Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dystopia and Glee -- Law and Gospel

Linda, a friend of mine from college, who majored in politics, became a lawyer, started writing incredibly insightful AND amusing movie reviews as a hobby (becoming a blogger before there were bloggers), ultimately becomes a full-time blogger, who now writes the NPR blog on popular culture, Monkey See. She still writes great reviews and commentary on movies and television, and takes great joy whenever anyone comments on her blog along the lines of "I can't believe they pay you to write this stuff!!!' But she is good. She is able to cut to the deeper subtext of the viewer. Her cultural criticism is a HUGE part of what the task of preaching should be about.

I read with great interest her blog post More Misery! More Death! More Cruelty!: The Onset Of Dystopia Fatigue" where in the beginning she reports the questions of other critics whom she respects, ask how in the world Glee can be so popular. Her answer:
Just a hint: check the title. It's called Glee, for the love of Busby Berkeley, and we are currently in a period of such critical and popular dystopiphilia (yes, I made that up) that it sometimes feels like once in a blue moon, it would be nice to enjoy something because it is enjoyable, nevermind the fact that it isn't about the dark, cavernous emptiness that is the heart of mankind.
Now, what a great answer. And if you don't love her for the answer, then please love her for the creation of the word dystopiphilia. She is brilliant.

She comments quite accurately on the reality that our movies and television are populated with an overabundance of dark and violent images that fill us with our share of the grisly and empty side of human nature. And she for one stands up and declares that she has dystopia fatigue. It tires her out and wears her down. And so she names at least three alternatives that run an opposite tack. Glee, Modern Family, and Pixar movies, most notably Toy Story 3, opening this weekend.

I cannot help then of being reminded of the scene out of Kevin Costner's film The Postman (from the book by David Brin). A film is being shown for the band of survivors, known as the Holnists, but it is too violent. They begin throwing rocks down upon the projection booth in protest. The projectionist knows what they want and ultimately puts on The Sound of Music. In a reality where they suffer from a dreary existence, centered on the brutality of their tyrannical leader Bethlehem, they don't want to see more of the same. They want something that brings about enjoyment, and perhaps reminds them, in the midst of their apocalyptic aftermath, of their previous lives. Their remembrance brings about a sense of hope, not mere escapism.

And that is after all one possible answer to the popularity of these shows and movies. They are pure escapist stories. They help us forget for a time the reality of the world, and instead allow us to leave it for however briefly.

And in some cases that might be so. But not in all cases. We need not always focus on what life IS like, but sometimes on what it SHOULD be like. And this dichotomy lies at the heart of Law and Gospel preaching. Just as the Law lays bear the reality of the world, providing us the mirror of our existence, the Gospel gives us the proclamation of what life should and will be like in eschaton.

Preaching that focuses solely on the Law is preaching that, as my homiletics professor used to say, crushes toes with the hammer of the Law. It breaks our spirits, crushes us under its weight but gives no release, allowing us to instead strive futilely under our own efforts. We are killed, but have nowhere to go but remain in the grave.

Preaching that never deals with our reality and focuses only on the Gospel, too easily falls into escapism. Too easily makes it seem as if this world doesn't matter. We don't need to concern ourselves with this bodily existence because we have some pie-in-the-sky dream that allows us to escape the dark and dreary world. Very often I believe this is what people want. Critical reflection about the darkness of the world is necessary so that the reality of what God is doing in Jesus Christ can be made manifest most powerfully.

Our culture can reflect these two extremes. For a people who are constantly under the assault of images or war, environmental disasters, local news that is almost always disaster-ridden, it is too easy to think that this is all there is. And we fall in love with the dystopia. Any messages that speak otherwise, of redemption and hope, are met with sneers and jeers.

But the faithful proclamation of the Church continues to speak of both Law and Gospel. We hold both together in tension so that we may know of the brokenness of this world, but of the transformation that is being wrought in Jesus Christ so that our daily death to this brokenness of sin might be overcome in the good news.

We all long for something more than just what reality gives us.

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