Friday, July 31, 2009

The Church and Story Part 3: Parables

Here is another piece of the original debate--


Just to add some clarification to the discussion.The Dane has already pointed out that there are a number of occassions in Scripture where Jesus uses parables with the clear intent to hide the truth from unbelievers, yet you keep using it as a justification for drama and film in corporate worship. Any response?


The Dane states that obfuscation is the “chief purpose” of Jesus’ parables. While I agree that Jesus did at times speak in parables to keep the dark in the dark (Matthew 13 and Isaiah 6), it wasn’t to make them even more befuddled; and more to my point, it is neither the only nor the chief use of parables by Jesus.

Even if that were the only use of parables, it wouldn’t be an argument to ban use of parables in church – where the congregation is ostensibly not the lost that Jesus was keeping in the dark. While the parable of the sower would be a head-scratcher to the unbelieving, Jesus did expect those with ears to hear to grow from it.

The bigger point is that keeping his teaching in the dark was only one (and by my count, the least used) reason for his choosing to tell parables.

In fact, in the same chapter where he explained that he used parables so that those without sight wouldn’t see, he rattles off a string of parables to the disciples, followed by the question “Do you understand all these things?” (Matthew 13:51) He fully expected them to understand without him having to break it out for them.

Is it really being argued that the lawyer in Luke 10, who was able to state what Jesus meant by “neighbor” immediately after hearing the story of the good Samaritan, somehow didn’t understand the parable?

Or that Jesus taught about prayer (Luke 11), and wrapped up the parables by saying, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"- did so because he was hoping they wouldn’t understand what he was getting at?

There is a belief out there that if something is one thing, it can only be that one thing. The reason we are having this discussion is because a pastor believes that since he gives a certain style of sermon very well, therefore there must be only one “right” kind of sermon for all pastors.

Jesus did not follow that stricture – in fact, he changed styles to meet people where they were at. Sometimes he would talk to thousands; sometimes he spoke in small groups. Sometimes he spoke in riddles, sometimes plainly; sometimes he answered questions, sometimes he ignored them.

The fact of the matter is, Jesus used parables for all kinds of reasons throughout his ministry. Sometimes it was so those that got it would get it and those that weren’t ready wouldn’t; sometimes it was to illustrate; sometimes to reinforce; sometimes to start conversation; sometimes to break down walls (the crowd would never have tolerated the notion of Samaritan as neighbor without the story), etc.

In Matthew 18, Jesus performs a little bit of theater when asked who is the greatest. He calls a little child up to stand with them – a visual representation to illustrate his answer.

In that same bit of teaching, he mixes exhortation (“Woe to the world!”) and a parable of clarification (telling of the 99 sheep).

Later in chapter 18, when Peter ask how many times one should forgive, Jesus gives his answer (70 times 7), but appears to feel that answer isn’t enough, so he tells the story of the ungrateful servant. He wraps up with “This is how my heavenly father will treat you…” This clearly is not a case of trying to mask meaning and muddle the masses.

In fact, this showcases another use of story – sometimes a question can not be answered literally. If Peter forgave 490 times, it would still not reach the debt that had been forgiven of Peter. And, more to the point, if Peter is legalistically counting off “forgive you”s, he is heading in the wrong direction completely.

Let me repeat this notion: sometimes story is needed because mere literal words can not contain the fullness of the teaching.

I would never go so far as to say that a sermon or a service without story is incomplete – no one sermon or service is meant to hold all of the spiritual life.

But I will say that a theology without story is incomplete.

That is why when we tell the good news of the gospel, we don’t just use the red-letter words of Jesus. We also tell the story of Jesus – where he came from, what he did, the miracles he chose to perform, how he lived and died, and how he lived again.

The greatest story ever told contains more than any sermon trying to describe it ever could.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Church and Story Part 2

A continuation from yesterday…

IF the question is, “Should we permit drama (or story) into the church,” the correct and complete answer is:

“Sure. Why not?”

But of course, that isn’t the right question. This question presupposes an agreement that drama has been banned from the church, and now must justify a return; much akin to the dog that peed all over the living room carpet, and now your spouse is asking, “Should the dog be let back in?”

The real question is, “If we use story, how are we using it?”

Alan Noble contributed this to the discussion:

“… I do think that if church leaders want to use videos or drama in their preaching they need to do a lot more thinking about the medium, how it functions, and what it conveys.

“In a (somewhat) analogous setting, in the teaching profession there has been a lot of debate about the usefulness and value of video in the classroom. On the whole I’ve found that it discourages critical thinking, signals to the students that “learning” has ended and “entertainment” has begun, and in general lowers their expectations as to the seriousness of the subject and their obligation to learn.”

Sadly, Alan has seen some pretty poor use of video in the classroom. In fact, much of the arguments out there calling for a ban on use of story stem from encounters with bad drama, or poorly thought out integration, or an improper emphasis on the role of story.

Brian Walton points out such examples in his comments to yesterday’s blog entry (take some time to hike over and read them. Then stay to read the very insightful comments from Linds and David.)

I have been in worship settings where Alan’s concerns are proven true: the drama team trots out onto the bema, and the congregation (smiling) checks out of worship to have a little restful entertainment.

But the fact that there is bad drama out there is not a compelling argument to ban all use of story in church. Heck, I could rustle up a passel of bad preachers without breaking a sweat – have I just put Pastor Piper out of a job?

Maybe not.

Alan also says,

“If we do chose to include them, it should only be after we’ve thought and prayed long and hard about how the congregation will interpret these mediums and how they will or will not honor God. “

And there we have it.

How will the media be interpreted? Will it deepen our congregation’s experience, or will it distract them? Will it bring glory to G-d, and will it bring the people in closer communion to him?

For example, many Catholic churches will not be instituting live sketches in the mass any time soon. The mass is already designed to be a journey into mystery – a dramatic one at that. An actor performing a character would jar stylistically with the mass; and thus distract.

But the mass does use theater – procession and imitative action; communal metaphoric ritual (passing the flame to allow individual candles to combine to dispel the darkness – such a transcendent moment); and it is common for the pastor to use the homily to illuminate the readings, sometimes through story.

Those are drama styles that fit and enhance their particular needs in that particular setting.

Truth is, the Gospel is wider and deeper and more varied than we tend to give credit to it. Every congregation comes to worship with different needs; and they should openly and prayerful consider what G-d might have for them to fulfill those specific needs at this given time.

For some, that may mean drama. For others, not so much.

Tomorrow: Did Jesus really command us to not use parables?

Just my thoughts,


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

For those not interested in a debate about church and drama...

Instead of reading my winded post below, hop on over to the very entertaining "Disneyland tourist or local?" guide by Janet.

Just my thoughts,


The Church and Story

A couple of weeks back, I let myself get sucked into an argument about whether drama or story should be allowed within a church service.

The argument was played out at Christ and Pop Culture, which gave a link to an interview with Pastor John Piper, which you can read here. (A better rebuttal of Pastor Piper than mine can be found here.)

In a nutshell, Pastor John argues that while no one will go to hell for doing so, that any use of story or illustration anywhere within the church service will damage the kingdom.

The purpose of a church service, the argument goes, is to provide a specific style of “till Jesus comes” preaching. Any church that uses anything that helps the congregation “stay with them and be moved and get helped” undermines the power of such sermons as being the core provider of salvation, and thus is anathema to Pastor John.

This includes any use of illustration, from a drama performed by an actor to a story the preacher himself tells.

I have to admit, I wasn’t even aware of the “sermon wars” – the existence of a “my type of sermon is the one true way, and anyone who preaches another way is of the devil” struggle.

Sure, I was aware of the music wars (“If it has a beat, Old Scratch wrote it!”) and the communion wars (“If the wine is fermented, it negates the power of the bread!”), and we all are aware of the baptism wars (“Dunking if for donuts, not disciples!”).

Apparently such a sermon war exists. (Kenneth E. Bailey, in the first chapter of JACOB AND THE PRODIGAL addresses this tangentially, as he feels he must start the book by validating the use of metaphors, parables and dramatic action while discussing theology.)

I do agree with Pastor Piper that not all churches should use illustrations within their sermons; but I do not agree with his notion that to use anything within a service that “moves” or “helps” the congregation is a danger to the power of sermon.

Paul and Jesus used illustration to clarify their points; it did not negate their power and authority. Many of our brethren have entire church services that do not even contain sermons; their communion with G-d is in no way diminished by that omission.

Pastor Piper argues that if anything other than preaching is shown to either hold, move or help a congregation, that therefore we can (and shall!) assume that preaching can do none of those things.


Thinking that everything must be an “either/or” doesn’t not fit with a G-d that refused “either/or” in his very Gospel; in a savior that is not either G-d or Man, but rather a “both/and.”

The use of parable or illustration does not work for Pastor Piper — all the more power to him (I mean that sincerely). Does that mean all other congregations must choose to believe that either there is no power in parable, or that there is no power in preaching?

Absolutely not.

It is a false dichotomy from the get go.

Tomorrow: The question about church drama that should have been asked.

Just my thoughts,


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Life Tips from Screenwriting

Donald Miller showcases on his blog how one aspect of good screenwriting works in life as well, in an entry called: "Lance Armstrong Saves a Cat."

I'm going to have to write a book someday on life lessons from the school of script writing.


Just my thoughts,


Monday, July 27, 2009

Geek Rush

(Standard view for most sessions – yep, this is what it looked like from my pov for three days…)

-Friday afternoon rolled into San Diego. Didn’t even unpack the luggage – walked straight from the hotel valet to the Con

-Went into a panel we didn’t care about in order to secure seats in the room for a later panel that we did care about. You do a lot of that at the Con.

An author, in defending how thick the book he wrote was, said, “I spent an entire month writing that novel. How small do you expect it to be?” I alone in the room laughed. Apparently he wasn’t joking.

-Heard the best response to the question: “How do you get your ideas?” To which an author asked back, “I’m trying to figure out how you turn your ideas off?”

-Heard Stephan Pastis (PEARLS BEFORE SWINE comic strip) give his hilarious lecture, complete with cartoons and stories from the trenches of syndication.

Best take-away – Stephan claims his writing did not become good until he stopped trying so hard. He would draw and write as fast as he could, preventing himself from over-editing his initial ideas; he just let it flow.

-Walked the exhibition hall floor. Couldn’t get within six feet of the booths sponsored by the studios. If you want to punish a claustrophobe, make them stand in the middle of the exhibition hall at the Con.

-Saw all kinds of costumes. A full family of Jedi knights, including a lightsaber holding infant in a stroller. A squadron of Predators. A full on transformer – Bumblebee. The entire Superman and Batman family of characters. A number of anime characters, a Patrick from Spongebob and a gaggle of girls wearing red cat hoods. You see a lot of stuff like that at the Con.

-Skipped out early that day, instead seeing the movie MOON. Well worth it.

-Spent Saturday morning taking an extended breakfast with friends who live in SD. Doing the Con casual this year, no need to rush.

-Stood an hour in line for a SteamPunk event. Didn’t get in despite the wait. You do a lot of that at the Con.

-Random line overheard while pushing past a mob swarming for a freebie: “I don’t know what that is – but I want one!”

-Two sessions that you can usually get into that never disappoint: Quick Draw (think improv for artists) and voice over panels.

-Got into the Ray Bradbury session. The moderator spent the first 20 minutes of the one hour session ignoring the fact that Ray was sitting next to him, instead schilling for his own projects, which had nothing to do with Bradbury.

The only entertainment was watching him scramble to come up with connections to justify using up this session for the hawking. One book was a remake of a project that was inspired by an artist that had once met Ray Bradbury. Another was a movie project that might consider casting minor roles with actors that may have at one time been in a play written by Bradbury. Sad.

-The highlight of Ray’s session: showing a clip of an interview with Mike Wallace on the night of the moon landing. The lowlight: seeing how feeble and a bit crazy the sci-fi master has become.

-Passed a lady wearing a baseball jersey and lacy panties that were a tad too small to fulfill their proper function. If it was meant to be a costume, I couldn’t tell you what character. As we passed, heard her complain to her male companion, “People keep staring at my butt. I don’t know why.”

Catherine prevented me from stopping to explain to her why.

-Watched the pilot for HUMAN TARGET. I was a fan of the comic back in the seventies; the tv series isn’t much like the comic. But I liked it a lot anyway.

-Skipped the three hour line for evening screenings, opting instead for the one and a half hour line at Spaghetti Factory. If you are going to be in a long line, there might as well be food at the end of it.

- Stood in line with a lawyer, who happened to also have sold four screenplays, and has a sister who writes on a television series. You do a lot of that at the Con.

-Witnessed a security guard stopping an actual robot replica of R2D2 from rolling into a restricted area. Apparently that was the droid he was looking for.

-Sat with 2,000 of my closest friends watching a DOCTOR WHO panel including showrunner Russel T. Davies and star David Tennant. My wife swooned over the star, which really was as it should be. Responding to a shout of “We love you!” Tennant looked over the massive audience and replied, “And we love you. Each of you in a slightly different, individual way.”

-Left the Con, headed back to LA and sat in traffic for several hours. You do a lot of that at the Con.

Just my thoughts,


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Music and Astronomy

I was going to use today's blog to start a discussion I got sucked into recently, on whether drama should be allowed into the church and if story has any real place in our spiritual lives.

That will have to wait as Jeff Berryman re-reminded me of the Karl Paulnack's welcoming speech to parents at the Boston Conservatory.

I will give you the same quote that Jeff does from the speech:

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you: the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us."

In trying to write this, the closing paragraph, to wrap up my thoughts and summarize what I feel about Paulnack's insights, everything I wrote just ruined the moment. So instead, I will simply encourage you to find a quiet moment and read the
full article.

Just my thoughts,


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tuesday Grab Bag

A couple things out there that caught my eye:

Phil has an interesting entry comparing two icons who recently passed.

Just found The Hollywood Roaster, an Onion for Hollywood. And this article is the one that made me giggle the most.

Richard Clark dives into why dumb movies are dangerous. His paragraph on "other, more sinister attributes" sounds like a section from my talk last Beacon. I would quibble with his notion that a movie being protested by the church is a good indicator of truthiness, but otherwise this is a thoughtfully provoking article. Final paragraph is my favorite.

Stephan Pastis, author of one of the funniest strips out there, contemplates bringing a lawyer into his feud with The Family Circus. (And for those not catching his tone, he is pals with the FC guys.)

Just my thoughts,


Brooklyn Flora

This months book club read was A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. We have club members from afar -- read along, then discuss via e-mail.

Susan Kelly is one such member, and gave such a good overview of the book, I decided to give into my laziness and use her comments as my own.

Here are her thoughts:

I didn't realize the book was almost 500 pages till Jack sent that email. Yikes I thought. In the beginning I didn't get into this. I was impatient with all the description early on and so many details, and found Betty Smith's racist language offensive. I realize she wrote this in the 1940's but I wasn't able to let her off the hook easily. That kind of language has been greatly eliminated from polite conversation so when you hear derogatory names for Jewish people, etc. it is shocking. Luckily, there weren't many slurs, etc as the book progressed.

Smith's Francie Nolan and all her family did win me over as they struggle amidst poverty moving from one tenement to another. The characters were smart, witty, (often) diligent, kind and worthy of respect. They were drawn warts and all so even the severely alcoholic father's tremors are mentioned but no one gets away with overemphasizing his addiction. The family knew he wasn't a saint, but they insisted on the truth in their own understanding of their father.

Sissy was one of my favorites. She couldn't read, but she did outsmart Francie's teacher when felt her niece needed someone in her corner. She poses as Francie's mother and confronts and fools a snobbish teacher who Sissy sized up immediately. Calling out to that police officer was inspired.

It was interesting to read as a sociological portrait of a neighborhood, getting a respectful, honest look at how people cope with poverty and how they just lived back then. I was surprised by how they used to celebrate Thanksgiving as we do Halloween with kids dressing up and going to different stores begging for treats. Since kids did so much of the shopping ("Here's a nickel go to the store and get two loaves of bread) smart merchants catered to them (frugally) to win their loyalty. Smith provided so much insight into how people doctored up old bread and left overs to last days. She made that interesting. She almost made the poverty seem fun or adventurous. I had to remind myself that these really were hard times.

Francie has interesting relationships with all her family members. It was fascinating to see how honest and open Katie (the mother) was about sex and boys when Francie was a young teen, how she didn't sugar coat romance, how she was always practical even when Francie was broken hearted. It was amazing how fast these kids grew up, how prematurely they assumed responsibility.

The story got more vital and witty as I went through it. It's really got everything: courage, heart, injustice, jealousy, endurance, murder, weddings, births, deaths, success and failure. Now I'd definitely read more Betty Smith.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mooning About

I was three going on four when Armstrong made his one small step, so I don’t have much recollection of the event.

But in honor of the anniversary, I thought I would reminisce about moon references.

In no particular order:

- “From the Earth to the Moon” This mini-series is among the best television has to offer.

- “Fool Moon” Bill Irwin and David Shiner clowning it up on Broadway. Laughed until it hurt – and still couldn’t stop laughing.

- Oz, the werewolf from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Still the best metaphor for puberty ever.

- “Space: 1999” Realized recently that I remember very little from this show, other than the design of the space ships, that it starred the cool guy from “Mission: Impossible,” and that it was about the moon breaking out of orbit and careening out into space.

Mostly, though, I remember it because 1999 seemed so far away that it was safe to put in the title of a show and we’d never get there to learn if the stuff really happened or not.

Not as bad of a faux pas as calling your show “James at 16,” then trying to figure out what happens to the brand name in season two…

- Saturn Girl Okay, she wasn’t born on our moon, but on Titan, a moon of Saturn. “Legion of Superheroes” was my favorite comic, and I had a secret crush on Saturn Girl. Well, not so secret, as she can read minds…

- Moon Walking I was never much of a Michael Jackson fan, but do admit spending a significant amount of time one week trying to imitate the moonwalk. Finally decided that the problem with the floor surfaces that I was trying it on, not my inherent lack of any dancing ability whatsoever.

- “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” My introduction to those tight, four-part barbershop harmonies. I still stop and listen when I hear the style.

- “Blue Moon” After a date in Seattle, I danced with a girl in the back yard singing this song to her. Convinced her I was a romantic, so when I proposed later, she agreed.

Just my thoughts,


Friday, July 17, 2009

Potions Master

Some of you may not have heard, but the newest Harry Potter movie is out.

Janet said most of what I would say, only more articulately, and without using "like" and "you know" every few words (as I, like, totally would, you know). Scoot on over to her blog for an in-depth look.

And this is what I might add:

-Saw the movie twice, never got bored.

-The acting is the draw, especially Broadbent and Rickman. Hmmm, maybe I will have to develop a buddy movie for the two of them to star in...

-Don't look for the plot unless watching on an I-Max size screen; it is too small to see, and I'd hate for you to have to explain this one to the ophthalmologist.

-Not convinced Ginny is the right one for Harry? When she yells "shut it" without taking authority away from the team captain, well that was a defining moment.

-I am still stunned by the hard grace offered to the likes of Draco by Dumbledore. Hard, hard grace.

-If you are not a HP fan yet, think of the movie the way I do: if enough of you muggles go out and see the movie, I just might get an extra day of Christmas break. Enough to make me laugh and cry.

Just my thoughts,


Monday, July 13, 2009

Brain Rules on News

Here's a great interview of Dr. John Medina, the guy behind BRAIN RULES.

You will get a sense not only of how his brain works, but his very approachable personality.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

I am the guest speaker at Beacon this Sunday (the 12th) at my church, Bel Air Presbyterian. Beacon is a group with the goal to “equip, inspire and encourage believers in the entertainment industry.”

I’ll be talking about such trivial things as Truth and beauty, what makes films made by Christians different than other films (and yes, I will talk about low quality being one of those differentials), and why Americans so easily (and eagerly) get it wrong.

Sound controversial enough?

I wont’ be re-enacting the opening to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which is the only thing I do that I know works every time. So without a gimme, I’m a bit nervous.

Wanna see me crash and burn? This Sunday, starting at 12:30 (well, they have some lunch and socialize at 12:30, talks usually start closer to 1pm).

Just my thoughts,


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Not Savalas, the Other Telly

Last year I wrote a training video with Charity Parenzini for Seattle Children's Hospital. It was in the style of a sit-com, riffing on a Scrub's like premise.

Well, that little video just won a Telly award! I know, a Telly! Isn't that great?

I never thought I would win one of those. Of course, before today, I never knew what a Telly was.

We won the silver award, which is the highest they have. Just Silver and Bronze (those guys have a lot of categories, so they can't really afford gold). My category was "employee communication."

Other Telly winners range from a CSI episode to a cd-rom on pelvic diseases. So I'm in strangely linked company.

Just my thoughts,

The Award Winning Sean