Thursday, January 31, 2008

Machen on the Bible, part 2

Yesterday I excerpted Machen on the uniqueness of the Bible. It's "a revelation which sets forth the meaning of an act of God." He goes on to address some objections to that view, and also discusses how personal experience can/does validate the effectiveness of something that happened long ago, namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, take Jesus up on his claims and see if he doesn't become to you more than a mere historical figure, but the living Saviour of today. However, he's quick to point out that divorcing experience from the historical nature of the gospel leads to all kinds of errors.

But not only do Christians believe that the Bible is unique, we believe it is true, even inspired. What does it mean to say the Bible is inspired? Machen sets out the classical Protestant view of the Bible as the "infallible rule of faith and practice" and offers a defense of the doctrine of plenary inspiration. On the latter point he's not as dogmatic as elsewhere in the book, since there have been many Christians throughout history who've had differing views on the nature of Biblical inspiration. If you want to read more about this subject, here is a good place to start. Once again, from Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen on the inspiration of the Bible:

The contents of the Bible, then, are unique. But another fact about the Bible is also important. The Bible might contain an account of a true revelation from God, and yet the account be full of error. Before the full authority of the Bible can be established, therefore, it is necessary to add to the Christian doctrine of revelation the Christian doctrine of inspiration. The latter doctrine means that the Bible not only is an account of important things, but that the account itself is true, the writers having been so preserved from error, despite a full maintenance of their habits of thought and expression, that the resulting Book is the "infallible rule of faith and practice."

This doctrine of "plenary inspiration" has been made the subject of persistent misrepresentation. Its opponents speak of it as though it involved a mechanical theory of the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, it is said, is represented in this doctrine as dictating the Bible to writers who were really little more than stenographers. But of course all such caricatures are without basis in fact, and it is rather surprising that intelligent men should be so blinded by prejudice about this matter as not even to examine for themselves the perfectly accessible treatises in which the doctrine of plenary inspiration is set forth. It is usually considered good practice to examine a thing for one's self before echoing the vulgar ridicule of it. But in connection with the Bible, such scholarly restraints are somehow regarded as out of place. It is so much easier to content one's self with a few opprobrious adjectives such as "mechanical," or the like. Why engage in serious criticism when the people prefer ridicule? Why attack a real opponent when it is easier to knock down a man of straw?

As a matter of fact, the doctrine of plenary inspiration does not deny the individuality of the Biblical writers, it does not ignore their use of ordinary means for acquiring information; it does not involve any lack of interest in the historical situations which gave rise to the Biblical books. What it does deny is the presence of error in the Bible. It supposes that the Holy Spirit so informed the minds of the Biblical writers that they were kept from falling into errors that mar all other books. The Bible might contain an account of a genuine revelation of God, and yet not contain a true account. But according to the doctrine of inspiration, the account is as a matter of fact a true account; the Bible is an "infallible rule of faith and practice."

Certainly that is a stupendous claim, and it is no wonder that it has been attacked.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 72-74

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Good job, Mr. President

While all eyes were on Florida yesterday, President Bush visited the mean streets of East Baltimore...

Machen on the Bible, part 1

The Bible is a massively multi-faceted book that simply defies description. It's the greatest of books -- and the "bookiest of books" -- but it's so much more than that. It's staggering to think that before the universe began the Bible was in the mind of God. Words were God's idea and the primary means he uses to communicate his truth to us. Makes the teaching of reading and writing something of a holy vocation doesn't it? The Bible is also an integral part of our civilization's historical memory, one we're in danger of irretrievably losing. How are future generations going to make sense of Shakespeare or Milton without a rudimentary knowledge of what's contained in Holy Scripture? But that's a subject for another day...

J. Gresham Machen devoted an entire chapter of his book Christianity and Liberalism to defending the Bible against those within his denomination who were trying to marginalize and undermine it. Often these folks would admit that the Bible was a divine book, but that it was full of errors. Or, that they were more concerned with "the authority of Christ" than "the authority of the Bible", ignoring the fact that Jesus had a higher view of the authority of scripture than any man that ever lived. There are still many today, both inside and outside the church, playing the same games and doing their best to debunk the Bible.

I think it's also true that the contemporary church hasn't done a good job of communicating to the world at large what the message of the Bible really is. Talk to the average man on the street, or listen to how the Bible is portrayed in popular culture, and this quickly becomes evident. When it comes to the Bible, we American evangelicals have a bad habit of "majoring in the minors", by (for example) seeing it as primarily a list of practical principals and rules for successful living -- God as the ultimate self-help guru. And instead of seeing Jesus on every page, we see ourselves. The Bible does have a lot to say about how we should live -- and it's a mirror to be held up to our lives (James 1:22-25) -- but if this is all it is then we're missing the main point.

In this excerpt Machen explains the uniqueness of the Bible:

According to the Christian view, the Bible contains an account of a revelation from God to man, which is found nowhere else. It is true, the Bible also contains a confirmation and wonderful enrichment of the revelations which are given also by the things God has made and by the conscience of man. "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handywork"--these words are a confirmation of the revelation of God in nature; "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"--these words are a confirmation of what is attested by the conscience. But in addition to such reaffirmations of what might conceivably be learned elsewhere--as a matter of fact, because of men's blindness, even so much is learned elsewhere only in comparatively obscure fashion--the Bible also contains an account of a revelation which is absolutely new. That new revelation concerns the way by which sinful man can come into communion with the living God.

The way was opened, according to the Bible, by an act of God, when, almost nineteen hundred years ago, outside the walls of Jerusalem, the eternal Son was offered as a sacrifice for the sins of men. To that one great event the whole Old Testament looks forward, and in that one event the whole of the New Testament finds its centre and core. Salvation then, according to the Bible, is not something that was discovered, but something that happened. Hence appears the uniqueness of the Bible. All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event. Without that event, the world, in the Christian view, is altogether dark, and humanity is lost under the guilt of sin. There can be no salvation by the discovery of eternal truth, for eternal truth brings naught but despair, because of sin. But a new face has been put upon life by the blessed thing that God did when He offered up His only begotten Son.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 69-70

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Political Temptation

2008 is an election year and many churches will be distracted from their focus on the city of God, to the governments of men...

Sound like your church? It sounds like mine. This week's White Horse Inn is required listening.

Monday, January 28, 2008

"we very easily misinterpret"

The Kilns, etc

Dear Mary

Just a line of sympathy and encouragement on the impending operation. Extra faith has been given to meet crises before, and I pray that it will be now. Be very much on guard against the growth of a feeling that Fr.A. or anyone else "Does not sound interested". When we are in trouble we easily think this, don't we? And at all times, we very easily misinterpret expressions of face and tones of voice. Often, too, the person we speak to is at that moment full of troubles we know nothing about. Fr. D'Arcy and I were both members of the Dante Society at one time and I have also spoken on the same platform, so I know him pretty well. He is a most interesting man and an excellent speaker.

My prayers always,

C.S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady, p. 39

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Machen on the beginning of the Christian life

I used to know a guy who had an amazing testimony of how God saved him. Everywhere he went he looked for opportunities to start conversations so he could share his testimony. That was great! The problem was that when he met fellow believers he would always ask them to share their testimony, and if (like me) they didn't have a spectacular conversion experience, or perhaps didn't remember exactly when it happened, this fellow would sometimes wonder aloud if they were really saved. Salvation happens in many ways and there are many ways to describe it. But no matter the circumstances or timing, salvation is always due to a supernatural act of God: nothing less than passing from death to life. The theological words for it are justification and regeneration. Jesus called it being born again.

At the beginning of every Christian life there stands, not a process, but a definite act of God.

That doesn not mean that every Christian can tell exactly at what moment he was justified and born again. Some Christians, indeed, are really able to give day and hour of their conversion. It is a grievous sin to ridicule the experience of such men. Sometimes, indeed, they are inclined to ignore the steps in the providence of God which prepared for the great change. But they are right on the main point. They know that when on such and such a day they kneeled in prayer they were still in their sins, and when they rose from their knees they were children of God never to be separated from Him. Such experience is a very holy thing. But on the other hand it is a mistake to demand that it should be universal. There are Christians who can give day and hour of their conversion, but the great majority do not know exactly at what moment they were saved. The effects of the act are plain, but the act itself was done in the quietness of God. Such, very often, is the experience of children brought up by Christian parents. It is not necessary that all should pass through agonies of soul before being saved; there are those to whom faith comes peacefully and easily through the nurture of Christian homes.

But however it be manifested, the beginning of the Christian life is an act of God. It is an act of God and not an act of man.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 140-141

May your heart overflow with thanksgiving on this Lord's Day!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Soundtrack to distance

I don't think you need to be a fan of Joy Division, or even know who they were, to appreciate this stylish bit of prose from British journalist Paul Morley...

Unknown Pleasures had introduced this combination of musicians, the way the bass player played as if he was the obvious leader, and the drummer acted as if the floor would drop away from underneath him if he didn't keep up, and the guitarist introspectively analysed how he was going to deal with the mad, roaming and potentially stupid bass, and out manoeuvre the sly, possessed drummer, and he decided to do so by dragging shadows of sound around in violent little circles until people noticed he was there. The singer had all three of them in sight, sort of, and used his fortunate proximity to these three adventurous individuals working out how to become musicians to transform his excessive sensitivity, extreme shyness and outrageous bitterness into something that made sense within his reading of the history of rock and roll.

Paul Morley, from the liner notes to Joy Division - Closer (Collector's Edition)

Letters from CSL

From 1950 to 1963 (the year of his death) C.S. Lewis kept up a correspondence with an American lady named Mary. The letters from Lewis were edited by Wheaton College professor Clyde Kilby and published as Letters to an American Lady in 1967. My mom has a hardcover first edition (very hard to find) and I've been enjoying it!

Kilby didn't reveal Mary's last name and he excised certain personal, family details to protect her exact identity. Kilby wrote in the preface:

At her own request, the identity of Lewis's correspondent is withheld. A widow four years older than Lewis, she was described by one friend as "very charming, gracious, a southern aristocratic lady who loves to talk and speaks well." Once financially independent, she had fallen upon privation and, what was worse, serious family problems. In due course Lewis arranged through his American publishers a small stipend for her, and this continues to the present. About the time the correspondence began she turned from the Episcopal Church to the Roman Catholic. Twice she had been so near death that the last rites of the church were administered. Though I have occasionally felt the necessity of a footnote, I believe her interests (except the family problems, which are excised) explain themselves. She is a writer of reviews, articles, poems and stories.

A Christlike patience and kindness shines through in Lewis's letters to Mary, even when he gently admonishes or corrects her. Lewis probably wouldn't have made a good member of the clergy, but he understood that every member of the church is called to be a minister, thus, he's always concerned with edifying his reader and commending Christ. He received literally hundreds of letters a year -- and even though it took away from his other pursuits -- he always found time to answer them.

Lewis's forthrightness about the dark side of life shines through as well. In one letter he closes by saying, "It'll be nice when we all wake up from this life which has indeed something like nightmare about it." And Lewis's sarcastic wit is on display when he writes of the reviewers at Time magazine, "To call them liars would be as undeserved a compliment as to say that a dog was bad at arithmetic." Most of the time though they write about more mundane topics like the weather or travel plans or the National Health Service, but when Jack writes to Mary (the letters get less formal after several years) about spiritual matters, one is reminded that here is one of the wisest writers on the sacred that ever lived. As in the little gem below. I'll be sharing more of these in the future. Enjoy!

The Kilns,
Headington Quarry,

Dear Mary

A line in haste about the bits underlined in your
letter (which I enclose for reference). Don't be too easily
convinced that God really wants you to do all sorts of work
you needn't do. Each must do his duty "in that state of life
to which God has called him". Remember that a belief in
the virtues of doing for doing's sake is characteristically
feminine, characteristically American, and characteristically
modern: so that three veils may divide you from the correct
view! There can be intemperance in work just as in drink.
What feels like zeal may be only fidgets or even the flattering
of one's self-importance. As MacDonald says, "In holy things
may be unholy greed". And by doing what "one's station and its
duties" does not demand, one can make oneself less fit for the
duties it does demand and so commit some injustice.
Just you give Mary a little chance as well as Martha!



Friday, January 25, 2008

Machen on faith, part 2

Continuing on the distinctive nature of Christian faith, Machen writes:

Faith is often based upon error, but there would be no true faith at all unless it were sometimes based upon truth. But if Christian faith is based upon truth, then it is not the faith which saves the Christian but the object of the faith. And the object of the faith is Christ. Faith, then, according to the Christian view, means simply receiving a gift. To have faith in Christ means to cease trying to win God's favor by one's own character; the man who believes in Christ simply accepts the sacrifice which Christ offered on Calvary. The result of such faith is a new life and all good works; but the salvation itself is an absolutely free gift of God.

Very different is the conception of faith which prevails in the liberal Church. According to modern liberalism, faith is essentially the same as "making Christ Master" in one's life; at least it is by making Christ Master in the life that the welfare of men is sought. But that simply means that salvation is to be obtained by our own obedience to the commands of Christ. Such teaching is just a sublimated form of legalism. Not the sacrifice of Christ, on this view, but our own obedience to God's law, is the ground of hope.

In this way the whole achievement of the Reformation has been given up, and there has been a return to the religion of the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, God raised up a man who began to read the Epistle to the Galatians with his own eyes. The result was the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith. Upon that rediscovery has been based the whole of our evangelical freedom. As expounded by Luther and Calvin the Epistle to the Galatians became the "Magna Charta of Christian liberty." But modern liberalism has returned to the old interpretation of Galatians which was urged against the Reformers. Thus Professor Burton's elaborate commentary on the Epistle, despite all its extremely valuable modern scholarship, is in one respect a mediaeval book; it has returned to an anti-Reformation exegesis, by which Paul is thought to be attacking in the Epistle only the piecemeal morality of the Pharisees. In reality, of course, the object of Paul's attack is the thought that in any way man can earn his acceptance with God. What Paul is primarily interested in is not spiritual religion over against ceremonialism, but the free grace of God over against human merit.

The grace of God is rejected by modern liberalism. And the result is slavery--the slavery of the law, the wretched bondage by which man undertakes the impossible task of establishing his own righteousness as a ground of acceptance with God. It may seem strange at first sight that "liberalism," of which the very name means freedom, should in reality be wretched slavery. But the phenomenon is not really so strange. Emancipation from the blessed will of God always involves bondage to some worse taskmaster.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 143-144

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Gaza wall comes down

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall." I'm reminded of that line from Robert Frost watching this amazing footage from Al-Jazeera. Something to think about as America decides how to secure her southern border.

Machen on faith, part 1

Faith is popular in America. In an election year we hear a lot of faith talk. The candidates talk about faith, and the media speculates about which candidate "people of faith" will vote for. Machen reminds us that the Christian faith stands or falls on the truth of it's claims. There are lots of good reasons to be a Christian -- instead of a Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu -- but the best reason is because the object of Christian faith is trustworthy. Jesus is who he said he was, and his claims are true.

Faith is being exalted so high to-day that men are being satisfied with any kind of faith, just so it is faith. It makes no difference what is believed, we are told, just so the blessed attitude of faith is there. The undogmatic faith, it is said, is better than the dogmatic, because it is purer faith--faith less weakened by the alloy of knowledge.

Now it is perfectly clear that such employment of faith merely as a beneficent state of the soul is bringing some results. Faith in the most absurd things sometimes produces the most beneficent and far-reaching results. But the disturbing thing is that all faith has an object. The scientific observer may not think that it is the object that does the work; from his vantage point he may see clearly that it is really the faith, considered simply as a psychological phenomenon, that is the important thing, and that any other object would have answered as well. But the one who does the believing is always convinced just exactly that it is not the faith, but the object of the faith, which is helping him. The moment he becomes convinced that it is merely the faith that is helping him, the faith disappears; for faith always involves a conviction of the objective truth or trustworthiness of the object. If the object is not really trustworthy then the faith is a false faith. It is perfectly true that such false faith will often help a man. Things that are false will accomplish a great many useful things in the world. If I take a counterfeit coin and buy a dinner with it, the dinner is every bit as good as if the coin were a product of the mint. And what a very useful thing a dinner is! But just as I am on my way downtown to buy a dinner for a poor man, an expert tells me that my coin is a counterfeit. The miserable, heartless theorizer! While he is going into uninteresting, learned details about the primitive history of that coin, a poor man is dying for want of bread. So it is with faith. Faith is so very useful, they tell us, that we must not scrutinize its basis in truth. But, the great trouble is, such an avoidance of scrutiny itself involves the destruction of faith. For faith is essentially dogmatic. Despite all you can do, you cannot remove the element of intellectual assent from it. Faith is the opinion that some person will do something for you. If that person really will do that thing for you, then the faith is true. If he will not do it, then the faith is false. In the latter case, not all the benefits in the world will make the faith true. Though it has transformed the world from darkness to light, though it has produced thousands of glorious healthy lives, it remains a pathological phenomenon. It is false, and sooner or later it is sure to be found out.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 141-143

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A 20th century classic for the 21st century church

Last night I finished Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. In my opinion, this should sit alongside Orthodoxy and Mere Christianity in every Christian's library, and if I had to pick three essential 20th century defenses of Christianity that a curious non-Christian should read, I would recommend these three. Machen doesn't reach the rhetorical heights of Chesterton or Lewis, but for clarity of thought and logic you can't do better.

When I discover a great book or great movie I'm eager to share it. If nothing else, blogging gives me an opportunity to do this. So in that spirit I'm going to be posting a series of excerpts from this book, taken mostly from the chapter on Salvation -- which was the most powerful chapter in the book for me. It should be noted that when Machen speaks of liberalism, he's speaking of theological liberalism -- not political -- although he does have some things to say about the collectivist ideas that were starting to encroach upon church and family life in the 1920's. The faultlines may have shifted somewhat since then, but the essential division remains. Yes, there are still old-fashioned liberals among us (the church) like the ones Machen was battling, but the problem now is more subtle.

Today, in many ostensibly conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing churches many a Sunday goes by without nary a mention of sin, the atonement, and the resurrected and reigning Christ. It's true in confessional churches and non-denominational churches, churches that haven't abandoned liturgy and churches that have (although at least if you have the creeds you have something of orthodox Christianity), struggling mainline churches and bursting at the seams megachurches. This is just another version of Christless Christianity, which Machen argued wasn't Christianity at all. Today's minister may still believe essential doctrines like original sin, the deity of Christ and the substitutionary atonement, but if these truths are largely ignored or taken for granted week in and week out then the effect on the listener is pretty much the same as if the minister denied those doctrines. One way this might manifest itself is as follows.

You have an unsaved friend who you've been after to go to church with you for a long time. Finally they agree to go, and you're hoping and praying that they'll hear a compelling presentation of the gospel. But instead of being confronted by the bad news of sin and the good news of Jesus, they get a sermon on "how to have a better marriage" or "how to find purpose in life" or any number of calls to moral improvement or political action. It's what sociologist Christian Smith has keenly identified as the new American religion of "moralistic therapeutic deism". Your friend will walk out of church, perhaps feeling better about himself, maybe even inspired to try harder to be a better person, but sadly he will walk out having never been given a chance to respond to the call of Christ. Don't get me wrong, it's possible to preach on those subjects in a way that leads to the cross, but it's hardly ever done. And if the assumption is that everyone in the pews (or theater chairs) is already saved, and that saved people don't need to hear cross-centered preaching, then there's no incentive to try.

It's easy to hold up Joel Osteen as an example of this. After all, he's a huge target! Osteen sees his role as that of a life coach, not a preacher of the gospel, and instead of sin (he doesn't use the word) being an offense against God's law, it's simply failing to reach your full potential. Yes, it's easy to criticize Pastor Joel, but I know there are a lot of churches with a cross on the wall and Baptist, Presbyterian or Bible in their name, that aren't doing much better at "preaching Christ and him crucified." Enough of my rambling...

Why is a book written over 80 years ago by a nondescript seminary professor, making a defense of Christianity against liberal critics who are long dead and gone, so relevant for us today? I'll let him answer:

The rejection of Christianity is due to various causes. But a very potent cause is simple ignorance. In countless cases, Christianity is rejected simply because men have not the slightest notion of what Christianity is. An outstanding fact of recent Church history is the appalling growth of ignorance in the Church. Various causes, no doubt, can be assigned for this lamentable development. The development is due partly to the general decline of education--at least so far as literature and history are concerned. The schools of the present day are being ruined by the absurd notion that education should follow the line of least resistance, and that something can be "drawn out" of the mind before anything is put in. They are also being ruined by an exaggerated emphasis on methodology at the expense of content and on what is materially useful at the expense of the high spiritual heritage of mankind. These lamentable tendencies, moreover, are in danger of being made permanent through the sinister extension of state control. But something more than the general decline in education is needed to account for the special growth of ignorance in the Church. The growth of ignorance in the Church is the logical and inevitable result of the false notion that Christianity is a life and not also a doctrine; if Christianity is not a doctrine then of course teaching is not necessary to Christianity. But whatever be the causes for the growth of ignorance in the Church, the evil must be remedied. It must be remedied primarily by the renewal of Christian education in the family, but also by the use of whatever other educational agencies the Church can find. Christian education is the chief business of the hour for every earnest Christian man.* Christianity cannot subsist unless men know what Christianity is; and the fair and logical thing it to learn what Christianity is, not from its opponents, but from those who themselves are Christians.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 176-177

Indeed, truth cannot be stated clearly at all without being set over against error. Thus a large part of the New Testament is polemic; the enunciation of evangelical truth was occasioned by the errors which had arisen in the churches. So it will always be, on account of the fundamental laws of the human mind...God has always saved the Church. But He has always saved it not by theological pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p. 174

* Machen practiced what he preached, founding Westminster Theological Seminary and writing numerous books and articles.

Rush "sets the record straight"

Senator McCain's domestic record is not conservative, and we're being lectured by the media -- some who are hostile to conservatism, some who wear the conservative label -- to be quiet, to not be too hard on him, or whatever. Those of us who have been here since the beginning of the program in 1988, you know we deal here in ideas. Why should I be quiet about my ideas? Why should I be quiet, or anybody else on the radio who happens to espouse what I believe? Why should we be quiet? The primary is precisely the time to speak! That's when this stuff gets aired and sorted out. Here's what I've noted. Governor Huckabee has reversed course on taxes, on illegal immigration. He has reversed course on law and order. Why shouldn't we discuss this? I mean, he made a major, major flip-flop on immigration. It didn't help him in South Carolina, and look what happened when he did that. Many of you think Governor Huckabee is very conservative. Put when he did this flip-flop on immigration, what direction did he move? He moved right. His previous position was: tuition, illegals, kids stay, blah, blah, blah. He vowed to send 'em all home, right before the South Carolina primary. Huge, huge flip-flop. Why should we be quiet about that?

Rush Limbaugh (Jan. 21, 2008)

Well, shoot, I thought McCain and Huckabee were conservatives. Guess I'll have to vote for Fred (wait, he dropped out). Maybe Mitt's my man?

UPDATE: David Brooks has a good column on Limbaugh & Co's attempts to define who is and isn't a conservative: The Voter's Revolt

Monday, January 21, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Two films loomed large on the horizon as fall 2007 approached. These were both highly anticipated projects from two (actually three) of my favorite filmmakers, both based on novels by celebrated American writers, both exploring the corrosive effects of greed as played out across the American West, and both featuring amoral protagonists. No Country for Old Men from Joel and Ethan Coen and There Will Be Blood from Paul Thomas Anderson. The advance reviews were glowing and expectations were high. No Country (reviewed here by guest reviewer Bill Andreassen) fully lived up to the hype: a flawless film full of poetry and prose with an unexpectedly graceful ending. As the credits rolled I wanted to yell up to the booth, "run it again". The second film finally rolled into town this weekend. I couldn't wait to see it.

All the elements were there for a great film, but it was not to be. There Will Be Blood starts promisingly, as Anderson, his long-time DP Robert Elswit and production designer extraordinaire Jack Fisk painstakingly portray the early days of the oil industry in California. Some of the best sequences come early on as we see the nuts and bolts of oil exploration, looking for the big strike that can make a man a millionaire overnight: the passion of "oil-man" Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). Throw in some of that old-time religion in the form of the Church of the Third Revelation led by a prophesying faith healer named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) and we had the makings of an epic confrontation between two prominent streams of American history: money and religion. I'm not sure when this "sprawling epic" started taking on water, but it was well before a bewilderingly awful final act with young Dano yelling lines like "I am a false prophet, God is a superstition" while being used as a bowling pin by his drunken rival. I wouldn't have been surprised if an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson suddenly appeared yelling "here's Johnny"! I'm sorry, it just didn't work for this viewer.

Daniel Day-Lewis is a fabulous actor. He doesn't work often, so when he does it's an event. His commitment to the roles he plays has become legendary. All the predictions are that he'll take the Best Actor Oscar this year (although we might not see it if the writer's strike goes on). The villain Chigurh in No Country (played by Javier Bardem), seemed more like a deus ex machina, or the archetype of a deterministic philosophical ideal, than a flesh and blood person. Also, he was part of an excellent ensemble cast, but Day-Lewis is this movie. It's his face -- by turns charming, wary and menacing -- that fills (sometimes literally) every frame. He's the kind of actor that probably doesn't need, or take well, to much direction. You just get out of his way and let him work. He's a personal favorite, but still I didn't think his performance here was completely compelling. Some of his choices seemed over the top and just eccentricity for it's own sake.

I think the basic problem though, with this film, is Anderson's script, and to a lesser degree, his direction. He's done brilliant work. Magnolia (1999) is a structural and cinematic tour de force, and one of my all-time favorites, even his first feature, Sydney a/k/a Hard Eight (1996), is a gem. Look for it. But back to the matter at hand. There Will Be Blood has a schizophrenic relationship with it's "hero" that I found disorienting. Disorienting the viewer can be a good and valid tactic for a filmmaker to use, but here I found it unsettling in a way I can't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was because I sensed the audience (a sold-out Saturday afternoon matinee) emotionally with Daniel, even approving, as his villainy increased. Was the baptism scene and Plainview's climactic confrontation with Sunday supposed to be funny or taken seriously? The people around me found them hilarious judging from all the laughter. I simply found it baffling coming from someone I thought I had a pretty good read on. A lot of sound and fury signifying little.

Most of the music in the film is contributed by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. He shows himself to be a talented orchestral composer, and his cues (played mostly on strings and piano) are quite effective. On the other hand, Brahms' Violin Concerto has been forever tainted for me by Anderson's use of it in his film. I suspect he was going for the same ironic effect created by Kubrick's use of Beethoven's Ninth in A Clockwork Orange (1971). In both cases, I found it distasteful.

Someone has said that it takes a truly talented director to make a truly awful film. And it's true that it sometimes takes a while for an ambitious film, as this one undoubtedly is, to find it's true audience. I wouldn't be surprised if I revisit it in several years and have a quite different reaction, but presently you'd have to pay me to sit through it again. TWBB has been compared to Great American Movies such as Citizen Kane (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Raging Bull (1980). That's Orson Welles, John Huston and Martin Scorsese...pretty elite company! I don't doubt that Anderson has the talent to make the next Great American Movie, but this isn't it.

Top Ten (films) of 2007











Honorable Mention. CONTROL

Biggest Disappointment. THERE WILL BE BLOOD

Friday, January 18, 2008

Honoring MLK

In honor of Martin Luther King weekend here are some highlights from King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. He wrote this lengthy letter in response to a group of white clergymen -- who though they agreed that institutional segregation and Jim Crow were unjust -- had criticized King for advocating and practicing civil disobedience to achieve his aims. Basically, their attitude was "don't rock the boat". King's letter is unique among the seminal documents of American history in that it's deeply rooted in Christian theology and love of Christ's church.

The first excerpt deals with the charge of extremism. The way King describes his role of standing between two opposing forces makes me wonder if he had in mind 2 Corinthians 5:18-19. What's clear is that King saw his efforts to advance racial reconciliation as a logical extension of his calling as a minister of the gospel.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible "devil."

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do-nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvery's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime -- the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Later on King writes eloquently of his disappointment in the church.

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips for Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call of defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

Finally, here is King appealing to the example of the first-century church -- that band of men and women who turned the world upside down.

There was a time when the church was very powerful -- in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent -- and often even vocal -- sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

King's words still ring with prophetic intensity. The context may be different, but the danger of the church becoming "merely a thermometer" or "an irrelevant social club" is just as acute.

Excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How big is God to you?

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?

Psalm 8 (ESV)

The Pleiades Star Cluster

Pinwheel Galaxy

Earth "the pale blue dot"

Inspired by Louie Giglio's Indescribable

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Juno is a small film, but it's a small film with a big, big heart. And it deals with a big subject. The biggest, in fact. Life. The propagation of the race of men, in all it's messy glorious unpredictability. Unplanned pregnancy, to be exact. Is there any other kind? It would have been easy for a film like this to descend into cliche (as I did in my opening sentence), but instead Canadian director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) and first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody continually confound and challenge our expectations.

The film is held together by a marvelous, sweet (in the best way) performance by Ellen Page, playing the heroine Juno MacGuff. Whether a scene calls for broad comedy or finely pitched emotion, Page never falters. Not surprisingly, there's plenty of on target satire in Juno: of high school life, mixed families (Juno lives with her dad, stepmom and half-sister) and the baby industry. Much of the satire revolves around the characters of Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), an affluent professional couple "desperately seeking spawn" to fill their lives and massive home in the aptly-named Glacial Valley Estates. Mark and Vanessa's angst is genuine though, and cuts close to home for some of us. One of the things I loved about this film is that satire never turns into parody and these characters turn out to be more complicated, and human, than they first appear.

Abortion comes up in Juno. It's dealt with in a matter-of-fact, and I think, truthful way. I have strong convictions on the subject (see Psalm 139:13 and Ephesians 5:11 for starters) so I'm not entirely comfortable with treating it matter-of-factly. On reflection though, and without giving anything away, I believe the way the issue is treated here should prompt discomfort among those who are ardently pro-choice. Sometimes comedic truthfulness sheds more light than propaganda.

Finally. Juno features a delightfully quirky soundtrack that may make Wes Anderson green with envy!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Emily Watson

Happy birthday wishes to Emily Watson (born 14 January 1967), one of the finest actors of her generation. Over a 10+ year career she's made a habit of creating some of the more compelling female roles of recent film history. Here's to many more!

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Hilary and Jackie (1998)

Gosford Park (2001)

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bonhoeffer on listening

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God's love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, pp. 97-98

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Huckabee/Colbert 08

One thing you gotta say about Mike...he's having fun.

The you will Beatitudes

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Have you ever met someone who said something like this? "I don't have a problem with the teachings of Jesus, I just don't go in for all this talk about him being the Son of God, sin, the Atonement and the Resurrection." Often, when someone talks about "Jesus's teachings" or "the ethical teachings of Jesus", they're referring to The Sermon on the Mount. This approach couldn't be further from the truth. The key to reading The Sermon on the Mount is to recognize that Jesus is speaking to his disciples. These teachings are not for the world, but for those who have experienced the miracle of the new birth. The world may listen in (and even approve), but to accept Jesus's teachings without accepting Jesus is to be like the "foolish man who built his house on the sand". Another way to put it would be: trying to live out the ethical teachings of Jesus without the Holy Spirit's power is a recipe for disaster -- "and great was the fall of it" -- as the old King James language says.

The Sermon on the Mount isn't a kinder, gentler version of the Law. No! It's a devastating fulfillment of the Mosaic Law. I can imagine conscientious followers of the law listening to Jesus with growing dismay as he continues to up the ante. Over and over he says, "you have heard it said...BUT I SAY". No wonder the crowds went away "astonished"! Disconnecting the teachings of Jesus from the Atonement and Resurrection of the Son of God is a really bad idea.

The Sermon begins with a series of gracious announcements by our Lord, better known as The Beatitudes. Or as you may been taught in Sunday School "the Be Attitudes". These are not moral imperatives, they're Jesus describing what his disciples will look like. You will be poor in spirit, you will mourn, you will be meek, you will yearn for righteousness, you will be merciful, you will be pure in heart, you will be peacemakers, and you will be persecuted because of me. And you will be blessed! If our lives don't resemble the picture Jesus paints, and if our heart's desire is not to more and more look like this, then we should seriously wonder if we truly are his disciple.

It's really neat to see how much of the New Testament is basically an exposition of these nine short statements of Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and our only hope of not being eternally crushed under it's weight. The beloved disciple John wrote:

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. 1 John 2:7-8

That my friends, is about as good a description of Christian life (being born again) as you'll find in the Bible -- "the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining."

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Well I've been warned...

I've been pleased not to have been afflicted by all of the hysterical election year e-mails that I've read about at other blogs. You know...the ones that begin "forward this to everyone you know!!!" with key words in all caps i.e., MUSLIM, ATHIEST[sic], RADICAL, etc.

Today this gem (which apparently has been circulating for a while) arrived in my inbox. Interestingly though, it didn't come from a member of the "religious right", but from someone who's expressed hostility to Christianity, the Bible and the church. I'm not sure what this person's political views are, but it goes to show that lack of discernment and/or eagerness to believe the worst isn't limited to any one group.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

James on Calvin, Byrne + Yorke, Machen on Christian doctrine

A little something for everyone in this post...

One of the most unfortunate things that can happen to a historic personage is to have "ism" added to his name. Dr. Frank James attempts to rescue John Calvin from his enemies and his friends in a lecture entitled "The Calvin I Never Knew". You can find it at RTS on iTunes U under RTS Seminars. It's excellent!

On a completely different note, David Byrne chats with Thom Yorke of Radiohead about their new album In Rainbows and "the real value of music. It's at Wired.

Lastly, a quote from J. Gresham Machen -- one of the 20th centuries great defenders of biblical Christianity.

In no branch of science would there be any real advance if every generation started fresh with no dependence upon what past generations have achieved. Yet in theology, vituperation of the past seems to be thought essential to progress. And upon what base slanders the vituperation is based! After listening to modern tirades against the great creeds of the Church, one receives rather a shock when one turns to the Westminster Confession for example, or to that tenderest and most theological of books, the "Pilgrim's Progress" of John Bunyan, and discovers that in doing so one has turned from shallow modern phrases to a "dead orthodoxy" that is pulsating with life in every word. In such orthodoxy there is life enough to set the whole world aglow with Christian love. Christianity and Liberalism (1923)

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Kite Runner

WARNING: possible plot spoilers ahead, if you plan on seeing this movie you may not want to read this.

"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit"

1 Peter 3:18

My brother lives in Baltimore. Every time I visit him we make it a point to eat at The Helmand. The Helmand serves cuisine from Afghanistan, and it's owner is the brother of the current democratically elected president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. It's fabulous! It's our favorite restaurant in Baltimore.

Shannon and I saw The Kite Runner Saturday night. The film is closely based on the 2003 bestselling novel by Afghan American Khaled Hosseini, and tells the story of 20-plus years of Afghan history thru the eyes of Amir, who comes from a prominent family much like the Karzai family. I imagine the history of this real-life family closely mirrors that of the fictional family of the novel: driven from their home by the Soviet invasion, making a new life in America, then watching in horror as the Taliban rise from the ashes of Russian tanks to further brutalize their country. Now, with the U.S. led ouster of the Taliban there is new hope for Afghanistan.

As we walked out of the movie theater, Shannon commented that it had been a long time since a movie affected her so much. I knew what she meant. Among the many fine films in release right now (several of which I've sung the praises of right here) this one sneaks in under the radar and steals your heart. I haven't read Hosseini's novel, but if it's half as beautiful as the film then I should. Swiss Director Marc Forster, who previously brought us Monster's Ball (one of the most memorable films of 2001 and the one that netted an Oscar for Halle Berry) and then a string of several less-stellar pictures, shows he's a terrific director. This is a great achievement for him and screenwriter David Benioff (The 25th Hour, Troy). The cast is made up of mostly new or unfamiliar faces, including several key roles played by Dari speaking child actors. Forster shows a facility for directing his young stars and the pitch-perfect casting contributes greatly to the power of this film. I must single out the performance of Iranian Homayoun Ershadi (Taste of Cherry) though, who plays Amir's father (Baba), a character of immense nobility and moral courage. If Ershadi doesn't get nominated for an Academy Award, it will be a travesty.

Although The Kite Runner covers a broad span and has the feel of an epic tale (like the stories we read in the Old Testament), it never feels rushed. Actually, it felt longer than it's running time of 128 minutes, which is usually a bad thing, but in this case a positive. Forster lets moments linger and events unfold organically without a lot of fuss. To cite just one example, the death of Baba is handled with an elegant short-hand that befits his life -- in what seemed like (perhaps was) a single shot we see Amir and his wife helping the ill patriarch to bed, they say goodnight and shut the door, Baba kisses the locket that contains a bit of Afghan dirt picked up as he fled to Pakistan many years before, turns out the lamp on the nightstand, fade to black.

This story is a rich feast of themes for contemplation. The nature of sonship is a major one. Forgiveness. The immigrant experience is richly portrayed (perhaps the most joy-filled scene is when the Afghan community around San Francisco comes together to celebrate the wedding of Amir and Soraya, whose brief courtship is movingly portrayed). But above all the nature of sin and righteousness is explicit to an extent unusual for a Hollywood film. It's talked about right from the outset as Baba explains to young Amir what he thinks sin is, as opposed to what the mullahs teach about sin at Amir's school. Characters say things like "I feel dirty" and "there's a way to be good (righteous) again". It's this search for redemption (a way to be "good") that convinces a reluctant Amir, after growing up in the U.S. and having his first novel published, to travel back to his homeland, now under Taliban rule. He must don a fake beard and strange dress in order to fit in and not attract potentially lethal attention from the authorities. His journey turns into a quest. A quest to bring home a kinsman.

The sins that eat at Amir have their origin in an unusually close childhood friendship with a servant boy Hassan, a Hazara, a despised tribe looked down on by the Pashtun majority to which Amir belongs. There is triumph, betrayal and heartbreak. I won't say more. The Kite Runner ends on a note of hope and redemption, but it felt profoundly incomplete to me. For as the scripture above expresses, there is only one answer to mankind's sin problem and need for redemption. It's not a peaceful version of Islam or promise of a better life in America or the rebuilding of civil society in Afghanistan -- as wonderful a goal as that is...and followers of Jesus should be at the forefront of those efforts (more on that below). The only way to be truly good/clean/forgiven is to be found in Christ. That's the message I pray will be shouted in the streets of Kabul and mountain villages of Afghanistan.

There is one particularly chilling scene in The Kite Runner that left me quivering in my seat. It's powerfully mounted by Forster and shows the tragic consequences of the Taliban's brand of fundamentalist Islam...

Amir is in search of a particular Taliban official who he's been told will be making a speech at halftime of the soccer match. As promised, several pickup trucks filled with Taliban officials drive into the stadium as the players leave the field. In the back of one truck is a figure, a woman, bound, with her head and face covered. The mullah steps to the microphone and the woman is knelt on the ground. There is a pile of stones nearby. The mullah shouts WE ARE HERE TO CARRY OUT SHARIA IN OBEDIENCE TO GOD WHO REQUIRES A PUNISHMENT FOR SIN THIS WOMAN COMMITTED ADULTERY AND WE ARE HERE TO CARRY OUT THE PUNISHMENT THAT GOD REQUIRES! As the hundreds of bearded, turbaned men look on, and the mullah continues his diatribe, a stone strikes the woman in the head knocking her flat, then an avalanche of stones. Until her body goes limp. Her bloody corpse is dumped in the back of a truck and driven away. Another victim. Amir is horrified, as are we.

What a contrast to the scene in John 8! Like Saul before he encountered Christ on the Damascus road, these men think they're serving God by carrying out their murderous acts. They desperately need someone to bear witness to them about Jesus, who took upon himself the punishment required by God's law. He didn't excuse the sin of the woman caught in adultery, instead, he took the blows that were meant for her. This is a revolutionary message! Islam -- both the fundamentalist Taliban variety that results in public stonings and the more moderate brand that secular, Westernized Amir seems wistfully drawn to in one scene -- acutely recognizes the problem of sin, but so sadly misses the solution.

However, the good news of the gospel is going forward in Afghanistan. Last year 23 Korean medical missionaries traveled to Afghanistan to provide health care in orphanages (like the one shown in another scene in The Kite Runner that left me fighting back tears). The team's bus was hijacked by Taliban fighters and they were held hostage for over a month. Two members of the team, including the leader Pastor Bae, were shot to death before the rest were finally released. They were not the only ones risking their lives to bring the sacrificial love of Jesus to the Afghan people. Here's another story I came across recently.

"Was the door opened or closed?" This was the question repeatedly posed by a 30-year community development worker in Afghanistan. To make the point visual, she showed us a model of a door as it would look in Afghanistan. Within that door was a much smaller door. And she wasn't about to let us think that the door was ever closed! (I will not use her name for security reasons.)

She went with her family to do medical work in 1977, just before the Soviet invasion. During the early days of her work, she spent a good part of her time hiding in a cellar and praying that Soviet rockets wouldn't harm her or her Afghan neighbors. The Afghans noticed that she didn't leave when the going got tough. She and her family became known in the local communities as "the people who wouldn't leave."

Was she able to minister to spiritual needs while dodging missiles and tending to medical needs? Yes! While simply praying the Name of Jesus over and over again during a bombing, an Afghan Muslim woman felt that there was "something about that Name" that gave the missionary peace in the midst of turmoil.

Once a Mujahadeen freedom fighter named Faqir and 12 of his soldiers burst into the hospital and demanded food. He was hostile and threatening with this family. After eating, he confessed that he was consumed with a hatred that would not leave him alone. "Is there any escape from this hatred?" he blurted out. She said that there is only One person who can heal the heart from consuming hatred. She gave him a Bible, and he insisted that everyone be quiet while he read. Faqir was amazed at the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He wanted Bibles for each of his men. She gave Bibles out to these Muslims. Faqir died a month later, but we don't know if he ever accepted Christ.

Once she and her husband went to the mountainous Nuristan region to set up a temporary medical clinic. Men wearing white robes arrived, and one of their daughters thought they might be seeing angels. They certainly weren't! These were Taliban "missionaries." The Taliban men told this woman and her family that their presence in this Muslim country was "defiling the land." They slapped her and treated the Nuristani people arrogantly. These well-armed Taliban men insisted on giving the Nuristani villagers Islamic religious instruction to show them the "true way."

Eventually, the village headman had had enough. He began to make a clucking sound in his throat, which was a sign for his men to come with their guns. When his men arrived, they drove the Taliban out of their villages, and asked the community development workers to "stay forever."

So was the door closed when the Soviets invaded? Did the Mujahadeen freedom fighters close the door? What about the Taliban Era? What about in today's situation? The truth of the matter is that the door was open all along. But it did mean that this family had to live with almost constant danger. And that's a big order!

In today's world, there are many open doors for community development in Central Asian countries. Who will count the cost, and walk through the door?

Keith Carey, Global Prayer Digest (November 2007)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Plan to stop not evangelizing

Last month I read an extraordinarily practical and potentially revolutionary book: The Gospel & Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever. I say potentially revolutionary because I believe if many of us made this book part of our spiritual DNA it would change lives and churches. To that end I bought an extra copy to give away at my church and I'll probably be buying more to give away in the future. It's a small paperback ($9.99 on Amazon) and can be easily read over the course of a few days. Dever writes in his introduction that one of his main aims in writing the book is to "help your church to develop a culture of evangelism. What do I mean by a culture of evangelism? I mean an expectation that Christians will share the gospel with others, talk about doing that, pray about it, and regularly plan and work together to help each other evangelize. We want evangelism to be normal--in our own lives and in our churches."

There are people that have the gift of evangelism. I don't. The thought of it makes me very uncomfortable. However, as Dever makes clear that doesn't get me off the hook. The Great Commission is binding on every member of the church. As an aside, the same is true of all of Jesus's commands. Just because someone scores low on a spiritual gifts test doesn't absolve them of practicing mercy or prayer or teaching or evangelism. These are universal imperatives. We won't all be Billy Graham, but perhaps there's one person that God has uniquely placed in your life for you to share the good news of Christ with. But back to the book.

Dever's book is divided into seven chapters all posed as questions. 1)Why Don't We Evangelize? 2)What Is the Gospel? 3)Who Should Evangelize? 4)How Should We Evangelize? 5)What Isn't Evangelism? 6)What Should We Do After We Evangelize? 7)Why Should We Evangelize? The answers to some of these questions seem obvious, and they are, but Dever has a knack for digging deeper and sharing insights gleaned from scripture and the experiences of soul-winners of the past. Dever is a "people person" and evidently a keen observer of human nature. Some of the best insights in this book come from Dever recounting his own encounters with various types of people and then discussing what went right or wrong in his efforts to evangelize in those situations.

Immediately this book made me see that my evangelistic efforts are woefully lacking. Dever writes bluntly in Chapter 1:

"Flunk" is a word we don't use much anymore. It's a hard, sharp inflexible kind of word. But it's probably a good word to use to quickly summarize how most of us have done in obeying the call to evangelize. Jesus says to tell all nations the good news, but we haven't. Jesus calls people to be fishers of men, but we prefer to watch. Peter says to always be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have, but we are not. Solomon says he who wins souls is wise, but we flunk.

But if you're anything like me, you're probably not quite so blunt about your failures in evangelism. You've altered your mental records. In fact, even at the time you're not witnessing, you're busy spinning, justifying, rationalizing, and explaining to your conscience why it was really wise and faithful and kind and obedient not to share the gospel with a particular person at that time and in that situation.

Ouch! Another word for "flunk" is disobedience and another word for disobedience is sin. Dever goes on to discuss several basic excuses that Christians give not to evangelize and then gets to the "heart of most of our non-evangelism"...we simply don't plan to evangelize. The basic message I took away from this book is the title of this post: plan to stop not evangelizing. That admonition launches the back bone of this book -- the who, what and why of evangelism -- which I hope will be read widely. It's written in a way that will benefit everyone from pastors to businessmen to stay-at-home moms. Dever doesn't offer a new formula or step-by-step program that promises to revolutionize our evangelism (in fact he has some trenchant criticism of that approach), but he does offer some practical suggestions.

One example--Dever shares how being a pastor has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it's an obvious conversation starter that can lead to evangelistic opportunities, but on the other hand, since you're spending most of your time with fellow believers, it can be hard to build relationships with unbelievers. Dever tries to counter that by intentionally frequenting the same restaurants and businesses in order to build relationships...for instance with the Muslim couple who run the Subway restaurant near his Capitol Hill church. A couple of years ago I was involved with a group that was trying to plant a church in downtown West Palm Beach. The pastor and I would have breakfast every Wednesday at the same local diner for the same reason. Unfortunately, just as we were building a fruitful relationship with the manager he took a job elsewhere. This kind of relational evangelism can work, but it often takes a long time.

Perhaps the most provocative part of this book is the chapter on what isn't evangelism: it isn't imposition, it isn't personal testimony, it isn't social action and public involvement, it isn't apologetics, and lastly, it isn't the results of evangelism. Dever explains: of the most common and dangerous mistakes in evangelism is to misinterpret the results of evangelism--the conversion of unbelievers--for evangelism itself, which is the simple telling of the gospel message...evangelism must not be confused with its fruit.

He goes on to give a revealing example of how this error manifested itself in one church.

I sat across the table from a 'big' preacher. His church had five thousand on a Sunday morning. I asked him about his evangelism strategy. He said his church employed two seminary students, each of whom was required to have two people come forward for baptism each Sunday. Therefore, a minimum of four people would 'profess faith' each Sunday--208 a year. He added, 'You can't get invitations to evangelism conferences unless you baptize 200 a year.' I was dumbfounded! I probed a bit. 'What if Sunday comes and the seminarian doesn't have two who will profess faith?' He responded, 'I will get students who can get the job done.' I questioned, 'What if these fellows are forced to cut some theological corners to meet their quota?' He was unconcerned and thought my question trivial, pesky, and the child of a too lively conscience.

Yes, it's wonderful when people immediately respond upon hearing the gospel. This has often been the case during times of spiritual awakening when the Holy Spirit's convicting power has been most evident. But the results of evangelism are always dependent on the Spirit's working whether they are immediate or many years in the future, as they were in the life of Luke Short.

It took a long time for the conversion of Mr. Short. He was a New England farmer who lived to be one hundred years old. Sometime in the middle of the 1700s he was sitting in his fields reflecting on his long life. As he did, "he recalled a sermon he had heard in Dartmouth (England) as a boy before he sailed to America. The horror of dying under the curse of God was impressed upon him as he meditated on the words he had heard so long ago and he was converted to Christ--eighty-five years after hearing John Flavel preach." The preacher, John Flavel, had been a faithful evangelist eighty-five years earlier. And he was wiser than to have thought that the day he preached the sermon, he would quickly see its fruit.

Evangelism is not an imposition of our ideas upon others. It is not merely personal testimony. It is not merely social action. It may not involve apologetics, and it is not the same thing as the results of evangelism. Evangelism is telling people the wonderful truth about God, the great news about Jesus Christ. When we understand this, then obedience to the call to evangelize can become certain and joyful. Understanding this increases evangelism as it moves from being a guilt-driven burden to a joyful privilege.

So what is the "great news about Jesus Christ"? What is the gospel message? This is always a pressing question for the church. Never more so than now. At Dever's church, Capitol Hill Baptist, he asks prospective members to explain the gospel (in their own words) in one minute or less. Here it is in Dever's words.

...the good news is that the one and only God, who is holy, made us in his image to know him. But we sinned and cut ourselves off from him. In his great love, God became a man in Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross, thus fulfilling the law himself and taking on himself the punishment for the sins of all those who would ever turn and trust in him. He rose again from the dead, showing that God accepted Christ's sacrifice and that God's wrath against us had been exhausted. He now calls us to repent of our sins and to trust in Christ alone for our forgiveness. If we repent of our sins and trust in Christ, we are born again into a new life, an eternal life with God.

Now that's good news.

If you've never done that (repent of your sins and trust in Christ alone), you've just been evangelized.

Friday, January 4, 2008

My two cents (on the Iowa results)

The blogosphere is abuzz in the aftermath of last night's results from Iowa. So, here's my two cents...

I commented a couple of months ago that I thought an Obama v. Huckabee general election would be good for the country. I see the potential for some substantive debate on issues that often get ignored and I think both men would keep the campaign on a high plane, even if their supporters didn't (I'm sure we'd see partisans on both sides using Obama's race/name and Huckabee's background as a Baptist minister to sow fear). In any case, that scenario is somewhat more likely after last night. But I liken the Iowa caucuses to a college basketball team's non-conference schedule. My Gators went 13-2 in non-conference play, which looks impressive, but isn't a good barometer of how good they might be since they haven't played many good teams yet. That will come when they start playing their SEC rivals next week. Huckabee and Obama look really good after last night, but we'll know a lot more in a month.

I still plan to vote for Huck on Jan. 29, but I like McCain more and more as a possible alternative. Huckabee's comments after the Bhutto assassination didn't exactly inspire confidence in his foreign policy acumen. Maybe those two will get together eventually? McCain and Huckabee that is. Senator McCain had some nice things to say about Governor Huckabee on NPR this morning, but that probably has more to do with "the enemy of my enemy (Romney) is my friend" (at least for now). And that Pat Robertson endorsement doesn't seem to be doing Rudy a whole lot of good so far.

This is going to be an interesting election!

UPDATE: Since writing this I came across David Brooks' analysis. As usual, he hits a home run.

On Obama:

Barack Obama has won the Iowa caucuses. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel moved by this. An African-American man wins a closely fought campaign in a pivotal state. He beats two strong opponents, including the mighty Clinton machine. He does it in a system that favors rural voters. He does it by getting young voters to come out to the caucuses.

This is a huge moment. It’s one of those times when a movement that seemed ethereal and idealistic became a reality and took on political substance.

Iowa won’t settle the race, but the rest of the primary season is going to be colored by the glow of this result. Whatever their political affiliations, Americans are going to feel good about the Obama victory, which is a story of youth, possibility and unity through diversity — the primordial themes of the American experience.

On Huckabee:

On the Republican side, my message is: Be not afraid. Some people are going to tell you that Mike Huckabee’s victory last night in Iowa represents a triumph for the creationist crusaders. Wrong.

Huckabee won because he tapped into realities that other Republicans have been slow to recognize. First, evangelicals have changed. Huckabee is the first ironic evangelical on the national stage. He’s funny, campy (see his Chuck Norris fixation) and he’s not at war with modern culture.

Second, Huckabee understands much better than Mitt Romney that we have a crisis of authority in this country. People have lost faith in their leaders’ ability to respond to problems. While Romney embodies the leadership class, Huckabee went after it. He criticized Wall Street and K Street. Most importantly, he sensed that conservatives do not believe their own movement is well led. He took on Rush Limbaugh, the Club for Growth and even President Bush. The old guard threw everything they had at him, and their diminished power is now exposed.

Third, Huckabee understands how middle-class anxiety is really lived. Democrats talk about wages. But real middle-class families have more to fear economically from divorce than from a free trade pact. A person’s lifetime prospects will be threatened more by single parenting than by outsourcing. Huckabee understands that economic well-being is fused with social and moral well-being, and he talks about the inter-relationship in a way no other candidate has.

In that sense, Huckabee’s victory is not a step into the past. It opens up the way for a new coalition.

There's more, but those are the highlights.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Early Spring

Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) has been on my radar for a while. If not as influential as fellow countryman Akira Kurosawa, he's no less revered as one of the all-time greats of cinema. Thanks to my brother, who gave me Criterion's Late Ozu set for Christmas, I've been able to start studying this master first hand. First up was Early Spring from 1956. Ozu's style could be described as one of classical restraint, well in keeping with his generation. His camera rarely moves and actors are usually shot at eye-level. He was an innovator though and ignored conventions of Western cinema, most notably the 180 degree rule. He was also known for his "pillow shots" -- abstract shots that transition between one scene to the next. These were often shots of modern cityscapes juxtaposed against the sky or other manifestations of nature (transcendence?) that add hints of symbolism to the narrative. You can see some examples below.

What comes through loud and clear in this series of films is the profound spiritual crisis of post-war Japan, a crisis that continues today. Is it a coincidence that there is no exact word for "hope" in the Japanese language?

"What people need in this situation is hope in the Christian sense of the word, but hope is an alien idea here," says the renowned organist Masaaki Suzuki, founder and conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan. He is the driving force behind the "Bach boom" sweeping Japan during its current period of spiritual impoverishment. "Our language does not even have an appropriate word for hope," Suzuki says. "We either use ibo, meaning desire, or nozomi, which describes something unattainable." After every one of the Bach Collegium’s performances Suzuki is crowded on the podium by non-Christian members of the audience who wish to talk to him about topics that are normally taboo in Japanese society-death, for example. "And then they inevitably ask me to explain to them what ‘hope’ means to Christians."
(a quote from J.S. Bach in Japan by Uwe Siemon-Netto)

Even as Japan is miraculously transforming from an imperialistic military power to a peaceful economic juggernaut, young Japanese (like salaryman Shoji in Early Spring) struggle to find meaning in their existence and relationships. Ozu described Early Spring this way.

It had been a while since I dealt with the salaryman, I wanted to have a go at representing their lifestyle. The thrill and aspirations one feels as a fresh graduate entering society gradually wane as the days go by. Even working diligently for 30 years doesn't amount to much. I tried to portray the pathos of the salaryman's life as society undergoes transformation. Screening time was the longest among my postwar films. I tried to avoid anything dramatic, and instead piled up scenes where nothing at all happens, so as to let audience feel the sadness of their existence.

Here are some representative frames from Early Spring taken from, one of the nicest filmmaker tribute websites I've ever come across.