Popular outrage against film critics who panned the Christmas Day release of “Les Miserables” highlights a challenge facing many churches. The Chicago Tribune critic, Michael Phillips, spent the week following his 1-½ star review dealing with incensed moviegoers questioning his fitness to be a critic, his motivation for trashing a great film, even his humanness. As I read Phillips’s article detailing the firestorm (“Do you hear the people sting?” Chicago Tribune, 28 December 2012) I thought of the state of the modern church in its continuing evaluation of liturgy and music.
Phillips is just one of several prominent film critics who found fault with this blockbuster adaptation of the perennially popular stage musical based on the 19th century novel (which, one suspects, is being read with less frequency these days). Acknowledging his love for the musical, Phillips primarily faulted the direction and cinematography, feeling that the film didn’t breathe. In short, he criticized not the story but the craft of film-making which failed, in his opinion, to do justice to a great story already well told in two other media. Granted, by quoting his critics Phillips may have painted a caricature. But the quotations have the ring of truth, and sounded to me very much like what one hears in discourse about what is right – or wrong – about a church’s worship life. “People just kept applauding and would not leave until the credits were over. How can you put down one of the greatest movies of all time?” “I was enthralled . . . The packed theater, the sound of sniffles and noses being blown . . . the sound of patrons clapping after the final song is sung is a sound that just isn’t experienced all too often.” “Much applause . . . and buckets of tears.” Whether any of his correspondents commented on the quality of the acting or singing, we are left to wonder. Phillips, however, commented on (and complimented) both, in print and on a radio interview focused on the backlash from his review.
Questions of editing and caricature aside, when I read these critiques of the critic I was struck with their similarity to what one often hears in appraisal and evaluation of public worship. Response to Phillips suggested that a critic’s job is to be “objective” and “neutral,” and noted with some satisfaction that public response to this and other panned films disproved the critic’s assessment. After all, if “The Hobbit” has been the #1 film for two weeks running, how dare a film critic find fault with it? If people cry and clap for “Les Miz,” it must be good. The same college professor who introduced me to the novel, Les Miserables, also taught us how to distinguish good poetry from bad. “You are welcome to like bad poetry,” she said, “I just want you to be able to tell the difference.” That, it seems to me, is the role of the film critic; it is also the role of the church leader with responsibility for a congregation’s music and liturgy.
The modern church suffers from a persistent romanticism that places final aesthetic authority in the feelings of individuals. The self is the only arbiter of taste. If it makes me feel good, it is good art. If I weep and clap, it must be good. How can you say that [fill in the blank] is not good? Generally, those who teach and preach are able kindly but firmly to reply: “No, but thus says the Lord, and so we will teach and preach, and so we will learn to live.” And in this way a people’s life is shaped; the will, the feelings, the responses and actions are transformed over time by the renewal of the mind. But when it comes to those other life-shaping aspects of public church life – liturgy and music – we are often in danger of allowing the spirit of the age to inform our evaluation. If it feels good, it is good. If it is difficult to engage, could you kindly make it appealing? It is much easier to pay for a $12 movie than an $80 Broadway ticket. The book is practically free, but who has time for that?
The role of film criticism is to introduce, contextualize, provide insight, and yes, finally to recommend whether readers should spend their money on a particular movie. The critic who does all this well will hear from a public that only wants to know, “will this movie make me feel good?” It is not unlike the function of preaching, liturgy, and music, which each have a role in shaping the lives of Christian believers. In an environment that rejects the expectations and values of nineteenth century romanticism in the arena of preaching and teaching, shouldn’t we be cautious of embracing the same standards of evaluation in our liturgy and music?