Christianity and Society

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News of the Newtown shooting felt like a kick in the stomach. My heart immediately went out to the parents, community and surviving children. I was amazed at the bravery and selflessness of the school staff.

After a time, however, I became overwhelmed by the spectacle of an entire nation which cannot seem to comprehend how such a thing could happen. I found myself very sad for multitudes of Americans so thoroughly alienated and estranged from biblical faith that they cannot fathom the dark side of human nature, and consequently remain bereft of any meaningful hope.

Jesus was once asked about the brutal murder of an entire group of worshipers.

Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”                             Luke 13:2-3

Read Jesus’ remark carefully. He made three points:

  • People who suffer horrific, senseless violence do not especially deserve it. The unjust nature of suffering is one of the sadder results of human sin.
  • We live under God’s suspended curse in response to human sin (Genesis 3:17-18). All of us are vulnerable to the many miseries native to being alienated from our Creator. One day, God’s passive alienation will become active judgment in which all of us deserve to perish.
  • We are presently in an era of precious grace, in which repentance and faith can neutralize future judgment, and heal present alienation.

Jesus’ words seem harsh to modern ears. We are so determined to justify our lifestyles that we cling to the secular dogma that humans are fundamentally good and children are born an innocent blank slate. Therefore, the only possible conclusions from Newtown are:
1) God is not good – either incompetent or evil, or 2) there is no God.

Jesus’ words are hard. They cut deep. But they remain the only source of hope the world has ever known. Because if wickedness is God’s fault, we are doomed. And if there is no God, evil is virtually inconsequential because life itself is no more than a brief flower. But if evil is our fault, the result of a bent nature every one of us is born with, then there is room for hope – hope that God exists, and he is good. If he is very good, he could help us in our distress.

Jesus claimed that God is more good than we imagine. It is only our pride that blinds us to him and condemns us to spiritual cluelessness. God is so good that he will decisively condemn wickedness, while saving morally compromised people (like me) who seek redemption.

I weep that none of this makes any sense in a nation which has so largely forgotten the biblical message. The outpouring of national sympathy toward Newtown is nothing short of inspiring. But in the end, we need more than hugs, tweets and random acts of kindness. We need hope.

I have a small collection of books from the 20th Century proclaiming the imminent return of Christ. One assumed that Hitler was the anti-Christ, another taught that Soviet Russia was Magog. And of course, I have a copy of “The Late Great Planet Earth.” These are some of the predictions stimulated by the Dispensationalist movement that built up steam in the middle to late 1800’s. Dispensationalists believe that “the Last Days” refer only to a short period of tribulation just before the return of Christ. Since, like every Christian, they long for Christ to return, they try very hard to prove that Revelation’s description of the end times describes the world scene of their own day.

Harold Camping is different. In his recent prediction, his previous prediction of 1994 and his latest prediction of next October, he didn’t prophesy Christ’s return by trying to prove that Osama Bin Laden was the anti-Christ. Instead, he used a bizarre concoction of symbolism and numerology. (It’s obvious, is it not, that 5 is the number for atonement and 17 is the number for heaven???)

I leave the absurdity of Mr. Camping’s work to others. What struck me this time around was not how the mainstream media put Camping in a bad light – it was how ludicrous the Christian notion of the end of the world seemed to them. Most had little idea of how Mr. Camping came to his conclusion (can’t blame them for that), but it really didn’t matter. What people felt was silly was the biblical teaching that the world as we know it will end in divine judgment.

Apocalyptic visions of the future abound. The idea that mankind will one day be destroyed is regularly assumed in scientific journals and respected TV programs. Asteroids, depletion of resources, nuclear war – a dozen or more scenarios prophesy our demise, and all are taken seriously.

This time around, however, it seemed to me that public and media reaction to a Christian warning about the end of the world was taken as nonsense. Yes, Camping’s calculations are nonsense. But it wasn’t the calculations that commentators derided; it was the idea that God would intentionally bring mankind to judgment. Prophesy that an asteroid will destroy the earth, and that’s OK. Prophesy that God will do it as an act of judgment, and it’s not OK.

The notion that there is no final judgment is making serious inroads into our culture. The consequences are enormous.

Quite apart from the spiritual issue of people’s individual salvation, our culture is severely impacted as more and more share the belief that there is no divine retribution, and life is whatever I can get away with. For example, the Presbyterian Church in America, in a judicial case, will not accept a witness who does not “believe in the existence of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments.” Without such belief, why should people tell the truth under oath?

Simply believing in a future state of rewards and punishments is a far cry from full-blown Christian faith, but it was one biblical doctrine that permeated the formation of our democracy. Free people live without fear of constant government intervention. But if they do not have consciences bound by a sense of higher accountability, how can a free people survive? The idealist answer is “people will honor their word.” But why would they do that if their personal ends were served otherwise?

I do not suggest that only Christians have moral principles. Atheists have moral principles. The inborn consciences of all people are largely the same. The point is that the attention we give our consciences is directly related to our sense of accountability. Perhaps this is what our second President, John Adams, was thinking when he wrote,”Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Harold Camping is an embarrassment. But no Christian should be embarrassed by believing our world’s history will end in judgment. Biblical doctrine would not hang together without it. God’s character would be flawed without it. And incidentally, a free society may prove to be impossible without it.

 

How can you say, “We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,” when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?
Jeremiah 8:8

Same sex marriage is currently before the Maryland House of Delegates, having already been passed by the Senate. It could be voted on this week.

I have communicated my beliefs and advice to my own State Senator and Delegate, specifically suggesting amendments in certain areas. I have prayed for a godly outcome. I never mix politics in my preaching, but being personally involved is my duty and privilege as a Christian citizen.

However, I have recently been convicted by Jeremiah that, while diligent in one area, I have been negligent in another.

Public policy will bless a people to the degree it is consistent with God’s revealed will. But in a pluralistic society, it is never surprising when others – perhaps a majority of others – prefer some other way to God’s way. I cannot expect those who are not committed to biblical revelation to act as if they were. The State and the nation will do what they will, and we must all deal with the results that God allows.

What is surprising – and spiritually deadly – is when people whom you expect to honor biblical religion handle it falsely. The Episcopal church is in turmoil, in part, because of its decision to bless same-sex unions. A local Lutheran church just lost its Senior Pastor because he could not support his denomination’s decision to allow committed homosexuals in its clergy. Presbyterians (not the PCA) are currently voting by Presbytery to affirm something similar in their fellowship, and it looks like the change will pass.

I have been praying that society in general resist a re-definition of marriage, but I have long since stopped regularly praying with regard to church leaders who prefer their culture’s preferences to the clear teaching of God’s Word.

I have been trying to struggle through the smoke of our government’s laws and decrees. But the real fire is in America’s churches.

I was delighted several months ago when I received another invitation to open a session of the Maryland Senate in prayer. This time, however, there was an additional request – to submit my prayer ahead of time so that, I was told, it might be accurately published in their records.

Several days before my scheduled visit, I received a phone call from the Senate asking me to please remove my reference to Jesus Christ at the end of my prayer. I said respectfully, I could not, simply because that is the only way I knew how to pray.

The day before my visit, I received another phone call informing me that because I could not comply with Senate protocol, my invitation had been withdrawn. The person dealing with me was most gracious and seemed to me personally embarrassed by this turn of events. She did, however, have to enforce policy.

An experience like this makes you think long and hard about the place of faith in a pluralistic society.

I responded to the Senate indicating that I was most sympathetic to their concerns. Why should someone lead the assembly in prayer in the name of Jesus, when there are members of the Senate who do not believe in Jesus, and could not reasonably be led in that way? I would feel equally offended if I were led in prayer by a Muslim, with the expectation that I would be praying in the name of Allah.

In fact, it seems to me that the days when Americans can be led in any sort of public prayer are gone. Such prayers are bound to be offensive, either because they would be sectarian, or because they would have to be spiritually diluted to the consistency of melted Jell-O.

Which is why I never intended to lead the Senate in prayer. I intended to pray for them. Here, I think, is a way forward in re-forging the partnership between church and State intended by the First Amendment. The Founding Fathers rejected the establishment of any particular religion, and I think that does rule out publicly leading robust prayers from any religious tradition. But those same Fathers had no intention of isolating the government from the spiritual concerns and religious influence of its citizens.

I believe a proper partnership could be re-established by asking a community’s religious leaders to pray for the nation/state/public assemblies, rather than try to lead those entities in prayer. That is to say, let community religious leaders ask God’s blessing in any way they believe is right, praying with all the sensitivities and fervor of their faith. But let it be an “I/them” prayer, not a “We/us” prayer. Let the one praying ask God to bless, rather than try to lead the whole group in asking for God’s blessing.

That means that occasionally I will be blessed in the name of some other god. I would not participate in such a prayer, but I would not be offended by someone else’s faith. As long as different religious leaders were invited in approximate proportion to the respective numbers they locally represent (including meditations from atheists), there would be no favoritism shown to any religion. And the public would benefit from exposure to the spiritual sensitivities and world views of its citizens. Such prayers would not be the prayers of the group, but only the prayers of the religious leaders involved.

And when I, as a Christian pastor, pray, I would ask God to act in the name of Jesus Christ.

I have asked the Maryland Senate to reconsider its policies along these lines. It would enable us to celebrate religious integrity in a pluralistic society.

Today marks the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Commenting on this, President Obama stated today his desire that “our daughters have the same rights, the same freedoms, and the same opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.”

Freedom. That’s what 5,860 American soldiers have died to protect in Iraq and Afghanistan. Freedom means that we are not helpless pawns under the power of political, economic, military or religious tyrants. Freedom is well worth protecting.

But freedom itself is not something to be proud of. It only guards our potential. It’s what we do with freedom that counts. Freedom can be used to educate oneself or others, create honorable jobs, or raise money and conscience to help those in need. Freedom can be used to build families, pass on values and shape the character of the next generation. Freedom can be used to bless the other creatures of this planet and literally reach for the stars.

Or freedom can be used to methodically destroy 52 million helpless children since 1973 in one of the most profound tragedies in history.

In a fallen world, freedom is good because it allows Christ’s people to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness as we pursue the salvation of people everywhere (1 Timothy 2:2). Freedom allows us to fulfill our ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind our own business and work hard to win the respect of others and not be dependent on anybody (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). Freedom is something all Christians should protect.

But freedom is not something to be proud of. Freedom can be used to honor the will of God, and freedom can be used to desecrate the image of God. It’s what we do with our freedom that counts.

An open letter faxed on 9/9/10 to Terry Jones, Pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center of Gainesville, FL:

Dear Pastor Jones,

I write to ask you to reconsider your plans to burn copies of the Koran this September 11th.

I believe you intend for this action to serve as a wake-up call to the church and the nation to oppose Islam.

Actually, however, I believe your actions would:

  • dishearten millions of Christians, who have read the New Testament and cannot imagine Jesus and the Apostles spreading the gospel through rage, frustration and derision.
  • undermine requests for Islamic sensitivity in Americans – as in the choice to build a mosque at ground-zero.
  • aid terrorist recruitment both in America and abroad.
  • make it easy for Christ to be misrepresented to millions of Muslims who have no access to the gospel, thus becoming a stumbling block to them.
  • lead directly to the murder and added agony of many brothers and sisters in Christ, in Indonesia and elsewhere, who have no responsibility for the decisions you make that will impact them.

Burning the Koran would not be a show of strength. Our Lord Jesus demonstrated strength on the cross. His enemies spat on him, and he responded by asking his Father to forgive them in their ignorance. It was the greatest courage and love ever demonstrated.

Spitting back is only weakness. Please do not demonstrate such weakness before all the world as a pastor of God’s people.

Sincerely,
Glenn Parkinson, Pastor, Severna Park Evangelical Presbyterian Church (PCA)

During my sabbatical, two experiences occurring within three days of each other reminded me of a text in Philippians, and how challenging it is to walk with discernment in today’s complex world.

This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.               Philippians 1:9–11

Experience #1

For some time, Micki has had a heartfelt longing to greet our returning troops. We finally went up to BWI and joined Operation Welcome Home for an afternoon, preparing bags of snacks and waiting for the plane to arrive with 240 soldiers and sailors.

Unlike the current war in Afghanistan, I have never believed that the second Iraq War was justified. But my political views about the war take nothing from my admiration for the men and women of our armed forces, and the families who must get by without them. They have sacrificed a great deal to fight the evil of terrorism, and I am grateful to them beyond words.

What a thrill to greet each one with loud applause as he or she came through customs, shaking hands, welcoming them home, thanking them for their service and asking God to bless them. They are all heroes, and deserve to be greeted as such on their return.

Experience #2

The following Sunday, I traveled to Washington DC to attend a prayer meeting sponsored by an organization I support, Barnabas Aid. Barnabas Aid exists to support persecuted Christians anywhere in the world. At the prayer meeting were leaders of the churches of Iraq and Syria, in our country to meet with members of Congress.

One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, Iraqi Christians lived in relative stability under Saddam Hussein. While Hussein was a monster in many ways, he had no interest in persecuting Christians. In fact, Hussein’s Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Chaldean Catholic.

Since the war, all that has changed. The country has disintegrated into a civil upheaval of the major factions, none of whom have any interest in respecting native Christians. Christians have been widely threatened, killed and dispossessed. The British leader of the prayer meeting I attended personally saw a young Christian publicly crucified in the center of Basara, while the Coalition military leader he was visiting indicated that they were committed to not intervene. The Christian population has gone from 1.5 million (in 1990) to 400,000 – many now live in Syrian ghettos, as they forfeited all their belongings and savings. Their plight has received very little coverage in our news media, and less comment by our leaders. They are one of saddest examples of collateral damage in the war against terrorism.

So, in the span of several days: welcoming our troops home as heroes, and then asking God’s forgiveness for the way our nation inadvertently opened a door for the persecution of those who bear Christ’s name.

It would be nice if all moral issues were simple. As it is, we need depth of insight to discern what is best.

On April 21st, CNN referred to a Facebook page consisting of a tongue-in-cheek prayer asking God to take President Obama’s life. As of the writing of this blog, 1,145,231 people “like” this page.

While I am sad to see yet another hyper-polarized political response, I am more concerned with the support registered by Christians. Some even assert that Psalm 109:8 justifies such a prayer.

May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership.

I am very concerned about this, especially since “may his days be few” is clearly explained in the next verse as death.

Please understand that I am not a fanboy of the President. I appreciate some of his initiatives and take issue with others. I respectfully communicate my thoughts directly to him and to my congressional representatives. He has an impossible job, and I would not want it.

The main reason I am concerned is not political. I am concerned because I sense a very serious misunderstanding about how to interpret the Bible in general, and how to pray for our leaders in particular. Please take these remarks, then, not as a political argument, but rather as the comments of a pastor concerned for brothers and sisters whom I love and respect. So I will comment first on Psalm 109, and then more generally on imprecatory prayer (prayers that invoke curses).

I went through all of David’s psalms again to put Psalm 109 in context. The vicious attacks of his enemies were one of David’s most frequent subjects. Most of the time, those enemies were nations and their armies, but sometimes his prayers focused on political enemies among God’s people. David’s pattern was very consistent. Over and over, David cited the desires and intent of his enemies, and then asked God to bring upon those people essentially the same things they wanted to bring upon him.

In the case of Psalm 109, verses 6-18 are a summary of the things wicked men were saying against David, things which David asks God to instead visit upon them (cf. vv. 18-20). David summarized similar sentiments against him elsewhere. In fact, notice how David’s words in Psalm 41:5 closely parallel those Psalm 109:8-9.

My enemies say of me in malice, “When will he die and his name perish?”

This explains the stress in verses 9 and 10 on the destruction of David’s children – a wish by his enemies not only to end David’s life, but also his dynasty.

It is important to understand that David’s pattern was not to invent arbitrary curses to call down on his enemies. Rather, he first reflected to God what his enemies were saying or doing against him, and then in essence asked God to turn their curses back upon them. That is what David is doing in Psalm 109:8, and why that verse was referenced in Acts 1 to speak of Judas, who bought a field with his blood money reward and found that his true reward was death.

This makes Psalm 109 one of David’s many applications of a basic Old Testament summary of justice.

If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured.   Leviticus 24:19-20

A fundamental definition of justice in the Old Testament is that a person’s “reward” should exactly mirror what he or she has earned. Those who do right should be proportionally rewarded, while those who do wrong should be proportionally punished. This is exactly how God will judge the world one day (cf. Romans 2:6-16).

However – and this is important – before Judgment Day, this kind of retribution is both required of, and limited to, the authority of civil government.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.
Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.   Romans 13:1-4

Why is this the authoritative function of government? Because since the Fall, God has temporarily suspended the weight of his divine judgment upon the human race in order to establish and spread his gospel of grace. Because of that, God authorizes human government to put boundaries around sin so it can’t again rise to the level it once did in Genesis 6. God raises up every governmental leader to administer a taste of his righteousness until Judgment Day – every leader, from Nero to Lincoln. (And a nation’s prosperity depends in part on how well its leaders do their job.)

David sought the condemnation of evildoers because that was his job as King. Because of his office, it was his responsibility to ask God to glorify himself by judging those who wished evil against God’s Anointed King. He wasn’t speaking personally as a citizen; he was speaking as the King. (Note that before he was King, he refused to seek personal retribution against King Saul).

It is true that Christians share in Christ’s kingly office, and part of that office is the judgment of the world (Luke 22:28-30), but we will not take part in that until Jesus does, himself (Revelation 6:9-11).

In this age, the administration of retribution is forbidden to private individuals. In particular, Jesus’ commands his followers …

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”   Matthew 7:1-2

It does not matter whether or not they are friends of the gospel.

The people [in a Samaritan village] did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them.   Luke 9:51-56

It does not even matter whether we consider them our enemies.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”   Matthew 5:43-44

Notice that Jesus specifically instructs us that the business of retribution accurately summarized in the Old Testament is off limits (outside of government) to anyone who wants to follow him.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”   Matthew 5:38-42

So how are we supposed to pray for our leaders? We don’t have to wonder; we are clearly told.

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:1-3

Paul taught this in the context not of a Lincoln but of a Nero. He prayed for Nero – not that God would destroy him but that God would bless him, thanking God for raising up someone for the purpose of curbing sin. Why? Because as important as the deficit and health care and housing prices and foreign policy are, what is most important is the simple social stability that allows Christians to bring a taste of Christ’s kingdom into our hurting world. And if we aren’t willing to use every opportunity we already have to minister God’s grace, what difference would more prosperity or a better foreign policy make in the perspective of eternity, anyway?

In America, we are free to debate social issues as robustly as we like. We are free to participate vigorously in the election of those who lead us. We are free to disagree with policies and argue for alternatives. Christians have a perspective the fallen nations need to hear, and we honor God by courageously sharing it, openly declaring what is good and what is evil. There is even room for civil disobedience, when giving Caesar his due must give way to giving God what is due him.

But it is a serious mistake for Christians in this age to call down judgment upon anyone, especially civil leaders. Did Daniel pray for Nebuchadnezzar’s death? Did Esther ask God to strike down Xerxes? Did Jesus pray for Pilate’s ruin? Can anyone imagine Paul “liking” that Facebook page?

As for prayer, we may humbly ask God to forgive us our national sins – in which we all have a share. We may ask God for just and wise leaders, perhaps even better leaders than we deserve. We may ask God to guide the leaders he has already given us, and graciously overrule their folly. We may pray for Christ’s return, when perfect judgment will be rendered.

But asking God to send fire from heaven before that day is sure to earn us the same rebuke given to the original disciples.

Today finds me deeply grieving over the oil spill following the April 20th tragic loss of a British Petroleum oil rig 48 miles off the Louisiana shoreline. The latest estimate is that 200,000 gallons of oil are fouling the Gulf of Mexico every day. Current plans to contain the leak on the sea floor may take several weeks and are untested at these depths. Long term plans are also iffy and will take three months or more. If twenty wildlife refuges and 400 species are threatened after only ten days, what about three months from now?

I thought I was used to corporate and governmental foolishness, but I was not ready for this. Sealing a leak a mile below the surface seems to have everyone shrugging their shoulders. BP’s original environmental impact analysis for this rig stated that a huge spill was “unlikely, or virtually impossible.” Their plans for responding to oil spills did not even address the possibility that their seafloor equipment might fail. Now, because such a major spill is “unprecedented” at a depth where water pressure is well over a ton per square inch, no one knows what to do.

So if they did not even think to prepare for such a disaster and are not certain how to deal with it, why were they drilling at this depth? Why were they allowed to drill at this depth? It reminds me of the proverb …

One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless.  Proverbs 14:16  ESV

In this case, the cost of our recklessness could be enormous. I hope they can drop containers to restrict the oil flow soon. I hope the leak does not increase five-fold, as some have speculated. But this man-made disaster has the potential of eclipsing any other that has come before. Multitudes of God’s creatures could be destroyed, and entire ecosystems could be wrecked. I believe God cares about these creatures and the home he specifically designed for them. I’m not talking about “animal rights;” I’m talking about something much more important. I’m talking about God’s good pleasure, or in this case his displeasure. It matters when we make God sad … or mad.

Of course, that displeasure will also extend to the way countless livelihoods and entire communities will be ruined, and how an enormous amount of our grandchildren’s money will be invested to mitigate the consequences. My point is simply that what we have done in the Gulf is the kind of irresponsible behavior that displeases God in the extreme. It is reckless and careless, what he labels as the work of fools. Not that oil drilling or even offshore drilling is foolish in itself. We have been so shortsighted in our energy policy that such dangerous activities must be considered. But it is absurd to risk huge ecological disaster without first being reasonably certain we can handle catastrophic failure.

We didn’t risk the lives of a handful of astronauts without years of expensive testing and fail-safe preparations. We would never think of building a nuclear power plant in a populated area without adequate safety controls in place from day one, instead of hoping that they might figure out a way to deal with a complete meltdown in the unlikely event such a thing occurred. It is mind boggling to discover that deep sea drilling has been attempted without any thought given to massive failure.

Why do we do such things? I am reminded of another proverb, one which I think of as complimentary to the one quoted above …

The discerning sets his face toward wisdom, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth.  Proverbs 17:24  ESV

Wisdom looks for what is right and pursues it responsibly. In this day and age, I would think that wisdom would put all available resources into developing a sustainable energy plan, investing in whatever research we need in order to expand energy resources in reasonable safety.

Foolishness builds castles in clouds. It overlooks problems in plain sight to search the horizon for huge profits. Foolishness gives little thought to risk or realistic planning for possible failure.

I dearly hope my concerns are unfounded. I pray that BP will demonstrate remarkable skill and seal the leak they caused within days.

But it is increasingly likely that the Gulf of Mexico and its creatures will be horribly wounded for decades to come. Economic calamity is already predicted for the region, and the tragedy may be only just beginning. At the current rate, this leak will release in two months as much oil as the one of the worst ecological disasters in history, Exxon Valdez. But what if the leak expands five-fold, as some fear, poisoning the Gulf of Mexico with 1,000,000 gallons of oil each and every day? (I am not comforted that the future of the Gulf is in the hands of an underinsured private company facing billions in lawsuits.)

And what if it takes four months to stop the flow of oil? Or six months? What if it turns out that we simply do not yet have the technology to seal multiple oil hemorrhages a mile under water? What then? Apparently, no one asked such questions. Certainly no one demanded answers.

Recklessness and carelessness. Overlooking wise precautions to search the ends of the earth for treasure. The consequences could be staggering.

But amidst all our concern about the economic and human impact of what we have done, let us please not forget the worst part of it all: we have offended our Creator. Our foolishness has trashed his property, endangered creatures he loves and injured people in his image.

While we do all we can to practically deal with this, let’s also tell God that we are heartsick, ask his forgiveness, repent of our foolishness and humbly rest in the grace of his Son, who took all our pollution upon himself.

Part of what defines our culture are the blockbuster movies that “everyone” sees. Talking about them not only communicates what we think, but helps us work it out. So, how do I, with my Christian faith, respond to the science fiction movie Avatar?

Underneath the love story and background of environmental concern, the main message of the film is about gaining a radically new identity. A man without hope gets to play with a false persona that is more intimate with other people, the environment and even to “god.” This pretend identity trades despair for hope and isolation for belonging. Then, through the miracle of science fiction, he actually becomes that new man!

This is a good piece of science fiction, as it touches on our deep sense of personal brokenness and longing to be someone else – someone better than we are. In the real world, such change seems impossible, so science fiction is used to play with the “what if” scenario of radical personal change – what it would feel like to really become a whole person.

As I watched the moving story, my heart ached for non-Christians enjoying it as I did. Because science fiction isn’t real. Real trees aren’t connected like brain neurons, and even if they were, being “remembered” by a living but temporal ecosystem is hardly eternal life. I realized that millions of people will come away from this film teased into acknowledging their ache for harmony, beauty and enduring life, only to leave the theater realizing that such hopes can never be realized.

In other words, the movie raises a desire for reconciliation without any hope of actual redemption. The movie is pantheistic, and pantheism can never offer redemption. Pantheism worships the creation, and the creation is broken. It is a physician who cannot heal himself. The world can only be saved by its Creator.

What I found fascinating is how even such a pantheistic film has to borrow so heavily on Christianity in order to depict the planet’s salvation. Someone from the “outside” takes humanoid form to become one of the afflicted, suffers rejection (even hanging on something like a cross), dies, and is resurrected as a glorious king to bring about a great victory over the forces of evil. Avatar is not Christian storytelling, but it is good storytelling. And like so many good stories, it echoes the gospel.

Most folks are content to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the movie. Others want to argue about Director Cameron’s environmental politics. I think Avatar presents a wonderful opportunity to explain where the inspirational elements of the film come from. In conversation, I would ask, “Do you think such harmony, beauty and enduring life is really possible?” “If such a place existed, do you think you would fit in?” I would discuss our common, deeply held desire to be someone better than we are.

Then, I would surprise them with my amazing hope that such things are more than science fiction! I would reference the beauty of the film while sharing that there actually will come a day when the planet is no longer frustrated – a day when the mountains sing, the rivers clap their hands, and our fellow creatures no longer have reason to fear human dominion. I would share my own experience of “a second birthday,” and how I am even now discovering my new identity in Christ. While the film is fresh on their minds, I would explain how all this is possible because our Creator literally incarnated his personhood in a human body like ours in order to destroy our real foe, and I intend to spend eternity enjoying the society he is creating.

Avatar’s phenomenal success testifies to the deep longing millions have to be reborn. Such an ache is not in itself a readiness to trust the Living God, but it does give us a platform for creative and compassionate discussion.

People think Avatar is over-the-top beautiful? … wait till they hear the real gospel!

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