Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Brian McLaren Says it Well on "The Da Vinci Code"

In a recent interview with Sojourners Magazine, the pastor-author, Brian McLaren has some insights on what the phenomenon of "The Da Vinci Code." Here's an example.

Question: In light of The Da Vinci Code movie that is soon to be released, how do you hope churches will engage this story?

McLaren: I would like to see churches teach their people how to have intelligent dialogue that doesn't degenerate into argument. We have to teach people that the Holy Spirit works in the middle of conversation. We see it time and time again - Jesus enters into dialogue with people; Paul and Peter and the apostles enter into dialogue with people. We tend to think that the Holy Spirit can only work in the middle of a monologue where we are doing the speaking.

So if our churches can encourage people to, if you see someone reading the book or you know someone who's gone to the movie, say, "What do you think about Jesus and what do you think about this or that," and to ask questions instead of getting into arguments, that would be wonderful. The more we can keep conversations open and going the more chances we give the Holy Spirit to work. But too often people want to get into an argument right away. And, you know, Jesus has handled 2,000 years of questions, skepticism, and attacks, and he's gonna come through just fine. So we don't have to be worried.

Ultimately, The Da Vinci Code is telling us important things about the image of Jesus that is being portrayed by the dominant Christian voices. [Readers] don't find that satisfactory, genuine, or authentic, so they're looking for something that seems more real and authentic.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The American Idol of Mediocrity Done Well

Two things came together this morning.

First of all, I thought about last night's "American Idol" (a show that, yes, has hooked me) where the one true artist, Chris, was voted off the show. The remaining singers are telegenic in various ways, certainly entertaining, and somewhere above serviceable. And so I watch and am entertained. But the remaining three are not artists. So goes the wisdom of America's voting...

#2: I've been listening to the greatest (yes, arguably the greatest) pop songwriters of the past three decades, Steely Dan. This morning I was brought back to their masterpiece, Aja, which features exquisite lyrics, astonishing arrangement, and superb musicianship. I wondered why I'm hearing less of this as the 21st century marches on.

Then It struck me: American increasing idolizes mediocrity done well. That's essentially the logic of the franchise. We are the land of McDonalds and Gap--nothing exceptional, but "good enough," done consistently, and with enough hook to bring us back. We're a country that has produced (and now exported) Starbucks, a juggernaut that has managed to turn coffee (one of the finest beverages on the planet) into impossibly sweet, frothy drinks with simply the whiff of espresso. And, all too frequently, I find myself buying a cappuccino with the greeny mermaid on the cup.

So I realized that America idolizes mediocrity done well. We love a really good Everyman/Everywoman, but not someone exceptionally artistic or really exceptional in any way.

Something hit me last night on "American Idol": the "idols" (now that title's got to put fear into our hearts) went to Graceland. I began to think about that fact. If the "Idol' ballots had made the decision, Elvis never would have been a star. (I'm saying this without any particular love for Elvis.) Moreover, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (of Steely Dan) never would have made their peerless recordings. We never would have heard the jazz greats, Steve Gadd (drums) and Wayne Shortter (sax), both soloing on "Aja" if it came down to who many textmessaged their votes on their Cingular phones. The same is probably true for the Beatles or U2. I could go on.

And finally, #3 (out of two): "The Da Vinci Code" strikes me as one more idol of mediocrity. Does it really deserve the title of the best selling book of all time? I'd be interested to know what you think.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What's So Intesting about "The Da Vinci Code"?

In researching "The Da Vinci Code," I picked up Elaine Pagels' "Beyond Belief" today, which offers an alternative reading of Christian origins. In the good, scholarly tradition of quoting oneself, I'd like to return to what I wrote about earlier in this blog.

Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University (and let it be said, a verifiable scholar) writes in "The Gnostic Gospels" about the “light within.” "Dialogue of the Savior" 125.18-19 commands us to “Light the lamp within you." She continues, “They [the Gnostics] argued that only one’s own experience offers the ultimate criterion of truth, taking precedence over all secondhand testimony and tradition—even Gnostic tradition!”

Wow, our inner light beccomes the ultimate criterion for truth. In the final five pages her later work, "Beyond Belief," Pagels reveals why her alternative reading of early Christian history is important : she wants freedom to believe--or not to believe--a variety of things about Jesus. That she can find solace at New York City’s Church of the Heavenly Rest while refusing to confess the Apostles’ Creed is not exceptional. When she closes this book with a call to “spiritual discovery” based on Jesus’ words “seek, and you shall find,” I was left wondering if I had just read a passage from Kant’s famous 1784 exposition of the command “Know thyself!” Not that this call of the Enlightenment was entirely erroneous; it’s just that Pagels presents this freedom of belief as if it is new. And it definitely is not.

And so we come to something of the same old story. This time it's reinforced by a culture that's drunk from Immanuel Kant's draught for a couple of centuries and tells us to follow "our own heart" whatever anyone else says and whatever the cost. "The Da Vinci Code" also invites us to move away from the constrictions of Constantine and his Christian orthodoxy to find the insights of the great man, Jesus. It's fortunate, according to Dan Brown's characters, that Jesus wasn't divine because or else his words might trump our criteria of truth.

What it doesn't say is that it's not always that interesting to be bounded by the smallish circle of our own insights.