An Interview With Chris Seay
Chris Seay is pastor of Ecclesia, an innovative Houston church recognized for exploring spiritual questions through art, music, and film. (You can visit their web site at www.ecclesiahouston.org.) Seay is author of the recently-published book The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix. Previously he wrote The Gospel According to Tony Soprano. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Chris and discussed his use of popular culture in communicating the gospel.
Preaching: For the benefit of readers who haven’t seen either film, describe the world of The Matrix.
Seay: The best way I can describe it is how overwhelmed I was the first time I saw it. As a pastor I don’t often go to a film on Easter Sunday. It’s always an exhausting day. But I kept hearing about this film over the weekend that it released with these deep spiritual themes. So at the ten-o-clock showing on Easter after a long day I went and saw it.
I had no idea that I was getting ready to see the Easter story told a totally different way. But it very much was the Easter story, the story of Christ.
The Wachowskis (directors of the films) aren’t Christians but in this action/adventure film they have realized they can make a stink if they engage us with important issues about reality and philosophy and about faith, it’s full of it. So if millions of people are going to talk about faith and the Christ story I want to talk with them about it.
It begins in this place that is questioning reality – that at some point we’ve come to a place where man has – like God – given birth to creation, this creation of artificial intelligence. Technology has truly run amuck. There are a lot of technologists and scientists that would say we’re heading in that direction, that technology really runs our culture. As the Matrix was described, at the dawn of this new era man marvels at his wonder and in doing so this creation turned and then betrayed him. We get the fall of man, the fall of creation from its creator. Man and machine are at war, and to subdue man the Matrix creates a world, a virtual world that mankind lives in. The premise of the film is humanity trying to escape from it and there is only one, the one, that can destroy the enemy and bring them back into the real world. Neo is the one, the Christ figure if you will.
Preaching: Talk about that character, which many people have described as a messianic figure.
Seay: Keanu Reeves is an unlikely messiah to say the very least, but the first person that addresses him refers to him as “you’re my savior, you’re my own personal Jesus Christ.” Throughout the film it becomes clear that there is one that they’re searching for. Morpheus is played by Lawrence Fishbourne. In one of the first interviews he did after the film was released they asked him about his character. He said, “I’m John the Baptist.” He was clearly the man searching for the messiah and pointing the way to the messiah and he points towards Neo, Keanu’s character.
The following film (The Matrix: Reloaded) is addressing the question: is Neo really the one and what does salvation look like? And like in the Christ story, as we found out in the second film, it doesn’t always go the way we expect. On Good Friday, things were looking pretty dim as they were in this Matrix film. My guess is with the third film (The Matrix: Revolutions, which opens November 5), we will see Easter Sunday from the film – that we will see some form of redemption and faith will win out.
Preaching: In the films there are so many spiritual undertones and images going on. At the same time there is not only Christian imagery – this is a pluralistic film.
Seay: Without a doubt. You get two responses from people of faith: one says, “You are somehow raping my story by putting it along side these other stories.” The other is saying, where I come down, “You know, what if our story is so powerful and so beautiful that if you begin to tell it at all people are going to be drawn to it?” I think it is the metaphor that is raised up among the many that are there. The influences range from comic books to Japanese anime, to Hinduism, to Buddhism, it’s all over the map. But the one people tend to run to the most is Christianity.
Now the biggest danger for me that I see most often is a dysfunctional kind of Christianity that looks more like Gnosticism in the film, this heretical offshoot of Christianity. It’s more influenced by those things than the others. We’ve got to address it, like I think people need to address everything with our whole minds, with our thoughts under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need to be discerning about what’s true, what’s not true.
There’s not a thing in the world that I think we can swallow whole, this film included. I haven’t seen a Christian book that I would just accept everything that is written in it. We ought to be engaging everything we read and see, trying to decide what’s right and what’s not. That is the approach we should try to have with this film.
Preaching: Clearly we’re not going to take our theology from these films, but in what ways have you been able to use them to try to communicate the gospel with people in your community?
Seay: Almost everybody I talk with in my world knows and loves these films so the concept of a savior makes sense in this film. For some people it doesn’t always make sense, at least within their preconceived understanding of what Christianity is. So it gives a new discussion point, a new place to start in walking through the story of God.
I really believe what Jesus said: seek and you will find. That is the ultimate part of this film – what it always comes back to. In the beginning it was the question that drives you. In the second film the power is in the why. But if we ask the right questions we will eventually get the right answers.
The first book I wrote was The Gospel According to Tony Soprano. Not many people of Christian faith were watching that show. There are a lot of people outside the faith that are. I ended up with people actually in the Mafia reading the book. One sent a letter to Christianity Today; I have since then begun a dialogue with him. He is considering literally leaving a life in the mafia for faith. For me that’s what it’s really about. Those are the people I want to write to. Those are the people I want to be in conversation with and I want to be telling the story of God to.
The story is everywhere we look. As preachers that is the best thing I think we can do – to be able to identify the redemptive story in art, film, and music and all around us because it really teaches us about people’s yearning for God. Then when we identify that we see the thirst. Then we better know how to address it.
Preaching: You talked a bit about the rediscovery of mythology and how The Matrix films speak to that. What do you see as the place of mythology in postmodern culture and how do we as communicators of the gospel move in on that?
Seay: I have been strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell, who talks a great deal about what are the elements that are present in a great story. Part of what he acknowledges – and many others, and I hope we acknowledge – is that we’ve got the best story of all time and it’s interesting to examine what are the dynamics that make that the case. The reality is that in this generation I think that there is so much despair, and hope and distrust. There is a yearning for a simpler day, a simpler understanding of the universe, when people try to make sense of it through these mythological kind of heroes.
When we look at these different heroes, I think we get a better sense of who people really are. There are certain types of heroes. You look at even comic books like Superman and you get this kind of Abrahamic figure in many ways. It’s fascinating for me as a storyteller to look at. Ultimately as preachers that’s what we are – we are story tellers, and we ought to be able to look at a story and pick it apart to figure out what makes a good story. I do a little bit in the back part of the book and we’ll have more on the website for pastors about Campbell and storytelling and mythology.
Preaching: George Lucas picked up on Joseph Campbell also, and he cites Campbell as an influence on the mythology that lies behind the Star Wars films. Have you thought anything about the characters in those films?
Seay: Yeah, for me that was the one I grew up with predominantly. I think the church didn’t quite know how to respond to Star Wars at the time but we knew there was this epic battle between good and evil. Now most of us have figured out this is an opportunity to again talk about the real battle between good and evil and what is really going on in the world. Star Wars is a major force in storytelling and examining how we tell great stories.
Preaching: Tell me about your church.
Seay: A lot of young adults. We are actually in a strange period where we are merging with a 97-year-old congregation, so I’m pastoring essentially two churches – one of seventy and eighty-year-olds and another of primarily twenty and thirty’s, along with some forty and fifty-year-olds. We have a lot of artists and storytellers and musicians and writers; we use the visual arts a lot, especially in our services. We have areas set up that as I preach, people are free to respond by painting or creating or sketching or drawing.
Right now we are going through the Psalms, and we are responding to the Psalms communally. So every week we are reading poetry and journaling and looking at paintings that people have written as they have interacted with the Psalms and they have affected them. It’s a midrash. I describe preaching as midrash, the call to engage the story of God in a way that creates attention. I think that good preaching and good storytelling puts us in a place of attention where we are not sure of all the answers and we’ve got to – as The Matrix talks about – we’ve got to go back to the questions and ask the important questions.
Preaching: One of the places where many pastors struggle in the whole postmodern milieu is this whole issue of truth. As those who are committed to Christ and have the scripture, we have a confidence in the truth of scripture and in the truth that is in God. Yet we live in a culture in which truth is a very nebulous term. How do you deal with truth in terms of popular culture as you communicate?
Seay: I think we have to begin with a place of balance. Right now we are really unbalanced. One form of truth we really focus on is a propositional kind of spoken truth. Christ talked about it: He said I speak the truth but He also said I am the truth. We are going to have to be the truth and embody truth as often as we speak it. When those things come in balance truth makes a lot more sense.
For us, what we talk about as a community is that we are to be the body of Christ. As we tell the story through film, art, music, sculpture and literature, then we’re embodying the truth in the redemptive story in a way that brings some balance. Truth is an easier pill to swallow in art. If we are always beating people over the head with propositions we are not going to get very far. Jesus knew that – that’s why He was a storyteller. What we do in preaching most often is take the great stories and we try to say: this is what Jesus meant, let me give you the three propositions. We really miss the boat on that one.
In my preaching, I try to create tension. I really try to raise questions – I don’t try to answer all of the questions. I think good preaching, like a good film, should leave us talking. Force us into discussion to have to engage issues. So what I want most when people leave is for them to feel like they have to talk to somebody about what they’ve wrestled with.
To paint the portrait of many of these characters of scripture I spend a lot of time in the Old Testament because they are great stories. I also spend time in the New Testament. As I speak at places I will ask, “How many of you have taught through Romans?” and almost everybody will raise their hands. When I ask, “How many have taught though Ecclesiastes in your life time?” I get a handful of responses. I think some of that is changing, and must as people’s way of thinking changes. We think and operate – as most generations do – much more like the nonlinear format we see in Ecclesiastes. If you try to outline it you are just going to get a headache. It is very circular in its reasoning. That’s part of what makes it good. You just have to engage it.
Preaching: With The Matrix book and your earlier book on The Sopranos, obviously you’re plugging into popular culture at some strategic points. What suggestions would you offer to other pastors as they try to use those cultural points of contact effectively in communicating Christian truth?
Seay: I think the primary skill we need is to have eyes to see the story of God. What I try to do – and it’s a simple exercise – is to really try to see things in three different categories. There is what I see in a film or art or music as explicitly Christian truth – it’s almost like it came out of the Bible. There is another area of truth that is not redeemed – there is something there that is in need of redemption – but there is a nugget of truth there that is really worthwhile. Then there is this other that is just garbage, pornography, there is nothing good about it. But as we begin to engage culture and art and film and really read the newspaper, we have to think: where does that fall and on what line?
I hear from pastors that say, “How in the world do you write a book about The Sopranos? It’s godless.” No, it’s not. The whole thing is about this mob boss who wants to be God, just like all the rest of us. He thinks he is and he is miserable because of it. He is searching for forgiveness, his family is searching for forgiveness. The issues of faith and God come up all the time in this show.
The story of God is everywhere we look. We just don’t have the eyes to see it quite often. So the thing that I hope and pray for pastors is that they just begin to see what is already going on in the world. Six Feet Under is another one of these television shows on HBO that has a great deal of spiritual themes. You find it in Everybody Loves Raymond. Wherever you are looking you will see the story of redemption, and we begin to then focus on it and interject the truth of Christ into it. That’s what I would most like to see.
Preaching: What are things churches can do to connect with that young adult culture that often seems to be passing by the church without really engaging it?
Seay: There is a lot. I think we begin to reexamine the ways we articulate faith and to really focus on the story. We did that with kids in Sunday school. The reality is that we have been given a beautiful and wonderful story. If we’ll tell it well, people will respond to it. So we get back to that – we become narrative preachers. Using translations like The Message makes a lot of difference. It makes the Bible much more understandable, much more poetic.
It begins with a move toward authenticity. I think we are still a people who are not really honest with one another about who we are and how we struggle and the way we live. And for an emerging generation, that is what they respond to. Their detectors for our lies run pretty high. They are pretty quick on being able to pick up where we are not genuine and authentic.
If we will move into honest confession and a real and honest life and tell the story of God, I think we’ll increasingly see people embracing Christianity – people who had rejected Christianity largely because it is seen as an institutional Western religion.