Prayer on the silver screen

Photo by Leland Francisco - used under CC license

Photo by Leland Francisco – used under CC license

Yesterday morning, one of the top news stories on the BBC was that an advert featuring the Lord’s prayer had been banned by a number of cinemas. It seems to have had something of a Streisand effect by getting a lot more people talking about it than otherwise might have done so had the advert been shown without any fuss over banning it.

It’s raised a number of issues, some of which are less interesting than others. Let’s get those out of the way first.

Firstly, it’s not that the Lord’s prayer has been banned; it was an advert that portrayed the Lord’s prayer. In spite of having it passed several hurdles it did contravene some rules about political and religious advertising that were brought in earlier this year, after the plan for the advert was first mooted, but before the final ruling made recently. So it’s a bit of a muddy timeline, but the ban was in line with current advertising rules.

Secondly, it’s not really an attack on christianity. I’m a secularist as far as I agree with the idea that no religion (or lack thereof) should be privileged above any other, but I stop short of agreeing with campaigns that seek to marginalise religious voices by excluding them from the public square.

So what is interesting about it?

Well, for starters, it’s the means through which the message was being made: advertising. It’s the hallmark of a consumerist society, which, the last time I checked, christianity wasn’t all about. In the early church, the public forums were just that: forums. They were places that people went to discuss the issues of the day. And where did the evangelists go to declare their message? The forums. They used what was around them to get their message across in ways that tapped into the public consciousness. Paul’s use of the statue to the “unknown god” is a great example of this.

Whilst watching The Big Questions yesterday morning, one of the objections raised to this was that it reduced christianity to the same level as other things for which cinema advertising is used for; namely, sugary snacks. The fear was that christianity was then to become a commodity. It’s a risk, certainly, but one that isn’t inevitable if the Church uses modern means of advertising to gets its message across.

Thinking it through, I quite like the idea of advertising as a part of Church strategy. This is my thought process: We cannot argue people into coming into the Church (and by Church, I mean the body of people as a whole, not a building or any particular institution). Apologetics has its place, but I am highly sceptical about its effectiveness as a tool of evangelism. That place is as a means of countering bad arguments, both for and against christianity, and of clearing up misconceptions about christianity. The difficulty comes when there is disagreement about what one means by “christianity” and results in a lot of apologetics going down wildly misleading paths.

Instead, evangelism is far more gentle and appealing when it comes in the form of invitation. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” not “Here, let me force-feed you some doctrine, it’s good for you”. If we stretch the analogy a bit further, if people are to taste and see that the Lord is good, then the Church needs some good cooks. Yet people do have different tastes. This is why the variety of emphases across different denominations is a good thing, not necessarily a sign of division. See here for a recent take on this.

Another interesting aspect is the idea of the Lord’s prayer. Did you know there isn’t one? There are a few; and I’m not talking about translations. Read the gospels. It never appears in the gospels according to Mark or John. Luke has a short version and Matthew a longer version. Even then, if your bible has some decent footnotes, it will have references to “other ancient authorities” including other bits that aren’t in the main text.

Yet these biblical versions remain relatively unknown. Why is that? Because the version that is heard most often only goes back as far as the 17th century. It was an amalgamation of the two (including the added bits in the footnotes) and was published in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). This, then, is seen as (even if it not often declared to be) the “definitive” or “complete” version.

Here’s an anecdote to illustrate.

A few years ago, the finance team I was a part of had a corporate training day. Part of this was about memorisation and a point was made that we all can memorise things, even if we think we can’t. To show this, we were asked to recite the Lord’s prayer. And everyone in the room recited, word perfect, the BCP version. As far I know, only myself and one other person were practicing christians. To everyone else, was a little chant that had become incorporated into the cultural psyche.

As an aside, it often strikes me as odd that this is often chanted en masse, which rather rips it from the context of Matthew where immediately beforehand Jesus said “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypcrites ; for they love to stand pray in the synagogues…But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” If you ever struggle to understand why I abhor liturgy, this is probably the most concise summary explaining why.

Back to the point. What this corporate training day showed to me was the danger of dilution. If something becomes commonplace, it’s impact can be lessened because it is seen as an everyday thing. One of the reactions I read was from a vicarbot (@AJWtheology) on Twitter who posed this:

The question is not, “How could anyone find The Lord’s Prayer offensive?” The question is, “How could anyone not?”

There are many commentaries on the Lord’s prayer and I won’t add to them here. For a nonconformist perspective, I’d recommend Roger Forster’s book on the subject (disclaimer: Roger & I are part of the same local congregation). I would just bring out the term, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. That is one of the most revolutionary calls ever made in human history. If, instead of monotonously chanting it, we took it to heart and made that a heartfelt plea, then christians would be seen not as a harmless anachronism in the modern world, but as a subversive movement. It’s not one that sets out to destroy the world and replace it with a new ideology, it’s a movement that we invite you to try out.

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