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.

Matthew 19

“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?'” -Matthew 19:25

“How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?” -Captain James T. Kirk

graveIn the part of the church world in which I serve, it is not uncommon to refer to someone’s entry into the Christian faith as “getting saved.”  Though years of seminary have made me often refer to this as “becoming a Christian” or “converting,” there is something powerful about the starkness of this vernacular phrase.

Thinking about crossing the line one faith and getting saved illuminates some things. It points to a human need for salvation, the possibility and path of salvation, and the reality that there may be someone or something that can actually do the saving.  Here in Matthew 19 the disciples wrestle with such topics.  They hear Jesus talk about the difficulties of the rich entering Heaven and they begin to wonder if anyone can be saved.

The question of eternity and our own personal final destinations are, in many ways, never far from us.  One accident, one medical situation, one moment of stupidity or violence, and life can be gone.  Understandably, most people prefer not to dwell on the inevitable for very long, focusing instead on other things.  Death stalks us all, in otmaxresdefaulther words, so there’s no use whining about it.

The matter of who can be saved from death is not just a Christian one.  Nor is it a necessarily religious one.  Confronting the inevitable end of this life is something that human beings deal with variously: via science, medicine, distraction, philosophy, and, of course, religion.  The answers we choose to embrace are different, but the fact that such answers are needed in the first place points to one reality: this life will one day be over.

We know, that–all things being equal–we will die, both as individuals and as a human race.  If science is our only guide, we must accept that this world will eventually end, whether by human hand or natural occurrence.  Even if we manage the planet in the best way possible, the sun will go nova in five or six billion years.  And if humanity survives that?  Well, eventually the universe may come to its conclusion with a “big smash” of all there is collapsing together or via a “cold death” in which entropy wears out all the potential energy of everything.  A bang or a whimper, it seems.

Not too optimistic, huh?  Picturing both the eventual end of everything and my own life’s countdown is, well, depressing.  salvation1If death is the end of consciousness and being, well, that’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.  And if death actually takes us to an eternity either forever separated from our true home with God or eternally present in communion with God, that’s profoundly emotion-inducing as well.

I say all of this to remember that the question of “who then can be saved?” is not just a question for preachers.  It is a human question.  Whether death is a hard stop on our existence or entry into a plane the reality of which has eternal consequences, it can be a scary thing.  No matter what we think happens after death, it seems hardwired in us not to want to die.  Death is wrong, somehow.  It is an enemy.

Despite what the perceptible patterns of this brokedown world and our faltering bodies say, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  As a Christian, I know that God has made a way for life beyond death in Jesus Christ, and it is not just available for me but all who believe and accept it (John 3:16).  I offer this as the answer for all people, even as I’m well aware that not all accept this.

Here’s a question I’m interested in, then: what about those of you who aren’t Christians or who aren’t even particularlythese-eternal-questions concerned with matters of faith?  Honestly and humbly, I want to know how you approach death.  What do you think about it?  How do you deal with it?  Do you ever ask yourself how you might be saved, either from the sheer extinction of being or as you move into eternity?  As death is a common human experience, I think these are legitimate and real questions around which we could dialogue. If you’re interested in sharing, I really want to know what you think about death and end of life: how you approach it, what you believe, and why you choose to believe that as opposed to other answers.  For those who may participate, thank you in advance.

Another Of The Things I’m Going to See

As you may recall, last week I mentioned both the upcoming return on of The X-Files and how I had called for such a development last year.  Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I was feeling quite the prophet.

But now?  Well, now I’m wondering if the powers that be have been reading my work.  Take a look at this promo for an upcoming movie:

What does this have to do with what I’ve written on this blog?  Nothing, apparently.  I thought I had posted on here about a “Young Jesus” television series that I wanted to see.  After a little searching, however, nothing came up.  And then I thought: “I know where it is!”  And there, of course, it was: in my first blogging effort.  The entry is now over nine years old, but it is still there.  As discussed, the series

first focuses on Jesus, but neither the Christmas “baby version” nor the fully grown prophetic model of the gospels. Rather, it seeks to fill in the “in-between” time…you guessed it—Jesus’ teenage years. The way I see things, it would be a great option for the WB Network to pick up. It could be called “Nazareth” and follow the same model as so many other coming-of-age teen dramas.

Granted, what I proposed there is somewhat different from what we’ll be seeing in the film, both in Jesus’ age and media delivery model.  Nevertheless, I’ChristTheLordbookcover.jpg.300x468_q100m interested in the thought-filled possibilities this portrayal may provide. Perhaps, in the strange interpretational territory that Jesus’ youth provides, there exists an opportunity to reflect upon Him in a new way.  We will see.

As for me, I should clearly start selling my ideas to Hollywood.  That is, unless I’ve been taking them from someone else.  A little digging reveals that this film is based on Anne Rice’s novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.  The book was published in 2005–the year before my initial blog post.  Though the trail of connections may be somewhat cold, her project probably influenced my musings.  But…since we don’t know completely, perhaps I could just take credit for it anyway?  I’ll let you decide that one.

That’s now two down, friends.  Let’s see what other things we’re going to see!

Matthew 16

“You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

-Jesus to Peter, Matthew 16: 23b

Peter-Son-of-God-1024x576In this important moment in Matthew’s gospel, Peter has just had two vastly different exchanges with his Teacher.  The first is his identification of Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God.”  For this he is commended.  But then?  Then Jesus announces he will die.  Peter doesn’t like this, and the Lord begins to rebuke him.

For Peter, the notion that Christ has to suffer and die just isn’t right.  And: it is quite possible that he has now decided he’s not going to let that happen.  He’s trying to deny the stated reality of Jesus in favor of what he thinks is right.  In response, Jesus rejects his conversational adversary, informing him he is not thinking in a godly fashion but rather a human one.

From Peter’s point of view it doesn’t make sense that Christ would have to die.  Surely he could get out of it if he wanted.  Peter could protect him.  The disciples could protect him.  Not to mention all that miraculous power He had at His disposal.  Jesus and His followers had a good thing going, and it could be so in years to come.  No need for all the pain associated with death.  Peter, quite simply, had things all planned out for the Incarnate One.old-bible-christians-and-politics-1-1-559x340

Do we have things all planned out for God?  It’s a question worth asking.  As we now enter the season of politics, I’d like to suggest we remember some of this story.  How sometimes our earthly passions, emotions, thoughts, and theories can get in the way of the purposes of the Almighty.  Sure, we think we speak for God as we (re)post on Facebook and argue politics and cast ballots.  But do we?  Do our political passions overwhelm the call of God or color God’s word in such a way that we change its meaning?  Do we think we know better than God?  Because as Matthew 16 reminds us, we can get it wrong sometimes.

Be careful as our nation enters this politically fraught period, friends.  Be careful that you’re close to the mind of the Lord, and not the things of men and women.  Rather than just being convinced you know, be deeply convicted to listen to God.

The Footsteps of Doom

indexStudying history is a unique experience.  While sometimes it is an exercise in discovery and exploration, at other moments it is more akin to reading a Shakespearean tragedy or watching a slow motion car crash.

You know what’s coming even when the people you are studying have absolutely no idea.

Investigating the background to the First World War as Europe blindly stumbles towards a bloodbath.  Reading a four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, all the while knowing he would leave the Presidency destroyed by the effects of Vietnam.  Understanding that Constantinople will fall in 1453 and that there is nothing you can do about it.  That’s what being an historian is like some days.

As someone who focuses most of his historical attention on the United States, there is little that has this sense of impending doom like the NollCivil War.  Slavery exists early in European colonization of the New World.  Every time it is mentioned, we know what’s going to happen.  The rhetoric of freedom in the Revolution highlights the inequities inherent in the system, even as Jefferson continues to own slaves.  Gradual abolition in the North gives hope every time you read about it.  Until, that is, the South begins to conservative and clamp down around its “peculiar institution.”

As the nation expanded westward–a process that happens every time I read about, without fail–the question of slave states versus free states continued to perplex.  Compromise after compromise was reached, but only papered over the growing differences between societies North and South.  Religiously they shared common belief and read a common Bible, but the situation on the ground led them to express and live that faith in increasingly different ways.  As denominations begin to shatter North and South starting around 1840, they were but a harbinger of the breaking of America that could no longer be averted by 1860-1.

conf0206-1-smallNothing, it seemed, could hold the nation together.  Not even the vaunted and optimistic claims of the dominant evangelicalism of the 19th century.  The United States’ lack of unity and inability to end the crime of slavery without war (like Britain) constitutes–together with the existence of slavery in the first place–a foundational tragedy at the center of the American story.  It is a drama written by no one person, but rather one with numerous actors continually impelled towards the bloody conclusion of places like Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Ford’s Theater.

As we reflect on this story again and again, may we seek to realize in our own day what the actors could not in theirs.  May we see the inner meaning of the tragedy to which they inadvertently pointed and, in so doing, gain more insight into the directions of our own contemporary story.  In the wreck of their blindness and failures of faith and deed, may we learn.

The Great Parenthesis

“Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race.”         (Tacitus writing about Christians, ca. 116 AD)

martyrdomWithin the ministry world, many pastors and religious leaders in the United States are thinking today about a recent court decision in the Midwest that may have an impact upon their financial situation.  For almost a century, a provision called the “housing allowance” has allowed ministers to have some income tax advantages unique to their vocation (together with the military, which are allowed a similar benefit).  It is a bit of a complicated arrangement, but in the end can help religious groups and their leaders save some money each year as they ostensibly serve their communities and society.

With a lower court decision claiming such an arrangement is unconstitutional, some feel that this may be the beginning of the end for this vestige of the old days.  Though I suspect it may be some time before the tax benefit is removed on a national level, I would agree that this seems to be the direction in which things are moving.

For some, developments like these are understood to be “signs of the times” in which the Church has lost its rightful influence and place in society. They see it as an attack upon traditional norms and values as well as an active sign of persecution against the faithful.

While I understand where my coreligionists are coming from, I do have some questions about the tone of the such conversations.  To imply that things like this tax War-on-xmas-1discussion are signs of persecution is a bit much.  Considering the situation of many Christians around the globe and throughout history, our troubles are relatively light.

In the case of more stringent challenges–like a pharmacist being sued for refusing to provide abortifacients to customers in violation of their religious convictions–one does see elements of what could be termed lower-level persecution, however.  Still, these things are markedly different from the torture and death faced by others persecuted for faith.

For some Christians, the answer to such problems is to somehow transform our society and return to a golden age of the Church’s influence in the world.  At least this might be what you think listening to some of our rhetoric.  I was reflecting on this while sitting in a lecture discussion last week at my school.  While there, a colleague and I mentioned how from a certain point of view, getting our culture to “get on board” with Christianity seems a bit of a fool’s errand.

After all, the testimony of Jesus himself is that the world will hate His followers (John 15:18ff).  The experience of the early Church was, after all, that of being outsiders.  Until around the year 300, persecution of Christians at the hands of the Romans was the name of the game. This was the age of the martyrs and apologists.  Then came Constantine and the beginning of official government tolerance, sanction, and support for Christianity.  In the West this lasted for somewhere around 1Byzantine_-_The_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Timothy_-_Walters_W521203V_-_Obverse_Detail600 years, and only in the past few decades has it really begun to break up.  Arguments over clergy taxes are only one sign of this.

The traditionalist hand-wringing over such changes looks to sixteen centuries of Church ascendance as the norm, I think.  But consider this: what if that era was the exception and not the rule?  What if it was not meant to be the Christian baseline, the first 250 years of the faith was?  What if the real place of Christianity is to be outsiders–as many believers around the globe have always experienced–in a culture that will never love them?

Looking at things this way and seeing the era of Christian establishment in the West as simply a “Great Parenthesis” and exception to the normal place of the Church in the world might make us stop in our tracks a bit.  Sure, facing antagonism, criticism, financial setback, and even persecution for our beliefs is not pleasant.  But it might just be all the Church should expect.

Does Evidence Even Matter? (Part II)

apologetics1-full Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, I confess that I’m beginning to think about apologetics a little differently.  My previous rejection of the McDowell model was rooted very much in the belief that evidentialism was only useful in a world (i.e. Modernism) where people agreed that there was one kind of Truth (be it faith or science).  In response, my thoughts revolved around a personal narrative-based approach that made more sense in a postmodern world that favored “many truths.”

I’m beginning to think this isn’t sufficient for Christians (especially the adolescents in our youth ministries) today.  Things have changed, it seems, yet again.  I can’t tell you if we are still in “postmodernism,” but I can say that some of my assumptions about the place of our stories and personal experiences of faith might not be cutting it.

If Modernism gave us the age of competing overarching stories or metanarratives (science versus religion, for instance) and postmodernism a world of many narratives all of which had equal value, the new setting in which Christians seem to find themselves is one that is somewhat different.  Perhaps it defies categorization by a single term.

If the world of McDowell and C. S. Lewis was about quantitative evidence for God and my postmodern plans were about narratives of God, then this new approach is, for lack of a better word, a qualitative discussion of God and God’s people.God_is_not_great

People in our world might accept your evidence or they might not.  They might listen to their story or they might not.  But: even if you’ve convinced them on these first two counts, they might still think your faith–your God–are horrible ideas because of the danger “strong religion” poses to our world.  No matter the evidence, God is simply “not a good idea” for many in our contemporary world.  They come to this conclusion because of suicide bombers, Westboro Baptists, perceptions of Christians as only filled with hate, and so much more.  They see us as hypocrites and crusaders.  Sometimes they do this in the absence of evidence….and sometimes we provide them with a veritable catalog of options from which to choose.

The challenge of our day is, then, not necessarily proving that God exists either intellectually or on a personal level, but convincing people that belief in God is not a bad thing.  That it doesn’t make you into a person of hate.  Apologetics today, then,  is about defending Christianity in a world that is becoming deeply skeptical about whether our faith (or any religious faith) is helpful or destructive.

As a Church historian, it comes to mind that we in the West now face a situation unlike any since the first few centuries of Christianity.  Then, as our fledgling movement grew and expanded across the Roman world, the prevailing attitudes towards it were not positive.  We were considered obscurantists, full of “hatred of the human race” and its ways, and otherwise ne’er-do-wells who just wouldn’t go along with the system.  Rumors persisted that we were atheists (because we didn’t worship their gods but instead an invisible One), cannibals (because we eat Christ’s body and blood), and engaged in incest (called each other “brother” and “sister” and the “Love Feast” or Communion together).

6_1_justinFaced with disdain from the world around them yet convinced of the truth and positive plan of God’s work in the world, early Christian apologists spent time refuting the claims of the pagans.  They even sometimes argued that Christianity was a more superior system than paganism.  People like Athenagoras and Justin Martyr understood and served the Church well in this matter, and have perhaps left a pattern for us today.

For Christians today, and especially young people that face a culture of disdain more and more, the apologetic task is not simply to show that Christianity is scientifically accurate or at work in their lives, but first and foremost that it is not a bad thing.  This begins with grasping our faith deeply and understanding that it is predicated on God’s love.  That is a legitimate system it can have and has had a transformatively positive impact on our world.

The young lady in that youth service two weeks ago that said she believed in God but couldn’t say (or didn’t know) why would certainly have faltered in any era of apologetic work.  Her and those like her (many in the adolescent world) might not do well at all when confronted with arguments about Christianity being a religion of hate and ignorance and excess and hypocrisy.  They may simply not have the wherewithal to respond to the attack or even know whether it is right or wrong in the first place.  Without understanding what they believe, why, and what the core teachings of that belief are, they will be in no position to defend or persevere in their faith.

Apologetics for students today means not just pulling out a book of evidence, even though this might help.  It isn’t about merely getting a hearing for your story, even while I still believe that students should know the narrative of their faith.  I think apologetics today is something slightly different: it is about knowing and being able to articulate what you believe and why.  Knowing it so well that you’ll be able to respond when qualitative critiques and attacks against the Church are raised.  Knowing that we serve a good God who defines the very word “love” (I John 4:8).Pope-Francis-washing-feet

When a Facebook meme against “ignorant hate-filled Christians” goes around, it means that students need to know enough about Christ’s teachings to be able to differentiate for themselves and those who would question them what God is really all about.  They need to be sure in their faith and position, knowing the message of Scripture and the teachings of the Church so they can intelligently, lovingly, and in word and deed address concerns as they are raised.  They will need this to be able to stand firm in a time where aspersion is cast on religion as useless or bad.  And since they won’t be born with this knowledge, it is up to pastors, parents, mentors, and others to help them get here.  In this way, I think, apologetics in youth ministry is both more than I previously thought and less, perhaps, than McDowell has historically contended.

So it is in a world that asks “Is believing in God a good idea?  Is it worth my time?  Is faith hurtful or helpful?”