The Lord’s Prayer on the Silver Screen. So many questions…November 23, 2015
So, the Church of England makes a thing it calls ‘advertising’ which rips a text from the context of the gospels, or rather the prayer book, the sacred prayer which christian tradition upholds as given by Jesus himself – The ‘Lord’s Prayer’.
watch the clip (and do your own investigation of prayer!) at www.justpray.uk
When cinemas baulk at showing the advert (scheduled before the screenings of Star Wars), the church cries ‘free-speech violation’.
It seems a little like a hypersensitivity issue – on both sides. Though, I’m wondering if a little bit more thought by theologians and ecclesiasts and publicists might not be opportune and educative?
One of the reasons for this blog, as you might have guessed if you’re not a first timer, is to exercise a personal discipline in trying to explore things from various voices. I don’t write a defence or apologetics here very often. And it’s usually very obvious and intense when I am bearing my soul in my own voice.
Most of the time, this is a space where I try to understand different voices who question, contest, problematise, interrogate, examine, parody, privilege or demonise faith. I do this because I think these voices are to be respected regardless of my level of agreement. And I do it because I have been raised on the value of learning through question and experience with integrity. I cannot come to the voices of others only to try and discredit them, or replace them with another. I must listen and learn fully open to their merits, their own logic. If I sometimes seem a bit biased here, it is a deliberate correction away from the easy text book answers a good christian girl might be able to shoot her hand up and give without too much thought.
In doing so, I swing by a rope that sometimes makes others uncomfortable, but which has proved secure, as Thorwald Lorenzen taught me – ‘Do not give up anything you sincerely believe, unless you have something better to replace it with’. His challenge goads me on to wonder if what I believe is indeed the very best there is to live by. And also protects me from giving things up too easily.
And so in the spirit of multivocality, here are some of the questions and wonderings that have arisen from reflecting on the ban of the Lord’s Prayer commerical in cinemas.
Text or Prayer?
I am a huge fan of public access to bible texts – this has been one of my major creative endeavours to find open and ethical ways to bring invitations to interface with Biblical text and the opportunity to pray to my neighbourhood, especially in the public parkland. So the campaign for access to text and access to sacred space is very close to my heart.
But here I stumble on so many questions about the process the C of E have engaged with the Lord’s prayer. I am conscious that public acts have public consequences and private consequences that we often can obscure. What might be gained or compromised or damaged by firstly the use of the Lord’s prayer in the context of cinema advertising, and secondly the expressions of righteous indignation and citation of ‘freespeech’ in defence of criticism?
Does prayer belong in an advertisement?
Is that a valid place for prayer (voyeristically) and is it a valid (or sacred) use of prayer words?
Maybe it is…but maybe the censors are right here in drawing a line at the portrayal of some thing intensely intimate, utterly holy.
How does Matthew 6.6 inform this kind of ruse?
Matt. 6:6 ‘But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’
Might the gospel read ‘whenever you pray, go into your cinema and roll the credits and pray to your Father who is dependent on a good publicist for profile; and your Father, who is mesmerised by the commercial screens, will reward you.
Whom might it offend? Well, surely not atheists who would see it only as misplaced mysticism and folly, at worst a waste of a minute- but it may offend the deeply faithful, both of the faith of Christ Jesus, and the of other faiths, who are drawn unwittingly into the intimacy of worship of God they do not recognise.
A great question to ask is:
‘How might the Archbishop of Canterbury respond to suddenly being drawn into praying along with a prayer to a Hindu god?’
With preparation and consideration, he may choose to do so, but to presume it might be to terribly compromise his conscience, in the way that Paul speaks of in Romans 14 and the forced eating of food offered to idols.
Prayer, liturgical context and action
Do we think the Lord’s prayer on the screen is a real prayer or not? Are the audience meant to think they are really praying or just observing others acting praying.
Can prayer serve as a prelude to entertainment, fantasy, lust and violence? This prayer deserves to be followed by a call to ‘Go in Peace to love and serve the world’, a commission to live the prayers we have prayed. If this commission is replaced by a set of images and narratives about the triumph of american values – what impact does that have?
Does the liturgical choreography from prayer to action have significance, or can it be followed by any old narrative and set of desires?
Reality and fantasy
It’s difficult to negotiate, really, because to say “What’s the fuss it’s just a prayer, what harm can that do?” it negates the value and potency of prayer. I’m not ok with that. Prayer is important. Though to push back and say ‘prayer is powerful and potent’ the objectors have a strong point, as to the importance of volition in participation.
While it has been argued that acts of violence and lust are regularly shown on the silver screen and people are not ‘offended’ by this, there are two reasons that it is unwise to use this as a defence for commercialising the Lord’s Prayer. Firstly, the ‘everyone else is doing it’ cuts no mustard in the primary school yard with a grade teacher, let alone in public civic society. Secondly, surely the message of the segment is to realise prayer, not to fantasise it. The permission giving for violence and lust on the screen is gained through the understood social contract of fantasy – that we recognise this behaviour isn’t real, and so is admissible. This is why we have ratings, that limit children’s access to such material until they are old enough to make the clear distinction between reality and fantasy.
So, unfortunately, to legitimise the use of prayer on the cinematic screen means relegating it to the place of fantasy. Plenty of successful and popular films depict prayer without protest. ‘Sophie Scholl’ is one of the most powerful depictions of prayer on screen I have ever seen. Although based on a real historical character, the prayer was only acted. More flippantly, the prayers in Bruce Almighty are hilarious, and completely inoffensive.
Free speech vs. Powerdriven speech
The cry of ‘Free speech’ is especially unbecoming on the lips of a state sanctioned institution with representatives in the highest chambers of power, vasts amounts of property and capital. This victimhood narrative has also been illogically employed in relation to opposition to same sex marriage. Where the dominant, legal, normative form of marriage is heterosexual serial monogamy, there can be no credible allegations of suppression. To be fair, the debate must be tilted in favour of exploring well, rigorously and charitably the merits and risks of the minority position.
Where the church stands (morally) on the side of the dominant hegemony, it must relinquish its right to call ‘free speech’, when the debate tips towards greater air space for the minority.
Similarly, where there is a state sanctioned religion, with political power and financial resources (however unsustainably they might be stewarded) the protest for more airspace is hollow.
The notion of ‘free speech’ exists to protect those who might raise a dissenting voice, not those who already hold a privilege monopoly.
Can we reasonably expect the Church of England – and for that matter, other christians who invest funds to buy airspace to publicise a message that they should be living – to think a bit more carefully and theologically about the social context of message making and locating.
Much of the communication of the church operates strangely. There still remains a high dependency on monologue. Use of sources is somewhat opaque. The messages around family, sexuality, law, education, politics, nationalism, medicine, just to highlight a few, are problematic, and not in the way that prophetic counter-culture ought to be problematic, but destructively mimetic, programmatic, binary, power-based and two-dimensional.
Much of the expensive mass-media message making of the church unfortunately fuels the evidence against the church as a compassionless, facile, unreasonable, self-ward, locked in a random historical period drama, and most heart-breaking for me as an enthusiastic eschatologist, lacking imagination for the future. Further thought about communication with attention to the dynamics of power, privilege, normativity and contextualities is required.
While much of what we see goes down like a lead balloon, I believe better can be done. I don’t think mass cinema advertising to the aging middle class is the hope of the world.
My brother in law has been involved in politics as a candidate, and my sister is a local church minister. They negotiate the call to serve the world through networks with vastly differing manifestos, and yet find common language, friendship, collaboration, and most importantly, I think, accountability in those communities.
They give me an optimism for the gifts of the church in sharing faith, hope and love, that Whelby’s ‘Our Father’ doesn’t. Perhaps, I don’t get it – I don’t get how helpful the Lord’s Prayer advertisement might have been to movie goers in the UK. Here I am in antipodean post-colonial Melbourne. Perhaps it was never meant for me. What is interesting then, is the response of Melbourne establishment church to the news of this cinematic debacle.
The Local Church – Hope of the World
A high profile form of the church acting in such a high profile way with no contextual accountability can be difficult for the small everyday faithing household or the local church.
How does the small community of faith, endeavouring to live the prayer (and the ethical teachings) of Matthew 6 (grounded in the beatitudes of Matthew 5), take heart when the institutional church plays at this big league game, and especially when it plays hardball at this game and loses.
If we believe that ‘the local church is the hope of the world’ (as my husband relentlessly advocates) what kind of public messages might most enhance, or at least not sabotage, the credibility of everyday followers of Jesus, and their local contextual expressions of kingdom life?