Prayer is in the news and it’s controversial. The Church of England have created an advert to promote their new website campaign #JustPray. They hoped that an advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer would be shown in cinemas before screenings of the new Star Wars film. Problem, the cinemas refused to show the advert in case it caused offence.The Church of England’s response has been to express shock and bewilderment. The main thrust of their argument is that there should be nothing wrong with showing the advert, it isn’t really that controversial. They are also saying that banning the advert goes against free speech.
Now, I’m up for Christians using their creative talents and money to help share the Gospel with as wide an audience as possible. So, if someone is able to produce an advert for cinema and TV and the broadcasters are willing to show it then I think that’s great. However, this isn’t really a free speech matter. It’s a consumer choice matter. The cinemas are free to choose which adverts they show. Often the main considerations are commercial.
But I also think that we are missing a couple of things here
Does the church really understand prayer?
On twitter I suggested that the cinemas seemed to have a better grasp of theology than churchmen. You see, the Lord’s Prayer is, or at least should be controversial. It starts with a declaration that God is our Father. In other words, it starts with a distinct and inclusive claim about who the God is that we worship and pray to. The God we can call Father is the God who is Trinitarian. We call him Father because we know Him through His Son. The God we can call Father is the God who is Love. This means that He is a relational, personal God. So immediately the prayer excludes those who want to know God as an impersonal force or as purely a powerful rule maker.
The Prayer describes God as Holy (Hallowed be your name) and in Heaven. This means that he is powerful, transcendent, distinct and unique. This excludes anyone who wants to worship a collection of gods who may be personal but lack transcendence.
The prayer asks God to forgive us. That’s controversial. We don’t like to think of ourselves as needing forgiveness. Even when people apologise these days, they don’t say sorry for what they’ve said or done. They say sorry that the other person has quite needlessly taken offence at the very reasonable thing they have said. We don’t like the idea of sin. The prayer excludes those who believe in basic human goodness.
The prayer asks for God’s Kingdom to come. Now that is very political. It is a declaration that the person who prays owes their allegiance to a higher throne. It says that current systems and ideologies are temporary and one day will go. It means that proud politicians will one day have to bow their knee to Jesus. I’m not quite sure how all of that fits with the Government’s definition of British values!
So the prayer is controversial. If people stop to think about it then some if not many will or at least should find it offensive. In fact, many church goers might even be offended if they stop to listen. Churchgoers need forgiveness too. Even pastors and bishops need forgiveness.
Do the cinema chains really understand film?
Now before we get too one sided, what about the cinemas, The argument for not showing the advert is that it might cause offence. Like Alistair Campbell (Tony Blair’s Director of Communications), they are saying “We don’t do God.” The argument is that they don’t want to show adverts that stray into the territory of religion and politics which makes cinema sound a bit like a polite dinner party!
Yet film has so often been deeply political. Good movies are rarely just entertaining fluff. A film comes with a narrative and often with a meaning. The writer and director want the audience to respond. Films challenge prejudice. Films either support or subvert the status quo. Films are religious; they present us with a view of the world around us. Sometimes films are overtly religious such as The Passion of Christ (supporting a Catholic understanding of who Jesus was) or The Da Vinci Code (challenging Catholicism and mainstream Christianity). Adverts are in effect short films. They carry a message. An advert rarely just presents you with information about a product. Averts tell short stories which portray a world view and ask you to buy into the values which make the product essential. Adverts are political and religious.
Indeed it is ironic that the controversy centres on the Star Wars film. The original StarWars films had a strong religious undercurrent. The spirituality of those films focused on an impersonal force and in effect a dualistic understanding of good and evil. In other words, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the films pushed in the direction of an Eastern, mystical worldview.
Now someone asked me if The Church would show the Star Wars trailer before a service. I joked that we were not dependent on advertising revenue. However, there is a bigger point here. If films and adverts carry a message then I shouldn’t just watch them with my brain switched off. So, no I wouldn’t show a film trailer just to advertise the film. I would get people to watch films. I would want them to talk about them and discuss them. I’d want them to think about the messages they present. Mind you, the person never asked me if I would show the prayer advert in church!
Prayer is powerful
Prayer is controversial and on the one hand it is exclusive. However it is also wonderfully powerful and profoundly inclusive. That prayer which talks about a God who is Father, Holy, exalted, loving and forgiving excludes those who react against Him and don’t want to know Him. But it also invites us to come to that God who loves and forgives. It includes all who know their need for a loving Father. It includes all who acknowledge their need for forgiveness and find it in the death and resurrection of The Son.