Last week saw the release of the first trailer for Noah - a film, based on the very same Bible story, starring Russel Crowe, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins and a ton of CGI effects. It's due in the cinemas in March and it will without a doubt provoke a “flood” of internet debate. “Water” lot of fun that will be. Ahem, sorry for the puns I'll stop now.
I can already see how this is going to pan out. The charismatic church will embrace the film with open arms, arrange church trips to go see it and delight in the fact that we can at last pretend to be “relevant” and maybe even “cool” (as though Christianity could ever be cool). The broader evangelical church will probably recognise some of the problems with the film but will likely go watch it anyway as it's only a bit of “harmless entertainment”. This film could well become a staple for evangelistic film nights everywhere, for which I am tempted to deeply apologise for. In contrast, the Reformed church will largely produce thoughtful, intelligent, discerning articles about the movie and whether Christians should support or avoid it but there will be some more angry rant pieces as well. Oh yes, and the media will highlight any number of whacko fringe groups reacting against the Noah movie as though it's the biggest sin of mankind since the fall. Any intelligent discourse will be drowned out (this pun was unintentional, I promise!) and the general message that all Christians are either a) hypocritical or b) crazy will be safely maintained.
Ok, this is a very cynical response to the whole affair and I would love to be proved wrong about it. I would also like to put out my thoughts now, before the debate probably begins. Obviously, having only seen the trailer I'm not working from a position of full information so these are just early thoughts. But what I've seen is enough to raise some concerns; as such I have ten questions I want to ask.
Failing is an inescapable reality to the Christian; failure is our constant companion and falling short a function of our daily lives. “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus commanded (Matthew 5v48) and who among us could claim to even come close to obedience such as this?
Immediately, it is necessary to backtrack and say that success should also be part and parcel of the Christian life. We should be growing, maturing, being oh-so-slowly transformed into the image of Christ. It is good to look back over the years and see the areas we have had success in, the sins conquered, the increase in affections for God, the increase in love for his people, the increase in giving, the greater faith, love and hope we have and the trials and afflictions that have been overcome. Praise be to God, for the Holy Spirit is in the business of making us more holy.
This talk of failure is not meant to be discouraging or to conjure up abject pessimism. It is meant to highlight two important truths: the grace of God and the sinfulness of our hearts.
Last week I returned from a three day retreat with fellow interns at CAP to find that the Christian corner of the internet was ablaze with the roaring bushfire of debate. Needless to say, I was rubbing my hands together with no small amount of glee. Some people hate it when Christians argue; I take a differing view: what is the measure of man but (in part) his ability to hold or appreciate an intelligent discussion or debate? All Christians do not hold the same views - what's the point in pretending otherwise? Arguments in Christian circles are a golden opportunity to show grace and love in an arena known for mis-representation and, in the case of the internet, putrid bile. It doesn't always happen, and I know I struggle in this area, but that is our ideal to strive towards.
The cause of the great internet debate was the Strange Fire conference held by John MacArthur's church in the US. To understand why it promoted such an outpouring of internet blog posts and discussion it is sufficient to quote from the description on the Strange Fire website (apologies for American spellings):
"The sons of Aaron…offered strange fire before the LORD…and fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them.
Never are Christians more guilty of doublethink than when it comes to the issue of the Ten Commandments. In fact, the place of God's law in the life of a Christian is a source of much debate, confusion and error. Yesterday Mr. Driscoll posted a blog post on this very topic and it certainly provides food for thought. In many respects it is a perfect example of reformed charismatic teaching: a strong root of reformed thinking which is then corrupted to something less.
Case in point: Driscoll refers to the Westminster Confession of Faith on understanding the law of God and proceeds with an excellent very short summary of reformed thinking. For the purposes of a fuller explanation I'm going to write my own longer summary.
Old Testament law is spilt into three types: ceremonial, civil and moral. The ceremonial law refers to all the laws about the sacrificial system: the priesthood, the laws of being clean, the tabernacle, and so on. The book of Hebrews is all about how these laws are fulfilled in Jesus, he is the sacrifice that all the animal sacrifices pointed to. He lived the pure life all the laws on cleanliness pointed to. The Old Testament system wasn't good enough to save; only Jesus could bring salvation.
A few months ago the Girl Guides changed the oath that girls are expected to make upon joining. Rather than promising to serve God and country instead the girl guides now promise to be “true to myself and develop my beliefs”. It probably wasn't the intent of the girl guide organisation but they have unwittingly provided a devastating critique of Western secular society.
We live in the age of Me, an age where morality is determined, not by any objective standard, but by the fickle reason of our egos. All that matter is being true to "myself". We see this in the issue of transgender individuals insisting that biological gender is second place to the decision of Me to be the gender Me wants. We see this in the issue of abortion where Me chooses to rid Myself of an unnecessary inconvenience rather than valuing the life of Another. We see this in society's attitude to sex where the only moral consideration is the consent of two Mes. We see this in the consumer society where Me has to appear better, richer, cooler than anyone else. And we see this in the greed and selfishness which typifies so much of human existence – Me gets what Me wants over the opinions and actions of any other.
When did narcissism become such a sure decider of right and wrong? Yet listening to the moral debates that are had by our society reveals that the only factor under consideration seem to be doing what Me wants as long as it doesn't harm another. But we are deluding ourselves if we think that such a compromise is possible. The wants of Me will inevitably conflict with the wants of another Me. The desires of Me will eventually only be fulfilled at the expense of another.
Nothing quite gets a Christian's gender appropriate knickers in a twist like the issue of guidance. Partly, this is because we all love to cloak our decisions with spirituality. I well remember being romantically rejected with the line: I feel God is saying no. There is no worse line - for rejection is bad enough without it coming from the mouth of the Almighty! Ladies, please, for the sake of men everywhere, don't use such language (God only speaks through Scripture anyway so it's not even theologically correct!)
I can't claim to have my theology of guidance sorted out in my head. Give me another fifty years and I might have something close to one. But the issue has been on my mind a lot over the last year because of having to choose what to do after university and so I figured I'd share my thoughts.
There's a book written by Kevin DeYoung called Just Do Something: How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. As the title gives away the book is a reaction against Christian mysticism. His basic point is that God made us intelligent human beings, capable of making decisions and that as long as we are immersed in God's word, seeking advice and praying faithfully about things then we are free to make the decisions that seem best. I read the book around three years and was quite struck by it. Now though, I feel it goes too far and throws the baby out with the bathwater. While Mr DeYoung rightly decrys the sort of Christian mysticism that puts great store in dreams and little in the wisdom found in the Bible he leaves little room for the guidance of God.
Yesterday, on the bus I read in the Metro that a man had died while doing a charity trek in Greenland, a few weeks earlier I read a similar story of a woman who died during a Channel swim, in both cases who can't help but feel sympathetic that two people have died while trying to raise money for charity?
But, at the same time, these stories helped confirm an idea that has been rolling around my head for a while now. The way giving happens in the Western world is a graceless affair and is instead based on personal work.
We've all been at the end of a friend's sponsorship request. They are going to do something particularly hard (or stupid) and in return we give them money that will go to charity. The end result of this is good - money going to charity. But the method is really strange if given a moment's thought.
Let's imagine for a moment that someone was to write an honest sponsorship blurb:
This is a book about theological nuance. For some that might be immediately off putting; others may think that the authors have wasted their time in pursuit of an overly rigorous theological standard; some will no doubt cast doubt on the authors' intentions implying that Keller haters are going to hate and yet a few others will be greatly vexed that Mr Keller is the subject of such, any, debate. Me, I really enjoyed it! And I hope to demonstrate why if you fall into any of the above categories this book is still well worth a read.
Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical is written by half a dozen British Presbyterian ministers criticising Mr Keller's expression of his views on sin, Hell, the Trinity, social justice, hermeneutic, creation and Presbyterianism. As the authors are careful to point out they are not doubting Mr Keller's intentions or his profession to hold to reformed orthodoxy. As they consistently maintain: Mr Keller is a godly man seeking the glory of Christ. What they are calling into question is whether Mr Keller achieves his goal of teaching orthodox truth to post modern society without compromising on the message.
As should be fairly clear, the authors disagree with Mr Keller on the issues mentioned. Yet what is good about the book is that they do not allow their disagreement to become personal. They confine themselves to discussing the theological problems rather than straying into any form of personal attack. It is a mature, sensible, adult conversation they are having - would all such discussion be conducted so! Engaging with Keller typifies the irenic spirit so easily lost in theological debate and a graciousness that befits godly men. I found it a needed challenge to my own writing style to match the authors' graciousness.
There are a lot of things that can vex me about the modern day church but high on the list in particular is the anti-intellectualism of many Christians today. There was a time when theology was looked upon as the queen of all sciences but all too often the trend today is to sweep theological matters under the carpet. Perhaps, as Christianity comes under increasing attack from secular thinking, the easy path becomes to retreat away from theology and take refuge in "just being about Jesus."
It comes out in many ways. The unwillingness of many Christians simply to put the effort in and form an opinion on any number of theological topics - anything from women in church leadership to worship to biblical evangelism. Or in the fact that many are unaware that there is, indeed, a biblical (and non-biblical) approach to evangelism. Or in holding to scientific views with deep theological consequences that remain cast aside - for example, embracing the evolution of man causes serious problems to holding a consistent view on the historicity of Adam, the integrity of the Genesis narrative and all resulting negative consequences.
This has all been on my mind because I've been reading Engaging with Keller - a critique by half a dozen British pastors of Tim Keller's theology. Expect a review soon but two things have struck in particular. The first is that the book is very gracious towards Mr Keller, it debates theology as Christians should debate theology - with grace and love. The second is that the book illustrates the vital importance of theology.
When it comes to worshipping God the immediate reality which springs to mind is the necessity for being led in worship. For I know my own heart, how cold and stubborn it can be to the gospel reality; how distracted it can become from thinking heavenly thoughts and how blurred and far away God can appear when the worries and cares of this life loom large. When worshipping God I know my heart should melt and overflow with love and joy and a holy awe but instead there can be nothing but doubt and unbelief. Christ should be my all in all not my occasional vague thought.
I need to be led into worship: my heart coaxed into a better frame of mind, my eyes taken off this world and set upon heavenly things and my faith stoked into greater flames that burn away the shards of doubt so that zeal for the Lord overcomes me.
This is no small task. And it strikes me as odd that there are people who would claim to be worship leaders. For it is not a position easily filled. Indeed, it is a position with only one qualified person available for to fill it. Our only worship leader is Jesus Christ.