Can this Pied Piper lead us to the Promised Land?

May 31, 1997

On a warm day on a busy walkway in a large square in Berlin, a young man sits playing his flute for a pocketful of change. His hair is spiked like the Statue of Liberty and he wears a dark tank top. I draw near to him and see his shirt’s message: “Jesus didn’t die for my sins. He died for His own.”

Christ is on the shirt, crucified, upside down, all particularly interesting since the flutist is doing gospel.

“It’s easiest,” he explains, as I kneel down and chat with him.

Behind us is a towering, 19th-century memorial church. Bombed, and left hollow-toothed as a poignant reminder of the Second World War, the homeless, mainly heroin addicts, will urinate against it later tonight.

Close by, a gifted artist works, wowing the crowd with magnificent illustrations of far-off galaxies. He makes them in just minutes with nothing but various-sized circles and spray paints of bright blue and yellow, blood red and jet black.

Thousands walk by, while in the midst of the throng a team of youth from around the world shares its message of hope. Such is the scene I was in several summers ago, a memory that to me reflects > Hollywood.

Think of a religious character in a contemporary movie or series, and what comes to mind? Maybe fashionably corrupt? Crazy? Both? Did the killer in the acclaimed Cape Fear (1991), the one with the Bible under his arm and cross tattooed across his body, have the well-being of many in mind?

More than 25,000 demonstrated in front of Universal Studios to protest The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and 135,000 petitions were given. Universal’s response? “We don’t care. Leave them with the guards and we’ll put them in the dump.”

What about the recent Michael? Is there humor in seeing a hairy, beer-slurping, illmannered celestial being whose wings fall off, knowing he’s the namesake of a powerful archangel designated to lead the forces of good to victory in the heavenly realms?

One doesn’t have to look far to see how Hollywood has desecrated the sacred. And no matter how sophisticated our society believes itself to be, certain poisons of pop culture will invariably seep into our souls. Critic Roger Ebert describes the Marche at the recent 50th anniversary of Cannes as a sign the film industry maintains “unflagging optimism, there are new ways to show t. and a. (abbreviations mine) and machine guns.”

Still, a spiritual presence is growing in movieland. Some are even calling it a quiet awakening. The number of shows aimed at family audiences is up five-fold from 10 years ago. Morality plays such as The Lion King are flourishing. Even films with more mature themes, such as Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking (1996), are showing there is a place for religion in the world of contemporary films. The production’s title denotes Christ’s resurrection.

There is something to be said for Hollywood being a doorway to the divine through mythology. That’s why I especially enjoyed following up a recent Sunday morning church service with a matinee of the re- released Return of the Jedi.

Creator George Lucas was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, something generally hexed in Christian circles. But I wonder if Lucas’s impersonal “force” can stir an interest in the nature of Christ. As the Apostle Paul noted to the church in Colosse, “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together.” Is not one’s walk in Christ largely a mystical experience?

“His compassion for you will be his undoing,” says the evil, dark, galactic emperor while he and Darth Vader wait for young Luke Skywalker to do final battle. As it turns out it’s the Jedi fighter’s compassion, you might say his willingness to lay down his own life, that wins the day and the empire, not to mention the soul of Vader, as it turns out, his own father. The villainous emperor is cast in the bottomless space pit.

Beneath its hi-tech surface, the Star Wars trilogy is a classic biblical archetype. It has a simple message: despite the error of men and the power of evil, someday all things will be made perfect as they were meant from the beginning.

Experiencing this through modern myth touches a nerve in the child-like capacity of our spirits. We want to trip, and skip and run merrily after this wonderful music with shouting and laughter. Star Wars is the biggest movie seller of all time because it nourishes our deepest hopes just as much as our desire for good entertainment.

AMAZING METAPHOR: There’s a story in the Old Testament about a woman named Gomer who was deeply loved by her husband. She kept selling herself into prostitution, and Hosea, a Jewish prophet, kept buying her back, over and over. The story carries a powerful emotional tug. It’s an amazing metaphor of how God doggedly pursues relationship.

As this relates to my summer in Berlin, I was deeply moved by the plight of the downand- outers who made their homes on the street. It was my first trip home to the city where I was born, and my heart broke when I touched the sorry existence many of my people lived. I think I felt in a small way what God must feel for places like Hollywood.

Still, in our times there are those who believe it is largely through the media, including movie and television screens, through which the Creator will reveal Himself. That’s because it’s His pattern to come to us through our environment, those places where we spend most of our time.

For that reason, there may be more hope for my Berlin piper friend than first meets the eye. Maybe there is good reason to stop and listen to his tunes, regardless of what he wears. Like Browning’s pied piper who led the children out of the medieval town of Hamelin, he just might lead us closer to a real magical Promised Land. And he, too, just might find redemption along the way.

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May 31, 1997 • Posted in ,
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