Life's busy, read it when you're ready!

Create a free account to save articles for later, keep track of past articles you’ve read, and receive exclusive access to all RP resources.

Browse thousands of RP articles

Articles, news,and reviews with a Biblical perspective to inform, equip, and encourage Christians.

Create an Account

Save articles for later, keep track of past articles you’ve read, and receive exclusive access to all RP resources.

We think you'll enjoy these articles:

Humor, Theology

Humor and the life of faith

"And I knew there could be laughter On the secret face of God"  – G. K. Chesterton

*****

Nothing is quite so ironic as to talk seriously about humor. Yet it would be perverse to treat the subject of Christian humor with irreverence or anything approaching vulgarity. And by Christian humor I do not mean those harmless puns and riddles that are often classified as Bible jokes. Who is the shortest person in the Bible? Who is the only person in the Bible who doesn’t have any parents?1 If Christian humor ended there, then we might feel slightly cheated. There must be more. And indeed, humor is more than an occasional joke; it is indicative of a broader attitude to life. We see this most clearly in the word “comedy.” In literature, the term means simply a story with a happy ending – it doesn’t even have to be funny. You might say that the story of salvation is a divine comedy, for it promises a life happily ever after. Of course, to unbelievers this faith in the afterlife is itself a joke. To some extent, then, the question is who will have the last laugh. So let’s take a closer look at this comedy of salvation. Does the biblical narrative include any humor, and what role should laughter play in our life of faith? Humor in the Bible When I was still growing up – a process that may not have ended – my father sometimes liked to refer to “humor in the Bible.” But looking back I had no recollection of what he actually meant by that. Was he referring to some of those funny names in the Bible, like the ones the prophets gave to their kids? Was he thinking of Joshua, the son of Nun? I wasn’t sure, and so I figured that writing this article would be like discovering a forgotten corner of my childhood. Childhood is, of course, an appropriate metaphor for thinking about humor. Those who have studied humor in the Bible suggest, for instance, that the sober attitude of grown-ups obscures the comic aspects of Christ’s rhetoric. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, tells how his son burst out laughing at Bible reading over the idea that someone might be so concerned about seeing a speck in someone else’s eye that he failed to notice the beam in his own eye.2 The child has not yet become accustomed to all that is at first glance merely preposterous or grotesque. Trueblood – whose views we’ll focus on here – believes that Jesus is not only a Man of Sorrows, but also a Man of Joys. Jesus’s humor comes from the incongruity of his sayings (particularly in his many paradoxes) and from his sense of irony. Surely, says Trueblood, there is an aspect of comedy in the blind leading the blind, in the notion of “saving by losing,” in the thought that a camel should go through the eye of a needle, in giving Peter the nickname “Rocky.” It is frequently the contrast between the literal and the figurative moment that provides a space for laughter, or at least for a smile. When Christ asks “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?” our trained inclination is to answer “No, because then no one can see the lamp.” A child might respond, “That would be funny, because then the bed might catch on fire.” The examples can be multiplied – at least according to Trueblood. They show Christ not merely as an ascetic and acerbic preacher – as we sometimes imagine John the Baptist – but as a man who drank wine in genial conviviality and spoke in surprising and shocking language. Whatever reservations we may have about this slightly irreverent view of the Savior, the resulting picture actually fits surprisingly well with the general Reformed worldview, which sees Christ as restoring and renewing life and culture. We all know of Luther’s hearty humor and his penchant for beer. What is humor? There are of course problems as well. If humor encompasses everything from outright jokes to fine shades of irony, then where do we draw the line? In addition, humor is fiendishly difficult to trace in written documents, for so much depends on tone and context. Take, for instance, Trueblood’s explanation of the following words of Jesus from Luke 12:58:

As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.

Trueblood is surely right that Jesus treats miscarriages of justice with a touch of sarcasm, but he pushes the argument too far when he tries to find the passage humorous: “What Christ seems to be advocating is a clever deal or a bribe. . . . Translated into our language, ‘It may prove to be cheaper to pay the officer than to pay the court, so why not try?’ . . . If this be humor, it is humor with an acid touch.”3 It seems more likely, though, that the adversary is not an officer of the law at all, but is rather a fellow citizen; what Jesus advocates is what we would call an “out of court settlement” – a common practice in ancient societies – and represents prudence, not humor. In the Old Testament There are two other sources of humor that require some attention. The first is, of course, the Old Testament. There are a number of places where God is said to laugh (Ps. 2:4, 37:13, 59:8; Prov. 1:26). This is the laughter of poetic justice: God laughs at the wicked. Surprisingly, the Psalms also suggest that the proper response to God’s laughing judgment should be joy: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:8-9; cf. Ps. 96). Judgment is no laughing matter, we instinctively feel. However, as the Philistines found out when they placed the ark of God in the temple of Dagon, God will have the last laugh: “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!” (1 Sam. 5:3). The man most famed for wisdom in the Old Testament also had a wry sense of humor, something that is often missed. Consider the following ironic passages from Ecclesiastes, that book that we take such pains to explain away:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1-2).

All things are wearisome more than one can say (1:8).

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (12:12).

Who writes a book to explain that everything is meaningless? The Teacher sounds tired before he even begins. In fact, in an amusing turn of phrase, he explains that he is too weary to explain weariness. Perhaps the appropriate response when faced with such irony is laughter. There is a bad sort of biblical humor But there is also a negative type of humor. There are hints of it in the nervous laughter of Sarah. This is the laughter of those who sit in the seat of scoffers. The man who suffered most from such mockery was Jesus. All those involved in crucifying him try to turn him into a joke. And the joke is always the same: how can a crucified man be king? The soldiers dress him up in a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns before they torture him. Pilate practices his own version of the laughter of judgment by placing a placard above his head that reads: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). The joke then gets passed on to the chief priests and the teachers of the law, who focus on the final paradox of Christ’s ministry: “‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him’” (27:42). The laughter of the cross is the laughter of Sarah magnified; it is the laughter of skepticism, and it is at heart a nervous defense against the laughter of faith and judgment. As Paul realized, the Christian faith is foolishness to the world, because doubt manifests itself through mockery and laughter. Laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy – the two poles are actually not as far removed from each other as we sometimes think. Since laughter lives on the border with terror and tragedy, it is not surprising that we also find it at the cross. True joy What does this all mean for our life of faith? An elder of mine once pointed out that one of the great gifts of the Christian religion is the joy it provides. And this joy is not simply confined to a kind of internal spiritual peace, although it is that too. The writer G. K. Chesterton suggests that, compared to the Christian, the secular man is generally happier as he approaches earth, but sadder and sadder as he approaches the heavens.4 True – but the happiness of the Christian also extends downwards – to the earth renewed in Christ. There remains one obstacle, however. Franz Kafka once said – in a comment about Christianity – that “a forced gaiety is much sadder than an openly acknowledged sorrow."5 I think this is exactly the problem we face as Christians today. How can we demonstrate the happiness that comes with the good news in a spontaneous way? Laughter is something that you shouldn’t force. So, how can you purposefully live a life of laughter and joy? I think it has to start with something further down in your heart; it has to start with faith and hope. If you start here, then laughter will inevitably come bubbling up. And this is not a nervous laughter, like the laughter of Sarah or the mocking of scoffers – this is a wholesome and healthy laughter. This is the joy of Christ. Endnotes 1 In case you haven’t heard these groaners: Bildad the Shuhite (i.e. shoe-height) & Joshua, son of Nun (i.e. none). 2 Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: HarperCollins, 1964). 3 Ibid., 66. 4 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in Basic Chesterton (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1984), 127. 5 Quoted by John F. Maguire, “Chesterton and Kafka,” The Chesterton Review 3.1 (1976-77): 161.

This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue. Conrad van Dyk is the author and narrator of the children's story podcast "Sophie and Sebastian."

Sexuality

Propaganda disguised as Sex Education

In 2009 Dr. Miriam Grossman (a medical doctor) released a book that explains the problems and agenda of the modern sex education movement: You're Teaching My Child What? A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Ed and How They Harm Your Child. Though it is an American book, it provides a lot of material that is helpful for people in other English-speaking countries. Grossman explains the underlying motivation behind many school sex education programs, and explains how this motivation leads to the deliberate distortion of sexuality information given to students. The organizations and their agenda First of all, it’s very important to know about the main organizations involved in promoting sex education. Many of us have heard of Planned Parenthood, the US’s biggest abortion provider. Another key organization is the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). Both Planned Parenthood and SIECUS are motivated by anti-Christian ideals. Grossman writes,

These organizations are still animated by the philosophies of the infamous sexologist Alfred Kinsey – whose work has been debunked – the birth control and eugenics advocate Margaret Sanger, the feminist Gloria Steinem, and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. These twentieth-century crusaders were passionate about social change, not health. Their goal was cultural revolution, not the eradication of disease.

Because of the cultural aspirations motivating these organizations, the materials that are produced for sex education classes are not just about the nuts-and-bolts of human biology. They are deliberately designed to encourage behaviors that are condemned by traditional Western morality. As Grossman puts it,

Sex education is about as neutral as a catechism class. And like a catechism, the “information” and “guidance” offered is designed to inculcate particular beliefs in young people.

In short, “Sex education is not about health – it’s a social movement, a vehicle for changing the world.” [Editor's note: that is made even more apparent with SIECUS' recent rebrand – they now want to be known as "Sex Ed for Social Change."] Alfred Kinsey Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the infamous sexologist mentioned by Grossman, was a prominent American researcher of the 1940s and 1950s. He produced groundbreaking studies on the sexual behavior of men and women in the United States. These studies claimed to demonstrate that the vast majority of people engaged in some form of perverse sexuality, such as fornication, adultery, homosexuality and more. On the basis of his studies, and the supposed normalcy of these behaviors, massive cultural and legislative changes were undertaken in Western countries. These changes were justified by Kinsey’s science. But there was a big problem. Kinsey’s so-called “science” wasn’t science at all. His research was deliberately skewed to generate results that would justify his left-wing social beliefs. Kinsey wanted to overthrow traditional morality, so he conducted his “research” in such a fashion as to produce results he could use to undermine conventional views about sexuality. Kinsey’s fraud didn’t get properly exposed until the 1980s when Dr. Judith Reisman (currently at Liberty University School of Law) carefully scrutinized what Kinsey had done and published her results. Unfortunately, outside of conservative circles, Dr. Reisman’s research has not been widely disseminated. She deserves a Medal of Honor or something like it. Anyway, it’s important to realize, as Grossman points out, “In the upside down world of sex education, the ideology of Alfred Kinsey has been enshrined.” SIECUS The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) was founded in 1964 by Mary Calderone, who had been a director of Planned Parenthood. Grossman writes that the focus of Calderone’s

newly launched organization, which was, by the way, founded with seed money from Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame, was not to treat or prevent disease. Like Kinsey, she was crusading for social reform. Her book for parents reads like a primer for his views, and quite a few Kinsey disciples had eminent positions with SIECUS

Hefner subsequently provided additional funding as well. That is to say, SIECUS received financial support from the sale of pornography. In short, much of the impetus for modern sex education in public schools is provided by organizations with a clear left-wing ideological agenda. Dr. Grossman’s experience For twelve years Grossman was a student counselor at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). She dealt with hundreds of students in their late teens and early twenties who had contracted a sexually transmitted disease (STD). She found that they had received sex education at school, but had not been warned about the harmful consequences that were likely to result from sexual activity. Grossman is not opposed to sex education as such. She is opposed to ideologically-driven sex education that deliberately withholds information from students in order to advance a political and cultural agenda. Pheromones and oxytocin Grossman is particularly sympathetic towards the numerous young ladies she counseled who have been harmed by premarital sexual activity. Recent medical research has helped to establish that women are especially influenced by male pheromones (a pheromone is a chemical produced by one person that can be perceived by other people) and the hormone oxytocin. Male pheromones “have psychological effects on women, like increased attention and a feeling of well-being.” Oxytocin, known as “the cuddle hormone,” is released in women who have physical contact with a man. Among other things, oxytocin promotes social bonding, leading (potentially, at least) to a certain degree of attachment to the man. The gist of all this is that young women who engage in premarital sex are likely to develop emotional attachments to their partners that can potentially cause intense emotional pain. Grossman believes this information should be shared during sex education so that girls can be forewarned about the likely emotional stress they will face from sexual activity. At this point, however, “These biological truths are omitted by the sex-ed industry because they fly in the face of the ideology animating their very existence.” Another important scientific finding involves the development of the cervix. Before a girl turns twenty, a region of her cervix called the “transformation zone” has a covering of cells that is only one layer thick. As she ages, the covering becomes 30 to 40 cell layers thick. But until then, there is little protection from viruses or bacteria. In other words, teenage girls are especially vulnerable to STDs, much more so than boys. Grossman writes,

Based on this finding alone – something gynecologists and pediatricians have known for at least twenty years, girls should be advised to delay sexual behavior. Yes, delay sexual behavior.

Anal sex Another area where sex educators fail to properly inform children has to do with the dangers of anal sex. These educators seem to encourage students to engage in any form of sexual behavior they desire (as long as the partner is willing), and anal sex is considered to be one of the legitimate behaviors to explore. Grossman points out that there is an inevitable “ick factor” in any discussion of anal sex. Anal sex inevitably and unavoidably involves contact with feces. However, she quotes a prominent sex education website as claiming that “negative attitudes about anal sex” sometimes result from a “disgust about feces” but “more of it is often based in homophobia and heteronormativity.” In this view, since anal sex is a common behavior of homosexuals, people who think it is gross are likely to be homophobes. Since homosexuality is good, anal sex must be good too! From a Christian perspective, this is obviously complete rubbish. Because of the strong support for homosexuality among sex educators, there is unwillingness among them to tell the truth about anal sex. Grossman has no such reservations and points out that

“feces are filled with dangerous pathogens: salmonella, shigella, amoeba, hepatitis A, B, and C, giardia, campylobacter, and others. These organisms and others can be transmitted during anal sex or oral-anal contact.”

From a health perspective, anal sex is dangerous (not to mention gross and disgusting). Grossman makes an appropriate biological conclusion: “Unlike the vagina, nature put a tight sphincter at the entrance of the anus. It’s there for a reason: Keep out!” Sexually Transmitted Diseases Another aspect that is improperly taught has to do with STDs. Sex educators do discuss STDs and how to prevent them. The emphasis is on how to avoid STDs, and failing that, how to get treatment. But Grossman says sex education curriculum does not discuss the emotional consequences of getting an STD. Many people who contract an STD get very distressed as a result of their diagnosis. But this is of little concern in sex education. Grossman writes,

Educators often mention the hardships of living in a sexist and homophobic society, but rarely describe how devastating it is to discover blisters “down there,” to worry about cervical cancer, and to learn that these viruses might stick around – for a long, long time.

All STDs are completely avoidable. Anyone who delays sexual behavior and finds a mate who has also waited will be free from STDs as long as they are faithful to each other. In other words, obeying the Bible in this area of life results in the avoidance of all STDs. Grossman argues that all of the negative effects of STDs should be taught. But this is not the focus of the sex educators or their websites:

Instead of sounding an alarm about health risks – the association of oral sex with cancer of the tonsils, for example, or the epidemics of HPV and syphilis among gay men – kids get a hefty dose of leftist indoctrination and recruitment. On these websites, the enemy is not genital infections; it’s our oppressive, heterosexist society.

Conclusion The controversies over sex education in North America will continue. This is all part of the ongoing culture war. Dr. Miriam Grossman has done parents a huge favor by analyzing the materials produced by the sex education movement and comparing them with modern medical knowledge. From a modern medical perspective (i.e., a genuine scientific perspective), the best thing for people is to save themselves for marriage and then remain faithful to their spouse. Does that sound familiar? Of course it does, because that’s what the Bible teaches. The science clearly demonstrates that monogamous heterosexuality is the healthiest sexuality for human beings. But as Grossman notes, that’s “information our daughters and sons never hear, because it challenges the institutionalized ideology and – gasp – confirms traditional values and teachings.”

A version of this article first appeared in the June 2016 issue.

Entertainment

Reading films: are Christians as discerning as they used to be?

"Moving pictures" have only the briefest of histories, spreading throughout North America early in the twentieth century. The first movie theatres were converted stores with hard wooden benches and a bedsheet for a screen, and they came to be known as "nickelodeons" because the admission price was five cents. Films were short – in 1906 the average length was five to ten minutes. In 1911 the earliest cinema music was played on tinkling pianos. During the silent film era, slapstick comedy – which depends on broad physical actions and pantomime for its effect rather than dialogue – was widely prevalent. With the advent of the "talkies" in the 1930s, screwball comedy became widely popular. It was laced with hyper action, was highly verbal, and noted for its wisecracks. In 1939 the first drive-in theatre was opened on a ten-acre site in Camden, New Jersey. A brief history of the Church and movies  When movies first because a form of widespread public entertainment, Christians were frequently warned against movie-going. Many "fundamentalist" pastors forcefully exhorted, "When the Lord suddenly returns, would you want to meet Him in a theatre watching a worldly movie?" In Reformed Churches too, Christians were also exhorted not to attend movie theatres. 1. The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) As early as 1908 the editor of the CRC denominational magazine, The Banner, complained:

"Theatre going supports a class of people that frequently caters to the lowest taste of depraved humanity, actors and actresses and their employers."

A general objection was that the movie industry as a whole tended to be "of the world," and thus against Christian values and the church… and ultimately against God's Kingdom. The CRC 1928 Report of the Committee on Worldly Amusements paid close attention to the question of worldliness in relation to the movies. The Report stopped short of calling the whole movie industry anti-Christian, but still issued severe warnings against attending movies. CRC Synod 1928 judged:

"We do not hesitate to say that those who make a practice of attending the theatre and who therefore cannot avoid witnessing lewdness which it exhibits or suggests are transgressors of the seventh commandment."

In 1964 the CRC took another serious look at the movies. The CRC realized that its official stance and the practice of its members were at great variance, producing a "denominational schizophrenia and/or hypocrisy." In 1966 a major report The Film Arts and the Church was released. It differed substantially from the earlier studies. Film, it said, should be regarded as a legitimate means of cultural expression, so the medium of film must be claimed, and restored by Christians. The Report was idealistic in hoping that members of the CRC would become discriminating and educated moviegoers, reflecting on and discussing films as part of their cultural milieu. The review of movies in The Banner began in 1975, but faced strong opposition. But in time the Reformed doctrine of the antithesis  (we should not be just like the world) became muted in the choice of movies made by CRC members. There was little difference in what they watched, and what the world watched. 2. The Protestant Reformed Church (PRC) The PRC was fervent in its denouncement of movies and movie attendance. The PRC considers all acting as evil, as is the watching of acting on stage, in theatres, on television, or on video. PRC minister Dale Kuiper said, "Certainly the content of almost 100 per cent of dramatic productions (movies, television programs, plays, skits, operas) place these things out of bounds for the Christian." But already in 1967 a writer noted that PRC practice did not match PRC principle: "When I was formerly an active pastor in a congregation, it was always a source of sad disappointment to me that so few of our young people could testify, when asked at confession of faith, that they had not indulged in the corruptions of the movie." And since 1969 and continuing till today, various pastors and professors have lamented that large numbers of PRC members watch movies, either in theatres, or more often on television. 3. Evangelicals Evangelicals have a history of making films as a way of teaching Christian values. The Billy Graham organization Worldwide Pictures made modest independent films to evangelize youth: The Restless Ones (1965), about teenage pregnancy; A Thief in the Night (1972), an end-times thriller; and the Nicky Cruz biopic, The Cross and the Switchblade (1970). A reporter dubbed them "religious tracts first, entertainment second." More recently, evangelicals made new producing sci-fi films about the apocalypse, which critics claim are embarrassingly poor-quality – artistically flawed – productions marketed in the name of evangelism. As examples, they refer to the three profitable Left Behind Movies (2000, 2002, 2005). There has also been a trend to create "family-friendly" movies. However, these movies tend to depict a world where all issues are plain and simple. Evildoers are destroyed, the virtuous rewarded, and often times the “good” characters have within themselves everything they need to secure their destiny. Clearly, then, this is not the real world. We've also seen, among evangelicals, a defense of less than family-friendly films. Already back in 1998, the Dallas Morning News ran a story about the growing number of Christians who advocate going to even R-rated movies. The reason? Evangelical filmmaker Dallas Jenkins said, “Non-Christians are just as capable of producing God-honoring and spiritually uplifting products as Christians are, and I've been as equally offended by a Christian's product as I've been moved by something from a non-Christian." Perspectives So how should Christians think about films? How can we approach them with discernment? It begins with recognizing that a film is more than a form of entertainment: it propagates a worldview. Films often: exalt self-interest as the supreme value glorify violent resolutions to problems promote the idea that finding the perfect mate is one's primary vocation and highest destiny Films also so often promote a view of romantic love as being passionate and irresistible, able to conquer anything, including barriers of social class, age, race and ethnicity, and personality conflicts. But the love it portrays is usually another euphemism for lust. In Images of Man: a critique of the contemporary cinema Donald J. Drew observes that in contemporary films the context makes it clear that love equals sex plus nothing. An underlying assumption in mainstream Hollywood films is that the goal in life is to become rich. And acquiring things is even supposed to make you a better person! But the values of consumerism, self-indulgence and immediate gratification can harm individuals, families, and communities.  Titanic (1997) Most films depict a world in which God is absent or non-existent. For example, there is nothing in the film Titanic to suggest that God is even interested in the fate of those on board the sinking ship. Whether uncaring or impotent, God is irrelevant in the world of this film. In his book Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, William D. Romanowski comments:

"Whatever outward appearances of belief dot the landscape of Titanic, they have little bearing on the faith of the main characters, especially when compared to the film's glorification of the human will and spirit."

The principal character Rose Bukater is engaged to Cal Hockley, who is concerned only with the approval of his social set. He equates wealth and social status with worth and character. Aware of the limited lifeboat capacity, Rose says, "Half the people on the ship are going to die." The snobbish Cal responds, “Not the better half.” These attitudes run against the grain of American values associated with freedom and equality. And because he is the obvious bad guy, the director has so framed things that whoever stands against Cal will be understood, by the audience, to be the good guy. And so we see in opposition to Cal, the free-spirited artist Jack who is the ultimate expression of pure freedom. His character traits, talent, and good looks easily identify him as the hero. And so the scene is set that when Rose and Jack have an illicit sexual encounter, the audience is encouraged to cheer this and want this, because it is for Rose a declaration of independence from her fiancé and her mother's control over her. The now famous sex scene sums up many of the film's themes: Forbidden love, class differences, and individual freedom. The Passion of the Christ (2004) There was, not so long ago, a film in which God was included. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was highly recommended by evangelicals for its realistic portrayal of Christ's suffering and death. But how true to the Gospels is the film? Why did the director have Jesus stand up to invite more scourging by the Roman soldiers? Was the suffering Jesus endured primarily physical, as this film portrays? Is the film historically accurate or is it a reflection of Gibson's theology? Co-screenwriter Mel Gibson said that he relied not only on the New Testament but also on the writings of two nuns, Mary of Agreda, a seventeenth-century aristocrat, and Anne Catherine Emmerich, an early nineteenth-century stigmatic. The violence in the film became a matter of much debate when the film was released. On the one hand, the head of an evangelical youth ministry said, "This isn't violence for violence's sake. This is what really happened, what it would have been like to have been there in person to see Jesus crucified." On the other hand, many critics cringed at the level of violence in the movie. Romanowski comments, "In my estimation, it is difficult to provide dramatic justification for some of the violence in the film." Star Wars (1977) While the inclusion of God in a film is a rarity, the inclusion of spirituality is not. One of the most iconic and controversial film series has been Star Wars. In 1977 it hit the big screens and it was an immediate success. Legions of fans formed an eerie cult-like devotion and the box-office receipts were astronomical. It originated a new genre – the techno-splashy sci-fi soap opera. The film definitely has a semi-religious theme. In From Plato to NATO David Gress writes that the Star Wars film saga broadcast a popular mythology of heroism, growth, light, and dark sides, wise old men and evil tempters, all concocted by the California filmmaker George Lucas. Much of the inspiration came from the teaching of Joseph Campbell, who claimed there is truth in all mythology. Campbell wrote in 1955 that "clearly Christianity is opposed fundamentally and intrinsically to everything I am working and living for." Meanwhile, John C. McDowell, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh finds something redemptive in Star Wars. He analyses the "classic trilogy" Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and the Return of the Jedi in his book The Gospel according to Star Wars: Faith, Hope, and the Force. He calls these films a "pop-culture phenomenon" of unprecedented stature and much more than mere entertainment. He suggests that the films carry even "more influence among young adults than the traditional religious myths of our culture." He argues that the films possess rich resources to change and transform us as moral subjects by helping us in some measure to encounter the deep mystery of what it means to be truly human. He even claims that Star Wars is "a parabolic resource that reveals something of the shape of a Christian discipleship lived under the shadow of the cross." He notes that the theology of the original trilogy is difficult to pin down – though the interconnectedness of all of life does seem to be the fruit of the Force in some way and this is therefore exalted as the movies' "good" or "god." McDowell also discovered pacifist themes in the films – according to him, Star Wars at its best possesses radical potential to witness to a set of nonviolent values. Critical assessment Should we warn Christians about the kind of movies they are watching, whether in a theatre on TV? Some say, "They are only movies. They won't influence us." I wonder whether the lack of critical thinking by evangelicals is the result of the tendency to privatize faith, confining religious beliefs to personal morality, family, and the local congregation, all the while conducting their affairs in business, politics, education, and social life, and the arts much like everyone else. Aren't even many Christians overlooking the persistence of evil in human history? We live in a fallen world that is at once hostile to God and also in search for God. Works of art can glorify God – including film art – but they can also be instrumental in leading people away from Him. Ever since the fall, human beings have been in revolt against God, turning their gifts against the Giver. Art, along with nearly every human faculty, has been tainted by the fall. Indeed, one of the first phases of the disintegration brought by sin was the usurpation of art for the purpose of idolatry (Rom. 1:23). Most people believe they are personally immune to what they see on the film screen or on TV. How do we grow in our faith? Not by watching and observing a steady diet of movies. We must restore the primacy and power of the Word of God. God gave us a book – the Bible – and not a movie. We should be critical in our thinking, and apply our Biblical worldview. Scripture calls us to "test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil" (1 Thess. 5:1-22).

News

Saturday Selections - Sept 30, 2017

This edition has been brought to you by the number 6: six items, six actions, and six surprises.... God painted ants on fruit fly wings Some things are just too cool not to share: God has crafted detailed pictures of ants on the tiny wings of a particular fly. Why? Because it is brilliant! Lots of astonishing pictures here. 6 actions to take when grieving the death of a loved one Thought this is a very short post, it has helpful suggestions summarized from the twice-widowed missionary-wife Elisabeth Elliot. 6 surprises every premarital counselor should cover Even the apostle Paul speaks of marriage as a mystery. To minimize some of the surprises, this is a good article for engage or newly married couples to read together. And it's a good reminder for all couples. More on why euthanasia safeguards can't work From the article:

"Safeguards are ineffective to prevent slippery slopes. As British moral philosopher Dame Mary Warnock has put it in another context, 'you cannot successfully block a slippery slope except by a fixed and invariable obstacle.' In governing dying and death that obstacle is the rule that we must not intentionally kill another human being."

The only flaw in this article is that the Christian ethic, serving as the foundation to Margaret Somerville's argument, is never acknowledged. So we need to take her point as to the weakness of "safeguards" but then be explicit as to the eternal standards we are appealing to. Or, in other words, don't just tear down the lie, as Somerville does here, but also present the full Truth, as founded on God's Word and his Law. How to avoid poverty Everyone wants to reduce poverty, and in the West, the way to do so is clear. But the in the West, our culture doesn't want to hear it if it involves doing what God wants. Now this article doesn't present it quite that way, but the prescription – finish high school, then get a job, then get married, then have kids – lines up nicely with God's will for marriage, and his commandment Don't commit adultery. Around the world, capitalism has helped raise millions out of poverty, but why? Perhaps because at its ideal (ie., not the crony capitalism type) it also lines up with God's commands not to steal or covet. On social justice I've only had a chance to dip my toe in this free resource, but this video series looks fascinating, and solidly Christian. It addresses questions like: "What is social justice today?" and, "What sort of social justice should Christians pursue?" (This does require you share your email address with them.)

Adult fiction, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

After Lewis and Tolkien

A conversation about Christian Fantasy with Bell Mountain author Lee Duigon

It’s hard to believe but C.S. Lewis has been gone from this earth long enough for his works to have entered into the public domain – in Canada that happens 50 years after the author’s death. His good friend J.R.R. Tolkien outlived him by a decade, but has been gone now for four. How is it, then, that their fantasy fiction remains as popular as it ever has been?

The answer, in part, is because the secular fantasy fiction doesn’t understand the way the world really is. That’s the secret to great fantasy writing – it has to be anchored in reality for it to have an impact. Yes, there can be wizards and elves and all sorts of unreal creatures, but at its core a fantasy novel has to say something truly true. So, while Tolkien was far more subtle than Lewis about the inclusion of his Judeo-Christian worldview, it was this worldview that allowed him to see and share truths about the pull of temptation, the strength of humility, and the nature of love. Lewis’s series is intriguing for children, but it is his Christian understanding of man’s failings and God’s grace that give the books enough depth for adults to read again and again.

However, if it was these two men’s Christian worldview that elevated their fiction, then why, in the decades since their deaths, haven’t we seen other Christian writers joining them at the top of the fantasy genre? Why, in fact, is most of the fantasy you’ll find in a Christian bookstore simply dreadful?

These are good questions, and Lee Duigon is the right man to ask. He’s not only blogged about how to improve the state of Christian fantasy (see www.LeeDuigon.com), he set out to do something about it himself. Since 2010 he’s published eleven books in his Bell Mountain fantasy series about a boy and a girl and an assassin and a wise clever squirrel-like creature who all set out on a quest. A review will be coming, so it will suffice here to say, these are a better brand of Christian fantasy fiction then we’ve seen in a long time. Mr. Duigon graciously agreed to an interview and what follows is an edited version.

Magic, wizards, elves, and dragons are core elements of most fantasy. But your Bell Mountain series doesn’t have any of them. Why not?

For one thing, wizards, elves, and dragons have all become clichés. Fantasy is supposed to ignite your imagination, but clichés have the opposite effect.

Wizards, elves, and dragons have been so overdone it’s like, “Oh, well, ho-hum, there’s some elves.” They’re so common in the literature, they might as well be checkout clerks at your local supermarket. In my books I have replaced these with figures which I hope readers will find refreshingly unusual. Instead of elves, I have little, hairy, manlike creatures – like Wytt – who fulfill the literary function of being “other than human,” but are intelligent and able to interact with humans. Instead of dragons, I have creatures patterned after little-known prehistoric animals. And instead of wizards, I offer some dangerous and nasty human beings who play at being wizards and create the illusion of having magical powers.

As for magic, well, the reason I don’t use it is because it seems a lazy writing device. Things in a story that get done by “magic” might also be accomplished by hard work, ingenuity, faith, hope, or love, and wouldn’t that be far more interesting?

We are God’s creation, living in the world He created and subject to His laws of nature, whether we like it or not. Genuine “magic” – as opposed to technology or trickery that only looks like magic – would circumvent or overturn those laws, thus making the magician himself a kind of god.

So on the one hand, the writer who resorts to magic is lazy, using it as a shortcut to getting things done. On the other, he is imagining something which is not allowed. God has not permitted us to do real magic. It would disorder His Creation – and surely we already make enough mischief without any magic whatsoever.

So would you still classify your books as fantasy, and if so, how would you define fantasy as a genre?

I say my stories are fantasy because they describe an imaginary world, different from ours but still subject to God’s laws. The whole point of fantasy is to fire up the reader’s imagination: to gain access to regions of the heart and mind not easily reached by other kinds of fiction.

An excellent example of this is the classic fantasy movie, The Princess Bride. There’s nothing in that story that violates God’s laws of nature. But it’s certainly full of unusual people, places, and things.

To that formula I have added the presupposition that God reigns in my imaginary world just as He reigns in our own. And following the trail blazed by C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia, I have the characters in my fantasy world interacting with God’s will and coming to know Him better – although their interaction with God is more like it is in our own world than in Narnia. God speaks to them through scripture, prophecy, and promptings of the spirit – with the occasional use of a spiritual messenger. For this my inspiration and model is not fiction, but the Bible.

Why do so many readers crave fantasy?

For the same reason we crave science fiction, romance, westerns or what have you. For escape, of course.

Now the whole idea of escape is to go to a better place, from a worse. People don’t tunnel into prison camps. So the fantasy reader has always the desire to seek a better world, an imaginary world, and escape into it, if only for as long as it takes to read the book.

How are we able to imagine a world that seems better to us than the one we live in? If you imagine yourself in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, for instance, you have monsters and dragons to deal with, not to mention a terrible Dark Lord. But you don’t have politicians’ lies to listen to, enormous taxes sucked out of your paycheck, race hustlers, militant sodomy, squawking idiot liberal churchmen, or natural beauty spots torn down to make way for “smart growth.” You don’t have any of that. So you escape to Middle-Earth for a few hours and are all the better for it.

How is it, asks Puddleglum in C.S. Lewis‘ The Silver Chair, that a few children playing a game can imagine a play-world that licks the supposed “real” world hollow?

Because the God who made us built into us an unfailing desire for something better.

Our worldly leaders promise us a better world, but can’t deliver. Our Science with one hand gives us air conditioning and YouTube, but with the other gives us nerve gas and Darwinism. Our worldly philosophers give us what can only be described as dreck.

God gives us salvation and a promise to regenerate His whole creation, but many of us don’t seem very interested in that.

Tolkien said that Christianity is the one myth that is true. We should be hearing that from our theologians and our pastors, but in all too many cases, we don’t.

Never mind. We’ve got the Bible, and it tells us the truth. That’s where the thirsting fantasy writer found the water of life – because that’s where it is.

What reasons are there for Christians, and particularly parents, to be wary of secular fiction? What are its most common faults?

Its biggest fault is that most of it seems to be written with the presupposition that there is no God.

It also omits any mention of description of the religious dimension of human life. If a space alien were to try to learn about life on earth by sampling our fiction, he’d never know there was any such thing as a religious impulse. And that’s not a realistic description of human life, unless you want to count what goes on in faculty lounges.

On your blog (LeeDuigon.com) you point to C.S. Lewis as an example of Christian fantasy done right. What does he get right?

In his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis makes it clear that the source and creation of all life is Jesus Christ, symbolized by the Great Lion, Aslan. And Aslan tells the children who come into Narnia from our world that they were there because He has called them; and that they will know Him in their own world, too – only “by another name.” It takes a very dense reader not to know that this other name is Jesus.

This is what Lewis gets right. In all seven Narnia books, the theme is getting to know Christ. For the most part, this is accomplished through obedience and love. This is a very big thing to get right.

Though you praise Lewis, you’ve also written that you respect parents who have a problem with the way Lewis uses magic in some sections of his books. Could you explain?

As a former atheist groping his way to a better knowledge of Christ, Lewis did makes some mistakes along the way. I cringe when one of his characters says, “It’s all in Plato.” Anyone who comes to Christ through Plato has performed a very neat trick.

The real magic in Narnia, the “Deep Magic,” belongs to Aslan/Jesus. In that sense it isn’t magic at all, but rather the underlying law of all reality.

But then there’s the White Witch, whose magic imposes winter on all Narnia for many decades. She is not human, and her “magic” can do nothing but destroy. She cannot create.

There’s also “minor magic” done by some of the characters in Narnia, and magic attempted by lawless human beings like Uncle Andrew – “magic” that never turns out as desired.

I can’t say why Lewis allowed this. His friend, Tolkien, warned him not to. Tolkien saw it as a flaw, and I agree. The only Biblical basis for it is Pharaoh’s magicians’ ability to imitate the first few miracles that God performed against Egypt through Moses and Aaron. The witch of Endor did succeed in raising the ghost of Samuel, but I always feel she was surprised it actually worked. But all the rest of the “magic” in the Bible is revealed as fraud; and that’s how I handle it in my own books.

By allowing a certain amount of magic in Narnia, Lewis deviated from the Biblical model. In deference to his evident love and reverence for Christ, I overlook it as a human failing. But those readers who are uneasy with it – and I’ve heard from quite a few of them – have nothing to apologize for.

I wanted to ask you about the role of magic in Christian and secular fantasy. I’ve just been reading a series by Christian author Andrew Peterson, his Wingfeather Saga, and he uses a conversation between mother and son to lay out his own thoughts on magic. After the son has a vision, his mother tells him:

If you asked a kitten, “how does a bumblebee fly?” the answer would probably be “Magic!” [The world] is full of wonders and some call it magic. This is a gift from the Maker – it isn’t something that [your sister] Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn’t seek to bend the ways of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit.

What do you think of Peterson’s take on magic here? And what principles do you think Christian authors should follow in using magic?

I like what Peterson writes here. It’s an elegant way of saying that just because we perceive a thing as “magical” doesn’t mean it really is. We are a long way from understanding everything about how God’s creation works. The kitten sees the bumblebee’s flight as “magic.” And if you brought a flashlight into the world of King Arthur, his people would think it was a magical item.

In my books I don’t use magic at all. My fantasy world contains a few pieces of technology left over from an ancient period of history. Readers will understand that these are not magical items, but the characters in the stories won’t. The few individuals who get a chance to use these items think they’re making magic.

If a Christian writer simply must use “magic,” he would do well to remember that all power comes from God. It would be a challenge to square that with a story in which a teenage girl uses a magic spell to lasso her dreamboy (ugh – there’s so much of that in YA fiction). As a matter of realism, I would always allow the appearance, or the illusion, of magic. We still have plenty of that in our own world today.

I would allow fantastic creatures, as long as they don’t violate the laws of nature – as would, for example, a flying hippopotamus. But to a person living in another world – a world, say, where unicorns exist – a kangaroo or a chameleon or an octopus might seem an utterly fantastic creature which he might refuse to believe in.

If a fantasy can’t stir up a sense of wonder, it isn’t much of a fantasy. As Ray Harryhausen used to say, no one goes to the movies to see a sinkful of dirty dishes.

But “magic” has been so overused in fantasy, it’s really more of a challenge to the writer’s imagination to get things done without magic.

Why is so much Christian fantasy fiction so bad?

It seems to be a rule of the market that when demand for a certain kind of story is high, but the supply is low, publishers fill the gap by publishing bad books. Fantasy, especially among young readers, is very popular. And there’s a demand for stories that don’t insult the Christian reader’s sensibilities. Simply, there isn’t enough high-quality fantasy being written to meet the demand. That’s because it isn’t so easy to write as a lot of people think it is.

Some Christian writers seem to think that the rules of literature shouldn’t apply to them because they’re writing about the Kingdom of God. So they feel perfectly free to traffic in corny dialogue, one-dimensional characters, ridiculous coincidences, and clumsy language. But all you wind up with, that way, is a bad book.

But while a lot of Christian fantasy is bad, a lot of secular fantasy is bad, too. I’ve read fantasies so awful, they could dry up ponds. I’ve read Christian fantasies in which the writer excelled at handling his theme, only to have his book go belly-up because he can’t write dialogue. Few authors have a gift for fantasy, but that doesn’t stop everyone and his brother from thinking they can write it.

What are some of the most common mistakes made in Christian fantasy writing?

Here’s a couple:

1) Write it as if it were a perfectly ordinary fantasy story, like everybody elses, only plug in a few scenes of characters praying or going to church.

Like Christian rap and Christian rock and Christians vs. Zombies video games, Christian fantasy is too often a not-very-good imitation of a secular pop culture product with some outward trappings added. I read a “Christian thriller” recently in which the good guys, every now and then, as if it had just popped into their heads for a moment, would pray or casually make some trifling Bible reference like, “Yeah, we gotta hang tough, like David.” Period. My rule of thumb is, if the story can get on without the “religion” you’ve put in it, then that’s not a critical element and you haven’t written a Christian fantasy.

And that’s usually because the writer has mistaken the outward appearance of Christianity for the real thing. It’s easy to throw in a few sentences that show your characters praying or going to church. The mistake in “Christian fiction” is to settle for that.

2) Have God give the good guys better magic than the bad guys have.

Remember what happened to Moses when he snapped at the children of Israel, “Must we fetch you water out of this rock?” God did all the miracles, but here was Moses taking credit for one of them.

I just read a book featuring a great big magical duel, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. “May the mightiest magician win!” is hardly a sentiment found anywhere in the Bible. What we do find in the Bible is God using weak and inconsequential things to confound the great and powerful. So Balaam is rebuked by his donkey, David slays Goliath, and the whole world is conquered not by armies, but by a baby in a manger.

Any attempt to write Christian fantasy must be anchored in the truths of the Bible, be they applied to this world or to an imaginary world, and must focus on the spirit of Christianity rather than any outward show of it – unless, of course, you’re writing about the vanity of outward show. In a Christian fantasy, the story must grow out of the writer’s quest to know God better and to share Him with the readers – and all without being heavy-handed, obvious, or preachy.

Over that last several years there has been a dystopian trend in the Young Adult bestsellers with books like The Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner. Many of these same books have teens killing teens. Why are Young Adult books so grim these days?

YA books are dark and unwholesome because they’re written by adults with troubled souls and a superficial understanding of life. Maze Runner, for instance, is idle, pointless cruelty, obviously not written by a teenager.

It’s a common fallacy among the pseudo-intelligent that whatever is ugly, painful, destructive or mean must be “realistic.” On the other hand, Divergent is written by a professing Christian who seems to be warning us not to let our world deteriorate into the grim and nasty world of her stories.

Every day, we’re all bombarded by bad news, always stuff we can’t do anything about. Enough of this will make anybody downhearted – which is just another good reason for writers and readers alike to steep themselves in the Bible.

Why should Christians read fantasy…and write it? How can fantasy be “truer” than some other genres of fiction?

Fantasy is like poetry. A good fantasy gets under your skin. It says more than it appears to say.

If you’re writing Christian fantasy, what you’re doing is going into the parable business. You’re writing extended parables. And although Christ’s short parables were fiction, He used them to tell truths. This is what our long parables should do.

Christians should write fantasy because there’s such a high demand for it, especially among the younger readers. If Christians don’t write it, non-Christians and anti-Christians will. Do we really want to concede such a big chunk of our popular culture to the godless? Christians should remember how energetically, a few years ago, the ungodly pushed – to teens and pre-teens – Philip Pullman’s aggressive atheist fantasy, The Golden Compass. We ought to be competing with junk like that and trying to crowd it off the shelves.

I won’t say Christians “should” read fantasy. It’s a matter of personal taste. But if the fantasy writer’s art is up to the challenge, and the reader is open to it, a visit to an imaginary world can sometimes shock the reader out of his habit of taking reality for granted: and by showing him strange new things, we may move him to see the old familiar things from a new perspective.

In my books I force my characters to live in contact with God and His will. He’s shaking their world, and won’t allow them to take Him for granted anymore. Let the reader wonder, “Wow! What must that be like?” If I’ve gotten the reader to think along such lines, I think I’ve done a good job.

This article was first published online on May 4, 2017.


We Think You May Like