jasonbwatson

March 31, 2015

No expiration date on truth

Earlier this month there was a bit of an uproar within the National Baptist Convention in general and around American Baptist College in particular. American Baptist College was founded in 1924 for the purpose of training African-American ministers. Located in Nashville, the school has a rich connection to civil rights issues. It is a historically black college and has an all-black faculty. But none of that really has anything to do with the uproar mentioned above.

The problem arose when the college invited a married, lesbian bishop to speak at the school. Some conservative black preachers called on the school to withdraw the invitation because the Bible makes it clear that homosexuality is a sin. The bishop in question, Yvette Flunder, was not scheduled to address anything associated with homosexuality. Instead, she was to speak at the school’s annual Garnett Nabrit Lecture Series “about her work advocating for the rights and needs of people suffering from HIV and AIDS,” according to The Tennessean.

The Tennessean went on to report that the National Baptist Fellowship of Concerned Pastors stated the following in a news release calling for the invitation to be rescinded: “For a Baptist college president to invite a lesbian bishop legally married to a woman, to be a guest speaker and worship leader on a Baptist college campus is irresponsible, scandalous, non-biblical, and certainly displeasing to God.”

In response, American Baptist College President Forrest Harris said, “I think they have misappropriated the theology of the National Baptist Convention which says that churches and individuals can hold their own theological beliefs about what they think is right and wrong. It’s tragic these conservative pastors are in opposition to what education ought to be about, to expose students to critical moral thinkers and a broad education.” Harris may have been able to make a legitimate claim for the second part of the statement, because students do need to be exposed to critical moral thinkers. Still, there are plenty of critical moral thinkers who are not practicing homosexuals, and the invitation clearly implies an acceptance of Flunder’s lifestyle choice. Far more troubling is the assertion that the National Baptist Convention says that churches and individuals can “hold their own theological beliefs about what they think is right and wrong.” I do not know if the NBC teaches that or not, but if it does, it is a heretical organization. no where does the Bible allow churches or individuals to decide what they believe is right or wrong. Are there areas on which the Bible is not explicitly clear and about which individuals and even churches can decide they hold certain convictions? Absolutely. But the Bible is explicitly clear about what is right and wrong in many areas, and when the Bible is explicitly clear there is no other alternative.

That Harris is not much concerned about what the Bible has to say about the matter is clear in another statement he made, which has been reported in a variety of news outlets. “It’s sad that people use religion and idolatry of the Bible to demoralize same-gender-loving people,” Harris said. He then said “idolatry of the Bible” occurs “when people say (the Bible) is synonymous with God and the truth.” He continued, “We can’t be guided and dictated by a first-century world view.”

I beg your pardon, Mr. Harris, but saying that the Bible is synonymous with God and with truth is not idolatry; it is exactly what the Bible says it is. I am certainly not advocating a first-century worldview. Rather, I am advocating a biblical worldview. That the New Testament was written in the first century does not at all mean that it delivers a first-century worldview. All that means is that the first century is when God chose, in His sovereignty, to reveal His Word.

John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I am not sure how Mr. Harris could miss it, but I believe it would be an accurate paraphrase to say that John 1:1 says the Bible is synonymous with God. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all Scripture is breathed out by God. I am not sure how Mr. Harris could miss it, but I believe it would be an accurate paraphrase to say that the Bible is synonymous with God and truth. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” I am not sure Mr. Harris could miss it, but I believe it would be an accurate paraphrase to say that if it was true in the first century it is still true today; there is no expiration date on biblical truth. Romans 8:14 says that all those who are led by the Spirit of God are the Sons of God. That same Spirit of God inspired the authors of Scripture way back in the first century. I am not sure how Mr. Harris could miss it, but I believe it would be an accurate paraphrase to say that we must be guided by that worldview.

May we never be ashamed of holding fast to the Word of God!

March 30, 2015

Not a Math Problem

Though I have not been able to find definitive evidence that she did so, I have seen this statement attributed to Hillary Rodham Clinton in a number of places: “In the bible it says you have to forgive seventy times seven. I want you all to know, I’m keeping a chart.” And while I have not found that definitive evidence, it does strike me, if you don’t mind me saying so, as something Clinton would say.

If she did say it, she was referring, of course, to Matthew 18, where Peter asked Jesus how many times he needed to forgive someone who sinned against him. Verse 21 says Peter asked, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Peter thought he was being quite magnanimous, of course, and, if understood in context, he was. The Pharisees, after all, taught that one need only forgive three times. So Peter doubled it and, for good measure, added one more. Knowing Peter as we do, we can easily imagine him asking the question with an air of confidence, thinking that he would be commended for his generosity. Jesus, however, had something else in mind. “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven,” Jesus told him.

Seventy times seven is a lot of forgiveness. Who could keep track of forgiving someone 490 times? That, of course, was Jesus’ point. He was teaching Peter that there is not to be an end to forgiveness. Even if you go with one of the translations that presents Matthew 18:22 as “seventy-seven times” the point is that we are to keep on forgiving. We are not to keep a list. If someone kept track of forgiveness, whether seventy-seven times or 490 times, the implication of that would be that once that magic number had been reached, all bets were off, and revenge was coming. That, of course, was what Hillary Clinton was implying in the quote above. She was suggesting that there would come an end to her forgiveness, and when that point was reached, watch out!

God, however, never stops forgiving us. If he did, I would have long ago exhausted by 490 chances, as would everyone else on the face of the earth. Jesus went on, after answering Peter, to deliver the parable of the master who forgave a servant an insurmountable debt that he could never have paid on his own. That is the forgiveness that God offers. There is only one unpardonable, or unforgivable, sin, and that is refusing to accept that Christ died on the cross as the only possible perfect sacrifice that would satisfy a holy God. Beyond that, there is nothing you can do, I can do, or anyone else can do, that God will not forgive.

As incredibly comforting as that should be, the inverse is just as incredible. Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus said that if we do not forgive others their sins, God will not forgive our sins. Followers of Christ are called to demonstrate God-like forgiveness when others offend or wrong them. We need not keep a list, because it isn’t a math problem anyway, it is a heart condition. And the heart that is surrendered to Christ and yielded to the Holy Spirit will forgive the offending brother–every time.

March 20, 2015

Cinderella

I do not usually post movie reviews. In fact, I do not think I have ever reviewed a movie in this space, though it is possible that I have forgotten one. In this post, though, I am going to review one, primarily because I find it interesting how different two people can view the same thing.

Last Friday my wife and I went to see Disney’s new live-action movie Cinderella. I was not quite sure what to expect; I was hoping for a well-done film that did not stray too far from the classic storyline or get too “cutesy” in its presentation. I was not disappointed, because Disney and director Kenneth Branagh stayed very true to the storyline we all know. That pleased me. Interestingly enough, it disappointed Jessica Gibson, who reviewed the movie for Christianity Today. I did not read Gibson’s review until the day after I saw the movie, so I was a bit surprised to read the heading on the online version of the review: “When it comes to remaking classics, Disney shouldn’t try so hard.” Gibson opens her review announcing that she is a big believer that the original is almost always better. With that in mind, she said that she has been noncommittal on her opinion about Disney’s plan to make live-action versions of their classic animated versions of fairy tales. “Should Disney mess with success?” Gibson asks, to which she responds, “Cinderella gave the answer I hoped I wouldn’t get: they shouldn’t.”

Gibson goes on to write, “To its credit, the movie is remarkably faithful to the plot and characters of the 1950 animated original; thus, it doesn’t have much material with which to distinguish itself. Director Kenneth Branagh and the filmmakers tried to make the story feel new again, and for the most part they succeeded. But oddly, the movie’s best moments are the ones that didn’t change at all.” What I find so fascinating is that in Gibson’s mind this is a negative, whereas I found it refreshing. Far too often those who remake movies feel the need to put their own unique twist on the story we all know, with the result being that we are not watching the story we expected to see. I never find this satisfying or even enjoyable. (In fact, as I write this, it occurs to me that if I have reviewed a movie here before it was quite possibly to take to task the makers of the most recent Alex Cross movie, based on the novels by James Patterson, since the movie bore almost no resemblance to the book).

Oddly enough, one of the things Gibson complains about (though complain might be too strong a term) is that the Grand Duke in the latest version apparently needed to improvement for his eyesight. Gibson bemoaned the fact that in Branagh’s version the Grand Duke “did not have his trademark pince-nez and it was very wrong.” This actually struck me too, but only in an “I wonder why they didn’t include that” moment, not because I found it “very wrong.” (And, if I may politely correct Gibson, the Grand Duke in the animated version wore a monocle, not a pince-nez). The other difference that struck me is that Cinderella has no dog in Branagh’s version, meaning there is no Bruno when it comes time to get Cinderella to the ball. The result is that the fairy godmother makes footmen out of two lizards, an odd twist in my opinion. Branagh also makes the Grand Duke a conniver and schemer with his own designs on whom the prince should marry, whereas the original version makes him out as more of a bumbling sycophant.

It turns out that my opinion of the movie was much more in line with that of Emily Whitten, who reviewed it for WORLD. In Whitten’s words, the movie “is a visual feast with a moral center that will delight and edify children of all ages.” Branagh’s Cinderella is, outwardly, incredibly patient and tolerant with her step-mother and step-sisters after the death of her father, yet the film also gives us a glimpse into the struggles she deals with internally (emphasis on the word “glimpse”). Cinderella confronts her step-mother and step-sisters when they destroy her gown before the ball, asking them why they are so mean. She gets no response, but I also thought it interesting that Branagh had the step-mother make the first rip, whereas in the animated version Lady Tremaine slyly points out to the girls that Cinderella’s dress utilizes some things they had discarded and lets them inflict the damage. Equally interesting is that Branagh gives no indication that Cinderella used any of her step-sisters castoffs. The result of Branagh’s approach is, in my mind, the realization that the step-sisters are modeling the behavior they see their mother display, as well as that the behavior of all three is motivated purely by envy, jealousy and fear. Yes, that’s right, fear. Branagh also allows us to see a bit more into the heart of Lady Tremaine and to understand that no small part of her treatment of Cinderella is jealousy and that no small part of her efforts to get her daughters married off to the prince is her fear of having no income and nothing to provide for her and her daughters in the future after the death of Cinderella’s father. (Branagh does not attempt to explain why Conderella’s father would choose Lady Tremaine of all the women in the world he could perhaps have pursued as a second wife, and this is an aspect of the tale that has never made sense to me).

From the time of her mother’s death, Cinderella is driven by her mother’s last instructions, to “have courage and be kind.” These are, even if a bit trite, excellent instructions for all of us, and often easier said than done. When the glass slipper is finally placed on Cinderella’s foot–by the prince himself, in Branagh’s version–following a kingdom-wide search for the slipper’s owner, Cinderella turns to her step-mother for one final remark before leaving for her “happily ever after.” We see Lady Tremaine standing on the staircase, realizing that the one she has so despised is about to get everything she has always wanted for herself or, at the very least, her daughter. Cinderella turns and the two lock eyes–leaving the audience wondering what she is about to say. There are many things that she could say, and no doubt many of them would be deserved and justifiable. Cinderella, though, chooses three simple but incredibly powerful words: “I forgive you.”

I am not suggesting that Branagh intentionally incorporated a biblical worldview into this version, and as Whitten wrote of the movie, “In typical American fashion, belief here is a force on its own”–and this is perhaps true for much of the film. However, Lady Tremaine did not ask for Cinderella’s forgiveness and she certainly did not deserve it. I find some powerful biblical principles in that, and it is low-hanging fruit for anyone who wants to use the movie as a catalyst for deeper discussions with their children.

If you want a dramatic remake of the Cinderella story you know so well, you will not find it here. If, instead, you want a well-crafted live-action version of a classic fairy tale, without even a hint of black magic or content otherwise inappropriate for children, then this is the movie for you.

March 17, 2015

Denominational Membership

Somehow an entire month has passed since my last post. I assure you it has not been an uneventful month! However, I never wrote the final post in my series on the importance of church membership. I have alluded to some of these final concerns in other posts, but the importance of church membership is relevant beyond the local church when that local church is part of a denominational body. As has been seen in many recent denominational decisions, the people who are permitted to officially make up the local church then also officially make up the denomination and then also officially decide what the denomination believes and allows.

How does it ever happen that a denomination can decide to allow something that the Bible prohibits–like homosexual marriage? It all starts with church membership. The members of the churches within that denominational body are elected to leadership positions and/or as delegates to the denomination’s national (or even global) assemblies where there are votes taken on what the denomination believes, sanctions, practices, etc.

This is also, of course, one of the dangers of a church being a part of a denominational body. I know there are some advantages, and I will let you figure those out for yourself if you do not already know them (because, frankly, there are various opinions on such benefits). The dangers, however, are that the local church that has remained faithful to Scripture in its teachings, beliefs, practices and membership requirements is a part of the larger denominational body. This means that money from the local church may be going to support ministries and institutions that the local church does not support (and may even oppose) and it means that the local church is officially expected to believe and practice as the denomination as a whole decides. When the local church that has remained true to Scripture wants out of the denomination after it begins to stray from Scripture, the local church finds itself in a legal quagmire, since the courts have usually ruled that in such instances the church buildings belong to the denomination, not the local body. Accordingly, some of these churches have been forced to forfeit their local church buildings, and in some cases these have been hundreds of years old and/or worth millions of dollars.

I have been a member of one church in my adulthood that was a part of a larger international denomination. I joined it because it was the strongest and most biblically-based church in my community. At the same time, there were a lot of things I did not like about the church’s denominational membership, including where some of its dues to the denomination went and the denominations program for international missions. In that case, the international denomination had (remarkably) turned back toward biblically-accurate positions, but the state chapter of the denomination had not. The result was that there were then two competing state chapters. The church I was a member of had always been a member of the one chapter, because for a long time it was the only one. When it strayed, though, older members rejected efforts to leave it because of the church’s long affiliation and connection. So, this local church was dually aligned. Between you and me, I find that to be even worse. It’s like straddling the fence. It’s being lukewarm. It’s a church’s refusal to take a stand for truth because an elderly member might get miffed. For me, when the choice is between a miffed senior citizen and the Bible, I’ll choose the Bible every time.

This will likely sound like I am opposed to denominational membership and favor an independent local church. That would be accurate. However, that is not the purpose of this post. Rather, my hope is that those who are members of larger denominational bodies will recognize that the serious responsibility of defining, filtering and enforcing church membership will have an impact far beyond their local body.

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