Monday, June 20, 2016

#291 - Ghostbusters Theology and Dead Old White Guys (An Ode to Forbidden Cinema)

“Sir, what you have there is what we refer to as a focused, non-terminal, repeating phantasm, or a Class Five full roaming vapor. Real nasty one, too!" - Dr. Ray Stantz

In a few weeks Melissa McCarthy is going to take a giant crap on my childhood. However, in mourning this something dawned on me: there's a theology here!

I was talking to a friend recently and he explained why his former pastor, in twenty-friggin-sixteen, still won’t allow his congregation to attend the movie theater.

Here’s the logic: You may only be going to see Anna and Elsa from Frozen sing obnoxious songs to your spawn, but do you know what was played in the theater just before the G-rated money-grab you went to see?

NO! No you don’t!

What if.. WHAT IF you were sitting in a theater that was playing…omg omg omg.. Magic Mike just 90 minutes prior?! Jesus H Christmas, wouldn’t that be a tragedy?

Now I know you’re asking me, “Rev. Glen, what’s so tragic about Channing’s abs?”

Well dear brothers and sisters, the logic, as presented by many of our respected and revered pastors, is that the spirits from the film prior are still floating around in that theater like the phantasm Dr’s Spengler, Stanz, Venkman and Zeddmore nabbed in that hotel ballroom in New York.

Because, you know, that’s how the spirit world works.

Never mind the fact that start-up churches across the country regularly rent out bars and clubs on Sunday mornings to hold their services in because they have pre-existing stages, AV equipment, cheap rent and are usually vacant at that time. They don’t seem too concerned with, or impacted by, the “spirits” floating around from the night before. Or are spirits on a schedule? How long do they linger, exactly? Do they have a curfew? Are they hourly or salary? I can’t quite figure that one out.

This has got to be one of the most asinine explanations for any dogma that I’ve ever heard.

I don’t have expertise in much, but there is one area I’m more than qualified to discuss.

Allow me to explain. Obviously, we’ve all have heard years of pontificating as to why movie theaters are a hop, skip and jump away from attending services at The Satanic Temple, and I’m included in having had that explanation.

I also have experience in something else: I was a Cinema Studies Major and I have a very fulfilling career in Film and Television. I know a little something about this. Strap into the Delorean, Huey Lewis is about to take you back in time.

The oldest film most of us have ever seen was probably something that would be G-Rated in 2016. Because of this, a lot of us naturally assume that films were always pretty vanilla, and as society plunged into a scourge of moral depravity they became raunchier as time went on. The GOP pines for these glorious, innocent days of old where everyone did the right thing, and the UPC’s standards were written into societies moral compass. Would you believe me if I told you this isn’t true?

The world’s first motion picture was presented in New York City in the year 1894, twenty years before the Azusa Street Revival. There was no such thing as a rating system, the MPAA or anything of that nature at the time. At it’s inception film was very simple. It consisted of things like a horse galloping, or a gunman shooting a blank at a camera. Soon after its birth film rapidly evolved into feature length projects. With no governing authority, and with culture being what it is, cinema became somewhat smutty. Images of burlesque dancers, Wild West outlaws, gangsters, drunken tomfoolery, prostitution, and so forth filled the screen. Keep in mind we’re still talking about the very-early 1900’s. If you don’t believe me go catch a film called Baby Face, where Barbara Stanwyck rises to the top of her company by sleeping her way out of a speakeasy all the way up to bagging a CEO. Or how about Safe In Hell, where the films protagonist is a prostitute who murders three people?

Years later, in 1934, The William H Hays Code was adopted to govern the content of film. Before we get into what the Hays Code entailed it’s important to note that for forty years film was ungoverned. Content was free to reflect culture for forty years. Films of that period, such as Baby Face, Call Her Savage, Murder!, and others portrayed illicit content similar to modern film that would surprise the average viewer.

But where could you see such things? The cinema, of course. But only the cinema. We’re talking about 1894 to 1934. There were no VHS tapes, no DVDs, no Netflix. If you wanted to see a film you had to go to a theater.

In 1934 The Hays Code was put in place and its rules were what made films of the 40s, 50s and 60s what you know them to be. It stated guidelines like Law and Morality could not be ridiculed, the bad guy always has to lose, sex should not be portrayed and if it was it could barely be alluded to with vague innuendo, drugs and alcohol could only be shown in a negative light, etc.

The Hays Code was abandoned in 1968 in favor of the MPAA rating system.

Pentecost and Film share a timeline. They both arose to prominence at around the same time in the world. In an effort to enforce morality early holiness movements established a set of parameters for its members to live within. One of these parameters was the prohibition of the movie theater due to it being the only place to view such illicit content. The sex, the drugs, the violence, and the immorality portrayed in films prompted early pastors to forbid members from attending the exhibition of pre-code films.

The history of media could be discussed at length, but that isn’t what this is about.

From its birth, cinema was prohibited by the holiness movement due the lascivious content therein. But the entire reason theaters were forbidden was because they were the only place to see such content.

When television was invented and rose to prominence holiness movements like the UPC attempted to prohibit members having one. The funny thing is, when you’re attempting to do battle with culture at large you’re always going to lose. As they grew in popularity televisions started appearing in homes across the world, including Christian homes. Pastors realized they were fighting a losing battle and reluctantly backed off enforcing their prohibition.

Years later, the internet exploded onto the scene, and Bill Gates’ vision of a computer in every home came to fruition. The UPC didn’t even attempt to stop the phenomenon, basically because they didn’t even understand what was going on until the internet had already been ingrained as a cultural staple.

In 2007, sixteen years after America first went Online my friends and I sat in the stands at General Conference and observed the entire body of UPC licensed pastors debate whether or not to allow advertising on television. The debate we heard was hilarious. The sensible sides argument was that we broadcast services on the internet and we’re still debating if we can advertise on the soon to be archaic form of media? We've got to keep up.
When it was finally allowed a group of puritanical morons split off and took their ostrich theology and founded a village in the woods called The WPF rather than update their way of life from the 1950s to the 1980s in 2007.

All the while the movie theaters were still forbidden. VHS, Laser Disc, Pay-Per-View and DVD all came and went. Still, the theater discussion was never revisited, only the explanation of its prohibition was mildly updated from being content based to a superstition of non-existent spirits. What a joke.

But you know what?

There are spirits floating around now. There are harmful spirits, planting seeds of division among us. Spirits whispering lies and confusion in our ears. Spirits stifling progress.

These aren’t the spirits of rebellion or mischief. They’re not the spirits soapboxed about on Sunday mornings across the country.

These are the spirits of dead, old, white preachers that are damning us. The spirits of Howard Goss, N.A Urshan, C.M. Becton and others still promulgate fear and misinformation from beyond the grave.

Fear of the new, fear of progress, fear of anything foreign still permeates the minds of impressionable people who revered these misguided men, and others like them. 

Campgrounds and facilities bearing the names of these old, dead, white men have fallen into disrepair yet cannot be sold or rehabilitated because the reverence for these men prohibits even the discussion of it. We've made idols out of these mortal men.

For the first time in my life, after drifting directionless and lacking responsibility, I have something to be proud of – a career in film, yet my parents won’t do me the honor of going to see my name roll by in credits on the big screen, no matter how much I beg. They won’t go, but they’ll buy the DVD. Their current pastor, a good and logical man, allows congregants to attend the theater. However, due to their reverence for men whose corpses have already rotted away, they won’t go.

When they read this they’ll undoubtedly wince at those last few paragraphs and yet again, call me bitter rather than give any significant thought to what I'm saying.

I’m bitter because I’m the wrong one. The spirit of these dead, old, white men may inspire explanations filled to the brim with logical fallacy and unreasonable fear founded on primitive and obsolete ideology, but all of that outweighs their pride for me. Though they may be dead, these men still hurt me. They stifle my relationship with my parents. They denigrate me, my career, and my life, yet I'm told not to speak ill of them? I'm supposed to respect and revere these dead men while they cause me unjustifiable shame and sadness? Hell no.

Forgive me if I sound angry, but I’m downright pissed.

My parents, in an attempt to make me feel better about their refusal of seeing my name on the big screen, tell me “Well we’re going to buy the DVD!” They’ve stood on the sets and watched the films being shot first-hand, and told me how proud they were. Prove that pride by going to see my name on the big screen? Sorry, can’t do it, Pastor Dead-for-forty-years forbade it.

I know my parents love me, and I couldn't have asked for better ones. I'm proud to be their child. I've seen them make sacrifice after sacrifice for me. They would die for me if they had to. There is nothing I could ask of them that they would not do, if it were within their means....except go to a movie theater, and that's why this bothers me. If they were bad parents or I had any other complaints then perhaps I wouldn't care so much about this, but they're not and I don't. It just makes no sense to me.

A story I’ve told here before is of the time I asked my pastor if I could go see Passion of the Christ when it came out. The answer I got was No, because our youth pastor had bootlegged a copy of it and the youth group was going to watch it after youth service one Friday night.

This became a regular thing in our church. We’d have parties where we watched bootlegged movies after church. Think about that. Take all the time you need.

In 1997, when Titanic came out, someone in our church had gotten ahold of a copy of an Academy Award Screener (which at the bottom of the screen stated that it was for purposes of award voting and not to be reproduced) and it was passed around our church, including to my family, and to every minister.

Theft was better than breaking the eleventh commandment of not going to the theater.

People, theaters were forbidden when they were the only place you could go to see a movie. It was never about the place, it was about the content. If you’ll still watch the movie, it doesn’t matter where you see it. If you refuse to go to the theater, then by the logic presented in forbidding it you have to refuse the content altogether.

We buried these men nearly half a century ago, but the stink of their rotten corpses, ill-conceived ideas, xenophobia and self-righteousness drifts through churches and minds of people daily. It’s time we leave them, and their ideas, where they belong: six feet under.

So, in the wise words of Queen Elsa: 

End Note: I couldn't think of a good place to put this but I want to point something out. "Standards" are often discussed as being one of the things that sets the UPC apart from other movements. Misguided as they may be, every UPC standard is based on a scripture, except the theater one. No make up? Story of Jezebel. No hair cutting? 1 Corinthians 11. No jewelry? There's a few. No pants? A completely misinterpreted Deut. 22:5. No movie theaters? Some dudes opinion.

Monday, May 9, 2016

#290 - Not Drug Treatment Programs

I remember a man from my church when I was growing up. He was one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met. When the doors were open he was there with a smile cemented on his face. He sat on the third row and when he loudly proclaimed his agreement with the pastor you could hear the smile through which he bellowed “Amen.”
If your only assessment of him was the 90 minutes you saw him on Sunday or Wednesday you would assess this is a truly happy man, in love with life.
The reality is that he was an addict. From the day he walked through the church doors to his death almost twenty years later, he was held captive by hard drugs.

He came to our church in search of emancipation. He wasn’t wealthy. He wasn’t educated. His resources were limited. He knew he had a problem but had no idea where to find a solution. That is, until he was told God could deliver him.

Whenever sermons or testimonies of deliverance were given you could watch him and see the near tangible desire spilling out of his eyes in the form of tears as he hung on each syllable. He wanted that freedom from his addiction. Getting high was no longer fun for him. Without the crack and the meth his headaches were unbearable. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t function. His body, thin and frail from years of amphetamines choking his appetite, was crushed under the weight of chemical dependence.

He also loved the church. After a life devoid of direction, drifting with blurred periphery and perpetual buzz he found a room that stopped the shaking, if only for a fleeting moment. His adoration for the church was steeped in perception of its ostensible purity. This was the first “good” thing he’d had in his life and he wasn’t letting go of it. These four walls represented a break from the judging eyes and inescapable temptations that followed him on a daily basis.

Here he was called “Brother.” To those of us who’d grown up there this was merely a platitude but to him it meant something he'd never had: community. He found eyes that didn’t judge him. Eyes that didn’t wander to the sky or the floor in order to avoid connecting with his. He found people who would smile and shake his hand. He found people who would love and accept his daughter and his wife. He found everything he was looking for.

Except for one thing.

One of the most heartbreaking images seared into my memory is of him at the altar. Evangelists would come as harbingers of liberation. They’d tell of the man from the next town back who laid his cigarettes on the altar and never smoked again. Their faces red, their fists pounding as they screamed with certainty and conviction “GOD can deliver you tonight, you just have to let him.”
He wouldn’t even wait for the altar call. This was his moment. He was ready. He was willing. The tear soaked carpet where his face was buried often left with a pack of Marlboro Reds next to it. He was done. He was so done.

Except he wasn’t.

He never managed to kick it. And he could never quite figure out why.

“Why God? Why do you deliver so many, but not me? I’ve laid it on the altar. I’ve thrown away the pipes. I’ve flushed the rocks, the pills, the powder. Why won’t you just take this from me?!?”

He blamed himself. Who else could he blame? If all these other addicts he heard of could be delivered then why not him?

The euphoria faded each time he drove away from that building. As the light on the church sign grew dim in his rear view each Sunday, the thirst began to swell. His hands beginning to shake. That pain behind his eyes taking hold. His temples pulsating harder and faster with each mile he drove until the last flash of will power burned out and again he succumbed to his demons. And again his smile replaced with a grimace of shame and self-resentment.

The church wanted to help him nearly as much as he wanted to help himself. Members of the congregation regularly gave him work. He painted our houses, our sheds and our porches. He labored wherever we would have him, making excuses of “forgotten brushes” to sneak away for a smoke. We’d tell him he didn’t have to sneak away. He could smoke right here. We understood. But we didn’t understand the shame. To him we had it all together. And he wanted to have it all together. If he couldn’t, he would at least try to appear as though he did.

Late night calls from him were semi-normal. He was always in need of money “for groceries.”

Our pastor, not knowing what to do in this situation but loving and deeply caring for our friend, gave a heartfelt imploration to the church, with him present. Tears streamed down our friends face as he said “Yes!” with emphatic agreement to our pastors words.
Our pastor told us that our friend was sick. He was beholden to drugs and out of desperation would sometimes call members for money. He told us to never, ever give him cash. If he was hungry, feed him. If he needed gas, we could get him gas. If he needed clothes, we could clothe him. But for his own good, do not give him cash.
This gentle, frail, middle-aged man was grateful for this tough love. Tough love is still love, after all.

But it didn’t work.

After roughly two decades of tortured begging for relief, our friend died at 52 years old.

We couldn’t save him.

The church is in the business of saving souls, not addicts, and they should stick to their main objective.

Drug addiction is not a spiritual fight. Those addicted are not carrying around a demon. They’re carrying chemical imbalance, depression, bipolar disorder and a metric shit ton of other neurological problems.

Not to get all Bill Nye, but there is one universal thing about drugs that is explained to fifth graders in D.A.R.E and then to no one ever again:

Marijuana, cocaine, crack, meth, LSD, MDMA, ketamine, heroin, bath salts, antidepressants, alcohol and even certain doses of nicotine are what are called reuptake inhibitors. When you experience a positive emotion, say happiness or excitement, chemicals are released in your brain called dopamine and serotonin.
They’re released in small, proportionate amounts and then sucked back up by receptors, producing a brief positive feeling in the body while present in the brain.
What reuptake inhibitors do is prompt the brain to start over producing these chemicals while blocking the receptors, temporarily, causing a flood of serotonin and dopamine to the brain. This is the chemical explanation of what a “high” is. Drugs do other things – raise heart rate, dilate pupils to create altered perceptions, etc – but the core of what they do is override the serotonin and dopamine controls.

The consequence of this is two fold:

  • Due to the influx of the euphoria inducing chemicals, when the reuptake inhibitors wear off all of the chemicals are then vacuumed up and the brain takes a break in producing them. If the presence of large amounts of these chemicals produces euphoria what do you think the sudden absence of them brings? Depression. Sadness. Loneliness. Shame. Any negative emotion that you have a proclivity to feel will be amplified exponentially by this absence.

  • Prolonged use of these drugs alters the brains ability to produce and regulate serotonin and dopamine on it’s own. The drug users brains literally lose the ability to produce joy or happiness without the assistance of the drugs. Thus, drug addicts often eventually find themselves deeply depressed, only able to feel some semblance of normality when they’re using.

It’s a vicious, dirty cycle.

But it can be treated.

Not by pastors.

Not by evangelists.


Our pastor had two stories he loved to tell, and I think when told together they're applicable here;
The first is a well known joke: A guy was in a flood and stranded on a roof. He prays for God to save him and a boat comes to rescue him. He says "No thanks, God is going to save me."
Boat drives off.
Another boat comes.
"No thanks, God's going to save me."
Boat leaves.
A Helicopter comes and tries to coax the man on the ladder.
"I'm sorry, I can't, God's going to save me."
After the waters rise, the man drowns and is standing at the pearly gates and the man says "God!! You promised to save me! What happened?"
God says "Dude I sent you two boats and a helicopter..."

The second story was from his experiences as a pastor in another state. Two little old church ladies were meddling in other congregation members business, as little old church ladies do, and they brought a young man to the pastor. They said "You have to rebuke the spirit of lust out of this young man!"

The pastor looked at the women and said "If I do that I'll kill him!"

The moral of these two stories is that sometimes God uses something that looks like it's from man to save people, and the human condition is complex enough that not all matters are solved directly by praying.

Sometimes prayer is only part of the solution.

I’m not trying to brow beat pastors. I know I have a history of doing that. The man I’ve been discussing was loved deeply by our pastor. He did the absolute best he knew to do for him. Everything he did was out of love and I know because I saw first hand, our pastors heart broke for our friend as he watched his addiction play out. Our pastor believed he was placed in this mans life to help him overcome his addiction and he never hesitated to do everything he knew to do to accomplish that. I believe he blamed himself as much as our friend, if not more so. I can't imagine what it must be like to not just desire to help someone, but to believe it is your divine purpose, yet watch helplessly as your efforts fall short. I can't imagine the countless tears shed in his office, and home, in intercessory prayer, only to see the addiction win. His dedication was admirable and I do not denigrate him at all for his efforts. He gave our friend a gift that few ever had: love.

But love wasn’t enough.

Not knowing the best way to help someone doesn’t make a pastor a bad pastor.
Pastors – you’re not superheroes. No one expects you to be. You are human beings doing the best you can. We all do the best we can do, but every person, EVERY person hits a wall sometimes. Even Babe Ruth struck out a time or two. No one remembers that though, because he swung for the fence no matter the count.

Can you swing for the fence with the addicts? I’m not telling you not to let God be the center of their lives. I’m not saying the sermons, the altars and the prayers don’t help. They do, I’ve seen it.

But they’re not the solution.

Drug addiction is a complex marriage of biology, chemistry, physics, psychology and circumstance. You can’t reasonably expect a miracle all the time.

Yes, you may encounter the addict who can leave the cigarettes on the altar never to smoke again.

But how many have you encountered who can’t?

There are so many viable options for treatment but the hardest part for any addict is admitting they have a problem, and they have to do that before they can ever be treated.

The first step in solving a problem is admitting there is one. If you have an addict in your church who has come to that altar in search of deliverance please know that they’ve already completed the most difficult step: they’ve acknowledged it. They just don’t know where to go from there.

Or maybe they do. Getting treatment is a huge blow to an ego, and most of these people would much rather “give it to God” than sit in a clinic because the former is the easy path. It just usually doesn’t work.

Pastors, what if, instead of viewing treatment programs as an alternative to God’s deliverance, you viewed it as a method of administering it?

For most of these people getting them to accept and complete treatment would be a miracle in and of itself.
It would be a miracle they’d never complete on their own.
But you, Pastor, could help them. Knowing they’ve got you, and God, in their corner could be all they need to complete treatment.

What if, instead of giving a red faced, ham fisted screaming sermon about deliverance you visited them every day while in treatment, praying softly with them that God grant them the strength and serenity to make it through this season in their life?

Wouldn’t that be an incredible ministry?

I know this post only addressed drug addiction but addiction takes many forms, but the points made here remain the same for all addictions. Addicts are viewed through an oversimplifying lens in the church. For most there is a stigma that prevents them from ever viewing themselves as addicts. Anyone can become addicted to anything at any time. It is a psychological issue - a break in the complicated circuitry of the brain. Something isn't firing right up there and there are people who dedicate their lives to identifying and treating these issues. Their work does not run contrary to God, their work is a gift from him.