This semester’s schedule calls for me to get back into Christian ethics. So, in addition to the basic text I am using, I have been reading some sources that are “new” to me, John Howard Yoder, in particular. Yoder is perhaps the most persuasive and well-known among pacifist writers. Whether you agree with Yoder, disagree with Yoder, love him or hate him, if you are going to wade very deep into Christian ethics you have to deal with Yoder and the application of his views.
This, however, is not really a post about Yoder. Perhaps I will do that at another time.
What Yoder got me thinking about was how diluted Christianity has become. With very, very, few exceptions, most congregations of virtually every stripe or color of Christians have become conformational. This fact is astounding, given the reality that Jesus called upon his disciples to be transformed, and transformational, and the apostle Paul wrote emphatically that disciples of Christ are to be transformed and transformational. (see Romans 12:1-3)
To explain my terminology here, conformational Christianity is a Christianity that has conformed itself in one or more aspects to the culture in which it resides (for us Americans, that would be a free-market, capitalistic, militaristic, representative republic). We look like good Americans, we act like good Americans, we talk and buy and sell and defend and basically exist as if America was the “promised land” of which Moses spoke to the Israelites.
Transformational Christianity, both individual and communal, would examine that culture (or cultures) and work with the remnant of ideas that might be God affirming, and would reject or transform everything else in order to live fully and whole-heartedly within the “reign of God” on earth. A transformed Christianity would look nothing like its surrounding culture, except as that culture has itself been transformed by the Christian leaven working within it. A transformed people would be known by their inexplicable love for one another. They would be known for their total devotion to the ethics of the Kingdom of God. They would not be concerned about money or power or prestige or whether or not they were being treated fairly under the Constitution. A transformed church would live as if this world was a transition to a better world, a re-created Garden of Eden in which Christians will all share in a re-established image of God.
Conformational Christianity asks, “What is culture saying that we must do in order to appeal to consumers looking for the best religious deal?” Transformational Christianity asks, “How has Christ changed my life, and how can I go out and change my world.” Conformational Christianity asks, “What can we do to keep our young people from choosing another church or to leave the church altogether?” Transformational Christianity says, “I have no idea what you are talking about, our kids are begging for opportunities to serve and lead.” Conformational Christianity worries that maintaining any tradition will hamper its effort to “be relevant.” Transformational Christianity rejoices in traditions that keep its message pure and alive, while willingly looking for new ways to express its faith – with no regard whatsoever for the issue of “relevancy.” Transformational Christianity knows intuitively that a person cannot make the church “relevant” (what ever that means), it knows that the church is relevant for the purpose of transforming people’s lives as a basic, fundamental part of its existence.
I know of too many churches that are sell-outs to cultural pressure. They define the term, “conformational Christianity.” They conform to both the style and content that the western culture demands of them. In the words of Jesus’ parable, they are worthless, their fate is to be thrown on the dung heap.
Transformational churches are salt and light in the midst of a bent and broken world. Jesus called on his disciples to be transformational people (Matthew 5-7). Paul echoed that call in Romans 12. Peter called on the churches to whom he was writing to be a Holy people, just as the God they worship was Holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).
Be Holy. Be Transformed. Be Transforming. That is the challenge given to the Church of Christ. I pray we have the courage of our convictions, and that we can accept this challenge without fear or favor to any earthly power.
It is not a popular concept anymore, if, in fact, it ever was. What if I’m wrong? In today’s world there is no right and wrong. But, there again, what if the people who think this way are, despite their assertion to the contrary, wrong?
What happens then?
It is frightening to pay attention to many speakers, preachers and Bible class teachers in particular. Imbued with the “sage on the stage” mentality they view their conclusions as unassailable truth, when, in fact, often times their conclusions are nothing more than guesses, educated or not. This is especially so when such conclusions are buttressed with the quotation from a passage of Scripture. The truth of Scripture is somehow magically transferred to the the presenter, baptizing the false statement and absolving the presenter of any sin. Of course, the error is more frequently than not compounded by the fact that the passage of Scripture is taken out of context, but hey, if we are proving the truth of our flimsy argument and absolving ourselves of sin, what does a little context have to do with anything?
But, I return to my question – what happens if I am wrong? (Let’s speak in first person singular terms here, just to avoid the temptation to be judgmental.) Or, perhaps to be more truthful, what happens WHEN I am wrong?
When was the last time you saw, or heard, someone actually, sincerely confess error? I don’t mean confess around the error. Politicians and other public figures have mastered the art of first-person-once-removed confession. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by the allegations made against me.” Notice there is never any regret at being wrong, only that certain individuals might be offended. In some rare instances the figure might admit that the allegations are serious, but on the other hand, “there is no evidence to support the allegations.” Never, “the allegations are absolutely false.” It is just that there is never any evidence to support the allegations. My lawyer is too good to allow any evidence to show up.
Enough with the politicians. They are far too easy a target. What about your preacher, your Bible class teacher – what about you? When was the last time you heard your preacher stand in the pulpit and say, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I might be wrong here” and fully, truthfully meant it?
Here again I am not talking about the massive flood of “I used to think this about (you name the hot-button issue of the day), but now I think this…” That is mere pandering to the masses, and that in and of itself is conduct unbecoming a minister of the gospel. Any minister who changes his mind concerning homosexuality or bending gender roles or the role of the Holy Spirit just to climb aboard a bandwagon has sold his soul to the devil. I am talking about a genuine confession of error in life or in doctrine that affects a person to the core of his or her being.
I am talking about a Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul kind of transformation. A confession that moves a person from persecutor to persecuted, from trying to take life to being willing to surrender one’s life for the sake of the same cause. I am talking about being absolutely convinced of the truth of a concept to the absolute conviction of the error of the same concept. I know it happens, but, how does it happen and what are the consequences?
To make the argument that I am always right, that I am flawless in my interpretation of Scripture, that I know the absolute truth to every question of translation, interpretation, and application is absolute heresy. No one can be that perfect. We may share in a measure of perfection, we may taste perfection from time to time, but even the most secure of our conclusions comes with the tinge of reality that I am human, my intellect is fallen, and there is always more information out there than I can access or grasp.
Does that mean we throw up our hands and give up? As Paul would say, “By no means!” Absolutely not! I may not know with divine certainty why baptism is essential for salvation, why men and women are created equal but with different roles, why certain practices are pleasing to God while others do not please him, but that does not mean I surrender my God given intellectual gifts to try to understand those questions – nor to search for greater certainty that those “truths” are indeed true. And it certainly does not absolve me of confessing when I am wrong about any conclusions I offer as being true, but are not.
If I had one saying that could describe my philosophy of learning it would be this, “If I am wrong, please point out the error of my way, as I do not want to believe any error, nor do I want to teach any error. But please use evidence beyond personal opinion so that I can test the validity of your conclusion, as you have obviously tested the validity of my conclusion and found it to be false.”
Two people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints on any issue cannot both be right. Homosexuality cannot be both acceptable to God and a sin. A congregation that forbids the public leadership roles to women and a congregation that allows women full leadership roles cannot both be pleasing to God. Christians cannot both affirm the uniqueness of male/female genders and affirm the rights of individuals to “change” their gender. Baptism cannot be both essential to salvation and an optional act of choice. Man cannot have both free will, and be subject to eternal predestination.
These concepts I hold to be true. If I am wrong, please let me know why, and where I can learn a better truth. Don’t expect me to just give up if you disagree with me, but if I am wrong I want to change my beliefs and behaviors to conform with the truth.
What happens if I am wrong? . . . Maybe my topic is not important, maybe it is eternally important. But the question itself should never cease to guide my search for truth.
Thanks for flying with me in the fog…
I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.
But, some things are just too good to pass up.
As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for the material.
The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.
Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.
The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.
However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.
But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.
I apologize to my out-of-the-U.S. readers, but this is where I live, and if you do not have this problem consider yourself extremely blessed.
Yesterday I wrote what probably has been my most angry post. I am still fuming – and believe me, what I posted was nowhere near as vitriolic as what I deleted. Quite simply I cannot fathom why anyone would consider a personal “right” (whether it truly is or not is debatable) over the life of another human being, but especially the child of grieving parent. Enough of that.
The question I want to pose today is why do American “Christians” have such a morbid attachment to the U.S. Constitution? Why are American Christians so emotionally attached to that piece of paper? Can anyone explain that?
Really, people – its just a piece of paper. A bunch of human beings got together, wrote it down and then voted on what they wrote. It is as simple as that. There was no divine intervention, no words from Mt. Sinai, and there were clearly no words from Golgotha. It was a significant human achievement, I will grant you. But Americans, and Christians in America especially, act as if Moses carried down the mountain before the 10 Commandments. I mean, wasn’t Moses elected president of the NRA? That’s good enough for most Duck Dynasty fans, anyway.
Here is a little exercise for you – think of the most horrific thing that can happen to the U.S. Constitution. Was it destroyed? Did a foreign country overwhelm the U.S. and burn it to ashes? Did the President get it annulled? (Our current one is working on it, by the way). Got it? Now, what would change about your life?
Really, seriously – what would change if the Constitution was to be destroyed? Would you maybe lose your job? Would you become a slave? Would you have to go to an interment camp? Maybe your family would be killed? Maybe you would be killed?
Well, guess what, good Christian American – each and every one of those things has occurred to people as a direct result of the U.S. Constitution! If you doubt be ask the descendent of a slave. Ask a Native American Indian whose ancestors were beaten, raped, forced to live in “Reservations” (which is a really polite word for “Concentration Camp”) and, if they resisted, were murdered by the thousands. Ask the Chinese who were forced to work as virtual slaves as the country moved west. Ask the Japanese and German immigrants who were forced to live in interment camps during WWII simply because of their last names. Yeah, boy, we have a long list of Christian accomplishments – all at the power of the U.S. Constitution.
If the U.S. Constitution were destroyed tomorrow I will tell you what would still be true – God would still be God, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross would still be effective for all who believe in him, disciples of Christ would still be able to live in the greatest free country in the world – the country of the Kingdom of God.
No human can ever be really free just because of the accident of his or her birth. No human can ever be a slave to anyone if that person has been set free by the blood of Christ. We are all, each and every human who has ever lived, ultimately the slave of whichever god we choose to be the ruler of our life. And that subjection is proclaimed most clearly by the things we protect the most fiercely and those things we absolutely refuse to give up.
So, I ask again, why are American Christians so devoted to the Constitution? Oh, I think I just answered my own question.
Another gem from my daily Bible reading today – Leviticus 18:1-5 (Yes, it is okay for Christians to read Genesis-Malachi):
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the LORD your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD. (NRSV)
This passage, of course, precedes the great holiness chapter in Leviticus 19 where the phrase, “I am the LORD” falls like a drumbeat on the ear. But maybe more on that another time.
I was struck this morning with the profound counter-cultural message of Leviticus 18:1-5. God cannot make it any more clear – do not be like the people that I am delivering you from, and do not be like the people that I am going to drive from you. You are my people, therefore you will follow my statutes and my commands and my ordinances.
I wish more religious/spiritual/Christian leaders would read the Old Testament. Especially the holiness passages.
Today what we hear from far too many spiritual gurus is that the Lord’s church has become too exclusive, too secluded, too provincial. What the church needs to do is get with the culture – become more affirming, more inclusive, more accessible.
To be specific, if the dominant culture dictates that there are no differences between the genders then the church must become gender neutral. If the culture dictates that marriage is simply a matter of “love” and physical attraction then the church must not only accept same-sex marriages, it must bless them. If the culture dictates that nationalism is synonymous with spirituality then the church must preach subservience to one’s country, and perhaps even one political party within that national structure. If the culture dictates what is acceptable in dress, in language, in entertainment then the church must alter its message to accept that clothing, that language, and that entertainment. If the culture dictates how a person is to spend his or her time, then the church must alter its schedule to find a time in which a person who is “busy” with soccer or softball or football or gymnastics or dance or whatever else may conflict with previously scheduled times of worship may attend without missing out on the “important” aspects of life.
To be perfectly blunt – the 21st century church has forgotten from whence we have been called and whither we are being called. We have forgotten that Egypt was our place of slavery and that Canaan is nothing but a spiritual cesspool.
Okay – we have never been slaves in Egypt and Canaan is all the way around the world, and several centuries removed from our experience. But the message of Leviticus is clear: our God is a Holy God and he expects us to disregard the culture in which we find ourselves and to follow only His commands, His statutes.
That means we have God’s commands as a priority when we find ourselves in an unfriendly culture and when we find ourselves in a friendly culture. Maybe especially when we find ourselves in a friendly culture.
For far too long Christians in America have soothed our consciences by repeating the mantra: “America is a Christian nation, America is a Christian nation, America is a Christian nation.” Well, whether that has been true in the past is a matter for debate (I, for one, do not think so). But it clearly is no longer true. We may not have moved to Canaan, but we certainly have allowed Canaan to move into the U.S.
Let us be done with cultural accomodation. Let us stand and be recognized for what we claim to be – God’s holy and chosen people. If that earns us scorn and ridicule and censure then so be it. Those are the promises given us by none other than our Savior, Jesus (Matthew 5:10-11; John 15:18-16:4). If the shoe is supposed to fit, maybe it is time we tied it on and started walking in it.
I’ve been trying to articulate something for some time, and for whatever reason I just cannot seem to get the words right. If you are reading this that must mean I hit the “publish” button, so maybe I’ll get it right this time.
Back when I was flying the most stressful (nay, terrifying) aspect of flight was the last few thousand feet of the flight when I was cutting through some dense fog on an instrument approach. According to the FAA rules under which I was operating, I could begin an approach as long as the visibility at the airport was one-half mile and there was a 200 foot space between terra firma and the base of any solid cloud layer. (This was the lowest minimum visibility required – at other airports the minimums went up due to less accurate navigational aids). Now, what that means is when I broke out of the cloud base there was 200 feet between me and mother earth, and I could see 3,000 feet in front of me. The only problem (well, not ONLY) is that on final approach I was flying at roughly 100 miles an hour. It does not take long to cover 3,000 feet horizontally or 200 feet vertically if you are traveling at 165 feet per second (give or take a few).
Add to that there was the issue of keeping both eyes glued to my instruments, making sure I had flaps and landing gear down (the chirp of rubber meeting concrete is much more comforting than the shriek of aluminum grinding on concrete), maintaining proper airspeed, monitoring all my approach and navigational aids, and talking on the radio whilst at the same time keeping one eye pealed out the windscreen hoping to catch a glimpse of the ground before it reached up and smacked me. And, I was doing this all single pilot – nobody named Auto sitting next to me to make sure I was not about to kill myself and spread thousands of pounds of freight all over the countryside.
So, when I saw the bright strobes and approach light system announcing the approach end of the runway I always let out a huge sigh of relief. It was always nice to breathe again when you have been holding your breath for 5 minutes.
The thing that was so comforting about seeing the approach light system was that it meant I was almost home. The lights did not have to worry about the fog, the ceiling level of the cloud base, the rain, the snow, or if everything in the plane was functioning properly and had been properly tuned, pushed and set. The lights were solid guides in a very fluid and dangerous system.
Oh, and one other thing I forgot to mention:
When flying in fog so dense I could not see my wingtips I had to turn off the strobe and landing lights on my airplane. This was true in daylight, but was especially critical at night or in snow or rain. If I did not the disorientation from the resulting strobe or the reflection from the landing lights could get me killed graveyard dead in a matter of seconds.
I had to make sure that the only lights my eyes would focus on were the lights of the approach light system on the end of the runway. Any other light was distracting, and potentially fatal. Once free of the clouds a quick flip of a couple of switches and I had my strobes and landing lights back on (if necessary).
I may be an alarmist, but I see way too many preachers and authors trying to fly in the theological fog with every light in and on their airplane turned as bright as it can, while ignoring the lights at the end of the runway. In other words, they are focusing entirely upon their constantly changing nature, their culture, their wants, their wishes, their desires, and the way they have decided God must think, act and judge; and they are totally ignoring the solid, immovable structure that tell us exactly how God in fact does think, act and judge.
Stated another way – we need to turn the lights off of ourselves and let the light of God’s Word guide us home.
I’m sick to death of preachers saying that some passage of Scripture can be ignored or rewritten because our culture is different from the culture in which the author lived. Yes, it is. And the culture of Paul was different from the culture of Abraham or David. But you never read of Paul disavowing Abraham or David just because they preceded him in terms of earthly chronology.
Our world is moving and changing at a speed far in excess of 100 miles an hour. The fog of contemporary culture is far more dense than any in which I ever flew. We cannot just sit back and “fly by the seat of our pants.” We have to end this infantile obsession with our narcissistic culture and realize that if we are going to safely lead others to a distant shore then we are going to have to trust the approach lights that God has given us – not our own fickle and changing opinions.
We have to turn the lights off of ourselves. God hasn’t moved since the days of Adam and Eve. He knows where firm ground is. He knows where our destination is. He has provided us with all the guidance we need. He has the approach lights turned up as bright as he possibly can.
Let us have a little faith in the light of God’s Word, shall we?
I just made a discovery – about my own interpretive process. The process itself is not something new to me, I guess it is the way I have been thinking for quite some time. But the end result of my thinking has just become much more clear. You’ll have to wade through the whole post for my last sentence to make any sense. But it is where I am today.
Let me begin by saying dialogue is great. I heartily support dialogue. Dialogue is necessary and in most cases is quite pleasant. Dialogue is absolutely necessary if two people, or two groups, are to find common ground and negotiate a mutually acceptable position in the midst of a heated and bitter conflict.
Which is why the Church of Christ should never, ever, in any way, shape or form, enter into a dialogue with anyone or anything.
A dialogue takes place between two equals, or between a lesser who appeals to a greater, in the hopes of finding a mutual agreement. A dialogue is a prologue to a compromise. Married couples sometimes need to have a refereed dialogue. Big companies and organized labor quite often need to come to a bargaining table and have a refereed dialogue. Prosecuting and Defending attorneys dialogue quite often to avoid the bother and expense of a trial. On occasion antagonistic countries need to be brought to a negotiating table in order to have a peaceful dialogue.
The Church is not a marriage partner to anyone or anything in this world. The Church is not a big company, nor is it an amalgamation of unionized workers. The Church is not a country, or an aggrieved individual. The Church has no equal on this earth with whom it can compromise. When the Church compromises it loses its nature. It simply ceases to be the Church. To put it bluntly, the Church has no one or nothing with whom it can dialogue.
Over the past 50 years virtually every church group, religious group, denomination, whatever you want to call it, has entered into a “dialogue” with a group that wanted it to become more modern, more “relevant,” more in tune with secular practices and mores. The “Social Gospel,” militant feminism and now militant homosexuality are just three areas in which a religious group has “dialogued” and come out looking far more like the world than when it entered the conversation.
Can you name a major religious group, denomination, or independent church that is theologically more conservative or less “progressive” today than it was 50 years ago? I cannot. Some may not have changed (although, I would argue very few), but I cannot think of a single Christian faith group that is more conservative today than it was just a scant half-century ago.
The only way a group has been able to maintain any kind of conservative, narrowly biblical interpretive stance is to split off from a larger, more “progressive” movement. So we have seen huge defections from the Anglican/Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church and many Baptist and Church of Christ congregations. Whenever anyone says, “We need to reexamine our beliefs about….” what they are really saying is “we need to change our beliefs about…..” and “dialogue” becomes the vehicle by which that change is effected.
All of which makes me very nervous and very skeptical when I hear certain voices promote a new or ongoing “dialogue” between the church and atheist movements, or agnostic movements, or further dialogue with proponents of homosexuality or feminism or militarism or any other king of “ism” for that matter. This would extend, by the way, to “dialogues” with religious groups with whom I might share one or two core convictions, but who have chosen to make substantive departures from what I believe to be Scripture itself is to be viewed.
So my question for these proponents is this – what exactly do you mean by “dialogue?” The way I read the Bible, the Church of Christ does not negotiate anything. The Church does not have the power to compromise with anyone or anything. The Church of Christ is not an equal to any secular power or entity. Therefore, the Church of Christ is under no compulsion or expectation to “dialogue” with anyone.
Nor am I, as a member of the Church of Christ, authorized or deputized to “dialogue” with anyone or any group and speak for “The Church of Christ.” I can only speak for my own convictions, my own beliefs, and my own interpretations of Scripture. And, as much as they may want to argue, no one can speak for me based on his or her interpretations, convictions, or beliefs. I cannot even speak authoritatively for the congregation of which I am a part, and for which I serve as a minister.
In a sentence, the “Church” is a group of people who live their lives in a submissive relationship to the absolute authority of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
So, when you say “the church needs to dialogue with ……,” exactly what authority are you giving the Church that God himself has not given it? And who will speak for the “Church” that you think needs to enter into this dialogue? And what power or authority does that person (or persons) have to bargain with?
Membership in the Church is non-negotiable. That is the thing about the church that the world never has understood, does not now understand, and will not likely ever understand. Discipleship is a total and complete surrender to a Lord and Savior who demands our complete devotion.
So, when I say that I cannot enter into a dialogue with a certain group or with a certain person, I am not trying to be mean, nasty, ugly or unduly obstinate. I am simply living out my conviction that I do not have have the power, the authority, nor the freedom to “dialogue” with someone who refuses to accept the God under whom I have placed my life, and His Word, which I hold to be absolute in guiding my life. I can teach, I can “give a reason for the hope that is within me.” I can evangelize – that is – spread the good news. But I cannot, and I will not, lower my understanding of the nature of the Church of Christ to make it be something that is equal to or lesser than a vain philosophy of this world.
And that, dear reader, something that I am discovering in increasing measure, is profoundly unpopular.
[Opinion disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this piece are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect the views of anyone that I am associated with – and that includes my wife, child, employers, my four cats, my rambunctious puppy or my very limited number of friends – or at least the friends who considered themselves my friends before they read this blog. My language is hyperbolic and some might consider it extreme. I intentionally did so for a purpose. I just want to make that point perfectly clear. In my next post I will return to a “quieter” and more analytical response. Today the right brain, tomorrow the left.]
There have been a flurry of “Christian” or biblical-themed movies hit the big screen in recent years, and especially in recent months. Just a few that come to mind are “The Passion of the Christ,” “Fireproof,” a somewhat lesser release called “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry,” the most recent additions “God’s Not Dead,” and “Noah” and the soon to be released “Son of God” and “Heaven Is For Real.” I know I am missing many, but these are the ones that jump to my mind.
“The Passion of the Christ” and the recent release of “Noah” have generated the most discussion, mostly because they were big budget, big name releases that were heavily advertised and were, in different ways, very controversial. “The Passion of the Christ” was controversial because of the persona of Mel Gibson, hardly a choir boy, who pushed the movie from conception to completion. It was also brutally graphic – some reviewers felt it was almost obscenely so. “Noah” is controversial because (a) the only relation it has to the biblical story is the namesake and a lot of water and (b) I believe the producers and marketers of the movie wanted it to be controversial so they could sell more tickets.
In my opinion, many, though not all, “Christian” themed movies are just bad – some wretchedly so. I believe this first because of the (un)theology involved. Others suffer from low budgets and poor acting, directing and other technical aspects. Some are just so blatantly transparent that they reek of condescension and hyper-morality. Once again, in my opinion these movies are not just bad – they are bad in epic proportions – dreadfully, wretchedly, horrifically, insultingly bad.
So why are these movies so popular? Why do otherwise sane and believable ministers and bloggers scream “You HAVE to go see this movie” in bold letters and with three exclamation marks at the end? The obvious answer is that perhaps they have seen the movie and they genuinely like it. Movies are like anything else – my tastes are not everyone else’s tastes. What is garbage to me is a diamond to someone else. So, while you may think a particular movie is the greatest thing since “Gone With the Wind” I will politely say that hitting my thumb with a hammer is a far more enjoyable experience than watching it.
But I would like to suggest that there is another reason why any movie that has a vague “Christian” message is hyped so relentlessly, regardless of whether there are any artistic or theological reasons for doing so (or for avoiding it, for that matter.) I believe that most “Christian” movies are hyped and are popular with “Christian” audiences because that demographic is so starving for anything that even resembles “secular” themed movies that the Christian audience will simply neutralize any intellectual or critical component of their thinking because they want to go watch a movie that is one of “ours.” We have bought into the concept of “group-think” to the point that we cannot criticize or reject any product that has a “Christian” message because we would be guilty of shooting ourselves in the foot. I have been more than mildly amused with the fact that the greatest amount of negativity regarding the release of “Noah” is NOT directed at the movie (contrary to what some may think), but the real vitriol has been reserved for those reviewers (Christian or secular) who happen to criticize the movie on any of its major faults. It is “biblical,” it is at least tangentially related to God and faith (how much is dependent upon the viewer) and so the movie and the ones who produced it are viewed as being simply beyond criticism. “Hey Christians, we made a movie for you so shell out your money and keep your mouth shut.”
I guess I am more disappointed in the ones who should really know better – the ministers and church leaders who should (one would hope) have a greater grasp of theology and apologetics. I have to say in all honesty that the entire premise of “God’s Not Dead” is so incredibly laughable that I honestly wonder what anyone related to the film was thinking when they put the storyline together. A professor wasting an already limited amount of class time to having a debate with a student? A student getting away with yelling at a professor in front of a class? And really, how many professors would waste their time forcing their students to sign an atheist manifesto like “God is dead”? Now – I am well aware that atheistic professors will openly belittle and ridicule Christianity. But, come on people! Sometimes our spiritual xenophobia is so extreme that it borders on psychotic illness. I have agnostic/atheistic students in my classes who (a) would never set foot in a movie theatre with such a blatantly condescending title as that movie and (b) even if they did they would laugh out loud at the ridiculous setting of the movie. And they would definitely not appreciate the characterization of the professor in the movie.
Brothers and sisters, if we want to attract an agnostic or atheistic audience and honestly engage them in a meaningful discussion, insulting their intelligence is NOT the way to go about it. If we want to show that the message of Christianity is superior to that of the atheist, we should portray the atheist as the atheists or agnostics that I know – honest, kind, logical thinking people who are open to the person of Jesus but who have been led astray or even brutalized by a false manifestation of Christianity. (Incidentally – the movie itself violates a major rule of logic. In a proper philosophy class you would never be allowed to create a “straw man” type of opponent, which is exactly what the professor in the movie becomes. We think that because the “straw man” was defeated all similar arguments are thereby defeated. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the depiction is inherently misleading and therefore unethical.)
But these movies are NOT made for atheists or agnostics, they are made for “Christians,” because “God” or some biblical character’s name is in the title and they are supposed to “prove” that God is not dead or that he did thus and such thousands of years ago. They are designed to reinforce our already solid convictions. So “Christians” are shelling out dollars by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, and no one is asking the 8 most basic, fundamental questions a Christian should ask about movies such as these – is this movie true? Is it honorable? Is it just? Is it pure? Is it lovely? Is it gracious? Is it excellent? Is it worthy of praise? (Philippians 4:8). If it fails on a majority of these questions then we should not support it. (I would also argue that these questions should be asked of ANY movie we think about seeing!)
C.S. Lewis is reported to have said that the world does not need more Christian literature. What the world needs, he said, was more literature produced by Christians that was excellent literature – good, solid, captivating stories that were told in a brilliant manner. I agree wholeheartedly with Lewis. What we need are wonderful movies, well written, beautifully acted and produced, and marketed not as “Christian” apologetics, but simply as captivating, worthwhile movies the whole family can view and enjoy.
And, maybe, if we did that, we might actually be able to engage our agnostic or atheistic friends in some honest and open discussion.
Meant to tackle this topic last week, and the wheels came off of my planning cart.
A few months ago I wrote a response to the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a photographer could not legally refuse to participate in a homosexual wedding regardless of that photographer’s religious belief. In the weeks/months that have passed since that ruling the accounts of courts and judges forcing people to accept and even participate in what they view as aberrant behavior have just mushroomed. In my last post I mentioned I would suggest a way forward for the church, but in reality what I have to say is not new – either to me or to others. So, I am not claiming originality here, but I would like to share once again what I believe the church must do, or must continue to do if it is already doing so.
By way of reminder, I do not see the United States as a Christian nation. Perhaps we once were: that point can be debated. But we should no longer use the phrase if we are to have any respectability. At one time those who lived in the United States but were not Christians managed to smile when Christians invoked the phrase. Now, the American world is no longer smiling. The quaint little expression “Freedom of Religion” now is interpreted to mean, “Freedom to keep your religion to yourself.” When Americans no longer have the right to LIVE their religious beliefs, we in effect no longer have that freedom.
We must accept this fact or nothing else we do will ever matter.
So, how is the church to move forward in a post-Christian world? Once again – I make no claim to originality, but here are some preliminary thoughts:
1. We are going to have to get over the fact that people will hate us. For too long we have been thinking and acting as if we can change people’s hearts by changing our beliefs and practices. If I have heard once I have heard a thousand times, “if we do not change [x] (where “x” can be just about anything) then our young people will leave us and no one in the community will want to join us.” So, churches change names, worship styles, language styles and incorporate the newest, flashiest equipment on the market. And what happens? Their young people leave for an even edgier church and the people in the community do not want to join them because they are simply the latest in a long line of churches who have changed names and core values.
Is my Bible the only one that has John 15:18-25 in it? Or is this the first generation in which speaking up for one’s beliefs has caused a negative reaction? Why do we believe that changing OUR beliefs will cause others to change THEIR hearts? I am not suggesting that we should be hateful, or that we should never ask questions about what we believe. But legitimate self-examination is a far cry from running in absolute panic away from any criticism or unwarranted attack.
No – we are going to have to overcome this irrational fear of being disliked and we are going to have to realize that the new “normal” is for God’s people to stand out in stark contrast to a bent and broken world.
2. We are going to have to ACT like we believe what we say we believe. We say we believe in a lifetime of marriage between one man and one woman, but we practice the acceptance serial marriages like we owned a wedding chapel and our livelihood depended upon as many “re-marriages” as we can possibly create. We say we do not believe in pre-marital co-habitation, yet we allow our children and grandchildren to “try out” marriage partners as if they were test-driving a new vehicle. We say we oppose graphic violence, sexuality and adult themes, and we buy millions of dollars of movie tickets every month, and allow our teens and pre-teens to do likewise. We fill our minds with the same base lyrics that non-Christians fill their minds with, and salve our consciences by attending a worship hour a week and re-proclaiming how much we hate words and actions that blaspheme our God.
But, if we ditch the cable and turn off the satellite, our neighbors might think we are weird or un-American or something. See point #1.
3. We are going to have to re-evaluate this entire “The Constitution as the 67th Book of the Bible” mantra that “conservatives” have been repeating for so long. Oh, no – no one actually ever says that, but that is exactly what is meant in many of our good conservative (read “Tea Party”) speeches.
Brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, the Constitution is a wonderful document. Maybe the best human government document that has ever been written. But, strictly speaking, following the Constitution is exactly what has brought us to this point in history. The words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Bible,” or “Christian” simply do not appear in the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. The framers of the Constitution did not want a theocracy, and certainly not a Christocracy, and they made sure we did not get one. But human seeds grow up into human trees, and the fruit of a Christ-neutral document is now becoming ripe. Yell and kick and scream all you want to, but how else are you going to interpret the protections ingrained in the Constitution that prevent one religion from becoming physically forced upon all citizens? If we have the freedom to exercise religion, we also have the freedom not to exercise religion, and when you allow (or actually mandate) broken, sinful, human judges to decide what is or is not constitutional, then bingo – welcome to the U. S. of A. in the year 2014. So, what was brilliant in terms of human government has proven to be utterly disastrous in terms of discipleship to Christ.
But, to quote that out-dated and horribly non-American apostle Paul, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)
4. The church is going to have to start practicing some old-fashioned discipline. The church has boundaries. We are not everyone and everything. Not everything is holy. Not everything is “set apart.” There is clean and un-clean, holy and un-holy, Christian and un-christian, saved and lost. It is ridiculous to suggest that a congregational leadership cannot exercise any kind of discipline because “if they do then people will get their feelings hurt and they will leave.” This is not to suggest that the eldership “withdraws fellowship” from someone just to rattle their swords. I have witnessed that and it was a stain against some good men and a good congregation. But for a biblical leadership to allow, or to even sanction, blatant immorality within the congregation is just unconscionable. The same is true of doctrinal beliefs. A congregation cannot condone or sanction contradictory beliefs. You cannot have a separate worship service for every competing feeling or doctrine. If everything is acceptable then nothing is sinful. And we wonder why people look at us with our three different services with three different worship formats and laugh? We are not demanding discipleship – we are offering a circus.
Sorry for the wordiness today – I guess I got a little carried away. But the world is not smiling at us anymore – if it ever did. And we, as God’s people, are going to have to learn a new way to act. Or, conversely, we are going to have to start acting like we’ve known how to act all along.
Anyone familiar with the 1970’s British hit “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” will recognize that tag line. In the 30 minute shows that aired on our PBS station that line would occasionally pop up to signal a shift from one really weird skit to another. That was the thing about Monty Python. Nothing was ever “normal.” You went from completely different to completely different.
I am not going to state my age (because, hopefully, it will be continually changing) but I will say that in my lifetime the moral culture of the United States has changed more radically than during any equivalent time period. I am not speaking in terms of technology, as there have been other generations in which technology has advanced more than during my lifetime. (I think of my grandfathers who were born before Lindberg and who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.) What I am talking about is in relation to what is considered right and wrong. I came from the time period in which Mary Ann had to keep her belly button covered to appease the censors. Rhett Butler was almost black-balled because he said he really did not care. Lucy and Ricky had to sleep in twin size beds separated by a night-stand.
Today, a person is considered a bigot if he or she thinks that marriage should be defined as an intimate relationship between a man and a woman. I have to take my shoes off at the airport because some crazy might try to blow the plane up with a bomb in his sneaker. I dread the month of April knowing that someone is going to shoot up a school, a movie theater, or bomb an athletic event.
I know there was a huge shift in morality centered around the major wars – the Civil, the World War to end all World Wars and the World War after that one, the Korean “Conflict” and the Vietnam “Police Action.” But, thinking in terms of the general public, the “man on the street,” has there been a more radical change in the mores and values of the American public than in the past 50-60 years?
Just think of it – we are now actually debating what the concept of “Freedom of Religious Belief” means. When I was born we were only concerned about freedom from ring-around-the-collar.
What does the future hold? Who knows – I cannot see it getting any better for persons of conservative religious or moral belief. You cannot put toothpaste back in the tube once it has been squirted out. Mary Ann’s bare mid-riff has morphed into Miley Cyrus’ bare, um, well you get the idea. Unless there is a cataclysmic change in society’s perception of “right” and “wrong” I can only picture things getting worse.
Does that mean we give up, throw in the towel, wave the white flag? No, never. But it does mean we must learn how to challenge the changing moral landscape a lot more intelligently than we have for the past half-century. It means, oddly, that we are going to have to go back to a way of thinking far more similar to the first century than the 21st century. Jesus, Peter, Paul and the early church fathers lived in a world where homosexuality was openly practiced, women were treated like chattel to be bought and sold, and infants were routinely allowed to die if the father rejected them. Yup, kind of sounds like the LGBT, pornographic sex-trafficking, and Planned Parenthood culture we live in today.
We can no longer rely on our supposed “Christian” foundation. If we ever had one it is quickly disappearing in our collective rear-view mirror. We must own up to the fact that biblical standards of morality will be viewed as “abnormal” and even bigoted and hateful. What once was normal is not normal anymore.
“And now for something completely different…”