Keith (John Legend) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) – scene from the film La La Land
(warning: this article contains mild spoilers relating to the film)
La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is currently enjoying top reviews as it opens in cinemas across the UK. The story follows the two main characters, Mia and Sebastian as they seek to follow their dreams in the ‘la la land’ that is Hollywood.
The film is a wonderful showcase of music and dance in the style of a 1950s musical but the ending lifts it from being a pastiche of those classic films, to something rather more honest and wistful. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and its unconventional ending, but I was struck unexpectedly by a challenge from one of the supporting cast, which would apply equally well to the Christian church, as it did to Sebastian’s character.
One of the things which Sebastian is struggling with, is his failure to find a niche where he can play ‘true jazz’ to an audience which appreciates it. In the opening scenes we see him in a restaurant at Christmas playing a rather gaudy version of Jingle Bells (which he clearly hates). When he breaks into a different piece, he gets fired because ‘no-one wants to listen to that’.
Later in the story he meets an old friend, Keith, who is also a jazz musician and Sebastian agrees to join his band. At first Sebastian is uncomfortable with the fusion of traditional jazz and modern hip hop rhythms and Keith recognises that.
He points out the uncomfortable truth which Sebastian already knows: that jazz is dying. All the people in the clubs are old people and there are no young people there. Sebastian wants to bring back jazz to a younger and newer audience, but as Keith so eloquently puts it:
“How are you going to be a revolutionary when you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding on to the past, but jazz is about the future.”
I was struck on the way home, what a strong analogy this is for many branches of the Christian church.
The church is dying, in a way. Great numbers of churches are investing huge amounts of energy and resources into protecting, defending, preserving and maintaining their traditional ways of doing things. But maintaining what feels familiar and safe for some people, is actually alienating many of the newer and younger audiences which the church has yet to reach. Much of the spiritual wealth and value which the church has to offer isn’t being accessed by those who might need and enjoy it the most, because it’s located and presented in places which younger people can’t or don’t access.
And I’m not talking about teenagers or university students. I would include here young adults in their twenties and those in their thirties, potentially with young families. These generations, who were born into the digital age, who can’t imagine or remember life without the internet; who are living in a time where the globe feels smaller but the threats feel bigger; when debt is higher but income lower – these people are the ones who might find the most comfort and encouragement in knowing a God who loves and accepts them unconditionally. But they’re not hearing this message, because it’s broadcast in a language they’ve never used, in a place they’ve never been to.
How can the church be revolutionary, without compromising on its core values, identity and belief? That’s the real struggle many churches are facing, because many of its oldest members can’t see how to re-shape their practice into something accessible, without feeling that their Christian identity is in danger of being eroded.
And how can the church retain and bring forward the deep and rich vein of historic Christian practice, without getting stuck in the past and thus failing to be relevant to the present and the future?
The film La La Land illustrates the compromises Sebastian has to make in order to be able to realise his dream of opening a jazz club. The lessons he learns on the way are valuable and inform his own development as a musician. I wonder if the church is capable of undertaking the same journey, while it seems to be working so hard to maintain the story of the past?