Tag Archives: christian popular culture

Saved! a critique of incoherent Christian culture

Saved! movie posterMy wife and I recently watched “Saved!“, a dark comedy about evangelical Christianity produced by  REM lead singer Michael Stipe1. I have had this movie in my Netflix queue for quite some time, shuffling it around because I thought it would turn out to be like “Dogma“. Boy was I mistaken.

This movie’s portrayal of popular evangelical culture is stunningly accurate. Just watching this movie brought me back to when I was first Saved! and the jargon, ideas, and general incoherent babbling I got caught up in.

For instance, in the movie the main character, out of a good desire to “save” her homosexual boyfriend, decides she has “heard from Jesus” that she needs to sleep with him and proceeds to do so. While we may think this kind of thing is silly, I’ve known and have been known to use the exact same reasoning to justify similar behavior.

The similarities don’t end there and aren’t limited to my narrow experience. They permeate many Christians thoughts and beliefs. From pastors who ought to know better to the parishiners who often don’t (but wish they did), the common theme brought out in this movie is the tendency to act holy, to use holy language2, and to generally accept a burden of legalism that is far removed from the “law of liberty” James writes about.3

In short, this movie exposes the eagerness with which many Christians rush to pick up a yoke far removed from the “light” and “easy” yoke promised by Jesus.4

Within the first 5 minutes of this movie you are hit squarely between the eyes with causal determinism (baptized stoicism popular among reformed theologians) and the corresponding question of evil. By the time you move to meeting the rest of the characters you are also confronted with the logical paradox this presents when coupled with the popular Christian pastime of “finding God’s will” in addition to the ambiguous (and often vacuous) understanding of prayer.

All of these ideas are combined with a general air of anti-intellectualism  ((God forbid we use our minds to try and sort all this mess out. )) combined with an overarching emphasis on “spiritual highs”5 to give us a chaotic mess. From this chaotic mess you begin to have a clear view of the neurotic mess most Christians are and why we are largely ineffective at reaching a culture that is often more clear about what love, community, and genuineness mean than we are.

Unfortunately the confusion we take in is often expressed very clearly to those around us which begs the question in them of how we can claim to have the answers to life’s deepest questions when we have trouble with even the simplest choices of whom to marry and what job to take.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Church, I love the church enough to desperately wish this movie was a work of pure fiction but the sad reality is that its not. It is, instead, scarily accurate.

I hope mature Christians6 take a good long look in the mirror with this movie and, instead of getting angry about the mocking, ask the tough questions like, “What does this movie show us about ourselves?” and “How can we work to clear up the misconceptions portrayed in this movie?”

Even though I’m not a movie critic, I give this movie two big thumbs up and encourage everyone to go see it. You’ll have a bit of a challenge finding it, though, it’s not something you’ll be able to ask the clerk at Family Christian or Lifeway to grab for you.

  1. You know, the guys who brought you the great song “Loosing my religion“ []
  2. I contend that one of the banes of Christendom is the use of words and phrases we have not carefully studied and have no idea the meaning of. We simply use them because they sound good. Phrases like “God told me..“ []
  3. James 1:25 and James 2:12 []
  4. Matthew 11:30. ..for  my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. []
  5. In other words, we’ve created our own “Christianized” brand of existentialism that we think is spiritual []
  6. Or those who think they are at any rate, this movie can also show you how mature you are by how visceral your reaction to it is. []
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Don’t get caught up in civilian affairs

Today is July the 3rd. Tomorrow, most Americans will celebrate the birth of our nation. The day after that, most Churches will echo those celebrations with services bursting with national pride including patriotic music, tales of freedom bought at a high price, and special recognition of the brave men and women who keep us safe at night.

Sadly, most people reading this will not see anything wrong with the series of events I’ve outlined above.

I’m not sure if this is because we have been brought up with such an unashamed blending of nationalism and Christianity or whether we really do believe that the sacrifice and freedom bought by American soldiers holds a candle to the sacrifice and freedom bought by God’s only Son. I’m also not sure we really understand how our brethren around the world view this unashamed blending of the political and the Holy. And finally, I am not really sure most Americans really care that these events rival only Christmas in their display of the Church’s captivity by the American culture.

One of the best examples of this unholy blending is from the resolutions made during the recent Southern Baptist Conference 2009, the denomination I am a member of.

Join with the American Family Association in “calling on the Pepsi-Cola Company to remain neutral in the culture war in our country by refraining from promoting the gay/lesbian lifestyle and agenda.”

This may seem innocuous at first, but the AFA is a.) not the Church and b.) a VERY political organization.

The Order of Business Committee received a motion stipulating that the convention post the American flag, accompanied by an honor guard, at the convention’s annual meetings.

This motion was made in a denomination whose unifying goal is to reach the nations with the Gospel.

Produce only American-made Vacation Bible School resources.

It’s hard to tell whether this motion was made more out of misplaced national pride or a poor understanding of economics.

Declare a “Sanctity of Life Year” in the near future.

This, and many other motions, were intended as direct responses to actions of the current Presidential administration. While they may be good ideas in general, the fact that they are reactionary and politically motivated speaks poorly of our supposedly Christ-centered worldview.

Start a petition to “end abortion in America and the funding of Planned Parenthood, along with all other abortion-providing entities.”

Motions like make me raise the question “Why only America?” almost instinctively.

Condemning President Obama for declaring June 2009 as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Month.

Who are we to condemn anyone? Additionally, what good does such a motion do other than reinforce a negative image in the GLBT movement’s mind?

Adopt the U.S. Christian Flag “as a tangible symbol to unify the American believers under one flag to fulfill the Great Commission.”

This last one is my favorite because it truly sums up the whoring we’ve done when it comes to fusing our Christianity with our national pride.

Greg Boyd, author of “The myth of a Christian nation“, produced an excellent  sermon series entitled “The Cross and the Sword” where he outlines the unbiblical and often antithetical attitude fusing the kingdom of God (identified by the Cross) and the kingdom of the world (identified by the sword).

Shane Claiborne, author of “Jesus for President“, has also frequently addressed the problem of fusing the two kingdoms and he makes an interesting observation in one of his sermons. Specifically, fusing the two kingdoms has the unfortunate consequence of creating an unnatural tension within soldiers who are tasked with killing people in the name of Caesar. Because of this fusing of kingdoms, are also told that what they are doing is somehow “God’s will” so that, while they know killing is wrong and evil, we (that is, the Church) don’t even acknowledge the artifacts of a fallen world they are wrestling with because of our nationalistic blinders.

Now, to be fair, Aristotle once said “Man is by nature a political animal” and I believe this issue is more complex than simply advocating for some sort of Kantean wall to be built between our religious and political convictions. One of the best debates I’ve heard on the extent of involvement a Christian should have with the government was held between Shane Claiborne, Greg Boyd, and Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, at the National Pastor’s Convention. The subject of a Christian’s relationship and responsibility to the government under which they find themselves is complex and very nuanced1.

Even with all the complexity and nuances surrounding this issue of church and state and how we are to live as a whole being in both realms,  we still know some things are just plain wrong.

For example, when we start producing themed Bibles like “The American Patriot’s Bible2 we give fuel to those who stand back and equate Christianity with the Republican party and with America as a whole.

When politicians run for office using their “Christianity” as a selling point, why don’t we (as the Church) call them to the carpet and ask them to just stop? Or, as an atheist friend of mine3 once commented regarding the recent debacle with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

…like the Sanford guy, he’s quoting the bible and stuff, but if he REALLY believed at his core the bible type stuff then he would be more afraid of God than the media.

He would not have done that stuff at all.

He’s only upset he got caught.

This type of political posturing on the Bible is even worse when we consider that the majority of the founding fathers, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, etc. were deists, cutting out large portions of their Bibles they found untenable, or very liberal in their beliefs and interpretation of Scripture (also known as Episcopalian) at best. The common chord among the founding fathers was their belief and upholding of virtue as necessary for the forming of the republic. Since most of them were raised in a predominantly Christian culture, their sense of virtue was largely shaped by the Bible. We shouldn’t, however, draw from this correlation any inference that the founding fathers were any more or less devout in their following of Christ than the political leaders we see today.

The fact remains, however, that Jesus himself is the chief proponent of the separation of Church and state4 who avoided political issues5, taught that the sword was not a part of the kingdom he was ushering in6, told us to love our enemies7, did not advocate political rebellion8, and who willingly suffered the judgements of a corrupt government9.

Politics, national politics that is, has no place in the Church. One can easily make a case that the first time the Church was fused with a nation it severely damaged the Church. In fact, I would point out that every time in history where the Church has been wed to the state we have seen some of the worst atrocities and misrepresentations of Christ there have ever been.

Francis Schaeffer said it best in his book, “The Great Evengelical Disaster” pg. 118,

…we must stand against those who would naively baptize all in the past and that would wrap Christianity in the country’s flag.

We should also keep in mind 2Ti 2:4,

No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.

National politics are temporal, a trap to sap our time and energy in an otherwise good intention of changing the world and culture around us for good.

However the reality is that laws don’t change people, only Christ does. Let’s keep our eyes focused on Him Sunday and resist the urge to wrap our Christianity in our nation’s flag.

UPDATE (7/17): Since posting this blog I found a deconversion testimony from a former pastor that sums up much of the dangers I mention in this post with the following statement:

A precursor to my religious views changing was a seismic shift in my political views. My political views were so entangled with Fundamentalist beliefs that when my political views began to shift, my Fundamentalist beliefs began to unravel.

I can better describe my political and social views than I can my religious ones.

I hope that you are as grieved when you read those words as I am. The blending of politics and religion we have become infatuated with in this country has to stop.

  1. A great book on this subject is Francis Schaeffer’s ‘A Christian Manifesto‘ []
  2. Here is an excellent commentary on this Bible by Boyd. []
  3. The author of LegalizeThought.com []
  4. Luk 20:25 []
  5. Act 1:6 []
  6. Mat 26:52 []
  7. Mat 5:44 []
  8. Joh 18:36 []
  9. Which harmonizes with what Paul tells persecuted Christians in Rom 13:3-4 []
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The Shack

“I am not a reader”

This is the line repeated time and again during the second Q&A time after Paul Young, author of The Shack, delivered his presentation1 of his bestseller at Capitol Christian Center.

Sadly, it shows.2

Paul Young has a very eloquent writing style and excellent storytelling abilities which come through in both his oral and written works. Unfortunately, his ability to communicate is not paired, at least in the case of “The Shack” with sound theology.

There are excellent in depth reviews that deal with the theological issues contained in The Shack34 so I won’t re-address them here. What I want to focus on instead is the impact this book, hailed as being the next “Pilgrim’s Progress”,  is having on the Church of Christ.

Whenever someone brings up a critique of The Shack, defendants are quick to cite it as work of fiction and “not a theological work”5. The problem is, anything that purports to tell us something about God6 is, by definition, a theological work7.

The difference between The Shack and something like a systematic series by Bruce Ware is that The Shack is simply a poor theological work8 which displays the confusion and inner turmoil of the author9.

The problem this false “its only a fictional work” view poses is that it a.) wasn’t intended as purely fictional by the author10 , b.) it won’t be taken as purely fictional by the readers11 and c.) it has a wide reading and will consequently have a wide influence in the Christian community just like Dante’s Inferno12 .

Several people have mentioned the profound impact this book has had on their “spiritual development, but the strongest statement to this point was during the Q&A time where one lady claimed The Shack “not the Bible”13 was the most influential book for her spiritual walk. Sadly, no one jumped up to correct her or show her the error of her thinking.

As bad as The Shack is theologically14 , it is really just another example of how many Christians in America are more willing to embrace the existential, heterodoxical, and (often) heretical views of our present day15 rather than spend the time to study and listen to the orthodox views or fathers, grand fathers, and great grandfathers in the faith handed down throughout the ages.

In short, The Shack is only popular because Christians don’t read16 and this present fad only serves to reinforce the slide into post modernity17 we have been facing for quite some time.

Since there will probably be a movie based on this book, I believe it is worthwhile for us to examine more carefully the claims and theology put forth in such a seemingly innocent and entertaining work. We will never make a difference in our culture if we are unclear and uncertain about the message we are presenting. If we are serious about Christ being the only way back to the Father then we owe it to our Creator to study the word he has left for us in order to become knowledgeable and therefore useful in the work we are called to do.

UPDATE: Many more excellent reviews of The Shack can be found here.

http://hereiblog.com/the-shack-review/
http://theshackbook.com/discuss/index.php?topic=197.0
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarayu#In_Fiction
http://www.google.com/search?q=el+shaddai+female+name+for+god&hl=en&rlz=1C1GGLS_enUS291FR304&start=10&sa=N
http://www.windrumors.com/29/the-shack-update-background-2/
http://www.challies.com/archives/book-reviews/a-review-of-the-shack-download-it-here.phpthat
  1. This is in 3 services which the pastor claims are all different so you might want to listen to all three. I, however, only listened to the last one. []
  2. Why would we ever consider a lack of reading a good thing? That is, unless we are captivated by personal experience instead of diligent study, but I digress.. []
  3. http://hereiblog.com/the-shack-review/ []
  4. http://www.challies.com/archives/book-reviews/a-review-of-the-shack-download-it-here.php []
  5. For an example, see the bottom of this post. []
  6. See Paul’s blog on the background behind The Shack to see where he does intend to tell us something about God. []
  7. http://www.gotquestions.org/what-is-theology.html []
  8. That is, it lacks attention to detail and does not actually answer the question it raises regarding the question of evil. In short, it is very subjective based on the expieriences of the author. []
  9. Such as his gender identity issues, mentioned in Q&A times, as well as a host of other issues. In fact, it is my conjecture that The Shack is a therapeutic work hat should have never been put into publication. []
  10. Again, see Q&A time where Paul Young asks rhetorically “Did you really think that I meant only the introduction literally?” []
  11. There are numerous “testimonials”, “courses”, and “study groups” all pointing to the “truth” found in The Shack []
  12. Which still predominantly shapes the Christian community’s views on Hell to this day even though much of it is based in pagan mythology. []
  13. Yes, that is a direct quote. I encourage you to listen to the Q&A to hear it in context []
  14. Need to add a qualifier here that I don’t think Paul Young is the anti-christ lest he write another emotionally laden blog about me hurting his feelings and devaluing him as a person. []
  15. Though these bogus ideas have been around for a great while now. []
  16. Which, by extension, indicates how much they value spiritual maturity. []
  17. Characterized by a poor view of objective truth and what, if anything, can be known. []
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