Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hollywood's Take On Faith

Two recent Hollywood films touch on the role of faith in everyday life.

Regrettably, the story lines in both movies miss the point when it comes to authentic biblical Christianity.

In "Henry Poole Is Here" Luke Wilson stars as a handsome young man who has a terminal illness. He buys a modest home in his old neighborhood in Los Angeles and prepares to live out his final days in isolation and binge drinking. He soon discovers that some of his neighbors think that they see the face of Jesus on an outside wall of his house. Crowds start gathering in his backyard to view the spectacle and before long rumors of miracles happening to some of those touching the intriguing impression begin to spread.

Mr. Poole, the homeowner, remains incredulous. Bothered, too, by the invasion of his privacy. Because of his sickness and his memories of an unhappy childhood, he's a little cynical, anyway. As events unfold, his perspective changes, however, and the motion picture ends on an upbeat note.

It's a positive, refreshing, feel-good-kind-of-movie. I suppose we should be glad for a wholesome, clean, life-affirming film like this.

But the message portrayed here about faith is anything but accurate and is actually quite deceptive.

This is another in a long line of literary and celluloid works coming out of a breezy, amorphous, New Age culture that seeks to loose spirituality from scriptural moorings. The idea seems to be that it's important to just believe in something, regardless of the content of that allegiance. The view is that if you possess some generic faith and are passionate about it that's all that matters since there are no absolutes anyway and truth is relative to each person's understanding and every individual is free to create his own reality. Trouble with that is that once you jettison biblical teaching and reject the distinctive, concrete person and work of Jesus Christ through whom you can know personally the God who created you in his image, you start floundering. You remain in a spiritual void with a God-shaped vacuum in your soul that cries out for fulfilment and presses for satisfaction. Some people will try anything and believe anything just to calm that empty feeling.

Colossians 2 in the New Testament would be a good place to read about all of this. It stresses that having a life-altering relationship with Christ as revealed in scripture is sufficient for our greatest inner needs. It implies that individuals who somehow find it impossible to just accept the simple revelation of God's marvelous plan for salvation often will embrace mysticism or attempted conversations with angels or cultish teachings or fascination with statues and images and strange shapes in the clouds or excessive ascetic practices. It's the literal Jesus of the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb that can transform us, not some shadowy, mysterious apparition.

The other summertime film with religious themes is "Brideshead Revisited" which stars Emma Thompson. Based on the 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh it is set in England in the years between the two world wars and tells the story of a young, middle class, aspiring artist, Charles Ryder, who becomes friends with an upper class fellow student, Sebastian, at Oxford, and ultimately gets inextricably bound up in the wealth and dysfunction of his family at their lavish country estate. There the matriarch, Lady Marchmain, lives out her faith in a heavy-handed way that creates pain and division--her husband is driven to an affair and moves to Venice, and her 4 adult children take divergent paths in their relating to her and to God.

This cinematic piece graphically illustrates the differing approaches that people take with God.

Some in the story try to relate to God in a legalistic way--keeping all the rules and observing all the rituals and forms and ceremonies of religion, hoping to appease and please and earn God's favor. This path inevitably produces coldness and harshness. It looks with scorn on those who don't measure up. There's no joy or peace. It's all working and striving. The Bible is quite clear in texts like Titus 3:4-7 and Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 3 that trying to merit our position with God is a dead-end. God dispenses grace. He can do so because of the death of his sinless Son on our behalf. Instead of lifeless religion, it's possible to have a relationship with the living God by trust in Christ's completed work.

Others in this movie seem to feel that Christians can live any way they want to just as long as they check in with God occasionally and confess and repent. In other words, it's okay to live with reckless abandon if you just throw in some penitent prayers every now and then. Again, seriously flawed thinking. Christ-followers are called to a whole new way of conduct in speech and habits and behavior. They are to honor God and model a transformed mode of existence by their lifestyle. Check Romans 12:1-2 on that, or Colossians 3:1-10. To claim to be a Christian and yet live a self-centered, "I'll do as I please" kind of life is fooling oneself. It indicates that one doesn't understand God's holiness or mercy and probably never really established a connection with him. No Christian is perfect but he is to be different.

Of course Charles Ryder himself suggests one other response to God--that of leaving him out completely. Of trying to live independently of him as if he wasn't even there. Of seeking to build one's own life by pushing the Creator aside as if to say, "Mind your own business. I want to do things my way." Psalm 14 discusses the sheer folly of that. It was encouraging at film's end to see some small evidence that Mr. Ryder had yielded on this critical issue of the soul.

This movie certainly reminds us that sometimes religion can be unhealthy. Not everything done in the name of Christ resembles his teachings or his ways. Churches can occasionally hurt people instead of helping people, as when they inordinately emphasize numbers or hammer persons who make mistakes or seek to control the lives of individuals. Hypocrisy or arrogance or pride in Bible knowledge or runaway emotionalism can harm people rather than pointing them to a grace-based walk with God. Christian parents especially have a responsibility to demonstrate before their children that following Christ is a delight, not a drudge or a duty. Religion should not make us sick but healthy and whole and progressively restored to God's wonderful original design for our lives.

These Hollywood offerings speak to us of great matters of the spirit. We need to listen.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

There's Gonna Be A Meetin'

I'm already getting excited about the PBA Annual Meeting for this year.

It's set for October 20-21 at First Baptist, Newport News.

It'll be a 2-day gathering this time around because there's so much to be accomplished. We'll mix inspiration with information, devotional periods with significant decisionmaking, and hopefully you'll leave refreshed and renewed and ready to go back to your church motivated to work even harder in Kingdom business.

It looks like we've got a terrific thematic speaker coming. There should be a good amount of great music and abundant opportunity for worshipping the Lord. Encouraging reports from our various teams and work groups will be presented that will remind us all again that we are an association on mission.

Expect some crucial recommendations to be offered. We've been in an interim, transition stage this year and a lot of our folks have done some hard work in studying and coming up with options for some of the critical issues we face as a united collection of churches. The Admin Team and the Eastover Retreat Board and the Mission Center group have all labored intensely over many months to come up with ideas of solutions for some of our most pressing concerns so that we can soon move forward with new zest and zeal. Eddie Heath, Billy Hutchinson, Mark Reon, Dick Bailey, and Bill Cashman have been among those providing extraordinarily wise counsel and extremely helpful stability alongside these committees and our staff this year. Prepare to hear and act on some positive, future-oriented concepts on such things as the ultimate location for our PBA office and what path to take in our relationship to the Seaman's ministry and how best to position and utilize our staff in line with our stated mission statement and a possible track for our Eastover ministry. Get your full count of messengers to attend these sessions so that our understanding of these exciting proposals might be complete and so that we might progress in unity. Your interim leadership team was tasked with the responsibility of assisting in the formation of a dynamic, creative vision for the changing, challenging years ahead and we've earnestly tried to fulfil that assignment. We're not done yet, but hope by the Annual Meeting to have at least tentative recommendations for you to consider.

A word about Eastover: this may end up being one of our very best years over there. We could significantly enhance our effectiveness in that ministry, though, if we could quickly complete work on the new Activity Building. That facility would actually become the gateway and perhaps even the heart of the camp. We really need lots of volunteer labor to accomplish this task. We need people to do flooring work and painting and installation of restroom fixtures and siding and lighting and cabinets and shelves and some to help with landscaping. Aren't there some folks in your congregation who could step forward, give a little time and sweat, and knock out some of these jobs? Call George Arthur(294-3636) and set up a time for your work team to drive over and help.