Monday, March 31, 2014

My review of "Noah"

What I didn't like about "Noah:"

24 hours after seeing "Noah," I'm still conflicted about this movie.  So here goes...

The filmmakers took a LOT of liberties with the biblical story.  This doesn't surprise me.  After all, it's done with practically every Bible movie ever made, aside from the "Jesus" film.  For one example, think about how in "The Ten Commandments," they work in a character who is Moses' ex-girlfriend and Pharaoh's wife.  Or a really terrible movie from a few years ago, "One Night With the King," which seems more like a bad soap opera than the biblical story of Esther.    Here are some of the things in "Noah" that aren't mentioned in the Bible:

1) The fallen angels who are transformed into "rock monsters" and ally with a group of men.

2) The "sleeping potion" that Noah's family uses to put the animals to sleep on the ark, and other "magical" elements.

3) Noah's inability to decide what God is really calling him to do.

4) Noah's growing mental illness as the storm gets closer.

To be fair, the Bible doesn't rule  any of these things out, either.  It's just that they are such a huge part of the plot of this film (especially numbers 1 and 4), they seem to overshadow the biblical story.

This is a very dark story.  For a significant portion of the film, we don't like Noah very much.  In fact, he's a scary character for a good half hour, at least.  I didn't expect that.  This is a tough movie to watch in many ways; the redemptive ending is a long time in coming.  Speaking of which...

It feels long.  I don't usually complain about long movies, but there were times during "Noah" when I got a little restless.

What I did like about "Noah:"  

This is a really, really well-made movie.  I'm not used to "movies on a biblical theme" being well-made.  Usually, they're thrown together on a shoestring, star some long-forgotten sitcom actor, and look like they're shot on equipment from Radio Shack.  This is a big-time production, with an A-list director, some fantastic actors giving wonderful performances, and first-rate special effects.

 This movie doesn't shy away from the tougher elements of the story: Some Christians expressed skepticism that an atheist director would respect the biblical story.  Well, this much is true: God is a very present and active character in the film (although His audible voice is never heard).  Mankind's sin is on full display.  God's judgment is seen as deserved, and it is shown in all of its wrathful glory.  I can't imagine a "made for Christian audiences" version of this story that would be this honest.

There are some awe-inspiring moments:  When the animals are headed toward the ark; when the view pulls back, and we see from space a planet earth covered in storm clouds; when God shows grace to some characters in unexpected moments...moments like those took my breath away.

This is a thought-provoking movie.  We don't usually think about Noah and his family hearing the screams of people outside the ark. And although the Bible doesn't tell us how Noah felt about his mission, I can imagine he was tormented in many ways.  Again, I didn't enjoy this movie, but it did make me think...and I will be thinking about it for a long time.

So should you go see "Noah?"

Christianity Today film critic Alissa Wilkinson, who I greatly respect, says yes--you can read her review by clicking here.  Frankly, she liked it more than I did. Still, I'm glad I saw the film.  It gave me some stuff to chew on, and some fuel for conversations with my non-Christian friends who see it.  After reading this, you probably know whether or not you'll consider this two and a half hours and ten dollars well-spent. At the very least, it's good to see serious movie makers taking on biblical stories.  I hope we see more in the days to come.     

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Ragtag Armada

The miracle at Dunkirk

If you can forgive me for being the history geek I am, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite stories.  It’s 1940, and the Nazis look unstoppable. They’ve easily conquered France, who at the time had the largest army in Europe.  The Dutch and the Belgians have already surrendered.  The United States isn’t interested in getting into another foreign war, and isn’t ready to fight in the first place.  All that is left between Germany and total domination of the hemisphere is Great Britain.  And right now, the British army is one step from total annihilation.  A quarter million British troops, plus 100,000 allies, are trapped on a beach in a place called Dunkirk.  The German army is on one side, and the waters of the English Channel are on the other.   The Royal Navy has only enough ships to save around 17,000.  Churchill has already told the House of Commons to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.”  Suddenly, a strange sight appears in the Channel.  Fishing boats, tugboats, sailboats, yachts and ferries, all driven by civilians, have come to the rescue.  Before German commanders can move in for what once looked like an easy victory, 338,000 soldiers are rescued by this ragtag armada.  Quite simply put, when the forces of evil were about to win, ordinary people stepped up and saved the day…and the war.    

Now let me tell you another story; one I like even more than that one.  Jesus Christ is nearing the end of His time on Earth.  He has come to die for the sins of mankind, to defeat sin and death and Hell with one self-sacrificing act of heroic love and unimaginable power.  But dying on the Cross and rising again the third day aren’t the end of His work.  He knows that someone will need to take the message of His love to the world.  Someone will have to show people how to receive this amazing gift, and teach them to follow Him into eternal and abundant life.  To put it in terms of our previous story, humanity was on the verge of annihilation.  We were trapped between the forces of evil and the bondage of our own sin.  Jesus chose a small group of true believers to be the spark that started a movement that would save the world.  This is the story of how that started: Matthew 16:13-19   

We're in a series right now about the amazing impact Jesus made, and continues to make, on this world.  This Sunday, we'll talk about His creation of the Church, and the way that decision changed the world.  This is a famous passage.  Some scholars have called v. 18 the most controversial verse in the entire New Testament.  So come ready to tackle some tough issues and grapple with the plans God has for you in His work. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jesus versus Religion

         Years ago, I attended a meeting for pastors about reaching our neighborhoods.  The leader did something unusual.  She took us to a mall and dropped us off. She said we should approach 10 random people and ask them if they went to church, and if not, why not.  This was in Pasadena, where there are over 100 Christian churches.  It wasn’t in Montrose or on the campus of Rice, so I expected to meet at least someone who went to church.  I didn’t.  People said, “Churches just want your money.  I believe in God, but I don’t need those people to tell me about him.  Churches are full of hypocrites.”  That’s a word that gets used a lot in reference to Christians these days.  In a book called Unchristian, we learn that 85% of young adults outside the church think that most Christians are hypocrites.  47% of young adults inside the church think the same thing.  I wonder how many of the people who use that word know where it came from. 

            Hypocrite is a Greek word.  It originally referred to actors in a play, who would wear masks so that people in the huge theaters could see the emotion they were trying to convey.  Jesus began using that word to describe religious people.  We’re in a series now about the way Jesus changed the world, and how He is still the most influential person on the planet, 2000 years after He walked the earth.  One way He changed the world was in the way we think about religion.  Before Jesus, it was assumed that religion was purely external.  Just do certain good deeds, avoid certain vices, perform certain rituals, and you would be good with God. After Jesus, most people believe that there needs to be some internal transformation, or else those external rituals are meaningless.
            Another way Jesus changed religion is in the way we view God.  The world Jesus was born into was dominated by polytheism, particularly the Greek pantheon of gods.  Most of us remember the stories of Greek mythology we learned in school.  The interesting thing about those gods: They were powerful, but they weren’t good.  Imagine taking a bunch of drunk teenagers at Spring Break, giving them absolute power and immortality, and you’d have the Greek pantheon.  Other cultures were also polytheistic. Their gods weren’t particularly virtuous, either.  Some of them were downright terrifying.  Only the Jews believed that there was one God, and He was good.  The Greeks didn’t believe religion could make you good; if you wanted to become moral, you spoke to the philosophers, not the priests.  You spoke to the priests if you wanted good luck.  Jesus taught that knowing God was the only way to truly become good.  Today, ethical monotheism, or the belief that there is one God, that He is good, and that those who know Him best should behave morally, is the dominant belief system of our culture.  That came from Jesus. 

            But I want to focus the rest of my time on a third way Jesus changed our thinking about religion.  He changed the way we look at those who are outsiders to our faith.  This, more than anything else, is what made people hate Him enough to crucify Him.  This, more than anything else in my opinion, is what still separates Jesus from all religion, even much of what calls itself Christianity today. This Sunday, we will take a look at Luke 13:10-17, one of many stories in the Gospels that shows the stark difference between Jesus and organized religion in terms of how they treated outsiders.  We'll look at the three biggest differences, and ask which one we are more like.  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Israel--What I Learned

Our leader, Tim Rampey, speaks to us at the southwest corner of the Jerusalem wall.  Look at the how large the stones are; they likely go back to the days of Solomon. 

For my final post from my trip to Israel, I’d like to share some of the most meaningful things I learned.  Here are some of the most significant insights I gained from my trip to the Holy Land. 

               It’s good to be a fish out of water.  Although most people we met in Israel spoke at least some English, we were constantly reminded we were a long way from home.  Most signs were in Hebrew and Arabic only.  The food was different; there was broiled fish on our breakfast buffet at the hotel in Tiberias, and we ate a lot of Shwarma and Falafel (fortunately, it was quite tasty), and every morning for breakfast in Jersualem, we had hot bread that looked like a huge, oval-shaped bagel covered in sesame seeds.  Drivers in Israel are much more aggressive than here in the states—even in Houston.  People smoke much more in the Middle East.  And it seems like things in Israel function on their own schedule.  Mt Arbel, the cemetery where Oskar Schindler was buried, and several other locations were closed even though the posted sign said they would be open.  Here in America, my life is structured around convenience and predictability.  It was good to have my routine shaken up. 

The cemetery where Oskar Schindler is buried.  The sign said it was open until 5:00.  I went at was locked, without explanation.

This is the bread we had for breakfast every morning.  It tastes great with Nutella (but then, what doesn't?)
               Israel is different than I pictured it.  I always pictured Israel as a desert.  I never understood why God told the Israelites it was a land of milk and honey, since biblical movies always make it look like West Texas (no offense, West Texans).  And that is indeed what it looks like around the Dead Sea.  Jerusalem and its surroundings aren’t all that beautiful, either.  But when we got to Galilee…wow!  The countryside turned lush and beautiful.  Israel is full of hills and rocks all around.  But in Galilee, those hills are covered in green grass and fields of abundant crops.  In the marketplaces in Jerusalem, we saw every kind of fruit and vegetable I could imagine.  They all grow in Galilee.  In fact, in biblical times, produce from Galilee was banned from Jerusalem, to keep pilgrims from coming to the Holy City for the wrong reason!  This is still the land of milk and honey. 

I thought Israel was all like this (taken in the Negev, near the Dead Sea)...

...I was surprised to see much of it (especially Galilee) looking like this shot along the Jordan River.
I asked my new friend Ben Brandon to stand in front of this merchant's table in Jerusalem so that we could see how huge those cabbages were.  The perspective is a bit off; take my word for it: They were bigger than my head.
The main source of the Jordan, in Dan.  These are melted snows from Mt Hermon mixed with water from a spring.
                        Peace in Israel will require an act of God.  In a previous post, I mentioned the disparity we saw on our trip to Bethlehem.  But our most tense moment came on a visit to the Temple Mount.  There hasn’t been a Jewish temple in nearly 2000 years.  Orthodox Jews believe that when the Temple is rebuilt, the Messiah will come.  Some radical Orthodox Jews want to blow up The Dome of the Rock, a mosque which sits on the Temple Mount, where Muslims believe Muhammed ascended to Heaven.  In 2000, Ariel Sharon and a group of Jews came to the Temple Mount to assert Jewish ownership of that site, a move that sparked a bloody five-year uprising known as the Second Intifada.  Suffice to say, when we visited the Temple Mount, we were visiting a contentious spot.  As we stood that day between the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, Tim was talking to us about where the Temple had once stood.  Suddenly, a Palestinian man approached us, yelling, “NO TEMPLE HERE! NO TEMPLE HERE!   IS MOSQUE!  ALWAYS WILL BE MOSQUE!”  Tim wisely said nothing, and we simply walked away.  For us to even mention the Temple in that spot was offensive to this man.  It illustrated for me a key fact: Yes, we should pray for peace in Jerusalem and throughout the Middle East.  Yes, we should support any efforts by world leaders to facilitate this.  But peace, when it comes, won’t come about through shrewd diplomacy.  No treaty can change the anger and distrust that exists here.  It will take a miracle. 

The Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.  Just after I snapped this picture, a man angrily confronted us.
               Jesus faced entrenched legalism. I knew this before. But seeing Orthodox Judaism up close brought it home to me in a new way.  One day, we visited Mea Shearim, a Hasidic neighborhood just outside the walls of the Old City.  Here, the men all have beards and long side curls.  They wear hats and black suits with the tassels of their prayer shawls hanging out from underneath.  The women all wear head coverings as well. They don’t read newspapers or watch television.  On the Sabbath, they don’t even use electricity.  Cars that travel through Mea Shearim on the Sabbath have been pelted with rocks.  We met and spoke with Eli, an Orthodox Jew raised in Brooklyn who has moved to Mea Shearim to study the Talmud full time.  Eli was friendly and engaging, but I was struck by something He said.  When asked about Reformed Jews, he smirked and said, “They don’t follow the Talmud.  They aren’t any better than Christians.” Eli frankly admitted that his dream was to marry a woman from a wealthy family, so that he could study all day and not work.  Although Orthodox Jews are a minority in Israel, their influence is seen everywhere.  We saw the curious two-handled pitchers in many bathrooms, enabling the Orthodox to wash their hands in a way consistent with Talmudic teaching.  Most businesses close on Friday at sundown, the beginning of Shabbat (Sabbath).  When we went down to the Western Wall at the start of Shabbat, we saw Orthodox Jews singing, dancing, swaying back and forth as they prayed (a practice known as shuckling), it was hard not to admire their sincerity and devotion. The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day had much in common with the Orthodox Jews of today.  They too were devout students of the Torah and the oral traditions of the rabbis (which ultimately were written down in what is known today as the Talmud).  They too were disciplined in observing minute distinctions of the law, including the clothing they wore.  They too saw themselves as the “true” Israel.  In fact, Eli’s disdainful statement about Reformed Jews sounds much like what Pharisees would have said about the Sadducees of old.  When these people saw Jesus, who mocked the traditions of their rabbis, ate with sinners, and claimed to be the Son of God, it’s no wonder they wanted Him dead.  It took incredible courage for Jesus to confront them.  I also thought about how so many of those oral traditions emerged from good intentions; the rabbis wanted to increase their people’s love for God and resistance to sin.  But what starts as a wise moral boundary quickly becomes a source of pride and exclusion.  Grace is the only answer; only when we continually acknowledge that we are sinners in need of grace can we avoid the snare of legalistic, superficial, self-righteous religion. 

Inside the Hurva, an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem.  I took this on a Tuesday, one of the three days in the week that the Torah is read publicly.  Imagine Jesus entering one of these meetings and saying something the congregation disagreed with.  It happened...often.
Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall. Since this is the only part of the Temple still standing, many Jews consider this the holiest place on Earth. 

A two-handled pitcher in a bathroom near the Western Wall.  Orthodox Jews use these for hand-washing.  They carefully wash each hand in accordance with the rabbinic teachings of the Talmud.

               Jesus’ hometown hurt His credibility.  When Philip invited Nathaniel to come and see the Nazarene teacher who might be the Messiah, Nathaniel responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  When Peter was denying that he knew Jesus, it was his Galilean accent that gave him away.  I always assumed that Galilee was looked down upon simply because it was unsophisticated and backward.  I thought Nazareth was disrespected for being small and unremarkable; after all, it’s not even mentioned in the Old Testament.  But on this trip, I learned that there is more to it.  Galilee was seen as unspiritual, not just backward.  As I said earlier, Galilee was the most lush part of the country.  It was easier living in Galilee than in Judea, where the farming was more difficult.  However, Judea was the region of Jerusalem, where the Temple was.  So in the logic of the Jews, the more spiritual people were willing to pay the price to live in Judea, so that they could be near the Temple.  Those Galileans obviously loved their pocketbooks more than they loved God, or so went the conventional wisdom.  Yet Jesus not only hailed from Galilee; He spent most of His ministry there.  So in addition to being poor, untrained, and a friend of the morally compromised, He was also from the region known for its lack of spiritual devotion.  I think it’s obvious God loves an underdog, since when He became a man, He made Himself the biggest underdog of all.  

Driving into Nazareth, Jesus' hometown.

               God loves worship that is sincere.  As you can probably tell if you’ve read my other posts, I greatly prefer the sites in Israel that show us how things were in biblical times, as opposed to the sites of great ecclesiastical significance.  I’d rather tour ruins than a basilica.  I prefer the Garden Tomb in its simplicity over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in all its ornate glory.  At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we watched as pilgrims knelt at the anointing stone, purported to be the very rock slab that Jesus’ body was prepared on.  Some brought scarves, crosses, or pieces of paper which they rubbed on the stone as they prayed.  I wanted to tell them, “That’s almost certainly NOT the stone Christ laid on.  Don’t you know how many religious artifacts were conjured up during the Middle Ages to take advantage of the gullibility of superstitious people? And even if it was legitimate, nowhere in Scripture does it say there is any spiritual power in something like that.  Why not pray directly to God?”  But our leader, Tim, said something I found very insightful.  He said, “When I see someone who has come to Israel from a distant country at great expense, and I see them there at the Stone of the Anointing, and it’s obvious they are very poor, part of me wants to correct what I see as their faulty theology.  But then I realize that they came here out of love for Christ and faith in His power.  When Jesus ate at the house of a Pharisee, and a woman with a bad reputation came in and anointed Him, He told the Pharisee that it was her love for Him that pleased the Lord, whereas the Pharisee’s doctrinal and moral correctness came up short.  These pilgrims love God, and that’s what matters most.”  It was a humbling insight.  

The ruins of Beth-Shan, as seen from the top of the Tel.  This is my kind of site.

Pilgrims at the stone of anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

               The fellowship between believers is a wonderful thing.  When I came on this trip, I didn’t know a single person in my group.  I wasn’t worried about that; I’ve always found it fairly easy to meet people and make friends.  But I didn’t expect to enjoy my travel mates as much as I did.  In ten short days, I grew awfully fond of these people.  They were from different ages and walks of life.  We had teenagers and grandparents, married couples and single adults.  We had a restaurant owner, a college professor, people who worked in an inner-city ministry, a doctor, and a former law enforcement officer.  We even had a young woman who was six months pregnant.  I miss them already.  I don’t mean to imply that Christians are more likable than non-believers.  I have had and continue to have deep and satisfying friendship with people who don’t share my faith in Christ.  But there is something special about the bond between Christ-followers.  It makes me excited about what Heaven will be like!  

Ben enjoying the cold waters of Ein Gedi, David's desert stronghold.

                        When I am weak, He is strong.  I have read that truth from 2 Corinthians 12:10 numerous times.  I have preached on it more than once.  But during my trip to Israel, it became very personal to me.  I don’t mean to compare my meager sufferings to those listed by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, or the trials and pains of the millions of believers who have been heartened by those words in the centuries since.  I will say this, however: There is a special kind of helplessness in insomnia that clarifies my own dependence on God in a way little else can.  We flew from Houston at night.  Tim instructed us to take whatever medication we needed in order to sleep on the plane, because we were going to hit the ground running when we got to Jerusalem.  I slept maybe 1 hour.  The next night, our first in Israel, I got about 5 hours of sleep.  So I was counting on a great night’s sleep that second night in the Holy Land.  I got about 2 hours that night.  Finally, the third night there, I didn’t sleep at all.  At. All.  I lay in that bed, with the sounds of cats fighting and late-night wanderers talking just outside my window, with the four other men in the room of that hostel noisily sawing logs, and tried to WILL myself to sleep.  I tried every mental technique I could to shut off my brain.  I even tried reverse psychology at one point: “I’m just going to read my Bible and pray.  I won’t even try to sleep.”  Nada.  I was so angry with my body.  I felt exhausted, yet sleep wouldn’t come.  Then I knew: If I am going to get anything out of this trip; if I am going to avoid collapsing from exhaustion, it will be because of the strength only God provides.  And He did.  And He always does.  Friends, I hate this, but it’s true: It is good for us to struggle.  It is good to feel helpless.  It is good to be at the end of our rope.  Not all the time, of course. No one could stand that sort of stress.  But once in a while, when we least expect it, God allows us to flail about  helplessly, and it is His mercy and grace that allows it.  He is so, so very good.