February, 2017

Theological Discernment at the Movies

In early March the movie adaptation of best-selling book The Shack will hit theaters. It is the story of a grieving man, Mack, who receives a mysterious personal invitation to meet with God at “The Shack.” The book has sold approximately 20 million copies and that number will likely increase after the release of the film. It was deeply loved by many people because of the unconventional manner in which God is portrayed, the way the problem of suffering was handled, and its fresh perspective on faith. But the book was strongly criticized because of deeply troubling theological problems. The book’s portrayal of the Trinity is contrary to any branch of orthodox Christianity. The answer to suffering presented by the book offers little real Gospel solution to evil. Fresh perspectives on faith, as is the case with The Shack, are usually just re-warmed heresies for a new generation. Should Christians go see The Shack? Is there value in seeing it? How should a Christians discern whether or not to see a film like this?

Let me say from the outset, I understand the appeal of a book or movie like The Shack to the evangelical movement, overall. Many evangelical Christians long for popular affirmation of their faith. The broad evangelical church is pragmatic to its core. Results are validation of truth, and what speaks more clearly than 20 million copies and a major motion picture? Many Christians not only want this movie to succeed, but they need it to succeed. The success of “faith-based” films seems to offer a more solid rock on which to stand than the Scriptures and “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” can. The Shack will likely generate numbers that allow the modern evangelical to say, “I know this is true, look how successful it was.”

I also understand the appeal of the actual story. We’ve all had to deal with grief.  To see a ray of hope in the midst of grief is a powerful thing. We’ve all struggled with periods when our faith grows cold or stale. The visceral reality and passive nature of Mack’s encounter with God is desirable. And when you start to chip away at that attractive façade because of something so unexciting as orthodoxy, it runs the risk of returning the person to his spiritual doldrums. People don’t like that, and they will let you know. Despite all the theological problems with The Shack, millions of evangelical Christians will go see it. And those who warn other Christians about the problems will be called legalistic, Puritanical, angry, and overly dogmatic (at least, those are the things I’ve been called because of speaking out against the book).

So, instead of being the curmudgeonly old man, who rails about the new-fangled moving pictures while listing all the theological deficiencies and out-right falsehoods in the book, I’m going to instead offer some broad advice about theological discernment at the movies. This might be somewhat ironic, since I’m not an avid movie-goer, but there are important things to think through before consuming any entertainment. We must remind ourselves that the content we enjoy is never value neutral. Thus, I believe it is helpful for Christians to think through the quality, message, and theology of a movie in order to discern if it is worth your time and attention.

The quality of a movie is important. Is the story compelling? Is it well executed? Does it accurately portray the human condition? Will it appropriately move your emotions: humor, empathy, joy, love, fear? Or does it use cheap tricks to elicit a laugh, scream, or lust? The vast majority of movies today are utterly forgettable. Good stories are worth the investment to think through and engage. Cheap stories end up robbing us of time and attention.

What is the message of the film? What is the problem and how is it answered? Does this answer fit with what the Scriptures describe as the fallen human condition? A movie does not need to be explicitly Christian to pass this test. Some movies accurately depict the sinfulness of man or the emptiness and absurdity of sin. Some films accurately portray the value of sacrifice, service, and love. Is the message honorable and/or redemptive?

Finally, from the message will come the underlying theology of a film. What kind of God does this film portray? What answer does it give to the human condition? What is the hope of redemption? Rarely will a secular film explicitly point to Christ, but often it will present a redeemer-type hero. Because of the image of God imprinted on all people, there is often true truth lurking just under the surface. I would add, though, that when a film claims to be “faith-based,” it gets greater scrutiny as to its faithfulness to Scripture because it is targeted to an audience ready to accept its underlying theology.

On the points of quality, message, and theology, I find The Shack to be deeply lacking. The benefits that might come from this film would be gleaned with greater ease and less heresy from a number of better places. As a friend suggested, do yourself a favor and stick to the shacks that are preceded by “Shake.”

Prayer – Exodus

The prayers of the book of Exodus primarily focus on the prayers of Moses. There is an initial crying out of the people, but that cry is answered by God in the person of Moses as their Redeemer. This brief survey of prayers from the book of Exodus will highlight that prayer does in fact change things, but often the thing most profoundly changed is the person who prays.

At the end of Genesis, the people of Israel find themselves escaping famine by taking up refuge in land of Goshen in Egypt. As the book of Exodus opens, however, there is a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph (Ex 1:8). The Pharaoh feared the Israelites, so he oppressed and enslaved them. Their lives were made “bitter with hard service” (1:14). Pharaoh also sought to limit the births of the unwanted Hebrews, calling for infanticide of all the Hebrew males. The oppression and slavery of the people under the Egyptians was a heavy burden. Their response to the difficult circumstances was to “groan because of their slavery and cry for help” (2:23). The people’s simple prayer of anguish goes up to God. God hears their cry. He remembers the covenant. He sees the people. And God knew (2:24, 25).

God will ordain difficulties in our lives to draw us to himself. Just as God’s Word had explained through Joseph, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). The new Pharaoh in Egypt had forgotten about Joseph. But it seems that the Israelites had forgotten about God. The slavery and oppression in Egypt drove the people to remember and to cry out to the Lord.

How did the Lord answer the people’s cry for help in oppression? Did the Lord immediately whisk them out of hardship? Not even close. The Lord actually answered their cry by bringing heavier burdens on them. Their taskmasters reduced the straw, but the number of bricks remained. When productivity dipped, the beatings increased. Moses then prays to the Lord, “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Ex 5:22, 23). God is answering the prayers of the people by doing something bigger and more important than fixing their immediate situation. The answer envisioned by the people is far too small.  God is preparing them for a redemption that is far greater than they can presently conceive.

God called to Moses from out of the burning bush. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6). God assures Moses that he is aware of the people’s suffering. And he will redeem them. But it will be according to God’s plan. One of the most amazing aspects of this scene is that Moses actually interacts and dialogues with God. Moses asks, “What shall I say to the people? Who should I tell them has sent me?” God responds, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (3:14). Herbert Lockyer comments that “true prayer is a two-way channel – we speak to God: God speaks to us.”[1] But how does God speak to us today? God does not speak today in burning bushes, but he speaks to us through the Scriptures. God’s Word made alive by the Holy Spirit will burn in our hearts and yet not consume us. We speak to God in prayer and he speaks his answer to us in his Word.

The Lord delivers his people through the plagues that are laid upon Egypt. After the final plague, the Passover, Pharaoh is broken and releases the people. But he quickly reneges on his release. He chases after the Israelites with his army, only to be finally defeated and drowned when the waters of the Red Sea crash down upon him. Then Moses and the people sang a victory song of thanksgiving to the Lord (Ex 15). God had delivered the people and they responded in thanksgiving. When the Lord responds to prayer the appropriate response of the people is prayer.

The people’s deliverance is not complete yet. They will still wander in the wilderness for a generation. And they will rebel against God’s good rule. In fact, their idolatry will bring them to edge of destruction. But Moses intercedes with the Lord on their behalf (Ex 32, 33). Moses’ prayer for the people is answered by God and the people are spared. But it wasn’t God who was changed by this prayer. Instead, in Exodus 34 we see that Moses is the one transfigured. His face shines with a reflection of the glory of God. And then the people are instructed in how to construct the temple so that God’s presence can dwell in the midst of the people. The answer to prayer was seldom an immediate fix to their circumstances. Instead, God changed the people so that they might better know him.

[1] Herbert Lockyer, All the Prayers of the Bible: A Devotional and Expositional Classic (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 32.

Prayer – Genesis

There are hundreds and hundreds of prayers in the Bible. The Psalms comprise a prayer book of 150 prayers all on their own. Man was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26) and by nature looks to communicate with God. We see this communication in the opening chapters of Genesis through Adam’s dialogue with God. While there is no explicit prayer between Adam and God, we can infer that they likely conversed with one another in chapter 2 as Adam is tasked with naming the animals and then Eve is created. We also see Adam’s dialogue with God following his sin. The conversation between Adam and God in Genesis 3:8-13 seems to imply that God and Adam had had these conversations before. It seems likely that it was part of their daily routine to walk in the Garden and to talk. In shame Adam hid. But one of the first consequences of sin we see is that Adam is hesitant to communicate with God. Sin disrupts our communion with God.

After Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden, we next see man conversing with God when Cain answers God’s question about the location of his brother Abel. Again, as with Adam, the conversation with God is very colloquial and informal. And also, as with Adam, the result of sin prompted Cain to be evasive and to obfuscate the truth in his speaking to God. Sin disrupts our communion with God.

After this, Seth was born to Adam and Eve. And Seth had a son called Enosh. Then Moses records that, “At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Gen 4:26). This is the beginning of what we would consider formal prayer in the Bible. Now, it is unlikely that man had not worshiped God in prayer prior to this point. But it seems that with the growth in human population, men now began to corporately worship with a structure and formality that had previously been absent. God’s name was revered in a manner that was novel to man.[1]

Enoch and Noah both “walked with God” (Gen 5:22; 6:9, respectively). Though the Hebrew is not explicit, it does imply that they had an abiding communion and fellowship with God in their walking. But the next development in prayer recorded in Scripture is with Abraham. Abraham is called by God to enter into a covenant with him. God made covenantal promises to Abraham and Abraham responded by worshiping and calling upon the name of the LORD at the altar (Gen 12:7, 8; 13:4). We then see Abraham praying for an heir (Gen 15:2, 3). Abraham offers up to God the desires of his heart, for things agreeable to the will of God (WSC 98). Abraham believed God by faith, and this was counted to him as righteousness (15:6). Abraham was declared righteous on account of faith and his communion with God was strengthened. Sin disrupts communion but righteousness strengthens it.

Though there are several other examples of prayer in Genesis, we will look here at only two more. First, Abraham prays for Sodom in Genesis 18 & 19. God, in his righteous wrath, is going to level the wicked city. Abraham intercedes on behalf of the people of Sodom, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen 18:23). Abraham pleads, “if there are 50, will you spare it?” then “if there are 45…” and so on. Until finally Abraham sees that there are not ten who are righteous in that city. There came a point where Abraham’s intercession ceased. Why did Abraham stop asking for God’s mercy at this point? Matthew Henry answers, “Because Abraham [came to understand] that [Sodom] deserved to be destroyed if there were not so many as ten righteous.”[2] The barren tree must be cut down if it will never yield fruit (Luke 13:9). Abraham’s intercessory prayer was effective, but the effect was not to change God’s mind, but rather to change Abraham’s understanding and acceptance of God’s righteousness.

Last, we jump to the end of Genesis where Jacob prays a blessing for his sons (Gen 49). Jacob takes his final hours of life to offer up a prayer for his sons. Jacob was one who had personally wrestled with God (Gen. 32). He knew what it was to struggle in prayer. He knew what it was to see the mercy of God in prayer. So he lifts his eyes up and dies gazing heavenward while praying that others would find the fulfillment of the covenant promises of God. Jacob dies while praying that his people would experience sweet communion with God.

[1] Herbert Lockyer, All the Prayers of the Bible: A Devotional and Expositional Classic (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 18.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 47.

Prayer

What is prayer? This is a crucial question for us to ask. It was a question the disciples had. It is a question that has been asked by faithful Christians in every generation. Understanding prayer and growth in prayer remains a need for all Christians today. I think prayer is kind of like eating well and exercising. We know we ought to do it. When we discipline ourselves to do it, we feel better. If we’re in the habit of doing it, we feel it when we don’t do it. But more often than not, it’s something we don’t do very well. We don’t do it because we either don’t know how, don’t know why, or don’t really believe it is necessary (at least not right now…maybe later). And like eating well and exercise, sometimes the only reason we get serious about it is because something drastic happens.

We are most likely to pray when the crises and difficulties of life fall upon us. I routinely get prayer requests from people when loved ones are suffering or major issues have intruded upon life. I think that is because in those moments of crisis, just like when a health scare leads us to change our diet or exercise, we become aware of our need for a change. With respect to prayer, it is a recognition that help is needed. We simply don’t have the resources necessary to change the dire situation. In truth our situation in crisis is not altogether different from our situation in regular times, but our perception of our need is more acute. The illusion that we can do this all on our own is shattered. This probably explains why I’ve never received a request for congregational prayer because someone’s spiritual life seems dry. That need is every bit as important as any other need, but it seems less so. And because it seems less so, our practice of prayer is often unhealthy and lazy.

The Scriptures are the primary source of teaching about prayer. And as those who have walked this pilgrim journey before have examined, studied, and explored the Scriptures, they have a lot to tell us about prayer. If we begin to understand how prayer works, why prayer works, and the necessity of prayer for even the mundane moments of the Christian life, then we will, Lord wiling, begin to change our habits regarding prayer. This series of reflections will attempt to work through some of the biblical passages about prayer, specifically the Lord’s instruction on prayer that we commonly call the Lord’s Prayer. This series will also look at how some of the great Fathers of the faith have addressed the issue of prayer in the Christian life. Hopefully, we will be able to apply this truth to our lives in order to see our practice of prayer more closely align with what you probably already think it ought to be like.

As we begin these reflections on prayer, perhaps we ought to begin with a prayer. The following prayer is taken from The Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. This prayer is titled, The Prayer of Love[1].

Gracious Lord, thy name is Love, in love receive my prayer. My sins are more than the wide sea’s sand, but where sin abounds, there is grace more abundant. Look to the cross of thy beloved Son, and view the preciousness of his atoning blood; Listen to his never-failing intercession, and whisper to my heart, ‘Thy sins are forgiven, be of good cheer, lie down in peace.’

Grace cataracts from heaven and flows forever, and mercy never wearies in bestowing benefits. Grant me more and more to prize the privilege of prayer, to come to thee as a sin-soiled sinner, to find pardon in thee, to converse with thee; to know thee in prayer as the path in which my feet tread, the latch upon the door of my lips, the light that shines through my eyes, the music of my ears, the marrow of my understanding, the strength of my will, the power of my affection, the sweetness of my memory.

May the matter of my prayer be always wise, humble, submissive, obedient, scriptural, Christ-like. Give me unwavering faith that supplications are never in vain, that if I seem not to obtain my petitions I shall have larger, richer answers, surpassing all that I ask or think. Unsought, thou hast given me the greatest gift, the person of thy Son, and in him thou wilt give me all I need. Amen.

[1] Arthur Bennett, The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 270–71.