I’ve been ruminating on the Academy Awards ceremony for the last few days.
I started to write this as a screed on what I see as a not-so-gradual devolution of the ceremonies into a lowbrow, vulgar display of sexually infused banter, pretentious speeches, and clueless cultural-political vamps. Some – ok, a good chunk – of the ceremony was offensive to me (Neil Patrick Harris channeling his inner, adolescent Dougie was the nadir for me). But, some of it was elegant [Common’s and John Legend’s acceptance speeches for Selma, and Julianne Moore’s (Still Alice) call for greater Alzheimer’s awareness]. Then there was the biggest surprise of the night for me – Lady Gaga’s exquisite and, apparently, heartfelt tribute to Julie Andrews. What a voice!
So, to resolve this tension between revulsion and delight, and to be fair, I decided to follow what I hope is a higher road – to encourage all of us who claim the name of Christ to reconsider our “war” metaphor vis-a-vis our relationship with our culture in general and with Hollywood in particular. We’re pretty good when in attack mode. We can lob verbal grenades into the midst of the infidels and blow people up emotionally. We are Patton in the pulpit. But that kind of “us” vs. “them” attitude doesn’t build bridges to Christ. Let’s start to consider ourselves as distinctive representatives of the Lord Jesus in the culture rather than just to the culture.
Rather than introducing a new metaphor, I would rather endorse the garden metaphor implicit in Mako Fujimura’s concept of “culture care & cultivation” (fujimurainstitute.org). Dr. Allen Ross develops the idea formally in his excellent book, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (2006). We can start with prayer.
I take an annual pilgrimage to the throne of grace every February to pray for each person who crosses the stage of the Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theater. Some, I pray for en mass – the dancers, the technicians, the producers, the directors, the presenters and those accepting the awards. I pray for their families, some of whom were scattered among the 3,401 seats.
The obstacles to our prayers appear formidable from a purely human POV. When we pray for Oscar’s extended family (2,809 Oscars have been awarded since 1928), we are praying for a well-heeled tribe. According to Stephen Follows (StephenFollows.com/blog), it costs around $3,500 simply to prepare a Hollywood actress for the red carpet. Still, while the winners of the major awards enjoy increased marketability, there is an enormous disparity between the financial “bump” that can be anticipated by the recipients of the Best Actor and a Best Actress Oscars: $3.9m for Best Actor vs. $500K for Best Actress (Stephen Follows; Patricia Arquette’s call for fair financial compensation for all women, not just for actresses, rings true). Add to that the dizzying budgets for producing and distributing a major Hollywood release (around $139 million on average according to www.the-numbers.com, www.slashfilm.com, www.imdb.com), and you might come to see Hollywood as the epicenter of capitalistic and materialistic greed.
All of that to say, our version of the City of Mansoul, a glittering Oscaropolis, is fortified with the most impressive battlements that money can buy. At least, that’s the impression left on many – particularly those in the Christian camp who tend to view Hollywood as a forerunner of the Whore of Babylon. Through those monochromatic spectacles, Hollywood is a monolithic, homogeneous, and ultimately diabolical aggregation of polished perfidy. Not only is it viewed as an impregnable bastion, but it is (again, according to some) virtually irredeemable – it’s architects having formed a strategic alliance with Prince Diabolus himself.
But Hollywood is not a fortress – for all of its pomp, for all of the hubris and braggadocio that attends the annual spectacle, there is a not-so-apparent vulnerability to the glitzy edifice. I believe the drawbridge is down, and we, the believing community have an opportunity as never before, to converse, to share, to encourage our fellow believers who inhabit the entertainment industry. Part of this new openness is due to Hollywood’s financiers having awakened to the fact that the they can commodify the Bible, and that the evangelical market represents far more than a fringe element. We are bankable!
But we are also unique among consumers. Unlike the majority of insatiable takers, we have something to offer as well: in short, we have love to share, relationships to cultivate. We love because God first loved us and we want to share truth, beauty, and goodness in the person of Jesus Christ. Thanks to the superlative work of Karen Covell and The Hollywood Prayer Network (http://hollywoodprayernetwork.org), along with Dr. Larry Poland’s MasterMedia International (http://www.mastermediaintl.org), and others, we are gaining a fresh perspective on Hollywood and how to share the love of Christ effectively. The shortlist includes –
- Listening. Thankfully, we are beginning to listen, at least as much as we talk. Listening shows respect for the other person. It avoids the pontificating posture of the Christian caricature that, all too often is based on the real world experience of many Hollywood executives. They have been bitten more than they have been blessed.
- Praying. This is where we can have the greatest influence on the industry. Not praying generically, but praying for individuals and, in particular, for those of the “household of faith.” We need to pray specifically and we need to ask for God to move in the hearts of individuals. You will find a helpful list if top media influencers in the MasterMedia Prayer Calendar (http://www.mastermediaintl.org/calendar/), a catalogue of men and women who appreciate our prayers on their behalf – even those who haven’t trusted the Lord Jesus Christ yet.
- Giving. So you want to make a difference in the most influential medium in the history of the world? Give money to people you can trust, who will invest in developing relationships with industry leaders. People like Dr. Larry Poland, and Karen Covell (see above) whose integrity is unimpeachable. Support ministries like Dallas Theological Seminary where students are studying in the Department of Media Arts and Worship to represent the Lord Jesus Christ effectively in our culture.
- Sharing. This is different from “telling.” “Telling” is one-way. “Sharing” suggests a mutual exchange of ideas that is inspired by the love of the One who loved us to death, and loves us into life. Here’s the hard part: that love, that compassion, compels us to warn as well. The good news is good for two reasons: Jesus saves us from eternal hell, and He saves us to eternal life. But ours isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a message of impending judgment. Ours is a message of life and averted judgment. A gift that will not tarnish and a reprieve that will not be revoked, if only they will accept it.*
*Sidenote: That’s not to suggest, by comparison, that Oscars are likely to tarnish, even though they aren’t made out of solid gold. They are gold-plated britannium, a pewter alloy. Of course, the gold that covers the britannium will not tarnish. It is inert. But it can appear to tarnish due to the base metal getting corroded or oxidized. If the gold plate is thin and porous (the Oscars are exquisitely crafted and should never tarnish), the corrosion taking place in the underlying surface may seem like tarnish. It’s far more likely that any base character flaws of some recipients would tarnish the honor of the award, than that the award per se would suffer corrosion.
Never in the history of the church have we been better poised to make a difference in the lives of men and women who shape our culture. By listening, praying, giving, and sharing the love of Jesus Christ, we position ourselves firmly in the luminous tradition of those who would rather light a candle than curse the darkness – who would, by God’s grace and mercy, work to transform our war-torn cultural landscape into a verdant garden overflowing with Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.