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Reeler Pinch Hitter: John Lichman, Journalist

(Photo illustration: D. Fith)

[Note: Reeler editor S.T. VanAirsdale is taking some time off, but The Reeler is in the good hands of trusted friends and colleagues. John Lichman is a journalist and Reeler internship alumnus living in New York.]

A while back I heard about the Journey Church's God on Film lecture series in Tribeca ("Discover the meaning behind the biggest movies of the summer!"), which took contemporary blockbusters and gave them a spiritual spin: choosing good with Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer; how to change your life with Transformers; and living each day as it if was your last -- with Live Free or Die Hard. After trying and failing to get friends to come with me to the latter program on a Sunday morning in Tribeca, I followed the sandwich boards along the West Side Highway: "THE JOURNEY, THIS WAY."

Finding two greeters with nametags at the door of P.S. 82, I asked if that was where God on Film was held.

"The service is upstairs," one greeter said. "You can take the stairs or the elevator. The choice is up to you." Thoroughly confused, I proved my individuality and stuck to the stairs. I should mention the fruit plates, the free coffee, the four other greeters who shook my hand and told me they too were happy to see me, but no. Let me start with the 16 minutes during which I awkwardly tapped my thigh to a rather nice, new age spiritual concert. It dawned on me that this may not be a lecture, but more of a general Sunday worship.

I felt a bit relieved when Executive Pastor Kerrick Thomas came out and welcomed us to the Journey's downtown service. (There were others around the region, including one in midtown and another just across the river in Jersey City.) A brief video introduction played on the karaoke screen (set to Nine Inch Nails' "Hand That Feeds," natch) introduced that day's message: Die Hard's John McClane battles terrorists and finds the strength to keep on going. Just like the story of Samson in Judges 13-16.

Wait -- what?

As I followed along with the message notes provided (diligently filling in "Recognize" for "(Blank) God's Plan for My Life"), I realized we weren't discussing films anymore. I waited 40 minutes for Die Hard's or even Bruce Willis' connection to this Bible story, but it didn't come. Despite the lack of Samson-to-Willis at GoF, it seemed like the group of roughly 40 people who attended hadn't even seen the film of discussion. Or maybe they had, but were more interested in discussing upcoming trips sponsored by The Journey or enjoying the free coffee.

While your local chain bookstore is crammed with pseudo-philosophers pulling their best Joseph Campbells on the Matrix and Simpsons crowds, an examination of the spiritual side of pop culture wasn't even attempted at The Journey. At the same time, The Journey's Web site advertised Friday-night groups to see films that would be discussed at the following God on Film.

I originally planned to do a longer piece on The Journey's series, especially when I found out that the organizers nearly fill the Manhattan Center with their services. But Pastor Thomas told me in an e-mail that "because we have received so many requests for interviews regarding God on Film, we have just had to decline opportunities for interviews."

GoF is notable in its approach to spirituality and using that as a entry point to discussion -- let's face it, how else would you ever talk about the wondrous Fantastic Four sequel? But it immediately abandons its promise. When I went to the Journey's Midtown location for the Transformers lecture, I sheepishly turned to a group of people in the elevator with me. Before I could utter, "So, uh, I think Optimus Prime is awesome. Why are you here?", the group began a rapid-fire conversation in German. Interesting. And let's not get into the spiritual concert at that event -- namely, it being a half-hour long and reminding me only that God is my friend. (Refrain: Yes he is, yes he is, yes he is. No, really; that was the refrain.)

Afterwards, I shuffled out of the packed Manhattan Center with the extremely diverse crowd, some in black T-shirts and sundresses; others dressed up as if it was Easter service. The walk down the stairwell was deathly quiet, no one making an attempt to talk about Transformers, the message of changing your life -- or how this sermon made multiple mentions of Internet pornography, the same as the Die Hard sermon.

Sure, religious groups constantly seek newcomers through any means possible -- bingo, pancake breakfasts, false advertising about film series -- but nothing irks me more than being told to find the spiritual connections to a summer blockbuster only to be given the CliffsNotes about Samson.

Want to hear what you missed? All of
God on Film 2007 is archived as MP3's -- along with the message notes -- as free downloads here. (Note: Pastor Nelson Searcy spoke at the Journey's midtown sessions; the MP3's feature his sermons unless otherwise noted.)

Posted at August 13, 2007 11:15 AM

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