Saturday, July 12, 2008

What the Church can Learn from the Hollywood Writers Strike?

The screen writer’s strike came and left leaving us mostly nonplused[1] but leaving behind a few mildly interesting lessons:

1. Goateed, hipster picketers fail to generate the blue collar solidarity that usually accompanies labor disputes and all attempts to compare Hollywood types to coal miners or auto workers disintegrate into comic self parody.
2. Americans are so dependent on visual media that they will tune into repeat programming with nearly 80% loyalty verses new content, divesting the creative class of any bargaining power.
3. People who have lots of money did not get lots of money by sharing it with those who made them lots of money.

But as we learned far more than we cared to[2] about the inner workings of original content programming, one lesson for the church loomed above all others. All quality original content is generated in community. When content is produced by an individual quality can not be sustained. We learned that our culture’s premier orators are pretty average when required to summon their own material.

My primary access to this phenomenon was through my regular consumption of the work of Jon Stewart, who struggled to fill his 23 minutes, four times a week. It was often painful for both of us. Stewart would openly check his watch to see how long a particular gag had taken, pleading with time to pass more quickly. Friends and commentators suggested that others (Lettermen, Leno, Kimmel et al) faired even worse.

But this got me thinking. If someone as brilliant as Stewart can not fill 93 minutes of content per week (even with the help of the other non-writing actors) how can we reasonably expect the average pastor to pump out inspiring sermon week after week when, for most, it is only about 20 to 30% of what they do. The marketplace is a pretty good machine for churning out optimal solutions to a range of problems. The pulpit is the centerpiece of post-reformation Protestantism (whether that is Biblically justified or not). Preaching is the primary original content the church produces. We should optimize its development. We should consider the benefits of generating content in community.

Lest I be accused of the unpardonable sin of pragmatism, let me build a brief theological case. Content by community seems like it could be a pretty easy pill for the church to swallow. After all, community is central to the Christian experience. As Eugeene Peterson says, “You are not yourself by yourself.” Christians believe that connectedness is fundamental to humanness. We call ourselves the body, a fundamental metaphor of interconnectedness. Every prescriptive text on leadership in the New Testament talks about a community of interdependent teaching leaders. And finally, our anthropology requires us to view our own skills, ideas and talents with skepticism and to desire the corrective influences of others.

Still, it seems that post-reformation Protestantism has this picture of the heroic pastor slaving in solitude alone in the study. There are a couple pastors out there that can consistently make it work. Driscoll and Keller come to mind. But both of them have significant time carved out[3] for prep and even then, Driscoll has no fear of repeating the same joke for the 8th time[4] and Keller is probably preaching on ‘the gospel’ again this Sunday.[5] Most preachers, even exceptional ones, simply cannot be profound, inspiring, entertaining, insightful, carefully exegetical from their own reading and experience week after week, 45 weeks a year. Almost no other profession requires that. And, those that do, do so in community[6].

So how about it? Pastoral writing staffs. This might look like 3 to 8 lay individuals that study the passage 2 weeks before and are responsible for providing 3-5 fragments under the headings: Observations, Interpretive Points, Illustrations and Applications. The orator builds his/her own message and synthesis but has quality bits to draw from that would have taken a great deal of time to find and might come from a different perspective that resonates with the listeners (since they also work outside the church). Or better yet, can you imagine the sanctified chaos of a weekly ‘writer’s room’ (say 1 hour, Tuesdays, after work) where the ‘writers’ pitch angles, illustrating anecdotes and points of application and riff off each other giving the orator a productive ferment from which to draw and hone a message. And, as a bonus, they’d never go on strike.

[1] Particularly those of us who consume >90% of our visual media through DVD’s.
[2] The entertainment industry is becoming increasingly self referential as they turn to themselves for content and find themselves more interesting then we do. We are getting a lot of new content about the entertainment industry (e.g. Studio 60, 30 Rock, Extras). Studio 60 didn’t fail because religious America has no sensibility for the transcendent art of Alan Sorkin. Studio 60 failed because we are interested in Sorkin’s art not Sorkin himself. (That, and we have a polemic tolerance threshold for our art).
[3] One standard suggestion involves putting in one hour of prep time for each minute of speaking.
[4] And to his credit, it is usually still funny.
[5] Though, to his credit, it will be fantastic.
[6] Political speech writing is another example.


BlackEyedSusan said...

Our own CD of BEFC does a lot of that sort of thing. In the year or two before I graduated, I was a bit on that team, mostly as the one who was trying to think up catchy titles and bring up potential issues (isn't that funny?). It was a great listening experience, though, thinking through the sermon with worship leaders, the preaching team, and CD. He'd bring in an outline, and then we'd kick the thing around. Good times.

Bronwyn said...

I think it's a great idea. For sure, we noticed Jon Stewart's discomfort, increased used of expletives etc too.

Jamie Crooks of UCC used to (perhaps still does?) run a weekly bible study on campus on monday, "brainstorming" the passage he would be teaching the following Sunday with a group of about 20 college students... No doubt his teaching was much richer for it.