Saturday, March 18, 2006

Crash with Mars Hill Church

Mars Hill Church is the largest congregation in the county, with over 6,000 members attending seven services on Sundays (five in Ballard, two in Shoreline where the pastor's sermon is telecasted in). Mars Hill says "yes" to literal reading and strict interpretation of scripture, to intentionally intersecting the church with the culture (something it does beautifully well), extremely long sermons (average 75 minutes), and defining itself as standing in opposition to the secular tides of Seattle, which Pastor Mark Driscoll constantly refers to as "the least churched city in the nation."

Mars Hill says "no" to female pastoral leaders in the church and gays and lesbians anywhere in the church: as one can safely assume with most "megachurches", Mars Hill is theologically quite conservative. Which is why I was very interested in seeing how members and pastors at Mars Hill would handle the screening and discussion on Crash - the movie about race relations in L.A. that just won Best Picture at the Oscars - held yesterday evening in Ballard.

For me, at least, Crash was a compelling portrait of racism internalized and externalized at various levels - its clear message is that racism is still a major reality in our social fabric despite the rhetoric of progress we often hear. I was curious to see how the generally socially conservative people at Mars Hill would respond to this film with a pointedly progressive political message.

When you go out to a place expecting there to be a difference, you usually find it - this is the prime rule of ethnography, and also a major pitfall. You can't really force yourself not to filter your observations through your expectations - the only thing you can do is to admit your slants upfront before you write about the people you're with. In my case, I find much of Mars Hill's theology quite limiting and sometimes appallingly simplistic and exclusive - this is only exacerabated by its contradictory commitment to "engaging the culture" but at the same time often extolling itself as an island church in the ocean of depravity that is Seattle. This tends to make Mars Hill practical theology focus more on personal purity than on social justice - for this reason, I went in expecting a discussion filled with denial of the movie's real messages (at least as I saw them).

There were about 300 people sparsely filling the front half of Mars Hill's gigantic auditorium. A pastor named James began the evening with some disclaimers, saying, "People called with concerns that we were showing this movie. Some asked, 'Will you really show this unedited?'" I racked my brain for any scenes of especially gratuitous violence or sex in the film, but when I came up short, Pastor James revealed what was distressing some people: "A lot of f-words in this movie... this movie has more f-bombs than a Tarantino!" He invited people to bear through the profane language and try to understand the message, but stressed, "If it bothers you, go ahead and just leave."

(spoilers follow - do not read if you haven't seen the film!)

The scenes got similar reactions as I'd seen when I first saw the film in a theatre with my old roommate when it first came out. Everyone gasped when that little girl got "shot" in her front yard, same when Don Cheadle's brother got shot by Ryan Phillipe. Several people were sobbing heavily when Cheadle's mom saw the body and broke down, and especially when she said "Your brother came home. He bought me groceries. That's the last thing he did." For some reason, a sizable number of people around me laughed when we saw that the white van Ludacris stole was holding a group of Asian indentured migrants - this shocked me a little, and I said pretty loudly "That's really not funny." I had my hat off so that everyone could see I was Asian (a little hackery, I know) and that shut some people up. I don't attribute this laughter to Mars Hill, of course - anytime you watch a movie with a group of people, there are always people who find things funny that you find shocking. Of course, that doesn't mean I have to just take it.

The highlight of the evening was the post-film discussion - two pastors led the session. A pastor named Gary went through a brief sermon based off themes from the movie. He said right off the bat, "Hopefully, some of you tonight are pushing and prodding yourselves." He hit the nail on the head (as I see it) from the first minute by saying, "This movie highlights two sorts of racial tensions, one that exists on a personal level, and another that is systemic."

Crash served as a point of departure for a discussion of humanity's sin nature (a theology I don't think leads to very robust inspiration for life, but we'll get to that another time) - Pastor Gary said that there were four "reasons" for racism: personal sin, total depravity of mankind, ignorance, and the desire to attain worth and power through being racist. He said that the Biblical statement that humans were "created in the image of God" was a radically new vision of the equal worth of every person, regardless of their color. He called it "PC before PC ever existed" (this is interesting on many levels... the use of the term "PC" deserves some serious investigation).

He also asserted that Jesus himself was the victim of racism: "He was criticized, beat on, persecuted, and rejected by his own people." Apparently, Gary equated these things to being "racism". Later he said there were types of racism based not just on skin color, but also "religion, nationality, sex... any form of discrimination" (this tempts to further investigate what people mean by 'racism'). I wondered if he would include "sexual orientation" in that list.

Ultimately, it was a very compelling and powerful discussion - he said that Christians were called to a "ministry of reconciliation and redemption" and I think that is right on target. He encouraged people to go home and share the film with friends and spark good conversations about the issue of race. He said, "Just because it's systemic doesn't mean we can't do anything about it. ...There's hope in Jesus."

After the pastors spoke, there was a time for Q&A and more public discussion. One young man said, "Racism has sociological factors, that's part of the problem, and we can come up with this policy or that policy, but it misses the point that racism is sin."

That statement encapsulates the general message I feel people received here: ending racism is about reconciling your personal interactions with people of different races - it comes down to an exercise of the personal will not to sin. I find this conclusion valuable, but incomplete: it doesn't speak to political responsibilities for addressing structural racism and histories of racism.

I don't think it had anything to do with Mars Hill that the take-home message was that we only needed to look at our personal interactions and choose not to commit the sin of racism: I think it's a shortcoming of the movie that a broader, historical view of racism is not seen. So while Crash does a great job of bringing back to light significant racism in interpersonal relations, I don't think we can rely on it to deliver a message that socially construced racist structures must be challenged.

More pressing is the question of how we need to renew the language of progress: evident from this evening were conflicting usages of the words "politically correct", "racism", "systemic", and "white guilt" (which, troublingly, was used). If we're not talking about the same things when we all use these words, then we're not really talking to each other. It seems worth looking into.

1 comment:

Luke Lee said...

Sounds like it was an interesting discussion. I feel a little torn as to anyone that shows Crash and has any sort of discussion on it with a large group though. i think it has great potential but at the same time, it can be really misused and misread as an end-all great educational awakening movie. i think with the attention and praise that its gotten both deservedly and undeservedly, we have always have to be careful.

some good posts on it you might be interested in:
http://www.reappropriate.com/2006/03/crash-and-burn.html

http://www.mixedmediawatch.com/2006/03/06/hollywood-pats-itself-on-the-back/