I have a weakness for James Bond flicks. Apparently the poet May Swenson does, too. Her below poem, compliments of The Writer’s Almanac, provides a helpful framework for thinking about a recent church worship experience and its implications for Christian spirituality:
The James Bond Movie
by May Swenson, from New and Selected Things Taking Place
The popcorn is greasy, and I forgot to bring a Kleenex.
A pill that’s a bomb inside the stomach of a man inside
The Embassy blows up. Eructations of flame, luxurious
cauliflowers giganticize into motion. The entire 29-ft.
screen is orange, is crackling flesh and brick bursting,
blackening, smithereened. I unwrap a Dentyne and, while
jouncing my teeth in rubber tongue-smarting clove, try
with the 2-inch-wide paper to blot butter off my fingers.
A bubble-bath, room-sized, in which 14 girls, delectable
and sexless, twist-topped Creamy Freezes (their blond,
red, brown, pinkish, lavender or silver wiglets all
screwed that high, and varnished), scrub-tickle a lone
male, whose chest has just the right amount and distribu-
tion of curly hair. He’s nervously pretending to defend
his modesty. His crotch, below the waterline, is also
below the frame—but unsubmerged all 28 slick foamy boobs.
Their makeup fails to let the girls look naked. Caterpil-
lar lashes, black and thick, lush lips glossed pink like
the gum I pop and chew, contact lenses on the eyes that are
mostly blue, they’re nose-perfect replicas of each other.
I’ve got most of the grease off and onto this little square
of paper. I’m folding it now, making creases with my nails.
To find me in the theater is rare these days with two young children. When I do watch movies, they’re usually the likes of a Disney cartoon on our weekly family movie nights. (Just the other day, we got our fix listening to an animated version of Hercules serenade us, sounding more like, to quote my husband, “a gay hairdresser.”)
But I always make an exception for James. Over the last decade I have faithfully and eagerly greeted the latest incarnation of Bond in front of a full screen. The suspenseful car chases and ridiculous stunts, silly puns and beautiful people in a world far removed from mine are such a pleasurable escape, best experienced in a theater.
The other day I visited a new church: the cinematic thrills were not quite the same but they had a similar effect. There was the dark, cavernous feel of a movie theater on steroids, with a large stage and big screens. The good-looking preacher with the sexy “down-under” accent in his designer jeans, whose conversational demeanor assumed an almost spooky level of intimacy with the crowd of several thousand people. The worship band that under strobe lights crooned so loudly and in such well-synchronized performance that I felt like I was at a rock concert and could not hear myself sing. The well-manicured, pre-recorded testimony clips from the attractive, well-coiffed people about to be baptized- (and in some cases, by the way, re-baptized, to the horror of my Presbyterian sensibilities), who in just a few cookie-cutter sound bites advertised the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus.
In those moments, I, like May, could feel the grease on my fingers: I became conscious, maybe even self-conscious, about all those places where the often gritty, confusing, mundane, and sticky places in my walk with Jesus were not squaring with the slick and exciting presentation on stage. I felt out of place. Disconnected. Alternately intoxicated and repelled by the artificially enticing suggestion that worship could be easy and exciting entertainment- maybe not unlike how James Bond and his fourteen Barbies in the bubble bath would have us imagine sex to be.
I left that day yearning for a realer, more fully embodied, deeper connection with Jesus and those around me- the kind that is “incarnational” in the full sense of the word. Real, imperfect people fully engaged in real, imperfect worship. Less thrilling, perhaps. More mundane. Like a simple meal of bread and wine shared between broken people. Like the old, familiar hymns, hymns like “Amazing Grace,” sung out of tune but at the top of our lungs. Like the prayers of the people that remind us who our neighbor is in the pew next to us and across the world.
From now on I’ll stick to watching Bond only in the theater.