One of my favorite works of Christian literature is A Man For All Seasons. I think every Christian who appreciates excellence and beauty mixed with truth should obtain a copy of this play, based on the life and death of Thomas More. It’s written by Robert Bolt. It’s not a long read, and it’s incredibly well written. I highly recommend it if you have yet to read it. There are many great moments of dialogue, but one of the most profound things More himself wrote actually never made it into the play. He said “I never intend, God being my good Lord, to pin my soul to another man’s back, not even the best man that I know.”
Christians talk a lot, and rightly so, about the idols of the world. We look around us and see people exalting all manner of things where Jesus Christ ought rightfully to be lifted up instead. And sometimes they are other people. We call them celebrities. But I think Christians can be guilty of the very same thing. I’ve seen a secular news outlet describe one pastor as being “like a rock star,” and it disturbs me to think that perhaps many of his fans would not feel the slightest misgiving over that connotation. It is a tragic thing that many pastors in the Church today are deliberately cultivating a style of preaching and a style of “theology” designed to win over more and more such “fans.”
But the point I’d like to make today is that idolatry doesn’t have to be this obvious or this dangerous. In fact, it may start very innocently and naturally. We all have those favorite singers and preachers who seem to be strong men of God, whom we deeply respect and admire. We spend a lot of time listening to and thinking carefully about what they have to say, because we think we can just see God’s light shining through and from them.
This is where Thomas More’s words become applicable. The sad truth is that because man is fallen, we may try as hard as we can to place our trust somewhere secure, but we are not always borne out in our judgment. Does this mean we should suspect everybody and trust no one man more than another? Absolutely not. God gave us discernment and common sense for a reason, and it is a good thing to take wisdom from those leaders he has blessed. But, we must remember where our hope must ultimately lie, and it lies not with any mortal man, no, not the best man we know.
Paul Washer is a preacher I’ve been learning to respect very much lately, but he himself warns against this very kind of thing. The clip I’ll share with you today contains a lot of wisdom on the topic, and I’d encourage you to watch it through. It’s from an interview that was taped a couple years ago where he answered questions people had sent in. As a Christian, I feel convicted by the complete honesty and humility I see here. (Note: The last couple of minutes are related to a side question and aren’t as pertinent as the rest of the video, although excellent for what they do address.)
My favorite part might be 11:45 to roughly 13:00, when he talks about his greatest fear as a minister.
Last month, Chariots of Fire turned thirty. It’s a little hard to believe that the greatest film ever made is that young. With a few exceptions, cinema’s finest moments came considerably earlier.
Chariots of Fire was one of the exceptions. And the reason is that its makers understood what it meant to craft a film that was at once full of truth and full of power. Surprisingly, it struck a resounding chord with film audiences, and it captured four Oscars (including Picture, Screenplay, and Music for Vangelis’ immortal score), with three more nominations.
I wonder whether such a film could win Oscars today. But suffice it to say that we could use many more like it. Just ask yourself this question: When was the last time you saw something billing itself as a “Christian” film that was truly great? I don’t mean good, I mean great. I mean timeless. Myself, I cannot think of any.
The genius of Chariots was that the Christian elements arose naturally from the storyline. They were neither repressed nor forced forward in an artistically awkward way. They were simply there. The result was a film that can legitimately be regarded as a “Christian” film without artificially assuming the label at the expense of excellence.
I can say it no better than scriptwriter Colin Welland, so I will let his words do the rest:
The great thing about Chariots was we didn’t ever dream it was going to be the success it was. That wasn’t the purpose—to make an Oscar-winning film. The purpose of everybody in the film was to make it right and make it true.
And now it seems fitting to help my readers relive a few of the movie’s finest moments. Sorry guys—I couldn’t pick just one. I could embed them, but I don’t want to slow things down, so I’ll put in links instead. First, Eric Liddell’s classic sermon in the rain (penned by Ian Charleson himself because he was unhappy with the script he had been handed and wanted to make it better). Second, the unforgettable scene where Eric has refused to run in the Sunday events and instead reads in church from Isaiah 40, while we watch his teammates and their competitors exhaust themselves on the track.
And finally, the final race, for which I believe no words are needed. All right, I said I would try to avoid embedding, but I cannot resist:
Happy birthday Chariots. Something tells me we won’t see your like again.
Uh-oh. I think I may be about to ruffle some feathers with this one.
Should be fun. Let’s do it.
First of all, I should say that if you’re out there, and you’re reading this, and you think Rob Bell is the greatest thing since sliced bread…I am in no way trying to say that you are an evil person who deserves to rot in hell. (Although come to think of it, we’re all evil people who deserve to rot in hell…but you know what I mean.)
I am, however, saying that you’re probably a confused person who could use a fresh perspective. So, that being established, let’s take an honest look at Rob Bell.
The latest controversy that seems to be swirling around our favorite bespectacled, smooth-talking emergentist is his recent adoption of universalism (the belief that there is no Hell and one day the whole world will be saved). Bell has used a story about somebody who stated definitely that Mahatma Gandhi was in Hell as a jumping-off point for accusing such people of being presumptuous on the matter. (Ironic, since by vigorously calling into question the existence of an eternal Hell, Bell isn’t exactly taking an agnostic standpoint himself.)
Myself, I find the whole thing a little bit amusing, because even though I completely agree that Bell is spouting nonsense on the issue, crackpot Bell-isms aren’t exactly old hat. I’m at least as concerned about Bell’s take on the virgin birth, which oddly didn’t seem to generate nearly as much buzz when he first laid it out in Velvet Elvis (see the relevant quotation here). Just to quickly fill people in, Bell has breezily informed us that all that stodgy, dusty stuff called Doctrine is really not an important part of being a Christian. Hey man, as long as you’re, like, you know, finding God and discovering your inner wuggah-wuggah…it’s cool, man! Kinda like a trampoline, you know?
Yes, I did say trampoline. Hear this: From now on, we won’t call it Christianity. We’ll call it…trampolinianity! No, really, I couldn’t possibly make this up. Bell literally says that doctrine is like springs under a trampoline, and our main goal should be to “keep jumping” rather than “arguing about whose trampoline is better.”
So, how ’bout that virgin birth? Oh those silly Bible-thumping fundamentalists—they want you to think that stuff like that actually matters. I mean after all, what would it matter if it was discovered tomorrow that Jesus had a father named, oh let’s say, Larry (see above). Of course it would only mean that Jesus wasn’t really the son of God and hence was born with a sin nature just like the rest of us and couldn’t take away the sin of the world…but hey, Jesus is really just like us anyway, right? And you know, if our faith hangs on something insignificant like the virgin birth, then how strong was it to begin with? That’s like building a faith on bricks, where if you take one away everything falls apart. We need a faith…like a trampoline! Where instead of building on bricks, we’re building on springs, and if you take one or two away, no problem dude! Just keep bouncing away, because really all that’s important is that we’re bouncing into a deeper fuzzy-wuzziness as we commune with the Spirit. All that extra stuff like Doctrine and Facts will just tie us down. We want to be free, free…as free as the wind blows, or something like that.
What about Bell’s supposed “discovery” regarding the word “virgin” and Isaiah? To put it succinctly, it means precisely zilch. The truth is that while Bell and his ilk act like they are confiding some deeply dark and significant secret to you when they knowingly inform you that “the word for ‘virgin’ doesn’t really have to mean ‘virgin,’ ” their “argument” flops on several different counts. First, although the Hebrew word “almah” could more generally mean “young woman,” it could also specifically mean “virgin.” The alternate meaning is just that—an alternate meaning. And in fact, we have five other Old Testament uses of the word besides the one in Isaiah, and all of them clearly use the word to mean a literal virgin. But even putting that aside, Matthew wasn’t quoting from the original Hebrew anyway. He was quoting from the Septuagint, a Greek translation that the Jews had been using and reading from for two hundred years before Christ’s birth. And in the Greek, the word is “parthenos,” which unquestionably means “virgin.” It’s silly to imply that the Christians were just glomming onto the Septuagint for convenience’ sake, because it was the standard, conventional Jewish translation long before Christianity even entered the scene.
But the fact is that this semantic quibble is not even a real “argument” against the historical fact of the virgin birth anyway. Whether or not Isaiah literally meant “virgin” had no causal effect on what Matthew recorded as history in his gospel. He presumably had other evidence to believe that Christ was born of a virgin—perhaps even from conversations with Mary herself. He brought in Isaiah because he wanted to draw a parallel between what had happened and what he saw as a foreshadowing of the event in the Old Testament. It is therefore utterly pointless to use the debate over the original Hebrew as evidence that Jesus was not in fact born of a virgin.
Brothers and sisters, we need to have discernment. It is vitally important for Christians to understand what is happening here. Bell is not alone. He is just one part of a growing trend within the Church that emphasizes emotion at the expense of everything else, most importantly doctrine but also honest scholarship. I believe emotion has its place in the Christian life, but when we make it the be-all and end-all of our faith, to the point where really nothing else matters as long as we feel good—then Houston, we have a problem.
So here’s to a different kind of Christianity. Here’s to a Christianity with its head screwed on straight, rooted in the Word, rooted in sound scholarship, and rooted in clear thinking. And here’s to a Christianity where flakes who come with false, feel-good teachings are told to get off at the next stop.
By the way, if you’re looking for a thorough, thoughtful, scriptural review of Bell’s latest, I cannot recommend Kevin DeYoung’s 20-page breakdown highly enough. Yes, it’s long, but if you have or were thinking of getting Love Wins, I urge you to listen closely to what DeYoung is saying and use it as a guide. He cares about the truth, and he has done his homework.
Update: Some of you may or may not have seen Bell’s MSNBC interview with Martin Bashir. It has gone viral since being posted on the Internet, and with good reason: Bell is very uncomfortable in this interview. Some people accused Bashir of being repetitive and obnoxious, but the fact is that Bell only seemed to be answering his questions. He offered nothing of substance. For an excellent and honest dissection of the debate, see an interview of Bashir himself on the Paul Edwards program. Bashir is a Moslem convert to Christianity.
“Tolerance today means that you believe something different from what I believe, and we can both be right. Isn’t that amazing? We can both be right!”
I think I’ll call this “Surprise Sunday.” On Sunday, if I choose to post at all, anything can happen. You might drop by to find a powerful scene from a classic film (see last week), a funny Youtube video, a devotional thought, thoughts on the culture, or perhaps a bit of great music you might not have heard before.
Today, I wanted to share one of my favorite messages about our culture today. It’s from Ryan Dobson, son of James Dobson. Here he tackles post-modernism. Take a moment to enjoy the entire quarter-hour message today. Every minute is well worth it. Oh, and keep a box of tissues handy…because you’ll be laughing that hard. The entire video is available here. I first heard this message on an episode of Focus On the Family a couple years back, and I’ve made a point of watching the video at least once a month since I found it. Truly a man after my own heart!
“Boys, this is my church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess coming.”
I hinted at this on the “About” page, but I’m giving full warning now: I’m a classic movie buff, and us classic movie buffs, we’re a little strange. We bring up old movies and start quoting things and drag them into places where they don’t seem to belong just because they are so awesome and we can’t stop talking about them. (We sometimes make VERY RARE exceptions for recent movies, but by and large…bleh and meh. At least that’s my reaction.)
So, as a certified classic movie buff, I’d like to take a quick break from SG and drag a bit of classic film-making into a southern gospel blog on this fine Sunday morning. It’s from On the Waterfront, released in 1954—one of the greatest American movies ever made. The film is about a simpleminded former prizefighter turned longshoreman named Terry, played by Marlon Brando. He struggles with the guilt of having unwittingly played a role in the death of somebody who was going to expose the workers’ corrupt union leaders. The movie shows him coming to terms with his conscience as he agonizes over whether to name names himself, thereby risking his own life, or play D &D like the rest (deaf and dumb).
However, the center of this clip is the local priest, played by Karl Malden. He is the voice of Terry’s conscience in the movie, trying to convince him to do the right thing. (Says Terry in one scene, “If I spill, my life ain’t worth a nickel.” The priest replies, “And how much is your soul worth if you don’t?”) In this clip, he is standing over the body of yet another victim of the mob who was going to “squeal.” And there he begins to speak—to the corrupt leaders, to the people who are letting them have their way, to everybody who will listen. (The camera frequently cuts over to Terry himself, who is listening intently.) I will save all the power of his words for the video. This is not an officially “Christian” movie, but this is one of the most powerful Christian scenes that I have ever seen on film. I wish today’s Christian movies were this artistically excellent, and I wish that today’s mainstream movies could feature a message like this and still have a chance of winning eight Oscars like this one did (plus several other nominations, including one for Malden as Best Supporting Actor) . With few exceptions, mainstream film paints Christians in a very bad light. This kind of convincing, respectful portrayal of a devout Christian as a central hero is refreshing, to say the least:
Hearing the priest’s convicting words makes me wonder how God feels about the “silence” of the Church when it comes to the corruption of our society—corruption of education, corruption of morals, even corruption within the Church itself. That’s food for thought today.