The Power of Panic

There are many questions about life that come to mind when a young person is preparing to step into full-fledged adulthood. Questions about work, marriage, relationships, and many other things abound. Faith questions are real for those who grew up in the American evangelical Christian world. These young people begin to flesh out their faith in Christ. Do they truly believe or are they just holding onto their parents' belief system? Is Christ real? Would they believe in Jesus if they had grown up in a non-Christian family? What about...fill in the blank?

I actually loved growing up in a family that treasured God and his church. My faith was strengthened throughout my childhood by my parents as well as God-fearing adults and teachers in the churches where we served. This does not mean I did not have questions. I did. I just found that God in continually drawing me to himself provided answers through his Word and through his church. During my first couple of years in college I found I was actually more secure in my faith than I was in high school. Sadly, I also found I was drawn to a certain sub-culture of Christianity that sensationalized certain things to create a sense of urgency. It was not a biblical urgency based on Christ or his great commission, but an urgency that seemed to grow louder and more angry over time, seeking to create stories that did not exist for the purpose of "rallying the troops." (We Christians tend to love militaristic metaphors.)

I started to listen to talk radio and enjoyed the takes on politics and personal freedoms that were displayed. This may actually be the genesis of the age of mean-spiritedness disguised as free speech that we now have. I even found Christian talk radio programs that paralleled the political ones. In fact, there was not much difference in the programming. Both were bombastic and loud. Both were built upon the personality of a host who was more entertainer than news reporter. Both were perpetually raging about the dangers of the "others" out there, most often liberals and evil spirits. Both were selling products–maybe a newsletter subscription, books, caps, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. 

Then, in 1988 while I was a junior in college, something happened that thrust the evangelical Christian world into panic. Due to me being hooked by the voices of the day, I found myself deeply interested. A movie had been produced by an Oscar winning director that would depict Christ in a blasphemous way. In addition to the Oscar-winning director, the film featured some big name Hollywood actors, but that was not what pushed it to the front-page of my university's newspaper and the others in cities across America.

It seems that even without seeing the film, a backlash from evangelical Christians grew so loud that the production company did not really have to spend money on promotion. The controversy was enough. Thus, when The Last Temptation of Christ was released many went to see it just to discover what the big deal was all about. 

When Evangelicals Panic

What was the big deal in 1988 regarding this film? This was The daVinci Code before Dan Brown ever wrote his blasphemous novel (BTW - Christians did the same thing in 2003 with Brown's book and the movie when it was released. I am guilty of getting on that bandwagon.) How could a film cause so many Christians to panic? Christian leaders such as Bill Bright, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, James Wildmon, along with Catholic leaders in the United States pushed very hard to stop the production and to keep the film from premiering. It has been reported that Bill Bright even offered Universal Studios ten-million dollars to buy up all the film prints and negatives just to destroy them.

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Photo credit: antgirl on VisualHunt

No wonder people lined up to see this film. Curiosity alone makes the typical person think "I need to see what all this is about."

While Christians gathered with placards and protested the studio and movie theaters, more and more stories about the film, its content and message were shared. It also seems that more people actually paid money to view the film than otherwise would have. As they say, any publicity is good publicity, right?

To put it bluntly, the organized Christian talk radio effort, petition signing, and righteous rallying did little but cost money and create the opposite of what was intended. According to Coleman Luck, a Christian who worked for Universal in Hollywood at the time, it did more damage to his evangelistic attempts to love his coworkers and community and introduce them to Christ than any other single event at the time.

This was so long ago that many have likely forgotten the story. We as evangelicals were scuttled from one panic-fueled protest to another over the years in order to "fight the good fight" and "win the world to Christ." Looking back I just am not sure that these boycotts of Disney, AT&T, Universal, MTV, Microsoft, Burger King, Ellen, JCPenney, Old Navy, Nutrisystem, and many other companies and groups actually did was was intended. I have yet to meet anyone who has come to Christ as a result of a corporate boycott. Perhaps it has occurred, but I have yet to see it.

What was the actual win?

"Well...they knew where we stood on issues." Okay, I get that. "They" being the decision-makers at such companies and organizations, I presume. I still am not sure if this had any real impact.

Syncretism Fueled By Panic

In addition to such cultural boycotts and stances the church also, at least seemingly, married the state in many areas as the syncretistic union of faith and politics occurred. In Julie Roys recent interview with Coleman Luck, he states "Two-thousand years ago, Jesus Christ said that His Kingdom was not of this world. His followers have been trying to prove him wrong ever since.”

I wonder of we are actually aware of the power of panic in our lives and in our churches. 

Panic is a tool used to get groups to do what is desired. It is a true motivator, but a fear-based motivator. When panic is fueled, anger grows. Have you encountered anyone living like that? Do you know anyone who is seemingly so overwhelmed with fear that they are perpetually angry. That anger is strengthened by the talk shows they listen to, the podcasts they subscribe to, the news shows (which do not actually share the news) where talking heads declare the worst that is being done by others, and the echo chamber they live within. Sadly, sometimes these panic-fueled moments are exacerbated by the church and even by church leaders.

This is not to say that Christians should be living with a "Pollyanna" worldview defined by weakness and overt passiveness. Yet, just as I was enthralled as a young person by the loudest voice in the virtual room that used warnings and scare-tactics to grow an audience, so too can it happen now. Age alone does not bring along maturity. Only Christ can truly give us mature spirits. 

We surely should be active in our faith. We must be fulfilling the commission given to us by Christ. We actually do not have the privilege of opting out of the expected lifestyle and worldviews scripture proclaims. Yet, we must not slide into falsely believing that God needs us, that God is so thankful we were finally born so that we can right all the wrongs in the world, that our strength is in our numbers, our volume, or our political acumen. We must remember that to live as Christ lived is to understand that coming as a servant, a suffering servant, is key. Sure, Christ was righteously angry at times and when he turned over of tables in the temple, it was pretty amazing, but many Christians seem to live as if that is the goal - turn over as many tables as you can and claim your anger is righteous when in fact...it is just anger.

There is power in panic and as sheep of the Good Shepherd we must be sure we are listening to his voice. Otherwise the loudness of the sheep rustlers that are everywhere will continue to influence us into actions that not only embarrass the Good Shepherd, but fragment the flock and lead us to losing our witness.

For God gave us a spirit not of fear (so don't panic...that's my paraphrase - DT) but of power and love and self-control. - 2 Timothy 1:7 (ESV)


White Church/Black Church – Rich Church/Poor Church – Suburban Church/Urban Church – Our Church/Their Church..."Lord, Where Is YOUR Church?"

During the early part of the 2000s, it seems that more and more independently funded "Christian" films were being released in theaters and direct to DVD. Some of these films featured Hollywood stars (yet mostly actors who were not A-listers or who had made their name decades earlier) or unknown actors looking to break into the industry. Some featured actors from local churches and friends of the producers.

Many of the films were produced on shoestring budgets and were as much a labor of love of the creators as an attempt to make a profit.

I enjoy many of these films. It's refreshing to be able to watch a positive, faith-friendly film with family members. Of course, some films are better than others and some...well, at least they were trying to do well.

In 2006, I watched a film starring a popular artist in Christian music. To be honest, our church staff was planning to go on a weeklong retreat and I needed to find something to fill the Wednesday evening adult gathering at church since all staff would be gone. My regular lay-Bible teachers were already committed, so I went the easy way and found a new film to show at the church. I even purchased the license to ensure we we legal.

This film is titled "The Second Chance" and it stars Michael W. Smith (yes, that Michael W. Smith of "Friends are friends forever" fame.) The film was produced by Steve Taylor (yes, that Steve Taylor of "I Want to Be a Clone" fame.) If the names Michael W. Smith and Steve Taylor don't ring a bell for you, then you were not a youth pastor in the 1990s, or you didn't listen to every CCM artist of the day when the music genre was growing in popularity.

"The Second Chance" Went Where Other Christian Films Would Not

I wasn't sure what to expect, but let me say that this film was not exactly like the other "faith-based" movies of the era. In fact, I can't remember any other Christian film rated PG-13 that was marketed to churches (probably because one of the pastors says "damn.") I don't count the R-rated "The Passion of the Christ" in the same genre. 

The second chanceOn IMDb.com, the following synopsis of the film is given by user Tracey Zemitis:

Ethan Jenkins (Michael W. Smith) and Jake Sanders (introducing Jeff Obafemi Carr) are both passionate pastors who worship the same God from the same book--but that's where the similarity ends. White and well-to-do Ethan is comfortable in his music ministry at the media-savvy suburban mega-church, The Rock; Jake is a street smart African-American who ministers to the gang members, teen mothers, and drug addicts of the urban Second Chance. When they are suddenly thrown together in a tough neighborhood and forced to work side by side, Ethan discovers there is no boundary between the streets and the sanctuary. But can the faith these two men share overcome the prejudices that divide them to give themselves and a struggling urban church a second chance?

The film is now fourteen years old. Most people I know have never seen it. Those who have may not remember much about it. Yet, this morning, one of the most pivotal scenes of the film came back to my mind. I have a copy of the film and I looked up that scene. The writers (Steve Taylor, Henry O. Arnold, and Ben Pearson) took a risk of potentially upsetting the very audience who would purchase the DVDs and watch the film. I think it was a needed risk. If you have ever listened to Steve Taylor's songs or heard him interviewed, you know that he is not one to shy away from risky endeavors for the sake of the speaking plainly to the church. The message in the film is clear and sadly, I am not sure the evangelical churches in America are much further along from what is depicted here.

Here is the scene. Let me set this up. Michael W. Smith is the prodigal son of a suburban mega-church pastor who is trying to rehab his image. He's a Christian singer (not too much of a stretch for Smitty) who is instructed by the church elders to serve at the pastor's first church, and current sponsored mission in the 'hood (as it is described.) The pastor of the church located in the inner city is African-American and once a year is invited as a guest to the megachurch for the fund-raising day where money is pledged by church members to keep the inner-city church open. This scene takes place on that Sunday. Knowing this...the scene is self-explanatory.

According to JustWatch, the film is not streaming anywhere at this time, though it may be available on YouTube. 

The Lord's Church

As with most films like this there is a somewhat happy ending, though it is not sugar-coated and simple as many "Christian" films show. I am left with the questions regarding what we are facing in our city, community, and nation now. As evangelical Christians, we must seek to live and be the Lord's church, commissioned as he has called us, living as missionaries in our communities and neighboring ones. Throwing money at a mission (or a cause) is not the answer and is no substitute for living our faith. 

I have no easy 1-2-3 steps for the church, but I know that which is illustrated in this film is not fiction–though I wish it were. 

We must do better.


When Villains Become Heroes

Each month, I gather with a group of friends, some Christians, others not, at a local comic book shop to discuss the connection between stories, theology, and culture. We call our gatherings CHAT (Costumed Heroes and Theology) and the open discussions have been healthy and thought-provoking.

Last Sunday evening, I threw a concept out to the group to discuss. The concept centered on forgiveness, redemption, and how a comic villain could become a hero (and ultimately, how that could happen in real life.)

The Avengers films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so successful that even those who did not grow up reading comic books or care about the narratives are at least familiar with characters like Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, etc.

The original Avengers comic book was printed in 1963 and featured the following characters (now famous from film): Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and the Wasp. Some other minor characters like Voyager, Rick Jones, and Willie appeared as well, but the core was made up of the now famous heroes.

By issue 16 (May 1965) it was time for the team line-up to change. Over the decades this has happened often. What makes issue 16 so interesting (well, for comic readers at least) is that the new team would feature the following characters joining Captain America:

  • Hawkeye
  • Quicksilver
  • Scarlet Witch

Eventually, even Black Widow would join.

Avengers_Vol_1_16

Original team members like Thor, Hulk, Giant-Man (previously Ant-Man), the Wasp, and Iron Man would leave the team.

What is so significant about the addition of Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Black Widow? Each of these characters began as a villain in the comics. 

There was much talk in our gathering about this, about forgiveness, redemption, how one can shift from one side of the aisle to the other, how a villain can become a hero, etc.

Professor Mark White states, "In the universe of comic books, unlike the real world, it's possible to change the past. Sometimes heroes or villains go back in time to change or preserve the course of history. More often, writers decide that something happened in the past that they failed to mention or that their characters did not know about, so they fill in the gaps, not changing history as much as completing it (after the fact.)"1

I have never read the actual Avengers comic where this introduction to new members happened, but I have looked it up online. I talked with some who did read it and it seems that a significant event took place to allow these former "bad guys and ladies" to be admitted into the club known as "Earth's Mightiest Heroes." 

They had been redeemed.

They had an advocate.

Each characterization was unique, but by and large, Captain America vouched for the new team of heroes. 

Cap, the image of virtue and morality (at least prior to the weird short-lived recent storyline where he revealed he was a Hydra/Nazi sleeper agent) basically stated "These people are with me."

And, that was enough.

Our Advocate

It reminded me of an actual story of real people expressed in Scripture. Paul (aka Saul,) the Christian killer and enemy of the church was converted by Christ on the road to Damascus. His conversion story is covered in Acts 9.

He truly was transformed, but it would not be easy for all the current Christians (the ones previously sought by Paul for destruction) to accept him into their group.

Yet, there was a man. A righteous man who stood beside Paul an advocated for his admission to the church.

And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. Acts 9:26-28 (ESV)

Barnabas advocated for the former villain to join the ranks of the Christians in the church, as an apostle.

I'm sure some in the church still gave Paul the side-eye on occasion, but the change was real, not orchestrated by an author trying to sell another magazine, and time would prove this.

This is what happens for each person who surrenders to Christ as Lord. In fact, apart from Christ, we all stand as enemies to God. Yet, through his grace and mercy, we are invited into his story, not as extras or unimportant characters, but as sons and daughters. 

Our advocate isn't Barnabas. It surely isn't Captain America.

Our advocate is Jesus Christ. He has taken upon himself the entirety of humanity's sin debt. Through our repentance and surrender to him, we have the privilege of stepping away from a title of "enemy of God" to something much greater than getting to join the Avengers. We attain the rights of children and friends of God. Through Christ, we belong, not because of our righteousness, but due to his.

It's amazing how a comic book can lead to deeper conversations.

___________

1Mark D. White The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth's Mightiest Thinkers (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012), 84.


"Heaven Is For Real". . .a Bad Take on Heaven

Culture is enamored with "gone to heaven and now back" stories. I just saw a deal at BJs Wholesale with three of the books in this genre packaged together for a great price.

Heaven-is-for-realNo, I did not buy them, but many will. Many have. In fact, many Christians have.

All of you who think the book, Heaven is for Real is cute (and plan to see the movie) as well as all the other "I left earth, went to heaven/hell and came back to write a book" books are now upset with me. I'm sure I "shouldn't say these things about books that touch people and help them." Sorry. Not sorry. This isn't about throwing anyone under the bus. This is about shining light on stories that enamor many believers, but do not line up with the Word of God.

It is frightening how many church attenders, members and Christians are so confused when it comes to eternity. I hear it when planning funerals all the time. 

Take a look at David Platt's wonderful explanation about these stories and the biblical viewpoint.

 

"Why are we buying this stuff, when we have the Word of God?" - David Platt


Time for a Reboot?

Sometimes, it's just better to reboot.

SpidermenThis summer the film "The Amazing Spider-Man" opens starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. The trailer has been out for months and it appears the film will be good. At a minimum, it will make millions on merchandising. However, it appears this film is confusing for some fans.

For those who watched and were fans of the previous Spider-Man films with Tobey Maguire as the web slinger, this film is creating some questions, especially for the casual fan. Questions such as:

  • Is this a prequel?
  • What happened to Mary Jane?
  • How does this fit into the other three movies?
  • What about Harry Osborn?

The same type of questions were asked by movie fans when "X-Men: First Class" came out. Most fanboys are so frustrated with all X-Men sequels and spin-offs since X-2, they're hoping for another reboot.

I'm sure similar questions and frustrations will come when "Man of Steel" opens in 2013. The new Superman film is the latest attempt to reclaim some of the excitement of the original "Superman: The Movie" starring Christopher Reeve.

It's just a matter of time before most of the superhero movies being made will be rebooted. There are varied reasons for rebotting such as poor initial outing (anyone remember Hulk?) or weak writing (Fantastic Four), or less than stellar sequels (Batman & Robin). Most often, the decisions to reboot have to do with money. Go figure. In the case of some, it's related to ownership of the characters and the forfeiture of such if new projects were to cease. 

Sometimes, the reboot is a great idea. In the best case scenerio, the reboot doesn't take away from the original at all.

Take the Batman series for example. I'm not referencing the campy Batman film starring Adam West of the 1960s, but the Michael Keaton/Tim Burton film of 1989. While at the time, many were wondering if this Burton vehicle would be watchable, mainly because of the Keaton casting at the Caped Crusader, the box office results were incredible. It's artistic noir take was a hit and Jack Nicholson's Joker stole the show. The first sequel "Batman Returns" was successful as well. The remaining ones were. . .well, not up to par, but when Christopher Nolan rebooted the stories with "Batman Begins" in 2005, it proved that rebooting popular franchises, when done well, are worth the effort.

SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH CHURCH?

I tend to see everything through the lens of the church. That even includes superhero movies. Maybe that's a holdover from my childhood love of comic books.

Nevertheless, as I see how the film studios continue to reboot classic characters and stories, I begin asking questions about rebooting and new beginnings as it relates to the local church.

Businesses understand the need for change. Those who do not, soon find themselves fighting for survival and market share. 

Change is not an option when it comes to the message. The Gospel is the message and not up for change. The methods of sharing this message, however, have changed numerous times throughout the years.

The way churches are organized, staffed, scheduled, etc. often have more to do with tradition and historical expectations rather than biblical instruction or cultural impact. Consequently, we hire pastors to fill positions based upon task or people group. We staff small groups based on a structure that has worked well for years. In some cases we continue to replicate a strategy that was successful decades ago.

I have heard church strategists and godly missional thinkers speak on this for years. It's strange. I go to conferences where "Change the methods but not the message" is proclaimed and the crowd says "AMEN!" but when back home, nothing happens.

We continue to just do what has been done for years, even when the results (i.e. salvations, community impact, mission engagement) show that it's time to reevaluate.  

And the world we have been called to reach for the Gospel continues to be unreached.

I heard one leader say (I think it was Ed Stetzer) that most Baptist churches are perfectly structured to reach the culture of the 1950s. Wow!

We wonder why churches are not as effective in impacting our communities for the Gospel.

We are perfectly organized to get the results we are getting.

Maybe it's time for a reboot. Not a reboot of the message. Never. But a reboot of the things that we have added and created over the decades that may be keeping the message from being communicated and the mission field from being engaged.

Have you ever noticed how churches tend to add more and more things that are seemingly "good ideas" and over time become so fully calendared with "events" and "good things" that sometimes the "God things" aren't being done.

More is not always better. Just look at those superhero movies. In the original Batman and Spider-Man series of films the writers kept adding more and more characters. By the end run, there were so many costumed people on the screen, the story was muddied. Of course, I said more is not always better. Sometimes more works well ("The Avengers") but it's rare.

Rather than just hire staff for functions that have existed for decades, maybe it's time to relook at how we're organized to impact and engage the culture for the sake of Gospel and staff accordingly?

Rather than just fill a calendar with events that are "just like last year's" we need to look once again at how and when we do things through the church.

It's not so much that we need something new. In fact, there's nothing new under the sun anyway, so it's not about new.

It's about the Gospel. 

It's a constant challenge, but I'm just wondering. . .is it time for a reboot?


There and Back Again - Lessons from a Hobbit

Sunday afternoon, after getting home from church and eating a big lunch, I found my place on the sofa.  There's nothing on television on Sunday afternoons this time of year, so I put in my copy of The Lord of the Rings:  Return of the King.  This is a great film and this version is the extended version.  I started watching it the day before, but it's four hours long and I fell asleep, so I put it back on and tried to finish.

I have owned this copy of the film for a couple of years but never got around to watching it.  So, Sunday looked like a good day to finish.

I had preached Sunday morning the first message in a series of sermons titled "Small is the New Big."  The emphasis is on noticing those things that are seemingly insignificant, yet greatly used by God.

There are biblical accounts of this principle throughout the Scriptures:  David, the slaying of Goliath, Zacchaeus, etc.

I didn't expect to be taught something by watching a movie.  I just wanted to finish the film, relax on the sofa and rest on this day.

As I watched the film, even though I had seen the theatrical version earlier and knew how it ended, I was taken by the fact that of all the huge, bigger than life characters in the film (Gandalf the Wizard, Aragorn, Legolas, etc.) that the key elements to the victory in battle were tied up in the smallest characters.

The four Hobbits in the film - Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, were vital in every portion of the victory.  Of course, we knew Frodo would be.  He's the one given the task of destroying the ring.  He's the central character, but the other three proved valuable as well.

Throughout the story, there are jokes and statements made by other characters about the Hobbits, their diminutive size, their seemingly inability to make a difference, but when you get to the end of the film, you realize that all those other characters must eat their words.

The scene that did it for me was the one linked below (just click the image.)  What a great reminder that regardless of your size or seemingly insignificant role in the grand Story of God - you matter!  You are valuable!

Hobbits