
At CityChurch, we believe there is more humanity, depravity, redemption and grace in a film like Magnolia than in other "Christian" films such as Omega Code, Facing the Giants, etc. Some of the most graphic, gothic and vulgar (not in the usual sense, but rather, as Flannery O'Connor defined – "common," "raw," "real") works of art are by those who have professed genuine faith in Jesus. Artists like U2, Walker Percy, Johnny Cash, David Bazan, Anne Lamott and even O'Connor herself. Sadly, Christian art for so long has been safe, tame and... not very real.
And again, that's why we chose Magnolia. We believe that this film shows the flawed, fallen, broken, destructive side of the human soul. It shows what happens when people isolate themselves from one another, when people destroy one another for their own foolish gain, when people don't seek reconciliation, and much, much more. It's possible that no film we will ever show again will expose our deep-seated need for redemption quite as well as Magnolia does.
Yes, there are some sex scenes at the beginning, and I don't want to downplay them. But those scenes, while graphic, are not pornographic. Those scenes (as part of the montage that sets up the tragic lives of nine interconnected people) are instrumental in establishing two of the central characters: a victim, and a victimizer... both of whom are in need of the grace that they will taste at the end of the film. They are hard to watch, ugly to look at, brutal to experience. But here's where they differentiate from pornography: they are not gratuitous... they are not intended to glorify the act... they are not intended to titillate. They are there to show – dare I say – need.
Need for hope.
Need for deliverance.
Need for God.
There is no way to keep everything that happens in and around the church pure. Simply put, as long as I am the pastor of CityChurch this will never be the case. I am an impure, needy, sinful and broken man who is constantly reminded that I need the gospel.
If I didn't, there would be no reason for Jesus to have lived, died and conquered the grave. For me.