Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Spiritual Imagination

The first movie adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ classic Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, comes out on December 9 and I want to wholeheartedly encourage you to see the movie, if possible on the first weekend of its release.

Ironically, as big a fan as I am of C.S. Lewis, I had never read any of the seven books in the series, the most famous of which is this first one. When a Houston Chronicle reporter called me to ask about a Sneak Peak event WHCC hosted for area church leaders, I felt so sheepish that I hadn’t read it that I quickly did so over the Thanksgiving weekend (after I watched football, of course). It is an enchanting and thoughtful tale, which is more than I can say about the Detroit Lions

Lewis, the premiere Christian apologist (explainer and defender of the Christian faith) of the 20th century, is often assumed to have undertaken the series with apologetics in mind, but as he writes in Of Other Worlds,

"Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I'd write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out 'allegories' to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord."

And the story is not just for children. As Chuck Colson notes in a recent Breakpoint article, Lewis always had adults in mind as well.

“Lewis believed that a book worth reading only in childhood was not a book worth reading at all. So as the stories of Narnia formed in his mind, he began to think about how tales of fantasy and adventure could actually portray the truths of Christianity in an important new way-not only for children, but also for adults who had perhaps lost those childlike qualities that Christ said were so important for seeing the Kingdom of God…”

In Lewis’ words,
“Suppose that by casting [the Christian story] into an imaginary world, stripped of its stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make its truths for the first time appear in their real potency? I thought one could. And the inhibitions which I hoped my stories would overcome in a child's mind may exist in a grown-up's mind too, and may perhaps be overcome by the same means."

It is so easy to reduce the Christian faith to ordered beliefs and doctrines which, though essential, can easily in isolation lose sight of the Christian story upon which they are based. Lewis’ book, and this movie, can help us cultivate our spiritual imagination to more clearly see the Kingdom of God. In my opinion, that alone is worth the price of a ticket (plus a few dollars more for gummy worms).

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hard Truth

Elizabeth Marquardt was two years old when her parents split up in the early 1970’s. Three decades later she conducted the first nationally representative study of the grown children of divorce, which resulted in her much-discussed new book “Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce.” In a recent Houston Chronicle editorial (11/13/05), Marquardt noted that,

Before the divorce rate began its inexorable rise in the late 1960s, the common wisdom had been that where children are concerned, divorce itself is a problem. But as divorce became widespread – peaking at almost one in two first marriages in the mid-1980’s – popular thinking morphed into a new, adult-friendly idea: It’s not the act of divorcing that’s the problem, but simply the way that parents handle it. Experts began to assure parents that if they only conducted a “good” divorce – if they both stayed involved with their children and minimized conflict – the kids would be fine.
It was a soothing tonic, and it was swallowed eagerly by many angst-ridden parents. But it was also, it turns out, a myth. No matter how happy a face we put on it, the children of divorce are now saying, we’ve been kidding ourselves. An amicable divorce is better than a bitter one, but there is no such thing as a good divorce.
When you talk to the children themselves, you find that rampant “good divorce” talk mainly reflects the wishes of adults, while silencing the voices of children. The divorce debate has long been conducted by adults, for adults, on behalf of the adult point of view, but now the grown children of divorce are telling their own, very different stories.

My parents separated when I was sixteen and divorced a few years later. I know many fine people and good Christians who are divorced. So my point is not to rub anyone’s nose in the failure of their marriage. My point is simply to applaud the “hard truth” that this new book brings to bear on some of the delusions we have allowed ourselves to develop regarding the effects of divorce on children. Following are some other of Marquardt’s findings:
1) Most marriages (two-thirds) that result in divorce were “low-conflict” marriages (i.e., no abuse, violence, or serious fighting). Consequently children, who usually are not closely attuned to the “waxing and waning cycles of adult happiness,” experience a “massive blow that comes out of nowhere” when their parents split.
2) Children of so-called “good divorces” often do worse even than children of unhappy low-conflict marriages. As Marquardt puts it, “No matter how ‘good’ at it their parents were, the children of divorce were travelers between two very different worlds, negotiating often vastly different rules and roles.”
As I said, I am writing about this not to beat up on divorced people but simply to challenge and encourage married couples to invest in their relationship and “divorce-proof” their marriage to the greatest extent possible. Our children deserve our absolute best effort to stay together. Love, care for, support, get along with, even reconcile with your spouse for their sake if for no other reason. The stakes are high.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Bible-land Weird Stuff

I am preaching this Sunday from Mark 5:1-20, an account of Jesus’ encounter with a man often referred to as the “Gerasene demoniac” (he is from “the country of the Gerasenes” and he has an “unclean spirit” – the NIV translation “evil spirit” is unfortunate). It is an eerie and complex story which demands that we do more than just acknowledge Jesus’ power in healing him, though that is an essential message of the passage. We are also invited to consider the spiritual underworld, if you will, and what modern analogues to this man’s predicament we might identify.

And that is difficult because this man is “on the edge.” Mark uses graphic language to paint a picture of someone we would be hard pressed to ever encounter outside a sanitarium or an Oakland Raiders game (pardon the redundancy). The point is that no one, not even this tormented man, is beyond the reach of Jesus’ spiritual authority and tender mercy. But if we leave it at that we miss a lot.

Christians through the ages have differed widely (gee, there’s a surprise) in how they interpret the maladies that afflict people in the gospel stories. For instance, in Mark 9 a father has a son who “has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid…” This sounds like what we in modern times call an epileptic seizure, but since this knowledge and diagnosis was not available to people in the first century, the boy’s condition was attributed to a “spirit.” Employing this line of reasoning, the Gerasene demoniac’s behavior bears much resemblance to an acute schizophrenic condition.

But here’s the rub: these facile explanations, while perhaps sufficient in some instances, fail to take into account the seriousness of the spiritual warfare to which the New Testament frequently refers. Unless one explains this away by attributing it to a pre-Enlightenment cosmology, a kind of ancient folklore, we are left with the question, “What do we do with the reality of spiritual forces in the world which contend against God’s purposes?”

C.S. Lewis, in his classic book about spiritual warfare, The Screwtape Letters, notes that “There are two equal and opposite errors into which people can fall about the devils (demons). One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.”

In my old age I am becoming, in some ways, more “fundamental” in my interpretation of the Bible. Which is to say that more and more I am dismissing the standard metaphorical explanations based on our superior modern understanding and considering how often the Scriptures speak very directly to our modern circumstances, thank you very much. So, for instance, when Jesus talks about the danger of riches, he means just that. And when the gospels mention “unclean spirits” and “demons” I don’t need to explain those away; I need to identify, understand, and confront them in my life. It’s too easy to dismiss them as “Bibleland weird stuff”

Thursday, November 03, 2005


An embarrassing slew of email correspondence from then-FEMA director Michael Brown to and from his various deputies has come into public view as a result of a congressional investigation into the federal response to hurricane Katrina. In one of them his press secretary admonishes him to look appropriate when he is on camera: “Please roll up the sleeves of your shirts. Even the President rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow. In this [crisis] and on TV you just need to look more hard-working.”

Listen, I know this is the job of a press secretary; it goes with the territory. So hold that thought and let’s skip over to something else I read recently, a press release for George Barna’s newest book, Revolution, which describes what he believes will be “the most massive reshaping of the nation’s faith community in more than a century.” (No one ever accused Barna of being less than dramatic).

Relying on national research conducted over the past several years, he identifies and profiles a group of more than 20 million adults in America whom he labels “revolutionaries.” Barna notes that measures of traditional church participation in activities such as worship attendance, Sunday school, prayer, and Bible reading have remained relatively unchanged during the past twenty years, but the number of “revolutionaries” is growing rapidly. To wit:

“These are people who are less interested in attending church than in being the church… We found that while some people leave the local church and fall away from God altogether, there is a much larger segment of Americans who are currently leaving churches precisely because they want more of God but can’t get what they need from a local church. They have decided to get serious about their faith by piecing together a more robust faith experience. Millions of Revolutionaries are active in a local church, although most of them supplement that relationship with participation in a variety of faith-related efforts that have nothing to do with their local church. [They know] that their spiritual depth is not the responsibility of a local church; it is their own responsibility. As a result, they decide to either get into a local church that enhances their zeal for God or else they create alternatives that ignite such a life of obedience and service.”

I am sobered to read this because, after all, I am a leader in the very institutional church which apparently often fails to “enhance zeal for God” among eager Christ-followers. But I am excited because, let’s face it, Christians in America have often settled for “going to church” instead of “being the church” and this is a helpful reminder that the two are far different. Or to put it another way, Christ-followers are called to roll up our sleeves to join God’s kingdom labor, not merely to look like we are. And I truly believe most Christians want to do the former while their leaders (including, alas, me) too often only call them to the latter. Here’s to going beyond photo-op faith. (Matt Soper, 11/06/05).

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Below is an excerpt of remarks made by Dartmouth College Student Body President Noah Riner ('06) as he spoke to the incoming class of '09 at convocation a few weeks ago. His remarks were widely transmitted and sparked controversy because of his references to Jesus. I consider them an apt reminder. – Matt Soper

You've been told that you are a special class. A quick look at the statistics confirms that claim. But it isn't enough to be special. It isn't enough to be talented, to be beautiful, to be smart. In fact, there's quite a long list of very special, very corrupt people who have graduated from Dartmouth. If all we get from this place is knowledge, we've missed something. There's one subject that you won't learn about in class, one topic that orientation didn't cover: character.

We hear very little about character in our classrooms, yet the real problem in the world is not a lack of education. Supposedly, character is what you do when no one is looking, but I'm afraid to say all the things I've done when no one was looking. Cheating, stealing, lusting, you name it - How different are we [from “bad” people]?
We have the same flaws. Let's be honest, the differences are in degree.

The Times of London once asked readers for comments on what was wrong with the world. British author G. K. Chesterton responded simply: "Dear Sir, I am."
Not many of us have the same clarity that Chesterton had. In the words of Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, "the fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves." Character has a lot to do with sacrifice, laying our personal interests down for something bigger. The best example of this is Jesus. In the Garden of Gethsemane, just hours before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done." He knew the right thing to do. He knew the cost would be agonizing torture and death. He did it anyway. That's character.

Jesus is a good example of character, but He's also much more than that. He is the solution to flawed people like corrupt Dartmouth alums, [criminals], and me.
It is so easy to focus on the defects of others and ignore my own. But I need saving as much as they do. Jesus' message of redemption is simple. People are imperfect, and there are consequences for our actions. He gave His life for our sin so that we wouldn't have to bear the penalty of the law; so we could see love. The problem is me; the solution is God's love: Jesus on the cross, for us.

When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my sin and everybody else's. So I ask myself a question a lot of people have asked: Who is this man? And was He who He said He was, or was He just a religious nut? And there it is, and that's the question. What is the content of your character? Who are you? And how will you become what you need to be?