Book Review: Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen

I love movies. My husband shares this love, and it’s one of our primary forms of bonding. I’m thankful that he bucks the stereotype of men who like only shoot-’em-up action flicks or buddy comedies. We do have a few of those in our collection . . . but Eric is game for any genre. He can enjoy a silent horror film, a children’s adventure, a foreign-language drama, a Golden Age Hollywood musical, an art-house sci-fi, or the latest Jane Austen adaptation just as much as any male-marketed blockbuster. And thankfully he has none of the criteria I often get from friends who join us for movie nights: no black-and-white, no subtitles, nothing sad, nothing scary, nothing “slow,” and nothing that makes me have to think too hard. (!)

Many Christians I know forgo TV and movie watching altogether, and demand the same abstinence from their kids, so as to not “waste time” with “mindless entertainment” or foster a screen addiction. A more extreme, but no less common, motive I’ve encountered is to avoid subjecting oneself to immoral filth and supporting Hollywood’s “liberal agenda.” While I agree that indoor-outdoor balance and a variety of play is important, especially for developing young brains, and that you should never violate your conscience (e.g., if it forbids you from seeing or hearing certain things), I want to push against the notion that movies are of limited to no value unless they educate or support a Christian worldview.

Fortunately, film critic Josh Larsen, editor of Think Christian and cohost of Filmspotting, offers a redeeming perspective on film in his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings (InterVarsity Press, 2017). Many movies are expressions of the burdens and desires of the soul, he says, that can take the shape of praise/wonder, petition, confession, lament—in a word, prayer. Prayers are “instinctive recognitions of good (of things worthy of praise) and evil (of things inexplicably bent and broken)” (6), and they need not be restricted to liturgical formats.

This human instinct to reach out in praise or lament or supplication or confession to the divine does not take place only in church, guided by liturgy and pastors. It isn’t limited to early morning devotions, in that serene space before silence gives way to the day. It isn’t strictly the domain of dinner tables, where families gather to recite familiar words (“God is great, God is good . . .”). and it isn’t an instinct shared only by Christians. Prayer can be expressed by anyone and can take place everywhere. Even in movie theaters. (7)

Movies Are Prayers

Through picture and sound, filmmakers offer up prayers and invite us not only to listen in, but to pray along—to respond in kind, with whatever words or medium or action we feel prompted to use. Therefore, rather than regarding movies as time spent apart from God or a distraction from more important things, we would do well, Larsen suggests, to let them enrich our awareness of the world’s beauty and suffering and, consequently, guide us into prayer.

Larsen covers diverse genres and styles spanning from the silent era through today, including a mix of popular classics and lesser known gems. Below are just three I’ve added to my watch list since reading Movies Are Prayers.

Freaks (1932) is a revenge drama set against a circus backdrop, starring professional sideshow performers. At a time when people paid money to see and gawk at those with biological anomalies, director Tod Browning intended to show their humanity, that they have the same emotional needs as everyone else. He never filmed his actors’ “acts” (so as not to exploit them) but instead depicts them backstage, living their everyday lives. Although the film features an able-bodied romantic pairing of trapeze artist and strongman, Browning isn’t that interested in it; it is the interior life of Hans, a little person who’s used by Cleopatra for his money, that constitutes the main focus.   Continue reading “Book Review: Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen”

Roundup: Liturgical video installation; Mynheer profile; SYTYCD; natural-world mystic poetry; lament song

“Mark Dean Projects Stations of the Cross Videos on Henry Moore Altar,” exhibition review and artist interview by Jonathan Evens: On April 15–16 St. Stephen Walbrook in London hosted an all-night Easter Eve vigil that featured a fourteen-video installation by artist-priest Mark Dean. Inspired by the Stations of the Cross, these videos were projected, in sequence and interspersed with readings and periods of silence, onto the church’s round stone altar by the famous modern artist Henry Moore (Dean wanted his work to be presented as an offering). The vigil culminated with a dance performance by Lizzi Kew Ross & Co and a dawn Eucharist. Evens writes,

Mark Dean’s videos are not literal depictions of the Stations of the Cross, the journey Jesus walked on the day of his crucifixion. Instead, Dean appropriated a few frames of iconic film footage together with extracts of popular music and then slowed down, reversed, looped or otherwise altered these so that the images he selected were amplified through their repetition. As an example, in the first Stations of the Cross video, a clip of Julie Andrews as the novice Maria from the opening scenes of The Sound of Music was layered over an extract, from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, of a car arriving at Bates Motel where Marion Crane would be murdered by Norman Bates. The blue of the sky and the innocence suggested by Maria’s religious vocation was in contrast with the footage from Psycho, which was indicative of the violent death to which Jesus was condemned. [Read more of the review, plus an interview with the artist, here.]

Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “I. The Royal Road,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “VIII. Daughters of Jerusalem,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “IX. In Freundschaft,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens

Sounds like an exemplary integration of art and liturgy! You can read the catalog essay and watch the videos on Dean’s website, tailbiter.com. See also the interview with curator Lucy Newman Cleeve published in Elephant magazine.

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“Featured Artist: Nicholas Mynheer” by Victoria Emily Jones: This month I wrote a profile on British artist Nicholas Mynheer for Transpositions, the official blog of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. (There’s a glitch with their publishing tool that is preventing all the artworks from displaying, but all the ones I discuss in the article can be found at www.mynheer-art.co.uk.) A painter, sculptor, and glass designer, Nick works almost exclusively on religious subjects, in a style that blends influences from medieval, primitive, and expressionist art. I met him in 2013 and got to see his studio and his work in situ in various Oxford churches. His love of God and place was obvious from my spending just one afternoon with him. Other articles I’ve written are on Nick’s Wilcote Altarpiece, Islip Screen, and 1991 Crucifixion painting (which I own).

Harvest by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Harvest, 2010. Oil on canvas, 70 × 70 cm.
Michaelmas Term Window by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Michaelmas Term Window, 2012. Fused glass. Abingdon School Chapel, Oxfordshire, England.
Corpus of Christ by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Corpus of Christ, 2010. English limestone, 85 cm tall.

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Season 14 of So You Think You Can Dance premiered last Monday (the only TV show I never miss!). Watching dancers draws me into a deeper awe of God, as I see all the creative potentialities of the human body he designed. Here are my two favorite auditions from episode 1. The first is husband-wife duo Kristina Androsenko and Vasily Anokhin performing ballroom. The second is a modern dance number performed by Russian twins Anastasiia and Viktoriia; they gave no comment on the dance’s motivation or meaning, but it’s clear that it represents trauma of some kind.

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“Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems” by Debra Dean Murphy: “Oliver is a mystic of the natural world, not a theologian of the church. . . . Her theological orientation is not that of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, Christians have much to gain from reading Oliver . . .” Her poems are “occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight”; they remind us “of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment,” teach us to adopt “a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the imago dei, to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.” Some of my favorite Oliver poems are “Praying,” “I Wake Close to Morning,” “Messenger,” “The Summer Day,” and “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale.”

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NEW SONG: “Weep with Me” by Rend Collective: Written last month in response to the Manchester Arena bombing, “Weep with Me” is a contemporary lament psalm in which the speaker asks God to do what the title says: weep with him. To feel his pain and respond. It’s introduced and performed acoustically by band member Chris Llewellyn in the video below.

On the video’s YouTube page, Rend Collective writes,

Can worship and suffering co-exist? Can pain and praise inhabit the same space? Can we sing that God is good when life is not? When there are more questions than answers? The Bible says a resounding yes: these songs are called laments and they make up a massive portion of the Psalms.

We felt it was fitting to let you hear this lament we’ve written today as we prepare to play tonight in Manchester. We can’t make the pain go away. We refuse to provide cheap, shallow answers. But hopefully this song can give us some vocabulary to bring our raw, open wounds before the wounded healer, who weeps with us in our distress. We pray that we can begin to raise a costly, honest and broken hallelujah. That is what it means to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

ESSAY: “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States” by Benjamin Rush

Blogger’s Note: One of the first three departments created in 1789 in the new executive branch of the United States government was the War Department—now called the Department of Defense. Having witnessed the evils of war firsthand while serving as surgeon general of the Middle Department of the Continental Army, founding father Benjamin Rush published an essay in Banneker’s Almanac in 1793 advocating for the formation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace to promote a counterethic. Among other things, his proposed Secretary of Peace would be responsible for abolishing capital punishment; dissolving state militias, including getting rid of military uniforms and titles; and providing every family with a Bible by which to become educated in Christ’s law.

His plan even provides for the interior decoration of the Peace Office—which must include lamb, dove, and olive branch imagery; biblical inscriptions; and a collection of plowshares and pruning hooks cast from swords and spears—as well as its sonic environment: the daily singing of peace hymns. The War Office, by contrast, should display images of death and destruction and bear cautionary inscriptions.

Literary satire, maybe. Then again, maybe not. Rush was an uncompromising champion of many causes throughout his lifetime, including, besides nonviolence, public education, prison and mental health reform, the abolition of slavery, mass distribution of Bibles, and temperance. While his proposal for a U.S. Department of Peace may sound airy-fairy and ridiculous, he very much believed in its practicality, and his confidence has been matched by twentieth- and twenty-first-century politicians: since the publication of Rush’s “Plan of a Peace-Office,” almost a hundred bills have been introduced in Congress proposing the creation of such a department, most recently in 2015.

The following essay is rekeyed in its entirety from Benjamin Rush’s Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas & Samuel F. Bradford, 1798).

Swords into Plowshares by Scott Erickson
Swords into Plowshares by Scott Erickson

“A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States”

Benjamin Rush

Among the defects which have been pointed out in the Federal Constitution by its antifederal enemies, it is much to be lamented that no person has taken notice of its total silence upon the subject of an office of the utmost importance to the welfare of the United States, that is, an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country.

It is to be hoped that no objection will be made to the establishment of such an office, while we are engaged in a war with the Indians, for as the War-Office of the United States was established in time of peace, it is equally reasonable that a Peace-Office should be established in the time of war.

The plan of this office is as follows:

I. Let a Secretary of the Peace be appointed to preside in this office, who shall be perfectly free from all the present absurd and vulgar European prejudices upon the subject of government. Let him be a genuine republican and a sincere Christian, for the principles of republicanism and Christianity are no less friendly to universal and perpetual peace than they are to universal and equal liberty.   Continue reading “ESSAY: “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States” by Benjamin Rush”

Non-Christians respond to Christian artworks

One of the art blogs I follow is Hyperallergic, “a forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today.” It’s not Christian-affiliated, but because of Christianity’s vast influence on the arts, it’s not unusual for “Christian” works, or works that reference Christianity, to be covered. This past month two such features stood out to me for the outsider perspectives they offered:

(1) “A Meditation on the Ineffable Grandeur of Churches” by Jennifer R. Bernstein: An “irreligious, halfhearted Jew” describes “what it means to love church but not God,” to be transported in a way that she has never been in synagogue. By way of example, she shows a photo of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; an agnostic friend of mine had a similar experience as this author—he told me that when he visited that cathedral last year, he came very close to believing in God and falling to his knees right then and there in repentance, so moved was he by the architecture and what it signified.

La Sagrada Familia
Interior of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Here are some excerpts from Bernstein’s article:

Crossing the narthex of a cathedral is like starting a great book: You simply aren’t in your home world anymore.

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In my view, the truest kind of reader/viewer is not the intellectual, but the supplicant. To “consume” a work of art is really to be consumed by it: to surrender your will to the vision of the creator — or, in this case, the Creator.

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Organized grandeur makes us feel small and powerless, yet connected to something all-powerful.

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Church, if we take it seriously, if we give in to stillness, threatens to reorder what we care about. . . . An extraordinary environment forces us into a confrontation with a striking somewhere, reminding us that we can and should take care in choosing where we place our bodies, for there we also place our minds.

(2) “A Timely Performance of MLK’s Final Sermon Takes Viewers to Church” by Seph Rodney: Commissioned by BRIC for its inaugural BRIC OPEN Festival, The Drum Major Instinct is a dramatization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final sermon accompanied by original music by Phil Woodmore, presented on April 30 by Theater of War Productions and NYC Public Artist in Residence Bryan Doerries. True to BRIC’s mission, it was followed by an open community discussion on race and social justice.

What was shocking, to me, about this article is the reviewer’s candid opposition to King on the grounds of his “rigid, hierarchic, conservative” Christianity. We’ll take the social justice he promoted, Rodney seems to say, but without all the God-talk. Does he not understand how integral King’s religious faith was to shaping his vision and motivation? And he achieved practical, world-changing results. If our “desire to follow our inherited religious templates” “dooms us,” then why did King’s template, taken from the Bible, usher in such positive change in America? Citing today’s (Muslim) theocracies as evidence of how religion and human rights violations go hand in hand is irrelevant.   Continue reading “Non-Christians respond to Christian artworks”

“Not as a dove…”: Two Pentecost poems by Mark DeBolt

Pentecost by William Congdon
William Congdon (American, 1912–1998), Pentecost 2, ca. 1962. Oil on tile, 4 × 4 cm. The Province of Milan Art Collection.

“Pentecostal Hour” by Mark DeBolt

No zephyr soft
but cyclone strong
bore thoughts aloft
in windy song.

No flicker mild
but flames of red
danced hot and wild
upon each head.

And so fierce was
our thundering word
in languages
of all who heard,

all knew it meant
the Spirit’s power.
This was our Pent-
ecostal hour.

“Pentecost Villanellette” by Mark DeBolt

Not as a dove the Holy Spirit came
to the disciples gathered in a room,
but as a violent wind and tongues of flame.

A cyclone roared the ineffable name
as fire on each blushing brow did bloom.
Not as a dove the Holy Spirit came

to give sight to the blind and heal the lame
and raise the dead and dispel error’s gloom,
but as a violent wind and tongues of flame.

The Breath of God is anything but tame.
Who dally with it dally with their doom.
Not as a dove the Holy Spirit came,
but as a violent wind and tongues of flame.

These poems are published in For the Mystic Harmony: Collected Poems 1997–2011 by Mark DeBolt and are used by permission of the author.

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This Sunday Christians will celebrate Pentecost, the historic giving of the Holy Spirit to all believers in Jesus Christ and thus the birthday of the church.

Before it was the name of a Christian holiday, Pentecost (Heb. Shavuot) was celebrated annually by the Jewish people in honor of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Jews still celebrate it today, fifty days after Passover—hence the name Pentecost (“pente” = five). (Appropriately, Christian Pentecost occurs fifty days after Easter.) Because of the importance of the feast, ancient Jews traveled from all over the known world to their religious capital, Jerusalem, for the occasion, and that’s what we see in Acts 2—a multiregional, multilinguistic gathering.   Continue reading ““Not as a dove…”: Two Pentecost poems by Mark DeBolt”