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The Table Video

Jonathan Merritt& Alissa Wilkinson

Christian Responsibility, Friendship, Love, Virtue - Jonathan Merritt / Alissa Wilkinson

Associate Professor of English and Humanities, The King's College / Film Critic / Author
July 13, 2017

Jonathan Merritt and Alissa Wilkinson discuss Christian Responsibility, Friendship, Love, Virtue, Attentiveness, Tenacity, Using Senses for Cultural Engagement.


What you guys brought this morning was, I mean a key word that keeps coming to mind is responsibility. All right the responsibility of the Christian to the church and the responsibility of the Christian to culture. So thinking about practicalizing that, what are those ways, I mean we got virtues from you just now, Jonathan. Alyssa you had sort of walked us through how to watch culture in a way. What are some of the ways that we can really embody that, begin to practice it being more responsible?

I mean when it comes to experiencing culture I think for me it a lot of times I get the impression that people think that they’re engagement with pop culture of any kind is for themselves all the time. This is for me to entertain myself and Christians in particular talk this way. So why would I do this if I’m not interested in it? And I do think I really strongly believe actually that Christians in particular have the responsibility to seek out things that challenge them and to engage with them thoughtfully and then reflect upon them and to do all three of those things.

And is there a reason like specifically that Christians have that?

Yeah I mean I would like it if I thought everyone should do it, but Christians are supposed to be like Christ, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing and Christ became a man. So that’s pretty radical empathy right there and then was really radically involved in the things that his culture was doing. He went to parties. He went to weddings. He preached. He went on boats and went fishing like he did all these things and then he told stories about them and he you know talked with his disciples about what they were experiencing.

So I think that if we’re seeking to be like Christ that’s one way that we might do that and it seems like Paul certainly encourages us in that direction too. That means that that doesn’t mean that we have to watch every movie that comes down the pike. Goodness knows I don’t, but it does mean that and maybe this is selfish cause this is what I do, but I do think it means that we have to read critics that have interesting, different perspectives on things or you know talk to our friends about what they’re watching even if we don’t. Which is totally fine there might be really valid reasons to not engage in a work of pop culture because what we’re doing here is trying to do more than just entertain ourselves or kill a few hours on Netflix after work.

Jonathan you described the practice of taking another person’s perspective, making it your own for a moment and then arguing it’s best case. Do you have anything else in mind about the ways that we can be more responsible?

Yeah, I think one thing I would add to that is from my perspective, Christians the American Christian community, I shouldn’t just say Christians sort of a monolithic way, but the American Christian community and in particular the one I that I come from which the one I know most about, which is American Evangelicals, US Evangelicals. They’re intentional about a lot of things. They’re intentional about the kind of music they listen to, the kind of movies they watch. They at least want to think about, they want to think about it they engage those things. I think that American Christians are often less intentional or maybe you could argue unintentional about the way we form and sustain friendships.

And yet this I think when you read the scriptures is something that is handled with a distinct intentionality. So I think that if we were more intentional with the way that we form friendships and relationships it would certainly transform these conversations. You’ve seen on some of the most important issues we are facing in the church today you’re finding that the way that someone forms friendships and relationships is often shaping the way they actually think about these issues and the way they are speaking about these issues in public.

And so you know there used to be I think if you were to look at American Christianity 30 years ago when it was far more in some quarters separatistic and you could have like you know Christians could just like wear Christian t-shirts and watch Christian movies, which have come roaring back and listen to Christian music and go to Christian schools and go to Christian colleges. Which is I did that, many of you are doing that so nothing wrong with that, but you go to Christian churches and everything was just sort of in these little Christian sort of separatistic communities and sub-cultures it was easy for us to form these echo-chambers and not really interact with people who are different than us.

In the digital age and the internet age in a globalized world it’s just almost impossible to do that. You can’t talk about immigration apart from the undocumented children who are in class with your children. You can’t talk about gay and lesbian people as if they’re some sort of weird monster or gender or faceless group out there. They are the people who live next door to you who actually brought over cookies and said welcome to the neighborhood. And so how do you deal with that when somebody becomes a face. When they become embodied and so I think that as Christians the call to be embodied in our faith calls us to be more intentional about the friendships we make and I think in turn that helps us to disagree well.

Yeah, absolutely.

And Alyssa you read this quote from C.S. Lewis a quote that I have never heard and probably, I hope you guys have heard of it. He brings expression to what your talking about I think Jonathan that we have this deep desire to see with other eyes, imagine with other imaginations, feel with other hearts, as well as our own, in love we escape from ourself into one another. I would love to hear what both of you have to say about that. Unpacking that a little bit because I mean really love is going to be at the bottom of where we want to sit, but allowing disagreement to settle and to be tense, even in these moments when we’re seeing through other eyes, imagining with someone else’s mind like.

And in that quote he goes on to say that in doing so I don’t lose myself. He actually says I’m never more myself than when I’m doing this. Which I think speaks to again like our status as created in the image of God that you know if all humans are created in the image of God then starting to understand the variety of sorts of perspectives and experiences that people have actually helps us to become like God in the sense that we’re trying to emulate what he does and how he made the world. And so we become more human, more created, more of what we’re created to be when we’re experiencing those things and you know on top of it the thing that film can do in particular for us is help us to understand the kinds of people who we would have very difficult time coming in to touch with.

So I don’t you know I travel, but I don’t speak other languages for instance. I love watching Iranian film in particular because I know nothing about Iran except what I hear on the news and most of it doesn’t help me to understand Iranians at all, but I live in New York City and I run into people all the time you know my cab driver for instance and so I can actually have a discussion about a perspective or something I saw in a film that I couldn’t have had otherwise or a culture that’s not my own or you know these kinds of things come up all the time where I start to see how other people see my culture too.

Which is something that’s a difficult perspective to gain in my everyday life. Whether that culture is being an American Christian or whether that culture is being an American or something like that. I’m beginning to understand myself in a new way as well as understand others that way.

Yeah, Jonathan?

I think one of the most interesting words in Lewis’s quote there is one of the shortest one’s which is see. And I think one of the ways that we embody our faith and one of the ways we can begin to sort of break down barriers and build bridges is to think about engaging with others in terms of the senses. It’s actually I think one of the ways that we become most Christ-like.

When you look at Jesus there’s that great story of Jesus and he’s at the home of the Pharisee and you know the woman comes in there’s a whole like outrage that they’re engaging and he looks back at the Pharisee and he says do you see this woman? I think it’s really fascinating. You know Jesus was always when people say what do you think? He’d say what do you think?

You regard their presence here. Yeah, he wanted to hear, he wanted to see. Jesus you know is touching he’s spitting in the mud and rubbing in people’s eyes. For me one of the ways that I’ve built empathy in New York City I mean come with me sometime from the suburbs and sit on a New York City train car where someone has just pissed themselves and you’ll begin to see a different kind of person in the world that maybe you didn’t see in your gated community in that urban enclave.

So I think like for me to begin to think about listening and touching and smelling and it really really engaging people with my whole body. That’s something that helps me to begin to step into their shoes and maybe begin to when I do engage other individuals to disagree with them well.

Yeah, Alyssa you’ve in thinking about watching film and engaging with it. We’ve talked in the past about the intellectual virtues that are required and I almost wondered if you’d point to something. Jonathan pointed us toward a few, but I wanted to give you a chance to sort of consider what do we need to cultivate in ourselves to be more present?

I think film helps us and TV shows help us to cultivate the virtue of attentiveness. So, attentiveness is something we’re super bad at in our culture. Which I’m as guilty of as anyone else. I’m flicking through my Twitter feed and I have 14 tabs open.


Yeah, I mean you know I think I’m good at it. I think neuroscience says none of us are, but the thing about watching movie is that your supposed to watch the movie and the way we have been watching them for a long time is you go into a dark room with a bunch of other people and shut your phone off and then watch the movie. For two hours there’s almost no context in our lives in which we do a thing for two hours with one screen. Which is why the theatrical experience is so important. So that’s one thing it can do. It can also I think invite us to become more tenacious which is something I’ve written about.

I think that encountering ideas and arguments and people who aren’t like you or ways of thinking that isn’t the one that you hold, as you were saying in your Seminary class, you come out perhaps having a better understanding of why you hold the view you do and still being committed to it. I’m firmly committed to orthodoxy and to certain types of tradition, but I think that if you never encounter those other ideas then when you are confronted with them in the real world it’s very confusing, you get defensive, it’s very I don’t know what to do here and film actually provides us with kind of a training ground to do that and to boot it’s enjoyable, like it’s a fun, this is not work.

This is like the easiest thing you could possibly be doing to develop a virtue is watch a movie. So I think that that’s really wonderful and intellectual tenacity is a thing that I see lacking a lot with people at large and with my own students. The ability to hold on to an idea while also being in the presence of other ideas and to do it in a generous way.

Thank you guys so much.