Tough Questions at Chico Grace Brethren

Our nation seems more divided than ever on moral and spiritual issues. The different tribes watch comfortable cable channels, subscribe to congenial blogs, or lob incendiary posts at other tribes on social media. Each group is trying to control the script—evangelicals included.

There are fewer places where the tribes even live side by side. A New Yorker might read What’s the Matter with Kansas? while flying over the actual state at 30,000 feet. Here in northern California, it easier for an evangelical to see a video of a scientist on YouTube than to talk with one face-to-face.

But Chico and the ridge have all the tribes. We are not isolated from people who think differently. They’re next door. So, at Chico Grace Brethren, we decided to start a dialogue.

Over the summer we said to friends and neighbors, “If you could ask a pastor to speak on any question, what would it be?” We found that the conversations lowered barriers. We also thought the questions we received were terrific. I choose six of them to address in a short series that starts this Sunday.

The series is called, “Tough Questions,” and the title fits.

Some of the questions are confrontational. “Why would I want organized religion?” Or, “How can Jesus be the only way?” Others come from profound pain. “Why does God allow evil against children?” Two questions are simple requests for information: “What happened when Jesus was young?” “Where is heaven?”

This is a way we can throw away the script and have a real exchange of ideas. I also take written questions about the sermon and answer them during the service. We’ve found that this kind of dialogue keeps the atmosphere respectful and the temperature low. We won’t necessarily be able to agree, but we will find some new ways to talk about timeless issues. We hope you will join us, either at 10:15 a.m. on Sundays, or on the web at chicogracebrethren.com.

Vertigo: The Ink-Blot Problem

by Matthew Raley Interpreting art has always been a problem. Can a painting have a theme? When does a novelist cross the line between portraying wrong actions and endorsing them? Can you be morally or spiritually corrupted by listening to a song?

These questions are more emotional when they involve cinema, partly because of its sheer popularity over the last 80 years, partly because of the visceral power of the medium itself. Christians want to engage films spiritually, but they get tripped up by the moral quandaries they find.

These are important issues, but they make a poor starting-point for a spiritual discussion of film -- or of any art. Before we dive into Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, I want to explain why I will address the moral and spiritual issues last.

It is a rare work that has both greatness and a "message." Great artworks focus questions pointedly and show experiences palpably. They do not provide many answers. By contrast, works that convey a message are not usually art, but propaganda. Before we can approach the issues raised by films, then, we have to think in a more filmic way.

In evangelical entertainment today, sadly, there is almost no art. The expectation of both producers and consumers is that "Christian" books, music, and films will have a "good message," and the message itself removes the works from consideration as serious art. Evangelicals rush to give answers almost as a matter of principle. If they thought more carefully about art, they might see the value of provoking the right questions.

There is a more specific problem for Christians who want to engage "secular" films.

For pastors, using a film as a sermon illustration has become a popular way to make a point, with certain films like The Matrix (1999) or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) attracting almost permanent enthusiasm. The retelling of films as spirituality tales is a branding device for some authors.[1] Medieval allegorizing is even recommended by some academics as a hermeneutic for engaging film spiritually.[2]

Such uses of film seem less like dialogue than monologue. Not every self-sacrificing character is a Jesus figure.

Vertigo has incited a great deal of moral discussion, but has been especially open to agenda-driven interpretation.

One of the most influential concepts of feminist film theory, Laura Mulvey’s idea of the “male gaze,” was formulated using Vertigo as an illustration.[3] Mulvey famously psychoanalyzed the film in terms of Freudian scopophilia. It has also been read as an allegory of existential psychology,[4] and an opportunity for theological study of human motivations.[5] More whimsically, critics have used it as a point of comparison with Shakespearean characters,[6] and even as a metaphor for Kim Novak’s entire film career.[7]

Vertigo starts to look like an inkblot test.

There are ways to address the spiritual issues raised by this film that go beyond the brain candy of allegorizing, or reading the film in terms of a favorite construct. We can embrace the complexity of what Hitchcock created, and we can let the rich layers of meaning guide us to the issues.

But we have to do good work first.


[1]John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005).

[2]Robert K. Johnston, “Transformative Viewing: Penetrating the Story’s Surface,” in Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline, ed. Robert K. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 304-321.

[3]Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.

[4]Kirk Schneider, “Hitchcock’s Vertigo: An Existential View of Spirituality,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 33, no. 2 (1993): 91-100.

[5]Neil P. Hurley, “Mutability of Motivation: Hitchcock’s Films,” Theology Today 35, no. 3 (O 1978): 326-328.

[6]Wendy Lesser, “Hitchcock and Shakespeare,” The Threepenny Review, no. 11 (October 1, 1982): 17-19.

[7]Vincent L. Barnett, “Dualling for Judy: The Concept of the Double in the Films of Kim Novak,” Film History 19, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 86-101.

Chico News & Review Reports on Churches and Gays

by Matthew Raley Jerry Olenyn did a service for Chico in his story for CN&R on how local churches view homosexuality. Writing such a piece is a thankless task, the only guarantee being that some on all sides will see Olenyn as biased. Conservative evangelicals should notice that Olenyn's language is even-handed, that his use of quotations presents a well-rounded picture of what conservative pastors believe and feel, and that his objective in the piece is right: to deepen our civic culture on this issue.

The article is solid reporting, an essential tool for keeping leaders honest and their discourse civil.

Olenyn only made one characterization in the story: "There's a definite evasiveness that seeps through this discussion. Conservative churches fear being labeled homophobic and intolerant, while gay-affirming churches worry that their pro-gay stance could cost them members." The characterization is fair.

Olenyn identifies the roots of this evasiveness. He responds to one pastor's assertion that "there are bigger issues" than homosexuality, "such as reaching out to the lost, feeding the hungry, and fulfilling Christ's mission." Olenyn asks, "But does part of fulfilling Christ’s mission include defining sin? And what exactly is sin?"

Perceptive. A pastor cannot speak clearly about whether homosexuality is a sin until he defines what sin is.

Throughout the article, as in the debate nationally, the word sin is used without definition. Today sin connotes a "really bad" thing, something that makes you feel guilty. With the term apparently used this way, we seem to be debating whether churches have a right to shame people.

To understand the Bible's definition of sin, we should start with the more basic issue of what it means to be human.

According to the Bible, human beings can only understand themselves fully in relation to God (e.g. Psalm 139). We are creatures. We do not govern our own lives. Rather, we serve something larger than ourselves -- either God or the things we put in place of God.

Sin, in this worldview, is primarily an identity of servitude to false gods, whatever form they take, and only secondarily a specific action or choice (Romans 1.18-32). Paul's teaching in Romans 6.15-23 is that human beings are sin's slaves. Jesus himself teaches (John 8.34), "Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."

The implication is clear: to be human is to be the property either of sin or of God. All specific acts of sin express the same identity of sin-slavery in different ways. The issue in reconciling with God is not the individual acts, but the identity that those acts express.

The contrast between the biblical view and that of Western modernity is stark. The modern individual assumes -- more precisely, he believes as a matter of doctrine -- that he owns himself. He is the property of no one, having the autonomy to construct his life as he chooses. His dignity as a human being consists in asserting himself.

Conservative evangelicals know that a genuinely biblical definition of sin calls people to reject their most basic beliefs about who they are. For many decades now, evangelicals have been trying to finesse this point. They have cast sin in terms of "choices," "addictions," "values," or "lifestyles," as if behavior were the primary issue. Jesus, in this cautious gospel, is less Savior than Coach. He helps you make better choices about your life.

But in addressing homosexuals -- without a social consensus on sexual morality -- evangelicals are trapped by their evasiveness about sin. They can't confront homosexuality without asserting God's right to determine human identity. At the same time, they can't assert God's right over our identity without offending many of their own converts. The evangelical pew holds many who believe that their lives remain their own property, and who've been assured that God would never be so Godlike as to require their very selves.

Several conservative pastors quoted in Olenyn's article showed a wise mix of clarity about the Bible's teaching on homosexuality and humility as forgiven sinners. I'm grateful that Olenyn showed this.

But I am also grateful that he identified the core question, which humbles everyone equally: What exactly is sin?