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The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Worshipping Community

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By jcarter - Posted on 22 August 2005

by Jeff Carter
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is a uniquely B-Movie science-fiction / horror / comedy / rock–n-roll musical based on the stage musical of the same name. It appears on the silver screen complete with the obligatory mad scientist -Dr. Frankenfurter, a “creature,” aliens from another planet, and the infamous Time Warp dance.The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is a uniquely B-Movie science-fiction / horror / comedy / rock–n-roll musical based on the stage musical of the same name. It appears on the silver screen complete with the obligatory mad scientist -Dr. Frankenfurter, a “creature,” aliens from another planet, and the infamous Time Warp dance.It's astounding
Time is fleeting
Madness takes its toll
But listen closely
Not for very much longer
I've got to keep control.
I remember doing the Time Warp.
Drinking those moments when
The blackness would hit me.
And the void would be calling.

It has often been described as a “Cult Film” – the word “cult” as opposed to “occult” (which actually means “hidden” but is usually used to mean something to do with the demonic or satanic – though the argument could be made that the R.H.P.S is that too) Cult means worship and a religious group. And in some sense this is truly a “cult” film.

Millions of people around the world come together at midnight at local theatres to participate in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. They are a diverse group, male – female, young and old, but they share an attraction to the movie.

It really is unlike all other movies. When the lights go down in the theatre for other films, the audience sits quietly in their seat watching as the actors on the screen enact a story. When the lights go up, the audience goes home. But when the lights go down for the midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show something entirely different begins. The audience doesn’t passively sit back to watch the film. They, instead, begin to participate in the story. They’ve already arrived at the theatre dressed in the costumes of the various characters – each more outlandish than the last. And they’ve brought with them various props (lighters, rice, rubber gloves, etc…) to use during the show. When the couple on screen gets married, the audience (both on screen and in the theatre) throws rice. When the Mad Scientist snaps his rubber gloves, the audience snaps theirs as well. They recite the lines with the actors on screen – and they interject their own lines – interacting and participating with the story… the audience becomes a part of The Rocky Horror Picture Show - even to the point that some members of the audience enact the entire show at the front of the theatre below the screen, as the movie plays above them.

It’s a story that (no matter how depraved) they feel that they connect with, and feel a part of. It is a story of weirdoes, misfits, and outsiders, and the fans of the R.H.P.S at some level feel that they, too, are weirdoes, misfits, and outsiders, so the R.H.P.S is a celebration of what they see in themselves.

Through their interaction and participation in the movie they worship at the theatre (and, it’s important to remember, all theatre began as religious ceremony) in the cult of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. They participate in the cultic worship the film is their sacred text. They have memorized its verses and they sing its hymns.

What they are worshipping, of course, is their own self, and the fulfillment of their own selfish desires for unrestrained freedom (particularly sexual freedom) without constraints of any kind; moral or ethical.

Give yourself over to absolutely pleasure
Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh
Erotic nightmares
Beyond any measure
And sensual daydreams
To treasure forever.

But we're not here to celebrate the R.H.P.S. Why do I bring it up? Because of the way it can help us to understand what happened with the people of Israel as they renewed their covenant with Yahweh, and what happened after Joshua died. The fans of the R.H.P.S are not like other movie goers. The story is THEIR story – made so by their interaction with and participation in the sacred text / film. The same is true in the way that Joshua and the people of Israel renew their covenant.

In chapter 24 of Joshua the Israelites had conquered, divided up, and settled in the land. But now as Joshua is preparing to leave the people; for he is old and ready to die, he orders a national assembly: The tribes gathered at Shechem along with their elders, leaders, judges, and officials, and they, as a whole body, presented themselves in God’s presence.

And Joshua began to tell a story. Their story.

From time immemorial, your ancestors Terah, father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River, and served other gods. Then I brought your ancestor Abraham from beyond the River and led him through the length and breadth of Canaan. I increased his descendents and I gave him Isaac. To Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. To Esau I gave possession of the mountainous country of Sier.

Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt. I then sent Moses and Aaron, and plagued Egypt with the wonders that I worked there; finally I brought you. I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and you came to the Sea; the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen, to the Sea of Reeds.

Note that: “finally I brought YOU out… YOU came to the Sea…”

The people that Joshua is speaking to were NOT the people who came out of Egypt, not the people who cam to the That generation of Israelites had perished in the wilderness during the 40 years of wandering because of their refusal to obey Yahweh. Yet Joshua deliberately says, “YOU.” Yahweh brought YOU out of Egypt.

They then called to Yahweh, and he spread a thick fog between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea go back on them and cover them.

You saw with your own eyes what I did in Egypt. Then, for a long while, you lived in the desert. I then brought you into the country of the Amorites, who used to live on the further side of the Jordan; they made war on you and I put them at your mercy; after which, you took possession of their country, since I destroyed them before you. Next, Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, rose to make war on Israel, and sent for Balaam son of Beor to come and curse you. But I would not listen to Balaam; instead he had to bless you, and I saved you from his power.

This is not just a story from Israelite History 101. This sacred story is THEIR story – even if they hadn’t been born when it happened, they are becoming a part of it through Joshua’s telling.

“You then crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho, but the inhabitants of Jericho made war on you: Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivities, and Jebusites, and I put them all at your mercy. I sent hornets ahead of you, which drove out the two Amorites kings before you; this was not the work of your sword or of your bow. And now I have given you a country for which you have not toiled, towns you have not built, although you live in them, vineyards and olive groves you have not planted, although you eat their fruit.

Many of those who gathered for this national assembly probably didn’t remember these events either. They had been born in and had grown up in the Promised Land. They did not remember the crossing of the Jordan or the fall of Jericho – but they are becoming a part of the story… YOU… This is their sacred story.

So now, fear Yahweh and serve him truly and sincerely; banish the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt and serve Yahweh. But if serving Yahweh seems a bad thing to you, today you must make up your minds whom you mean to serve, whether the gods whom your ancestor served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now living. As regards my family and me, we shall serve Yahweh.

The people replied, ‘far be it from us to desert Yahweh and serve other gods! Yahweh our God was the one who brought us and our ancestors here from Egypt, from the place of our slave labor, who worked those great wonders before our eyes and who kept us safe all along the way we traveled and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And Yahweh has driven all the nations out for us, including the Amorites who used to live in this country. We too shall serve Yahweh, for He is our God.”

They have become a part of the story – they are interacting with it. “Yahweh was the one who brought US out of slavery….from the place of OUR slave labor.” They could not physically remember the cruel lashes of the Egyptians whips on their backs – but through the story they can feel that pain. Through the story they can sense the awe and wonder of the plague and wonders Yahweh inflicted on Egypt. They can feel the amazement of seeing the walls of water part before them. And as they remember the story – they begin to participate in the ongoing story, “We too shall serve Yahweh, for he is our God.”

Through the story they have connected with the God of their ancestors. The stories are not dusty rehearsals of long forgotten events, but life-changing in their immediate relevance.

Joshua then said to the people, “You will not be able to serve Yahweh, since he is a holy God; he is a jealous God who will not tolerate either your misdeeds or your sins. If you desert Yahweh and serve the foreigners’ gods, he will turn and maltreat you anew and, in spite of having been good to you in the past, will destroy you.’

The people replied to Joshua, “No! Yahweh is the one we mean to serve.’

Joshua then said to the people: You are witnesses to yourselves that you have chosen Yahweh, to serve him.’

They replied, “Witnesses we are!”

“Then banish the foreign gods which you have with you and give your allegiance to Yahweh, God of Israel!”

The people replied to Joshua, ‘Yahweh our God is the one whom we shall serve; his voice we shall obey!”

That day Joshua made a covenant for the people; he laid down a statute and ordinance for them at Shechem. Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. The then took a large stone and set it up there, under the oak tree in Yahweh’s Sanctuary. Joshua then said to all the people, “Look, this stone will be a witness to us, since it has heard all the words that Yahweh has spoken to us; it will be a witness against you, in case you should deny your God.’ Joshua then dismissed the people, everyone to his own heritage.

The people, through their participation in the story of God’s deliverance of Israel, became the worshipping and covenantal community of God. The story of deliverance was their story. And the God of their ancestors was THEIR God.

Unfortunately it didn’t continue…

Joshua having dismissed the people, the Israelites then went away, each one to his own heritage, to occupy the country. The people served Yahweh throughout the lifetime of Joshua and throughout the lifetime of those elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the great deeds which Yahweh had done for the sake of Israel. Joshua son of Nun, servant of Yahweh, was one hundred and ten years old when he died. … And when that whole generation had been gathered to its ancestors, another generation followed it which neither knew Yahweh nor the deeds which he had done for the sake of Israel. Judges 2: 6 – 10

The generation that had participated in the crossing of the Jordan, and those who had seen the walls of Jericho topple died, and “went the way of all the earth,” and those who grew up after them, who could not remember the crossing of the Jordan, or the fall of the walls of Jericho – let alone the crossing of the Sea of Reeds or the slavery of Egypt – no longer participated in the story of deliverance.

They had forgotten the story. They no longer participated in it, and they no longer participated in the worship of God. As they forgot the story, they forgot their place in the covenant; just as Joshua predicted they would.

Why do we gather to worship? What’s the point? Are we here like people at a theatre who want only to passively watch a story performed on the screen in front of us? Or are we here like the fans of the Rocky Horror Picture Show – who, as misguided as their worship is, are frantic participants in the story; making it their story?

Our worship is not just listening to scripture as it is read, or the praying of prayers, or the singing of songs and hymns. We are here to make the Salvation Story, the story of Redemption, the story of how God rescues his people OUR story – to become one with the story, and to participate in the covenant community.

If the story becomes a dull recitation of things long ago – or merely something we do on Sunday mornings – irrelevant to our everyday lives, then we are in danger of forgetting OUR place in the ancient story. And when we’ve forgotten our place in the story, we’re forgetting our place in the covenant of God.

(words and music from the Rocky Horror Picture Show by Richard O'Brien)

jcarter's picture

“Consecutive reading of Biblical books forces everyone who wants to hear to put himself, or to allow himself to be found, where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of men. We become a part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God's help and faithfulness. As this is not mere reverie but holy, godly reality. We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dealt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgment and grace. It is not that God is the spectator and sharer of our present life...but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God's action in the sacred story, the history of Christ on earth. And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also.” (Life Together Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

There is no life without prayer. Without prayer there is only madness and horror. - Vasilii Rozanov

Ed's picture

Jeff, I just now finally got around to reading this article. I wish that I had earlier. Very perceptive remarks. Thanks for your hard work in preparing this.

I find your final paragraphs enlightening. To me, many of the criticisms of "the contemporary church worship" come from those who are largely ignorant of what you speak. Worship/Celebration is about participation, not just at that moment, but in eternity. It is at the same time traditional in message, contemporary in application.



Papa is especially fond of us

jcarter's picture

Thnanks for the kind words.

There is no life without prayer. Without prayer there is only madness and horror. - Vasilii Rozanov

Paige's picture

Hi Jeff,

Just wanted to let you know that I appreciated your article and the insight I gained reading it. Thank you for providing us a great reminder that although we were not those first century christians who witnessed redemption as it happened, we must never forget what we have received because of it.


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