How “God’s Not Dead” fails Christian students

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I took the plunge that I had been studiously avoiding and turned on God’s Not Dead, the evangelical blockbuster movie from last year that has thus far raked in cash, awards, and even designation as the “best Christian movie of the year.” I had seen beforehand its 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and read thoughtfully critical takes on the movie. I was more or less prepared to watch a bad film, and indeed that’s what I got.

The failures of “God’s Not Dead” are particularly frustrating when you consider how easily they could have been avoided. There’s nothing wrong with God’s Not Dead that couldn’t be fixed by handing the script to a writer who isn’t eager to portray non-Christians in the worst light possible. The film feels less like a dramatic narrative and more like a propaganda reel, highlighting The Enemy in all their inglorious abominations.

It would be one thing for the movie to caricature non-evangelicals if it had no aspirations to realism in the beginning. I actually would be curious to watch a well-done diatribe against the secularist monopoly on higher education; the potential to learn something in that context seems high. But the medium of dramatic narrative is a higher medium than a lecture. It engages the imagination and moves the spirit in a more significant way. That’s why God’s Not Dead’s animosity towards its non-Christian characters is dangerous; if Christians come away thinking unbelievers in real life are like the unbelievers of God’s Not Dead (and that is clearly the message of the script), they will be carrying a spiteful fantasy into their relationships and evangelism that will be fatal to Gospel conversations.

Fairly representing those who disagree is not something that Christians should be bad at doing. Telling the truth about what people believe and engaging them like honest people isn’t a spiritual gift or an acquired skill. It’s basic honesty. How can I criticize the anathematizing of people like Brendan Eich and Ryan Anderson if after hours I myself enjoy caricatures of those who disagree with me?

I understand why people enjoy “God’s Not Dead.” It’s a brief moment of cinematic glory for Christians who, for good reason, often feel lampooned and marginalized in pop culture. But it’s a moment that comes at the expense of a helpful or even realistic perspective on the dialogues between faith and unbelief. The vast majority of atheists that Christian students will meet in college are nothing like the professor from God’s Not Dead. If these students go into school expecting the contrary, the cognitive dissonance that will result from seeing a reality that contradicts their assumptions will have a worse effect on their faith than a few hours of talking with a unbeliever could ever have.

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We are Ryan Anderson

RTAndersonEvery person in America needs to know about what has been going on with Ryan T. Anderson and his grade-school alma mater, The Friends School. Put simply, the ironically named institution has declared it wants nothing to do with Anderson, his degree from Princeton, his Ph.D from Notre Dame, or his numerous fellowships and Ivy League speeches.

Why? Because Anderson is opposed to same-sex marriage.  Continue reading “We are Ryan Anderson”

Star Wars 7 and Hollywood’s Great Stagnation

Still from "The Force Awakens" trailer.
Still from “The Force Awakens” trailer.

In my February defense of the Oscars’ culture of “elitism,” I argued that, if nothing else, the Academy’s film snobbery was a break from the nauseating domination of sequels, comic book films, and franchises in mainstream Hollywood. “A healthy dose of film snobbery is welcome,” I wrote,  “if it even slightly punctures the asphyxiating creative stagnation that characterizes Hollywood right now.”

Hollywood’s creative stagnation is undeniable. As I pointed out in February, an incredible percentage of the decade’s biggest films were franchises and sequels. Look at this list from Box Office Mojo of the top films from 2013. Only “Frozen” and “Gravity” were neither sequels nor reboots. Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 12.24.27 PM

Of course, like many of you, I stopped to have a minor freak out over the new trailer for J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII. What can I say? I’ve watched Star Wars since before I knew what exactly a movie was. I have countless items of memorabilia, extant and otherwise. Star Wars was every bit as much part of my childhood as my own back yard. I’d have to be droid to not be excited about the new film.

And yet, I do wonder: Is the fact that American culture still stops its work week over a Star Wars movie really good news? Should we be proud that the seventh installment in a 40 year movie franchise is virtually guaranteed record breaking profits and fandom? Don’t misunderstand. The problem isn’t Star Wars. There’s nothing wrong with loving a well-told story that delights the imagination. The problem, at least where I see it, is that for a generation that is supposedly as innovative and dynamic as ours, we can’t do anything better than the same characters and worlds that we’ve been watching for an entire generation.

Rather than a sense that we have genuinely creative storytellers in today’s cinema, we seem to be surrounded (and content with) by technological wizards who can make the stories of yesterday come to life in bigger and more expensive ways. The franchise, the umpteenth sequel, the reboot–these are the relics of a culture that is better at Photoshop than photography.

Where are the Spielbergs and Lucases of our time? Are they languishing in obscurity because no Hollywood studio will green-light their risky and un-market researched project? Imagine if the Hollywood that Steven Spielberg tried to break into in the 1970s told him to go home and focus on making a sequel to “2001” or “Planet of the Apes,” something that would be a sure opening weekend moneymaker.

I’m excited about The Force Awakens. I’ll see it as quickly as adulthood will allow. But I do yearn for a fresher vision, another narrative that takes me beyond the galaxies I traveled so well as a child. I hope I get to experience that again.

What happened to the “Emergent Church”?

As far as I can tell it, the “emerging church” is dead.

The time of death is difficult to establish, much like the time of birth was. But there’s no question to me now that the whatever internal mechanisms the emerging church

"A Generous Orthodoxy," by Brian McLaren
“A Generous Orthodoxy,” by Brian McLaren

movement contained are no longer functioning. Its leadership seems largely to have abandoned its project. Compared to the flurry of publishing in the early to mid-2000s, the last few years of evangelical writing have hardly broached the topic. Perhaps most significantly, its most popular champions have almost uniformly given up the pretense to reforming evangelicalism and are now either squarely in the mainline Protestant tradition or else out of the game altogether.

If you type in EmergentVillage.com in your browser, you won’t be reading the latest thoughts of postmodern evangelical theology. THAT site apparently doesn’t exist anymore. EmergentVillage.com is now a home decor shop, which is probably not as ironic as it feels. There is indeed a blog with the name “Emergent” in it at Patheos Progressive Christian, but the site seems to be operated mainly by a few non-clerical mainline Protestants, and–if I may add–doesn’t seem to generate much traffic.

The “emergent movement,” as keynoted by men like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Rob Bell seems to have little to zero traction. What’s fascinating about these men is the way their recent intellectual output seems to fold neatly into categories that they fiercely protested being placed in. McLaren of all of them seems to have maintained his “conversational” tone. Pagitt and Jones continue to produce their own content, yet neither of them seem to have much use for the emergent movement anymore. Jones will occasionally highlight something about it, but his mentions nowadays feel more occasional than regular (and almost never venture beyond his personal blog page). There’s very little focused attention like the kind that was given to the movement a few years ago.

Bell’s case is more interesting. Of the four Emergent pastors I mentioned, Bell is by far the most well-known. He went from pastoring a several thousand-member church in Grand Rapids to becoming something like Oprah’s official spiritual guru, landing his own television show and accompanying Oprah on her massive, pseudo-sacramental speaking tours. That’s quite a turn, of course, for a pastor whose theology embraced Emergent principles like authenticity and community. I wonder how many Emergent teachers would have identified Bell’s current trajectory as a desirable one back in Emergent’s heyday; I would guess very few.

Doctrinally, it’s interesting to me that a movement that placed so much emphasis on “conversation” and positioned itself as an inter-evangelical dialogue has become solidly progressive in its ethics and soteriology. As Scot McKnight pointed out in an important lecture on the Emergent Church in 2006, the movement distinguished itself largely by its refusal to be “pinned down” on areas of theology and draw meaningful doctrinal lines. Yet between Bell, McLaren, and Jones–and I think its fair to sum up the most active remnants of Emergent in terms of those three men–all of them have affirmed the goodness of LGBT sexual relationships, have repudiated penal substitutionary atonement, and have explicitly distanced themselves from most traditional evangelical camps.

Bell and Jones have been especially aggressive in this. Bell was quoted recently as predicting that churches that didn’t embrace same-sex marriage would “continue to be irrelevant” and dismissed those churches that used “letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.” In November of 2013, Tony Jones used his blog to “call for schism” in evangelicalism, urging his readers to separate immediately from any church that didn’t allow women to be pastors.

Now the important thing about those two comments is this: Even if you agree with both sentiments, it is unquestionable that the absolutist and dogmatic nature of those comments clangs loudly against the kind of gentle, “let’s talk about this” tone that characterized much of Emergent literature for many years. If nothing else, we can conclude one thing from all this: The Emergent Church movement has largely folded into a rigidly doctrinal camp with specific theological boundaries that match up well with mainline Protestantism.

[Patheos Article] “Who Are the Liberals?”

My latest piece at Patheos

My latest piece at Patheos observes a significant change in how liberals relate to dissent. Furor like what we saw over Indiana’s RFRA reveals a low tolerance for dissent against contemporary social orthodoxies.

Excerpt:

The belief that the Indiana RFRA is a license for discrimination is coherent only if one believes that offering any sort of legal recourse for businesses in discrimination lawsuits is itself intolerant. But that’s exactly where the times have taken us. We have arrived at a place where prominent columnists can speak openly about “stamping out” voices who disagree with New Morality. We see private Christian universities punished for hiring policies consistent with their charters and articles of faith. We see the personal lives of judges carefully screened and regulated for anti-New Morality activity. What is being created before our eyes is in no way secular. It is religion, and religious orthodoxy is the price of citizenship.

Read the full post here.

Taking religious liberty seriously

The hysteria over Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act is appalling. The law does absolutely nothing that isn’t already done in 19 other states (which also RFRAs) and it has no substantial difference to the laws signed by President Clinton and then-Illinois senator Barack Obama (in 1998).

Andrew Walker:

All that a Religious Freedom Restoration Act does is initiate a balancing test when a private citizen feels that their religious freedom has been infringed upon by the federal government. It provides extra level of strict scrutiny protection by requiring the government to demonstrate a compelling government interest for violating someone’s religious liberty, and requires the infringement to be done in the least restrictive means. Yes, it contains an extra provision that helps adjudicate matters between the government and the aggrieved party, but also between private parties. RFRA ensures that religious liberty is taken seriously in such cases. It does not mean that it will prevail. If the RFRA is good and helpful in cases arising between the government and private individuals, it is as well in cases between private individuals. If people oppose the Indiana statute over its difference from the federal law, they ought simply to oppose both—a radical position indeed.

“A Little Respect” for evangelicals in the New York Times

Nicholas Kristof says that missionary doctors like Stephen Foster interrupt the common liberal narrative about evangelical Christians:

Most evangelicals are not, of course, following such a harrowing path, and it’s also true that there are plenty of secular doctors doing heroic work forDoctors Without Borders or Partners in Health. But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.

Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours, than the nonreligious, according to polls. In the United States and abroad, the safety net of soup kitchens, food pantries and women’s shelters depends heavily on religious donations and volunteers.

Sure, it puzzles me that social conservatives are often personally generous while resisting government programs for needy children, and, yes, evangelicals should overcome any prejudice against gays and lesbians — just as secular liberals should overcome any prejudice against committed Christians struggling to make a difference.

The $10,000 question though is: What happens when evangelical practice is presented alongside evangelical belief? Given the choice between legal protection for evangelicals’ work and legal anathematizing of evangelical views about sexuality and family, which one would most liberals pick?

Jesus, the kindergarten teacher?

Collin Garbarino responds to John Dominic Crossan’s “nonviolent” reading of the Bible, or more specifically, his use of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a hermeneutical control:

In Crossan’s understanding of the Incarnation, Jesus came to tell us to share and to avoid violence, and it’s up to us to follow his advice. Jesus the Messiah becomes Jesus the kindergarten teacher. Crossan thinks this message of nonviolence is so urgent because now we have nuclear weapons, and he suggests that some fool fundamentalist will use these nukes to bring about the Apocalypse. But this won’t be a Biblical apocalypse of judgment that ends in restoration. It’s just the end of evolution. It’s somewhat amusing to see that Crossan hasn’t outgrown his generation’s fear of nuclear winter.

But Crossan’s central idea is not amusing; it’s disingenuous. He talks about finding the “heartbeat” of the Bible, but he’s interested in no such thing. Instead of honestly trying to understand how love and wrath can both find their source in a holy God, Crossan seeks to tear God in two. The violence of God must be dismissed as Crossan looks for the nonviolence of God. Crossan says that he’s looking for the diastole and the systole of the Bible’s cardiac cycle, but he isn’t. He’s actually trying to have one without the other. Any heart that only has one and not both will die. In the same way, the heavily edited Jesus of Crossan’s imagination is not the living Christ, and the faith that Crossan offers is a dead one.

This is the same problem that faces left-leaning evangelicals who espouse a “Red-letter” approach to Scripture (wherein the words of Jesus are seen as authoritative and the rest of Scripture as more or less fallible commentary). In order to maintain the fantasy that Jesus can be obeyed in isolation from the Holy Spirit-inspired whole canon of Scripture, one has to carefully redraw the Jesus of the New Testament to not mean what He actually said. There’s not much to respect about that kind of theology.