By Joel Stein
There are two types of Christians: Those who will let us dance and those who wont. Admittedly, much of my theology comes from Footloose.
So, while some ministers planned protests outside theaters showing The Da Vinci Code, senior pastor Ken Baugh of Coast Hills Community Church in Orange County, Calif., appeared on the Today show to encourage people to investigate the movies claims themselves. When I found out he was considering giving congregants tickets and Starbucks gift cards so they could bring a non-church-going friend to discuss the film, I immediately thought: free nonfat venti chai.
Not only was Baugh willing to see the movie with me on Friday, he mailed me one of the 352 free iPod Shuffles he packed with his eight-part sermon about the inaccuracies in Dan Browns bestselling book. It was the yuppie version of missionaries bribing their way into Africa.
At the Edwards Aliso Viejo Stadium 20, Baugh and I got huge sodas and buckets of popcorn and scored two of the few remaining seats at the 3:30 p.m. show. In case you ever happen to be in a similar situation, you should know that Baugh is a bit of a talker during a movie. He leaned over not just to correct historical inaccuracies but to tell me that Ian McKellen was a good actor, that the poison put into a flask was some bad whiskey and that hed like to walk around Paris and take digital photos.
When we got to Starbucks after the movie, I learned that even though Im a Jewish atheist, Baugh and I didnt think all that differently. We both found the movie slow, Hanks miscast and Audrey Tautou hard to understand. Baugh found the cinematography great, while I thought the grainy, black-and-white flashbacks were a little overused by Ron Howard, and eventually Baugh agreed. He does need to get a little more creative with that, Baugh said.
Our conversation was far more interesting than the movie. This was undoubtedly because we were hopped up on giant Cokes and venti caffeinated beverages. We easily could have spent the hour in a raving ontological debate about Robin Williams movie RV.
It took Baugh only a few minutes to convince me that Browns conspiracy theory was bunk because I was already disinclined to believe someone who tried to impress me by having a professor of symbology riddle out the tricky Fibonacci sequence. And who also tried to convince me that the Holy Grail was a vagina. (Id dispelled that one by the end of high school.)
The overt feminist themes in the film made us realize we had different ideas about womens roles in society, with Baugh taking a separate-but-equal philosophy and me believing in more of an equal-but-separate school of thought. And, to be honest, the separate part was usually my ex-girlfriends choices. Recently my wife, Cassandra, has placed a breath pillow between us on our bed.
I like how open Baugh was to my questions and how eager he was to check out opposing opinions. Deep into a discussion about grace, Baugh said, Joel, you understand more about Christianity than most Christians do. I protested, and he said, Dude, you do. It felt wonderfully Californian to be addressed by a preacher as dude.
In the end, Baugh felt the anti-Christianity of the book was way watered down for the film and that the movie would do less damage than the Christians who protested it. I think it reinforces the worst stereotypes about Christianity that we have opinions about things without researching them ourselves, he said. Their way of speaking the truth is like the Crusaders: to hold a gun to your head and say, This is what you believe in.
In addition to his Da Vinci Code sermons, available on CD or podcast, his church is making short films and has just completed pub evangelism by singing Christian rock in pubs in Ireland. This is clearly the church for me, other than the Christ part.
As we finished our second enormous sugary beverages of the day, I told Baugh the film did not shake my nonbelief. He countered by noting that I had sought him out after spending the previous week investigating a Christian video game for a column. I think Gods doing something in your life, and Im glad to be a small part of it, he said. I liked that thought a lot because it meant that God was paying attention to me. Still, I had to tell him that it wasnt enough to get me to believe. You are one of the most honest atheists Ive ever met, he said. Most of them come with a lot of anger.
Baugh promised to stay in touch and continue our dialogue. And I really wanted to because it was nice to be reminded that people who believe in Jesus arent simpletons impressed by magic tricks. And that, as a fourth-generation atheist, my beliefs are just as inherited as anyones. And that if more people in the world were like Baugh, that wouldnt be a problem.
Special to the Los Angeles Times