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The evangelical world has flown into turbulent skies over the last few months. From Phil Robertson to bakeries in Arizona, and more recently the World Vision debacle. Evangelicals are facing a potential fork in the road in how they think through homosexuality. Then there’s the never dying debates about spiritual gifts, women in ministry, and the timing of future things. Worship wars. Doctrinal disputes. Young leaders improving on old methods; old leaders suspicious of new methods. House churches ditching the whole “institutional” church. An unforeseen flight of young Protestants to the Orthodox and Catholic churches. And the massive growth of Christianity in the majority world.

If I were a prophet, I’d predict a major divide in evangelicalism in the near future, one which would rival the split between fundamentalists and moderates in the early 20th century. In the one corner, we have a millennial, internet-savvy, social media driven, post-9/11 brand of Christianity that’s seeking authenticity, justice, and community. In the other corner, we have baby boomer Christian leaders, whose theology was forged in the caldrons of the Cold War era, where debates about the rapture, sign-gifts, and the rise of post-modernism formed a church’s identity.

One version of evangelicals define themselves by what they’re against; the other by what they are for. One group elevates truth; the other, love. One seeks authenticity and community; the other races to Bible studies and marriage seminars. One will divide over eschatology; the other over homosexuality.

We are facing a split. A growing chasm that will spawn two distinct versions of evangelical thought.

As I reflect on this inevitable divide, here’s my challenge to both sides:

1. Be Biblical. Don’t just blindly rehearse inherited presuppositions, and don’t base your theology as a reaction to your inherited presuppositions. Neither inherited theology nor reactionary theology is good enough. We are Protestants; we believe in the authority of the text. We value fresh exegesis and letting the text critique our theology. We don’t bend the text around our theology, but our theology around the text—even if we don’t like it. Head in SandWe cannot debate this doctrine or critique that theology with a closed Bible. We desperately need to root, and re-root, our 21st century theology in the actual text, and not some vague inherited notion of being biblical—without knowing the relevant chapter and verse, and being able to identity and articulate the strongest argument against our view. Search it out. Study with blood, sweat, and calloused knees. Be biblical. Root your theology in the actual text of Scripture.

2. Be humble. We believe in absolute truth. Absolutely! But such truth is harnessed and understood through fallible human interpretation. So be humble. Work your exegetical minds to the skull, but be humble in your conclusions. You may be right. You probably are (if your conclusions are backed by solid exegetical evidence). But recognize that you are human and you therefore might be wrong. And that’s okay. God is right. God is mysterious. God is beyond us, and He is always right. We are sometimes wrong. We are wrong more than we think. Much more. Our beliefs are clouded by presuppositions, cultural baggage, unexamined assumptions, and experiences that fog up our interpretive lenses. So be humble.

3. Seek truth and practice. That is, seek to live out and love out the truth you say you believe in. The world—and the evangelical left—is passionately unimpressed with unpracticed doctrines. Truth is validated and confirmed through doing it. So be biblical. Stay humble. And do it. Live out what you say you believe. For example, more than 2,000 passages in the Bible lambast the misuse of wealth, and only 6 address homosexuality. Align your values accordingly. Don’t be a stingy gay-hater, for this is not Christian. Become a Jesus follower who serves people who are attracted to the same sex. God served you when you when you were serving yourself—and idols. I don’t care if you are pre-millenial, post-millenial, or amillenial. Do you love the poor? Are you radically generous? Are you submissive, humble, and eager to love your enemies? Do these, and then I will know that you are a follower of the crucified and risen Lamb.

4. Study hard. I don’t say this because I’m an educator, but because the next generation of seekers are also thinkers. They ask hard questions and they get irritated at pre-packaged answers. With the rise (or world domination of) the internet, people have access to piles and piles of information. The anti-intellectual, Jesus-and-me, don’t-think-but-only-obey version of Christianity isn’t going to work with the 21st century generation. We need to think deeply and critically about sexuality, epistemology, science, and ethics. And if you don’t know what epistemology means, you need to. We need to think. We need to pull our heads from the sand and shed the stereotype that Christians have their heads in the sand. We need to think, interact, debate, and believe with our God-given minds the beautiful story about a God born in a manger. Millennials are asking very hard questions; recycled answers won’t work any longer. And we need to prove the truth we believe in not only with logical arguments—though we will always need these—but with an unarguable life that lives out the truth we say we believe in.

Let’s press on and obey and imitate the crucified and risen King, who pulled us into a beautiful story about a loving God who sought and saved the lost.

Frozen CastWith the video release of Disney’s Frozen this week, I have been doing what parents everywhere are doing: seeing bits and pieces of Frozen on a regular basis. I’ve written briefly about the movie already (here and here), but I feel compelled to add one more post.

As I watched Frozen again with my young daughters, I was struck by how clear the themes of love and fear are throughout the movie. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the whole movie is an exposition of a Bible verse (whether the filmmakers intended this or not is a different question):

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18a)

Think about how this plays out in the movie. The older sister, Elsa, has an incredible power. But because that beautiful gift has proven dangerous, she grows up in fear of the gift. In the film, she imprisons herself through fear, repeatedly mentioning her fear.

And then how is that fear overcome? Love. Love casts out fear. Anna pursues her sister, continually offers to help her, and eventually sacrifices herself out of love for her sister, which is the greatest form of love (John 15:13). And in the end, it’s love that shows Elsa how to control her gift, using it for beauty and keeping its danger at bay.

I’m convinced the whole movie could be summarized with John’s phrase: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

But I do want to be careful. While I do believe that Frozen is built on this biblical concept (and I don’t have any reason to think the filmmakers started with 1 John and built the movie from there), I want to emphasize that 1 John 4:18 means more than we will find in Frozen. Here’s the verse in its context:

“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:16–21)

Let me just point out a few things here. First, notice the judgment theme. John is talking about fear of judgment, fear of punishment. And he’s saying that God’s love is so powerful when we truly come to recognize it, to believe it, our fear of punishment disappears. That’s profound. We don’t fear judgment because we know that God loves us. In this sense, John goes far beyond Frozen. For Elsa, love casts out the fear of hurting people she loves. For John, love casts out the fear of eternal punishment.

But also notice the last verses. John insists that if we love God, we will love our “brother” as well. And once again Frozen comes to my mind. Many of us would love to see a movie like Frozen explicitly speak about Jesus’ love for us. But even without that level of explicit theology, Frozen is showing us a fundamental piece of John’s message. Anna and Elsa (and Kristoff and Sven and Olaf) spend the film loving their brothers and sisters, whom they can see. And John tells us that without this kind of love, whatever love we claim to have toward God is a sham.

So Frozen is actually calling a lot of attention to the fundamental portion of this passage. Yes, John is talking about a far deeper love: the love of God that removes our fear of judgment. But John says that if we don’t love our brothers and sisters, then we know nothing of that profound love of God. And he says that our love for our brothers and sisters can only be shown because God has “first loved us.” So 1 John 4:18 means more than Frozen conveys, but not less.

Go ahead and watch Frozen again. If you’re as emotional as I am, you’ll be moved by this powerful representation of a message that’s at the heart of the Bible.

 

 

One Verse Hollywood Believes

Mark Beuving —  February 17, 2014 — 1 Comment

Hollywood isn’t known for its adherence to biblical truth. But in some cases, Hollywood returns repeatedly to biblical truths. As with all humanity, Hollywood can’t seem to fully move beyond Jesus, as though Jesus were a “thorn in the brain” (to borrow a phrase from Christian Wiman), a “haunting figure” (to adapt a phrase from Flannery O’Connor), or a “rock in the shoe” (from my colleague, Ryan McGladdery).

In this post, I want to highlight one verse that Hollywood believes in. A truth that Hollywood considers profound and returns to time and again:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

As soon as I say that, I’m sure you can think of plenty of movies that feature self-sacrificing love, where a character lays down his or her life for a friend. Let me give you a brief sampling here, and then invite you to post other good Hollywood illustrations of this verse in the comments. And, by the way, spoiler alert: Don’t read any of the descriptions you don’t want to read (I shouldn’t have to say that, but someone always complains…).

 

The Lord of the Rings & The Chronicles of Narnia

I’m lumping these two together and treating them briefly because they are both adaptations from stories written by Christians. But they’re also great examples. Self-sacrifice runs throughout Lord of the Rings as Frodo and his companions risk their lives for one another and to save the world. And then Gandalf sacrifices himself so the “fellowship” can continue (and later returns—reborn—as Gandalf the White). And Aslan’s self-sacrificial death to save Edmond is so clearly Christian that I need not explain it here. But the success of these movies shows how powerful our modern culture finds such stories.

 

Harry Potter

I have written on this before, so I’ll direct you to those two posts for details (here and here). But Harry’s parents die so he can live, Harry and his friends sacrifice for one another for seven years, and finally, Harry willingly lays down his life to save everyone he cares about.

 

The Hunger Games

In the first film, Katniss willing chooses certain death in the arena when she volunteers as a substitute for her sister, Prim. In the second film, some of the other tributes throw themselves in death’s path to save Katniss. Depending on how faithfully the third film follows the book, we may see more of this later. (I’ve written more on this here, here, here, and here).

 

The Little Mermaid

I’ve written on why The Little Mermaid can be taken as absolutely horrifying or as powerfully edifying (here). But in either case, we see King Triton willingly becoming a pathetic piece of seaweed in order to take his daughter’s place and allow her to live. And Ariel and Prince Eric in turn risk their lives for one another and the good of the world.

 

Wreck-It Ralph

In this animated gem of a film, Ralph finds himself in a place where the little kid (Vanelope) for whom he has developed a big-brotherly love is going to be destroyed, along with every other character in the arcade. As King Candy (aka Turbo) holds him high in the air and tells him that it’s “game over for both of you,” Ralph says, “No, just for me,” and throws himself strategically to his death in a boiling geyser of Diet Coke and Mentos so that Vanelope and the others can be saved. Vanelope sees his sacrifice and risks her life to save him as well.

 

Gran Torino

The impossibly curmudgeonly Walt (Clint Eastwood) eventually learns to love his neighbors, and eventually gives his life for their good (see Preston’s take on it here).

 

Frozen

After the newly crowned Elsa flees into the mountains out of fear and confusion, leaving her kingdom in a perilously “frozen” state, her little sister Anna risks her life to help her sister. She is persistent in her life-risking because of her love for Elsa, and eventually she forfeits her last hope at life so that she can save her sister. It’s seriously beautiful. (You can read more here).

 

Titanic

After the horrifying events surrounding the Titanic unfold (spoiler alert: the ship crashes and sinks), Jack selflessly places Rose aboard a floating piece of debris and stays in the icy water, where he quickly freezes to death. A self-sacrificing act if there ever was one, but as many have pointed out, there was clearly room for two people aboard that piece of debris…

 

Conclusion

There are so many other examples we could look at. These are merely the first nine that came to my mind. But the point is, Hollywood seems enamored with the idea that love has no greater expression than the laying down of one’s life for the sake of another.

What does it all mean? Well, it certainly shows that non-Christians often say things that are true, profound, edifying, etc. It also illustrates that what we have in the gospel is the most compelling story in history. Perhaps the phrase “the greatest story ever told” has become cliché, but the host of Hollywood films (and keep in mind that we haven’t said anything about the world of literature or music here) focusing on this one biblical concept shows that this old cliché is far from tired.

 

The Apologetic Value of Beauty

Mark Beuving —  February 11, 2014 — 1 Comment

Whenever I teach on the relationship between Christianity and art, there are always questions about how evangelistic our art should be. Christians are commanded to communicate the gospel. And art is a means of communication. So shouldn’t we be putting crosses in our paintings and verses in our poetry? Shouldn’t our literary characters be converting and our film characters be preaching?

One factor that often gets overlooked in these discussions is the nature of beauty as God himself formed it. When God created the word, he made it beautiful. Overwhelmingly so. There is beauty at every turn. There is beauty that literally brings us to tears. There is beauty that makes us stop and contemplate. Beauty is everywhere in the world that God made.

But why did God make his world beautiful? For example, why should lilies be beautiful as opposed to merely functional? The answer seems to be that God is a lover of beauty. As many have said throughout the years, beauty needs no justification. We don’t need to explain why the world should be beautiful. Why shouldn’t it be so?

But there is also an apologetic function to the beauty that God made. In other words, beauty is a tool for evangelism, for pointing people to God.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

The artistry in the created world reflects the God who crafted it, and it does so to such a great extent that David can say that it declares and proclaims God. Paul says something similar, and even goes a bit further:

“What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19–20)

Paul is saying that everyone knows the truth about God. Sure, they’ll deny him. But deep down, they know God. How do they know this? Because God has shown himself to them in the things that he made. When people look at the beauty and grandeur of the created world, they are actually witnessing revelation about God. So evident is God in the beauty of this world, in fact, that Paul says that everyone who sees the created world has no excuse for their disbelief (sorry agnostics).

Christian LilySo here’s my point. God didn’t print Bible verses on flower petals. The beauty of those petals points to God without an explicit declaration of the plan of salvation. So it is with the art that Christians make. The beauty their art embodies points to God, even if John 3:16 isn’t written on the canvas. Beautiful, creative, well-crafted art is evangelistic—even when there is no verbalized gospel presentation.

This is because beauty inherently points beyond itself. Beauty, says N. T. Wright, “slips through our fingers.” We try to photograph it, to paint it, to record it. And we genuinely cherish and enjoy these beautiful expressions. But even so, the beauty embodied in our art does not fully satisfy our itch. And for Wright, this reveals something about beauty itself:

“The beauty sometimes seems to be in the itching itself, the sense of longing, the kind of pleasure which is exquisite and yet leaves us unsatisfied.”

Exquisite—not banal—pleasure that leaves us unsatisfied. As Ann Voskamp says, “See beauty and we know it in the marrow, even if we have no words for it: Someone is behind it, in it.”

Many Christians choose to talk about the gospel explicitly in their art, and many do this very well. But we sometimes impose upon our artists a Christianese quota that must be fulfilled in every song, film, or painting. And when we do this, we are (inadvertently) demeaning the apologetic value of the beauty that God infused into the most mundane facets of creation. And John Calvin goes so far as to call this sort of undervaluing of God’s diverse work “demeaning” and “reproachful” towards the Holy Spirit.

The Devil’s Greatest Trick

Mark Beuving —  February 3, 2014 — 1 Comment

Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” That’s not from the Bible, but it is good theology. It’s actually from the 1994 film The Usual Suspects, and it’s a line that has stuck with me.

I say it’s good theology because the biblical authors had to remind us that Satan is real. Paul warned:

“…even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 11:14–15)

Peter had to remind us that the devil is actively prowling around like a lion (1 Pet. 5:8), waiting to pick off those who are not on their guard.

I like writing about culture. I like seeing the ways that God is working in the “secular” world, the ways his glories are being proclaimed by even the most unlikely suspects. But I have to remind myself, as a coworker reminded me last week, that Satan is in the business of deception, and he’s active in our naïveté and ignorance.

I still believe that “secular” music, for example, often glorifies God. But I also need to heed the biblical warnings that those things that seem innocent, even those things that look like “light,” could be placed there for malevolent purposes. Mercifully, Satan’s worst tactics still end up accomplishing God’s greater purposes—like when Joseph was sold into slavery (see Gen. 50:20) or when Satan killed Jesus (see Acts 4:27–28). Even so, we need to keep Paul’s warning always in mind:

“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

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