The Conversion of Han Solo

Following the release of the new Star Wars poster and trailer last week, a lot has been made of the various details contained therein.  Most often, questions about the place and role of Luke Skywalker are the ones that rise to the surface.

Han-Solo-changed-view-of-Jedi-and-ForceWhile interesting, there’s a much more intriguing motif running through the preview that has me (and others) thinking.  As you can see in the photo I’ve included here, it has to do with Han Solo.  While in the first Star Wars film he’s a brash young hero ready to reject supernatural beliefs in favor of his own abilities, it seems that his view of the universe has changed.  Now, after his experiences, he readily admits the world is more complicated.  He has embraced a new reality, if you will.

This kind of conversion motif, if you will, also marks the trailer’s conclusion, as a voice speaks to one of the characters, saying: “The Force is calling to you.  Just let it in.”  Likely a call to enter the Jedi life, this invitation was immediately reminiscent of nothing less than an old-school altar call.  Replace just a few words in that invitation and you’ve got a Billy Graham meeting.luminous-beings-we-are-not-this-crude-manner

The first Star Wars trilogy clearly borrowed from Eastern mysticism as well as Gnostic thought.  Dualism, pantheism, etc.: these were all philosophical and religious ideas that George Lucas borrowed (to great effect) in the films.  Though other themes and ideas could likely be perceived (think of Darth Vader’s last minute “salvation” here), the Force was understood deeply though the lens of Eastern thought as per Yoda.

I wonder, though, if the next film will borrow its broadly religious/philosophical ideas more heavily from a Christian or other conversion-based narrative.  Talking about conversion raises some interesting questions–perhaps most notably whether or not people really ever change.  I’m interested in seeing what the filmmakers have put together, and what opportunities for popular reflection and conversation such efforts may entail.



syrianrefugees2Two sets of thoughts have come together in my mind during the past week.  The first comes from an advance copy of Joe Castleberry’s latest book The New Pilgrims (review forthcoming).  As he discusses the issue of immigration in relation to the United States, he reminds readers that in the Bible, the people of Israel are instructed to “not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).  It is a simple sentence, yet carries great significance.

My second reflection has been about how my own family–in this case my grandmother’s–were refugees in Europe following the Second World War.  Displaced from the Balkans and newly widowed, my great-grandmother took her four children to Germany, not quite knowing what would happen.  They had to rely on others for protection and survival.  They made it, but it was a harrowing time.German-refugees-from-Poland_1

These two thoughts have come together in a way best represented by two images.  The first (which I will not show here) is the image of a young child washed up on the shore of Turkey.  He and his family were refugees from war in Syria, and in the process of the journey the boy paid the ultimate price.  The second image is of a different type.  It is from Germany in recent days.  There, as people fleeing chaos have arrived in one of the leading countries of Europe, they have been welcomed and encouraged.

n_88081_1As we think about the deprivation that exists in our world and the reasons that whole families choose to uproot themselves and flee to the unknown, we get the briefest of glimpses at the lives of these refugees.  In so doing, we might pause to reflect how they are not just “other people,” but in a very real sense us–our ancestors, descendants, or distant relatives–but for the alteration of a few specifics of birth and socio-political realities.

The imago Dei is there, and the call of God to the fatherless, the widow, the foreigner, and poor remains.  Whether that refugee is entering a continent 3000 miles away or from countries in this hemisphere seeking safety within American borders, ought we not to consider our response?  I can’t ignore the question, because my own flesh and blood were in their shoes just two short generations ago.  And, but for the grace of God, we could all be in that place right now.

Come On, Get Happy

MoneyI recently came across a 2014 article that discussed the relationship between money and happiness.  Specifically, it related the findings of a study claiming that money has an effect on day-to-day personal happiness/emotional well-being, but only up to a certain income level.  Related to cost of living, this upper limit averages around $75,000 for a household.  Hawaii has the highest threshold for maximum happiness-by-money ($122,175) while Mississippi comes in lowest ($65,850).

I was immediately interested in thinking about this topic, finding it a surprising and fascinating look at something that can be an “open and shut case” in some forms of conventional Christianity.  Now, to be sure, the article does notably confirm a position the Church has long held: that money is not the ultimate guarantor of our contentment.  If there is no appreciable difference in emotional well-being between the household of $75,000 and $1,000,000 per year, then clearly money is limited in its ability to make us finally and utterly happy.

And yet: the article’s content also questions an easily repeated claim Christians can make (I’ve made it myself) that money cannot make you happy.  If there really is an appreciable difference between subsistence living and $75k per year, then despite some sermonic protestations to the contrary, money must have some meliorative effect upon us.  It is indeed true that, of the many factors in our lives that contribute to our happiness, not having to worry every day about housing, food, healthcare, utilities, and other basic matters does bring with it a certain piece of mind.  Managed well, at a certain level of money can make these concerns all but disappear.  At certain low levels of income, no amount of clever budgeting can make these pressing problems go away.


Most people look, I think, for at least a basic level of financial peace of mind to help in the establishment of happiness.  Or, at least, the absence of unhappiness.  One difference between persons of faith and the non-religious on this topic may simply be from where they see financial security deriving….and from where, in the end, they perceive their ultimate hope to come.  As a Christian, my desire is to consistently take the position that it is God who provides all things–as Jesus reminds his hearers in Matthew 6, flowers, birds, and indeed all things made by God (including us) are cared for by God.  And despite the situation in which I might find myself, I hope like Paul I too can learn to be “content whatever the circumstances.”

But still: on behalf of our fellow human beings around the world who suffer and have so little, I feel compelled to assert that money does meanhappiness something.  If what a person has matters not at all, why are we instructed by God to care for and provide for those in need?  The poor, the downtrodden, those who are so much more than unhappy for so many reasons (one of them being their lack of even a subsistence level of funding in a world that runs on money)?  It is fine and good in the midst of my middle-class Christianity to claim that money brings no satisfaction while I snack and watch the latest Netflix offering.  But it has clearly bought me a level of comfort and relief from the sometimes destitute suffering experienced by those without such means.

True, money does not create happiness on its own.  It can, however, help relieve some of the worst of human suffering.  Money’s effect on one’s well-being may be limited, but it still has an effect.  We should well remember, then, that with what a person is blessed–whether directly from the hand of God or mediated through the hands of God’s servant people can and does help.

Well, at least until you get to $75,000.  Because there is more to life than money.  And on that, it seems, but Church and world agree.

A Prayer

fergusonseasongreetingsRead it again, Lord.  Please.

 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.  He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:14-21

Areopagitical Lessons

Mars hil basic for webThe “takeaways” from Mars Hill are as many as the situation is sad.  Today, two thoughts related to its unfortunate demise.

The first has to do with structure.  From what I understand, Mars Hill was–like a number of up-and-coming churches–an exemplar of the video-based multi-site model.  What this means is that while each “site” around the city of Seattle and elsewhere had their own meeting place and pastor, they were all a part of the same larger church.  For a number of services each month, Mark Driscoll (or someone else) would preach the sermon through a videolink.  No matter where the parishioners were, they would be getting the same message.  Other weeks, I assume, the local site pastor might speak or preach.

The basic logic of the multi-site model is that if the central church has a healthy system, it makes sense to expand that system through the launching of a new location.  Rather than simply plant a church and set it free to fail, the mother congregation offers oversight and shares its resources to help the new site succeed.  Such as it is, this is not a bad model. In my church, for instance, a pastoral teaching team plans sermons together and shares the same message at each of our two sites via a live in-person speaker.  Though we’re only a month into this preaching system, I think it makes sense.  If implemented another way, however, there is danger.  102013_multisite_graphic

For Mars Hill, the multi-site approach meant (among other things) benefiting from Mark’s preaching and teaching skills by adding a vide0-based component.  The problem with such a model is that it can centralize focus upon one person.  If that main person is a celebrity and/or head and shoulders above the rest, it can begin to make the church rather single-minded.  For as long as that person is there and doing their job right, it is all well and good.  But if things go off the rails in any way, there can be trouble.  At least one of the reasons Mars Hill is now splitting up, I think, is that the system it built can no longer be maintained without the centralizing focus and skill of Mark Driscoll.  In other words, without the central draw, there is no need for a central draw.

The video-based multi-site model can therefore be dangerous, and I think that the collapse of these past few months should make churches who use it pause in their tracks.  Though not every congregation will suffer the scandal of Mars Hill, whenever there is a “main draw” preacher via video there needs to be the realization that there will always come a time when they are not around.  This may not be for years down the road.  It may be within a few weeks.  No matter the case, building a church around one celebrity is a dangerous proposition.

182My second “takeaway” from Mars Hill is both analysis and hope.  Though we do not (and may never) know in exact detail what led to the church’s downfall, it seems fairly clear that bullying from their lead pastor had something to do with it.  Even by itself, this is not good.  When coupled, however, with the hypermasculine rhetoric and approach that Driscoll embodied together with an overtraditionalistic model of male-female hierarchy, it is even more unfortunate.

While I don’t want to be too quick to say that all of these things (bullying, hypermasculine rhetoric, gender ideology) were necessarily connected in a cohesive whole, it seems like they formed a sort of matrix out of which Driscoll operated.  Bad things resulted.  Understand me: I’m not saying this all happened because Driscoll thought wives should be submissive.  I’m simply say that something like this was a piece to a larger puzzle.

When it comes to Driscoll’s project, I have sympathy for what I perceive to be its genesis: the problem of extended adolescence.  I picture him beginning to minister in Seattle in the later 1990s into the 2000s and coming to realize what many societal commentators have discussed: people aren’t “growing up” as fast as they did in generations past.  For the contemporary young person, the adolescence that ended for their parents at age 18 is now extended as far as 30 or beyond.  This is frustrating for many to see.  As Mark Driscoll observed this in the young men to whom he ministered, he not ActLikeMen-Quote-MarkDriscoll1inappropriately called upon them to “step up.”

The advance he sought, however, was not simply one of maturity, but rather wed to his own conception of masculinity combined with a certain reading of the Scripture. This, among other things, involved (my own airquotes) “being a man’s man,” “drinking beer and talking theology,” and “leading the family and church.”  Driscoll of course accepted the idea that women cannot be pastors, and for a number of years  we who support the call of God in our sisters’ lives have had to grapple with him.

Though not causing it, all of these ideas connected to what seems to be Driscoll’s pugnacious nature.  The unfortunate result of this mixing has been in the news now for some time.

Whatever I have suggested above is admittedly conjecture, but I think it has some merit in explaining part of the Mars Hill/Driscoll ideology.  This leads me to my hope: that because some of the same problems that led to Driscoll’s resignation are (at least) thematically linked to such a hyper-masculine ideology, it may fade in influence as a discredited notion.  A kind of “guilt by association,” if you will.  Even though such rhetoric and a failure to support women in ministry was not itself the presenting cause of Driscoll’s problems, that it was connected to them may cause many to rethink their stance on such issues.

A1029-11ATo close, an historical example.  Mere days after JFK was assassinated the new President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed the assembled Congress.  As he stood before the nation and that august body, he said this: “All I have I would have gladly given not to be standing here today.”  Clearly, there are some lessons we’d rather learn and some realities we’d rather achieve by any other means.  So please understand that as I’ve shared some thoughts about celebrity pastors and vide0 sites, I’m not happy about the way this lesson was learned.

So too I don’t dance on Mars Hill’s grave, even though with its burial some of the things I liked least about it may now fade.  Though the takeaways I’ve shared may be helpful, how they came to be does not make them unmitigated goods.  May we remember this as we pray for the Church universal and local.

A Mars Hill Shaped Hole

mars-hill-90991Mars Hill Church is no more.  According to their website, the Seattle-based multi-site megachurch will be devolving into various independent congregations and/or simply shutting its doors, ideally by 1 January 2015.  In their words:

(1) All of Mars Hill’s existing church properties will either be sold, or the loans on the individual properties will be assumed by the independent churches, subject to approval by the lender; (2) all central staff will be compensated for their work, and then released from their employment; (3) if any funds remain after the winding down and satisfaction of Mars Hill business affairs, they will be gifted as seed money to the newly independent churches, then, (4) the existing Mars Hill Church organization will be dissolved.

The news on Friday was a shocking one for American evangelicalism, not to mention the church community here in Seattle.  Coming on the back of founding pastor Mark Driscoll‘s resignation connected to bullying and dictatorial behavior, the church appears to have been in tailspin in recent weeks.  To think that a congregation that not long ago numbered over 12,000 will now disband is nothing short of astounding.  Pieces of it will persist, but not like it was.  Despite the reasons for such developments, the rapidity of the fall is monumental, especially here in the city of Seattle.mark-driscoll_profile_img

As I’ve reflected on the developments over the weekend, I have to admit a certain wistfulness.  I have spent many years studying Church history; now it’s happened right in my backyard.  And as it has, I’m rather sad about it.

At a certain level, I’m going to miss Mars Hill.  I realize that may be a controversial thing to say, but hear me out.  When I say I’m going to miss the church, I don’t mean that I’m going to miss a pastor that bullies his people.  I won’t miss any of the reproach he has brought upon the gospel.  I won’t miss accusations of misogyny.  I won’t miss an ideology that devalues the role played by women in the church and world.  I won’t miss people being hurt by their church.  These things would best die with Mars Hill.

But as the church fades, I can’t help miss what it was at its best: an example of Christian community that drew Christ followers from a city and a subculture that others didn’t reach in the same way.  The work that Mars Hill did in the city of Seattle–especially in its early years–is not to be ignored.  As a voice for the gospel in this place, they were used by God.  I remember first learning about their Easter-Songsministry in the later 1990s.  They were innovative.  They were thoughtful and artistic.  They had a lot to offer.  I still remember the “Mars Hill Worship” CD I listened to regularly in those days, and how it was like nothing I’d heard before. They were truly trying to translate evangelicalism into contemporary idiom and practice, and they did so with excellence.

And Mark Driscoll?  For all his flaws, the man is a great preacher.  When he wasn’t saying unhelpful things, he was saying some very helpful things.  In all his bravado I’ll miss him too as a kind of public dialogue partner on his pet issues.

All of my reasons for missing Mars Hill are not enough, of course, to excuse the faults that led to its demise.  I am grieved and frustrated by the people hurt by this ministry over the years.  They deserved better than this.  So to say that I feel a certain sadness at its passing is not the same as concluding it was faultless.  I simply wish they had been able to build on their not insignificant strengths without taking the path that has led to their destruction.  A Mars Hill–and a pastor–that could have course corrected in a number of ways would have been a different thing entirely.  That this did not happen is a sad reality indeed.images

For those who disagreed with Mark Driscoll on a number of things, I’m with you.  He does not seem to have been a pleasant man…and believe me, I’ve had issues with him.  But while we may be glad that the toxic culture that existed has now hopefully dissolved, let’s not take joy in Driscoll’s suffering or the demise of his church.  There is, after all, deep pain felt today by the thousands directly affected by this tragic turn of events.

The people of Mars Hill who proclaim faith in Christ are the sisters and brothers of believers all over the world.  They are broken and in need of healing, as is Driscoll himself.  They deserve our prayers, not a victory parade over their dying corpse.  Whatever else it may be, the decimation of a part of the body of Christ is not good news.

So as we think about Mars Hill, let’s remember this: schadenfreude is not among the Christian virtues.


Martin-Luther-Updates-His-BlogOn this Reformation Day, we remember that episode–now nearly five hundred years ago–when Martin Luther formulated and posted a list of disputations against some of the practices of the Church.  Though what eventually came to be known as the Protestant Reformation has a number of contributing factors, the life and actions of Luther (including this somewhat inauguratory one) are certainly among the most important.

Now nearly half a millennia from that moment, the legacy of the Reformation is all around us.  The Protestant Church is a well-established aspect of world Christianity. And, in the intervening centuries, the Roman Catholic Church itself has changed from the form it took during the days of Luther.  For all the bumps along the road–and the problematic features of Luther and other reformers–persistent alterations have resulted with regard to how Christians live their faith, understand God, and read the Bible.a0a59bf23908fdab7a893f9b595d8b10

The Reformation of the 1500s is over, of course.  It has been for a long time.  The circumstances of that era no long stand and we practice our faith in a new day.  Yet even as we live in the 21st century the Reformation poses an open question.

It goes without saying that we are not perfect.  The Church must face its inner problems as it looks to the Scripture and asks itself whether or not it truly embraces the Word of God or not.  Christianity, after all, is made up of fallible and sinful human beings.  It stands to reason that we will mess things up, given enough time.  Structures, habits, programs, and practices may end up obscuring the gospel today just as they did in Luther’s time.

Marking a Reformation Day, then, should never be a moment of simple backward gaze or a only the rehearsing of timeworn sola‘s.  It needs to mean something more.  It needs to stand as a reminder that we humans tend towards chaos.  That there is work to do as we seek to be people of the Word and live that Word in the world.  That there are ways in which we may have not been faithful and in which we may need to change.

120a12b703bcdd69ecd86e5e755552f4On this day of Reformation the Church needs to ask itself if it has let tradition, custom, and even doctrinal systems guide it in ways that Christ has not.  There should be questions about whether our theology and its implications are biblical or not.  We need to ask ourselves whether the ways in which we are interacting with others is truly Christian or something else entirely.  And then, of course, there needs to be the courage to actually change.  This isn’t just a task for 2014; it is the call to Christians of all eras.

My Reformed friends have a saying that I like: ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda.  In English this means “the Church always reformed, always reforming.”  Our sinful tendency, given enough time and independence, is to not be conformed to Christ.  The meaning of the Reformation is that we must be.  Always.