Category: Theology


The Club.

Club pic 1.

The Club is a Chilean drama film directed by Pablo Larrain that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and was selected as Chile’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards (it ultimately wasn’t nominated).

So here’s the premise: four ‘retired’ Catholic priests, unable to fulfil their duties any longer due to past sins and transgressions, live together in a secluded house in a small beach town somewhere on the Chilean coast. A female ‘caretaker’ keeps track of their schedule and ensures they stick to it to help with their penance; including set prayer sessions in the morning, scheduled meal times, rules regarding how long they’re allowed to venture outside and how much free time they’re allotted. This rigid structure seems to be going along quite nicely until the arrival of a fifth priest, soon revealed to have been sent there for the kind of crime Catholic priests have become infamous for, whose presence sets off a course of events that have drastic effects not only on the dynamic of the house, but the entire surrounding town as well.

There’s a tongue in cheek element to certain parts of the film, and its occasional injection of humour into the otherwise uneasy atmosphere is a welcome addition. In particular, some of the most memorable moments ensue during a series of ‘interviews’ held mid-way through, during which each character is questioned as the truth is sought regarding an incident that occurs not long into the movie. Fearing their housing arrangement – with which they had become rather comfortable – is now in danger of being taken from them, the characters proceed to cover up the real truth about what happened.

The irony of the situation – this being a group of already disgraced priests covering up the truth to protect their current living arrangements from outside influences – isn’t lost on me, nor should it be on you if you’re to appreciate what this movie does. If it wasn’t for the film’s sardonic approach to scenes like this, the experience would no doubt feel more depressing than it ends up being – and what it ends up being, is actually pretty damn entertaining.

Underneath the film’s gentle attitude and sense of humour is a more serious tone. It should come as little surprise at this point that the whole thing is a not-so-thinly veiled critique of the more distasteful side to Catholicism – there is one line of dialogue later in the movie that sums up its conclusion. The same character who is introduced to interrogate the former priests (a younger man who the older retirees refer to as the ‘new generation’) admits the one thing he would like to see happen is for these men to go to prison. But he won’t turn them in. Why? Because, in his own words, he “doesn’t want to harm the image of the church”. And that pretty much sums up where the problems began – not only in this case, but in many cases where an organisation believes itself higher than the law, preferring to deal with things internally to protect its own image. The Club, by offering this enclosed scenario as its primary setting, magnifies this problem and does it without ever getting too downbeat or preachy with its message.

This film isn’t, in the end, overly concerned with justice or integrity in the same way that Best Picture winner Spotlight was. In the way it tackles Catholicism’s issues it’s more like the candid little brother, shunned for its crudeness. It’s not afraid to show the tough scenes, make you uncomfortable as you hear some of the dialogue, and do it all with a sly grin.

Yet it’s also a strangely intimate and emotional movie. There’s no propaganda here; no attempts to pull the wool over one’s eyes aside from the scarcely believable cover-up attempts of the priests during their interrogation. Personally I found it to be one of the more honest and down to earth films of the past few years. For a movie experience that at times borders on (if not falls outright into) satire, that’s certainly a mark of its success.

9 / 10

Love vs Honour pic 1.

This kind of thing is a little unusual for me, for a couple of reasons. First and most obviously, I don’t typically post book reviews on here, though perhaps it is something I will begin to do occasionally.

Second, this particular book – a novel called ‘Love vs Honour’ – was written by someone I know and speak to on a regular basis. I’m being honest about that because, while I have tried to judge the book in as objective a manner as possible, I cannot know for sure how much my thoughts and overall opinion on it have been influenced by my personal knowledge of said individual. Usually I would, for obvious reasons related to my own integrity, steer clear of reviewing a product in such a case. I’m passionate in my belief that any reviewer who finds themselves in a situation where they may hold back from being as open and honest as possible regarding the information they provide about a product (in order to, say, try and boost sales as ‘a favour’ to someone else, or equally to criticise it simply because they do not like the author personally), should really not be reviewing that product at all.

However, I am making an exception in this case partly because of the nature of the subject matter, and also because I do not believe I am breaking the aforementioned principles by doing so. I have approached this book as honestly as I could, though I share the above information with you so that you can judge for yourself. That is, after all, the essence of what reviews are about: giving you the information you need to make an informed decision, and that includes any hint of bias on the part of the reviewer. You may indeed, in the end, think of me as biased, and should you form that opinion, then I am at least satisfied that I shared the information with you necessary to do so.

On to the book itself then. Love vs Honour (by Simon Dillon) follows a Christian guy and a Muslim girl, who meet and find themselves promptly falling in love, though interestingly without the usual romantic hyperbole that typically goes along with that. The characters are in love, but it feels real and authentic, rather than some fantastical fairy tale story. Obviously their respective beliefs present certain difficulties, if not between them, then certainly when it comes to their families who, to varying extents, seem to be caught up in the dogma and vitriol of their religions. To the point where Johnny and Sabina, the two main characters about whom we now speak, feel they cannot tell their parents about their feelings for each other, as it becomes apparent on both sides that this sense of love is the crucial element missing from their family lives – at least on the surface.

Against this backdrop their love quickly blossoms, and the fact that it feels so real is crucial – because they’re soon planning to deceive each other’s families in order to keep in touch beyond the weekend on which they met. For this to happen, one might think their own conviction to their religions would have to be somewhat in question (as a ‘good Muslim’ or a ‘good Christian’ would presumably not go along with such a deceptive scheme), and it is. This is exasperated, if not caused by the fact that they are in love, which is a feeling that neither of them have so far experienced within their respective belief patterns and is, therefore, perceived as more powerful than either of them. This becomes a theme played on throughout the novel, as the difficult situations they face eventually extend beyond the boundaries of their relationship.

Though the book handles its love story well, that is not, for me, its greatest strength. Nor is some of its early dialogue and character development, which I frankly found to be a little awkward. Rather, this is a novel most impressive in its overall accessibility. Romance is not typically my chosen genre to read, but the book does not rigidly define itself in this way.

Likewise, while it offers balanced and fair portrayals of both Christianity and Islam, it does not openly take a stance on either – instead presenting the facts and opinions of the characters within its narrative who do hold those beliefs, and letting the reader decide for themselves. Or not, if they so wish. The book does not hold you captive with an agenda of its own, even if a slight bias towards one of its two religions can be seen when observing the story as a whole. Its overriding message is one that I believe will be felt by anyone with natural human empathy, regardless of your personal beliefs – it does not forcibly attach such sentiment to a particular religion, even if there are understandable hints towards the author’s own convictions.

This honesty and open-mindedness in the novel’s storytelling is the main reason I wanted to highlight it here on this blog. Frankly I find this to be a rare thing in stories told by authors with certain religious convictions – they often use this form of art as little more than a propaganda tool, rather than enjoy it for what it’s meant to be. It is possible to have a strong message in your work and not force it down your reader’s throat, or feel that you must trick them into accepting that belief themselves. Too many Christian stories (I can recall a couple of semi-mainstream movies that recently did such a thing) present a manufactured, often sugar-coated version of their belief system in order to portray a narrative that is not entirely honest with itself, let alone the rest of the world. Christianity is not a perfect ‘religion’, nor does it know all the right answers, even though it follows a perfect man who did.

Even should you find yourself disagreeing with me on those finer points, I think this book will be an enjoyable and eye-opening read from whichever stance you take. If you couldn’t care less about that side of things and are instead interested in a decent love story, the novel delivers on that as well – just don’t come expecting a masterpiece that will change how you view the genre.

It’s not a long book either, less than 300 pages, and is very nicely paced so it won’t take you long getting through it. Frankly it is also cheap enough to be worth a second thought, even if you have your doubts as to whether it’s for you. In my case I didn’t think it would have resonated quite the way it did, but then again, one could argue I initially felt compelled to stick with it due to reasons mentioned above.

You can download the Kindle version of the novel here. Also available in paperback.

Religious art pic 2.

If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway…” – Stephen King

I’m not here to talk about religious paintings. Or maybe in a way, I kind of am.

Let me preface this by highlighting that there are a lot of people who, given the opportunity, would like to control the lives of others. It is not a character trait limited just to the stereotypical dictators throughout history. Many crave it, others are rightly wary of it; that feeling of some kind of authority over another person, though one may justify it with righteous thoughts related to “only looking out for your own good” because they care about you so much.

We fear to lose that which we love – and often try to protect against this fear by controlling the object of it. You can likely recall such occasions in the past when you were on the receiving end of this kind of thing and, depending on what kind of person you are, you would probably have reacted in one of three ways: by submitting, rebelling or simply not caring.

Within Christianity, as within any religion, indeed within any group or commonly held worldview, there can be found these individuals who were first attracted to it because some part of them enjoys the social organisation it gives – and the subsequent opportunity for control over others that it can offer. Indeed it is often an inherent desire to have some outside force controlling their own lives, with the perceived comfort and security that comes with it, which first makes one open and willing to accept any religious claims at all.

This, I think, is why many prominent Christians (rather like North Korea and other dictatorships throughout history) fear art specifically, though they may not openly admit or even be aware of it. Of course, art that tells them they’re right about everything is usually fine. But the problem is, most of it tends not to play by such rules – and if it does, certainly doesn’t rule out breaking them.

Anything that hints, however subtly, that they or any part of their worldview may be wrong, often ultimately represents the enemy. Precisely because it dares to suggest, and present differing ideas; introduces concepts or reinvents old ones; holds the capacity to help people think clearly about things that may have been previously clouded in their minds, and then decide for themselves.

If one is secure in their beliefs, which can of course (and unfortunately) include some of the most extreme forms of dogma, there is little chance their minds will be changed by alternative viewpoints, nor am I necessarily saying they should be so easily swayed – but what I am referring to is more those who cannot accept or understand alternative viewpoints at all, and become offended just because other people dare to think differently from them. From here, their desire for control over others may become more apparent, as they look to mould everything around them to fit their own point of view.

Art is, indeed, a battleground for the free-thinking mind. And as one of those people who enjoys seeing ignorance squirm, raising its voice when confronted by an idea it can’t yet comprehend; who sighs in exasperation at those who gleefully declare they’ve won an argument only because their worn-out adversary walks away from it, I see art as vital to our cultural progression in whatever form it takes.

I say our knowing that many Christians will use the ‘in the world, but not of the world’ excuse to get out of paying any real attention to what secular art might have to teach them. Most art is, after all, full of sin – that includes ALL of it, not just whatever isn’t to your taste. You may think the old Western ‘cowboys and indians’ stories, in which indigenous native Americans were portrayed as frightening animals ripe for slaughter by the heroic white men who invaded their land, were somehow less sinful than wild rampant sex scenes and excessive swearing?

No; the difference between the two (aside from obvious genre/ narrative conventions) is mainly that the latter is under no illusion about itself and isn’t afraid of being so blatant about it. In fact if I had to choose which I have usually found to be more artistically tasteful, there is little question for me: it would be the latter, though this kind of thing should of course be judged on a case by case basis.

If art’s intention is to do anything, regardless of whatever beliefs or worldview may lie behind the eyes of its artist, it is to reflect our perception of the world around us. It is, in its purest form, an interpretation of life. This can be its greatest strength – for that reason, I’d consider it inherently dishonest were it not full of this thing Christians call ‘sin’ in some sense (allowing, of course, for appropriate exceptions – though even within some of the most wholesome children’s stories there can be found dodgy themes lurking beneath light-hearted exteriors). Art reflects this earthly reality in different forms, whether for you to get offended over or mindlessly enjoy, and it’s not really for me to decide which of those categories you fall into when you consume it.

Yes, it is a minefield out there, but it’s a glorious one of self-discovery as you find out where your own strengths and weaknesses lie as it pertains to personal taste. That is something only YOU can discover, no matter how much others may try to force something down your throat, or say you’re a bad person simply because of an opinion that’s different from their own. Though many of us would admit; you can’t really have what you like without also having to deal at some point with what you don’t. Because art, like anything created, is based on and reflects the individual tastes of the artist who creates it – for as many who have the same taste as you, there will be many others who do not.

Apologists for art, one of which you may consider me to be after all this, are known for saying it should be provocative. I think it certainly should be, but the only thing provocation really means is to instigate an emotional reaction. Often this reaction is positive – laughter, love, empathy. But it can also be very offensive. In fact it is arguably when art is at its most offensive that we can actually learn much from what it’s trying to communicate. Offensive material stands out and catches our attention – you must give it that, if nothing else. Whether it does that simply for the sake of it (which it has every right to do, if one so wishes), or to make a greater point is, of course, a different kind of debate.

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend the UK premiere of an Irish film, Patrick’s Day, in which the director stood up beforehand and said something to the effect of “I hope you enjoy my f**king film… if not, Spongebob is showing in the next screen.” The comparison could not be more fitting – Spongebob, a light-hearted children’s movie not likely to cause any real offence, and Patrick’s Day, a film about a 26 year old schizophrenic man who’s spent his whole life under the care of his over-protective mother before falling in love with an older woman bearing secret suicidal tendencies. One of these films left its audience with much to consider about a subject they may have been ignorant of beforehand… the other, was nothing more than silly entertainment that I question is really worth anyone’s precious time or money. What kind of person you are will likely define which represents which for you.

This, I think, was precisely the director’s point. Those who did not enjoy Patrick’s Day, perhaps due to the uncomfortable way it made them feel, are likely the kind of people who prefer a light-hearted, easy going film such as Spongebob. Also, by freely swearing in an environment otherwise considered ‘polite’, he sent a message to the audience that if they were easily offended, they should probably brace themselves for more to come.

It told me: here was a filmmaker who was not afraid of making a film that would confront and openly challenge its viewers – and you know what? Considering its main theme was mental health, one of the few topics still broadly misunderstood and brushed under the carpet by many in today’s society, I was delighted by this man’s sheer audacity.

After all, mental illness is far from polite. It can be rude, obnoxious, hurtful and even dangerous. These are just some of the reasons many people are uncomfortable approaching the topic. Often, whichever side of the ‘carer/ cared for’ divide one falls on (Patrick’s Day portrayed both perspectives in an impressively honest and heartfelt way), these are things to which you must become accustomed. Mental illness is a killer of polite conversation if ever there was one.

I felt towards Patrick’s Day the same way I feel about films in general – that they are vital for helping us understand more about others and ourselves, useful for exploring certain subjects that are harder to tackle in everyday conversation, and can be a vehicle for communicating the perceived faults of others (or indeed, ourselves) without having to bluntly say it to one’s face.

So what does any of this have to do with Christianity? An interesting question; one you might pose as if ‘Christianity’ is somehow separate from everything I’ve been talking about thus far. As if it is some tangible thing one can grasp in their left hand, while films and other forms of art are grasped in their right – rather like the divide between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’.

But of course many circles in contemporary liberal Christianity would scoff at the thought of being considered ‘religious’. We don’t follow religion, they say, we follow Christ. And I certainly see the merit in that sentiment – no one is ever truly happy being compartmentalised by those who casually judge from the outside looking in – yet many of them risk becoming hypocrites. They readily categorise other aspects of everyday life into stereotypical boxes, while scorning the idea that their beliefs should be confined to the umbrella term of ‘religion’, without realising these tendencies are pretty much the same thing.

Films, for them, might become the immoral cause of rising violence and premarital sex because of the images they portray. Video games are senseless entertainment for teenage boys. Even religion itself, the thing they find so frustrating to be associated with, is seen as a caricature: some emotionless system of rules and misguided authority, those within it hopelessly deceived – when the truth is that every ‘religion’, while sharing certain similarities, has unique qualities that mean it’s probably just as big an injustice to broadly label them as such.

My point, though, is that in acknowledging the act of ‘following Christ’ as more than a simple religious act in the traditional sense, you would presumably be ready to accept that this equally broad term I’ve been using called ‘art’ is not so easily classified either. Furthermore, these two things are not actually so separate at all. There is no real divide, aside from that which people like to create themselves.

One might say Christ is sovereign; in that case, all of this falls under Him. You might well see him reflected in everything you watch, read, play, or any other activity you enjoy partaking in – even despite of everything else you see there that is considered ‘sinful’. You would only be following His example; when Christ looks at you, does he not see something worth loving despite the sinfulness of it?

Art can make you question what you believe, and why you believe it. In that sense, some think it dangerous. Why do you follow a religion or God? Why do you not? What do you support with your money? Who or what inspires you? These are the questions to which answers help contextualise one’s life, and I think they are personal answers everyone should know. Think about why you know those answers; what led you to them? Be prepared for new information that might make you think twice. This is the kind of thing art has taught me, though with all of it, as with everything else, I take a pinch of salt.

Storytelling through art, whether in the form of a painting, a piece of literature, film or however else you define it, has the capacity to communicate ideas, beliefs and/ or concepts better than simple words could. It can help us deal with things otherwise left unspoken, communicating them in creative and interesting ways. You may like the way some do it; others you might detest with a passion. And that’s all fine.

I myself can think of numerous examples when I have felt both ways about certain storytellers (and I use the term very loosely in some upcoming cases) who – in sticking with our theme – have presented their Christian beliefs through art. Thankfully, if the reception and wider impact of their work has shown anything, it is that good quality always rises to the top, regardless of the worldview held by its makers.

On one side, you have films like Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, which had a ‘resounding’ victory at the Golden Raspberry Awards earlier this year. This followed other overtly Christian films such as Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead from 2014, the latter of which was deservedly panned critically and came across as nothing more than a naive propaganda piece to the average discerning eye.

Kirk Cameron’s subsequent reaction to the negative reception that greeted his film – calling those who disliked it ‘haters’ and ‘atheists’ – showed that the man had no interest in whether or not his movie was actually any good by reasonable objective standards. Rather he wanted to see his own set of values promoted through any means necessary, with anyone who dared not like his style degraded for not agreeing with him.

This situation prompted some thoughts within myself at the time related to these questions: what should a good ‘Christian’ film, or any other Christian work of art for that matter, actually look like? Is a film like Saving Christmas, only liked by those who feel a strong sense of loyalty toward its clear intentions, the best you can hope for or expect as it pertains to conveying a specific Christian message? Is that message even necessary to put the Christian ‘spin’ on something? Are Christians going to learn at some point that to criticize something does not mean you’re working for the devil? Otherwise how would we feel free to judge the difference between good and bad quality at all within Christian art/ media, if to say something’s bad is only going to garner derision and accusations from your peers?

Well, those are questions to be thoughtfully considered and hopefully answered another time. On the other hand, there are many positive examples of Christian art that has found mainstream success. In fact one of the greatest fantasy tales of modern times, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, was bedded in Christian beliefs, from its characters to its mythology. Ironically though it is one many Christians would be wary of, for its elements of witchcraft, sorcery and of course the fact that it is ‘fantasy’ in the first place, therefore demanding a fair suspension of disbelief if one is to find their own meaning and enjoyment in the story. This accessible nature – not to mention Tolkien’s legendary attention to detail – was a large reason the tale found such mainstream success.

Of course I cannot talk about Tolkien without also mentioning one of my other favourite writers, C.S. Lewis, who felt Christianity was a means by which to see the world more clearly, rather than an excuse to remain ignorant of it. A filter, if you will, through which you can view not only the real world, but also fantasy and myth, which were particular interests of Lewis during his academic career alongside Tolkien at Oxford.

To Lewis, Christianity did not negate the importance of diverse storytelling; rather, it illuminated and enhanced the need for it. As the sun shines light on the physical world around us, so Christianity can shine light on our creativity and imagination in a way that helps us better contextualize and understand the things it produces. And likewise, how this creativity comes through in filmmaking, even if we should disagree on the finer details of how it is used in the end, is glorious. I daresay Lewis would have agreed, if he had shared the same passion for movies that he had for literature (the two are, after all, of the same extended family).

Writers like Lewis and Tolkien represented a more refreshing approach to Christianity in storytelling than the otherwise drab options available today. They both felt stories, fantasy in particular, and by extension the world around them as they understood it, didn’t have to be restricted or dictated by their beliefs, but rather set free by them. They took unique approaches, but Christian elements can be clearly seen in both of the respective classic stories these writers are most famous for.

Not that I’m saying we should just go backwards and copy what’s already been done in the past. For the pure sake of originality, I’d love to see new ideas emerge and different styles embraced. Some themes have been played out across all art over many centuries (I swear if I hear one more Hollywood trailer talk about someone being ‘the one’ to save us all in their perpetual regurgitation of cardboard cut-out Christ figures…) – to try something different would, in artistic terms, restore some respectability to how Christianity is viewed in the public eye.

So no, I’m not here to talk about religious paintings. In fact what I’ve written on this topic thus far probably comes across as a rambling selection of thoughts better suited to a book where they’d presumably be fleshed out in a more structured and detailed fashion. Perhaps I will do that. For now I’m happy just to leave it here, and hopefully, just maybe, it will have encouraged you, should you have taken the time to read through it, to come with your own considered conclusions.

"I'm just going to sit here and watch you as you read. 'Cos I'm creepy."

“I’m just going to sit here and watch you as you read. ‘Cos I’m creepy.”

Judging from some of the outraged reactions Christians have been having towards the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, released on Valentine’s Day, you’d be forgiven for thinking it signals the end of wholesome cinema (such a thing never existed) and/ or will somehow lead all females everywhere to actively seek out abusive relationships (just as certain video games actively encourage little boys to be violent, right?) – and most of all, is a terrible way for couples to use their day of ‘celebrating love’ if they should go and see it.

Wait a minute… I’m pretty sure Christians have traditionally degraded that last one because of the commercially driven way in which Valentine’s Day is typically viewed. Or does this secular ‘celebration of love’ (kept alive mainly by the outlets that want you to buy their flowers and chocolates) suddenly become your best friend when you have something more negative to compare it to?

Now, I could have written a number of different pieces on the topic here. I could have dissected not only the above points, but also discussed how, no, there doesn’t exist any evidence to suggest that abusive relationships have suddenly risen in the past few years since the Fifty Shades of Grey novels first appeared on the market.

Even if abusive relationships had risen in this time, correlation does not equal causation. What I mean by that is: just because a woman who may have read these books also happens to be in an abusive relationship, does not automatically mean the two are directly linked, or that one caused the other. While I can understand why you’d be eager to make this link (after all, abusive relationships are a horrible thing and you may feel emotionally charged about the subject to the point where you’ll look to find the nearest possible cause to blame), that’s a very big jump to assume.

I’d hope most people can see that, but it seems many don’t, including this article. Some would look at that situation and say such a conclusion is ‘so obvious’ that you have to either ‘be completely blind’ or ‘living on another planet’ not to see it. Actual evidence usually has little effect on such a closed mindset.

Those who are genuinely concerned about the kind of message these novels give, along with its subsequent film adaptation, understand that I’m right there with you on that. I don’t think the books had any great literary value and the film, while I likely won’t be giving it my money, is apparently, according to early reviews, actually an improvement on them. In fact, if anything I’d daresay it lessens the worrying tone of the books that came before it. Take this quote from Total Film’s review of the film, which it awarded with a distinctly dull two stars:

“What makes Fifty Shades so anticlimactic is that it actually starts promisingly: the light-touch first half is actually pretty funny, to the extent that it feels like a good movie-within-a-movie, a smart parody of the source material. It wills you to laugh at some of the dialogue and scenarios the book wants you to take seriously: a line like “I don’t make love – I fuck. Hard.” was surely designed for ironic whoops rather than genuine cooing.”

This film is not promotional material; it’s not something that’s going to lead every female watching to think the kind of sexual bondage it features is some dreamy thing to actively go out and seek; it doesn’t portray itself as taking any moral high ground. It sounds rather more like some kind of caricature of our society’s fascination with sex. And all Christians have that fascination as well. Don’t pretend you do not. You may approach it differently, you may contextualise it differently, but sex is a natural human instinct, important to all of us in some way whether we’re abstaining from it or actively enjoying it.

That’s the heart of the real frustration here for some people: the fact that others have different tastes to them. Believe it or not there are people out there who do find the bondage thing genuinely kind of sexy. There are many women who love the idea of a ‘bad boy’, if not the reality of him. It is these individual preferences to which this film (very clearly a fiction narrative) primarily appeals, and that it has reached such a large audience should tell you there’s a lot of them out there. Yes, even among Christians; hence why the more conservative see this text as such a danger. They don’t think these individual tastes are things other people should have.

Again, I reiterate that underneath the exterior, I don’t think the Fifty Shades story carries positive undertones for men, women, or storytelling in general. It pained me that the books became so profitable, and it pains me further still that the film gets a big Hollywood release. Even more, it pains me that everyone is giving it the attention it wants by talking about it. I debated whether I should do so myself, wary of giving the film extra publicity that it could really do without. As I have also mentioned before: the best way to prevent others becoming more interested in a particular film, book or video game (if this is truly what you want) is simply to starve it of your attention. For many things that rely on making a profit, this is the best way to stop supporting it.

However, that’s not really my point here. The reason I’m not going to write a fully detailed piece on this whole affair is because I’ve coincidentally already covered everything I have to say in a previous article: my piece about freedom of expression, which I posted just over a week ago. In that I also touched on how and why violence in video games is not in any way related to violence in real life (despite what American sensationalist media has tried to spoon-feed its society); there is quite simply no existing evidence to support such an audacious claim.

But now, some are latching onto Fifty Shades of Grey in the same way. Now they’re going beyond saying “I wouldn’t recommend you see this movie for these reasons” to saying “this movie is a downright evil piece of trash that sets out to destroy the lives of all women”. I’m sorry, I can’t agree with you there. Any criticism of the movie should be made with integrity at least, and from all reasonable accounts, it doesn’t come with ulterior motives to win innocent girls round to its seductive ways. It is instead, from what I’ve heard, rather dull. Though from the point of view of some critics, that makes it worse than the somewhat tempting, sensual piece some of you would prefer it to be.

So what do I consider a reasonable account? One that is balanced, for starters, one that looks at both sides and takes more things into account than just “I think this and am going to win others over with passionate words”. A good article is one that shows it has been researched, that its facts and arguments have foundation outside of the whims of its author. Passion is great, but not more important than truth. And I’m afraid a great many of you often use the former to exaggerate or even fabricate the latter.

My final point is simple, and it is pertinent to those Christians who misinterpret this movie as another form of ‘us against secular society’. Actually, there are a great number of negative reactions to the whole Fifty Shades saga from that end as well. This is generally considered a ‘lowbrow’ story, and isn’t exactly being celebrated by secular critics. It is quite far from a broad secular attack against Christianity or sexual values (which, despite your feelings to the contrary, are subjective to each individual) and, frankly, would have been a more interesting film if it were.

Short of asking you to be more tolerant of other people’s opinions and possibly, even for a moment, expand your horizons beyond your own individual tastes, I don’t know how much clearer I can say it… Though I’ll try simplifying the dilemma for those who may be confused by the stance I’m taking on it:

If you’re a Christian, there are some who recommend you don’t go to watch Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m one of them. I don’t think you’ll enjoy it – in fact I don’t think many people in general will enjoy it – and you’ll have to deal with the derogatory looks and comments you may be on the receiving end of from certain other members of your congregation next time you’re in church. But ultimately I would also say, if you were overly curious to see what all the hype is about, then it’s fine for you to go to watch this movie. You have a choice, and it’s your own personal responsibility to ensure it’s an informed one. This film’s not out to destroy your soul, or force you into the type of relationship you’d otherwise be uncomfortable with.

Not enjoying it really is the worst thing that can happen in this case. Nothing more, nothing less. Though as it is an 18-rated film (at least here in the UK), I trust you won’t be taking your young sons and daughters along.

Industrial revolution image 1.

It can be easy to forget how unhealthily prosperous we are in Western society. Much of humanity has drifted away from the ‘hunter-gatherer’ context in which we were created to thrive, and is now largely dependent on office jobs, fast food and mortgages to survive. Our minds and bodies protest in depression, obesity and drug or alcohol addictions – conditions that result almost entirely from our drab capitalist environment, inspired by the industrial revolution. It’s an intriguing crisis of modern society, intriguing because much of our society is still willingly ignorant of it.

The hardest work is now perceived to take place in front of computer screens for 8 hours a day or more. Time off is considered being able to watch some television or drive to the gym in your car to jog on a machine before driving home again. You will continuously hear that all of this is necessary, in order to ‘make a living’. To earn money for paying off mortgages and supporting your families, or to make a difference, whether it is ultimately for the world, God, or yourself. This is what we are told it is all about; some greater good that you are striving for. Your ‘prosperous’ life may seem terrible now, but it is all for a great purpose.

You may wonder what any of this has to do with my title for this piece. Well, I thought setting some context for one of the contradictions of Western society (that being the fact that we are prosperous, but profoundly unhappy about it) might be useful in making my overall point.

Never has our collective prosperity been more apparent for me than this past summer. As news emerged of people regularly being beheaded in Iraq, civilians blown up in Israel and Gaza, Christians fleeing from their homes all over the Middle East, the disconnect between our side of the world and theirs couldn’t have been more obvious.

Western ears perked up rather late to the atrocities. Even once they did, our leaders – you know whom I mean – have been very hesitant to take any action in regards to fighting for justice, for fear of resurrecting bad memories of their own historic failings. Only once it became apparent that these religious extremists intended to bring the war eventually to us have we truly accepted the urgency for action.

Forget the unfortunate thousands who have already been brutally murdered, beheaded in many cases, in their home countries; the security of our own shores is of paramount importance here. This is the philosophy we’ve been taught, and it is one you may subconsciously adhere to even if you have chosen to write a blog or article about the horrors of it. Only in hindsight will these horrors truly come to light in ways that will make people say, how could we have let this happen?

At this time, I can only regard such matters from the perspective of my own Christian worldview. I’m aware though, that writing a blog entry about how horrible these atrocities are is ultimately not going to have any more impact than the various secular news articles – most of them as well written and emotive as anything I could do – that cover the same thing. So this is not what I intend to do. Frankly, I just don’t have the kind of influence that could make a real difference globally.

There are others in my ‘field’ that have been gifted with this kind of far-reaching influence; a platform that could, and should, be used to guide other Christians in how we should react to these matters. They are the well-known Christian pastors that have shaped this generation of evangelical leaders.

I’m talking about the likes of John Piper, Francis Chan, John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, to name but a few, though I could list off twenty more. Any of you ‘fans’ of these famous pastors will rightly have just put your guard up and wonder, with apprehension, where I am going with this. Am I about to join the club that criticizes other Christians and therefore supposedly harms the integrity of my faith?

Well, yes, if that’s how you want to put it. Though I won’t be taking any sides. I won’t be saying MacArthur is right and Driscoll is wrong, because as in most cases, neither is ever entirely right or entirely wrong.

The common accusation that we are harming the faith by criticizing each other openly must also be subject to context. In many cases it has proven simply to be a convenient loophole, especially when the Christians we are referring to have willingly engaged with secular culture up to this point.

When it’s going well, and the wider community is growing to love them as much as their church congregation does, they may talk about how much of a blessing the Internet is in this modern age. How they are thankful beyond words to a graceful God for the amazing impact their ministry is having both further afield and closer to home, as their church continues to grow.

But as soon as they realise that this global exposure also means global accountability that could have a less than positive effect on their ministry… well, their attitude may change somewhat. All of a sudden the Internet becomes troublesome. All of a sudden, certain issues should be dealt with ‘inside the church’, and certain people should ‘keep their opinions to themselves’. Unless their opinion is a positive one; in that case, they may become useful again.

For me the truth of this, is that the church can’t have it both ways. If we are going to open ourselves up to our culture, in any context, then we must accept that our failings will be subject to the same attention. After all, isn’t this one of our motivations not to have failings? Isn’t it why our leaders need to be beyond reproach?

So let’s admit the problem here is not that everyone talks about those failings; the problem is that they are there at all. And no, I am not saying that I don’t have failings myself, and I understand John 8: 7. But the sinful woman in that passage was not someone with the kind of influence that the average Pastor has, let alone one with Celebrity status.

I am going to use Pastor Mark Driscoll as a case study, not because I have anything against him personally, but because it seems he is the best example of this in evangelical Christianity today. Others have been in his position; unfortunately it seems few have made quite as many mistakes as Pastor Mark.

Driscoll originally opened himself up to the exposure he has gained, and accepted the accolades (from both Christian and secular sources) when they came. He was interviewed on secular news stations about his New York Times bestseller Real Marriage when it was released. This was admittedly a fantastic opportunity to discuss Christian values in a forum that Christianity, certainly the reformed brand of Christianity that Driscoll aspires to, rarely receives otherwise.

At the time it was, anyway. All of the positive recognition Driscoll received (both for himself and the values he preaches) through the success of this book was arguably undone earlier this year, when it emerged that Mars Hill, the Seattle church where Pastor Mark is locally based, had paid a marketing company a significant amount of money in order to manipulate sales figures of Real Marriage.

You may protest that this is actually quite a normal and common thing to happen in the publishing industry. In which case, I would then ask if you think it’s fine for Christians to go along with something because it is normal and common by cultural standards? The answer to which has perhaps been distorted more than ever over the past decade.

Driscoll’s reputation has only been harmed further in recent months, as more disconcerting stories began emerging from Mars Hill. There was the leaking of some disparaging comments Driscoll had made on a forum back in 2000, although that happened fourteen years ago and should not, I think, factor too much in our opinion of a clearly more mature man today.

Much more concerning for me were the numerous rising accusations of a bullying culture at Mars Hill, coming both from fellow members of the leadership team and former congregants of Driscoll’s flock. These rumours have existed for a while, but it seems that as more people have spoken out, the more were given the courage to also talk about their experiences. Because now, with everything else that has emerged, they feel that the rest of us might actually listen to what they have to say.

As a man, I am sure that Driscoll is, on the surface at least, a cool guy to hang around with. But I wonder if he is cut out to be a pastor at all. The problem is, as I think the rest of us are starting to realise, the ability to embody masculinity and connect with people as a charismatic talker does not make a good pastor. In fact these things should be secondary to a caring heart that wants to leave no sheep behind.

Unfortunately I suspect these lines may have been blurred by Driscoll’s celebrity status and presence among other Christians. Blogger Adrian Warnock conducted interviews with him first in 2006, and secondly in 2008 after Driscoll had spoken at a Newfrontiers leadership conference in the UK. Warnock has been firmly defensive regarding every single Driscoll controversy, probably because of this personal attachment; a connection that many other Christians feel they have despite never having met him.

It is hardly surprising in Warnock’s case. Newfrontiers as an entire movement have been pretty enamoured with Driscoll since he gave them a heartfelt prophecy at that 2008 conference, which has shaped their subsequent direction and overall vision. It reportedly left most of their leaders in tears as they stood to give him a standing ovation, so moved as they were by Driscoll’s mode of deliverance when he spoke from the stage.

I have no doubt that many of the younger leaders subconsciously aspired to be like him. It is only natural; they wanted to grow their churches as Driscoll has done with Mars Hill. Driscoll himself told them they needed to be doing this better and faster at their own conference, almost coming across as one of the wise apostles; a trusted sage at the grand old age of 36.

Many of these leaders would now be very quick to speak up for their dear brother’s strengths over his weaknesses, as other fine pastors such as the universally respected John Piper have done, though it saddens me that this happens seemingly without much care given for those who have been gravely hurt by Driscoll, whether it be as a result of his impersonal leadership style or oppressive extended ministry.

Of course, you may say I just don’t understand. You may say it is inappropriate for me to even give an opinion on this, just like all of those other bloggers who apparently ‘don’t have anything better to do with their time’. I should perhaps stick to my fun little film reviews and let the intellectual, theologically trained, more experienced grown-ups deal with these mature issues away from the prying eyes of those who criticize.

Well, if that is the case, if Christianity is becoming something that the ‘common people’ on the ground level are discouraged from giving an opinion on, then I should think we are truly on our way back to the dark ages.

This, you see, is the greatest gift the Internet can give: a voice to those who previously would have had none. A voice, therefore, to those who have been hurt by Mars Hill church, and who have thankfully not been brushed completely out of sight, out of mind by aggressive ‘church discipline’.

I can understand how frustrating it is for those in authority – especially because not everyone can know all of the facts at any one time, and usually end up having an emotional outburst rather than approaching issues with open thoughtfulness. But the moment those in authority try to use it to take away our voices is an overstretching of that which God has given to them. For even He has not used his authority to take away our dissenting voices – despite the fact that, when it comes to God, none of us yet know all of the facts regarding his majesty.

When you take the stance that these kinds of issues should be dealt with exclusively in-house, you risk creating situations like the infamous child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, which was covered up for years due to a tribal attitude that said this is our problem; we’ll deal with it ourselves. Despite the fact that this was a crime for which the perpetrators should have been jailed long before any of the news emerged on secular media. This is not simply a problem confined to the Catholic Church either, as this story, involving another bestselling Christian author (Joshua Harris), shows.

The church is not above the law of the land though and, bearing those former details in mind, I almost dread to think what the world would be like if it was (in fact, we need only look back through history to see the clear answer). Fallible leaders lead imperfect churches, and they are subject to flawed people.

And here, finally, I hope to have fully illustrated the real problem I have with ‘Celebrity pastors’. They are not called this by accident. The attention they have gained is only what we have given them. In the end, one realises that Mark Driscoll and the hype surrounding him was our creation, not his. This normal yet charismatic preacher gained momentum as more and more people fell in love with his well-practiced yet dynamic style.

We evangelicals apparently find it more interesting to talk about doctrinal issues and church discipline, than the fact that Christians in the Middle East are dying without the basics of food, water and shelter.

I have not heard Piper or Driscoll or any of the aforementioned pastors use their platform to call Christians to global action in light of recent events. They seem more caught up on issues of personal integrity or biblical application in the context of the Western workplace. And they have little choice, because many Americans trust these pastors to help them cope with the unhappiness of their prosperous lives.

In fact I would not be surprised if they thought the long-term solution to the Middle East crisis was to ‘gradually make them more like us (Americans)’. This is, after all, how Western society has traditionally approached such issues. It all makes me start to wonder whether we are in danger of losing sight of who Jesus really was, by carving out this industrious, self-assuring culture for ourselves. For as long as we continue to focus on the names and the allure of celebrity pastors over His, I fear we may already have.

 

*Others have written more eloquently than I have here, about what we can learn from Driscoll’s problems specifically. Check out this article as among the best of them. Now, I take my leave of this contentious issue.

Marrying Tradition.

I have known it to be insinuated within the church that to be single is some great detriment to a Christian. You may be shocked at this admission, and wonder what churches would openly teach such a thing. But let’s not be naive about the issue. A church does not have to clearly state this position for you to hear it in their tone – and it is in the tone of many a Christian today.

You may be one of them without knowing it. Should you find yourself forming the opinion that ‘there’s nothing wrong with being single’, perhaps in a similar fashion to how you would say there’s nothing wrong with being ginger or there’s nothing wrong with having a disability, then I shouldn’t even have to point out the glaring patronisation in your thinking.

It risks creating a church culture in which singles are viewed as some kind of unwilling victims, through no fault of their own, and as a result they can end up mistakenly coming to think of themselves as such too. A fringe minority who, one day, may be ‘blessed’ enough to join the happily married elite; blessed enough to be healed of their ailment.

Should they not then wish away their singleness in prayer, they may go in the opposite direction by glorifying it – stubbornly claiming they wish to ‘be single for God’ and in the process fuelling the victimisation rhetoric. I do not want to argue for either stance here. Singleness was never meant to be viewed like this in the first place. It is, in fact, to be viewed as a valuable gift, as classified by and seen through the life of the Apostle Paul, rather than something to be wished away with haste or clung to through gritted teeth.

That’s right; I would even challenge those who say they don’t mind being single for a time – this seems to betray a desire to pursue marriage nonetheless, after a period of patiently waiting. I’d argue that singleness should be valued a lot more than merely something that Christians have to temporarily bear, as if it’s some kind of cross on one’s back. It should, on the other hand, be something that many more Christians crave. A mindset that shouldn’t crumble as soon as someone asks whether you’re happy to ‘grow old lonely’, as is the fear that grips many who suddenly grasp the idea as a vague possibility. But with faith and discernment, one realises how deceiving this disheartening whisper can be for a Christian who is saved by grace.

Consider, for a moment, how much of a spokesperson – or role model, if you rather – for the Gospel that a single Christian can be. We speak of Christ being our one and only saviour; the One who makes our lives worth living once we have come to acknowledge His death for our sins. For someone to live a single life is to show this truth in its fullest extent, relying on Jesus alone for a fulfilling, intimate relationship that even a spouse could not hope to replicate. Whereas a married Christian has to work extra hard to convey a relationship that, let’s remember, must go even further still than any normal secular marriage – or else where is the proof of Christ’s mark on their lives? As Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 7: 32-33, “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife”.

Some say they feel ‘called’ to singleness or ‘called’ to get married. Some even go so far as to say they feel called to marry a particular person. Really? I see nothing supporting that in scripture*. They may be called to something, such as a certain lifestyle or important task, to which singleness or marriage would be a helpful addition, but for singleness or marriage to be ‘callings’ makes little sense, as they have no real end in themselves. The wisdom Paul shares in the above passage is about helping his listeners make WISE DECISIONS about whether or not to marry, based on their own situations (1 Corinthians 7: 6-7). Nowhere does he say either one is directly ordained by God; as if He determined that you would always remain single, or get married three times over (you may argue that God does actually ordain these things, and I would say you’re probably right, but would also add that whether or not He ultimately does has no effect on our present concerns and speculating only serves to confuse matters).

Paul says that, in his experience, it is good to be single (verse 8). God’s calling didn’t come into it yet; it was a desire to pursue God’s calling that led to the decision. For Paul this distinction must have been obvious, for he would not have emphasised so much that it was simply a matter of choice otherwise – a choice to be made wisely nonetheless.

Likewise, Paul illustrates that to marry is not to step outside God’s calling on your life – there is just a slightly higher chance that you’ll be distracted from it. And I think we can see that a great many people are distracted, once they marry. It is to them we can look for creating this idea that being married is in fact a ‘calling’ in itself. But indeed, it is still better for a person to marry than to go through their entire life struggling without it (verse 9).

So we end up with this situation in the lives of some young Christians, who go through many years waiting for God to ‘call’ them into marriage with a particular person. They wait for some obvious sign, usually based on instinct or feeling, all the while perceiving their struggle to be a test of faith that they must bear in waiting for their reward. I wonder then what they expect to happen once they have found their spouse? That it would be the end of their struggles? No; I think at that point they may find their real struggle only just beginning.

Of course I have been avoiding the great elephant in the room here, making it seem as though this is simply about a pragmatic choice with a bleak outcome either side of it. We all know that the choice to marry, in many cases, is motivated by something larger; the emotion known as love, that can seemingly overpower everything in its wake when it is in full flow. In a way this surely makes it obvious for us who should marry and who should not. It should be as simple as the comparison between those who have fallen in love, and those who have not.

Yet in all of Paul’s writings on marriage, he does not recommend that people marry for love. His approach is as pragmatic as anyone. Outside of our love for each other as brothers and sisters, or our devotion to Christ, he does not mention the notion at all – hinting perhaps that he regards romantic love as of far lesser importance than these other two. His approach deals predominantly with God’s law regarding sexual conduct – which is one that romantic love often finds itself wanting to break, if left unchecked.

It should also be noted that if this ‘love’ by itself provided the recipe for a successful marriage, then there would a lot less divorce in the world. Many divorces are the result (whether directly or indirectly) of marriages that were once motivated by great love, but soon find that love, as with every superficial feeling, expiring. “We’re not in love any more” or “I’ve fallen in love with someone else” have become easy get-out clauses for a marriage built on this foundation.

I don’t mean to say that a marriage built on this foundation is bad – it is far more preferable than the alternative – but to expect the initial ride of euphoric love to last is unrealistic, and to say your covenant depends on it is to devalue the point of the covenant entirely.

Yes, marriage is something I do take very seriously. I feel a need to clarify this now, because those of you who know me personally will have been wondering it. You may have thought me unqualified to even speak on such issues, in my particular stage of life. At times I appear to be arguing vehemently for singleness when I am not, in fact, single. Worse than that: I am not yet married either, but speak as if I have experience of it.

Therefore I’m in the stage of a relationship that is most taboo of all among young adult Christians: the ‘we’ve been together for a while without having sex’ stage that so many think themselves incapable of enduring. Yet this does not, I think, make me unqualified, but rather more qualified to see both sides from their respective angles. I am not some single person with a chip on his shoulder, nor am I the married man pandering to those who lack what he has.

Bearing that in mind, I shall move on to this final group; the Christian who has made the choice that they would like to get married and is now actively pursuing a relationship that will be the prelude to it. And let’s be clear that it is only a prelude. There is no guarantee, however perfect it may look, that it will lead there. So do not, please do not, look for that guarantee before the relationship. It doesn’t exist. Waiting for it will be to shut yourself off from a multitude of potential opportunities.

In my experience I have also encountered those who take the stance that they need to get themselves ‘right’ or ‘sorted out’ before being ‘ready’ for marriage. An honourable notion for sure, but I get the feeling that it kind of misses the core point of a relationship, and marriage should it follow. That core point being the invaluable opportunity for two people to grow and get it right together.

To think of it any other way is like saying marriage is the culmination of all your hard work as a single person, when in fact it should be the opposite way around. A relationship is the start of the hard work, when you and another person can begin maturing together into better versions of yourselves in marriage. In a sense, when two people enter into marriage, they are stripping themselves bare. Whatever progress they may have made before that as individuals, they need to be prepared to let go and start from scratch.

Sound familiar? It should. I don’t think it is any coincidence that this kind of relationship, when approached in the right way, bears a striking resemblance to a Christian’s relationship with Jesus. We are told that to follow Him, our old selves must fall away (Ephesians 4: 21-24). We become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5: 17). Not that we are completely disregarding who we once were; in many ways this new self highlights who we really are. Especially when it comes to the bad parts. Relationships with those closest to us have a way of doing that.

In this we perhaps have the biggest hint of all as to why many people view marriage as somewhat of a higher calling than any normal relationship, and something for which they need to sort out their ‘issues’ beforehand. Those issues have not come from nowhere. They have likely formed as a result of past relationships, through which someone may have experienced this ‘bringing out the bad’ and found that they were not comfortable with it.

Therefore they look for a marital relationship that should not make them feel this way, but rather will give them ultimate contentment and satisfaction. The irony is that it does, though it could be a long hard road to get there. Those past scars can make people fear journeying down that road again. But I think it is the only one there is, this side of well edited Hollywood love stories.

Now, you may argue that the reason to get yourself right before going into marriage is because you want to be able to give yourself fully to the other person. I’d say the way you do that is not by trying to sort out all the bad parts of yourself first, but instead letting them see all of you, and work on it with you.

Also, if you are this person, I’d ask what your approach would be to a potential spouse who had these issues that you saw needed ‘working out’? Would you tell them to go and deal with it before coming back to you for an easier relationship/ marriage? If so then I think, frankly, they deserve a lot better than you.

Thankfully Christ does not show this kind of attitude in loving us. He doesn’t come with conditions that we need to meet beforehand, but you can bet that through the relationship – if you choose to proceed with it – you will mature to the point where you do meet those conditions in the end. It is the journey that makes a Christian, not the other way around.

Modern Western culture would have you believe that relationships are easily obtainable, self-obsessive endeavours that you can enter into and leave at will before choosing a spouse. It is the pattern we are all familiar with, but not one we receive from the Bible. The biblical model set out by Paul emphasises that this cultural pattern is backwards. It is one he too was familiar with among the early Christians, and no doubt a huge factor in why he seemed so painstakingly meticulous, yet not absolute on the issue. I’d like to think my approach is similar.

*Proverbs 19: 14 does say that “a prudent wife is from the Lord”, but that is not the same as being called to a particular person before they become your wife. A ‘prudent wife’ doesn’t just fall from Heaven for any man that waits for her. Make wise decisions and you will naturally be rewarded for it – this is the theme of the whole book of Proverbs. I see no reason to interpret this verse any differently.

There have been a few bad reviews of U.S. Christian movie God’s Not Dead already, and some of you may think, if you are Christian, that this is a sign of secular society discriminating against us all. We must rise up against this persecution by the devil and support a movie such as this when it gets the rare opportunity to be shown in mainstream cinema, right? Well, no. Not at all. People are not giving this film a negative review because of any bad feeling towards Christianity. They are reviewing it entirely fairly. Because take it from me: this movie is a dishonest, misrepresentative and all round dangerous portrayal of atheism and Christianity in society today.

I have heard it said that many American students go to college as a Christian and few of them remain committed to their beliefs throughout their four years there. Many will have come out a different person than who they went in as. God’s Not Dead portrays the idea that this is due to persecution of Christian beliefs within the secular college environment. Such a potentially false starting point is one we need to consider straight away, as it greatly influences how you will view the film.

First of all, consider the country we are talking about. This is the United States, where apparently 78% of the entire population don’t believe in the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection, thereby attributing our existence to God in some fashion. An impressive 40% of the population disregard the theory altogether and maintain that God created us in our current form. The country is predisposed to believe that God exists at least; it is not predominantly atheist, even within the secular environment.

So when I see the main character of God’s Not Dead, Josh (played by squeaky clean Disney Channel actor Shane Harper), being shown as the only person in his 40-strong philosophy class professing a belief in God, I’m inclined to suspect that this isn’t exactly an accurate interpretation of real life.

Second, the films ‘atheist’ antagonist is a supposed philosophy professor whose first line to his class tells them that he’s going to skip over any meaningful debate on the topic of God’s existence and instead ask them to simply sign a piece of paper saying that God is (you guessed it) dead. Curiously he then disregards this completely in favour of devoting three classes to a debate on God’s existence, after Josh is the only person in the class to refuse to do so. Eventually this uncovers the professor’s true feelings; he is actually angry with God for letting his mother die despite his prayers to Him.

Aside from being the worst philosophy teacher in history, Professor Radisson (who is intriguingly played by former Hercules actor Kevin Sorbo) is also a poor caricature of a typical modern atheist. The reality, I’m afraid, is much different. A ‘New’ atheist, as they have been branded, is not someone angry with God, refusing to believe in Him out of some naive sense of injustice.

Rather, they are unbelievers both because of the perceived lack of physical evidence available for His existence, and also due to supposed evidence to the contrary (such as that theory of evolution I mentioned). They are even open to being convinced otherwise, if you’re up to the task. Take this quote from another blog I read recently, written by an atheist, to see the kind of thinking that a film like God’s Not Dead finds impossible to grasp:

“It’s a waste of time to come here and tell me that I am a nihilist. I am not. Don’t tell me I think life is meaningless. I don’t. Don’t tell me that I don’t believe in any objectivity in morality. Because I do. Don’t accuse me of disbelieving in God with 100% certainty. Because I don’t. You are wasting your time if you attack these strawmen. When you attack positions I do not hold, I just shrug my shoulders and either ignore you (since there is no time to reply to everyone) or focus on correcting the record about what I really think.”

I’d also be willing to bet that young Christians falling away from their faith when they get to college is not so much due to discrimination, but more the discovery of things like sex and drugs. That is the harsh reality; humanity is weak. We are susceptible to temptation. But this film would rather have you think otherwise. They envisage a typical Christian as a good-looking, middle class student who breezes through college on the wings of strong faith and is nonetheless ‘persecuted’ for it by their evil professors.

You may argue that my reading of the film is entirely wrong. That perhaps I am at risk of being led astray by secular society and losing sight of my core Christian beliefs. Bear in mind though, that I am not only a Christian, but also a former film student. I know the difference between one that represents art and one that smacks of propagandist messaging. God’s Not Dead is a closer relation to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will than it is to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. I can testify to that; I see the glaring similarities to a film that misrepresented Nazi ideals.

Therefore, I would refute any suggestion that says what we have here is a fine example of using the cinematic art style as an evangelistic tool. There are much better ways to do that, rather than this sad offering to modern atheists who couldn’t wait to stick their critical teeth in upon release. And I don’t think, if we were to consider it fully, that any of us could really disagree with them.

The Cross.

Over the past week you may have heard (unless you’ve made a point of actively avoiding them) Christians speaking more than Christians usually speak about the core belief of their faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A belief that they emphasise as the most important facet around which the rest of their faith revolves, although you wouldn’t always think this based on what they may say the rest of the year round. This is Easter, though; the anniversary of said event. And we often feel a kind of guilty need at this time of year to emphasise it, because some will feel they have not done the event justice otherwise. The belief goes something like this.

In the beginning man sinned, turning away from God in the process (Genesis, chapter 3). From that time his fate was sealed, although over time, due to the nature of sin, man only found himself becoming worse. God answered this by sending a flood (Genesis chapters 6 – 8), inspiring a film that would come out Easter 2014 and which will be the subject of my next review, partly in judgment, partly for justice and partly for other reasons known only to God. Needless to say this didn’t really solve any issues – from our point of view at least – and one could ultimately argue its main point was to highlight just how deep a problem we’d gotten ourselves into. You may then retort that it’s an unnecessary overreaction if its main purpose was only to prove a point, but bear in mind that if it is indeed true, then whether or not it was an overreaction should probably be the least of your concerns.

Regardless, it didn’t solve the problem of man’s sin. Conversely, it seemed to be a curious story of grace over justice. After the flood, according to the story, God relaxed his laws on man eating meat (Genesis 9: 3-4) and even made a covenant with Noah never to send another natural disaster to destroy the world (Genesis 9: 11-17). You would think, if you were Noah, that surely this meant things could only get better from that point forward. The fact that, if anything, they actually became worse shows again how differently God must think in comparison to us. Our limited minds boggle. How the story continues then serves to boggle them further.

Many years later God sent something else, not in judgment over man’s sin this time, but to save them from the effects of it. This was a man, not a normal everyday man but fully man nonetheless, calling himself Jesus and claiming to have the authority to heal sickness, cast out demons and forgive sins, actions otherwise attributed only to God Himself. It seems that Jesus not only claimed these things, as anyone could do, but actually put them into action, to the extent that this initially unknown 30 year old carpenter rose to public prominence in the space of the next three years, long before the existence of any sort of national press to help spread the story.

You’ll hear people claim that most historians agree about there being a man named Jesus who really existed, who was really killed in a seemingly similar fashion as is described in the Bible, and you may rightly argue that this doesn’t prove anything even if it is true. If a historical Jesus existed, then all it might mean is our version of his story is a highly romanticised, exaggerated version of it; granted. Yet should this be the case, it still stands that the vaguest version of the story, which still has Jesus being killed within three years of his emergence, presents the same natural questions that we should ask even without considering the intricate details of the biblical narrative.

Questions such as; why would the Jewish Elders or Roman soldiers have had any reason to feel threatened by this man, the son of a carpenter who had only recently emerged on the scene, if he had not been showing the signs and wonders we read about? It would make little sense for them to react in such a way if he had merely been making claims and not following through; equally, it would make little sense that Jesus would have gained such a following as he did if he had not been showing evidence of his claims.

You could argue that he was a charismatic trickster, knew how to hold a crowd and pull people under his influence – and this explanation would work, if miracles were the only reason people chose to follow Him. But in fact, Jesus thought of miracles rather as a distraction to the real matter at hand (in Matthew 9: 6-8, Jesus physically heals a paralytic only so he may know that He had authority to forgive sins). He came to love, as God loves, and teach others how to do the same. To show grace and forgive sins, setting up the pattern by which His disciples would later follow. Miracles were never painted as the main event, and don’t let any Christian tell you otherwise – in most cases Jesus himself approached them rather flippantly (when approached by his mother about the lack of wine at a wedding in John 2: 3-4, Jesus responds with ‘My hour has not yet come’… He then goes ahead and turns water into wine anyway; his first miracle).

The so-called signs and wonders shown by Christ were merely an overflow of the thing that was already there, in Christ all along. They were, I would say, like an almost unnecessary show that was needed to attract the audience who would bring Jesus to His final end; His ultimate purpose for coming into the world. It is at this point where many people’s understanding starts to truly break down. But it is true what they say. An understanding of Jesus’ death helps to highlight everything else in an entirely different light.

Jesus not only claimed authority to do things otherwise attributed to God – itself reason enough to be accused of blasphemy. He went a whole astronomical step further, according to our version of events, actually claiming to be God himself. This, I would argue, is what pushed the authorities over the edge. Here was this guy garnering a massive following, putting Himself in the place of their God; something quite different from a mere mimic practising some form of witchcraft. It is the only version of the story, I would argue, that makes Jesus’ public humiliation and crucifixion look absolutely necessary. If he claims to be God and people seem to believe him, why not show them all how wrong they are?

The fact that this was supposedly God’s plan all along is where some will say the real problem comes. Where is the justice in sending an innocent man to die? Why not bring him down from the cross when he was clearly in so much agony, rather than sit and watch as it happens? These very questions were what inspired the mockers’ unbelief as Jesus hung there. They would have thought; surely if this man is who he says he is, He would be able to bring himself down from the cross and prevent himself from dying (Luke 23: 35). So let’s not kid ourselves into believing this kind of thinking is anything new. I grant that it can be a hard thing to comprehend for a perfectly reasonable, sensible mind. But there is a certain way in which it makes complete sense.

You see, even when man sinned and willingly turned away from God, turning instead to something that had no place in paradise, He still loved us. He loves us even “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5: 8). If you’re not the sentimental type (nor am I), you may cringe at this point, wondering why God would need to love us at all and thinking this is just Christianity’s way of appealing to the lonely, needy type of person who buys into the religion because ‘there must surely be more to this otherwise depressing life’. Well, yes, to be honest Christianity does intentionally appeal to those people. In part this was Christ’s mandate – to heal the sick, help the poor and provide hope for those who have none. So the fact that Christianity appeals to people in this way is not manipulative, but missional.

However, God’s love for us is not, I would argue, as simple as the emotional love that we have for each other as humans. That kind of love comes, goes, comes again and even expires. It is, at best, a brief imitation of some deeper mystery. God’s love for us is a creator’s love for His creation, but not just any creation. This was a creation closer to God in image than anything else He has made.

He could continue to love us even when we made it clear that we wanted nothing to do with Him, and even when we didn’t learn from His judgement. He perhaps feels a loyal affiliation with us that one only really feels regarding family and close friends whom we desire to be reconciled with after a long period of estrangement. Jesus’ death on the cross represents that reconciliation. In a sense it was God taking the big step on our behalf, willingly giving up something important to Him (His Son) in order to show us how important it is that we accept the offer and come back home. We are under no obligation to do so. It is a free offer.

There are many who would of course disagree with how I have portrayed the story here. They may say I have not emphasised Christ’s suffering enough, or the true consequences of sin, or the promise of eternal life given by Jesus’ resurrection after three days in the tomb. They would prefer that I appeal to your emotions and win you into the church building by making you feel bad, or fearful, or promising that you’ll live forever. I am less inclined to lead people to Christianity through these methods, because I do not want anyone to believe simply out of wishful thinking. If Christianity was not true, then no doctrine or way of looking at it would matter. No amount of wanting eternal life means that you should jump at whatever offers it.

What I have hoped to show instead is that even when we approach the event of Jesus’ death on the cross without the emotional baggage that comes with it, it still makes sense. It has meaning. His resurrection three days later is arguably a more vital part of the equation, but I have been approaching the topic in the assumption that, should the rest of this story be true, then that part should naturally follow. If you’re convinced that Jesus was God before He went to the cross, you’re less likely to be surprised by the story that He soon walked away from the tomb.

I know, no sooner am I back writing and I’m jumping into some theological debate. This one, though, has been more mainstream than usual, which has meant it’s been a little hard to avoid.

At the beginning of this month Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham (the creation ‘bloke’, as he names himself at one point) came together to conduct a debate on whether creation could be considered a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era. Some have speculated that this was a clear publicity stunt for Ken Ham’s struggling Creation museum (which, due to its nature, isn’t a fan of expanding – or even acknowledging – when new evidence emerges), where the debate took place. If publicity was its aim then it certainly succeeded.

Creationism (and let me specify that it is ‘young earth’ creationism we are talking about here) itself is something that many in the scientific community consider unworthy of even engaging with in debate – and frankly, if we take this one as a fair example, it’s easy to see why. Regardless, I’ve tried to be as objective as possible in my overview of how Bill Nye and Ken Ham each approached this topic. Here is my general breakdown of how the debate went:

To kick things off, Ken Ham argues that secular society has blurred the lines between ‘observational’ and ‘historical’ science – that people like Darwin have used observational science as a means to determine the historical. He says this is wrong. We cannot, according to Ham, perceive historical occurrences by merely present observation.

Bill Nye presents the debate as two stories. He tells of a story that was presented to him as a child, as true, before he realised upon growing up that, while the story had taught good values and morals, it was nonetheless false. He gives the impression that he thinks creation, and the Bible, should be seen in a similar fashion – as a sort of myth.

He then proceeds to outline how the fossils in the Grand Canyon do not cross over, having been found in multiple layers of rock. In other words, they at least give the impression of being from different time periods. He discredits the idea that Noah’s flood put them there by claiming that the animals would surely have swam to the surface if such a thing had actually happened.

Bill Nye also brings up one of the main points against Christianity as a whole: disagreement over creation among other doctrines. How are we to expect people like Nye to accept our ‘religion’, after all, when even within it we cannot agree on what is the right way to be a Christian, or whether what the Bible says about creation should be taken literally or not? We all seem to interpret it differently.

Thus, we arrive at one of the core problems that creationism is an example of – in openly discussing with the secular community what should, arguably, be dealt with among Christians alone, we end up making Christianity look extremely divided. This happens to the extent where ‘creationists’ are referred to as such over simply being, first and foremost, ‘Christians’ – that is, followers of Jesus. How would you know, on listening to the majority of mainstream creationists in debate of their dogmatic doctrine, that they follow Christ alone above all else? Because should that not be the case, then whether or not they are right in their creation account is nullified. But I’m guilty of digressing. Back to the debate itself!

Ken Ham continually presents videos of other influential scientists, apparently many of which are ‘closet’ creationists – note that he doesn’t specify whether they are young or old earth, which leaves the scope pretty wide indeed – who are afraid of coming out about it due to criticisms they would receive from the rest of the scientific and wider community. This perhaps may give the impression that he’s getting other people to do his debate for him, but at least in these instances he’s presenting evidence for his claims, something that can’t necessarily be said for the remainder of the debate.

Ham describes to us how the words ‘science’ and ‘evolution’ have been hijacked by secular society. He says that observational science shows young earth creationism to be true – admittedly without seeming to present any real evidence of how he came to this understanding. He just states that there is evidence, but I’m afraid if he isn’t going to go into what that evidence is, there’s no reason then for us to simply take his word for it.

For example, he lists some of the historical claims that the Bible makes, including the age of the Earth, events that happened surrounding the tower of Babel, the Great Flood, and all of humanity originating from one race, saying there is evidence to support all of these claims. Whether or not any or all of these things could indeed be classed as ‘historical claims’ made by the Bible would be a debate in itself, but Ham’s inferences about them clearly speak for themselves about where he stands.

He then states he “obviously won’t have time to go into all of them”, but in reality, this is his way of saying he won’t really go into the evidence for any. What he instead says almost devolves into a set of statements about what the secular scientific community is doing wrong, and how observational science outlines that creationism is true – trusting us, perhaps, to simply take the Bible’s (and therefore his) word for it.

One of the scientists in a video shown by Ken Ham states this; “I do my research from a creation perspective”. This seems to be the common practice of creationists in general, and it is where most others in the scientific community would say they make their first mistake. Is it right to come to science with the presupposition already in place that a certain kind of creationism is correct, and then trying to fit science in around that in a way that works? I’ll leave that question with you and move swiftly on.

Ken Ham plainly states that Charles Darwin is simply ‘wrong’, and then goes on to say again “if you look at it from a creation perspective” when attempting to explain why Darwin was wrong.

Ham then makes an average attempt to argue for God’s existence, saying ‘where do we get our morals from if not Him’? According to Ham, if there was no God then we may as well kill old people, because they’re clogging up our health system, and it is taking money to keep them alive.

This is tricky ground we get into here and, frankly, I think Ham could have done a much better job with it. The moral question is really quite simple. Yes, we get our morals from God, but no, we don’t necessarily need to ‘know’ God in the way that Christians claim, in order to benefit from these morals. For any Christian to assert that without God, we may as well ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ because there’d be no divine creator watching, is to give the impression that they themselves are only good, moral people because they know that God is always watching. Therefore when they do good things, we must question whether they are doing genuine good from their heart or good for the fear of punishment should they not. Of course, our real Christian message shouldn’t focus on either of these things. We teach that all are sinners and need repentance; we also teach that only through God’s grace we are saved and not through works. So whether or not someone is ‘good’ by our standards isn’t really the point (at least not in the sense we are thinking of here, anyway). Surely observational and historical science – if there is such a difference as Ken Ham claims – should show that all of humanity, in every culture throughout history, has had the capacity to be both good and bad regardless of religious belief?

Bill Nye then makes an assertion about creationism, based partly on his experience within this very debate: “It cannot make predictions, and show results”. This is, he asserts, precisely the opposite of what modern science is capable of doing, because it doesn’t come with the presuppositions of his opponent.

“Are the fish sinners? Have they done something wrong to get diseases”? Nye here shows a common misunderstanding of the doctrine of sin. Sickness is not a punishment for sin handed out to those who deserve it; it is the result of sin on a world now broken. I’d be reluctant to name this brokenness a form of ‘punishment’ at all. It is the natural outcome, or consequence, of sin; the only thing that it is really capable of – decay. This could naturally lead us on to questions about God’s sovereignty, certain passages in the Old Testament, even pre-destination and free will, but perhaps covering good and evil along with the problem of pain is enough for today.

In his conclusion, Nye’s opinion of Ken Ham’s debating style is simple. He states: “All you’ve done is come up with explanations about the past”. It is hard to honestly argue with this; Ham has not given any real evidence in a physical sense, but continually referenced the Bible as his starting point and then gave us stories and opinions based on that. In the end, it is also easy to understand why some other scientists refuse to get into these kinds of debates.

Yet, I would like to make one final thing clear. While I appear to have been more naturally critical of Ken Ham’s style and approach to this debate, it is not necessarily his stance I am critical of. In fact I would ultimately be more inclined to stand on his side of the fence. I would go even further and say that I think every Christian should feel the same.

Once we get into conversations among ourselves as Christians, things may then change. It is this crucial difference that I wish to highlight. You see, for the outsider it must seem incredibly silly that some Christians would agree more with Bill Nye than Ken Ham – that in fact, some of us may go so far as to ridicule the stupidity of these young earth creationists who pay little heed to any ‘real’ evidence. Yet what is their crime? Holding the Bible up as the true authority over everything, including scientific evidence to the contrary? In that case I agree with the outsider; it makes us look incredibly silly for being against them, especially once they hear our reasons why.

There is a deeper issue here of course, and it is one I will touch on again in future. Having just recently returned from a trip to the Caribbean, I had a chance while there to observe, over a decent period of time, how a slightly different culture ‘does’ church. My observation made me feel, admittedly, slightly uneasy. From what I saw, they are a people who, in general, do not put as much emphasis as we do on hard evidence – certainly not when it comes to Christianity, which appears almost untouchable as the dominant worldview in the region. Understand that I mean no offence to them when I say this; if anything, I mean it as a compliment. But it did remind me how arrogant we can all get when we think we know more than we actually do about something. This happens within both evolutionism and creationism. Just because you may feel inclined by your cynical mind towards one, does not mean you should immediately discount the other.

This is the true gripe most people ultimately have with Christianity; even when you have dealt with most of its other issues, there lies a final step before you can truly accept it as your worldview. That step is faith. You won’t get there solely by following the physical evidence, and there is little point, I think, in Ken Ham’s creationism trying to say you can.

A Cynic, With Sympathies.

I get angry when I see a slight twisting of the truth; angrier when people are driven away from simple biblical truth because of it; angrier still when it’s one of their very own Christian virtues used to accomplish such a twisting.

It is true to say that Jesus told us not to judge: He was the only one qualified to do so, and yet He chose to heal sinners rather than condemn them. But there were times when He did show this authority to judge, in Matthew 21: 12-13 when he angrily trashed the tables of those using God’s house for profit, for example. This was not judgment based on pride, as our own usually is. It is a fair, and just, judgment which ultimately we are all under; thanks to this we are convicted of our sin. But there’s a portion of Christianity, it seems, that doesn’t like this idea so much. It would prefer we didn’t think about it either, for fear that it would drive us away from church. This is nothing new, but what’s problematic is that so many currently seem to be speaking out in defence of such a message, for what I see to be the wrong reasons.

I’m basing this response off an article, ‘What’s the problem with Joel Osteen?’, that has been doing the rounds online. When I first became aware of it, to be honest I avoided it. I’m initially thinking; if you have to ask what the problem with Joel Osteen is (unless it’s a rhetorical question) then you’ve already missed something very big and very crucial.

So that was that. But then, it seemed a lot of people were taking this thing seriously, and were even using it to say; see, Christians, we shouldn’t judge each other because we’re essentially all in this together. Wow, wow, wow. Let’s backtrack a little there. Something didn’t quite add up. So indeed, I went back to read the article again (having glanced at it before), to see what it was all about.

Most of what’s wrong with this entire situation can be summed up in the following sentence from it:

“This critical behaviour and attitude is why many people do not want to be a part of Christianity or go to church, because they feel that when they go to church they will be criticised the way our leaders do to each other.”

If what this is saying is true, that this is us criticising each other and being hypocritical about our faith, then by all means it makes a good point. But to me it sounds more like a business model the author is advocating – a way to ‘get more people into church’. He sounds like he’s facing a common pressure in the life of a pastor: that is, the pressure to grow. The pressure to display that what you’re doing is worth your time and effort.

The thing is, I’ve heard statements like the one above many times before, especially throughout this past year. It has been used to urge the church to embrace sinfulness, because if we do not then people will simply ‘not want to come’, which is made to seem like the worst evil of all. Does the Bible tell us that people should want to be a part of Christianity? Does the Bible tell us that when people do come to our church, they should not feel criticised?

Now, don’t mistake me. I’m not saying we should judge even the worst of people when they walk into church. We can again point to the words of Christ to see that we are no better than they are; it is not our place to judge in the slightest. But the suggestion of the above article in saying we should “avoid criticising” is not really referring to us at all, but to the Gospel.

It is the Gospel that people feel offended by when they walk into a typical evangelical Christian church. It is that which they feel judges them, because they’ll find it convicting their sin, and guess what? None of us like that feeling when we first feel it (indeed, when we always feel it). It makes us feel like what we are: dirty, convicted sinners. It makes us ashamed to even dare coming close to God. It is also a feeling essential to our Gospel message; without it, you don’t really have a Gospel, at least not one concerned with anything beyond worldly blessings. C. S. Lewis sums this up in three lines:

“A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed.” (The Problem of Pain)

It is our Gospel message the article is attacking, in the guise of defending an influential man deceived by a half-false version of it.

This false version states that life as a Christian (and a ‘good’ Christian at that) will result in the earthly treasures we have mentioned – but the main problem with this version of the Gospel is not even its view of treasures. It is in its view of God. Could it be any further from the full picture of God we have in scripture? Where is the God who is wrathful towards our sin (thereby completing our picture of His love for us)? Could it be any further from Christ, who made the ultimate sacrifice of His own holy nature – for us – in coming into this broken world and enduring it to the end? This is the real Gospel.

Again, don’t get me wrong on this: I understand why one would want to defend Joel Osteen. I myself admit a certain sympathy for him, an urge not to criticise because he seems a nice guy who’s helping a lot of people. Perhaps it goes even deeper than that too. I recognise that I, like most others at heart, am guilty of this prosperous style of thinking. I’m even enjoying its benefits right now, in being healthy enough to write this.

We all have a natural preference for prosperity over poverty in the world. Would we not, deep down, all rather be healthy, happy and comfortable in life? Jesus never promised such things to each person – in fact, He told His followers to expect the opposite (Matthew 16: 24, John 15: 18-19). Then where, we might ask, has this current thinking come from?

Well, I think we can point to two things. The first is natural progression of civilisation. This style of Gospel, you see, in the form it now takes, is unlike certain others because it is relatively new, having only begun to emerge in the past two hundred years and exploding in America in the last sixty. This coincides with fast-paced technological growth and the emergence of the media, presenting us with a more expansive view of the world and easier access to things like news, politics and indeed, religion. The ease with which people can interact with these things has become almost frightening, to the extent where, even now, I am proving that one needs not be qualified to give an in-depth analysis and opinion of, well, anything they want. On the one hand this has created a lot more cynicism in the world; creating many people who would give anything for the slightest hint of hope wherever they can find it. On the other, we have a large portion of people who see this hope in many forms and in many people, but rarely, now, in Christianity alone. If there is space for Christianity then at least let’s have it with something, the modern world might say. Therefore it’s become too easy to take what may originally have been a Christian virtue, add something to it, and call it a better form of the original Christianity – a change or addition that one may say is ‘necessary’ for adapting to a changing society.

My second point is a direct expansion from this first one. I have said that Jesus didn’t promise health, happiness and comfort – but He did promise something that surpasses all of these: hope. Hope that we may one day reach the end of our present sufferings when we join him in His Kingdom. However, in the modern world, we are presented with an obvious problem. I have just been talking about the ease with which people can find a certain kind of hope in the world around them. It’s the kind of hope one may have upon first arriving on American soil bare foot and with only ten dollars to their name: the concept of the ‘American Dream’ which says anyone can be a rags-to-riches story with a little hard work and perseverance. This is what the world sees as hope. The irony of it is clear: it is, simply, a bastardisation of the Christian message, which promises hope but in a very different sense.

The Christian message says: our world is broken, and no happiness or comfort or pleasure found here can match that which is to come. If you look at Jesus, he was not a rags-to-riches story, but precisely the opposite. And He asks us to be His followers in this. The hope He promised was that of a reunion between man and God, between Son and Father, a hope that He proved fulfilled in his death, resurrection and eventual ascension back to Heaven. The latter of these three you’ll find is the least focused on in modern Christianity; one could argue as to its significance in comparison with the other two. Regardless, I wouldn’t say its relative neglect is due to any great fault on our part. It is more due, perhaps, to our limited perspective of living in the world, and the possible confusion it would cause alongside the message that Jesus is also ‘alive and with us’ – not to mention there is a certain uneasiness with some Christians as to its interpretation.

But it may be the case that a neglect of Jesus’ ascension – with our call to follow Him in life, death and ascension also – has in part created this problem (or maybe ‘confusion’) of a worldly prosperity Gospel message. Struggling to see beyond our current lives and situations, we could conclude that God’s blessings are focused exclusively on our experiences now.

So the world now offers something it calls hope, and portrays it as readily accessible to anyone bold enough to strive for it. In the face of this, many preachers appear to be playing the world at its own game, saying that rather than offering hope of deliverance from a dark world, God can and will offer blessings in a hopeful one. They’re not completely wrong, of course – God does offer blessings now as He always will. But to wait until someone or something is completely wrong before you point out a problem with their thinking is to wait until they’ve already passed the point where you can help, which is simply what those who ‘criticise’ (providing it’s without condemnation) are trying to do.

I’m going to shut up now for fear of overstaying my welcome on this topic. Inevitably it will pop up again I’m sure. After all, I just can’t seem to help writing about theology recently.

“For every careless saint who burns himself out and breaks up his family with misdirected zeal, I venture, there are a thousand who coast with the world, treating Jesus like a helpful add-on, but not as an all-satisfying, all-authoritative King in the cause of love.” – John Piper