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Friday, October 05, 2007

Theatrical Theology

Tonight was the launch of this season's "Theatrical Theology" Series of The Episcopal Church of St. Paul in Chatham, NJ.

A group of about 25 members of our congregation viewed the movie "The Valley of Elah" at The Roberts Theater in Chatham, NJ.

It is, in my perspective, a deeply disturbing film about War - it's history in the course of human events - and Heroism - its complexity and imperfection.

Some will dismiss it as a modern anti-war statement from the liberal Hollywood establishment about the US involvement in Iraq, but that would be, I fear, short-sighted as well as incorrect - not to mention irrelevant.

Far from being perfect it is, nonetheless and in my perspective, an important modern morality play about much, much larger and ancient issues, which begin, as the film suggests, in the Valley of Elah.

For those of you who might not know this particular scriptural reference, the Valley of Elah is the place where the young Israeli King David slew the Philistine giant Goliath.

It is a story about how two waring communities have traditionally, over the centuries of the history of the human enterprise, dealt with conflicts over power and ownership of land - by sending out their youngest and ill-equipped to do battle against impossible odds.

On a deeper level, it is a psychodrama about how it is we deal with the presence of evil and those we consider "monsters" in our midst.

A large group met afterwards at the local "Charlie Brown" restaurant for drinks and to "decompress." I chose to come home to decompress in my own way - through meditation and prayer. (Yes, it's THAT disturbing.)

I warn you: it's not an easy film to see, especially if someone you know and love has been affected by any war in any way - WW II, Korea, Viet Nam, Bosnia, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

So, here's what I'm planning for the discussion tomorrow at the church from 9:30 - 11 AM, which I hope will be a template for our discussions about this film and the other two we are going to view - "To Kill a Mockingbird" in November and "Do The Right Thing" in December (see previous post below).

I'm going to do an overview of Ethics in general, as a branch of philosophical thought. I want to present a few General Ethical Foundations in general, before discussing Christian Ethics in particular. This is not an exhaustive course in Ethics, but only to provide a context for our discussion.

I'm using as the focus of our discussions about Christians Ethics the Great Commandment: "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole strength and your whole soul, and love your neighbor as yourself."

Here are the Questions for this Series:

1. What is the major ethical issue(s) of this film?

2 What is the "right thing" to do in this film - especially in terms of any tension you see between secular and Christian ethics?

3. Who was the "hero" in this film? Who displayed both courage and self-sacrifice? What, if any, is the difference between the Christian hero and the hero of the secular humanist?

4. Where is God in this story?

5. What is the moral of this story?

6. What, if any, cultural considerations impact our understanding of morality, heroism, and theism?

7. How are you changed by this story? This discussion? What might you do differently because of your ethical reflections?

And, we're off . . . . Keep us in your prayers.

If anyone has seen this movie - or any of the movies in this series - and wishes to engage in an online discussion of any of these questions, please do join us. I'll be sharing your comments with the group.

If this issue raises for you another ethical question that can be applied to all three films, please do raise it for consideration.

I do believe that the church is at its best when She challenges and deeply engages the community in discussions about important questions of our time.

I would encourage you to take the risk and begin a series like this in your own community of faith. This is our third year and we have found it to be a wonderful adult educational series as well as a great evangelism tool.


johnieb said...

Hmmmm; what am I to make of your warning (?) to exercise care if you love someone who has been deeply affected by war; I think it will include we traumatized combat veterans.

Can you say more about this intriguing film without giving away too much? And aren't you possibly going to the MP's Horde Evensong und Munchenfest Oct. 22? Soon enough, if you prefer.

I can hasz Cheeseburger?


johnieb said...

Further on, I noted I'm perhaps overly impatient to see it; with any luck it'll be here this winter. Thanks for the tip; I must now overlook the discussion, unless you think I shouldn't see it at all.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Traumatized combat vetrans are absolutely included in the caveat to "exercise care" in watching this film.

I don't know how many are even able, having seen the film, to speak to its power.

It's not at all about gore and blood, exposed sinuews and protruding, broken bones.

It's much, much deeper than that.

This is "Nightmare on Elm Street" that makes the man in the hockey mask look like a stereotypical, innocent Trick 'R Treater.

It's about WAR - in all capitol letters, using The War in Iraq as its most recent incarnation of Evil.

It's about how that kind of violence changes us ontologically (and I'm not being theologically cute here).

Don't go see this movie by yourself. Take a friend. Take two. Plan to go out afterward for a cup of coffee. Decaf. I do not recommend alcohol - no telling what this will . . . inspire . . . you to do.

And, eat. You won't feel hungry but you should have some nacho's or a questidilla or potato skins appetizer at your local Chillie's or Applebee's.

Carbs are good for the soul and your soul will be deeply disturbed.

Have I said enough? I fear I've said too much. That's me in the corner, thinkin 'bout my religion.

Lindy said...

Carbs are good for the soul...

Is this true Rev. Kaeton? Because I would really love for it to be true.

It's a good warning Johnieb. Take a friend, or just go see something else. There's no rule saying we have to explore every dark corner out there.

Seriously, is that in the Bible about the carbs? Because that could change my life.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

The Bible says, "Laughter is the best medicine." Carbs make me feel so good, I often laugh after eating them. Therefore, I think carbs are good for the soul.

Hey, might as well live into the term "reasserter."

Besides, I never encountered any problem that couldn't be solved or seemed better after a hot cup of tea and a pack of Lorna Doones. Have you?

Bill said...

Elizabeth, let me take the questions in order:

1) War and all its horrors is the major ethical issue for me. Sending our young boys and girls off to fight for (what), our honor, Bush’s honor, America’s honor, someone’s honor. Yes, by all means, lets have honor, it will only cost a few thousand or so of our less productive young people. A price we can well afford to pay.
2) And, why are we in this particular war. As I recall it was to protect America and our allies from the weapons of mass destruction that we absolutely knew they had and would use. Back in Korea and Viet Nam, it was the “Domino” effect. You remember, if one falls, all in the Pacific rim would fall. But if anyone has read the papers lately, the evil empire of China is now one of our “preferred” trading partners.
3) It, (the film) talks about the de-humanizing process that war has on its soldiers. How the sanctity of life is ground under the military boot. What is the difference between killing an enemy one day, jetting home on leave, and killing a friend the next day. A man is just another place to stick a knife after all. Does it matter if it is in Iraq or Viet Nam or Texas.
4) We don’t train our soldiers to sing in a choir. We don’t train them to be nice to people. We train them to kill. We train them to take lives and to do it efficiently and with dispatch. We train them not to think but to take orders and react. Thinking causes problems in the military. They are trained to see and react. But, when they come home, we don’t retrain them. We don’t tell them to forget everything they were taught and be nice God fearing citizens again. And even if we could re-train them, how do we restore the sanctity of life we took from them.
5) What is the right thing to do?? The right thing to do is what the film does. It brings to light the problem. It talks about truth, no matter how hard a pill it is to swallow. It talks about one man’s fight to reveal the truth no matter how painful it is. It talks about one woman’s fight to get at the truth despite an entrenched male dominated military and police force. The man can’t bring his son back but he can make his death mean something, even if the something is to recognize the truth that the monster in the valley is us. We are the monster of our own creation. When we slay the monster, we kill a little piece of ourselves. That is the price we pay for creating the monster and then killing it.
6) The Christian hero is the father. He desperately needs the truth. Without the truth he can’t go home to his wife. He can’t tell her why she has given up two sons. He needs that truth, even if the truth is that the military took away his sons humanity. At least by exposing the truth he has exposed the problem the military wanted to sweep under carpet. And even though the truth is hard, it will allow closure. This is what he understands when he hangs the flag upside down at the end. He is saying that the country and its military is in deep trouble. That the values he thought existed, do not exist.
7) The secular hero is the female detective. She fights her own apathy (the woman she fails to help at the beginning) and she fights the male establishment in her own police department and the military. It reminded me of “A Few Good Men” when Jack Nicholson tells the young lawyer that he “can’t handle the truth”. This is exactly what the military provost and several of the young enlisted men are telling her. That she can’t possibly understand what it’s like over there. She carries it through to the end even after the military tries to bring pressure to have her removed from the investigation.
8) Where is God in the story? God is everywhere. When a soldier is torturing a captive and we feel ashamed, God is there. When the soldiers run over a child in Iraq and we cringe, God is there. When we are appalled at what happens to the young soldier at the beginning, God is there. When the mother comes to the hospital to view the body and we can’t look at her, God is there. God manifests in us our conscience. The fact that we know evil when we see it is God working in us.
9) The moral of the story for me is that we can never stop fighting to keep our humanity. If we do, we become the monster.
10) Culturally, our sense of morality and heroism has become tainted. We’ve substituted nationalism for morality, nationalism for heroism. America, right or wrong. We’ve removed ourselves from the family of humanity. We refuse to see other points of view. We think of ourselves as an island separated from them by two vast oceans. The “them” is everybody else. That is an eighteenth century way of thinking that we have never gotten over.

Ok, that’s enough, I wanted to keep it short.