God, the Gospel, and the Gay Challenge — A Response to Matthew Vines

by Al Mohler

Tuesday • April 22, 2014

Vines

Evangelical Christians in the United States now face an inevitable moment of decision. While Christians in other movements and in other nations face similar questions, the question of homosexuality now presents evangelicals in the United States with a decision that cannot be avoided. Within a very short time, we will know where everyone stands on this question. There will be no place to hide, and there will be no way to remain silent. To be silent will answer the question.

The question is whether evangelicals will remain true to the teachings of Scripture and the unbroken teaching of the Christian church for over two thousand years on the morality of same-sex acts and the institution of marriage.

The world is pressing this question upon us, but so are a number of voices from within the larger evangelical circle — voices that are calling for a radical revision of the church’s understanding of the Bible, sexual morality, and the meaning of marriage. We are living in the midst of a massive revolution in morality, and sexual morality is at the center of this revolution. But the question of same-sex relationships and sexuality is at the very center of the debate over sexual morality, and our answer to this question will both determine or reveal what we understand about everything the Bible reveals and everything the church teaches — even the gospel itself.

Others are watching, and they see the moment of decision at hand. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann of Stanford University has remarked that “it is clear to an observer like me that evangelical Christianity is at a crossroad.” What is that crossroad? “The question of whether gay Christians should be married within the church.”  Journalist Terry Mattingly sees the same issue looming on the evangelical horizon — “There is no way to avoid the showdown that is coming.”

Into this context now comes God and the Gay Christian, a book by Matthew Vines. Just a couple of years ago Vines made waves with the video of a lecture in which he attempted to argue that being a gay Christian in a committed same-sex relationship (and eventual marriage) is compatible with biblical Christianity. His video went viral. Even though Matthew Vines did not make new arguments, the young Harvard student synthesized arguments made by revisionist Bible scholars and presented a very winsome case for overthrowing the church’s moral teachings on same-sex relationships.

His new book flows from that startling ambition — to overthrow two millennia of Christian moral wisdom and biblical understanding.

Given the audacity of that ambition, why does this book deserve close attention? The most important reason lies outside the book itself. There are a great host of people, considered to be within the larger evangelical movement, who are desperately seeking a way to make peace with the moral revolution and endorse the acceptance of openly-gay individuals and couples within the life of the church. Given the excruciating pressures now exerted on evangelical Christianity, many people — including some high-profile leaders — are desperately seeking an argument they can claim as both persuasive and biblical. The seams in the evangelical fabric are beginning to break and Matthew Vines now comes along with a book that he claims will make the argument so many have been seeking.

In God and the Gay Christian Vines argues that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.” He announces that, once his argument is accepted: “The fiercest objections to LGBT equality — those based on religious beliefs — can begin to fall away. The tremendous pain endured by LGBT youth in many Christian homes can become a relic of the past. Christianity’s reputation in much of the Western world can begin to rebound. Together we can reclaim our light” (3).

That promise drives Vines’s work from beginning to end. He identifies himself as both gay and Christian and claims to hold to a “high view” of the Bible. “That means,” he says, “I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life” (2).

Well, that is exactly what we would hope for a Christian believer to say about the Bible. And who could fault the ambition of any young and thoughtful Christian who seeks to recover the reputation of Christianity in the Western world. If Matthew Vines were to be truly successful in simultaneously making his case and remaining true to the Scriptures, we would indeed have to overturn two thousand years of the church’s teaching on sex and marriage and apologize for the horrible embarrassment of being wrong for so long.

Readers of his book who are looking for an off-ramp from the current cultural predicament will no doubt try to accept his argument. But the real question is whether what Vines claims is true and faithful to the Bible as the Word of God. But his argument is neither true nor faithful to Scripture. It is, nonetheless, a prototype of the kind of argument we can now expect.

What Does the Bible Really Say?

The most important sections of Vines’s book deal with the Bible itself and with what he identifies as the six passages in the Bible that “have stood in the way of countless gay people who long for acceptance from their Christian parents, friends, and churches” (11). Those six passages (Genesis 19:5; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10) are indeed key and crucial passages for understanding God’s expressed and revealed message on the question of same-sex acts, desires, and relationships, but they are hardly the whole story.

The most radical proposal Vines actually makes is to sever each of these passages from the flow of the biblical narrative and the Bible’s most fundamental revelation about what it means to be human, both male and female. He does not do this merely by omission, but by the explicit argument that the church has misunderstood the doctrine of creation as much as the question of human sexuality. He specifically seeks to argue that the basic sexual complementarity of the human male and the female — each made in God’s image — is neither essential to Genesis chapters 1 and 2 or to any biblical text that follows.

In other words, he argues that same-sex sexuality can be part of the goodness of God’s original creation, and that when God declared that it is not good for man to be alone, the answer to man’s isolation could be a sexual relationship with someone of either sex. But that massive misrepresentation of Genesis 1 and 2 — a misinterpretation with virtually unlimited theological consequences — actually becomes Vines’s way of relativizing the meaning of the six passages he primarily considers.

His main argument is that the Bible simply has no category of sexual orientation. Thus, when the Bible condemns same-sex acts, it is actually condemning “sexual excess,” hierarchy, oppression, or abuse — not the possibility of permanent, monogamous, same-sex unions.

In addressing the passages in Genesis and Leviticus, Vines argues that the sin of Sodom was primarily inhospitality, not same-sex love or sexuality. The law of Moses condemns same-sex acts in so far as they violate social status or a holiness code, not in and of themselves, he asserts. His argument with regard to Leviticus is especially contorted, since he has to argue that the text’s explicit condemnation of male-male intercourse as an abomination is neither categorical or related to sinfulness. He allows that “abomination is a negative word,” but insists that “it doesn’t necessarily correspond to Christian views of sin” (85).

Finally, he argues that, even if the Levitical condemnations are categorical, this would not mean that the law remains binding on believers today.

In dealing with the most significant single passage in the Bible on same-sex acts and desire, Romans 1:26-27, Vines actually argues that the passage “is not of central importance to Paul’s message in Romans.” Instead, Vines argues that the passage is used by Paul only as “a brief example to drive home a point he was making about idolatry.” Nevertheless, Paul’s words on same-sex acts are, he admits, “starkly negative” (96).

“There is no question that Romans 1:26-27 is the most significant biblical passage in this debate,” Vines acknowledges (96). In order to relativize it, he makes this case: “Paul’s description of same-sex behavior in this passage is indisputably negative. But he also explicitly described the behavior he condemned as lustful. He made no mention of love, fidelity, monogamy, or commitment. So how should we understand Paul’s words? Do they apply to all same-sex relationships? Or only to lustful, fleeting ones?” (99).

In asking these questions, Vines makes his case that Paul is merely ignorant of the reality of sexual orientation. He had no idea that some people are naturally attracted to people of the same sex. Therefore, Paul misunderstands what today would be considered culturally normative in many highly-developed nations — that some persons are naturally attracted to others of the same sex and it would be therefore “unnatural” for them to be attracted sexually to anyone else.

Astonishingly, Vines then argues that the very notion of “against nature” as used by Paul in Romans 1 is tied to patriarchy, not sexual complementarity. Same-sex relationships, Vines argues, “disrupted a social order that required a strict hierarchy between the sexes” (109).

But to get anywhere near to Vines’s argument one has to sever Romans 1 from any natural reading of the text, from the flow of the Bible’s message from Genesis 1 forward, from the basic structure of sexual complementarity, and from the church’s faithful reading of the Bible for two millennia. Furthermore, his argument provides direct evidence of that Paul warns of in this very chapter, “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

Finally, the actual language of Romans 1, specifically dealing with male same-sex desire, speaks of “men consumed with passion for one another” (Romans 1:27). This directly contradicts Vines’s claim that only oppressive, pederastic, or socially mixed same-sex acts are condemned. Paul describes men consumed with passion for one another — not merely the abuse of the powerless by the powerful. In other words, in Romans 1:26-27 Paul condemns same-sex acts by both men and women, and he condemns the sexual desires described as unnatural passions as well.

In his attempt to relativize 1 Corinthians 6: 9, Vines actually undermines more of his argument. Paul’s careful use of language (perhaps even inventing a term by combining two words from Leviticus 18) is specifically intended to deny what Vines proposes — that the text really does not condemn consensual same-sex acts by individuals with a same-sex sexual orientation. Paul so carefully argues his case that he makes the point that both the active and the passive participants in male intercourse will not inherit the kingdom of God. Desperate to argue his case nonetheless, Vines asserts that, once again, it is exploitative sex that Paul condemns. But this requires that Paul be severed from his Jewish identify and from his own obedience to Scripture. Vines must attempt to marshal evidence that the primary background issue is the Greco-Roman cultural context rather than Paul’s Jewish context — but that would make Paul incomprehensible.

One other aspect of Vines’s consideration of the Bible should be noted. He acknowledges that he is “not a biblical scholar,” but he claims to “have relied on the work of scholars whose expertise is far greater than my own.” But the scholars upon whom he relies do not operate on the assumption that “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life.” To the contrary, most of his cited scholars are from the far left of modern biblical scholarship or on the fringes of the evangelical world. He does not reveal their deeper understandings of Scripture and its authority.

The Authority of Scripture and the Question of Sexual Orientation

Again and again, Vines comes back to sexual orientation as the key issue. ‘”The Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of same-sex orientation,” he insists. The concept of sexual orientation “didn’t exist in the ancient world.” Amazingly, he then concedes that the Bible’s “six references to same-sex behavior are negative,” but insists, again, that “the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation.”

Here we face the most tragic aspect of Matthew Vines’s argument. If the modern concept of sexual orientation is to be taken as a brute fact, then the Bible simply cannot be trusted to understand what it means to be human, to reveal what God intends for us sexually, or to define sin in any coherent manner. The modern notion of sexual orientation is, as a matter of fact, exceedingly modern. it is also a concept without any definitive meaning. Effectively, it is used now both culturally and morally to argue about sexual attraction and desire. As a matter of fact, attraction and desire are the only indicators upon which the modern notion of sexual orientation are premised.

When he begins his book, Matthew Vines argues that experience should not drive our interpretation of the Bible. But it is his experience of what he calls a gay sexual orientation that drives every word of this book. It is this experiential issue that drives him to relativize text after text and to argue that the Bible really doesn’t speak directly to his sexual identity at all, since the inspired human authors of Scripture were ignorant of the modern gay experience.

Of what else were they ignorant? Vines claims to hold to a “high view” of the Bible and to believe that “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life,” but the modern concept of sexual orientation functions as a much higher authority in his thinking and in his argument.

This leads to a haunting question. What else does the Bible not know about what it means to be human? If the Bible cannot be trusted to reveal the truth about us in every respect, how can we trust it to reveal our salvation?

This points to the greater issue at stake here — the Gospel. Matthew Vines’s argument does not merely relativize the Bible’s authority, it leaves us without any authoritative revelation of what sin is. And without an authoritative (and clearly understandable) revelation of human sin, we cannot know why we need a Savior, or why Christ died. Furthermore, to tell someone that what the Bible reveals as sin is not sin, we tell them that they do not need Christ for that. Is that not exactly what Paul was determined not to do when he wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11? Could the stakes be any higher than that? This controversy is not merely about sex, it is about salvation.

Matthew Vines’s Wedge Argument — Gender and the Bible

There is another really interesting and revealing aspect of Matthew Vine’s argument yet to come. In terms of how his argument is likely to be received within the evangelical world, Vines clearly has a strategy, and that strategy is to persuade those who have rejected gender complementarity to take the next logical step and deny sexual complementarity as well.

Gender complementarity is the belief that the Bible’s teachings on gender and gender roles is to be understood in terms of the fact that men and women are equally made in God’s image (status) but different in terms of assignment (roles). This has been the belief and conviction of virtually all Christians throughout the centuries, and it is the view held by the vast majority of those identified as Christians in the world even today. But a denial of this conviction, hand in hand with the argument that sameness of role is necessary to affirm equality of status, has led some to argue that difference in gender roles must be rejected. The first impediment to making this argument is the fact that the Bible insists on a difference in roles. In order to overcome this impediment, biblical scholars and theologians committed to egalitarianism have made arguments that are hauntingly similar to those now made by Matthew Vines in favor of relativizing the Bible’s texts on same-sex behaviors.

Matthew Vines knows this. He also knows that, at least until recently, most of those who have rejected gender complementarity have maintained an affirmation of sexual complementarity — the belief that sexual behavior is to be limited to marriage as the union of a man and a woman. He sees this as his opening. At several points in the book, he makes this argument straightforwardly, even as he calls both “gender complementarity” and denies that the Bible requires or reveals it.

But we have to give Matthew Vines credit for seeing this wedge issue better than most egalitarians have seen it. He knows that the denial of gender complementarity is a huge step toward denying sexual complementarity. The evangelicals who have committed themselves to an egalitarian understanding of gender roles as revealed in the Bible are those who are most vulnerable to his argument. In effect, they must resist his argument more by force of will than by force of logic.

Same-Sex Marriage, Celibacy, and the Gospel

Matthew Vines writes with personal passion and he tells us much of his own story. Raised in an evangelical Presbyterian church by Christian parents, he came relatively late to understand his own sexual desires and pattern of attraction. He wants to be acknowledged as a faithful Christian, and he wants to be married … to a man. He argues that the Bible simply has no concept of sexual orientation and that to deny him access to marriage is to deny him justice and happiness. He argues that celibacy cannot be mandated for same-sex individuals within the church, for this would be unjust and wrong. He argues that same-sex unions can fulfill the “one-flesh” promise of Genesis 2:24.

Thus, he argues that the Christian church should accept and celebrate same-sex marriage. He also argues, just like the Protestant liberals of the early twentieth century, that Christianity must revise its beliefs or face the massive loss of reputation before the watching world (meaning, we should note, the watching world of the secular West).

But the believing church is left with no option but to deny the revisionist and relativizing proposals Vines brings to the evangelical argument. The consequences of accepting his argument would include misleading people about their sin and about their need for Christ, about what obedience to Christ requires and what faithfulness to Christ demands.

Matthew Vines demands that we love him enough to give him what he desperately wants, and that would certainly be the path of least cultural resistance. If we accept his argument we can simply remove this controversy from our midst, apologize to the world, and move on. But we cannot do that without counting the cost, and that cost includes the loss of all confidence in the Bible, in the Church’s ability to understand and obey the Scriptures, and in the Gospel as good news to all sinners.

Biblical Christianity cannot endorse same-sex marriage nor accept the claim that a believer can be obedient to Christ and remain or persist in same-sex behaviors. The church is the assembly of the redeemed, saved from our sins and learning obedience in the School of Christ. Every single one of us is a sexual sinner in need of redemption, but we are called to holiness, to obedience, and to honoring marriage as one of God’s most precious gifts and as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.

God and the Gay Christian demands an answer, but Christ demands our obedience. We can only pray — with fervent urgency — that this moment of decision for evangelical Christianity will be answered with a firm assertion of biblical authority, respect for marriage as the union of a man and a woman, passion for the Gospel of Christ, and prayer for the faithfulness and health of Christ’s church.

I do not write this response as Matthew Vines’s moral superior, but as one who must be obedient to Scripture. And so, I must counter his argument with conviction and urgency. I am concerned for him, and for the thousands who struggle as he does. The church has often failed people with same-sex attractions, and failed them horribly. We must not fail them now by forfeiting the only message that leads to salvation, holiness, and faithfulness. That is the real question before us.

Heaven is For Real: Is Discernment Dead?

Originally posted on Pulpit & Pen:

lemke

We have good reason to believe that discernment is floating dead atop the surface of the wide stream of American evangelicalism like a bloated corpse drifting with the current. As far as that goes, discernment may not be dead in America’s largest denomination, but it is certainly dying. An example for your consideration…

Dr. Steve Lemke, who can be seen here arguing the not-so-Traditionalist position in this PBS segment on Calvinism, is professor of religion and philosophy and serves as provost at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (SBC). According to the NOBTS website, Lemke’s teaching specialties include world religions, historical theology, soteriology and eschatology. In other words, Dr. Lemke is a learned man. And certainly, studying and teaching in the fields of theology, soteriology, and eschatology would make one well enough aware of the monumental Biblical challenges to the basic precept of Heaven is For Real and its subsequent assertions…

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J. C. Ryle on passive sanctification

by Jesse Johnson

clip_image001[4]The current debate about sanctification (does holiness come through personal effort, or is the best approach to sanctification to “relax” and trust God more?) is hardly limited to this age. J. C. Ryle fought the same battles over 100 years ago. Here are his comments on the idea that we are sanctified in the same way we are justified:

“I ask whether it is wise to speak of faith as the one thing needful, and the only thing required, as many seem to do nowadays in handling the doctrine of sanctification. Is it wise to proclaim in so bald, naked, and unqualified a way as many do that the holiness of converted people is by faith only, and not at all by personal exertion? Is it according to the proportion of God’s Word? I doubt it.

That faith in Christ is the root of all holiness; that the first step towards a holy life is to believe on Christ; that until we believe we have not a jot of holiness; that union with Christ by faith is the secret of both beginning to be holy and continuing holy; that the life that we live in the flesh, we must live by faith in the Son of God; that faith purifies the heart; that faith is the victory which overcomes the world; that by faith the elders obtained a good report—all these are truths which no well instructed Christian will ever think of denying. But surely the Scriptures teach us that in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith. The very same apostle who says in one place, “the life that I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God,’ says in another place, “I Fight,” “I run,” “I keep under my body”; and in other places, “let us cleanse ourselves,” “Let us labour,” “Let us lay aside every weight.”

Moreover, the Scriptures nowhere teach us that faith sanctifies us in the same sense and in the same manner that faith justifies us! Justifying faith is a grace that “worketh not,’ but simply trusts, rests, and leans on Christ (Rom 4:5clip_image002[8]). Sanctifying faith is a grace of which the very life is action: it worketh by love,” and, like a mainspring, moves the whole inward man” (Gal 5:6clip_image002[9])…

clip_image004[4]Without controversy, in the matter of our justification before God, faith in Christ is the one thing needful. All that simply believe are justified. Righteousness is imputed “to him that worketh not but believeth” (Rom 4:5clip_image002[10]). It is thoroughly scriptural and right to say, “Faith alone justifies.” But it is not equally scriptural and right to say, “Faith alone sanctifies.” The saying requires very large qualification. Let one fact suffice. We are frequently told that a man is “justified by faith without the deeds of the law” by St. Paul. But not once are we told that we are “sanctified by faith without the deeds of the law.”

Later, Ryle added this, which again seems so timely:

I must deprecate, and I do it in love, the use of uncouth and newfangled terms and phrases in teaching sanctification. I plead that a movement in favour of holiness cannot be advanced by new-coined phraseology, or by disproportioned and one-sided statements, or by overstraining and isolating particular texts, or by exalting one truth at the expense of another…and squeezing out of them meanings which the Holy Ghost never put in them… The cause of true sanctification is not helped, but hindered, by such weapons as these. A movement in aid of holiness which produces strife and dispute among God’s children is somewhat suspicious.

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Drowning in Distortion — Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”

Monday • March 31, 2014, Al Mohler

Noah2014Poster

My first experience teaching the Bible came when I was asked at the last minute to teach a Sunday School class of first-grade boys. I was only 16 years old, and I did not exactly volunteer to teach the class. I found myself telling a familiar Bible story to six-year olds and explaining it as best I could. There have been very few Sundays since when I have not taught or preached, usually to a congregation a bit less fidgety than my first.

You learn one thing fast when teaching the Bible to six-year-old boys — they often think they can “improve” on the story as found in the Bible. First-grade boys are big on special effects, blowing away bad guys, exploding just about anything, and what we might gently call “narrative overkill.”

That helps me to understand director Darren Aronofsky and his new film, Noah. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel started with the Old Testament narrative about Noah, just about 2,400 words in English translation, and exploded it into a huge Hollywood production.

What could possibly go wrong?

Controversy about the movie erupted before the film hit the theaters. Three Muslim nations have banned the film and a number of evangelical figures registered concerns. Most of these concerns seemed to be about additions Aronofsky made to the narrative. Seeing the film after knowing of these concerns, I expected to be both entertained and irked. The actual viewing of the movie was an altogether different experience.

Evangelical Christians tend to be either too excited or too exercised about Hollywood. There is a periodic swing between giddy excitement that Hollywood has decided to make a movie about the Bible or a Christian theme and, on the other hand, barely restrained outrage that Hollywood has brought forth some new atrocity. Actually, most celebrations and consternations about Hollywood are overblown. The film industry is all about telling a story and selling movie tickets. There are artistic elements, worldview considerations, and moral dimensions to be sure, but Hollywood is, after all, an industry.

Believing that evangelical concerns about Noah were almost surely overblown, I went to see the movie. I was wrong. The concerns are not overblown. My response is not outrage, however, but deep concern – and part of my concern is that so many evangelicals are, in my view, focusing on the wrong issues.

Aronofsky, who has described himself as a “not-too-religious Jew,” is a skilled storyteller. His movies tend to be pretentious, but rarely boring. He has, to say the very least, added a very great deal to the Bible’s account of Noah in Genesis. In itself, that is not the problem.

As A. O. Scott, film reviewer for The New York Times commented, “The information supplied about Noah in the Book of Genesis is scant – barely enough for a Hollywood pitch meeting, much less a feature film.” Aronofsky told Rolling Stone magazine: “The film completely accepts the text, the four chapters in Genesis, as truth – just like if I was to adapt any book, I’d try to be as truthful to the original material as possible. It’s just that there’s only four chapters, as we had to turn it into a two-hour long narrative film. In the Bible, Noah doesn’t even speak. So of course we’ve got to dramatize the story.” Boy, did he dramatize it.

Before making that the issue, however, we had better note that evangelicals are not necessarily outraged to any degree when Hollywood (or anyone else) dramatizes the story, even adding non-biblical elements. There is no cold-hearted innkeeper in the Gospels, nor a donkey carrying the expectant Mary, but they make their way into countless movies made by and for Christians. There is neither a drummer boy nor a drum in the birth narratives of Christ, but no one seems to complain that the drummer boy appears. Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.

Cecil B. DeMille added to Exodus to tell the story of the Ten Commandments, but that movie is loved by many evangelicals.

Why is Noah different?

Well, the problem is not that Aronofsky and Handel added to the Bible’s account. It is that they distort it to the uttermost, perhaps without even intending to do so. Since they knew that they had to “turn it into a two-hour feature movie,” they knew they had to invent a lot of material not found in the Bible. They may not have intended to distort the story as they did. Furthermore, Paramount Pictures had a big say in the final form of the film, much to Aronofsky’s frustration. The director and the corporation share responsibility for this movie.

The problem is not that the movie has to fill in any number of narrative gaps, or that Aronofsky used his imagination in so doing. His oddest characterization, by the way, may well be the “fallen angels” called the “watchers,” based rather loosely on the Nephilim found in Genesis 6:4. They appear in the film as giant figures made of something like rock and asphalt. They first appear as enemies of humankind, but one, speaking with the voice of Nick Nolte, protects Noah and convinces others to do likewise. They appear as mighty cartoon figures in the movie, but they really belong in a science fiction film.

In portraying the Nephilim this way, Aronofsky has not made these figures more strange than how the Bible describes them. The Bible actually presents them in even more bizarre terms. They are described as beings who were on the earth in those days, “when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and bore children to them.” This appears to be an indication that rebellious angels had sexual intercourse with human women, who bore sons described as “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” This understanding of the Nephilim seems to be affirmed in the New Testament in Jude, verses 6-7. Thankfully, this is not the Bible story I was assigned to teach those six-year-old boys many years ago.

There are big problems with how Aronofsky and Handel expand the narrative, even when we accept the fact that a film maker has to invent dialogue and embellish the narrative. Even as Aronofsky told Rolling Stone that he had tried “to be as truthful to the original material as possible,” he clearly decided to change key elements, rejecting the Bible’s account in some respects. He includes a wife for Shem on the boat, but when the ark begins its journey there are no wives for Ham and Japeth. Genesis states clearly that their wives were among the eight human beings who entered the ark. Aronofsky invents a scene in which a barely adolescent Noah witnesses the murder of his father, Lamech at the hands of the movie’s arch villain, Tubal-cain. Genesis makes that impossible. As a matter of fact, Aronofsky lifts Tubal-cain out of context in Genesis 4:22 as “the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron,” and puts him in the Noah narrative as Noah’s arch-rival, representing the line of Cain making war on the line of Shem. He even puts him on the ark, depicting Ham as his co-conspirator against Noah.

Aronofsky’s skill in cinematography and movie-making is clear. The visuals are often arresting and many of his narrative devices work brilliantly. Others are simply odd, like the suggestion that Methuselah would give Noah a hallucinogenic potion so that he can hallucinate God’s will. The list of odd elements would be very long.

But the odd elements are not the problem, the movie’s message is. Furthermore, the way that message distorts the Genesis account is a far larger problem when it becomes clear that the misrepresentation extends to the master narrative of the Bible – including the character of God.

Aronofsky presents the flood as the Creator’s judgment upon industrialization, urbanization, and ecological predation of humanity in the line of Cain. To be fair, there are elements of these themes in Genesis. But the Bible straightforwardly declares that the flood was God’s verdict on the sinfulness of humanity, seen in the wickedness and sinfulness that are described as “violence” and depicted, as in the tower of Babel narrative, as nothing less than idolatry. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuously.” [Genesis 6:5]

In Noah, the existence of humanity is a blight upon the earth. Rather than suggesting that humans had misused and abused the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28, human dominion is depicted as the fundamental problem. This leads to a horrifying anti-humanism in the movie that cannot be rescued by the (finally) rather hopeful conclusion, with Noah and his family depicted as placidly agrarian and vegetarian, restarting human civilization on a placid hillside. The covenant God made with Noah in Genesis 9 explicitly gives humanity animal flesh to eat, and the dominion and stewardship granted to humanity in Genesis 1:28 and re-set in Genesis 9:1-17 is a function of human beings made in God’s image. Image-bearing assigns dominion. The real question is what we will do with that dominion.

Aronofsky introduces Noah as a kind and caring family man, but his divine assignment turns the movie’s Noah into a sociopathic monster. At this point the movie veers into a radical distortion of the biblical account. Noah is now depicted as a madman ready to murder his own grandchildren in order to end humanity and rid creation of the human threat. This kind of distortion of the story is what led Christopher Orr of The Atlantic to refer to Aronofsky as “more Old Testament than the Old Testament itself.” The Old Testament, we might say, is Old Testament enough, on its own.

This not only misses the point of the Genesis narrative, it corrupts it. Aronofsky is telling a truly fascinating story in these segments of the film, but it is not the story of Noah as found in the Bible. Totally missing from the movie is the understanding that God is simultaneously judging and saving, ready to make a covenant with Noah that will turn the biblical narrative toward Abraham and the founding of Israel. God is spoken of in the movie, but he does not speak. He is identified only as “The Creator,” and he appears to be driven by an essentially ecological fervor. The entire context of covenant is completely absent.

God’s act of creation is both portrayed and celebrated as an act of divine glory and wonder, but Aronofsky cannot resist shaping the story to fit the theory of evolution, right down to the animation. The recasting of the creation narrative is not subtle.

The constant discussion of humanity as good or evil falls far short of the Bible’s treatment of sin. The problem is not that Aronofsky and Handel push an environmental message. There must surely be elements of that message in Genesis 6-9. The problem is their depiction of humanity as a blight upon the earth. The Genesis narrative clearly and consistently presents humans as divine image-bearers, though fallen. God’s purpose in the flood is not to destroy all humanity, but to begin anew with Noah as, in a sense, a new Adam. In this sense Noah and the ark function to point to what God will do for sinful humanity in accomplishing atonement for sin through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

Genesis presents Noah as a faithful and obedient man. His obedience to God’s command is evident in Genesis 6:22 – “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.” In Hebrews 11:7 we are told that Noah “in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.” In doing so, “he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” In 2 Peter 2:5, Noah is described as “a preacher of righteousness.” In no biblical text is he presented as a murderous sociopath whose own moral judgment on the wickedness of humanity is in any way central to the story. The Bible presents God as the central actor in the story – not Noah.

More than anything else, the controversy over Noah should lead Christians to understand something that should be our natural instinct. We must recognize that the Bible tells its own story infinitely better than anyone else can tell it – Hollywood included. The Bible has suffered cinematic violence at the hands of its friends as well as its enemies. This is not to argue that the Bible is off-limits to Hollywood or that Christians, among others, should not make films and movies on biblical themes and narratives. It is to state, however, that no movie, book, story, song, or other narrative device can do what the Bible does on its own terms.

Hollywood knows that Christian families are a vast market. TIME published a major news report on the efforts undertaken by Aronofsky and Parmount Pictures to sell Noah to the Christian community. Similarly, USA Today reported on Hollywood’s new interest in the Christian audience. The writer of that report, Scott Bowles, quoted Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University: “Hollywood has the same corporate and relativist values it has had for many years . . . .  The producers have, however, identified a market that is underserved and won’t come to the movie theater to watch crazy violence and sex-drenched plots.”

We are given all that we need to know about Noah in the Bible – and we need every word of the Bible. We cannot expect Hollywood to tell that story for us, or even to tell the story well. Our response to Noah should not be castigation and cultural outrage, but rather a sober realization that the story is ours to tell, and to tell faithfully.

In a lengthy essay for The New Yorker, Tad Friend recounted Darren Aronofsky’s road to making Noah. The essay is not for the faint-hearted. In it, Aronofsky declares Noah to be “the least Biblical Biblical film ever made.”

We can’t say we weren’t warned. And yet, Aronofsky is almost surely far off the mark when he makes that statement. Noah is not the least biblical movie ever made about the Bible. There have been worse, and will be worse again. The movie is not without its brilliance and moments of penetrating insight. But it gets the story line wrong, indulges in eccentric exaggeration, and distorts the character of both Noah and God. That is what surprised me. I expected to be irritated by the movie – but I found myself grieved.

Oddly enough, the most important statement about the movie came at the conclusion of A. O. Scott’s review in The New York Times. The review, like most in the Times, ended with a statement about the movie’s rating, usually detailing the reason for the rating in terms of sex or violence (or both).

At the end of Scott’s review of Noah we find these words: “’Noah’ is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and only Noah remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”

Scott’s point is clear enough – the Genesis account of Noah is messy and troubling and violent. Of course, it is filled with grace and mercy, too. The Bible tells us the story as we are to know it and tell it, and it is ours to tell. Again, the Bible is infinitely better at telling its own story than anyone or anything else, including and especially Hollywood. Perhaps the main lesson Christians are to learn from this movie is that if we do not tell the story, others will.

 

We Need God’s Word (the Bible) to Clarify His Whispers?

So said Lead Pastor John Burke in a sermon preached recently at Gateway Church in Austin, Texas.

The sermon text was 1 Kings 19 of course, and Elijah’s encounter with God while he was running for his life from Queen Jezebel and had taken refuge in a cave in the wilderness near Beersheba in Judah. Here’s the story:

9 There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19:9-13 (ESV) (Emphasis mine)

The main point of the sermon was that just as God spoke to Elijah in a whisper, he will speak to us the same way, prompting us to do certain things, or pursue a certain course of action. When God does prompt us by ‘divine whispers’, we need to be able to discern that it’s the actual voice of God. In the Pastor’s own words:

“God will use his Word to confirm His promptings.”

There are three principles to apply in our ‘discerning’.

God’s whispers:

  • are not self-centered,
  • ·are aligned with scripture
  • ·agree with the wise counsel of other believers

I’m not going to get into the rest of the sermon, largely a litany Bible passages ripped out of context mixed with Pastor John’s personal experiences with divine whispers from God. I just have a couple of questions..

If Ezekiel had absolutely no problem knowing it was the voice of God, both inside and outside of the cave and according to Pastor John, God whispers personally to us in the same way, why wouldn’t we know that it was God? Do you think that God would personally speak to anyone and not make it really clear that he was the one speaking?

If you can find a single instance in the Bible of God speaking personally to anyone, no matter how loudly or quietly, and the hearer not immediately knowing exactly who it was, I want to know.

World Vision and Why We Grieve For the Children

by Trevin Wax, The Gospel Coalition

World Vision has announced that its American branch will adjust its employee code of conduct to allow same-sex couples who are legally “married.”

Hoping to keep the evangelical organization out of debates over same-sex marriage, president Richard Stearns adjusted the employee code of conduct to sexuality within the confines of “marriage” whether between man and man or woman and woman. In other words, while declaring to not take a position on redefining marriage, his organization has redefined it.

Some observers are elated.

Evangelicals are shocked.

Many are outraged.

No matter what you think about this decision, I hope you feel a sense of grief… for the children. This is a story of deep and lasting significance, because there are children’s lives at stake in how we respond.

Children will suffer as evangelicals lose trust in and withdraw support from World Vision in the future. It will take time for evangelicals to start new organizations that maintain historic Christian concepts of sin, faith, and repentance.

In the meantime, children will suffer. Needlessly.

That’s why critics of the evangelical outcry toward World Vision will say, Get over it! Kids matter more than what men and women choose to do romantically!

Strangely enough, we agree. In fact, this is one of the main reasons we’re against redefining marriage. We believe kids matter more than gays and lesbians having romantic relationships enshrined as “marriage.”

Children are the ones who suffer when society says there’s no difference between a mom or a dad.

Children are the ones who suffer when a couple’s romantic interests outstrip a child’s healthy development, whether in no-fault easy divorce laws, or in the redefining of society’s central institution.

Children are the ones who suffer when Mom and Dad choose to live together, as if their relationship is one lengthy trial or audition, a decision that can’t provide their children with the security that comes from marriage.

Children are the ones who suffer when careers matter more than marriage, when romance matters more than reproduction, when sex is a commodity, when a marriage culture is undermined.

Children are the ones who suffer when organizations like World Vision, under the guise of neutrality, adopt policies that enshrine a false definition of marriage in the very statement that says no position will be taken.

Children are the ones who suffer when President Obama (rightly) mourns the rampant fatherlessness in the African-American community, while simultaneously campaigning for marriage laws that would make fathers totally unnecessary.

Children are the ones who suffer and die when “sexual freedom” means the right of a mother to take the life of her unborn child.

Sex is our god. Children are our sacrifice.

So, yes, we grieve for the children across the world who will be adversely affected by World Vision’s decision and the evangelical response.

But we also grieve for children here at home who are growing up in a culture in which sexual idolatry distorts the meaning of marriage and the beauty of God’s original design.

Today is a day to grieve for the children.

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