Glorious Failure

Life is a long series of failures. Here's to failing gloriously!

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How God Uses the Broken, the Outsider, and the Unwilling: observations from Luke 23

Luke’s portrayal of religious people in the 23rd chapter of his Gospel is not flattering.

The chapter records Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and burial. And through that whole fiasco only four people mentioned properly identify Jesus. And they are:

The Chief Priests
The Scribes
The Levites

Just kidding. It was not the religious leaders.

Rather, Luke identifies

  • A thief
  • Two gentiles
  • A cowardly disciple

These four correctly identify Jesus for who He is. It’s not exactly the list I would have guessed. But historically speaking, it’s the list God chose for Himself.

Let’s examine them one by one and see how God uses them anyway.

First the thief on the cross makes a beautiful confession as his dying act. “And we indeed justly [die]; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man [Jesus] hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” (Luke 23:41-42 KJV)

Consequently Jesus rewards and affirms him, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43b KJV) He promised paradise to the thief on the cross. It’s a beautiful confession of faith. And personally one of the most poignant gestures in the Gospels. Nevertheless the thief on the cross is an unlikely candidate for paradise. Don’t you think?

Second and third, Luke mentions two gentiles who properly identify Jesus. One is Pilate – the Roman governor of the region. The other is the centurion responsible (think supervising) for carrying out Jesus’ death sentence.

The centurion is a gentile who likely heard of Jesus, and possibly heard some of Jesus’ teaching. However being a gentile he has zero vested interest in Jesus Messiah-hood. That issue concerns only Jews. And he is not Jewish. There’s also no prior indication he’s a disciple. But after Jesus gives up the ghost, the centurion makes a profession glorifying God that Jesus was a righteous man. (Luke 23:47) Some believe this centurion came to saving faith. I sympathize with that view. In any case it’s clear he believed Jesus was righteous.

Pilate comes across as fair and reasonable in his trial of Jesus even though he’s a gentile. (cf. John 18:28-40) Jesus’ accusers lay their case before Pilate in verse two. Pilate responds by asking Jesus if the accusations are true. He displays sound wisdom by going directly to the source. There’s no mockery, no beatings, no interrogations, just simple inquiry. It comes up empty and Pilate stands by the findings of his own investigation – at least initially. All speak to Pilate’s sound reasoning and good judgment.

Pilate’s examination contrasts sharply the manner in which his accusers conducted their own investigation. The Jewish religious authorities effort to try Jesus come off resembling a witch hunt more than a fair trial. And ironically Jesus’ accusers were his own people. They show no love for their own when it comes to Jesus; No understanding for someone with their common heritage; No ownership to take care this issue “in house” or on their own terms; No.

Straight to the cross with you, Jesus. This was a lynching. Make no mistake.

The fourth proper identification of Jesus’ identity was made by a cowardly disciple – Joseph of Arimathea.

In fairness, my attributing the term “cowardly” to Joseph’s discipleship comes directly from Larry Osborne’s Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith The term is attributed from insights about Joseph derived from the few facts Scripture records about him.

Verse fifty-one makes clear he was a disciple. He believed Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. Osborne attributes cowardice to Joseph because he was a member of the very council who railroaded Jesus without sticking up for Him. There’s no record in any Gospel of conflict among the council, dissent, or even discussion. The council spoke as one. From that we can infer Joseph did not speak up, or speak out to defend Jesus. (I’m not saying I blame him. I’m just observing.)

Joseph may have believed in Jesus, but that was certainly not his finest moment.

To Joseph’s credit he did step up after Jesus’ death. He took responsibility for Jesus body, burying Him in his own personal tomb. He acted on faith here and rightly identified Jesus – even if he denied him before. (sound familiar?)

To recap:

The only four people Luke mentions in the 23rd chapter of his Gospel who properly identify Jesus as Lord, Messiah, and righteous, include:

  • A thief – the broken
  • Two gentiles – the outsider
  • A cowardly disciple – the unwilling

Do you see the irony?

Who rightly identifies Jesus?

Was it His best friends, perhaps? Peter? James? John?
Nope.
None of them.

How about any of the other nine of His twelve closest disciples?
Not them either.

Hmm. Curious.
How about his religious leadership?
Most decidedly against Him.

Ok. How about Jesus other followers? Mary Magdalene? The other Mary?
Not here.

None of those who were closest to Jesus during his earthly incarnate ministry stood up for Him in His darkest hour. None of the folks you might suspect to show up did. They all scattered.

 

Jesus stood condemned, and alone.

 

It wasn’t for naught though, because God accomplished amazing things through the faithful actions of these second-rate followers.

The thief on the cross leaves a legacy recorded eternally in Scripture that justification comes by faith alone. His deeds brought him to the cross – the cross he deserved. His faith brought him into paradise for eternity.

The centurion–an unlikely candidate for a Jesus-follower–left a legacy testifying to Jesus’ righteousness. And this from a man with orders to fulfill a death sentence. He changed his assessment from guilty to not guilty. What a transformation! This guy had seen his share of criminals. I’m sure. That’s a powerful testimony.

Pilate’s properly identifying Jesus being recorded in the Scriptures functions (literarilly, at least in part) to foil the assessment made by Jewish religious leadership. The contrast between his investigation and the Jews’ underscores the absurdity of Jesus’ Jewish trial. Pilate’s legacy clarifies the absurdity, the inadequacy, and the abject injustice of Jesus’ ultimate death sentence, even though it came by his own doing. He makes the foolish look like the fools they really were.

Joseph’s legacy might arguably be the greatest. His faithful actions made possible the resurrection. At the time, bodies of executed criminals were cast into the garbage heap outside the city. Usually then eaten by wild animals. Instead Joseph stepped up to assume responsibility for Jesus’ body postmortem, bury him in his own personal tomb, and preserve His body. Mind you none of the twelve did that. How different, then, would Easter be without the faithful actions of Joseph?²

These four people demonstrate how God uses faith. They point to the tremendous good God can work together using vessels that are broken, misshapen, and ugly — not the put-together, attractive, educated, or wealthy.

This is how God uses the broken, the outsider, and the unwilling.

If I were choosing followers for my movement, I wouldn’t have chosen the half-hearted, the criminal, or the outsider.

But God did.

So take heart. He can use even you.

Walk by faith. Trust your Father.

He is good. And He knows what He’s doing.

 

 

 

Footnotes

¹Osborne, Larry. Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith. Zondervan. 2012. p.29-37

² ibid.

Raise the Mark

Foot racers at the starting blocks

Life is like a race. Run to the end. And receive your prize. Or is it?

Pastor Roland was spitting again. He spits when he gets excited. And on this particular Sunday he was very excited.

“I press ON to the mark of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ!” His words entered my mind over and over. The sound of his twangy southern voice bounced off the dry-wall (he hung himself) of the small (mostly) empty country church in which I grew up in rural Kentucky. It was Spring, and I couldn’t have been much older than nine.

The sermon was about running the race of faith. Our pastor, a faithful man who’s integrity and sincerity was unquestionable even though his formal training nonexistent, taught from Philippians. His sermons are my first impression on the analogy of life as a race. A cursory Bible search for comparing life to a race reveals occurrences in at least five New Testament epistles, four of which attributed to Paul. But for me pastor Roland, and not pastor Paul, first defined what it meant to run the race of faith.

The mark. That’s what it’s about — pressing on toward the mark. I got it.

Even from a young age I understood the concept of a race. That’s part of the beauty of the analogy. It’s accessible even to young children. To win! That’s the point of a race. Right? Run fast! As fast as possible. (And cross the finish line before anyone else, too, but whatever.)

So my nine year-old ears listening to this sermon heard this, “Run the race. Hard. When you reach the mark you get the prize: Jesus.”

I was good with that. When I finish my race I get Jesus. Cool. Let’s go!

Until last month.

I was reading Philippians in a Bible study with some guys from my church. I read chapter three where Paul discloses why he runs the race: to attain the resurrection. (3:11) He explains how to run the race: let go of the past. Press on to what’s ahead. (3:13) But reading his explanation of the prize, the language struck me in a way it hadn’t ever before.

Verse 14 reads, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (KJV) The shift for me occurred in the little word “of”. Of what exactly? Well previously I interpreted “of” in attributive position, that is, to refer to the prize that belongs to those called by God. Put another way there exists this prize as a separate object in itself, which will be awarded at the end to those who run the race. However, on this day I read “of” descriptively, that it described the prize to be the calling of God itself.

Do you see the difference?

For the first time I saw that the prize is not just Jesus. It is Jesus. Yes. But it is also the call of Jesus.

The prize is the running of the race. How great is that?! It means I don’t have to wait till the end of my life to receive a prize. It means the whole point of this life isn’t to wait till the end so I can then receive my prize — at a later date — somewhere off in the distant future.

It means life matters now. The day-to-day details that we call mundane, become anything but. How I choose to spend my time — matters. How I treat my wife and kids — matters. What I eat — matters. How I spend money — it matters to God. All of it.

Now. Lest you accuse me of denigrating the sufficiency of Christ to be the prize, as what Paul meant when he penned this passage, let me here fully admit I believe in the sufficiency of Christ. For all things.

Look, the same guy who wrote Philippians also wrote Colossians, which contains in its first chapter one of the most beautiful and brilliant pictures of Christ’s deity as immutably and unquestionably supreme. I suppose in this post I’m clarifying the prize of Christ for the satisfaction of running the race, which is to say finding satisfaction in the running of the race itself, or the “high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

This means I can find satisfaction in this life, today. And that is perhaps the most exciting implication from this insight. This world is still fallen and broken. I fully admit. I’m not saying we’re fully glorified. That’s the hope of our resurrection. But we can be satisfied in Christ now.

“Faith is the Victory” goes the old hymn I sang all those years a

go in Roland’s small country church. What I’m learning now, decades later, is that faith is also the prize. The high calling of God in Christ Jesus is the prize. I don’t have Jesus fully, yet. But I am called, and I am running the race. And my soul can be satisfied.

It’s enough.

What is (not) the gospel?

sapling tree

“THAT’S NOT THE GOSPEL!” I burst out, yelling at the dash housing my car’s radio.

Late one evening recently I heard a radio spot on XM radio’s “The Message” — a Christian music station. Between songs, the announcer asked if I were having a bad day. He said, “Cheer up! Better days are ahead.” (I’ve paraphrased here.)

That’s what irked me. That’s what sparked my ire. The announcer said nothing else — nothing of Christ. Christian hope does not lie in circumstance. It lies in redemption and the hope of the resurrection. That’s the hope of the gospel.

In effect the radio announcer said that we should hope because things will get better. They may. But that’s beside the point. The announcer’s statement predicates hope on circumstance. That’s a dangerous place to affix hope. Circumstances change.

Further, as a Christian response to this admonishment, what would you say then to Coptic Christians in Iraq right now being tortured, imprisoned, and beheaded for their faith by ISIS? Would this advice tell them to cheer up because better days are ahead? Somehow that just seems hollow. Maybe callous is better. No.

Cruel.

Look, the hope of the gospel is that Christ died to atone for the brokenness of the whole world. He fulfilled God’s righteousness required by the law. He died the death we deserve so we can live the life He earned. That’s the power of grace. By Christ’s sufficient sacrifice we are God’s ministers of reconciliation and redemption.

In Christ God is redeeming sin. Not by circumstance.

It’s not like sin doesn’t matter. It’s not that sin can be ignored. Why else would Jesus have to die? No, God is building His glory on the redemption of the world. And He is more glorious for it, not less.

Our hope as Christians is not in our circumstances. Our hope is firm. And it is fixed. Our hope is in Christ.

Forgiveness: How Can it Be?–Reflections on a Song by Lauren Daigle

“How can it be?” Performed here beautifully by Lauren Daigle is a song I can’t get out of my head. I am compelled by this song.

Why?

Not sure. But in this post I’m going to give it a go. I want to uncover what makes this song so compelling and discover why I am so compelled by it.

Resonance. That’s what it always comes down to. Doesn’t it? I resonate with the message of the song: wonder–wonder at God’s gift of grace. To start with the title, “How can it be” is a question. The title itself calls into question the very possibility of forgiveness. It’s too wonderful to be true. The song’s starting point is the obvious state of our hearts: imperfection and brokenness–what the Bible calls sin. We are dirty, unclean in our sin. Could anything be more obvious about the human condition? To contemplate God then, in His goodness and perfection further contrasts our character with His. The more I contemplate God, my sin becomes more apparent, not less.

Beautiful.

It’s from this starting point the song begins. The title: recognizing our broken and sinful state wonders at the possibility of forgiveness and freedom from slavery to sin. I love that. It begins with disbelief–disbelief that something so wonderful could possibly exist. And if I’m honest with myself, that’s where my heart begins each day, not with belief but with disbelief. To conceive of something so wonderful as freedom–freedom from the slavery to sin and death is almost too wonderful to comprehend. How can that be?

Everyday it seems my heart has to be converted from disbelief to belief. And that is the power of God.

The melody of this song is gorgeous and versatile. Daigle’s unique almost gritty vocal timbre makes her distinct from other Christian artists today. She sounds like the Adele of Christian music. In this studio recording she demonstrates a wide range of vocal control, not just showing off the beautiful versatility of this melody, but also the breath-taking range, control, styling, and dynamics of her vocal chops.

My wife introduced me to this song a few weeks ago. The past week this song has been my heart’s meditation each day. I have yet to get through an encounter of this song without crying and becoming nearly overwhelmed by emotion. God’s grace is powerful. To contemplate it nearly overwhelms me each time. My prayer this morning is that I never get over it.

This morning that’s my prayer for you too. May we never lose our wonder for God and His never-stopping, never-giving up, absolutely crazy, absurd, and outrageous love for us.

Marriage and Tooth Paste

tube of tootpaste

A tube of toothpaste taught me a real lesson about my marriage and myself.

As a single man I prepared myself for matrimony. I studied God’s word to define marriage and learn what my role as a husband would be if I got married. When my fiancée and I began marriage counseling we talked through our expectations about important things and even small things like toothpaste-whether to squeeze from the middle or roll from the bottom up. To which I thought either way is fine. These preparations all taken together bless my marriage to this day. I’m glad I did it. But I’m afraid I let my preparedness go to my head.

I wasn’t married long before the discovery began. I learned that squeezing the toothpaste from the middle is actually inefficient. VERY inefficient. I learned that squeezing from the middle is in fact NOT acceptable. In fact it’s downright inconsiderate!

I learned that I really DO have a problem with squeezing, and squeezers. And that now includes my wife. This was quite a change from my pre-marital position on these topics when I thought I was so laid back that either was fine. Clearly I did not know myself.

Regrettably, I allowed the toothpaste issue to fester for several weeks before addressing it with my sweet wife. What’s worse is that as the irritant continued, my sinful heart gave in to resentment. I began to believe things about my wife–awful things against her character. They were untrue, but still I believed them.

I fed my sense of entitlement–my sense of self-righteousness. After all I wasn’t the one being inefficient or inconsiderate–I reasoned with myself. But that’s where I went wrong. I forfeited the covenant I made to my wife. I promised to love her as Christ loves the Church. From the gospel of Mark we know the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (10:45).

I was not loving my bride as Christ loves His.

God convicted me. I knew I was in the wrong to make such a big deal in my heart over something so trivial as a tube of tooth cream. When I did finally come clean with my wife, she responded very sweetly and graciously forgave me for harboring resentment against her.

What I discovered about myself by getting married: I am selfish.

“What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you?” (James 4:1 NLT) I discovered through the toothpaste test that my problem is not inside a tube of toothpaste. It’s inside me. To be more specific, the problem is the sin that dwells within me. (cf. Romans 7:14-20)

Before I got married I thought of myself as quite selfless. I served people all the time. I frequently gave up my rights to prefer others’ choices ahead of my own. Yes. I thought I was quite a giving person–until I got married.

When faced with a choice to get my own way, in the above instance, I chose the selfish path.

I’m learning that marriage really is an institution God uses to make me more holy. [Hat tip to Gary Thomas and Martin Luther]

For more on this principle of marriage making us more holy check out Gary Thomas’ excellent book, Sacred Marriage

For an excellent (and relatively new) blog on marriage check out http://www.scottkedersha.com/ He’s my marriage mentor.

Thank you, God for loving me enough to humble me–even if You use something as trivial as toothpaste to do it.

Contemplating the Millennial experience: Ryan Lewis — Fake Empire

Characteristic to the millennial experience is frustration when attempting meaningful connection with others. This video contemplates why.

Ben Haggerty (Macklemore) here portrays a young man struggling to connect with a lady friend. The context for his struggle is today’s media saturated culture in which we find ourselves. It’s one driven by consumerism and defined by materialism. The music samples The National’s “Fake Empire” stating, “We’re half-awake in a fake empire.”

(No, Katy Perry, only half-awake;)

jk. But seriously.

I find this video indicative of the millennial experience. Full disclosure: I am a millennial. That is I was born between 1980 and 2000.

Here’s why:

Two major themes in this video tell our story. The first is the difficulty to connect in meaningful and personal ways to people we care about in part because most of our communication today is mediated. We peruse Facebook, send a text message, or write email. Face to face communication is the exception these days. Not the norm. I think the video attempts to highlight the irony that media allows us to communicate any time, anywhere, to anyone. Yet we don’t feel connected. My intuitive sense is that media itself somehow prevents us from connecting in personal, meaningful, and fulfilling ways.

The second theme is an economic commentary. The visual themes are communicated through the still images of people with mouths taped over with corporate logos. These images suggest a strong experiential connection to brands we like: Apple, McDonald’s, Nike, for instance. Their brand presence is ubiquitous. They pervade nearly every aspect of our existence. We understandably feel a connection to these brands.

And yet these brands, to which we do in fact feel connected, are not persons. We can’t have a life-changing, soul-touching conversation with them around a camp fire. Rather they are corporations. No. Worse. They are representations of corporations. Reflecting on this, realizing this truth exasperates the soul!

I believe that’s why the Lewis-Haggerty duo chose to put these brand logos covering the mouth. Experiential connections to these brands is not like a conversation face-to-face with another human soul. It cannot be. It is not rewarding or fulfilling like meaningful human relationships. Yet these brands to which we do feel connected, are nothing but a farce, relationally speaking.

This is the thematic connection to the lyrics, being half awake in a fake empire. Attempts at meaningful human relationships go unfulfilled. Relationships that are real to our experience aren’t actually human relationships, and therefore go unfulfilled. Instead they are connections to corporate entities, carefully crafted only to elicit particular responses from us. On both accounts we are foiled in our attempt to connect with another human being and thus find satisfaction.

This is just one reason I like Ryan Lewis productions so much. They are thoughtful reflections on our contemporary experience. In this case the reflections is characteristic of the Millennial’s experience. Not to mention the music’s good and the video’s compelling. That always helps.

Practice Thankfulness

Giving Thanks to God

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

Two reasons: 1) It is uniquely American. And I am proud my country created a holiday to thank God and practice thankfulness. We do get at least some credit for continuing it. 2) It demonstrates humility and faith in God. I love it.

However, I do have some beef with my American pop culture today. We don’t keep Thanksgiving well. That is we don’t celebrate it properly, and we are missing out on blessings because of it.

So to keep Thanksgiving myself and for my family, I want to practice Thankfulness by giving thanks to God in this post. I will take a cue from a wise colleague of mine, Sue Bohlin (Check out her insightful blog.) Here I will make the choice to thank God even though I may not feel good about them.

In this post I will thank God for things that are hard.

First, I choose to thank you, God for my dad’s health issues recently. A couple Mondays ago I was finishing my day at the office when my mum calls. She says dad got checked out by his doctor for a routine check up when doc asked him to check into a hospital so they could run some tests.

The tests came back with good reports. All is fine. For now. But that was a scary day for me and my family. Thank you, God that You give us what’s best for us and not necessarily what we desire. My desires are broken and twisted. Thank you, God for giving me an opportunity to trust you by faith that you work all things together for my good and your glory.

Second, I choose to thank You that marriage is hard! Marriage is certainly NOT the butterflies, romance, and warm feelings as depicted in TV and movies. No it’s better. Thank you, God. Marriage takes work, they say. And my marriage seems to take work every day, sometimes hour by hour. Thank you, God that You believe I can handle the task. Thank you, God that you only give me what I’m able to handle. Thank you, God that you make a way of escape from temptation that I may never have to sin when I walk by faith in your Spirit.

Third, thank you ,God that my children are disobedient. By their disobedience I learn the depth of my own depravity. I feel angry when my son disobeys. I do. I felt it last night at dinner when he decided throwing rice on mommy was appropriate. I feel angry when he disobeys and I identify with your anger, God. Through it You remind me that you respond patiently with mercy and compassion. You alone are the One who deserves to be angry. You alone are rightly justified in your anger. Mine is motivated from selfishness. Yours is not. Yet still you treat me with love and compassion. You give me mercy when I deserve death. Thank you for teaching me patience through difficulty.

You are good. You want good things for me.

Thank you, God.

Noah: A Christian film review and endorsement with qualifications

Russell Crowe as Noah

Russell Crowe in Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 production of Noah.

My initial read of the recent 2014 Aronofsky production of Noah was strong endorsement. After careful analysis I endorse it cautiously.

As a conservative Christian my endorsement comes with a few caveats about characters drawn from non-biblical sources, lines that question good theological interpretation, and thematic elements not present in the Genesis account. None however, will come as a great shock to the biblically minded Christian accustomed to digesting mainstream media these days with a discriminating palate.

Christian critics lampoon the film for its departure from the Genesis account (See Erick Erickson’s review). Christian theologians charge it as gnostic subversion of the biblical text  (see Dr. Brian Mattson’s insightful review).

I conclude that it is a masterful and insightful retelling of the biblical epic. Before I address the controversy condemning the movie for Gnosticism, let me tell you why I liked the film so much.

The film makers get three big things right.

[Warning: Spoilers contained below]

Reason #1 They get they story right. The movie’s producers remained faithful to the plot from the biblical text, which goes as follows. God commands Noah to build an ark to save them from the flood. Noah builds the ark. The flood comes. Mankind is wiped out. Noah, his family, and an ark full of animals are saved!

That’s it. It’s a rather simple story. But the movie makers remained faithful to it. And that is important. While this fact does not itself make the movie great, I will share below what makes the film great, it was however a requirement for excellence. It passes.

Reason #2 The film makers get the right perspective on three key concepts: God, man, and salvation.

  • God — Forgive my cynicism here, but I am used to God being mocked in mass media. I prepared myself for a dose of that in Noah, but found myself pleasantly surprised when the credits rolled and I hadn’t heard one word against the Creator. God is portrayed in the film very reverently, by Noah at least, and that is presented as respectable, honorable even. God’s authority is not seriously questioned, rather it is affirmed. God is unapologetically;) described as the Creator, the giver of life, and the ultimate authority on all things. He is also given the ultimate credit for saving Noah and everyone on the ark, as is fitting. God should rightly be praised as the savior. This movie definitely portrays him as most directly responsible for salvation, in this case, deliverance from death by flood.
  • Man — Introductory courses to theology teach four basic facts about mankind. (1) Man was created by God, and he was (2) created good. (3) Man bears God’s image. And (4) man sinned by disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. Those are the four facts. The movie got all of these right. That’s great. But what’s outstanding is that it is also correct on the implications of these facts. Because man sinned, he marred or veiled the image of God. Because he (we) sinned we broke the goodness of God’s creation. Nothing now is perfect. This is what we call the Fall. Nothing can be perfect, left as it is. And nothing is as it should be. What the writers of Noah got so incredibly right here is that they placed the locus of responsibility for the Fall squarely on the shoulders of mankind. There were no snarky potshots against God. There were no implications that really God is to blame. From each of our story’s protagonists and especially Noah, we see that they understand we sinned and we therefore rightly deserve death. (Romans 6.23)
  • Salvation — Scripture teaches that salvation belongs to the Lord. (Psalm 3.8 KJV) Man is the one in need of salvation. We are the weak one. God is the one who does the saving. God therefore deserves the credit and the glory for salvation. The filmmakers gets this right. Noah is portrayed as a humble man, a faithful man who obeys God, even if it costs him a great deal. His struggle to obey at great cost is explored in depth propagating some of the controversy surrounding the film which I will address below. However, Noah never indicates that he feels as though he deserves to live or to be saved from the flood. Noah is never shown boasting in his greatness, rather he gives thanks to God for salvation.

It is painfully clear, upon reflection that the writers consulted theologians when writing this story. The writers didn’t just nail the story, they tell it in a way that is faithful to the biblical definitions for God, man, and salvation.

Reason #3 The movie makers get the big picture right. Here is where I lose patience with critics who denounce this film because of the liberties taken from the text. Yes they took liberties. But they got the big picture very right. Look, the reason God includes this story in our Bible is to warn us. It serves as a warning that sin is heinous. Sin is a big deal. God takes it very seriously. We all have within us the capability for great evil.  The atrocities executed under Adolph Hitler don’t make him a moral monster, they make him human. We are each of us capable of despicable evil, and when we engage in sin, it grieves God. This story serves a sobering warning from wickedness. Noah gets this right.

Sometimes I fear Noah’s story has been cemented in the minds of American Christians as a feel-good children’s story. They picture him as the guy with a fluffy lamb under each arm and all smiles. Countless children’s wings of church building have depicted this story in murals with rainbows and smiling animals walking respectfully into the ark in an orderly manner as if nothing were wrong with the world. These murals portray nothing of the Fall or the wickedness of man which necessitated God’s sweeping global judgment. They entirely miss the point. The writers of this motion picture did not.

Noah’s story is born out of desperation. A peak into Noah’s world would have been bleak to put it euphemistically, disturbing is probably more like it. This fact was not lost on Noah’s producers.

Perhaps most importantly what this movie gets right is correctly situating this story into the larger meta-narrative of Scripture. While the Bible is made up of 66 books, penned by dozens of human writers, in multiple languages, from different nations, over the course of more than a thousand years, through the Bible, God is telling one story. The Bible tells the story of God making man, man rebelling against Him, and God coming to rescue man.

Noah the motion picture tells this same story. God created man in the beginning. He created him good, and gave him a choice to obey or disobey. Man chose disobedience and so brought death upon himself. How do we become free from this curse of sin and death upon mankind? God. God is the only hope mankind has for deliverance. As Noah’s only hope was God’s provision in the ark, so our only hope is God’s provision in Christ.

Jesus Christ alone is the way the hope the truth and the life. No one can enter the Father except by Him. While the movie does not mention Christ by name, it makes plain that the only hope of salvation is found in God. God would later reveal himself to us through Jesus Christ. But as far as Noah’s concerned that wouldn’t occur for centuries.

Noah gets so many things right I love it. The three most important things it gets right are the story, a biblically informed cosmology, and where the story fits into the big picture of the Bible.

Controversy

Are there non-biblical influences on the story? Yes. Were some of those influences Jewish mystics? Yes. Did teachings from Kabbalah influence the movie? Yes. Is the movie a gnostic subversion of the biblical text? I don’t think so.

Here’s why.

Doctor Brian Mattson makes a pretty compelling case for the gnostic themes woven throughout the movie. It’s a good read, and worth your time. Compelling points include Adam and Eve portrayed as fleshless beings of light, the snakeskin talisman used to pass on the family blessing, and the subsequent reversal that talisman suggests that the serpent is in fact divine (true wisdom) and not the Creator, who is rather Himself deceived.

After further consideration, I do not agree with Dr. Mattson’s interpretation. To his credit he posted not to educate the public as much as criticize Christian leaders who endorsed the film without even being aware of its gnostic themes he claims were obvious. I admit I did not see any connection to gnostic teaching. That is mostly due however to my casual familiarity of Gnosticism.

Doctor Mattson, criticism humbly accepted.

Nevertheless, weighing his interpretation against my reading, and the readings of others, I do not think the film is a gnostic attempt to subvert the biblical text and dupe Christians into agreeing with a gnostic story influenced by Kabbalah.

My primary reason? Darren Aronofsky, the films director and co-writer, says so himself.

Peter Chattaway sat down with the co-writers Aronofsky and Ari Handel and asked them about their creative process and what sources influenced them. In one particular segment Chattaway asks about discrepancies between the movie and the Genesis account. Here is what Aronofsky said.

“[W]e treated Genesis as the word of God, as complete truth. We were trying to bring that story to life so we didn’t want to contradict anything. We wanted to represent everything that was there and let it inspire us to tell a dramatic story with the themes and the ideas that are in there.” (patheos.com)

Deceptive? Doesn’t sound that way to me, though that’s Mattson’s charge.

During the interview both writers openly admit they consulted non-biblical sources including Jewish midrash, Kabbalah, and Enoch among many others. Their conversation revolves around it really. Were they influenced by texts other than the Bible? Absolutely. Would I have consulted those sources if I made the movie? Probably not. But more importantly are the film makers attempting to cleverly deceive faithful Christians, and Jews for that matter? No.

Peter Chattaway, who conducted the above interview and posted it for Film Chat, concluded similarly. So has Ryan Holt. And it is to them I give credit for my position. [hat tip]

[Spoiler] The last allegation of Dr. Matston’s I’ll consider is that Noah’s erratic behavior on the ark is best explained as a gnostic seeking to become more like the Creator by murdering his newborn granddaughters. Again I refer to the words of the writers themselves from the same interview mentioned above.

Says Aronofsky, “the story of the film is a test to bring Noah to the same conclusion that God wants him to get to.” (interview source) While not referring explicitly to Noah’s actions on the ark, it’s obvious Noah’s crisis of character experienced on the ark constitutes part of this test. Regarding the testing of Noah and how that reflects/changes his character, Aronofsky later in the same interview says,

“[H]e is tested, and goes through the most difficult test possible, and he comes out the other end with the way God wanted him to sort of succeed, and I think that, you know, within that mythology, that’s the way we decided to perceive it, that there’s this long line of people being tested with their faith, and either they succeed or they don’t. And Noah definitely succeeds.” (interview with Chattaway)

Conclusion

I endorse Aronofsky’s Noah and recommend Christians go see it to re-imagine this biblical epic. I qualify that endorsement by reminding you believers in Christ, this picture does not hold the authority of God’s Word. Therefore, do not allow this film to mold your perception of what actually happened where the Text has already clearly spoken. [Spoiler alert] Easy application: there were no rock monsters who protected Noah.

I caution believers to keep in mind there are extra-biblical sources which significantly influenced this rendition of the story, sources which I do not think are necessarily true. However, I still recommend the film’s viewing because these sources don’t necessitate the falsity of their teachings. That is to say, while I do not think the way this story is portrayed on screen is likely how it actually happened, based on what I read in the authoritative text–the Bible–it is at least still possibly true. And that was all Aronofsky was aiming to achieve. He wanted to retell this epic story from Scripture with imagination.

Go see it. Enjoy it. Keep thinking.

Christian Consumerism

Happy girl shopping

From 123rf.com

Surveys* show a significant percentage of Christians don’t behave consistently with their beliefs. Surprise, surprise, huh? For Christians whose beliefs are in line with Scripture, that discrepancy is generally called sin. So, this is no big surprise.

But, this survey done quite recently, went further. It asked these believers if they had a problem with this inconsistency between their convictions and their actions. A significant percentage said no. They were not bothered by the fact that they did not live according to their beliefs. It’s as if they just don’t care.

I mentioned this to some of my co-workers and we began to wonder. What is a day in the life like, for an individual Christian described by this survey? We know she is faithful enough to go church and calls herself a Christian, but when it comes to things like giving in to self-centeredness, lying, or not keeping promises her actions don’t seem to bother her. According to this survey about half of those folks who struggle with this sin, don’t feel guilty about it.

How could she be okay with that? Self-centeredness and lying are not like making meals, going to work or school, or keeping oneself clean.  The Bible calls lying and self-centeredness sin. And sin is a big deal. Jesus died to deal with that.

The question I come back to, is what about this individual Christian’s experience, allows her to encounter sin, not realize it, or not think it’s a big deal? One possible answer is consumerism.

In a culture where appearance is everything and whoever dies with the most toys wins, then matters of holiness have little to no value, unless they make me look better. When my mind spends most of its time focused on my things: my work, my car, my house, my money, my investments, I just don’t spend any time considering whether I look more like Christ today than I did last week.

The scariest part of consumerism is not that I fear I might face the devil one night on a deserted highway and make the wrong decision to trade my soul for a million dollars, it’s that I’ve already sold it. And I already have my reward.

—-

*Culturally Captive Christian Study 2010, research commissioned by Probe Ministries and conducted by Barna Group, 2010, 57-63.

For more on this issue, consider a work by a colleague of mine Kerby Anderson.

Paul Rutherford

World Peace: An Eventuality–Just Not Like You Might Think

World Peace from treehugger.com

I’m sitting in a coffee shop. On the bulletin board a poster encourages recycling to eradicate poverty. Just the other day, I was at a different coffee shop dedicated to the mission of global peace.

When I encounter such posters or missions, I find myself overtly skeptical, and I wonder at myself. “Why am I so dismissive of projects like recycling to eradicate poverty, or global peace?” I have to ask myself  if I’m somehow opposed to recycling, or unconcerned for the poor, or even the idea of global peace. And the honest answer is that I’m not. I do recycle. I give to the poor. I want global peace. At the same time, why do I find myself instantly skeptical?

The central issue for me is over-simplification of the problem. What is the problem? Well, the impression I gather from posters, essays, and people with whom I dialogue regarding this, see the world not getting along–in tension or turmoil. That’s the issue. At it’s core, the world, nation-states, cultures, people groups, etc.–they just don’t get along. The solution: get along–peace. It seems the movements answer to global conflict, is peace. And I don’t see it that way. I don’t think peace is the answer.

To view peace as the solution, is to say that we all really just need is just to get along. Now, I’m not accusing advocates of world peace as seeing the world like PolyAnna. No, they understand that conflict is complicated. The Middle East hasn’t seen peace in centuries. They can’t deny it, and I don’t think they do. But I see the problem not so much as one of actions–getting along, as much as a problem of the heart.

The Bible says that mankind is not perfect. In fact, one translation describes mankind as “desperately wicked,” and another “beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17.9 KJV, NIV). Ick! As a believer in Christ, I see the primary obstacle to global peace not so much as our actions, but as our very selves. The problem is inside us. Put another way, we are the problem.

If the obstacle to global peace is conflict and fighting, and those fights begin in our own hearts, I’m sorry to say, but that means it’s not going to change. Being wicked, sick, or deceitful in our core, is how Scripture describes our very nature. It’s not something that can change, at least not by our effort.

How’s that for irony? We are the very obstacle between us and the solution. Just thinking about that gets me down.

Is world peace even possible then? Yes. But it won’t happen by getting along, increasing tolerance, raising awareness, or even education.

But Lo! There is a remedy. And that’s the good news. There is a solution to the problem. The world can live in harmony with one another. It’s just that we are not part of the solution. Clearly we cannot be part of the solution. We are the problem.

The answer is Christ. He can purify our hearts and make us clean (1 John 1.9). Scripture also discusses how He is the only one who can fix the problem. And just in case you’re wondering, “Maybe it’s Him plus me”, Scripture is quite clear to point out that we can in no way accomplish this of our own effort (Ephesians 2:9).

World peace? Yes. Eventually, just not yet. One day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Christ is Lord. That’s gonna happen. Bank on it. That is what world peace will look like–when every living soul submits to the sovereign authority of Jesus Christ (Romans 14.11).

I don’t think it’s going to look like heads of state laying aside their differences while the people they represent put down their RPG’s to take up hand-holding. I believe the world will one day be at peace. It just won’t look like that.

Why am I skeptical about world peace organizations? It’s not that I’m not on board with the vision. It’s more that I disagree with the means. Where the means constitutes right action, that method is fundamentally flawed. Unless we seek peace by furthering the gospel–that nations of people make peace with God first, peace between persons or nations by extension won’t happen. Can’t even.

Is world peace worth pursuing? Yes. Scripture also says believers are to live at peace among men, as far as possible (Romans 12.18). Conflict resolution, especially between nations, is absolutely wonderful. We should pursue it. As an American, I want my country to pursue it. At the same time, I don’t want to delude myself about the ends of those means–that we can accomplish it by any effort of our own.

I want a world at peace. I look forward to it. I just don’t want to dupe myself into believing that I can bring that about by my efforts, or the efforts of anyone else. That would deny the complexity of the problem and the solution God has provided through Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel. And I’m not about to deny that.

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