Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thomas Jefferson, Slavery, and Sacrifice

I was watching a debate the other day and slavery came up. It was in the context of context - that the same person who could write "All men are created equal" could also own slaves. The point was that slavery didn't have the same place in the public consciousness it does today; that context matters.

As a student of history, my first reaction was that this analogy was unfair to Thomas Jefferson. He, like many others in Virginia (James Madison among them) were adamantly opposed to slavery on moral and philosophical grounds - even as they owned slaves.

We don't like to bring this up, because it speaks of hypocrisy. They were against the system, but used it so long as it was legal, because it benefited them. Sort of the way a lot of politicians talk about campaign finance laws. They don't like all the anonymous money involved, but they'll gladly take it if it helps them win.

Thomas Jefferson was heavily indebted. Economically, he could not free his slaves and also maintain his standard of living. In reality, even with his slaves, towards the end of his life, Monticello fell into disrepair.

I think we all know today that most of our clothes are made mostly of "asian suffering" as Louis CK would say. I continue to buy $6 t-shirts from Wal-mart because I can't really afford the $25 version that's guaranteed fair-trade. In many cases, even those "certified" products have murky backstories, which is why more and more people are making their own clothes (presumably from home-shorn wool or backyard cotton).

My point being, so many of us - me first in line - are unwilling to follow through on our moral compunctions because it requires a sacrifice we're unwilling to make. We're even more unwilling when such sacrifice would put as at odds with standard cultural assumptions. Everyone owns slaves - yeah, it's not the best situation, but treat them as well as you can and at least you're trying, unlike some people.

It's not just clothes, really - there are all manner of issues we don't actually have to act upon simply because we're so removed from the suffering.  I guess what I'm trying to get at is a few simple questions - What are we willing to sacrifice? What does it even mean to sacrifice in this day and age? and What values do you have that are worth the sacrifice?

I'd like to rag on TJ's hypocrisy as much as the next guy. I'd like to think I'd be on the cutting edge, like those ultra-hip Quakers, but, I imagine my life would probably be pretty similar to Jefferson's in the same situation. There's not much in my current life that would indicate otherwise.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Quotable Wesley

I thought the idea of a Wesley quotes book was a good idea - and it still might be - but I hadn't really considered the implications of such a thing.

I like John Wesley, but he's a complicated guy. He's not a systematic theologian. He changed some of his views over the course of his life, some of them more than once. A compendium of Wesley quotes could very well contradict itself.

There's also a lot of places where Wesley's writings are readily available. The NNU Wesley Center provides a lot of text online, not as searchable as a book like this one, The Quotable Wesley, edited by Dave Armstrong, but not intimidating either.

A book of Wesley quotes would have to heavily curated or it would be unwieldily voluminous. I have to admit, I'm not super excited about a book curated by someone whose bio begins, "Dave Armstrong is a prolific author who has been defending Christianity since 1981." I'm not one who believes Christianity needs to be defended and part of the reason I like John Wesley so much is because he doesn't seem to think so either.

So what I have to say about the book is tempered by the unknown. I know Wesley said and did some crazy things (check out his experiments with electric shock treatments as a cure-all), but I can't be sure whether the quotes included were selected because they frame a particular narrative of Wesley or are the pretty representative.

I'm not sure I have the depth of knowledge to truly know.

I was surprised by some of the things Wesley says (there's one particular quote about the death of children that mirrors almost exactly the quote Reformed hero John Piper was so roundly criticized for making a few months ago), but I was expecting that. Some of the quotes selected are taken almost wholly from other quotes, also included. Wesley repeated himself a lot; that's to be expected.

I'm still torn as to why, with the vast array of online abilities and Wesley's place in the public domain, that this book is really necessary. It certainly makes finding specific quotes quite easy. It's got a lot of the real famous ones that people like to quote. It's a fun read - even just straight through. I enjoyed the book. It would make a fantastic gift (especially for the pastor who has enough crosses on the wall), a great conversation piece on the coffee table and maybe, if you're nerdy enough, quality bathroom reading.

I'm just not sure this book contributes anything new. It's more likely a luxury. A well done (the cover art, design and layout are specifically pleasing) luxury, but please know that going in.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trolling American Airlines or Lessons in Corporate Social Media

So, last week news was made when a stupid Dutch girl tweeted a bomb threat at American Airlines. She ended up under arrest and will probably "learn" an expensive, traumatic "lesson" from the whole thing.

I'm not defending her actions. It's stupid and immature. Yes, she's 14 and 14 year olds make mistakes like that all the time, but you're also never going to convince any corporation or law enforcement agency that, "I thought she was a stupid kid" is a real excuse if something does indeed happen - that is the narrative for almost every school shooting.

No, the real shocker from this whole mess is how oblivious American Airlines is to the nature of social media and the culture in which we now live, increasingly dominated by it.

We would have never heard of this girl (or maybe it would have been buried at the bottom of the Dutch-language version of CNN.com were it not for the twitter response AA made. They told her, publicly, on twitter, that they were reporting her tweet and her ip address to the FBI.

They were going to do this anyway - it's standard procedure. They didn't though, need to tell her so in a public fashion. The response became more of a story than the initial stupid fake threat. Airlines get fake threats all the time - they get tracked down and people are dealt with. It rarely makes news. Why? No one wants to encourage the kind of publicity these things bring to stupid, sometimes troubled individuals.

That's smart policy. Don't bring attention to things you want to discourage. It's why no TV stations will show people running on the field at sporting events anymore - luckily we have cell phone video and youtube now (because that stuff is almost always funny).

Social media is the pinnacle of free speech. I know twitter has a TOS and they've already suspended the girls' account, as they purportedly do to any account which threatens anyone. Bu really social media is a society all its own - there are mores and values that are being established as people join, participate and communicate.

One of the key values of social media is "don't troll someone without being prepared for the consequences." If the airline hasn't responded, there would have been a dozen American Airline fanatics who monitor the feed who would have filled her phone with responses. She would have been properly shamed (not to mention the FBI visit and arrest, which, again, would have happened anyway).

But, it also works in reverse. American Airlines, the big mean corporation tweets back at the stupid, sad little girl and freaks her out. She went nuts from that one response and all of a sudden, she seems like the victim in this whole thing.

Low and behold, now there are dozens of people routinely tweeting bomb threats at all manner of airlines. They're going to have to waste time and money investigating all of them. People will get arrested, even if they end up with no more than some fines and slap on the wrist. You just can't let any of these things go, because... what if?

The Washington Post article seems to imply this will be the downfall of corporate interaction of social media, that there is somehow no way to actually answer real quests and solve real problems while people are attacking "greedy corporate titans." Like the trolls are going to somehow ruin the major mode of communication for an increasingly large and important customer base. It's preposterous.

What this should be teaching us - or perhaps big corporations - is that you can't just sit some intern in front of a ten-year-old Dell desktop and expect them to run your twitter feed. Well, honestly, an intern would have probably know what to do in this situation and avoided the whole mess.

What I mean to say is that you have to pay attention to the culture in which you operate. Zuckerberg had to ditch the hoodie to schmooze wall street money for Facebook's IPO - well, he didn't have to, but he wouldn't have gotten his money without it. Corporations spend big bucks to infiltrate, study, and understand its marketing audiences; they're already experts on corporate culture or high school culture or pub culture depending on where they target products and services. It only makes sense, if you'er using social media to integrate communication streams, that you know how people use it.

Sending bomb threats to airlines is dumb. Don't do it. Using social media to humiliate and attack people otherwise helpless to respond (whether they deserve it or not) is going to cause you more trouble than it's worth to get that small measure of revenge.

As wild and crazy and lawless as it seems, social media will pretty much always defend those who need it and attack those who deserve it. It's not a terrible culture to be a part of, but you have to know what you're getting yourself into.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

For Sure

"Certainty is the enemy of faith."

I'm sure someone else has said that before, but it's a quote I like to use. It's a bit counter-intuitive, at least to those of us who've grown up in evangelical Christianity. Certainty is a pretty big part of the deal. You must be certain in order to really have faith.

Etymologically, though, faith and certainty are mutually exclusive. Faith is something you believe in without concrete proof; certainty is, obviously, being sure of something. There is a sense in which we can be certain about things for which we have no proof - in a sense, this is exactly how it works in evangelicalism - there may be some mystical-spiritual connection that enforces certainty despite the lack of evidence.

This is comforting and can be life changing. It's also just as easily a psychological defense mechanism to reinforce our preferences over our critical thinking skills. We could just be fooling ourselves. It's the constant battle for those of us who believe that God does, from time to time, direct us in one way or another - there is real doubt whether we're just telling ourselves something or if God is "speaking."

There's that doubt again. It seems to pop up in uncomfortable places. How do I really know if what I think is really what I should be thinking? Do I have enough certainty to act on my beliefs?

I saw an interesting quote this week from Greg Boyd, a pastor, thinker, and writer who is, for the most part, pretty evangelical (I think he's a Lutheran, but, you know, we'll forgive him that).

t’s no secret that, at least in America, evangelical Christians sort of have a reputation of being narrow-minded and intolerant... There are a number of plausible explanations for this, but I believe one of the main reasons has to do with the widespread assumption that a person’s faith is as strong as they are certain. Imagine a Christian I’ll call Bob. Like most other conservative Christians, Bob believes that he is saved by believing the doctrines that are “necessary for salvation.” And, like most others, Bob assumes that his faith is as strong as he is free of doubt. It’s apparent that for Christians like Bob, one’s sense of security is anchored in their level of confidence that their beliefs are correct. If Bob were to lose confidence or change his mind about any of these things, his salvation, as well as his acceptance as a fellow “saved” believer in his church, would at least be thrown into question, if not absolutely denied. Not only this, but Bob’s sense of identity, purpose, and well-being is wrapped up in his remaining convinced his beliefs are correct. With so much at stake, how open do you really think Bob would be to seriously studying books and dialoguing with people who might pose strong challenges to his core convictions? And how capable do you suppose Bob would be at objectively assessing the merits of points of view that disagree with his own, were he to somehow muster the courage to examine them?

This is exploring the process of incorporation into the Christian community that many have been re-examining of late. Traditionally, the pattern has been "behave, believe, belong," people should "stop sinning" and act properly as part of a congregation, then through participating in worship and Christian life they will come to believe and ultimately, then, are eligible for full inclusion, belonging.

Lately, though, many have been proposing that this process is reversed from proper order. People should be fully included and immersed in the community - loved and accepted - before all else. Upon receiving and experiencing this acceptance they come to believe that the Jesus way is the right way to live: they believe. This belief then begins to impact their behavior and changes are made to align their actions with their beliefs.

Boyd hits on the main problem with the traditional pattern above. If a Christian has doubts (or if they fail to live up to expected practices, to behave properly) they are assumed to no longer belong. This leads to all sorts of secrets and lies - where people claim to be living rightly or believing rightly when they're really struggling with actions and doubts they don't necessarily want. The pattern of acceptance and belonging keep them from getting the support of the community they most desperately need.

The larger part of this is probably the behave aspect. There are a lot of "secret sins" running around the Church because we're afraid we won't belong if they come to light.

That's a topic for another day, though. Doubt is what interests me today. The idea that what we believe might not be true is a scary one, even moreso when your religious community is based on belief. I've written about doubt before (I may have even stolen the opening quote subconsciously from Peter Rollins).

Rollins often says many religious people have only doubts - they believe because people around them or their leaders believe - it's more a faith commitment based on the certainty of others. If a pastor were to address a congregation and admit to real, serious doubts in many cases it would tear the congregation apart because it's so difficult for people to actually believe.

Yet, often, our whole system is based upon belief.

I am a big proponent of doubt. In a few weeks (the week following Easter) I'll be revisiting a sermon on the second half of John 20 - this is where we get the story of "doubting Thomas." For many, the lesson of this passage is, "don't doubt; believe." I take a different tact. I really believe this passage reassures us that God is big enough to handle our doubts. God doesn't need us to believe to be God. That, in itself is immensely comforting. Our faith does not rest on our certainty.

In reality, belief and certainty are two very different things. Belief I might equate more to faith: something you chose, for any number of reasons, to shape your life around. You don't need to be certain to believe, in fact, it may just be frustrating to try and do both.

There is one other issue that makes this easier for some and more difficult for others. I am a part of a generation that just isn't certain about anything. Post-modernity, or perhaps the reaction to modernity, has thoroughly immersed itself in the flaws of bias and perspective and epistemology. We know what we know and we believe what we believe, but there's just no way to know if we're right. I can't help but doubt. I can't imagine anything in the world that I could possibly be certain about - at least more than in one particular moment. Previous generations were different and responded differently. This makes for some troubling interactions as we try to play out our relationships with one another. It's especially uneasy when these two groups coexist in the Church.

I responded to the Boyd quote above in this way:

I've come to believe certainty is the enemy of faith. Doubt is really important. Even with out most deeply held beliefs, if we're not in doubt, despite our commitment to them, then there may be something wrong.

I believe Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, but I'm not at all certain of it. I think the implications of such reality are important and unique and therefore I'm willing to commit to the idea with my whole being. I am convinced life without this belief and commitment (in the resurrection of Christ) is just not worth living. But I'm not certain about it. I doubt it all the time. I don't generally act upon those doubts - that's a choice - but they're quite alive and well on a regular basis.

There's nothing wrong with doubt. In fact, I'd argue, there's something very wrong with certainty. In the end, if we're absolutely certain about something, we end up defending our own certainty and not the idea about which we're so seriously certain. It's sort of like those people who always have to be right, those people who find an excuse for anything just to avoid admitting a mistake.

But that's me, and I may be wrong.

It's not that certainty is malicious, but it tends to distract us from more important matters. It keeps us from growing, from learning. In the end, if God is indeed God, our faith will survive - perhaps in spite of our doubts, but maybe, just maybe, because of them.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Money Talks

I'm more than a little frustrated with the Supreme Court and these campaign finance rules. I'm not so much against the rulings as the reasoning. Money rules the world, that's the state of things (for the time being); I think it's a little silly for us to think our laws can change that in some way (although I'm not against trying). However, the idea that the money I give to someone is somehow and expression of speech is downright silly.

Yes, lending support via cash is a way of expressing yourself, but so is punching someone in the face. It always helps to have some insight into motivation. I suppose you call this kind of "speech" art, in that it leaves interpretation up to the individual, but it's not even direct speech. That's really my problem.

Essentially, what a gift speech is doing is saying, "I support this candidate or organization," the message is intended for a general audience. However, anonymity obscures that communication. We end up with ads and flyers that essentially say, "some people with money think what we say is good." That's not real speech, it's funding someone else's speech.

Again, I'm not opposed to that sort of thing. I think it's going to happen anyway. I do, however, think it's perfectly appropriate to make such speech clear and public. We, who are hearing these messages (especially as their broadcast publicly) deserve the right to know who's speaking. Anonymous acts are cowardly.

It's been argued in court, successfully sometimes, that donors have a right to anonymity to protect them from backlash by opponents of their views. It seems to me that acceptance of reprisals are a good and natural part of our free speech doctrine. I'm not talking about criminal or violent response; that is wrong, but being cut off from business or other relationships because of what we say is simply a natural consequence of speech. The government can't penalize someone for their speech, of course, but the rest of us are (and should be) perfectly welcome to do so.

(Many of my evangelical brethren seem near addicted to boycotts for any perceived slight of speech; they also seem to be the least capable of receiving the same treatment for their own speech... odd.)

In the end, I think I've come up with a compromise that might please everybody. I'm not sure bans and limits of campaign finance will really work, but what if we required the donors to appear in the ads they fund. What if we really required political giving to be actual speech?

What if, instead of the slickly produced attack ads with blatantly false or misleading ominous voice overs, we had grizzled, wrinkly, 80-year-old Sheldon Adleson whining crankily about whatever issues he's upset with at the moment?

That seems more real and more fair. If you respect the guy's opinion, then you'll listen, if you don't, you'll tune out. Just like real speech. The same would go for the UAW or the NEA or the Sierra Club.

There may have been a time in the world where words could be received devoid of context. I suspect more than a few of our Supreme Court Justices still live in that world. I'm just not sure most of the rest of us do.

I don't mind all the money poured into election campaigns - I think it's a waste and an embarrassment, but certainly not immoral - I do think the receivers of those messages are owed some transparency.

It only makes sense.

Thursday, April 03, 2014


I never intended to write a post about Noah. I wrote a lengthy Facebook status update. That was good enough. I really like Darren Aronofsky's filmmaking. He's got a unique vision. I also like the mystery of Genesis, specifically the difficulty we have in placing it within an historical framework. I was excited, overjoyed, really, when it was announced almost two years ago that Aronofsky would be tackling Noah for a major feature film.

Usually when I have this kind of lengthy anticipation, the end result fails to meet expectation (see the third Hunger Games book) or wildly fails to meet expectations (the movie version of Sphere). I went into Noah expecting to be disappointed. The run-up to the movie wasn't great and I didn't expect much.

What I really didn't expect was to have my expectations, as high and artificially inflated as they were, totally exceeded. I really think this is my favorite movie of all time (I've only had two others - Good Will Hunting as replaced by Wonder Boys in the early 2000's). I loved it. I know that without another fifty viewings I will not do the movie, or my impression of it, justice.

At the same time, there have been so many reviews and critiques from across the spectrum of viewers - most who hate the movie - that I feel like a more formal (and lengthy) defense is warranted.

To be honest, even in my wildest imagination for the movie, I expected something like what the scholarly community seems to have experienced: a film with biblical narrative and questionable theology. I was expecting Aronofsky to focus more on the likely historical and cultural aspects of the story and avoid the theology.

In truth, we worked the other way. The technology of the people in the story is most likely well beyond the capability of someone in prehistory (really the only time frame possible for a story like Noah). That being said, the historicity of the story is irrelevant; I'm glad Aronofsky understood that. The story of Noah is a story about God and God's relationship to creation (particularly humanity) - it's not intended to say anything about history or science.

Noah is a mythic movie. It tells a fantastic story for the purpose of a larger message. It is chock full of allusion, imagery, and metaphor. To take any of the events of characters within as concrete fact is misleading at best (and delusional at worst).

I keep hearing this notion that Noah was never intended to be a biblical account. I'm not sure where that's coming from - I've seen several places where Aronofsky speaks of his Jewish upbringing and his desire to be faithful to scripture. He would never included the scene of naked Noah at the end of the movie if he hadn't desired to include all the biblical references; that scene has no real place in the narrative he told and it could easily have been done without.

The biblical account of Noah is pretty sparse fact-wise. Most of what we know about the narrative came through interpretation as someone else fleshed out the details for our benefit in telling the story. Yes, there are things in this movie that are not in scripture - but that is true for literally every re-telling of the story that isn't a direct recitation of the Hebrew text. More importantly, there is nothing in scripture which is not included in the movie. Aronofsky doesn't leave anything out - even the complicated, mysterious parts that make understanding the story and its theology so difficult.

Noah is not a children's story, as much as we like decorating our nurseries with its images. It's dark and difficult and foreign. That doesn't mean it's unclear, just that it provides less specificity than we're comfortable with in our age of certainty.

I am of the opinion that certainty is the enemy of faith. I know others disagree with this notion, but I think the drive for certainty can blind viewers to the overall message of Noah - which is ultimately as faithful a representation of the gospel meaning of Noah's story than any other movie I've ever seen.

Yes, I know Aronofsky said on several occasions that he's an atheist, but he also speaks deeply about his respect for the idea of God and God's place in his cultural and religious heritage. He chose not to have God speak in the film because he felt those sorts of representations of God diminish who God is. Aronofsky might deny the existence of God with his words, but his actions speak volumes about his belief. He represents a deep respect for God and for scripture, perhaps more than some avowed theists I know.

I read one, well-educated, specific review contending the entire plot, imagery, and function of the film is to promote Kabballah-influenced gnosticism. This particular review, I think, overreaches it's own purpose. Yes, pointing out and understanding the Jewish mystical tradition within the movie is important - it helps to explain why the imagery and details used here might differ so drastically from what Christians expect (even I had to go back and read Genesis after the movie to disabuse myself of some faulty "facts").

I don't doubt there's some important influence uncovered in the review. Aronofksy's said on multiple occasions he used the mystic tradition to flesh out the story; it is as much a part of his culture and heritage as the Genesis account. I'm still not sure I see the gnosticism as clearly. The only characters in the movie who escape a physical existence are the angels - who were never intended to have one in the first place. The rest of the characters are stuck with their humanity for better or for worse; and despite the dim view taken through most of the movie, the resolution does affirm the goodness of creation.

I've also seen a lot of criticism that Noah is humanistic. I don't see that at all. Tubal-Cain is the villain in the movie. He represents humanism overtly, often saying humans are the greatest, strongest beings and will survive by their own strength. (He represents what has been called the "dominionism" perspective on creation which shapes a definition of human superintendency based on human authoritarian rulers rather than leadership in imitation of God.) Tubal-Cain loses. The battle over who is in control has a clear winner, even if the characterization of God (or lack thereof) is troublingly vague.

Which may really be the biggest problem people have with the film. God is absent. There is no description of God. This, quite frankly, fits the text as well. Noah takes place before there is an Israel, a law, a religious tradition of any kind. The first 11 chapters of Genesis are the most difficult to give historical or theological context. It's just a confusing portion of scripture. Yes, there are real and important truths about God to be received from these passages - and the movie covers (and affirms) them all - but these passages fall far short of providing the kind of detailed, thoughtful portrayal of God religious people have come to devise or understand over time. It's just not realistic to the story (and wouldn't be faithful to scripture).

Some respected Biblical scholars think Noah removes the heart from the scriptural message. I couldn't disagree more.

Noah presents a succinct and accurate biblical understanding of creation: God created the world for a purpose and gave humanity the role of care for and responsibility over creation. They act selfishly, separating themselves both from God and God's intentions for creation. The result is disastrous. The effect of human sin on humanity and creation has become so outrageously destructive that God decides to start over.

In the movie, Noah wrestles with the depth of human depravity. Are humans so bad that none (even Noah and his family) deserve to live? In the end, his daughter-in-law changes his mind, affirming that the human capacity for love and mercy reflect the goodness in which God created and, despite how awful humans are prone to being, that Godly image provides more than enough value for God continued faith and care.

I just cannot see how people object to this notion. God cares enough for creation, for humanity, that total destruction is not a possibility. God loves us too much for that. Yes, God could be nicer than God seems to be at times, but that only denies and negates the real consequences of human error in acting outside the intended purposes of creation.

In the movie, human depravity is depicted so realistically that, for me at least, I came to view the upcoming destruction as merciful. For a God to allow such violence to continue would have been truly unloving.

God is silent in the movie. The characters don't always hear from God in the detailed specificity which they so desire. I believe any Christian who doesn't recognize the reality of this depiction in their own life is fooling themselves.

Noah depicts life and God in ways that defy our desire for certainty and knowledge. There's a lot we don't know about faith - more than we do know - in this instance, I think, the focus on the unknown obscures the powerful affirmation of those few constants upon which faith is built.

Ultimately, I think there are two considerations that make it difficult for people to find beauty and truth in Noah:

1) For most of the movie, Noah gets the message wrong. He sees God as entirely consumed with judgment. People are bad and must be destroyed. He fails to see grace or mercy and thus the movie is devoid of either for 98% of the running time. That's troubling, but again, probably reflects reality. Our world is desperately short on grace and when it comes, it is usually surprising. The end of the movie is profoundly beautiful. The conclusion is redemptive, affirming, and gracious.

2) It rejects the notion of total depravity. I imagine this movie is much more difficult for Calvinists to stomach than it is for Wesleyans. The main struggle undergone by both Noah and Tubal-Cain is the notion that humans are evil, broken, violent, and selfish. Noah works as hard as he can to avoid these traits, but succumbs all too often anyway. Tubal-Cain embraces them as reality.

This means that both the "good guy" and the "bad guy" believe something that a certain segment of Christianity would affirm as correct. When the movie proves (or purports to prove) this notion of total depravity false, it can mess with one's theology. As a Nazarene minister, I come from a tradition that maintains while humans can never be the kind of people we were created to be in our own power, there is something valuable and worthwhile that remains within us by virtue of our creation in God's image.

The theological message of Noah is one with which the large majority of evangelical Christianity would disagree. That's potentially problematic. Much the same way that a depiction of the 13 billion year history of the world under a voice-over of Genesis 1 will be blasphemous to those who hold to a 6,000 year old Earth.

These are problems that will not be skirted. They're not problems for me (nor, would I hope, are they problems to you), but they are problems. People who don't like watching dark, often-violent movies aren't going to like this one. That doesn't make it bad, just not for everyone.

Some of the struggles I see in responding to the movie come from our perceptions. There's a ton of imagery and allusion. People whose minds don't ordinarily operate in creative or artistic ways may have difficulty cutting through what's on the screen to what it represents. I had difficulty and I think I'm a pretty imaginative person most of the time. You really have to immerse yourself in the world of the story and, even if you believe the story is historical and not mythological, you still have to recognize that a pre-flood world is not entirely the same world in which we live.

I also wonder if a person's attitude towards scripture makes viewing this film too difficult. Some people have elevated scripture to the level of deity; they, in essence, worship scripture itself or their particular interpretation of such. THerefore, a movie depiction of a scriptural event must, itself be treated almost like an extension of scripture. You see this in those who insist on Jesus movies using only scriptural dialogue, as if any alternative depiction is inherently blasphemous.

I have real problems with this as a preacher, since 95% of what I do in a sermon is tell the scriptural story in a different (hopefully faithful) way. I am entrusted with representing the truth of the Bible in ways that help us overcome our biases and comfort. Scripture itself is not the bedrock of faith; rather, it is the authoritative testimony of God's people to their interactions with a holy, living, active God.

I don't think of Noah as anything other than a rudimentary sermon, of sorts. Yes, it's constructed and presented by someone who doesn't inherently hold to all of the same theological and faith convictions I do, which means it needs to be approached critically. I'd love to watch it a bunch more times and to do so with other people because it was just so rich with thought-provoking ideas that once just isn't enough. (I talked about challenges to faith briefly in my pre-viewing post about Noah.) I loved this movie enough that I'm not even angry with people who disagree - I'm just sad they didn't enjoy the same kind of pleasure and satisfaction I found therein.

In the end, does it really matter what the intentions of the filmmaker were in constructing Noah? It is a beautiful, poignant, and breathtaking portrayal of profound truth. God has given humanity real power in the world, power we often use selfishly and with dramatic consequences for ourselves, the world around us, and for God as well. In spite of just how often we miss the point or downright ignore it, God still values us because of our construction in God's image. There is something worth saving in us and God continues to bring that value out through intense, world-changing love.

I suppose it's true that Noah is not a Christian movie, but the Jews probably have more claim over Noah than do we Christians anyway. Maybe the director didn't intend for the message I received to come across as I received it; maybe there are other ways one could twist the story and produce a troubling result. Maybe there is something insidious at work inside Noah. But the gospel story is there as well. The understanding of a loving, faithful God is present and alive and there is plenty of space for a powerful affirmation of faith. That's present, too.

I'm sorry if you didn't see it in this movie. I'm sorry if you were bothered by the violence or the darkness or the rock monsters. I am sorry if it didn't fit your understanding of scripture or creation or Noah, but there is real truth here. Darren Aronofsky has provided a valuable tool for exploring God, faith, creation, life itself - and the place of humanity within. I think perhaps the greatest gift we receive from Noah is the best of high art - a place for conversation, a movie that can bring people of different perspectives together to better understand each other and the world around us - even if we disagree.

Here's a great interview with Aronofsky about the movie, scripture, and faith. It's pretty good. Also, an interview with co-writer, Ari Handel - it answers a lot of questions, including "Why the snake skin?"

Tuesday, April 01, 2014


I know originally the term "god-fearing" referred more to reverence than to terror, but the implication is still there. Traditionally powers, whether King or master or father, were reverenced out of fear. That's how the two came together. It was the responsibility of the authority to maintain the command structure. If people began thinking and doing their own thing, all the world's organization would come crumbling down. It's all based on the idea that God appoints and ordains kings and masters and fathers to rule over their subjects, servant, and families. It was all one big, safe, organized hierarchical structure.

You feared those in authority because if you didn't there would be swift action - not just because the power is capricious or particularly in need of respect, but because here was an obligation to maintain the God-ordained order of the world.

Well, we'd mostly say that's a faulty, antiquated way of looking at things, but we still, in many places, tend to use the idea of God-fearing as an appropriate model. In fact, the places where this is most prevalent tend to be the places where that harsh, rigid, top-down authority structure is still most active (at least in the back of everyone's mind, if not overtly).

I don't think we're supposed to fear God, in any respect. Respect, honor, appreciate, sure - those are good things, but they shouldn't have anything to do with fear.

The immediate response is, of course, about sinners - people who are not living and acting in ways consistent with God's intentions for the world better be afraid because God deals out justice. Although, here, I think, we're confusing punishment and justice. Punishment is the inflicting of pain (physical or otherwise) as a deterrent to future bad action. Justice is simply the righting of a wrong. The effects of justice may be uncomfortable (perhaps painful in some way), but the action itself does not have that intention.

If I lose focus driving and clip the back of a parked car, I'm going to have to pay for the damages (either out of pocket or through insurance). That's justice (or at least restitution). Now $800 worth of body work may feel like punishment to someone making minimum wage; it's hardly a concern for a millionaire.

Similarly, when someone is caught driving drunk, we take away their license for a period of time (or, at least, we do sometimes) - that's punishment. There is no actual offense, only a possible offense prevented. The punishment is intended to cause pain in hopes of deterring a repeat performance. If the drunk driver causes an accident, well then they generally get restitution (justice) and punishment - and that, most certainly, will be painful (maybe twice over).

All of this to say: God is not in the punishment business. We live in a world where our bad actions generally result in appropriate consequences - not karma, per say, but the things we do affect us and often in ways that aren't immediately apparent. Even people who escape the punishment and "justice" of our courts still retain the effects of their actions. That's just how the world works.

God isn't up there pulling strings to punish and reward people according to each daily action. It only feels that way sometimes because we refuse to take responsibility for what we do. We have too small a view of the world around us and the magnificence of God's creation.

This also has a converse benefit, though. Some people "fear" God simply because, often, doing the good, Godly thing means living rightly in the world and those good actions are more likely, over time, to make life a bit easier. But even such "fear" is not fear of God, but fear of natural consequences - and often that "fear" actually shapes and forms people into better versions of themselves. The world works that way, too. You do things they way they were intended to be done, and there are tangible benefits.

God's not in the business of fear. One of the bedrock principles from the Bible I try to wrap my life around is simply that God is love and perfect love drives out all fear. There is no place for fear in the world. Yes, we are afraid - and there are plenty of things that can and will hurt us. It's not that it's wrong to be afraid, just that it's not what God intends for us. God is not a god of fear.

I don't want to be God-fearing and I don't want anyone else to be either. Our reverence and respect for God should be out of overwhelming joy in God's love, grace, and kindness - not in fear. Doing something because you're afraid of the consequences is not real life.

I'll admit, loving or respecting God is a bit easier if you believe God is not about punishment, but about justice. Because justice - true justice - while at times uncomfortable in the short term, is refreshingly safe over the long haul. Things will be made right - not in an ominous, punishing way - but in the sense of wholeness and restoration. Yes, that might be a little discomfort now, but in the end: peace and joy.

We shouldn't be God-fearing. Fear is not what God's about.