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Know what you believe and why you believe it

WHI-1100 | Reforming Youth Ministry, Part 1

Something is wrong youth ministry today. Visit a typical youth program at a typical evangelical church and you’re likely to witness a lot of fun and entertaining activity, yet most Christian teens remain biblically and theologically ignorant, and statistics show that the majority of them will abandon church after high school. On this program, Michael Horton discusses many of the issues and problems related to contemporary views of youth ministry with special guest Brian Cosby, author of Giving up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture.

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Zac Hicks

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RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Grounded in the Gospel
Packer & Parrett
You Lost Me
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Perpetual Sorrow and Blessed Hope

Sex advice columnist and MTV-show host Dan Savage has come up against heavy criticism of late for his remarks about homosexuality and other eight-letter-words in Scripture. Thrilling as it would be to jump right into that tête-a-tête, the conversation has been had, with no words minced and little love lost.  Rather than reiterate what has already been said and discussed, we offer for your consideration an episode of ‘This American Life’.  Originally aired in 2009, it features Savage discussing growing up in the Roman Catholic church, mourning the loss of his mother, and his (then) ongoing struggle between his hope to meet her again in heaven and the finality of her death.

Savage is open in his disdain for the religion of his youth, and while he does pull a few punches, the knock-outs are still there – he can’t reconcile the images of the benevolent father with the righteous judge, nor the church’s dogmatic cling to tradition with the rational pull of contemporary values and social mores.  The tension is embodied in his description of his mother, who despite her piety and devotion to the church, not only refused to cast him out upon learning of his sexual orientation, but supported him in public and among their family.  Close to the time she was diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease, Savage began sporadically attending church – not mass, but simply visiting the church at different times during the week.  In a voice frequently halted by strong emotion, he speaks of ‘fantasizing’ about going to confession and the prayers offered up by his mother’s priest during her last rites; prayers that ‘filled the terrible silence and solemnized an awful moment’.  He recalls his mother’s final words – “I’ll always be with you – remember me in your thoughts” – and breaks down in tears as he recounts making his way into St. James’ Church in downtown Seattle after her death.

“The inability to reconcile death has not been good for me – I visit St. James like an addict drops by a crack-house for a fix.  To deaden myself to the pain – to lose myself in the momentary fantasy that she lives.”

While I don’t condone Savage’s coarse articulation of his opinions on certain cultural and cultic practices in Scripture, and lament the poor understanding of redemptive history that informs those opinions, the broadcast was a helpful reminder that there is reason behind his rhetoric, and pain beneath his anger.  “Being brought up in a faith built around a guy jumping out of his tomb?  That makes it difficult to reconcile oneself to the permanence of death,” he said.

It was this hideous inversion of the gospel that left me all but undone.  To hear the locus of the gospel – the message of Christ’s victory over sin and death; that blessed historical fact that brings comfort to the afflicted and hope to the bereaved – so tragically perverted was devastating.  What ought to have been his chief solace and consolation was spoken of as an almost-insuperable impediment; the hopeful acceptance of being parted from her for a time was lost in tearful frustration at his inability to accept her irremediable non-existence.  Truly did Paul write of Christ crucified as a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23).

There may be tender wounds that are long in healing underneath the aggressive bravado and vulgar language of hostile antagonists, and the root of bitterness is often found in natural grief.  Beneath the sin and rebellion is a human being created in the image of God, and our Lord’s name is greatly magnified when we who have been forgiven much show patience and humility, being mindful that while we were yet sinners, Christ showed his love for us.

Jim Gilmore in the Skyebox

You probably remember the name Jim Gilmore from the White Horse Inn interview we did with Jim about his book, The Experience Economy. Jim has been a good friend of the Inn for several years now and even helped to moderate some of the small group work we accomplished on our recent cruise. Jim is also one of our newest board members, providing oversight and planning for White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation.

One Jim’s greatest strengths is the ability to cut through the pretentious jargon that is too often mistaken for profundity in both business and theological circles. As a result, Jim has become a trusted commentator on those areas of the Christian world where business sometimes intrudes on the church’s divine mission. A case in point is Jim’s recent interview in the Skyebox.

The Skyebox is the online home of Skye Jethani, a popular writer and speaker who also serves as the Senior Editor of Leadership Journal, a publication of Christianity Today International. Recently, Skye asked Jim Gilmore to respond to a previous interview with Rob Bell about vocation and the Christian’s role in the world.

Here’s a snippet. We’d encourage you to read the whole thing here. I think you’ll understand why we’re so glad to have Jim on our team.

Skye: Rob Bell thinks part of the reason we don’t talk about vocation is that we’re ignoring Gen 1 and 2 and jumping straight to the “bad news” in chapter 3. Do you agree?

Jim Gilmore: I don’t agree. His statement in the interview that you did with him — “a lot of Christians have been taught a story that begins in chapter 3 of Genesis, instead of chapter 1″ — struck me as blatantly absurd. I’ve never ever met a Christian who didn’t start with Genesis 1, right along with John 1, for that matter. The very first sentence of the Nicene Creed affirms the first two chapters of Genesis; ditto the Apostles’ Creed. Of course, to the extent contemporary churches no longer affirm and recite the historic creeds… But seriously, today it’s Genesis chapters 3 and 4 that gets downplayed in many circles. That’s the case with most all liberals — and certainly among the prosperity-gospel types.

 

Muscular Christianity

Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, made the news this week with his suggestion that physical pain was an appropriate way to correct effeminate behaviors in boys, as a way to stop sexual immorality before it began. He has since issued a clarification and a public apology, but as one of his more recent tweets suggests, nothing will be sufficient to stem the tide of controversy his sermon unleashed.

In my most recent article for Modern Reformation, I argue that biblical views of complementary gender roles are not only being rejected on the left, but assimilated on the right to a reactionary cultural ideology of caricatured stereotypes. Tragically, feminists and the LBGT community need these parodies of the traditional family, just as right-wing extremists need visible targets of social breakdown to justify their reactionary calls to arms. Both are unbiblical and deeply destructive of human identity and community.

It is hardly a newsflash that we’ve been living through an era of upheaval in gender roles. Churches have been divided over the role of women in ministry. In “Young, Restless, Reformed” circles, a new generation is discovering Jonathan Edwards and “masculine Christianity” in one fell swoop. Weaned on romantic—even sentimental—images of a deity who seems to exist to ensure our emotional and psychic equilibrium, many younger Christians (especially men) are drawn to a robust vision of a loving and sovereign, holy and gracious, merciful and just, powerful and tender King. As David Murrow pointed out in Why Men Hate Going to Church (2004), men are tired of singing love songs to Jesus and don’t feel comfortable in a “safe environment” that caters to women, children, and older people. His critique is familiar to many: men don’t like “conformity, control, and ceremony,” so churches need to “adjust the thermostat” and orient their ministry toward giving men tasks (since they’re “doers”). Men don’t like to learn by instruction; they need object lessons and, most of all, to find ways to discover truth for themselves.

I get the point about a “soft” ministry, especially worship, with its caressing muzak and the inoffensive drone of its always-affirming message. It’s predictably and tediously “safe.” Get the women there and they’ll bring their husbands and children. Not only has that not worked, it’s sure to bore any guy who doesn’t want to hear childrearing tips or yet another pep talk on how to have better relationships.

Click here to read the rest of “Muscular Christianity”

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

Has the Gospel-Centered Emphasis Gone Too Far?

R. C. Sproul, James Boice, and J. I. Packer were already stirring many evangelicals with the vision of a great God who saves sinners by a grace that is amazing from start to finish. Out of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, chaired by Dr. Boice, a host of annual conferences sprouted up across North America. Ligonier Ministries gained a national platform. Inspired and nourished by these efforts, several of us started the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation 20 years ago out of a concern that we need to recover the riches of the Reformation, with the gospel of justification in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, at its heart.

Over these two decades, we’ve been through a series of controversies within evangelicalism about the character of God and his gospel: open theism, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the “emergent” movement, to name a few. Along the way, we’ve engaged Robert Schuller, with the publication of his Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, at a moment when it seemed from the Christian best-seller list that Christianity was being radically re-written in the subjective and therapeutic categories of modernity.

There are still enormous challenges, of course. As our latest issue of Modern Reformation points out, the diet of Christian trade books doesn’t exactly point in the direction of widespread renewal of catechesis. Nevertheless, there has been a proliferation of gospel-centered resources. Groups like the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel sponsor large national conferences. Reared on moralism, a number of younger pastors—many of larger nondenominational churches—are being gripped by grace.

Just think of some of the titles of late in this genre: The Gospel as Center, D. A. Carson; The Prodigal God, Tim Keller; Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tullian Tchividjian; Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, J. D. Greear; The Good News We Almost Forgot, Kevin DeYoung; What Is the Gospel?, Greg Gilbert. I’ve added a few of my own logs to the “gospel” fire, so I can only rejoice in what Charles Swindoll called a while back “the grace awakening.”

Of course, there is always a danger that when you take God’s Word out of the church—out of the ambient environment of expository preaching, baptism, Communion, prayer, confession, absolution, and praise—it becomes a genre. Like “gospel music,” gospel or grace can easily become an adjective more than a noun—like a category on “Jeopardy,” carved up into emphases of each parachurch ministry. The latter can do a lot to put “first things” back on the radar, but they can’t proclaim the whole counsel of God week after week, baptize, commune, look after you and your family, and preach your funeral.

We have to be careful that this wonderful recovery of something so precious doesn’t become reduced to “the gospel thing.” I think that this is in part what people are reacting to when they wonder if it has all gone too far. But has it? From what I hear with some growing frequency, this is becoming a real question in our circles. With all this talk about grace, are we becoming antinomians? Maybe we’ve taken the gospel for granted, but are we now over-reacting by taking holiness for granted?

As I’ve said before, antinomianism (or what usually goes by that label) is never the result of taking the gospel too far; it’s the result of not taking it far enough. When, after treating justification so forcefully, Paul anticipates the question, “Shall we then sin so that grace may abound?”, his answer is an equally forceful “No—may it never be!” Yet it’s not by adding a dose of fear to douse the flames of libertinism, but by exposing us to the wideness of the gospel, that he answers this important question. Those who are united to Christ are not only justified but renewed, sharing in the benefits of his resurrection as well as his death. Sin is no longer in power over our lives and destiny. Finally, we are free to obey the command to offer ourselves to righteousness. No longer hearing the Judge’s conditions from Mount Sinai, we hear the Father’s commands from Mount Zion, with a better covenant and a better Mediator.

So does antinomianism really exist? Certainly there have been actual groups and individuals down through the ages advocating freedom not only from the moral law’s condemnation but from its precepts. In recent decades, some evangelicals have argued that one can accept Jesus as Savior but not as Lord. But is this a serious problem in our churches?

For whatever it’s worth, here is my take. There are basically three groups of professing Christians.

  • The first are nominal. These are folks who tell Gallup and other pollsters, as well as Christian friends and family members, that they’re believers. However, they resist any external authority; instead, the follow their own lights, their own inner intuitions, drives, and goals for maximizing their potential. Taking a pick-and-choose approach to religion, they do not belong to a local church, don’t really know what they believe and why, and consequently their lives are indistinguishable from those of their non-Christian neighbors.
  • The other two groups consist of what we might call the committed: those whose steady spiritual diet keeps them moralized and those who are regularly evangelized.

In the 1950s, Protestant liberals accommodated the faith to modernity by psychologizing, subjectivizing, and moralizing the faith. God was less a Lord and Redeemer external to the self than a power within us to realize our spiritual and moral potential as active agents of his transforming and affirming presence in the world. Meanwhile, conservative Protestantism was often obsessed with distinguishing itself from the world by narrowing the faith to a few fundamentals (fundamental though they indeed are) and superficial codes of behavior that have little or no scriptural justification.

As evangelical churches today accommodate to the psychologizing and subjectivizing of the faith, like mainline churches before them, we can expect more nominal attachments. Here one clearly finds at least practical antinomianism, despite a steady drumbeat of self-justifying moralism. People won’t go to hell for dancing—or for sexual promiscuity, but they may be frowned on if they aren’t happy, or perhaps drive SUVs and fail to participate in the various service projects listed in the bulletin. If all that’s important is finding the right spiritual technology for “my best life now,” then antinomianism is the theory regardless of the actual practices one chooses.

At its heart, though, this isn’t really antinomianism. It’s not a choice between law and freedom but between God’s law and the laws (principles, tools, expectations) that I determine suitable for judging my life and course of actions. After all, for all their personality differences, smiling life-coaches give you a work-out program every bit as arduous as anything you would have found in the party-crashing conservative churches of yesteryear.

There is a real process of secularization in the West, including the United States, and it’s deeper than “antinomianism-vs-legalism.” In my experience, at least, I just don’t run into many card-carrying antinomians in churches. What I do meet are (1) nominal Christians who aren’t converted and therefore are not communicant members of the church, (2) believers who are either self-deceived or burned out on a constant diet of “Do more/Be more” that takes the gospel for granted, and (3) believers who are regularly given a Christ who is great enough and a gospel that is big enough to save Christians, too. Those in the first two categories may be antinomians in theory (denying the external claims of a holy God), but they are far from it in practice; they simply exchange the divine condemnation that leads to Christ with the self-condemnation that leads to despair.

Those who are in the third category alone can pray, “Teach me thy ways,” with joy. They don’t pick-and-choose what they decide is useful or helpful for their life project. They don’t file out of the service saying, “I’m going to sin more so that grace may abound.” They receive the Word in the power of the Spirit: embracing the promises in faith and the commands as their “reasonable service…in view of the mercies of God.” As members of Christ’s body, they submit to the teaching and admonition of the one Christ who is saves to rule and rules to save. For this group of fellow pilgrims, among whom God’s grace in Christ has included me, there is a perpetual movement back and forth between confession of sins, absolution, good works, confession of sins, and on we go. There is joy and frustration, faith and doubt, obedience and disobedience. But the very terms associated with this cycle of sanctification tell the tale: In this new world, at least, antinomianism does not—for it cannot—actually exist.

Common Objections

Modern Reformation contributor and street evangelist veteran Leon Brown sat down with us to discuss his article “Common Objections” – need some practical advice from an old hand?  Look no further!

WHI-1099 | Scandalous Grace

Will God allow murderers to get off scot-free? If so, what does it say about God himself? How can he do this kind of thing and still remain holy? Scripture actually condemns those who justify the wicked (Proverbs 17:15, Isaiah 5:23), so how in the world can we be justified? Only by recognizing the radical lostness of the human condition does the scandal of grace come into full focus. Recorded before a live audience at the Liberate Conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the hosts, along with the help of special guest Tullian Tchividjian, interact with the logic of Romans chapters 1-4 and unpack the scandal of grace.

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Here Comes the Judge
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Would Jesus Have a Facebook Page?

“When [Jesus] came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”

A recent article in USA Today by Cathy Lynn Grossman cites examples of the growing tendency in churches to treat the Internet as a genuine ministry-provider. It’s not just about having websites and email contacts, but about assuming that digital contact is actual ministry. [Cathy Lynn Grossman, "Church Outreach Takes on a New Technical Touch," Wednesday, April 18, 2012.] According to the report, for example, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association offers a page for visitors to sign on the sinner’s prayer and “turn up in a real-time scroll of latest ‘decisions’ at www.SearchforJesus.net…” Grossman writes, “Technology should ultimately be an enhancement, not a replacement, for gathering in person for worship, discussion, debate and service to others, Drew Goodmanson says. Goodmanson is chief executive officer of Monk Development, which helps churches use the Internet to fulfill their missions. He appreciates that ‘you can have a digital Bible in the palm of your hand or connect with others in prayer any time anywhere.’ Nevertheless, Goodmanson says, ‘Jesus would not have a Facebook page. He wouldn’t be stopping in an Internet café to update his status.’” Thank God.

Responding to the USA Today article, Al Mohler helpfully points out some of the costs and benefits. It’s a great benefit that we can read lots of content on-line to which he had limited access before. Yet, he observes, “A digital preacher will not preach your funeral. The deep limitations of digital technologies become evident where the church is most needed. Don’t allow the Internet to become your congregation. YouTube is a horrible place to go to church.”

The episode I cited at the beginning, reported in Matthew 8:1-3, just wouldn’t have tweeted well.

First, it can’t be abstracted from its historical context. Under the old covenant, leprosy was a sign of sin’s guilt and corruption. Its victims were not just contagious, but ceremonially “unclean,” polluting the camp of Israel; they had to be quarantined from the covenant community (see Leviticus 13-15; Num 5:1-4). Which is what makes Jesus’s action all the more provocative.

Second, the healing can’t be abstracted from bodily contact. In most instances, Jesus spoke the word and people were healed, but in this rare case, he “stretched out his hand and touched him…” It would be a compassionate stroke by itself. On those rare foreys into public, sufferers from leprosy would have to yell, “Leper!”, as crowds parted nervously to avoid contact. Jesus reached out and touched the man. Yet this also meant something far more daring: he was making contact with someone who was ceremonially untouchable. Matthew adds the healing of another outcast: a Roman centurion’s son, in verses 5-13, commending the centurion’s faith: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And then he promises that people will come from all parts of the globe to “recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” The servant’s son “was healed at that very moment.”

Clearly the point in both episodes, as well as thee other healings, including a demon-possessed man in verses 28-34 and the paralyzed man in 9:1-8, are signs confirming the truth of Jesus’s announcement about the kingdom.

Jesus touched people who shouldn’t have been touched, dined with people who shouldn’t even be in the neighborhood, enjoyed fellowship with people whose exclusion from the community was thought to be the condition for the Messiah’s arrival and re-institution of the national theocracy. Instead, the “unclean” are cleansed and fed the richest fare with Abraham, while those who were the most ceremonially santized are “unclean,” cast into outer darkness.

Jesus still bathes, feeds, and looks after sinners. But you can’t reduce this story to something “tweetable.” Jesus did not love people anonymously, but said to them, “Your sins are forgiven.” People came to him in faith, sat on the margins, or plotted his death—but they all did so in his presence.

Even after the resurrection, Jesus is made known to the disciples as the risen Lord through the Word that he expounded and the breaking of the bread (Luke 24). “As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’ but they were startled and frightened and thoughty they saw a spirit. And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk 24:36-29).

What about today, after Jesus has been raised bodily and ascended to the Father’s right hand?

Paul tells us that we do not have to climb into heaven or descend into the depths to find him; he’s as near as the gospel that is preached. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” This is why we need preachers and they need to be sent (Rom 10:5-17). The Spirit works ordinarily through the common lips of fallible and sinful ministers.

The apostles also teach that the Spirit works through the most ordinary elements in creation, sanctifying them for his holy use. United to Christ visibly in baptism with water and the Word, they are fed at the table with Abraham and all of the saints seated with Christ. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).

Jesus doesn’t have a Facebook page. He doesn’t “friend” and “unfriend” at the click of a botton. He doesn’t offer anonymous advice. Although of him it could be uniquely said that he is unique, he does is not obsessed with expressing his uniqueness but delights in forming a fellowship of forgiven sinners around his hard-won victory.

So the apostolic community was embodied. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” They even shared their material treasures freely with each other according to abundance and lack. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Ac 2:42-47).

The gospel is not just information. It is high-touch in a hi-tech age. Christ’s gathering of sinners in these last days is an official diplomatic mission, not from any earthly capitol but from heaven. Understanding God’s Word—being swept into the story—is not something that can happen in an instant; you can’t Google it. We have to be touched by Jesus Christ, as he speaks, baptizes, and delivers himself to our fleshy hands through ordinary stuff he has made. The leper may have been able to post the astounding announcement on his personal page, “I’ve been cleansed—Jesus just touched me and said, ‘You are cleansed’!” Yet the significance of the sign required context. Furthermore, for others to be touched, they need Jesus to touch them.

There are a lot of things we can do now in terms of distributing content, starting conversations, and networking with others. Yet no more than the fruit of Guttenberg’s printing press—mass-distributed books—can the Internet proclaim a new creation into being. No one exploited the printing press more than Luther, but he cautioned, “The church is a mouth-house, not a pen-house.” Even today, Christ is forming an assembly of guests for his wedding feast by his Word and Spirit.

Like all common gifts, technology requires wisdom and discernment. There is a time and place for everything. We don’t pretend that we are really present at Thanksgiving if we’re “joining” by Skype or video-conference. Children don’t grow up (or shouldn’t, at least) in digital homes, but real ones, where people have to wait in line for bathrooms. Why do people think that we can “grow up into Christ” without the joys and frustrations of living with other sinners?

Digitial deliverance from that now-ubiquitous fear of being disconnected, out of the loop or out of date distracts us from the real deliverance from the reign of sin and death. Are the uses to which digital technology are being put today advancing Christ’s mission or do they represent actually the avoidance of the kind of kingdom that Christ has inaugurated in the world—in fact, a way of conforming the kingdom of Christ into just another kingdom of this passing age?

Contrary to the propaganda of the techno-evangelists, the Internet cannot bring people together, bodily, to make them a communion of saints. It can deliver data, even crucial information about God’s Worrd, but it cannot deliver Christ with all of his benefits. For that, you just have to show up. You have to hear it to believe it, to be washed into its cleansing surf, and to be made into part of his “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” by tasting the morsels of that greater feast to come.

Miller (Movie) Time!

You can follow Anthony Parisi at https://twitter.com/#!/anthonyparisi.

Legendary film director Orson Welles once said that “there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God.” Portraying the complexity of our spiritual lives in a visual medium like film is a daunting task. Most stay away from dealing with religion at all while others try and fail. While we’ve been blessed with some incredible exceptions (think Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick), many sub-par, exclusively message-driven efforts by evangelicals dominate the attention of the American public.

Enter Blue Like Jazz, the newly released film adaptation of Don Miller’s popular book. Longtime musician Steve Taylor directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with Miller and Ben Pearson. Their goal is not to offer gospel proclamation or heroic moral triumph but tell an honest story about the conflict of faith in the modern world. The book’s autobiographical introspection has been condensed into a simpler, coming-of-age narrative.

The story begins with young Don in his Texan Southern Baptist church. A smarmy youth pastor leads a prayer circle that quickly devolves into bowling watermelons and group games. Don is warned to avoid brainwashing by the “liberals” at college. In the next scene his deadbeat, hippie dad inversely laments the loss of his mind to the church. Later, a cross-shaped piñata showers communion cups on disappointed kids as a gospel illustration. These scenes culminate with a revelation that the (very married) youth pastor has been sleeping with mom, something the trivial atmosphere of the church hasn’t equipped Don to handle. He quickly snaps and flees to his dad’s alma mater, the famously liberal, agnostic Reed College. Here he begins to openly mock his faith as he considers leaving it all behind.

Amidst the fun, anarchic campus life Don encounters a diverse array of new friends. There’s a lovesick lesbian, a militant atheist in full Papal garb, and a (sometimes naïve) activist with a heart for humanitarian issues. Even though the satire is heightened, there’s enough nuance to stomach the clichés and uneven filmmaking. Self-aware of caricature, the film even invites discussion on archetypes and stereotypes as students debate the definitions in literature class. At the Q&A session following a screening in Irvine, Miller actually pointed out that some of the most suspect extremes (Reed’s mocking ceremony that crowns a campus Pope, a girl using the co-ed urinal, an atheist purging dorm room of religious books) were all from real life.

The filmmakers have a clear affection for each character. No one is unfairly demonized and everyone is given a voice at the table. This is a very rare quality. We meet hypocritical Christians and gracious, faithful ones. Churchgoing Penny fights for social causes but later admits to abandoning her suffering mom in an hour of greatest need. Agnostics air their jabs at religion but aren’t given a free pass either. On campus we see the champions of “tolerance” being anything but. As Don’s dad mocks the church he’s reminded that the congregation paid for groceries when he ditched the family. Taylor juxtaposes banal Christian bumper stickers “Are you following Jesus this close?” with their mirror image, “Abstinence makes the heart grow fondlers.” I can’t think of another movie that has captured just how sloganeering and prejudicial current talk about religion is. Moving past the hysterical put-downs, we’re shown how personal experience and emotion is often more formative than a reasonable argument.

Steve Taylor’s comedic sensibilities help steer the story away from melodrama. The personality that characterizes his songwriting is also felt here. At times the humor falls flat or grows tedious (like a sequence where a bear-costumed thief destroys Don’s bike) but the consistent energy enables Taylor to portray an inner, spiritual struggle in a strong and unique way. Knowing where Don has really come from and what he’s wrestling with gives the college wackiness a striking dissonance. All the fun, partying, and prank “activism” are colored by the lingering question: what will he do with God? The contrast of the upbeat soundtrack echoes how our externally happy lives often distract from or mask underlying turmoil.

The second half of the film grows somewhat disappointing, which is a real shame given all it has going for it. It’s often hard to believe that Don (who months ago was happily serving his church) would go to the extremes that he does. He gets increasingly mixed up with the Pope and his anti-religious antics, even helping place a giant condom balloon on top of the local Episcopal church. When he begins to realize how his behavior is beginning to hurt Penny and affect others, we’re never quite clear why Christianity remains existentially powerful enough to keep him on the fence.

A theism debate hints at our need for truth, love, and meaning that the strict materialist can’t account for. Penny’s passion for social justice inspires him. But we don’t see what’s specifically Christian about any of it. Don’s voice-over tells us that “sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” Unfortunately, this is what we’re not quite shown. The best Penny can express is that she “likes Jesus” but we don’t really hear who he is or why she should. If Jesus is just one more guy who wants us to love each other, then what’s the big deal? Why not a thousand other prophets or self-help gurus, religious or secular, telling us the same thing?

In the end we hear Don describe how he tried to ditch God but can’t because “it’s like he’s following me around.” But some of the vagueness of Don’s wrestling with God undercuts the story. While it’s great that the movie doesn’t suddenly switch into sermon mode, a fear of being preachy or judgmental seems to hold it back from providing a more penetrating vision of Don’s journey or Christ himself. In interviews about the film, Taylor and Miller frequently talk about their intention to not be that kind of Christian movie. While I’m grateful they succeeded, I think this self-conscious defensiveness prevents the movie from rising to its full potential.

There also seems to be something of a generation gap going on. Younger generations are coming from a postmodern, pluralist context more than a fundamentalist one. At the evangelical college I attended, the common issue wasn’t judgmental ferocity but spiritual apathy and feeling-based mushiness. Throwing off the previous generation’s legalism sometimes led to biblical illiteracy and lack of serious discipleship. It was all “deeds not creeds” and “relationship not religion” but baby Jesus often got thrown out with the bathwater. After visiting a friend’s church where we took off our shoes and sang Coldplay for worship … I knew something had gone very wrong. Because of the changing landscape of evangelicalism, I feel Blue Like Jazz appeals to my generation but may do little to challenge it.

Still, it’s fantastic to watch a film about Christianity that’s characterized by grace and humility. The reverse confessional scene at the conclusion of the story is the film’s best. After a wild night where Don is crowned the new campus Pope, he finally stops wavering and comes out of the closet. Instead of hearing the student’s ironic confessions of sin, Don decides to apologize for himself and the ways fellow Christians have failed to be faithful witnesses for God. He takes the former Pope into the booth and admits to him that he believes in God, Jesus, “the whole deal.” He explains, “I came here to escape it because I was ashamed of it. But it turns out that I’m not just ashamed of my strange church or its political views or all the hypocrites. I’m ashamed of Jesus. I’m ashamed of Jesus because I want you to like me.”

Taylor delicately directs the scene and both Marshall Allman and Justin Welborn give vulnerable performances. I was struck by how moving it was. You can feel that here is the heart of Don Miller and the moment rings with authenticity. Like many of us, his criticism of the church can often go hand in hand with trying to be relevant, likeable, and fit in. Here we see that the movie isn’t a cheap shot at conservatives or secularists or hypocrites. It’s a personal confession.

In the book, Miller writes of a moment where we stop “blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority” and start to face ourselves. He admits, “I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.” Here is our age-old struggle to confess with the apostle Paul that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of who I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

As someone who doesn’t much care for the book or Miller’s writings, I expected to be unimpressed by this movie. Instead, I found a decently entertaining two hours at the multiplex. Even with its flaws and hang-ups there’s a lot to appreciate. In a pop culture world filled with cynicism and bitterness, Blue Like Jazz manages to express humility and open an inviting space for conversation. It’s a rare and welcome sight to see.

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