I cannot prove the assertions of faith. No one can. That is what defines faith.
I was feeling very incarnate the other day. Not that there is any other way that I should feel, nor that that I should dare to feel divine. No. On this particular day, I simply felt very much myself, more human, more whole, more grounded. I was me being me, not trying to be anyone else, and not trying to do much in particular, other than my job. I did not know what to say, other than “Thanks!”
In contemporary terms, this is what religious — and especially theological — folks tell you when they want to tell you about God: come see God’s facebook page!
We can describe Him. What He likes. Or She, depending on who’s describing. What He doesn’t like. What movies He approves of. What political issues. Whether He’s pro-zombies or pro-pirates. Etc.
We can describe Him, but these different versions don’t match. There’s one hundred variations what God is like. Who are you going to believe? On what basis?
I can describe Him, tell all about Him. But knowledge about is head knowledge. Knowledge of, true experiential relational knowledge is of the heart.
I can describe my mother. But the older I get, the less certain I am that I truly know her.
Maybe you know about God. But do you know God? Have you seen Him face-to-face, and not just facebook-to-facebook? I will someday.
“Tell me all your thoughts on god, ’cause I’m on my way to see her….” — Dishwalla
The Problem With Catchy Slogans
I have a friend named “Joe.” While he would claim to be a Christian, Joe thinks that he can do whatever he wants. Anything. He life lacks any sort of responsibility or accountability. His response: “Once saved, always saved” and “God loves me the way I am.”
Catchy slogans are useful, because they can express truth in memorable ways. But the problem is that, taken in isolation, they can represent falsehoods. Joe’s slogans are derived from the Bible, but without the Bible they are misleading, just as freedom of speech does not function apart our other legal rights and responsibilities: you cannot say whatever you want whenever you want (shout “fire!” in a crowded movie theater, etc.).
I do believe that the Bible teaches that God will protect his own until the very end (John 17; Romans 8:38). Calvinists call this the “perseverance of the saints,” although many other groups hold to similar beliefs. But how can you know that you are “saved” if your life does not reflect your professed faith?
God loves you, he really does. But his is not the love of a dismissive and permissive parent (Deism?). His is the love of an actively involved father, working in the lives of his children, calling them to himself. His is the love of an artist, wooing his creation ever more into his own image.
I think of the prophet Hosea, called by God to marry the prostitute named Gomer (what a name!) to be an example of the kind of love God has for his wayward people. “I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one. ‘I will say to those called ‘Not my people, ”You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.'”” Hosea 2:23Yet we want something for nothing. The offer of grace, of God’s forgiveness, is free. It costs nothing to grasp hold of it. But it costs everything to keep hold of it. The better slogan is “God loves you the way you are, but he is not content to leave you that way.”
Bonhoeffer called the cop-out “cheap grace.” It is “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,… grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ” (The Cost of Discipleship). Cheap grace is not grace.
Lazy faith is not faith.
Freedom, Responsibility, and the Theological Implications of Jonathan King’s Black Sheep
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Galatians 5:1
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable– if anything is excellent or praiseworthy– think about such things.” Philippians 4:8
There are two primary schools of thought regarding Christian ethics. On the one hand we have the legalism: “these are the rules and you had better live up to them, or else!” On the other hand we have license: “you can do whatever you want because God loves you.” Both of these extremes fall short of the truth!
In legalism, everything depends on me, including my own salvation. If I screw up, even a little bit, God is disappointed in me and I need to feel guilty. This is not what the Bible teaches! I think of the book of Galatians, in which we learn of the precious freedom that is now ours and of our position as God’s children and heirs.
In license, nothing depends on me. I can do whatever I want. Problem is, this isn’t what the Bible teaches either. If you have truly grasped and understood God’s grace, your life will be radically altered. “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18)
True freedom happens in the context of an obedient relationship with God. John 8:32 gets tacked on the side of academic buildings and libraries, but without verse 31: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
This is a messy freedom, but I am free to make mistakes, knowing that God does not love me any less for making them. Nothing I can do can wreck his plans. Nothing I can do, short of utterly rejecting him, can wreck my standing with him… and even that probably depends on him more than I realize.
The new ethical standards Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount are both more difficult, more personal, and more flexible than the rules of the Old Testament (Matthew 5-7). Jesus came down so hard on the Pharisees because their hearts did not match their actions. In the new ethics, why I do anything matters even more than what I do. Are my motivations pure?
Which brings me to the movie about zombie sheep. Jonathan King’s Black Sheep really is the best bad movie I’ve ever seen (not to be confused with the worst good movie I’ve ever seen, Eregon). Shaun of the Dead was an A-movie in a B-movie genre, and one of the best comedies of 2004. Black Sheep really is a B-movie trying to be the best B-movie possible. It suceeded, with maximum gore, witty dialogue, and close-ups of man-eating sheep heads chomping their way to victory. There were also the recurring themes of the importance of family, of taking care of the environment, and of facing one’s fears. The fruitlessness of money, the occasional ridiculousness of New Age spirituality, and the grossness of Scottish food also formed a comedic backdrop. I laughed harder than I’ve laughed all year. What could be funnier than zombie sheep chasing a dude with a sheep phobia? As in any mad scientist movie, we realize that the ones who created the zombies are the true monsters. In the midst of their despair, the heroes must decide that there is something worth fighting for and that hope is always the best choice, however unlikely.
Despite its low status in the eyes of critis, horror has been the only genre of film to retain an overwhelming sense of the transcendent. Granted, it is a transcendent evil, but transcendent nonetheless. Just because it depicts evil does not mean that it is an evil movie. (See also Broaddus’s “The Theology of Horror“.)
I do not think that God would have been pleased with 6-year-old me seeing this movie. I would have had nightmares for weeks. But for 28-year-old me… I can say with confidence that God was glorified in my viewing of this gory film.
Paul writes, using the Corinthians’ own words against them: “‘Everything is permissible’– but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’– but not everything is constructive.” (Corinthians 10:23)
Black Sheep would not be beneficial or constructive for everyone. But for those who can endure the flying intestines (you know who you are), there is much that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. What could be more beneficial than that?
God doesn’t like all B-movies. Only the good ones.
…But Don’t Let That Stop You From Going to the Movies
“There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
“It’s all been done before.” (The Barenaked Ladies)
Only One has ever made anything truly original and new. All stories are mere shadows of His Story. Our best stories mirror aspects of that story: the beauty of creation, the bitterness of the fall, the joy of redemption. Even if a story only captures one of those aspects, it can be beautiful simply because it rings true, however tragic.
Shakespeare himself realized that all the good plots were already taken. What happens in his plays might not be original, but how always is. That gives me hope. A good story matters, even if I already know the ending. And I can let myself off the hook as a writer, since every what I might say has already been taken, I can focus on the how
If you doubt whether this principle is true, think of every movie made in the last ten years. Some have been overt ripoffs. Eragon = Star Wars – Awesome + Dragon. Seriously! If you want a good laugh, follow the plot parallels: farm boy gets secret message from captured princess, the bad guys kill his aunt and uncle, and torch their farm, forcing him to follows a magical mentor who sacrifices his own life when farm boy rescues the princess, so that he can save the day in an epic dogfight. It’s a good thing I love dragons.
Which brings us to Harry Potter. If the what of Harry Potter isn’t original (Matrix + Lord of the Rings + Little Orphan Annie), what’s all the big fuss about? The how! Her plots are page turners, to be sure, but J. K. Rowling’s true success is in her character development.
(Don’t worry. I haven’t read the last book or seen the movie yet, so no spoiler’s here.)
Harry is a complicated guy. He’s a loner, a leader, and a friend, these attributes ever in tension with each other. Orphaned, ostracized by his surrogate family, ever-threatened by the forces of darkness, and untrusted by the media, Harry has always had to fend for himself. He makes independent decisions, which can be impetuous and even rebellious. Harry is unafraid to pursue what he knows to be right, no matter what those in authority say.
Because of this, his peers look to him as their captain in the unseen war against the forces of darkness. Though his anger problem and independence often get in the way, he has developped a loyal cadre.
But it is Harry’s friends who ultimately define him. They are his by chance, by choice, and by that inexplicable magnetism that draws them all together. Quite often, he does not deserve them. But, no matter what, Ron and Hermione stay by his side. Harry is not afraid to cooperate, usually, but his friends make sure to help him even when he doesn’t want it. They would give up their own lives for each other. Since birth, this is a boy who has been protected by love, and that is the most beautiful thing of all.
That is what we really want, isn’t it? To be reminded that life is worth living outside the norms of society, that there is something worth fighting for, and that the love of friends always makes a difference and is always worth dying for? We long to hear a new voice sing that same old truth to a new generation, and that is exactly what J. K. has done. Read on!
“We’re right and we’re the only ones!” shout the Pope, the Baptist preacher, and the cult leader in unison across the trenches.
Then, at Starbucks, in the classroom, in the locker room I hear, “All religions are equal.” Equally right, which means equally wrong, so live it up.
What if there is a third option? What if all of us are wrong, but some of us are less wrong than others?
What if only one person has ever had it 100% right: Jesus. The only human who has ever had a true understanding of reality, of God, or of anything else. Hold on, He was God. The rest of us are finite and screwed-up. But Jesus offered to bring to God any who would follow Him.
Christ saves, not any church, Roman Catholic or otherwise. For some of us, like my best philosopher friends, following Christ means becoming Roman Catholic. For others of us, it means becoming irreverent renegades. Or Baptists.
Different Christian groups, with their different emphases, offer different aspects of the truth about Christ and His teaching: love, grace, the awesomeness of God, the importance of His Word, loving the poor and the oppressed, community, tradition and history, and the reality of how messed-up we are all in this life, etc. If we only turn to our traditions, and not also to their Source, we’ll leave out important aspects of the Truth.
I see in other religions aspects of the truth about God also: the peacefulness of Buddhism; the discipline of Islam; the wild diversity of Hinduism; the restful rituals of Judaism. But I see also important differences. In every case, God is either less of a Person (Buddhism and Hinduism), or less personal (Judaism without Christ; Islam). But do other religions lead to heaven? That is the difficult question facing all Christians today.
I offer a strange possibility which should offend people on both sides of the debate. I think that we’re asking the wrong question. Does any religion lead to heaven? No.
No religion leads to heaven. God leads to heaven. He does so through Christ, but many times the -ianity (or the -ians) gets in the way. Religion — our beliefs, our practices — these are all means to an end: Him. There are many false ways, some in and some outside of Christianity, but only one Shepherd. Many who have correct beliefs, but who did not trust Christ, will be in hell (James 2:19). Is it possible that many who have incorrect beliefs, but who trust Christ, will end up in heaven? I think so, for who among us can claim a 100% understanding of God? I am saved by Who I know, not by what I know. But is it possible to trust Christ without knowing that it’s Christ? I don’t know. But I need to love, listen, speak, and pray as if every moment counts toward that end.
It Happens. You Might As Well Enjoy It.
Oh, the wonders of poo! I’m not talking about some bizarre fetish. I’m talking about pure, simple childish enjoyment of both the product and the process of doin’ the doo. Maybe you were 2, or 4, or 20, but chances are you used to talk about poop alot and for whatever reason you stopped. Why? Okay, so your parents made you. Is it possible that they were in the wrong?
Sure, we throw around “crap” and “shit,” with the occasional clinical “fesces,” but those are usually metaphors and exclamations in reference to miscellaneous unpleasant things. Why?
Poop is amazing. The sight, the sound, the smell should all be occasion for laughter. The color, the texture, the mystery. “I ate that?” Scripture is silent on such things, but I can’t help but think that poop makes God laugh, too. Somehow we in our up-tight neo-Victorian embarassment stopped laughing. We started taking ourselves way more seriously than God ever intended us to.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17) You might not smell like fish and b.o., like the first disciples, but whether you intend to or not, you still smell like poo at various points throughout the day.
The next time you go, I challenge you to reflect, to ponder the amazingness of the moment, and to give thanks to the unmoved Mover.
And when it is amazing, find someone you love, and tell them about it.