Fear the Demon that Doesn’t Fear God. Really?

“The Possession” pulled in the most box office receipts last weekend, which also happened to be the lowest grossing weekend for American movies in over a decade.  The advertising for “The Possession” is something of which to take note.  Just a brief glimpse back at other recent movies of its kind shows us that the poster, trailer, and premise are criminally similar to a slew of others in this sub genre.

Most notable is the tagline for “The Possession”, which says “Fear the demon that doesn’t fear God.”  This is a red flag.  Christians should take note when they see advertising as ignorant as this.  A movie poster is often the hook; it’s the first thing that draws a potential movie-goer into the theater.  And in the case of “The Possession”, the tagline is dangerous.

But It’s Just a Tagline

A tagline is almost never just a tagline.  It’s the pronouncement of a message, even a belief.  With movies dealing with demons and the spiritual realm, taglines have historically proven themselves to be ambiguous or carelessly theological.  Consider the tagline at hand:

Everything about this is contrary to the Bible, which is a fair criticism since, according to summaries, the movie deals with a dybbuk, a demon from ancient Hebrew lore. The two ideas in the tagline are twisted and inaccurate.

1. Fear the demon…

No, don’t do that.  The words of the Apostle Paul cry out against this.

“Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the power of this dark world and the against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” – Ephesians 6:11-12

The terms “rulers”, “authorities”, and “spiritual forces of evil” all refer to demons, and Paul charges Christians to take a stand against them, not to fear them.

2. …that doesn’t fear God

There is not a demon that exists that does not fear God.  That includes the chief of demons, Satan himself.  Though they blaspheme and scheme and dishonor God, they know who God is and fear Him.

“You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” – James 2:19

Consider the God-Man, Jesus Christ, whose power over demons was documented again and again in the Gospels.  His interaction with demons demonstrates his all-encompassing authority over them.

“When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, don’t torture me!’ For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man.” – Luke 8:28-29

Real Fear

Ultimately, fear should be directed singularly toward God.  Demons do fear him; we are to learn to fear him.  The Lord Jesus said, “…fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  God’s authority is over all things, including the demonic realm, the full activity of which remains bound and chained apart from God’s sovereign permission.

More than that, God has purchased us in the death of his Son.  Colossians tells us that Jesus triumphed over demons and Satan and hell through his death and resurrection.

Don’t let a movie poster make you forget that.

Unlikely Thankfulness for Kevin Smith’s “Red State”

Kevin Smith is the writer/director behind the raunch-coms of the “Clerks” universe.  His mixture of toilet humor and sophisticated verbiage created a strange fan base, dominated by mouth-breather man-boys and ivy league types.  Even the rom-com crowd likes his stuff.

But Smith turned a whole different set of heads last winter when he screened his independent horror thriller “Red State” and announced his sole ownership and distribution rights to the film.  His purpose was to distribute the movie based on the merits of the film itself, and Smith was optimistic that the film’s content and message would find its audience.

Since then, Smith has campaigned the film all over the country, having never maintained a full theatrical run.  It’s available on DVD and BluRay now.

Surprising Reaction

I finally saw “Red State” after anticipating it since 2007 (when Smith teased his blog subscribers with a picture of the script’s title page).  I’m still surprised by my reaction.

Mainly I was disgusted, and I presume that was the desired reaction.  “Red State” is a nasty little movie, in plot and in content.  There are no characters to redeem it.  There are several strange and violent sequences in it.  It’s conclusions about humans are borderline despairing.

There’s not much to boast about in the film’s technical achievement’s either.  “Red State” features some of Smith’s least successful dialogue and exposition.  It’s shot by director of photography David Klein with a kind of film-school visual tactlessness.  This undermines some of the performances; some of the melodrama plays false because the photography is not meeting the same standard as the performances.

There is a lot to dislike about this movie.

Yet, about 24 hours after watching it, I’m filled with thankfulness, and I’ll tell you why:  The plot centers on three teenage boys who are taken captive by the members of an extreme right wing church and subjected to humiliation and torture.   The church, herein called Five Points Trinity Church, finds its inspiration in Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation dead set on protesting as many funerals of homosexuals and KIA’d soldiers as possible.  Surely you’ve seen this church on the news.  Its members are a pack of bible charlatans.  They are only as powerful as they are loud, and the louder they are the more coverage and attention they get.

The film actually calls Fred Phelps and his church by name.  Five Points Trinity goes a step further.  Westboro Baptist’s behavior is damnable, but they remain non-violent.  In the film, Five Points is not just a church, but a barracks.  They are extremely violent, and the hatred they spew is nauseating.

Religion – it’s for the birds

I know many people will watch “Red State” and say, “Well, that’s what religion does…it turns people into maniacs.”  A lot of people will watch the movie and be disturbed, not just by the content, but by the notion that perhaps all Christians are really just closet Five Point Trinity members.  Maybe even a few nominal Christians will be shaken in their faith after watching it (and I emphasize nominal; the movie will not shake a solid believer).

The reason I am thankful for “Red State” is that it shows us the functional outcome of gospel-less religion: oppression, vitriol, and potentially violence.  Religion without the gospel is some nasty business.  And I’m thankful “Red State” reminded me of the cost of totally misunderstanding the Bible.  The members of Five Points Trinity Church (and the real-life Westboro cronies) make the fatal and tragic mistake of overemphasizing one of God’s attributes over all the rest.  God is vengeful and hateful – that’s actually true.  God hates sin (and yes, even sinners) and will take revenge for the cost of those sins.

But God is patient and merciful and gracious.  God is loving and kind and faithful beyond our wildest dreams.  We know all these things by looking at Jesus Christ on his cross.  Onto Jesus, God’s hate for sinners was unleashed in full.  Onto us, believers, God’s grace was unleashed in full.  It’s at the cross we finally see the folly of hate-filled theology.

Added to this, I’m thankful “Red State” ended badly for pretty much all the characters involved.  There’s no redemption in the gospel according to Fred Phelps, no assurance that all the things of this world will pass away, no promise that all will be made new.  A happy ending to this movie would have suggested otherwise.  But in the Gospel of the Scriptures, I am promised an inheritance beyond the riches and pleasures of this world, such that even if I were taken captive by a group of psychopathic “Christians” and all I have was taken away from me, I could count my fading losses all worth it for the sake of something better and unshakable.

So yes, I’m thankful.

God’s Omnipresence & Independence

In light of my post on “The Tree of Life” yesterday, I wanted to point out two great messages by Eric Naus that expound upon God’s omnipresence and God’s independence.  These are extremely helpful in understanding how these attributes should spur us on toward faithful living.  Both can be found on the Crossroads University Ministry page of The Moody Church website.

Click here for Omnipresence.

Click here for Independence.

*Crossroads is the ministry for 18-24 year-olds at The Moody Church in Chicago.

The Glory of God in “The Tree of Life”

It’s been about two weeks since I saw “The Tree of Life”.  Here are some thoughts born from seeing it:

Accidental Preparation

There’s a song by the band Third Day called “You’re Everywhere”.  The title refers to God’s omnipresence.  We hear it in the chorus:

You’re everywhere
Like rain that’s falling
You’re everywhere
Like the wind that’s blowing
You’re everywhere
Like the sun upon my face
I feel the warmth of Your embrace
You are everywhere 

In the bridge, the lyrics evoke the words of Psalm 139:

I know, now I truly know
I can never go
From Your presence
My God!  You are everywhere!
From the lowest depths
To the heavens
You are always there 

I mention this because I happened upon the song just a few weeks ago after years of neglect, only to realize it is a beautiful meditation on God’s freedom.  After listening to it over and over again several days in a row, it had me thinking along the right terms for just such an experience as Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.  This was accidental preparation.

Indeed, it’s not unwise to prepare to watch a Malick film.  You can’t sit down and expect “The Tree of Life” to unfold like every other movie currently in theaters.  Prepare yourself by waving the white flag immediately.  You won’t get anywhere with the movie if you don’t surrender to it.

Malick’s God is Everywhere

There’s an otherworldly quality to all of Malick’s films and I attribute it to his use of biblical imagery.  Sometimes the images and themes and dialogue point directly to some biblical passage.  Other times, we can find hints of syncretism, most notably in “The Thin Red Line” where some of the biblical themes mix with possible animistic and Hindu ideologies.

“The Tree of Life” will play more directly for a Christian viewer.  The movie opens quoting Job 38:4, 7, which says, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  And with this, Malick beckons us to simply let the movie play.  The question in that passage from Job is directed toward us, Malick’s audience.  “Where were you?” he asks.

Eruption

© 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures, All Rights Reserved

On one hand, there’s the main narrative force of the film – the story of the O’Brien family in 1950s Waco, Texas.  This features a demanding father, an angelic mother, and their three boys.  Jack is the most prominent of the children and, in another layer of the film, we see his character in the present day.  As a man, Jack is a conflicted architect and the cold, metallic buildings that surround him are a stark contrast to the rural environment in which he grew up.

God is in both of these strands, working and willing as he pleases, often to the dismay of his creatures.

End of Time

© 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures, All Rights Reserved

But then, there’s the a third (fourth? maybe, fifth?) layer, and I oversimplify it by calling it the Cosmic Narrative.  In this strand, Malick attempts what probably only two other filmmakers have – to somehow capture the mystery of the Beginning and Ending of all things.  (The other two are Stanley Kubrick and Spike Jonze with “2001” and “Adaptation” respectively – and Jonze only did it to be funny.)

There’s a creation sequence, a wondrous 20+ minute opera that unfolds like an epic in which God is the hero.  This is a literal Deus ex machina and I watched, stunned, as the foundations of the earth were laid before my very eyes.  (Where were you, Job?  I was at the movies.)

There’s also an end-of-time sequence, which acts as a denouement only in that we see the reuniting of most of our characters.

God is present here too – at the Beginning and the End.  He’s the force behind nature and the guiding light at the end of time.  And it didn’t take me long to realize Malick’s God is absolutely everywhere.  The characters cannot get away from Him, even when they want to.

Wrestling in Prayer

There’s hardly any onscreen dialogue in the film.  Most of the characters speak in voice-over, which, as the movie progresses, reveals itself to be a stream of continuous prayer.  Whereas the voices of “The Thin Red Line” were musings about life and violence and war and nature, the voices of “The Tree of Life” seem to be directed to God in prayer – for the most part.  Indeed these characters wrestle in prayer to God, a biblical concept most of modern evangelicalism has abandoned.  What a happy discovery to find it exhumed in a movie, of all places.

wrestling

© 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures, All Rights Reserved

The O’Briens wrestle in prayer over all kinds of issues.  But the root problem they face is a God who is totally free.

In one scene, young Jack is present when his father tries to save a boy his age from drowning but fails.  The boy dies.  And Jack confronts God with the outcome:  “You let a boy die.”

The Glory of God

There’s been a lot of talk about the film’s continuity, about how successfully its strands fit together.  For my part, I’m astonished that, even now, I consider the whole film one unit.  Lesser directors with the same material would have yielded three movies squeezed into one.  For me, the adhesive that binds this film altogether is the glory of God.

Two passages in particular from Scripture came to mind when the movie was over:

Psalm 19:1-4a,

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

Romans 11:33-36,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and how inscrutable his ways!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever!  Amen.

These passages ring true at the end of “The Tree of Life”.  In it, we are confronted with a God who does whatever he pleases even when his creation is confounded by it.  It’s not hard to accept the works of God’s hands when we look at mountains or deep valleys or interminable fields.  But so often – like the characters of the “Tree of Life” – we’re left stumped, hardened and embittered when God’s hands act in judgment or allow suffering.

And yet both glorify God.  He is a God of true independence, and “The Tree of Life” is a film of much courage and mind-boggling scope to try to capture this paradoxical reality of God.

I commend the film, even if it frustrates you; even if you leave totally unsatisfied; even if the beauty of the images don’t compensate for the confusion.  I commend it because it is one of the only films you will ever see with the ability to inspire true awe, and it does this by declaring the works of God’s hands and surrendering to his inscrutable ways.

Indeed Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is rife with the glory of God.

Third Day’s “You’re Everywhere”

The Good News is Still Good News

I was heartbroken today to see the “trailer” for the new book Love Wins by Rob Bell, Founding Pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  The book hits stores March 29 so obviously we cannot be completely sure of all of its content.  But the trailer features Bell doing his usual NOOMA-esque, follow-the-camera technique in which he compellingly gives us the scoop.  The trailer’s short time span does not stop Bell from cutting right to chase:  He says, “…what subtly gets caught and taught is that Jesus rescues us from God.  But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from him?  How could that God be good?  How could he ever be trusted?”

This is not a novel question, and Bell’s countenance in the video conveys a subtle arrogance in asking it, as though he is the first to really wrestle with it and ask it properly and provide the answers.

But this post is not a critique of the book or even Bell himself.  Not that Bell’s seeming Universalist stance on salvation doesn’t require a response, but we’ll wait for the book to speak for itself.

Nonetheless, Bell undermines the gospel in the trailer for Love Wins. He replaces the bad news with false good news, and so there is no good news.  Bell gets the name of his church, Mars Hill, from the location at which the Apostle Paul gave one of his most famous public sermons.  In Acts 17, we read that speech, which was given to Athenians.  Paul preaches that God created everything and spread all peoples over the earth in order that they would seek him (vv. 24-27).  He acknowledges the Lord’s mercy in overlooking the ignorance of men, who tried to fit their deities into objects of gold, silver and stone (v. 29-30a).  Then Paul shifts and says, “…but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (vv 30b-31).

That appointed man is Jesus Christ, Son of God and yet fully human, who’s sinless life was offered to God as an atonement to cover the sins of ignorant, repentant men.  That atonement is sufficient and perfect – the conduit by which we receive the grace of God.  That atonement actually accomplished something – the expungement of our warranted guilt and condemnation.  That atonement is precisely efficient and never fails; it is applied, with joy, to those who have seen Jesus Christ for who he really is.

On Mars Hill, Paul proclaimed that this appointed man is coming on a day when he, the true judge, will administer justice in its totality.  That judgment will be the great and terrible wrath of God.  And, yes, Jesus will rescue us from it.

This was good news then; it’s good news now; it’ll always be good news, for the gospel is the summation of God’s Word.  God’s Word never fails because God never fails – the same yesterday, today and forever.

Universalism, at its core, mocks the perfect atonement of Jesus Christ.  Universalism means Jesus spilled his blood in vain.

*To see Justin Taylor’s take on Bell’s newest claims, and the video itself, visit Taylor’s blog.

The Solitary Man

When our triune God created Man, He did it in community.  It was a group project.  The three-in-one Creator was never alone.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…’ ” – Genesis 1:26a

When God told Man to subdue the earth, He provided a human counterpart.  It too was a group project.  Adam was no longer alone.

“The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him.’ ” – Genesis 2:18

When Man preferred confinement and distance from God, God brought community down with him.

” ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ – which means, ‘God with us.’ ” – Matthew 1:23

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” – John 1:1,14a

When the God-Man reestablished community between God and Man, and Man and Man, it was not a group project.  No, that part He did it alone.

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” – 1 Peter 3:18a

The one true Solitary Man found us self-absorbed and alone in our sins and became totally alone for us to bring us back into community.

Immaculate Word Choices: Lessons from Robinson & Lewis

Last week, Moody Bible Institute hosted its annual Founder’s Week.  The conference, held on the week of D.L. Moody’s birthday each year, promises dynamic Bible teaching from some of the country’s finest expositors.  And, let’s be honest, there are some duds too.

On Thursday night, Haddon Robinson preached a sermon from the first three chapters of Hosea.  Dr. Robinson is considered one of the foremost authorities on expository preaching, and his exposition on Thursday confirmed that for me.  I had never heard him preach before.

What struck me most was Robinson’s word choice.  Every word seemed to have been forged and chiseled before he said it – perfectly chosen for the context and meaning of each sentence.  This was remarkable.  He was a humble speaker in countenance and delivery.  He did not speak very loud, but his words demanded attentive silence from the audience (or maybe people were bored and sleepy – I’m not sure).

In preaching through the narrative portion of Hosea, Dr. Robinson displayed an expert understanding of literary exposition.  Many preachers confuse exposition so thoroughly that the sermon becomes eisegetical; it becomes total misinterpretation.  I hear this often.  In an attempt to make a biblical text relatable, the preacher actually only succeeds in inserting their own uninspired ideas into the text.  This ruins the theological implications and practical applications of the text.  On a more heinous level, that kind of preaching undermines the Word of God.  It assumes that Man’s ideas are inspired over the Bible.  By making the passage “relatable” or lyrical, the preacher misses the whole point!

But Robinson was able to make his exposition robust with lyrical wording and profound imagery without undermining the text.  Indeed many of the details he gave from the story are not in the text, but the sermon remained loyal to the Scripture because his word choice was so intentional.

I was reminded of the importance of our word choice.  Words do matter.  They matter in general storytelling.  They matter more in preaching, which is often storytelling of the most important kind.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis opens with a criticism of an elementary-level English text book.  The book’s authors, whom Lewis nicknames Gaius and Titius, claim that when a person attributes description to an object, that person is not actually revealing something about the object  but about themselves.  For instance, when a man calls a waterfall sublime he is not actually saying “This waterfall is sublime”, but “I have sublime feelings regarding this waterfall.”

Lewis then pictures a schoolboy reading and consuming this teaching and says,

The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.  It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.  The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.  (The Abolition of Man, p. 5.)

Lewis’ argument concludes that words are not merely subjective; we cannot insert our fickle notions into them.  Words must have objective meaning, or else we lose meaning.  We lose truth and the ability to articulate truth.  Preaching, then, must include the intentional and prayerful use of words because biblical preaching is the proclamation of truth.

I am thankful for Dr. Robinson’s sermon, which is still on my mind, and for his example.  His sermon last week reminds me to be thankful for all the preachers who speak well – not necessarily at the oratorial level (though that certainly helps) but at the word level.  And his example reminds all of us in the family of God to craft our words with carefulness and intentionality.