Thursday, March 3, 2011

Not Like the Movies...

My wife knows.

When we are watching a movie, she knows that the minute they show someone paddling a canoe, I will tense up. Clearly I want to say something, but I am holding back. She knows that I want to complain about how Natalie Portman can study ballet for a year to play the lead in Black Swan, but the producer of this film apparently can't spare $30 to hire some summer camp recreation director for 1/2 hour to teach his lead actors how to properly paddle a canoe. She knows that my barely suppressed rage at this travesty is only surpassed by my knowledge that she has forbidden me to speak on the subject ever again. Ever.

That's what happens when you rant one too many times, I guess.

It's just that it jars me out of my willing suspension of disbelief when the supposedly woodscrafty hero, a man wise and skilled in the ways of making his way through the wilderness can't even paddle a gosh darn canoe straight without switching sides every 3 strokes and getting water in the boat to boot. Drives me up a wall.

The movies just can't seem to get the details right.

In the same way, it seems that neither script writers, nor directors nor any actor seems to be able to get the portrayal of religious belief right on the screen. It seems lately that almost every time some religious thread is introduced into a story, something about the way it plays just seems off. It seems off in almost the same way as when you are trying to speak to someone with eyes that point two different directions. All the pieces of the face are there, but it's all just far enough off the mark to make the result disconcerting.

I can understand how this can happen. If you have never had an authentic religious experience, if you have not had extensive firsthand familiar with the religious subculture and the real people that live it, or even more importantly if you do not respect religious folk enough to look past the surface, it is almost a given that the result will tend more to caricature than to characterization. To authentically portray such people, you may not need to be one of them, but you must have a certain sympathy and certainly a real familiarity with them as people. Otherwise your dialogue will never rise above a ragtag collection of religious cliches. I watch these plays and the words jar me in the same way as a poorly paddled canoe.

I recently viewed a video on youtube that comes from a completely opposite pole. In our film, television, books and stories, missionaries are mostly vilified. They are presented variously as cultural imperialists, deluded naifs, or corrupt powermongers, just to name a few options. Quick. Do an inventory of all the films and stories you have viewed which include missionaries. How many actually treat the missionary with any type of real respect or seriousness? Include pastors and priests in that mix.

I know missionaries. I grew up with missionaries. The fact is that they are real people who are seeking to live out their real faith in direct confrontation with a real world. The most important thing, beyond all else, is that they help the people to whom they go. As people, they are just as susceptible to all human stumblings. Nevertheless, in so many cases the work they do is highly valued by the people with whom they choose to live and love and help.

This youtube video struck me because it takes the viewpoint of the people helped by christian missionaries. And not just in terms of medical care, agricultural training or food relief. No, these people are joyful from the deepest place and grateful to the missionaries for the MESSAGE that has been brought to them. There is no acting, no mediating by writers or directors to dilute the genuine joy with which these people greet the coming of God's Word in their language to their people.

It seems to me that the testimony of these people is worth far more than that of most filmmakers and TV producers.

In fairness, I have to point out that the people aren't rejoicing over the missionaries. But they are certainly rejoicing over the gift the missionaries have brought to them. I suspect that this type of occurrence is more common than we know. It should be shown on Nightline, 60 Minutes, and 20/20 more often, but it doesn't really align with the popular understanding of how the work of missionaries are received by the people to whom they minister.

It's just not like in the movies.