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.
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:
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.
This question does come with an admittedly large number of assumptions behind it. It assumes, for instance, that you will die this very night which is a hopefully unlikely event. But considering that death will one day take you then it is not so much an assumption as a jump ahead in time to that day when death will come. Another assumption the question makes is the existence of God and the need to defend yourself before him. We'll get to these momentarily. Suffice to say, this question is of no small significance and deserves sober reflection for the matters it touches upon are of eternal importance.
There can be nothing more important that our standing before our Creator. So many people think about God the wrong way round. They ask themselves: "What do I think of God?" when a far more vital question is: "What does God think of me?" It may be that you are perfectly happy with the idea that God exists. But what does God think of your existence and life before him?
The question above helps to get us to consider these issues. It is, I hope, a useful question to ponder. For death has a way of stripping us of all illusions and delusions and focusing our minds away from trivial matters and onto weightier ones. Naked we enter the world and naked we depart. Wealth, talent and success just isn't going to be of any use in death for we take nothing with us.
With my final ever university exam tomorrow and a desperate need to engage in some form of productive procrastination I was trying to think of a suitable topic to write about when Good Omens sprang to mind. It’s a fantasy book written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, before they were both famous, which I picked up a good five or more years ago. It’s something of a cult classic and they record in the foreword that many of their readers have dropped the book in the bath or some form of liquid. Thinking: “What a bunch of idiots” I then proceeded to do exactly that.
The story is a mix of Just William and the Apocalypse, where the ‘Anti-Christ’ is an eleven year old boy called Adam Young, who was meant to grow up the son of an American diplomat, thus setting him up for a life of pure festering evil but due to swapping the wrong children around he ends up being brought up in a quiet British village by normal parents. At the same time, Crawley, a demon, and Aziraphale, an angel, are both trying to stop the end of the world from occurring having grown fond of humanity and, more importantly, developed their own working friendship.
The first time I read it some years ago it made me uncomfortable as, though it is a fantasy book, it borrows heavily from Christian imagery, striking a little too close to reality. But this second time, I’ve found it easier to view it as pure fiction, no different than reading Harry Potter or any other fantastical work. And like all such works, it has a message, a grand point to make about human nature.
There’s a lot to say about the book but I’m going to concentrate on what’s probably their main point. It comes as Adam Young faces up to the forces of Heaven and Hell and argues for the continued existence of humanity, without any interference. Crawley says about Adam: “He grew up human! He’s not Evil Incarnate or Good Incarnate, he’s just… a human incarnate-” (italics not mine). This sentence is packed with worldview implications and it’s worth exploring them.
There’s a wonderful story I heard a few weeks ago about some minister somewhere giving a sermon on how Calvinism was wrong and terrible and not at all biblical and that it was all about free will and God gives us all a choice (a truth I fundamentally agree with but it is not the whole truth). He ranted and raved about this for some time and then as he drew his sermon to a close he started to pray and he prayed in particular that God would convict his Calvinist brothers and sisters of the error of their ways and lead them to the truth.
Well, huh, so much for my free will! And it serves to illustrate the point I want to make which is that functionally everyone prays as a Calvinist. As Spurgeon said: “We do not pray because we doubt but because we believe.” And in prayers we cannot help but express a belief in God’s sovereignty over the will of man. Specifically, we cannot help but express a belief that unless God is at work no one will come to Christ, second that if he works no one can resist him and third that he has the power to keep us following Christ to the end.
In saying that I’m going to sideline for a moment and deal with prayers for things other than conversion. When we face difficult conversations, hard situations or the need for something or other then we pray to God to provide, to help us, to deliver us and to bring good from evil. In other words we express our firm belief that nothing can stand against the sovereignty of God. We uphold as an article of faith Proverbs 21v1: “The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” We do not pray as though God has no say over the will of man. Have you ever heard a Christian pray: “Lord, I am facing a difficult conversation but as you have let us have free will and are not in control over that then I know I cannot ask you to do anything to help me.”?
On the surface it may seem a strange statement: how can one spread the good news of Jesus Christ dying for the sins of the world wrong? Well, obviously you could start sprouting heresy and that would be a problem but let’s say that what you’re saying is theologically correct then is it still possible to be going about things the wrong way?
My answer would be yes and sadly I would have to go further and say that the church today, as a general rule, has lost the plot when it comes to spreading the gospel. I realized this the other year at the CU carol service after I regretted bringing my non-Christian friend along because while what he heard was technically speaking completely true he didn’t hear what he needed to hear because the speaker didn’t tell him what he should have told him. My friend heard a lot about Jesus and how he died for us and how much Jesus loved him and how much Jesus wanted him to be saved which is all good and right and true and also entirely useless.
My friend currently thinks he does not need to be saved because his family religion and general good works will save him. This, I imagine, puts him into a similar situation to a lot of people today. So telling him about how much Jesus loved him only served to reinforce his self-righteousness. What my friend needed to hear because he is unwilling to admit it is how much of a wretched, miserable, filthy, vile, corrupted sinner he is standing before a perfect holy God. He needed to be told of Hell, judgement and the dangers of not repenting, he needed to be told that his desperate need was for Jesus.
This example serves well to illustrate the failure of a lot of modern evangelism:
_ “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”
Romans 3 v 23
To be human is to be less than perfect but it also so much more than that, it is to be fundamentally and permanently broken, it is to be wretched, pitiful and blind, it is to by default love self more than others and to want to be god rather than with God. When the Fall happened our relationship with God was shattered as we reached to be gods and since then we are fundamentally sinful, our very nature is sinful:
“the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
Ephesians 2 v 3