Thursday, March 29, 2012


Going by Psalm 127:2 (“God gives sleep to those He loves”) it’s hard to tell if God loves Michael Britten, the lead character of NBC’s new fantasy procedural “Awake”, a lot or not at all.

Jason Isaacs (best known to American audiences as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) plays a detective who survives a fatal car accident with his family and finds himself in two worlds. In one world his wife, Hannah (played by Laura Allen) died in the accident and his son, Rex (played by Dylan Minnette) survived. In the other world his son died and his wife survived. He commutes from one world to the other every time he goes to “sleep”.

Of course, it’s a challenge for Britten to remember which world he is in at any give time. So he wears a green rubber band around his wrist in one world, a red rubber band in the other. In one world he keeps his police partner (played by Steve Harris) and in another world he is assigned a new partner (played by Wilmer Valderrama) who seems to have been assigned to monitor Britten’s mental stability.

In both world, there is a growing suspicion that the traffic accident was not really an accident, but instead a part of a sinister conspiracy.

While every week Britten deals with two police cases (one in each world, usually related), the central mystery of the show (the “mythology” as current TV jargon goes) is which of the worlds is real and which is a dream? Or are both real? Or is Britten completely bonkers?

Not surprisingly, Britten is required to seek mental help in both worlds. In one he sees a psychiatrist played by BD Wong (“Law and Order: SVU”) who insists that Britten is creating a fantasy world for himself in which he can avoid dealing with the death of his son’s death and that the fantasy is dangerous and unhealthy.

In the other world, his psychiatrist played by Cherry Jones (“24) thinks Britten’s subconscious has constructed a fantasy in which his wife is alive, but can provide clues for dealing with the “real world”. She encourages him to explore his “dreams” but doesn’t believe they are real.

Britten is unwilling to give up either world, which would mean losing his wife or son. He finds that as he works as a detective, he finds clues in one world that help him to solve a case in the other. And he finds clues in his personal life in one world that help him deal with problems in his personal life in the other world.

Though there is a danger the links between cases in the two worlds might be at times contrived, the writing and acting in the series seems strong enough so far to carry off an admittedly challenging premise. Perhaps after two of NBC’s recent shots at quirky procedurals starring Brits (after “Journeyman” with a time-traveling Kevin McKidd and “Life” with millionaire Buddist Damian Lewis), the third will prove a charm.

As Christians, we too live in two worlds. We are a part of not only the physical world but also the world of the spirit. Ephesians 6:12 says that we deal not only with flesh and blood but spiritual forces. And like the hero of “Awake”, we are often told the other world is an illusion.

Materialists tell us that only the physical world exists. The New Atheists tell us that belief in the soul, a life beyond this one, in God is not just foolish, but dangerous. All that exists is flesh and bone, molecules and atoms.

The Gnostics opposed by the early church fathers as well as a variety of religious believers of the present, from Hindus to Christian scientists teach that the physical world is an illusion, only the spiritual is real. Therefore, actions of this world are of no real consequence.

But Christians must live in both worlds. The physical world, created by God, is real and our choices here matter. But the spiritual world is also real. We must live in both worlds, with choices we make in each dimension impacting our life in the other. Remaining awake to both worlds provides meaning, truth and fulfillment in both of our very real worlds.

(“Awake” plays on Thursday nights on NBC, 10 PM ET/9 PM CT. Older episodes are available on Hulu.)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"The Grey": Fear and Faith in the Twilight

I hope this doesn’t come as too big of a shock to you: but you’re dying. Oh, it probably will take years and I certainly hope for most of us we’re talking a multitude of decades. But I can only think of two people who avoided death (they’re in the Bible and their names start with ‘E’, you can look it up) and the odds are against us joining that exclusive club.

The Grey is a film about a group of men that are facing death, likely to be sooner rather than later. A group of roughneck oil men survive a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness but death in the form of starvation, exposure, wolf attack (you read that right) or a number of other unexpected and unpleasant possibilities seems imminent. (There’s a reason the phrase “Feel Good Movie of the Year” doesn’t appear on the film’s lobby posters.)

When we first meet the character played by Liam Neeson, Ottway, he is contemplating suicide for reasons that are not initially revealed. But instead he boards the doomed flight and soon finds himself fighting for his life.

In these dire circumstances, the men must deal with the essential choices of fear and faith. One character in the film, Diaz (Frank Grillo), claims to have neither faith nor fear. Ottman calls him a fool for not being afraid in such a time, arguing it is idiocy to be fearless. Another character, Talget (Dermot Mulroney) calls him a fool for not having faith in God and a life to come.

So is fear or fearlessness foolish? (Sorry about the excessive alliteration.) Ottman makes a very persuasive argument that fear is the most rational response to certain situations. But toward the end of the film, Ottman receives powerful arguments against fear from a couple of unexpected sources. The film seems to argue that fear is understandable, perhaps even unavoidable, (director Joe Carnahan certainly give the audience some scares), but something that must be overcome.

For Christians, Scripture also seems to provide a schizophrenic view of fear. Proverbs 9:10 says that “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Jesus argues (in Luke 12:5) for the good sense in fearing God. But note that it’s just the beginning. The most common command in Scripture, spoken by angels and Jesus Himself is, “Don’t be afraid.” I John 4:18 says that “Love drives out fear.”

The Bible seems to say that fear can be a good start for assessing our situation without God’s love and forgiveness. But it has no place in our lives once we have placed our faith in God’s goodness. But many of the characters in “The Grey” don’t believe in God, let alone a God of Mercy. They’ve lived brutal lives and are facing the possibility of a brutal death. Where is God in that?

In fact, one of the characters calls out to God to show Himself (in a scene reminiscent of the cries of Job in Scripture, just much more profanity filled) and God seems to be silent.

But is God ever fully silent?

In Romans 1:20, the apostle Paul argues, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

The film doesn’t scrimp on showing the brutality of our fallen world. But we also see much of the beauty of God’s creation, not just in the majestic landscapes of the Alaskan wilderness, but also in acts of kindness and bravery from the most unlikely of human sources. Faith in God is essential to live. But it is even, perhaps, more essential for death.

(2012’s “The Grey” is quite justifiably rated R for brutal violence and language, but not for the occasionally awkward computer generated wolf images. Don’t miss the film’s final image which appears after the end credits.)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

"Thief in the Night" Article at Christianity Today

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Response to "The Hole in the Gospel" (author Richard Stearns, publisher Thomas Nelson)

Let me start by saying that I agree completely when the major thrust of this book, God through Scripture has called us to care for the poor and the Western church in particular needs to respond to this call from Scripture.
If you haven’t read this book, stop reading this review now. Not because there are spoilers, but because I want now to talk about quibbles I have with the book. And I would hate to think my quibbles would keep someone from reading this fine book with this important message.
But I do have quibbles. There are issues of emphasis and particulars that bothered me. I’m writing this partly to help me think through these issues and decide if my objections are reasonable.
The book does omit some facts and Scripture that I think are important when considering these issues.
Let me start with a famous quote that Stearns frequently refers to from Bob Pierce, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God”. Bob Pierce was the founder of World Vision (the organization that Stearns now leads.) He did great things for God and World Vision now continues to do great work to care for the poor throughout the world.
And that quote has truth in it. As much as we can, we want to see things through God’ eyes and feel things through His heart. But we are finite creatures that serve an infinite God. We can’t take on the entire burden of God’s work in the world. And I believe that Bob Pierce had issues in his life because he tried to take on the full burden of suffering in the world.
It is now common knowledge and well documented that Pierce neglected his own family and was at time verbally abusive with his staff at World Vision. Stearns (understandably) make no mention of these flaws in the life and ministry of Pierce. I can’t help but wonder if Pierce neglected those close to him because he was trying to take on whole burden of suffering in the world. And we frail creatures are not equipped for that burden.
Stearns cites a study in the book wherein a group of three people were given three sets of information about suffering. The first group was told about a single girl who was suffering in poverty. The second group was given statistics about the billions suffering in the world from hunger, thirst and homelessness. And a third group was given a combination of these presentations.
You may or may not have been surprised to learn that the group who was told about the single girl was willing to give much more than the second group and even more than the third group.
Stearns seems to bemoan the results of the study. It seems to go against the Pierce model of taking on the whole burden of the world onto ones self. But I look at the results of this survey and find it quite encouraging. The Good Samaritan didn’t try to help all robbery victims in the world, but simply the one man he found along the road.
It’s worthwhile to learn about the broad picture of suffering in the world. But real change will take place one person at a time. Stearns acknowledges this, and says we shouldn’t keep the magnitude of the problem keep us from taking the small tasks that are available to us. But there is something about his tone that seems regretful about the fact that we don’t take the whole burden of the world upon ourselves.
Stearns talks about coming home from trips abroad and feeling guilty for the abundance he and his family possess. This is an understandable emotion, one shared by all of us that have ministered to the poor and destitute. And it is always worth evaluating whether we need all that we “own” and if there are opportunities to give away what we have to benefit others. But he seems slow to then acknowledge that the gifts we have are from God’s hand, and as stewards of this gifts, we can, in fact, should, delight in God’s good gifts.
The book doesn’t refer to the incident in the Gospels of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. Matthew 26 tells of the woman who used valuable perfume to anoint Jesus and disciples bemoan that the money wasn’t used for the poor. But Jesus says the poor will always be with you and what she did was worthwhile.
As stewards, we may be called by God to support many different causes that bring glory to God, from education to the environment or the arts among many others. Jesus cared deeply for the poor, and even asked one rich man to give all that he had to the poor. But Jesus acknowledged that utopia was not possible until the New Heaven and Earth comes to pass.
As individuals and congregations, we encounter “neighbors” locally and around the world. There are homeless people who come to our door. And there are missionaries that we encounter with visions for God’s work. Someone in our congregation has a burden for the nation of Guinea Bissau. He visited and there is a congregation in that nation that now prays for our church. They are certainly our neighbors.
Most of us can and should give more to the work of the kingdom, but that can take many forms.
Two other small quibbles: Stearns quotes Gandhi saying how he loves Christ but not Christians. He bemoans the fact that Christians are not viewed favorably in much of contemporary American society and that we are hated in much of the Islamic world. He argues that if we give more to the third world, terrorist groups will have difficulty recruiting. (Though America has been unique in history in its giving to other nations, it has not exactly been acknowledged by al-Qaeda.)
Now while we certainly need to reflect the compassion of Jesus, we should not do so to be loved by the world. In John 15, Jesus said the world hated Him and would in turn hate His followers. Of the many wonderful and true reasons for giving more, the goal of being loved should not necessarily be one of them.
Finally, I was a bit bemused and annoyed when Stearns quotes Jimmy Carter claiming that the biggest problem in the world is the growing gap between the rich and the poor (over hunger, disease, terrorism, and, um, sin.) Now the prophets were certainly concerned about the wealthy oppressing the poor. But no evidence, except the word of the former president, is given that this is the GREASTEST problem. The wealth of America may grow and the poverty in such places as North Korea, Cuba and African nations may grow. And the growth of that poverty may well have nothing to do with America, but rather with the oppressive, authoritarian regimes rule those nations. And the dictators that oppress those people have often had the friendship and support of Jimmy Carter. So I don’t take his word as a very credible source.
But again, these are all quibbles. The overall message of “The Hole in the Gospel” is valuable. Most all of us need to do more for the poor in our neighborhood and the world. But we can only do our part, and trust God to care for the whole.