Why Is The Theatre More Captivating than Church?
I once heard it said that a healthy society has three avenues to shape your thinking: art, philosophy, and religion. And in our time, we don’t really listen to philosophy and religion anymore. The theatre is our church, the movie is our sermon, and the trailers before the film are our only liturgy.
Why is that?
I can’t tell you why we don’t pay philosophers to stand around in bedsheets and speculate what happens to people trapped in dark caves anymore. I’d imagine lighter forms of philosophy have made their way into the movies we watch. But religion? Why doesn’t our spiritual practice shape us the way our films do?
Is it that the church is boring?
I grew up in the church, and as a kid I sat through some boring sermons. I have played every possible game you can come up with using only an offering envelope or an empty personal communion cup. I can tell you firsthand that most religious experiences aren’t as entertaining as Star Wars was (and will be again!) So many churches and spiritual communities are trying to stay “relevant”, which sometimes just feels like they are bummed out they can’t keep up with Hollywood. They start adding entertainment value to their services, but it never lasts. The authenticity gets lost when you try to compete with the theatre over entertainment value. We’re one of the most over-stimulated generations in human history–we need to be bored every now and again. In fact, it’s probably good for us.
So if our religious practices have been pushed aside for another reason, whatever could it be? Why do we rush to buy tickets to a summer superhero film, and show up late to church once a month if we bother to go there at all?
There are probably several reasons. The movies are better at storytelling, as long as it’s a good film. Hollywood embraces drama and conflict when sometimes religion pretends like pain and contradiction aren’t even real. Most churches have 70-90% less Channing Tatum than “Magic Mike” did.
The biggest reason the theatre is more captivating than the church is this: we are seeking a shared, sacred experience.
The theatre seems to give us this, at least at first. And the church no longer does.
The Circle of Life
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a movie in the theatre. It was the Lion King, and it was oversold, so I had to watch the whole movie on my Mom’s lap. (I was five at the time.) The majesty of the film! The sweeping ballads by Elton John. The humour! The lions who had remarkably human eyes!
It was more than entertainment. It was something we were experiencing together! Strangers, laughing together. In the case of the death: crying together. Part of feeling captivated by the experience was the scope of it all–we were its subjects. And we were moved as one.
The Tree of Knowledge
On the other hand, our churches have edited our mystical practices down to what brings us personal growth and comfort.
You can go into that same theatre on a Sunday morning, before the matinees begin, and attend a service which is even more tailored to your interests than the movie is–but you feel less fulfilled. There are a lot of empty movies too, but they aren’t promising us anything.
If you’ve been to a church lately, you might’ve noticed the evil spirit of consumerism hiding in the pews. It makes you think thoughts like, “how is this helping me?” and, “I can just have church over coffee with my friends. I don’t need these people.”
And then we wonder why we’re empty enough to crave entertainment throughout the rest of the week.
A Table of Astonishment
The Christian church used to revolve around the sacramental life.
For those who don’t know, the sacraments are certain traditions passed down to us, as practicing Christian believers, by Jesus himself. The most frequent sacrament in any Christian gathering is called “Communion”, or “the Eucharist”. It’s where we take and eat a loaf of bread we break together, and it’s where we share a cup of wine or juice.
Together, these signify the body and blood of Jesus, given and ingested for our redemption.
You mean Christians gather together and pretend to be cannibals, and they think this somehow saves them? And Jesus told them to do this? And he made it central to all of their little church services?
Welcome back to the mystery.
I don’t claim to understand all of it. Some churches dress Communion up in such intense religious ritual, it’s become harder to see just how strange this sacrament really is. Others minimize it to be a sideline illustration: just a little moment of reflection. Just a little wafer, just a little shot of juice. Let’s move on to the more meaningful parts of the service–the stuff that really helps us.
Here’s an example of an ancient practice which isn’t given to entertain us. It’s given, instead, to forever perplex and astonish. And we participate in this sacrament, together. We don’t know how to explain it, and we most often can’t measure exactly how it helped us–but we know we’ve entered into a sacred space.
An Appetite for Wonder
It doesn’t matter whether it’s the overblown CGI of an action scene or the smoke machine behind the worship team: we get skeptical and impatient when we know there’s nothing behind the entertainment.
Eventually, our hunger for mystery outweighs our desire for cheap thrills. The summer blockbusters seem thin, and we yawn when the theatre lights dim. Both the theatre and the church offer sacred mystery, and both come up short sometimes. It’s easier and cheaper to just go to flick after flick.
But maybe–just maybe–we’ll reform our churches around the most sacred traditions we’ve ben given: the sacraments of communion, baptism, anointing the sick (and maybe even the weird practice of washing each other’s feet a time or two.)
If we anchor ourselves to sacred moments beyond our understanding–moments we get to share–we can reconnect with the alluring mystery which gave us our faith in the first place.