Monday, October 17, 2011

The Sermon I gave at church

Popcorn Theology with Matthew, Mark, Joan and Rufus

This summer the teen religious education classes engaged in their own form of Popcorn Theology. I was curious about what this meant, so I looked it up. Michelle Richards, the author of the book says that “Popcorn Theology takes the concept and popularity of movie night to explore issues of theology and ethics for Unitarian Universalists.”

That got me thinking. I know that my views on morality and ethics have been shaped by the media, but has my own personal theology been influenced as well? I know that as UU’s our faith is drawn from the six sources. What if my sources also included movies, television and novels? I put some thought into it. As I sat and thought about the books, movies and television shows that I enjoyed so much, I began to realize how parts of them played into my sense of personal theology today.

Before we begin, a little background. The area that I grew up in was far from religiously diverse. It was rather “column A” or “column B”. Column A was Catholicism. There were large, well-attended catholic churches in my town. My father’s family and many of my friends were part of column A. Column B was the Protestant churches. These were mainly Presbyterian and Methodist, but even the Baptist church had a similar service. I was well into high school before we had any Jewish or Islamic kids in the school. It was a place where you went to church, or didn’t. But you never really talked about religion.

I was the exception to that rule because I talked about religion. I had questions and I asked questions for a while. When I got answers that didn’t make sense, I stopped asking. Two instances stand out in my mind.
  • The first was when I was in elementary school. I didn’t want to get up for church, and asked my mother why I had to go. She informed me that I needed to go to church so God could hear me pray. This puzzled me. I asked “Well, if we go to church so God can hear us pray, why do we pray before bed?” At this point, mom got a little flustered and the subject was dropped.
  • The second happened in Middle School. My catholic grandmother always went to church on my birthday, the Feast of Immaculate Conception. Now, even in Middle School I could do math, and December 8th to December 25th isn’t nine months. I asked her about it, and she told me that’s when Mary was immaculately conceived. I then read the New Testament, never finding where it was mentioned. She told me that it’s not in the bible, but all Catholics understand it to be true. I wanted to call shenanigans on that, but wise enough not to argue with my Grandmother.

After that, I decided that if the Catholics can simply decide things about their religion, why can’t I? Not being one that learned well though reading (a fact that would haunt me in College), I began to unconsciously cobble together my own views on religion from the next best source: movies and television. Looking back, I am less than surprised at the movies and television shows that influenced me.
I was born in the mid 70’s and grew up with The Magic Garden, Romper Room and a rather psychedelic Sesame Street. The early 80’s brought two things to our home: Cable, complete with HBO, and Star Wars.

Because of the magic of HBO and repeating movies ad nauseum, by the time Return of the Jedi opened in 1983 I could recite multiple passages of Star Wars (the first one). I learned two things from those movies.

1. I wanted to live in the Ewok village on Endor (Honestly, what seven year old wouldn’t?) and
2. I wanted to be a Jedi.

Why a Jedi? Well, I was a fan of the Jedi mind trick. And light sabers were pretty cool. But I really understood what the Force stood for. It made sense.
“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

I loved the idea of that. Something that connects us all. A code of honor. It’s a thought that is echoed in a great many modern religious movements (including our own). In fact, so many people believe in the Jedi Code, an actual religion has formed from it. In The UK, there are enough members that it merited being an official religion choice on the British census.


I spent High School and College with religion largely absent from my life. I also spent some time trying to reconcile my love for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s very Christian rock opera Jesus Christ Super Star with the love for the rather pagan The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which was a feminist re-telling of the Arthurian Legend. I still love them both, despite of their wildly opposite points of view.

In 1999, Hollywood kicked the Catholic Church in the teeth with the 1-2 punch of Dogma and Stigmata. Both of the movies were met with harsh criticism and protests. Both of the movies were very critical of the rigid, outdated views of the Catholic Church.

Dogma was the story of two angels that were on a quest to unmake existence, all thanks to a loophole in Catholic dogma. They are stopped by the Last Scion, the 13th Apostle, the Metatron (who is the voice of God, not a Transformer) and of course, Jay and Silent Bob. This movie by Kevin Smith has multiple quotes that basically sum up my views on religion. My favorite is this one from the muse Serendipity:

Serendipity: When are you people going to learn? It's not about who's right or wrong. No denomination's nailed it yet, and they never will because they're all too self-righteous to realize that it doesn't matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith. Your hearts are in the right place, but your brains need to wake up.
I love that the film explored religion from a denomination neutral perspective, while still acknowledging that there is a God (played in this film by Alanis Morrisette). I happen to agree with Serendipity, no denomination has gotten it right yet.

Serendipity’s thoughts about faith, funny enough, are echoed by the preacher Shepherd Book in the short lived space western, Firefly some years later. After River Tam (who is brilliant, but not entirely mentally stable) declares that his Bible is broken he responds with: “It's not about making sense. It's about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It's about faith. You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you.” In the movie Serenity, which is the continuation of the cancelled series, he echoes those thoughts to Mal, as he lay dying. He pleads with Mal, a man that is quickly losing everything that is dear to him, to believe in something, anything.
Whereas Dogma was a comedy, Stigmata is a horror film. Stigmata is the story of a young atheist woman, who begins to suffer the stigmata wounds after being possessed by a priest who translated the Gospel of St. Thomas. The Gospel of St. Thomas is a collection of Jesus’s sayings, or so it claims, that wasn’t included in the New Testament, and some have called it a heretical text. Catholic Clergy in this movie thought this simple idea could take down the church. Before someone runs out to research this, I did it for you. Though the movie’s version of the Gospel of Thomas is incorrect (They cobbled together lines from the real gospel), the idea behind it is sound.
“Jesus said... the Kingdom of God is inside you, and all around you, not in mansions of wood and stone. Split a piece of wood... and I am there, lift a stone... and you will find me. “
That one line struck fear into the corrupt priests. They feared that the mere idea contained in those words would bring down the church. They were afraid that Jesus said that churches aren’t necessary to be close to God, and that this one idea would take away their power, and their jobs. That God is everywhere and in everything. Kind of like the Force.
In 2003 Hollywood again tackled the thorny subject of religion with Joan of Arcadia. This is a show about God, but doesn’t follow one system of beliefs. The show follows the exploits of Joan (who lives in Arcadia), as she follows instructions from God. God shows himself (or herself) as a variety of people, of all genders and ages. They all have three things in common. They all are God. They all know Joan’s name. And they all have that same condescending wave. They also all give her tasks that, at first seem absolutely ridiculous. Joan whines. She complains. Her friends think she is crazy, but somehow she learns something from the tasks. Coincidentally, both Joan, and God were nominated by UU World readers as being television characters that people strongly suspect are UU’s.

The show was conceived of by Barbara Hall, who gave these guidelines for the writers of the show. The “Ten Commandments of Joan of Arcadia,” if you will. Many of these “commandments” reflect my own ideas about God (for the Divine, or whatever you want to call it):
  • God cannot directly intervene.
  • Good and evil exist.
  • God can never identify one religion as being right.
  • The job of every human being is to fulfill his or her true nature.
  • Everyone is allowed to say "no" to God, including Joan.
  • God is not a person and does not possess a human personality.
  • God talks to everyone all the time in different ways.
  • God's plan is what is good for us, not what is good for him.
  • God's purpose for talking to Joan, and everyone, is to get her (us) to recognize the interconnectedness of all things.

I always loved the God in Joan of Arcadia. That God is very similar to what I have always viewed God as being: someone kind, with our best interests in mind, whose message other people may misinterpret from time to time.

I actually completely believe that God speaks to everyone. God, the Universe, whatever you call it. I call those conversations "clue by four moments." They are moments when it's like the universe downloads exactly what you need to think, say or do, directly into your head. The moment, in my mind, when a Monty Python-esque hand comes down from illuminated clouds to slap you upside the head. Like God is saying: "Get clue!" then handing it to you.
Those movies and shows: Star Wars, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Mists of Avalon, Dogma, Stigmata and Joan of Arcadia were all tools. They were mirrors that I held up to my faith. I saw parts of my spirituality reflected in them. I thought I had it all figured out. Then Eat Pray Love hit me over the head. Eat Pray Love is the memoir of the amazing year that Elizabeth Gilbert spent in Italy, India and Bali. It’s now a movie with Julia Roberts. Now don’t laugh, but some of the passages knocked the wind out of me. It was like the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, reached inside of me to put the words on the page. Because I was there. On page 20 she writes:
“I was trying so hard not to know this, but the truth kept insisting itself to me.
I don’t want to be married anymore.
I don’t want to live in this big house. I don’t want to have a baby.”(Eat pray Love, page 20)
At that point, she had me hooked. I was sucked into this woman’s “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” In this search, she goes to eat her way around Italy, pray in India, then she studies with a medicine man in Indonesia (where she learns to smile with her liver). But along the way, she comes up with ideas similar to my own. She writes:
“The Hopi Indians thought the world’s religions each contained one spiritual thread, and that these threads are always seeking each other, wanting to join. When all the threads are finally woven together they will form a rope that will pull us out of this dark cycle of history and into the next realm.” (Eat Pray Love, p. 298)
This woman from a protestant background took experiences from Hindu practices, experiences of living in a very Catholic country and experiences with her medicine man and wove her own faith from the spiritual threads she found.
So why even do this? Why look to movies and television for my spiritual path? My answer is a simple: Why not? We are all here on our free and responsible searches for truth and meaning. As we search we should feel free to consider ideas and inspiration from outside the realm of scholarly text. In Andrew’s sermon on June 12 he called our faith “experiential.” We were challenged to (to borrow the first living tradition) directly experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. I find nothing wrong with experiencing that wonder through the lens of someone that has put time and study into this subject. People like Kevin Smith, Barbara Hall, Joss Whedon and Elizabeth Gilbert found their own truth and meaning, and chose to share that truth with the rest of us.

Now, while agree with all of the other “e” words that Andrew used in that sermon, I want to add one more. Our faith is “experimental.” We are both encouraged and, honestly, expected to piece together thoughts, words, movies, books and (even maybe) pies into a Frankenstein’s Monster of personal theology. We spend our lives tinkering with it until hitting the it’s alive moment where the lightning flashes and we can see our creation coming to life inside of us as a fully formed set of ideas. We then spend our lives tinkering with the parts, adding new ones in and taking old ones away. This is the one amazing advantage that our faith has over the other hundred churches in town. We’re not a one size fits all operation. I spent my youth in churches where you were expected to believe in everything that the church stood for. In many cases it ended up being an all or nothing situation. That’s why I like it here. We mix and match, allowing for our experiments, experience, and learning styles to guide us.

As I finish this up, I’m going to put my teacher hat back on for a bit. I charge all of you to go and find your own truth and meaning in unusual sources. Be it a movie, a book, a musical, song, painting or even in an episode of Glee, find your own ideas that build your personal theology in someplace unexpected. Go ahead, experiment a little.

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