On Sunday night more than 1,000,000,000 people participated in the cultural festival that is the 85th Oscar Awards Ceremony. I can’t even begin to imagine the impact that Hollywood has on our culture’s development, and if there’s an opportune time to catch a glimpse of the dialectical conversation between the influence of the big screen and the values of our current culture, Sunday night’s celebration was it.
The first thing out of the mouth of the spokesman for the winning visual effects team of Life of Pi was this:
“The irony is not lost on any of us up here that, in a film whose central premise is to ask the audience what they believe is real or not real, most of what you see is—well—it’s fake.”
Fake or not, films have an incredibly powerful influence on the shape of our culture. Directors are the modern day priests. Actors and actresses are our prophets.
The Oscars are, among other things, a celebration of story — the story of our culture. Little more than six decades ago these common stories had as their protagonists Joshua and Jacob, Sarah and Mary. But today, the stories that bind us together are provided by Hollywood. Mark Andrews, who won an Oscar for Brave, Best Animated Feature Film, said this upon receipt of the golden statue: “Making a movie has its own story.” And when Christoph Waltz—supporting actor of Django Unchained—was on stage giving thanks, he used lines from his character to praise Quentin Tarantino, the film’s director. Waltz was using a form of the age old technique of intertextuality to support his praise of Tarantino, who would go on to win Best Original Screenplay for the same film. Forgive me if this transgresses the proverbial line, but it reminded me of Paul invoking lines from the Old Testament to praise Jesus, giving those reading and listening to his letters something familiar with which to relate this new development in Jesus.
Throughout the show there were several tie-ins with past Oscars and films, including a lengthy collection of clips and sound bites from 50 years of James Bond. Why? Because this is a story of our culture. This is the celebration that ties us together. James Bond makes people feel connected.
In the discipline of Religious Studies, the Oscars would be classified as festival, ritual, and rite of passage. Not altogether different, in fact, from our season of Lent. We go through the 46 days of the Lenten lectionary, which retells the story of how Jesus became King. For nearly two millennia the same stories have tied people together and impressed the values of sacrifice and celebration on the youth. On Easter Sunday we have a rite of passage: it is the traditional day for new baptisms into the Kingdom. On Ash Wednesday we participate in a ritual, making visible our continuing commitment to this story.
What values do the Oscars impress? If I were to judge by the performance of the host (the festival’s presiding clergyman), Seth MacFarlane, creative sexual humor would top the list of virtues.
So what can we do? Well, I propose that we fight back, and make our own Oscars! Not really. Keep pressing into the King, keep loving your neighbor, keep praying with your children and teaching them what self-sacrificial love looks like. Open your Bible, celebrate with the Church on Easter, and when you watch the Oscars, do so critically and ask God to give you guidance on how to relate to your children when it comes to the religious festivals of this cultural phenomenon we call “The West.”
Next week I’ll look at a couple of the individual films as stories, discussing their influence on the inner world of human experience. Why do certain stories capture our hearts? Do they affect the way our lives unfold in the workplace, at home and in the academy? How might this issue of story relate to our understanding of Lent?