Who Are You Praying To?

Recently, the below prayer was said as an invocation at a NASCAR race:

Hearing this prayer, and seeing some of the reaction to it, got me thinking about prayer in general.  Here's my thought:  for whose benefit do you think that Pastor Joe Nelms is praying?  Or let's ask the question this way: is this how he would pray in a room by himself?

I have always been a little bit uncomfortable with public prayer.  You might think this is strange, me being a priest and all.  Before I was a "professional" Christian, I never wanted to pray out loud; I never thought my prayers would be good enough to be out there, side by side with the prayers of the truly (poetically) spiritual.  You know the people I mean.  After I became a pastor and become more comfortable speaking in front of people and more confident in my ability to think on my feet, I became less worried about the ability to pray in public and more worried about the theory behind it.

I mean, aren't we supposed to be praying to God?  Certainly Pastor Nelms has gotten some notoriety for his church, and probably boosted attendance a little bit, but could anyone argue that his prayer was truly intended primarily for God's ears?  Or is it more likely that he wanted the gathered assembly to know that his wife is "smokin' hot?"  Perhaps he'd just seen Talladega Nights the evening before?

In a worship service in seminary, during a public prayer time, someone prayed a thanksgiving for the beauty of  God's creation.  It was autumn, and prayer thanked God for the beauty of the changing leaves, for the reds, yellows, and browns of the season.  When that prayer ended, someone in a different part of the church piped up and said, "And the oranges."  Now, I don't want to disparage either of those people (I don't remember who they were), but that occurrence made me wonder exactly who we are praying to.  Are we praying for the benefit of those around us, or are we praying to God?  What are we to do with Matthew 6:6, wherein Jesus tells his followers that when they pray, they should go into a room and close the door.  Jesus seems to be regularly at odds with public displays of religiousness.

Certainly, we pray communal prayers...as an Anglican, I believe that a general confession (said together) takes the place of individual confession (to a priest).  But confession is a kind of prayer that almost cannot help being personal:  surely we have our own sins in our minds as we confess, and aren't really even aware of the content of the prayers of those around us.

So what do you think?  When we pray in public, are we beholden to the pressures of "quality?"  Is there a component to communal (yet individual) prayer that is missing from prayers said to God, alone?  Who are you praying to and for when you pray out loud in a group.  Or do such concerns prevent you from praying out loud in groups at all?

Are You Breaking Bad?

Breaking Bad is (allegedly) one of the best shows on TV.  I say allegedly because I haven't seen it.  My TV watching habits are pretty strange:  I don't watch drama on TV.  I watch scripted comedy (Community, Modern Family) and reality (Top Chef, Project Runway) and a couple studio comedies (The Colbert Report, Conan).  I don't watch anything serious on television, except the Friday analysis of Shields and Brooks on the PBS Newshour.

I've been told I'm wrong 100 times, and told I'm missing out 1,000, but I think I just can't believe that great dramatic writers, actors, and directors are working on TV.  I mean, if they were so great, wouldn't they be making movies?  You don't see Charlie Kaufman-scripted, Ridley Scott-directed, Daniel Day-Lewis-starring television shows.

The shows most referenced by people who tell me I'm wrong are The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.  These are supposed to be the creme de la creme of recent television drama.  But I don't want to talk about their quality today.  Today I want to talk about an article written about these shows by a favorite writer of mine:  Chuck Klosterman.  In his article, Klosterman argues that Breaking Bad is the best of these shows, because it is the only one which "is not a situation in which the characters' morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame; instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice."  He implicity criticizes Mad Men for enabling viewers to dismiss the bad things done by its characters as "just how it was back then" because the show is set in the 1960s. He similarly levels critiques at The Sopranos and The Wire for filtering all "good" deeds through the filter of everyone on the show's being involved in the mob, or being drug dealers and/or corrupt, respectively.

It is only Breaking Bad, of these four shows, which gives it characters "personal agency," or what we might call "free will," according to Klosterman.  Breaking Bad is the story of a chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer, who takes to dealing drugs to provide for his family as he faces his own death.  Klosterman describes a scene

"in which Walter White (Bryan Cranston)'s  hoodrat lab assistant Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) tells Walter he just can't "break bad," and — when you first hear this snippet of dialogue — you assume what Jesse means is that you can't go from being a law-abiding chemistry teacher to an underground meth cooker. It seems like he's telling White that he can't start breaking the law after living a life in which laws were always obeyed, and that a criminal lifestyle is not something you can join like a club. His advice seems pragmatic, and it almost feels like an artless way to shoehorn the show's title into the script. But this, it turns out, was not Jesse's point at all. What he was arguing was that someone can't "decide" to morph from a good person into a bad person, because there's a firewall within our personalities that makes this impossible. He was arguing that Walter's nature would stop him from being bad, and that Walter would fail if tried to complete this conversation. But Jesse was wrong. He was wrong, because goodness and badness are simply complicated choices, no different than anything else."

Wow.  "Goodness and badness are simply complicated choices, no different than anything else."  A couple of counterpoints:  Steven Hyden, a critic for The A.V. Club, calls Breaking Bad 
"a masterfully suspenseful crime drama, [which] deals with troubling, real-life subject matter in frank, no-holds-barred fashion: the fragility of life and family, the potential for evil lurking inside good people, the possibility that humanity is a ruthless me-first game with no rules or order."
What Hyden calls "the potential of evil lurking inside good people," Jesus might call white-washed tombs...people who only appear to be "good" (Matthew 23:27).  The Psalmist says,
"I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:3-5).
So is Breaking Bad the best show on TV because of it's courageous depiction of human beings as free agents, able to choose between right and wrong?  Or is Klosterman crazy?  I'd answer these questions myself, but there was a Mythbusters marathon on, and I missed Breaking Bad all together.

Who Are You on the Inside? The Humanity of Batman Begins

For those of you who couldn't join us on Sunday evening, we watched Christopher Nolan's 2005 series reboot Batman Begins.  Two themes that jumped out were the difference between who you are on the inside and what you do on the outside, and an ethical question about doing evil to stop evil.  Here are some relevant clips:

In this clip, Rachel (Katie Holmes) accuses Bruce (Christian Bale) of being too busy being a billionaire playboy to care about the welfare of Gotham City.  Little does she know, he's Batman, fighting to save Gotham by night.  She's doing what we all do: judging the man by his actions (or, at least, what she knows of them).  This way of judging was put forward by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics.  A man acts in good ways and bad.  If his good deeds outweigh his evil deeds, then he is good.  Pretty standard stuff.  But the Bible says something quite different:  "The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).  Jesus also called the Pharisees "white washed tombs," claiming that though they were beautiful on the outside, inside they contained only death (Matthew 23:27).  It seems, then, that the Bible would dispute Rachel's claim that it doesn't matter who you are on the inside.  Jesus said quite clearly that it doesn't matter what you do on the outside...it's the content of your heart that counts.

In this clip, Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Ducard (Liam Neeson) try to convince Bruce that killing a murderer is morally justified.  They're making the argument that things that look evil on the surface are not evil if they are to a good purpose.  The theological word for this is "casuistry," or more simply, self-justification.  Bruce argues for a more "legalistic" morality, a code in which killing is killing no matter who the victim is.  Obviously, this example is heightened and dramaticized, but don't we make decisions like this every day?  The lies we tell "for the greater good," for instance?  The urge to self-justify is a very human one; it's just not a Christian one.  Christ came to save us while we were helpless...that is, unjustified (Romans 5:6-8).  In fact, he says, the helpless and unjustified are the only ones he came for!  The others have no need of him.

Batman Begins seems to be in support of the Dawes/Aristotle method of judging a man but behind Jesus Christ's demolition of casuistry.  Where do you come down?

The Drop Dead Gospel

A special delivery for those of you who missed the first installment of our Summer Movie Series:  Drop Dead Gorgeous, and an opportunity for further discussion for those who did.  The film chronicles a beauty pageant in the tiny town of Mount Rose, Minnesota and the lengths to which contestants will go to win.

Some gems (spoiler alert!):

1)  A contestant's mother systematically murders her daughter's competition, only to find her own victorious daughter blown up in a parade swan explosion.  (Doesn't that, by the way, sound like a movie that you've GOT to see?)

2)  The pageant controls the lives of those who enter it, including the goth girls who reject it out of hand.

3)  The star of the film (played excellently by Kirsten Dunst) ends up making it all the way to nationals despite not officially "winning" any of the lower pageants.

The title of this post is a misnomer; there's not much Gospel in this movie.  It just worked really well as a play off the film's title; I couldn't resist.  Here's a recap, though, of some of the great discussion that was had last Sunday night, taking our gems as our template.

1/3)  We seem to be less in control of our lives than we think we are.  Doesn't it often seem like the harder we work to make something happen, that thing gets further and further away from us.  Perhaps, as theologians have argued for centuries, it is true that there is a sovereign God who is in charge of things.  As much as the Leeman family (in the film) tries to make sure that Becky wins the pageant (which she does), the victory is a pyrrhic one, last only for an evening before everything is taken from all of them.  Dunst, the runner-up who benefits from the swan explosion,  doesn't move on to the state or national pageants because of her talents, she moves on, as one might say, "by the grace of God."  At one point, when she bemoans the method by which she won the local pageant, her aunt says, "You're a good person, Amber.  Good things happen to good people."  This is what we all think, or at least wish was the case.  When Amber says, "Really?" the aunt cracks:  "No, that was total (expletive!), you're lucky as hell."  What one woman calls luck another might call divine intervention.

2)  There are a couple of characters in the film who spend all their time smoking in the girls' bathroom.  When asked if they're going to be in the pageant, they scoff.  But the interesting thing is that they are as defined by NOT being in the pageant as those who are in the pageant are defined by it.  Does that make sense?  Think of hippies and preppies (tip o' the hat to one of my teachers, Paul Zahl).  Hippies think that they are undefined free agents, able to what they want when they want to do it.  However, isn't there as defined a "hippie code" as there is a preppy one?  They both have accepted standards of dress, employment (or lack thereof), drug of choice (marijuana on the one hand, money and status on the other), and the list goes on.  We are all beholden to something, whether we are trying desperately to be "in" or trying desperately to show people that we don't care about being "in."

Our next showing will be of Batman Begins, and we will engage questions of morality in war, and the difference between what is in our hearts and what shows on the outside.

A Savior Who Descends: The Gospel and The Time Machine

In George Pal's 1960 classic The Time Machine, H.G. Wells (Rod Taylor) invents the titular contraption and travels thousands of years into the future.  There, he does not find the Utopian society that he wished for, but a sharply divided "human race," which has evolved into, on the one hand, vicious, subterranean Morlocks, and, on the other, peaceful, laissez-faire Eloi.  Before Wells (known as "George" in the film...that's, apparently, what the "G" stands for...) knows about the Morlocks, though, he interacts only with the Eloi.  He finds their life idyllic, if dull.  On occasion, though, a great horn sounds, and the Eloi turn into strange automatons, marching mindlessly into caverns in the Earth.  We find out later that they are marching into the clutches of the Morlocks, and to their death.  Nothing George can do, no shouting, shaking, or pleading, can break the Eloi out of their trance.

Christians go into a similar trance when they hear the announcement of the Law.  "Love your neighbor."  "Give to the poor."  "Honor your father and mother."  We think to ourselves that these things are right and good, and that we will obey.  And so, we begin our march.  We think that to march is obedience, and that righteousness and success live at the end.  We cannot be shaken out of this belief.  But, like the Eloi, our march leads only to death.

St. Paul says that he was once alive apart from the law, but that once "the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died" (Romans 7:9).  The problem is that we can never know when we have loved our neighbors enough, or given enough to the poor, or honored our fathers and mothers enough.  The Law, the requirement, the superego, can never be satisfied.  Thus, the march can only end in death.

George must descend into the lair of the Morlocks to save the Eloi.  It's the only way.  Paul cried out for a savior from "this body of death" (Rom 7:24) and if the Eloi were capable, they'd do the same.  They are in a trance, though, convinced, like us, that the obedient march is the way to salvation.  But a savior must come from outside, someone immune to the siren song of the Law.  So it is:  "For our sake He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).  The Law leads only to death, but it is only from death that we can be resurrected to new life.
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