August 11, 2014

God's Not Dead: Fictitious "Gotcha"

[There are plot spoilers in this review, but most of them you might have guessed about an inspirational Christian film before you even began watching it; i.e. happy ending for pretty much everyone.]

Since its recent release to dvd, I had the opportunity to watch God's Not Dead. I realize there have already been plenty of Christian reviews, and I probably have little to add to what has already been said. Many have already pointed out some major theological errors, the most obvious of which are decision theology (a conditional gospel) and theistic evolution; others have pointed out the main character's juvenile apologetics. So I don't feel the need to go there. (But if you're interested, here are a couple of decent reviews: God's Not Dead Revisited from Answers in Genesis and God's Not Dead but Christian Screen Writing Is by Jon Speed.)

As other writers have pointed out, the film is not all bad. Most of the good things reviewers have pointed out deal with the high production value and market success of a Christian film. They also recognize that it attempts to share the gospel, and that is an admirable goal. I don't think any Christian wishes to detract from those things. But it does have some glaring problems, which should give Christians pause before endorsing a film—especially if endorsing it for evangelism purposes.

For this review, I want to zoom out and discuss primarily the basic premise of the film. The movie promos claim that while the protagonist of the movie, Josh Wheaton, is a fictional character, his story is true. It's true only in the sense that Christians are being persecuted in colleges and universities. But aside from that, major portions of the movie were so far from believable that at points they bordered on comical.

Josh Wheaton is confronted by a spiteful Prof. Radisson.
So let's start with the believable parts. It's believable that a growing number of educators are hostile to Christianity—that some would publicly humiliate a student for being Christian, or threaten failure in order to force compliance with a progressive worldview. It's believable because it happens. The antagonist, Jeffrey Radisson, is badly written and over-the-top, but if we're viewing this with just a wide-angle lens, we can at least say that the premise isn't far off. If you've read anything by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, some of the venomous comments made by the film's antagonist are not too cruel to be believable. (But, as Jon Speed pointed out, the movie settles for stereotypes that are unhelpful. Atheists are not all mean people who eat their young; Christians are not all nice, either.)

Likewise, it is believable that a student of conscience would stand up to such academic bullying, even under the threat of failure, because that is what Christ has prepared us for. The extra features on the dvd spotlighted some examples of real students undergoing persecution for their faith, e.g. being threatened with expulsion from a graduate program for refusing to counsel a lesbian couple. Christians are undergoing persecution for their faith in America in quiet ways that will never make the headlines. In that respect, this movie is good in that it shines a spotlight on a real problem.

But the believability stops there. The atheist philosophy professor, Radisson, gives Josh Wheaton the chance to defend God's existence in front of the class, presumably to embarrass him. He gives the freshman three 20-minute blocks of time to prove that God is not dead. After that time, we are asked to believe at least three unbelievable things: 1) that all 80 of Josh's classmates were convinced of God's existence, 2) that the professor who wanted to destroy Josh's faith would allow himself to be lectured and even bullied by his student in a contest that Radisson himself controlled, and 3) that shortly after being so humiliated, he would convert.

The cause of my incredulity is not that I don't believe in the miracles, or that I think the Holy Spirit is incapable of converting a room full of unbelievers. But when you consider that Josh's arguments were weak, that he tried to use evolution and the big bang as proof that Genesis was correct long before science caught up with it (huh?), and that he never mentioned Jesus once... well, there's no reason why any skeptic should take his side. And without the Word, there's no means for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of his classmates. Despite all this, one particular classmate tells Josh after the final debate that he wants to follow Jesus now. Assuming that the one prior on-screen conversation they had was their only interaction, all he could possibly know about Jesus is that he is Josh's friend.

The entire premise of this movie smacks of those Christian email forwards and Facebook memes in which a young student poses some clever arguments to a science teacher who unwisely tries to argue for God's non-existence. One boy asks the teacher if he has ever seen his own brain, thereby demonstrating that we can know something exists without being able to observe it. They always purport to be true stories. One version suspiciously claims a young Albert Einstein to be the child in the story, but the rest use no names or places—sure indicators that they are fictitious. They are intended to give us that satisfying "gotcha" feeling that Christians will likely never experience in the real world. Unbelief is not won over by clever arguments. It refuses even to be embarrassed.

Josh makes his final case. Images courtesy of Pure Flix.
The reason I'm pointing out what I consider to be a dangerously flawed premise in this movie is that it gives Christians false expectations about their evangelism efforts. The fictional pastor in the movie pointed Josh to Matthew 10:32 for assurance: "Therefore whoever acknowledges me before men, him also I will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven." This passage is appropriate, because it indicates that our reward for confessing our faith is not an immediate or visible one. In fact, Jesus says much elsewhere to the same effect: "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Mt 5:11-12). Nowhere does the Bible promise visible fruits for defending the faith. So it's difficult to justify Christ's promise of persecution and hardships with the movie's implication that if you defend God's existence in public, you'll be rewarded with a veritable Second Pentecost. (Oh, and you might also be publicly celebrated by thousands of people packed into a Newsboys concert.)

Last week, I had the privilege of doing some door-to-door canvassing with a gentleman from my congregation who has been doing it weekly for almost two decades. (His partner in evangelism was recently called home to his Savior.) Someone once asked them how many new members they had gotten as a result of their efforts. They replied confidently, "None." Why bother then? They answered that Jesus tells us to preach the good news. He doesn't seem to care how many people walk in our door, so long as the seed is scattered. It's as simple as that. Really, the answer is love—love for Jesus, who redeemed us, and love for the unconverted, who need God's salvation as much as we do.

So... can we do better? I suggest that a movie that depicts the reality of Christians being persecuted, even killed, for their faith would be much more compelling than a sanitized, Hallmark version of Christian conflict in which faith turns all the bad guys into good guys. Look at what's happening to believers in Iraq at the hands of ISIS. Or in Syria. There's plenty of evidence there that Christians aren't getting happy endings. To be fair, the film does show a girl who converts to Christianity from Islam and is thrown out of her home. But that thread is left unresolved, with an artificial happy ending appended to it.

A Christian film cannot claim to have added anything significant to the case for God's existence unless it can tackle the problem of pain head on and not flinch. Many of Jesus' own apostles met gruesome deaths. Where's the comfort in that? Where's the "gotcha" moment? Their comfort was in a Savior who was delivered over to death for their sins and raised to life for their justification (Ro 4:25). They didn't need the satisfaction of knowing that they had won an argument over God's existence.

I suppose the only real "gotcha" moment a Christian can experience will be the Second Coming—but then, I highly doubt that when we see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Mt 24:30) our reaction will be, "Ha, atheists! We were right all along." No, I think that terrifying event will drive any hint of arrogant gloating from our minds. We'll have far more glorious things to think about. I suggest that instead of constructing fictional "gotcha" moments for Christians to bask in, we should instruct them in biblical teaching about evangelism, the theology of the cross (of persecution), and apologetics. We can encourage and equip them with Christian community. We can hold up examples of faithful Christians who have carried out their calling, even sometimes to bitter ends. And we can offer prayers to those who are witnessing every day in the mission fields—those far away, and those in our own back yards. And as always, we would do well to remember that we are called to scatter that seed as well.

"Here am I, send me, send me!"

August 10, 2014

Ad Orientem or Versus Populum?

Liturgical variety can be a wonderful thing. It is proof that Christians are not a homogenous body of cultists, but the wonderfully varied Body of Christ, expressing their faith in a spectrum of languages, cultures, and rites.

That isn't to say that all variety is welcome or desired. I think any Christian would accept that while variety can be good, it is necessary to strive for purposeful and meaningful variety. In worship, we don't usually do things arbitrarily or at random, because randomness cannot serve the purpose of the gospel—or any purpose.

During the WELS Worship Conference this summer, I had the opportunity to see one particular aspect of liturgical ritual put into practice. Though the altar was freestanding, the altarpiece that I designed for the Festival of Transfiguration made it impossible for the liturgist to stand behind the altar and face the congregation (versus populum). Apparently, not all parties involved were aware of that practical necessity until the night before, and I took some heat for it. But regardless, it was decided that the liturgist would have to do parts of the liturgy ad orientem (facing liturgical East), which has been almost universal church practice for centuries.

(Just to paint a clearer picture, the chapel at Carthage is a cruciform, central-plan church, with the four wings radiating out from the chancel area. The wing "behind" the chancel was occupied by the organ and an empty balcony, with the other three wings housing the congregation. The chancel was comprised only of a raised, square platform, and furnished with portable ambo, font, and altar.)

It isn't my intent to tell Christians that this is how the liturgy must be done, or that they should get rid of their freestanding altars and build high altars. But every action of the priest/pastor, every liturgical response, every symbol is a teaching opportunity. So I'm only advocating that we take the opportunity to ensure that the orientation of the pastor isn't an arbitrary decision (i.e., well, that's how it was always done in my church), but one with meaning.

For instance, this was the first time that I became acutely aware of how appropriate it was for prayers that are addressing Christ to be made facing the altar and Christ. The symbolism is somewhat fractured when you have portions of the congregation facing in opposite directions, but imagine a church with a longitudinal nave. The pastor faces in the same direction as the congregation, because it is their prayers he is carrying to Christ.

It is sometimes said that ad orientem should only be used in conjunction with a wall altar, and versus populum should only be used in conjunction with a freestanding altar. I would advocate neither. Lutherans have often taken up the practice of facing the altar during the sacrificial portions of the service (prayers, canticles) and facing the people during the sacramental portions (the absolution, the words of institution, Scripture readings, benediction). This can be done whether using a high altar or a freestanding one. Again, consider the appropriateness in context: the minister says, "In the stead and by the command of Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." He does this facing the congregation, but standing between the congregation and the altar, representing his role as mediator and vicar of Christ.

I think it is an unfortunate development in the post-Vatican-II environment that the pastor feels obligated to always stand behind a freestanding altar and speak the entire service towards the congregation. On non-Communion Sundays, the altar serves little more purpose than a podium or hymnal stand. On Communion Sundays, it gets promoted to table.

Although the freestanding altar is something of a late innovation in the Lutheran church, Luther is often cited as the source of this practice. He writes,
Here we retain the vestments, altar, candles until they are used up or we are pleased to make a change. But we do not oppose anyone who would do otherwise. In the true mass, however, of real Christians, the altar should not remain where it is, and the priest should always face the people as Christ doubtlessly did in the Last Supper. But let that await its own time (AE 53:69).
But the Lutheran church didn't take this opinion very seriously, it seems, because it retained wall altars and ad orientem as the norm in the intervening centuries. Perhaps it valued the symbolism of the priest facing the altar, or perhaps it thought that corporate worship in general should not strive to model itself after the informal meal atmosphere of the Last Supper. A third factor could have been that ministers in the Reformed churches spoke the Words of Institution versus populum with their backs to the elements, since they had no doctrine of the Real Presence. (Lutherans obviously would have wanted to distance themselves from those who didn't acknowledge the Real Presence.) But regardless, we can say without reservation that Luther was only human, and that his opinions were not meant to be made into rubrics, as Luther himself hints in the above quote.

Simply put, the Church's traditions are bigger than one person. Christ has given his members the freedom to make innovations to worship that are born from the gospel. Certain innovations have been weeded out over the centuries as being harmful and contrary to scripture (e.g. the agape meal, the Canon of the Mass). Others have been good, and our fellowship has kept them. Whatever your church practice is, I would only suggest that you strive for ritual that is meaningful. See that it communicates truthfully to your parishioners, and that they understand what is being done, and why. Finally, may Christ be glorified in all things! Amen.