When criticism gets in God’s way

criticismBy Emily Holladay

This post was originally featured on Call and Response, a blog sponsored by Duke Divinity’s Faith & Leadership program. Two years after I wrote this post, I find myself searching for ways to extend learning and mentoring relationships so that there is a place for the young, energetic minister and the wise, seasoned minister (maybe even from different churches!) to share together in the learning process.

This year, my home church started its first contemplative service on Thursday nights. Going to seminary, working at a church and maintaining regular hours at my weekday job makes it difficult to get back, but my ministers talked all semester about how great the service was and how much they wished I could come be a part of it. So once my classes were over and I had some extra time, I decided to make the trek home for the contemplative service and extended visiting with friends.

Apparently I picked the wrong week. Out of the two ministers who normally planned the service, one was at a meeting and the other (who normally played piano for the service) was recovering from wrist surgery. Instead of the tranquil lilt of piano music guiding our thoughts and prayers, we were serenaded with recordings of contemporary music I have been taught to scrutinize for lacking theological depth. We were asked to sing with piano accompaniment recordings but could not find our place because the melody was indistinguishable.

The contemplative service was meant to be a time of rest and reflection after a busy week, but the many distractions impeded my worship.

As a seminary student, it is often difficult to sit through any worship service without critiquing every little detail. I just spent a semester in worship class, engaging every element of a good worship service and noting those moments that fall below our incredibly high standards. I learned to think about the subliminal messages we, as ministers, send our congregation when we do not approach worship planning with intentionality and care.

Sitting in my church’s contemplative service, all my worship class instincts infected my mind. By the end, I had a list of things I thought could have been done better, should have been done differently or should have been left out altogether. I had criticized the service but missed out on the worship.

Afterward, I went out to dinner with one of the ministers, who admitted that the service was not the best and wished I had come on a different night. I refrained from recounting my list of faux pas with her, and simply said, “I wish I were still here so I could help out!”

And I meant it without a hint of irony. I need a place where I can share my perspective, a place where I can question and engage, a place where I can try new things and see what happens. My church needs me, too. The church needs someone eager with fresh views, someone who will question and prod in ways that helps worship become deeper and more meaningful. I can only imagine what I could bring to the table if I were invited!

But I wish I could be there for one more important reason: so my church could remind me how to worship.

Perhaps more than I need a space to engage what I’ve learned, I need my ministers to help me see church and worship through spiritual eyes, rather than academic goggles. I need their wisdom to help me worship, instead of criticizing. I need this because I am not sure how long it will take to unlearn my classroom instincts once I am serving in a ministry position post-seminary.

I am not unique. I don’t know a seminary student who doesn’t struggle to sit through worship or a sermon without running through the checklist of things they learned in class to judge how good it was. And it’s hard to find God on a checklist.

Churches and students could benefit from a mentoring model that allows students to critically engage worship, while receiving wisdom on how to simply be in worship. In the end, churches would be stronger, and the students would be more well-rounded and prepared for their own church ministry.

Approach movie season with Christian lens

By the looks of recent television commercials, we are in for a summer full of movies funny and sad, bombastic and thoughtful.  With blockbuster season right around the corner, perhaps we should take note now–and discuss with our families–how to watch movies from a Christian point-of-view.

On set of Transformers 3: Director Michael Bay with actors Shia LaBeouf (foreground) and Josh Duhamel

Watching a movie through a Christian “lens” is decidedly different than, say, watching a movie for watching sake.   We assume that since Christ is Lord and that we are to take every thought captive, we should ask questions about a film’s lessons for faith and for society.

Our Christian lens allows us to engage the underlying moral and ethical themes in the movies we watch, as well as analyze them with an eye towards God’s redemptive work in the midst of artistic expression.

It is important to approach movies cautiously.  Families with small children can peruse websites that “grade” movies based on violence, language, and sexual content.  Those with older children or teens can watch a movie together, and then discuss how the movie makes an audiences come to conclusions related to faith and morality.

Check out some of these thematic elements that can inform a family discussion as it relates to faith:

We have a whole new line of hero-based movies hitting the big screen, from Thor to Captain America.  Many of these movies help us recognize that honor and courage are important attributes in life.  Yet, they usually glorify violence and revenge, so-called virtues that conflict with God’s word.

It will help families to recall that Jesus explicitly opposed violence as a means of revenge.  Violent content in comic-book movies are usually entertaining, but not very redeeming.

Another unfortunate thematic element found in most movies is sexual exploitation.  I’m looking forward to watching the third installment of the Transformers franchise next month, but I know that director, Michael Bay, has a shallow approach to how he portrays his female characters in his films.

Bay’s movies often degrade women to the status of sex objects or “boy toys.”   Morphing cars are cool, but we may need to discuss how this movie among others mistreat women in general.

Other, more nuanced movies will reach for Academy Award status by portraying humanity in all its candor.  These movies usually have deeper messages than do action flicks, but they too can become important conversation pieces in Christian circles.  Many times these films explore the tensions between faith and science, fate and destiny, hope and grief, and lostness and redemption.

These films can actually become resources to point others to Christ.  Remember last year’s Academy contender, “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney?  The film’s theme centered around an executive who had no real relational connections and very little meaning in his life.  The movie ends on a depressing note.  The movie made me wonder: What if Christ were to take all of the Clooneys of the world and show them that an abundant life is possible only when one relates to God?

Company Men has a star-studded cast, including Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck

I’m looking forward to “Company Men,” which explores the lives of a half-dozen executives who lose jobs during the recession.  It is timely, but it is an important film that echoes “Up in the Air” because it reminds us that family and relationships are more important than prestige and social status.

Despite the downturn of the economy, we can be sure that movies are still cash cows.  As Christians, however, we are called to engage movies with a critical eye towards faith and art from a uniquely Christian perspective.