Sermon for February 12th, 2017
20 The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them. 22 Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Faith & Film V: La La Land
Three Minute Film Summary
Mia is an aspiring actress who leaves her hometown of Boulder, Colorado for the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, where in between auditions, she works in a cofee shop waiting for her big break.
Sebastian is a jazz pianist, a purist and a traditionalist, who dreams of opening his own jazz club and bringing back the dying musical genre. But living in Los Angeles, he mostly has to settle for whatever work he can find, sometimes playing cheesy 80s music at parties, or Christmas jingles in a bar.
When Sebastian and Mia meet each other, it's not exactly love at first sight. They hit it off, but after a series of encounters begin to respect and appreciate each other, and then they fall in love. They encourage each other in their respective dreams, and teach each other how to be flexible and resilient in a tough city that, according to Sebastian, "worships everything and values nothing."
With Sebastian's encouragement, Mia quits her job at the coffee shop and rents out a local theater to put on a one-woman show she has written, with the hope that this will jump start her career. Meanwhile Sebastian takes a steady job playing keyboard with an up and coming band, and going on tour with them. It seems as if they are on the brink of realizing their dreams.
But Sebastian's time away touring puts a strain on their relationship, and the music he plays with this new band is not the jazz he loves. Mia finally puts on her big show, but it is poorly attended, criticized by some who do attend, and Sebastian misses the performance because of a photo shoot for his band. They break up, and Mia moves back home to Boulder, abandoning her dream of becoming an actress.
Not long after this, however, Mia gets a callback, from someone who did see her show and appreciated it. Sebastian drives to Boulder to find her and convinces her to give it one more shot. This time, the audition is unscripted, and the casting agent asks her to just "tell us a story." Mia does this, singing a tribute to dreams and the dreamers who inspire us. She is offered the part, which films in Paris. She and Sebastian go their separate ways, but on friendly terms, hopeful that the paths they have chosen will someday reunite them.
Fast forward five years. Mia is now the successful actress she dreamt of becoming, and Sebastian is now the owner of a successful jazz club in LA. I won't give away the ending, which is the subject of much conversation and debate. Suffice it to say that one night, almost by accident, Mia wanders into Sebastian's club and they see each other again for the first time in years.
Waiting for a Savior
In all of the movies we've considered this year so far, there has been a Christ type. I hate to break the trend, but there's not one in this film. In fact, it's the opposite. Everyone in this film is looking for a Christ type, waiting for a savior, hoping to be saved. The following clip is part of one a musical number that happens early in the film called "Someone In the Crowd." Pay attention especially to the lyrics:
Someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know The one to finally lift you off the ground someone in the crowd could take you where you want to go If you're the someone ready to be found."
The notion that somewhere, someday, if you're ready, a person will come along with the ability to rescue you and make all your dreams come true...that would have been a familiar idea to the people of the Old Testament, as they waited for a messiah. There is no Christ type in this film, but if we look to the Old Testament, to the people who waited for a messiah, I think we can find another type that is echoed in the film: The very first couple in the biblical story, Adam and Eve.
Like Mia and Sebastian, Adam and Eve rescue each other from loneliness. Their relationship moves from a state of naive innocence to a fall from grace, and the realization that their difficult choices have difficult consequences. Unlike some of the films we've considered, I don't think the connection here is intentional on the part of the screenwriters, but there are certainly parallels in the film story that should at least remind us of our biblical story.
In and Out of the Garden
In the Bible (and in today's scripture passage from Genesis), Adam and Eve go from this perfect, dream-like existence in the Garden of Eden, to the harsh realities of...well, reality in the land outside of Eden, a.k.a "The Real World."
In the film La La Land, there is a continual back and forth between the Hollywood scripted, perfect dream-like world (call it "La La Land") and the harsh realities of real life the city of Los Angeles (which also spells LA). This is obvious from the opening scene: It's a giant LA traffic jam on an overpass...but everyone is happy, singing and dancing on their cars. This is obviously not real life. The scene lasts about six minutes before it's rudely interrupted by an act of road rage...that's reality breaking in and taking us out of the garden.
We see this over and over again in the film: Mia is lost in daydream when she runs into someone who spills coffee on her shirt. The fantasy of a spectacular party is broken up with the reality of Mia's car being towed. Sebastian and Mia are on their first date at a movie theater (named the Rialto, which sounds a lot like "reality"). At the magical moment when they're about to kiss, the film literally melts, ending the movie. Here's Mia in an audition, lost in the drama of the moment, when reality cuts in:
I can't resist one more: In this clip, Sebastian is on a bridge doing some pretty magical hat tricks, and then begins to dance with a woman...when suddenly her annoyed husband smack him on the arm, and sends him packing. But also in this clip listen to the words:
Who knows, is this the start of something wonderful and new? Or one more dream that I cannot make true?
The entire film is, you might say, a jazz-like dance back and forth between dreams and reality, between paradise and paradise lost, on another level between the golden era of Hollywood musicals of the past and the gritty realism of struggling artists in Los Angeles today. And then of course, there's the ending, which is perhaps best understood as the climax of that back and forth dance, between La La Land, and LA. Again, I won't give the ending away, but I'll just say they both win and they both lose. You figure it out!
Evangelism and All That Jazz
Sebastian is an Evangelist for Jazz Music. Evangelism is a Greek word in the New Testament that means "good news" or good message. And Sebastian is passionate about sharing that good news with everyone in the world, including Mia. He lights up when he describes it, saying, "These guys are performing and composing and rearranging all at once. It's conflict, it's compromise and it's very very exciting! And it's dying Mia, it's dying on the vine. And the world says let it die. Not on my watch." What's his solution? He wants to build a church...I mean, a club...where his message can be proclaimed freely and purely.
Sebastian's friend, Keith, the one who recruits him into his band (which is called, interestingly, "The Messengers") also loves jazz, but has a different approach to "saving it." Keith's band mixes traditional jazz with modern beats and synthesizers, making it a hybrid jazz-techno style. At one point, Keith tells Sebastian: "You say you want to save jazz. How are you going to save jazz if no one’s listening? I mean, do you really think a bunch of ninety-year-olds in a basement is the future of the form? How are you going to be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist? You’re holding onto the past. But jazz is about the future."
So much of this reminds me of arguments we have in the church. Some say, Churches everywhere are dying! We need to spice up our message with coffee shops and children's programs and a praise band! Others say, no we need to be relevant, meet the people where they are. Still others say, "No, just build a building, preach the gospel, and people will come! Actually the argument is about as old as the gospel itself. Paul acknowledges this in Romans when he says "But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Here's to the Ones Who Dream
La La Land is the last film in our series on Faith and Film this year. In so many ways, it's a fitting grand finale. The last word on the screen as the credits begin to roll is a big label that says "Made in Hollywood." And the film is both a celebration AND a critique of Hollywood. But what is Hollywood? If you listen to some people, it's a profit making machine that chews up talented people and spits them out, that cares only about its own agenda, a place that (again in the words of the film) worships everything and values nothing. And you can certainly find that viewpoint in the film.
But Hollywood, in our time, is also the place where stories are told. The place where dreams are woven together with writing and music and dancing and singing and special effects. If you've ever cried at the movies, or laughed, or been stirred to anger, or inspired...there's something important about that. And you can find that viewpoint in the film as well.
Stories are important to every culture in every time. As Christians, we take our faith inspiration from a collection of 2,000 year old stories that still continue to inspire us, challenge us, and guide us through the challenges we face in this life. True, the stories of our faith are sacred to us in a way that most Hollywood films are not. But in the past six weeks (and in the five years we've done this series) I hope you're beginning to see that there are many connections, many shared influences between the stories of our Judeo-Christian faith and the Hollywood stories of our culture.
In any case, whatever is true and beautiful and inspiring, I believe ultimately comes from God the creator of all things, whether through scripture, music, art, literature, film, theater, poetry, or dreams. The apostle Paul said that God's message would seem like foolishness to the world, and often it does. The last thing I want to show you is a tribute to the things and people who inspire us, and to the fools who dream.