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.
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.
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.
As Jesus dies on the cross, a criminal is dying next to him. Jesus turns to him and says: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23v43). This is a remarkable statement considering the bleak predicament of the thief. And it begs the question: how can this dying thief be promised paradise? How can he get to heaven?
Let's say we were in the position to judge his case. Perhaps we might start with all the good he has done in his life; do his good deeds outweigh his bad? That might make him worthy of salvation. But no, the punishment for crucifixion is reserved for the worst of criminals – at the very least he is likely to be guilty of murder. His life is altogether worthless. But how about the rest of his life? Could he not reform his ways and seek to redeem himself with suitable acts of charity? Ah, but, he's dying on a cross and will be dead within a day. He's in no position to do good, no position to do anything but die, his deeds are complete, nothing can change the balance on the scales. Hang on though, many people think they will get to heaven because they have been baptised once. But alas, he has not been sprinkled with water or dunked underneath. There's no hope for him there.
Indeed, this thief is not rich, powerful or intelligent (he was caught after all) and has no friends to help him or priest to bless him or even anyone to pray for him. He has nothing and has done nothing worthy of salvation and can do nothing to make him worthy. We know as well that he even insulted the very man who is now promising him heaven (Matthew 27v44 records both criminals insulting Jesus). The last hours of this man's life would seem to be hopeless but then we have the promise of Jesus that this thief would join Jesus in paradise that very day.
This would beg two questions: how can such a salvation be promised and who is Jesus to make the promise? The answer to both those questions can be found in the one answer. If we go back a few verses and get the whole scene we can learn more:
There must be many who, secretly or not so secretly, despise the church for the fact that in the year 2013 large sections of the church still teach that allowing women or practising homosexual ministers is wrong and against God's will. Fortunately, our standard is not what society may think of us but rather the word of God as our 'supreme rule of faith'. Still, even accepting this there are disagreements within the church over these two issues.
Recently, I was pondering the biblical case (or lack thereof) for practising homosexual ministers and it suddenly occurred to me that I'd thought about these issues before in another debate within the church, this time on women ministers. It is interesting to reflect on the extent to which those arguing for the acceptance of women ministers and those arguing for the acceptance of practising homosexual ministers use much the same type of arguments for making their case.
One argument involves the Christian teaching on gender and the other the Christian teaching on sexuality. Any attempt to make a biblical case for them involves explaining away explicit bible verses to the contrary. This does not automatically make the ideas wrong – there are parts of the Bible which are no longer applicable today (the Old Testament sacrifice system or civil laws for Israel for example). But it's important to note that to faithfully argue against what the Bible says on a matter must involve using another part of Scripture that overrides the other. For example, the New Testament authors are quite clear that because Jesus implemented a new covenant the old order of things passed away. Hence we have a biblical reason to not obey another part of the Bible.
As the normalisation of homosexuality becomes increasingly prevalent within the United Kingdom then the evangelical church finds itself increasingly at odds with the moral views of society. And over recent months this conflict between 'secular' morality and Christian morality has become more intense and has even led to more than a few churches leaving, or committing to leave, the Church of Scotland. The most frustrating thing about the debate is the amount of false accusations levelled at Christianity. It comes as no surprise, for in any battle it makes sense to portray the opponents in the worst possible light. So there is a great deal of confusion out there on what Christianity teaches and why we object so strongly to gay marriage and homosexuality. This is an attempt to clear up some of the myths.
Myth: Christianity is all about hating gays
This is, I think, the most understandable myth in the sense that usually the only time Christianity makes the news is in relation to the issue of homosexuality. But it's still a myth. To illustrate this point then I'd like you to guess how many sermons I've heard on the issue of homosexuality. Bear in mind that I've been going to church all my life and heard an awful lot of sermons... The answer is zero, while it's been mentioned in passing if it was relevant to the Bible passage we were looking at then I can't recall a single sermon that was centred on this issue. I'm not saying ministers never preach on homosexuality, they do, or that they shouldn't, but I am saying that there are a lot of other things in Christianity which are, frankly, more important.
My second objection to this myth is the use of the word hate. For while, as a Christian, I object to the practise of homosexuality it does not extend to hating people who are gay. The command of Jesus is to "love your neighbour as yourself" and that means that though I do think homosexuality and gay marriage are both wrong then behind all my actions must be a love for all my fellow human beings.
Having watched The New Adventures of Superman when I was younger than I have a lot of nostalgia tied up with the character. Some people find him boring but, you know, he flies and can punch through concrete and lasers come out his eyes, I still think that's pretty cool. And it came as no surprise to me when a link appeared on my Facebook feed to an article on the parallels between Superman and the Gospel. The last movie, Superman Returns, went the whole hog and played up the parallels big time by portraying Superman as a Messianic type figure including one scene where he floated above the city, arms spread out in crucifixion pose listening to the cries or “prayers” of the people,
Even in the latest film, then there was a lot of talk about “believing” in Superman with Russell Crowe even saying that he would be like a god to the people of earth. But despite drawing heavily on religious, specifically Christian, imagery and thought then both films, indeed, any positive comparison between Superman and Jesus misses the point of who Jesus is. Of course, the big difference is that Superman is fiction and Jesus is both historical reality (when he walked this earth) and eternal reality (glorified in Heaven). But laying that aside there is still much to discuss.
An hour from now I may lose my life wrestling with an escaped bear. I know, it sounds unlikely (I’d win for starters), but bear with me in my point. As human beings we experience the now and can remember (to some degree) the past but we are always blind to the future. After all, the future is very resistant to prediction. The twists and turns of our lives make complex patterns that we can never fully follow, predict or anticipate. For Christians, as we deal with the ups and downs of life, we face an added layer of struggle which is the battle between sight and faith.
We all know this fight well. Something bad happens and sight, that is our immediate experience of the event, says: “I can see no good in this.” while faith quotes Romans 8 v 28 and says: “ALL THINGS FOR GOOD!” Faith being unnatural to us, we will by default place greater store on sight. It is an interesting condition: being limited finite creatures unable to see how the future will pan out, we place greater trust in our own limitations than we do in God. Oh the folly of unbelief!
For what we are prone to forgetting is that faith is always the wisest option, it presents to us the most accurate picture of what is going on, it presents to us certainty while sight presents to us mere predictions of uncertainty.
In the book of Hebrews faith is described in the following way: ““Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith is a sure and certain thing! While sight is not so sure and most definitely not certain.
Around eighteen months ago I wrote a blog post on the joy of attending a prayer meeting; so in the spirit of better late than never here's the next part to it! Truth be told, this was not a post I could have written back then because it has only been over the last six months or so that I've actually regularly started to look forward to going to church. Although it still surprises me when I wake up on Sunday and I find that I'm actually eager to attend.
Before I get started I'd also like to say that while the title to this piece speaks of abundant joy then that is still very much an aim for me. Most of us will hopefully know the partial joy of church attendance and it is my hope and prayer that this will spur us on to seek its abundant joy.
The first and most basic joy is that of obedience. As the 4th commandment goes: "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God." (Exodus 20v9-10) Even if our Lord's day is otherwise a joyless affair and we can see no point in attending church at least we do go. When all other joys fail there can still be the joy of duty, however minor such a joy may be.