Now that August has arrived, I ought to set my face to Jerusalem and end my usual pattern of finishing up syllabi for the coming semester the night before classes begin. One of my classes, in particular, cries out for reorganization after last spring’s more “down-and-dirty” than “clean-and-clear first-time-teaching-it” shakedown cruise. But the good I would do in this body of death I do not do, so I spent the day watching Movies with Mikey on YouTube.
Mikey Neumann is a brilliant cinephile, astonishingly adept at drawing distinctions, and unafraid of making assertions. On that last count, he wouldn’t have passed muster with Erasmus of Rotterdam who, in his “Diatribe on Free Will,” took Luther to task for making assertions. Erasmus’ point was that the Bible was so murky that none of us is a pure enough macher to tackle its true meaning. What’s required is a papa in the ecclesiastical household to tell us what’s what. Luther’s response in “Bondage of the Will” was to refute the task-taking over assertions by adding yet another assertion to the list Erasmus disparaged. He argued that scripture is perfectly clear if – and it’s a big if – you have the wherewithal to distinguish between Law and Gospel. And that’s where Movies with Mikey lends a hand.
Neumann doesn’t waste his precious 20-minute time slot for each episode by doing film reviews. Reviews are a dime per twelve dozen in the customer comments offered on Amazon or IMDB. They’re mere opinion. What Mikey’s up to is film criticism. He offers up the visual and artistic language of cinema, of narrative, of quick cuts and dialogue. In the guise of a review, he teaches me how to watch movies, how to understand what I see on the screen. The process is tantamount to revelation: both the way I watch movies, what I glean from them, and my very being changes as a result of Neumann’s guidance. Thanks to his episode on “What We Learned from Animation,” I won’t ever again be able to watch Dumbo with benign affection for that flop-eared elephant. By being led through an analysis of Inception and its spinning top and ambiguous ending, I understand something about the ambiguity of my own daily life. And I’m absolutely convinced of the genius of Edgar Wright in both “The Cornetto Trilogy” and Baby Driver.
The Confessions instead look forward and provide a critique of the world and of all my various religions and idolatries.
The Lutheran Confessions function the same way. These 16th-century foundational documents assembled by reformers almost forty years after Luther’s death do more than simply review a legacy of doctrine. They don’t attempt to recapture the glory of the great reformer’s massive oeuvre shadowed over by political and military losses. The Confessions instead look forward and provide a critique of the world and of all my various religions and idolatries (often due to their straightforward addressing of post-Luther controversies). From the ecumenical creeds and the Augsburg Confession through to the Formula of Concord, they take me into all that I observe and experience with my eyes and four other senses and transform me. They insert a new language of faith into my brain and heart in the face of the mumblings and natterings of a lost and sinful world.
The Confessions don’t allow me to be satisfied with the standard trope of western narratives where a solitary hero bootstraps himself to a desired secure future. The Confessions put an end to my desire for a meet-cute and heart-warming kiss at the end of my romantic comedy with God. Their critique of the entire surface that the Hidden God wears as a mask, will allow no penultimate assertions of reality. The witness of the Confessions demands that I be made new.
Indeed, that’s what true proclamation does. Preaching doesn’t happen simply to explicate a pericope. That’s what I learned at the feet of practitioners of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation – the wielders of worldly wisdom intent on discerning the factual and making God’s word relatable by means of speculation, if not outright knowledge. But square one for the Confessions is never what goes down between my two ears. Instead, the address of the Confessions begins between two crosses and what my Lord did there. In The Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge bares the horrifying details and takes her readers back to the first century to allow them to understand the cross better. Her work helps me begin to see the cross both as a brutal diagnosis of my sinful disease and the cure through the Trinity’s love and sacrifice there. This assumption, the Gospel itself, is a bloody, hopeful thread that runs through the Confessions and recasts who I am.
The kicker is that the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen creates a theologian of the cross in me.
The proclamation of the Gospel called for in the Confessions reinterprets me, so that I arrive on the far side of this preaching event newly made. The Gospel itself takes me into my sin, my best-intentioned self, my wild and wooly world, and reworks it. Proclamation and the theology that supports it are no mere things, nouns attached to persons, places, and things. They are verbal, active, and alive. Gospel proclamation does something to those with ears to hear.
The kicker is that the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen creates a theologian of the cross in me. My preacher’s authenticity in naming my sin and the faith present in that pulpit work to insert some kind of somatic gene therapy into the husk of the old sinner in me. I’m filled with more than a passing emotion or the glee of the mountain-top. I become restless and impatient with my good intentions. Robert Burns was right that “The best laid plans o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” Thank God for that, for had I not become a bold sinner, had I never known the utter bankruptcy of my petty plans, then I’d never have known what lies on the other side.
Watch the most recent episode of Movies with Mikey, “Get Off the Floor,” and you’ll see it in action. I haven’t a clue what Neumann’s religious predilections are, but the cross and death that have lurked under every previous episode are present. The last several months I’ve noticed a change in Neumann’s voice, and there had been brief glimpses of a hospitalization. But in “Get Off the Floor” Mikey recounts his years-long crucifixion under MS. The disease had set its face like flint on his destruction.
In this episode, there are no film clips. Just the stark black and white terror of it all. The stroke. The admission of prior years full of dickitude. The lying helpless in a closet with an overhead leak landing drips in his own tears. The learning to walk. And the knowledge that the truth was at last known. There’s no level lower down. The only possible thing is to hear an inner voice, some kind of “Talitha cum” – Get off the floor. Words that are the first rays of an Easter morn.
The last prayer I’d ever want to pray is, “Lord, lay me down helpless.” Yet isn’t that the same as “Lord, I believe. Help, thou, my unbelief”? True preaching of the Gospel allows me to be a pew-sitter who can speak such a terrifying prayer. True preaching has an answer to such a prayer. “You ask who can save you from that body of death? Christ the Lord, the first-born of the dead, can and does. Get off the floor.”