Wednesday, April 21, 2010

We are Christians because of Christ not because of Christianity.

Faith and World: Race--Black and White in America

Faith and World: Race--Black and White in America

Race--Black and White in America

Black v White Racism in the US is a problem that perplexes many in the church. It has been said that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. That is less true today than in the past, but is still a fact. I want to share a perspective on why churches have not integrated nearly to the extent that other venues of American life have. It is not "race" per se, but a cultural difference that lies at the heart of it. Racism in America, between white and black people is unique in that it relates to the two groups vastly different "stories." Every culture, ever "group"--racial, ethnic, national, even denominational, has a "story." That is there is a past, somtimes with a "defining moment" that determines how the group as a whole views themselves and how they view life in general. For Jewish people the defining story is the Exodus--and today, the Holocaust as well. For the people of New Orleans hurricaine Katrina will define them for decades, even centuries to come. White and Black Americans have, each, a "story" about their past that fuels their view of the world, of life and what it is about, and even affects the way we read the Bible. "White" America lives out of a past built on the idea of "starting over in the New World" of "conquering the vast wilderness" of "finding opportunity and prosperity in 'a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'" The "pilgrim fathers" came to this land to find a new life, in the new Eden, to provide a better life for themselves and their posterity. The struggle was hard, but they succeeded! Each generation has had new struggles to face, but generally each generation has been even more prosperous and happy than the previous one. This is a story of triumph, of victory, of overcoming (overcoming the wilderness, overcoming the British, overcoming the "wild Indians" and the hard prairie sod, etc. etc.etc.). It is a story of success built on success and of enjoying "the blessings of prosperity and freedom." The African-American "story" is different. Their ancestors did not come to this country seeking a new life. This is not about "opportunity and prosperity. They live out of a past built on the reality of being torn from their homes, and brought to a place not of their choosing. It is the story of struggle, of bare existence, of defeat and servitude. Whatever the realities of today, for both groups, these are the stories that determine what is "normal"--not for every member, obviously, but for these groups as a whole. To this day, every white kid in America grows up hearing the pioneer story as "his" story. He expects, in his own life, to conquer the wilderness, to triumph (perhaps to conquer just a quarter acre in suburbia, but there has to be some reason for all the lawn fertilizer sold in suburban garden centers!). He expects victory and success. He expects his life to be prosperous and satisfying. This is why so many white folks are malcontent if, by the time they are forty-five, they have not achieved certain career goals, or are not happy in their jobs, home life, etc. The "story" for them is supposed to be about success and victory. To this day, every black kid in America grows up hearing that same story of the "pilgrim fathers" and the "bold pioneers." But he hears it not as "his" story but as "their story." His story is very different He expects life to be about "struggle" and about "hardship," and about "survival," not about "conquest" and "victory" and "triumph." It is a story of opportunity cut short, of privilege denied, of dependency and servitude. (This is broadly overdrawn, and there are a million exceptions out there on both sides, I know, but these are general trends). This is why Sunday morning is the most "segregated hour." The Gospel in a black church often focuses on the suffering of the cross. In a white church it focuses on "Triumph o'er the grave." In a Black Church, we experience "the fellowship of his sufferings." In a white church--Jesus conquered death--in a black church--Jesus suffered for us. In a white church we are "more than conquerors" and "soldiers of the cross" but in a black church we are "fellow strugglers in the cause." All of us, when we sing Amazing Grace, there is a point where the key changes and we all get louder .In a white church this happens on the verse that says "When we've been there ten thousand years!" In a black church this happens on "Through many dangers toils and snares I have already come!" In a white church, they sing "Victory in Jesus!" In a black church it is "We Shall Overcome--Someday!" Again this is broadly overdrawn and a million exception exist, but the general trend/perspective here is accurate, I believe. It also points to one more reason we need to listen to one another and hear the gospel through the ears of "the other." Our vastly different cultural backgrounds cause us to hear the gospel differently in many respects--we need to hear the gospel TOGETHER, and learn from one another "the whole counsel of God." Each group brings its assumptions about the possibilities, opportunities, and challenges that the Christian life presents--and in these days when so much in America is changing, economically, politically and every way, American Christians, of all kinds, can profit from sharing their experiences, their way of reading the gospel, and their way of relating it to life.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Will America Be a Superpower Seventy Five Years From Now?

America will no longer be a superpower in seventy five years and maybe much sooner than that. This is more than just speculation. Most superpowers do not remain in that position for very long --Egypt probably was a superpower for longer than most --Assyria had it for a few hundred years --Greece and Persia were superpowers for a while --Rome was a superpower following them. After Rome,“superpowerdom”has lasted for shorter periods of time. The world moves faster due to improved technology/communications and the global economy. --Spain was a super power for a while until England defeated them at sea (in 1588). Here is what happened there: Spain had been a wealthy country, with a growing economy, and it had the world's most powerful navy. They decided to engage in “regime change”in England as part of their foreign policy. They sent their Armada out against Britain. The war did not go as planned, and the Armada was defeated. Spain has never again been a world power.England ruled the Atlantic Ocean (the main criterion at that time)which made it the world superpower. --England's reign lasted until the mid twentieth Century --Germany,rivaled England as a near equal for less than 60 years. --America's rise to superpowerdom paralleled Russia's under the Soviet Union in the years following WWI, but neither of them was dominant until after WWII. Russia is no longer a superpower and we shall follow in their footsteps in the decades ahead. Many Christian "doomsayers" point to moral decline alone, as the single cause of America's greatness waning, with perhaps the rise of leftwing politics as a companion cause. However, civilizations do not decline due to a single cause. There are always a multiplicity of issues involved. Here is why America will inevitably decline: 1) Moral decline--It is not the only cause but it is an important one. We have become [as the Greeks and Romans before us] a nation of hedonists, a nation where millions of people are all engaged in the constant pursuit of pleasure (usually called "Entertainment" or "A satisfying lifestyle," but it amounts to the same thing) cannot be a nation that pursues the kind of transcendent goals and virtues that sustain a culture. We cannot pursue honesty, respect for the past, hope for the future, selflessness, humility, and public service, if the most important item on our personal agenda is "Friday night." This is especially true if "Friday night" means "a chance to get drunk" "fun time" "bar hopping" "me time" "dump the kids on grandma and lets go party!" or some combination of the above. And this is what Friday night means to too many Americans, and it is the most important thing on their agenda each week. Even those who do not get drunk will often plan their schedule around being entertained, or having fun (even “good clean fun”) rather than around enriching relationships, cultivating virtue, serving the community, etc. 2) Economic decline--we are in trouble and don't know how bad it is. Our economy has been propped up for decades on consumer credit. The current deficits are sucking the credit lines out there plumb dry. We will pay more for credit, have less of it, and thus use less in decades ahead. Perhaps the whole thing will blow up, but I doubt it. We more likely will face several decades of drifting economically, a time of stagnation, with moderate ups and downs, but mostly a slow downward slide. . This may lead to some kinds of upheavals in society. "Friday night fun" depends on having money available to spend, and if there is less money, then “Friday night fun” suffers. Still, a pleasure driven society is not much motivated to be a productive society, and the economy will not recover without creativity, a strong work ethic, and a determination to look beyond "Friday night" and toward a better future. Americans just don't do that very much. 3) Political decline--A government that believes it must cater to the felt needs of the populace (see Rome in its decline years, or the U.S. post Katrina), will find the people more demanding, especially if "the good life" is seen as a political right, and is defined in terms of having quality material things. No government can sustain itself as the concierge of the most demanding of its citizens, at least not for very long. The US Government has undertaken to provide housing for Katrina victims, to rebuild the infrastructure, to guarantee that the dikes don't break again, etc. All of this is just way too much. Where is good old fashioned “can do spirit” and “Yankee self reliance”? We expect the government, rather than God, to guarantee the good life. (Consider that, in times past, a major natural disaster drove people either to pray, or to question the goodness of God—“Why did God allow this?” Today, a major natural disaster drives people to apply to FEMA and to question the competence and compassion of the federal government—“Why didn't Bush do something!” This is a major change in our national consciousness and orientation. It is a change that causes people to demand more of the government, while being less productive. It causes peopel to expect instant gratification from the government and to become angry and bitter if the government does not, or cannot "pony up." This is not an attitude that sustains a great nation. 4) Educational decline--People who are less well educated tend to focus on immediate rather than long range goals, and on material comforts rather than on higher and nobler ends. As education declines, the "selfishness quotient" and the "immaturity quotient" will inevitably rise. Along with this, the tax base erodes. This is because less well educated people are less productive. They earn less and thus pay less. They are also more likely to commit crimes in order to feed their drug habit, or to have money to buy things they want, or simply to stave off boredom. This nation, in a few years, will be trying to maintain a staggering debt, and a military presence, all the while maintaining a huge prison population, and serving the felt needs of millions of "victims" in this country. It will seek to do this on a shrinking tax base. We just cannot do it all. By 2055 we will no longer have military bases in Europe, the Middle East or Asia. We just won't be able to afford it, and protecting our own shores will be priority. We’ve all read about declining scores on the SAT, declines in reading skills, and about how today’s kids cannot locate Ohio on a map, etc. This has been going on since the 1970s and longer. It is starting to affect job performance, and the tax base. The “education problem in America” is not just an education problem. It affects everything. 5) Historical forces--I believe we are set for a return to the kind of isolationism that has been characteristic of the nation at times in the past. The perceived failure of the Iraq war, and its cost, will lead us to shun other such ventures in the future. It will be a long, long, lonnnnnnng time before any U S President will be able to say to the American people that a military venture will be over quickly and have little ramifications for most people. A nation that does not project what power it has into the world is not a super power. Thus, by mid century America will be struggling to pay its bills, shrinking its military presence and generally not caring a fig what other nations are doing or want to do. The nation will be dependent on other nations for manufactured goods (we are largely at that point now), and we will be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. This is NOT the profile of a super-power. I know this is not an optimistic scenario. However, we must face facts and trends. Every nation on earth believes in its own permanence. Every powerful nation believes it will last forever (the Assyrians surely did). It is hard for us to imagine a world in which America is not --first in everything --the most powerful --the greatest --the free-est --the most virtuous (Actions of some of our soldiers in Iraq, as well as "waterboarding" has divested the rest of the world of that notion, but we cannot see it yet ourselves) This is because we have grown up in a world where that is what America was. America hit its high point in the nineteen fifties. We had just beaten Germany and Japan and had saved the world from tyranny and oppression. Now we were creating the most prosperous nation on earth, making use of our freedom and opportunities for the benefit of all. It did not last long. America's decline began in the 1960s. It has begun to be evident on a number of fronts listed above. In a few decades it will be over. America will not disappear. England and Germany have not disappeared, certainly. We will decline and stagnate into just one more among the many nations that were once great and now are “also rans.” Christians find this kind of scenario disturbing. We are used to thinking of America as "God's special people." We should never have done this in the first place, but it makes it difficult for us to face realities. Seventy-five percent of American Evangelicals see themselves as in the cultural mainstream. These people really believe that the moral relativism, drug use, drunken brawls, gambling, pornography, etc, are all happening 1) in California 2) among a small fringe group of people. They do not see that it is happening down the street, in their community, and in their schools. situations such as the abuses at Abu Graib a few years ago are seen by these Christians as an aberation, the work of a few "sickos." It is, in fact, the end result of moral relativist teaching in our schools, and on TV and in popular magazines etc. for more than 30 years. These young men and women, serving in Iraq had been told every day of their lives, "You do what YOU think is best" "Don't let others tell you what is right and what is wrong" "Your values must be your own, not someone else's" etc. And then they were given a little bit of power over others at Abu Graib. Now the liberals are decrying the results of their own moral teaching and they don’t see that they themselves are the cause of the problem. We must, I fear, prepare for second class status among the world's nations--or get serious about renewing a once thriving culture that accomplished some remarkable things.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Click Here to read the Cornwall Alliance Declaration on Global Warming

Global Warming--advocates of certain environmental policies call it "Climate Change" only because that term gets a more positive response from the public--has been an issue over the past decade or so. As such it has been debated by the left and the right, usually over whether the scientific evidence supports it. Much of the debate especially from the left has been less than honest (When a group adocates a series of policies for more than 30 years,and suddenly discover scientific evidence that makes those policies "imperative," we should all be suspicious!) Here, at last, is a biblical statement that is realistic, which ties good sound policy on this to other issues that are important. Read it and sign it, if it reflects your views. Also, post any comments here that you wish.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

New Regulations for bloggers

In light of the new regulations for blogging let me just say that I love books. I've enjoyed reading them all my life. I highly recommend that you read books too. They will enrich your life. IN THE INTEREST OF FULL DISCLOSURE AND IN LIGHT OF NEW FEDERAL REGULATIONS, LET ME REVEAL HERE THAT YES, I HAVE RECIEVED FREE BOOKS IN THE PAST--FROM PUUUUUBLISHERRRRRRSSSSS. In the interest of even fuller discolosure let me say that publishers have not paid me any compensation for this endorsement of their product. :)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Changes since WWII

Most of the material in this post is from an e-mail sent to me by Mr. Terry Brown of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary: September 1st we marked the 70th anniversary of the commencement of World War II in Europe. Think of how the world has changed because of and since that great mid-century conflict. Imperialism, at least the overt, old style, fell out of fashion, as did premeditated, loose-tongued racism. The British, for example, lost much of thier empire in the two decades following (and had been losing it somewhat even before), and people changed in their outlook regarding colonies and "inferiors." \ Today, the descendants of former colonies are about to overrun the old British Isles, transforming them into solid outposts of Third World reverse-colonization and an Islamic redoubt. Many changes have taken place in the U.S.A. since the beginning of that war, some of it a result, at least indirectly, of the conflict. Those who died before or during WWII, would not recognize, nor readily accept, the post-WWII America of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, integration, a Catholic President (Kennedy), or the modern scale of massive handouts and wasteful mismanagement of government, local, state, and federal. Many of us may recall hearing our grandparents lamenting the passing of the old order, never believing for a second in the equality of the races, except, possibly, a heavenly leveling. And mere mention of the sexual revolution or the homosexual agenda would have left them agape that such things could happen "right here in America!" Much, if not all, of the aforementioned, I am confident, would not have transpired, or, at best, would have suffered long delay, had it not been for the convulsions of World War II. Besides the cultural convulsions, consider the alterations and advancements in technology. Many people who lived through the early 20th Century and into the fifties/sixties loathed air conditioning and central heating, finding these aberrations in nature to be repulsive and undesirable, believing they caused colds and sinusitis. Also, we today have nuclear power, due to the war, and far, far better automobiles, aircraft, and innumerable other changes. We, in fact today take the tide of change and development as firm and established not novel or experimental. As for information, we have lived to witness a shattering event—the arrival of the Internet—akin to the dawn of printing and moveable type or the advent of engine-driven transport. Yes, as I realize, a substantial portion of the world’s changes and acquisitions would have come, regardless of the carnage and upheaval of World War II. However, it accelerated these, and created a culture in which research and technological inovation were much better funded, and carried out on a bigger scale than the pre-war world ever imagined. Before the war, "technological research" was Thomas Edison tinkering in his laboratory. After the War, it was corporate research labs, some created by the need to produce war related technologies, but afterwards dedicated to "new consumer products." But, we must not forget that WWII did precipitate momentous disturbances, and I am not in the least sure that we in the West could mount such a crusade again. Very, very sadly another causality of the second war was a loss of morality and courage. Having been sapped of the energy such things produce, we probably will not muster the effort to repel the next dark storm, whether it be radical Islam or some internal foe. Our foundations, despite the bright victory of the WWII Allies, crumbles and ebbs by the day, and I, for one, fear that to reverse our course lies beyond our ability, grasp, or even desire. Perhaps this last consequence of the postwar years, the loss of nerve and pluck, rests as the greatest change of all.

How movies have changed in less than 60 years

This link is to an outstanding article by Phil Boatwright. He chronicles changes in the moral content of movies since the 1950s. His article is factual, and thoughtful, without ranting or manipulation.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Abortion and Killing Little Children

The right to life is traditionally considered one of the fundamental, "inalienable" rights that everyone has. Abortion however, denies that right to the very youngest of children--little babies still in the womb. This is morally wrong and ought to be illegal as well. The right to life ought to be protected by government for everyone, not just adults, or wealthy people, or people whom others want, but for all people. This, I believe, includes babies and children as well. It may be argued that children do not have all the rights of adults (they cannot drink legally, nor vote, nor make contracts), and therefore the child should not have a right to life as well, and abortion should be legal. However, I disagree. If the government is going to protect some peoples’ right to live (by making murder illegal, for example) it ought to protect everyone’s right to live. As the law now stands, a woman cannot legally kill her husband. She can legally kill her child under certain circumstances. Rather than allow husband killing, in order to make the law consistent, I prefer outlawing child killing (abortion) to make the law consistent. Government, I believe, has two responsibilities that are relevant here: 1) Government must protect the community and ensure its stability and continuity. Since the community is made up of people, its continuity depends on people being there, and therefore the government must protect people. Since fear of being killed creates an unstable society that will break down, government must protect people from that fear. When I go out to lunch from my office, I have a reasonable expectation of returning an hour or so later. This is because everyone knows that if someone is out there shooting a gun wildly they will be caught and jailed for it. We know that the law, and the police who enforce it, are there to protect us. On a smaller, and more realistic scale, everyone knows that they will pay a fine for breaking traffic laws. Therefore they (usually) obey them. That means fewer people are hurt or killed in traffic accidents. If I had a reasonable fear that I would encounter people shooting guns at just about anybody, and a reasonable fear that I would encounter people driving on the wrong side of the road, I would probably just skip lunch and stay in my office. The chaos, in other words, would shut the community down completely. Therefore the government makes killing people and endangering their lives, illegal. 2) Government must protect the future of the community. There has to be a sense that the society itself is a good thing, and that it is worth passing on to future generations. This means protecting the lives of children so that they will grow up to be adults. One may argue that the child is making no contribution right now, especially if it is still a baby. It is a drain on society’s resources. This is wrong thinking all around! A baby, or child, is a commitment to the future. A community is made up of people, and if there are no people, there is no community. Government, in its function of protecting the future, thus must protect the children and babies who will BE that future. In the end, abortion should not be an individual’s choice. If someone is pregnant, then both she and the baby’s father have a responsibility—to the child, surely, but also to the world that child will live in—to ensure that this child lives, and learns to live responsibly as a member of the larger community. The society should encourage this. I do not own anyone’s life—not even the life of a person within me (if I am pregnant). I am responsible to everyone around me, to do my best by them, to be honest with them, to help them as much as I can. If that person is in my family, my responsibility is greater. If that person is inside me, then I have an even greater moral responsibility to do right by that person. I have no right to kill that person. When someone has an abortion, I have lost a person whom I might have related to, done business with, laughed with, and whom I might have served in ways that would have been good for both of us. When a society allows the killing of children, it erases many of those opportunities. Finally, it seems to me that a society that allows the killing of its children is a society that has lost faith in itself. Having children is an investment in the future. By having children I am saying that the society I live in is a good one. It offers a good life, a life worth living, and I want that kind of life to continue, and I want to help pass on the goodness of it to the next generation. When people say it is alright to kill little children, it is saying that there is nothing here worth having, and nothing here worth preserving. Someone will say, "Now, now, Fred, wait a minute! What about unwanted children? Shouldn’t the mother have some right to say whether she wants a child or not. Aren’t unwanted children a burden to society because they grow up to be dope addicts and criminals. Do we want to spend the resources prosecuting, jailing, and supporting those who, had they been killed as babies, would have been less of a problem to us all." I’m glad “you” asked that. 1) a woman should decide whether she wants a child or not before she gets into bed with a man. 2) Many “unwanted” children have grown up to become productive adults, while many doted on children have grown up spoiled, only to become criminals and drug addicts themselves. 3) Society should, by a variety of means, lead people to want children, and to value them. A society that legalizes the killing of them is implicitly saying “It is OK to not want children. There are things more important than your family. The future does not matter—live for the moment!” Such a society encourages mothers to kill their babies because babies aren’t important, the future is not important, and the society itself is not important. Do we really want to give that message to our children? Do we really want to say to the world that life is not worth living? Do we really want to turn our backs on the community and live only for ourselves? I fear that for too many people, that is exactly what they want to do.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Does Open Theism Deny Divine Transcendence

This link takes you to a digital site where my article on Open Theism appears. The thesis is that Open Theists point to scripture passages that classical theists have known for years. Clasical theists are willing to allow for tension between divine immanence and divine transcendence. Open theists are not. The classical position is the more biblical.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Great Preaching

We live in an age when truly great preaching is rare. Preachers have been trained for several generations to avoid solid biblical content and to focus on applications instead. They have been told to "preach for a decision" not to increase knowledge. The result is that we have churches full of Christians who have not grown spiritually, who see the Bible as a trivial book that has little of importance to say to them, and who know little about the God they profess to worship and trust. Clearly, a reformation in preaching is needed--and is, in fact, coming, as a new generation of homiletics professors bring a fresh perspective to our Seminaries. We are all learning that great preaching is expository preaching. The era of "topical preaching" as a mainstay of our churches is dying, and for that we should be grateful. However, I wish here to lay out some additional basic characteristics of really good preaching:
  • Simplicity--This means that great preaching makes a clear point. No one should be left wondering what the preacher was talking about. NOTE this does not mean Shallow preaching. We've too much of that already. Simplicity can be coupled with . . . .

  • Depth--Great preaching brings the "unsearchable riches of Christ" to the whole congregation. Too many preachers preach shallow sermons because they don't want to leave anybody out. The result is that people they have preached to for thirty years are getting the same easy little inspirational messages they were getting years earlier--no wonder they haven't grown! Closely relate to depth is. . .

  • Relevance--I don't mean relevance to "where people are today." We need to call people UP from where they are to where God wants them to be! I mean relevance to the Scriptures and to the God revealed in them. Don't preach to me about me--preach to me about Christ! That is what I need! Relevance also takes in the idea that the sermon should grip my attention and matter to me as the hearer. This leads us to. . .

  • Importance--great preaching is important preaching. A great preacher never neglects the great truths in a passage to preach some minor point. Never preach a trivial sermon! Never preach on lesser truths when God's word abounds with great ones! Never be content to give the congregation a little inspiration when they need a great challenge from God's word! Finally, great preaching is marked by. . .

  • Intentionality--great preaching is intentional preaching. The best preachers in history--St. John Chrysostom, Martin Luther, C. H Spurgeon , S. M Lockridge, Adrian Rogers, etc.--never wasted a word in the pulpit. They planned carefully and made each word count! These men did not ramble! They did not get off the point! They did not "over tell" a story. Every word was carefully chosen and carefully used. It was intentional preaching!

Study Bible Available at Boomer in the Pew

Boomer in the Pew is giving away a Bible. One of the blogs that I now follow, Boomer in the Pew, is celebrating its first birthday. As part of that celebration, David is giving away a free ESV Study Bible courtesy of Crossway. David has all the details on how you can enter his birthday competition at his post, Win a Calfskin Version of the ESV Study Bible! The ESV is a highly literal translation of the Bible, and the study Bible is one of the better ones out there. It is well worth owning one, and this one has a leather cover, making it suitable for carrying to church, for using in leading a Bible Study, or in the pulpit. David's blog is well worth reading as well.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reverence and Worship

Someone recently asked me “Is reverence a biblical principle?” This came in the context of questions about contextualizing our ministries. I suspect the questioner had in mind the “Emerging Church” but perhaps evangelicalism in general. It is an important question for it is an illuminating way to think about principles vs methods, contextualization, the message vs the medium etc. This is the substance of my response to the question. I invite anyone’s comments: The people who raise the question about principles vs. methods are also fond of saying "the message stays the same--the medium changes." Reverence is a principle (not a method). It may also be a medium--or part of the medium--through which the gospel is communicated. I believe it is, to some degree, an essential part. When we communicate the gospel in irreverent ways, we say harmful things about the gospel, even when we don’t mean to. There are those who say we must communicate the message in contextualized ways to the modern world. They carry this to the extent of preaching in old blue jeans and T-shirts, in a casual atmosphere. Some have even gone to the extent of "beer ministry" taking the gospel to bars and such places as that. I think much of this is wrong headed thinking. When we cheapen the medium we inevitably cheapen the gospel. This is why I believed it was a poor idea a few years ago, for churches to show the Superbowl on their projection screens, and then preach the gospel during half-time. It makes the gospel incidental to something that looks "much bigger." I don't think eternal life and righteousness in Jesus Christ ought to be incidental to "the main event." Am I saying that informal settings are always wrong for gospel presentations--not at all! There are times and places where we can preach the gospel informally—but never “incidentally.” What is difficult for us is that we must separate the cultural from the essential even in the matter of reverence. It is all to easy to think of “reverence” in terms of specific reverent kinds of things (I will deal with that below). I think that a good broad and universal definition of reverence helps us here: Reverence means to treat a person or thing as --important --serious --worthy of careful attention --worthy of a certain formality--almost to the point of "artificiality" --special and different from the normal run of persons and things --being more important than me. --to be appreciated on the level of the mind--not in a sensual or visceral sort of way. Now, we have some guidelines. You or I might be inclined to think of reverence in terms of specific kinds of reverent things that are traditional in Western Culture: --classical music--Mozart, Bach, Handel --ornate worship surroundings--vaulted ceilings, gold gilt altars, carved woodwork --formal dress--neck-ties, suits, white shirts And we would be “right.” All these are “reverent” in a church service. Our emerging church friends will point out however, that all of these are "cultural trappings," and technically they are right too. Then they will proceed to have their church service in a dance-hall atmosphere, with "bump and grind" music, and the preacher in ragged jeans and a rumpled and worn out T-shirt. We will say, "That is irreverent" and WE are right. They will say, "These are the cultural trappings of our time" and they are right too. So what is the answer? First we need to look at the definition of reverence given above. The Reverent things—classical music, carved wood, all fit that definition, certainly. However, they are not the ONLY ones that fit those parameters. Obviously, there are ways of being formal, careful, serious, etc. in other cultures that differ from our preferences. For example, in Japan, the music might be very different, but equally "classical" in the sense of appealing to the mind over the body. The mistake our emerging church friends make is to assume that we must imitate the “everyday” aspects of the culture in order to “reach” it. That would be true if we were dealing with an “everyday” matter--but Jesus Christ is not an "everyday” matter! He is far more important than the mundane matters of normal life, and should be treated as such. (And yes, I know that Jesus is with us every day, and with us in the mundane aspects of life. I am not denying that. I only mean that he is more important than pizza, clothing, bills of lading, Starbucks, and the price of gas.) If we were selling pizza, of course we would want to be informal, "popular" etc. because by its nature, pizza is that kind of thing. We do not treat pizza with reverence. But, Jesus is not pizza, and deserves a very different treatment! When we treat Him like we do pizza, people will regard him with the same level of importance as they do pizza! This is exactly the situation we have in most of our evangelical churches! Here are two mistakes made by advocates of the emerging church, and many other evangelicals as well: First mistake--Worship is about "reaching people." This error goes back to the Second Great Awakening and the frontier revivals. After that era, the Sunday Worship Service became a sort of mini-revival meeting. The focus was on the visitors, and on "reaching them" with the gospel. In truth, worship should be about Jesus Christ. The focus should be on Him, not on the visitors, and certainly not on "us." (The whole “worship wars” thing in recent years, between “praise choruses” and “traditional hymns” has been very much about “what I like.” Even when we couch it in terms of “what reaches people” somehow, “what reaches people” and “my favorite kind of music” seem to be the same thing. Therefore I do not even trust myself on this matter—for I do the same thng.) Second mistake--We should contextualize worship to the "feel" and "style" of everyday life. This is wrong thinking. Worship should properly be something very different from normal activities. (Now, understand, I agree that "God is God of the secular as well as the sacred." But we must not then assume that the sacred and the secular are the same things--they are not! God is God of both--but the only reason to say that is because they ARE so different from each other.) Worship is, or ought to be different from a concert, a festival, a party. We are relating to a divine Person who is far far far different from “most folks.” Our worship should reflect who He is. Let us ask the question, not "How can we contextualize worship to the feel and style of everyday life" but rather, "how do we worship God in a way that most people today would associate with the definition of "reverence" given above?" How do we say to THESE people, "This is important"; "This is different from what you experience every day;" "This is serious business and you should pay attention;" "This is about something more important than you." I suspect the answers to those questions would include: --preachers in neckties, or other rather formal attire--people in America associate neckties with lawyers, doctors, and other serious people. If we preach a serious gospel, shouldn’t we present it in a serious manner? --music that moves the mind rather than the buttocks (I am not saying Bach and Handel, necessarily, but at least music that is serious in intent rather than merely “entertaining.” -- a style of d├ęcor, a setting that says "this is not casual—this is an important matter"--perhaps institutional colors, pictures in gold frames on the walls, (I am not sure what it would take, but somehow the decor of the room needs to say to Americans today that "this matters.")

Monday, January 19, 2009

What Government should be and do

I believe that I must define “responsible freedom” or “responsible liberty.” It is liberty in a less than Libertarian sense. People should be free of government coercion, but in an atmosphere wherein their freedom is acted on responsibly. Francis Schaeffer said, many years ago, that free democratic societies can only operate where a Christian worldview and high moral standards prevail. France and Russia both had democratic revolutions that overthrew royalist powers, and both descended into tyranny very quickly. The U.S. had a successful revolution because there was a Christian worldview and moral foundation to its culture. As these things erode, America slips into tyranny. We have more laws today to protect the order of society, simply because people have become less civilized. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Bill Kristol’s mother), has written about the decline of “civil society” in the west. Civil society is the veneer of politeness and public virtue that makes a nation run smoothly. It is a whole network of social expectations that, by their very presence, prevent a host of problems. When civil society declines, crime inevitably increases. (Consider what happened at a Walmart before Christmas, where an employee was killed in the stampede when the doors opened.) What America needs is a return to a working concept of civil society, based on Christian moral ideals. That, along with diligent protection of freedom will preserve both our democracy and our civilization. In the mean time, let us recognize that until this happens we will need more laws, more prisons, and more money spent on regulating an unjust and barbaric people. That being said, we must still recognize that government is, by its nature, inclined to increase its power, to exercise that power, and that in doing so, it harms the best interests of the people. While we need MORE government today than we needed in 1955, because the American people are more barbaric today than they were back then, we need to be even more diligent in limiting that government, and its power, to the bare minimum necessary to maintain some kind of order. It is not the government’s job to keep me safe from myself—or from the ineherent accidents of life. It is not the government’s job to make sure I am prosperous. It is not the government’s job to regulate or hinder the flow of ideas. The government has two basic jobs: 1) It should ensure the safety and continuance of the nation itself—protecting us from foreign threats (aggressive nations, terrorists) and from internal threats (criminals). a. Strong defense b. Laws against theft, murder, 2) It should act so as to encourage the kinds of virtuous behavior that make for a stronger nation. a. Laws protecting the sanctity of marriage—no gay marriage, laws against adultuery, AND no easy divorce! b. Laws against things that make people weak and immoral: gambling, pornography, drunkenness. c. Laws encouraging moral, socially responsible behavior—tax exemptions for charities, tax deductions for charitable giving; legally sanctioned preferences for art museums and symphony orchestras. d. Laws encouraging industry and thrift—creation of a pro-business environment, tax incentives for job creation and industrial development. Other than this government has little or no proper role in the world.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Choosing a President

This year, the US is faced with once again choosing a president, something they do every four years. Many have complained about the quality of the candidates this year, some lamenting that we do not have Ronald Reagan on the ballot, or some other favorite from the past. We often wish we had someone with the potential to be a "great" president. That is commendable, as far as it goes, but I am bothered that we use the term "great" with little thought to its meaning. Usually, it means only "someone who agrees with me on the 'issues'" and little more than that. Let us remember, however, that being president is about a whole lot more than expressing opinions on "the issues." Many people who are "right" on every issue, are unqualified to be president for a host of other reasons. In that light, let's look at a list of qualities that are minimally necessary for a president to be "great."

1) An effective leadership style. In the past, presidents have failed to achieve greatness often because they could not lead. They may have had great ideas, and wanted to achieve worthwhile things (or perhaps not), yet they could do little since no one would follow them. John Quincy Adams was one such, as was Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. All three failed to achieve much while in office because they could not lead. Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson both acheieved quite a bit while in office because they knew how to get people to "buy in" to thier plans and make them reality. These were two very different men, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and they had very different leadership styles, but they both found styles that worked for them. A great president (or a terrible one, too) must find a leadership style that gets things done, or he will be a mediocrity at best (and that is not a bad thing for the country, if the president is a bad man).

2) A political philosophy that is oriented toward justice and freedom and the rule of law.

No president can be great if his goals are unjust, or whose policies inhibit freedom too severely, or who does not respect the rule of law. The "rule of law" means that the law itself is supreme, not the people who administer it. No president, or other government officer has the right to circumvent the law in order to accomplish his goals. (This is one reason why the so called "gay marriage" thing is evil. Judges are creating a new "right" that is not expressed in any constitution and which has never been passed by any legislature. They are putting their own agenda ahead of what the law itself says). A president who seeks to rule by decree, rather than seeing his responsibility as merely to "execute the law" is a bad president. Al Gore would have made a bad president, on this score. In his 2000 race, he kept promising what HE would do, and often it was things the president canno do, without the legislature enabling it. For example he said he would put Social Security in a "lockbox" so that no one's benefits would ever be cut. HE would do this? He hasn't the power, and besides, under the law, no one's benefits can be cut, unless the legislature passes a new law and the president signs it, or if he vetoes it, the legislature overrides the veto. Gore had the idea that justice comes from the man who administers it, not from the law which guarantees it. Don't vote for anyone who has this way of thinking.

3) A solid moral foundation in his own life.

A great president must be also a good man. He must be able to keep his committments, thus having a reputation for being personally reliable. He must be oriented toward goodness--that is he must like good things and avoid bad ones. (A president who drinks, gambles, philanders, steals, lies, etc. is automatically not a "great" president.). He must naturally gravitate toward good people, and enjoy the good things of life. (His hobby may be gardening, or golf, or fishing, or whatever, but it must not be gambling, or porn movies, or cock fighting). If you want to know the quality of a president, look at his lawyer. If the guy is sleazy, the president is sleazy; if the guy is a serious professional, honest, respectful of the law, then the president will be too.

4) Executive experience Normally, governors or business leaders have more potential for effectiveness as president than Senators and Congressmen. Senators have often sought the office (and this election we will elect one, certainly), but they are rarely great presidents.

5) Good communication skills These days, especially, a president must be able and willing to communicate. Many of President Bush's problems stem from the fact that he rarely makes speeches, rarely hold news conferences, and if often less than effective when he does. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, could make a speech, and Congressmen would be flooded with letters from their consituents that week urging them to vote for what Reagan wanted! It worked, certainly. These five are certainly not exhaustive, but they are a start. (Note that there is nothing of partisanship here. I have NOT said, "A great president affirms this policy or agrees with me on that issue." That has been deliberate. I want to be objective here.) I invite anyone to add to this list or to comment on it. Let me know, especially if there are specific things I have missed.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Human Race Nearly Went Extinct--News Story

Spencer Wells of the National Geographic Society has discovered that the human race nearly went extinct sometime in the past. The few people remaining were able to repopulate the earth. See story at http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/04/24/close.call.ap/index.html But--we already knew that. The account is in Genesis ch. 6-9. Oh, and it was a flood, not a drought--sorry Mr. Wells.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Many Christians seem at times, to want to equate western civilization or America with Christianity. If we read the "Christian" press, we often find those who sound the alarm that Islam is growing in America, and that "Christians need to be aware. . ." etc. It is as if everyone who becomes Muslim in America somehow means one less Christian--as if that person converted from robust faith in Jesus Christ to Islam. It is, however, an error on our part to lament the growth of Islam in the west, on the basis that it somehow takes away from Christianity. Most Americans are not Christians, and in fact, throughout the history of this nation there have only been rare and short lived occasions when Christians were in the majority (it may have happened in the 1740s/50s, and again in the 1820s/30s. Christianity has always been a minority religion in the US. Throughout much of its history here, it has been co-opted by the respectable majority and “tamed” to the point of having almost no influence whatever on American life. This is especially true today, when Christian faith has been “suburbanized,” immersed in a culture that is largely indifferent to it, and which has trained Christians to see themselves as part of the mainstream of that very culture. It is like watering down orange juice to the point where a sip of it tastes more like water than juice, and then insisting that the water is really orange juice. Under these circumstances, how can we lament that Islam might steal “our” civilization. Secular humanism, pluralism, liberalism and postmodernism already stole “our” civilization decades, even centuries ago. Christians do not have a "civilization" in America, and the sooner we realize this the better. (We OUGHT to have a civilization here, for we have enough numbers, even as a minority, to have a real influence, but we are too busy being Americans to make any real effort to change America.) One area where there might be some point to concern over Islam growing in America is that it could some day institute restrictions on religious freedom here, in a couple of centuries, if it continues to grow here. This would restrict the Christian minority in this country in ways we arhave not been in the past. However, considering that Christianity is on the wane in the US—while it is growing around the world, by the time that Islam would become a majority religion here, if ever, Christianity would be almost unknown. One should hope that Christians in those places where it is growing, will eventually send large numbers of missionaries to the US to start new churches here. (Korean and African Christians are already sending a few missionaries to the US for which Christians here should be grateful. Let us hope their numbers grow.) Let us be aware of something else: Muslims have a zeal for righteousness, one that gets warped often, that turns into legalism, certainly. However it is a zeal that, in itself, puts western Christians to shame. Muslims are zealous for sexual purity. Most Christians in the US simply shrug when a single young lady in the church becomes pregnant. Muslims are opposed to porn. American Christians will simply change the channel and go on watching TV. Muslims believe gambling is a sin. Many American Christians, upon hearing that the Sunday School director at church won 100 dollars on the nickel slots, while in Las Vegas, will most likely say, “be sure you tithe on that now!” and envy him his winnings! I am not saying that we should attempt to restrict the media and public morals in ways that Muslims have (we are a minority here, for one thing), but the utter silence of American Christians in the face of moral decay around them and among them, is nothing short of disgusting. We should certainly be more vocal than we are in advocating moral purity in the media, in our lives together, and in society generally. If we do not, we have nothing to say if Muslims engage in anti-American diatribes due to the rampant sin in this country. They, at least, have the moral courage to say something about it. (And they have the moral turpitude to attack this country as well, but we Christians ought not to put ourselves in the place of defending “western civilization” or “our culture” with all of its ungodliness, secularism, pornography, gambling, cheating, stealing, drug abuse, lying, and crime. Yes, “our culture” is threatened by the rise and the zeal of Islam—but—“our culture” OUGHT to be threatened by the rise and the zeal of Christians who insist on respect for truth, purity, self control, and godliness. Too often we Christians have either been silent--and a little embarrassed by those who aren't--except when defending "our culture." Let's get over it, and be about the business of opposing "our culture" and calling "our culture" to genuine repentance--and a good place to start might well be by repenting of our own failure to confront "our culture" in the past.)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Presidential Politics 2008

  • Let's face it: none of the remaining candidates are particularly appealing this year. Hillary is perhaps the worst of the lot, but the others do not fare greatly. There is not a statesman in the lot. Nor is there someone who will put principle above politics or who really deeply understands what government is for and how it ought to work. However, a nation in decline will produce poor leaders,. We should not be surprised that America, in its decline, cannot come up with a great presidential candidate. Poor leadership happens in every field—business, politics, religion, families, and everywhere else. Look at the current situation:
  • Business—Ken Lay, Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, et al.
  • Politics—Hillary, Patrick Leahy, Barbara Boxer, et al.
  • Religion—Joel Osteen, T D Jakes, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rick Warren.
  • Families—most families are fragmented due to divorce, or because there never was much of a family there at all. All of these things are bound up together in a web. If the nation were healthy in one area, it would be healthy in all of these areas. The nation is spiritually, morally, emotionally, and economically sick. It is the whole body, not just one part, that has problems. As such, we cannot fix one area without fixing others. We need to start at the root causes to do this.

Electing the right president This is part of why I don’t share the Christian Right’s faith that electing “the right president” can really fix anything. We had “the right president” in Ronald Reagan, and his party behind him, and the country continued to deteriorate—in fact the deterioration accelerated during those years, not due to Reagan, certainly, but accelerate it did.

What is needed We need to start at the family/religion level if we are ever to fix the nation. We too easily accept dysfunctional families as “OK.” We too easily accept dysfunctional religion as “what ought to be.” Someone needs to stand up to both and say “enough!” Someone needs to take action to end the cycle of abuse, neglect, and divorce in our families. Those behaviors ought not to be normal! They ought not to be commended or accepted in our churches! We need to admit, OUT LOUD, that dysfunctional families are not acceptable and take steps to ensure, at lest in our churches, that every family is healthy and fucntioning properly. The same is true with religion. We all smile and nod our heads when people in church talk about how much they “just love to hear Joel Osteen" or "T. D. Jakes.” Some smile and nod because they agree! We need to do a better job of teaching these people the truth. Others just don’t want to make waves. (When you don’t make waves, you get stagnant water!) People who know what is morally right, and what is spiritually true, all too often stand by while spiritual sickness infests the churches. We want to be nice, we want to be peacemakers, we want to acknowledge that different people see things differently. We become practical relativists, while saying we believe in absolute truth. A sick religion and dysfunctional families can do little to turn around declining morals, declining leadership, and declining civilization.

Conclusion Before we get too upset over who is being elected President, perhaps we need to look at our churches and families, and get busy fixing the problems there.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The World According to Tweety-Bird

  • The World According to Tweety Bird
  • Who is Tweety?
  • Tweety is the little guy. Tweety does not count for much in the scheme of things. This, for Tweety, is not a problem as he is content to be the little guy, so long as he is supplied with bird seed, water, and a swing to swing on. However, Tweety is a victim of forces much larger than he is (“Dat bad ol’ puddy tat!”). Tweety is the one who is oppressed, a victim of Sylvester, who seeks to over power him utterly. At the same time, Tweety always wins. Tweety is never caught and eaten by Sylvester, and this makes Tweety self assured to the max.
  • Where is Tweety?
  • Tweety lives in a cage. This is not a bad place to be as his cage offers safety from the “bad ol’ puddy tat.” His cage is home, and is the place of food, safety, and rest. Whenever he chooses, or needs to, Tweety is free to leave the cage in order to torment his nemesis, Sylvester the cat. Tweety’s world is a dangerous place for those who are small, who might find themselves becoming breakfast for those who are large. Tweety must be always on the alert for Sylvester, who is diligent in his efforts to bring Tweety to harm. Tweety’s world is also one where justice prevails always, in the end, or Tweety would have been long gone ages ago.
  • What is Wrong?
  • Tweety actually looks like "breakfast" to Sylvester. Tweety is the victim. Tweety cannot ever get fully away from Sylvester. Tweety is the one who has no power. Tweety is small and Sylvester is large. Tweety is weak and Sylvester is strong. Tweety is innocent and pure, and Sylvester is evil.
  • What is the Answer?
  • The answer lies in Tweety’s own perseverance and cleverness, along with a streak of luck, which includes some impossible “cartoon” type feats of strength, and daring. Tweety is also fortunate in that while Sylvester is big and evil, he is also very foolish. Sylvester is often a victim of his own schemes to capture Tweety. When all else fails, there is “Gwanny” who comes in at opportune moments and gives Sylvester a royal “lickin” with her umbrella.
  • Commentary:
  • Tweety shares much in common with other Warner Brothers Cartoon characters. In many of them the weak are oppressed by the strong and yet win out in the end. Bugs Bunny is a classic case, facing several enemies: Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, and the Tasmanian Devil. The Road Runner is another, who always wins over Wile E. Coyote, even though the coyote is more powerful. These cartoons appeal to Americans because it is an American story. We love to see the underdog win. Americans have always championed the little guy in any conflict. When Tweety outsmarts Sylvester, it is the same as the Horatio Alger, rags to riches story, where the little guy fights against overpowering odds and wins. It is the story of Rocky and of The Lord of the Rings. It is the Alamo and D-Day. We love to see the underdog win. Truman over Dewey in 1948 is one example. Andrew Carnegie, who came to America as a poor immigrant child, and went to work as a telegraph boy, but grew up to be a multi-millionaire is seen as the American success story. In some ways it is America’s own story—a little band of Colonists come to Jamestown in 1604 and overcome impossible odds to survive and build Virginia and then all the colonies declaring their independence from England, all these farmer-militiamen, winning out over well trained and equipped British troops. We were the Tweety Birds and the Redcoats were Sylvester. The Warner Brothers cartoons may be seen in light of the Bible as well. Tweety wins, but unlike in the Bible, it is not by faith, but by cleverness and cartoonish jokes. The “savior” in the Sylvester and Tweety cartoons is always “Gwanny” who is good at fighting evil and injustice, but who offers no permanent solution. In the Bible it is different. The little guy wins in the Bible, only because of faith in God. Scripture tells us that “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27). This runs all through scripture. The little guy wins over and over, not by cleverness but by faith. The Bible tells us the story of God choosing Isaac over Ishmael, and Jacob over Esau. Even more so, it is Moses, God’s Tweety, standing up to the ungodly Pharaoh (Sylvester), and winning, not because Moses’ “Gwanny” gives Pharoah a whack, but because God has chosen to bless his people at that time. It is the story of David and Goliath, of David and Saul, especially. Saul must have felt like Sylvester sometimes, always after David and always failing to get him. Let’s remember, however, that God is not always on the side of the underdog. God is on the side of the underdog who has faith in God, and who lives according to God’s purposes. Tweety always wins, and for that matter so does Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. They win because they are clever. God’s people win because they give themselves in faith to Jesus Christ and have their lives in line with the purposes of God. Let Tweety be an encouragement to all of us—sometimes the little guy wins. But even more than that, let Tweety remind us that the clever are guaranteed a win, only in the stories. The real winners in the end are those who belong, in faith, to Jesus Christ.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Manifesto for Christian Living Today

HERE IS A BIG AGENDA FOR THE CHRISTIAN MINORITY IN AMERICA
  • 1) We must insist on equal and fair treatment with other minorities in such matters as jobs, right to live free of harassment, free speech etc.
  • 2) We must insist that we be treated fairly and accurately by the news media, and entertainment venues. Christians have kept quiet for too long while we are satirized, or described in woefully inaccurate ways to the majority by the media.
  • 3) We must insist that schools and textbooks treat Christianity accurately and fairly, that we not be mischaracterized. Today Christians are treated much as blacks, Jews and others were treated a century ago.

  • 4) We must insist on our right to proclaim our message and to have it heard alongside other messages in the public square.
  • While insisting on these things, we must also
  • 1) Model and live out a way of life that is completely biblical.
  • a) This means living out values that are very different from our neighbors—noticeably different.
  • b) This means showing the world a habit of giving, service, and self sacrifice that they don’t see elsewhere.
  • c) This means going to bed earlier than most people, getting up earlier (to read the Word), and spending our “leisure hours” in ways that most Americans don’t (visiting those who are lonely or in need of help, interacting with our children and neighbors, engaging in SERIOUS Bible Study and prayer).
  • d) This means changing the way we handle money and possessions, seeing them as a trust from God, to be used in ways that affirm life and community—in other words, I will buy things, not just to make me happy, but in order to have quality time with family, to make more time for neighbors and the needy, to enhance opportunities to be a vital part of the community.
  • e) We must begin to practice, and teach our children, a completely different understanding of priorities in life:
  • i. We must honor the elderly and teach our children to do so—-we must confront the “culture of youth” in America with a better alternative and show why it is better! And lead our children and grandchildren to do the same!
  • ii. We must live out and teach a lifestyle that values the past, that values tradition, that values continuity—Americans always look for something “new and improved.” We must stand against this with a better alternative, and again we must teach our children the same.
  • iii. We must learn to honor the creation—as God intended it to be. This includes not only ecological responsibility, but also recognizing God’s sovereignty in the world and looking for it. Let us teach our children to see God’s hand in all things—and live like we believe it too!
  • 2) Advocate a biblical view of the world in all areas of public life. The Gay and Lesbian lobby has won the day over the past 20 years, and they are a smaller minority than we are. But they have been willing to confront the larger culture and make a difference. We have just sat by and groused about it. There are more of us than there are of them! We should be able to make a bigger impact! We need to discover what the Bible says about many things, and then get organized to advocate it across the board.
  • I know this is a tall order, and challenges many things that we as Christians assume is true about the way things are. But until we face realities, we cannot change them. I know this reads as something of a manifesto, but I intend for it to.

Should Christians Go To Movies?

  • Many Christians wonder if it is right or wrong to even attend movies. Different decisions are made by different Christians based on such factors as their knowledge of the Bible, level of committment to Jesus Christ, personal background/upbringing, etc. Here, I describe the range of choices under six headings. Most Christians fall into one or another of these headings. (For the record I tend to favor numbers 4 and 5, but other Christians may differ.)
  • 1) Don’t go to movies at all. This approach is followed by many who want to be serious about never exposing themselves to anything that is morally impure. Also, they believe that by going to see even a “clean,” movie, they are supporting a morally decadent enterprise, and the money they spend on this movie may be used to make a bad movie later on. (Other Christians disagree on this last point and believe that if enough people will go to see “clean” movies, Hollywood will be motivated to make more of them, since it is money that drives the system.) This plan has the virtue of being simple, and it really does prevent one from being corrupted by an indecent movie. Besides, there is no biblical command to go to movies. However, such people need to be careful of spiritual pride.
  • 2) Use the movie ratings system as a guide to which movies to see. These Christians believe that the rating system offers a way to determine which movies are “proper” and which ones are not. Such people will set a standard expressed in terms like “I will only go see G or PG movies.” Or, “I won’t go see any R-rated movies!” Many Christians follow this method, and it is probably the most popular. This plan is simple and easy, but can be inflexible. What if a movie you really want to see is rated above (or below?) your standard? Do you go and feel guilty? Also such standards are arbitrary, and may not be biblical.
  • 3) Set a specific standard that you will not violate. These Christians believe that the movie rating system is at best only a rough guide. They add an additional standard, such as, “I will not go to any movie with a nude scene in it.” Or, “Killings are OK, but if they are too graphic, I won’t stay.” Or, “Such things are OK if they are integral to the story itself, but if they are not, I won’t go see the movie.” All of these require that one read movie reviews and depend on the testimony of friends, so it is a little more work than the first two approaches. This is a more thoughtful approach, which is a good thing. However, it is rather subjective. One danger is that you may wind up setting yourself up as the standard: “I will not go see what offends me” becomes, “What does or doesn’t offend me personally, is actually God’s standard for movies.” Remember, the Bible is the authority, not us.
  • 4) Base the decision on the theme of the movie, its worldview and moral vision. These Christians also spend a lot of time looking at movie reviews and pondering the overall meaning of a movie. Under this approach, a nude scene, or violent action is not seen as a hindrance to going to the movie itself, as long as the overall theme of the movie is morally or philosophically biblical. This requires a bit of work, researching reviews and such. It has the strength of being thoughtful and mature. However, one must be sure one’s motive is pure: “Am I going to this movie because of the nude scene, and just making an excuse with all this talk of themes and worldviews, or am I really putting my priorities straight. Remember, “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.”
  • 5) Judge the movie on artistic merit alone, while taking into account the theme and worldview. This approach requires much time examining movie reviews (the internet really helps here). This approach is similar to four, but Christians who take this approach will go see a movie that presents a false picture of reality, if the movie is well made. They are able to look at the movie’s understanding of reality with a critical eye, and do not believe that it will affect them unduly. Like those who follow number four, such matters as “body count,” four letter words, or nude scenes are not so important in themselves as the overall quality of the movie. This is the most thoughtful approach, but one must be careful about motive, just as in four above. Also one must be careful to avoid spiritual pride, as in number one above. There is nothing wrong with appreciating well done moviemaking, but one should not be proud that one can do so. As those who choose number one must avoid a “holier than thou” attitude, similarly those who choose number five must avoid a “more worldly wise and aware than thou” attitude.
  • 6) Don’t worry about it, just go to any movie that is showing, if it appeals to you at all, even superficially. These Christians believe that entertainment has no connection to the rest of life (they are wrong: it does), and they go to movies without giving the whole matter any real thought. If a title appeals to them, or they like the actors, or the trailer looks exciting (but don’t all trailers look exciting?), they will go see the movie. This is the least biblical approach. The Bible teaches us that all of life is interconnected. We are affected by what we do, see, and hear. Entertainment is serious business. Also, we should not be led around by advertising and promotion. Biblical wisdom requires that we make careful decisions about everything we do.
  • You should prayerfully consider these options. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Which of these have I followed in the past?
  • Which of these seems to appeal to me most? Why?
  • Should I continue to do what I have done before or should I make a change?
  • Is my motive right?
  • Is there any spiritual pride in me about how I make this decision?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Some Criteria for a Good Movie

I have always said that the definition of a good movie is “a good story, well told.” I see this as comprehensive, but vague. Let me try to "put some meat on those bones." By “a good story” I mean one that is worth telling. The story needs to be worth the viewer’s time, in terms of what it gives back. The story should inform the viewer of important realities and offer uplifiting themes. Lord of the Rings certainly does that. While it is pure fantasy, it says real and important things about good and evil, about love, about loyalty, about a host of virtues. A story that gives only the visceral (most “action” films), or only some cheap laughs, is not worth telling. Examples of this kind of movie include Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2, Meet the Fokkers, most action films, and most films starring Whoopi Goldberg or Steve Martin. However, simply being "a good story is not enough. It must also be "well told." “Well Told” covers everything related to the technical side—good directing, acting, cinematography, etc. There are many “bad stories well told” out there. An example might be Meet the Fokkers, which is well acted, and well directed, but the story offers nothing worth keeping. All of this is way too broad. I am hoping that I or others can fill in the details. What are some additional elements of a “good story”? Here are a few tentative suggestions: A good story Has an uplifiting theme. Appeals to the head and perhaps the heart, but to the "belly" hardly at all. Has unity Is a story where characters learn and grow. Has characters who are realistic (Akeelah and the Bee was merely good, not great, partly because some characters were not realistic at all—I mean the local gang leaders who were supporting Akeelah?—Hmmph, let’s get real!) Other merely good--not great--movies might include Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Beethoven, and The Incredibles. A good story further Offers insight in to real life—(and I don’t mean sex and violence—I mean insight into how people think, what motivates them, their best aspirations). Braveheart, for example pits William Wallace against Longshanks in a conflict in which Wallace is seen as a man who loves goodness, loves his wife, and loves his country. If the movie has a weakness, it is that Longshanks is never shown as anything but evil. Surely the man had some good motivations. I don’t trust the above list completely, because I sometimes think of exceptions. Does my list leave out comedy all together? Can a cartoon ever make it into the great category? What about a movie story told in a shallow, cartoon/fairy tale like manner? That may be appropriate for some stories. What are we to make of Evan Almighty? Most likely it is a good movie, though it is well made. It isn't a great movie, but I would certainly recommend it to anyone.

AFI and the idea of a "Great Movie"

I have a bone to pick with the American Film Institute over their movie selection process. AFI occasionally posts lists of "100 Greatest" in various categories of film. Recently they announced that they plan to do the survey again every decade or so due to “changing tastes.” What that says to me is that their list is not based on any objective criteria—it is merely what some people like. The AFI needs to establish some kind of criteria for a good movie—completely objective and not subject to whim and fancy. They need to base their lists on these criteria, and then each decade reconsider the list in light of movies that have been made since. Greatness should not be a matter of "Changing Tastes" but of unchanging values. The problem here is postmodernism. AFI has bought into the idea that there is no truth, only perspectives, and that we cannot set up external standards. In other words, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and we cannot say that any movie is really “better” since it is just a matter of whatever tastes and standards prevail. That is poppycock! It is postmodernism, pure and simple! AFI has lost quite a bit of credibility with me over this. Can't we set up an objective set of standards for a “great movie”? Perhaps we need different criteria for different movie genres. However, perhaps there is a core set of standards, and then certain genre specific standards that should be added in. I am not sure of the specifics, but I suspect that the whole idea that "changing tastes" should determine "greatness" is a serious error. "Greatness" should be a factor that helps refine and improve "taste" in movies as in music, art, theater, and literature.