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Les Mis and the Limits of “Redemptive” Film

It’s been out for a while, but depending on how things go at the Oscars on February 24, Les Mis may be around for a while.  We have a White Horse Inn interview on the movie here and a blog review here.  But a long-time contributor (former editor) and pastor/professor Brian Lee has a slightly different take on the film.  In keeping with our purpose of provoking good conversations, we’re delighted that Brian wrote this for our blog.

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Almost a month has passed now since a new generation of audiences have experienced the musical production of Les Miserables on the big screen. I was among those who had long heard of the redemptive power of Victor Hugo’s story, yet had never seen or read the story. Going in, I was primed to be blown away by a lifetime of sermon illustrations about silver candlesticks.

And I was indeed blown away. The ample analogies of the Law and Grace have been ably catalogued elsewhere, including in the excellent White Horse Inn discussion. Being a good Calvinist, the story already had me at its portrayal of slavery and bondage… yes, the waterworks began in the opening number. But the gracious gift of the aforementioned candlesticks, offered to the ungrateful rebel in the place of a guilty verdict, packs a big punch. The gifted candlesticks travel with Valjean through the film; a life is transformed; grace resonates through the ages. The gift is even Christological, given by a representative of Christ and premised upon his passion and blood. The Law in Javert hounds. There are echoes of the substitutionary atonement, and the recurring question whether Valjean will identify with the Old Man, the criminal, or the New.

And yet, by the closing song I was nagged by the impression that much of what had been offered me by the one hand of grace had been taken back by the other. What really surprised me in the film (and this is not a plot spoiler), was the degree to which the themes of law and grace echoed equally through the personal transformation of Valjean and the political transformation of the Paris revolutionaries. (The political background of this conflation has previously been discussed on this blog).

As much as I was emotionally drawn into the plot of personal redemption, I was somewhat surprised by this confusion of the heavenly kingdom of grace with earthly utopia. When I heard, for instance, the orphan sing of a castle on a cloud: I know a place where no one’s lost, I know a place where no one cries, crying at all is not allowed, not in my castle on a cloud… Well, I’m thinking of the Heavenly Zion, Jerusalem above, where every tear is wiped away. But in the finale the chorus sings on the barricades in Paris:

For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies… They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord… The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward. Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?

The heavenly city is an earthly Utopia. The transforming power of grace is an entirely immanent one. The sacrifice of fallen comrades in revolutionary battle is the transforming inspiration of grace that will ultimately overthrow the oppressors of the wretched, the law that demands its pound of flesh.

It was like hearing a solid Law-Gospel sermon that surprisingly closes by shifting the category back to guilt, leaving you with Law-Gospel-Law and asking, “What have you done for Jesus lately?”

Walking out of the theater, somewhat disappointed after all the build up, I wondered if I was picking nits. C’mon, man! It’s not a sermon, it’s a movie. Give your inner systematic theologian a break. There’s no such thing as a perfect analogy.

But the nagging sense continued, and I couldn’t help but believe that even the brilliant gospel images of Les Mis are ultimately a case of truth in the service of a lie. Hugo uses the emotional power of Valjean’s story to drive home a political message. There is a certain degree of manipulation involved, made worse because it runs roughshod over biblical truth.

Ultimately, the political confusion at the end of the film led me to revisit the personal story of grace in Valjean’s life, which strikes a few troubling notes. The biggest warning sign here is that Valjean is still haunted by his past at the closing of the film. Am I forgiven now? Valjean asks in his closing scene.

Perhaps this is just the lingering doubt of a troubled soul, but there is a lurking sense in which the transforming power of the story’s gracious act is more driven by guilt, than gratitude. Valjean is ever a man on the run, hunted by the Law. The Law is never satisfied, but eluded, and deceived.

Grace in Les Mis is imperfect, because there is no substitute, no one to bear Javert’s punishment on Valjean’s behalf. Valjean’s only hope of deliverance is by his transformation, and his own acts of kindness. In fact, I think it is safe to say that Hugo portrays the Law more powerfully, and more accurately, than the Gospel — at least the Hugo of the musical, I haven’t read the book. At the end of the day, there is no reconciling of grace and justice in Les Mis, and to the extent that Javert’s law grasps and grapples with Valjean’s grace, it is led to a place of utter despair. This insatiable force of the Law, it’s inability to take anything but it’s full pound of flesh, is essentially Roman Catholic in its understanding, which is not surprising given Hugo’s french context.

We tend today to think of images, and especially moving images, as a more effective medium of communication than mere words. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But as T. David Gordon points out, there are certain things that pictures can’t convey, like the gospel of justification through imputation by faith alone. This is why, in part, Paul tells us that “Faith comes from hearing.” While moving images may tug our emotions far more effectively, they lack the precision and clarity to convey saving words, the legal declaration of our covenant-making — not image making — God. Les Mis shows how emotionalism can miss the mark, and how any merely human story of redemption will tend to miss the mark.

This is not to say that the film is not great art. If you haven’t seen the film, take this criticism as an endorsement. But enjoy the film for what it is… a movie, a story. While it is natural for Christians to get excited about Gospel imagery in popular culture — and Les Mis has it in spades — we need to be aware of the limits of “redemptive” film, and preserve the category of entertainment. Unfortunately, much of the mania for redemptive cultural efforts (see this list of the Top Ten “Most Redeeming Films of 2012”), broadens the Christian concept of redemption to the point of which it is practically useless.

Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington, DC

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Give a Lutheran a Hand!

Many of the folks who come to White Horse Inn are on a journey of sorts. Some are happy in their present churches, but are digging more deeply into the rich resources of the Reformation as they serve their church, their family, and neighbors. Others of you have left the churches of your youth and feel like you are in the middle of a journey to…somewhere! And finally, some of you have found your way to a new home and church identity. If you are a “former evangelical” who has found their way into the Lutheran tradition, one of our friends would like to speak with you.

Pastor Matt Richard, a Lutheran minister, is working toward a doctor of ministry degree at Concordia Theological Seminary and is engaged in a research project that focuses on the journey of American evangelicals into Lutheranism. He’s looking for participants who would be willing to answer questions as part of his research. We can vouch for Matt. He and his wife spent some time with us earlier in the year during our Conference at Sea.

If you are interested in helping, please contact Matt today. If you’d like to read more about the project, you can check out his blog, PM Notes.

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Once More With Feeling

It’s the day after Reformation Day. All the Luther and Calvin costumes are at the dry cleaners; the left-over party treats have been taken to the office; the post-Protestant hangover has set in. It’s as good a time as any to take a second look at what really divides us from our Roman Catholic friends, family, and neighbors. After all, Pope Benedict seems to have a soft spot for the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther–maybe we’re not so far apart after all?

At least one ELCA Lutheran thinks so and asked plaintively at the First Things blog why he couldn’t receive communion at the local parish church. In response, Anthony Sacramone detailed a few of the outstanding issues that still divide Lutherans (and the Reformed) from Rome. Here’s a preview:

Let’s cut to the chase: would the Roman Catholic Church today accept as doctrinally true the Lutheran teaching of the alien righteousness of Christ, of the great exchange of His righteousness for our sin, of our sanctification as being in Him, even though we are called to good works — but for the sake of our neighbor and not in aid of increasing our justification? If not, again, who are these Lutherans Reverend Saltzman is talking about whose differences with Rome are now of little significance?

Do these Lutherans now accept the existence of a Treasury of Merits? Or has Rome admitted that this was a bankrupt medieval invention and is now, in the interest of ecumenicity, disposable? Have indulgences, the flashpoint of the Reformation, also become irrelevant?

I ask this honestly: what is the true nonnegotiable here?

Let’s discuss the papal office for a moment: Was Pope Urban II Infallible, “evangelically understood,” when he declared, in regard to the First Crusade:

“If anyone who sets out should lose his life either on the way, by land or by sea, or in battle against the infidels, his sins shall be pardoned from that moment. This I grant by right of the gift of God’s power to me.”

Did the bishop of Rome have this authority? Urban II is addressing men who are off, he hopes, to kill the enemies of the Faith and to retrieve stolen property. Is this the true nature of the power of the keys as described in the Gospel of Matthew? Does this notion of dying in a holy war and going straight to Paradise sound familiar?

Here’s another question: Does the pope have this same authority today—to proactively forgive the temporal punishment for sins that would otherwise send someone to Purgatory (or to a purgative state), thus promising them a straight ticket to heaven in the event they died trying to kill someone else? I’m not interested in whether or not it is likely to be exercised in this day and age, nor whether the Muslims in the 12th century invited this response for overrunning the “Holy Land.” I’m only interested in whether Benedict XVI, by virtue of his office, has this authority, given him from Christ.

Whether the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals is inextricably tied to how justification is construed. The same can be said for the nature of the Eucharist, and the priesthood.

What is the wedding garment without which no one enters the wedding feast of the King? Is it something of our own, dry-cleaned, purified, and bleached? Or is it the gift of Someone else? Is it something we do to ourselves, by aid of grace? Something we endure, in the sense of suffer? Or is it something we receive, like the Eucharist, from Another?

For some, the alien, imputed righteousness of Christ is a legal fiction, and Luther’s image of the dunghill covered with snow is usually cited as evidence. And yet these same Christians have no problem with the transfer of the supererogatory merits of the saints to the accounts of the properly disposed.

The merits of Christ’s sacrifice transferred to the sinner, as a sinner, is a fiction, but the merits of Josemaria Escriva transferred by dint of papal proclamation — that’s real.

Really?

The issue remains the same today as on October 31, 1517.

The entire thing is worth reading.

 

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Pulpit Freedom Sunday

Your pastor has probably been contacted recently and encouraged to publicly endorse candidates for elected office this coming Sunday, October 7th. Is it wise for him to do so? Should ministers stand up to the “tyranny” of the IRS, or is endorsing candidates and their policies an abuse of their office?

Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He has recently written an article that challenges Christians to reconsider how churches should act in the public square. Dr. Lee is a regular contributor to Modern Reformation magazine, and we commend this article to you.

For the faithful, Sunday worship is a respite from the cares of the world, a time and place offering peace, unity, and refreshment for the soul. What are the odds, with election season in full swing, that worshipers streaming into church this Sunday are looking political advertisements here, from the pulpit?

That’s what Jim Garlow and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) are urging preachers to deliver. ADF is promoting October 7th as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” and is asking ministers to dedicate their sermons to explicit politicking. According to an online pledge, sermons should evaluate the presidential candidates according to “biblical truths and church doctrine,” and make a specific endorsement. Launched in 2008, over 500 pastors signed last years pledge, though promotion of the event seems to peak in election years.

Read the rest of the article.

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An Urgent Request from China

UPDATE (9/28/12): I received this email from my contact in China.

Do continue to pray for the Seminary.  I was just informed that our new location was “searched and investigated” by the police.  Luckily, we did our homework and they didn’t find anything.  But I was told the police still think “something was fishy” about the place when they left, and who knows when the next surprise attack would come.  Needless to say, the students are all very shaken up and wonders if the school should shut down for awhile.  Church leaders and I will brainstorm on this, but in the mean time, please urgently pray for this new development.

Then, our original place was surrounded by police squad cars and when the church members there demand an official answer on why they had to search the Church in such a grand scale, the police told them that they are investigating “a murder”, yes, a murder, I kid you not.  And due to the seriousness of the investigation they had to surround the church and do a thorough investigation.  Again, thanks that we left so they didn’t find anything.

I am leaving soon for China, I am at peace, but I wanted all of us to pray for the students there as they are young and most of them haven’t personally experience persecutions like the Christians before them, and are pretty shaken up.

Please continue to pray for our friends who live and minister under the threat of persecution and death.

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Our readers may recall the overview I gave of my opportunity to teach a course in an underground seminary in China.  The school continues to attract growing numbers of aspiring pastors, teachers, and missionaries from all across China.  Our brother overseeing the seminary there has asked for prayer: for his health, but also for immediate concerns facing the churches (and seminaries) with the upcoming power-transfer in the nation’s leadership.  I told him that we would post this concern and I hope that you are able to take a moment to remember our brothers and sisters at this time.  I’ve removed any names that would identify the location:

As I am rehabbing my feet I have received an emergency news from China.  The entire district…is on high alert because of the transfer of power in China.  The Chinese model is “peace at all costs” during the transition of power to show that everything is calm and well, and this “peace” is created by a very strong-armed approach by the government, especially the police force that monitors all kinds of illegal activities.  Unfortunately, orthodox underground seminary is an illegal activity in China and the Church of…has received news that the police will have “major plans” to sweep through the area.  The Church, in emergency actions, has moved all of their training programs to remote locations, and that includes my seminary.  We have been moved to a very rural area where all you see is pretty much farmlands around us (but ironically with High Speed Bullet Train running right through the middle of it), and we are told we will stay here until the transition of power is done (which is towards the end of October.)  A couple of churches has already been swept by the police but praise the Lord the training programs have already moved and they have found nothing.

Also to be very safe we’ve decided to ask the non-Asian teachers to move their courses later, as there was a course that is going to be taught by a non-Asian, but was informed that the course will be move till later.  Another problem this has created is living and studying condition.  While we are able to move our student body over to a new church, but we are unable to move the library.  Also, the students are asked to sleep on the floor for the next two months.  One can imagine the tough physical strain this puts on the students, as well as the lack of resources for students to enhance their studies.  Please continue to pray for the safety of the school for the next two months, and that the students are able to adjust physically to a tough environment.

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Joel Osteen and Family Feud

On Friday, July 13, 2012, Joel Osteen made an appearance in Cleveland, Ohio.  Fourteen thousand people filed into Quicken Loans Arena that evening to take in “A Night of Hope.”  I had no desire to attend, but I did want to head downtown and do something outside the gathering as an act of quiet personal protest.

For weeks prior to the event, I pondered what to do.  So one night, to find some inspiration, I tuned in the weekly broadcast from Lakewood Church.  When channel-surfing I will sometimes briefly watch Osteen, but on this occasion I committed myself to watching the entire show.  Within minutes, I knew what I should to do: So I paused the channel, went to my home-office, and returned with a pen and pad of paper.  I started writing down the key words and phrases I heard Osteen emphasize in his talk.  By the end of the hour, I had over twenty items on the list.

Recalling an interview (was it on CNN?) in which Michael Horton called Osteen’s teaching “Cotton Candy Christianity,” I wrote that term as a heading above the list.  I then thought about what alternative words or phrases might be listed alongside each item on the Osteen list.  I found this all too easy—and in less than two minutes, I had my companion set of terms representing “Historical-Biblical Christianity.”  I returned to my office and typed up the list.  Once completed, all I needed was a heading for the flyer.  Also easy: “The JOEL OSTEEN Scorecard.”  (Download a PDF file of the final product.)

On the morning of Friday the 13th, I printed 250 copies of the scorecard on pink paper (pink struck me as the appropriate color).  In the afternoon, I read Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, and I prayed that should God give me occasion to talk to anyone, that I would speak the truth in love.  And then early that evening, also equipped with seven copies of Christless Christianity that I had ordered for the event, I headed for “the Q” (or “the Loaner” as one Cleveland friend of mine likes to call it), most curious about what I would encounter.

After parking, I asked a police officer where I was permitted to stand and hand out pamphlets.  He directed me across the street, off the private property of the arena.  There I joined two Mitt Romney volunteers soliciting signatures (for what I did not know, as Romney had already won the Ohio G.O.P. primary and secured the Republican nomination).

People streamed by me.  I quickly had to figure out what to say as my pitch.  I tried, “Get your scorecard,” which generated little interest.  When I changed it to “Get your Joel Osteen Scorecard,” well, that drew much more interest.  And interestingly, when just one person in a passing cluster took a pink sheet, others were much more inclined to take one as well.  The flyers went out in bunches.  A few people asked what the sheet was for; I simply explained it was for note-taking and “checking off the terms you might hear tonight.”  That seemed to satisfy most all takers.

I also had to consider to whom I would give away copies of Horton’s book.  I decided to give to the first people I spotted carrying Bibles.  I gave away two such copies, but decided to change my criteria after one woman took a copy, crossed the street, but after examining the book, crossed back and returned to me. “I’m not interested in this,” she politely said, giving back the book.

So I decided to give my remaining copies of the book to young adults who appeared of high school age.  The highlight here: the final kid to get a copy really lit up in excitement.  He looked me in the eyes, really looked me in the eyes, unlike anyone else that evening, and said, “Thank you; I appreciate this.”  I said a quick prayer for him as he crossed the street clutching the book, and the kind of clutching one does with something truly valued.

I gave away all 250 scorecard sheets in just under one hour.  That’s about one every fifteen seconds.  The time flew by, and the experience was much more hurried than I had anticipated—a function I think of the proximity to the arena and the eagerness of most folks to get in.  As busy as I was, within a few minutes I had decided to take note of two phenomena: (1) the number of people I saw toting Bibles (those prepared to say, “This is my Bible…”), and (2) the number of people who stopped to engage in a more in-depth conversation. (I was prepared to cease all pamphleteering for just one serious conversation.)

Let me here report the results:

Bibles: 15.   That’s not fifteen carried by people who took a pink sheet.  That’s fifteen among everyone who walked by.  Bear in mind, I was practicing very intentional looking: I looked at every person who passed by my street corner.  I noticed a lot in the short amount of time I had.  Two carried iPads, for example, and maybe they had Bible software loaded; more likely not (“This is my iPad…”).  And I estimated that for every person who took a scorecard, five others did not.  By my calculations then, that’s 1,250 who walked by me.  Considering my spot was one of about a dozen crosswalks available to get to the arena, the 1,250 estimate also jives with the reported figure of 14,000 who attended.

So do the math: 15 bibles, 1,250 passers by.  That’s 1.25% Bible-carrying Osteenites.

Conversation: 2 parties stopped to spend a few minutes to talk.  Just two.

The first was a father with his three sons.  It turns out the dad was not dragging his boys to hear Osteen; they were on their way to another event.  The man was most curious about what was on the sheet, what I was doing, and why.  I showed him the scorecard.  After studying it closely, he said, “I get it.”  He then shared that he had only a slight familiarity with Osteen, that he was Roman Catholic, and that he was from Georgia.  He also commented that “down in Atlanta, we have lots of mega-churches and televangelists, and most of them are bad news.”  I shared that I was unashamedly Protestant, and was hoping to simply provoke some attending the Osteen event to pause and question what they were hearing.  The gentleman’s parting words to me: “Good for you.”

The second interaction was with a married couple, David and Kim.  Kim carried a Bible; David did not.  After taking a copy of the scorecard and examining it, David got very excited.  He shared that he had never watched Joel Osteen, had never read one of his books.  “She dragged me here,” he explained, with a nod toward his wife.  “Go on in,” I said, “But be sure to check off what words and phrases you hear tonight.  And when you get home, I have a suggestion: read the book of Galatians, the whole book.  And compare what you read from Paul with what you hear from Osteen.  In fact, I’d encourage you to read Galatians every day for one week.  It will only take twenty minutes each day.”  David looked at me, smiled, pointed at me, and said, “I’ll do that; I will.”  Then he crossed the street, with an extra hop in his step.

I did too after I ran out of scorecards.

When I returned home, a bit exhausted, I sat down and turned on the television.  A few channels into surfing, I stumbled upon Family Feud.  I watched three or four survey questions, and five or six attempts to guess the top responses for each.  Each time, regardless of the quality of the guess, family members shouted “Good answer, good answer.”  Even when the answer was an obviously bad answer, a decidedly miserable answer, the participants wishfully chanted, “Good answer, good answer.”  And it hit me just how much like Family Feud is the spectacle of Joel Osteen and his misguided followers: “Good answer, good answer.”

Make no mistake: A good answer is not the Good News.

If you have a friend who watches Joel Osteen, consider giving her or him a copy of the scorecard (on pink paper, please) and most importantly, follow-up with a conversation.

James Gilmore is the co-author of the bestselling book, The Experience Economy. A prolific speaker and popular business consultant, Jim has also been a guest on White Horse Inn and has recently written for Modern Reformation. Jim is a Batten Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He is also a Visiting Lecturer in Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, where he teaches a course on cultural hermeneutics

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Incarnational Ministry

Our good friend, J. Todd Billings, was recently featured in Christianity Today. His critique of “incarnational ministry” continues to ring true for many people. We were proud to feature that critique back in 2009, Incarnational Ministry and the Unique, Incarnate Christ.

Here’s a brief preview of Billings’ article in Christianity Today.

In recent decades, scores of books, manuals, and websites advocating “incarnational ministry” have encouraged Christians to move beyond ministry at a distance and to “incarnate” and immerse themselves into local cultures. Some give a step-by-step “incarnation process” for Christians crossing cultures. Some call us to become incarnate by “being Jesus” to those around us. Indeed, many of these resources display valuable insights into relational and cross-cultural ministry. But there are serious problems at the core of most approaches to “incarnational ministry”—problems with biblical, theological, and practical implications.

I encountered these problems myself as a practitioner of “incarnational ministry.” At a Christian college, I was told that just as God became flesh in a particular culture 2,000 years ago, my job was to become “incarnate” in another culture. Eight months later, equipped with training in cultural anthropology, I set about learning the language and culture in Uganda. But I quickly ran into doubts about the “incarnational” method. Would the Ugandans necessarily “see Jesus” as a result of my efforts at cultural identification? Was I assuming that my own presence—rather than that of Christ—was redemptive? Is the eternal Word’s act of incarnation really an appropriate model for ministry?

My questions multiplied as I continued my theological education. Biblical scholars and theologians assured me that the Bible and orthodox Christian theology taught nothing about us “becoming incarnate.” Going back to my professors of missiology and ministry, I heard a quite practical response: If not the Incarnation, what is the alternative model for culture-crossing ministries? Over the past decade, I have come to see that incarnational ministry actually obscures the much richer theology of servant-witness and cross-cultural ministry in the New Testament: ministry in union with Christ by the Spirit.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Osteen: “God Wants to Supersize your Joy” — So what’s wrong with that?

The following is by Rev. Dr. Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington D.C. and is used with his permission. This was originally posted on The Daily Caller on May 1, 2012


On Sunday night [April 29, 2012], 41,000 fans packed Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., to hear a message of hope, inspiration, and encouragement from Joel Osteen. Most paid about $20 (including fees) for the privilege.

Osteen sold out the stadium—a feat the Nationals rarely accomplish. But did he have to sell out to do so?

Osteen is the latest embodiment of the American Religion—Revivalism. For centuries now, preachers have known how to fill stadiums or circus tents and send people home with hope in their heart and a skip in their step. Osteen promises you will leave a transformed person—at least until his tour comes around again next year, when you can be transformed again.

Osteen’s message is a positive one for a difficult time. Every one of us has seeds of greatness inside, potential that has not yet been released, buried treasure waiting to be discovered. If you were a car, you would be the fully loaded and totally equipped model—”with pin stripes,” he says, gesturing to his suit.

Before God created you, he planned great things for you. As you stretch your faith, “God is going to show up, and show out, in tremendous ways. … If you don’t step into your destiny and release your gift, then this world will not be as bright as it should be.”

That’s a pretty positive message. What could be wrong with that?

The biggest problem with Osteen’s message about God is that it is really a message about me. God is a potential, a force, a co-pilot, waiting to be tapped and deployed. I may have a net below me, but I am the one that has to take the first steps on the wire:

Taking steps of faith is imperative to fulfilling your destiny. When I make a move, God will make a move. When I stretch my faith, God will release more of his favor. When I think bigger, God will act bigger.

God is as big as I think him to be.

Yes, this is the American Religion: a program, a plan, five simple steps to help me be all that I can be. This is the religion of the bootstraps, where “God helps those who help themselves.”

By the way, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that is a quote from the Bible. It’s not.

And that’s the second problem. Osteen’s message is not biblical. His promise that his audience will be taught the Bible—from a preacher who has admitted that teaching the Bible isn’t his strength—is fulfilled with a smattering of verses. These snippets are at best torn out of their context, at worst fabricated.

There’s this stretch: “God is saying to you what He said to Lot, ‘Hurry up and get there, so I can show you my favor in a greater way.’” In Genesis 19:22, the Angel does tell Lot “Get there quickly, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” God waiting on Lot to step out in faith so he can bless him? Not exactly. It is God telling Lot to flee to Zoar, a city of safety, so he can rain down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Osteen bolsters his bootstrap religion by quoting Jesus: “Roll away the stone, and I’ll raise Lazarus.” This, Osteen says, is a “principle,” “God expects us to do what we can, and He will do what we can’t. If you will do the natural, God will do the supernatural.”

One problem. Jesus does command them to roll away the stone, but no such quid pro quo is found in holy writ. This foundational principle is one of Osteen’s own making.

It is not primarily the details of Osteen’s biblical sunbeams that are problematic. It’s the overall message. What’s missing is any sense of human sin. Osteen leads his crowd in a mantra at the opening of his performance: “This is my Bible. Tonight I will be taught the word of God. I can do what it says I can do.” Again, bootstraps.

What does the Bible say we can do for ourselves? Our best works are like filthy rags, the prophet Isaiah teaches (Isaiah 64:6); we are like sheep gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). Paul says “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and includes himself in this “all” as “the chief of all sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The big problem is that we don’t want what’s good for us, and when we do, Paul says, “The good that I want to do, I do not do” (Romans 7:19).

Ring true? It does for me. That’s why the stadium will be full next year. Self-esteem doesn’t help me, it just leaves me with more me, digging deeper within.

How about Jesus? Surely he’s more upbeat than Paul or the prophets? Well, he does offer this simple recipe to happiness: “Sell all you possess, give it away to the poor, and follow me.” You done that yet? Yes, he does say that our faith makes us well, but he is the healer our faith looks to. He also tells the paralytic to take up his bed and walk, but only after he has healed him.

What we want is the excitement and encouragement and affirmation of the stadium—”God is waiting for you to act.” What we need is the truth and compassion of Jesus—”Come to me you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

After the adrenaline boost, I hope some of those 41,000 find their way through the desert to some place where they can get a drink of water.

Earlier Sunday, 45 worshipers (about 0.1% of Osteen’s crowd) gathered at Christ Reformed Church in Logan Circle—and other churches in this city—to hear a message of sin and salvation, the Good News of a God who loves those who are his sworn enemies. They responded to God’s word with prayer, song, and confession, and received the benediction of a God who pardons sin full and free.

There was hope and inspiration too, but of an entirely different sort. Admittance was free.

[Note: The author didn't make it to Nationals Stadium on Sunday; he caught the previous "Night of Hope Event" at Yankee Stadium online.]

Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Editor’s note: Just so that you don’t think it is only cranky Reformed types who are saying these things about Joel Osteen, Salon.com also posted a piece on The Osteen Tour stop in D.C.: Joel Osteen Worships Himself

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An Introduction to the Facts

This looks like an amazing resource from someone we’re proud to call a friend of the Inn!

You can purchase Doug’s book on Amazon.

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Willimon on Sin

Other than Tom Oden, our favorite Methodist is Will Willimon, the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Today on his blog, Dr. Willimon posted a short excerpt of a new book of his selected writings, which we thought was a fantastic expose of how we often think about our sin.

Really now, Lord Jesus, is our sin so serious as to necessitate the sort of ugly drama we are forced to behold this day? Why should the noon sky turn toward midnight and the earth heave and the heavens be rent for our mere peccadilloes? To be sure, we’ve made our mistakes. Things didn’t turn out as we intended. There were unforeseen complications, factors beyond our control. But we meant well. We didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. We’re only human, and is that so wrong?

Really now, Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, we may not be the very best people who ever lived, but surely we are not the worst. Others have committed more serious wrong. Ought we to be held responsible for the ignorance of our grandparents? They, like we, were doing the best they could, within the parameters of their time and place. We’ve always been forced to work with limited information. There’s always been a huge gap between our intentions and our results.

Please, Lord Jesus, die for someone else, someone whose sin is more spectacular, more deserving of such supreme sacrifice. We don’t want the responsibility. Really, Lord, is our unrighteousness so very serious? Are we such sinners that you should need to die for us?

Really, if you look at the larger picture, our sin, at least my sin, is so inconsequential. You are making too big a deal out of such meager rebellion. We don’t want your blood on our hands.

We don’t want our lives in any way to bear the burden of your death. Really. Amen.

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