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.

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.

Lady Gaga, the Super Bowl, and when postmodern progressivism shoots itself in the foot.

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Lady Gaga dropping in on Super Bowl 51.

It seems like everything is a political controversy these days. Even sports. Prior to Sunday’s Super Bowl, reporters kept baiting Tom Brady on his support for Donald Trump. Then, prior to her halftime performance, it was speculated that Lady Gaga would use her worldwide platform to make a political statement against Donald Trump (à la Meryl Streep).

Fortunately, Brady didn’t bite and Gaga didn’t lecture. Both did what they’re paid to do—entertain—and both did it exceptionally well (I don’t understand or care for Lady Gaga’s, shall we say, artistic vision, but there’s no denying she has immense talent). It was nice to enjoy football and music without political controversy.

But if the controversy doesn’t come to you, then you go to the controversy. Many on the left are now criticizing Lady Gaga precisely because she didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to criticize the President in front of the entire planet. As Mitchell Sunderland at Complex lamented, “She failed us.” It was, in the minds of many, a wasted platform from which she could have spoken up on what they consider to be an important cause.

Curiously, the liberal worldview is known for its secular postmodernism. Religious authority is oppressive and bad. Truth and morality are not absolutes. Whatever feels good for you is good for you. If something makes you happy you should pursue it and no one should tell you otherwise. After all, we’re temporary, material beings and nothing more, and we must enjoy life while we can. It’s a worldview that promotes moral autonomy, the pursuit of pleasure above all else, and the rejection of objective right and wrong.

But then you come to the Super Bowl halftime show. And suddenly you must have indoctrination. You must have conviction. If you are an entertainer you must use your platform to preach “truth” before the whole world. The gods of political liberalism must be appeased, or else. They demand your allegiance.

A worldview that rejects enforcing absolutes on everyone is criticizing one of its own for not preaching right and wrong to the whole world. A worldview that cries for freedom from religious authority is commanding its adherents to visibly profess faith at every opportunity. Do you see the disconnect?

If we’re just matter in motion, the product of neural-chemical reactions in the brain, then there’s no true higher cause. And if there’s no true higher cause, then one opinion doesn’t deserve to be preached to the world any more than another. The only truth is that there’s no absolute truth. So at the end of the day progressivism cannot consistently hold to its own worldview while also espousing that worldview with any real conviction or urgency.

So when progressives criticize Lady Gaga for just performing and not seizing the opportunity to speak against Donald Trump, they betray their own worldview. If enforcing your beliefs on others is the unpardonable sin, and if right and wrong are purely a matter of personal preference, then why would you expect pop singers to hammer their audience with a liberal profession of faith every chance they get? The outrage at Lady Gaga contradicts everything progressivism claims to believe. So perhaps there is such a thing as right and wrong, and perhaps it’s not always bad to express that to others. Perhaps truth does exist, and it should be shared.

Granted, the divide between conservative and liberal definitions of truth has never been larger. But only one side has an objective basis for believing in truth, and in the end only one side can make any sort of demanding truth claims without contradicting itself. Once we realize that life is more than meaningless matter in a temporary pursuit of pleasure, and once we realize that there is good and evil in this world, and once we realize that there is truth worth standing up for, then secular progressivism is left dangling like Lady Gaga over the arena, without a leg to stand on. When objective, worthwhile truth has the homefield advantage, we find ourselves on God’s turf.

Revival is good. Reform is better.

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I hear the word “revival” thrown around in a lot of churches. Seeking revival. Praying for revival. Singing about revival. Even trying to schedule revival. It’s one of those buzz words that gets people excited and makes them feel like they’re doing big things for Jesus, and it’s often made to seem like “revival” is the pinnacle of the church’s effectiveness.

But I can’t help but think that if we want genuine cultural change, revival alone isn’t the answer. Most “revivals” suffer from being a flash in the pan—an electrifying encounter or movement that burns really bright but quickly fizzles. It gets a lot of attention and gets a lot of people pumped up, but often fails to do much more than that.

“Revival” is the initial act of bringing something back to consciousness, or back to life. Like when a lady is revived after fainting. Or when doctors revive a man whose heart stopped beating. Similarly, a spiritual revival is meant to bring dead sinners to life in Christ. Which is a wonderful thing, and something we should strive for.

But Jesus didn’t just send us to make converts, He sent us to make disciples (Mt. 28:19). The Great Commission calls us to train people in a whole walk of life; to build men, women and children on a gospel that infiltrates every area of thought, emotion and practice. Revival is a good thing. But it’s only the starting point—what we really need is something deeper. Something that moves beyond a fleeting moment or one-time experience. We need something that transforms the entire way people see life and alters the whole of their worldview.

What we need is reform.

While revival is an act of resuscitation, reform is a thorough and ongoing change. It is, in its technical sense, “the amendment of conduct, belief, etc.” Reform is a total overhaul of the way we see life. The issues in the world, and even in the church, are not magically fixed by getting people to say the sinner’s prayer. That starting point of revival and conversion must lead to an all-around transformation in the way we perceive things, the way we think about things, and the way we respond to things. In order to see real, lasting change, our theology, politics, personal conduct, work ethic, family structure, priorities, entertainment choices, and day-to-day habits must all be conformed to the image of God’s Son.

This is called reform. It’s to reshape the way we look at life, thus reshaping the way we live. That’s why the work of men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century is known as the Reformation. These men didn’t just seek converts (which, I cannot stress enough, is a good thing), but they went above and beyond that by biblically reshaping the whole of how the church viewed every area of life.

Scripture says, “Turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.” (Jeremiah 18:11) Scripture also discusses the reforms of King Josiah (2 Kings 23:1), King Asa (2 Chr. 15:1), King Jehoiada (2 Chr. 23:16), and others who led the people in a godly shift that called for loving God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. And when Jesus sent His apostles to advance the kingdom of God, He did not just send them to revive people, but to reform their lives.

Was there revival? Certainly. But it was a part of a much greater process. It was a part of reform. Today, as the kingdom of God continues to spread, He calls us to do the same.

Enduring Election Exhaustion

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I admit, this election season has exhausted me. Pastorally, socially, ethically, politically, theologically, and mentally. I’m exhausted.

Every four years brings the tough battle of conservatives sparring against liberals, but this election has produced a whole new kind of battle that’s way closer to home: conservatives against conservatives.

The candidacy of Donald Trump has caused some of the sharpest controversy I’ve personally experienced in my own circles. Trump’s Republican supporters say those who will not vote for him are handing Hillary Clinton the White House, thereby compromising their conservative values. The Republicans who will not vote for Trump say that his supporters are justifying a historical Democrat with a perverted sexual history, thereby compromising their conservative values. This has not been a simple matter of agreeing to disagree—it’s become a take-no-prisoners bloodbath.

I’ve experienced this tension in my friend groups, on social media, and even in our church (where it’s been the hardest for me). These have been difficult waters to wade through. Not just because of the wrestling I’ve done with others as we try to navigate this moral dilemma, but because of the wrestling I’ve done with myself. What is the right thing to do? How big of a deal should I make this? How tough of a stance should I take? Is this a gray area, or is it an essential matter of church purity? How do I engage the issue with that Christ-like balance of grace and truth?

Last night, as I was poring over the strongly-worded election-eve opinions of my Facebook friends, I came to a weary realization: I’m ready for this to be done.

I found myself fed up with politics. Fed up with Christians turning on each other. Fed up with asking the tough questions. Fed up with trying to answer them. I found myself ready to disengage from the whole process and just get back to Jesus. I was all prepared to write a piece today about how God is still on the throne regardless of who wins and the truly important thing is the gospel. After all, isn’t that all that matters?

Ultimately, yes. God is sovereign. The gospel of Christ is central. May we never forget that. Never. But as I dreamed of escaping the moral and political complications of the 2016 election, another thought flooded my senses: We aren’t called to escape the world, but to engage it. We aren’t called to sit back and wait for the kingdom, we’re called to advance it. We aren’t called to remove ourselves from the system, but to impact and change the system for the glory of God.

Isn’t that the nature of life itself? Isn’t it easy to get frustrated with the fallen systems of a fallen world? When school gets challenging, we want to drop out. When our jobs get tough, we want to quit. When our marriage gets difficult, we want a divorce. When church gets rocky, we seek a new local body or even a privatized spirituality free of establishment. There is no area of life untouched by the Fall, no area where Easy Street does not beckon us to retreat into the monastery of our own private world.

The same is true of politics, of culture, of morality, and even of those issues that we Christians just cannot seem to agree on. Don’t throw your sucker in the dirt and storm off the playground. It may sound super spiritual to say “It’s all about Jesus!” and ignore everything else, but that can quickly digress into spiritual laziness and escapism if we’re not careful. Of course it’s all about Jesus. But that doesn’t mean we sit back and disengage ourselves from the world He created and the world He’s made us stewards over.

Of course we always want to watch our conduct to ensure we’re acting in humility rather than pride, and exhibiting grace rather than self-righteousness. But that doesn’t mean we never approach the issues. We’re supposed to wrestle with the tough questions. We’re supposed to wrestle with the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the true and the false.

Yes, I’m tired. And I’m sure you are, too. But to stop caring or participating is the wrong choice because our task is not yet finished, and our Sabbath rest is not yet here. Until that Day arrives, let us keep thinking, asking, wrestling, and striving to actively and lovingly engage the issues of this fallen world. Let us seek to advance our true Ruler’s kingdom as faithfully as we can.

It’s not always easy. But of all the options voters might face today, that choice is always the right one.

3 Things More Demonic than Halloween

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In my last post I mentioned predestination and Donald Trump as areas of contest between Christians. I suppose you could go ahead and add Halloween to that list as well. Every year when the Jack-O-Lanterns and fake cobwebs come out, believers are confronted with the same questions: Should we celebrate Halloween? How much? How little? Is it a harmless neighborhood costume party, or is it a satanic participation in the occult?

The concern of many, with which I sympathize, is over the extent to which light-bearing Christians share in a day devoted to the darkness of death, magic and evil. To many Christians this is the very thing Paul warned about when he said, “I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor. 10:20).

The Word of God deals quite frequently with the demonic and it often comes in the form of possessed madmen or pagan witchcraft. But not always. For as dark as ghouls and ghosts can be, there is a deeper darkness that perhaps we overlook. The face of evil is not always so easy to spot. Satan himself, the master deceiver, often lures us incognito as “an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). We must be on our guard against darkness in disguise, for that is the evil that truly grips and corrupts our hearts without us even realizing it.

Here are three kinds of demonic activities that you won’t see on the Halloween costume rack, but they’re perhaps more deadly than all the vampires and werewolves put together:

1. False teaching.

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” (1 Timothy 4:1)

Theology is not a petty issue. A correct understanding of Christ, the gospel, and the nature of God are at the heartbeat of the Christian faith. To miss the truth of God is to miss the person of God, the crux of our salvation, and the very source of our spiritual life.

In typical “angel of light” fashion, bad doctrine is rarely obvious. Some heresies can be smelled from a mile away but most are small and subtle, wrapped in just enough truth to sound convincing. That’s what makes them so dangerous, like poison in a glass of champagne. This is why Peter warned against “false teachers…who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1).

Paul told Timothy that the spirits behind these heresies are “deceitful”. That is, they rope people along into thinking something is true when the reality is that they’re headed down a broad road of destruction. Just like Satan “deceived” Eve in the garden (2 Cor. 11:3).

If we care about protecting our churches, our families and ourselves from the demonic, we must care about doctrine. We must study the Scriptures with great care, we must be cautious about which pastors and preachers we expose our families to, and we must pay close attention to what kind of “Christian” music is playing on our radios. If you care about the decorations that adorn the front of your home, I plead with you to care even more about the kind of teaching that fills the inside.

2. Selfishness.

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” (James 3:14-15)

We all admire the success of others. We all have personal goals we want to reach. But when these are taken to their ugly, distorted extremes we end up with pride, bitterness, envy, and arrogance. We become saturated with ourselves and this infestation usually causes us to mistreat and misuse others.

When this happens we have fallen under “wisdom” that is not only “earthly” and “unspiritual” but straight up “demonic.” This love of self was at the core of Satan’s pre-creation fall, and those who fell with him now spread that same toxin.

To safeguard ourselves from true spiritual evil, let’s stop pining for what we don’t have and start giving more thanks for what we do have. Let’s stop gossiping and slandering, especially in our congregations. Let’s stop placing our own impulses and emotions in the spotlight and instead focus on serving one another with the loving humility of Jesus.

3. Carnality.

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” (Revelation 18:1-3)

The identity of “Babylon” in the book of Revelation is up for debate. Some scholars say it represents apostate Israel. Some say first-century Rome. Some say it’s a future, literal Babylon restored to prominence. Others say it represents the corrupt world systems throughout history. Whatever the case, the point is the same: this kingdom is a haven of “demons” and “every unclean spirit.”

What is the manifestation of this demonic influence? Drunkenness, sexual immorality, riches, power, and luxury. Indulgences of the flesh. This describes a place that is hell-bent (literally) on fulfilling every carnal craving imaginable. It’s a place where sensuality is unrestrained, money is king, and comfort takes precedence over morality.

Is our career driven by the love of money? Do we watch movies or TV shows that border on the pornographic? Do we substitute the standards of Scripture for our own subjective appetites and desires? Do we participate in—or even defend and justify—that which God calls abominable? We may never step foot in a graveyard or haunted house, but we must be careful to not create a demon-haunted Babylon right where we are.

Some evil is easy to spot. But if we’re not careful it can be little more than a decoy to distract us from the truly demonic activity in our hearts and lives. Sometimes the scariest monster is the one within. Watch your doctrine. Watch your pride. Watch your lust. Unmask the devil’s phony charade and recognize darkness where it does the worst damage, and expose it with the glorious light of Christ.

“Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:8-16)

To my fellow Christians who support Trump: Seek first the kingdom.

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Eternal security. Predestination. Speaking in tongues. Donald Trump.

So goes the list of things that cut a hostile, fiery divide between Christians. With the 2016 Presidential Election fast approaching, American evangelicals are facing a moral dilemma unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time: what on earth do we do with Donald Trump?

This is a man whose reputation more than precedes him, from his Olympian ego to his claim that he could get away with murder. Some might dismiss such examples as nothing more than a big personality, while others could call it troubling arrogance. What’s even more concerning is his derogatory sexism and his objectification of women. But what’s truly alarming is the fact that he’s bragged about bedding married women; that over the course of three marriages he’s cheated and enjoyed it; and of course the hot topic this week is the leaked video of his lewd and crude comments about trying to seduce (or perhaps “assault” is a better word) multiple women, including grabbing their genitalia.

Here is a man who functions according to one overarching principle, and that principle is himself. He is vulgar, insensitive, and claims he doesn’t need God’s forgiveness for any of it. Yet here he is, the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America.

Some Christians have taken up arms with the #NeverTrump movement and either refuse to vote or will write in a third-party. Some will vote for him, but begrudgingly, and only to keep Hillary Clinton out of office. Others parade him as the savior of the Republican Party and shamelessly excuse his every move. Still others who previously endorsed him have since recanted.

Now, of course I would never vote for Hillary Clinton, but as it stands right now I have no intention of voting for Donald Trump, either. Yet I have many, many Christian friends who not only say they’re voting for him, but become confused or angry when they hear that I am not.

Some of their concerns are legitimate. The Supreme Court has a large, empty seat that needs filling, religious liberty has never been more endangered, and the abortion issue still casts a dark, bloody shadow over the land. For many Christians, a failure to vote for Trump means conceding these issues to the liberals. It means giving Hillary Clinton the keys to the country.

I get that, I really do. It’s a tough call to make. And I hope as much as anyone to see our land return to conservative principles and practices. But it’s precisely my belief in principles that keeps me from supporting Trump, and I hope to encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to consider the same.

It seems to me that many Christians are supporting Trump out of fear. Fear of ISIS. Fear of illegal immigration. Fear of losing party unity. Fear of losing seats in the Supreme Court. Fear of losing cultural influence. Fear of losing religious freedom. With so much on the line, it’s no wonder that conservatives are standing by the Donald regardless of whatever comes out of his mouth. They’re terrified to do otherwise. He represents their only bastion of survival.

So the stakes are simple: get on board with a man who boastfully defies all standards of Christian character and conduct, or risk a dark future of liberals, socialism and terrorists. Never mind that Donald Trump is the poster boy for all the sexual perversion Christians have long stood against. Never mind that Donald Trump is the poster boy for crudity, egotism, and dishonesty. So long as he promises to protect us we’ll let him be our poster boy, too.

Yet as I consider these issues, a passage of Scripture keeps popping into my head that I think we would do well to remember in times such as these, from the very mouth of our incarnate Lord:

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:31-33)

Jesus is addressing fear. He’s addressing how easy it is for us to slip into anxiety over the many troubles of this world, and how easy it is for our actions to be dominated by the constant need for security. But that sort of fear, He says, is for the godless. The heathen feels the need to secure his own provision and protection because he has no other source of hope. Since he paves his own destiny, he alone is responsible for ensuring its safety.

But the believer, according to Jesus, has a very different mindset. We “seek first”, before anything else in this world including political platforms, to be faithful to Christ’s kingdom and the pure “righteousness” of God. Our top priority must be to walk in integrity before Him. We must applaud that which is good and denounce that which is evil (Rom. 12:9, 21) We must call sin for what it is, we must never excuse or endorse it, and we must never go along with men who glory in such things (Ps. 1:1; Prov. 1:10).

We must not let fear distract us from faithfulness to God’s kingdom and God’s righteous ways. The kingdom of God is not just a distant, eschatological hope, but a current reality. We participate in and advance that kingdom every day. Our churches, families, neighborhoods, books, movies, and yes, even our politics, must all be built on the foundation of the fact that Jesus reigns. His kingdom is advanced not by who’s in the White House or who’s on the Supreme Court, but by His people faithfully obeying Him without compromise: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

Believe it or not, our top goal as American evangelicals should not simply be to stop the Democrats at all costs. Gun rights, strong borders, and personal freedom are all good things to pursue. But since they have become what we “seek first” we now find ourselves ready to follow a shamelessly immoral man who promises them to us if only we’ll give him our loyalty in return. That’s not faithfulness to the kingdom of God. When millions of Christians are giving their pledge to a lying, hot-headed, name-calling, womanizing bully, that’s not faithfulness to the righteousness of God.

Our goal must be Christ’s glory in our every choice and association. And if “all these things”—like safety and liberty—end up being added to us later, then great. But that part is not ours to worry about.

That’s why Jesus told us to not be anxious. He was not saying that material things—food, clothing, housing, or even politics and laws of the land—don’t matter. Christ’s primary concern in this passage is what we make our primary concern in this life. Instead of operating out of constant worry for the unknown, our business must be to honor God with the choices we make right here and right now and trust the outcome to His sovereignty. We don’t compromise the means to achieve the ends; we’re faithful with the means, and leave the ends to God. As my old youth pastor used to say, “You worry about God’s kingdom and let Him worry about yours.”

You might think that sounds like a cop-out. I hope not. I’m not saying Christians should sit on their hands and then blame their laziness on God’s will. That’s not what I’m talking about at all. I’m talking about actively doing the morally right thing—seeking God’s righteousness—in every situation, even when it seems futile, and trusting Him to take care of the rest.

We should care about politics. We should vote. We should be involved in the issues of the day. But that cannot be done at the expense of forgetting which kingdom we’re truly fighting for. We must not abandon the principles of God’s kingdom in order to secure the political platforms of our own. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 warns that those who are “sexually immoral”, “adulterers,” “greedy,” “revilers,” and “swindlers…will not inherit the kingdom of God.” It’s hard to claim that we’re putting God’s kingdom first when we’re so blatantly supporting a man who exhibits these exact traits.

I am shocked and saddened at how many times I’ve heard Christians telling other Christians to “get off their moral high horse” and vote for Trump. Get off our moral high horse? Do we hear ourselves? Isn’t that what liberals have been telling us for years? Must we identify ourselves with a man who has built his empire on the very things we’re told to flee?  Isn’t our commitment to holiness supposed to be the very thing that sets us apart? Are we really supposed to shove our identity in Christ to the back burner for the greater good of winning an election? I’m sorry, but no.

Many have also claimed that by not voting for Trump we’re “throwing away” our vote. But that depends on our goal. If our goal is simply to stop Hillary Clinton, then yes, I suppose that might be considered a throw away. But if our goal is greater than that—if our goal is the holy integrity of Christ’s kingdom, and if we remember than we will be held accountable for our endorsements long after America is dust—then we will not be throwing anything away. In that case, throwing away our vote would be to compromise morals for worldly security. Doing the right thing before our Lord is never a waste. Even when the alternative seems scary.

So before you gaggle over Donald Trump, make excuses for him, or before you cast a vote for him in November, I beg you to consider: Is your decision motivated by fear? Does anxiety for the future have you throwing in your lot with a man who defies all standards of God and His righteousness?

Get involved, Christian. But when you do, consider which kingdom you’re seeking first.

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.

The Church, the State, and the crumbling concept of religious liberty.

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On September 1, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination issued its Gender Identity Guidance to define what is considered “discrimination” against “the rights of LGBT individuals” and “to describe what evidence may be submitted to support a claim of gender identity discrimination.”

In other words, here’s what you better not do unless you want to get sued.

Most of it is what you would expect: employers, banks, restaurants, etc. cannot treat someone different or deny them service because of their gender identity, nor can businesses prevent them from using whatever restroom or locker room they want. But then under section D. Places of Public Accommodation, you come to this plot twist:

“Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public. All persons, regardless of gender identity, shall have the right to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation.”

Read that again. If a church holds a public event other than its normal worship service, it must fully comply with the LGBT. The commission goes on to clarify that this includes letting them use whatever bathroom they want, calling them the gender pronoun of their choice, and not displaying anything that might disagree with their lifestyle (so make sure no Bibles are opened to Romans 1!).

The significance of those three little words, “even a church,” cannot be overstated. Although the left has long claimed that Christians are hyperventilating over nothing, and that we’re still free to practice whatever religion we want (Hey, didn’t Obama say something similar about our insurance providers? Ah, I digress.), this new terminology says otherwise.

As it is, churches in Massachusetts may now be subject to LGBT discrimination lawsuits within their own walls. As I’ve mulled over this shocking (but not surprising) development the last few days, here’s a few thoughts that came to mind:

#1. This will not stop at Massachusetts.

Most bad ideas seem to originate in Massachusetts or California but rarely stay there. Whatever new legislation passes becomes the new gold standard for tolerance and the LGBT agenda, and so naturally there will be no rest until all other states have followed suit. And if individual states don’t comply, well, as Obergefell v. Hodges showed us, the Supreme Court will simply step in. Rest assured, it’s only a matter of time before this is a national issue. As Eugene Volokh said over at the Washington Post, “…this is where these rules are headed, at least in places like Massachusetts but likely elsewhere as well.”

#2. What happened to separation of church and state?

It’s funny that liberals have been so quick to cry “Separation of church and state!” when they want to keep religion out of politics, because they apparently don’t believe that the same principle applies the other way around. The church should never dictate the laws of the state…but I guess it’s okay for the state to dictate the laws of the church? Such a separation is meant to protect religious groups just as much as it’s meant to protect the government, for instances exactly like this one. Such measures are a gross violation of the church’s religious liberty.

#3. Everything a church does is ministry. You cannot separate the sacred and the secular.

These new “guidelines” are based on the supposed distinction between a church’s worship service and a church’s public outreach. A worship service is for its religious adherents, but an outreach event (like a “spaghetti dinner”) is considered “secular” and “a place of public accommodation.” Therefore, the logic goes, a private worship service can enforce its own guidelines but as soon as you open the door to the public you’re on the government’s terms.

These new guidelines limit a church’s free of exercise of religion to within Sunday morning parameters, which sounds frighteningly similar to Russia’s recent legislation that Christians aren’t allowed to share their faith outside of church services.

There are two massive problems here. For one, worship services are also “public” in that anyone can sit in. So you can bet your bottom-tithe-dollar that it will only be a matter of time before these services would also be required to submit to such “anti-discriminitory” standards.

Secondly, everything a church does is a part of its ministry. You cannot call worship services sacred and every other event secular. Whether a church is singing hymns, listening to a sermon, running a soup kitchen, or hosting a community yard sale, it’s all a part of their religious exercise and it’s all based on their religious theology.

#4. If you don’t like a church’s doctrine…don’t go. No one’s forcing you.

One of the great tragedies in our culture of self-entitlement is the idea that if I willingly go into a place, and that place advocates something I disagree with, my rights have somehow been violated. This is another prime example.

If transgender individuals don’t agree with Christian doctrine and Christian practice, then don’t go through the doors of a Christian church. No one is making them.

That’s freedom, and freedom of religion, at its finest. Person #1 can say what they want, but no one is forcing Person #2 to listen. I don’t agree with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Muslims, or Buddhists. So I don’t attend their services and I don’t attend their events where certain beliefs might be endorsed. For me to do so, and then legally demand that Catholics stop baptizing babies or that Muslims stop facing east to pray, would be as silly as going into my neighbor’s house and then demanding they change the color of their walls.

The left is quick to point this out whenever Christian groups protest a movie’s sexual or blasphemous content. If Christians don’t like it, the argument goes, then they don’t have to go see the film. I agree. So it baffles me as to why the same rules wouldn’t apply here.

If an LGBT person feels uncomfortable around Christians and their moral opinions then there’s a very simple solution: don’t go to their church events. No one is forcing them to.

#5. What should Christians do?

So how should the church respond? On one hand, we should not be afraid to stand up for the religious liberties provided to us by the laws of the land. Although some Christians make it seem like the more holy endeavor is to just shut up and stand down, this certainly wasn’t the apostle Paul’s philosophy when his legal rights were infringed upon (Acts 16:35-39; 22:22-29).

On the other hand, we must remain humble and remember that our reason for desiring such religious liberty is not to win a political battle, but to worship Christ and minister His gospel to a dying world. We must not abuse this freedom by resorting to insults, nastiness, or reducing the kingdom of God to the kingdom of Republicans or Democrats (1 Pet. 3:14-17; Jn. 18:36).

And although these religious liberties are certainly a good thing, we must also remember that the success of the gospel is not dependent upon them. If these freedoms are ever taken away from us, we take it with graciousness, we take it with rejoicing, and we take it with perseverance. Despite whatever threats we face, we must also hold unswervingly the truth of Scripture and remember the determination of the apostles: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

 

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.