Results tagged “media” from Reformation21 Blog

Patriot-olotry: The Intersection of Theology and Politics

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In many evangelical circles, it is still assumed that conservative theology means conservative politics. And to be fair, the same could be said of the "Evangelical left" and liberal politics. But when politics and theology are seen as synonymous, it is typically not theology that is primary. The reason for this is simple. A robust biblical theology does not support the hyper-individualism and consumerism needed to maintain public interest in today's modern politics. Nevertheless, modern politics needs to be cloaked in religious language in order to carry the necessary gravitas. The end result is that theology becomes the handmaiden of political agendas. In turn, patriotism becomes one and the same with Christianity for so many. Among the multitude of factors that have given rise to this fact in the United States is the combination of American exceptionalism and Dispensationalist theology.

American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States is qualitatively and fundamentally different and better than other nations. The reasons behind this widely held belief are varied. The amalgamation of a Puritan history, Protestant work-ethic, manifest destiny, and a general pragmatism have all helped shape the belief that God has, in fact, blessed the United States in a way that He has not blessed other nations.

The belief in American exceptionalism was wedded to the growing theological movement known as Dispensationalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. Dispensationalism, a novel theological movement that was popularized by J.N. Darby and C.I. Schofield, convinced Christians that they could most certainly find American exceptionalism in the Scriptures. Through the vehicle of Dispensationalism, America became the pinnacle of Christendom, the "City on a Hill," but not in the manner it was originally used by John Winthrop when he quoted Matthew 5:14 in 1630. Winthrop argued that the eyes of the world would be upon their colony and if they dealt falsely with God, then God would make them a byword. Winthrop saw no special virtue or exceptionalism in his colony, rather he used it as a call to actually live out their Christian faith in spite of their inherent sinfulness. Instead, American evangelicals began to see the United States as THE beacon of God's divine light and the highpoint of humanity. For example, the fiction series, Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins presents a Dispensational view of the end times, which makes clear that the US and the modern nation-state of Israel are the principal players in God's great redemptive plan of history. Any attitude that suggests that the US has a divine right to global supremacy, is pervasive. During the 2012 presidential election cycle, Republican nominee Mitt Romney often referred to the United States as "the greatest hope in the world." This view of American politics and patriotism cloaked in theology is what I call Patriot-olatry. It is a worshiping of one's country and a particular political agenda as if it were the biblically ordained way to worship the one true God.

Faithful Christians cannot allow their thinking on how to live their faith in the current culture to be primarily shaped and formed by talking heads, whether they are "fair and balanced" or they "lean forward." The news media is the megaphone of modern politics. As such, Christians must be cautious when watching. The old adage, "follow the money" is appropriate. The owners and stakeholders in the various news media companies have a corporate obligation to improve the financial bottom line. These conglomerations must turn a profit. This often runs at odds with the pursuit of publishing journalistic truth. The reporting on most cable news stations typically serves only to confirm prejudices and to inflame passions among those already on board. This generates greater viewership which increases ad revenue which enriches the media company. Patriotism for them means dollars.

Patriotolatry is dangerous because it flies under the radar for so many American Christians. After all, it can feel dangerously  like faithfulness. But when the church begins to wed itself to one particular nation-state, then it begins to prioritize and emphasize its nationality or patriotism as greater than God's holiness and his global plan for the spread of the gospel.

I am deeply thankful that I have the privilege of living in the United States. I believe that the principles upon which it was founded are rooted in a biblical understanding of human dignity and justice. As such, opportunity has been afforded those who live here that would not have happened in other countries. But as Christians we cannot look at the global scope of the Gospel and think for a moment that the United States is biblically more important than any other nation, tribe, or people. If the apostle Paul could write, "there is neither Jew nor Greek...for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28) then we certainly cannot now say that America has any special claim on God's Kingdom. Imagine what an Iranian Christian would think if he were to enter most evangelical churches in America. He would be forced to denounce his Iranian-ness while they affirm their American-ness. The Gospel must be bigger than our patriotism.

 

The World's True Hope

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Americans have come to one of the more exciting portions of the quadrennial election cycle in the national conventions of the two main parties. This invariably means non-stop media attention, partisan revelry, messianic symbolism, and the occasional significant speech. Without dwelling on the details, it may suffice to say that Christians are considerably less enthusiastic in 2016 than in prior years. The evangelical hope of cultural power through political engagement has dimmed, both on the left and on the right. American Christians look to the political parties and see little hope for the values and principles we have held dear.

Instead of confronting this situation with dismay, biblical minded Christians will have seen this coming, based on the Scripture's assessment of secular culture and history. Consider the very start of secular culture in Genesis 4. Here, we may deduce precisely the values and priorities that have in time captured American culture. It all started in Genesis 4:17, when Cain "built a city." (It was probably a fairly small walled town, but it was a start for human culture.) Its founding premise was self-will in place of reliance on God's will. There can be little doubt that Cain built his city as protection from the threat of harm, since he expressed this very fear in Genesis 4:14. Yet Cain did not need walls, for God had promised him protection (Gen. 4:15). Moreover, Cain's punishment for slaying his brother Abel was to remain "a wanderer on the earth" (Gen. 4:14). That didn't fit Cain's plan at all, so usurping God's will through self-will, he founded secular culture in his own city.

Notice, too, how Cain names his city. Throughout Genesis, godly people named places for the praise of God's glory. Not Cain! "He called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch" (Gen. 4:17). What Cain cared about was the glory of his own achievements and those of his progeny. Likewise, secular culture is all about self-glory, with no concern for the glory of God.

Fast forward few hundred years to the seventh from Adam in the line of Cain, Lamech and his three sons. Here we see how secular culture is fixated on the sensual and worldly, with no concern for godly spirituality. Genesis gives the names of Lamech's two wives (imagine that - a reinvention of marriage!) and his daughter. Without giving the details, they all refer to the beauty and sex appeal of the women. How we have evolved since then! Then we consider the staggering achievements of Lamech's sons, who between them pioneer economics, the arts, and science (Gen. 4:20-22). These are good things in and of themselves, just as American culture is extraordinarily impressive in its worldly achievements. Noticeably absent, however, is worship and the knowledge of God. If Lamech founded a university, it would have impressive colleges of business, arts, and science, but alas no school of divinity.

So here was the founding of secular culture, based on the brilliant talents of the earliest humans. It is impressive and forward moving! But it is also self-willed, self-glorying, and sensual/secular. Sound familiar? Were we expecting something different due to American exceptionalism? The biblical fact is that once the influence of God's Word has receded from public life, there is no other possible trend for fallen human society. To cap it off, Lamech determines to use these cultural achievements not for civic refinement but to cement a tradition of rivalry and war (see Lamech's song, Gen. 4:23-24, undoubtedly performed in gangsta rap.)

As the Democratic and Republican conventions meet this month prior to squaring off in the fall, a biblical analysis of them is bound to see far more in common than in distinction. To be sure, there are meaningful differences in the two parties and I would never say they don't matter. But as twin secular movements, they are bound to draw from the playbook of Cain and his offspring. Thus, both conventions will give no place for God's Word, will glory in men, women, and earthly prowess, will highlight the fleshly desire for pleasure and prosperity, and both will take up the combative militancy of Lamech: "I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me" (Gen. 4:23). To be fair, much of this is what political parties are supposed to do: they need to care about the economy, promote their own candidates, and sharpen swords against enemies, even if their primary enemies are sadly one another. But for the moral and cultural concerns of the followers of Christ, the likelihood of hope emerging from a now strictly secular process was never going to be great.

So where are Christians to look in seeking for hope in 2016? This answer is given in the last two verses of Genesis 4, which recount the line of the godly through Adam and Eve, Seth, and then Enosh. Here is the great statement that should fuel the imagination of Christians in America today: "At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord" (Gen. 4:26). Here we see the church in its infancy: in worship, prayer, witness, and faith in Jesus Christ.

Let me work this out briefly. Notice, for the first time in biblical history that there is public gathered worship of the people of God. While Cain and his line built their city, Seth and his family made of the church their spiritual city. Calling on the name of the Lord means that they worshiped according to God's self-revelation. They put their focus upwards towards God and prayed publicly. (Is there any greater indictment of evangelicals amidst the cultural ruin of our time that we still have so few prayer meetings?) They bore testimony to God and his saving promise (notice in verse 25 that Eve named Seth as the new "offspring" to replace Abel - i.e., she was trusting in the promise of the Savior through her line - Gen. 3:15). Their hope was in the Savior to come and they bore testimony to him before the world.

The world before the flood is a microcosm of all history. Genesis 4 details stunning earthly achievements and growing power in Cain's secular line. The church's spiritual presence seems so small in comparison. But Adam's line through Seth kept meeting, praying, and proclaiming the promised Savior. While Lamech's sons pioneered arts and industry, Seth's sons promoted worship according to God's Word. Throughout those long centuries, God preserved and blessed his godly people. In time, God's judgement fell on the wickedness of Cain's culture and by Genesis 6 all that was left in the world was the church.

What is the hope to which Christians should be looking in this world? Our hope is not in the secular city, which in time always reverts to the Cainite mean. Our hope is in God, on whom we call, to whom we pray, to whom we offer worship, and for whom we proclaim the saving work he has done and is doing through his Son, Jesus. This means that the world's true hope is in the faithful Christian church. So if you find yourself frustrated watching CNN or FOX News, perhaps you might turn off the television and gather for family worship. While I would never want to discourage Christians from legitimate callings in the public arena, you will find true hope by investing in your church. If there is to be a Christian hope for America in our time it will be because what was said of the line of Seth is said of us: they "began to call upon the name of the Lord." And let us not forget the gospel promise that goes alongside: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13). There is the true and only hope for the world in 2016. Centered on this hope, Christians need not be dismayed after all.

 

Trained

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It was an article about a European film director, usually hymned to the skies as a master craftsman and genuine visionary. It led me to an extended synopsis of one of his more recent films. I will not go into details, but it was a blow-by-blow account of the plot, complete with spoilers. The film was a showcase for the director's usual themes, and manifested his skill in carrying his audience along. It was this latter capacity which intrigued me, yoked as it was with the thematic and visual content of the film. Reading the synopsis gave me the opportunity to consider in the cold light of day what I would have been watching, and to consider what I would have been thinking and feeling had I been watching this film.

My responses might have been, fairly crassly, divided into two categories. There would have been responses arising from my fallen-though-redeemed humanity and my remaining sin: the fascination with the perverse, the indulgence of sinful sexual desires, and the satisfaction that comes from revenge, for example. Then there would have been responses that might have been traced more to common grace and something of the image of God: anger at injustice and cruelty, grief over loss, sorrow over suffering.

But here's the thing: as I worked through the synopsis, I began to understand that there was a developing twist in the tail (not to mention the tale). Up to this point, all one's responses - more or less sinful or righteous (though you will appreciate that I am not for one moment suggesting that you want to watch this film) - were being tagged to certain persons, events and relationships, running down what you might call normal channels. Then, at the denouement, when the twist in the tail becomes a sting, there would have been this horrible moment of torsion. At the moment of the reveal your reasonably normal though not necessarily righteous responses - loathing for this character, pity for that; physical attraction to or sexual desire for the one, anger at another - would be suddenly, violently, aggressively re-ordered. It is the moment at which you realise that all the categories in which you have been working are not what they seem, that the routes down which your thoughts and feelings were running are actually carrying you to a radically different location than the one you were anticipating.

Now, I am not suggesting that every film (or any other medium) does this or does it invariably. Many films run very predictably to the outcomes you can predict from the first three minutes (think of just about any action film you wish to name). Others build a sense of tension before leaving you hanging with questions (Christopher Nolan seems to enjoy this). Others revel in this unsettling twist, this re-ordering of all your categories and expectations.

But have you ever stepped back and considered the level of mental and emotional and moral manipulation to which you are subjecting yourself? Even if there is no twist, it does not mean that you are not being trained to think and feel. Rather, you are having certain channels dug ever deeper and reinforced. This is the way to think, and feel, and act. These are the correct intellectual assessments, the appropriate emotional dispositions, the right moral judgements. Perhaps the film that leaves you hanging suggests that there are no resolutions, no right or even knowable answers.

Where there is a twist, have you wondered at the level of intellectual, emotional, even moral reorientation that might be occurring? If your sense of justice is suddenly ripped to shreds, and you realise that wronged character you have been rooting for is actually the perpetrator of the crime? If the sexual desires that have been consistently stirred up are suddenly revealed to have been directed toward someone who is not of the gender that you had been led to believe? If the person you have been horrified by as morally corrupt suddenly turns out to be, in essence, the closest thing you have to a hero?

These are not the only possibilities, but I wonder how much of this is happening, hour by hour, day by day. We complain about the ignorant bewilderment that there is in the world, at the erosion of common grace, at the confusion of moral categories, at the seemingly irresistible slide toward Sodom and Gomorrah. But - without wishing to sound paranoid - have we considered the influence of these kinds of media on the thinking, feeling and judging of the world? If these influences are being perpetrated by men and women with a thoroughly godless outlook and a very deliberate agenda, then the outcome will be entirely predictable - a thoroughgoing confusion and dissolution of thought, feeling and morality.

The same happens, in measure, among Christians. Some of us expose ourselves, perhaps thoughtlessly or even arrogantly, to what might be called a drip-feed for consistency were it not a torrent for volume, a relentless flow of the sludge of carnal attitudes and appetites. This flow threatens to overwhelm and erode all our distinctive thinking and feeling, to re-order our intellectual assessments, re-direct our emotional dispositions, and re-align our moral judgments. Isaiah made it clear: "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Is 5.20). Yet how often we allow such men and women unfettered access to our minds and hearts, competing with the revelation of God for our intellectual, emotional and moral allegiance. Then we are surprised at how much like the world the church has become, as if it were a thing unexpected, despite having made or allowed the world to be our teachers. It is hard enough to hold fast at the best of times; how much more when we thoughtlessly or arrogantly surrender ourselves to such influences! Under such circumstances, it will - it must! - have an effect on us.

I am not suggesting that the answer is a wholesale retreat from every medium of communication, any more than I think that Christians should try to take over the radio stations, television stations, and Hollywood studios, and go toe-to-toe with the godless in terms of production in the hopes that we can somehow start to push back.

But perhaps the first part of the answer is real discernment. First, discernment in whether to watch at all, because the first line of defence might be and perhaps should more often be the off-switch. A healthy dose of Philippians 4.8 would go a long way in some circles. Then, discernment in how to watch: we need to be aware that these words and images that flow into us are having an effect upon us, even in matters that might at first seem negligible or innocent. We must be conscious of how we and others are being manipulated and trained, and we must resist it where - deliberately or not - it skews all our categories. We must develop our intellectual, emotional and moral faculties through the Word of God: that must be our first, fundamental and final standard. Then, whatever and whenever we watch and hear, willingly or unwillingly, let us never suspend those biblically-tuned and biblically-attuned faculties, but rather bring all to the touchstone of Scripture, viewing and listening to all through the filter of divine revelation, and continue to think and feel and judge as God intends.

Try this exercise: for yourself, your friends, your children, for whomever. Think back to what you have watched or heard or read recently. Write out a synopsis. (Perhaps some would be surprised how spiritually ugly some graphic sounds-and-images appear when reduced to black on white, when our emotions are not being carried along and we are not more-or-less willingly suspending our faculty of discernment.) Trace the development of character and plot, note the ways and means in which your thoughts, feelings and judgements are being tagged or yoked, channelled and directed and perhaps manipulated. Consider what you are being taught and how you are being taught it. And then ask, if you are a child of God, "Is evil being switched for or confused with good, and darkness for light, and bitter for sweet? Are my foundations being shaken, and how and in what way and to what ends? Is this the way my heavenly Father would have me think? Is this conforming me to Christ?"

To be sure, there may be times when you are able to say, "I can keep enough distance here: I can read this article, watch this documentary, follow this series, read this book, watch this film, hear this program, and I can discern the processes at work, and establish a filter, and guard my heart." At other times you should say, "I do not have the wisdom to discern these things, and - even if I do - I would be a fool to imagine that I have the strength to stand," and so you would flee for safety. When you can see the manoeuvres of the enemy, even where you cannot prevent combat, you can at least prevent surprise. If we learn to see the battle in these terms, we might just begin to learn to fight the battle.