As part of our Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist believing, I’ve asked some of our pastors to contribute their thoughts on the joy of the Wesleyan way of Christianity. Today Wade Griffith, Sr. Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa, evaluates the recent movie, The Golden Compass based on Phillip Pullman’s book, as he reflects on the hallmarks of Methodism.
Hallmarks of Methodism:
We are Free to Think and Engage the Culture as Ambassadors of Christ
Two weeks ago I preached a sermon that focused on the response we as Methodist Christians should have to elements of popular culture that appear to be attacking our faith. Having recently gotten an email insisting that all faithful Christians must boycott a film entitled, The Golden Compass, I was led to reconsider my position on how we relate and respond to the culture at large. To be honest, the email I received only succeeded in raising my curiosity about the movie. Shortly after getting it, I went and purchased the books so that I could find out what all the fuss was about. Turns out, the movie, The Golden Compass (TGC), was based on a book by the same name & that book is part of a trilogy of books by Phillip Pullman. The trilogy is ominously titled, His Dark Materials.
Over the Christmas holidays, I read the trilogy and found it to be an imaginative, page-turner of a tale, full of magic, adventure, love, loyalty, and of course, good versus evil. There are even talking animals in this story, which begins, oddly enough, with a girl in a wardrobe. Sound familiar? It is almost as if Pullman’s tale was designed to be a foil to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Like Lewis’ Chronicles, Pullman’s story is a fantasy tale about the struggle between good and evil. However, unlike Lewis’ work, in Pullman’s world the church is the villain. The church in HDM is a caricature of the medieval church. It is more political than spiritual, and in it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been replaced by the Machiavellian ethics of institutional survival & the accumulation of power. Finally, the church in the trilogy exists only to control the lives of all people.
After reading the books, I was eager to share my thoughts with the congregation. In HDM, I saw what the church would be like without the Holy Spirit. I saw what the church would be like without Christ as its head, exemplar and Lord. I was also prodded by my reading to look at our church anew to see if we have strayed from the path of Christ. Where are we working to accumulate our own power and influence? Where have we forgotten to wash feet, to live as servants and to carry our own cross? Finally, I was given an insight into the head of a non-believer…not something we get very often! Be honest, how many conversations per year do you have with strident, well-educated and articulate atheists. Clearly, Christianity doesn’t always look from the outside like it does to us from the inside!
In the final analysis, the church I know is absent from the book! There is nothing in the book about compassion or helping the poor. There is nothing about grace, forgiveness or reconciliation. There is nothing about protecting human dignity and freedom. There is nothing about a life-changing relationship with a Lord who gave His only Son for us. There is certainly nothing about treating all people as children of God! Rather, the church in the book is a reactionary and power-hungry institution that ruthlessly attacks anything that challenges its power and influence. Hmmm, and my response to this portrait of the church (and our faith) is that I should angrily boycott it? (I wonder…did Pullman or the movie studio send out that email.) Seems like it encourages the kind of response that would only confirm Pullman’s picture of the church.
Surprisingly, the books left me feeling thankful. I am thankful to serve in a church where I can read what I like and have the freedom to make up my own mind! I am thankful that I worship in a church where I can disagree with the pastor and not get kicked out of the church. I am thankful to be in a denomination whose founder valued learning, dialogue and critical engagement with the culture. Most of all, I am thankful to love, serve and follow the God who created the multiverse. That being the case, why would some work of fiction or any work of fiction scare me or rattle my cage? Do we forget that we serve the CREATOR. Yahweh! The Lord of Lords! When we engage the culture from a posture of suspicion and hostility, the culture reads it as anxiety and fear. Maybe they are right. On some subconscious level, are we afraid that the right book, question, idea or discovery will pop the balloon that is God? If not, why are we so scared. Do we really think God needs our defense and protection?
Despite the atheistic views it subtly and not so subtly espouses, I am thankful for TGC. It has reminded me to be a spiritual leader, not a CEO. It has reminded me to appreciate my denomination and faith. It has reminded me to show the world what we as a church are really about. We are “about” sharing the love that God has so richly given us in Jesus Christ. We are about helping people meet God through a relationship with Christ. We are about working for a world that conforms to God’s loving will–a world where the last truly are first and where no one lives in despair. We are about responding with love to friend and foe alike. We are about loving care. We are about hope.
Thanks be to God not only for this faith, but for a faith tradition that allows me to, “reunite [ing] the two so long disjoined: knowledge and vital piety.” Thanks be to God for a founder who believed, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” As Methodists, we have the freedom to read what we will and to think as we will. Mr. Pullman, if you are listening, I guess the church isn’t all about control after all.