Film Media Religion

Siskel & Ebert, Mark Driscoll, and the Power of Popularity

Among the podcasts in my regular rotation, there are two others I’m listening to that are both limited series, airing concurrently, and happen to share a surprising thematic overlap.

One is Gene and Roger, an eight-part Spotify-exclusive series from The Ringer that serves as an oral history of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and their movie criticism legacy. The other is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill from Christianity Today, which charts the story of Mars Hill Church and its controversial pastor Mark Driscoll.

What’s the connection between these two disparate stories? The epiphany came after listening to recent episodes of both shows, released on the same day.

For the brand

“Top Guns” finds Siskel and Ebert reaching new heights of exposure, popularity, and power through their TV show and “two thumbs up” brand. Meanwhile, “The Brand” follows Driscoll as he and Mars Hill’s burgeoning marketing team harness technology and internet to build his personal brand and rocket the church’s growth.

Both subjects became celebrities within their domains despite their unlikely origins, unorthodox approaches, and often prickly demeanor. Whatever criticism that came their way—like for the reductive sloganeering of Siskel and Ebert’s “two thumbs up” and for Driscoll’s macho masculinity and objectification of women—was overshadowed by their surprising success and cultural ubiquity.

Movies and machismo

Though I was too young to watch Siskel and Ebert together on TV at the time, I was a regular viewer of the post-Siskel iteration with Richard Roeper and even the post-Ebert version with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott. Before podcasts and social media, this was the only time I could see intelligent people arguing about movies. You also couldn’t be a film lover and understand what it means to write and think about movies without Ebert’s influence specifically. (His Great Movies anthologies are an essential resource, and the documentary Life Itself is a great primer on his life and work.)

Driscoll had a similar influence within American Christianity. I listened to his sermon podcasts through iTunes in the early 2010s, back when they were usually topping the Religion charts (and back when I was still listening to sermons). Driscoll’s tough-guy personality and the reported toxic culture of Mars Hill eventually turned me off, but his cultural cache lived on—probably peaking with his infamous trolling of Obama for his second Inauguration—until Mars Hill’s demise less than two years later on account of Driscoll’s bullying and “patterns of persistent sinful behavior”.

The beauty of synchronicity

The comparisons do fade at some point. The end of Siskel and Ebert—as a show and as individuals—was caused by untimely illness, while it was Driscoll’s behavior that led to his disgrace.

Still, it was a synchronistic delight to catch both of these excellent podcasts at the right moment to hear how seemingly unrelated stories can inform each other. One of the benefits of subscribing to (probably) too many podcasts…

Books Libraries Religion Teach Me How to Dewey

DDC 290-299: Like the ending of LOST

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 290 Other & comparative religions
  • 291 Comparative religion
  • 292 Classical (Greek & Roman) religion
  • 293 Germanic religion
  • 294 Religions of Indian origin
  • 295 Zoroastrianism (Mazdaism, Parseeism)
  • 296 Judaism
  • 297 Islam, Bábism & Bahá’í Faith
  • 298 No longer used—formerly Mormonism
  • 299 Other religions

As acknowledged back in DDC 220-229, the 200s have been overwhelmingly biased toward Christianity. But don’t fear, every other religious person reading this: your time has come! The Lords of Dewey have deigned the 290s the “Oh Crap We Forgot All The Other Religions” section. Hence Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and every other possible religious -ism bunched together in the caboose for a SparkNotes tour through ancient and modern religion and spirituality. Certainly not adequate space for the plethora of writing out there, but it’s the best Dewey is willing to do at this point.

Time for an #OccupyDewey campaign? Only the people can decide. Meanwhile, we’ve concluded what has to be the most contentious section in all of Dewey. (What’s that? The 320s are Political Science?)

The Dew3:

Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All
By Perry Garfinkel
Dewey: 294.3
Random Sentence: “Like any tourist, I was eager to visit what has been dubbed the Disneyland of Buddhist monasteries.”

Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life
By John Tarrant
Dewey: 294.34432
Random Sentence: “Why can’t clear-eyed Bodhisattvas sever the red thread?”

Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law From the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World
By Sadakat Kadri
Dewey: 297
Random Sentence: “Shafi’i’s vision, as amplified by later generations of students, was destined to prevail.”

Books Libraries Religion Teach Me How to Dewey

DDC 280-289: The denomination is in the details

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 280 Christian denominations & sects
  • 281 Early church & Eastern churches
  • 282 Roman Catholic Church
  • 283 Anglican churches
  • 284 Protestants of Continental origin
  • 285 Presbyterian, Reformed, Congregational
  • 286 Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Adventist
  • 287 Methodist & related churches
  • 288 No longer used—formerly Unitarian
  • 289 Other denominations & sects

Outside of being Protestant, I don’t have a specific denominational background. In spite (or because?) of that, I find other denominations, sects, and congregational interpretations fascinating. As a non-participant in the holy wars between Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian, and of course Catholics, I watch with equal parts confusion and admiration for the dedication each section holds for their specific ways. Though all housed under the “Christian” umbrella, their adherents have found many ways to diverge from each other since the very beginning of the faith. (Only those in the culture can appreciate/disdain the irony of “no longer used” being paired with Unitarianism.) Despite the division, there is much to be gained historically, sociologically, and theologically from reading about how each of these parts interact with each other and with the whole of the faith.

Or, if you’re sick of Christianity, you can just wait for the 290s.

The Dew3:

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint
By Nadia Bolz-Weber
Dewey: 284.135
Random Sentence: “I’m not certain of the exact origins of the idea, but I’m guessing it was a biopic about Jim Morrison.”

Living the Quaker Way: Timeless Wisdom for A Better Life Today
By Philip Gulley
Dewey: 289.6
Random Sentence: “We spend much time yoked to the very devices we hoped would liberate us.”

Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish
By Tom Shachtman
Dewey: 289.73
Random Sentence: “She counters with an additional demand for fenders on the wheels.”

Books Libraries Religion Teach Me How to Dewey

DDC 270-279: Persecution junction

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 270 Christian church history
  • 271 Religious orders in church history
  • 272 Persecutions in church history
  • 273 Heresies in church history
  • 274 Christian church in Europe
  • 275 Christian church in Asia
  • 276 Christian church in Africa
  • 277 Christian church in North America
  • 278 Christian church in South America
  • 279 Christian church in other areas

As with any honest historical assessment, this section’s books take on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Christianity’s past. 272 Persecutions could fill up an entire library. But many forget that though the Catholic Church has been responsible for some pretty heinous persecution over the years, the Christian church in general were also persecuted themselves for a long time. And even though Western Christianity (and religion in general) is fairly protected from persecution, there are places in the Middle East and Asia where being a Christian can get you killed. That’s what makes books like The Irresistible Revolution (see below)—which call for radical, countercultural living—get real real fast. In whatever time or place, people who really take their faith to heart will face the consequences of it, good and bad. And that makes one hell of a story.

The Dew3:

The Irresistible Revolution: Living as An Ordinary Radical
By Shane Claiborne
Dewey: 277.3
Random Sentence: “I’m not sure the Christian Gospel always draws a crowd.”

The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns
By Elizabeth Kuhns
Dewey: 271.9
Random Sentence: “Walking was to be accomplished in a calm, demure manner–hurrying was discouraged.”

The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God
By Jonathan Kirsch
Dewey: 272.2
Random Sentence: “The old authoritarian impulse was still fully alive.”

Books Libraries Religion Teach Me How to Dewey

DDC 260-269: Fred Phelps would hate this

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 260 Christian social theology
  • 261 Social theology
  • 262 Ecclesiology
  • 263 Times, places of religious observance
  • 264 Public worship
  • 265 Sacraments, other rites & acts
  • 266 Missions
  • 267 Associations for religious work
  • 268 Religious education
  • 269 Spiritual renewal

Is Christianity cool? Starting with this section through the next few, a lot of the books would give you some proof in the affirmative and in the negative. Obvious examples include the first book featured below, which explicitly asks that question, but also the books that don’t overtly make a claim yet by merely existing make a case.

Sadly, much of what people see on cable news is the worst of so-called Christian social theology, propagated for clicks and viewers but not based in the day-to-day reality of living out the biggest religion on earth. If you love history or tradition, there is a lot of interesting stuff to explore in Christianity’s past that conveniently also has 0% to do with Westboro Baptist.

The Dew3:

Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide
By Brett McCracken
Dewey: 261.1
Random Sentence: “For some pastors, this means they include references to Paris Hilton and The Hills in their sermons.”

On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century
By Jorge Bergoglio
Dewey: 261.83
Random Sentence: “Christianity condemns both Communism and wild capitalism with the same vigor.”

Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity
By Keri Wyatt Kent
Dewey: 263.2
Random Sentence: “In play, we shed the shackles of schedule, efficiency, even purpose.”

Books Libraries Religion Teach Me How to Dewey

DDC 250-259: Parish Administration: The Movie

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 250 Christian orders & local church
  • 251 Preaching (Homiletics)
  • 252 Texts of sermons
  • 253 Pastoral office (Pastoral theology)
  • 254 Parish government & administration
  • 255 Religious congregations & orders
  • 256 No longer used—formerly Religious societies
  • 257 No longer used—formerly Parochial schools, libraries, etc.
  • 258 No longer used—formerly Parochial medicine
  • 259 Activities of the local church

Are you ready for the explosive, blockbuster, wham-bang awesomeness that is 254 Parish government & administration? Can’t wait for a movie to be made out of books in that section. Meanwhile, I was surprised to find a lot of interesting material here. It ranged (as is evident below) from silly to sincere, with some strange mixed in too. I think it’s very important for any subculture to be able to make fun of itself, and there’s a good amount of evidence for that within Christianity, whether by current or former adherents. Of course, as a old religion it has its more rigid types, but we all need to laugh, especially when things are funny. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get trapped in the thinking that all sacred things must also be serious and earnest. Sometimes serious things are funny.

The Dew3:

Nuns Having Fun
By Maureen Kelly
Dewey: 255.9
Random Sentence: “Protect us, O Lord, for we are upright women–at least for now.”

Church Signs Across America
By Steve Paulson
Dewey: 254.4
Random Sentence: “A good angle to approach any problem is the ‘try’-angle.”

Strength to Love
By Martin Luther King
Dewey: 252
Random Sentence: “We can master fear through one of the supreme virtues known to man: courage.”

Books Libraries Religion Teach Me How to Dewey

DDC 240-249: Ain’t your mama’s Christian writing

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 240 Christian moral & devotional theology
  • 241 Moral theology
  • 242 Devotional literature
  • 243 Evangelistic writings for individuals
  • 244 No longer used—formerly Religious fiction
  • 245 No longer used—formerly Hymnology
  • 246 Use of art in Christianity
  • 247 Church furnishings & articles
  • 248 Christian experience, practice, life
  • 249 Christian observances in family life

The thing I like about sections like this is how it surprises. Even though (or perhaps because) I grew up in the Christian world and am very familiar with its tropes, biases, and tendencies, I love when I find new things—perspectives that challenge conventional wisdom or allow for greater nuance and a rich, learning experience.

Anne Lamott (featured below) is a good example of this: though she is a Christian writer, she could hardly be more unconventional or irreverent in her approach and writing style. People who have either struggled with religiously oriented literature or written it off entirely would be pleasantly surprised by writers like her who, as the saying goes, ain’t your mama’s Christian writer. This is just one example of how Dewey, and really libraries in general, can surprise you if you take the time to browse and let serendipity be your guide.

The Dew3:

Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will
By Kevin DeYoung
Dewey: 248.4
Random Sentence: “Wisdom sounds good but how does it work?”

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith
By Anne Lamott
Dewey: 248.4
Random Sentence: “I was an out-of-control alcoholic then–but in a good way, I had thought.”

Sin Bravely: A Joyful Alternative to A Purpose-Driven Life
By Mark Ellingsen
Dewey: 248.4
Random Sentence: “Such a diminution of sin is what the American public wants.”

Books Libraries Religion Teach Me How to Dewey

DDC 230-239: Fresh loaves and fishes

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 230 Christian theology
  • 231 God
  • 232 Jesus Christ & his family
  • 233 Humankind
  • 234 Salvation (Soteriology) & grace
  • 235 Spiritual beings
  • 236 Eschatology
  • 237 No longer used—formerly Future state
  • 238 Creeds & catechisms
  • 239 Apologetics & polemics

Probably because, not in spite of, Christianity’s hitherto cultural/religious hegemony in the United States specifically, it has inspired a lot of writing. Some good, some terrible, and some I’m not quite sure about. Reading Jesus (below), for example, seems to bring a new approach to the Gospels, which are arguably the most published and referenced texts in world history. At weddings, funerals, and many events in between we hear many of the same verses quoted as inspiration and encouragement, or as argument or counterargument. It’s easy to cherry-pick and plug in a verse for an occasion, but how often does it go beyond that? There’s a lot to consider if we want to get past the tired, old interpretations of religious orthodoxy, so as someone reared in the Christian world I appreciate those who try to look at Jesus and his teachings in fresh ways.

The Dew3:

Disappointment With God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud
By Philip Yancey
Dewey: 231.7
Random Sentence: “Richard does not know Mother Theresa, but he does know me.”

Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter With the Gospels
By Mary Gordon
Dewey: 232
Random Sentence: “The darkness of my grandmother’s bedroom.”

The Great Divorce
By C.S. Lewis
Dewey: 236.2
Random Sentence: “‘Whisht, now!’ said my Teacher suddenly.”

Books Libraries Religion Teach Me How to Dewey

DDC 220-229: Blessed is Samuel L. Jackson

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 220 Bible
  • 221 Old Testament
  • 222 Historical books of Old Testament
  • 223 Poetic books of Old Testament
  • 224 Prophetic books of Old Testament
  • 225 New Testament
  • 226 Gospels & Acts
  • 227 Epistles
  • 228 Revelation (Apocalypse)
  • 229 Apocrypha & pseudepigrapha

Regardless of how accurate it is in a given situation, deploying “Old Testament” as an intensifying adjective/adverb–i.e. “It’s about to get Old Testament up in here”–is one of my favorite things. To me in implies a righteous fury or a majestic/violent power that descends from above in order to make a plain scenario a whole lot less plain.

I guess what I mean to say is that “Old Testament” seems like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction: wide-eyed, vindictive, and not at all safe for work.

Whether it’s a fight scene in a movie or an argument with a friend, the metaphorical and rhetorical power of the Old Testament is a lot more interesting than people (religious and secular) give it credit for. Those who saw the Darren Aronofsky film Noah will understand this, as that well-worn Old Testament tale got an authentically Old Testament retelling that both does justice to the text and brings that aforementioned righteous fury to the filmmaking and the story.

What were we talking about again? Oh yeah… It is pretty evident by now that the 200s have a strong predilection toward Christianity. This is probably a remnant of the original Dewey classification of the mid-to-late 19th century, which was born in a much more faith-infused time than ours. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, since Christianity is often woefully misunderstood (or not understood at all) by its critics but also by its proponents. That’s certainly the case, too, for other major religions, so I guess the moral here is: Learn!

The Dew3:

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible As Literally As Possible
By A.J. Jacobs
Dewey: 220
Random Sentence: “The floor is exactly like a Seattle mosh pit circa 1992.”

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011
By Melvyn Bragg
Dewey: 220.52
Random Sentence: “Gravity was God’s other face.”

Water from the Well: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah
By Anne Richardson Roiphe
Dewey: 221.922082
Random Sentence: “She must have been wrapped in regret.”

God Religion

The God Of Freedom

Andrew Sullivan highlighted this post by a woman named Rachael, the daughter of Matt Slick, the founder of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM). Rachael is now an atheist, largely in response to what (at least according to her post) was a spiritually abusive upbringing at the hands of her fundamentalist father.

To sum up: For a long time, Rachael was the “perfect” Christian child. She memorized Bible verses, passionately debated esoteric theological principles, and even “spouted off” religious arguments in college philosophy classes. She was so certain of her beliefs and took solace in the strength of her intellectual prowess. But soon the arguments she would make turned into questions of her own. The one that particularly stood out: “If God was absolutely moral, and if the nature of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ surpassed space, time, and existence, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?” She concluded that there wasn’t an answer for this:

Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. 
But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.
 [Emphasis hers.]

She felt a “vast chasm” opening up in her identity, hearing a voice that said The Bible is not infallible. If it’s not infallible, you’ve been basing your life’s beliefs on the oral traditions of a Middle Eastern tribe. The Bible lied to you. “

I was no longer a Christian,” she said.

I recount her story here because I think it’s important to see how Rachael has jumped from one religious extreme to another without considering that there’s a middle ground. I’m blessed to have been reared in a positive, spiritually loving Christian home, so I can only imagine how difficult it was for Rachael to have endured such a destructive and rigid environment, and then to have her long-held and cherished assumptions smashed. In that context, I can understand why she has swung so strongly to the opposite end of the spiritual spectrum.

But I don’t think Rachael ever understood the crux of Christianity. She certainly understood it intellectually (or at least her father’s version of it), but by being so thoroughly fixated on the word of the law she seems to have ignored its spirit and its embodiment in Jesus. Reason was her idol, her “summum bonum identity” that was so easily destroyed when it came under attack.

But she has a new idol now. When asked whether she would have traded her childhood for another, Rachael said she wouldn’t:

Without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful. 

Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.

This is ridiculous. Again: she has an understandably emotional aversion to the concepts of obedience, purity, and God. To her, obedience equals blindly following orders; purity equals punishing oneself for one’s humanity; and God equals a distant deity. But God is not the one who has lied about these things, and worshipping freedom is just as destructive as worshipping religion. Lord knows we Americans love to worship the god of freedom, but that also means we’re enslaved to it. We must have our guns, sugary drinks, money, land, power, sex, and so many other desirable but worthless things. We’re so subject to our whims and selfish desires that anyone trying to fight against them — a politician, pastor, or Jesus himself — is shouted down and has the Constitution thrown in his face.

I believe in freedom just as I believe in beauty, love, grace, joy, and many other blessed things in this world, but I don’t want to be enslaved to them. Only when used in tandem with obedience to their creator can they be fully realized. Since she barely mentioned Jesus in her article, I’m guessing this is why Rachael has such a perverted view of Christianity. Good things alone will never satisfy without the will to obedience towards Jesus. This true obedience — not the abusive, authoritarian kind of obedience so many erstwhile Christians like Rachael have unfortunately endured — gives us the freedom to rely upon something bigger than our fractured selves.

Despite becoming an atheist (and kind of a smug one at that), Rachael is no less religious than when she was a kid. Now, instead of worshipping words, she’s worshipping the god of her own volition. That probably feels better for her than what she had before, but it’s just as misguided.