Monday, May 15, 2006

Da Vinci Code Film and Evangelical Responses: Boundary Maintenance to Missional Engagement?

A few years ago when I was participating in a short-term mission trip in Australia, I came across an issue of What is Enlightenment? magazine in a New Spirituality bookstore that caught my attention. The cover featured an illustration of an older male figure with long hair and a long flowing beard, a traditional representation of the God of Christian theism, sitting fretfully at a computer keyboard with mouse in hand. The cover story that accompanied the illustration was titled "can God handle the 21st century?" Of course the answer to this question is "yes," just as God has "handled" all the previous centuries of human existence, but I believe the question posed in the article's title should be altered to reflect a more serious question for Christians in the West. The real question is: can the church handle the 21st century? I'm not so sure this question can be answered in the affirmitive. Uni-dimensional evangelical responses to a pop culture phenomenon illustrate my thinking.

On May 19 The Da Vinci Code movie will premiere in the U.S. The movie is, of course, an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Dan Brown. It is directed by Ron Howard and stars Tom Hanks. The combination of a story loved by millions who purchased the book, and an Academy Award winning director and actor suggests that this film will be a blockbuster.

Evangelicals have been responding to concerns ab0ut the Da Vinci Code since the book was first published. With the film ready to debut, evangelicals are cranking up their responses to the movie as well. Some of the responses by evangelicals have been well done, providing a reasoned consideration of the church's traditional understandings of the Bible, the life of Jesus, and the history of the church. Of course, the church does have a responsibility to respond to the historical and theological inaccuracies within Brown's fictionalized novel. Nevertheless, thus far Christian groups seem largely (or solely) focused on defensive reactions to issues of theology and history, while ignoring equally significant cultural aspects of Brown's novel.

For examples of the types of evangelical responses, Tyndale House Publishers is organizing a "Da Vinci didn't convince me" marketing campaign for churches, while the Josh McDowell Ministry has included "Da Vinci packs" in their Beyond Belief campaign. Again, the church does need to understand its history and theology in light of the counter-claims of Da Vinci Code, but in the process we're assuming the church will be heard outside of its walls when we engage the culture, and we're ignoring another imporant angle for cultural engagement. In light of America's post-Christendom and post-modern culture, the church must engage culture in different ways and address the specfic concerns of that culture. Christendom culture approaches will not work in a post-Christendom environment. In addition, not only should we be thinking about what the church will say to the culture, but what is the culture's interest in Da Vinci Code saying back to the church? The Da Vinci Code raises several interesting isues for the church's critical self-reflection:

Concepts of the Divine (masculine and feminine imagery, particularly with concerns over patriarchy).

Christ (emphasizing his humanity as well as his deity, where the church may overemphasize one at the expense of the other).

Gnosticism (the church's denunciation of "New Age" in the 1980s and beyond did little to address the West's continuing fascination with various forms of Gnosticism and neo-Gnosticism).

Women (gender roles in church and society).

Sexuality and the body (moving beyond Puritanical concepts).

Conspiracy theories (why they continue to grip our imagination).

Church (as authority structure, and its relationship to popular culture).
The church in the West must discover ways in which to move beyond mere confrontation in order to embrace missional engagement with the culture that is self-critical, positive, proactive, and holisitic, addressing not only theology and history but contemporary culture as well. If we continue to merely respond defensively, outside the church as well as within, we will perpetuate our continuing marginalization and isolation. Can we move beyond confrontational approaches to popular culture and our propensity to preach to the choir to seize the opportunity presented by this new movie? I'm afraid I'm not very optimistic.


Aaron Nygren said...

John, your critique is very vague. You don't agree with the way the church is responding but you don't give any specific alternative. Most of the stuff I have seen is focused on educating the Church so that they can give an educated response in their conversation with their friends. I am educating my self by reading the book, responses to the book and Church history. I plan to go to see the movie with my Muslim friend from work. I see this as a great opportunity. People will be talking about important issues and we should be equipped to dialog with them. It is a shame so many people are ignorant of history and do not know that most of the issues the Da Vinci Code raises have already been dealt with. Fallen man will believe anything but the truth. If you could give some specific examples it would help me understand your point.

John W. Morehead said...

Aaron, thank you for your question, and my apologies for your feeling this post was vague. I am trying to communicate that the church's response to issues of theology and history raised in the book and film are well and good, primarily for Christians who may be concerned, but also for a response for non-Christians. However, this is only meeting part of our responsibility, and it approaches the issues from only one side of the coin, and in the process, misses some of the important issues in contemporary Western culture. I am suggesting that the church move beyond its current response (while not abandoning it) in order to broaden it beyond pop culture confrontation to engagement on pop culture's own terms and not merely the church's. On this issue we are scratching where the church itches, but not the culture.

I am suggesting that the church pursue an alternative that involves critical self-reflection by interaction with the issues I mentioned in the post and which then moves to dialogues with culture over these topics, and contextualizes the gospel in light of some of these concerns. In addition, our critical self-reflection might result in a modification of our understanding of some aspects of our theology and praxis.

I hope this amplification of my previous comments is of help.

Aaron Nygren said...

What would this "engagement on pop culture's own terms" look like? What should a "dialogues with culture over these topics" look like? How can you assume that those responding to the Da Vinci Code have not given time to "self-reflection" and concluded their is nothing that needs to be modified. What I do not see in either of your posts is examples of how things should look in your eyes. If I critique something I need to fill in what is wrong with what is right. I agree that some responses have been a jerk reaction. I received an email that suggested that we go see another move on opening night of the Da Vinci Code which I thought was a typical Christian response. Later the author of that email, after input from others, decided his first response was not the best response and that we should rather use this as an opportunity to dialog with people. Please elaborate more on specific examples of what you believe a Biblical response should look like. Thanks.

John W. Morehead said...

I sometimes forget how pragmatic evangelicals can be. I find it interesting that you have not really touched on the significance of the major issues in Da Vinci Code from the culture's perspective (e.g., Gnosticism, gender issues, conspiracy theories, etc.), but continue to pursue the matter largely through the church's perspective, precisely the problem I tried to poinpoint in my post.

What would a dialogue on these topics look like? Anything from formal public dialogues between culturally and missionally informed Christian leaders and the public, and informal dialogues between evangelicals and their neighbors, to books on the topic that approach the issue from the perspective I've outlined.

The issues addressed by evangelicals, and their apparent frame of reference in the response provides me with the reasons for thinking that evangelicals have not considered the broader issues or a cultural rather than ecclesiological perspective. I would submit that it is impossible not to respond to these issues and to interact with culture concerning them if one truly approaches the topic from the culture's frame of reference. To look at this issues and then shrug one's shoulders as if there's nothing more to "be modified" is to continue the adventure in missing the point.

Try to think beyond the church's desires to correct problematic theology and history in boundary maintenance fashion and approach the topic from the perspective of those in the culture who find the underlying issues so appealing.

Aaron Shafovaloff said...

"Some see postmodernism as essentially a kind of semantic gamesmanship, more sophistry than substance. Postmodernism's proponents are often criticised for a tendency to indulge in exhausting, verbose stretches of rhetorical gymnastics, which critics feel sound important but are ultimately meaningless." (>>)

John W. Morehead said...

Aaron S., I was tempted not to publish you comment because you merely posted a comment that you apparently feel is somehow relevant to this post, but you provide no commentary to help the reader see your point. In the absence of your intended meaning, I know that some evangelicals, particularly those in the countercult community, are inclined to dismiss postmodernism as mere sophistry and a passing fad, but I and many other students of Western culture disagree. But regardless of whether we are shifting to postmodernity or late modernity, the fact remains that we are in a post-Christendom environment in the West which means that the church is viewed with suspicion, not an authoritative voice, and therefore we must engage culture where it is, and not in the modernist Christendom framework that many evangelicals wish were still in place. The foundational issues raised by Da Vinci Code are of great significance, both to Western culture, and to the Western church, if she can engage in self-critical reflection. In order to do this we must engage the issues and move beyond throwing dismissive quotes at substantial cultural issues.

Heartforthelost said...

John, I need to ask if the Church has stood the test of time why do we need to have "critical self-reflection." The book is heresey and needs to be dealt with the same way the Gnostics were dealt with. Simply with the Truth. I think it is unfortunate that you want to water the message down for the culture. Their is no power in the culture only in the Gospel. That Gospel has truth and God's power will reign even in the "culture." Post Modern or Not.

John W. Morehead said...

Your comment is illustrative of the precise problem I am pointing to with my post. Simply because the church has and will stand the test of time does not mean there is no place for the church to engage in critical self-reflection. As culture changes so must our understanding of it and our methods of engagement with it. It simply will not do to simplistically state that we'll deal with it "simply with the truth" as we always have. How is this to be done? Ancient Gnosticism is not the same as contemporary neo-Gnosticism, and our interactions with it in popular culture must be based upon sound cultural analysis and engagement.

The gospel is presented in the culture in various ways, from Peter's approach at Pentecost to Jews and God-fearers (Acts 2) to the very different approach of Paul with Pagans (Acts 17). The essence of the gospel is the same, but the manner of presentation and engagement differs based upon cultural differences. You ignore culture to the detriment of effective communication of the gospel you seek to preserve.

Finally, it is unfortunate that you equate a desire to take culture seriously and to contextualize the gospel appropriately as watering down the message. I am urging us to follow the example provided for us in Scripture, church history, and the history of Christian missions. No wonder Jesus chided his disciples for being able to discern the signs of the weather but for not being able to discern the signs of the times.