Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Everything You Love About Jesus is Actually from the Old Testament

Those who compare the New and Old Testaments can walk away scratching their heads, wondering if the two are equally valid products of the same God. The words and actions of Jesus seem infused with love and forgiveness, whereas the words and actions of God in the Old Testament can seem more focused on wrath and judgment. How do we reconcile the two? Should we reconcile the two?

Yes, I believe they can be reconciled—but not by ignoring or dismissing their differences. The truth is, there are plenty of apparent contradictions in Scripture. To ignore them or pretend they don’t exist would be intellectually dishonest.

However, as I explained last week, one thing we shouldn’t do is use the words of Christ to somehow disprove all the potentially controversial words of God in the Old Testament. Such an act might possibly be based on good motives, but it is nonetheless misguided. In order to deal with the narrative and theological tensions that do exist, it does us no good to create tensions that don’t exist.

Yes, it is safer, easier, and more culturally acceptable to claim allegiance to Jesus while disavowing much of the Old Testament. But it is also counterproductive.

If you look closer, you find that what we value about Jesus originated in the Old Testament itself. And if it weren’t for the Old Testament, what we appreciate and admire about Jesus wouldn’t exist. Heck, Jesus Himself wouldn’t exist.

Think about it this way. What do you love most about Jesus? Is it His emphasis on neighborly goodwill (even for those who are different from us), evidenced in such parables as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)? If so, are you aware that the parable was used as an application of an OT law? “[Y]ou shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

Do you love Jesus for graciously treating those who doubted, like Thomas (Jn. 20:24-29)? In the Old Testament, God also demonstrated patience to those who doubted His ways, including Gideon (Jud. 6:36-40) and Elisha’s servant (2 Kings 6:15-17).

Do you love Jesus for His treatment of the poor and needy? The Old Testament God always expressed His affection for the poor and needy (Ps. 10:14, 68:5, 146:9). He commanded the Israelites to make provision for the poor and the stranger (Lev. 23:22; Deut. 10:18-19, 24:17-22, 26:12-13; Psa. 82:3; Isa. 1:17) and not to abuse them (Ex. 22:22; Pr. 23:10-11; Zec. 7:10). He spoke blessings on those who considered the poor (Psa. 41:1; Isa. 58:6-10) and pronounced cursing and woe on those who did not (Deut. 27:18-19; Isa. 10:1-2).

Do you love Jesus because of His tender mercy to those weighed down by sin and shame, like the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8:3-11)? In the Old Testament, God is repeatedly shown to be a God of mercy. David’s case is an excellent example. For one who committed adultery and murder, both of which were worthy of stoning, David received this gracious word: “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Sam. 12:13). This sturdy promise of forgiveness later led David to claim confidence in the Lord’s protection and provision, even while faced with the dire consequences of his sin (see Psalm 3, as well as 32:1-2).

Time and space won’t allow us to investigate the further mercies of God in the Old Testament, in which He consistently brought warning through prophets, often giving people insanely long periods of time to repent. He showed such longsuffering toward persistent sins like polygamy, slavery, and divorce that many people have interpreted Him to endorse those practices (which is what typically happens when God shows prolonged mercy toward the sins of peoples and nations). God has consistently demonstrated mercy to the undeserving—in both the Old and New Testaments.

In my last blog post, I mentioned how Jesus confronted the Jewish leaders in John 5. They looked at the God of the Old Testament, put Him side by side with Jesus, and saw apparent discrepancies. In fact, they viewed the work and words of Jesus as openly contradictory to the work and words of the God of the Old Testament.

Jesus rebuked them for this mindset, saying that the Old Testament wasn’t in contradiction to Him because it was about Him. The contradiction in their mind was an illusion. If the Jewish leaders had been reading their Bibles right, they would have seen no disparity between the God of the patriarchs and the God whose sandaled feet walked into their synagogues.

From the comfort of our post-resurrection perspective, we love pointing out how idiotic and hypocritical the Pharisees were. But if we insist on rejecting portions of the Old Testament because we don’t think they jive with the person and work of Christ, we’re suffering from a malady similar to that of the Pharisees. Our problem might even be worse, what with our access to the completed NT Scriptures.

We may be genuinely converted, and we may love Jesus to the degree that we understand Him. But we’re doing our Lord a great disservice to label the Old Testament—the very legs on which Jesus Himself stood—as lame and gimpy. Brothers and sisters, Jesus doesn’t like it when you talk about His legs like that.

photo credit: RichardBH via photopin cc

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

3 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Pit Jesus Against the Old Testament

Before I (possibly) step on your toes, let me help you put on a pair of shoes. That is, let’s establish some common ground first. In order for us to know and understand Him, God revealed His true nature and character most clearly in human form—that is, in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Thus, the best way to interpret the Bible is by reading it through what some have called the “Jesus lens.”

Are we agreed so far? Good. Now, here’s where it can get tricky. (And I’m sorry about your toes in advance.) Author Andrew Wilson explains that, for some people, reading through the Jesus lens means approaching hard-to-swallow Old Testament passages like this:

[F]iguring that Jesus could never have condoned [them], and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements. . .

Trading in the Jesus lens for a Jesus tea strainer is inherently dangerous. Among other things, it encourages us to turn Jesus against the Old Testament—something He never did Himself. Here are a few reasons why we shouldn’t try to create a false dichotomy between our Savior and the Bible He read.

Jesus participated in the Old Testament

Did you know that the stable in Bethlehem was not the first time God came to earth in the flesh? A pre-incarnate Christ made several appearances in the Old Testament—occurrences theologians refer to as theophanies. For example, we see God the Son meeting and talking with Hagar in the wilderness in Genesis 16, wrestling with Jacob in Genesis 32, and conversing with Samson’s parents in Judges 13.

Another example is found in Genesis 18. God the Son appears to Abraham in the flesh, accompanied by two angels (vv. 1-2). After a while, Jesus says it is time to visit Sodom and Gomorrah to determine if its wickedness is deserving of judgment. At that point, the two angels head toward the city, while Jesus remains with Abraham (v. 22). (We see the two angels enter the city, minus Jesus, in Genesis 19:1). At Abraham’s request, Jesus agrees to show mercy to the city if ten righteous people are left in it. (Tragically, not even ten can be found.)

Now, I suppose it could be argued that these theophanies are not really Christ, but rather a different physical appearance. (God should be able to take on any form He wants, right?) But how does that accord with the doctrine of the Trinity? Christianity teaches that there is only one God, and that God has chosen to reveal Himself to us in three distinct personalities: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We’re playing loosely with this core belief if we say that God has revealed Himself to humankind using four (or more) personalities.

It is angels who can take on numerous forms, including the forms of regular human beings (Heb. 13:2). God, however, has revealed Himself to us in the form of only one human being: Jesus Christ. While there may be disagreements about how many appearances of God the Son there are in the OT, it is dangerous conjecture to say He never appeared at all. And that being the case, it’s not so easy to discount some of the difficult OT passages as outdated versions of God’s methodologies when Christ Himself was involved in them.

Jesus is the fulfillment—not the antithesis—of OT Scripture

Christ once condemned the Jewish leaders of His day, not because they were too set on the Old Testament, but because they weren’t set on it enough. They prided themselves on being intimately familiar with the OT teachings of Moses. However, Jesus said they weren’t familiar enough with Moses in order to recognize who He was: “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me” (Jn. 5:46). Not knowing the Old Testament was equal to not knowing Jesus.

Furthermore, Christ pointed out in a parable that hearing Moses and the prophets was essential for understanding salvation (Luke 16:31). And after gently rebuking Cleopas and his friend for their ignorance regarding His true mission on earth, Jesus “[began with] Moses and all the Prophets, [and] expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). A few verses later, He reiterated the importance of the law, the prophets, and the Psalms in having a proper understanding of Christ (v. 44).

Attempting to nullify large chunks of the Old Testament in an effort to have a Christ-centered hermeneutic is the equivalent of working to destroy the very thing Christ came to fulfill (Matt. 5:17). Knowingly or unknowingly, those who discard the OT as an outdated expression of God put themselves in the same camp with the ignorant Jews whom Christ rebuked. It’s not a good place to set up your tent.

Jesus cannot be contrasted with Himself

Speaking of the Trinity, it’s problematic to contrast the mercy and grace of God the Son with the supposed harsh tyranny of God the Father since they are, in a very real sense, the same God. This God doesn’t change with time (Ma. 3:6; Jas. 1: 17); in fact, He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). The God we see during the conquests of Canaan is the same God we see in the gospels.

It’s true that redemptive history has evolved (so to speak), but this evolution doesn’t reflect a changing God so much as a change in His dealings with humankind. Just think about how a wise father treats his growing daughter: the restrictions and freedoms evolve as she changes from a toddler to a teenager. The changes are real, and they are quite pronounced, but they are based on the development of the child, not the changing character of the parent. Likewise, redemptive history has moved from a “theocratic national kingdom to a spiritual kingdom.”

Granted, there are a plethora of difficulties and paradoxes related to this topic that we haven’t even touched on. In the future, I will attempt to deal with more of them. In the meantime, may God give us the grace to use Jesus properly—as a lens and not as a tea strainer.

photo credit: Waiting For The Word via photopin cc

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In Defense of (Some) Sex in Movies

Hollywood needs to deal with sexual themes in its movies. Not all of them, of course, but some of them at least.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might find that statement—and this article’s title—surprising. After all, I’ve been campaigning against both the use of porn in mainstream entertainment and the abuse of actors that said porn often necessitates. Actors are people too, and their emotional and spiritual well-being should be the concern of every Christian moviegoer.

That being said, it’s possible to take any argument too far. Some readers might interpret me to be saying what I am not saying at all—that any and all references to sex or sexuality should be eliminated from public storytelling. Yes, some prudes are Christians, but not all Christians are prudes. As a Christian movie patron, I hope to act with prudence, not prudishness.

Why support the prudent portrayals of sexuality in films? Because both the uses and abuses of sex are a part of life. To ignore sex and sexuality altogether would be a disservice to human experience.

All over the world, people fall in love and get married. All over the world, people have children, sometimes in and sometimes out of wedlock. All over the world, people fall into various forms of sexual temptation. Virtually everyone reading these words can be found in at least one of these “all people” categories. To completely ignore sexuality in our films would be to ignore a very real part of the human condition—a condition created by God Himself.

Furthermore, because sex is God ordained, we need to take it seriously. It isn’t a random or trivial aspect of the created order. Sex was designed as a powerful tool to glorify God, serve one’s spouse, and receive pleasure to boot. One of my problems with much of modern film fare isn’t that it deals with sexuality, per se, but that it does so with little to no seriousness. Especially in the comedy genre, sex is treated as not much more than a joke or a gimmick. Something with such dignity and gravitas shouldn’t be treated so casually.

When it comes to sex, we need more films to deal with the beauty of its right uses and the horror of its misuses. Even Scripture, which is far from a seedy tabloid publication, does not shy away from dealing with sex in all its forms. It even includes a love poem that celebrates the beautiful intimacy of conjugal relations. If the Bible itself deals with the human condition in all its forms, shouldn’t at least some of our stories do the same?

I’m aware that Hollywood as an industry isn’t founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs. I don’t expect every movie to conform to a Biblical standard. What I do expect, and hope and pray for, is that Hollywood treats the power of storytelling with greater responsibility.

It has done so in the past. That is, it has shown an ability to deal with sexual themes—even dark ones—with respect for both actors and audiences. This includes movies that have had a deep impact on me: Casablanca (adultery and sexual manipulation), Cape Fear (the original!) (sexual predation), and Unbreakable (adultery and rape), to name a few.

When I blog about Hollywood’s abuse of sex, it’s not because I have a vendetta against the film industry. On the contrary! Much of my scholastic and recreational endeavors have had to do with video and film production. I love movies. I will continue to be a (cautious) patron of Hollywood. In the future, as I continue to take filmmakers to task for their irresponsible treatment of sexual themes, please know that it’s not because I hate films or God’s gift of sex. In fact, it’s because I love and respect them so much that I want to critique the ways in which they are abused.

So yeah, sex in movies is fine. At times, it may even be necessary. But the abuse of sex never is—not in real life, and not in our entertainment.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

“Sex Scenes in Movies Don’t Bother Me”

One night, you go to see a movie with a group of friends. In the middle of the movie, the two main characters take their clothes off and have sex. You console yourself with the knowledge that this isn’t why you came to see the movie in the first place.

Truth be told, your heart enjoyed soaking up the sights and sounds of that scene, but you know that’s not something you’re supposed to admit in a group setting—especially since some of your fellow moviegoers also go to your church. To cover up your apparent weakness (no one else seemed to be negatively affected), you talk about how tragic it was for the filmmakers to stain an otherwise good movie with that one scene. Everyone agrees, and no one is the wiser about the struggle in your heart.

Maybe you can identify with the above scenario. Then again, maybe you can’t. Based solely on discussions I’ve had with other believers, it would appear that most people can’t identify with the scenario. Probably the most often expressed explanation I’ve heard is this: “Sex scenes don’t bother me.”

When I hear that statement, my initial urge is to say, “They don’t bother me either. Quite the opposite, actually. That’s the problem.” But when people use the word “bother,” I think they mean “affect”—as in, “Sex scenes in movies don’t have a negative effect on me.”

That statement may be true for some people. I think I can safely say, however, that it isn’t true for others. My guess is that it is more often not true—despite the disproportionate claims I’ve heard to the contrary. Why have I come to this conclusion? Let me list a few reasons.

First, we all instinctively know how stories affect us. Narratives have a capacity to win our hearts and minds unlike the mere explanation of “straight facts and data.” Indeed, stories activate our brains in ways nothing else can. This has always been true of written and spoken stories, but it’s equally—if not more—true about movies as well. Some even argue that movies can, to a surprisingly large degree, actually control your brain.

Paul J. Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, says this:

Once a story has sustained our attention long enough, we may begin to emotionally resonate with [the] story’s characters. Narratologists call this “transportation,” and you experience this when your palms sweat as James Bond trades blows with a villain on top of a speeding train.

Even with the knowledge that we’re watching actors perform on a set in front of a camera, we often actually feel what the characters are feeling. When a character tells a joke, we laugh. When a character experiences loss and grief, we feel their pain, sometimes by shedding our own tears. When a character is in danger, we feel tense—even to the point of gripping our armrests. When a character is surprised by a sudden noise or appearance, we may even jump and scream ourselves.

And then, inexplicably, we say audiences aren’t affected when a sex scene comes on. One of the most powerful and sensory-intensive experiences known to man is displayed on screen and suddenly we’re detached, unaffected observers? Such a statement seems rooted more in fantasy than reality.

Another consideration is that it’s hard to discern what’s going on in any particular culture—and in our own hearts—when we’re steeped in that culture ourselves. It’s safe to say that ours is a society inundated with sexual imagery. Overt sexuality pervades our movies, TV programs, advertisements, radio stations, music videos, books, theatrical productions—and, of course, the internet itself. In our country today, it’s hard to get through even one day without being exposed to sexual material of some kind.

To be sure, simply being exposed to sexual material in one’s culture isn’t tantamount to sinning—and there’s no way to avoid this exposure completely. Even so, when we exercise little or no restraint in what we allow our eyes to see, a steady sexual barrage has a deadening effect on the soul. That’s one reason why porn addiction is so dangerous: you constantly need to increase the risqué, taboo, or violent content in order to experience sexual arousal.

Could this phenomenon be the reason why so many professing Christians say they aren’t affected by sex scenes? They may actually be telling the truth—but only because they’ve unwittingly been deadened to certain forms of sexual arousal. Their supposed spiritual maturity is actually a sign of spiritual weakness. (I don’t know when it became popular in the church to consider it morally superior not to be stimulated by sexual stimuli.)

Granted, there are some people who seem to have a greater level of immunity to sexual temptation than the rest of us. They can minister to prostitutes and porn stars with less of a chance of falling headlong into sexual sin. Considering how widespread sexual immorality is in America, and even in the church, the existence of people with strong control over their hormones seems to be the exception, not the norm.

If you’re convinced that you are an exception, I have one more consideration for you. Actually, it’s a list of five questions that I would ask you to prayerfully consider. For your own benefit, please don’t rush through this list; pause after each question and ponder the right response.
  1. Do you find yourself automatically (or maybe involuntarily) seeking pleasure or excitement by returning to sex scenes in your mind—even if only for a few seconds at a time?
  2. Do you ever imagine yourself in those scenes with those actors, receiving sexual pleasure from them?
  3. Do you use sex scenes as a jumping off point to imagine new sexual scenarios (with or without the actors in the original scene)?
  4. Do you ever seek sexual release by replaying those scenes in your mind and acting out on them in some way?
  5. Do you compare the looks and/or sexual acts of movie characters with those of your spouse, leading to disappointment and frustration?
Only you know the answers to these questions. The knee-jerk response is “No”—and you may actually be telling the truth—but deep down inside, you know the real state of affairs. You might be able to trick everyone, even your spouse, but if you know that your answer to the above questions (or at least a couple of them) is “Yes,” you’re lying to yourself and to everyone else about the effect sex scenes have on your soul.

photo credit: Robert S. Donovan via photopin cc