Monday, February 20, 2017

The Shack: A Pastoral Perspective

Next Friday, The Shack opens nationwide, prompting full theaters, plenty of box office profits, and apparently, a bunch of ticked off conservative pastors.

I get it.  I really do.

I read the book when it was first released back in 2007.  When I finished, I was simultaneously impressed and fearful.  I was impressed because it was truly a riveting novel that deals with real life issues of pain that too few churches are willing to honestly address.  I was fearful because the "god" portrayed within its pages isn't the one true and living God who has revealed Himself to us in Scripture.

The "god" of the Shack is air.  It doesn't exist.  It's a worthless and damnable idol.

My reasons for making such a broad, sweeping claim are numerous, and too many to list here.  If you are interested in a detailed theological critique of the book, I really cannot improve upon that given by Tim Challies here.  Principally, the author's view of God as presented in this story reflects an ancient heresy known as modalism--a doctrine that conflates the clear Biblical distinctions between the members of the Trinity and as such, compromises the role each plays in the process of redemption.

There are other major issues as well, but in the end, the biggest problem with the novel is that it presents--as an answer to our deepest pain--the theological equivalent of a flying spaghetti monster.  I find it ironic that the main protagonist is played by Sam Worthington of Avatar fame.  The Shack is about as accurate in its view of ultimate reality as Avatar.

As a theologian deeply concerned about accurately representing God as He has revealed Himself, these facts concern me.  But as a pastor whose responsibility it is to point people to the God of Scripture in the midst of their deepest pain, these facts scare me for the sake of their souls.

So what exactly should pastors do in response to what we all know will take place next Friday?

Last week, I sent an email to our staff reminding them that our church family will not be promoting this film in any way.  No one on our payroll is permitted to buy tickets, rent theaters, take groups to the movie, or anything else that would give the impression that Covenant Church approves of this film and its depiction of God.  Its one thing to take in a movie as an individual.  Its quite another to promote something that is likely to be contrary to Christian faith.

But as a Pastor, I must also recognize another reality.  People are going to see this movie!  I have told our staff that I will see it, mostly just to compare its contents with that of the book.  They too are encouraged to see it as individuals.  Why?  Because our people are going to be buying tickets.  Their non-churched and non-Christian friends will buy tickets too.  If when returning to church all they see in response from their leaders is protest, what will they have learned from us?

So, here are three reasons I think EVERY pastor should watch this film, and be ready to interact with its contents with your people.

1. From a cinematic and artistic standpoint, it will probably be an excellent movie.  How do I know this?  One name: Octavia Spencer!  It would appear that audiences can anticipate stellar acting from a phenomenal cast of talented people.

Though it remains to be seen, I suspect that for the sake of time and content, much of the doctrinal substance of the book may be absent from the film, leaving a number of "blanks" that are going to be filled in by someone.  Why shouldn't that someone be a faithful pastor?

One of the biggest and most legitimate complaints about "Christian" movies is that they are, well, terrible!  For the most part, this is because the characters are "flat" and issues are all "black and white."  There is very little tension to resolve--only an affirmation of what we already believe so that we can feel good about ourselves.  My friend Alvin Reid has observed that "our theology IS black and white, and it should be, but we live lives in color!"  He's right, and I fully expect that this film will demonstrate well the "living color" of our lives--particularly the painful parts. It is possible to enjoy a good movie, or a good book, without blindly accepting everything you read or see.  Pastors, this is our opportunity to model for our people how to do just that.

2. The movie will prompt conversations and questions Pastors need to answer.  The pain depicted in the book and film is all too real for too many people in our churches and communities.  Many people are going to see this film because they think that in it they will find the path to healing.  If the "god" presented in the film is compatible at all with the "god" presented in the book, they won't find it.  Or worse, they will think they have found it, and forever be inoculated to the real thing.

If Pastors and church leaders are faithful in responding with compassion to the issues that will certainly be raised as a result of this film, we can point our people and their friends to a God who can bring them genuine healing.  But if our disposition causes them to return from the theater, only to see in the pulpit those two old, grumpy guys from the muppets yelling "Boo!" then we miss out on the chance to find real answers.

3. This is an opportunity!  The most foundational question of faith is "Who is God?"  If you get that question wrong, it only goes downhill from there, and this is the fundamental danger of a book like The Shack.

But great opportunity lies here as well for pastors.  This film will prompt conversation about God, and who He really is!

Pastors who don't willingly join that conversation are derelict in their duties both to Christ and His people.

People in our churches are going to see this film.  Their non-Christian friends will see it as well, and our people need to be equipped to have those conversations by pastors who model how to do it well.  So let's not merely shrug our shoulders and allow our people to absorb idolatry unknowingly.  But conversely, let's be more than the grumpy old guys who pour cold water over people's warm experiences with no explanation why.

Let's engage.  And in doing so, lets faithfully give people the real thing!

Friday, February 03, 2017

Straw Men, Dead Children, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

"And the King will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."  Jesus, Matthew 25:40

Over the past week, President Trump's Executive Order to indefinitely halt the Syrian Refugee program has caused quite a stir around the country.  "Fake News" on both sides of the political spectrum have added an annoying level of drama to the situation, and followers of Jesus in the midst have reached differing conclusions.

For me, this is an easy case to figure out.

My international work has involved spending time in refugee camps abroad, and I've also had the privilege of working closely with a number of organizations stateside that minister to this vulnerable segment of our global population.  Additionally, I've also had the good fortune to work with members of our intelligence community whose job it is to ensure the safety of American citizens by "vetting" potential refugees who seek resettlement in our country.  They tell me that our refugee vetting system is as tight as it gets.  I'm thankful.  This is as it should be.

My knowledge and experience with this issue brought me quickly to the conclusion that this order is unnecessary, harmful to Christian mission here and abroad, potentially deadly to those seeking safety from the worst humanitarian crisis in the last 200 years, and ineffective at truly keeping Americans safe.

Many of my brothers and sisters in Christ don't agree, including a few in the church I'm honored to pastor.  I've heard their concerns, and both appreciate and agree with their concerns about national security.  I just happen to believe--based on solid data--that the programs recently halted bore no danger to American citizens.  Quite the contrary, these programs saved lives.

I know this because of my prior work.  I do find it interesting that, by and large, those opposing the recent executive order are those who actually have experience working with and ministering to refugee populations, while most who support it have little experience in such matters.  In some sense, this is understandable, given that its hard to have compassion on people you don't know in a situation you are unfamiliar with.

But that's also the damning thing about ignorance and isolation.  When they combine, they create a fear that causes us to do inhumane things.

Ignorance and isolation in a Pakistani village result in Christian persecution and burned churches.  Ignorance and isolation  in the US in the 1940s meant fear of "Nazi spies" among Jews seeking safety , and caused us to send them back to gas chambers.  Wherever ignorance and isolation are allowed to rule the day, the most vulnerable pay a heavy price.

Additionally, a number of nationally-known Christian leaders have created straw man arguments in an effort to bolster their #norefugees position.  Most of the time, straw man arguments are just annoying.  But in this case, lives created in the image of God are at stake.  So for the sake of their humanity and ours, the following is a list of the arguments the #norefugees movement isn't allowed to make anymore.

It's Not a Muslim Ban!  Yeah, I know that, and so do the good folks at World Vision, World Relief, and the International Rescue Committee.  Though some far-left fringes have tried to forward this argument, most all who actually work with refugees know this isn't a "Muslim ban."  In fact, the first Syrian refugees turned around at the airport after this Executive order were our brothers and sisters in Christ!  This isn't about Islam or Christianity.  Its about humanity.  And for Christians, its about our duty to honor the dignity and sanctity of ALL human life.

We can't just let anyone in who wants to come!  Yeah, I know that too, and I agree, so can we please stop using an argument that no one is making?  The point of objection is the refugee program, not immigration in general.

This isn't a Bible issue!  I was shocked to hear Franklin Graham, perhaps the most well-known evangelical humanitarian, claiming that humanitarian work isn't a Bible issue. Though he is correct that government and the church have separate roles to play, he seems to forget that when government takes action that affects both the work of the church and the vulnerable to whom the church ministers (as this Executive Order does), the church has a duty before Christ to object.  And the last time I looked, serving the "least of these" is a Bible issue.

Your'e just a liberal!  Ah, name-calling!  The last resort of those with no real argument.  Of course, the word "liberal" has now been used so much to define so much that it no longer has any meaning--sort of like this statement.   Caring for the most vulnerable in our world is the responsibility of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and anyone else wearing any other label who calls themselves "Christian."  Our nation would be in a much better position if those who follow Christ would melt down their respective golden elephants and golden donkeys, and do what we do because God's Word commands it.

What about the homeless here?  That's a good question!  What are you doing about that problem.  Nearly every church I know, including the one I'm honored to serve, addresses this issue.  I'm thankful to say that our community is better because of my church family's work serving the least of these in our region.  And the same is true of many of our sister churches.

So I'm not sure what this objection is besides re-direction from the issue at hand.  Our calling as the body of Christ is to serve them ALL.  Wherever the vulnerable are found, Jesus' people have our marching orders.

So with all of these straw man arguments out of the way, there is still one objection that can be made by those in favor of this recent move:  I don't think our refugee vetting process is safe enough.

Fair enough.  That's a perfectly legitimate objection.  But have you actually looked at this vetting process?  You can find a thorough description of it here.

Additionally, since 1980 our country has taken in more than 3 million refugees from various countries.  In that 37 year time-span, ZERO Americans have been killed by a refugee in a terrorist attack.

If you don't think that's "safe enough," or believe "it could be better," you are certainly entitled to that opinion, but to be consistent, you should also strongly oppose flying on an airplane, driving a car, bathing in a bathtub, or for that matter, getting food out of a vending machine--all actions that have claimed more lives than terrorist activity by a refugee..

Is there a risk?  Of course!  Nothing is 100% guaranteed.

I'm grateful that we are not Europe in this regard and that our vetting process for refugees is tight. It should be tight!  I want to keep it that way, because I have no desire to expose people to unnecessary risk.  But safety and compassion are not mutually exclusive enterprises.

And if you are waiting for 100% safety, you aren't going to make a very effective follower of Jesus.

"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell"  Matthew 10:28

Kids are dying.  Families are separated.  The worst humanitarian crisis of the last 200 years is unfolding in our time.  We have no time for straw man arguments.  Its time to answer a much more serious question:  Do we or don't we take God's Word seriously?