A few weeks ago, I was in the auditorium for a lecture by Jamie Smith (who—shameless self-promotion—guest-edited our spring print issue of Comment) as part of Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s “Gospel & Culture” lecture series. His talk was a distillation of his fine book Desiring the Kingdom, which posits that we need to fundamentally shift our idea of what it is to be human in an Augustinian direction (we are not primarily thinking beings—brains on sticks—but lovers, directed toward those things for which we feel affection, which constitute our view of the good life). Only when we grasp this concept can we begin to understand both the purpose of Christian education and begin to see how the cultural practices or “liturgies” in which we immerse ourselves shape what we love and, therefore, shape us as people. Having the right ideas in our heads only goes so far.
Practices shape belief.
All of which I had heard before, having read the book and spent a lot (ahem) of time editing Comment articles that play on this. But one of the audience members asked during the Q&A period about educating children toward love of God, rather than through the entertainment paradigm the church so easily picks up that implies that we can just add Jesus to the stuff of Saturday morning cartoons and kids will pick up on and learn to love the Jesus stuff.
Which—as a member of a generation brought up in the church on this stuff—I can attest: it doesn’t work that way. And so Jamie said something in his answer that’s stuck with me: good ways of forming children into Christian adults will probably be really boring, and they’ll probably complain about it. (I think this may account for the strong run toward liturgy and tradition in many Christians of my generation, including those who are in what look like strongly non-traditional churches.)
I thought of all this when I read a short piece by two of the New York Times‘ chief film critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, entitled “In Defense of the Slow and Boring.” I have been accused of being too fond of slow, boring art film. And while I recognize the pretension that often surrounds those who only admit to watching those sorts of films, there’s something at the core of the criticism that’s always sort of bothered me. I think Scott finally hit on it in his last paragraph:
Why is it, though, that “serious” is a bad word in cultural conversations, or at least in discussions of film? Why is thinking about a movie an activity to be avoided, and a movie that seems to require thinking a source of suspicion? It seems unlikely, to say the least, that films like Uncle Boonmee, Meek’s Cutoff, The Tree of Life, or Jean-Luc Godard’s recently and belatedly opened Film Socialisme will threaten the hegemony of the blockbusters, so why is so much energy expended in defending the prerogatives of entertainment from the supposed threat of seriousness? I certainly don’t think fun should be banished from the screen, or that popular entertainment is essentially antithetical to art. And while I derive great pleasure from some movies that might be described as slow or tedious, I also find food for thought in fast, slick, whimsical entertainments. I would like to think there is room in the cinematic diet for various flavors, including some that may seem, on first encounter, unfamiliar or even unpleasant.
I half-wonder, now, if subjecting ourselves willingly to the slow and boring (and by extension, perhaps, subjecting children and young people to them too) helps shape our desires in a meaningful way. It’s easy to distract ourselves with myriad entertainments, and in fact, for many of us, an eighty-minute church service is the only time during the week we force ourselves to sit in a quiet room and participate in something that is not predictably riveting and cannot be fast-forwarded (though many of our churches do their darndest to make sure we don’t even experience boredom then). Could the “slow and boring” film help train us to sit quietly and actually be contemplative?