catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 7 :: 2010.04.02 — 2010.04.15


The Gospel According to David Lynch

If you’ve seen those The Gospel According To… books, you know they have covered a range of pop culture phenomena, from The Simpsons to the Coen brothers, Disney, The Matrix and Lost.  I was recently amused to follow some of Chris Seay’s argument in The Gospel According to Lost.  His book serves as a defense of the television show’s season-stretching formula of jarring plot twists and bewilderingly loose ends, while simultaneously explaining Christian faith.  Life in Christ is a mystery, Seay suggests, just like Lost

Readers have good reason to be wary when people use pop culture (or anything for that matter) as a tool for evangelism.  Reducing any part of God’s creation-yes, I’m still talking about pop culture-to mere utility reflects a broken relationship that goes back to the Fall.  As people with a distorted sense of power, we often force other creatures, i.e. pop culture, to serve our own ends without paying heed to their God-given nature.  Instead of participating in the joy of creation as fellow creatures we often try to turn the others to our own ends, which is what some Christians do when they think they are evangelizing.  This kind of evangelism is the wrong way to play God, is a distortion of the divine image we bear.  

But it would be wrong to lump all The Gospel According To… books into this category of utilitarian evangelism.  The authors of these books often offer an important service to the Christian community.  By presenting Christian commentaries on a television show or analyzing the storyline and images of a film, they can champion what is best in creative works and also point to signs of the Kingdom coming in this present age. 

When you love something, you want to talk about what you love.  You want to explain to other people why what you love is so worth loving.  It is not surprising that people who love Christ enjoy shows such as The Simpsons or Lost.  What the average Christian in America watches does not differ in any significant way from the national average, as researchers such as Barna Group have demonstrated. 

It is also not surprising that themes found in the Judeo-Christian tradition are so common in Western media today.  Stories involving sacrificial love, human betrayal, escape from tyranny and judgment of evil deeds continue to have dramatic currency.  And since such stories resonate with people, media companies like Disney, ABC, Fox and Warner Bros. pay big money to produce those stories.  For companies financing and distributing entertainment, these familiar themes work in much the same way that writing books about popular culture work for utilitarian evangelism.  They are a means to an end, a tool to be used for financial gain or in the case of The Gospel According to… books, a way to slip the good news in while giving an exposition of popular culture. 

Of course tool-using is not in and of itself an abusive practice.  Certainly stories may be used as tools and may include a variety of functions as part of their being.  But reducing the value of creatures to functionality prevents the kind of full enjoyment God intends for creation.  Everyone at one time or another experiences the loss that occurs when stories become tools for a purpose that is foreign to their own creational givenness.  We sense this loss when we watch television shows created for a demographic on the basis of market research or when we hear a song designed exclusively to fit a top 40 radio format.  We recognize the difference between a creative advertisement made to sell a product and a work of art.  When creatures that were not designed for mere utility are used in this way, a loss of some dimension of that particular creature occurs.  As participants in God’s creative activity, and as creatures ourselves, we must honor the particular character of all creatures. If we don’t, our subduing of the earth becomes distorted — it is no longer an act of love. 

If I were to write a The Gospel According to… book I’d have to confess right off the bat that the good news of Christ’s Kingdom coming to earth often leaves me speechless.  In my attempts to grasp the significance of Jesus’ life and the richness of the accounts, the fulfillment of prophecies, the remarkable journey of the original texts to my bookshelf coupled with the centuries of interpretive development the message has undergone on its way, and the radical implications I haven’t begun to imagine for day-to-day life and the life of future generations…I am dumbwonderstruck.  So much so, in fact, that I make up amalgamated words to replace my dumbwonderstruckity.   

But since I’d have to add enough words to make my The Gospel According to… worth reading, I’d throw in a few quotes from Karen Armstrong who reminds us in The Case for God that great thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas understood that good theology always leaves us at the limits of our language.  Armstrong writes,

When we contemplate God, we are thinking of what is beyond thought; when we speak of God, we are talking of what cannot be contained in words.  By revealing the inherent limitations of words and concepts theology should reduce both the speaker and his audience to silent awe. 

Armstrong says that for Aquinas, reason applied to faith was meant to show “that what we call ‘God’ was beyond the grasp of the human mind.  If it failed to do this, its statements about the divine would be idolatrous.”

Though it might seem odd to readers of my The Gospel According to…. book that a biblical and historical scholar who has built her career talking about God would open her most recent 300+ page book on the subject with “We are talking far too much about God these days…,” Armstrong’s concern is with the “facile” way in which we often speak of God.  She continues,

In our democratic society, we think that the concept of God should be easy and that religion ought to be readily accessible to anybody.  “That book was really hard!” readers have told me reproachfully, shaking their heads in faint reproof.  “Of course it was!”  I want to reply.  “It was about God.”

Immediately following this Armstrong quote I would then proceed to make my The Gospel According to… book as difficult to read as possible.  I would not use elitist academic language.  Instead I would describe the films of David Lynch in as many words as it would take-and it would take many.  If some of my readers hadn’t heard of David Lynch, I would ask them in the preface not to read my book until they had.  Then, having seen his films, they would be able to better understand the futility of my trying to describe them. 

I would also make sure to support the strangeness of Lynch’s films by not trying to explain away everything.  And if my readers got annoyed at my attempt to honor film’s particular creaturely characteristics — its unique ability to give the illusion of cutting in and out of time as if in a dream; its musicality of images in sequence; its ability to express multiple meanings with sight, sound and camera movement — or question my motives for refusing to say what film says better, I would quote Lynch himself.  I would point to the moment in Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity when the director is most candid about the way the bible sometimes helps him understand what he’s doing in his work.

This would be the main point of my The Gospel According to David Lynch book.  It would be found in this description of the creative process during the making of Eraserhead, Lynch’s first feature-film:

Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie.  No one understands when I say that but it is.  Eraserhead was growing in a certain way and I didn’t know what it meant.  I was looking for a key to unlock what these sequences were saying.  Of course I understood some of it but I didn’t know the thing that just pulled it all together.  And it was a struggle.  So I got out my bible and started reading and one day I read a sentence.  And I closed the bible because that was it.  That was it.  And then I saw the thing as a whole and it fulfilled this vision for me 100%. 

This is the kind of quote that could really help someone trying to write a The Gospel According to… book!  But the artist senses the danger here and puts such a project at a disadvantage when he adds in conclusion: “I don’t think I’ll ever say what that sentence was.”  …Not even a hint?  Nope.   

Clearly Lynch’s experience of reading this sentence from the bible was important enough to mention in his book on creativity and transcendental meditation.  He claims it helped him make sense of the entire Eraserhead project.  So why would he tell the reader that there was such a sentence without saying what that sentence was? Perhaps he prefers that the film communicate the vision, not the words, and so for the sake of the film he maintains the mystery.  Or maybe the director considers the biblical sentence to have such a meaning only to him.  As one involved in the process of making the film, it may have more significance than for a viewer who didn’t experience that part of the process of the film and therefore would not even be helped by knowing such information.

It’s clear Lynch just doesn’t want us to know.  So, having come this far in my The Gospel According to David Lynch, I would have to conclude that writing a book in order to fully explain David Lynch’s films is contrary to the artist’s own wishes.  Artist intentions notwithstanding, such a project might not even be of service to film-watchers in the first place.  My The Gospel According to… book could give readers the wrong idea that the meaning of films depends on commentaries given by authors of The Gospel According to… books.

But maybe if I succeed in leaving my readers with an awareness of the limits of my The Gospel According to… book, I might actually be justified in writing such a book.  I might be doing what Karen Armstrong suggests is good theology, good God-talk: the kind of talk that ends in silent worship, receptive listening, meditative awe…or made- up amalgamated words.  

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