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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).

Adult non-fiction, Book excerpts, Politics

What is Principled Pluralism?

Our country is made up of many people and many faiths. How can the government best resolve the clash of values that will inevitably result? Can the government operate from some sort of "neutral" perspective that doesn't elevate one group's beliefs over another's?  In this excerpt from Dr. Van Dam's “God and Government” he explains that such neutrality isn't possible, and isn't desirable. But harmony between believer and unbeliever can be had, under a "Principled Pluralism" that recognizes God as supreme.

*****

"Principled pluralism" recognizes the pluralism of contemporary society but contends that biblical norms need to be recognized and applied in order for government and society to function according to God’s will. When this is done, society benefits for God established the norms for humans to live together peacefully and for the benefit of each other. Principled pluralism has the following distinctive basic principles. 1) No neutral “non-religious” ground    There is no morally neutral ground. All of life is religious in nature and both Christians and non-Christians have religious presuppositions which they bring into the public square. Also secularism and the denial of God’s relevance for public life is a religious system. It is, therefore, impossible to restrict religion to the private personal sphere of home and church and to insist that the public square is without religious convictions. Principled pluralism opposes a secularized public square which bans religious voices and practices except its own. Christians have the obligation to influence the public discourse in a biblical direction. Principles derived from Scripture need to be part of the debate in the public square so that arguments can be made for a public policy according to the overriding norms of God’s Word. 2) All know God’s law Although God’s special revelation in the Bible is normative for all of life, God has revealed enough of his eternal power and divine nature in creation and in the nature of things to render all people without excuse. He has written his law in their conscience (Rom 1:18–21; 2:14–15). In this way God has a claim on all creation, including the civil authorities. Before his throne they are without excuse if they suppress the truth and refuse to see the light of God’s gracious demands and promote sin (Rom 1:18–19). 3) Government’s role is to maintain justice and righteousness The civil government is God’s servant to maintain justice and righteousness (Rom 13:1–5). To understand this mandate properly, one must realize that God gave each person an office or offices in life, be it as a parent, a church member, a plumber, a husband, or whatever. If a government is to maintain justice, it must see to it that these offices can be exercised. Or as Gordon J. Spykman put it:

“The state should safeguard the freedom, rights, and responsibilities of citizens in the exercise of their offices within their various life-spheres according to their respective religious convictions. The government is obliged to respect, safeguard, preserve or, where lost, to restore, and to promote the free and responsible exercise of these other societal offices. That is what God commands the state to do to fulfill the biblical idea of public justice.”

4) Government’s authority is limited Principled pluralism affirms that a government’s authority is limited because God has ordered society in such a way that different structures make up the whole. These structures, such as civil government, the family, church, and the market place, each have their own sphere of authority which should not be transgressed by another societal structure or sphere. Government has the duty to recognize this diverse reality and to promote the well being of the different spheres of authority found within society by safeguarding their existence and ensuring their continued health. 5) Government doesn’t oversee the Church Principled pluralism also recognizes that civil government does not have the authority to decide what constitutes true religion. For that reason, government cannot favor one religion over another or enforce, for example, the religion of secularism in society. Within certain limits, such as the need to restrain evil, all religions must be treated alike and be given the same freedom and opportunities. This excerpt is reprinted here with permission. To get a copy of “God and Government” email info@ARPACanada.ca for information (the suggested donation is $10). Or you can get a Kindle version at Amazon.ca or Amazon.com.

Soup and Buns

Should Introverts be expected to act like Extroverts?

“You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.” This quotation from a tongue-in-cheek article by Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic Monthly summed up his premise that Extroverts do not understand or fully appreciate Introverts. Although I knew that I was an Extrovert, I found the actual definitions a bit surprising. Tiring… or energizing? Introverts are people who “find other people tiring,” who need to re-charge after a certain amount of socializing. They mull things over inside their brains and then talk about them. Being alone with their thoughts is as “restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.” One suggested motto for them is, “I’m okay, you’re okay – in small doses.” Rauch’s own formula is that he needs “two hours alone for every hour of socializing.” A Google search estimates that about 25% of people are truly Introverts, but in the “gifted” community they are a majority. Extroverts are “energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone.” They figure things out by discussing them with other people, and think by talking. They tend to dominate social settings with their “endless appetite for talk and attention.” Understanding is a one-way street Society in general views Extrovert behavior as more desirable, and this can sometimes be taken to a fault when Introvert behavior is criticized or not appreciated for its strengths. For instance, an Extrovert might be described as outgoing, happy, bighearted, vibrant, warm, and as a confident leader who is “a real people person.” Introverts are often described as loners, reserved, guarded, and taciturn (inclined to silence; reserved in speech; reluctant to join in conversation). It is as though an individual’s worth is determined only by their observable interactions in a group. Rauch suggests that Introverts more often understand Extroverts because the latter put all of their thoughts and feelings out on the table. His concern as an Introvert, is that:

Extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through…. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion.”

I wonder if any other Extroverts find themselves cringing and remembering times when they too felt offended because someone didn’t want their company. Other differences Extroverts tend to think that a lull in conversation is a bad thing, and they can feed off of small talk or deep conversation and enjoy large groups. Introverts need more time to think through what they will say and tend to dislike small talk while enjoying more meaningful discussion, especially in a more private setting. Extroverts feel a need to “draw out” the Introverts and get them to participate, because to them participation is essential. Since they cannot imagine that a person might enjoy sitting quietly off to the side, they take on the role of encourager. Unfortunately, it often comes across to the Introvert as controller instead. Smiley face :) Expectations exist regarding facial expressions too. Smiles are expected as part of good manners, so we give them whether we feel like it or not. Often if a person’s face goes to its default serious expression, people jump to the conclusion that he is upset or depressed, whereas he might just be pondering a weighty subject or listening to conversations around him. Rauch suggests that Introverts may be less smiley, but not necessarily less joyful. The differences are something to be considered in regards to church and family activities. As one Introvert explained to me, “At Ladies’ Bible Study, I often start formulating an answer to a question, but by the time I figure out what I want to say they have all gone on to a new subject or maybe even several subjects, so I rarely get to say anything.” Perhaps this is why some people feel more at home studying the Bible and praying with only a few friends. I wonder if our quick-sound-bite culture has lured us away from valuing long pauses with time to reflect? I’ve read that in some Japanese company meetings, they present the information and then sit in silence for a long time while everyone just thinks. What an Introverted thing to do! My friend went on to say, “The same thing happens when our entire family is together.” Some family members would prefer more two-on-two social activities and fewer or less lengthy whole group situations. It is possible to consider both the Extrovert’s and the Introvert’s preferences. Conclusion God tells us to love one another, and the more we understand one another, the more we will know how to keep this commandment. We may have lived our entire life thus far “not knowing what we didn’t know.” But now, we know.

This article first appeared in the May 2012 issue. Sharon L. Bratcher’s “Soup and Buns” book includes 45 of her RP articles. For information contact sharoncopy@gmail.com.

Assorted

Mental illness: responsibility and response

Back in Grade 6 my twin daughters came home talking about that day’s lesson in Health class. They were learning about something called “the blame game,” and why it’s not an appropriate response to the difficult situations in which we find ourselves. THE BLAME GAME Probably we all know how to play the blame game. We are criticized by our supervisor at work, and we’re quick to point to the circumstances that led to our poor performance. Or I’m in a tough conversation with my wife, and she’s making some accusations, but I’m throwing them back with some of my own. Sometimes the blame game is played in the church too. A person blames his lazy attitude on the way that he was raised as a child. Someone blames his lack of church contributions on his high load of debt. I suspect that we don’t usually have patience with this kind of blame-shifting, and we want to hold people to account. But what about some other scenarios? Can we excuse certain sinful behaviors because of the presence of a mental illness? Should we make allowances and exceptions because of how a person is afflicted in his or her mind? What is the balance of a person’s responsibility and their illness? As fellow members in Christ, how can we respond in a way that will not only help the person, but also honor the holy God? TWO SCENARIOS Ponder a couple of scenarios so that you can understand what I mean, and so that you can also appreciate the challenge of sorting out a fitting response. There is a sister in your congregation who is only very rarely in church on Sundays – maybe once per month, sometimes less. It comes to light that she has an intense anxiety about coming to church. She fears almost everything about it: being surrounded by other people, having to speak with other people, being in an enclosed space for more than an hour. She agrees that God wants her to gather with his people, and that it’s important for her faith, but she can’t do it. Is she is breaking the fourth commandment, and should she be under discipline? Or does her illness – this extreme phobia – excuse her lack of attendance? There is a brother who is struggling with addiction to pornography. He has admitted that for the last five years he has viewed pornography on an almost daily basis. Some accountability has helped, but the brother admits that he still finds ways to access sexually explicit material. As the months go by, he seems to be growing more entrenched in his sin, and he is less open to the guidance of fellow members. He recently said that the fault for his sin is in his brain, that his addiction to sex means that he is incapable of resisting. Is this a clear cut case of unrepentant sin against the seventh commandment? Many more scenarios can be described. But the critical question is this: Are there times when, because of my brain, I am not responsible for my behavior before the Lord? ENCOUNTERING MENTAL ILLNESS We’re speaking about mental illness, but it’s good to back up for a moment and offer a definition and then list a few examples. First, a loose definition: A mental illness is a clinically significant health problem that affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people. Second, in our life together as believers, what mental illnesses are we likely to encounter? There is depression, dementia, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, panic disorder, attention deficit disorder, anorexia, bulimia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and various extreme phobias. We might also encounter mental health difficulties that arise because of addictions to drugs and alcohol. BLAME THE BRAIN? [caption id="attachment_9605" align="alignright" width="355"] 1998 / 204 pages[/caption] So here’s the question: How much can we blame the brain? Now, if you’re hoping for black-and-white, binary approach, you won’t read it here. If you’re looking for a formula or equation that you can use in these kinds of situations, you’ll have to look elsewhere. And there surely isn’t one! As already noted, this is a complex area to navigate. No two situations are the same because of the individuals involved, their predispositions to developing mental illness, the particular illness, and the history and context of each situation. Still, we can take into account some important considerations. I want to acknowledge that I’m relying on many of the insights from the book called Blame it on the Brain? by Ed Welch. Welch explains that there is a view today that almost everything begins in the brain. All our behaviors are caused by brain chemistry and physics: “My brain made me do it.” As a consequence of viewing the problem as strictly physical, the answer is often strictly physical too, as in: “I have a chemical imbalance in my brain, so how can I level that out?” Or, “My child is being hyperactive at school and disrupting the class, so what medication can he take to help him behave?” SOLUTIONS IN SCIENCE? Sometimes it’s very tempting to conclude that it is“all upstairs,” a matter of the brain. For example, when someone is in the darkness of depression, we can talk to them at length; we pray with them; we read Scripture to them. There are months of intensive spiritual effort, and nothing seems to work. Despite our best efforts, the person’s faith is struggling mightily. They say that they feel “dead” inside, and miles away from God. Then they go to a psychiatrist... he prescribes some medication, and in weeks the depression starts to lift! The person begins to talk about church in a more positive way, and to read the Bible again, even enthusiastically. So was it all in the brain? Did a dose of medication really solve it? Does the brain – a biological entity – really have so much influence on our spiritual life? The same thinking is applied to other areas of behavior. Some people argue for a biological basis of homosexuality. They also argue for a biological basis for anger, and disobedience to parents, and worry, drug abuse, and stealing. These are all brain problems, they say, not sin problems. Sometimes they can even point to evidence which suggests, for example, that the brains of pathological liars are actually physically different from the brains of “normal people,” people who are wired to (usually) tell the truth. As Christians, we have to sort through this. We acknowledge that science can help by teaching us something about how the brain works. Yet science is not just raw data. It is data that has been interpreted by fallible humans, people who have their own worldviews and weaknesses. Science too must be made subject to the Bible. WHO WE ARE So to help us, we need to consider what the Bible says about who we are. The LORD created us as complex beings, as a natural organism that is at the same time being indwelled by a supernatural spirit. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, for instance, Paul describes us as spiritual beings who are clothed in an earthly tent. This two-fold composition is seen throughout the Bible, and we notice it particularly at death, when the soul or spirit goes to the Lord and the body stays behind and is buried in the ground. Despite the separation that happens at death, when we’re living we are one person, an intimate unity of spirit and body. So how do spirit and body relate? How do these two substances function together? At a minimum, we can say that they are mutually interdependent. We know this from experience: the way that your body feels very much affects your spirit; the activities that your spirit chooses are worked out in the body, both good and bad. Ultimately, though, the spirit or the heart is the moral captain, the “wellspring” of our life (Prov 4:23). It’s the heart that empowers, initiates and directs. And the problem is that our heart is inclined to evil. DIRECTED BY THE DOCTRINE OF SIN So when it comes to questions of responsibility and response, the Bible’s teaching about sin is essential. Our position on this doctrine will affect everything that follows, and it will shape the answers that we give to these tough questions. I understand that mentioning sin in the context of mental illness can make people uneasy. You’ve probably heard the horror stories about people telling those who are struggling with depression, “You just have to pray more. Try to read the Bible more.” That’s a response which essentially says, “You’re feeling so miserable because you haven’t done something that you need to – it’s because you’ve sinned.” I certainly don’t advise that approach, in general. Yet it’s true that sin is a reality, and it’s our deepest problem, one that affects absolutely every aspect of our life. The Scriptures teach that all human beings are born as sons and daughters of Adam. Without the Holy Spirit’s intervention, we are dead in trespasses and sins, without any inclination to seek God or do what is good. It’s not that we don’t understand right and wrong, it’s that we choose not to live according to God’s truth. So if sin is a deeply rooted problem, if it’s as deep as our very nature as human beings, we need to conclude that the brain itself is unable to make a person sin or to prevent a person from following Christ. The Scriptures teach us to say that any behavior which does not conform to God’s commands or any thought which transgresses his prohibitions, is something that proceeds from the sinful heart. And it is sin. CREATED AS RESPONSIBLE That’s not how God made us, of course. When God created us in the beginning, He made us in his image. Part of that means that we were created with the ability to make moral decisions. Consequently, as God’s creatures we are responsible for our behavior – whatever that behavior is, and whatever the circumstances. This idea of our responsibility before the LORD is seen, for example, in the laws of Leviticus. There it says that even if a person sinned unintentionally, without meaning to, they needed to present a sacrifice of atonement (Lev 5:17). They weren’t excused because of a lack of intent, but they were held to account. Upholding this sense of responsibility actually shows respect for a person. Holding them to account is something that recognizes their dignity as human beings, made in the image of God. As an example, say you have a son who continually breaks your household rules. Because you’re a nice person, you always excuse him, and you find reasons not to punish him: he’s young, he’s immature, he has a lot of pressures at school. It feels like you’re being merciful. But ultimately, you’re not treating your son with respect for his dignity as one created in God’s image. You’re implying that he’s too weak to handle the consequences, or too dumb to figure out a better alternative. You’re not helping him to grow in his sense of responsibility, while the loving thing would be to let him experience consequences. In the same way, we are responsible before God our Father. He doesn’t give us a free pass for any sin, because He made us to serve and obey him in all things. Next we’ll see how this truth relates to the way that we try to help our brothers and sisters who are struggling with mental illness. THE LIMITS OF THE BRAIN To this point, we’ve said that the brain itself is unable to prevent a person from following Christ. The Scriptures teach that any behavior that does not conform to God’s commands, any thought that transgresses his prohibitions, is something that proceeds from the sinful heart. God created us as responsible beings but through our own fault we have been deeply affected by sin. Yet there is more that must be said. An over-simplified answer doesn’t help us. In his book Blame it on the Brain? Ed Welch speaks about three categories: When the brain can be blamed: There can be mental illness that affects brain functioning in a way that leads to sin. For example, people who are suffering from dementia might say and do very hurtful things. A person with dementia might make sexually suggestive comments to women, or she might be sinfully demanding toward family members. We are right to be immensely patient in these cases because of the obvious illness and impairment of the brain.Having said that, we know that brain problems can expose heart problems. The damaged brain is not generating sin. It’s simply taking the cover off things that were previously hidden in the heart, like a poor attitude toward women, or a demanding spirit. When the brain might be blamed: A physical change in the chemical levels of our brain can lead to certain conditions, such as depression or ADD. This is why medications that address the imbalance can have such an effect on behavior.Even so, while psychiatric problems can have this physical cause, there can be a spiritual element too. Most mental illnesses are hybrids, a combination of physical and spiritual problems. For instance, an anxiety disorder can arise from factors that are outside a person, such as living in a world that is fallen and under the curse, or dealing with a very difficult work situation and many demands at home. Combine that with a biological predisposition to anxiety, and you’d say a person is almost destined to suffer with it.Conversely, a depressive disorder can also be a consequence of sinful choices that the person has made. A person might be living in the misery of unconfessed sin, living far from God. In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that they have no rest (see Psalm 32 or 38). This is a heart problem that is manifesting itself in the brain. When the brain cannot be blamed: There are behaviors that are physical, and they definitely have a mental component, but they cannot be blamed on the brain. Take homosexuality as an example, which some will say is biologically determined. This is unclear, but even if there was evidence for the gay gene, we must respond in a biblical way. And that is to say that homosexual activity is forbidden by the Lord. We can be influenced by our genes, but that’s much different than being determined by them. At most, our biology is like a friend who tempts us into sin. Such a friend might be bothersome, but he can be resisted. We don’t have to go along with him.Alcoholism is another example. It’s called a disease, and in the secular setting it’s often spoken of in those terms. Sometimes an alcoholic will say, “That’s the disease talking.” There could even be a genetic predisposition towards alcoholism, yet the Bible states that drunkenness is a sin, and in the end we also have to treat it as such. WHAT ABOUT ADDICTIONS? “Addictions” is a much-used term today. The difficulty is that it is a very elastic and ambiguous category, and it covers everything from frivolous activities (being addicted to certain shows on Netflix) to far more serious (being addicted to drugs). While the term is misused, it is true that an addict can feel that he is trapped and out of control. While the Bible doesn’t directly mention addictions, it does talk about our motivations and desires. It recognizes that there are forces so powerful they can overtake our lives. Yet our addictions are more than self-destructive behaviors; they are violations of God’s law. An addiction is about our relationship with God much more than about our biology. When we see the spiritual realities that are behind our addictive behaviors, we find that all people serve what they love: either our idols, or God. As for the question of responsibility, we must be clear that an addiction begins with a choice. Idols exist in our lives because we invite them in and love them. Once they find a home in us, they resist leaving. They change from being servants of our desires, to being masters. Like James writes in his first chapter, “Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.  Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (1:14-15). When we repeatedly choose to do evil, these decisions can also be accompanied by changes in brain activity. It doesn’t mean that the brain has caused the decision, but the brain renders the desires of the heart in a physical medium. Welch says that “it’s as if the heart leaves its footprints on the brain.” That helps us to understand the research which suggests that the brain of an addict is different from the brain of a “normal” person. What has been going on in the heart, month after month, year after year, is being represented physically, with changes in the way the brain operates. This doesn’t prove that the brain caused the thoughts and actions; rather, brain changes can be caused by these behaviors. Once again, it started with sin. AN APPROACH FOR HELPING It’s time to draw some of this together in an approach to the question of responsibility and response. Bear in mind that every situation is different, and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. But I hope that some of these guides can be helpful. Distinguish between symptoms: When there is mental illness, there can be a host of symptoms. And it’s important to distinguish between spiritual and physical symptoms and to consider whether the Bible commands or prohibits this behavior.For example, with depression, the spiritual symptoms are feelings of worthlessness, guilt, anger, unbelief, and thanklessness. These are heart issues which need to be addressed with Scripture and prayer. But depression also has physical symptoms, such as feelings of pain, sleep problems, weight changes, fatigue, problems with concentration. This set of difficulties requires a different response, but they do need a response. We are not our genes: There are genetic problems, and even genetic predispositions toward things that are sinful. But we are not our genes. The Scriptures teach that we are born as sinners, and that sin arises naturally in our heart. We enter the world as slaves of sin, but we are still blameworthy for surrendering to sin. So even if it were discovered that we are predisposed to certain sinful behaviors like alcoholism or homosexuality, this would not eliminate our responsibility for such sinful actions. Our individual makeup and background provide context for sin, and may fuel the craving for sin, but these things don’t take away the accountability for our sin. Don’t rush to medicate: We mentioned earlier that psychiatric disorders sometimes respond to medication. There can be a real benefit, so this becomes our reflex response: we assume a prescription will fix the situation, and we advise a visit to the local psychiatrist. Yet we shouldn’t rush to medicate. It can be effective with some people, not all. There can be adverse effects to almost every tablet, and there can be a danger of over-medication. More to the point, we have to remember that medication cannot change the heart; it cannot remove our tendency toward sin, revive our faith, or make us more obedient. Maintain a sense of responsibility: God created us as responsible beings, for we were made in his image. This means that He holds us to account for what we do. We diminish a person’s God-given dignity by looking at them and seeing only their infirmity, and not their responsibility. If we write people off because they have depression, it doesn’t help. The person concludes, “This is what the church thinks of me – I’m a screw-up, I’m damaged goods, and I’m not going to get better.”Scripture directs us to this principle of responsibility too. Think of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:48, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” We can almost always require of people that they give an account of their conduct. The same text teaches us that not everyone is the same. Some have received more blessing, others less. One person’s situation in life is far more difficult than another’s. It doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible, but it means we have to weigh their responsibility in the light of everything else we know about them. Be patient: Trying to help people with mental illness can be frustrating. If we haven’t experienced anything like it ourselves or among those who are close to us, it is hard to relate. We might get exasperated with their constant struggles, their ups and downs, and behaviors that seem inexplicable. Sometimes we want to give up, but we need to be patient.Think of what David says in Psalm 103:14. He says, “The LORD knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” That’s a mark of loving and attentive parents: they know their kids, “they will know their frame” – what they’re made of. Parents can see pretty quickly when their kids are tired, or when they’ve had a rough day at school. And so parents will try hard to fight against their own impatience, and try to cut the kids a little slack. God is a Father who sees the weaknesses of his children from a mile away. He knows our frame: the Father knows exactly where we’re come from in life, and He knows the good and the bad that we’ve gone through. The LORD also understands what we’re made of, and that no matter how we seem on the outside, we’re weak: physically, emotionally, spiritually weak. We don’t have it together, so He is patient with us.  CONCLUSION In conclusion, let’s be reminded of our goal as fellow members of the church: we want to care for each other in a Christ-like way (Phil 2:1-4). Our desire is to see our fellow members enjoy life in God’s grace and service. Helping them effectively requires us to take into account the full picture of who they are, including when there is the presence of mental illness. We don’t let them blame it, and we don’t ignore it, but we try to help them be faithful to the Lord even in the midst of their struggles of spirit and body.

Dr. Reuben Bredenhof is pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Mount Nasura, Western Australia. This article first appeared in two parts in Una Sancta the denominational magazine of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia

Assorted

Older men still have a job to do

Faithful children of God may look forward to sharing Jesus’ glory in the presence of the Father. “To live is Christ; to die is gain.” Why, then, does the Lord God not take people home to Himself as soon as they become empty nesters or, perhaps, when their spouse dies? Why does He let the older become old?

The question is important, if only because there are numerous older men in the churches who feel they have no task to do, are out to pasture. In this article we will consider Paul’s instruction concerning the “older men” as he words it to Titus 2:2:

Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.”

To give you the punch line right away, God keeps older men on earth because He uses them to build up His church.

Men are not women

God created two genders in the beginning, but did not make them at the same time. He first made a man, and placed him in the Garden with the command to work it and take care of it (Genesis 2:15). He was, in other words, responsible, and commissioned to take initiative in fulfilling his duties before God.

The Lord saw that it was not good for the man to be alone, and so made a “helper” (Genesis 2:18) to be with him. In the relation between the man and the woman in Paradise, he was the leader and she was not; she was the helper and he was not. So when God came to the Adam and Eve after their fall into sin, he sought out the man: “where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Similarly, when the Lord sought to call a family from Ur to go the land of promise, He did not call Sarah to take her husband and leave her mother’s household, but He summoned Abram to take his wife and leave his father’s household (Genesis 12:1).

The point is that the man is, by God’s ordinance, the leader in family and society. As leader, the man invariably gives leadership, whether active or passive, where positive or negative. When Paul, then, tells Titus what to teach the older men, he’s instructing him in relation to that part of the human race commissioned to take responsibility and give leadership.

How we view older men

The men Titus must teach are “older.” The term “older” is, of course, relative, and really depends on how old Titus is and perhaps depends too on the average age of the congregation where Titus ministered. Paul uses the same word to describe himself when he was some 60 years old (Philemon 9).

Irrespective, though, of what age one wishes to peg to the term “older,” the term certainly describes a person who has been around the block a few times. The “older” have, in other words, spent years in the school of life and so are in a position to show others how to do life.

Now, our Canadian culture says that “older men” deserve the opportunity to kick back, enjoy life and play with the toys they’ve accumulated. But beneath this seemingly generous attitude is the thought that the older men are actually out of touch, can’t keep up with the fast pace of the younger, and are beyond their “use by” date, so they should be retired from any leadership roles.

There is an echo of this thought in the church, to the effect that the older men (are made to) feel passed by and even uncertain about their purpose. The result is that they retreat into their seniors’ circle… and become an untapped resource.

Their role

This was not the intent of the Lord God. He created the first man (and woman) in His image, and gave the command to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over…” (Genesis 1:27f). Children born in Paradise, however, would not know by instinct how to rule over God’s world in a way that imaged God; the older generation was to teach the younger how to do this. Of course, the longer Adam lived, the better He’d know what God was like, and so the better equipped he’d be to teach coming generations how to “rule over” God’s creatures in a way pleasing to God. Clearly, as the God-appointed leader, the responsibility to train those after him was primarily Adam’s.

The fall into sin obviously complicated the task enormously. But it didn’t change the expectations God had for Adam as he grew older, or for the subsequent generations of older men. So God told Moses that He poured the plagues on Egypt “that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians… that you may know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 10:2). Moses, we need to know, was more than 80 years old (see Exodus 7:7) at the time God gave him this instruction. Talk about the role of “the older men”!

Fully in line with this command is the prayer of the psalmist: “Even when I’m old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:18).

Because of this God-assigned role of the aged, the Lord commanded the youth of Israel to respect the seniors (and not just the grandparents). As an older man approached them, the youth were to “rise” and “show respect for the elderly” (Leviticus 19:32). Here was recognition that the older have learned so much in God’s school-of-life and were a reservoir of experience and wisdom for the younger to tap into.

Sadly, not all older men speak only wisdom. Job’s three senior friends spoke the language of fools in their reprimands to Job (cf Job 42:7; 32:6ff). Solomon advised older folk not to say, “Why were the old days better than these?” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). Young people live in the present (not the past), and in the challenges God gives today they need encouragement – and not the signal that today is too hard. Older men, in other words, need to make it their business to be careful how they analyze the present in relation to the past; their analysis requires ongoing Bible study and thought.

All this Old Testament material comes along in Paul’s instruction to Titus. For the benefit of the churches of Crete, Paul draws out the implication of the role God has assigned to the “older men.” Given that role, Paul says these older men are to be::

  1. temperate
  2. worthy of respect
  3. self-controlled

1. Temperate

The term “temperate” in Titus 2:2 translates a word that appears elsewhere as “sober” or “sober-minded.” The term is often used in relation to drink and so becomes instruction in being moderate in how much you drink. Yet Paul’s point is not that older men are simply to exercise moderation in drinking. Rather, in all of life one is to be moderate, not indulgent, not extravagant, not into excess or glut. Herein the “older men” of the church would contrast with the typical attitude of the Cretans around them, who were “always… lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12).

What, though, is wrong with excess? Why must Titus make a point of telling older men to be moderate?

Older men (should) have learned the truth of Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 2, when he tried all sorts of excess in his attempt to make sense of life. As many young men do, Solomon sought fulfillment in wine, houses, gardens, women, song, parties, and more. But the more he tried, the more he realized that things do not lift us out of the thorns and thistles of a life outside Paradise. His conclusion was this: “when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). That was the advantage of older age: Solomon could tell the younger of his realm that he’d been there, done that… and they should take instruction from him and not repeat his futile search.

This is the message Titus was to instruct older men to convey to the younger. Those older men had been around the block, had tested the value of more and more stuff, and so were in a position to vouch for the truth of Ecclesiastes 2. These “older men” have “fought the good fight,” “have finished the race” (2 Tim 4:7), and now await the summons of the Lord to enter the presence of their Father. So their lifestyle was to model that life is not about food, property, looks, degrees, music, chocolate, gin or women. Instead, their lifestyle should reflect the delightful fact that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared” (Titus 2:11); Christ has come to redeem sinners, take away the cause of our eternal hunger and misery, and through His self-emptying on the cross restored sinners to Paradise.

Since that’s so, one needs to be consistent and say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions (2:12), “no” to more toys, more drink, more “buzz,” etc, and live instead “godly and upright lives in the present age, while we wait for the… glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2:13).

When a “temperate” lifestyle is in place, a man will be moderate in his demand for food and drink, for wealth and holiday. “Older men” have learned through the school of life to get their priorities right, so that their emphasis lies on service to the neighbor, a service that reflects God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

2. Worthy of respect

Titus is also to instruct “older men” to carry themselves in a dignified manner. Again, the point is not so hard to grasp. Older men have buried parents, and perhaps also a spouse or a child. They have been through war, sickness, fire, flood, drought and more – and so learned through the hard knocks of life that life is not a joke. They’ve learned that trials come from God as so many divine teaching moments whereby the heavenly Father would train us in the school of life for further service and to be more fruitful for His glory. Older men (ought to) know this, and so take God’s reality seriously in the hard knocks of life; always the question presses on their minds: what is God teaching me through this?

No, this does not make the older boring or gloomy (as if life is not enjoyable). On the contrary, living every step of life in the awareness that you live every moment in God’s school makes life exciting and fun. Older men model this awareness – for the benefit of the rest of congregation. That’s the sort of leadership they are to give.

3. Self-controlled

Finally, Titus must tell “older men” to be disciplined. They, after all, ought to have learned how to get the passions and instincts of youth under control. As a result, they act less out of impulse, with decisions more thought through. They’ve learned to live life sensibly, seriously, and so with fitting restraint. So their lives displays good health (not necessarily in body but) “in faith, in love and in endurance…”

The same need today

This, then, is what Titus was to encourage the older men to exemplify among the Christians of Crete. But the sort of lifestyle this behavior encouraged, contrasted with the excess that Cretans typically celebrated. Recall again Paul’s summary of what Cretans were like: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12).

We can imagine the “lazy gluttons” of the island; we know the type: shrunken biceps and ample waistline assembled in the coffee shops and beer parlors, talking about the latest horse race, hockey game, cruise, property deal, woman. How thoroughly North American; truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

The new Christians of Crete were raised in that culture, and remained greatly influenced by what was accepted around them. How tempting, then, to adopt the same attitude; “eat, drink, and be merry…” Hence Paul’s instruction to Titus: since older men are by God’s ordinance to be leaders, instruct them to be temperate to be examples for the women and younger men to follow. This, Paul figures, is necessary to build up congregational life (1:5a).

Value

The Lord has prepared a glorious future for His (older) children, yet leaves older brothers on this earth for a purpose; they remain here to be examples for rest of congregation.

So, older men, take up the task with confidence! You’ve been through the school of life, and so know that neither things nor pleasures give fulfillment, salvation, or purpose; by faith you know that Jesus Christ has restored us to God. That being so, model the gospel for the benefit of the rest of the congregation: be moderate, dignified, self-controlled in a manner that the younger of the flock can see. This is the service to which you remain called, until such time as God Himself relieves you and gives you the crown of glory.

Conclusion

There is definitely so very much in the congregation for which we may be thankful. That includes the large number of older brothers in our midst. They are here, by God’s providence, for a reason. My conviction is that they are under-utilized.

No, I’m not thinking now of consistory work; it may be that the Lord is no longer calling the (much) older brothers to this task anymore. I’m thinking instead of how the older, without exception, have a role to play in relation to the younger. Let the older men take their mentorship role seriously, being deeply aware that God leaves them in this life in order that they might model the gospel for the benefit of the younger and even seek out the younger to speak to them of the works of the Lord as they experienced them over the years. It’s a privileged fact: the younger need your leadership, example, and instruction. Recall Psalm 92:14f

“…the righteous…will still bear fruit in old age…proclaiming, ‘The Lord is upright; He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him’” 

 Healthy church life needs the continued involvement of the older men.

 

Rev. Bouwman is a minister for the Canadian Reformed Church of Smithville, Ontario. This article was first appeared in the December 2012 issue.

 


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