Monday, July 25, 2011

Tree of Life

I've had an odd movie-going weekend.

In the first place, that it was a movie-going weekend was odd. My Karen and I might see 2 or 3 movies a year in the theater, and if more than one is in a first-run house, that is itself unusual. The 2010 Oscar list was unusual in that for the first time ever I had seen 4 of the 10 "best film" nominations. Many is the year we just don't get out this way. So, "movie-going" is not one way to describe us!

Beyond that, though, the pairing of movies was, well . . . odd. We had long made plans to see a movie with friends on Saturday. So it was surprising that Karen suggested she would be open to seeing "Tree of Life" on Friday. Now, when Karen suggests going to see a movie, that is unusual! This particular movie was on our list at son Pat's recommendation. And it was brutally hot all week. And we were losing energy to get normal things done after work. Off we went.

There is a lot to recommnend, think about, discuss, argue over, etc., with "Tree of Life." What is the film-maker's view of life? What is this 2-hour dialogue with God about? Is it, ultimately, a celebration of life and God's place in our living? Or is it "Job" without  hope?

Well, when you see it, let's talk.

What I want to mention about it here is the rich abundance of music in the score. Symphonic, choral, sacred, abstract, maybe even a little trance? (I don't know from trance music, so that may not be right.) Brahms, Respighi, Tavener, Gorecki - it is rich. And I should have heard it coming, when I caught snatches of the "Requiem" text, but they even slip in "te decet hymnus" near the end: "praise awaits you, O God, in Sion." I did not know that music, which as it turns out, is by Zbigniew Preisner . I think I need to find a recording!

At the end, I take a rather positive view of this movie. There are strong reactions to it, including a group who walked out of the showing we attended, and others who at the end announced to no one in particular, "we should have left when those people did." Me? I'll want to see it again.

So, what was our movie the next night? We wouldn't have planned this . . . it was the new/last "Harry Potter" film. OK, whatever. But now here's the oddest part of the whole experience. The composer of original music in "Tree of Life" is Alexandre Desplat. And the composer of the Harry Potter soundtrack? Who knew? Alexandre Desplat! As it turns out, as few movies as we have seen, quite a few have soundtracks by this guy. Magnifique!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Baal, hear us!

I'm spending part of my summer days reading Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way. One of his series of "conversations in spiritual theology," the thesis in Jesus Way is that if we are to follow Jesus faithfully, we must do it his way. It is a way prepared for - anticipated by - people of faith in the Old Testament: Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah. (I'm still working my way through Isaiah.)

I am often floored by Peterson's perspective. He has long been a reading companion for my own Jesus walk and the pastoral life. I'm resisting the impulse now to detour into a history of my engagement with these books. Today I am just highlighting one section of The Jesus Way chapter on Elijah - Elijah's contention with Baal. It is a challenging consideration of worship. The following quotes (in italics) reflect upon the dramatic difference between the gyrating histrionics of Baal's priests, and the simple, direct actions and prayer of Elijah.

In Baal worship, The transcendence of the deity is reduced to the ecstasy of manipulated emotions. (p. 109) Here at the outset I need to remind myself that the danger of idolatry is not inherent in any one style or preference for worship. The challenges of "Baalism" are as real in traditional worship as they are in the latest fad worship.

"Harlotry" is a biblical metaphor that extends its meaning into the entire theology of worship, worship that seeks fulfillment through self-expression, worship that accepts the needs and desires and passions of the worshiper as its baseline. "Harlotry" is worship that says, "I will give you satisfaction. You want religious feelings? I will give them to you. You want your needs fulfilled? I'll do it in the form most arousing to you." A divine will that sets itself in opposition to the sin-tastes and self-preoccupations of humanity is incomprehensible in Baalism and so is impatiently discarded. Baalism reduces worship to the spiritual stature of the worshiper. Its canons are that is should be interesting, relevant and exciting - that I "get something out of it." (p. 110)

 This is not to say biblical worship is non-sensory. But as rich and varied as the sensory life is, it is always defined and ordered by the word of God. Nothing is simply done for the sake of the sensory experience involved - which eliminates all propagandist and emotional manipulation. (p. 111) The "worship experience" is categorically different from "let us worship God." It is the difference between something that makes sense to an individual, and acting in response to what makes sense to God. (p. 111)

The biblical language of worship is a response to God's word in the context of the community of God's people. Worship in the biblical sources and in liturgical history is not something a person experiences, it is something we do, regardless of how we feel about it, or whether we feel anything about it at all. The experience develops out of the worship, not the other way around. Isaiah saw, heard, and felt on the day he received his prophetic call while at worship in the temple - but he didn't go there in order to have a "seraphim experience." (p. 111, author's emphasis)

Oh, for the wisdom to sift these matters in conversations about worship. Well may we be concerned to "hold" sheep in the worshiping flock, or to "attract" the flockless. Our instinct is to cater to human instincts: faster! louder! softer! slower! candles! brass! jokes! video! I think the Bible teaches us:
  • that worship means to listen and obey;
  • when we are together to read scripture and pray;
  • to teach and to sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord;
  • to be thankful and to foster thanksgiving;
  • to honor the Lord by prefering one another.
How I wish that this somehow made it obvious what song or hymn we should sing at the beginning of the morning service, and how it should be accompanied! No, we are always thrown back on decisions we have to make. But I'm thankful to Pastor Eugene Peterson for the reminder that regardless how we sort out those details, we have to beware of our Canaanite tendencies. We need to stop offering "worship experiences" and keep calling people to "worship God." And all the while (as William Willimon wrote some 20 years ago) let the Bible guide, fill, and judge our worship.