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Actors, Artists, and A.W. Tozer

C.S. Lewis wrote, while introducing a new translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, that people ought to read two old books for every new book they pick up. People’s worldviews change. Not their opinions; their entire way of understanding reality. To paraphrase Lewis, there are places where Barack Obama and George W. Bush are in shockingly close agreement—shocking, that is, to Socrates. We wouldn’t notice very easily, because we share their basic assumptions.

We share many things in common with people who lived fifty or sixty years ago. Certainly there isn’t a gap of the sort that would occur between Obama and Socrates. But there are still some things that we find very difficult to understand. Those were my thoughts while reading A.W. Tozer’s essay, “The Menace of the Religious Movie.”

I’m not a movie fan. My go-to source of relaxation is books, not movies. (A secret vice: when I’m tired, I have a habit of going to poorly written children’s books to let my mind vegetate. I suppose it’s my version of junk television.) I have read and admired Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I agree with Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message.” Film has its problems. Emotional manipulation is a major one—and that isn’t even to bring up the damage that some movies have done in religious contexts. Like Postman, I do not believe that any medium is neutral. Tozer, on the other hand, did believe that film was a neutral medium—which makes his attitude toward movies seem even stranger.

Tozer was opposed to religious movies. All religious movies. He quipped that they were making poor attempts to do what what Hollywood could do better—a fair claim, especially at that time. But evidently he considered all Hollywood movies off bounds for Christians as well. A professor of mine told our class that when he was growing up out West, all evangelicals frowned on going to movie theaters. Not fundamentalists—mainstream evangelicals. I guess some of Tozer’s attitudes reflect his time.

Others seem strange, even for the mid-1900s. Tozer opposed acting, period. Pointing out that our word “hypocrisy” comes from the Greek word for “actor,” he argued that all acting is hypocritical. I had thought that attitude had died with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Apparently not.

Some of Tozer’s concerns, however, are legitimate—even if I do not agree with all of his reasoning. He worried that people were paying more attention to natural gifts than spiritual gifts, treating Christian actors as superior to Christian teachers, pastors, and evangelists. Given our media-obsessed culture, that remains a danger. Or, worse—those teachers, pastors, and evangelists may try to reinvent themselves as media personalities. As Neil Postman worried, the end result of that will be a nation that takes Christianity less seriously. If a pastor is as good as a movie star, he probably won’t be any better.

But, coming more from the perspective of a writer than of a theologian, I worry as much for the Christian actor in that situation as I would for the pastor. Artists of any medium—film, visual arts, the written word—are vulnerable to forces that the church leaders may not understand. Artists do need to be respected, to have their natural talents affirmed within the context of the church. The church, however, must be careful. I recall reading of a church that had a writer-in-residence. That situation—giving someone a prominent church office based on his or her natural talents—made me uneasy. True, churches have secretaries, musicians, and janitors. Those positions are necessary for the church to function. Is a writer-in-residence? And if he or she is, then shouldn’t he be treated as an equal counterpart to the secretaries, musicians, and janitors?

Celebrity is dangerous. Those in holy orders—pastors, deacons, etc.—have higher positions than others in the church, and Scripture itself recognizes that they are extremely vulnerable. That was long before the TV preachers that so concerned Neil Postman, let alone Internet-based megachurches. People in high positions need to be careful. So does anyone, whether an artist or not, whose calling puts him in the public eye. Churches need to reach out to artists, as they need to reach out to everyone. Artists should feel that the church welcomes their gifts. But Christians should be able to conduct outreach without treating artists as a special, “higher” class. As pastors know very well, “higher” can mean “endangered.”

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Posted by on July 23, 2014 in Nonfiction

 

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Ted Dekker: Rejecting Religion?

Some months ago I read a Goodreads interview with author Ted Dekker. It answered some questions left in my mind after reading other interviews (such as, how can you write about some of the things you do without suffering spiritual damage). It also repeated something that Dekker has alluded to in other interviews I have read—namely, his distaste for conventional Christianity. He told Goodreads that he is surprised people classify him as a Christian author, since much of what he writes is “against religion.”

In one sense, Dekker reminds me of a typical youngish postmodernist who prefers spirituality to “religion,” except that Dekker is more specific about what constitutes genuine “spirituality.” (His definition: searching for the true God, not simply feeling emotional about spiritual issues.) In another sense, he is a typical exponent of the “not a religion, a relationship” mantra—albeit that he takes that idea farther than most evangelicals.

Individualism is not an entirely bad thing. In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton traces increased emphasis on the individual back to the first Christmas, when Christ was born as an outcast. “There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down…. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.” Christianity certainly upholds the importance of the individual.

But the individualism of Christianity is quite different from the individualism (sometimes better termed “self-centeredness,” and in fact quite destructive of the older individualism) that now permeates American culture.  While Dekker’s books (I’ve read something like eleven) do not espouse that sort of individualism, his conception of religion is extremely individualistic—in the American sense of the word. The individualism isn’t so much a matter of the individual being free to choose between Christian religious traditions as that of being free to follow Christ while simultaneously ignoring all Christian religious traditions.

But what if religion is the problem? We have all known Christians who were self-absorbed, or lied often, or spread gossip, or wielded their faith (which they misunderstood) like a sword. Is breaking free from them the solution?

In one sense, Dekker is quite right—Christ did not come to earth to found a religion. At least, the word appears nowhere in the New Testament. What Christ did found set Christianity apart from every other system of belief. Christ founded a church—the Church. And the Church’s existence marks Christianity as distinct from other belief systems. It may be called a religion for the sake of convenience, but, more fundamentally, it is a Church. No other belief system of my acquaintance so emphasizes unity for its own sake. We are Christ’s body—“organs of one another.” We are Christ’s building, “fitly framed together.” We are His bride. I do not believe that Dekker would necessarily deny any of the Biblical doctrines about the Church. But I believe he undervalues them.

Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor was the one who really brought my attention to exactly what it means for the Church to be Christ’s Body. The Church was not exactly a comfortable place for her, since she was, as she said, “peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness.” (I sympathize, although I suffer more from “pre-modern consciousness.”) O’Connor at any rate did not dump “religion” in favor of an isolated spirituality.  She wrote to a friend, “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.”

In a country where self-centeredness runs rampant, disguised as individualism or success, we cannot afford to sidestep the Church in our desire to be authentically Christian. According to the New Testament, it is impossible to find the authenticity we seek without the Church. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his essay “Membership”:

The Christian is not called to individualism but to membership in the mystical body….. We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man when we intercede, and man to Christ when others intercede for us. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.

That isn’t to say that if your local church situation is toxic, that you should stay—although leaving, even when necessary, should be a matter for serious prayer. You aren’t switching hairdressers, after all. And the Church isn’t a beauty parlor. It’s more like a building under construction. Sometimes the insulation sticks out, and the loose electrical wires can be dangerous. But the builder tells us that it will be finished some day. And I’ve heard a rumor that it may become a temple.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2013 in Young Adult Fiction

 

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Communion–and communion

I blame the Lutheran Church for my recent reading rampage. I’m familiar with the closed communion that occurs in a few Baptist churches, but when I noticed that the Missouri Synod churches do the same thing…. The short version of the story is that I decided it was high time I actually understood all the different church doctrines on the issue. Now, four books later, I’ve developed some inclinations in regards to what Communion is, and some convictions about how it should be celebrated. (Hint: Communicating as seldom as possible, because frequent Communion can make Communion less meaningful, ain’t it.)

"Communion of the Apostles," by Fra AngelicoMy freshman year of college was probably the biggest factor in getting me to see the Supper’s importance, and that mainly because I wasn’t able to partake of it. I realized I was missing something, though I wasn’t sure exactly what, or why that lack seemed to bother me more than it did my fellow students. I eventually got so hungry for it that I tried to celebrate it on my own. But sugary grape juice from the cafeteria, added to hamburger bun bits, a Bible, and an empty dorm room, do not Communion make. The desire, of course, was good. But something that no one had ever explained to me was the part that the Church plays in Communion. It isn’t simply an individual act of remembrance. It is a meal for the Church, meant to strengthen the Church as a body, just as the Church is nourished by the sacrifice of Christ’s body.

Communion is about Communion between Christ and the Church. It is also about communion within the Church, between its members. Over Christmas I attended a service at a Methodist church and was surprised by the fact that we all took bread from the same loaf. But there was a reason for the single loaf of bread. Just as there was one loaf, so the Church is one body.

Dorothy Sayers, in her book Catholic Tales and Christian Songs, included the following poem, “Against Ecclesiasts.” I’m still grasping the poem’s full meaning. But one thing is clear: Sayers was emphasizing the fact that to fully celebrate Communion–large C–we must first be willing to experience communion with others.

Between the Low Mass and the High,
Between the Altar and my cell,
I met Christ and passed Him by,
And now I go in fear of Hell.

My dying brother Ninian
Confessed himself to me and said:
“I find the Christ in every man,
But how comes He in wine and bread?”

I cursed my brother as he died,
“Absolvo” I would not repeat,
I bare away the Crucified,
I would not sign his breast and feet.

I lifted Christ above my head,
I kneeled to Him, I bare Him up,
And Christ cried to me from the bread,
Christ cried upon me from the cup:

“What is this bitter sin of thine,
So little to have understood, . . .
To find Me in the bread and wine
And find Me not in flesh and blood?

“Go, say thy Mass for Ninian,
That, when he comes to Heaven, maybe
His prayer shall save thee, righteous man . . .
If he can find the Christ in thee!”

It’s easy enough to look at the bread and cup and think of Christ. But what about the person sitting next to us? Paul writes, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

The early church broke bread together every time they met, celebrating the Supper at least weekly. Where their Communions broke down, as in I Corinthians, the unity of their church was vitally damaged.

The Church has seldom had a problem with obsessively observing Communion. More common historically has been the neglect of Communion–medieval Catholics avoiding Communion until they had to be required to communicate once a year, Scottish Presbyterians limiting Communion to those who passed a spiritual examination by the elders, American Protestants arguing that frequent Communion makes Communion less meaningful. And on it goes. The Bible doesn’t tell us how frequently we should communicate. But it clearly does treat Communion as something vitally important to the health of the Church.

Do we?

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2013 in Devotional, poetry

 

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