What’s Really Worth Discussing About Noah

Director Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic vision of Noah has been praised and criticized from nearly every possible direction. I wavered over whether to write about this movie, because so much has already been said.

I finally saw the movie, and I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the reviews I’ve read are exercises in missing the point. Noah has its strengths and weaknesses, but the most important ones aren’t the ones that people have focused on. 

So bear with me here: Forget about rock people, environmentalism, or whether every detail of the story matches Genesis 6-9. All of those issues would be worth discussing if the movie didn’t raise some bigger questions that need addressing. To be honest, it troubles me immensely that so many Christians have centered upon the details of the movie without paying attention to what it’s actually trying to say. With regard to the film’s message, then, I’m going to highlight one major way Noah gets it right and one way the movie gets it wrong.

Before diving into its theology, though, I need to say this: Noah asks precisely the right questions about humanity and God, although its answers are quite often incorrect. For that reason alone, the movie is worth considering. I’m not of the mindset that we should stick our heads in the sand and refuse to engage with Aronofsky’s portrayal of Noah. Some will watch the movie and find it artistically beautiful, others will find it to be a mess. Frankly, there is enough of both sides to go around. Theologically, we can say the same. However, this film provides a rare opportunity to Christians to engage with one particular cultural understanding of God and provide a response.

OK, so what does the movie get right? Noah correctly highlights mankind’s utter wickedness, and leaves viewers with the strong impression that people can’t be saved without God’s intervention. I’ve read one or two reviews that criticize the film for being “anti-human.” There’s some accuracy to that charge, but I don’t think the film is anti-human in ways that the Scripture is not. Read Genesis 6-9 again, and you’ll read about people whose every thought was only evil continually. In others words, people have the capacity for terrible evil. Aronofsky’s Noah gets that right, and in the process justifies God’s judgment. Noah even questions whether he and his family deserve to survive, because he knows that the wickedness of mankind resides in his heart as well. The movie is so heavy-handed with that idea, in fact, that it stumbles artistically. There’s an extended and very uncomfortable sub-plot revolving around Noah’s desire to kill his baby granddaughters. He feels it’s necessary, because he doesn’t believe humanity deserves a second chance. That sub-plot dragged on so long that I was silently pleading for it to end. But Aronofsky and company are working to make a broader point, that perhaps people really do deserve extinction. And in fact, they’re correct. Noah wasn’t saved because he was a perfect person, and that’s a point that many Christian reviewers have missed. Instead, he was saved because he found favor with God. He was only “righteous” in comparison to others of his generation, meaning that at least some of his thoughts weren’t totally terrible. That’s not a ringing endorsement of mankind, and the movie highlights the theme well.

What does Noah get wrong, then? The filmmakers bypassed the mercy and love of God, in favor of a unilaterally vindictive Creator. Again, please forget about whether anti-environmentalism is a sin, or whether the rock people are dumb, or whether Tubal-Cain should sneak onto the boat or not. This issue is the one that matters. In the final analysis, all of the mercy and love in the movie emanate from Noah rather than from God. The only reason Noah refrains from killing his granddaughters is because he simply can’t do it. Noah loves them too deeply, and it’s at least implied that Noah loves them more than God. The filmmakers leave us with the impression that God wanted Noah to kill them — or at least that God was alright with it — but that Noah was overcome by kindness, despite God’s cruelty. I disagree with those who say Aronofsky’s Noah is not righteous enough. To the contrary, he’s more righteous than God Himself, which poses a major problem.

God never speaks to Noah throughout the story, leaving him to piece God’s will together through short dreams and drug-induced hallucinations. God shows up in nature (which is of course a biblical theme), but he never speaks. God also casts demons out of heaven for being too kind to humanity. They were condemned for trying to help people. Ultimately, the movie implies that kindness doesn’t come from God Himself, but from those humans who free themselves from God’s vindictiveness and wrath. The only character who refers to God’s image in mankind is the vicious Tubal-Cain, who uses God’s image as a justification for violence and destruction. Partly because nobody corrects his viewpoint or explains what it really means to be made in God’s image, we’re left with the impression that God is one dimensional, all about judgment, without any real mercy.

This impression of God’s character doesn’t match what we see in Scripture, even in the story of Noah. It’s easy to forget, of course, that the story of Noah and the Ark isn’t the happy flannel-board version we learned in Sunday school. This movie highlights that well. The biblical story of Noah is truly dark and brutal. However, it’s also easy to forget that the God who destroyed the world also provided a way of redemption, not only for the animals, but for people. God loves mankind, not because we are good (or because Noah was good), but because He is gracious and because He made us. He loves us despite our evil, and He always provides a way of redemption. Noah, while raising some great questions about God and man, is a tragically incomplete portrayal of His character. 

All that said, I think the film provides a helpful opportunity for Christians to fill in the gaps. We don’t need to be afraid of the movie, but instead to take this chance to explain that God is more merciful and more loving than any of us can imagine. It was God who provided the Ark as a way of redemption. It was God who started over and gave mankind a second chance. Noah was an imperfect, although “graced,” tool of God’s mercy. All mercy, all love, and all kindness spring from God Himself. All human love is a dim reflection. 

I was talking about the movie with some friends on Facebook last weekend, and mentioned that the film isn’t a total loss, whatever its content, if it inspires people to pick up a Bible to read it and discuss it. Too few Christians are actually familiar with the story (e.g., I read one review that criticized it for portraying a drunken Noah, a scene which actually occurs in Genesis 9). Too few of us have taken to heart what the destruction of the world and the salvation of the Ark communicates about God’s wrath and mercy. What a great chance for us to review those basics and share them with others.

But please, please, don’t get involved in secondary issues about political environmentalism or whether the rock people are poorly created. Major on the majors — is God just, merciful, gracious, and true? Yes! And the story of Noah is a great window into His character. 

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On Parenting Goals and Bubble Wrap

Last weekend I went to an electronics store with my kids. While we were browsing, some employees handed my two younger children (who are 6 and 4) a small piece of bubble wrap. You know the stuff, because when you were a kid you probably loved popping those little bubbles and hearing the sound.

As we continued through the store, they took turns popping bubbles. When I got in line to pay for my purchases, the kids stood behind me and put the bubble wrap down on the floor. They began to step on it in order to pop the bubbles more effectively.

At that point I noticed an older man standing about 15 feet away. He was giving us the “head shake of shame,” a clear sign of disapproval. His lips were pursed, his eyes were narrowed, and his head was slowly shaking back and forth.

I had two initial reactions. The first was to silence my kids and snatch the bubble wrap away. The man’s disapproval was embarrassing, and I hate being embarrassed. My second reaction, though, was to chastise the man for his hatred of children and fun. I had one or two really good verbal responses that I wanted to unleash in his direction.

By the grace of God, I didn’t follow either of those impulses. I paused for a moment to ask myself a few questions:

Were the kids doing anything immoral or dangerous? No. Nothing had been stolen or vandalized. Nothing was broken, and nothing was in danger of being broken. In fact, because they were focused on the bubble wrap, they weren’t tempted to grab items from the shelves or run through the store like maniacs. I suspect that’s why the staff gave it to them in the first place.

Were they acting inconsiderately toward anybody else? No. Besides us, there were four people in the immediate vicinity: the angry man, the cashier, and one young couple who was standing behind us in line. My kids were not bumping into the couple behind them, nor were they getting in their way. I’m fairly sensitive to noise, but the bubble wrap wasn’t loud enough to raise my alarm. Neither the cashier nor the young couple seemed the least bit distressed. We weren’t at a funeral, a wedding, a church service, or in any sort of scenario where a little bit of noise was unacceptable. It was an enormous store, and there were very few people around.

Would confronting the angry man have been helpful in any way? No. He’s entitled to his displeasure, and I doubt I could have changed his perspective.

What did I do? I finished paying, and then I had the kids pick up their bubble wrap and follow me to the car.

Here’s why I’m sharing this story: It was one of those moments that helped solidify for me what I’m actually trying to accomplish as a parent. I’m not raising my kids just to keep them from embarrassing me. I’m not even raising them primarily to be socially adept, although I hope they will be.

I’m raising my kids to love God and to love others. In many instances, politeness is a helpful tool to accomplish those goals. I want them to say, “Please,” and “Thank you,” because those words demonstrate a heart of gratitude. I want them to learn that there is a time to be quiet and listen and a time to play and be loud. Listening to others demonstrates that you care about them like Jesus does. I want them to know that if they are hurting people, causing them distress, bumping into them without apologizing, or failing to consider how other people feel, then they’re wrong. Many social rules are helpful because they provide a structure within which we can live out the love and humility of Christ.

However, in this instance, I felt that ending their fun would have been detrimental rather than helpful. In order to love God, it’s important to understand that He loved us first. One of the ways He’s shown love to us is by giving us pleasure — good food, laughter, friendship, and even bubble wrap! I’ve been reading the book of Deuteronomy this week, and I’m struck by how many times God reiterates His love for His people, and connects that love to His good gifts — sweet honey, vineyards, fertile land, children, joyful relationships, and much more. He loves to give His children good things, and He rejoices at our simple pleasures.

My kids were simply being kids. They weren’t causing pain or heartache for anybody. They weren’t disobeying God or disobeying me. They were experiencing the joy of an unexpected gift. By learning to appreciate gifts like that, gifts with no strings attached, I pray they’ll eventually learn to appreciate and love the gift of Jesus. I pray they’ll come to love and serve the Giver Himself. Fun doesn’t make God angry, unless it’s immoral fun. He created love and laughter and pleasure, and it’s right for children to express those things.

Of course we train our children to care about other people. We train them that some actions are off-limits in public (and some are off-limits everywhere). We teach them those things so they can get along in the world, but more importantly so they can reflect the character of God.

But I don’t want my kids to view God as an old man giving them the “head shake of shame.” I think He delights in His children, and laughs when we laugh. If communicating His love to my children means occasionally earning the ire of strangers, I’m alright with that.

So, to the angry man at Best Buy: You’re welcome to grab a piece of bubble wrap and join us next time! We can pop it together and give thanks to the God who delights in laughing with His children.

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10 Common Confusions About the Bible

In my years as a pastor and Bible study leader, I’ve noticed that certain confusions about the Bible turn up over and over again. There isn’t always time for a leader to correct every minor mistake when it happens, nor is it always appropriate to do so. So I thought I’d offer up an incomplete list of some of the most common confusions and mistakes I hear, along with corrections. Here we go:

1. The final book of the Bible is named Revelation, not Revelations. It consists of one “revelation” that Jesus gave to the apostle John while he was in exile on the island of Patmos. 

2. Speaking of John, there are two very important people in the New Testament with that name. The first one is John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, the prophet who baptized Jesus and lived in the desert while eating locusts and honey. The second is John the Apostle, often referred to in the Gospel of John as “the disciple Jesus loved.” That second John, according to tradition, wrote the Gospel of John, the book of Revelation (see above), and 1, 2, and 3 John.

3. The book of Psalms is a collection of separate psalms, or songs, so it’s appropriate to use the plural noun for the title. However, when you’re referring to one of the psalms, it’s appropriate to say, “Psalm 63,” for example, rather than “Psalms 63.”

4. There are two important people in the New Testament named James (now you see why this stuff gets confusing). First, there was James the son of Zebedee (who happened to be the brother of John the Apostle). Second, there was James the brother of Jesus. The second one wrote the book of James. He was also the first leader of the Jerusalem church, as recorded in the book of Acts.

5. Elijah and Elisha are often confused, and understandably so. Honestly, I get them confused sometimes. Elijah came first. He’s probably best-known for his showdown with the prophets of Baal, recorded in 1 Kings 18. He also went to heaven on a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2). Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak, and continued his prophetic ministry. Elisha is probably best-known for his part in the healing of the Syrian official Naaman, recorded in 2 Kings 5. Naaman had leprosy, and Elisha told him to dip in the Jordan River seven times. After that? Totally clean.

6. When you’re reading the Old Testament, the names “Israel” and “Judah” usually refer to two separate nations. After the nation of Israel divided in two, there was a northern Kingdom (usually called “Israel” or “Ephraim”) and a southern kingdom (usually called “Judah”). This is particularly important when you’re reading the Old Testament prophets. A few of them (Hosea and Amos, in particular) wrote to the northern kingdom of Israel. The majority wrote to the southern kingdom of Judah, but they often refer to the northern kingdom, so you have to pay attention.

7. There are two important people in the Bible named Joseph. One is in the book of Genesis, and was the eleventh son of the patriarch Jacob. That Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and eventually became the second most powerful guy in Egypt. The other Joseph is in the New Testament, and was the adopted dad of Jesus. This is especially confusing for little children, because most story Bibles include information about both Josephs.

8. There are two important people in the Bible named Saul. One was the first king of Israel. Most of his story is found in 1 Samuel. The other one wrote most of the New Testament letters, and is primarily known as Paul. But in the book of Acts, his original Jewish name was Saul. Just to confuse you further, the second Saul was probably named after the first one, since both of them came from the tribe of Benjamin.

9. When you hear pastors talk about the “original languages” of the Bible, they are either referring to Hebrew or Greek (or occasionally Aramaic, but most of us pastors don’t know anything about that language). Many people get this mixed up, so here’s the scoop: The New Testament was written in Greek, while the Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew, with a little bit of Aramaic. (Incidentally, the Greek of the New Testament is called Koine, and it’s not the same as the Greek language they speak today in Greece.)

10. The names of some of the twelve disciples of Jesus vary between the gospel accounts. First, you should know that Peter’s actual name was Simon. Jesus nicknamed him Peter, which means “Rock.” After that, Simon preferred to go by Peter, because if your nickname was The Rock, you’d prefer that to Simon also. However, there was another disciple named Simon the Zealot, and that’s a different person altogether. There was also a dude named Simon in the book of Acts who tried to buy the Holy Spirit from Peter and John. He wasn’t related to the disciples. Second, Matthew is also known as Levi sometimes. Third, in Matthew and Mark there’s a guy named Thaddeus, whose name is Judas in the book of Luke. Fourth, that’s not the same Judas as Judas Iscariot. Judas Iscariot is the one who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Fifth, the Bartholomew of the first three gospels is probably the Nathaniel that John’s gospel talked about (that’s John the brother of James, not John the Baptist). Hope that clears everything up!

OK, so those are the top ten Bible confusions I can think of at the moment. I’m curious to hear from you: Are there other names or places or Bible stories that you get confused about? Any others that you hear commonly confused? 

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What the Mark Driscoll Story Reveals About Every Leader

Two weeks ago World broke the story that Mars Hill Church paid a large amount of money to get Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage onto the New York Times best-seller list.

Mars Hill released a statement acknowledging the basic facts of the story, although they dispute the amount of money that World claims was spent on the best-seller campaign. Calling the campaign “unwise” but not “uncommon or illegal,” they insisted that it won’t happen again.

The story has raised a great deal of ire in the Christian blogosphere. Driscoll has always been a controversial figure, so in response to this latest news, some are gleefully shouting, “I told you so!” Others lament that the Christian evangelical leadership culture has sunk to a new low. Surely pastors and churches ought to be held to a higher standard than whether something is illegal or not. Beyond “unwise,” most people recognize the under-the-table marketing campaign as manipulative and unethical.

While I resonate with those concerns, I can’t shake the feeling that Mars Hill’s indiscretion shines a light into the dark corners of my own heart, and probably the heart of every leader. 

Everybody wants to make an impact. We sometimes confuse that desire with another, our desire to be liked and popular. There’s a prevalent lie abroad in our world, a lie that says the crowd’s applause is a signal that we’re making a difference. Of course that’s rarely the case. All too often agents of spiritual change are met with stony silence, seeming indifference, or even hostility. If you don’t believe me, just read the gospels and consider the life of Christ.

It would be easy to consider the Mars Hill story as an anomaly, just a story of one arrogant pastor or a wayward church. It would be similarly easy to chalk it up to our American celebrity culture, a culture that has clearly infected the local church in a bad way.

But I think the roots of the problem go much deeper. The problem is rooted in the sinful human heart, a heart that desires to please people instead of God.

I don’t think we worship celebrities because we’re American. We worship celebrities because we’re idolaters. We cannot see God, so we fashion idols in our own image. Then we dream that one day we can ascend to their pedestal and receive the adoration of other people, people who belong to God and are made to worship Him alone.

It’s all too easy to confuse the dim glory of man with the perfect glory of God. When we get the two muddled, we find ourselves seeking to be the Source of glory rather than a small reflection of it, and that’s when the real trouble begins.

Much like money, I don’t think fame is inherently evil. It’s just very dangerous. It’s the love of fame and applause that leads us to all manner of evil. When we convince ourselves that any means are justified, as long as our message gets out there, we’re on the slippery slope to idol worship. It’s too easy to undermine the gospel by using questionable methods to make it known.

What scares and dismays me is not simply that Mars Hill used questionable methods to promote Driscoll’s book, but also that I see glimpses of that sort of darkness in my own heart. The only hope for me is the lavish grace of God, who reminds me that I’m significant because He loves me and gave His Son for me.

That’s the only hope for any of us who lead others, whether on a large or small scale. We need to constantly bathe in His light or we run the risk of trying to falsely manufacture our own.

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Nowhere to Hide

After Adam and Eve sinned, they tried to cover themselves, and they tried to hide. They realized they were naked and vulnerable before God.

They had always been naked, of course, but they had never before felt naked. Being naked was a simple fact of life. God saw everything about them, from the moment of their creation to the moment of their sin. They had always been naked, but never before had they felt self-conscious and afraid. For the first time in their lives, Adam and Eve didn’t want to be known. They wanted to be hidden.

And ever since that day, so do we. That’s why we hide from God, and it’s why we hide from others. It’s why we pretend to be better than we really are, why we conceal our sin, even though God knows all about it. We fail to see that God sees us. He sees everything about us.

Every wicked thought. Every fear. Every secret desire.

Every time we hurt others, every time they hurt us. Every time we hurt ourselves. He sees it all. There’s nowhere to hide.

He sees it all, and He still loves us deeply and perfectly. It’s just that we feel so naked, afraid to confess and afraid to accept His grace. But He calls out to us, even though He knows exactly where we are.

“Where are you?” He says, and we try to run and hide.

His gaze is too painful. We know how much it hurts to be healed, how His love simultaneously wrecks us and restores us. We saw what He did to Adam and Eve, to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, to Peter and Paul and John. He opened them up completely, saw all of their nakedness and vulnerability, and utterly transformed them. Their redemption was beautiful, but it was also painful. Better to be unloved and independent, we think, than to be loved so much it hurts us. So we hide.

And of course the terrible truth is that when we hide, we run away from our only hope of being clothed. We sew together our little fig leaves, trying to manufacture some way of patching up our sin, of covering it over, of keeping Him from knowing. All the while, He offers a permanent and perfect set of clothing. Yet still we hide.

But grace only arrives when we admit how naked we are. How terribly and completely devoid we are of hope and righteousness and love. Yes, our exposure invites judgment, but it also brings redemption. When we finally realize there’s nowhere to hide, that there’s nothing He doesn’t see, then our shame is overwhelmed by Love.

The God who clothed Adam and Eve sees our nakedness, and our hastily constructed fig leaves, and He clothes us in His grace. He covers us up with the perfect and permanent robe of Jesus’ love, the One who died and rose to secure our forgiveness.

He calls to each of us, calling us to come out of hiding. Come out and face the terrifying, purifying, saving grace of God.

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Everything You Have is a Blessing

There’s an article making the rounds that urges Christians to stop referring to material provision as the “blessing” of God. 

I understand the heart behind the article. If we begin to believe that our wealth makes us superior to others, or that God gave it to us because of our faithfulness or righteousness or fervent prayer, then we’re probably wrong. It’s certainly true that God is not a genie in the sky. It’s also true that the Beatitudes of Jesus turned the popular Jewish concept of “blessing” on its head.

However, it’s biblically incorrect to say that material provision isn’t a blessing from the Lord. Focusing solely on the Beatitudes for one’s definition of blessing ignores dozens of passages in the Bible that explicitly say that material provision is a result of God’s blessing. For example, Proverbs 10:22 says, “It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich.” God “blessed” Isaac (Gen 26:12) and Job (42:12) with riches and wealth.

All kinds of things are listed in the Bible as “blessings”: wealth, children, righteousness, life, and even the character that comes from suffering. To be blessed simply means you are favored by God. It just means that God has given you something good. The Pharisees weren’t wrong to view material provision as God’s blessing. Where they went wrong was assuming that they deserved God’s blessings.

The truth is that everything you have is a blessing from God, because God has given you everything you have. Your life is a blessing. Knowing Jesus is a blessing. And yes, your house and your business and your car are most definitely blessings. They might be less important than spiritual blessings, but they are granted to you by God.

Here’s what the author of that article gets right: God doesn’t owe us anything.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Everything we have comes from His hand. Let’s not refuse to acknowledge the Giver of everything we have. Our lives aren’t random, as if we just “happened” to be born where we were born, into the family in which we were born. with the opportunities we have been given. Of course we didn’t earn any of it. But the Scripture is very clear that God arranged all of it (Acts 17:26). He didn’t arrange it because we deserved it. He just arranged it because He has some plan for it.

It’s perfectly consistent with the Bible to say that I am blessed and that being blessed obligates me to bless others. In other words, being blessed means that I am held to a higher responsibility, to share all that I have, because God has given it to me. God blessed Abraham with many children, lots of wealth, and a great deal of land precisely so that he could be a blessing (Gen 12:1-3).

I do think this is more than semantics, and here’s why: If I don’t recognize the Source of my blessings, then I won’t use them properly. If I really think that I just “happened” to be here, in this place and time, with everything He’s given, then I’m more likely (not less likely) to be selfish and self-absorbed.

True generosity and humility and gratitude only emerge when we understand that everything we have is a blessing, a gift, from a gracious God who owes me nothing. 

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