Is This Life All There Is?


Radically Free

There is something exciting about the notion that this life is all there is. You can experience it to the full. You can reinvent yourself as many times as you like. You can have all the sex you want. You can choose your own path and create your own destiny, unfettered, guaranteeing the maximal potential for pleasure, facing its pain and challenges with powerful realism and dignity. A life that is lived here and now, fully embracing the moment, taking it in for what it is and no more, can be an exciting life.

Many people live with what we might call the materialist assumption. Materialism is just as I have described it. There is nothing beyond this life, here and now. When you die, it’s like a blissful sleep. We don’t look for some distant meaning or fairy-tale heaven. Such notions are a coping mechanism for those who can’t embrace the responsibility of their lives as radically free. They are the ones pushing their provencal morality on the rest of us.

The Materialist Assumption

The materialist assumption is not morally empty. We live in human community, so we craft a kind of public morality. We all agree that things like murder, rape, incest, racism, slavery, greed, gluttony and intolerance are evil. They deprive another of her basic rights, they choke freedom, and thus they are evil. We don’t need religion or a god to follow the implications of the materialist assumption because we are not alone on this planet.

You may feel this description fairly portrays your convictions about this life. If not, perhaps I have been inaccurate, but I hope I haven’t been uncharitable. As a human living here and now, the materialist assumption is sometimes appealing to me. I do embrace responsibility for my life, my choices, and my living among others who deserve the same freedoms I have. Many times, eyes wide open, I look around and see good, altruistic materialists, living full, satisfying lives. I wonder, though, if they have followed the trajectory of their materialist assumption all the way down the road.

To me, there are things deeply troubling in the materialist assumption, things that persuade me to reject it as a faulty foundation, a melting wing of existential hubris.

For example, having all the sex you want sounds great, but inevitably, it leads to devastation. I’m not being dramatic. Think about it. Like any other human appetite, over-consumption leads to gluttony, addiction, and thereby a loss of freedom. Gluttons and addicts aren’t free. If sex is a fix for you, you are proving the limitation of a materialist assumption. Relationships are messy enough without the give-and-take of sexual involvement. Casual sex falls apart, as I have observed, but sex in a relationship without a deeper commitment (marriage) has nothing around it, no guardrails. When the sex gets boring, what happens to the relationship? When the relationship ends, so does the sex, and a relationship so entwined is excruciatingly painful to undo.

Over and over, I can think of examples of living on the materialist assumption which prove its rottenness at the core. For example, let’s remove the Cinderella lens from my description in the first two paragraphs. Often a life of radical freedom doesn’t turn out so good. Real human stories demonstrate that the path forward is never smooth. A diagnosis. A death. A government that exploits or enslaves. A dictator that divides his population into two races, master and slave, and exterminates the lesser. A promise from another is broken. Victimization results. You are the victim. You are the predator. Why me? Unanswered questions. Coping isn’t just for religious people.

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Facing the reality of the human condition demands, I would assert, an afterlife. Otherwise, the highest human notions of justice, freedom, and human potential are fictions.

A Counter-Assumption

I realize this assertion requires support, and you may choose to accept or reject it based on the support I can give. I feel the weight of that, and I am sure, whatever arguments I could offer would be insufficient for some, exhausting and irrelevant to others. Let me offer one solid counter-assumption, an assumption that is not unique or novel, and see where it goes.

My counter-assumption borrows from the Apostle Paul in his first of two biblical letters to the Christians at Corinth. In this section of chapter 15, towards the end of the letter, he takes on the materialist assumption:

12 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? 13 For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. 15 And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 16 And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. 18 In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! 19 And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, NLT).

Notice the kind of argument Paul makes, Paul, a Jewish-Christian writing to Greeks: if there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless. This is a contrary-to-fact conditional argument. Paul has just laid out the facts in verses 3-9: Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. The tomb is empty. The guards were not paid off. Nobody stole the body and lied about it, or the ruse would have been uncovered. Instead, hundreds of people who were still alive at the time of Paul’s writing would give eyewitness testimony of encountering the resurrected Christ. (The New Testament records a few of those encounters in Luke 24 and John 21.) Eyewitness testimony of credible witnesses was received in the ancient world much like scientific evidence in our modern, materialist (skeptical) age. It is the fact of the resurrection of Christ that proves an afterlife, not the other way round.

Implications

If Paul is stating a credible fact, Paul who numbers himself with those who encountered the risen Christ, then we can understand his negative reasoning. What are the implications of the opposite condition: assuming there is no resurrection, no afterlife, but only (I would add) a materialist obliteration or perhaps conservation of the “energy” of human life? Paul enumerates the fallout: first, then Christ has not been raised. That implication necessitates the conclusion that hundreds of credible (unconnected) eyewitnesses were hallucinating; we must settle for a less intellectually satisfying explanation for the empty tomb; the apostles are all deceived or lying, which doesn’t fit the profile.

A second implication is that the preaching of the apostles is useless. And it wasn’t. It was creating new communities, demolishing prejudice, centering marriages on love not contract, raising the status 0f women, the poor and other marginalized groups. With the “useless” preaching comes vain faith. But faith wasn’t vain either. Faith was transforming murderers to martyrs, superstitious pagans to responsible citizens, greedy gluttons to generous philanthropists, and more.

Paul goes on a bit and then comes to this sad conclusion: If our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. Yep. Generic, garden-variety faith with no basis in historical fact and present, existential transformation is–just like the materialist assumption–worthless.

Conclusions

Where is this negative argument going? Paul is using it to support a greater, glorious conclusion:

Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies (1 Cor. 15:42-44).

On the assumption that there is an afterlife, specifically the kind of afterlife described in the New Testament, you get a more satisfying list of implications. Your brokenness will be buried, and you will be raised in glory. Your weakness (i.e. human limitations) will become strength. (Just imagine the full use of unfettered body and brain together at 100% efficiency.) And that elusive spirituality you’ve been groping for to try to fix the emptiness of the materialist assumption? Well, everything natural (material) about you will become truly, “naturally” spiritual! Further, Paul argues that such transformed individuals will be part of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where justice, righteousness, mercy, peace and such things reign, addressing the failure of limited, imperfect justice, etc. in this life.

Finally, Paul concludes in verse 58 that rejecting the materialist assumption in favor of the biblical assertion of Christ’s resurrection adds supreme meaning and value to every moment of human life, giving purpose to us even in the daily grind (a condition you will never escape, no matter how objectivist, nihilist, existentialist, hedonist or spiritualist you become). For those who accept Christ’s death and resurrection not only as historical fact but also personally, existentially, as a faith assumption they build their lives on, Paul can say:

Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.

Please consider these contrasting trajectories. When I find myself drawn to the attractiveness of the radical freedom promised by the materialist assumption, a freedom which does not deliver its promises, I remember this. Everything I could want or hope for on my own, autonomous and free, I receive in Christ, enveloped by his life, death, and resurrection.

 

 

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“The Bible” and Jesus(es)


DISCLAIMER: Normally, you read “what’s out there” before posting an opinion, in the interest of being more informed (or appearing so). This is an entirely personal reflection with only the sparsest research. Image

Watching The Bible, Episode 4: Mission last night with my sons engendered discussion much as the other three episodes have: “Dad, did Jesus pass out in the desert?. . .Was Pilate really mean?. . .Do you think Jesus was that calm when he cleansed the temple?” Of course, I don’t have informed answers to all their reading-between-the-lines questions. Nobody does. As with previous episodes, I found Mission delightfully insightful, provocative and, at points, pretty loose on the Bible’s particular narrative details.

One scene I really didn’t like was Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against resurrection. It was a powerful scene, and it worked dramatically. But omitting the details of Jesus deliberately stalling after he found out Lazarus was sick (John 11:6), telling Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” before he reached the tomb, then calling the dead man to rise publicly, for the sake of the crowd, changed the theological significance of the raising of Lazarus. I’m confident that tampering with theology was not the intent, but it was the consequence nonetheless

That brings me to the question of the portrayal of Jesus, a formidable challenge for any actor, I’d think.  Hollywood Jesuses come off as either spacey and aloof (he is divine, after all) or down-home comfy in their everybody-rides humanity. Diogo Morgado does an admirable job as Jesus in this miniseries, though he tends towards the latter extreme. I guess every actor has to answer the question for himself that Morgado’s Jesus asked his disciples, echoing Matthew 16: “Who do you say that I am?” (In the biblical account there were a few guesses before Peter “surprised” Jesus with the right answer.) Getting the answer right is the key not only to the persona of Jesus, but to the character of the most important person in the history of the world.

The Jesus of Scripture barely fit the values and status of his own culture, much less ours. He healed the sick with genuine compassion, yet his rebukes of the Pharisees were as comfortless as Old Testament prophets’ devastating judgements. He was clearly the friend of sinners, but he cleansed sin out of the temple more than once, as if he owned the place. The biblical Jesus is full of such paradox.

And rightly so. Because the Jesus of Scripture is both human and divine, fully so, simultaneously. Two natures; one person. No confusing the two. He who wept over his friend Lazarus (another omission in Mission) took absolute authority over death and brought a stinking-dead human being back, to live out the rest of his natural life. Death didn’t even have a chance, because the Author of life, the human-making, soul-breather-into-dust God of eternity was standing outside the tomb, effortlessly flicking death away like a pesky gnat. Who-the-freak is this guy?

The Jesus of Scripture is God the Son, pre-existing in eternal community with the Father and the Spirit, one God in three persons. Before the world was, He is. When he uttered those words to the officials who came to arrest him, John 18 says, “they drew back and fell to the ground.” Were he not fully God and fully man, Jesus could not have taken the penalty for the debt we owed and paid for it eternally by laying down his human life. His role as our substitute, the lamb of God sacrificed for you and me for all-time, motivated God himself to provide by taking on human flesh and suffer so we could be saved by his one act of righteousness, undoing the one act that plunged the whole race into guilt and sin.

How do you portray that multi-dimensionality in a two-dimensional world of movies or television? You try to come close, and you leave it to aware or curious viewers to make up for deficiencies. That is exactly what Mission’s Jesus did, with admirable results. Some (I’ve heard) have worried about the implicit Christology of The Bible miniseries. I can understand why. The question, “Who do you say that I am” is the most important of all. But I don’t fault the imperfect portrayal of the perfect God-man for our failing to get the right answer. The purpose of The Bible, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey told us, is to raise questions that will drive viewers to the real Bible.

So, who do you say he is? To benefit from the sacrifice he made objectively, historically, one must invest a personal, subjective faith. I do think the miniseries does a good job of emphasizing trust in God as a major theme (though at times it appears nationalism or religious lawkeeping substituted for faith, which neither ever did.) Eternal salvation is offered as a free gift to whoever will believe, trust, subjectively receive the objective Jesus as the way, truth, life and only way to restoring a favorable relationship with God, His father and ours. When he is Lord, not only objectively (which he is) but of your life, you become connected with the eternal, triune God, eternally.

That change in eternal life is the consequence of getting the “Who am I” question right. Granting a charitable verdict to The Bible’s Jesus, we will all be judged by what we do with the Scriptural, historical Jesus. Martha’s confession outside the tomb of Lazarus gives us the only correct answer: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” It was enough to superintend the miracle of resurrection that day. And it is still the efficient cause of resurrection for everyone who utters it in genuine faith today.

The Bible (Almost), Series Premiere


If you know someone over forty, ask them if they remember books like The Illustrated Bible  sitting on end tables in the dentist’s waiting room. Everyone used to display these, and I remember looking through their colorful renderings of

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important Bible persons and events. By the way, does the picture of two elderly pale European men in a tiny boat with (obviously) cropbearded Jesus strike you as an accurate rendering of the episode in Luke 5:1-11? If you think the cover is a stretch, click the link and take a look at Leonardo’s Annunciation on page three of the preview! Is that your idea of the angel Gabriel? Was Mary really that “mature,” and where did she get the marble table? (Thank you, Verrocchio!)

We taught our kids from the classic Egermeier’s Bible Story Book, because we heard of its legendary accuracy from the (very serious!) homeschool crowd. Published in the 1920s, it has survived the test of time and proven itself a classic. Yet it has been criticized on grounds of inaccuracy. One reviewer wrote “there are facts presented that are flat-out false,” while another notes that it, “softens or skips the less age-appropriate elements like incest and promiscuity” (see Amazon reviews). Our kids, and thousands of others, have quite profitably been taught Bible stories from this factually deficient book!

The point is that we can, and we do look past a lot of factual errors and “reading between the lines” in art and stories based on the Bible, appreciating their value and utility despite their fallibility and inevitably-culture-bound aesthetic. Viewers of The Bible miniseries on History will have to grant the same latitude if they want to enjoy its unique paraphrasing of the Biblical story.

I watched the series premier as something of a skeptic, expecting revisionist history, political correctness and more stale Jesus Seminar rhetoric about how we really can’t take the biblical canon as a historically reliable sacred text. To my delight, I noticed in the opening scene where Noah rehearses the prologue of (what would later be) Genesis to his family, there was no attempt to qualify, distance, or deconstruct. The Noah character took the creation story as authoritative revelation, passed on orally from generation to generation. As the docudrama unfolded, it stayed true to the aim of rendering a familiar body of stories and themes to an audience for whom they might be unfamiliar.

That last assertion is my reason for giving the series premier a tentative three stars out of five. Let me enumerate some the star-earning points:

  1. It didn’t assume revisionist history, but took the stories as they are given in the Bible and tried to render them for a contemporary audience.
  2. Like Walter Wangerin’s widely-read The Book of God, this dramatization of the biblical story invites us into the Scriptures themselves, bringing narratives to life and whetting our appetite to go deeper and learn more.
  3. The screenplay made mostly intelligent, limited choices of episodes and characters in an attempt to get the flow of biblical history and important themes, including covenant and faith. For me, these themes are clear, if deficient. I’ll explain why below.
  4. Like Medieval morality plays, The Bible miniseries can and will increase awareness of biblical content to the biblical-illiterate! This one is huge, because:
  5. Established Christians must accept the fact that bible illiteracy is the norm for American popular culture today.

For these reasons, and probably a few more, I feel fairly positive about watching the rest of the series as it unfolds over the next several weeks. However, I have to acknowledge some limitations and concerns:

  1. Some of your and my favorite stuff is going to be missing. Just like the books I mentioned above, screenwriters have to select from a mountain of material and put together a coherent story for a target audience. I was most disappointed that Joseph (a key figure in Genesis and a type of Christ) was entirely omitted.
  2. Theological presuppositions are going to color the story; for example, the themes of covenant and faith were presented in a very man-centered way. As a Facebook friend pointed out (Thanks, Al!), the Moses character talked about the Abrahamic covenant in a way that distorted its conditions, as if it were entirely conditional! (It isn’t. Here’s a concise discussion of that.)
  3. There is some buzz that the Christology is going to be messed up. If it is, my stars will drop off and my skepticism will have been confirmed. Let’s wait and see, please?

I do think we need to be discerning and informed whenever we teach, tell, act, sing, or allude to the inspired, infallible, inerrant text of Scripture. Especially those who teach. The Bible is not designed as a teaching series–though there are lots of revenue-generating support materials for teachers on the website–but, like Wangerin’s The Book of God, it admits (in the prologue) it is not a substitute for the Bible itself.

As for how adequate this docudrama proves to be at entertaining and informing audiences to help them become more interested in the greatest story ever written, that story remains to be told.

Review of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace and Reason


Honoring God in Red or Blue

Author: Dr. Amy E. Black

Recommended for: Anyone wanting a well-rounded view of American politics / politics & faith
Read from September 29 to October 05, 2012
208 pages

What got me into this book was my concern over the lacuna of Christian voices showing civility in American public discourse. It is easy to find examples of strident, unloving and even damaging rhetoric parroted by people of faith who genuinely care about the direction of the country. Christians seem to have little trouble stating convictions on issues, but we rarely articulate those convictions effectively. We often sound our victim-whines, complaining that we feel shut out from political power. And we are, too often, silenced by our own ignorance or clumsiness. After a quick scan, I judged that Honoring God in Red or Blue would echo my concerns and address them.

Amy Black, a Wheaton professor with an M.I.T. doctorate in political science and experience as a Congressional Fellow, speaks directly to fellow Christians in an encouraging tone, educating and informing her audience on the basics of American government and politics without condescending. Though much of the book covers what we should have learned in Civics 101, Dr. Black’s explanations target adults who need not just reminding, but refocusing. Part 1 reviews the reasons for political involvement, the relationship between religion and politics and the purpose and limits of government. This section alone makes the book worth reading, especially for those who may be expecting too much from a system that was designed to work slowly, through compromise rather than through tyranny of anyone’s platform or party.

“Black and white” may be helpful stereotypes for categorizing moral issues, but those absolute categories do not realistically reflect the process of politics. Dr. Black counsels, “It is possible to stand on Christian convictions and still make compromises.” Honoring God in Red or Blue advocates active political involvement, but as a means of demonstrating love in action rather than sanctioning lust for power in the name of Christ. Listening, humility, respect and informed action are the means through which Christians may pursue a better society.

After giving a primer on the roles of local,state and federal government in Part 2, which also features a helpful discussion of the relationship between church and state, the book explores the question of how faith and politics may interact. (Part 3 is the “how to” section.) How have various faith traditions interacted with the state? How do we disagree peacefully, and what if Christians have serious political disagreements? The author unpacks her core premise here–that humility and respect are necessary for fruitfulness in political involvement–and applies it to how we tackle debate and disagreement over the “hard issues,” things about which we may have a common goal but a different solution than our opponents. The book highlights the issue of poverty as an illustration, offering several plausible solutions that may differ, yet be acceptable within a Christian worldview.

The final few chapters offer a helpful analysis of political campaigning and informed voting.

Throughout Honoring God in Red or Black, the author speaks with a voice that is as non-partisan and ideologically dispassionate. This stance results in a guide that is practical and informative. Sidebars on how to understand statistics, how to fact-check, the rise of the Tea Party, separation of church and state, etc. add to the book’s value. Yet for all these strengths, a significant weakness of Honoring God in Red or Black is its failure to build a strong enough biblical and theological foundation to support a positive Christian vision, one that does not detract from the author’s core assumptions, but takes them and goes farther and deeper in seeking to redeem what is broken in American society and politics. The principle of love is too broad. Even humility and respect are not enough.

While American Christians need Christian character if we are to effectively engage in the political sphere, we also need a philosophy that embraces and applies the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) as discipleship of “the nations,” the Great Commandment (Luke 10:27) as loving God as well as neighbor,and the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:26-28). Core biblical assumptions like these have implications for respecting life AND the environment, for upholding the design of marriage AND not hating or fearing others who do not agree but are also made in God’s image–moral and societal issues that require a greater prophetic voice from the church, yet not absent love and respect. Such a developed, positive political philosophy may be beyond the scope of this book. Still, Honoring God in Red or Blue provides sane, useful and faithful counsel and wisdom for those who want to be involved and make a difference in a pluralistic culture that is desperate for clarity and sanity.

Virtuous Violence? The Hunger Games and Christian Sensibilities


I knew my take on violence in The Hunger Games would provoke some objections. (If you haven’t heard the live break from Monday’s show, click here.) Though I anticipated some backlash, I felt it was important to respond to what I felt was a mis-characterization of the violent elements of the story / film by critics within my own community of Bible-believing Christians.

Katniss takes aim.

Objections to My View

Most who have objected to my comments did so on two grounds: 1) that violence should not be portrayed in any form of entertainment, or 2) that Christian leaders–teachers , parents, public personalities–have no business commending a story in which objectionable elements (like violence) play such a prominent role as in The Hunger Games.

One respondent wrote:

Bill, you and I know that many people flocked (to) those theaters this weekend not to feel any detest or offense by this violence but simply to receive entertainment. Just because violence is a living reality in our society, it doesn’t mean we should observe it in any form. Especially for our own pleasure.

I appreciate thoughtful disagreement! But of course, I want to make a point that I feel, despite some credible objections, is biblically warranted and faithful to the calling of Christian leaders.

Worthy of Praise?

Typically, when I try to help people in my radio audience think critically about the rhetoric of popular Christian response to a book or movie, someone will cite one of my favorite New Testament verses:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8).

In order to interact with that teaching, my thinking and the objections to my position, please follow me through three rhetorical questions that trace a bit of logic, making some important distinctions: fine-tuning that helps us rightly apply Philippians 4:8.

Q1 – Is it possible to ACKNOWLEDGE violence without ENDORSING violence?

Q2 (If so) – Is it possible to PORTRAY violence without GLAMORIZING violence.

Q3 (If so) – Are there any honorable, true, even praiseworthy benefits to be found in portraying violence as done in The Hunger Games story?

The reason I ask those three questions is to demonstrate the unsound argument of those who object to The Hunger Games on the grounds that it endorses violence. Here is their logic, simplified:

All portrayals of violence endorse violence.
The Hunger Games PORTRAYS violence.
Therefore, The Hunger Games ENDORSES violence.

Their argument is valid. But it is SOUND (true, right) only if the premises are true. What I tried to demonstrate on the show, what I am now seeking to demonstrate here is that premise 1 (the first sentence in the argument) is not true. Therefore, the argument is unsound.

Why Unsound Reasoning?

I have read The Hunger Games and seen the film. In neither example will you find violence glamorized or endorsed. Like violence in the Bible (for example, Judges 19:29-30), the portrayal of violence in The Hunger Games was purposeful: it served to reinforce one of the story’s major themes.

To illustrate, let’s pretend The Hunger Games were your senior essay rather than a dystopian novel. If the topic of the essay were, “Projected Effects of Post Apocalyptic Authoritarianism in North America” (I’m not sure what department would assign such a topic!) and your thesis statement were, Every projection of post-apocalyptic conditions in North America featuring authoritarian or totalitarian government includes state control through violence, then your first bit of research would be to provide detailed examples of authoritarian / totalitarian regimes which, following their historical rise to power, used violence as a means of governing. From there, you could project a pattern, supported by statistical probabilities and analogies to make your point.

You wouldn’t have far to look.

Just think of the many close examples of infamous totalitarians of the right and left: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il. Move back in history from 20th century communism and fascism back through the authoritarian excesses of the Roman Empire, and you’ll find the legacy of authoritarian regimes quantified in body-counts. Historical reports of violence can be gruesome: to wit, the stories of ancient Christian martyrs who were violated, dismembered or fed to wild beasts under Diocletian and Maximinus (see Eusebius, Church History). These stories have been passed down, parent-to-child fashion, in verbal Technicolor, for two millennia.

We’re mostly just too insulated and ignorant to know about them.

Open-Eyed Parenting

Proverbs warns against insulating your children from the true character of the world in which you are raising them to function as wise adults.

Wisdom shouts in the streets.
She cries out in the public square.
21 She calls to the crowds along the main street,
to those gathered in front of the city gate:
22 “How long, you simpletons,
will you insist on being simpleminded?

In Proverbs 1:20-22, Wisdom (personified as a wise-woman) speaks not from a pulpit, but from the streets. Her setting reinforces her message (and the father’s exhortation) to naive youth: avoid gangs!

Come and join us.
Let’s hide and kill someone!
Just for fun, let’s ambush the innocent!
12 Let’s swallow them alive, like the grave;
let’s swallow them whole, like those who go down to the pit of death.
13 Think of the great things we’ll get!
We’ll fill our houses with all the stuff we take.
14 Come, throw in your lot with us;
we’ll all share the loot.”

Gang violence is represented, portrayed, and articulated in Proverbs 1 precisely to show it for what it really is, de-glamorizing it to let it strike the reader as empty and repulsive.

Biblical Wisdom in a Virtual World

Again, in my opinion, The Hunger Games did virtually the same thing, though not anchored in the transcendent truth and morality of Scripture. From a perspective that harmonizes with “whatever is true,” the narrative of The Hunger Games manages to marginalize the sensationalism of violence, even while portraying it as foundational to the authoritarian hegemony of Panem, the government of its post-apocalyptic setting. The story spotlights the heroism of the main character, Katniss, who fights against the evil system in which she lives and must work out her moral sense.

Katniss’s moral compass may not be true north, but it isn’t far off. Neither glory nor self-preservation defines her determination in the games; rather, she is fighting for love and protection for her sister Prim, for Peeta’s sacrificial and honorable life, for the other tributes, like Rue, who know they are victims, and for all in District 12 who see through the lying oppression of Panem and the Capitol. In the games, she never kills while on the offensive (though she does defend herself and others). Her skills have been honed as survival skills, hunting to keep food on the table in her single-mother’s household. Her passions are restrained and morally focused: defending virtue and opposing evil.

Similarly, the narrative frame of The Hunger Games makes the perspective on violence clear. The violence of the games, in which children are forced by the state to kill each other and residents of the districts of Panem are forced to watch, is sickening! The hero resists it. The districts are mixed in their moral response to it, and the absurd residents of the Capitol illustrate its vulgarity by their own absurdity, caricatured as voyeuristic consumers of base immorality and sinful self-indulgence, moral excess that is epitomized by the spectacle of the games themselves.

That’s Entertainment?

Where does this leave the reader / viewer of The Hunger Games? In other words, what purpose does its portrayal of violence serve? Obviously, the reader is meant to identify with the hero, or at least the disgusted citizens of the districts. Anyone who would read / watch and approve of the violence or be entertained by it is as sick and absurd as the residents of the Capitol. The story / movie may be entertaining and instructive, yes, but the subject it brings to light is nothing less than repulsive.

And that’s the point of the violence.

Thus, there is an excellent, praiseworthy lesson for us in the Suzanne Collins story, a lesson using violence as a teacher, highlighting the grotesque and bestial precisely as other valuable stories involving violence do, stories ranging from the biblical story of Cain murdering Abel to great dystopian tales like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty Four, Out of the Silent Planet (C.S. Lewis), and even, arguably, The Book of Eli and the Left Behind series. As one reviewer of The Hunger Games film put it:

The movie makes one appreciate what Collins achieved with her book: an indictment of the very audiences who clamor for violent spectacle, not in the future, but in 2012. She does this in the form of a coming of age story turned extreme. Sure, we don’t *really* pit our children against each other in a fight to the death. But in concept, is it really that far from Toddlers and Tiaras? (http://dcist.com/2012/03/out_of_frame_hunger_games.php, accessed 3/28/12)

Conclusion

The violence portrayed in The Hunger Games makes the point, speaking from its narrative perspective that subconsciously resonates with biblical and Christian morality, namely that, Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (Romans 1:32). In The Hunger Games, no approval is given to violence, except by depraved characters who, from the standpoint of justice, deserve to die. We all want Panem overthrown and the wealth of the wicked Capitol given to the poor but more-just districts.

Appropriate audiences for the book and movie are older teens and young adults. Nobody is telling you to take your eight-year old to this movie. But for those fit for its message, The Hunger Games forces us to ACKNOWLEDGE the violence inherent in our own culture and times; it PORTRAYS violence in its fictional world not to GLAMORIZE it, but rather to stir us up to abhor it! And in serving that purpose, we can give a definitive answer to Q3 – Are there any honorable, true, even praiseworthy benefits to be found in portraying violence as done in The Hunger Games story? The answer is yes. And Christian parents would do well to interact with older teens to highlight those benefits.

One footnote: my critique assumes throughout that the Christian mind is NOT a blank slate, a computer that works by “garbage in / garbage out.” That lie has been foisted on us by careless teachers who know neither their psychology nor biblical anthropology. We are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28) to discern between good and evil, and Christian minds ought to be particularly good at it, as Hebrews 5:13-14 suggests:

For everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Skillfully discerning good and evil in the significant stories of our culture, stories like The Hunger Games, is more than just a job for intellectuals and pastors; it is, for all of us, our Christian duty.

Global Faith Dying?


Regional Distribution of Christians

If you asked most people whether Christianity is growing or dying around the world, I’ll bet they’d choose the latter. At least in the U.S., Christianity is taking some really big hits from the New Atheists, from secular media and from the academy, where one can hardly admit to being a person of faith without being (fallaciously) considered a bigot, backwards and brainwashed. Much like the misinformation and disinformation of Christianity’s first centuries, dispelled by capable apologists like Justin Martyr and Athenagoras, reports of Christianity’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

As the above chart from tothesource.org shows, Christianity has experienced significant growth–just not here in the West.  While the West has turned to devour itself from the roots up, the East has discovered a new source of hope, liberty, meaning and a moral compass. At least that’s my opinion having experienced that same personal transformation and compared notes with many others in my three trips to India.

And do I as a modern, Western Christian lament the fact that Christianity may become an “Eastern Religion” in a few generations? Well, of course, but I lament the West, not the Faith. Christianity  HAS NEVER been a “Western Religion” in the sense that the West is the genesis of Christian faith! Indeed, just the opposite is true. We in the West have messed the legacy of Christ and the Apostles up in many ways, institutionalizing it, domesticating it, using it to justify occasional atrocities (even one is inexcusable). But that’s been OUR fault. Not the faith that arose from the fertile soil of the Ancient Near East. May it take root there and beyond once again, and grow to shade and nourish millions from the fallen condition of the world and the missed-mark of human religious institutions.

To read the excellent, balanced article, click the link below.

http://www.tothesource.org/1_11_2012/1_11_2012.htm.

To understand the core of the Christian faith (the gospel), click this link: http://bible.org/article/what-gospel