Heaven is (at Least) as Important as Noah

After the firestorm surrounding the Noah film, I’ve been surprised to see no online discussion about the upcoming film version of Heaven is for Real. Is it possible that people care more about the Noah story than they do about heaven? It seems to me that our eternal destiny is more important than whether or not rock people helped Noah build the ark.

I haven’t seen Heaven is for Real, but I have read the book. I’m guessing that, like Noah, the upcoming film will have its strengths and weaknesses. I’m going to suggest one of each, just as I did for NoahKeep in mind that my thoughts are based on the book, so it’s possible the movie could move in a different direction altogether.

One strength of the book is its clear testimony to the biblical idea that death is not the end of life for those who trust in Christ (e.g. Phil 1:22-23; Luke 16:19-31). That’s why the story has generated hope for so many people. The book also affirms the deep love that Jesus has for children, something we adults often forget or minimize (Matthew 19:13-15).

One weakness is that the book minimized (or omitted) the reality of future, bodily resurrection. In other words, our ultimate hope as Christians is not a disembodied existence, floating around like angels with wings. Instead, we look forward to a new body on a new earth (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). The intermediate state, where our souls are separated from our bodies after death, is called “nakedness” by the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:3). Everybody knows that it’s not OK to be naked all the time! Instead, we seek to be clothed with an eternal, resurrected body. That won’t happen fully until Jesus returns and we rise from the grave. Heaven is for Real focuses exclusively on the intermediate state and places all of our hope there, rather than pointing us ahead to the final resurrection.

Here’s what I’m recommending for those who want to see Heaven is for Real: Spend as much time comparing it to the Bible as you did with Noah. Don’t assume that because the book issued from a Christian publisher that every concept in the movie is biblically accurate.

I’m not suggesting that we cynically doubt the Burpos’ claims. I’ve no reason to believe they are lying or making up their story. On the other hand, this movie (like Noah) is a great opportunity to revisit what the Bible says about heaven and hell and death and resurrection. Go to the movie with an open but critical mind. (By critical, I don’t mean “negative,” but thoughtful).

Ask questions like these: 

-Does this movie accurately reflect the Bible’s testimony about heaven? Why or why not?

-How do we reconcile this story with passages like Luke 16:19-31, in which Jesus says that Scripture itself ought to be sufficient testimony for us to believe in heaven?

-How can we appropriately discuss this movie and its story with our non-Christian friends and neighbors? Should we whole-heartedly endorse its picture of heaven, or should we be cautious?

As with any media, take this story back to the Bible and consider its claims in light of God’s Word.

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Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

I was fairly confident prior to reading Rachel Held Evans’ new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, that I would disagree with many of her conclusions. I’ve read the author’s blog from time to time, so I knew that her positions on gender roles differ from my own. In a nutshell, I believe that the New Testament teaches a complementarian position, while Evans describes herself as egalitarian. For definitions of these terms, you can read my previous post, “Evangelicalism’s Gender War.” 

The book has generated a level of controversy out of proportion with its actual content, as is usually the case with projects like this. Some of the controversy was apparently generated by Evans herself, when her publisher suggested she remove one or two anatomical references in order to make the book more palatable to Christian bookstores. Much of the controversy, however, was stirred up by reviewers who felt that Evans was misrepresenting, and even disrespecting, the complementarian viewpoint.

Despite my disagreement with much of what Evans has written, however, I also found portions of the book with which I agreed, and one or two ideas that challenged my thinking a bit. I’ll explain below why I find her presentation of egalitarianism flawed and unpersuasive. Before I do, though, I want to summarize the book and highlight a bit of what I appreciated about it.

The book revolves around the question, “What constitutes ‘biblical womanhood’?” To explore the subject, Evans decided to take one year of her life and actively seek to obey the various commands and models given in Scripture relating to women. She focused on a different aspect of “biblical womanhood” each month. For example, in October she tried to cultivate a “gentle and quiet spirit,” in keeping with Peter’s admonition to women in 1 Peter 3:4. Some of the other monthly topics included modesty, purity, fertility (no, she didn’t have a baby!), and submission.

The best part of this book was the way in which Evans highlighted how some of our modern perceptions regarding gender are entirely rooted in our own culture. For example, are all women required by the Bible to learn how to cook, or is that merely a cultural presupposition? Is raising children necessary in order to be a godly woman, and if so, what do we say to those who remain unmarried or involuntarily childless? I found her questions refreshing, even though I often disagreed with her conclusions.

In some cases, Evans effectively questions long-held interpretations of passages about women. The best example of this is her discussion of the well-known Proverbs 31. Is Proverbs 31 a prescriptive text, meant to describe in detail how all wives ought to act, or is it a descriptive ideal, meant to highlight to men that the very fabric of society depends upon skilled and valorous women? Her discussion reminded me that we evangelicals need to be careful in the way we apply ancient texts. It’s quite easy to import our own cultural baggage to the Scripture.

Let’s move on, then, to the aspects of this book that troubled me, and even angered me at times. 

First, Evans’ tone is sometimes disrespectful and flippant toward those with whom she disagrees. For example, when she describes her own evangelical background, she identifies evangelicals as people who are obsessed with the idea that everybody else is going to hell. She says she is “no longer convinced that everyone different from me goes to hell,” but that she still sees evangelicalism as her “religious mother tongue.” She hardly seems to notice that she has egregiously misrepresented most evangelicals. In the same context, she manages to compliment her own parents while skewering the religious tradition that nurtured her.

I wish I could say this is the only time Evans caricatures the opposite position into something completely unrecognizable, but she does it throughout the book. It always frustrates and angers me when an individual who feels she has outgrown her own tradition then feels the need to insult and degrade that same tradition. It’s one thing to disagree, and another to barbecue one’s spiritual forebears.

This leads to my second critique, which is that Evans fails to seriously interact with the complementarian view she attempts to discredit. It’s easy to spout off chauvinistic statements from Mark Driscoll and lead one’s readers to believe that his remarks represent the complementarian viewpoint. But doing so does not respect those complementarians who have spent a great deal of time and energy genuinely trying to understand what the Bible says about gender roles.

In addition, although her biblical exploration of womanhood is interesting, it bears little relevance to the debate over gender roles at church and at home. Most complementarians aren’t advocating that women sleep outside in a tent during that time of the month, or bear unlimited children, or dress like an Amish woman for the sake of modesty. As interesting as those experiments are, they are truly beside the point she’s hoping to make. In her attempt to subtly poke fun at the concept of “biblical womanhood,” Evans undermines her entire project with an array of red herrings.

The biggest problem with the book, however, relates to how Evans interprets the Scripture itself. First Evans acknowledges correctly that we all bring presuppositions to the biblical text. To some extent, we “find what we are looking for.” Every responsible exegete understands that total objectivity is impossible. However, the task of biblical interpretation involves attempting to remove as many barriers to correct interpretation as possible. We study Greek and Hebrew, examine cultural backgrounds, read the context carefully, and (most importantly) interact with other believers as we try to understand God’s Word.

However, Evans seems to throw up her hands in despair, giving up on the idea of even a partially objective interpretation of the biblical text. After stating that we often find in the text whatever we are looking for, she then says that she came to the text looking for “permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman.” In other words, she approached the text determined that it would say what she hoped it would say. From the start, then, the game was rigged. That’s a fatal flaw to the premise that this was a meaningful exploration of the Bible’s ideals regarding women.

I think Evans’ hermeneutic damages the way she interprets specific texts. For example, in addressing the texts that speak to wifely submission (Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Peter 3:1-6; Col 3:18), she rightly points out that the surrounding contexts also deal with slavery. Her point is that we no longer enforce slavery, because we recognize a progressive ethic in the Scripture leading us to abandon archaic and sinful structures like that. In other words, Jesus and His apostles, while instructing people how to live in the culture of their day, nonetheless subversively advocate the dissolution of those cultural norms. It’s obvious that the ultimate desirable ethic is found in Christ’s final kingdom, in which there will be no teachers, no marriage, and no slavery.

Her problem, of course, is that Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 also command children to be obedient to their parents. The big question, then, is this: If slavery is no longer the ideal, and wifely submission is obsolete, then should we do away with the obedience of children as well? If not, then why not? Is it simply because children are immature, and if so, how do we defend that position from the text? Could it be that there is a basic structure imposed upon the home and the Church in order to create order and peace, so that everybody is able to effectively serve the Lord? Perhaps the structure has nothing to do with one’s actual inferiority or superiority in an ontological sense, but instead has everything to do with each person’s proper role as God has defined it. That role might be rooted in basic affinities and abilities, but it might simply be an expression of the fact that God is asking us to submit to earthly authorities.

As much as Evans researched the status of women in the ancient context, she seems to have completely avoided doing the same regarding the status of ancient slaves. Perhaps there are reasons why the apostle Paul, in good conscience, could command slaves to submit to their masters. Perhaps, just as wifely submission has its limits, Paul knew that submission to one’s master did as well. (A case in point, of course, is the book of Philemon). Paul could be making the general case that we are to submit to all earthly authorities. Whether those authorities are just or unjust is not the primary concern in this context. Evans has also neglected to point out that Ephesians 5 contains an extended discussion of why wives are called to submit to their husbands, and relates the issue to Christ and the church. The same cannot be said for the relationship between slaves and masters. Paul seems to expand the household codes when it comes to marriage, while remaining rather terse when it comes to slaves. Those are significant points, but Evans doesn’t even attempt to address them.

I could not escape the conclusion, frankly, that Evans is deeply uncomfortable with the concept of authority, per se. She makes the blanket statement that passages like Galatians 3:28 abolish any earthly hierarchies. Yet Paul himself does not seem to believe such a thing when he consistently tells people to submit to authority. Is it possible that Galatians 3:28 is a description of our equality before God in Jesus Christ, rather than an abolishment of any sort of distinct roles or authority levels in His kingdom? I tend to answer that affirmatively.

In summary (as this is getting quite long), this book was a very mixed bag. Portions of it were delightful, amusing, and thought-provoking. Other parts of it were frustrating and misleading. On the whole, it was an interesting book that fell short of achieving its purpose. It’s clear that Evans is capable of the research and study it would take to produce a truly helpful discussion of gender roles. For that reason, I wish she had taken more time to understand those she criticized and attempt to answer them thoughtfully from the biblical text.

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Ordinary Greatness Bible Studies

Yesterday was an exciting day for me and two of my fellow pastors. We received the first hard copies of our new Bible study series. They are available on Amazon now, and they’ll be available for Kindle on October 30th. The author royalties we receive will go back to the ministry of Grace Bible Church, in order to allow us to grow as a church and to be more effective in communicating the Gospel around the world. Although I rarely (i.e. almost never) engage in this sort of promotion on my blog, I am so excited about this that I had to let you know a bit about these studies.

The series is published by NavPress/TH1NK and is titled Ordinary Greatness. Each of the three studies examines the life of a different biblical character: Gideon, Daniel, and Peter. They are generally geared toward youth and college students, and particularly toward young men. However, we’ve done our best to write studies that are broad enough to be useful to anybody.

If you have ever used any of Grace’s Bible study curriculum, you will find the format of these studies familiar. Each lesson is divided into three sections: Look It Over (Observation), Think It Through (Interpretation), and Make It Real (Application). Our goal is to challenge those who study these characters to dig into the biblical text deeply and to wrestle with how it applies to their lives.

Here are some of the endorsements we received for these studies: 

“A good set of character Bible studies is hard to find. THE ORDINARY GREATNESS series is rich in its engagement with the text and directing users to practical reflection. This is a solid tool for spiritual growth.” — Dr. Darrell Bock, Dallas Theological Seminary

“Change is inevitable, but the right kind of change is special. God is the agent of lasting change in our lives. This series will help identify the changes God wants to make in you by showing you the changes He has made in biblical heroes.” — Gregg Matte, pastor, Houston’s First Baptist Church

“ORDINARY GREATNESS is a series that invites people to know the Word of God thoroughly, interpret it accurately, and apply it passionately. This is a key resource for anyone looking to break new ground in their knowledge of the Bible and their intimacy with the Lord.” — Timothy Ateek, Director, Vertical Ministries, Waco

“Many studies of biblical characters are designed to inspire and encourage, but this one aims at something different: transformation. By continually driving us back to God’s Word and pointing us to the person of Jesus, the ORDINARY GREATNESS series provides the perfect antidote to the boredom and inward focus of our day.” — John Dyer, Th.M., author of From the Garden to the City

It is our desire that God will use these studies, and more importantly His Word, to transform your life and to make you a more effective servant of Jesus. I hope you will consider using one or all of these for yourself or your Bible study group. Thank you for your continued support, not only of this project but of Grace Bible Church and this blog. It’s a privilege to connect with you each week and also to offer you tools and resources like these.

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There is No Such Thing as “Just a Book”

Whenever I review popular books on this blog, I receive a few comments from people who feel that I shouldn’t attempt to read theological or philosophical concepts into works of fiction. They generally argue that books like The Hunger Games or Twilight are simply stories, meant for entertainment purposes.

There is no such thing as a book devoid of the author’s worldview, though. Every book, big or small, well-crafted or terrible, contains elements of the writer’s beliefs. Even if the author does not consciously intend to communicate philosophical ideas, such concepts have a way of creeping into the story nonetheless. Every book is written by a human being with particular ideas about the world, humanity, and God. Nobody is capable of writing “just a book” without including in it his personality and understanding of the world.

It’s possible, of course, that my understanding of a particular book is incorrect. It’s also possible that the author communicated poorly and left the wrong impression of his or her worldview. It is not possible, however, that the book is merely a story. As readers, we need to practice critical thinking. Those who argue that a book is “just a book” are no less influenced by the book’s worldview than anybody else. In fact, they’re more susceptible to being shaped by the worldview of the book, because they’re unaware that it’s there.

The Hunger Games trilogy is an interesting example of the point I’m making. The author, Suzanne Collins, has explicitly stated in interviews that her books are intended to make certain statements about war, violence, and government. Again, she may or may not have effectively accomplished that purpose, but there is no doubt that she intended to write more than mere entertainment.

Even books that appear on the surface to contain mere entertainment value contain more than that. For example, the astute reader of a John Grisham novel can pick up on Grisham’s personal beliefs about justice, poverty, and religion.

Past generations understood this concept better than we do, because they were accustomed to reading and evaluating books. Nobody truly believed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “just a story,” for example. In fact, Abraham Lincoln is said to have called Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Books and words have power. Denying that power does not diminish it, but in fact increases it. Only by conscious awareness of what we are reading can we determine if the worldview of a book (or television show or website, for that matter) is consistent with Scripture.

That’s why I periodically discuss the relationship between popular literature and Christianity. As a Christian, I believe that every aspect of life ought to be subjected to the Lordship of Jesus. My thoughts about war, government, wealth, relationships, and everything else need to be viewed in light of God’s Word. The books I read and the media I consume will generally contain elements that either support or contradict God’s values. At the very least, we can be aware of those elements and make an attempt to frame our lives in light of those concepts that are consistent with Scripture.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think I’m being overly analytical when it comes to literature? Is there such a thing as “just a story” or does every story present elements of the author’s worldview? 

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The Hunger Games and Christianity: Are They Incompatible? (Repost)

(For the next few weeks, I’m quite busy preparing for the Fall semester. I’ll be out of the office a good deal for various retreats and speaking engagements. Instead of writing new material I will be re-posting some of my more popular articles, as well as some of my personal favorites.)

(Note: If you haven’t read The Hunger Games or seen the movie, you should know that this post contains spoilers. I can’t think of any way to discuss it without giving away certain critical plot points.)

I read The Hunger Games trilogy a few months ago, and I saw the movie this week. Several people have asked me to comment on the story from a biblical perspective — are there moral problems or ideas in it that contradict a Christian worldview?

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, I’ll provide a brief summary. The books are set in a post-apocalyptic North America, known as Panem. The country is divided into 12 separate districts and all of them are ruled with an iron fist by the authoritarian government in The Capitol. To demonstrate its power, The Capitol requires each district to participate every year in a brutal contest called The Hunger Games. Each district must choose one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18. The 24 contestants are released into a large outdoor arena and forced to fight to the death. The last contestant alive is declared the winner and receives a hero’s welcome and a lifetime of financial provision for his or her family. The story primarily revolves around Katniss Everdeen, one contestant from District 12, who enters the Games in place of her younger sister. Katniss is a courageous (yet often morally ambiguous) character who has to make some tough decisions about the value of life and the consequences of violence.

The books are filled with dark themes, even though they’re marketed to a “young adult” audience (presumably pre-teens and teenagers). But how does the book stack up to a Christian understanding of the world?

Here are a few themes in the book that relate to Christianity, along with my assessment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses in those areas: 

1. Violence and war are never ideal. If you haven’t read the books you might be inclined to think that Collins is glorifying violence. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Her clear goal is to raise serious questions about our culture’s obsession with violence and what that obsession does to the hearts and minds of our youth. As I read the books, some uncomfortable thoughts kept coming to my mind. In my younger years I watched dozens of movies that truly did glorify violence. For example, I’ll never forget watching a Tarantino film that included a brutal killing. The killing was timed and executed in such a way that it made the theater audience laugh. What sort of culture uses violence as a form of amusement? Collins raises that question masterfully. A quick scan of the Scripture tells us that God doesn’t like violence: “His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5b). The Hunger Games ought to make you reevaluate how you view violence — not only as a form of entertainment, but also as a means of settling conflict. Collins is probably more strictly pacifistic than the Scripture, but she raises some excellent questions.

2. Even the most innocent and noble among us are capable of terrible sin. Katniss has some wonderful character qualities. She’s resourceful, courageous, and even selfless when it comes to protecting her family. On the other hand, she has a vicious streak and readily kills other Tributes once she enters the arena. Her rationalizations for killing are reasonable and atrocious at the same time. Every reader probably asks himself, “How would I respond in a situation like this? Would I be the brutal killer or the meek victim?” By juxtaposing Katniss with the mild-mannered Peeta, we see the true dilemma of the book in black and white. Peeta is noble and refuses to allow his character to be sullied by the Capitol’s manipulation. Unfortunately, though, that requires him to depend on stronger and less scrupulous players like Katniss. In a dog-eat-dog world, are you the eater or the eaten? Is there a third alternative? If so, Collins doesn’t tell us what it is. Whether she intends to or not, Collins affirms the biblical doctrine of human depravity. Nobody is innocent and all of us need redemption (Romans 3:9-18).

3. Redemption is difficult, complex, and costly. Here’s where I think The Hunger Games falls short of a Christian worldview. Redemption from the cycle of violence and destruction is never complete for Katniss or her fellow Tributes. In fact, at the end of the third book (spoiler warning), Collins gives us the impression that Katniss ends the violence and war by killing President Coin, another act of violence. Her slow journey out of the  madness is assisted by the love of Peeta and the healing properties of time. Unfortunately, the book provides no permanent hope or promise of redemption. This obviously contrasts sharply with a Christian understanding of the world. Redemption from all sin, violence included, has been accomplished by Christ’s work on the cross (Colossians 1:19-22; Romans 5:18-19). The answer to violence and death is not more violence and death. The wounds of sin won’t be healed through time or good romance. They’ll be healed on the day our Savior returns, bringing heaven to earth. The only way to find true redemption is to trust in Him and await the day He makes everything right again. While we wait, we live in such a way to reflect His grace and the redemption that He offers. The Hunger Games sets up the problem well, but doesn’t provide us with a good solution.

One other note: I really don’t think these books are kids’ books. Obviously, each parent needs to decide what his or her child or teenager is able to absorb. Some teenagers are probably mature enough for the themes and challenges the book poses, but some are not. And I certainly wouldn’t let a teenager read them without following them up with a serious conversation about the story’s violence and where redemption is truly found.

If you’ve read the books or seen the movie, what would you add to my assessment here? 

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The Hunger Games and Christianity: Are They Incompatible?

(Note: If you haven’t read The Hunger Games or seen the movie, you should know that this post contains spoilers. I can’t think of any way to discuss it without giving away certain critical plot points.)

I read The Hunger Games trilogy a few months ago, and I saw the movie this week. Several people have asked me to comment on the story from a biblical perspective — are there moral problems or ideas in it that contradict a Christian worldview?

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, I’ll provide a brief summary. The books are set in a post-apocalyptic North America, known as Panem. The country is divided into 12 separate districts and all of them are ruled with an iron fist by the authoritarian government in The Capitol. To demonstrate its power, The Capitol requires each district to participate every year in a brutal contest called The Hunger Games. Each district must choose one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18. The 24 contestants are released into a large outdoor arena and forced to fight to the death. The last contestant alive is declared the winner and receives a hero’s welcome and a lifetime of financial provision for his or her family. The story primarily revolves around Katniss Everdeen, one contestant from District 12, who enters the Games in place of her younger sister. Katniss is a courageous (yet often morally ambiguous) character who has to make some tough decisions about the value of life and the consequences of violence.

The books are filled with dark themes, even though they’re marketed to a “young adult” audience (presumably pre-teens and teenagers). But how does the book stack up to a Christian understanding of the world?

Here are a few themes in the book that relate to Christianity, along with my assessment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses in those areas: 

1. Violence and war are never ideal. If you haven’t read the books you might be inclined to think that Collins is glorifying violence. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Her clear goal is to raise serious questions about our culture’s obsession with violence and what that obsession does to the hearts and minds of our youth. As I read the books, some uncomfortable thoughts kept coming to my mind. In my younger years I watched dozens of movies that truly did glorify violence. For example, I’ll never forget watching a Tarantino film that included a brutal killing. The killing was timed and executed in such a way that it made the theater audience laugh. What sort of culture uses violence as a form of amusement? Collins raises that question masterfully. A quick scan of the Scripture tells us that God doesn’t like violence: “His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5b). The Hunger Games ought to make you reevaluate how you view violence — not only as a form of entertainment, but also as a means of settling conflict. Collins is probably more strictly pacifistic than the Scripture, but she raises some excellent questions.

2. Even the most innocent and noble among us are capable of terrible sin. Katniss has some wonderful character qualities. She’s resourceful, courageous, and even selfless when it comes to protecting her family. On the other hand, she has a vicious streak and readily kills other Tributes once she enters the arena. Her rationalizations for killing are reasonable and atrocious at the same time. Every reader probably asks himself, “How would I respond in a situation like this? Would I be the brutal killer or the meek victim?” By juxtaposing Katniss with the mild-mannered Peeta, we see the true dilemma of the book in black and white. Peeta is noble and refuses to allow his character to be sullied by the Capitol’s manipulation. Unfortunately, though, that requires him to depend on stronger and less scrupulous players like Katniss. In a dog-eat-dog world, are you the eater or the eaten? Is there a third alternative? If so, Collins doesn’t tell us what it is. Whether she intends to or not, Collins affirms the biblical doctrine of human depravity. Nobody is innocent and all of us need redemption (Romans 3:9-18).

3. Redemption is difficult, complex, and costly. Here’s where I think The Hunger Games falls short of a Christian worldview. Redemption from the cycle of violence and destruction is never complete for Katniss or her fellow Tributes. In fact, at the end of the third book (spoiler warning), Collins gives us the impression that Katniss ends the violence and war by killing President Coin, another act of violence. Her slow journey out of the  madness is assisted by the love of Peeta and the healing properties of time. Unfortunately, the book provides no permanent hope or promise of redemption. This obviously contrasts sharply with a Christian understanding of the world. Redemption from all sin, violence included, has been accomplished by Christ’s work on the cross (Colossians 1:19-22; Romans 5:18-19). The answer to violence and death is not more violence and death. The wounds of sin won’t be healed through time or good romance. They’ll be healed on the day our Savior returns, bringing heaven to earth. The only way to find true redemption is to trust in Him and await the day He makes everything right again. While we wait, we live in such a way to reflect His grace and the redemption that He offers. The Hunger Games sets up the problem well, but doesn’t provide us with a good solution.

One other note: I really don’t think these books are kids’ books. Obviously, each parent needs to decide what his or her child or teenager is able to absorb. Some teenagers are probably mature enough for the themes and challenges the book poses, but some are not. And I certainly wouldn’t let a teenager read them without following them up with a serious conversation about the story’s violence and where redemption is truly found.

If you’ve read the books or seen the movie, what would you add to my assessment here? 

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Writing Like Madmen

Well, hopefully we’re not writing like literal madmen, but it feels a bit crazy at the moment.

Last Fall, two of my coworkers and I signed a contract with TH1NK, an imprint of NavPress, to write three 8-week Bible studies. The elder board and staff at Grace have been extremely generous in allowing us time to work on this project. Because our church calendar is (technically) slow right now, we’ve pulled away this week to work on the third and final study.

We’re excited about these studies and the potential they have to introduce our church’s approach to Bible study to a new group of students and adults. For many years we’ve been writing Bible studies for use within our congregation (and that won’t change anytime soon), but this is a chance to share what we’ve learned with those outside of our walls as well. Most importantly, we believe that studying the Scripture in-depth is one of the surest paths toward spiritual maturity. We’re hopeful that these studies will facilitate that.

TH1NK publishes material geared toward high school and college students. That age group has always been a key focus of Grace Bible Church, so this feels like a good match. The studies are tentatively slated for release this coming Fall. Here’s a brief summary of each one:

Gideon: From Weakling to Warrior – Based primarily on Judges 6-9, this study examines how God can use an ordinary and fearful man to change the course of history. When we meet Gideon, he’s hiding from his enemies, afraid to take a stand. But through God’s power he becomes a strong and capable military leader.

Peter: From Reckless to Rock Solid – This study examines the life of Peter, one of the most prominent of Jesus’ apostles. Peter was also an ambitious man who assumed that by attaching himself to Jesus he would become powerful and famous. He often made foolish decisions that landed him in hot water. But once the Spirit of God took hold of his life, he transformed into one of the greatest leaders in the history of the Church.

Daniel: Standing Strong in a Hostile World – Daniel and three of his friends were exiled from their home because of the sin of their nation. Through no fault of their own they were forced to serve a foreign king in the midst of a culture that was hostile to their beliefs. Yet God provided them with the faith and courage to stand strong in the midst of hardship and persecution.

Each of these studies will look at how our lives can be similarly transformed through the work of God’s Spirit in our lives.

Pray for us as we finish up the third study (Daniel) and deliver it in February. If you’re a college pastor, youth pastor or ministry leader and are interested in considering these for your group, let me know. Once we have copies in our hands, we’ll try to get you one to evaluate.

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The Less Obvious Evil in Twilight

I watched the first Twilight movie on an overseas airplane flight a few years ago, a fact that I figure slightly mitigates my responsibility for watching it at all. I found the movie disturbing for a number of reasons.

To my surprise, though, the vampire motif wasn’t the most troubling aspect of the story. While it does bother me that the most popular heroes of today’s youth culture are blood-sucking human parasites, there is something more sinister lurking behind the obvious occultism of Twilight.

Edward the vampire is a metaphor for the type of romantic “love” the story promotes. He’s a lover who consumes his beloved — yes, he nobly resists sucking Bella’s blood, but he does consume her. Without him, her life has no meaning. Without him, she might as well die. Her mind, heart, life, and soul are swallowed up in Edward.

They seek togetherness despite the costs; no consequences are too great. Edward and Bella are willing to endanger their families, separate from their friends, and even risk their very lives to be together.

To many modern readers (perhaps especially the target audience of teen and pre-teen girls), all of this sounds romantic and endearing. Who doesn’t hope to be swallowed up in an all-consuming and eternal love? But it’s the way that Twilight interacts with that hope that reveals its true darkness, which many Christian reviewers have missed.

Twilight takes a legitimate, God-given hope and badly misdirects it. In the process, I think the story ends up damaging the perception that young people have of romantic love and distracting us from the truly eternal love offered in Christ. It’s particularly upsetting to me that pre-teen girls are being encouraged to believe that happiness is really found in the right boy, the slightly dangerous one who loves you so much that he just might kill you.

I have two daughters, and one of my greatest desires is that they learn that healthy romantic relationships are grounded in a much deeper love than the flimsy substitute offered by Twilight. The love of Jesus will last forever and ought to truly consume us. Human relationships (or human-vampire relationships) will never measure up to that — and they aren’t designed to do so.

This will sound sacrilegious to those raised on romantic comedies and dark love stories like Twilight, but there really is more to life than romantic love. My love for my wife is motivated partly by romance, but also by other factors: she’s my close friend, the mother of my children, my sister in Christ, and my partner in ministry. And what’s more, my relationship with her is meant to open my heart and mind and spirit to God and others, not to close me off to the rest of the world (Ephesians 5:22-33; Prov 31:10-31).

I pray that my kids won’t become involved in romantic entanglements that consume them, distract them from Christ, and ruin their relationships with friends and family. I pray instead that their spouses will reflect the love of 1 Corinthians 13 — a love that is patient, unselfish, and doesn’t seek to possess or control others.

In all my years working with college students, I’ve never met one who crept around after midnight looking for necks to suck. I’ve also never met a person who genuinely believes that vampires are literally real.

However, I’ve met many students who seem to believe that finding their “one and only” will solve their problems, conquer their fears, and make them valuable. It won’t. You need only to look at the high divorce rate in our country to see the results of that attitude. When I believe that romance will meet all of my needs, what happens when it doesn’t? I leave on the quest to find my next “one and only,” right?

So if you watch Twilight and other films with similar themes, don’t buy into the lies it’s selling. Marriage and romance are great, but let’s be consumed instead with the faith, hope, and love offered to us by Jesus.

What are your thoughts or questions about the Twilight story? Do you agree with my assessment?

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Books Every College Student Should Read

Below are a few books I highly recommend. I’ve limited this list to those topics that are particularly useful for college students and young adults. Many of these books, though, are helpful to any Christian regardless of your age or station in life.

The Lost Art of Disciple Making by Leroy Eims — This book focuses on the ministry strategy of Jesus and how we can implement it in our churches and lives today. Eims discusses the concept of spiritual multiplication, a concept that’s often “lost” in today’s bigger-is-better culture of church. Start with a few men or women, train them to know Jesus and share the Gospel, and empower them to train a few others who train a few others who train a few others.

The Powerful Percent by Patricia Bergen — Sadly, this book is out of print, so you’ll have to track down a used copy on Amazon or AddAll. College students are only about 1% of the world’s population, but many (if not most) of the major movements of God in Christian history have been initiated by students.

The Fuel and the Flame by Steve Shadrach — This is a great discussion of how to “ignite your college campus for Christ.” It contains some great practical ideas for how to minister to college students. It’s particularly helpful for those in college ministry, but I think students can learn a great deal from it as well.

Survey of Bible Doctrine by Charles Ryrie — This isn’t necessarily a gripping page-turner, but it’s a good solid introduction to systematic theology and its categories. It’s also short enough to read quickly and understand.

Thy Kingdom Come by Dwight Pentecost — Pentecost is a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, where I received my Master’s degree. This book is a great overview of the flow of biblical history, using key covenants (agreements between God and His people) as signposts. If you’ve always struggled to fit the Bible together as one coherent story, this book will help.

To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson by Courtney Anderson — There are a number of great Christian biographies, but this is my favorite. Don’t be intimidated by its length or small print; once you begin this book you won’t be able to put it down. Judson was one of the very first American missionaries. He left for Burma at the age of 25, and spent his life sharing the Gospel there. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards — This is a fabulous little book about the importance of respecting and submitting to authority. Edwards uses Saul, David, and Absalom as models of the right and wrong ways to interact with authority in our lives, whether it is just or unjust authority. You can probably finish this book in 3-4 hours.

The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster — Two great books about the importance of the spiritual disciplines in the life of a believer. Willard’s book provides a theological discussion of the disciplines, while Foster’s book provides a very practical overview of them.

Honest to God? and Just Walk Across the Room by Bill Hybels — Hybels is a very practical and easy-to-read author. Honest to God is about living a life of authenticity before God and others. Just Walk Across the Room is a challenging but down-to-earth approach to personal evangelism.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. If you have other recommendations, feel free to share them in the comments here. I’m always looking for new resources to read and to share!

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Book Review: Love Wins

Depending upon your personality and theological persuasion, you’re either eager to read this review or you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, “Another review of that book?” It is true that there have been a number of reviews written and posted online — the best one I’ve seen thus far is Kevin DeYoung’s review at The Gospel Coalition.

However, some have asked me if I would be willing to write a shorter and more accessible review of the book, summarizing the key issues concisely.  To be honest, it is hard to know exactly where to begin, since the book covers a broad span of complex topics, and a short review will only go so far in explaining them.  However, it’s worth it to me to try, for the sake of my readers who are considering the concepts Rob Bell attempts to deal with. I’ll start with a brief summary of the book and then provide my thoughts on the content.

Summary: Does God really send people to hell for eternity if they fail to believe in Jesus as their Savior? If so, what does this say about the character of God and the message of Jesus? In roughly 200 pages, Bell challenges the traditional understanding of heaven and hell by suggesting a new path: perhaps hell is not forever, and there are infinite post-mortem opportunities for people to come to Jesus. Perhaps, he suggests, hell is more of a state of mind than a literal place of punishment and physical separation from God. Maybe Jesus didn’t really die to satisfy God’s anger or to substitute Himself for sinners. Instead, He just wanted to show us that God loves us and is no longer angry at all. Bell argues that the Gospel is much bigger than the message of eternal life and forgiveness of sins through belief in Jesus. Instead, the forgiveness of God is extended freely to everybody, whether they believe in Jesus or not. The Gospel according to Bell is that heaven and hell are ultimately what we make of the choices and opportunities God has given us, now and in eternity.
 
Bell is a gifted communicator. There are places in this book in which Bell raises some valuable questions, ones that need to be answered.  However, the way in which he answers them demonstrates a number of flaws in his methodology and his theology. Here are my concerns:

Bell consistently forces Scripture into meanings that are foreign to the original context. One example is his discussion of the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus. Luke 16 relates the story of how the rich man and Lazarus both died — Lazarus went to “Abraham’s bosom” while the rich man went to Hades. The rich man is clearly in agony, while Lazarus is comforted in heaven. Bell rightly points out that the rich man’s value system has not changed, even in hell. But then he draws the conclusion that Jesus is using vivid imagery to communicate one simple truth: hell is nothing more than the fact that “there are all kinds of ways to reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human” in this life and the next. In other words, hell is not a literal place of judgment but is merely the inner torment we experience when we reject God.The chasm between heaven and hell is only in the “rich man’s heart,” which is still hardened toward other people and God.

The problem, of course, is that the context belies Bell’s interpretation. In the parable, even when the rich man expresses remorse and sadness, he is unable to cross the great chasm between heaven and hell. His destiny is already determined — in other words, the context of this parable teaches exactly what Bell denies, that there is a permanent destiny for human souls dependent upon how they respond to Jesus in this life. Whether the specific imagery is metaphorical or not, it is clear that Jesus is teaching that heaven and hell are real places, and that people go permanently to one or the other.

This is only one example of numerous issues like this throughout the book — to be frank, there are times that I could almost hear the text screaming as Rob Bell twisted and tore it out of context to suit his arguments.

Bell is uncomfortable with a God who punishes sin decisively and permanently. Early in the book Bell affirms that God gets angry at certain sins (exploitation, victimization, abuse, etc.). But there is a clear distinction between God’s judgment in Bell’s understanding and that of traditional Christianity. In Bell’s view, God’s judgment consists of stopping bad behavior but does not consist of punishing sinful people. People punish themselves, but God does not punish them. In contrast, the Scripture is full of statements about God’s decisive judgment of sinners on the last day.

For example, Revelation 20 describes God on his judgment throne. He decisively judges Satan and his demons and throws them into the Lake of Fire, where they “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Then, he judges the wicked nations and casts those whose names are not in the Book of Life into the same Lake of Fire. Revelation 21:8 describes how the “cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars” will be cast into the Lake of Fire and experience the second death.

Bell attempts to circumvent this issue by pointing out that Revelation 21:25 says that the gates of the New Jerusalem will never be closed.  His conclusion is that anybody can come and go as they please, as long as they stay in line and do what God wants while they are there. Again this ignores the context — verse 27 talks specifically about those who have been cast into the Lake of Fire, and says that they can never come into the heavenly city.  The gates aren’t open to allow free access; they’re open because the city is so secure that nobody who has been judged and sent to hell could ever come in anyway!

Bell makes it clear that he finds Jesus’ substitutionary death on behalf of sinners to be a laughable concept worthy of mockery. Of all the problems in this book, I found this to be the most egregious. Traditionally, Christians have held that Jesus’ death on the cross was intended to satisfy God’s wrath on our behalf — Jesus was actually sacrificed in our place to bear the full punishment for our sin (Hebrews 9:23-28; Romans 3:23-26;1 Jn 2:2; 4:10 — propitiation refers to a sacrifice that avers God’s wrath; 1 Peter 3:18).

Bell states that this view amounts to “Jesus rescuing us from God” and repeatedly tells us that it’s a story that has nothing to do with Jesus and that this belief is the reason people are abandoning Christianity in droves. He does not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was a payment for our sin – instead, it was simply a demonstration of God’s general love for humanity.

In this way, Bell grievously undermines both the character of God and the glory of God’s grace. Punishment for sin is simply unnecessary — we are only punished by the natural consequences of our own choices. God’s grace, according to Bell, does not provide payment for our sin in order that we might find forgiveness and eternal life.  Instead, God’s “grace” simply overlooks our sin and asks us not to do it anymore.

This error was the one that made me want to cry. The Gospel of Rob Bell is no longer the good news of a God who forgives sin by sacrificing his Son on our behalf. It is instead the message that we can simply say we’re sorry, realign ourselves with God’s love for everybody, and He’ll wink and ignore our previous rebellion and disobedience. As a result, sin is still possible after Christ’s return, so God’s judgment is never complete. Sin and evil are never truly defeated, only pushed to the dark corners of God’s kingdom.

Finally, Bell assumes that belief in hell requires a person to be hard-hearted and unloving. I wrote previously about how Bell excludes the middle — there is no room in his theology for an evangelical who genuinely loves sinners and shares the Gospel boldly so that people can avoid the pain of hell. He also assumes that belief in the traditional view means that a person is only concerned about “who gets in and who stays out” and is clearly not concerned about reflecting Jesus in the here and now. Quite the opposite is true, though.

Those who hold the traditional view have a robust tradition of sharing the Gospel around the world, giving to the poor, helping the weak, and battling the effects of sin and rebellion against God. Bell views everything from the grid of his own narrow and apparently unloving family history, and fails to closely look at church history as a whole. Christians reflect Jesus in the here and now precisely because we believe strongly in final judgment. Our desire is to reflect God’s kingdom so that men and women from every nation will stream to His light.

Conclusion:

This is the longest post I’ve written, but hopefully short enough for you to read and grasp the major issues. In the final analysis, Bell’s book amounts to a repackaging of liberal theology.  The ideas are nothing new, but Bell communicates them in a way that is attractive and just ambiguous enough that many will miss the fact that he has simply dredged up old heresies.

For those who hold to traditional orthodoxy, the question is this: Can we faithfully preach the Gospel as written in the Scripture, and live in such a way as to draw the world to Jesus? I believe we can, and when we do I think this resurgence of liberalism will die a slow death, just as it did with the revival of robust evangelicalism in the middle of the 20th century. So, let’s get busy sharing Jesus and loving the world God has made — who knows the great ways God will move?

[Image via http://eyeonapologetics.com/blog/2011/03/21/book-reviews-of-love-wins-by-rob-bell/]
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