God's Answer to Violence

On Good Friday, we face the reality of God's suffering and death, not to justify violence, but to recognize God's answer to violence...

"Conventional wisdom said, of course, that the way of the Messiah would be the way of fulfillment and self-aggrandizement: those who wanted to gain their lives would have to fight for them…Jesus’ most subversive teaching, in both form and content, consisted in just this: that the way of wisdom meant taking up the cross, dying in order to live" (N.T. Wright).

While we look to the light of Sunday, on this day we must journey with the absence of light.

Exam Week, Holy Week, and 48 Very Important Words

This is somewhat of a strange week for me. I teach at a Bible college and this is our exam week. Students are furiously studying (in theory anyways!) and teachers are furiously marking (not angrily I hope!). Academically, this is an important week.

This week is also Holy Week. For Christians, this is a time of religious observance and intentional reflection on the center of our faith - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Spiritually, this is an important week.

http://sacredartmeditations.com/themes/detail/12Exam week and Holy Week - a collision of mind and spirit that as a Christian academic institution can make for a somewhat scattered experience. How does one dutifully engage exam week and faithfully observe Holy Week, at the same time?

I’ve been reading through Matthew’s account of Jesus in Jerusalem. Following the misplaced “hosanna’s” of Palm Sunday, I’ve been struck by the engaging interactions Jesus has with the religious elites in Jerusalem. I even thought of how I could justify exams during Holy Week, after all, Jesus repeatedly puts the religious leaders to the test in Jerusalem (e.g. Theology101: “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” - Mt. 21:25). But then I realized that’s a bit of a stretch (who’s Jesus? who’s the Pharisees?).

I also thought about how the narrative displays an anti-institutional tone. Forget exams and get on with the priorities of faithfully following Jesus! But I hesitate to equate a 21st-century Bible college with the 1st-century Temple institution. Plus, Columbia Bible College exists to make disciples. Oh, and I want to keep my job.

In looking at the narrative, I actually can’t find justification for only study or only worship. But I do find a reason to justify both. A passage we hear about many times related to many different topics, but one which is somehow absent in my experience of Holy Week, comes right in the middle of Jesus’s time in Jerusalem. In the midst of exam week and Holy Week, I came across 48 very important words:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mt. 22:27-40 NIV).

Instead of attempting to justify certain areas of life and faith over others, we’re reminded that the good news of Jesus - culminating in Easter - is the presence of God’s peace and wholeness in all areas of life - mind, soul, heart, relationships. Academics and worship together. Exam week and Holy Week together.

Sometimes we just need 48 very important words to remind us.

Leaving the Church

There have been some interesting conversations around leaving evangelicalism and leaving the church recently. Notably, popular blogger Rachel Held Evans (whom I respect greatly) outlines the situation in a recent piece for CNN, “How evangelicals won a war and lost a generation.”

This is a tough one for me. I’ve previously been a pastor, am strongly in favor of local church participation, and I work for a denominational institution within evangelicalism (Mennonite Brethren). Yet I also share some of the angst over ways in which denominations and churches politicize Christianity and make claims about faith and theology that make evangelicalism a boundary for inclusion or exclusion (often the latter). For many, the energy it takes to maintain unity and meaning together in a church context is gone. Add to that a church culture that can seem more routine than real, and it’s no wonder people see the only option for vibrant faith outside of the church. This honest reflection - “Why do I still go to church?” - expresses it well:

Sometimes I ask myself why I still go to church, why my wife and I still wake up on a Sunday morning and wrangle our four kids and one-on-the-way into the car and drive thirty-five minutes. Why, instead of sleeping in or getting things done around the house, do I spend these Sunday mornings teaching elementary school age kids about God or sitting in a chair in a building where nothing seems to be happening? All around me people are just showing up, and I’m not sure why.

Why do I still go to church? I ask myself. Why don’t I cut loose from this obligation? What am I waiting for?

I’m an idealist, I’ll admit. So while sharing frustrations, I’d like to think not all hope is lost. I’m not ready to give up on or leave the church. Yet I’m also not ready to accept the status-quo and prop up a religious institution or perpetuate political Christianity. So I was inspired to read a recent post from Scot McKnight and close with his words on “The Church: What is or What could be?”:

Many enter into ministry with the ambition to make a church what they think it could be instead of what it is.

Until we understand what the church is — a fellowship of sinners at different locations in a journey — we will not understand what the church could be and can be. No two Christians are perfectly compatible — in theology or praxis — and therefore there will be tension in the church, which is precisely where we need to begin to see what the church is. Not a fellowship of those who agree or who are alike but a fellowship of those who don’t agree and who are not alike. When we demand the church be like us, or like our vision for what it is, or we leave, we create our own church — and eventually (if we have the guts) we start a church that begins the same old process of a fellowship of those agree who eventually become those  who disagree and who split.

“What was it like?” - On Noah and glimmers of hope

Ever since I was a child I can always remember being intrigued by Noah. “What was it like?” I wondered. Most of the time I imagined a gentle and kind man with his family, herding animals and caring for them as the ark floated along. I usually pictured Noah smiling. Children’s bible stories tend to leave that impression.

Once in awhile, however, I wondered if Noah ever got scared. Or lonely. Or angry. As a teenager, I can remember wondering if Noah ever questioned, “Why me?” I still wonder...

But through all my reflecting, I just wanted to ask Noah, "What was it really like?"

The recent Hollywood release of the epic story offers an attempt to answer this very question.

I’ll admit, I’m always torn when a movie is released based on a familiar story I grew up with. My imagination of the details is now replaced by a filmmakers imagination. Reading about Frodo, I now visualize Elijah Wood. Reading the Noah account in Genesis, Russell Crowe is now part of the vision. For better or for worse, such is the reality of film.

Beyond the actual images, however, my evaluation always turns to whether or not a film portrays the story well, whether it “stays true to the story” as we commonly hear.

When it comes to the Noah movie itself, overall, I thought it was quite good. As I mentioned in my previous post, films tend to focus on the truths contained in a story as a opposed to getting every specific factual truth correct. This is certainly true of Noah, and considering the limited facts of the Genesis account, I’d also say it’s necessary and good. Details are imagined and added, all with the purpose of expanding the truths of the existing story. The point isn’t historical accuracy but consistent storytelling. Noah achieves this fairly well.

In terms of overall quality, my review is mixed. Noah is visually stunning, and the time-lapse scenes brought a welcome artistic angle. Not surprising for an epic-like film, the characters were too predictable, and the constant close-up dialogue scenes verged more on cheesiness than humanness. That said, once the viewer accepts a predictable Russell Crowe Noah, the struggle with judgment and mercy that burdens Noah in the film is depicted with a raw honesty that anyone familiar with the story should resonate with. While not consistent, the humanness of the characters is key to the film’s success.

The impending flood sets a somber tone to the film, as it should. The movie is dark and doesn’t gloss over human wickedness. That said, some of the action scenes were a bit forced in terms of fitting the overall narrative, seeming to play more to who was acting Noah then what fit with his actual character (e.g. Noah fighting intruders from the ark by himself in Gladiator-esque fashion).

The storytelling flows well and doesn’t linger on one particular part of the story too much. As good stories do, this allowed the film to lead the viewer into a challenging reflection and experience of how humans live amidst both good and evil. It was this deeper reflection which I thought was the film’s greatest strength. It doesn’t glorify violence. And it doesn’t cheapen goodness. It doesn’t ignore divine judgment, but doesn’t mock it either. The fact Noah isn’t the smiling shepherd of my childhood imagination is a good thing. The fact Noah weeps over the deaths of the “wicked” is key. And as he recognizes his own propensity to such evil himself, one can’t help but reflect on the commonality of brokenness, even for someone considered “righteous” by biblical standards. With this honest portrayal and wrestling with how God (“The Creator”) and goodness overcomes evil, I found the film thoroughly biblical.

To be clear, this is not a feel-good movie. Again, my childhood self would be confused and scared (this is also not a family film!). Yet while definitely not sentimental about God’s or humanity’s goodness, the film is deeply hopeful. As one character laments the coming flood - “This will be the end of everything” - Noah offers a different perspective: “No, it will be the beginning of everything.” And in the end, the movie shows how it isn’t human ability that overcomes wickedness (the film is clear that wickedness prevails even following the flood). Hope comes in the reality that goodness and new life is found in the midst of wickedness. The Creator’s gift of “the glimmer of Adam” lives on, however dim. The Noah film can help us find such glimmers of hope today.

How To Watch A Movie

There has been a fair bit of debate and discussion going on recently amongst Christians with the theatrical release of Noah. Most of the focus is around whether or not the movie aligns with the biblical account and how can/should Christians respond. Some of the response is articulate and engaging. Much of the response, well, not so much...

I haven’t seen Noah yet and plan to soon. But I do want to highlight something I’ve seen missing in much of the discussion: understanding and practice on how to watch a movie.

I suggest four areas we need to consider when engaging any film:

1. Background
  • Who made the film (director, producers, etc...)? This will say something about what you can expect to see and hear. All films reflect the people who made them to some degree (e.g. one can’t really understand the Lord of the Rings without at least some knowledge of Peter Jackson).
  • What’s the genre? Much of the conflict over Noah is with people expecting an epic action/adventure film to parallel their historical understanding of the flood account in Genesis. Knowing the genre heading into the theatre can save you some frustration.
  • Who’s the intended audience? This may seem trivial, but it plays more into films then we may think. Whether its children, romantics, or philosophizers, the intended audience will impact how a film is produced and presented.
2. Production quality
Some key questions to ask here as you watch a movie:
  • Is the film made well?
  • How is the cinematography? Is it visually appealing?
  • How is the sound and music? Does the music enhance or hinder the story?
  • Is there good acting?
  • How is the overall flow of the story? Is it easy to follow?
3. Story and truthfulness
Here is where most movies use a story to communicate truths, even if straying greatly from actual historical truth. To say a film is based on a specific story is not to say it's attempting any sort of historical accuracy. For film, then, it’s common that storytelling lacks truth (i.e. historical accuracy) and yet is full of truths.
4. Response
In assessing movies, we often start with our response. “Did I like this film?” is our first (and only!) evaluator. Yet I’ve found if I weave my response with these other components my appreciation and engagement with film is only enhanced. In a very helpful book, Reel Spirituality, Robert Johnston highlights two ways we typically respond to films. There is the experiential (how a movie actually impacts us) and the critical (how we reflect on what we experienced). He asserts we need both, particularly if one wants to engage theology and film together. Yet much of the theological criticism of movies leaves the experience behind and focuses almost solely on criticism. Johnston, then, offers this remark on the experience-critique response to film:
“Movies, like life itself, are first experienced, then reflected on. They affect the heart, then the head. And one’s gut-level response becomes itself part of what is later reflected on...It is our encounter with the movie itself that should control all else. Faithfulness to the concrete experience of the movie’s story is the first criterion for effective theological criticism. Such movie-centered criticism can be confirmed and extended through the use of genre analysis, auteur criticism, thematic dialogue, and cultural critique. A totally idiosyncratic viewing of the shape or meaning of a film, particularly if it is then used as the basis for theological dialogue, should be thought suspect. The adequacy of any critical response to a movie must be measured by the film itself.”
Essentially, good film-watching can’t come with an agenda or preconceived idea of what a movie should say. Yes, this gets complex when a movie deals with religious history and sacred books. But we shouldn’t be relying on Hollywood to tell our sacred stories anyway, should we? And at the very least, an exercise in learning how to watch a movie should cause all Christians to pause and consider how and what role aspects of culture, including film, play in both enhancing and distracting from our deepest convictions.

On World Vision - Voices of Reason

Many are likely unaware of this week's news regarding World Vision USA's policy change and then reversal of that changed policy in regards to the employment of individuals in same-sex marriage. To those who are aware, you've likely witnessed the public debate battle/war/fight (mostly through the media and the internet - this sure says something, doesn't it!?!).

You can read about it here:
Through the twitter-wars and entrenched polarization, I'm glad to have encountered a few voices of reason, people who recognize the dangers of politicized theological/ethical debate and who are attempting an alternative path in addressing such issues.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Jamie Arpin-Ricci, "World Vision & A Different Possibility"
...the witness this event has displayed to a watching world is not that Christians are uncompromisingly committed to morality, but that we are reactionary, graceless people, filled with anger, unwilling to follow our own principles of correction and grace, even when the consequences fall on the shoulder of some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable children.
David Fitch, "World Vision and The Public Sport of Evangelical In-Fighting"
World Vision is not a local church. It is a large organization that really acts like a public service corporation. It is alot like a large university that once had a church behind it but now has lost that direct affiliation. It now is beholden to a huge donor base for its continued existence. It should act like that. If it makes a public statement that statement should be made for the sake of its ‘business interests.” If this is true, then in my opinion, World Vision should have very limited statements about the moral behavior of its employees.
Ryan Dueck, "How Things Work in the World of (Mostly) Rich Western Christians"
...wouldn’t it get very complicated to keep pulling their money whenever a sinner is discovered in the ranks of those offering relief? How will anybody in the world be helped if the (mostly) rich western Christians redirect their money every time someone ignores the Bible’s clear teaching?
And then I would say…“Um…Er… 
Well, you see things just work a bit differently in the world of (mostly) rich, western Christians negotiating the weighty burden of how to allocate their discretionary spending in an adversarial and noisy church culture that has little patience for nuanced reflection or measured responses. 
Derek Rishmawy, "Keller, Evangelical Polarization, and the Folly of Measuring Coffins"
What seems to be getting lost is the Evangelical middle. Why? Well, probably a lot of reasons, but in view of the last week’s “dialogue”, in the technologically-amplified Argument Culture, centrist voices tend to get marginalized and the loudest mouths dominate the air/screen-time...
...Not that it’s right, but more American Evangelicals probably know about Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow breaking up than they do about the World Vision (non-)decision this week. Every once in a while, it’s good to step back and take a breathe on this stuff.

Exclusion Without Words

The doors slid open and there was the usual rush of bodies all vying for space on the crowded subway car. In New York, the dash from platform to subway car requires special attention.

As a visitor, I quickly learned to adapt to the rhythm of riding the New York subway. There are certain norms to follow to successfully (and safely!) join of experience of commuting in new York. The clash of people and space requires focus and attention (don’t step on toes!) along with just the right social distance (avoid eye contact). The pace and pulse of people is both invigorating and exhausting. Yet somehow, through the chaos, there is a sense of connection in this community of commuters.

But on this one day, as I joined the human funnel into the subway car, I was surprised to be met by empty space once inside. Here I was confronted with another subway norm. Actually, to be more specific, I was confronted by a person, a lone man illustrating this other norm.

He had nearly half the car to himself. It quickly became apparent why. Filthy clothes. Visibly intoxicated. Warbled phrases mixing obscenity and absurdity could be heard. Wafts of odor unknown and unwanted. The spaciousness around him wasn’t surprising. But it did say something.

My sense of connection was met with visible exclusion. Exclusion, whether intentional or not, came in different forms.

Locals were mostly indifferent. Not a glance or comment, just a shuffle to the other side of the car. A few locals, however, were visibly disgusted. Quick glances and whispering signaled judgment. Exclusion doesn’t have to be said to be heard.

A tourist, pushing a stroller, blindly rolled up right beside the man, only to heed the frantic waves of his partner to wheel his child to safety. Here exclusion came through fear.

I felt stuck. Who was I as a visitor to try and rectify this experiment in exclusion? I decided to take a stand. Literally. I stood firmly beside this man. I tried to catch his eyes, but his gaze was cloudy and disturbed. A conversation clearly wasn’t an option. So I just stood. It was an uncomfortable 5 minutes. But I stood.

And nothing happened.

Indifference. Disgust. Fear. I’ll admit, I felt a bit of each one. And how many times each day do I tend towards judgment and labeling of those who don’t fit in? But that day I realized indifference, disgust and fear weren’t my only options. For 5 minutes beneath New York, I stood.

Inclusion can be said without words too.