At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Friday, August 29, 2014

Noah Through Three Different Sets of Eyes: Part 2

The biblical epic Noah has enjoyed a considerable amount of financial success and a moderate quantity of critical acclaim. In my previous post, I discussed my experience watching Noah through the eyes of a biblical traditionalist who takes the Scripture as God's trustworthy revelation. Yes, I was somewhat troubled by a number of things portrayed in Noah, but it wasn't a total washout (yes, I'm aware of the irony of that pun).

Now we turn to watching the movie through the lens of...

(2) A cinematic realist: One thing I'm compelled to say is that if you are profoundly disappointed by what you see in a movie on a Scriptural narrative, and the movie doesn't get it exactly right...well, what did you expect to happen? 

There are two reasons for this (among others). For one, no one should expect Hollywood to be a bastion of sympathy for strict biblicism. If you are rigid on these expectations, I have to question you reasons why. It's just not practical.

The other reasons is that Scripture is very, very selective in what it tells. The amount of detail in textbooks on American history is stunning, and that covers barely more than four hundred centuries (if you go back to the founding of Jamestown). The Bible's coverage stretches thousands or (in my opinion if you go back to creation) millions of years, and yet the story--though vibrant and colorful--is remarkably brief in comparison. My point is that even in a Biblical narrative like that of Noah, it lasts only from Genesis 6 through 9. And if you are making a two-and-a-half hour film, you simply don't have enough on-screen action material in what the Scripture presents in order to fill the time allotment on the screen. As a director, you are practically forced to make judgments, not only on what you will subtract onto the cutting room floor, but what you will add.

So they added Tubal-Cain. Aronofsky, in a decision that is his right as a director, took artistic liberty in his portrayal of "the Watchers" as the Nephilim of Genesis 6 (for one of many discussion on the Nephilim's identity, see this site). Some people might say, "It's wrong to show Methusaleh alive at the flood", although if you do the math and take the genealogy accounts in Genesis 5 literally (though that can be a big "if", as father can mean ancestor, as well), then Methusaleh would have died in the year of the flood.

There are many other instances of added detail. Sure, the Bible doesn't say the Watchers looked like rock giants who walked around like they had major hemorrhoids. But the Bible is silent on a lot, and Hollywood abhors a detail vacuum (unless you're Ingmar Bergman, who seems content to let silence carry you for awhile), so what the heck do we expect?

In short, let those of us who are biblical traditionalists have the humility to distinguish between contradicting Scripture and adding details to a story. Obviously, the latter can damage things as well and be unhelpful, but we have to take such merits on a case-by-case basis. And all this leads us in a proper direction...making sure that we know the Biblical story.

That's where part 3 comes in.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Noah Through Three Different Sets of Eyes: Part 1

It's been awhile since I've been here.

I haven't gone super-introvert, rest assured. I've been back at school and teaching has dominated much of my 6 am-5pm waking hours. Because blogging is an art that requires rest to feed one's mossy thoughts, I've had a devil of a time getting some scraped together for anything post-worthy.

Relax. It's not about the crisis in Ferguson, although I've talked and prayed about that with my students. I just think matters like that are best left to face-to-face discussion and it wouldn't be productive for me to engage in that matter on the Internet.

No. Recently, our family borrowed the Darren Aronofsky-directed biblical epic Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the eponymous patriarch. And we watched it. Twice. I'm not here to debate the critics' assessment of the film. I can see why they give it generally positive reviews, given the visual effects and the re-creation of the antediluvian world. 

Was I troubled by Noah? Yes.
Was I untroubled by Noah? Yes.
Am I hopeful about Noah? Yes.

Do you think I'm an insane split personality? Likely, but let me explain.

As I viewed the film, I found myself viewing it simultaneously through three sets of eyes. This required a heavy dose of sifting and thinking through the details, but I managed. The three perspectives were that of (1) a biblical traditionalist, (2) a cinematic realist, and (3) a practical idealist. So...each one in turn. And as always, you're free to disagree with me on any or all points. I'll take the first perspective today and then hit the next two in subsequent posts.

(1) The biblical traditionalist in me saw much in Noah that troubled me. As someone who has a high level of confidence in the Bible (keeping in mind we take seriously what the Bible intends to say about itself and not what we try to make it say that might not be there), there were some things that had me saying "What?"

First, what they did right. The guy's name was Noah. And there was a flood. Hit that nail on the head.

Now, the bad news. I was intrigued by how there seemed to be a push on how evil was spread by city life, by a less pristine lifestyle, and that increasing industrialization was implied as being parasitic and the locus of burgeoning evil. Don't get me wrong. I think we are charged to be stewards of God's earth, to fashion it and take dominion as in creating a work of art, not to exploit things. But to limit evil to just that is to miss the cosmic dimensions of what sin really does. Evil affects everything. The reason why Romans tells us the whole creation is groaning is because there is something about this world that we know something's broken and it needs fixed. And that is not limited to the workplace, but to the human heart, and it extends to the soil that desperately tries to bring forth food and to the animal kingdom that engages in cold, barbaric struggle alongside any nurturing element. In the film, Noah views it as God's justice to eliminate humanity, going so far as to swear that he will kill his granddaughters once born, implying that a world run by animals will be one of innocence. And the film strays from any sense of humans being made--as God himself so aptly states in Genesis 1--in His image, reflecting God's nature to a limited degree and representing him on earth.

The idea of salvation is skewed. God is pictured as a capricious being who demands perfection and can turn gears in the blink of an eye. Now sometimes in life it appears God can do so--we don't fully know the ways of the Almighty--and we can be baffled by God's ways. No reasonable person should doubt that.  And God does demand perfection...the truth is that for us to grasp that, we must grasp on to Christ in faith, trusting in his perfection in life and in death. But the one-sided view of God--called "the Creator"--is that of brutal judge, a silent partner in the cosmic dance who communicates at best through visions that could pass for acid trips (not that I have the experience to know) or who--as the antagonist Tubal-Cain screams--has orphaned humanity. By contrast, Scripture says that undeserving Noah did not earn favor in God's eyes, but rather "discovered grace in the eyes of the Lord" (Genesis 6:8). The Biblical picture is not that God needs us, but he does want us. And he loves us, not because we've struggled to earn it, but--as my friend Cameron Kirker once said--he loves us simply because he loves us.

Also, I was troubled by no sense of a positive ethic of the creation mandate found in Genesis 1, of God's command to "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth...have dominion". Basically, the idea comes out that "dominion" must mean domination. That can happen, but these are not automatically overlapping concepts. Yes, there is an ecological side to our place in this world, and that is in with a lot of other fun, vibrant stuff wrapped up in Genesis 1. God is saying, "Make an art gallery out of the fun stuff I've given you, which--by the way--is good stuff." Sin and evil can drive people to use good things for bad purposes, but that is not God's intent. Watching Noah you wonder if God ever intended his creation to have joy or rapturous excitement in their creative capacities.

I was somewhat disturbed by Noah's capricious back-and-forth, turn-on-a-dime personality as the movie wore on. He changes his mind on the fate of their group in the ark as you can see his eyes growing more bizarre and disengaged, like the flood's massive PTSD potential has burst forth and he's given up. 

There are some other minor details that--while not heretical--had me face-palming at points. The aged Methusaleh, Noah's grandfather (played by Anthony Hopkins) seems to be in the plot more for comic relief than anything else. The vicious Tubal-Cain, son of the murderous Lamech of the evil family line of the also-murderous Cain, is injected and spliced into the story when there's no evidence he would have been around the territory raising hell; at least, the Bible is notably silent on who were the lead evildoing personalities.

Still, there were some redeeming qualities in some portrayals. When Tubal-Cain shouted, "A man isn't ruled by the heavens! He's ruled by his will!", I thought, You know, that kind of gets closer to the heart of the unfaithfulness, pride, and rebellion at the core of sinfulness. Although, as I mentioned above, the Noah-as-PTSD-victim wasn't necessarily a helpful portrayal, the film does make an honest attempt of showing Noah as a flawed patriarch and humanizing him rather than elevating him to automatic sainthood. There is an earthiness to the character that our Sunday School stories attempt to sanitize from our youth (how many of us were steeped in the Genesis 9 account of Noah's drunken and fleshly exhibition, for example?)

And I couldn't help but get a frisson of I Peter 3 that I found particularly impressive in the film. Noting the judgment will come in the form of water instead of fire, Noah says, "Fire consumes all, water cleanses." The words of St. Peter vividly rushed to mind:

"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which...eight persons were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

Yes, from a biblical traditionalist's vantage point, I was troubled by much, but there were some "Aha!" moments in the midst that mitigated the disappointment.

Next time, the cinematic realist in me will take the stage, and that side is much more okay with the film.

But you'll have to wait a few days.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Ten Years of Vows With the Only Refuge

Ten years ago today, I stood in a church in Salisbury, North Carolina, and affirmed solemn vows that would mark the course of the rest of my life.

To answer your next query, Christy and I were already married with two children, so these weren't our marriage vows. The sanctuary was playing host to a worship service that involved my ordination to the ministry as a Presbyterian clergyman. It was a day that was a blur, as almost all the members of the small congregation that I would serve were there.

It was a church revitalization project that would become more daunting in the weeks and months ahead, as it always does after the honeymoon period. I was entering public ministry with a head full of dreams that I prayed aligned with God's own, as well as with a firm hope that if one preached the Bible faithfully and reached out to others, God would give your church whatever reproducing it needed for that time.

Things didn't quite turn out that way over the following fifteen months. I haven't been able to seriously consider going back into church ministry since then, mainly because teaching fits better (and sometimes I joke that I'm holding out for the Anglicans to make a better offer). But in looking back on that day, I found that what was shared and implored when I was ordained was not for me when I served as a pastor in Salisbury. It was meant for the rest of my life. If there was a theme for the day, it was a spot-on match with the words of St. John Chrysostom when he said, "My work is like that of a man who is constantly cleaning a patch of earth into which a muddy stream is forever flowing."

One memory of that afternoon came from Jamie Hunt. Jamie has since retired as the senior pastor of Coddle Creek Presbyterian Church, just a half hour west of where we were gathered that day. In all my dealings with Jamie, I have found him to be a gracious Southern gentleman and who never turned down someone in need. Jamie gave the charge to me as the incoming pastor and new ordinand. He didn't back down from what I would face in the time ahead--and it made me wonder if he had an inkling about it. But his point was that there would be some bomb craters and bullets given enough time. And sometimes I would be leading and then looking back before realizing I was the only one trying to take the hill. But if God wanted me there, God would sustain me, Jamie said. Yet what is right and good is not necessarily popular, even with God's people. "The day may come," he said, pointing at me with pastoral affection, "when you may have to stand alone."

The other memory of that time occurred later that evening. My father, who is still going in ministry like the Energizer bunny, was the one I asked to preach at the service. It also happened to be thirty-five years to the same weekend when he was ordained in a small Presbyterian church in northeast Kansas (which, no offense to Tar Heels everywhere, I would take over North Carolina any day of the week). Dad left a note behind when he and Mom left, and I still have that letter to this day because it has driven so much of what I do in my job as an Ethics teacher or an occasional preacher.

Dad began by admitting he'd been thinking for some time about the biblical picture of "the man of God with the Word of God", who stands--as it were--with "only" the Word.

Dad continued, "That is where I pray you take your stand, with no reason to be ashamed...It is an amazing pleasure to be with you at your ordination. It is thirty-five years ago this weekend when I was in your position. As I look back, I can't claim many ripe successes. I can honestly say that a ministry under the Word is neither highly lauded nor particularly easy. But it is the only refuge for you and God's people...You and Christy are ever in our prayers."

Those words and the truth behind them sustained me through the failure and frustration of my labors until we were delivered to another field of fruitful ministry. For whatever reason, knowing about that "only refuge", kept me plowing back into the Bible, trying to preach it as carefully and compassionately as I could, and God would do whatever he did, and that would be fine. The perspective Dad gave was extraordinarily liberating. And in a world of ministerial moral failure due to either sexual proclivities or heavy-handed tactics (I brushed on this in my "open letter" post), it peels back all the man-made layers of supposed success and forces one to rely on Christ. Which is the point of faith all along.

Since that day, I've seen others enter the ministry. I used to think of it as a celebration of God's provision. Now I feel more like we're back in 1914 commissioning British lads to go off to the trenches of Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele. Ordination is a starting line, not a finish line, and my celebration is always cautious, if it arises at all.

But whenever I pass on hope and advice, I use my dad's words. A couple years back, the husband of one of my former students had landed a position as discipleship pastor at a church near Indianapolis. We had corresponded leading up to this (and now have the added cyber-fellowship of being Facebook friends and Twitter followers) and as he was set to embark on his new endeavor, I felt it only right to send Tom a letter to encourage him.

And nothing else made more sense in it than echoing my father words: A ministry under the Word is neither highly lauded, nor particularly easy, but it is the only refuge for you and God's people.

Ten years since that day, and that refuge is becoming more a part of me than it was before.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Forgiveness: Wishing Your Enemy Well

Sometime back I posted about an individual who had wronged me professionally in a church situation some time back. This person had recently been convicted in court of sexual abuse charges and is now going to prison for the rest of my life. While the sexual abuse wasn't against me, I was thankful that justice was done given the thorough conviction of guilt. I had moved on from the church shenanigans and since I'm serving elsewhere, I had what I believed to be detached observer's view and one that merely had commented that this was God's way of breaking the teeth of the wicked (Psalm 3:7). And that was it.

In truth, I knew that wasn't it. There was something wrong with the way I had written the post and I knew it. Why--when I believed to have put all this professional pain and anger behind me--did I feel like I was carrying something around that, while not painful, was still like an extra annoying weight that I didn't need to transport.

I started to think maybe I should re-think things.

That's when a wise friend and former colleague emailed me, telling me he had read my post and sincerely felt my pain. But he urged me to consider the following:

Ask the Lord if you have forgiven this guy and love your enemy.

Ask the Lord if He would have finished the post the way it was finished.

Yeah, the Holy Spirit was speaking through my friend.

Whatever this guy from North Carolina had done to me and others was in the past and I needed to act like it. But there was more. My friend had asked me if I could love my enemy...of course, Jesus said we'd have enemies (see the Sermon on the Mount)...but one of the criteria of love (however the intensity or shape of it) is willingness to forgive.

Forgiveness is entirely in my court, in other words.

It means to be willing to not let the wrong done to control me. It means saying that whatever was done, God saw it, God has covered it by his justice and not mine, and that's that. 

But it goes deeper than that. It means first of all dropping the weight of resentment--whether it be a handbag or a suitcase full of dumbbells--and refusing to carry it around for one minute longer. It makes no sense to live life holding on to the anger and resentment. You know those rolling walkways in airports where people can just stop walking and glide from spot to spot? I've noticed so many times that people refuse to take a break when gliding on the ground, and they hold on to their luggage and refuse to lay it down.

I always have thought that was odd, until I realized through my friend's words that I was doing the exact same thing.

Resentment is a choice. Willfully carrying around this kind of smoldering flame is done on purpose. And so is refusing to do likewise.

I have come to realize that this man in prison doesn't need my resentment and anger. It won't set him free.

And it won't set me free. And I need to be free as well and not allow this to control me.

But the final piece of the puzzle came from remembering something Rob Bell said. Yes, my traditionally theologically conservative friends will point out problems with quoting Rob Bell, and of course, there's areas where Rob and I would disagree. But that's immaterial here, because one thing Rob has said on forgiveness is a gold mine. It's within his NOOMA video called "Luggage" that he says that part of forgiving someone else means "I have to wish that person well."

Talk about a sucker punch to the spiritual groin area.

A sucker punch I needed, to be honest.

And I'll admit that, hard as it is, I need to wish this person, wrongdoer that he may have been a long time ago, well.

I should want the best for this person.

I need to be able to ask God to redeem what is left ahead for this man. I need to plead with God that He would show this man his continuing need of him, to be forthright and transparent, and to be cleansed anew every day.

And that's when I realized that even though my sins are different, they deserve God's displeasure just as much as this man in a North Carolina prison.

So I want to wish this person well. I don't have the foggiest idea what that means. But God does. And I can let God be God rather than trying to worm my way into that role and make a mess of it.

And in the end, wishing your enemy well is a good place to be. It's definitely a lot less tiring.