MTV’s Gender-Neutral Award is Actually Disrespectful to Women.

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Emma Watson and Asia Kate Dillon at the MTV Awards.

Emma Watson made headlines last weekend by receiving the first gender-neutral acting award at the MTV Awards for her performance in Disney’s live-action adaption of Beauty and the Beast. The win is being called “historic” because it’s the first major movie award to combine “best actor” and “best actress” into one category.

Many on the right are upset about this, while many on the left may think the right is overreacting. What’s the problem? Does everything have to always be divided into male and female? There are many awards that could be given to a man or a woman, and these awards have been around for years without controversy. We conservatives should certainly be careful to avoid hallucinating liberal boogeymen (sorry, or boogeywomen; wait, is it boogeyperson?) in every closet. We shouldn’t be oversensitive to politically correct oversensitivity.

But in this case the boogeyman seems pretty real. For starters, the award was presented to Ms. Watson by gender-neutral nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon. That’s a huge statement in and of itself. Asia was a symbol, a manifestation, of MTV’s agenda. Simply merging “best actor” and “best actress” into one may not seem like a big deal, but having someone who doesn’t identify as male or female present this “historic” award makes the motivation rather obvious.

Then came Ms. Watson’s acceptance speech, which confirmed exactly what’s at the heart of the issue: “The first acting award in history that doesn’t separate nominees based on their sex says something about how we perceive the human experience. MTV’s move to create a genderless award for acting will mean something different to everyone. But to me it indicates that acting is about the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and that doesn’t need to be separated into two different categories.”

Ms. Watson’s comments imply that it’s unfair to judge male and female performers separately, and that a gender-neutral award will tear down some wall to create a more level playing field. If you think separate awards exist because of gender inequality, that would be true. This new award would be a monumental defiance of cultural injustice.

But inequality is not why separate categories exist. The distinction of male and female awards doesn’t degrade anyone the way racially segregated bathrooms and water fountains used to. It’s not meant to prioritize one over the other, but to uphold both as valuable in their own right. It actually shows a greater appreciation for men and women, not less.

Ms. Watson is an outspoken feminist, which supposedly means she believes in gender equality. But modern feminism goes further than that by assuming the only way to have equality is to eliminate all distinction. Modern feminism isn’t about women’s dignity—it’s about erasing all lines of difference between men and women. That’s the opposite of women’s dignity. That insinuates women don’t have value unless they’re exactly like men. If you think having “male” and “female” categories is automatically sexist, that means you don’t think each sex has inherent value in and of itself. So even though this new award is being applauded as a female victory, perhaps MTV is actually robbing actresses of what makes them, and their performances, so special.

To some degree, a movie or TV role should be judged in light of the performer’s sex. And that’s not a bad thing. When an actor portrays a character they must utilize their own unique experiences and tap into the unique experiences of that character. Those experiences are usually different for men and women, and that’s due precisely to the fact that men and women are different. Their feelings, reactions, struggles, and triumphs, as well as those of the character they’re portraying, are directly related to whether they’re male or female. That’s not something to be despised, but applauded.  “Diversity” used to mean the recognition of a group’s uniqueness, value and contribution. Not anymore. Now it means we must all be the same.

Ms. Watson said an award “that doesn’t separate nominees based on their sex says something about how we perceive the human experience”, and she’s right. It says a lot. Unfortunately, in this case, it actually cheapens the human experience by downplaying the unique experiences of men and women. If progressivism is trying to make gender “equal” it’s doing so by making male and female equally meaningless and equally worthless.

Instead of trying to downplay the distinction between men and women, we should be able to recognize, appreciate and celebrate it. Does every award need to be divided into male or female categories? Not at all. But in some cases it certainly gives validation to the stories and skills of both.

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Four Reasons to Stay Out of ‘The Shack.’

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If you’re reading this, you probably already have an opinion about The Shack, the film adaption of William P. Young’s best-selling novel of the same name that hit theaters last weekend. Most Christians I know fall into one of three categories: they think it’s inspirational and they love it; they think it’s heretical and they hate it; or they think it’s a flawed yet potentially edifying story that we shouldn’t be too quick to endorse or condemn.

I’m going to admit up front that I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t plan to. I’ve seen enough trailers, clips, and reviews to know that it’s a pretty faithful adaption of the book, and that is not a good thing. I read the book and I think it’s dangerously wrong about many things, four of which I’d like to elaborate on here.

#1. It Gets God Wrong.

The Shack’s initial problem is its initial premise: a man named Mack has a personal encounter with all three members of the Holy Trinity, with God the Father as a matronly African-American woman named “Papa,” God the Son as a middle-eastern handyman, still called Jesus, and God the Spirit as a gentle Asian woman named “Sarayu.” All gender arguments aside, this portrayal of the Godhead is deeply problematic.

God is spirit (John 4:24). He is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17). To see Him with mortal eyes would be instant death (Ex. 33:20), and no human has ever done it (1 Jn. 4:12). He does not have a physical, material body like we do, nor can He be contained within any spatial radius (1 Kings 8:27). It is inappropriate, irreverent and impossible to portray Him as a man, woman, beast, or object.

This is a basic doctrine, and God warned against violating it in the second commandment by forbidding the making and worshipping of images (Ex. 20:4-5). Although this specifically forbids the worship of false, graven gods, it also forbids the casting of God Himself into any material form. We see this application in the story of the golden calf, when Israel molded an idol but believed by worshipping its image they were actually worshipping the Lord (Ex. 32:4-6). This was a blasphemous insult to God.

There is only one true, accurate and acceptable image of God and that is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), His Son, Jesus Christ. In Him alone does the deity dwell bodily (Col. 2:9). In Him alone can the radiance of God’s glory be tangibly seen and felt (Heb. 1:3). No mortal can see the Father except by seeing Jesus (Jn. 14:8-9). Although no man has ever seen God the Father, He is made known through the incarnate image of God the Son (Jn. 1:18). Even when prophets in the Old Testament saw visions of God (Isa. 6:1; Ez. 1:26-28), the New Testament reveals that they were actually seeing the image of the invisible God, Jesus Himself (Jn. 12:41).

God the Son is the only visual by which God has revealed Himself to man. He is the infinite taking on the finite. No one on this side of eternity can accurately depict the mystery of the Godhead in all its fullness or precision, and we’re commanded to not even try. To portray God the Father or God the Spirit undercuts the significance of Jesus and disobeys God’s own commandment about Himself. What you end up with is a confused and confusing depiction that oversimplifies and misrepresents the incomprehensible reality of the triune God.

#2. It Gets Suffering Wrong.

In this story, God is a helpless bystander limited by human freedom. He (or is it she?) weeps and grieves over the pain in the world, yet can’t really do anything except try to make some good out of it. Fallen mankind is driving the train and God is stuck laying down the tracks as we barge along, trying to ensure a safe destination without intruding on our free will.

This seems well-intentioned, but it comes up short. The Book of Job offers a very different view of suffering: that all things are given and taken away by God (Job 1:20-21), that God does no evil in His dealings with mankind (Job 1:22), and that God’s purposes can never be thwarted (Job 42:2). The rest of Scripture teaches that God is actively involved in every aspect of creation (Ps. 104:5-30; Mt. 10:29-30), that He is the one writing history (Ex. 9:16; Prov. 16:33; 19:21; 20:1; Isa. 14:24; Dan. 2:21; 4:35; Acts 4:27-28; Jam. 4:13-15), that He ordains everything that comes to pass including tragedy (Gen. 45:7-8; Isa. 45:7), yet without being the author of sin (Jam. 1:13), and that He has predestined every detail for the good of His people (Rom. 8:28-30).

In an attempt to display God’s goodness, The Shack tosses out God’s sovereignty. It tries to offer comfort by saying that suffering is never God’s plan or intention, but for those who experience constant suffering that’s actually quite disheartening. That would mean God is removed from the majority of our experiences in this life, and all He can really do is give us a pat on the back and tell us to hang in there. But the Bible teaches something better: that even suffering falls beneath the reign of God’s dominion, and every little thing that He brings to pass serves His holy, perfect purpose, even if we can’t understand it right now. He is Lord even over our deepest pain. The child of God, living in a world of tribulation, can trustingly proclaim along with King David, “Behold, here I am, let Him do to me what seems good to Him” (2 Sam. 15:26).

#3. It Gets Sin (and therefore salvation) Wrong.

The Shack makes light of sin when Papa states, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”

This contradicts Scripture’s constant warnings against the wrath of God. This wrath isn’t passive, but active. God doesn’t just sit back and leave us to our own sad choice, but He will eternally inflict sinners with punishment for their cosmic treason (Mt. 13:42; 25:41; Lk. 12:5; Jn. 3:36; Rom. 2:5; 2 Cor. 5:10; Col. 3:6; Heb. 10:26-27; Jam. 3:6; Jude 1:7; Rev. 20:11-15). Certainly it is an act of judgment when God hands someone over to their own devices, and the results are always tragic. But The Shack takes this idea too far by suggesting that no future judgment will be required outside of sin’s natural consequences within this world.

If that were true, then there wasn’t a whole lot riding on Christ’s death. If an eternity of divine punishment was not at stake, then Jesus was not actually our “propitiation” (Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 4:10), He did not give His life “as a ransom” (Mk. 10:45), and He did not need to be “pierced for our transgressions” (Isa. 53:5). If wrath and judgment are non-existent, Christ’s bloody death at Calvary doesn’t do much of anything. When you downplay sin, you downplay the Savior.

Once again, in an attempt to soften the blow and administer comfort, The Shack actually removes the very foundation of hope we so desperately need. If God doesn’t punish sinners, then no one needed to be punished in our place. If no one needed to be punished in our place, then Christ’s death was for nothing. And if Christ’s death was for nothing, then the entire foundation of our faith falls apart. By trying to highlight God’s love, The Shack actually eradicates its greatest triumph.

#4. It Gets Scripture Wrong.

At one point the book observes, “In seminary [Mack] had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects…Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.”

The Shack assumes that deriving our understanding of God chiefly from Scripture is a bad thing. It limits Him. Puts Him in a box. Instead, our knowledge of Him should come through personal, subjective experiences and the Bible should be read through the filter of those experiences rather than vice versa. Throughout the book, God makes remarks that catch Mack by surprise precisely because they contradict many traditional biblical teachings. The point is that God works in unconventional ways that defy our religious limitations, specifically the limitations of a dry, impersonal Bible.

That’s a tragic view of God’s word. In direct contrast, Scripture describes itself as “living and active”, sharper than a sword and piercing to the deepest parts of a man (Heb. 4:12). Every jot and tittle is the breath of God, beneficial for all areas of life (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It never fails to accomplish God’s grand purpose (Isa. 55:10-11). It’s eternally enduring (Mt. 24:35). It indwells us (Col. 3:16). It’s more delightful than riches (Ps. 119:14), it’s a wellspring of wonder (Ps. 119:19), it gives life to the soul (Ps. 119:28), and it’s sweeter than honey (Ps. 119:103). The Bible is presented as a vibrant, dynamic channel of intimacy with God. It’s spoken about as though it were a living, engaging, relational being. If we want to encounter God, we encounter Him through the power of His revealed Word. He’s in every line of every page.

By trying to take God out of the objective, theological box of Scripture, The Shack puts Him in the foggy box of subjectivism. Instead of the clarity we’re given in Scripture, God is actually reduced to an imprecise mystery that we can only discover through an esoteric encounter. In an attempt to free God, The Shack binds Him. In attempt to bring Him closer, The Shack makes Him more distant than ever.

I’m not interested in ripping apart The Shack’s author, readers, or viewers. It’s a heartfelt attempt to deal with the question we all wrestle with at some point: how do you reconcile the reality of evil with the goodness of God? Many people who appreciate the story (including the author himself) have been bruised by this fallen world and they desperately seek answers. I have no desire to insult or ridicule them.

But I am concerned with making sure we get the right answer to that question, and from the right source. We must redirect our opinions and sentiments to be in line with what God has revealed about Himself. When we do, we find that the triune God in all His sovereign, terrible, wonderful holiness is far better than any softened-down version we can create for a novel. The Shack may warm our hearts, but a God-honoring story must do more than that—it must fill our hearts with truth. Comfort is only valuable when it’s rooted in truth, and the truth of God’s word is better than any emotionally-charged tale we can concoct.

How aliens and grammar made me appreciate the Bible.

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Last week my wife and I watched Arrival, a critically-acclaimed sci-fi drama about a group of people trying to communicate with aliens. Okay, I admit, that doesn’t sound like a very riveting synopsis. If you want an alien blockbuster with lots of explosions, go rent the new Independence Day sequel. But Arrival is a smart, well-crafted film with a few surprises along the way, and the whole bit about people trying to talk with aliens is actually what makes the story so profound.

Why? Because language matters. That’s true no matter who you are or what you believe, but Christians should believe it more than anyone. Our entire religion is hinged on it. Our eternal hope is predicated on the faith that God has truly and accurately communicated Himself to us through His word. And that need for accurate communication is what drives the whole plot of Arrival.

The story centers on Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a linguist who is recruited by the U.S. Army to communicate with one of the twelve UFO’s that have landed at various spots across the globe. The process is slow and frustrating. How do you begin to understand the linguistic basics of a species that is literally from another world?

At one point in the film Banks and her physicist partner Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) trade jabs about which is more central to human civilization: language or science? The whole thrust of the film seems to side with Banks. After all, the humans and aliens are both intelligent life forms who have cultivated science to great benefit, but science can’t produce a meaningful exchange between the two species—only language can do that. The gap between the two sides is unbreachable as long as a language barrier exists. This reminds us of the necessity of communication, of the transmission of meaning from one party to another. Without an exchange of some kind between two sides there is no possibility of moving forward in a relational sense.

Banks tries talking to the aliens, but the noise is just babble to them. The aliens write out their language, but it looks like gibberish to the humans. There cannot be just hollow sounds or random symbols—there must be a clear, comprehensible sharing of ideas. So what do they do? They learn to understand the meaning behind the sounds and symbols. They must grasp the structure of the other’s language and then communicate at their level, in their terms, in a way they can understand. This is the only way to bridge the relational gap between the two foreign parties.

But what if we took the same idea and swapped aliens with God? Since the beginning of time man has wrestled with how to have meaningful interaction with the divine. How can we communicate with someone so foreign to us, so “otherly”? Like Banks and Donnelly, countless men and women have felt confused and frustrated in their attempts to reach up to heaven. Without real communication between man and God, you’re left with two alien sides staring at each other and no relationship to show for it.

Arrival reminded me that if indeed God exists, and if we are to know Him who is so other-worldly, there would need to be some bridging of the language barrier between our two sides. If He is a spiritual, infinite Being, how could we know the mind of someone so unlike us unless there was a clear impartation of information from one side to the other? As the apostle Paul pointed out, “Who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11).

Just as the aliens in Arrival are concealed behind a wall of fog in their spaceship, God often feels hidden. Perhaps general revelation allows a peak or an outline, but there seems no way to truly see Him, know Him, or have a meaningful point of contact with Him. As the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin supposedly said of his experience in outer space, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” God is an incomprehensible mystery. So He would have to talk down to us. He would have to communicate with us in our terms and in a way we could understand. He would have to express the truth about Himself within the limited framework of our language and our comprehension. We cannot ascend to God, so He would have to descend to us. We cannot find Him, so He must reveal Himself to us.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what the Bible claims to be. Our knowledge of God doesn’t come through sensationalism, emotionalism, or mystical spirituality. It comes to us by God transmitting truth about Himself through words. Paul went on to make the point, “If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played?…So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?” (1 Cor. 14:7-9) That’s why Scripture refers to itself over and over again as the word of God—not the energy of God or the force of God, but the clear and specific articulation of God’s communication through language. The word makes it possible to bridge the relational gap between man and God. Language matters.

The Bible is God’s self-revelation, communing with us through human authors and in human terms to explain Himself at our level. We can understand God because God has spoken our tongue and made Himself understandable. That doesn’t mean we can know everything there is to know about God, but it does mean that He’s articulated to us everything we need to know and everything He desires us to know, and He’s done it in way that is clear and comprehensible. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29).

Arrival was a great piece of filmmaking, but it was more than that. It was a reminder to me that language matters, and that God uses language to meaningfully communicate with us every time we open His word. If we neglect Scripture, God will continue to feel like an alien hidden behind a foggy wall of uncertainty. But when we trust in His self-disclosure we can know who He is, what He is like, what He has done, what He expects, and how we can enjoy a meaningful relation to Him through the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

Recommended Reading from 2016

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I had the privilege of reading some great books in 2016. Here are five that were particularly impactful, which I recommend you to consider for your own reading list in 2017.

Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will by Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung has been one of my favorite speakers and writers for several years now. Personable, practical, humorous, and always theological, he brings a fresh energy and relatability that reflects his pastoral spirit. In Just Do Something he addresses an issue that I’ve personally struggled with and that, as a youth pastor, I’ve seen countless young people struggle with: what is God’s will for my life?

DeYoung avoids the sappy, emotionally driven approaches you often hear. Instead of encouraging his readers to sit in a quiet place and wait to feel God’s direction, DeYoung proposes several principles that involve holy living, searching the Scriptures, seeking counsel, and applying the wisdom of God to make informed, Christ-honoring decisions. He claims that sitting on our hands and doing nothing while we wait to “hear” from God often produces laziness and ineffectiveness in our kingdom work. He’s absolutely right, and it’s a message more people need to hear, especially as we begin a new year.

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture by Alister McGrath

My wife came from a KJV-only background. I did not. In fact, I was the exact opposite. I was so upset by the KJV-onlyists that I held a bit of a grudge against the King James Bible itself. It wasn’t until the past couple years that I began to appreciate the historic, linguistic, and even doctrinal significance of this translation.

I happened to stumble upon In the Beginning at the library last summer, and in light of my recent appreciation, I gave it a shot. McGrath is a master historian, and he goes into great and valuable detail about the background of European religion, politics and culture to set the stage for the creation of the KJV. He discusses the evolution of the English language up until that point in history. He deals with preceding English translations, like the Geneva Bible, and how these forerunners impacted the KJV. He provides a helpful background on King James himself, and he goes into great detail about the extensive interpretive process and even the backstories of the interpreters involved.

Even if you don’t use the King James Version, it has unquestionably played a good and vital role in English Christianity. In the Beginning helps us to better appreciate that role. It also reminds us how God providentially works through the means of history to both preserve and spread His Word.

The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory by Richard C. Barcellos

In an effort to avoid the Roman Catholic error of transubstantiation, we often downplay the spiritual significance of the Lord’s Supper. For many churches, communion is little more a commemorative nod to Christ’s death. Richard Barcellos seeks to bring balance to this error by reminding the church that the Lord’s Supper is “more than a memory”; it is a very real, very sacred process whereby Jesus is spiritually present with His people as the benefits of His finished work are administered by the Holy Spirit. This is a short read, but a much-needed one for the church today.

Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ edited by Thomas R. Schreiner

I’m a Reformed Baptist. Which must seem like a contradiction to my Reformed friends (many would prefer I use the term “Calvinistic Baptist” or “Particular Baptist”). After all, Reformed theology historically goes hand-in-hand with infant baptism. Although the majority of my theological views have shifted in a thoroughly Reformed direction over the past decade, including eschatology, soteriology, and ecclesiology, I still fundamentally disagree with the theology behind infant baptism.

This terrific read reminded me why. Believer’s Baptism is an anthology from various Baptist heavy-hitters (most of whom are Calvinists) like Thomas Schreiner, Shawn Wright and Mark Dever that deals with the systematic, biblical and historical theology of credobaptism. It examines the examples of baptism in the Gospels and Acts, the statements about baptism in the epistles, the relationship baptism plays between the old and new covenants, what the early church believed about baptism, what issues have surrounded baptism over the years, and, finally, the significance of baptism in the local church.

Whether you’re a credobaptist who wants to explore the background of your church’s practice, or you’re a paedobaptist who wants to better understand your credobaptist brothers and sisters, get “immersed” in this one (see what I did there?).

Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation by Dennis E. Johnson

After growing up in staunchly dispensationalist churches, I reached a point in life where I was sick of eschatology. I didn’t necessarily know what I believed about it, but I knew what I didn’t believe. Dennis E. Johnson helped change all that. I had developed an interest in the amillennial, idealist interpretation of Revelation but I was unsure if it had any real merit or biblical support. So I gave Johnson’s idealist, amillennial interpretation a try. I must say, he makes his case quite convincingly.

Revelation is a book of imagery. It makes constant use of symbols and pictures, the majority of which actually have their basis in earlier portions of Scripture. Whereas many preachers try to see these images fulfilled in news headlines or technological inventions, Johnson draws from the biblical sources themselves to reach a conclusion. He interprets Scripture with Scripture. Rather than some distant, seven-year period, he argues that the apocalyptic “tribulation” represents the cosmic battle between good and evil inbetween Christ’s first and second coming. He portrays the church as both persecuted and yet victorious throughout history, physically, economically and socially suffering but spiritually advancing the kingdom of the risen, reigning Christ, until at last Christ returns and consummates His kingdom once and for all.

If all you’ve ever known is a Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye version of the end times, or maybe if you’re not sure what to believe and you’re looking for some clarity, this is a phenomenal resource. As another year begins, Triumph of the Lamb reminds us that history belongs to Jesus and will culminate in the total victory of Jesus.

The Force of Fathers

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Mads Mikkelson as Jyn Erso’s father, Galen, in Rogue One.

The first time I saw Star Wars, I was with my dad. I was seven years old and the original trilogy had just been re-released into theaters for a new generation to enjoy. I remember leaving the theater spell-bound by the spectacle I had just witnessed, as though some unexplored corner of my soul had been awakened by this space opera of desperate rebels, dark lords, heroic rescues, and larger than life characters. An entire world—no, an entire galaxy—had been brought to life right in front of me. I remember discussing the movie with dad on the car ride home, father and son, relishing the thrill of this shared experience.

As it turns out, the heart of Star Wars is a story about fathers and children. Luke Skywalker is an orphan whose father was supposedly murdered by Darth Vader. Luke is taken under the wing of Obi Wan Kenobi, who becomes like the father he never had, only to see him also killed by Darth Vader. In a chilling twist, Vader himself is revealed to be Luke’s father. Luke and Vader then seek to draw each other to their respective sides of light and darkness, culminating in a father-son showdown that ends with the ultimate sacrifice and a redemptive reconciliation.

Even 2015’s The Force Awakens was powered by another paternal plot-twist: the film’s villain, Kylo Ren, is in fact the son of Han Solo and Leia and the grandson of Darth Vader. It is Han’s turmoil over his son that carries the film’s emotional weight. And it is Han who confronts his son in the film’s most memorable scene. Instead of the smooth-talking, nerf-herding scoundrel we’ve come to expect, we instead see a compassionate father pleading with his lost son to return to the light. We then see the look of betrayal, sorrow, and yet unshaken love in his face when that same son runs him through with a lightsaber. It’s meant to break our hearts. And it does. Because we know how strong this theme of fathers and children has become to the Star Wars universe.

Last week’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story the first Star Wars film to deviate from the Skywalker family tree (unless you want to include this and this – okay, we’ll pretend those never happened). Yet the role of fathers has never been more vital than here.

Rogue One focuses on Jyn, the daughter of Galen Erso, the man who designed the Death Star. Right from the opening scene we see the closeness of this father and his child, and once again dad is the key to the entire plot. When Galen is taken by the Empire to do their dirty work, Jyn is thrust into a fifteen-year meandering of bitterness, trouble and distrust. Meanwhile, the struggling Rebellion takes an interest in Jyn precisely because of who her father is. They plan on using her to track Galen down, kill him, and hopefully stop the Death Star from wreaking galactic terror.

Just as her father’s disappearance caused Jyn’s indifference, his re-emergence becomes her motivation. While all other characters assume her father to be a member of the evil Empire, she retains a childlike faith that he must still be good. Galen’s influence is the catalyst for all that happens in the film and, subsequently, all that goes on to happen in A New Hope. Every father, whether by his absence or presence, has some sort of impact on his children.

Some folks still try to downplay the significance of fathers in the lives of children, but the majority of social studies have proven them wrong. Kids with involved dads tend to perform better academically, exhibit stronger verbal and problem-solving skills, and even show better behavioral patterns. They’re also more likely to participate in extracurricular hobbies, to be successful in their career, to be more socially relatable to strangers, to show greater tolerance for stress, to show more self-control and take more initiative, to do better socially, to have better relationships with their siblings, to have higher moral values, and even to have a higher overall life satisfaction. On and on the list goes.

That’s not to insult families who, for one reason or another, don’t have a father in the equation. But the role of dad is a means of common grace that God uses to forge and develop young people, and whether that impact is good or bad, there will always be an impact of some kind. If Star Wars has taught us anything, it’s that this relationship between fathers and children is cosmic.

Indeed, the story of fathers takes center stage in God’s unfolding drama of redemptive history. We remember the fall of our federal father, Adam, and the resulting history of destruction for his offspring. We remember God’s promise to Abraham, that he would be the father of faith to many nations. We remember God’s promise to King David, that his son would reign forever. We remember the true Offspring of Abraham and David who was to come, who would be called both Son of God and son of man. We remember the story this Messiah told about the forgiving father who welcomed back the prodigal son with open arms. We remember that in Jesus the Messiah we are able to call God Himself our Heavenly Father.

Contrary to popular belief, “patriarchy” is not an ugly word reserved for backwoods chauvinism; it’s designed to be a pillar in the basic societal structure, and it’s even the basis by which we understand our own relationship to God.

Whether intentional or not, Star Wars highlights just how good and redemptive that role can be when done right—or just how destructive it can be when done wrong. Like the Force itself, it can be used for great light or great darkness. It’s been almost twenty years since my dad took me to see Star Wars for the first time, and I’m ever grateful for the role he’s played (and continues to play) in my life. My hope and prayer is to make that same positive impact on my own son’s life, to the glory of our Heavenly Father.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Five Reasons Why the New ‘Jungle Book’ is Profound

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Like most people, I grew up watching Disney’s 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book. It was one of my favorites. I’m also incredibly skeptical of all the remakes/reboots/spin-offs/sequels/prequels/everything-elsequels that have bombarded moviegoers the last couple of years (which aren’t stopping anytime soon), and a skeptic of excessive CGI. Imagine my horror, then, when one year ago Disney released the trailer for their live-action, CGI-soaked Jungle Book remake. I admit, I died a little inside.

But this week we watched it with our youth group at church and I’ve had a metanoeō, a change of heart. It’s good. Shockingly good. Not just good in the sense that it’s well-done filmmaking or creative entertainment, although it’s certainly both those things. The CGI is beautiful, the scale is breath-taking, and the voice actors are perfect. But what surprised me the most is its Judeo-Christian worldview on the nature of man and his role in creation.

I can’t speak on behalf of the filmmakers or their intent, but the implications are hard to miss. These implications were not minor points or subtle references, but the heartbeat of the film itself. This is a film that deserves to be watched and discussed for five Jungle-sized reasons.

#1. The uniqueness, ingenuity, and authority of man over creation.

Most false religions fall into one of two camps: they either make too much of man or too little. Either they equate man with God, give man the authority of God, or promise man he can become like God; or they minimize man as an insignificant part of nature where he either shares a spiritual brotherhood with the plants or animals or he evolved from slime and is no better than monkeys. Either way, man’s relationship to the divine is confused.

The Jungle Book rightly nails the balance. On one hand, man is a part of creation. Mowgli is flesh and blood and bone and interacts with the rest of nature as a fellow created being. Man is not God. This Creator-creature distinction is one of the fundamental doctrines of biblical Christianity (Ps. 8:3-4).

Yet at the same time, man stands apart from the rest of creation (Ps. 8:5-8). He is different.  Although Mowgli tries to act like a wolf, there is no denying his humanness. At one point Bagheera even tells Mowgli, “The elephants created this jungle…but they did not make you.” This is not just a biological difference, as though man were simply another breed of animal, but an ontological one. Man is neither pure beast nor pure spirit, but as theologian Michael Horton puts it, “…we are created as psychosomatic (soul-body) whole, as persons. Our bodies (including our brain) and souls are not separate compartments, but interactive aspects of our personal existence and activity.”

Echoing the words of Genesis 1:28, Mowgli is also endowed with the ability to subdue and cultivate creation like no one else. Bagheera constantly chides him for his “tricks”—inventions that seem like magic to the other creatures. King Louie, wanting more power, goes to Mowgli to learn man’s secret. Shere Khan hates man precisely because he knows what mankind is capable of. All nature recognizes the power, intelligence, ingenuity, and otherness of Mowgli. I almost stood up and cheered when, at the movie’s climax, Mowgli tells Bagheera he wants to fight Shere Khan like a wolf, to which Bagheera responds, “Fight him like a man.”

The Jungle Book, then, is the anti-Brother Bear (“the story of a boy who became a man, by becoming a bear”) or Tarzan (“We’re exactly the same”). Yes, man is mortal. But he is also a living soul made in the image of God, and he is invested with authority as God’s viceroy on earth.

#2. Man’s unique position can be used for great evil or for great good.

One of the coolest things about The Jungle Book is its treatment of fire. What was a convenient plot device in the cartoon takes center stage in this adaption, as the “red flower” represents all the good or evil that mankind is capable of.  When used wrongly, his position enables him to kill, abuse, and destroy.

But it also gives him the ability to think, build, creative, cultivate, and help. Mowgli’s “tricks” are used to collect food and water, save a baby elephant, and defeat a foe. Man’s authority does not need to be a bad thing. It can be utilized to improve, enhance and even protect the world of which he has been made a steward.

This is very different from most nature-loving Disney films, which often portray men as the villains who mess everything up. It also avoids any sort of environmentalist overtones or save-the-planet propaganda. In the end, Mowgli’s “tricks” are just as capable of good as they are of evil.

Certainly man’s abuse of the world has led to city slums, worldwide war, and even nuclear threats. But man’s rightful utilization has led to beautiful art, helpful inventions, stunning cities, life-saving medicine, and prosperous societies. Man’s prominence in creation, and his cultivation of it, is not an evil—it is designed to be something beneficial.

Ultimately, a happy ending does not come from Mowgli ceasing to be man or becoming more one with nature, but embracing his special role as a man and using it for good.

#3. Man faces temptation from the serpent who promises pleasure but delivers only death.

One of the film’s most frightening and delightful scenes is when Mowgli encounters Kaa, the ginormous python. As our human hero pursues fruit to eat, the serpent slinks out of the shadows and soothingly sympathizes with all the supposed injustice inflicted upon the man by his authority figure. Then the serpent lures the man into a false sense of trust by promising all the comforts and pleasures of his heart’s desire, if only he’ll trust in the serpent…not realizing that the coils of death are actually closing in around him. Sound familiar?

The similarities to Genesis 3 are too strong to miss.

Some reviewers disliked the use of Scarlett Johansson’s soft, seductive voice in the role of Kaa, but I loved it for the same reason that I loved Mel Gibson’s decision to have a woman play Satan in The Passion of the Christ: sin does not always appear as a raging, roaring tiger (or a lion, to borrow a biblical example), but often tempts us with the beautiful allure of an adulteress. Evil has appeal to it. Yet behind the superficial beauty lies an enemy more powerful and more deadly than we often realize. Just ask Adam and Eve.

#4. Even a beautiful, breathtaking world is fallen and corrupt and needs saving.

It’s hard to tell what parts of The Jungle Book ’s cinematography are real and which are CGI, but either way they’re stunning. As someone who loves the great outdoors, I was breathless on more than one occasion at the magnitude and majesty of the jungle’s terrain. Our Father’s world is truly a grand place.

Yet for all that, the world is still fallen. For all the wonders of nature, there is always danger and death lurking around every corner. The Disney studio who put out movies like Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Brother Bear would have you believe that nature is a perfect, blissful Eden all on its own, were it not for the meddling destruction of mankind. But this Jungle Book, from that same Disney studio, holds no such view. Predators. Stampedes. Avalanches. Weather. Injury.  Nature, left to its own devices, is hardly a peaceful utopia. Yes, it is beautiful and captivating, and yet even without man’s interference it is also harsh and cruel, and in need of redemption.

The late Michael Crichton, an outspoken opponent of environmentalism, put it so well: “In short, the romantic view of the natural world as a blissful Eden is only held by people who have no actual experience of nature…Take a trek through the jungles of Borneo, and in short order you will have festering sores on your skin, you’ll have bugs all over your body, biting in your hair, crawling up your nose and into your ears, you’ll have infections and sickness and if you’re not with somebody who knows what they’re doing, you’ll quickly starve to death…It is a harsh, powerful, and unforgiving world, that most urban westerners have never experienced.”

The apostle Paul would agree with that: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:20-22). All creation has been affected by sin, and all creation is waiting for renewal.

#5. Creation’s savior is a man who overcomes the failures of all men before him.

As we’ve already discussed, man is capable of great evil or great good, and it’s implied throughout the movie that the animals have encountered man’s evil in the past. Mowgli, as the hero of the film, faces the same possibility of corruption. He is susceptible to the weaknesses of the men who came before him. Yet he succeeds where others have failed. He resists the temptation to abuse power. He does in the flesh what his forefathers could not do.

It was through a man that sin entered the world. But it would also be through a man that the world would be redeemed. As Aslan said in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, “A force of evil has already entered [the world]; waked and brought hither by this Son of Adam…And as Adam’s race has done the harm, Adam’s race shall help to heal it.”

This ultimate victory is found, of course, in the incarnate Son of God. Jesus Christ became fully man and faced all the same temptations that every man before Him had faced, yet by His active obedience He kept God’s law on our behalf and was victorious where all others had been defeated. He accomplished what Adam, and all Adam’s offspring, could not. He is humanity’s champion and the sovereign Ruler of all creation.

In the end, this Hero throws the roaring jungle cat into the flames, crushes the head of the seductive serpent, restores life to those He loves, and establishes an incorruptible peace across the redeemed realm of creation.

Now that’s a story worth retelling again and again.

Theology of the Tunes

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I recently heard a song on the Christian radio station that made me squirm in my seat. I admit I’m critical of most contemporary Christian music anyway, with its watered-down, self-focused messages, but this song was particularly unsettling:

It’s gotta be
More like falling in love
Than something to believe in
More like losing my heart
Than giving my allegiance

According to this musician’s diagnosis, doctrine takes a back seat to passion and emotion. Christianity is not so much about a specific set of beliefs as it is warm, fuzzy feelings. Such thinking is unfortunately all too common in mainstream Christianity. Theology is denounced as divisive, legalistic religion, and is replaced by a “relationship” that’s little more than romantically strolling down the beach with Jesus.

In a humorous twist, the very next song on the radio went a little something like this:

We believe in God the Father
We believe in Jesus Christ
We believe in the Holy Spirit
And He’s given us new life
We believe in the crucifixion
We believe that He conquered death
We believe in the resurrection
And He’s coming back again, we believe

I don’t know if that was an intentional counterbalance by the station DJ or just plain old irony, but I can’t think of two more opposite songs. While the first criticizes doctrine, the second highlights it as the core of all we say and do.

It affirms the triune nature of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the new life of a believer, and the future return and reign of Christ. It features the distinct doctrines that have made up Christianity for the past two-thousand years.

Ir reminds me of one of the great creeds of old such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, proclaiming the truths of Scripture. It’s right in line with a church history that is brimming with beautiful statements of faith. Even the early church affirmed its teaching through confessions such as those quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16.

Those beliefs are not petty issues or hindrances to our walk with God. In fact, they are its heartbeat. Although passion is important, Scripture makes it clear that what we believe shapes who we are and what we do. Our passion must spring from our doctrine, not the other way around.

Paul actually warned against passion without doctrine when he said the unbelieving Jews “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). All the fervor in the world was worthless when not rooted in a proper set of beliefs concerning God, the Messiah, or salvation. A concern for theology does not have to mean an absence of intimate communion with God. Love and belief do not need to be opposing factors, as the first song implied. The two are not meant to be separate spheres of Christian living, but one.

Christianity is more than a feeling. It’s more than “falling in love”, more than “losing [your] heart.” It is something to believe in, or rather, someone to believe in. Doctrine testifies to the glorious hope of just who He is, what He’s done, and how that affects us.

A Tale of the Christ in Cinema

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With the opening of Ben-Hur last weekend, the Christian world is once again abuzz with discussion. Some have hailed the film as a powerful and worthy successor to the 1959 Charlton Heston classic. Some have called it doctrinally weak. Others have simply shrugged it off as an uninspired, not-quite-there attempt of a biblical blockbuster.

But one thing about the new film that everyone can agree on is the expanded role of Jesus. Whereas the 1959 version only ever showed the back of His head and never had Him speak, the 2016 update features plenty of close-ups and conversations to go around. More of Jesus, that’s a good thing! Right?

I admit I haven’t seen it yet so I’ll refrain from voicing an opinion either way. But I’d like to lend my voice to the discussion on a broader perspective and propose caution. Not against the film in particular, but toward any production that attempts to portray the incarnate Son of God.

Hear me out.

There’s nothing wrong with visually portraying Christ per se. But films about Him deserve to be tread carefully because the task of accurately portraying the King of Kings seems, to me, an order too tall for even the finest actor to fill. The problem is not with showing Jesus. It’s hoping that a mortal man could somehow play Him.

I’ve yet to see any actor walk across the stage or screen, and feel the magnitude of the Person they’re supposed to be. I don’t think it’s possible for any human to really capture the essence of the Lion and the Lamb, the First and the Last, the Sovereign Lord and the Suffering Servant, the God and the man. Our every attempt at the scope of Christ’s incarnate character will always come up short.

The Gospels give us a man unparalleled to any in history. A man who had thousands marveling at the authority of His words (Lk. 4:32), a man whose presence made demons shriek (Mk. 1:24), and a man whose command to “Follow me” caused many to forsake their lives in an instant (Mt. 4:19-20). The Gospels give us a man who was God; or rather, God who became man.

I don’t care which actor or director is calling the shots. That’s not something we can ever capture or duplicate.

In fact, most of the movies and plays about Jesus come terribly short. They usually fall under one of these five misrepresentations.

1. The holy zen Jesus: He floats across the screen like a ghost, murmuring vague, pithy spiritual riddles. His eyes are always half-open, as though adapted from a Roman Catholic stained-glass window. He’s more phantom than man, and you can almost see the halo above His head in every scene.

2. The feminine Jesus: He looks like a European model who’s got a whole salon of product in His hair. He’s gentle and fair and is constantly holding children like teddy bears. He giggles too much, touches people too much, and seems to skip everywhere. His relationship with the disciples can be borderline creepy.

3. The hippie Jesus: His long hair and beard look more earthy than Jewish, and the only words in His vocabulary are “peace”, “love” and “harmony.” He never gets upset, He never talks about sin, and more than anything else He just wants everyone to get along.

4. The best buddy Jesus: He’s obnoxiously likable and has that “Aw, shucks,” twinkle in His eye. He’s got a winning smile, He’s a great motivational speaker, and everyone treats Him like the popular kid at school. He runs through the crowd giving high-fives and noogies.

5. The boring Jesus: This results when the filmmakers try to avoid any of the above misrepresentations by playing it safe and not giving Him a personality at all. He never blinks, never makes any sudden movements, and says everything with the most dry, sleep-inducing tone possible. Imagine putting a fake beard on Ben Stein and asking him to read the Sermon on the Mount.

Call me cynical if you want. But I can’t help but think such shortcomings are inevitable.

That’s not to say they’re all bad. Personally, I loved The Passion of the Christ. I thought Jim Caviezel brought a brilliant blend of sorrow and agony to the role, capturing the essence of our Lord’s mortal and spiritual suffering. He never seems helpless–He always knows the story will end in triumph–and yet He is still overwhelmed by heartbreak. It was magnificent.

But to this day my favorite representation of Christ is still the 1959 Ben-Hur, precisely because we never see His face or hear His voice. Jesus is there. His person is seen. His presence is felt. The magnitude of His power is what saves Ben-Hur and defines the story. In fact, the original book was entitled, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, making Him the center of the story itself.

But by refraining from showing too much Jesus the filmmakers don’t subject us to their interpretation nor do they risk an actor missing the mark. If we know the Gospels, we’re able to fill in the blanks just fine.

Granted, this could be a problem for someone who has never read the Gospels. If Christ is a blank slate, an unbeliever may not understand who He is. But I would contest you run into an even bigger problem with most screen adaptions: you get a wrong portrayal. For that reason I would recommend caution before taking an unbeliever to see a movie about Jesus.

Why? Because as neat as they may be, they’re not a substitute for the Gospel: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The true, pure person of Jesus Christ can only be found in Scripture. Anything else is just a creative yet fallible reimagining. A movie is an artist’s point of view, but the four Gospels are the pure Word of God.

I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t see Ben-Hur (personally, I’m looking forward to seeing it). Nor am I saying Jesus movies have no value. Nor am I saying it’s wrong for an actor to play Jesus. But since every attempt will inevitably fall short–and will certainly never be a replacement for the Gospel itself–let’s be cautious.

Killing Christian Creativity

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Hans Fiene (known for his “Lutheran Satire“) wrote a brilliant piece at The Federalist last month pointing out the left’s inability to produce anything original; instead of creating any new gay or female characters they simply hijack well known ones like Captain America or James Bond. This isn’t creativity. It’s intrusive laziness.

Fiene goes on to note the same laziness in Christian art and media. Instead of producing original content we settle for mimicking whatever is trending in pop culture. And he’s absolutely right: it’s a sloppy attempt to capitalize on whatever will make a quick sale. We’ve taken the grand truths of the Christian faith and suppressed them into fun, feel-good name brands.

But it runs deeper than just commercialization–the recent lack of Christian creativity often stems from bad theology. Whether it be best-selling novels that confuse the Trinity or worship that wants you to get turned on by Jesus, ill doctrine shapes most of our art.

Why? Because Christianity as a whole has stopped being about truth and reverence and has become more about personalized emotionalism. Why bother with all that deep, philosophical nonsense when you just can just make a cheap grab for the heartstrings? Who needs theology when you’ve got feeling?

This has overflowed into the way we do books, movies and music. We’ve lost quality because we’ve lost substance. We’ve cheapened our art because we’ve cheapened our God.

I saw a terrific picture on social media that exploits some of this poor theology in the way we read our Bibles:

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Its point is that we treat Scripture like isolated Sunday school lessons instead of connected chapters in God’s redemptive history. We treat the Bible like a bunch of illustrations to help us live better, rather than as the great tale of God and His people. We look at our faith as helpful hints and tidbits in order to live our best life now, rather than one epic narrative of God’s cosmic victory through His Son.

By doing so we’ve lost the grandeur and the scope of our own story and our own salvation.

This has drastically affected our art, because we no longer tell tales of the Great Story or the deep elements of which it is composed. Instead we settle for what is cheap and emotionally appealing. That’s why Christian bookstores are overstuffed with self-help nonsense. That’s why Christian music is full of one-syllable words repeated over and over. That’s why why Christian literature and movies are built on one-liners like “let go and let God.” There’s no depth. No majesty. No rich theology.

Compare that with the classics of Christian creativity like Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress or Handel’s Messiah. Milton dealt with the cosmic impact of the fall. Bunyan dealt with the pilgrim’s quest to the Celestial City. Handel dealt with the nature and mission of Jesus Christ, including Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment.

They saw the magnitude of the Christian story. They saw a tale bigger and better than the standard “believe in Jesus and you’ll feel happy” garbage that’s shoveled out nowadays.

They told good stories because they were constantly aware of the Great Story. If we don’t recover the depth and doctrine of our faith, we will continue to be B-grade copycats. Instead of glorifying our Creator with creativity, we will continue to mock Him with commercialized laziness.

Let us be good musicians and writers and storytellers. After all, we have the best Story to tell.