Some folks have asked me whether they should go see Noah or not. I can understand the question, because my Facebook feed has been overfed with people posting articles from Christians about why they should or shouldn’t see Noah.
I’m not going to pretend that my opinion on the movie is important enough to induce you to go or not to go. Frankly, I think we have so many opinions on the subject that they are all (including mine) unhelpful. Advice from 100 sources is as good as no advice.
What troubles me about the posts from Christians about this movie is not their conclusion about seeing it or not, but about their method of evaluating it. Some of these same Christians probably see other movies with less discrimination, but set a higher bar when a movie at least has a pretense of relating to faith.
In the case of Noah, these Christians have complained about the director being an atheist or God not being in the movie and so forth. This is all silly. This is not a biopic on Noah (which is frankly impossible). This is a movie, inspired by a story in the Bible. Greeks didn’t complain when 300 came out, saying, “Hey, that’s not really what happened! We weren’t that good at fighting…or in shape.” The faith of the director has nothing to do with whether one should see a movie or not. I’m sure there was at least one atheist somewhere who worked on The Prince of Egypt. This isn’t a conspiracy to subvert Christians by making Noah out to be something he’s not. Rather, use this as an opportunity to introduce curious people to the Bible’s Noah.
The only real evaluation we should have is whether or not the movie is good. I mean that it is good technically, artistically, morally, etc. At worst, some of us are being hypocritical. We just need not overreact every time society handles the Bible in a new way. While our job is to teach it accurately, we should take it as a sign of the Bible’s cultural legacy and lasting significance.
I believe that the Bible teaches that when you’re dead you “sleep.” No immediately trip to heaven or hell. No immortal soul.
But that doesn’t mean every argument in favor of that position is admirable. One less-than-reasonable arguments Adventists often use goes something like that:
"People can’t go to heaven when they die. Can you imagine your grandma looking down and seeing all your suffering? Would it really be heaven for her then?"
Once you begin to reflect on this argument critically - that is, once its protective halo is removed - its weaknesses become immediately apparent. Obviously, there are humans like Elijah and Enoch in heaven. Have they been miserable for the past few thousand years? Do we doubt that intimate fellowship with God is insufficient to make heaven heaven?
When we use poor arguments we do poor theology. So lets keep studying, questioning our methods to make them sharper and stronger.
There’s this restaurant in Toronto I made reservations for a few weeks back called O.Noir. The entire wait staff of the restaurant is blind, and the goal of the restaurant is for you to experience what it’s like to be them. The effect is an eating experience in complete darkness. They don’t even allow watches that glow in the dark. THAT is a dining experiment/experience. Hopefully, it builds empathy in people. People need more empathy.
With Ryan Bell’s experiment in living an entire year without God, I’m less impressed. From what I know of him on Facebook, he’s an extremely thoughtful, compassionate guy - the sort who would LOVE O.Noir and what it aims to do. He has advocated for community responsibility, sometimes going further than I’m comfortable with, but nevertheless viewing his Christianity as something that informs every area of his life in a way most Christians don’t. And let’s be honest and admit that there are many pastors that are spiritually exhausted and need a break. There are many Christians who secretly harbor gnawing doubts about God. It’s okay to stop and address that. It’s not a sign of weakness.
The problems for me are illustrated in a recent list of “observations” he made about his journey thus far. The first begins as a result of being let go from teaching positions as Azusa-Pacific and Fuller Seminary:
1. Religions institutions (Christian, in my case) are not able to endure these probing questions from their public leaders. My process for the next year does not square with official faith statements and creates untenable discomfort among members. Donors, it is feared, will pull back their donations. My inquiry is the beginning of a slippery slope and they simply can’t risk it.
I think it’s natural for a seminary to let go of a guy who intends to at least temporarily live as if God doesn’t exist. You cannot expect them to support a path that runs in the opposite direction as their own anymore than a wife could be expected to support her husband’s year-long experiment with living like a bachelor again. I mean, can any institution endure “probing” questions from their public leaders? Imagine if Harry Reid started publicly musing that maybe we shouldn’t have medicare, social security, or ObamaCare. Would it be unjust for his fellow Democrats to marginalize his influence? Or imagine if a football player suddenly decided in the middle of a game that he wanted to see if playing for the other team was better, and promptly ran backwards towards his own end zone. Would the coach be wrong to take him out of the game? To say “they can’t handle the depth of my honesty” seems a bit self-important. Undoubtedly, many of the reactions to his journey are riddled with insecurities about asking any sort of question. But you cannot pigeonhole every religious institution. By definition, atheism doesn’t square with any official faith statements. Atheism is a lack of faith in God. It’s not about money, as Ryan seems to suggest, but principle.
2. Christian educational institutions are not serving their students by eliminating professors that are on an honest intellectual and spiritual journey, just because it doesn’t line up with the official statement of faith. My guess is that many professors at APU, Fuller Seminary and other Christian universities, have a wide range of opinions about the official faith statement. The difference with me is that I publicly declared my disagreement, or at least uncertainty.
Mr. Bell is correct that there is probably a wide variety of beliefs on certain doctrines at any religious school. But you cannot confuse two people who disagree about the nature of Hell with someone who doesn’t believe God exists at all. That is, the first two people are disagreeing within the Christian framework. The other has chosen to dismiss the Christian framework altogether. We may have different ideas as to where the best place to sit in the car is, but anyone in the car is infinitely better positioned to get somewhere together than the one left questioning outside of the car. Ryan would paint the problem as a group of narrow-minded Christian institutions who are not big enough to incorporate him, but this is a little too self-charitable. Christianity is broad and has much room for different beliefs, but it cannot be self-destructive.
3. Those who “come out” as atheist face serious consequences in our society. They are among the marginalized groups that get the least attention. I know this now from personal experience. Many people who have commented here or sent me private messages have told me heartbreaking stories of the suffering and estragement [sic] they have endured. Others have said they are still closeted because their family, friends and employers could not bear the news.
I wonder about these consequences atheists purportedly suffer. It is true that no overt atheist has been elected president, and at least going through the motions of Christianity seems to be required for high public office. But these are the expectations of a nation which has for most of its history been filled with a majority self-professed Christians. “Come out” as a conservative Christian in some parts of the country and you can face the same consequences Bell describes. For that reason I’m not inclined to think atheists as victims. How is it that atheists get the least attention? Americans who claimed to be religious dropped 13% from 2005-2012. What is at issue here is not the repercussions of considering oneself atheist, but doing so when employed by Christian organizations. Hopefully, they have treated Mr. Bell with respect and kindness. But did they have any other choice?
In conclusion, I think it’s important to deal with one’s doubts in faith. No one should judge Ryan Bell for that. We should not repress our questions, but engage them with frightening honesty. I can’t help but admire Bell for throwing out his economic security and positions of influence to follow his conscience. But I also think that you should be able to deal with your questions within the framework of faith. One doesn’t need to give up on God in order to study atheism. I feel the experiment is done honestly and I support him personally. But I question whether this is the best way. I feel you can do the best work on your marriage from the inside, not the outside.
I close with the words of Mircea Eliade:
It must be asked at once that such a profane existence [defined earlier as “divested of all religious presuppositions”] is never found in the pure state. To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior…even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world.
Sitting on a bus now as we wind our way up through the dark the ascent to Jerusalem.
A shoutout to Turkish Airlines for making it as pleasant as possible. Slippers, lip balm, a toothbrush, and a hot towel. But there’s only so much you can do on a 10-hour (16 hours elapsed) flight, followed by a two hour puddle jump to Israel. I was fed breakfast at the end of the first flight and dinner two hours later at the beginning of the next. Where did lunch go?One lady in the long leg of the trip asked me if I could hear a beeping noise. She looked alarmed. She asked what we should do and I said we should eat our breakfast. She looked scandalized. I said well if it’s something bad there’s not much we can do but jump out. So might as well have a good breakfast while we wait :) hah
We are arriving at the hotel soon, so your faithful correspondent will sign off for now.
It should be noted very, very, very clearly from the beginning that we need to understand Ellen White’s statements in her context, not ours. From her perspective, what she and the fellow early Adventists were doing was challenging the prevailing winds of American culture and American Christianity in many respects. The “conservative” spirit was that which would hold them back and “compromise” for the sake of peace with the world. She saw Adventism as built upon the foundations of the Bible but ever growing and moving forward. As the statements below suggest, she would not slow down progress to accommodate the world:
Testimonies for the Church, 5:262-263:
When God raises up men to do His work, they are false to their trust if they allow their testimony to be shaped to please the minds of the unconsecrated. He will prepare men for the times. They will be humble, God-fearing men, not conservative, not policy men; but men who have moral independence and will move forward in the fear of the Lord. They will be kind, noble, courteous, yet they will not be swayed from the right path, but will proclaim the truth in righteousness whether men will hear or whether they will forbear.
Counsels to Writers and Editors, 38:
Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end. But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s word, and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative, and seek to avoid discussion.
Testimonies for the Church, 5:463:
The work which the church has failed to do in a time of peace and prosperity, she will have to do in a terrible crisis, under most discouraging, forbidding, circumstances. The warnings that worldly conformity has silenced or withheld, must be given under the fiercest opposition from enemies of the faith. And at that time the superficial, conservative class, whose influence has steadily retarded the progress of the work, will renounce the faith, and take their stand with its avowed enemies, toward whom their sympathies have long been tending. These apostates will then manifest the most bitter enmity, doing all in their power to oppress and malign their former brethren, and to excite indignation against them. This day is just before us. The members of the church will individually be tested and proved.
Testimonies for the Church, 5:370:
Elder M, as president of the _____ Conference, you have shown by your general management that you are unworthy of the trust reposed in you. You have shown that you are conservative, and that your ideas are narrow.
While some of what Ellen says can apply to theological liberalism today, some of it still sticks to what we call conservatism. I believe Ellen White advocated a healthy balance of always improving, growing, and learning new things while not giving up the old.
I want that balance as well.
Here’s how a common argument unfolds against Christians participating in Halloween:
Okay, so maybe “unfolds” is the wrong word for it. It’s actually pretty simple. The assumption, of course, is that “pagan” equals “bad.”
[The History: Probably started as a Celtic holiday were the gods needed to be propitiated so the people would be protected through the Winter. The spirits of the dead were also believed to return to the Earth and sometimes candles were lit for them or whatever. It’s not at all clear.]
Here’s my thing: paganism is everywhere. Yes, Christmas and Easter and Halloween and New Years and Saturday and January and Sunday and March and Tuesday and May and Friday (“Day of Frigg”/Venus)…
The Quakers are probably the most honest ones among us, as they refer to the days and months by numbers, rather than their pagan names. For instance, today would be “fifth day.” Simple.
So if you’re going to make the pagan argument, go all of the way. We are far too selective in what paganism we oppose. You’ll find pagan meaning in various shapes and pagan influence in various works of art. Does calling the day Saturday or celebrating Christmas or dressing up like a pirate and going through the neighborhood (the only door-to-door work we don’t complain about, amiright?) somehow make you pagan? Does paganism rub off on you? Do we really think that these things somehow constitute worship of some long-forgotten deity in the hills of Ireland? If that’s all it takes, then are people who sing Christmas songs from the radio like “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World” automatically worshiping the true God? No, even though Christian Christmas songs are more obviously an act of worship than calling a day “Saturday” is an acknowledgement of the Roman god Saturn. We assume paganism is a one-way street.
In short, the pagan argument against Halloween (or Christmas or Easter) is a form of superstition. Nobody thinks of some Celtic Druids when they celebrate Halloween. Nobody thinks of Mars because it’s March. The modern practice of these things has so far drifted from their origins (which are unclear) and meaning that it’s crazy to try and compare them. Many of the same Christians who boycott Halloween are complaining that Christmas has been commercialized or secularized a few months later. Both were originally pagan celebrations that became Christianized. One operation was apparently more successful than the other.
Paul clinches this for me in his advice to the Corinthians over meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 8v4-6):
“With regard then to eating food sacrificed to idols, we know that “an idol in this world is nothing,” and that “there is no God but one.” If after all there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we live, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we live.”
Did you catch that? Maybe the pagans see some significance in the meat dedicated to their Gods, but Christians don’t believe those gods exist…so what’s the problem? What sense does it make to be superstitious about other peoples’ superstition? To stand against Halloween because you are superstitious about some mystical pagan influence sounds awfully close to what you’re fighting against.
There are some elements of some of Halloween I wouldn’t celebrate. But, by and large, we can be so concerned about the murky origins of these evolving holidays, but miss the greater anti-Christian elements of present ones. Black Friday and Consumerism; Thanksgiving and gluttony; The Fourth of July and Warrior Worship; etc.
This isn’t all to say you NEED to celebrate it. If you want, dress up like a Bible character and every time someone gives you something give them something in return. Or hand out tracts at your door. Or hand out the best candy in the neighborhood. When these kids grow up, how should you be remembered - as the Christians who never turned their lights on or the Christians who always gave the best stuff, always smiled, and so on?
This is some good advice about keeping Sabbath. I’d like to emphasize something I picked up from this pastor: we’re not merely allowed to rest on Sabbath, we’re told we must. So that frisbee in the yard with your son? Yeah…get to it!
The very first word of the Book of Psalms is makarios: “Blessed/happy are those who do not walk in step with the wicked.” This tells us that the idea of a beatitude is nothing new in the time of Jesus. They are a way of teaching wisdom, akin to saying “Those who do this are better off in life.” Jesus is teaching us the path to the kingdom. Here are some more OT beatitudes:
1. Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered (Psalm 3:1).
2. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance (Psalm 32:13).
3. Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the Lord delivers them in times of trouble (Psalm 40:2).
4. Blessed are those who always tremble before God, but those who harden their hearts fall into trouble (Prov. 28:14).
The last one shows a clear contrast between the “blessed” and the wicked. This blessed happiness transcends reason. Regarding the weak and delivering them seems like a lot of trouble. But God assures us that it means we ourselves will be blessed by being delivered as well. To be poor in spirit does not seem like it would lead to happiness, but God assures us it does. Hence, these blessings do not come as a natural result of being meek or mourning - indeed, mourning for wickedness will not bring blessing - but the cause of God’s special favor. He will give us contentment and joy and peace during such times of persecution or poverty which transcends reason.
Jesus’ kingdom is clearly upside down. And we’re just getting started!
Matthew 5:3-12 (NET):
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.
The first question Jesus answers when talking about the kingdom of heaven is about who belongs. He is masterfully advertising his kingdom as for people who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc. Most of his uneducated crowd didn’t belong to the ruling classes because they weren’t smart enough, rich enough, etc. Those aren’t the qualities God is looking for; the qualities the world values and honors. No, from the beginning, Jesus wants us to know that his kingdom isn’t like worldly kingdoms. His kingdom is for everyone, and especially those unvalued by the world.
The “blessedness” is sometimes descriptive and not prescriptive. That is, Jesus isn’t telling us to seek persecution in order to be part of the kingdom. Rather, he’s saying those who are that way have the currency of the kingdom and are wealthy.
Blessedness isn’t just good-feeling”happiness” but favor and joy. But how can this be? How can those who mourn be blessed/happy/joyful?
(As promised, here is the first in my October-long blog series on the Sermon on the Mount. I will attempt to publish this thrice-weekly.)
Matthew 4:23 - 5:2 (NET)
Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people. So a report about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all who suffered with various illnesses and afflictions, those who had seizures, paralytics, and those possessed by demons, and he healed them. And large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan River. When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. After he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to teach them by saying…
The importance of beginning the Sermon on the Mount with chapter four is that it helps us see how we got to this mountain in the first place. The crowds gathered because Jesus was healing. They assembled to hear his teaching because they first felt him touching. This wasn’t a lecture of a sermon series or a seminar. They felt the power of God through him and so you naturally come to wonder how he got this power. What must his relationship with God be like that he can do all of these things? Jesus needed no bait to hook them. He didn’t start with an icebreaker; he started with a wall-breaker.
Jesus noticed the crowds. The “crowds” are an on-again, off-again girlfriend in the gospels. Sometimes they want to crown him and other times they want to kill him. At some point he seemed to finally “see” them, to take note that people were coming from all around. They were attracted by the honey of his power, but he would give them a more sustaining food. Jesus’ display of divine power was only a means to an end. His disciples caught up to him (obviously wanting to be close as to hear him but perhaps also to show their status to the crowd) and Jesus began to teach.
This seems routine, but it is profound when you consider it from a cosmic perspective. God came to sit on a mountainside and explain the universe to people. He let them see his Father’s universe from the pinhole of their own experience. He talked of salt and light and divorce and love and the poor and worry and prayer and treasure and buildings. With all of these familiar building blocks he built up the kingdom of God in their hearts.