This time last year, several of us were just returning from a performance tour to China with the UMHB Jazz Ensemble. While it was not a mission trip, we connected with missionaries and worshiped in a house church while there. I remember our instructions about what we were free to say and not say about faith while in China. It’s a common story told by believers returning from communist countries.
Worshiping in a house church is a unique connection to the history of our faith. One can’t help but relate to the followers of Christ just after his resurrection, worshiping in secret for fear of arrest. This identity of being persecuted for your faith can be a part of Christian identity in countries where freedom of religion is the law, like ours. A recent CNN article took an interesting look at this perception. In my personal experience (this may not be yours), the Christians who most identify themselves as persecuted by the world tend to be among the more insular and detached from what they would label as “secular culture.”
There has been a well-documented return of house churches in the US in the recent decade, but the motivation has not been to escape persecution from non-believers as much as a reaction to the lack of community and market-driven approaches of many American churches. These hyper-localized communities wouldn’t consider themselves persecuted, but left wanting and needing something they struggle to find in their local church.
This past year, two of the most innovative, internationally known artists and designers I know have shared with me similar stories about why they choose not to publically promote their deep commitment to their Christian faith. Both articulated that doing so would mean their work would no longer be accepted by a major part of the audience who champions their output. Let me be clear, neither is doing so for financial reasons. If you knew these people, you would know the incredible risks they have taken (and continue to take) in the face of daunting financial odds. Beyond this, both shared concerns for the negative and/or opportunistic attention they would receive from some Christians and Christian organizations, should they publically profess their faith.
Although my first thought was to struggle with their decision, I remembered my first day in China last year. Do I wish China was a place where speech and religion were free? Absolutely, though I am amazed by what God does in the face of the lack of freedom. Do I wish my two friends would be free from the narrow-minded discrimination they would face by some of their fellow Christians. Absolutely. Do I believe they are wrong for their decision (as if I am to judge), I am not absolute. Are you?
MYTH 1: WOMEN AREN’T COMPOSERS
When you hear the intricacies of Shara’s music and study the use of both classical and popular instruments, one can only come to the conclusion that the craftsmanship of her work is comparable to our most celebrated composers. Her collaborator Sarah Kirkland Snider goes even further in debunking this myth. Just watch this.
MYTH 2: WOMEN AREN’T ROCKERS
Being both classically trained and female might, for some, be two strikes against Shara’s potential to write gutsy, powerful rock music. It’s simply not the case. Not only does she prove that with a Nina Simone cover here, but she collaborates with hip hop artist Vinnie Paz here.
MYTH 3: ONCE AN ARTIST HAS A BABY, HER CAREER IS ON HOLD
If you watched the video linked above where Shara and Sarah were working together on Penelope, you saw two “soon to be” new moms involved in music making at the highest levels of quality and innovation. This work has taken both of them across the globe since then. If that isn’t enough evidence, just look here at the leap of faith Shara and her husband took when they learned of their child’s impending birth.
MYTH 4: CLASSICALLY TRAINED MUSICIANS CAN’T ROCK OUT
Even while studying opera at UNT, Shara was writing and performing songs that she led with a distorted Gibson 339. We covered this with the “Women can’t be rockers,” myth, but it’s worth noting.
MYTH 5: ROCKERS ARE HACK MUSICIANS
If you’ve watched the previous videos, you’re probably let go of this one by now. If not, watch her giving a workshop on songwriting at Stanford last January here.
MYTH 6: THE BEST MUSIC IS BEHIND US
You can listen free to Sarah and Shara’s Penelope here. If you don’t hear something that is both completely new and deeply profound, I disagree.
MYTH 7: COMPOSERS AND LEAD SINGERS CONTROL THE WRITING PROCESS
Shara directly challenges this myth in her comments about expectations of the composer and through the process she describes here.
MYTH 8: I’M TOO BUSY TO SPEND AN HOUR LISTENING TO SHARA TONIGHT
I hope you will help Shara and C3 debunk this myth tonight. See you at Hughes Recital Hall at 7:30.
Two weeks ago tonight we hosted singer-songwriter Eef Barzelay for a C3 conversation. I knew getting a crowd would be a task, given a number of factors that converged around that time. One of the signs of success for C3 up to now has been the packed crowds we’ve had for every event. As much as we care about content, we’d be lying if we said attendance doesn’t figure in to our assessment. So a Friday night event with a relatively unknown (to UMHB) artist that came on the heels of my unexpected trip to NYC for Mako Fujimura and IAM pretty much insured our streak of packed houses was about to end, and it did.
Every time I have explained to people that C3 would include conversations with non-believers I have gotten the same response from people. They nod their heads in agreement. Some even say, “of course.” But the realities of hosting non-believers, especially those who have never given an interview about their beliefs (like Eef) are dicey. How do you make him comfortable? How do you keep the interview focused? How do you allow him to speak his heart without giving the impression that UMHB endorses his beliefs? How do you end an interview that you know won’t culminate in a conversion or a “winner” of any kind? This was completely different from sitting down with Gungor or Fujimura and just letting the content (which you already know from their writing) flow. This was the deep end of the C3 pool.
In LA, I learned to thank God for traffic, for the time it allowed me to have long conversations that the rest of my day didn’t. Some on my phone, some with a passenger, some with God, some with myself. When I picked Eef up from his hotel, traffic was so bad in Austin that it took two hours to get to UMHB. It was one of the best conversations I’ve had all year. We talked as if we had known each other all our lives, and Eef even said as much at one point. We talked about our kids, our marriages, God, music, and life. That very private conversation made our public one possible.
I will post the audio from our public one as soon as I can, but here are the highlights. Eef detailed deep, painful interactions with Christianity that stretched back to his grandfather watching a group of Polish Catholics beat his great grandfather to death in front of him. His family’s response was not a deeper commitment to Judaism, but a commitment to never believe in the same God as these angry men. Ardent atheism would run deep in the Barzelay family from then on. Other interactions, like unfeeling, over-zealous Christians who cornered Eef (including at the hospital when his mother had just passed away) littered his story. At the same time, Eef also showed a deep awareness of what he believed to be “God’s love,” and his songs describe it in ways that no other writer can. Like so many stories of faith, it’s complicated.
I always close these conversations by either praying for the person (if a believer) or asking them how we as a group can commit to praying for them (if a non-believer). I don’t want to put a non-believer on the spot by closing my eyes to pray on a stage with them having to react in person. This night, after a sometimes meandering conversation that was not going to end in a perfect moment...it ended in a perfect moment. When I asked Eef how we could pray for him, he scratched his head and replied, “That’s a good question. I don’t know. No one has ever asked me that before.”
It was a great reminder that belief and non-belief run deep. My great grandfather was a Christian. If, instead, he were beaten to death by Christians, would I be a Christian now? Would I be able to write the lyrics:
“And don’t, don’t be shy to look yourself dead in the eye.
The emptiness you feel inside, well would you believe
…but that’s where God’s love hides.”
Could I write those, having lived that story? I don’t know. But I do know that my conversation with Eef was one that I will never forget. Eef also wrote, “So if your inner scaffolding feels frail, remember God loves most those who fail.” I think this “less than successful” event proved to be the kind of failure where God showed just how far reaching and unexpected his love can be. That’s my prayer for Eef and for you, that God would continue to show us all just how true that is.
Chances are, unless you are an early CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) enthusiast, you’ve never heard of Randy Matthews. I hadn’t until I taught a class on CCM and read David Stowe’s book “No Sympathy for the Devil” (where much of this account can be found in Chapter 7). I was born in 1974, the year Randy was scheduled to open for ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was a rising start in the emerging CCM scene, and before those gigs, he took the stage at Jesus ’74 in Pennsylvania. He had been playing in a number of bars and clubs to help him prepare for his big opening acts, and the creative process had taken off for him and his band.
On their third song at Jesus ‘74, they broke from their folk-rock style and played a psychedelic, acid-rock version of “Four Horsemen,” a song with stroking lyrics about prophecy and end-times. The end times were very popular with Jesus People. Even Randy’s long hair, beard, earing, and ‘cosmic cowboy suit’ were a hit, but the psychedelic sounds…not so much. Promoters cut the power to the stage in hopes of ending what they feared was “demon music,” but not before the angry crowd of Jesus People, described as “foaming at the mouth and biting at [the band]” rushed the stage and knocked Randy unconscious. When he awoke, his CCM music career (as well as his ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd gigs) was over. Clearly, a musical movement that was born out of the 60’s folk rock culture had formed a sonic boundary. To them, Jesus could speak through a guitar. Even an electric guitar, perhaps. But not through psychedelic rock.
Ironically, this boundary would force CCM into a subcultural existence, as the sounds of the 1970’s moved on from the folk rock the Jesus People had embraced. However, this boundary, or sonic envelop as I call it, is essentially no more. We have introduced every sound and production element of commercial music into the church.
My hope is that the loss of this boundary will allow us to look beyond the cosmetics of sound to a deeper engagement with the arts. In my most recent post, I echoed Harold Best’s call for music of synthesis. This synthesis will force us to let go of the confusion of musical taste with theology. Sound is morally and theologically neutral. Given that truth, how will we renew and rebuild the sonic language of our liturgy?
If you read much of Harold Best’s writing about worship in the future, you will see the word “synthesis” come up frequently. In this context, synthesis means something that draws many things together to create unity and timelessness. He writes of a great hope that a future music of liturgy will reach beyond the fractured past and present. His hope isn’t without its critics, and they have a lot of historical evidence on their side. Even if his vision isn’t fully realized, it seems like a compelling goal.
At a recent arts conference, the Dean of the Eastman School of Music began a session on innovative collaborations with the charge that as we sat there, all of the arts were becoming one. He was right. The lines between the arts are becoming blurrier and blurrier. Artists of all types are increasingly working in sound, sight, words, and more. Lines between original + remix, digital + analog, and high + low are not only being crossed, but purposely exposed as unnecessary.
As I’ve noted in this blog before, the high/low status of music is still alive and well, but there are hopeful signs of its demise. I say this is hopeful because the tyranny of high and low music has long imposed itself on our worship. I believe its demise is key to the realization of Best’s synthesis. Composers like Sarah Kirkland Snider and songwriter Shara Worden (who will visit C3 on April 4) are part of an exciting new school of musical artists who are making bold statements about how classical and popular sounds can be combined in very meaningful ways. I’m reminded of film composer Elliot Goldenthal’s description of his eclectic score for wife Julie Taymor’s film Titus. He rightly points out that if you find yourself in Rome today (where the movie is set), you see the Coliseum ruins in the distance, a 60’s modernist building on the corner, and a new fiat driving past you. He sees this reality as license to freely combine the musical aesthetic of all of these eras and more. This is common in film, and there is a lesson for liturgy here.
There is something in this approach that seems inevitable. It’s as if we know this will be the future, where these lines are freely crossed, but we are frightened by the unknown. Even though this synthesis is new, history has shown us that no such change has ever been too much for the Church to bear. Truthfully, this synthesis would be a move toward moderation that stretches back over a century to the renewal of the late nineteenth century. I hope our liturgical artists and designers will take up this challenge fully and embrace the freedom that our loss of the sonic envelop has brought about. You represent the hope for what Dr. Best, and those of us who agree with him, pray that our future holds.
One of the most cross-generational concerns about worship, especially among evangelicals, seems to be consumerism. What was once the critique of traditionalists who branded boomer-influenced reforms as “Me and Jesus music” and “self-help sermons,” has increasingly become the same for younger generations. One solution has been “It’s about us,” meaning we should embrace our corporate identity in worship (popular with traditionalists and the liturgically minded). Another is “It’s about them,” meaning our focus should be on our call to be the hands and feet of Christ in our communities (popular with post-moderns who reject the attractional, centralized model of their parents' church). Regardless of whether your focus is “us” or “them,” you agree that it isn’t about “me.” Many seem to agree (philosophically, though often not in practice) that worship should be a selfless act that transcends our own tastes.
Personally, I don’t disagree. How could I? However, “it’s not about me” is only a partial solution, and an unrealistic one when presented as a complete solution. The suggestion implied is to check your wants and desires at the door. The problem is, we can’t. We can’t do this any more than we can actually leave our sins at the altar of confession. True, they are no longer ours to atone for, but they are still part of our story. They inform our present and our future, just as our wants and desires can open our hearts to God’s story.
Are we slaves to our past or our desires? Absolutely not. Instead of suggesting that they don’t exist, perhaps we should focus more on how we can better contextualize and understand them. How do we engage with the elements of worship? Do we do so mindlessly, driven by disengagement, penetrated by only the most overt elements? Hunger is not bad. Food sustains life. On the other hand, gluttony is a deadly sin. How present are we? How are we developing and expanding our palate?
The worship designer shouldn’t decry the hunger and tastes of the worshipper any more than the chef decries the same in the connoisseur. Does the chef seek to expand and challenge the palate? Absolutely. Does the chef hope to bring people beyond pre-packaged, processed food? Absolutely. But she does so by engaging the palate and challenging those who eat her food to experience the meal in ever-changing ways. Because she knows that how we engage with our meal (be it of food or art), mirrors, if not informs how we engage with our world.
Twenty-Seven years ago yesterday morning, I was an anxious little sixth-grader, staring at the clock until my class got to walk outside to see the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger as it made Christie McAuliffe, “The First Teacher in Space.” Growing up in Titusville, Florida, we had gotten very accustomed to launches. Much of the world had started to forget about us as the new wore off of the shuttle program. This launch recaptured some headlines, given that Christie was not a NASA astronaut, but a teacher, plucked from the classroom, chosen among thousands who competed for the opportunity. The Challenger explosion that day became the “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” moment of my generation, and I was pretty much standing along the grassy knoll.
Titusville was a town that sprung up from President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural charge to go to the moon, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Most of the houses in the established neighborhoods were 1960’s cinderblock homes. Sturdy. Basic. Frozen in time. My family moved there in 1983 when the shuttle program was beginning the next chapter of space exploration. The problem was that the chapter after the shuttle, though long-promised and discussed, never materialized. A program that was supposed to be an intermediate, opening act, was called upon to be the headlining band for far too long, and on January 28, 1983, it crumbled under the pressure as camera’s were fixed upon the reaction of Christie’s poor mother and father in the Space Center grandstand. On my Facebook page yesterday, I used the lasting image of the “y-shaped” smoke trail that has come to mark that day. Today, the image of her mom and dad seems like a more appropriate image to remember.
As it was explained to me, the Space Shuttle was 1970’s technology that was never designed as a long-term solution. Now, for most people outside of Titusville, it’s marked by its failure more than its accomplishment. They only remember it by its sad, humbled end. Last year, the final shuttles were taken to their museum homes. There are countless pictures of the shuttle Endeavour being paraded through the streets of Los Angeles (a place I would later call home). As my LA friends were celebrating this unforgettable moment, I, as a Titusville kid, saw it more like the parading of a corpse like a funeral procession down main street.
I use Nancy Beech’s book An Hour on Sunday in one of my worship classes at UMHB. It has some incredible wisdom about managing teams, vision, and relationships on creative teams. But it is also heavily rooted in the original vision of Willow Creek Church when it was founded in 1975. This vision would become one of the prevailing models for the next generation of seeker-sensitive churches. This model was accompanied by sweeping changes in the way worship is designed and led, changes that will be lasting in many ways. On the other hand, as with so many of these churches today, they have not managed to clearly navigate into a next chapter, one that is sustainable for the new realities of the 21st Century. True, people are still attending. Launches are still being successfully carried out with safe landings back on earth. But as I spend more and more time with the generations younger than the Baby Boomers who led the changes of the 1980’s, I am convinced that just as the shuttle carried the mantle for space exploration beyond its time, so too have these ideas and models.
Now what? Many of these Boomer models thought emergent gimmicks were the next “big thing,” so they set up prayer stations and printed the t-shirts for the cool Christian kid conferences. But before the ink was dry on the shirts, it was over. I don’t know exactly what’s next. Only God does. History suggests a lot for us, so let’s take David Bazan’s advice and remember that “you can’t be right about the future if you’re wrong about the past.” As with any contemporary movement in transition, the changes are diverse and localized. There are some post-seeker mega-churches, but it is also intriguing to see Rob Bell and Francis Chan walk away from theirs. Whether this is a time of transition or a move toward decentralization is debatable. But one thing is for certain, as President Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present.” May we draw upon that wisdom and lean into Kennedy’s challenge to push the envelop of the future not because it is easy (or even clearly defined), but because it is hard.
One of the important subjects related to Christianity + Culture at C3 is the role of the arts and the artist. Moving beyond piety by abstinence into meaningful engagement is a key phrase I’ve used in articulating my own personal vision in this area. This has brought up the issues of labels like “Christian artists” and “Christian movies.” Mako Fujimura had some wise input on the subject during his time with us. These labels are recent, outdated, and market-driven. Though well-meaning, they can be destructive in how they limit the scope of Christ’s voice through the artist and their art.
The chief role of any artist is to hold up a mirror to their world. These mirrors are important. Recent history has shown that mirrors with a “Christian” label can only maintain that label if they limit the subject matter and focus of their work. If you hope to maintain this label, your limitations are not just ones of decency but of what you challenge. For instance, as a musician or a filmmaker, you probably cannot maintain your “Christian” label if you address concerns about the Christian community. Authors tend to get more of a pass, but not always.
The result is that the only artists who are free to hold up mirrors to certain aspects of Christian culture are those who are unabashedly non-believers. True their insights are often important to consider. Songwriters like Ben Folds, David Bazan, and Eef Barzelay, though none professes Christian belief, often do a great job of calling us out. Even Adam McKay and Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights offered some biting, yet hilarious thoughts on how believers can be racially insensitive, greedy, hypocritical, and how we turn Jesus into whatever we want him to be (in the case of Cal Naughton Jr, Jesus is wearing a Tuxedo shirt that shows he is “formal but likes to party”). There is truth to consider here, but it is only partial truth.
Ultimately, these mirrors are from far away. We need those, just like we need full-length mirrors on distant walls to see if our outfit matches or our choreography is crisp. But we need close-up, knowing mirrors too. They show our beauty. They show our scars. They show those things we call imperfections that make us uniquely who we are.
One of the most disappointing things about how movies tend to portray Christians is that we tend to be one-dimensional characters. We aren’t alone in this. Prejudice against race, religion, nationality, or sexuality often manifests itself in the form of a one-dimensional character. We need more real, complex, identifiable characters who are also followers of Christ. We need these, not because of a PR issue, but because they are real.
After having been raised with a deep distrust of Hollywood as part of my Christian worldview, living there and ministering with people in the industry changed that drastically. As I write this blog post, countless screenwriters are busy at their own keyboards developing the very characters I’ve described above. These characters won’t appear in Fireproof 2, and that’s a good thing. The more we as a Christian community embrace an artist’s (or a plumber’s) role as crucial regardless of its place within the sacred secular spectrum, the more we will model our call to be “in, not of.”
“The Devil is in the details”
This phrase is most often used to remind us of the importance of being thorough and paying attention to details. With discussions about worship, the phrase takes on another context. Often, the entire discussion is limited to details. Furthermore, these discussions often become confrontations and conflicts. Nowhere has this been more evident than in issues related to the sonic envelop of worship music. Here, the devil (via our human nature) has drawn us away from deep conversations about worship to the shallow end of the pool, where the focus is on what instruments are allowed and what sounds are permissible. If you read my post on Anthony Bourdain, you know that music hasn’t really had its Andy Warhol. Music, unlike visual art, is still very stratified and defined by what it is not. These discussions related to the sonic envelop are rooted in this hierarchy. For many, church music has often defined itself by not sounding like secular music.
“What a holy shade of blue you’re wearing”
The problem with determining sacredness by sounds is that it is theologically (and logically) impossible. Sound is as theologically and morally neutral as color. Actually, many use the word “color” to describe types of sounds. Do we have heated discussions about the appropriateness of the color blue, given its prominence in several of Picasso’s works depicting images most would consider inappropriate for display in a sanctuary? No, and we shouldn’t. When it comes to sound color, that hasn’t stopped us from doing so for centuries.
“There is nothing new under the sun”
If you think this issue of a the sonic envelop began with whether drums should be allowed in church, you’re sadly mistaken. Arguments about organs being poorly played, out of tune, and drowning out the singing of the congregation were eloquently (and understandably) made by traditionalists who feared the loss of string consorts and a cappella singing. Ironically, the lack of training and infrastructure for organ playing paled in comparison to that of worship bands in their infancy. Fast forward several centuries and we find ourselves hearing arguments that pianos, perhaps because of their prominence in classical music (which is more pious than its commercial cousin), are more appropriate than an acoustic guitar, which is found almost exclusively in pop music. Later, acoustic guitars are ok, but not electric guitars. Ok, electric guitars are ok, but not distorted ones. Just keep the volume down. Ok, go ahead. Use every instrument found in popular music, including every piece of production technology as well. So long sonic envelop. Now what?
“I dreamed a dream”
While I can’t predict the future with certainty, a fella can dream. We can’t turn back the clock, and we shouldn’t. My dream is not a dream of times gone by. Pendulums do swing, and we’re probably due for some moderation. Ironically, while the young people in Central Texas keep attending McDonalds-inspired, big-box churches (though not without concern and longing for something different), hipsters in Brooklyn are recording old timey church music. In the land of the real dust of this tradition, we’re wiping it off of our TOMS and skinny jeans while our peers in the five Boroughs are coating themselves in a synthetic dust in order to rediscover what first grew in our soil. It’s why I’m excited about our future conversation with Vito Aiuto of Welcome Wagon. But if history is any indication, this is a passing trend. Sadly, if history is an indication, the devil will find us some other detail to argue about.
My dream is of a new conversation that looks past the cosmetics of the art that informs our worship. One that stops “using” art. One that no longer defines itself by what it is not, but by what Christ longs for his Bride to be. She will make decisions about what to wear on her date and on her wedding day, but those decisions will no more define their relationship than my shoes define my marriage.
I tend to agree with those who push back at the labeling of products as “Christian.” Things without a soul or a conscious seem like strange things to label as followers of Christ. In the case of Christian Music, many of the examples struggle to live up to the second word of the label even more than the first. The same could be said of Christian Movies. Usually these labels are marketing terms to indicate that the content values overtly Christian themes and is “safe for the whole family.” Ironically, realistic depictions of many of the scenes from the Bible would not meet these criteria.
Regardless, if there is such a label as a Christian Movie, Django Unchained won’t be receiving it from many publications. The use of stylized violence and harsh language is pervasive. Although the moral justification of Django’s revenge is as solid as the Lincoln biopic about the same topic, the lawless, violent means with which he fights evil would be tough for many, perhaps even Dr. Martin Luther King himself, to justify. Django’s compatriot is named Dr. King Schultz, a clear reference to the non-violent hero. Like Tarantino’s previous film Inglorious Bastards (and unlike Lincoln), the film is not an historical account, but rather a piece of historical fantasy. Just as the Nazi-era film posed the question, “What if a young Jewish girl were able to assassinate the entire Nazi leadership in one brave act?” Django Unchained asks, “What if one tortured slave were able to strike a massive blow at the heart of slavery’s evil core?” Sadly, both stories are fantasy, and the true victories cost tens of thousands of lives over decades of war.
Scriptures have a lot to say about good vs. evil, about vengeance, and the justice that may only exist in the afterlife. Slaves throughout history have leaned on these truths, and Tarantino clearly illustrates this in his film. However, the picture of faith that he paints is complicated. Conflicted. Even knowingly hypocritical. But Tarantino is careful to make sure the viewer knows that he understands the conflict. He also seems convinced that this is a story that cannot be told without being infused with a pervasive amount of engagement with Christian ideals. There are several clear-cut examples, as well as several inferred ones as well. I’ll start with the clearest examples, in order of appearance.
- The first bounty Django collects is for the Brittle Brothers. As John Brittle prepares to whip a slave girl for breaking eggs, he has Bible pages pinned to his coat as he fervently quotes an Old Testament passage about justice. When Django shoots him, he shoots through one of these pages that covers Brittle’s heart. Red blood flows out of the bullet hole, onto the page, almost symbolically purifying the page with the evil zealot’s blood. It’s an image that foreshadows Calvin Candie’s assassination, though his heart was covered by a white carnation.
- The iconic setting of Verdi’s Dies Irae “Day of Judgment” plays as the KKK rides in to ambush Django and Dr. King Schultz.
- 100 Black Coffins plays as the Mandingo fighters are walked to Candie Land. The rap calls for black coffins and black preachers to give black sermons while we send them all to hell. The theme of denying Christ’s call to turn the other cheek is pervasive here and throughout the film.
- During a later gunfight we hear, “Respect like you expect Jesus to come back.”
- While holding Django’s wife hostage, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) tells him, “I don’t care what you do or don’t believe. If you don’t surrender, we’re gonna blow [her] brains out. Believe that!”
- As Django surrenders, we hear the spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”
- As Django is taken to the mining company, we hear Johnny Cash sing, “there ain’t no grave can hold my body down,” a clear reference to the afterlife and Django’s resilience.
- As Django sets off for the second scene of his revenge, we hear John Legend sing the song Who did that to you? featuring lyrics like “I’m not afraid to do the Lord’s work. You say vengeance is his, but imma do it first.”
- As Django kills the dog handlers, we hear Brother Dege sing “I’m too old to die young now. Still, the good Lord will lie me down.” As you can tell from the lyrics on the site, the Christian content is clear.
- As Stephen returns from Calvin Candie’s funeral, he sings “in the sweet by and by.” Django unexpectedly joins the singing, and says, “y’all gonna be together with Calvin in the sweet by and by. Just a little sooner than you expected.” He then begins his final revenge scene.
- As Stephen lies shot on the floor, he calls out a wicked, and ultimately unanswered, prayer, “sweet Jesus, let me kill this [expletive].”
As I said, these are the overt references, all of which address either judgment (and who exacts it) or the afterlife. Aside from these, there are other, more subtle references. First, the realization for Dr. Schultz that the German legend of Siegfried and Brünhilde is being reenacted before his very eyes (and he is to play a role) serves as a reminder that the moral lessons of our culture point to real truth and real life. For him, there is a sacredness to the story, and there is a new reality as well.
After the most despicable scene of evil in the entire film, they retire to the parlor for dessert. As he grasps the depth of evil housed in the room where he finds himself, Dr. Schultz thrice demands (finally with some force) that the harpist stop playing Beethoven in that room. For him, it was a sacred thing being done in an unholy place. I couldn’t help but think of Christ driving out the moneychangers from the Temple, who were doing unholy things in a sacred place. After betraying the non-violent heritage of his “Dr. King” namesake by killing the evil Calvin, he apologizes to Django, “I couldn’t help myself,” slightly lifts both arms to form a cross of surrender, and his shot.
As Django later says goodbye to Dr. Schultz’s corpse, he whispers “Aufwiedersehen,” a word Shultz has taught us means, “until we meet again.” Here, a clear allusion to their someday reunion in the true, “sweet by and by.”
As I said, Django Unchained won’t receive a Christian Movie label from many publications. You would be entirely justified in not watching it based upon the use of violence and language. On the other hand, evangelicals tend to bend the rules for violence more than sexuality, but that’s another blog post altogether. However, if you do watch it, be aware that it includes a very thoughtful, intentional conversation (struggle) with Christian truths. Even when it goes against those rules, it makes sure the audience knows it is doing so. Breaking those rules (namely taking vengeance into one’s own hands) triumphs over unspeakable evil in the end. I wonder if the Jews of Christ’s day were hoping for a Django instead of a Jesus. After all, He was the Son of God who assured them that vengeance was His. It was a reasonable expectation, based on the Scriptures they held dear and a justifiable hope after the pain they had endured.
Maybe the most compelling reason not to label things like movies and music as Christian is that it suggests that God’s truth is limited to those examples alone. What a tragic mistake that would be.