Tuesday, March 25, 2014

When Christians Support Porn

Today, a slickly-produced pornographic DVD will be released in stores all across America—and many Christians will shamelessly purchase a copy. Yes, I’m talking about The Wolf of Wall Street (WoWS). Christian movie critics have praised and defended the film for its so-called strong moral themes. It would seem, according to some, that the inundation of sexual imagery provides a strong enough platform on which to present a worthy cautionary tale.

For many reasons (some of which I have already stated), I have a huge problem with that idea. To quote movie critic Megan Basham,

… there’s something decidedly disingenuous about those responsible for hard-R films like Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street claiming that prolonged, detailed scenes of immorality are actually meant to express disapproval of immorality. Even many in the typically slavish entertainment media chuckled when best actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio (he of the notorious club-hopping, serial super-model dating lifestyle) said of his role in the movie breaking records for its use of profanity, graphic sex, and drug use, “I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behavior, we’re indicting it.”

If members of Hollywood’s own elite chuckle at DiCaprio’s faulty logic (literally or figuratively), why are so many Christians being duped by it? Is a barrage of visual depravity really necessary for us to get the message that depravity is harmful?

On the contrary. To quote columnist Janie B. Cheaney,

The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t shock God. He’s seen it all, in real life. But we are but flesh and our sensibilities are not made of indestructible titanium. They wear thin, and after too many shocks we become unshockable. Maybe even jaded. And jadedness, I hardly need to add, is no fruit of the Spirit.

In the near future, I’ be spending more time here at Happier Far on how Christians should respond to sex in the movies. Until then, I’d like to “honor” the WoWS DVD release by pointing you to my earlier post about the subject: Start Supporting Pornography or Stop Supporting “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

photo credit: cgalvin233 Colleen via photopin cc

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Legalism, Sexual Sin, and My Experience with Bill Gothard

When Bill Gothard and I posed in front of the camera, I had no idea that I was standing next to a sexual predator. I had just finished two years as a part-time student in Telos Institute International (founded by Gothard), and it was a time of celebration. Fast forward to today, where it has become public knowledge that Gothard has been accused dozens of times over of sexual and emotional harassment. If these accusations are true, which appears likely, it is a tragic series of events. The amount of pain caused by this one man’s abuse of power is absolutely staggering.

Even before now, plenty of people have accused members of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (also founded by Gothard) of legalism and cultish behavior. I’ve even seen many people link Gothard’s sexual sin with the doctrines he espouses. I may not be steeped in IBLP culture, but I am familiar enough with it to ask myself this question: does this devastating news about Bill Gothard nullify my own experience with his teaching?

You see, I benefitted greatly from IBLP. For the two years I was enrolled in the Telos Institute, I spent hours each day saturating my mind with Scripture. I learned helpful principles related to money management, marriage, and child training. I learned how to grow in transparency with others and submit to biblical accountability. I learned beneficial study habits and word study techniques that have helped me in my perusal of Scripture to this day. Considering the place I was in my spiritual journey, Telos was just what I needed.

What about the accusations of legalism? Well, many of them are indeed true. If you’re familiar with IBLP at all, you know a lot of the teaching material includes detailed lists about what to do in various circumstances. One such example involves the six basic steps to conquer impurity. Obviously, those steps didn’t insulate Bill Gothard from the evil in his own heart.

Now, practically all of the listed steps to fight impurity are based on biblical wisdom. (You can do much worse than memorize Romans 6, after all.) But are all these steps—and the order in which they are arranged—absolutely necessary for fighting lust? No. That goes well beyond what the Bible teaches.

So yeah, I entered Telos with my eyes wide open. I knew some of Bill Gothard’s teachings were legalistic. Some could even be interpreted as humanistic.

What I experienced while enrolled at Telos, though, was grace upon grace. I may not have agreed with everything I was taught. Nevertheless, every time I interacted with my professors, whether in email or in person, I found nothing but gospel-saturated warmth and kindness.

To be clear, I’m not saying any of this to excuse or condone Bill Gothard’s actions. My desire is that he faces serious consequences for his crimes. I hope this not only for his many victims but for his own good as well. It will not do Gothard any good to escape temporal consequences and be ill prepared for eternal consequences.

It’s almost disheartening, really, to think that I have practically never been involved with a church or ministry that hasn’t been rocked by scandal or schism. This isn’t the first time I have seen the corruption of power and the deceitfulness of sin. And yet, amidst this fallen world’s countless tragedies, nothing has crippled God in His care for my soul.

So as I mourn over the revelation of Bill Gothard’s once-secret sins, I can also remain thankful for how God used his teaching to bless my own life. I needn’t choose between sadness and gratefulness. These two responses may not be the best bedfellows, but they aren’t mutually exclusive either.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Is the Bible’s Use of Sexuality R-rated?

A couple weeks ago, I took the unfashionable position of calling The Wolf of Wall Street an “immorality play.” I argued that a film with such blatantly pornographic elements should be called for what it is: porn. A Hollywood platform and an adult video store are no different if the stories they are selling use the same methods. A storyteller’s methods are, after all, a part of his message—whether he acknowledges it or not.

In the article, I dealt with the excuse that the Bible itself is R-rated. Due to some constructive criticism, I realized my line of reasoning was both incomplete and possibly misleading. I want to be clear and accurate, so let’s revisit the issue.

I didn’t mean to imply that all films with R ratings are inherently evil. I most certainly don’t believe that. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system is so flawed as to be practically meaningless. Some R rated films are cleaner than some PG rated films. Scripture itself—not the opinions of others—is the best lens through which to view our entertainment choices.

Also, in saying the Bible isn’t rated R, I was thinking of the area of sexuality in particular. If you consider some of the violent images in Biblical narratives, you might rightly say those passages are “R rated.” I should have been clearer on that point.

For the record, the rest of this post will focus solely on the Bible’s handling of sexual themes. We’ll leave violence alone for now. It is, after all, quite a different animal. (Wayne A. Wilson brilliantly explains the difference between public sex and public violence in chapter eight of his book Worldly Amusements.)

If we really want to use the Bible as our standard—which is a good thing—then we need to look at more than just what it will allow us to get away with. Using Scripture simply as an excuse to do something questionable isn’t the best hermeneutic.

Does the Bible revel in explicit sexual imagery? The short answer is no. Sexual themes abound in Scripture, but the acts themselves are constantly explained discreetly and succinctly. Whether it’s lawful sexual intercourse (Gen. 4:25; 29:23), incest (Gen. 19:30-38), adultery (2 Sam. 11:4), or rape (2 Sam. 13:14; Jud. 19:25), the descriptions are miniscule, just shy of nonexistent.

Of course, there is one book of the Bible that is more descriptive in sexual imagery: the Song of Solomon. We also could possibly add Proverbs 5, which encourages married men to be satisfied with their wife’s breasts and to be enraptured with her love. What is it about these passages that allow for greater leeway in their content? There are at least three answers.

First, the sexual acts and desires described in Song of Solomon take place well within the confines of married relationships. This is where immodesty, nudity, and sexual intimacy are to be enjoyed. Sex as God created it is far from dirty and shameful. No siree, it is pure and pleasurable. Solomon’s Song (and Proverbs 5) is an unashamed celebration of the goodness and rightness of sex.

The second reason Song of Solomon and Proverbs 5 are legitimately more detailed is that they direct the reader toward his own wife—not specifically anyone else. Yes, Solomon’s “Shulamite” is a real person, but her identity is shrouded in mystery. Commentators disagree on who this she is. For the reader, the functional focus point of these passages is not voyeuristic—it is one’s own beloved.

The third reason these passages are legitimately more detailed is that they still aren’t incredibly graphic. Most of Song of Solomon relies on symbolism, not explicitness. Sure, this book may cause some readers to blush, but that’s due to a wrong view of sex more than anything else. Besides, compare the Song of Solomon in its entirety to one sex scene in the latest bestselling novel and you will quickly notice a stark difference. Scripture still uses a large amount of tasteful restraint.

How do movies fare in these same three areas? First, a typical love scene (so called) involves people who are unmarried. Generally speaking, conjugal love is not celebrated in Tinseltown. In portraying the sex act, Hollywood favors fornication, adultery, and the like. Even if it could be proven that a sex act between married couples was legitimate fodder for the eyes, such an allowance would still eliminate 99% of what Hollywood has to offer.

Second, Hollywood sex scenes draw audiences’ attention to specific people—i.e., people other than one’s spouse. It’s one thing to read about how you can—and should—enjoy your wife’s body; it’s quite another to watch an actor simulate copulation with what Proverbs calls a “strange woman” (KJV). The result is not the glorification of pure and holy sex, but the objectification of women (and increasingly men), and the glorification of restraint-free sexuality.

Third, a Hollywood sex scene is tantalizing at best and overtly explicit at worst. Restraint isn’t something the film industry is known for. As The Wolf of Wall Street testifies, practically nothing is off-limits—except perhaps showing actual penetration. (Yes, filmmakers “piously” leave such base and unrefined displays of sexuality to the porn industry.)

As we come to the end of this blog post, I know I haven’t thoroughly and decisively debunked the “Scripture is R-rated” argument. You may believe there are still gaping holes in my logic and/or Biblical interpretation. In fact, if that is the case, please share your thoughts with me.

Nevertheless, I think there is enough Biblical evidence to at least question our Christian subculture’s drop-of-a-hat willingness to watch and financially support professionally produced sex acts. If this really is a huge blind spot for the modern church, it would behoove us to cry out to for eyes to see. After all, if we’re willing to look at naked bodies for entertainment, we should be just as willing to inspect the naked truth of Scripture to ensure that we are honoring our Lord. Let our prayer be the same as that of the Psalmist: “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, and revive me in Your way” (Ps. 119:37).

NOTE: This article’s original title was Is the Bible R-rated? I have since changed it for the sake of clarity and specificity.

photo credit: Sarah_Ackerman via photopin cc

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Don’t Be Color Blind: An Interview with Trillia Newbell

My friend Trillia Newbell knows the term “color blind” is well intentioned, but it might cause us to miss out on the beauty of our differences. She’s written about that beauty in her newly released book, United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity. Shannon and I are looking forward to getting our own copy.

If you care about diversity in the church—or especially if you don't—you could benefit from reading this book. To help motivate you toward that end, I asked Trillia to talk with me about the book and how she hopes it will serve the body of Christ.

Q: There are many in our Western culture who would say, “I’m not prejudiced. Our church may be predominantly one race, but we love everyone. I don’t see a need for reading something like this.” What would you say to encourage someone like that to read your book?

A: A lot of people are thinking we’re post racial, but until Jesus comes back we’re going to struggle with racism. Until then, you should want to know about your brothers and sisters in Christ. There’s a way to learn about others’ perspectives. Now, I’m speaking from my own perspective and not from every African American’s perspective in the church. But I think it would be good to open a book by someone who’s different from you because, really, it’s about loving people. What you want to know is, “How can I serve and love people and learn about different experiences?” We’re brothers and sisters in Christ, and if something’s important to one person, it’s important to all of us.

Q: What are some ways we in the church display or harbor prejudice—or just apathy toward diversity—that we might not be aware of?

A: I think one area it’s easy to slip in but hard to see is the sin of partiality. James talks about it—where the Christians were preferring the rich—and I think that’s a temptation. We can prefer those who either can give us something or who are more like us. How that looks in the church is either you’re giving select people certain privileges, or every time you get together for lunch it’s with the same group.

We can isolate ourselves from people. Being partial to what you think is your “own time” can be divisive and can be a form of…not necessarily racism, but maybe a slight form of discrimination. You may not hate that person, but you’re separating yourself from them. It takes effort. It takes a lot of effort to step out of your comfort zone and invite someone who is not like you to lunch.

We can think that we’re innocent in this area, but this can be a huge blind spot. We just think, “I don’t hate anyone. I’m not going to invite anyone to my house who’s different, but I don’t hate them.” I think the sin of partiality is probably where discrimination in the church shows up often.
                                                
Q: What beauties and truths and joys are we missing out on by not being more diverse in our churches?

A: At the end of the day, in Revelation, God talks about us all worshiping together—every tongue, tribe, and nation. I think a benefit is that we experience a taste of it now—a taste of heaven, a taste of that last day. We’re going to be rejoicing together anyway, so let’s do it now.

Also, God has made us all in His image. We’re all made equally. But He’s made us unique, right? We’re different. We’re the same in terms of creation. He’s created us all: man and woman in His own image. But we’re different. And we can really learn from each other. It’s like Paul in Corinthians talking about how we don’t want a bunch of hands in the body of Christ, we want hands and feet and eyes and noses.

We have different experiences also. My history and my perspective will be different from my sister who is from Georgia and lives in a rural area, or my brother from New York who’s adopted. By getting to know different people of different backgrounds, you’re going to be encouraged and built up.

Another benefit is that diversity—racial reconciliation—reflects the gospel to a dying world. Have you seen all the news stories about the “stand your ground” laws? There’s just one story after another and people are getting fired up about this. There’s a lot of fear. Church members that are linking arms with one another can really display the love of Christ, which can overcome this division and this fear. A church that reflects this diversity really tells the world, “Oh wait. Jesus is enough. Christ’s blood is enough for this. We can overcome this because of Jesus. We love each other!”

Q: There’s so much talk about “equality” that we may be trying to paint everyone with the same broad brush. There’s room for discussing equality, but we might be losing some of the beautiful nuances of people being different. Does your book speak to that?

A: The book is about celebrating diversity. If you’re going to celebrate diversity, you’re going to celebrate differences. We were made men and women. He has made us these colors and put us in these cultures and given us our history. I mean, I didn’t ask God, “Hey God, when I am born, can I be brown?” No, He created me. He knit me in my mother’s womb.

So for the equality, what I focus on is that we are equal in creation, we are equal in our fall, and we are equal in redemption. But that doesn’t mean distinctions don’t go away. We are still men and women. I’m still black. We’re still different. There should be a celebration of differences. I don’t want to be thought of as a white woman, you know? I don’t want to be thought of as a man.

Q:  On the tail end of your experience with publishing this book, what advice would you give to other writers who desire to share the truths they've learned with the world around them?

A: I would encourage them to just write and be faithful. Just be faithful to write when they can. God gives grace for today, so we don’t want to worry about the future that we don’t even know.

I hate the term, “God will take care of the rest,” but He really will, because He’s faithful. He’s going to put you in the place where He believes you should be. He will shut it down if He thinks it’s not the best. And so there’s a comfort in that. It’s freeing to realize that and not just feel like you have to know every step of the way.

Just start somewhere. It’s probably going to be small, like a blog, and don’t despise the days of small beginnings. And just write. Let the Lord do His work, and for the longest time you might simply be writing for your family, and that’s okay.

Q: Any final thoughts?

When we think of diversity, we think of politics and affirmative action. But the diversity I’m thinking of is really what God has envisioned—it’s His heart for all people worshipping together. We are reconciled to God first. This book isn’t about how we have so far to go. No, let’s celebrate what the Lord has done and can do. It’s a very optimistic book.

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Trillia, thank you so much for making room in your hectic schedule to grant me an interview! I’m excited to read the book—and review it here at Happier Far. In the meantime, to all my readers: I recommend picking up a copy of United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity.