Saturday, March 29, 2014

Noah...Methuselah...Berries and Rock Monsters

(THIS BLOG CONTAINS MANY SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE NOAH)

This weekend I had the honor? Pleasure? Well, let’s just say I enjoyed seeing “Muppets Most Wanted” earlier this week with my family more than I enjoyed seeing “Noah” by myself. This seems like as good a time as any to say that just because this is a Bible story does not mean you ought to take your child to see it. 

Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of “Noah” was just that…an adaptation. The movie’s depiction of Noah is to the real Noah what “The Message Bible” is to Scripture: a loose interpretation with a lot of speculation. I have to admit that there is a lot of ground to cover here and I’m not sure where to begin. Forgive me if this feels a bit disjointed, but stick with me because there’s a lot of juicy stuff in here. First, I want to warn you that there will be many spoilers in this blog. Blogs typically should not be super long, which is why I will just hit the major points. I am quite confident I will miss some important things, but I will do my best to get to the big stuff and share my thoughts on them.

To jokingly say, “I don’t need to see this movie, I already know how it plays out” would be a mistake. The Biblical story of Noah and this theatrical adaptation are very different in many ways. First, let’s get to the giants or as the movie calls them, the “watchers.” Many people have speculated that these watchers are the same as Nephilim, the giants referenced in Exodus and Numbers. I don’t think this is the case at all. According to Enoch, a non-canonized book, watchers are angels who were dispatched to earth to, you guessed it, watch over the humans. The story goes that they soon began to lust for human women and, at the prodding of their leader, defected en masse to infiltrate humanity and procreate among them. The offspring of these unions were what are known as the Nephilim, savage giants who pillaged the earth and endangered humanity. Could they have helped Noah build the ark? Perhaps. Scripture doesn’t have anything to say about who may have helped Noah.  But apparently these watchmen helped Noah build the ark because Methuselah, a Hebrew Patriarch and the grandfather of Noah, defended the watchers when they were in need. 

Speaking of Methuselah, let’s move on to Noah’s adopted daughter Ila and Methuselah's Death. Anthony Hopkins, who plays Methuselah, did an excellent job in the role. But that’s stating the obvious; any time Anthony Hopkins is in a movie it is going to be good. Apparently Methuselah lived like a caveman, was kind of viewed as the Gandalf the Great of the community, and had developed a craving for berries in his older age. Things get murky when Ila, a girl with abdominal wounds who Noah had rescued when she was a child, received “Methuselah’s blessing” so she could bare children. This all happened with a wave of a finger on Ila’s stomach. To add to the controversy over this character, since Methuselah died the same year as the flood some have wondered if he was an unbeliever and perished in the floodwaters. In a dramatic scene, the movie shows him being taken out by a wave after he eats his last beloved berry. The way they depict him dying shows a broad assumption on the moviemaker’s part and one that raises an eyebrow to most Christians who know their Scripture.

In a turn of events that shouldn’t have surprised anyone, Ila ends up getting pregnant after receiving this “blessing.” This girl who Noah and his wife raised fancied Noah’s son, Shem and before they got onto the Ark they had the requisite Hollywood style make out session. This resulted in her bearing twins, which caused Noah to go crazy. He vowed to kill the baby(s) should they be girls but as fate (I mean Hollywood) would have it, Noah didn’t kill them because the rain stopped the moment they were born. This infused some more danger and the mandatory love story into the movie but has nothing to do with Biblical truth.

Oh, and did you know that there was apparently a stow-away on the ark? A man named Tubal-Cain somehow pounded his way through the side of the ark. Tubal-Cain was the leader of the group that tried to over take the ark. Again, great for Hollywood story, but there’s not too much Biblical accuracy here. At one point he even randomly grabbed a little creature off the ark and began to eat it. I wonder what animal we are lacking today because of his poor choice?

Another controversial part of the movie is what I like to call the “Miracle Grow Forest.” The movie shows Methuselah giving Noah a seed from the Garden of Eden just after slipping a mickey in his tea so God could give Noah the rest of the instructions on how to build the ark (you can’t make this stuff up…okay maybe you can?). This seed was said to miraculously make gopher bark trees grow everywhere within seconds. It’s an interesting scene and a fun anecdote, but it has nothing to do with the way Scripture tells Noah’s story.

The last controversies I want to address have to do with people’s lack of Biblical knowledge. I heard people murmuring behind me at the beginning of the movie when they mentioned a child named Seth. One person grumbled, “There was no child named Seth. Adam and Eve only bore Cain and Abel.” Scripture would tell us otherwise. Genesis 5:3 NIV specifically states: “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.” It’s one of the few points this movie got right! The mumbling going on about Seth amused me because it’s obscure facts like these that throw off Christians who only stick to the big stories of the Bible.

I also want to talk about Noah’s nakedness in the film. Genesis 9:20-23 NIV states, “Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.” So yes, it is in Scripture. What I like about this story is actually how human and relatable it is. None of us could imagine such a devastating event as a great flood covering the earth! I am quite sure many people would do the very same thing after surviving such a stressful ordeal. It makes sense that he would go back to the life he knew as a farmer and that he would relax and enjoy the fruits of his labor (and being human, perhaps to excess?). 

The bottom line is this: a movie that comes out of Hollywood with the tagline “This film is inspired by the story of Noah” ought not be viewed as the exact retelling of Scripture. Let’s face it: in the Bible the story of Noah is amazing but fairly short. To stretch it out over two hours forced the moviemakers to add a few extra stories here and there. If people can view it simply as entertainment, all is well. It’s when we look to a movie like this for spiritual instruction that we get in trouble. 

There are legitimate reasons to like or dislike this movie. A movie like this or any that take on Biblical stories should make us Christians do one thing and that is to know what we believe. These movies are on-ramps to great conversations with people. We shouldn’t slam the director Darron Aronofsky because he simply did what he was hired to do: retell a story. What we ought to do is study our Scripture and know what we believe rather than putting down people who dare to ask questions and aren’t to ashamed to admit they don’t know everything. 

While I was ordering some popcorn and soda at the concession stand, I had one person (an older man from another church) say to me, “Pastor Bob, help me out here before I go find a seat. Where in the Bible does this story fall – after Exodus or in the New Testament?” I was stunned. It saddens me that Christians go to the movie theater to receive their Biblical education. They go to watch this movie and assume what’s being shown to them is correct because they never have read the full story for themselves. Just like the documentary ‘Religious’ and other movies that deal with faith, use this movie as motivation to study Scripture more so that you will be able to, “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV) 


So, will I buy this movie when it comes out? Yes. It’s a great piece of entertainment with some truths and a whole lot of special effects. Nothing more, nothing less.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Play Nice With Each Other

The environment you grow up in impacts you dramatically. Whenever you are raised predominantly in one setting, it influences what you will and won’t do. You base your choices on what you have experienced in the past and therefore what you see around you throughout your life plays a role in your decision making process. This can apply to many areas of life including your parenting style, career choice, your hobbies, or anything really. Your experiences either give you an example to emulate or show you what you don’t want to become. For example, if you had a father who never said, “I love you,” you will probably become a person who tells your children and your spouse those very words you longed to hear all the time.  

The church had a huge impact on my upbringing. I was never involved in extra-curricular activities at school because my grades would not allow it. As a teenager I would sink my time into helping with youth group and other church related events. I had a fantastic time being involved in church. Nonetheless, as a young man I began to form my own opinions about where my life was headed and what I believed to be true. I started to ask big questions and look for big answers. 

In relation to understanding Scripture, it all comes down to the reader’s perception and interpretation of the Word. Let's be honest, you could have twelve people read the same portion of Scripture and each one will tell you something different about it. This is how I view churches. Everyone has his or her opinion about their church and how it should be run. Because I speak at Christian music festivals and run the group “That’s Not My God,” I have heard many people talk about their churches…the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Their opinions got me thinking about how I, as a pastor, view church and ministry. This is my opinion and since this is my blog, I don’t mind sharing it with you. I believe there is a place for mega-churches. I will never speak badly about them because a lot of those complaints come from pastors who are simply jealous and if given the chance would take a position in a mega-church the moment it was offered. Likewise, I believe there is a place for home-based churches. It is possible that people who have had bad experiences in the "institutional church" or are intimidated by the idea of entering a traditional church building are simply more comfortable meeting with one or two other couples in someone’s home. The point is that God can reach us no matter what setting we are in. 

The church I have the joy of pastoring is one that I like to believe "gets it" and is really seeing some cool things happening. Let me explain to you why I enjoy Radiant Fellowship and what my philosophy on ministry and the church is. A few years ago, Christianity Today Magazine published an article entitled, “Willow Creek Repents.” It was a moving article regarding how a church can become over-programmed and miss its main purpose. In the article Bill Hybels stated, “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and [became] Christians, [what] we should have started telling people and teaching people [is] that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders. We should have gotten people, [and] taught [them] how to read their Bible between service [and] how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.” Needless to say, it is a really intriguing article.

There are few things I think a church needs and the first is community. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the average church in America has 75 members. That kind of small setting can paralyze some people with fear. They would much rather go to a large church where anonymity is its greatest commodity. However, we must remember that community is a necessary part of life. I suppose you could find your own kind of community in a social network or "small group" but I believe that people coming together from all walks of life can really make your faith journey all the better. Opening yourself up to that kind of real community is dangerous though…at least we feel like it is. Relationships with people we don’t agree with or understand can get messy. It requires people to let their guard down and realize life is more than the Republican Party. It is having communion with other political parties, cultural backgrounds, racial ancestry, and even taste in fashion and music. Your way of living will be challenged and you may be a challenge to other people. Real life in a real community means coming together with people from other walks of life. If you don’t believe this, may I suggest you read the Gospels?

Second, coming from a background of experiencing a “capital campaign” I want to stress that the building you meet in doesn’t really matter. One of the most frustrating things to me is the thought of a large building budget. The church I pastor, Radiant Fellowship, operates on a budget of $902 a week. This covers our insurance, mortgage and more. I have always thought it was odd that a church exists to have a huge building budget when in fact ministry should be their main goal. To go into debt to do this false kind of "ministry" really is something I do not understand and would love to talk more about. And it’s not just about the building. It saddens me when I hear from people that their church spent $12,000 on equipment to stream their service live online when in fact it could be done for $1,000. 


I believe that more programs are not what people need in order to become disciples. No matter what the technology or the latest innovation is, you simply cannot replace good conversation, Bible reading, and prayer. And what do we do with all of our “discipleship” anyway? We wait for the next Bible study only to finish that one and sign-up for the next one. Who goes and serves with what they know? Getting out into the world and sharing the wisdom and love we discover in our faith journeys is what matters. Don’t get caught in the hamster wheel of constantly attending meetings or taking classes. The best lessons you’ll ever learn are out on the streets with the people God longs to reach.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Everybody Hurts

I once read a saying, “Yes I have changed; pain does that to people.” One phrase that is similar to this comes from the famous British leader of the World War II era, Winston Churchill, who said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” Pain and torment is all around us in society. From what is happening in Russia to the onslaught of news stories with people dealing with pain it is clear that trouble will find us and we must learn to live with it.

Pain is something that is very familiar to everyone. It simply does not matter if a person is white collar or blue collar. Every person of every race, gender, religion, political standpoint, and economic position all have the face the reality of pain in one way or another – it’s one of the few uniting factors for all humanity. We have all dealt with it and we all have overcome it in some way. Ecclesiastes chapter three even talks about how we all go through times when we must deal with struggles. This is what it means to be fully human…fully spiritual. You simply cannot expect to live your entire life on the mountain peaks. There will be valleys and deserts to traverse. When you try to make mountain peaks your norm you begin to live in a false world and isolate yourself from reality.

I look back on my time in ministry and realize that I have experienced and witnessed a lot of pain – the kind of troubles and trials you simply would not believe existed in the church. Nonetheless the truth is that they do exist in this world and in the church. Bottom line: people are not perfect and bad things happen. 

Sure, some of the pain I have experienced is due to situations beyond my control. But, I have to admit that I have caused some of the pain I have gone through and for that I am sorry. When we go through troubling times it is our job to determine how we will respond to them. In early 2013 I felt compelled to email a few people I promised I would never speak to again. We ended up talking things through and we forgave each other. You will not always get the response you are hoping for but when you follow your heart you can trust that you have done your part. Despite the many positive responses, one person did tell me, “I forgive you, but you are still a wolf in sheep clothing.” You simply cannot change a person’s opinion, only hear them out and let it go.

Does pain change people? Absolutely. Does pain make a person do and say things they wish they had not? Yes. Hurt people tend to do things they come to regret. The first book I ever wrote is full of raw pain. There have been moments when I have wanted to remove it from Amazon but I have chosen not to. Those were real feelings I was experiencing at the time and I’ve come to a point where I am willing to embrace my past. The good, the bad, and the in-between all weave together to make us who we are – we must own our stories.

Here is the beauty though: in Romans 8:31-39 (NIV) Paul tells us, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We will face pain in this life but we will overcome it. For me, it took seven years before I could begin to recover from a painful experience that shook me to the core. In 2013 I faced troubling times again and while it was not as extreme as what I experienced in the past, it was still a tough time to go through. But again, just as before, I am finding the sweet victory of recovery. My prayer is that though you may be going through pain right now you will find joy in your journey once again. You may never be able to mend broken relationships or undo what has been done but that is okay. The key is to focus on moving forward so that your relationships with God and the people he brings into your life continue to grow strong. It’s only when you face the reality of your pain, accept the opportunity to let God heal your heart, and choose to move on that you will find the freedom and victory you deserve.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Shaken Theology

Have you ever had your theology shaken before? Whether you know it or not it happened yesterday when multiple websites reported that, "…Astronomers have detected gravitational waves and confirmed [that] the inflation theory of the Big Bang is a game-changer for astrophysicists everywhere..." (click here for full story) When we read something like this we should ask ourselves the question, “Am I open to hear other sides of the story?” For example, do you take the first chapter of Genesis literally or metaphorically? Many Christians have a hard time with metaphors. If Scripture tells us elsewhere that a day to the Lord is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like a day, did the creation of the world have to literally take place in six days? Moreover, we can choose to believe that God was the source of the Big Bang, the cosmic reverberation of "Let there be light," if you will. I am not saying I believe in that theory but perhaps this would be a great time for you and us collectively as the church to talk about it. I am certainly not ready to jump ship but I believe this is an ongoing conversation worth having. We simply cannot say, “You weren’t there so how can you know?” like Ken Ham famously said during a debate. That’s just not good enough and that answer won’t hold up when discussing this topic.
 This conversation will definitely carry over to the upcoming release of the movie, “NOAH.” If you have not heard about the movie starring Russell Crowe as Noah you might want to check it out here. Whether the discussion is about creation, the great flood, or the giants depicted in the film, I promise you this movie will get people talking about the Bible. And yes, you read what you thought you read: GIANTS. Nephilim, the giants portrayed in Genesis and Numbers, will be a part of Noah’s story in this upcoming Hollywood blockbuster. I will address this topic head on the Sunday after the movie’s release.All of this reminds me of 2 Timothy 4:2 NIV, "Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction." These are exciting times for us to defend the Bible and Christianity because we are being forced to dive deeper into what Scripture actually has to say so that we can give an answer to a questioning world. I will be honest and admit that it is easy to talk about salvation, blessings, and seeking God through your trials. It takes more study and hours of research to talk about end times and creation. I guess that’s why it saddens me to hear so many fellow pastors say, "I hate talking about end times and creationism, so I simply don't do it." They’re challenging topics, but ones that deserve our attention. Are you ready to dive in?