Now having seen Unbroken for myself, I can see what the reviewer was talking about that I linked to in my previous piece from Christianity Today. The problem the author had comes from the tagline, “Survival. Resilience. Redemption.” The movie focuses 99% of its time on the first two, and some words on the screen at the end of the movie about the third. Certainly as Christians we would have made a different movie and given “Redemption” much more screen time, especially because it was the gospel preached by Billy Graham that changed Louis Zamperini’s life.
This as I say in my piece is why we need more directors and writers and producers who work in and are well respected in Hollywood and can get hired to do the work. But in another way, there has been some progress in the way Hollywood portrays religion, especially Christianity, because conservative Christians, be they protestants or Catholics, are a very large portion of the American population and thus bring a lot of spendable dollars to the table. When Christians are respected, they vote with those dollars, and when they are not they spend those dollars elsewhere.
John Nolte at Big Hollywood shows how this is playing out with two movies currently in theaters, Unbroken and Exodus. Through yesterday Unbroken has earned almost as much at the box office as Exodus although it’s only been in the theaters since Christmas and Exodus since December 12. The reason? Exodus, directed by atheist Ridley Scott completely distorted the Biblical message, as did the movie Noah earlier this year. Both movies earned a fraction of what was expected. With Unbroken, although not the movie I and many Christians would have made, religion was treated respectfully throughout. As the title of Nolte’s piece puts it, “If you respect the faithful, the faithful will come.” Angelina Jolie did, and they are coming.
Why is it that big budget movies based on Biblical stories are directed by atheists, like Noah and Exodus: God and Kings? Or movies with Christian themes targeting large audiences, like Unbroken, are directed by those who don’t embrace the Christian message? The answer goes back quite a ways, but the simple answer is that there are no Christian directors with the experience and credibility to get such jobs in Hollywood. No wonder Christians get frustrated by such portrayals of their faith.
Back in the early 20th Century when historic orthodox Christianity was on the defensive, conservative Christianity and its followers decided to withdraw from American culture. Some just decided to practice their faith in private while others decided to create a Christian counter culture which had no influence on the wider culture. For those of us who are passionate about Christian cultural engagement, it is easy to sit in judgment of believers in that time, but the situation is not so simple.
A large portion of the then dominate Church, as seen in what we call the mainline denominations, began to embrace the assumptions and conclusions of what is called higher criticism. For them the Bible was just another historical, man-made document, which meant that what we see as miraculous, like the virgin birth and the incarnation, or the resurrection, were no longer considered historically viable. Any miracles in the Bible were simply made up by either the deluded or the delusional.
It wasn’t until I read not too long ago a biography of J Gresham Machen that I realized how difficult a time that was for thinking orthodox Christians, which means Christians who care if their faith is demonstrably true. Simple answers like just believe, or believe because you were born into a Christian family are simply not good enough. Machen himself, the founder of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, which broke from Princeton Seminary over these issues, went through a significant crisis of faith. With the explosion of apologetic resources today, I’m confident Machen would never have gone through such a crisis today. Once he overcame that crisis, he felt he had no choice but to break from Princeton, which became part of a lager movement of orthodox Christians disengaging from the increasingly hostile American culture.
Fortunately in the middle of the 20th Century, some Christians began to realize that cultural engagement and bringing God’s truth to bear upon all of reality was not an option for the follower of Christ. Such thinkers as C.S Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Carl F. H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today, among others, began to break out of the Christian cultural ghetto. The Christian right that came alive in the late 1970s was another manifestation of this desire to make their cultural voice heard, even if it too often confused politics with genuine cultural engagement.
Today conservative Christians are as culturally engaged as at anytime in the last one hundred years, but the Church has a very long way to go. If we ever want to truly compete for the hearts and minds of the American people, a large portion of this battle must be done in the broader culture. Christians need to do better at telling stories and raising up story tellers who can compete at the highest level in Hollywood, which is every bit the mission field as that of far away continents or inner cities in America. Christian entertainment often comes off as cheesy or preachy, and that simply has to change. Competing in Hollywood based on excellence is where Christians need to be, so that sometime in the future, Christian directors and writers and producers can tell Biblical stories, faithfully.
My first Engage the Culture Christmas wish. I often think that even though Christianity is on the retreat in American culture, it is amazing that during this season the name of Christ is everywhere, whether he is believed to be Lord and Savior or not. The wish of many secularists to turn this into a holiday devoid of Christ is simply not possible. For those of us who believe, we can take comfort that Jesus will always be the reason for the season, and we can proclaim that Christ the Savior is born!
The demise of Christianity as a cultural force is overstated even if the Christian faith is no longer ascendant. A wonderful piece in First Things argues that that American people for the most part still get it:
A recent Pew study has found that instead of being at war with Christmas, Americans love it. Three-quarters of Americans believe that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary, and that angels appeared to shepherds to tell them that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem. Over 80 percent of Americans believe Luke’s account that Jesus was laid in a manger. The study found that about 65 percent believed in all the historical aspects of the Nativity—about the same percentage who will attend church this Christmas.
Of course, these statistics can be misleading. They don’t tell us whether people really believe in the Incarnation. They don’t tell whether all this Christmas cheer is manufactured by moral therapeutic deism, or simply the gods of commerce. But the statistics do tell us something. Namely that, when pressed, Americans don’t think that Christmas is about Santa, snowmen, talking reindeer, or even shopping. Americans aren’t terribly reflective about what they believe about Christmas, but they are certain that it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ to a virgin in Bethlehem roughly 2,014 years ago.
The angel of the Lord appeared to stunned Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, in a dream to tell us what this season is really all about:
“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Having grown up in the 60s and 70s I was very familiar with that era’s environmentalist hysterics. The hysteria at times seemed plausible because those decades were tumultuous in so many ways. One of the common themes of the environmentalists was overpopulation. We were bombarded with warnings that in just a few short years the world would be overrun with hordes of starving humans because there were just too damn many of them!
This all goes back to the influence of book written in 1798 by a British clergyman named Thomas Malthus. He argued that while population grows geometrically, food production only grows arithmetically, and thus more slowly. So eventually there will not be enough food to feed a growing population. Keep in mind that when Malthus wrote his book the world’s population was less than one billion, and in 1968 when Paul Ehrlich wrote a book called The Population Bomb, the world’s population was over 3.5 billion. Yet somehow to that point food production was able to feed them all. Which told Ehrlich exactly nothing. According to this Wikipedia entry, the early additions of the book began with this statement:
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.
I wonder why they took this out of later editions? In fact, every prediction of environmentalists of that time proved wildly false. In fact, in the 21st Century far from overpopulation being a problem, it is now the lack of a growing population that has demographers worried.
Which brings me to a sad piece I came across about what a terrible problem this is for Japan, which has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. Far from being a drag on resources that environmentalists assert, human beings are in fact the world’s most important resource. This is almost too obvious to mention, but the dominant secular mindset of the Western world is sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly antinatalist; children are not an unqualified blessing, but a qualified burden. Economically in the modern world children certainly cost more than they contribute, which wasn’t the case in agrarian economies of the past. Once the sexual revolution hit and abortion became a constitutional “right,” the jig was up. Children became just another lifestyle choice. I’m afraid way too many Christians have become culturally captive to this mindset.
I used to be pretty much a typical modern Protestant in these regards, but I’ve become downright Catholic now and fully buy into Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, written in the same year The Population Bomb was published, 1968. The encyclical argues against all forms of artificial contraception, which means deciding not to possibly conceive should only be done naturally. But children are to be welcomed as the supreme gift of marriage, and thus gifts should not be lightly turned away, especially when God is the giver. Simply put, Christians should have lots of children, at the very least more than the typical two American families have. And having more children is a profoundly counter cultural statement, one that says God is the author of life, and that life is good, and that our children and families are more important than our own self-centered desires.
Christians having more children than their secular neighbors has the added benefit that in decades to come the Church will grow and believes will occupy more of the positions in the culture that determine the health and vitality of our society. That is, if we can convince the Church at large that engaging the culture is the norm for the faithful follower of Jesus.
Ridley Scott’s recently released film, Exodus: God and Kings, has elicited an enormous amount of ink, metaphorically speaking nowadays, getting mixed reviews at best, and scathing reviews from many, especially Christians and Jews. Given it was directed by an avowed atheist, Bible believing Christians and Jews had to know it was going to be a mixed bag. One fascinating review comes from the assistant managing editor of the The Atlantic magazine’s website, Emma Green. She says she is Jewish, although where on the scale of modern Judaism she falls we have no idea, but as a Jew she has some skin in the game. The story of Moses and the Exodus is after all foundational to Jewish identity and religion.
Green sees in Scott’s movie a reframing of the Biblical narrative because obviously letting the Bible speak for itself can be troubling to the 21st Century secularist. She phrases it as the “morally troubling quality of any people being a ‘chosen people.'” The idea of a sovereign God choosing certain people and exclusively offering them salvation has always been problematic. But if you read the early books of the Bible, it wasn’t because the Hebrews were special that he chose them, but simply because he wanted to.
God to Green, and certainly to Ridley Scott, seems cruel and capricious. How could this God in his choosing let ostensibly innocent people die? Especially children. As she says:
This sets up a difficult moral question: Is the freedom of the Hebrews worth more than the lives of Egyptians? God, after all, did not merely liberate the Jews in the spirit of freeing the oppressed; he wiped out Egyptians, per the Bible and per Exodus, because the nation they’d enslaved happened to be his anointed one. Is one people, even the people God has chosen, worth more than another?
This is an impossible question to answer. It depends upon a theory of justice that assigns blame for the system to the individuals that inhabit it. It depends upon the idea that, by designation of God, certain humans can be more holy, or historically worthy, than others; that the accident of birth is enough to determine which side of God’s wrath you deserve to be on.
As a Christian there are still many difficult questions that need to be addressed, or unanswered questions accepted, but having a grasp of the scope of redemptive history, from Genesis to Revelation, makes the answering much easier. Throughout her piece, Green assumes that God can be judged by 21st Century notions of right and wrong, of what is just and what is not. She fails the notice that many of these notions have come from the influence of the Jewish and Christian religion.
If she read her Bible more carefully she would find that God’s theory of justice is that the soul that sins, it shall die (Ezekiel 18:20). In Genesis 3 we see the origin of all the suffering in the world; we call it the fall. In Genesis 2 we read:
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
In the following chapter we see Satan in the form of a serpent tempt the woman, Eve, to do exactly what God expressly has forbidden. First he questions if God really even made that command, and Eve reiterates that indeed he did, and that if they do they will die. And then Satan does what he does best, lies:
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Here you have it, the best explanation that exists for the misery of mankind. Death cries out for an explanation, and nobody has offered one any better. In this one act, the entire human race became complicit in an act of rebellion against its creator. At the heart of every human is a usurper, one who wants to be God, to determine for him or herself what is right and wrong. I know it’s terribly unpopular and politically incorrect to say such things today, but a holy God must judge sin. God’s wrath and judgment against sin is perfectly just because he is God and we are not; justice is his nature. Any judgment God makes clash royale free gems is by definition just! For us to say otherwise is hubris; it buys into the temptation that we know better than our creator.
Green assumes that those God had killed were not guilty, that they did not deserve to die. From a human perspective, from a Ridley Scott perspective, that of course makes sense, but God’s revelation tells us otherwise. That anyone is allowed to live is because of God’s mercy and grace. God’s actions may seem harsh to us today, but that ignores the ancient near eastern context in which actually the Hebrew’s God comes off looking pretty good. For anyone wanting a non-Ridley Scott perspective, two books I recently read are worth the time. One is Paul Copan’s, “Is God a Moral Monster,” and the other is, “The Gift of the Jews” by Thomas Cahill.