I have been interested in reading John C. Lyden’s book “Film as Religion” ever since I read a summary of it several years ago:
The lights dim, the voices hush and the devotees prepare for a sacred, transformative experience. This scenario does not describe a ritual in a cathedral or temple, but one occurring in another religiously charged space: the cinema. Lyden, a professor of religion in Nebraska, argues that if we define “religion” by its function-what the activity does for the people who participate in it-then movie-going is the religion of our time. Movies provide the collective myths to help us deal with our cultural anxieties and hopes, and catharsis in the form of rewarded heroes and punished villains. (Publisher’s Weekly)
I finally checked out a copy at the library and am going to try to blog through the book (hopefully that will get me to finish it – something I have a hard time doing with books!). I hope you find it interesting and more than that I hope it provokes some discussion on the topic – so let me know what you think.
As you read in the summary, Lyden’s thesis is basically that “there is no absolute distinction between religion and other aspects of culture, and that we have a tendency to label certain sorts of activities as “religious” chiefly because they fall into the patterns that we recognize from religion with which we are familiar.” He continues:
As a result, we have a tendency to limit what we view as religion to that which is recognized as such by us in our own culture. The result is that we can find ourselves shortsighted when we encounter a diverse form of religion – as, for example, the European colonists who came to America did. For a long time, they refused to even grant the name “religion” to the activities in the Native American culture that paralleled those undertaken by Europeans under that name. In time, they came to see that the “otherness” of American beliefs did not disqualify them from performing the same functions for Native Americans that Christianity did for most Europeans, and therefore these beliefs might be considered equally “religious.”… It may be that we experience a similar form of shortsightedness when we encounter aspects of our own culture that we view as opposed to religious values or beliefs. We fail to acknowledge the extent to which modern people base their worldviews and ethics upon sources we do not usually label “religious. (2-3)”
Lyden relies upon Clifford Geertz’ functional definition of religion. “This definition includes the three aspects noted in this book’s title: a “myth” or story that conveys a worldview; a set of values that idealize how that world should be; and a ritual expression that unites the two. (4)” “…I will argue for an understanding of [myth] that does not reduce it to a psychological projection or an illogical hegemony-promoting falsehood, but rather views it as a story that expresses the worldview and values of a community. (4)”
In regards to film as ritual, Lyden notes: “Films offer a vision of the way the world should be (in the view of the film) as well as statements about the way it really is; the ritual of film-going unites the two when we become part of the world projected on screen. We often hope and wish for a world like the one we see in the movies even though we must return to a very different world at the end of the show; in this way, films offer an entry into an ideally constructed world. (4)”
Lyden’s thesis is intriguing. Though he may not put it in these terms, he seems to be basically acknowledging that all of life is theological and that we cannot safely divide our “secular” life from our “religious” life. Everything we do is wrapped up in religion, which is why Paul said “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Furthermore, everyone has a religion. Everyone has a worldview and they seek out things in their life that confirm and support that worldview. We cannot neglect the pervasiveness of “religion” in our “secular” affairs.
I also appreciate his willingness to acknowledge the religious power of film. Film-going is absolutely a ritual and every film preaches a message. It is very disturbing to see how many people, Christians especially, watch movies completely uncritically. They willingly turn their brains off and stuff themselves with popcorn, all the while telling themselves “its just for fun.” That may be the case, and there’s nothing wrong with kicking back and enjoying 2 hours of Star Trek. But if you ignore the fact that you’re listening to a sermon and you get sucked into cheering for the emotional thesis of the film (1: rebellion is a virtue, 2: follow your heart, not your head), then you are neglecting your Christian duty to “test all things; hold fast was is good.”
However, I am leery of Lyden’s thesis being “Film as Religion.” That’s like saying “Writing as Religion.” I don’t think we can make the medium the religion. I know that’s not what Lyden intends, but we’ll see how careful he is about it. Perhaps a better title would be “Hollywood as Religion” because that entails film, a specific manner of film-going, and a particular worldview & message. We’ll see how this is worked out throughout the book.
One other area of concern may be Lyden’s definition of religion. Religion is notoriously difficult to define. In his book Religion, Reason, and Revelation Gordon H. Clark concludes that there is no proper and fitting definition of religion other than “God’s creating Adam in his own image and giving him a special revelation…” as well all distortions of that original religion (which includes just about everything). (Clark argues that because distortion of this religion is the result of sin, and sin is irrational, that there cannot be any logical classification of religion).
I think Lyden’s thesis would still qualify under Clark’s definition, but I am content to go along with Lyden’s definition for the purposes of the book. Wikipedia is generally a good measuring stick to gauge what the world thinks about any given topic, and it provides a definition similar to Lyden’s: “in general a set of beliefs explaining the existence of and giving meaning to the universe, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” That definition works for me and it looks like Lyden’s thesis may be true. We’ll see.
If you’re going to take political action that is going to compromise the gospel, then you are sealing your own doom. Over the past 50 years, conservatives have spent tens of billions of dollars lobbying, trying to elect candidates, trying to organize in various ways. When I was a kid, I was out passing out literature for Barry Goldwater, back in 1964.
And what has it gained? Are we any better off, to borrow a campaign slogan – are we better off today than we were 50 years ago? What have all those conservatives and libertarians done with those billions of dollars that has shown any improvement in the political or the moral climate of the country?
Now, if that money had been put into the preaching of the gospel – the uncompromised, unvarnished, pure gospel, perhaps there would be something completely different to show for it. But it was put into compromised political action, and there’s nothing to show for it. Absolutely nothing. Tens of billions of dollars – when you think of all the campaigns, all the organizations.
And I’ve been involved – my [PhD] degree’s in political theory, political philosophy. I’ve been interested in politics all my life and have been involved from time to time, working on Capitol Hill. And I learned a very good lesson on Capitol Hill – that what happens there is of little consequence. That if one is interested in changing society, you don’t go to Capitol Hill, you preach the gospel.
If anybody is operating under the illusion that political action is going to make a significant change in society apart from a sea change in the beliefs in the American people, then they’re condemned to futility. They will waste their lives.
I am strongly committed to the biblical understanding of two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of earth. Paul did make it clear that the ministers of the sword (the state) serve God, but Christ also made it clear that His kingdom is not of this world. Here is a sermon I preached on John 18:28-38 http://www.porticochurch.com/messages/John_18_28_20071118.mp3 in which I speak against what I see as an unbiblical focus on transforming culture.
I make an effort to point this out because every time I address this issue I am simply mis-categorized as a “transformationist” or theonomist and thus ignored. I am neither, so please give me a couple minutes of your time.
Two Kingdoms Natural Law
A very prominent form of two kingdom theology today is advocated primarily by Westminster California, led by David VanDrunen. You can find a helpful overview on WSC’s Jan. 6 Office Hours Podcast. This view is largely a response to theonomy (the view that the Mosaic case laws, or judicial laws, ie stoning, should be enforced in detail by every nation on earth). They correctly oppose theonomy by pointing out the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of this earth. (They could also counter theonomy by adopting A. W. Pink or John Owen’s views of the Mosaic Covenant)
However, they take this view one step further and say the kingdom of heaven is ruled by the Bible and the kingdoms of earth are ruled by natural law. This is precisely where I disagree. Such a view is nonsensical. Natural law, the law written on the hearts of all men, is the moral law, the 10 commandments. This is the unanimous Reformed view as stated particularly in the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 19
I. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it.
II. This law, after his Fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty toward God, and the other six our duty to man.
Therefore, to say the kingdoms of this world are ruled by natural law and should enforce natural law is to say that they are ruled by the 10 commandments and should enforce the 10 commandments.
Two Kingdoms Theocracy?
The result of such a view winds up exactly where they claim to not want to be: a theocracy. R. Scott Clark wrote a post against homosexual marriage called Natural Law, the Two Kingdoms, and Homosexual Marriage in which he appeals to the state’s duty to enforce the creation laws regarding marriage.
The magistrate has a right and a duty to enforce marriage and divorce laws in order to enforce natural, creational boundaries in the same way he has a duty to protect a society from theft and fraud… I argue that the state should regulate marriage on the basis of natural, creational law and that those who advocate pushing back the boundaries of marriage to include homosexual marriage are advocating the recognition of the violation of natural, creational law…
Such a statement would seem to be subject to my criticism above. If the state has a duty to enforce natural law, the law of creation, then it has a duty to enforce the moral law. To say one is to say the other. Clark anticipates this objection and says:
To anticipate an objection, this is not a theocratic argument. It is not the magistrate’s duty to police every sort of violation of natural law and sin. For example, no one but theocrats want the state enforcing obedience to the first table of the law. The magistrate’s natural sphere of concern and authority is in the second table.
If that is R. Scott Clark’s view, then how is it any different from those who say the state should enforce the second table of the moral law (such as John W. Robbins and J. Gresham Machen)? Answer: It’s not different.
Clark even states 2K Natural Law does not mean the state should enforce every natural law. Well, if that’s the case, then again, what is the point in making a distinction between moral law and natural law and then saying the church is ruled by one and the state is ruled by the other? There is no point. It is an invalid distinction.
[Note that D. G. Hart’s precise criticism of Kloosterman in this post http://oldlife.org/2009/12/21/if-not-two-kingdoms-two-decalogues/ is that he divides the the Decalogue into two tables. Thus Hart’s criticism would equally apply to Clark’s natural law position, which Hart is supposedly defending.]
Lee Irons makes the same criticism of the 2K Natural Law view (though at this point I do not agree with Irons’ conclusion regarding the duty of the state):
Clark seems to be saying that the state has a moral obligation or duty to enforce the moral law (= natural law), a duty that itself derives from moral/natural law. My problem with this is that, if logically carried through, this will lead to a view of civil government that is just as theocratic as that desired by the theonomists. The only difference so far as I can tell is that on Clark’s view there would be more leeway in the specifics of the penal code…
…Most theonomists would be perfectly happy with a state run on natural law principles, since they argue that the general equity of the Mosaic Law is identical with natural/moral law as revealed via general revelation (cp. Bahnsen, No Other Standard, pp. 206, 222).
Again, I agree with the Reformed doctrine of natural law. It is biblical (Romans 1). I’m merely objecting to the claim that it is the moral duty of the state to enforce it in society.
But R. Scott Clark is too smart to miss this point. So what is he really trying to say? Well, his practical position is really that the state is obligated to enforce laws that are derived from fallen man’s observation of himself. I cut his quote short earlier. Here it is in its entirety:
I argue that the state should regulate marriage on the basis of natural, creational law and that those who advocate pushing back the boundaries of marriage to include homosexual marriage are advocating the recognition of the violation of natural, creational law [recognized in the West by pagans and Christians for two thousand years.]
Thus, the argument against homosexual marriage is not a “theocratic” argument, but an argument from the nature of things grounded in natural revelation, in the most fundamental observations about how human beings relate to one another, about what it is to be human, about what it is to be a civil society, about what a family is, and ultimately, that there really is such a thing as nature or creation itself that limits the choices of sovereign, ostensibly autonomous late modern humans.
This is the inevitable conclusion that “natural law” must lead to. Natural law will ultimately find no need and no place for God, precisely because it is natural law, not supernatural law. It is quickly reduced to fallen man looking inside himself and at others to decide “what is right in his own eyes.” Irons notes:
Another problem with the appeal to natural law as the principle for determining the positive enforcement duties of the civil magistrate is that we live in a pluralistic society in which the very content of natural law itself is highly contested at critical points. Many citizens believe, for example, that committed same-sex relationships are not in any way sinful. Again, I affirm that the these people are wrong, and that deep down they know they are wrong. I know that because I believe the Bible’s teaching concerning the content of natural law (e.g., Romans 1). But such an appeal to Scripture will have minimal persuasive value in the public square. A natural law theorist may not go out with the intention of making a naked appeal to Scripture. He may try appealing to various arguments that support his interpretation of natural law, keeping his biblical beliefs out of play to achieve maximum rhetorical effect. But since the ultimate epistemic basis for his interpretation of natural law is Scripture, at the end of the day this will come to light at some point in the argument and it will become evident that he is not really making a good-faith religiously-neutral appeal.
Here are two related posts of mine to elaborate on this problem, and comments I made on D. G. Hart’s blog:
If Not Two Kingdoms, Two Decalogues (note Hart’s fundamental misunderstanding of natural law. He rejects WCF’s definition and instead argues that natural law is that which we can observe in ourselves and others. It may be true that the foundation of the state should be our observations of nature – but that is not the same thing as the law of creation.)
Then What Are We to Do?
This is not an easy question to answer. Appealing to natural law in opposition to Scripture is erroneous, arguing for theonomy misunderstands the Mosaic covenant, and arguing for theocracy misunderstands the kingdom of heaven. I am not certain I have arrived at an answer, but J. Gresham Machen’s words (echoed by Gordon Clark and John W. Robbins) make sense.
What then is the remedy for the threatened disruption of society and for the rapidly progressing decay of liberty?
There is really only one remedy. It is the rediscovery of the law of God.
If we want to restore respect for human laws, we shall have to get rid of this notion that judges and juries exist only for the utilitarian purpose of the protection of society, and shall have to restore the notion that they exist for the purposes of justice. They are only very imperfect exponents of justice, it is true. There are vast departments of life with which they should have nothing whatever to do. They are exceeding their God-given function when they seek to enforce inward purity or purity of the individual life, since theirs is the business only of enforcing – and that in necessarily imperfect fashion – that part of righteousness which concerns the relations between man and man. But they are instruments of righteousness all the same, and when that is not recognized, disaster follows for the state. Society will never be preserved by attaching savage penalties to trifling offences because the utilitarian interests of society demand it; it will never be preserved by the vicious practice (followed by some judges) of making ‘examples’ of people is spasmodic and unjust fashion because such examples are thought to have a salutary effect as a deterrent from future crim. No, we say, let justice never be lost from view – abstract, holy, transcendent justice – no matter what the immediate consequences may be thought to be. Only so will the ermine of the judge again be respected and the ravages of decadence be checked.
-The Christian View of Man p. 193
[Update: I just read a very helpful post over at Feeding On Christ that I highly recommend: Theonomy, Two Kingdoms, and a Middle Road)
I transcribe a lot of footage for work. I have come across some rather interesting comments that I should have been saving in an archive to discuss later. Watching raw, unedited interviews really gives you the chance to hear all the little things about what a person believes, not just the big picture.
Below is a clip from someone interviewed in regards to battling breast cancer, specifically with respect to diet:
Even the language that we use to talk about our lifestyle either has this moralistic quality, you know, “I cheated on my diet. I ate bad food, so I’m a bad person,” you know. Once you fall into that line of thinking, you might as well finish the pint of ice cream because you’re already a bad person. Moralistic things don’t work.
Or what I call these fascist words, like “patient compliance” is a creepy word. It’s about forcing people to change. Or “will power,” it’s all – things that force you to change are not sustainable. Cause what’s sustainable is joy and pleasure and freedom. And so I like the concept of a spectrum because if it’s a diet that you go on, you auto—even the word diet makes you tense up. It’s all about what you can’t have and you must do. That’s not sustainable.
But what I’ve done is to categorize foods into a spectrum from the most helpful, to the least helpful. Cause what matters most is your overall way of eating and living. And to the degree that you move in a healthy direction, you’re going to benefit. You’re going to look better, feel better, lose weight, gain health, have better immune function, and so on. How much you move and how quickly is really up to you.
So if you indulge yourself one day, it doesn’t mean you cheated or you’re bad or any of those kinds of things. Just eat healthier the next. I mean, even more than being healthy, most people want to feel free and in control. It’s human nature. It goes back to the first dietary intervention, you know, when God said, “Don’t eat the apple.” That didn’t work, and that was God talking, so, you know. It’s really about freedom and joy and pleasure. That’s really what’s sustainable.
I find those statements quite revealing in regards to the nature of fallen man. It does not matter what the issue is, man will rebel against authority because all authority reflects God’s ultimate authority over your life and all of creation. Your autonomous will must reign supreme and if anything tries to tie it down, you will defy it, no matter how bad it is for you to do so.