by Brian Walsh
The Windrider Forum ended in a worship service with the community at Mountain Vineyard Church. The church graciously hosted this group of some one hundred students, faculty and guests. During the service on January 25, course leader Craig Detweiler asked me to set up and read Isaiah 29.9-14. It concluded a section of the service that reflected on the dynamic of prophetic critique and prophetic energizing (readers of Walter Brueggemann will recognize the language).
Not surprisingly, I set the passage up by citing an American prophet, Bob Dylan:
You know that something’s happening here,
but you don’t know what it is,
do you, Mr. Jones? (“Ballad of a Thin Man”)
That might well have been the experience of many of us at the festival. Sitting in movies and having a distinct feeling that we are seeing but not understanding, hearing but
not comprehending. Just not ‘getting it’ we sometimes felt confused and confounded, stupefied and disoriented. Into this context I read the passage Craig has chosen.
As I have reflected on this amazing passage in the context of a week of viewing films at the Sundance Film Festival, I found that somewhere between Salt Lake City and Toronto, at around 35,000 feet, a targum began to emerge in my imagination.
So before reading on, take a moment, pull out your Bible and read this passage. In fact, read all of Isaiah 29 just to get a sense of the immediate context.
Now here’s the targum:
Shut up your big fat mouths,
abandon all pretense of having it together,
get cut down to your knees,
leave behind all your assumed normalcy,
ditch your self-assured ideologies
and wallow in your confusion.
Forget your illusions of sight
and be blind.
Your worldviews have been so narrow,
that they have not given you vision,
but left you in the dark.
So get stupid,
be inebriated and lose your orientation,
but not like a cheap drunk.
because you know that you are lost,
not because you had “one too many.”
Because here’s the deal,
here’s the truth of our situation,
it’s not the confusion of the secular world that has us staggering,
it’s not value pluralism that’s the problem,
it’s not creeping liberalism that has left us walking around
and it’s not dark and confusing independent films
that has us reeling in confusion
no, it’s God himself!
God’s left the house.
You are asleep, numb, out of touch,
confused, disoriented and stupefied
because the Lord God Almighty has poured out a spirit
not the Spirit of illumination,
not the Spirit of revelation,
not the Spirit of Pentecost awakening,
but a spirit of sleep!
The eyes of the prophets have been shut tight,
the prophetic imagination has dried up,
the church has lost her vocation.
And the supposed men of wisdom,
with their spiritual how-to books,
their “five-steps-to-a-happy-and-prosperous life” schemes
have been proven vacuous and left ashamed.
You know what this dead end situation is like?
It’s like there’s a vision, a scripture, a prophetic word that is sealed.
And the folks who should be able to read this vision,
should be able to provide insight,
should be able to see just beyond the range of normal sight,
are asked to fulfill their calling,
but they weakly mutter, ‘we can’t open the seal.’
All their seminary education,
all their charismatic gifts,
all their years of reading the Scriptures,
but they can’t open the seal,
they can’t give us any insight that moves us beyond the same old platitudes.
“We can’t open the seal”!
We’ve lost touch, somehow, with the key that opens the seal.
We’ve got so hung up on our arrogant orthodoxies,
or maybe, so captivated by the imagination of the empire,
that we forfeit our calling and leave the vision unread.
And when those poor folks who really need this word,
those folks who can’t read,
who don’t have the resources to access this vision,
who have been left to their own devices by those who can’t open the seal,
when they are given this vision,
when they are offered a word that will bring healing and clarity,
all they can do is sadly confess,
“we can’t read”
because no one taught them
“we can’t read”
because they were left in their illiterate oppression.
You can’t read?
You can’t break the seal?
Then Yahweh himself will break it for you.
Here is what the Lord God Yahweh has to say:
“Because you think that you draw near to me with all of your orthodox language,
because you think that your exuberant piety brings me honor,
while the reality is that your hearts are far from me,
the reality is that your churchly piety,
your ‘words from the Lord’
your culturally hip worship
is all man-made bullshit,
a cultural construct of a particular subculture in a captivated church,
a worship that looks spontaneous, but it’s all repressively scripted,
here’s what I’m going to do.
I’m going to rock your world.
I’m going to amaze you and turn your world upside down.
I’m going to make Bush’s “shock and awe” look like the petty imperial violence that it is, with the deeply disturbing and transforming shock and awe that I’m going to bring to your life.
I’m going to take your self-serving wisdom
and your self-protective cultural discernment
and throw that crap in the dustbin of history where it belongs!
In short, I’m going to kick your ass!”
Can you see how this is a text that is both a matter of prophetic critique, indeed devastatingly biting critique, and yet also a text of prophetic energizing and hope?
I don’t know. Maybe this targum is a faithful hearing of Isaiah 29 in January of 2009. Maybe we can hear this text speak such unsettling words to us as it undoubtedly spoke unsettling words to those who were comfortable in Jerusalem during Isaiah’s ministry. And perhaps precisely by afflicting the comfortable, this text begins to bring comfort to the afflicted. Maybe hearing this text undermine the false prophecy that has been our staple for so long, allows us to hear anew a painful, though redemptive, word of hope.
But here’s the question. How is God going to kick our ass? Who will read the words of the prophecy? Who will have the vision to see beyond the pretense? Who will take up the prophetic mantle if the church has abandoned it? Who will be God’s witness if the people called by his name just don’t get it?
It would be a mistake, and it would be romantically naïve to simply assume that it is the artists who will take up the prophetic ministry. You see, a lot of artists – both inside and outside of the church, both independent and industry supported – are just as lost, just as stupefied, just as culturally numbed out and lost in the dark as the rest of us.
But …. But, at Sundance this year it seems to me that God kicked us in the ass, shocked and amazed us, and even gave us a glimpse of the prophetic word that might be hidden in that sealed document, through a series of powerful films. John Hindman’s Arlen Faber cuts us all down to our knees. And that’s not a bad place to start. Lee Daniel’s award winning Push forces us (‘pushes’ us) into the hell of incest and violence and raises the question of how we will make the “Precious” truly precious through our love and our sacrificial care. Cary Joji Fukunanga’s Sin Nombre asks us how anyone can find identity, peace and human solidarity if they live ‘without a name.’ Kim Longinotto’s Rough Aunties breaks our hearts and asks us what we will do for the sake of the very ‘least of these’, the most vulnerable and defenseless. And Laura Waters Hinson’s? As we forgive begins to open that seal, begins to interpret that prophecy with a vision of reconciliation rooted in a costly forgiveness.
The movies won’t save us.
But they might point us on the path of salvation.
The movies can’t on their own open the vision and read it to us.
But they might give us some indispensable interpretive clues into that vision.
Movie theatres cannot replace the church of Jesus Christ.
But they may be sites of witness where the church is silent.