Wednesday, April 16, 2014

WWJD 2; New Hope; Flywheel

I watched three Christian movies recently: WWJD 2: The Woodcarver, New Hope, and Flywheel.  Here are my thoughts about them.  I’ll include some spoilers when I talk about the movie Flywheel, so be warned!

1.  WWJD 2: The Woodcarver.

This movie came out in 2012, and I presume that it is the sequel to the 2010 movie What Would Jesus Do?, which I reviewed yesterday.  The movies stand apart from each other, however, for there is no overlap between them in terms of characters or setting.  The main similarity between them is that they deal with the popular question, “What would Jesus do?”

In WWJD 2: The Woodcarver, John Ratzenberger (who played Cliff Clavin on Cheers) plays an old-fashioned woodcarver named Ernest.  Ernest mentors a boy who dropped out of school and vandalized a church, and the boy’s parents are continually at each other’s throats and want a divorce.  Meanwhile, the boy’s father works for a lumber company, which is trying to buy out Ernest.

Ernest gently offers the boy and his mother Rita spiritual counsel and advice, based on his Christian beliefs and his experiences.  In one scene, the boy’s father even ends up eating with them, and he remembers how he met and fell in love with Rita: he joined the church’s choir just to meet her, even though he could not sing a note!  The family becomes reconciled.  Meanwhile, Ernest is dealing with his own issues, and, although he shares his wisdom with Rita and her son, he acknowledges that he himself is a work in progress.  Ernest recently lost his wife to cancer, even though they prayed for her recovery, and his faith is being tested on account of that.  Ernest really misses his wife, who offered him guidance and encouragement throughout their marriage.  Ernest also feels guilty about the death of his son: they got into an argument, and the son joined the army and died.

I thought that the movie was good, even though it rushed through some things.  The depiction of mentorship and reconciliation were the best parts of the movie, in my opinion.  Ernest offered support and insight, but not in an in-your-face sort of way.  Moreover, the guy who played the shady Colonel Maybourne in the Stargate SG-1 series has a role in the movie as a school principal!

2.  New Hope.

This movie came out in 2012.  It is about a teenager named Michael whose father is a pastor, and the family moves to the town of New Hope.  Michael is upset about this because it is his senior year, and he was not expecting to spend it trying to fit in among strangers.  Moreover, Michael has to deal with resentment from others at his school.  A basketball star recently committed suicide, and Michael is taking his place on the team, and he is also forming a relationship with the star’s girlfriend.  Michael especially has to contend with the star’s grieving and angry brother, Lucas, who is also on the team.

The pastor in the movie offered good advice about being honest with God and reminding others of their value.  Lucas also made an interesting statement about how people said that he was a loser and he proved them wrong, yet felt a bit empty after that.  My main criticism of the movie is that it dragged on and on.

3.  Flywheel.

This movie came out in 2003, and it was the first movie that was made by the Kendrick brothers, who went on to make Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous.  The movie was low budget—-it somewhat reminded me of a home movie, albeit not entirely—-but it went on to earn a lot in DVD sales.

In Flywheel, Alex Kendrick plays a used car salesmen, Jay Austin, who sells cars way above their actual value.  Jay is in debt, his marriage is on the rocks, and his son does not want to grow up to be like him.  After watching a televangelist while flipping through channels and talking with his kindly Christian employee, Max, Jay decides to follow God, and he commits the car lot to the Lord and spends more time with his son.  Jay resolves to be an honest salesman, yet that initially comes at a price: he loses two of his salesmen, and he does not make as much money on each sale.  But, after an undercover investigation on the nightly news reveals to the public that he is one of the few honest salesmen around, people flock to him to buy cars, and he can then pay off his debts.  Jay also pays back those he overcharged.  When a TV reporter corners him on TV about his shady past, the people he paid back—-including an elderly African-American woman who rebuked him—-rush to his defense.  Heeding Max’s advice, Jay steps back and lets God fight his battles for him.

Flywheel is an enjoyable movie.  I especially liked the part where Jay gets a bit arrogant after he returns the money and people are happy with him, then he is humbled as he gives a check to an elderly African-American woman and she rebukes him for having taken advantage of people.  The scene in which she later comes to his defense is one of my favorites.

Is the movie believable?  I can understand the objection that Christian movies are unrealistic: that they often depict God providing happy endings to those who follow him, when that does not necessarily occur in real life.  I do find it believable, however, that being an honest business-person can gain a person a good reputation, and that this can benefit the business-person.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lukewarm; What Would Jesus Do?

I watched a couple of Christian movies yesterday.  The first was Lukewarm, which was a 2012 Christian movie.  The second was What Would Jesus Do?, a 2010 movie that was based on Charles Sheldon’s 1896 classic, In His Steps.  John Schneider from the Dukes of Hazzard and Smallville was in both movies.  Here are some of my thoughts:

1.  There was a lot going on in the first movie that I saw, Lukewarm.  Luke Rogers, a Christian (ha ha, LUKEwarm!), is working at a bar with his friend and is calling himself spiritual rather than an old-fashioned Christian on his drunken joy-rides with his friend and some attractive ladies.  Luke’s friend drinks and drives and accidentally runs over a homeless man one night.  One of Luke’s neighbors, an older gentleman named Thomas, is handing out Christian tracts and is annoying a non-Christian neighbor, who wants Thomas to leave.  Luke’s girlfriend, Jessie, is being pursued by a New York lawyer, who thinks that he can love and support her better than Luke can, but she still loves Luke, as much as Luke disappoints her.  Meanwhile, Luke is dealing with resentment because his father (played by John Schneider) walked out on him and his mother when Luke was a kid and failed to pay consistent child support.  Luke has fond memories of his father, yet cannot bring himself to forgive him.

The movie was rather enjoyable, I guess, but the character I liked most was Thomas.  Thomas had lunch with a homeless man and told him never to underestimate the power of prayer.  When the homeless man said that he never accepted Christ because he figured that his card had already been punched for hell, with all of the sins he had committed, Thomas encouraged him that God could forgive him.  What was remarkable was not that scene, as much as the fact that Thomas continued to maintain a relationship with the homeless man—-to have lunch with him regularly.  Thomas didn’t just witness to the man, figure that his job was done, and walk away, but he sought to maintain a relationship with him and to offer him prayers, friendship, and support.

Thomas also prayed with Luke, asking God to take away Luke’s anger and to give Luke the strength to forgive his father.  Thomas knew about the destructiveness of anger, for he saw it in his father, who (as an African-American) deeply resented the injustices he suffered in the Jim Crow South.  Thomas also told his persecutor, George, that George must be filled with anger, and he told George that he would be praying for him.  The reason that this stood out to me is that I’ve felt in the past as if Christians expect me to carry the burden of my anger alone—-it’s my problem and responsibility to forgive.  But I could have used prayers and moral support.  Evangelical men often support one another when the issue is sexual lust, but I have not seen that type of support among evangelicals when it comes to anger or unforgiveness.  Perhaps they are reluctant to admit such things because they believe that they convey weakness: Sure, they’ll talk about their struggles with lust when a nice-looking lady hits on them, but they want to come across as the strong, Stoic types, the sorts of people who do not get angry.  Maybe I am off base here, but I am just communicating my speculations.

2.  In What Would Jesus Do?, John Schneider plays a drifter who drifts into an economically depressed town.  He is looking for work, but he is turned away, even by people who go to church.  One lady, a real estate agent, tells her secretary not to give leftover sandwiches from a meeting to him because he would then keep coming back, but she should throw the sandwiches in the trash instead.  Another lady does not want to hire him at her newspaper place because he has no experience, plus she does not know him.

Meanwhile, people are struggling.  A shady politician is promising jobs through the replacement of a church with a casino.  The real estate agent and newspaper editor are supporting him.  The pastor of the church is mourning the loss of his family and finds himself jaded and unable to pastor his congregation.  A young man writes Christian songs and is offered a lucrative contract if he will sing the company’s songs, and he and his mother need the money because otherwise they will be thrown out of their home.  People are pressured to compromise, morally and spiritually.

The drifter challenges the people about their failure to follow Jesus, right before he dies.  After that, the movie gets a bit cheesy: the cold real estate agent is now a committed Christian and becomes a candidate to challenge the shady politician.  The rest of the movie still had some redeeming moments, however, as when the real estate agent’s even colder mother finds within herself the compassion to reach out to a homeless runaway.

Overall, the movie was good because it challenged me to think about how people can go to church every Saturday or Sunday yet fail to live according to Christian ethics the rest of the week.  Why are so many of us like this?  Are we afraid to do what’s right because of possible negative consequences?  And can we reach out to people or do what is right, while being realistic?  Should we throw realism out of the window for the sake of principle, or is there a way to be principled and realistic at the same time?  I am sure that people on the front lines of helping others have wrestled with these questions.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Psalms

Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard, Jr., ed.  The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.  See here for Moody’s page about it.

This book contains essays by evangelical scholars and pastors.  The contributors include Bruce K. Waltke, Willem A. VanGemeren, C. Hassell Bullock, Francis X. Kimmitt, Robert B. Chisholm Jr., Andrew J. Schmutzer, Michael E. Travers, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Allen P. Ross, Daniel J. Estes, Randall X. Gauthier, Robert L. Cole, David M. Howard Jr., Michael K. Snearly, Tremper Longman III, Mark D. Futato, Daniel A. Ridder, and John Piper.

Some of the essays made points that I have heard or read over and over again in discussions about the Psalms.   Another essay, which compared the Masoretic and LXX for Psalm 54, made interesting points but was very technical and could have done a better job in summarizing the differences between the two versions of the Psalm.  A few of the essays are valuable to me in that they summarized scholarship about the Psalms, such as different opinions about the Psalms’ settings, parallelism, and interpreting the Psalms canonically.  Some essays in the book appeared to accept the Davidic authorship of a number of Psalms, whereas at least one essay seemed to posit that a Psalm was later attributed to Moses but was not actually by him.

There were essays in the book that I really enjoyed.  My particular favorites were Robert Cole’s essay about the connections between Psalm 1 and Psalm 2, as well as David Ridder’s speculation that the Psalmist in Psalm 84 was especially longing to worship God in Jerusalem because the Assyrians were inhibiting him from traveling there.  Tremper Longman III’s defense of Contemporary Christian music also resonated with me: “Not every song has to teach profound theology; sometimes it is best to simply express adoration” (page 223).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday 2014

At church this morning, we celebrated Palm Sunday.  The pastor was talking with his puppet, Jake, about how many of us like God when things are going well, but we are tempted to forsake God when things are going badly.  Similarly, there were people who were cheering for Jesus when he was entering into Jerusalem on a donkey, yet they were calling for his crucifixion soon thereafter.

I do not know if that was actually the case, for the people who cheered for Jesus may not have been the same as the people who called for his crucifixion.  Still, I think that my pastor was making an important point.  Right is right, and wrong is wrong, regardless of what is going on in my life.  That is why I think that it is important for me to honor God, the embodiment of love and righteousness, even when things are not clicking for me.  The way is still right.

We did not have a sermon this morning.  Instead, we performed the “Weeping Tree,” a story about the tree that was used for Jesus’ cross.  The first rehearsal a couple of weeks ago was a little rough—-we were rehearsing for two hours, and even then we had not gotten it right!  The director, however, said it was a bad rehearsal, but we would have a good performance.  And I would say that we did.

I would be lying if I were to say that all was well for me today on the religion front.  I was short with someone this morning, and so I felt guilty during the church service.  I was thinking about how we have all sinned and made mistakes and that’s why Jesus died for us, but then I had different thoughts as I was walking home.  I was thinking to myself that, yes, I made a mistake, but I had to move on, and I had to try to avoid making that mistake in the future.  I asked myself why I was so insecure about taking a suggestion from somebody, that I was short with that person.  Hopefully, that will enable me to handle similar situations in the future with more composure.  Although this thought process was more psychological than religious, I cannot say that religion was completely divorced from it: I will need God’s help to be courteous with people, especially when I am nervous, insecure, or perhaps annoyed (which is my own fault).  Many others are going through things, after all, and they still manage to be courteous to me.

I am grateful when people forgive me.  Does that make me more forgiving of others?  Well, I’m still mad at certain people.  And, even if I somehow managed to stop my anger and to regard the people who offended me as human beings with flaws, like me, I am very hesitant to restart relationships with those people.  So does God refuse to forgive me because I have not forgiven others, a principle that Jesus affirmed in the Sermon on the Mount?  If so, then I am not sure what to say!  There are some people from whom I want to keep my distance!  I am still grateful to those who forgive me, though, and I resolve to be the sort of person they want to be around.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

I Chronicles 5

I am going through the book of I Chronicles for my weekly quiet time in the Scriptures.  Today, I will talk about I Chronicles 5.

This chapter focuses on the Israelite tribe of Reuben, which dwelt in the Transjordan, but it also touches on the other tribes in the Transjordan, namely, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh.

The chapter opens by saying that Reuben was the firstborn of Jacob, but he did not get the birthright because “defiled his father’s bed” (KJV) , presumably by sleeping with his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22).  The birthright then passed on to Joseph, yet Judah was the most prominent because Judah had the king, David.  What was the birthright that was passed on to Joseph?  According to Deuteronomy 21:15-17, the firstborn was entitled to receive a “double inheritance” of property (Roddy Braun’s words in the Word Biblical Commentary).  That, in a sense, is what Joseph received, for he got a double portion of land in Israel.  His sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, each counted as separate tribes and were given large pieces of land; they also had a sizable population.  In terms of property, Joseph got more than the other tribes.  That was its birthright.

So Reuben lost out.  Moreover, some argue that Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh made a mistake when they chose to settle in the Transjordan rather than receiving property across the Jordan, with the other Israelites (Numbers 32).  In I Chronicles 5:26, we read that the Assyrians took away into captivity the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and E.W. Bullinger says that the lesson is that it is better that our lot be chosen by God than that we choose our own lot, as the Tranjordanian tribes did, placing themselves closer to the enemy.  But I do not thoroughly buy that.  I Chronicles 5 talks about the blessing and military success that the Transjordanian tribes had.  They depended on God, and God blessed them accordingly.  They fell to the Assyrians, according to I Chronicles 5:25, because they went whoring after the gods of the land that God had destroyed.  What land is this?  Were these Transjordanian tribes tempted by the Canaanite religion of the Cisjordan, when the Jordan river was separating them from the Cisjordan and they probably kept to themselves?  I suppose that is possible, but maybe they were tempted by the religion of the Transjordanian nations that they had supplanted: the regions that Sihon and Og ruled.

There are a variety of spiritual lessons that I get from this chapter.  One is that God can still have a plan for us, even if we botch things up and lose what we had.  Another is that we can depend on God and receive God’s blessing, even if we go out on our own.  I would not say that the Transjordanian tribes separated themselves completely from the rest of Israel, for they still helped the other Israelites conquer the Cisjordan.  Moreover, there is the possibility that the Transjordanian tribes were helping the rest of Israel in other battles—-that, when they were triumphing over the Hagrites in I Chronicles 5, they were not just winning local skirmishes but were contributing to the victory of all of Israel.  In Psalm 83, the Hagrites threaten all of Israel.  The Transjordanian tribes were closer to the Hagrites in location, and so perhaps they got to make their own unique contribution to the well-being of Israel in fighting the Hagrites.  It is good when we can contribute to a body or cause larger than ourselves, in our own unique way or in other ways; still, we don’t have to succumb to group-think in order to be loved and blessed by God.  And, even if we feel alienated from or within organized religion, we can still have a personal relationship with God.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Finishing The Easter Experience: Jesus' Resurrection

Last night, my church finished its study of The Easter Experience: What If What Happened Then Changes Everything Now?  The final lesson was about Jesus’ resurrection.  Here are some of my thoughts.

1.  The pastor on the DVD was asking why Jesus needed to rise from the dead, when he had already paid for our sins on the cross.  He offered a variety of answers: Jesus’ resurrection demonstrated that Jesus was who he said he was and that what he said was true; Jesus’ resurrection assures us that we really have been forgiven by God, something we may doubt at times due to the magnitude of our sins; and Jesus’ resurrection assures us that Jesus will one day return, regardless of how much time passes until then.

The pastor referred to the passage in I Corinthians 15 that states that, had Christ not risen from the dead, we are still in our sins.  I think of another verse, Romans 4:25, which affirms that Jesus was raised for our justification.  That tells me that Jesus’ death on the cross was not enough for us to be forgiven, but that his resurrection was necessary for this as well.  The pastor on the DVD, in my opinion, glossed over this by making the point that Jesus’ resurrection assures us of the forgiveness that we have as a result of Jesus’ crucifixion.  That’s not what I Corinthians 15 says, though.  It says that, had Jesus not risen, we would still be in our sins.

The question of why Jesus needed to rise from the dead, when he had already paid for our sins on the cross, is not surprising when it comes from Christians who believe in penal substitution, the doctrine that Jesus on the cross paid the penalty that we deserve for our sins.  I suppose that they can think of all sorts of reasons that Jesus rose—-to triumph over death, to be in heaven interceding for us, to come again—-but, again, the fact is that I Corinthians 15 and Romans 4:25 connect Jesus’ resurrection with our forgiveness, or our justification.  There is another model of the atonement that may fit these texts better: Paul’s idea that we die and rise with Christ (Romans 6).  Christ died, and we die with him, but, if he did not rise again, we do not spiritually rise again with him, and thus we do not walk in that new life in which we can appreciate the forgiveness that God has given us and extend love and mercy to others.  Moreover, even if Christ paid the penalty for our sins on the cross, his resurrection is the guarantee that we will be resurrected.  We can be forgiven, but what good is that forgiveness to us if we do not live beyond the grave?

2.  What interested me last night was that the pastor on the DVD was, perhaps inadvertently, undermining popular arguments within Christian apologetics.  Many Christian apologists like to parrot that Jesus had to be God, otherwise he was a liar or a lunatic, and we all know that he was not those things.  But the pastor on the DVD was saying that a lot of people claim to be God, but that we know that Jesus was God because he rose from the dead.  Had he not risen from the dead, the pastor was saying, he would have been seen as a David Koresh sort of figure: just another deluded person who believed himself to be God.

Many Christian apologists like to point to the empty tomb as evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.  But, in the drama on the DVD, Peter and John did not conclude that Jesus rose from the dead after seeing that the tomb was empty.  Rather, they speculated that Jesus’ enemies may have taken Jesus’ body so they could drag it through the streets or feed it to the dogs.

As far as I could see, the only evidence that the pastor on the DVD cited for Jesus’ resurrection was Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 15 that Jesus appeared to over five hundred eyewitnesses, some of which were still alive in Paul’s time.  Interestingly, my impression is that Christian apologist William Lane Craig acknowledges that the empty tomb by itself was not sufficient to prove Jesus’ resurrection: that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples were also important.

3.  The DVD showed Jesus and Mary Madgalene hugging when she saw that Jesus was alive.  I did not want to get nit-picky in the group, but did not Jesus in John 20:17 instruct Mary not to touch him, for he had not yet ascended to his Father?

4.  An overall question that has been swimming through my mind has been: Did I find going through this particular Bible study curriculum to be worthwhile to me personally?  Well, I enjoyed the drama, and the pastor on the DVD was warm and compassionate.  Some of the lessons really resonated with me, whereas others did not so much.  Rather, they tended to augment my doubts, but I did not bring that up in the group because I did not want to disturb its spiritual flow.  To be honest, I much prefer my group going through the Daylight Bible study curricula, of which The Easter Experience is not a part, for the Daylight studies are more academic.  Even if the scholars on the DVD are more conservative than I am, and even if I walk away perplexed because I do not know what exactly I believe, at least I learn something from the Daylight studies, something that may be useful to me academically.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Gospel, Courageous, and Facing the Giants

I’ve been watching Christian movies lately.  I’m waiting for God’s Not Dead to come out on Netflix, so, until then, I will satisfy my hunger for Christian movies by watching other Christian movies.  Here are three that I recently saw:

1.  The Gospel.

This movie came out in 2005.  I was intrigued when I first saw the trailer.  One reason was that I saw that the actress who played Rudy Huxtable in The Cosby Show was in it, and I often wonder what happened to actors and actresses who played in the sitcoms of the past.  Another reason was that the movie seemed to be about people losing their spiritual way in the church, amidst the trappings of religion, and finding their way to an authentic spirituality.

The music in the movie was fantastic, let me tell you!  I ordinarily am not a fan of Gospel music, preferring Contemporary Christian Music instead.  But the music in The Gospel was very powerful!

The plot was all right, I guess.  A guy leaves the church, becomes a big-time music star, and returns to the church of his youth, where the new pastor, his childhood rival, is building a personality cult around himself, all in the name of God and his vision for the church.  That was interesting to watch, but, overall, the plot did not grab me that much.

2.  Courageous.

This movie came out in 2011.  It is about four police officers, and a Hispanic friend named Javier, who resolve to be Christian men of integrity.  Javier was my favorite character.  He loses his job, cries out to God, and then someone he doesn’t even know calls his name and gives him tools for a project to work on.  It turned out that this guy was expecting another Javier.  Good thing the Javier who needed work showed up!

I liked this movie because it was about leadership, and, by that, I don’t mean telling others what to do, but rather working on yourself (with the help of God and others) and leading by example.  In this movie, the characters experience challenges even to the end.  One of them passes the test of his character, while another does not.  The plot was meandering at times, but I still enjoyed spending time with the characters.

3.  Facing the Giants.

This movie came out in 2006.  It was made by the same gentlemen who made Courageous, the Kendrick brothers.  Alex Kendrick, who played in Courageous, also played in this movie.  It is about a high school football coach who initially has problems: his car does not consistently work, his team is consistently losing, people want to replace him with a new coach, and he cannot give his wife a child.  The coach then dedicates himself to God and encourages his team to live for God’s glory, and things go pretty smoothly then.

The first half of the movie was fantastic.  I liked seeing how the coach inspired his team to become winners when they saw themselves as losers.  While I was surprised that nobody complained that a coach in a public school was teaching his players Christianity (I doubt that’s even legal), I thought that he imparted a lot of wisdom, about cleaning up one’s own side of the street, for instance.  In one scene, the coach tells a player that he cannot make him believe in Jesus, for this is the player’s own decision, but that he hopes that the player will come to see how much Jesus loves him.  Another character, a puny soccer player who joined the football team and struggles to kick the football over the goal-post (I think that’s the right term), asks his Christian father why God made him so weak, and his father responds that it’s so God can show God’s strength through him.

The second half of the movie, however, was not so good.  While the main characters did experience challenges, on some level, things were going very smoothly for them overall once they got on track.  I felt like I was eating too much ice cream.  The reason that I like the other Kendrick brothers’ movies that I saw (Courageous and Fireproof) is that, on them, events do not necessarily go smoothly after the protagonists make a Christian commitment, but the protagonists know how to handle the events better, for they have been changed and now walk in wisdom.  If only I saw more of that in Facing the Giants!

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