Re-reading Josh Harris now

Well, that happened quicker than expected – and yet it was still devastating news. Joshua Harris has clearly announced that he is no longer a Christian. I have now been reliably informed that this was unsurprising to some – the theological trajectory was there for a while as Josh slowly started to leave behind various parts of the Christian faith in the process of his ‘deconstruction’, even before he left as senior pastor of Covenant Life Church.

He also confirmed that he is getting divorced.

Last night I attended a ministry gathering and heard from Thabiti Anyabwile. Among his many excellent encouragements was also an insightful comment that when we see someone like Josh – an author, a conference speaker, a pastor, a council member of The Gospel Coalition – we never assume that one day they could walk away from it all. Perhaps there’s also an assumption there that we too would never walk away.

And yet here we are, devastated and – for some of us – wondering if someone like Josh couldn’t do it what hope do we have?

In response I think it’s important that we recognise that Josh’s most recent post contains a much sadder note than his falling away. It’s these lines right at the end:

“To my Christian friends, I am grateful for your prayers. Don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately return calls. I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful…”

Steven McAlpine has a penetratingly insightful post about this – basically: Josh’s post is not about him falling away, but about being saved. Saved from his Christian faith and saved to an affirming world.

This is not a mere slip or a mistake, or even a season of finding himself and hopefully finding his way back to Jesus. His post is the end of a long train of thought that Josh appears to have been on for a long time.

CS Lewis understood this this process well. In The Screwtape Letters he notes that the easiest road to hell was a gentle incline, soft underfoot, with no markers or signs. Without many of us noticing Josh has travelled far – and only an act of God can bring him back.

And to that end, we must continue to pray.

In the wake of all of this, some have asked me what we should do with his books. As I sit here reflecting I have on my desk a few of Josh’s books staring at me. All of them have been of help to me to some degree or another.

So here are my reflections over the past few days on what we should do with them.

First, don’t throw them away – at least not immediately. The rawness of Josh’s announcement leaving the faith is still pretty fresh, and many of us are probably still mourning the loss of a brother (and sister). Give it some time – for as time passes we’ll be reminded that life goes on and as sad as it is that Josh has walked away from the faith God’s Kingdom marches on seeking new disciples every day.

After some time, it might be worth revisiting those books, but no longer neutrally. The previous works may now subtly reveal the trajectory he was on. Knowing his present situation, it will be difficult to avoid parsing each of his lines and thoughts in the light of the future he didn’t know at that time. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reading in this way can grow us in discerning the seeds of falling away and help us examine our own hearts. So re-read his work with keen discernment.

And also read for encouragement. One person has asked whether there is any value in reading works he no longer subscribes to. My answer is yes with discernment. Simply because Josh no longer holds to what he once taught doesn’t make what he once taught null and void. I clearly remember particular phrases and thoughts in his later works to be very clear ways of explaining things and I’ll probably continue to use and develop upon those lines. At the same time his work serves well as a warning that biblical knowledge is crucial and must also work itself out in faithful living, obedience and repentance. God in the mystery of his sovereignty and providence can and does use the words and writings of those who have morally failed, or walked away, to encourage and spur us on.

He’ll even use dodgy books for our personal growth in him.

I remember listening to a Question and Answer session with Don Carson who mentioned that when he was younger the book ‘The Normal Christian Life’ by Watchman Nee was profoundly helpful in encouraging him towards holiness. But as he matured as a Christian, and especially as he grew to understand the Bible, he realised that Nee’s exegesis of Romans was very poor. To quote, “It was… up the creek without a paddle.” Did the book help him when he was younger – most certainly. Would he recommend it now? Not a chance.

I think about this story as I personally reflect on I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It was helpful for me personally in the past, but not something I was recommending as much in recent years.

The story is a little different with something like ‘Dug Down Deep’ or ‘Humble Orthodoxy’. Both were his last books, both were incredibly clear and very helpful – which makes his move away from the central ideas of these books all the more devastating.

In the light of Josh’s announcement, we need to be further discerning about who we recommend these books to. The teacher and their teaching cannot be separated. This is why the New Testament is so clear that character matters the most when it comes to elders/teachers/pastors: because how they live is supposed to be a model and reflection of what they teach. This is also why false teachers are never given a pass on the sometimes right things they say.

Now, this isn’t to say that all authors we recommend need to be perfect – for none are. There is no author or teacher who lands perfectly on every doctrine or interpretation of scripture – and I’m looking at myself as well here. If you never disagree with your favourite theologian then it reveals more about you as their fanboy/girl than it does about the truth of their teaching. We always need to read with discernment.

But some failings are more noteworthy than others. Apostasy is up there.

Wisdom helps us work out whether we should recommend Josh’s books. As we discern the content for ourselves we need to be wise about who might be able to handle, or not handle, all that the author brings to the table. It would be a disservice to some if we sever the connection between teacher and teaching – for it may stumble them to places we would never wish them to go.

So, don’t dump all his works immediately. Read them with discernment, rejoice in what is true, and be careful who we recommend them to.

Comments on BRIE

Subtle Christian Traits and all those comments

Subtle Christian Traits. I joined the group I think when it numbered a few thousand. The posts were witty and funny, and while some memes/posts had a small sting they were ‘loving’ jabs – the wounds of a faithful friend (cf Proverbs 27:6).

But as the group got larger the posts began to stray from the original intent of the group (“Our aim with this group was of course humour, but also embrace our not-so-subtle traits of edifying one another as brothers and sisters in Christ!”). A number of posts appearing with more pointed theological jabs, a couple of heretical posts (!), and a few really unfunny weird flex memes. Is that a bad thing? Well, I’m not the moderator or admin of the group so I don’t have that strong of an opinion on the evolution of the group. In some ways it was expected – the larger the group got the wider the umbrella would have to become to accommodate anyone claiming to be ‘Christian’. So this didn’t bother me.

What bothered me more were the comments section. Kevin DeYoung said it best:

Heaps of opinions and debates – and most concerning: heaps of opinions that appeared to be based on faulty foundations.

This is partly why I don’t engage much in comments or debates online anymore – despite the sometimes overwhelming temptation. I’ve personally found Facebook, and the comments section in general, to be such a bad forum for debates. Taking conversations offline, meeting someone in person – face to face, imagine that! – and thrashing out our differences with our Bibles open has been much more fruitful.

This differs to comments on my own personal wall/posts. Those I’ll generally engage with and interact with – you are my friends after all! But in public groups such as Subtle Christian Traits, and on other sites like Relevant of The Gospel Coalition, I personally feel the comments section are a bit of a waste of time.

But I know that some of my readers are often in the comments engaging with others – good on you. It’s not for me, but more power to you. For these friends I’d like to give some encouragement on how to engage and how to think through why others engage the way they do. (This post is mostly sparked by a comment debate I’ve seen one friend get into with a stranger where I’ve realised my friend just didn’t seem to connect or understand where the stranger – a fellow Christian – was coming fromt).

So you’re in the comment section, you’re engaging with someone and sharing your thoughts, and they respond in a way that surprises you. You might be wondering why some Christians hold their positions so strongly. I’ve seen some comment debates derail before they even begin – and all for the same reason: Christians leaning on different authorities.

BRIE and Authority

In matters of faith and spirituality, we all lean on an authority to shape and form our opinions. The question is what authority are you leaning on?

Here’s where the acronym, ‘BRIE’ can be a helpful compass to orient where you might be in any given conversation.

BRIE stands for Bible (the Word of God), Reason (logic, arguments, human reasoning), Institutions (such as the Church, traditions, and history), and Experience (our feelings, emotions, and experiences in general).

When it comes to authority in our faith there can be a tendency to elevate one over the others in the position of supreme governing authority – and in turn that shapes how you view your faith and the world around you.

Elevating reason to first place is the tendency of liberal Christianity – where arguments and human reasoning have been used to argue against central doctrines like the resurrection and the trustworthiness of Scripture. The arguments have generally relied on things like science disproving miracles, or arguments of historical reconstructions to explain away parts of the Bible. But the main thing about this is that the Bible is filtered through the lens of reason and when the two seem to conflict, human reasoning takes precedence.

Elevating institutions to first place is the tendency of Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity – where the traditions and history of the church have been used as the primary filter for interpreting the Bible. Start with a particular tradition or historical view and read the Bible through that lens. One example I’ve read of this is to find support for the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory within the parable of the unforgiving servant (cf Matthew 18:34 where the master delivers the unforgiving servant over to the jailers ‘until he should pay all his debt’).

Elevating experience to first place is the tendency of charismatic influenced Christianity – where your experiences are relied upon and given authority, even if scripture says something different. Experiences are used as examples for other Christians to follow. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when experiences are authoritative, and alone form the foundation of wisdom and advice then we run into problems. Experience becomes the lens by which we filter scripture. To give a somewhat controversial example: some argue that women can be pastors and preach to mixed congregations on the basis that they have experienced fruitful/helpful teaching from women pastors in the past.

By now it should be clear that I intend to argue that we should elevate scripture to first place. But I want to be clear that in doing so I’m not denying the use or truthfulness of reason, institutions, or experience. But I am arguing that whatever use or truth there might be must first be examined in the light of scripture’s governing authority. If my reasoning conflicts with scripture on matters of faith, then I must humble submit the conflict to scripture and persevere in working it through (as opposed to just rejecting scripture in favour of human reason). If the institution or tradition conflicts with scripture, then I must reform the institution or tradition in the light of scripture. And I must understand my expereince in the light of scripture as well – ensuring that the practice of faith is not dependent on an experiential moment alone.

Here are five reasons I think that on matters of faith and spirituality scripture should have supreme authority.

  1. Jesus prioritised the Word in his ministry. When he fended off Satan’s attacks in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), corrected the Pharisees’ misapplication of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-5) and traditions surrounding cleanliness (Mark 7:1-13), or pointed to what framed the purpose of his ministry (eg. Luke 18:31, 22:37) Jesus put God’s Word front and centre. Scripture drove, shaped, and was the basis of his ministry.
  2. The Apostles prioritised the Word. When Peter explained the meaning of the apostles speaking in tongues, announcing the coming of God’s Kingdom with the death and resurrection of Jesus, his Pentecost sermon was saturated in scripture (Acts 2). When the Apostles later heard of the conversion of the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit descending upon them, they turned to Scripture to inform their understanding of these events (Acts 15:1-18). Scripture was used to filter these experiences.
  3. Paul used scripture to reason for the gospel. In the towering letter of Romans he reasons clearly that our perfect standing before God, our righteousness, is received by faith alone. In order to make this point (cf Romans 4:1-12) he refers to Abraham’s story in Genesis and quotes David from Psalm 32. Paul doesn’t use reasoning alone, but his reasoning is rooted in and shaped by Scripture.
  4. Paul would later declare that because ‘All scripture is God-breathed’ it made it perfect and sufficient for all our spiritual needs (cf 2 Timothy 3:14-16). The scripture being referred to here is the Old Testament, but as the Apostles wrote and affirmed each other’s writings as scripture (cf Peter’s equating of Paul’s writings as scripture in 2 Peter 3:15-16, and Paul’s quoting of Luke in 1 Timothy 5:18), and as the New Testament gospels and letters were affirmed and then canonised, it wasn’t inappropriate for the Church to then affirm Paul’s words in 2 Timothy as referring to all of scripture – the Old and New Testament.
  5. The church, during the Protestant Reformation, returned to prioritising scripture as the ultimate authority. It is a distinctive hallmark of reformed theology that the Bible rises above other forms of authority and is also constantly reforming our faith (in regards to our knowledge and practice). Which is why the reformation movements kept returning to the Bible and asking, ‘What does scripture say on this subject?’ in order to work out the biblical fidelity of any doctrine or practice.

That’s five good reasons, I think, why scripture should be our chief authority in matters of faith and conduct. It makes further sense as well given that the other three aspects of authority are prone to change – institutions/traditions are always changing, reason and arguments are ever evolving, and our experiences wax and wane constantly. In the middle of all that is the Bible – ever constant and unchanging. Yes it’s hard work to get to that unchanging message, but hard work should not stop us from keeping it at the centre and making it the first authority.

So what?

So what does this have to do with Facebook comments?

First, for my friends who engage themselves in online debate – knowing a bit about BRIE might help you work out why someone argues for their position. It helps us reflect and perhaps ask gentle questions about their position in more pointed, and prayerfully helpful ways.

Second, it helps us listen. Knowing which BRIE authority someone is elevating helps us to listen to why they lean on their position. In listening and understanding can we then engage with what scripture has to say. I don’t think I’ve read or heard any Christian deny the authority of scripture over their lives – but perhaps they haven’t realised how much scripture speaks on a particular issue or train of thought. Perhaps they haven’t realised how much they rely on other sources of authority.

Third, it can help you work out when to call it quits. I had a short-lived debate with someone online once where I quickly discovered that his theological foundation was not only weirdly charismatic (emphasis on weirdly – even my charismatic friends would have found his position on things untenable) but he couldn’t and wouldn’t engage with the scriptural arguments I was putting forth. He began talking past my replies – not engaging with them at all – and at that point I realised it was fruitless to continue. I would have offered to meet up for coffee, but he lived overseas and I figured I didn’t have pastoral responsibility over him. So I pulled the plug.

So there you go. I hope that introduction was helpful. In what ways have you seen BRIE in action? Do you think there are other sources of authority I haven’t considered? Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

 

 

Is ‘Pokémon Go’ demonic?

Confession: it’s been just over a month now since I installed and starting playing the Pokémon Go smartphone app/game. It’s been an interesting time—with lots of light hearted moments shared with my kids as we’ve high-fived a good catch, and shared the loss of a Pokémon which has escaped my Pokéball and escaped in a puff of cloud.

Over the month that I have been playing I’ve also noticed that the game has had a fairly polarising effect on people. It seems you either love it or hate it! I can understand those who love it—it’s a fun game, it’s a novel take on social interaction and engagement, it’s helped me get outside and walking (!), and I’ve heard many couples enjoying time out together on ’Poké-dates’.

Those who dislike it range from those who find the game (and its users) a mere annoyance (since so many people in public seem glued to their phones), to those who find the game demonic! I’ve been asked enough by parents what I think about this game, so here’s my take on the concerns that some have.

Animism

Starting from the most serious concerns, I have read a few websites and blog posts which have made the claim that the game promotes animism (a belief personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs, and consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power).  While there are shades of truth about this, I consider these arguments to be over-reach and over-reaction.

The very light shade of truth is that Pokémon Go, like the Pokémon games before it, does involve capturing mythical beasts and using/controlling them as their trainer to battle other Pokémon (and their trainers) on your behalf. And that’s about where the similarities between animism and Pokémon Go end.

Concerns that the game promotes Animism in some subtle form of spiritual deception is massive overreach: accusing the game of doing something that it very clearly is not.

First, there is no storyline or narrative within the game that promotes animistic concepts. There is no commentary or subtle hints in this direction either. While the game itself does use elements of manipulating these beings known as ‘Pocket-monsters’ there is nothing within the game which makes any spiritual connection to the users’ activity.

The other day my wife sent me video of our 4 year old son playing with Iron Man and Captain America action figures. Even without seeing the movie, he picked up the two toys and ‘battled’ them together (and of course one lost… but why did it have to be Cap?! #TeamCap). I think there is little intrinsic difference between Pokémon Go users battling their Pokémon in a gym and what my son did with those two toy figurines. At the end of the day both Pokémon Go user and my son walk away having ‘played’, and little else.

Second, to say that the game is influencing the minds of young adults towards accepting animism is to give undue influence to the medium. Put simply: it’s a game. Most normal people can discern the difference between what takes place within a fictional world/universe of a game and real life.

There’s a great story from Star Wars actor Ewan McGregor (who plays a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Stars Wars prequels) who tells how cute it is when kids come up to him and ask how they can join the Jedi Academy. But McGregor says he gets really annoyed when adults come up to him and ask the same thing – because he knows, and we know, that it’s silly that an adult would think that something like the Force and the Jedi Academy from Star Wars exists in real life.

Third, Pokémon Go is not pitched at young children. In fact, it’s near impossible for young children to play it. You need a mobile device, and the game requires you to be out and about, walking around trying to find wild Pokémon. Parents are not going to be walking around constantly with their kids every time they want to play it. Ain’t no(parent) got time for that!

Rather, the vast majority of Pokémon Go users are young adults. Young adults who should know enough to discern between the fictional game world and real life.

Evolution

Another major concern is that the game teaches and promotes ‘evolution’.

Does it? In a nutshell: no. Yes, part of the game involves ‘evolving’ Pokémon to a higher and more powerful form but there are critical differences between this in-game evolution and the Darwinian Evolution that many Christians are often so fearful of.

First, the type of evolution that occurs within the game involves mystical/magical transformations: the Pokémon rises into the air in a brilliant ball of light and then *poof*, out comes the new evolved Pokémon. Check out the video below for what it looks like in game.

I hope from that video that it’s obvious this can hardly be seen as promoting Darwinian Evolution.

Second, the irony of evolution in Pokémon Go is that is requires an intelligent being (the user) to make a ‘sovereign’ and free choice over the type and timing of the evolution, and then to push the ‘evolution’ button. Darwinian Evolution by definition rejects the involvement of any intelligent being controlling the process of evolution.

But seriously, young adults (ie. teenagers) are more likely to be influenced by Darwinian Evolution by doing their studies in High School Science than they are going to be playing Pokémon Go. I make no comment on whether studying evolution in school is a good or bad thing – I’m just saying that fears that Pokémon Go promotes evolution are woefully overstated.

The real concern

When I got sent articles and posts about the so-called dangers of Pokémon Go promoting animism and evolution I was annoyed. It annoyed me that the writers didn’t engage with the game itself to test whether their fears and concerns were genuine. But it annoyed me the most that these overstated fears cloud out real and genuine concerns regarding the game.

In 1 Corinthians 10:23 Paul quotes what may have been a common Corinthian catchphrase ‘All things are lawful’. It seems that some in the church were using the catch phrase based on their inadequate understanding of the gospel – “Jesus has set us free from condemnation, so all things are now lawful for us to do!” That’s my guess.

So Paul writes back that this catch phrase is only partially correct – “All things are lawful, sure, BUT not all things are helpful.”

There are some things in life which are neutral at best. Neither good nor bad. Some are free to participate in these things – but for some it might not be so good to do so.

In relation to Pokémon Go I think there are three ways in which it can be unhelpful.

Lack of Self-Control

The first area concerns self-control.

I’m cautious about using the word ‘addicted’ to describe how some play the game so often. Addiction is medical term with a distinct medical definition, and every time we use the word wrongly we cheapen the effects of real addiction.

Lack of self-control is, I think, a better way of looking at this issue. Those who play it constantly, talk about it constantly, and are often disengaged and staring at their phones. One parent shared this concern with me that he would not let his two daughters play the game because they have a habit of lack of self-control when it comes to these things in general – a constant preoccupation with these sorts of games: hours on end, day after day. I get that, that’s a real and genuine concern that I see not only in others but also in myself.

The gospel trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age (Titus 2:12). A preoccupation with this game, which I think is a common danger of it, is not helpful.

Idolatry

One of the main features of the game which compels users on (since it lacks any narrative to compel users on) is the idea of levelling up in order to catch more distinct and rarer Pokémon. Levelling up in order to be ‘the very best, like no one ever was’ because  you ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ is a key mark of the Pokémon experience.

But when we begin wrapping our identity and status around what level we are, what our highest combat power Pokémon is, how many Gyms we own or have taken, then we verge into the danger area of idolatry.

In Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshear’s book ‘Vintage Jesus’ they provide a list of questions to help identify our idols (also known as our functional saviours):

  1. What am I most afraid of?
  2. What do I long for most passionately?
  3. Where do I run for comfort?
  4. What do I complain about the most?
  5. What angers me most?
  6. What makes me happiest?
  7. How do I explain myself to other people?
  8. What has caused me to be angry with God?
  9. What do I brag about?
  10. What do I want to have more than anything else?
  11. What do I sacrifice the most for in my life?
  12. If I could change one thing in my life what would that be?
  13. Whose approval am I seeking?
  14. What do I want to control/master?
  15. What comfort do I treasure the most?

In answering these questions you can see how our rank on Pokémon Go could act as an idol in our lives.

Distraction

I honestly think this is probably the biggest danger that Pokémon Go users face. Not because I think ‘there are better things to be doing with your time’ – there are heaps of other time consuming, and more expensive, hobbies that get less criticism than Pokémon Go has in the past month.

No, the biggest concern I have for any Christian playing Pokémon Go is that we’ll have good reasons for playing it, but end up distracted by the game itself. Using this game to connect with non-Christian friends and go out on outings is great; spending all your time with your friends glued to your phone, not great.  Using this game as a connection point for conversations, perfectly fine; spending all your time talking about this, not fine.

And there is one further pointed danger. The truly demonic is all of this is not the so-called animism or the evolution promotion. The truly demonic is to take our eyes off eternal realities and fix them on earthly cares, concerns, and distractions.

Matt Chandler explains this problem the best in this short 2.5 min clip:

The biggest potential danger with Pokémon Go is that it gives us a big enough distraction from our boredom that we will miss that we have been called to bigger and greater things in the gospel.

Conclusion

I think Pokémon Go is a pretty fun game. It’s got me out and about walking with the kids – which has been good for my health. It’s been a point of connection in my youth ministry as I use it to start conversations with teens before moving onto what else is happening in their lives. I know couples who have been able to enjoy time out together on Poke-dates.

Does Pokémon Go teach and promote animism and evolution? Hardly. Can Pokémon Go potentially stumble us into a lack of self-control, idolatry, and distraction from eternal matters? Potentially.

Basically there are helpful and unhelpful ways of enjoying this game.

 

P.S

I was forwarded a document from an Asian church which basically decried the game as demonic. To be honest I found it ironic: I find the preoccupation with academic excellence in our Asian circles to be much more demonic, and potentially eternally damning, than a phone game. I’ve seen more youth fall away pursuing academic excellence than I have seen youth fall away because of computer games.

Thankfulness Challenge

Thankful
Image Credit: ‘Thankful’ by MTSOfan (flickr.com/photos/mtsofan)

 

The following article appeared in our church’s weekly Pastor’s Desk. This is a very minor expansion of that same article.

—-oo—-

Over the past few weeks there has been an interesting and enjoyable-to-read social media (ie Facebook) challenge floating around. Labelled ‘The Thankfulness Challenge’ participants, and those tagged, are encouraged over five days to share 3 things daily for which they are thankful for.

As a Pastor it brings me wonderful joy to be able to read what people have been sharing—particularly those related to their spiritual walk or understanding of scripture. But while this has been wonderfully encouraging, I’ve been thinking through how to encourage us all to exercise some caution, especially for those participating in the challenge.

First, remember that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9) and can take any good thing and twist it to make it evil. So while this challenge has been good for some to pause and reflect on what they are thankful for, it can also be twisted to boast of how good our lives are. I’m glad that none of what I have read so far falls into this, but it’s a warning to heed.

Second, from what I can gather from my reading of scripture most thanks giving is related directly to either the gospel, to God and his character and nature, in the loving service of and prayer for others, or is called for within these contexts. The Thankfulness Challenge can sometimes assume this, making the sharing of thanksgiving something self-driven rather than Gospel-driven. The dangers of assuming the gospel are pretty big, and the best way to avoid it is to constantly preach it to ourselves.

Third, scripture is also filled with praise and thanksgiving during difficult circumstances. Most of the thanksgiving I have read has been primarily for positive things. That’s great! But let us also be encouraged to dig deep into the well of grace that informs our praise and thanksgiving in the deepest of trials and temptations.

Finally, tagging people to share their thankfulness might be motivated by positive encouragement but it might be received as guilt-driven, especially if they do not take up the challenge. Tagging someone not only means that your post appears on your wall, but also appears on their wall for they and all their friends to see. A lack of response might call into question how much thankfulness that person shows, and might encourage some out of guilt or the desire not to be seen as ’non-thankful’/’non-participatory’ to partake in the challenge. So a good intention ends up ill received.

With those cautions in mind, what things can you be thankful for? Why not share in person over a cup of tea/coffee as well as Facebook.

 

Christian Celebrity Culture

 

Last weekend I had a chance to prepare a sermon on Acts 13-14. Acts 14 contains a rather unique and somewhat comical story in which Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus respectively.

Some basic research uncovered helpful background to this event, as summarised in my sermon on Sunday:

Helpfully for us the works of a Latin poet named Ovid from around this time shed light for us. Ovid records the legend of a visit by Zeus and Hermes to the Phrygian Hill Country – which is just North of Lystra. Zeus and Hermes were disguised as mortals seeking hospitality. According to the legend they were rejected by numerous people before being taken in by an elderly couple whose home they blessed by turning it into a temple and then brought destruction on those who had not shown them hospitality. Seems now that these Lystrans have seen an extraordinary miracle in the healing of this crippled man – which is extraordinary let’s not forget that – they link the legend in the past with the events of the present and want to ensure that the past is not repeated.

There is also a strong contrast being made by Luke between the reaction of Paul and Barnabas and the reaction of Herod earlier in Acts 12:20-23 – where Herod is also hailed a god, but in contrast to Barnabas and Paul arrogantly accepts the praise and is struck down by God in judgement.

The passage itself got me thinking tangentially about our current preoccupation with Christian celebrity culture: the elevation of Christian preachers and teachers to the level of rockstar status, whose works are generally universally accepted and remain above criticism. That’s my own definition for what I’ve seen, and admittedly been a part of.

Now while Acts 14:8-18 doesn’t specifically deal with the issue I did see some parallels and some things in the text which might be helpfully applied for both the ‘fanboy/girl’ as well as the outsider looking in.

First – just because some preacher has a fan base doesn’t necessarily invalidate the content of that preacher/teachers teaching.

You can see this in the passage. Paul performs a miracle which is clearly connected to his speaking and preaching (verses 8-10). The crowd’s reaction does not nullify the content of Paul’s earlier preaching.

Engaging with the content of any teacher is necessary to discern their faithfulness. But just because a particular teacher is popular doesn’t automatically undermine the quality or the content of their teaching.

Second – when we see a preacher with a fanbase, we need to discern how the preacher reacts to the celebrity status.

Paul and Barnabas are quick to try to defuse the adoration. Their message in 14:15-17 contains three basic points:

  1. Stop your worship – because we’re men just like you.
  2. Our message is that you should turn from this sort of behaviour, and turn to the true and living God.
  3. This God has abundantly blessed you as a witness to his goodness.

It’s what I’d call a pre-evangelism message – since there is no reference to Jesus or the gospel. A message designed to ignite in the hearer a desire to know more.

Paul and Barnabas react with humility and a quick resolve to defuse the adoration. In judging the preacher we need to discern their humility and how they have handled the adulation for their work. Do they call attention to themselves, or are they doing their best to direct attention away to God?

Third – the preacher may do their best to deflect attention and celebrity, but that doesn’t mean their fan base will necessarily comply. And that’s not necessarily the fault of the preacher.

Verse 18 rounds out the rather comical story with these words:

Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.

Paul and Barnabas seem pretty clear. But the crowd doesn’t hear them and continues in their adulation. You can’t really blame Paul and Barnabas for that.

Finally – even with the adulation we need to discern the ongoing ministry of discipleship from the preacher. Does their message focus on building up disciples of Christ or can we discern an building up of their own kingdom/reputation?

The ongoing focus of Paul and Barnabas is clearly to build up the churches which have been established through their preaching. Their discipleship is primarily twofold in this passage: encouraging the Christians to persevere in the faith (cf 14:22), and discipling and raising up leaders to continue the work (14:23, 28).

The church has always had its celebrities, but I think we also live in a time and age in which celebrity is stronger than ever before – thanks in part to the 24 hour news cycle, the boom in Christian publishing, and the internet. So we do need to take greater measures to ensure thankfulness and appreciation of a ministry does not turn to unhelpful adulation and divisive sectarianism (cf 1 Corinthians 1:12).

While the above test from Acts 14 isn’t exhaustive, it’s a start. What would you add to help Christians work their way through celebrity culture? Put it in the comments below.

 

 

Noah: Review of the Reviews

Noah-Review of the Reviews

 

So I haven’t seen the movie yet. I probably won’t – not necessarily out of any conviction but mostly out of time.

But, one doesn’t need to eat a slice of the cake to know it’s sweet.

What I have been reading plenty of are the many reviews that have been posted up since the movies’ release. Facebook has also made it much easier to access these reviews since most of my FB friends are Christians and have posted up dozens of different reviews of the movie.

So what I thought I’d do is something different. Seeing as I haven’t seen the movie I might do a review of the reviews.

Let me start with some of the negative reviews, look at the positive reviews, then look at the positive and discerning reviews.

First to the negative reviews. The major theme I’ve picked up in these reviews is the spectrum of annoyance to deep frustration that the movie lacks much of the biblical detail, and the extra details the movie did contain change and/or twist the biblical story beyond recognition. Some of the reviews were negative not just on theological lines, but also on the strength of the movie itself: some claiming the scripting and directing to be below average in their own right.

I’ll put up my hand now and say that I posted before the movies’ release to state that I didn’t think it would be worth going to see – but rather sitting down with your friends to read the original story and pointing them to Jesus would be more worthwhile. I made these comments primarily because I believed that audiences expecting a faithful biblical retelling – or at least an attempt at faithfulness – would be disappointed. I also believe that the trailer gives enough scope for Christians to believe so as well. I have since changed my mind – more on that below.

I know some have expressed, including good friends of mine, that Christians shouldn’t have been so presumptuous – that just because a movie is based on a biblical character/story does not necessitate it to be ‘Christian’ in the sense that the story and message must match the biblical narrative. But I don’t think it was unfair for Christians to expect a faithful rendering of the story line. I base this judgement on the fact that the trailer itself appears to suggest a faithful rendering of the story (or at least leaves it very open that the movie will be faithful), and the other fact that it’s not very often we get to see biblical stories on the big screen. It’s not going too far to suggest that if movie studios realise the potential they have in recreating biblical stories for the big screen then flocks of Christians would come and pay their hard earned money to see these stories come to life (see ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and ‘The Bible’ TV miniseries).

Back to the reviews – in all the negative reviews I noticed an earnest attempt by the reviewers to try to engage with the movie. But part of the negative criticism came about because they felt disconnected from such a familiar story. I don’t necessarily disagree with the negative reviews, I just think that’s how the some will inevitably react.

Some other reviews attempted to point out how the movie isn’t Christian at all, but has either gnostic and/or kaballah elements. While some of it rings true, other reviews have dismissed these claims fairly convincingly.

The positive reviews, however, have been an interesting mixed bag.

First, most positive reviews took a fairly light view on the theological errors of the movie, and tended to take a strong finger-waving view against those who have negative criticisms, particularly those who were negative but hadn’t seen the movie.

Second, most of the glowing positive reviews always ended up in the same place – with the hopes that anyone watching this movie would go home, open up their bibles, and read the real account (and perhaps come to church afterwards).

To be honest, I think this hope is a tad naïve and forgets that with all the hype of ‘The Passion of the Christ’, according to Barna research, church attendance did not change one bit nor was there any significant increase in conversions. Certainly I want to affirm that God can and does use anything and everything to bring about his purposes – but I’m with Tim Challies on this to say that we should not hope for a movie to do what God’s Word already promises.

Other positive reviews have been quick to point out the strengths of the movie, the stunning visuals, and some also view the dialogue and directing more positively. This note you can’t really argue against – art is of the nature that one person might find something deeply intriguing and satisfying, and others just don’t ‘get it’. One of these days I’m going to post a review of mini-book ‘Art for God’s Sake’ by Philip Ryken.

Now to the positive and discerning reviews.

I can think of no two greater examples than this one by friend Nathan Campbell for Creek Rd Presbyterian Church, and this other one by Gregory Alan Thornbury guest blogging at the Gospel Coalition.

In both of these reviews you’ll see two things. First, you’ll see an appreciation for what the film does well – cinematically as well as theologically. Both reviews point out insightfully that Noah contains one of the best depictions of human depravity on screen – and that as a starting point in a conversation might make it worth viewing with a friend who has questions.

Second, both reviews do raise up alternative theological viewpoints in contrast to what is seen on screen. And this is where I’d commend Nathan’s review the most – for not only does he point out a contrasting theological view, but he does so with a biblical theology lens: always pointing us from Noah to Jesus.

Hollywood was never going to be able to do Biblical Theology well. And this, in some ways, has, I think, made Nathan’s review the best I’ve read – because it actually helps the reader think Christianly about the movie. Rather than navel-gaze and wonder why Aronofsky didn’t make a more faithful movie, the review takes what is there and points to something greater. That is a helpful model of cultural engagement.

Q&A: Matthew 18:15-20

Got this question in my inbox the other day:

“Hi Steve, I was wondering if you can help clarify what Matthew 18:18-20 is about? Sorry for the trouble.”

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”(Matthew 18:15-20, ESV)

Here’s my brief answer:

No a trouble at all ‘A’, don’t ever be afraid to ask. It is the privilege of my job that I get to answer questions all the time about the bible!

So Matthew 18:15 starts off this little section about a brother’s sins against another. 18:15-17 is pretty straight forward – the process if someone sins against you is to first approach them about it, if they don’t listen then approach them with one or two witnesses, and if they still don’t listen then bring the matter before the church.

18:18-20 essentially give the moral authority for the church to make its decision. Let’s face it, casting someone out and essentially saying they are not a Christian (which is what it means to ‘let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’) is a very serious matter and requires not only a great degree of discernment but also a great degree of moral authority. Who are we to say whether a person is genuinely converted or not?

So the first thing Jesus says is that ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven‘. Jesus gives the weight of his universal authority behind the decision making of the church. What was originally given to Peter (cf Matthew 16:19) is now given to the church as a whole.

The second thing Jesus does is repeat himself. In verses 19-20 he says, ‘Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.‘ Jesus reaffirms what he said in verse 18 about the church being backed by His own authority. These verses state that in the context of church discipline Jesus is present amongst his church in its decision making. These verses I also think do remind us that when Christians gather together Jesus is present among them, but, again, in context this is a reminder that in the weighty matters of disciplining a wayward believer Jesus is especially present.

So to summarise: verses 15-17 describe an escalating series of confrontations over someone’s unrepentant sins. Verses 18-20 serve to reinforce any decision by the church on a matter by giving the church the moral authority of Jesus himself in this process.

This means that any decision like this needs to be carefully and soberly considered. But it also means that the church should not shrink from making such a decision.

The fact that the final step before excommunication is to bring the matter before the church should also protect individuals from the tyranny of wicked leaders.

Finally, any decision like this is always with a view that the unbeliever would be called to repent and welcomed back if they do (cf 2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

Sometimes Judge A Book By Its Cover

I’m loving adam4d – his comics have the right touch of biting commentary and humour. Take for instance this one on judging a book by its cover:

I’ve said before in sermons and in conversation: you can generally tell if a Christian book is dodgy by the cover – if the cover has a good looking, happy, smiling person paired with a positive title, then it’s time to put the book down.

And to prove my point, here’s some examples:

Joel Osteen

Joel Osteen

Joyce Meyer

Joyce Meyer

Joseph Prince

Joseph Prince

TD Jakes

TD Jakes

I think there’s one general reason why these books all look the same: the message needs to match the messenger. All of the authors above teach a version of what is known as the prosperity gospel: that God’s intention is to prosper you materially (in finances, health, mental well-being, relationships, etc) if you put enough faith in him. The implicit message the covers need to give is this: if you read this book, if you adhere to my message, you will be as prosperous as I visibly am.

Now this is not to say that all books with the author’s face and a positive title are dodgy – but with prosperity false teachers it’s a consistent theme.

On the flip side, here are some of the books from much more solid authors I regularly recommend:

John Piper

John Piper

Joshua Harris, CJ Mahaney, Matt Chandler

Josh Harris - CJ Maheny - Matt Chandler

Don Carson, JI Packer

DA Carson - JI Packer

Tim Keller

Tim Keller

Matthias Media

Matthias Media

Notice the difference?

Some Christian movies to watch out for

A couple of posts about the upcoming Noah movie recently caught my attention. First, the movie poster:

It really does look epic! And with Hollywood beginning to take notice that there’s a relatively untapped Christian film-going audience this might be the movie to bring the churches back into the theatre since Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’. The trailer also makes it look epic…

But… it is not all good news.

Christian and screen writer Brian Godawa got to review the script of the movie. And what he has to say is rather devastating for Christians who were hoping that Hollywood would do the biblical story justice. It’s a long post, but it’s very helpful in not only outlining his major concerns but also serves as a nice model for how Christians should engage with movies (ie thoughtfully and biblically).

In short: it sounds like this movie has been made by a non-Christian who didn’t really understand his source material and went and made a piece of political environmental propaganda. As it currently stands the movie will probably frustrate and annoy Christian audiences more than entertain.

Now, I strongly affirm what Godawa has to say about nothing being wrong with creative license and adapting old stories to highlight a present day issue. I personally believe that the creative license shown in The Bible mini series earlier this year is what made it work so well. Sure, creative license mean you’ll always miss details or have people quibble over other smaller details, but it sounds like this Noah movie goes too far.

Some have suggested that the even with its flaws the movie would be a good conversation starter. Honestly, I can’t imagine how a conversation would go if you were constantly trying to correct the movie. A better option might be this: forgo the movie, and for friends who are curious or have seen it offer to sit down and read through Genesis 6-9 with them and show them the true story and how it points to Jesus Christ.

Still, there is time between now and the release of the movie to make some modifications and edits. Apparently early screen tests with audiences has been fairly negative – with lots of people saying that the movie changes far too many details of the original story. Might I suggest that the negative feedback is also because the movie is preachy and not in a good way.

In other news the book ‘Heaven is For Real’ has now been made into a movie and will hit theatres around Easter next year. Here’s the trailer:

Here is a very helpful review of the original book by Tim Challies.

In short: it’s a terrible book.

Here is an excerpt of the review:

If I wanted to disprove Colton’s experience on grounds of logic or consistency I might point in a couple of different directions. In the first place, Colton is a toddler who speaks like an adult. His verbatim quotes sound nothing like a 4-year old, and I think I can say this with some authority as the father of a 4-year old. I’d also point to the fact that dad routinely remembers circumstantial detail that there is very little chance he would remember 6 or 7 years after the fact, something that, at the very least, tells me that he is filling in details where he feels he needs to. But there are better grounds.

The better strategy, I think, is to look to the Bible.

I offer two ways of going about this. First, the Bible gives us no indication whatsoever that God will work in this way and that he will call one of us to heaven and then cause us to return. It is for man to die once and then the resurrection. To allow a man (or a boy) to experience heaven and then to bring him back would not be grace but cruelty. The only biblical example we have of a man being caught up to heaven is Paul and it’s very interesting that he was forbidden to tell anything about it. And the reason he even mentioned this experience was not to offer encouragement that heaven exists, but to serve as a part of his “gospel boasting.” He saw heaven and was told to say nothing about it. This was a unique experience in a unique time and for a unique reason.

The second ground refers to the reason each of these authors offers—that through their experience we now find confidence that what God says is true. This kind of proof is exactly the kind of proof we should not need and should not want. Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe. Don Piper insisted that he was called to be the Minister of Hope. If hope is to be found in any person, it will be found in the person of Christ. It is the Spirit working through the Word who will give us confidence in our faith. And what is faith? It is simply believing that what God says in his Word is true. We do not need tales of heaven or stories of those who claim to be there.

If you struggle believing what the Bible says, but learn to find security in the testimony of a toddler, well, I feel sorry for you. And I do not mean this in a condescending way. If God’s Word is not sufficient for you, if the testimony of his Spirit, given to believers, is not enough for you, you will not find any true hope in the unproven tales of a child. This hope may last for a moment, but it will not sustain you, it will not bless you, in those times when hope is waning and times are hard.

Avatar Review – Follow Up

In follow up to my review of Avatar, I’ve recently come across a short snippet of Mark Driscoll’s thoughts on the movie (though the comments are quite old). Here’s a transcript of his sermon:

The world tempts you to sin, to use people, to disobey God, to live for your own glory instead of his own, to be a consumer instead of generous, that’s the world system.

And if you don’t believe me, go see Avatar, the most demonic, satanic film I’ve ever seen. That any Christian could watch that without seeing the overt demonism is beyond me. I logged on to christianitytoday.com and the review was reflective of Christianity today, very disappointing. See, in that movie, it is a completely false ideology, it’s a sermon preached. It’s the most popular movie ever made, and it tells you that the creation mandate, the cultural mandate is bad, that we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t develop culture, that’s a bad thing.

Primitive is good and advanced is bad and that we’re not sinners, we’re just disconnected from the divine life force, just classic, classic, classic paganism, that human beings are to connect, literally, with trees and animals and beasts and birds and that there’s this spiritual connection that we’re all a part of, that we’re all a part of the divine.

It presents a false mediator with a witch. It presents false worship of created things rather than Creator God in absolute antithesis to Romans 1:25, which gives that as the essence of paganism. It has a false incarnation where a man comes in to be among a people group and to assume their identity. It’s a false Jesus. We have a false resurrection. We have a false savior. We have a false heaven. The whole thing is new age, satanic, demonic paganism, and people are just stunned by the visuals. Well, the visuals are amazing because Satan wants you to emotionally connect with a lie.

I think there are some very good points made here. Namely – to get people to accept a lie you don’t give it to people for what its worth, you dress it up. Satan is terribly clever at doing this and I think Driscoll’s forthright comments are worth pondering. While I was suckered into the visuals of the movie I will admit that I found the storyline pretty laughable (and predictable).

Another good point he makes is that we must consider the spiritual affect of even a ‘work of art’ which has had such a profound influence globally. I heard the other day that even though James Cameron has only made 12 films they have grossed a total of +5 Billion dollars globally, making him, on gross earnings, the highest earning Director in history. So we must evaluate the spiritual and philosophical push his films make.

Finally, it may seem crude to some that Driscoll’s views this film is as ‘demonic and satanic’. I would challenge all of us to keep meditating on how close to the truth he might actually be. Anything which robs God of his true glory is both demonic and satanic. Whatever you think of Driscoll’s words, it’s been widely noted that Avatar pushes a particular agenda. And that agenda is not in line with scripture. Coupled with the fact that this is movie is one of the highest grossing movies of all time and we begin to see that its robbing of God’s glory affect may be more profound than we first think. What better, easier, and more glamorous way can Satan be at work?

Happy discerning-movie-watching. :)