Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Apple Store and a Hotdog Stand

Today was the third major opening of a new or expanded mall in Dresden in the past 18 months. Somehow the economy around here seems to be booming. Against my better judgment I popped on over early in the day in hopes that I could beat the crowd and see if there were any interesting new stores.

As a family with four children, we were happy to see a Build a Bear store. Then again, that is just one more thing that will lose its magic now that we have one. There is something special about a thing when you can’t have it. Oh well.

The more interesting opening was the new Apple Store. Whereas everyone else had merely opened their doors for the first time and hoped that customers would check them out, Apple did everything possible to generate buzz. They surrounded the store with velvet ropes, creating a line weaving back and forth to get in. They stationed security guards diverting all traffic in their area of the mall—you either got in line or you had to basically leave. Then, to top it all off, they had the entrance to the store staffed with about 20 employees cheering and whooping every customer as they reached the end of the line and entered the store. It was attention grabbing, it was interesting, and it had its intended effect.

However, it was also thought provoking. Their intent was clear: generate interest, make people feel something special, and create a connection with the customer. Apple has done a great job associating their brand with an image and a feeling. People buy the product in part because they buy into an image. In the end, though, one wonders how effective this approach will be in the German culture. Apple’s success here is due to the product and quality, not the relationship.

Further along the mall I happened upon a stand that represented the second branch of Ricc’s Original Hotdogs. Their first location is a little hole-in-the-wall in my favorite part of town. The owner was in his stand, and as he saw me we recognized each other and shook hands. I congratulated him on his second store, and we had a true moment of connection. Sure it was not the 100s of customers an hour that Apple was generating, but every one of them was emerging empty handed after looking around for a few minutes.

In the world of community building, we have bought into the Apple model. We need to generate buzz and create a huge attraction. We want volume over depth. The fact is that the slower, smaller approach to real relationships—a true connection despite all the time and effort it requires—is the true road to authentic community. It all boils down to the choice: are we about selling a product or sharing life?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"For the Birds" (Ephesians 2:11-22)

“For the Birds” was the seventh short film released by Pixar studios, those people who brought you Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and others. It won the Academy Award for best-animated short, the third of these shorts to win that prize for the studio. It is the story of a flock of birds that begin to tease a strange lone bird about how different he is. As they torment him, they set into motion their own just desserts.

This is a central message in the letter to the Ephesians. It focuses on an aspect of Paul’s teaching that should be central to the Christian life. In the first part of chapter two, Paul talked about how salvation changes us as individuals. In the second half he shows that it also changes us as a group. The sad thing is that many Christians—generally the ones that forget what Christianity really is and start acting like a religion—are a lot like this little flock of jerky birds. However it is not just the religious Christians of the world that are depicted here. This is a human problem. We all enjoy bettering our own status by belittling and ostracizing those who are in any way different.

God’s purposes in enacting His Gospel plan were bigger than merely saving an individual as we so often like to imagine. In addition to saving people from their sin, death and the reality of Hell He was reconciling humanity to itself. He was making unity and peace possible. That is something all believers need to keep in mind, especially when they see a particularly different or “judgable” person. Let this film be a reminder and a warning.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Talent, Intention, Seeding or Performance?

What makes a person who they are? Are we the people we intend to be, the sum of our beliefs and ethical standards? Or are our actions more important? It is a bit of a no-brainer of course, since most people will say that our true ethics will determine what we do when there is no one there to see. However, what society says and does (much like a person) can be two different things. We value people based more on our opinion of them—the consensus belief about them.

A perfect example is the current buzz about the college basketball tournament. At the beginning of the tournament, teams were ranked based on prior performance and “expert” opinion. This ranking was used to place teams in the tournament. For the first time since this seeding has been done, no number one or number 2 teams made it into the final four. This has some people upset. They feel as though they are being cheated out of the best entertainment.

So what makes a team (or a person) who they are? Is it a ranking based on past performance and talent? Somehow, the eight “best” teams in the country have been shown to not be the best when it counted. College football has made a science out of not basing a team’s worth or quality ranking on competition but rather “expert” judgment. It seems a large portion of our society wants to judge a person not on performance but on intangibles like talent, intention and hypothetical encounters.

In the real world, it is the choices we make and the actions we take that determine who we are. Who are you when it counts?

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Corporate Dimension (Ephesians 2:11-22)

In Chapter 2:1-10, Paul reminded his readers that they had been reconciled to God through the work of Christ. In 2:11-22, he highlights the reconciliation that has occurred amongst mankind as a result of the cross.

Christians in western culture easily see the individual repercussions of the Gospel. We all recognize that we have a responsibility before God for our actions and that we all have a decision to make about what we believe that no one else can make for us. What we often overlook is the corporate dimension of humanity. Like it or not, we are all a part of a larger group (or even groups) of people. Family, community, nationality, party, tribe, or online social network—we all belong to groups of people that shape who we are and that we help shape with who we are.

Some of us really have a problem with this. We may like certain individuals but we see the ugly side of humanity in the masses.

Christ’s work on the cross has changed humanity in more ways than just saving those who believe in Him. He has reconciled the people of God. He has united humanity in Himself. This is an important factor to include in how we do Ecclesiology. We need to do away with our consumer attitude to church. We need to recognize the ways in which we are a part of something bigger than our own individuality. Wherever we live we belong to church/churches/communities that we are placed in by God. We busy ourselves a lot with “church shopping” and we often miss out on the place or places that God has prepared for us to fit—the missing piece that we are to what God is doing.

Most of us are prepared to accept the philosophical/universal aspect of this passage. God has united all believers into a church that will be together in eternity. Where we often miss the point is today in our immediate situation and the ways that affects our lives where we live. What communities are you a part of, and are you fulfilling your God given roles in them?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

2000 in Film

There are a lot of films from 2000 that would likely make a top 100 list on NonModernBlog. This is appropriately a dividing year, the end of the nineties and the end of an era that changed with the arrival of films like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies; but an often overlooked year, falling after the momentous likes of The Matrix and The Sixth Sense—or even The Phantom Menace.

The strangest entry on this list would have to be number five. It is an imperfect film to be sure. Especially when you consider that I saw it with a great friend the night before his wedding. In spite of all its imperfections and downbeat ending, I find myself revisiting it. There is something about Polanski’s atmosphere that is captivating, and more so in his “fun” mysteries than his disturbing psychological studies.

Top Ten Personal Films of 2000:
1. O Brother Where Art Thou?
2. Chicken Run
3. Gladiator
4. Wo Hu Cang Long
5. The Ninth Gate
6. Chocolat
7. The Emperor’s New Groove
8. Shadow of the Vampire
9. Bedazzled
10. Unbreakable

Bottom or Most Disappointing Films of 2000:
-5. The Beach
-4. The Cell
-3. Left Behind
-2. Lost Souls
-1. Killjoy

Some of the Movies I Have Yet to See:
Best in Show
Erin Brockovich
Small Time Crooks

Friday, March 25, 2011

Memento, Storytelling, and Reading the Bible

Chris Nolan’s first widely seen feature was (appropriately for him) an interesting experiment in storytelling. The plot itself is rather mundane and uninteresting. A guy kills a man because he thinks he is responsible for the rape and murder of his wife. That is not a spoiler because you find all of that out in the opening credits. The plot is not the point. The whole film is an exercise in telling a story unconventionally.

We start at the end and bounce back and forth between one storyline working backwards from the end and another one working forwards from the beginning. A lot of people are amazed at the revelations that occur in the middle of the plot, but that is simply how storytelling works: you save the most impressive reveals for the climax of the story. If the best stuff happens in the middle, you structure your story appropriately.

There is apparently a feature on some versions of this movie’s DVDs that allow you to watch the whole plot in chronological order. Why would you want that? Maybe it is for people without enough recall to keep track of what is going on in the theatrical edit.

The popularity of this and other similar stories that came out in the nineties makes one wonder why the Bible is not more popular in today’s generations. Many people complain that the scale of the Bible and the complexity of the message are simply too hard to absorb. However, reading the Bible is a lot like taking in a story like Memento. You keep track of little nits of information as you discover them and over time an amazing picture begins to take shape. You don’t even have to start at the “beginning” or work your way back from the “end.” The stuff in the middle of the plot is the most important stuff to be sure, and that is a good place to begin, but the Bible can handle any approach. It is the greatest story ever told.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dragon Worship and Correctly Dividing the Word

When you spend a lot of time teaching believers to read the Bible in such a way as to understand what it is actually saying, it can be very annoying to repeatedly encounter people who use it as some sort of Magic Eight Ball. Even worse are the self anointed messengers of God who loudly proclaim new messages to the world. Never mind that what they have to say doesn’t add up with what God has already spoken.

A particularly annoying recent example is a prophetess who has had a lot to say about Japan. (Ever notice how these people tend to come out of the woodwork AFTER something has occurred, toot their own horn, and conveniently have a DONATE button prominently placed on their website?) This one starts out by reminding everyone that she has been predicting major volcanic/geological events for the Pacific Rim for years. (There’s a stretch. I’ve personally correctly predicted the sun’s rise every day successfully for years now!)

She goes on to attribute the recent tragedies in Japan in part to their penchant for dragon worship. She makes a big deal out of the “fact” that Japan even resembles a dragon. (At this point I am really confused. Does the country look like a dragon because they have been engaged in dragon worship for 5,000 years, or did God create it that way knowing that they would be idolaters?) Apparently the events have occurred exactly at the spot on the country/dragon where the soft underbelly is, which every Biblical scholar knows is the place to strike the deathblow on a dragon. (What? There is no dragon slaying in the Bible? My bad.)

The biggest problem with all of this is that it does not measure up with what the Bible already teaches us about tragedies and bad things happening in this world affected by sin. On more than one occasion the Bible tells us that that is an area where our understanding can’t comprehend all the reasons God allows such things to occur. Sure, that may not be as impressive a teaching to offer, but since it is what the Bible says it is the best we can offer. That is unless you want to increase your income.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bruno Mars' Grenade

If it weren’t for the fact that the voice is clearly different and there is no accordion, this could easily be a Weird Al song. It certainly provokes giggles.

Just look at some of the lines:

“I’d catch a grenade for ya; throw my hand on a blade for ya.”
“Tell the devil I said, hey, when you get back to where you’re from.”
“You smile in my face then rip the brakes out my car.”

Funny stuff.

Still, Bruno has the same misconception of love that most do these days. Instead of love being all about wanting the best for another, it is all about quid pro quo. This generation is a little too self-absorbed to toy around with unrequited love. And forget about love being a two way street even. We are a bunch of poor drivers so focused on how bad others are conducting themselves we never get to our destination. Don’t assume that Bruno is singing about sex here either. There is a real desire for connection and feeling today.

The other irony about this song and other like it is that the guy is so concerned with the easy aspect of romance. It doesn’t take much to die for a woman if she is not making you feel loved. How much more impressive would his love be if he sang about all the difficult things he was willing to do for her?

“I’d take out the trash for ya; stop expelling my gas for ya.”
“Take ya where ya want to go, and listen to ya talk about your day.”

Real love lives in the mundane and does not require or expect anything in return.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Buffy Rewatch (Season 2b)

This post is inspired by the ongoing Buffy Re-watch being conducted over at Nik at Night. Check them out for a better, more detailed look at each episode every Tuesday.

<--Season 2a  Season 3a-->

The major theme running through the second half of this season is guilt. Everyone makes choices in life. Sometimes these choices are pure instinct, or less choice and more pleasure fulfillment or pain avoidance. Sometimes people try to follow an ethic; try to choose good over bad. In our limited and even broken state, we all fail to choose well much of the time. When we make the wrong choices we have to live with the consequences. We have to experiences the effects. Even worse, when we give into our fallen nature and actively chose what we know to be wrong (and we all do this) we have to live with the knowledge that we have made the world worse and likely hurt other people. Guilt is what we feel and guilty is what we are. Everyone struggles with this issue even though most try to ignore it.

13. 14. Surprise/ Innocence

In spite of the overly melodramatic (read soapy) aspects of this pair of episodes, they do feature the most impactful single moment in the series. The second part of this two-er is the highest rated episode of the series. The whole series has been leading up to the moment where Buffy and Angel will decide to “go all the way.” In reality, the decision had been made already. Buffy had been repeatedly warned by everyone in her life (including Angel) that her relationship with him was wrong and would only lead to pain and suffering. In classic Buffyverse imagery, this warning turns out to be literally true. Sex between Buffy and Angel leads to him becoming pure evil again. This is a not so subtle metaphor for all the potential problems and dangers associated with sex outside of a committed marital relationship. In true Buffy fashion this one decision will not only affect the rest of the season but much of the series to follow.

15. Phases

Oz is perhaps the best loved secondary character in the Buffyverse. He is a surprisingly mature and mellow high school student/rocker. Introduced earlier in season two, he is slowly brought into the foreground and into a relationship with Willow. (This pattern is one that the show tried to follow as much as it could after the first season. Instead of introducing random extras for single episodes, it tried to give all of its characters a life in the show.)

In this episode, we once again get some timely social commentary in the guise of horror. In this case it is violence against women (and cultural attitudes towards women in general) through werewolf imagery. Perhaps the only major misstep is the show’s first step into addressing the topic of Homosexuality. The basic idea here is that the local high school bully and misogynist is (of course) gay. The laughable idea is that once he comes to terms with this (not exactly “coming out” but admitting it to one person) he is instantly the nicest guy in the school! The show will continue to break ground for this subject in 90s television, but not in the best way.

The fact that Oz is turned into a werewolf through no action of his own is an important step in the show’s exploration of guilt. Oz now has a side of his nature that he does not have full control of and he will have to take extraordinary steps to avoid doing wrong in the future.

16. Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered

When Cordelia breaks up with Xander rather than face social ridicule, Xander turns to magic to get revenge. We have already seen that magic is something in the Buffyverse that is questionable at best and downright wrong in most cases—especially where revenge is concerned. He attempts to curse Cordelia with a love curse in order to break up with her, but instead gets every woman in town, save Cordy, to become murderously in love with him. Hilarity ensues. In spite of the fun, the serious message against objectifying women is delivered and Cordy grows as a character when she decides to follow her heart rather than the popular crowd.

17. Passion

This episode is all about passion. (Read “that which you love,” “what you most value,” or “what you worship.”) Evil Angel begins to mount his psychological campaign against Buffy and company. Once again, the show transcends normal TV land stakes and tells a story that will have impact for years to come. If there were any doubts that Angel had really gone evil as a result of his moment of passion with Buffy, they are allayed.

The “Life Goes On” Trilogy
18. Killed by Death, 19. I Only Have Eyes For You, and 20. Go Fish

In between the first salvos of Passion and the denouement of Becoming, there was a hiatus and three MOTW episodes that added up to more than the sum of their parts.

Killed was a clunky episode, but with better intentions than what ended up on screen. The idea of child death should have been further explored and could have been handled seriously in the Buffyverse. In the end this “made up” monster didn’t have the impact that an established archetype could have had.

Eyes was another clunky episode but widely loved and praised for the emotional development of the characters. The story itself is beyond melodrama, and the idea of Buffy and Angel playing the possessed roles reversed was a little too obvious and a bit of a stunt. Only a show with this quality of writing and acting could pull it off so well.

Fish is the weakest episode of the season. It has a first season feel, and barely fits into the theme of season two. There is a good amount of Xander humor, however, and Cordy continues to grow as a character, so not all is wasted.

21. 22. Becoming Parts 1&2

This episode has a more epic feel than the series had achieved thus far, with flashbacks into Angel’s history and an apocalypse with a more global feel to it. The opening with the archeological find grounds the episode more than the previous season’s Master stuck in a fault line and some nebulous prophecy. That being said, as a viewer one detects (a good) hint of classic Doctor Who here still.

The set up in this pair of episodes is perfect. Buffy has been preparing to face the responsibility her poor choice has led her to and kill the monster that was Angel. Coincidentally, the opportunity has arisen to re-curse Angel making him a “good” vampire once more. Xander emerges at this point as the voice of tough reason—a role he will continue to assume in the series. He points out that vacillating where Angel is concerned has led to all the problems they are facing, and perhaps it is time to face the truth. Buffy doesn’t like it, but she knows he is right.

Something she has not learned yet, however, is that she succeeds when she works with her community and not on her own. This mistake has serious consequences as allies are killed, kidnapped and hurt. All as Buffy is implicated in a murder she did not commit. The second time around, the group work together on multiple fronts and things go much better. (Since the series continues, one could assume they would.)

Two things are left to point out. First, Willow begins her journey down the path towards being a witch. You would think that everything this series has taught the viewers would have also rubbed off on the characters, but—as in life—we are often too blinded by circumstances to really learn what is best for us. Secondly, the repercussions of Buffy’s poor choices get even worse, when she doesn’t get to simply kill a monster, but has to kill Angel after his soul is returned to him. As usual, this is not the end of the story, just the season…

Here is a trailer that someone put together for the season. It is pretty well done and hopefully the people who own the material that was used will see it as a good promotion of their story. If not, it will be removed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Walkabout (Ephesians 2:10)

“…for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” –Ephesians 2:10

(For more comment on this verse, see here.)

Salvation is not merely a gift from God that we do not earn or accomplish—we are in fact (re)created by God. We are (re)created in Christ Jesus, (Meaning both the sphere in which we live and the means by which God accomplished our renewal.) but we are also (re)created for a purpose—good works.

Good works—not the sort that will earn us any standing or favor—but rather good works that are the intention of our life in Christ. Before we walked about under the influence of the world, evil, and our own selfish desires; now we walk about doing the things for which we were created.

The image of walking is a good one for the spiritual life. Hiking, for instance, is something that one must do to learn. There is very little point in attending a lengthy course to learn the finer points of hiking. One gains the stamina and strength in the doing. At the same time, the art of following a trail and reading the map are best learned in the practice. So it is with an intentional life. The better we know the One who made the trail, the better we recognize the signs that guide our path, and the better we know our own gifting and strengths, then the better journey we will have along the way. We have to start walking to best experience the way.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Der Untergang (2004)

Downfall is one of the more daring films made in recent years. To depict the final moments amongst the core leadership of the Third Reich in as realistic a manner as possible is a risky undertaking. For one thing, it is not the sort of film people will want to see for entertainment value. It is not so much a story as it is a hard study of a terrible moment in time. On the other hand, some people will misinterpret your efforts as an attempt to humanize the horribly evil people behind one of the greater atrocities in human history.

As it turned out, that was one of the more mentioned critiques of the film when it came out. However, that was also one of the strengths of the film as well. The fact is that the world has done too good a job of demonizing Hitler. Hold it. Consider what is being said here. Yes, Hitler was an example of the most evil aspects humanity has to offer, but that is just it… he was a man. We tend to prefer to think of him as a complete monster. He is one of those people whom we refer to when we make ourselves or anyone else feel better about our ideas or actions. “Sure, I am not perfect but at least I’m no Hitler!” Downfall reminds us just how horrible we can be as people. In this case, an entire nation to varying degrees of culpability contributed to one of the most horrific cases of mass-murder of the Twentieth Century.

It also sheds the tiniest light on a lesser observed aspect of World War II: the eastern front and the sacking of Berlin. Most Westerners limited to what they are told through public education haven’t the slightest idea how terrible the conflict was between Germany and Russia with atrocities committed on both sides; and how devastating the occupation of Berlin was at the end of the war.

The very end of the movie departs from strict factual history. (A couple other instances in the film also take poetic license.) The image of the secretary and the young boy escaping the way they did was not historically accurate, but the symbolism it carries is important. The younger generations of Germans that emerged from this conflict and that are emerging today after the decades of its aftermath are an innocent people. They had no part in what their ancestors did before them and in many ways are far more sensitive to the dangers of the lies their fathers bought into.

This era of human history can never be brought up enough and serves as a perpetual warning to generations to come. All those convinced of the wisdom of their own ideology would do well to continually compare themselves and the lengths to which they are willing to commit to those of the fanatical leaders of this film.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Missional: a Need not a Norm

In church planting and church leadership circles today, Missional is the current buzz-word. Basically, it is the idea that the Church in western culture today has to adopt the approach and methodology of cross-cultural missions in its everyday life in order to reach a secular culture that has become so far separated from the church culture that communication has become nearly impossible.

For pioneer work in cross-cultural settings, Missional has always been (or at least should have always been) the normal approach. At its heart, Missional simply means learning another culture so completely that the Gospel message can be communicated into the culture in a way that makes sense to the hearer. This has become a necessary approach for the church to communicate with the very neighborhoods in which they live because the church culture has become frozen in a cultural bubble—isolated in a ghetto of its own making. Without cross-cultural methods, they could never hope to reach their own cities.

However, Missional methods for most churches are just a current need. They should not become the norm. For them to be the permanent norm, it would imply that churches and new church plants would remain in a permanent cultural vacuum. This is not the desired outcome. The product of the current Missional drive (and incidentally of any cross-cultural effort) should be communities that incarnate the Gospel in the culture where they live. Once the church stops being culturally isolated it will be the church that Jesus intended it to be. The very picture of the church as the body of Christ implies incarnational communities that live the Gospel out in a culturally meaningful way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Vainglory, The Fab Five and Our Skewed Sense of Perspective

Vainglory is alive and well. Not many people know the word, but it has seemingly become the obsession of choice in the culture today. It used to be one of the eight sinful motivations before they became the seven deadly sins. It is closely related to pride, into which it was absorbed when the list was shrunk. It is basically a desire for fame, a wish to make one’s name great. It is what drives people to do absolutely anything for fifteen minutes of fame.

The recent documentary about the early nineties Michigan basketball players known as the “Fab Five” is a perfect illustration of the predominance of this attitude in the current generation. A team that made it to the Final Four two years in a row but never won, they are—in their own eyes—the best team that has ever existed. They are a textbook case of people who value fame over any accomplishment.

This is an attitude that is pervasive throughout the culture today. Accomplishments and successes are secondary to recognition or even notoriety. Who cares if you can do? What is more important is to be able to talk, present a well polished image, message or brand, and be as widely recognized as possible. It is not even important to be able to back your message up with experience or results—a good power-point presentation or a flashy video is much better.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Poem: My Valentine (16 Years Later)

Don’t think that when I buy you things
I’m trying to buy your love.
Our love is nothing that could be bought
It’s a gift from up above.

Not wrapped up in pretty paper,
Or tied up with bows or string,
But caringly built by the three of us,
Slowly piece by piece.

And as our love grows stronger
I don’t want the spark to die.
So I’ll continue to woo you,
As if it were the very first night.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Gift of Faith (Ephesians 2:8,9)

The question you have to ask yourself is, what is God’s gift? Is it merely salvation which you received from Him through your ability to believe in Him, or is it that very faith itself which in turn has led to you being saved? The natural reading of these two crucial verses is that everyone who has been saved has been saved by faith—and it is that very faith that is the gift of God, given to us so that no one may boast in their salvation.

It is not just works that could be seen as making saved people better than lost people. The very fact that someone has grasped the truth of the Gospel and been able to believe in that message could be (and often is) taken as grounds for pride. A lot of believers seem to think that they are better than other people, at least on an intellectual level. The Bible is clear, however, and not just in this passage that the truth of the Gospel is something that is completely beyond human comprehension. If you have managed to believe and trust in God for forgiveness of your sins that does not mean you are smarter or more spiritual than other people. The fact that you can understand and believe is a gift from god.

The very practical application of this understanding for those following Jesus’ command to make disciples is that they have yet another reason to stop trying to do God’s job. We have only been commanded to do two things: be witnesses and make disciples. The first requires sharing what you know and the second requires helping someone learn what they are seeking to know. Neither demands that we convince anyone. If faith is a gift from God, no amount of flowery speech or impressive logic will make anyone believe. Never forget that sharing this truth is a two person job.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been described as Ford’s lament at the passing of the Western Legend. Some say it is the story of the classic self-made-man of the west willingly giving way to the future of law and order. Instead, it is a pretty stiff jab at the idea of the Western legend itself.

Everything about this movie highlights the artificiality of the presentation. For a Ford film, the soundstage setting stands in stark contrast to the Monument Valley setting of his other films. The set-up of the scenes and the acting all highlight the feel of this being more of a play than an epic western. Even details like the 50 year old O.Z. Whitehead playing a teen-ager all remind us that this is not a true story, but an elaborate artificiality.

The story itself is all about the taming of the West, made possible by the legendary action of Senator Ransom Stoddard. The only problem is that the legendary action in question never happened. He is known as the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he never killed the man. That is not to say that the point of the story is that the progress achieved was bad. This is not an anti-American film. It does present the viewer with the uncomfortable reality that even great cultures are often built on legends and things that never happened.

This is not the sort of story that exhorts one to action or to consider a change. It is a simple acknowledgement of an embarrassing truth. However, it can serve as a challenge to seek to achieve good through noble and honest means; even if the only benefit to doing so is the fact of one being able to live with oneself.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Missing Ingredients of Evangelism

Sometimes it feels like America’s “great” contribution to Christianity has been the merchandising of the Gospel. In generations past we seem to have taken the greatest story ever told and condensed it down to four basic bullet points that are easily remembered and shared. We have developed all sorts of opening questions that lead us into a well rehearsed presentation of our product. Christians the world over have been convinced that they are not good at being Christians because they are not natural salesman types.

The fact of the matter is, Jesus did not model this approach nor did He command that we go and notch our belts up with lots of “converts.” He modeled and left the instruction that we make disciples. This is a lifestyle of sharing the story and sharing life among people with whom we have established relationship. Simplifying this whole process into a five minute sales pitch has missed a whole lot of important aspects of discipleship, but there are two huge things that most “canned” approaches to witnessing miss:

The first missing aspect in most Gospel presentations is a Felt Need. Even back in the day when most of the target audience had a generally Judeo-Christian outlook, it was not enough to say that God loves you and has offered you a free gift. People need to recognize that they need salvation. They need to see themselves as having messed up, missed the mark and deserving of God’s judgment.

The second missing point is that the Gospel is Costly and not free. True, we do not (and cannot) pay the price for our salvation. God has paid it all, and the cost He paid was immeasurable. However, even while we cannot earn our salvation it is still a costly gift to receive. When we accept God’s gift of salvation it will forever change our lives. We are no longer in charge. We have given ourselves over to a master who demands that every aspect of our life come under His authority.

If you insist on presenting a “canned” presentation of the Gospel, be sure to include these points in your presentation.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Education for Death (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Propaganda has been discussed here (and here) before. Usually one assumes that propaganda is a lesser category of art, but that assumption is often wrong. When it is well done propaganda has to be crafted at a higher level of quality to best produce the desired effect. One does not want ones target audience distracted from the message by a poorly made effort.

“Education for Death” is a strange piece of propaganda. It is very well made. It carries a message that most people would not argue with even today” Nazis are evil, and the government that brought that evil into being used their power to shape a whole generation in their own image. However, the reason this short is not often seen these days is because it didn’t just attack an ideology; it belittled the German people.

It was hard (and still is for some) to distinguish between an evil ideology of the Twentieth Century and a whole nation of individuals with a unique cultural heritage. The same is true today. People have a hard time differentiating between the current evil ideology wreaking havoc and the culture and religion producing it. It is one thing to say that most Islamic extremists are Arabs or Muslim. It is quite a different (and erroneous) thing to say that all Arabs of Muslims are extremists.

Both examples (Nazis and Islamic Extremists) are good examples of the evil that people are capable of producing. This is an extreme end of the spectrum in which we all live. Most people do not go to that extreme, but everyone is influenced by the fallen culture of the world, by negative spiritual forces, and by our own selfish desires that cause us to do things that hurt others and displease God. People like to look to the extreme end of things and claim that not everyone is bad. We all sin, it is just a matter of degree, and in the grand scheme of things we have all fallen short of the standard expected.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams (1931)

At its best, The Place of the Lion is a story with striking imagery, inspiring ideas, and explorations of some hard to grasp aspects of faith. At its worst, it is a bit of a job to read.

The Place of the Lion was one of Williams’ early efforts at writing a novel, and it shows. It shows in the impression one gets that Williams was trying so hard to pour all of the ideas that inspired the story onto the page that he forgot to consider if he really had a complete story to tell. It shows in the way the text gets so bogged down in philosophy that the plot stalls out and eventually goes away. However, anyone who is familiar with Williams and enjoys his books is not there for the story primarily. It is the ideas that matter. Truthfully, he does a better job at melding compelling philosophy with magical storytelling elsewhere. This example would not be the place to start a relationship with Williams’ writing.

Basically, the plot of The Place of the Lion (such as it is) is similar to the 1960 film “The Village of the Damned.” A small British village is slowly isolated from the world, only in this case it is an invasion of Platonic archetypes that causes all the problems. Using this device, Williams explores the nature of reality, faith, and good versus evil. His speculations are not always satisfactory or even always engaged in with a clear goal in mind, but they are interesting to entertain. That being said, most readers today will be challenged to work through the thought process, and most Christians will find these experiments less relevant than in the other Williams novels so far reviewed here at NonModern.

Monday, March 7, 2011

We Need the "Before" of the "Before and After" (Ephesians 2:1-7)

It seems that we have slowly succeeded in distorting the Gospel message. It is not as though we set out to misinform people about the message God has entrusted us to share. Perhaps we have slowly begun to believe the half-truth of the lie we are sharing. In any case, we need to recover. Ephesians 1:1-7 is just one example of the missing aspect of the message of hope.

You see, we are really accomplished at selling the product we have developed. We have our prepared spiel. We train in the art of engaging people. We tell them all about the God of love. We emphasize the free gift that awaits people. What we do not do a terribly good job of is communicating the real cost, or the real need that people have for the message that we are offering.

Ephesians clarifies the second half of this missing information quite well. What is it that required God to send His Son to die for the world? Why should anyone care to hear this information? Because we are in very bad shape.

We are under the influence, not only of a very evil spiritual being, but of a system of culture across the world that drives us away from being the sort of people we were created to be. We are at the mercy of impulses that we cannot fight, even though we readily recognize that many of these impulses are harmful and destructive. In short, we have all actively earned the wrath of the Power that set up the universe and He is not just a God of love. He is a just and sovereign God who will not tolerate things the way they have become under our exercise of free will.

Thankfully, the message does include the fact that God is love. He has chosen, at great cost, to provide a way clear back into a relationship with Him so that His grace will be demonstrated in power in the days to come. However, the people who want to have that grace applied to them do need to understand that they desperately need it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

More Top Films: THE Karate Kid, (a review and two applications)

The original Karate Kid film from 1984 is a gem, not because of the fact that a put-down kid gains respect through a fight tournament, not because of the comeuppance that a bunch of bullies get, and not because it is an example of the best of the eighties. All of those would be fine for a good film. What makes Karate Kid great is the fact that it tells a universally understood story of a kid making the transition to adulthood; learning about things like respect, when to fight for what is right and more importantly, when no fight is needed.

The way that Daniel makes this transition so successfully is through the disciple/mentor relationship. In the beginning of the film, Daniel is faced with a new home, a new circle of friends and a new culture. He quickly gains something else that a lot of young people face in life: his own set of bullies. He needs help learning how to successfully coexist if he is going to survive. Help arrives in the form of a mentor, or teacher, named Mr. Miyagi. The relationship parameters are quickly established. “Teacher say, student do.” Daniel agrees, overjoyed with the help he being offered.

Things do not go exactly as he expected, however. Daniel begins to feel like he is merely being used as a slave. He thought he was going to gain some skills that would make him more popular and self-confident. Instead, he is just wearing himself out. When he voices his frustration with Mr. Miyagi, he gets no satisfaction. “I say, you do. No Questions.”

The fact is Daniel is learning discipline. He does not need to understand everything he is being taught. There are actually things that he will be incapable of understanding until he has learned them. He needs to work at doing, the comprehending will come later. He needs to become good at the basics, and then more will be possible to him. “First learn stand… then learn fly.”

In the end, Daniel is successful, but not because he has learned to better the bullies at their own game. He has earned their respect, but more importantly he has learned what respect and self confidence are really all about.

The Christian Application:

Since this film is all about discipleship, it is an informative movie for Christians. After all, discipleship is what Christianity is all about. We have forgotten that at times. Where Jesus commended His followers to make disciples, we have lately made it about creating converts. Instead of relational discipleship, we have made Christianity about mass marketing and self-help. Most Christians are more like the Daniel at the start of the film with his karate manual and silly exercises in his living room. Instead of mentoring and being discipled, we turn to books and videos telling us how to live the Christian life. This is not the way it was intended to be.

The Cross-Cultural, Missional Application:

This film is also helpful for people trying to make the transition into a new culture. Adaptation is hard work. They can try to understand everything they are asked to do: language learning, leaving our old way of life, cleaving to the new culture, forsaking family, phones and internet. In the end they don’t need to understand everything, they just need to be disciplined. The success or failure to live in another culture depends on how adapted one is to that culture. A poor adaptation results in ineffective communication, discomfort, and frustration. Not everyone is cut out for it, but the ones that are are not the smartest or most adventurous but the ones willing to do the work.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Missional Quiz

It goes without saying, but if the goal of missional Christianity is to engage the culture with the Truth of the Gospel, then those who desire to be missional have an obligation to engage the culture around them. In much the way “missionaries” living in another country must learn to live in and understand a culture that is not their own and be able to effectively communicate in that culture, Christians “at home” need to recognize that they too are surrounded by a different culture. All Christians need to live in and understand the culture around them and be able to effectively communicate in that culture.

To be effectively missional you do not need to read “how to” books. You need to read what the people around you are reading. You need to watch the TV shows they are watching and see the movies they are seeing. You need to engage the culture. An effective self-test can be made to see just how missional one is. The best comparison is found in the world of literature, because by and large Christian culture does not produce many movie or TV shows and vast portions of the sub-culture actually promote not watching any form of visual entertainment. Everyone reads.

First a clarification is in order. The goal of engaging in the culture is not to be influenced by it, or to learn how to think. That is something the Christian does reading the Bible. So, reading more “Christian” books than secular does not make one a more “spiritual” Christian. It just makes one a more “insular” Christian. (Insular being the opposite of missional.) So look at the two lists of major works of the past decade below. If you have read many titles on the first list, you are engaging in the culture the people around you are living in. If you have read most of the second but almost none of the first list then you are swimming firmly in the Christian sub-culture. You need to get out more!

List One:

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
By Michael Chabon

American Gods
By Neil Gaiman

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
By Stieg Larsson

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
By J.K. Rowling

The Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins

Life of Pi
By Yan Martel

The Lovely Bones
By Alice Sebold

Never Let Me Go
By Kazuo Ishiguro

No Country for Old Men
By Cormac McCarthy

By Stephenie Meyer

List Two:

The Purpose Driven Life
By Rick Warren

By David Platt

Operation World
By Patrick Johnstone

Desiring God
By John Piper

The Divine Conspiracy
By Dallas Willard

Any Left Behind Book
By Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity
by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons

The Cultural Savvy Christian
By Dick Staub

Vintage Church
By Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears

By John Eldredge

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

“Creature Comforts” (Ephesians 1:15-23)

Creature Comforts was the Academy Award winning animated short from 1989. It was an early effort from Aardman, the makers of the Wallace and Gromit films. It was a simple but great concept. They went out and interviewed some kids, some people in small apartments, and some residents of a retirement home. Then they animated the interviews as though they were conducted with zoo animals. The result is a pretty humorous but insightful view on the condition of these animals, taken from their environment and put on display.

Of course, the deeper level of enjoyment that this film evokes is the way it causes the viewer to think about their own life. How do we define contentment and fulfillment? Are the things that we pursue in our culture the things that really matter? How many people simply live from day to day with no real thought to why they do the things they do?

On a Christian level, this short is a good illustration of the deficiencies of many churches and Christians. They have been given access to all the spiritual blessings available to humanity. They have a relationship with the Maker of all things. They could fulfill the very purpose for which they have been created. Many appear to be completely aimless as they go through life appeasing desires and felt needs as if the secret to life were “be happy.”

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Biblical Authority and Missional Living

Something that needs to be clarified when one is promoting missional living is the nature of the Bible as it relates to other cultural communication. (This is especially important in preparation for a post coming later this week.) The Bible is in some ways a lot like any other cultural expression. Like other things that tell stories or communicate ideas—literature, history, film, art, stand-up comedy, etc—the Bible is a source of ideas. It can help us to form our way of thinking. Unlike other cultural expressions, for Christians, it is the sole source of authoritative thinking. Theoretically, it is the only place a Christian should turn to to influence the way we think.

Theoretically… because we are all influenced a great deal by our culture. Whether we like it or not, we absorb ideas and shape our opinions by the thoughts that we encounter every day. It is much like the concept in the film Inception, except that there they acted like it is something very difficult to do. It is not that hard. What can be said, however—at least about people who go through life thinking about things—is that we can be aware of the influences around us and guard ourselves against thoughts and ideas that are inconsistent with reality.

Missional people have a responsibility to continually shape their thinking and their worldview in light of the truth in Scripture. Our task is to speak into culture, not to be influenced by it. Sadly, most people in Christian culture do not know their Bibles well enough to influence the non-Christian culture around them. Not only that, but they are captive to a cultural influence that—for all of its “Christian” labels—is not very Biblical in its thinking. Most Christians turn to the latest best-selling “Christian” book to learn how to think instead of the Bible.

That will not get the job done.
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