Based On…

I know movies based on books tend to take liberties with the author’s work, and the book is almost always better than the movie. (The only exception I can think of is The Firm. As implausible as the ending of the movie may have been, the ending of the book stretched credulity ever further, making it the only instance of the movie being better than the book that I know of). Still, movies based on books usually have the main points of the book in them.

Last night I watched the movie Alex Cross, a movie that, according to the credits at the end, was based on James Patterson’s book Cross. For those familiar with that particular book or Patterson’s Alex Cross series in general the movie will be a huge disappointment. Why? Because the movie is “based on” the book in the loosest possible sense. The movie uses some of the same names as the characters in the book, and Alex Cross in the movie is a psychologist and police detective, but there the similarities cease. In the books Cross grew up in and now works in Washington, D.C. In the movie it’s Detroit. In the book his partner is his childhood friend who is taller, heavier and more intimidating than Cross, and is black. In the book his partner is shorter, lighter, wimpier and white. The discrepancies only go on from there. I have never used this space to write movie reviews, though, and I don’t plan to start now, so why bring this up?

As I was bemoaning the pathetic effort by the film makers and wondering why James Patterson would have even allowed this movie to be made it occurred to me that there are an awful lot of things out there that are purportedly “based on” the Bible yet bear precious little resemblance to what the Bible actually says. This is surely cause for sorrow for God and it is cause for caution for us.

Anyone watching Alex Cross who had never read James Patterson’s books would not know that the movie was not faithful to the written word. Anyone in that category who then saw the book in a bookstore or library would assume they knew what the book was about; their opinion would have been influenced by what they had seen. Similarly, there are many people who have not read the Bible for themselves but have heard, read or seen things that claimed to be “based on” the Bible. These individuals will form their opinions of the Bible, of God and of Christianity as a result of whatever it was they saw, read or heard “based on” the Bible. That is a scary thought!

Flip through the “religion channels” on your television, browse the “Religion” section of your local bookstore or, listen to preachers on the radio, whatever your preference may be, and you will find plenty that claims a biblical basis but is nowhere near what the Bible really says or means.

This has two lessons for those of us claiming to be Christians. First, we need to test everything claiming to be “based on” the Bible against the Bible itself. In Acts 17:11 Scripture records that the believers in Berea, upon hearing from Paul and Silas, examined “the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” In other words they did not just accept that Paul was telling the truth; the tested his messages against the written Word of God. We must do the same thing, with sermons, books, songs and whatever else we encounter that claims to be “based on” the Bible. Second, we need to be extremely careful anytime we say, do or promote something that we are claiming is “based on” the Bible. In the Amplified Bible 2 Timothy 2:15 says that believers need to be “correctly analyzing and accurately dividing [rightly handling and skillfully teaching] the Word of Truth.” There is no excuse for carelessly handling God’s Word, and such careless handling would include asserting that something is based on Scripture when in reality it is not.

The moral of this story: Beware of, and examine closely, whatever is “based on.”

Shameful, Part 2

Apparently the story that prompted yesterday’s post is not a hoax. In fact, it is so legit that the server who posted the picture of the receipt that sparked it all was fired after the pastor complained. You can find this story just as easily as you can find the original one with a few key strokes and a search engine. But, in Joe Friday fashion, here’s the facts:

* The pastor is Alois Bell, a pastor at Truth in the World Deliverance Ministries Church.

* The restaurant in question was an Applebee’s.

* The originally-posted picture of the receipt did not redact or in any way obscure Bell’s signature (which is no doubt what led to the firing, since it violated her privacy).

* Bell complained to the manager at the Applebee’s where the incident occurred, leading to the firing of Chelsea Welch, the waitress who posted the original photo.

* Bell told The Smoking Gun, “My heart is really broken. I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and ministry.”

Indeed you have, Pastor Bell. I suspect I am one of thousands, if not millions, of people who looked up Truth in the World Deliverance Ministries Church to see if I could find the church’s web site. I did not find one; I did find a church in Michigan with the same name, but I do not know there there is any relationship between the two, as Bell’s church is in the St. Louis area. I did find a YouTube video of Bell preaching, and that will no doubt get thousands of hits. Unfortunately, not for any good reason; in fact, the negative and judgmental comments are already piling up in the video’s comments section.

Scripture makes it clear that we are to be careful in judging others, lest we too be judged, and I want to be careful that I am not judging Bell in a holier-than-thou manner. After all, I have made plenty of mistakes, and will no doubt make plenty more. There have surely been times when my actions have not brought honor to the Lord. And I am sure that Bell is embarrassed. Sadly, as we all know, we humans are sometimes more sorry that we got caught or called out than we are sorry for what we did. And though I don’t know Alois Bell, I cannot help but think that she would not have given her receipt comment a second thought if it had not gone viral on the world wide web.

So what can we learn from all this? I think James 1:19 is relevant: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Bell did not speak, she wrote, but the principle is the same. When we are irritated or frustrated or aggravated…those are the times that it is more important than ever to slow down before we open our mouths, pick up our pens (or sit down at our keyboards…).

I have not taken the time to read every article that pops up when this story is searched, so I do not know if Bell has said anything more than that she is embarrassed. If she has not, though, then her statement is lacking. Yes, she surely has brought embarrassment to her church and to her ministry, but that is not even close to being the most important thing. Most import is that she brought embarrassment on the Lord. To paraphrase what David said in Psalm 51, Alois Bell needs to acknowledge that it is against God that she has sinned; that is far more important than anything else. She has embarrassed her church, she has damaged her ministry, but she has sinned against God. She misused His Word in an effort to justify skimping on a gratuity, and that violates 2 Timothy 2:15:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

Alois Bell identified herself as a pastor, but she now has reason to be ashamed, because she did not rightly handle the Word of God. I hope and pray that she is ashamed more than embarrassed, and that she asks God for forgiveness and can learn from this experience. She needs to apply His word much more carefully, and to bring honor to the Lord, not shame.

Rightly Dividing

Anyone who grew up participating in AWANA, as I did, has memorized 2 Timothy 2:15, which reads, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (ESV). I originally learned it in the King James Version, which says, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” And while I don’t mind losing the “shews” and “needeths” of the KJV, there are still some verses that I prefer in that translation, and I think this would be one of them. While “rightly handling” makes a lot of sense, I think “rightly dividing” paints a clearer image of what the verse is about.

It reminds me of another verse many of us have memorized, Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (ESV). God’s Word is like a scalpel, able to make precision cuts, separating what to the naked eye or finite mind may seem inseparable.

Both of these verses serve to remind us of the extreme care with which we should handle God’s Word. Just as a surgeon wields his scalpel carefully, so too must we be wise and discerning in our use of God’s Word, because careless use and application of the Scripture can do damage.

Interestingly, I was attending a Bible conference some months ago in which the speaker’s stated aim was this idea–the careful and proper handling of the Bible. Yet, during the course of the conference the speaker himself was handling it with less precision than I thought prudent. Example: he, several times, made reference to David raping Bathsheba. I had never heard that before, so I turned to that passage in my Bible and read it again. I failed to see in that passage (2 Samuel 11) any indication that David had forced himself upon Bathsheba. There were plenty of other things that were wrong in that story–perhaps all of them on David’s part–and the story is powerful enough without adding to it something that is not there. So, when it came to Q and A time, I decided to ask the question.

I worded it like this: “You have mentioned several times the importance of using the Bible accurately and of not reading into it things that are not there.” (Speaker is nodding his head, no doubt pleased that I have been paying attention). “Yet, you have also referenced two or three times David raping Bathsheba. I have never heard that before, and I don’t see it in the passage, so I was wondering if you could tell me why you have used that term.”

He proceeded to tell me (and the entire audience, since this was an open forum Q and A) that he used that term intentionally and after careful forethought. He acknowledged that the Bible does not say that David raped Bathsheba, but that it is a reasonable conclusion to make from the text. After all, David sent a soldier to bring her to him, the speaker said, and if that is not force then what is? And the Bible does not say that David did not rape her, he said.

Hmmmm. I have several problems with this reasoning. The first one is relatively minor, by way of comparison. That would be that my Bible (an ESV) says David sent “messengers,” not soldiers. I see the same word choice in the ASV, AMP, CEV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV and NKJV, so I think replacing “messengers” with “soldiers” is careless and inaccurate. Depending on the translation it says that the messengers “took her” or “brought her” or that “she came to him,” so I think it would be a stretch even to say that Bathsheba was taken to David by force.

Second, none of the translations referenced above say that David forced himself on Bathsheba. Most of them say something along the lines of “he slept with her” or “he lay with her.” And I think it is careless to suggest that the Bible would not have clearly stated that David raped Bathsheba if that was, in fact, what he had done. After all, just a few chapters later, in 2 Samuel 13, the Bible makes it clear that Amnon raped Tamar, so it cannot even be suggested that the Bible was attempting to be discreet or to avoid unnecessarily graphic details in the account of David and Bathsheba. In fact, I raised this point with the speaker at the conference, and he said that he stood by his assertion, and gave several, in my opinion, absurd reasons for not stating rape in chapter 11 but doing so in chapter 13.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, is the incredible danger of arguing that something happened simply because there is no clear evidence that it did not. Arguing from a lack of evidence is a dangerous place to be, and no one would want to be on the receiving end of such an argument. To say that David raped Bathsheba is plausible because Scripture does not say that he didn’t makes no sense. If that kind of logic would hold water, imagine how far that could go… It would be fairly easy to overcome in the present, since anyone accused with such reasoning could then issue the apparently-required denial, but when dealing with historical accounts of individuals who are no longer living, there would almost no end to the ways in which history could be manipulated. This reminds me of a line given by a witness in an old episode of Perry Mason; when asked if anyone could confirm that she was home alone at the time of the murder, she quipped, “If I had known I was going to need an alibi, I would have arranged to have company.” After all, people are “home alone” all the time, and think nothing of it. The fact that someone claims to have been home alone during a murder cannot be used as proof that he or she actually committed the murder unless there is additional evidence that he or she did so. In other words, there must be evidence of the crime in order to convict; an absence of contradictory evidence is not sufficient.

Let’s keep the example of David and Bathsheba in mind. The Bible is God’s inspired Word, and while it has been translated and it is available in a multitude of versions, that is no excuse for asserting that it claims something that it does not. Most importantly, the fact that the Bible may not say something did not happen is no evidence for claiming that it did. There are some things God decided we do not need to know, and He gave us everything that we do need to know. We need to study carefully, and apply accurately, but there is no excuse for carelessly swinging our scalpels.