Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"But the Lord was not in the wind....."

What shall we say as Christians about the recent devastation in New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulport, Mobile, Hattisburg and various other cities? Shall we just chalk it up to 'mother nature' gone haywire? Shall we say, with the insurance companies it was "an act of God"? If we see it as an act of God, should we see it as some kind of judgment on 'sin city'--- aka Nawlins? But if we take that tact then we are hard pressed to explain why the destruction was indescriminant, affecting the good, the bad, and the wicked. Why in the world did it destroy so many homes of seemingly undeserving persons, and why in the world were churches destroyed, even in one case by a floating casino coming in and leveling things in its path? Clearly enough pat or glib answers are no answers at all, and in any case offer cold comfort to the suffering who want a solution to their current problems far more than an answer to their questions.
Without doubting that God can sometimes use the fury of his creation to judge wicked persons, it is a precarious theology that sees the wrath of God in every major instance of the fury of nature, especially when we are talking about an indescrimant fury like hurricane Katrina. We might do better to blame ourselves for global warming, because it is human beings who have messed up the ozone, which in turn raises the temperature of the ocean, and melts the polar caps, and engenders many more hurricanes, even before hurricane season, in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere. It is humankind that has despoiled our environment, not God. And in any case, the Bible has something else to say about such things, whether we are talking about natural disasters, or the loss of life due to human accidents, or birth defects or human beings being malicious. Consider the following:

1) 1 Kngs. 19.11-13-- On the surface of things it may seem that the destruction that Elijah witnesses is directly intended by God since it is God who is passing by according to vs. 11, but then the text says "then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart...but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there as an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a conflagration, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper/light breeze/ or some render it still small voice." At the very least, this text tells us that God's will cannot be determined just by observing natural phenomena. But the text even says that God was not "in" these phenomena, which is saying more than just his will cannot be discerned in such events. It suggests that while nature reacts when its Maker comes down in theophany, God is not engendering these things in such a fashion that we could call them intelligible acts of God.

2) When Jesus is asked in Jn. 9 if the man born blind is that way because either he or his parents sinned the answer is no, but that God will use this malady to reveal his grace and glory. In other words, one cannot always correlate sickness or physical deformity and sin. Sometimes the most robust sinners are also the ones most robustly healthy. Sometimes great saints like Blaise Pascal die early deaths due to the ravages of a deformed and sickly body. There is no infallible spiritual logic to be deduced by analyzing who is sick or handicapped and who is not.

3) When Jesus is asked about a human tragedy or disaster, in this case the falling down of the tower of Siloam on unsuspecting and undeserving victims (Lk. 13.4-5), and whether the victims were worse sinners than others, his answer is a flat NO! In fact he had just said in Lk. 13.1-2 that the Galileans who were victims of deliberate human maliciousness of Pilate could not be said to be 'getting what they deserve', for Jesus insists they were not worse sinners than all the others in Galilee. In short there is no one-to-one correlation that can be drawn between sickness, natural disaster, human accident, human maliciousness on the one hand and sin on the other. And it is repeatedly said in the Bible that God judges sin.

What then should we say to those who are suffering from hurricane Katrina, or any of the other things that plague us quite unexpectedly? I would suggest that we be wise enough not to make snap judgments and glib pronouncements. Sometimes, but only sometimes, it is clear that human beings get themselves in a mess and are allowed to experience the natural consequences of their actions. Paul in Rom. 1 tells us that 'God's giving up the notorious sinners to their own wicked choices and the consequences of their actions' is indeed a form of the wrath of God against unrighteousness (see particularly Rom. 1.18-34, which even speaks of experiencing in one's own body the penalty for sexual immorality). But most of life's tragedy do not fall into this category, and hurricane Katrina certainly does not. Most events are a bit less transparent than that when it comes to connections between sin and judgment or between disasters and the Judge of all human beings.

At the end of the day we would probably do better to follow the wisdom of Korrie ten Boom. When asked by a Jewish violinist who had had her fingers smashed in the death camp called Ravensbruck "How can you believe in a God of love who would allow this to happen to me?" Corrie reflected and told the woman she did not know why that hideous thing had happened to her. But then she said "But what I do know is that no pit is so deep, that God's love is not deeper still."

Our faith in a good God is not based on what we do not understand about life, much less in our ability to make logical sense of it all. Our faith is based on grace moments that do indeed reveal God's character, and perhaps most of all we know that God can turn the worst disaster or tragedy into a triumph-- look at the cross and remember "God works all things together for the good, for those who love Him" (Rom. 8).

Monday, August 29, 2005

Godcasting by Podcasting

One of the more notable and growing phenomena in our age of religious broadcasting is connected to the growing popularity of the 'Ipod' and similar devices. It is now possible to download sermons, lectures, musicales from church onto your Ipod and listen while you work, jog, play, or drive. Some services now have up to 10,000 subscribers. Not surprisingly, Evangelical Christians have been some of the first to take advantage of this new avenue to spread the Good News. This morning the N.Y. Times has an article about the phenomenon which is well worth absorbing and contemplating. You will find the link here--

While there are many positive aspects to this new way of communicating, there are of course draw backs. For one thing there is a big difference between listening to something and participating in it. Not for nothing does Jesus say "whereever two or more are gathered, there I am also" or the author of Hebrews urges "do not neglect the coming together in fellowship". There is an essential communal dimension to worship and fellowship that is largely lost when it is filtered through various sorts of media. While the difference is not as drastic as the difference between listening to a football game on the radio and actually playing in the game, it is close. What God wants is worshippers, not mere observers or those who overhear what is going on, and worship like fellowship is a group phenomenon. So we need to realize from the outset that these sorts of avenues of communication should be seen as suppliments not substitutes for direct Christian experience.
And while we are on that point, there is another one. If we keep turn public experiences into merely private ones we are encouraging voyeuristic Christianity. Our culture already too strongly associates what is profoundly personal with what is private. It will then seem natural to many to choose to experience worship 'privately'. A moments thought will show these two things, the personal and the private, are very different matters.
For example, while we can talk about a 'right to privacy' we cannot talk about 'a right to be personal'. There is no such right to be personal, it is rather a privilege and requires an interpersonal compact of sorts, an actual relationship. Christian experience is often profoundly personal, and rightly so, but it was never meant to be a purely private phenomenon kept to yourself, not least because we are supposed to share the Good News. Furthermore, as the cliche goes, the only way to keep God's love in your life is to give it away. In other words, there is an inherently social and intra-personal dimension to the Christian faith, for which infinite downloads are no substitute. Indeed a real worship or fellowship experience is infinitely better.
I say all of this because if we are cognizant of the cultural trends, we will realize that we are going to have to do even more to encourage people to come together and have normal interaction, normal worship experiences, normal relationships not filtered through one or another sort of media that turns a public phenomenon into a private experience. The key word in this discussion should be encounter. You can have many private experiences that involve only you and some sort of impersonal stimulus, but you cannot have a 'private' encounter. An encounter involves two or more persons, and whether with other humans or an encounter with God it requires something direct, unfiltered. It requires in the end that we go 'public', even if it happens initially in the privacy of our own homes. To put it another way, it requires a commitment, an opening up of the self to the other, a willingness to be vulnerable and submit to contact, to scrutiny, even to the evaluation and critique of another. A real relationship, rather than being just an observer or consumer, requires this of us.
In the book of Hebrews, as it reaches its peroration in Heb. 12.21-29 the author explains that the goal of the human life is a close encounter of the first kind with God and with God's people. He envisions it as being like being present at Mt. Sinai and being present with thousands of joyful angels and saints of days gone by in assembly and being directly in the presence of Jesus. In short, he says the goal of human experience is to be present at the final theophany. We are warned that there will be 'a whole lot of shaking going on' so that there will be the removal of things which get in the way of encounter, things that can be shaken-- "that is created things, so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us worship God acceptably with reverence and awe for our 'God is a consuming fire." Instead of being consumers, we are called to be consumed by direct contact with that all consuming fire--- God. May it be so for us, and our children, and our children's children.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Toasting the Pope

I have received the following link from some of my more playful Catholic and Protestant friends. I can only say--- "Prost".

Sunday, August 21, 2005

March of the Tuxedos

It is indeed hard to believe but in the midst of all the sleaze and tease movies that are part of the regular junk food called summer movies there is a National Geographic documentary which is drawing large audiences this summer--- March of the Penguins. Narrated by Morgan Freeman and filmed by a French crew who obviously had more courage than sense staying in Antartica for months at a time, even in -80F weather, this remarkable movie makes a rather remarkable if indirect argument for 'intelligent design' of God's creation and creatures. It is amazing that we have persons in our culture who can look at skyscrapers and have no trouble concluding that it must have been made by an intelligent being, but look at far more complexly designed things like penguins or humans and come to the conclusion that their existence and behavior patterns are the result of random chance. Go figure.

This movie is exquisitely filmed and seeks to chronicle a full year in the life cycle of a penguin. As it turns out the film is all about love--- or at least about the urge to procreate and prolong the species even in a brutal environment. Had Darwin visited Antartica where it is never, or almost never above 0 degrees, it would have given new meaning to his phrase survival of the fittest.

Emperor penguins are remarkable creatures who walk, waddle, and glide on their bellies for over 70 miles just to mate, and then another seventy miles to eat, and then back again to feed their young, and then a respite for the summer months when they swim and eat to their hearts' content. Turns out they live on an academic year schedule, and though they are sea creatures they spend most of their year walking to and from the breeding ground. Furthermore they go some 3-4 months at a time without eating in the winter time, but they also do not hibernate. Bears have got nothing on these creatures.

In addition to all this they are monogamous (on a year by year basis) and seem capable of showing considerable affection, and emotion towards their mates or young. The movie vividly portrays the love and sacrifice displayed by these creatures in order that their offspring may survive and thrive. You don't have to be a nature freak or a tree hugger to enjoy and even be moved by this movie.

When you witness the toughness and adaptability of these creatures it reminds one of just how fragile human beings are when it comes to their physical form and its vulnerabilities. We couldn't last five hours under the conditions these creatures live through day in and day out, without all kinds of extra clothes and support systems. We are by no means the physically fittest creatures, and yet we have survived. It is worth pondering why.

William Faulkner when he won the Nobel Prize for literature once affirmed: "I believe that humankind will not merely survive, but will in fact prevail." But why should this be so, and why should we have this sort of faith in humankind, if we are not created in God's image and God has not been watching over us and helping us survive even our own worst mistakes and follies considering how vulnerable we are compared for example to far more adapatible and rugged critters--- like for example alligators, or even cockroaches?

Perhaps above all else, this movie reminds us that all creatures great and small face many of the same basic challenges on our planet, the challenge to find food, to live, to procreate, to love, to survive, to sacrifice for others that we care about or are related to. We are all part of the same life cycle and eco-system, and there are things we can learn from watching Emperor penguins that could help us "live long and prosper".

And if it is indeed true that humans were set on this earth to tend this garden and use it without abusing it, then there is certainly one lesson that stands out so clearly from a movie like this--- all other creatures other than humans kill almost solely for food and yes occasionally as retaliation for being attacked or harmed. They do not kill for sport, they do not kill for fun, and most strikingly they do not under any normal circumstances kill their own species. They do not foul their own nests.

Perhaps after all, humans are not in all ways the most intelligent creatures on earth. Perhaps the sage knew what he was saying when he urged us to observe the lesser creatures and learn-- "four things on earth are small, and yet they are extremely wise---ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer; rock badgers are creatures of little power and yet they make their homes in the safety of rocky crags; locusts hasve no kings, yet they advance together in ranks; as lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in king's palaces." (Prov. 30.24-28).

Go see this movie, and take your children, and so "teach your children well".

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Paul--- Right on the Money

One of the most prevalent topics in the Pastorals Epistles is money and its accumulation. Paul is especially concerned with how Christian leaders handle money and sees it as a litmus test of their character.
Let us begin with 1 Tim.3.3,8 and Titus 1.7 which should be contrasted with texts like Titus 1.11, and it is good to throw in a text like 1 Tim. 5.18 for good measure. There is a deliberate contrast set up between the character of a good Christian leader and that of the false teachers who are indeed in it for the money. It seems clear enough that avarice or greed is seen as a significant sin, and one that Christian leaders especially should avoid.
At the same time, Paul believes leaders ought to be paid for their work of ministry, which should remove them from the temptation to pursue ministerial tasks primarily if not solely for the motivation of making a living, like so many other ancient philosophers or teachers for hire of that age.
This brings us to the rhetorical contrast or sunkrisis set up in 1 Tim.6.3-10 which should be studied as a whole unit, without extracting 1 Tim. 6.10 from the mix, especially since it is consistently one of the most misquoted verses in the NT. The issue here is not merely money, but rather the ‘love of money’ which is seen as a primary cause of apostasy or wandering from the faith as 6.10b indicates.
Paul’s concern here is, as 1 Tim. 6.5b shows with the use of apparent godliness for the sake of financial gain. By contrast Paul says godliness with contentment when it comes to possessions and the provisions of life, is in itself great gain, indeed a much greater gain than having wealth. Notice how in vs. 9 the focus is on the desire to ‘get rich’, which is said to lead people to become prey to various sorts of temptations and unhealthy desires.
The maxim cited in 1 Tim. 6.10 is meant to help climax the argument, stressing that the love of money is indeed a root of all sorts of evils. Money itself is not said to be evil, but the desire to have it in abundance, that acquisitive desire, is seen as a very serious evil that leads to others in its train. Christians are those who should be content with having the basic necessities of life taken care of, without trying to secure the future for themselves, and so missing out on the opportunity to trust God for the future.
Here of course is a message that will give many Mallox moments to many rich Christians. It stands as an obvious antithesis to much of what one hears from financial planners, even Christian ones, about storing things up in barns, and the like, to use a phrase of Jesus. It was Jesus of course who said that one cannot serve two masters—God and money. This is seen by Paul as almost a truism when it comes to Christian leaders. One’s ultimate love and trust must be placed in God, and that in turn should set at rest the acquisitive instinct that is in part an extension of the survival instinct, the attempt to secure one’s life by one’s own efforts.
From Paul’s vantage point one should face the future as follows: 1) content to live a simple or simplified Christian lifestyle; 2) letting one’s impulses and desires be ruled and overruled by godliness and godly priorities; 3) being generous with others as part of Christian hospitality, and frugal with one’s self; 4) engaging in faith rather than fear based practices and ministry and 5) scrutinizing especially closely one’s motivations for undertaking this or that Christian task—“not using godliness as a mean of financial gain”, whilst the church which supports the minister should 6) recognize that they have an obligation to support the minister adequately indeed even generously so he or she can focus on the tasks of ministry instead of on making a living. And 7) the issue then for Paul is in part about how one makes one’s money (hence the focus on dishonest gain when talking about church leaders), and just as important what one does with what one has--- a true test of character. How a person spends their money tells us a lot about that person, and all the more so if that person is a Christian leader.
It was John Wesley, having meditated on Jesus’ and Paul’s statements about money who stressed to his converts that ‘your luxuries should come after meeting other person’s necessities’. He says that while a Christian should make all they can by honest means and save all they can, they should also give all they can as the way to complete the way a Christian handles money. He stated that if you only make and save all you can without giving all you can ‘you may be a living person, but you are a dead Christian’. These are convicting words, and words we ought to hear more from Christian pulpits in the North America, especially in contexts where life styles of conspicuous consumption characterize much of the congregation.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Money and the Church

A while back my friend Dr. Ken Carter, pastor of Providence UMC in Charlotte sent me these staggering statistics. Here they are for your pondering.

Fact # 1: In 1916, Protestants were giving 2.9% of their incomes to their churches. In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, it was 3.2%. In 1955 just after affluence began spreading through our culture, it was still 3.2%. By 2002, when Americans were over 480% richer, after taxes and inflation, than in the Great Depression, Protestants were giving 2.6% of their incomes to their churches. Source:

Fact # 2: If Americans who identify with the historically Christian church increased their giving to an average of 10% of income, there could be an additional $86 billion dollars available for overseas missions each year. One source estimates that $70-$80 billion would impact the worst of world poverty and $5 billion could end most of the 11 million under-5, global, annual child deaths. Also, $7 billion would be sufficient for global primary education for all children. There could also be $30.9 billion more a year for domestic outreach. Source:

Fact # 3: Americans spend more money on gambling than groceries. Source: Crown Ministries.

Fact #4 : One in six children in the U.S. live in poverty, compared to one in twelve in Great Britain and one in twenty in Germany. Source: Jim Wallis, Sojourners.

Fact# 5: Americans spend, as a group, $2. 5 billion per year for world missions, $2. 5 billion per year for chewing gum,$ 8 billion per year for movies, $22 billion per year for hunting, $34 million per year for state lotteries. Source: John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, Behind the Stained Glass Window.

Fact #6: Eight of ten families spend more than they make. Source: Family Business Centre, Inc.

Fact #7: As a national average, one third to one half of a church’s membership supports the congregation financially. Source: Christian Missionary Alliance.

The Virtue of Losing

Whether we like it or not, most of the valuable lessons we learn in life come from learning from our mistakes, including from the times we lose something we have highly valued. If we are forever protected from falling, we never learn how to stand on our own two feet. I was reminded of this truth while watching the semi-final rounds of the Final Four basketball a while back. There was Coach K of the Blue Devils at the end of the game acting like a petulant child screaming at the refs—“you killed us, you killed us, you killed us.” Winning had so become the all consuming passion of the moment that the Coach lost it. He had forgotten how heroically his senior point guard Chris Duhon had played in the last several games of the tournament. He had forgotten how it was his decision to leave his premiere low post players Williams and then Randolph in the game while Connecticut’s Coach Calhoun had benched the best player in the game Emeka Okafor for most of the game due to fouls and brought him in the for crucial stretch run. Coach K had overlooked that it was his players, not the referees who took the final shots that went awry, and when J.J. Reddick barreled into the lane like a bowling ball bouncing off of ten pens and was stripped of the ball, he blamed the refs for not calling the foul. Of course he was silent when the other team also did not get such calls in the last five minutes of the game. The Duke basketball program is supposed to beone of the true Cadillac programs in the country. But it too all too often seems to operate on the same principle as so many other schools, the Lombardi principle-- “winning is not everything, it is the only thing”. I say this with shame, since I love Duke University and have both attended the school and have taught there as well. You don’t hear many coaches anymore who say “its not whether you win or lose, its how you play the game”. No the mantra today is, “just win baby”. We are the poorer for this cultural shift.

Frankly, as much as I love watching sports, this ruthless drive in America for winning which runs over principles and good persons and even the rules of the game and grinds them into the dust has made me ashamed of my own passion for sports. When winning can be bought in professional sports, ala the Yankees who every year stack the deck in their favor, then its not worth very much. When home run records can be obtained through the use of steroids, then they are not worth very much. Its no different than when a politician buys an election.

But what is even more sickening is to watch the ‘professionalization’ of amateur athletics. I get physically sick when I think of college alumni and booster clubs pressuring their institutions to hire or fire this or that coach, or to recruit this or that athlete no matter whether they have the academic acumen to be in college or not. I grow weary of the cheapening of an academic institution through its process of prostituting itself so it can have a winning sports team.

Let me offer a case in point from my own much loved college alma mater—UNC-Chapel Hill, the oldest state University in the country. Frankly, the way we treated Matt Doherty, unless I am missing something, was worse than shameful. When players can force the firing of a coach without even giving the man a second chance, there is no ethical integrity in that. This decision stands in stark contrast to the recent noble decision to allow those without the financial means to attend Carolina tuition free. The latter shows that it isn’t just all about the money, there are ethical principles involved. The former suggests that indeed it is all about winning and the ephemeral glory and money that comes with that. I would urge my alma mater to not be schizophrenic and be its best self even when it comes to the high pressure arena of college basketball. But now that we have won the brass ring in 2005 will the pressue to 'just win baby' be any less of Coach Williams and his team, even though they lost their top seven players to graduation or the NBA draft. I think not.

Long ago, when I was still in junior high school and was playing basketball I attended Dean Smith’s summer basketball camp. I learned the fine art of free throwing from Charlie Scott, and did wind sprints until I dropped courtesy of Eddie Fogler. But what really impressed me was how Coach Smith treated us all with respect, this same coach who had helped integrate the restaurants in Chapel Hill and who had brought Charlie Scott to our school despite a firestorm of criticism.

What impressed me most about Coach Smith was his ethical integrity and his primary commitment to what was best for the players and for the school, rather than putting winning first. What impressed me most is that Coach Smith knew that we all have a God to answer to, and therefore ethical integrity matters most of all. He knew and he taught us that there is far more glory in losing with honest hard effort than in winning by dirty play or through some chicanery involved in the recruiting process.
I long for the day when we will understand what real glory is. Real glory didn’t show up when Jim Valvano won his miraculous and wonderful national championship in 1983. Real glory showed up when he had the courage to take his message about cancer to the streets, even when he was dying and to tell us all we should never give up, and that after all---loving, and laughing and crying and caring about one’s family are far more important things than the world’s definitions of winning. Jim Valvano went out a winner in God’s eyes because of how he responded to the cancer in his life.

I long for a day where ESPN will stop glorifying the huge salaries players make and spend far more time reporting that which tends towards virtue in the games we play. I long for a day when college coaches will resign before they will knuckle under to the pressure from booster clubs and others to engage in immoral practices to lure players to their schools, and when they will not turn a blind eye to the immoral practices of their players and boosters as in the recent scandal in Colorado. I long for the day when no college player will be eligible for the pro-draft before spending at least three years in college, and so being within sight of their diploma.

I long for the day when we stop sending all the wrong messages to our impressionable children by allowing the peddling of various drugs—whether tobacco, or alcohol, or steroids or the like in the advertising associated with sports.

In this summer season with more and more revelations about steroids in baseball and the pouting of Terrell Owens about respect and money (this from a man making millions a year for playing football),I am reminded that Jesus’ definition of glory, was laying down his life for others, sacrificing so others might have life, and love and joy and much else that was good. To the world it appeared that Jesus was a big loser. After all, he died on a cross, the most humiliating and public way to be shamed in antiquity. The truth is, that self-sacrifice, and living a life of integrity have far more to do with glory than self-indulgence, self-gratification, or self-glorification.

Since we are an entertainment obsessed culture, it would be a good thing if we did a better job of modeling real life virtues in public, particularly in our sporting events. Maybe then we would realize that fame is fleeting and is an imposter, but having a good name is far more important. Maybe then we would realize the virtue of losing is much to be preferred to the losing of virtue, which sadly is all too often what we see in sports these days. Maybe then we would realize that life has a way of humbling all of us, and losing is one of the ways God uses to deflate and defuse overweening human pride, and this frankly, in an age of hype and hyperbole, and rhetoric and bombast is a very good thing indeed.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Alexander-- the Not so Great Movie

One of the great imponderables for a Biblical scholar is trying to figure out just how Hellenized Jews were during the NT era. Put another way, just how indebted were they to the legacy of Alexander, which caused even Jews to translate their sacred scriptures into Greek and adopt Greek customs and culture? And what can be said about Alexander and his legacy? These were questions I pondered as I went with hope to learn something from the film Alexander.
Directors of late have had a penchant for making more historically oriented films in the wake of the success of “Gladiator”, and the somewhat more modest success of “Troy” (not to mention the recent ABC TV summer min-series on Empire and Caesar), and so it is no surprise that someone would try their hand at Alexander the Great—a large subject which would seem to suit the large screen and multi-million dollar budgets. The results of Oliver Stone’s efforts to create a compelling if overly-lengthy epic (175 long minutes) are decidedly mixed, and frankly the reviews were mostly negative. Now that the DVD has come out in two different formats and we can watch the film in smaller doses it is a good time to ask-- What went wrong?

First there is the problem of casting. Alexander needs to be played by what in the old days would have been called ‘a man’s man’. He was a heroic figure, though he only lived into his 30s, and he decidedly was not a ‘momma’s boy’ to use another hackneyed cliché. What do we get in Stone’s film? We get someone who starts as a momma’s boy ( with snake-loving momma played rather badly by Angelia Jolie. We can be sure that Alexander’s mother was not like an ‘Italian femme tres formidable’ from a much later era), whose relationship with his lifelong friend Hephaestion is portrayed as a homosexual affair, without sufficient historical warrant.
Colin Ferrell does his best to fill out the role of the adult Alexander, but there is little warmth in the portrayal, and even less attempt to reveal the real inner character and source of vision and strength of the man. Ferrell looks the part in a stereotypical kind of blond haired blue eyed way, but he never really wins the heart or admiration of the audience. Nor, at the end of the day do we get sufficient insight into what drove the man to conquer all the way to India, or why he dreamed of creating one world with Greek culture and Greek language--- an oikiomene/ecumenical vision if there ever was one.
In his hurry to get to the battle scenes, Stone gives short shrift to the early Alexander, including Alexander’s all important relationship with his tutor Aristotle, though he does do a serviceable job of dealing with the legendary story about Alexander’s taming of Bucephalus, his incredible horse. The relationship of Alexander with his father Philip (played with drunken lout gusto by Val Kilmer no less) is shown to be troubled, which it was, but the inner workings of the relationship are portrayed as something of a rivalry, though occasionally the king was proud of his son, and his son admired some aspects of his father--- especially his skills as a warrior and his bravery. There is then both a problem with the casting and with the editing and story telling in this film. Even worse there is a problem with the film’s musical score. Vangelis, he of Chariot’s of Fire fame, has composed a syrupy synthesizer score which neither inspires nor is even remotely appropriate for this film as it is so out of character with the ancient subject and theme of the movie. It is rather like going to the opera and a vaudeville routine breaks out. Where is Hans Zimmer, who did the impressive score for Gladiator, when you need him? For a musician such as myself, this was very annoying and distracting. But there are some pluses to the film.
For those of us who have longed to see places like Alexandria with its famous lighthouse and library, or Babylon with its famous palace and hanging gardens, this film has breath-taking CG moments. The colors, the layout of the cities, the ships sailing in Alexandria’s harbor, and above all the incredible library with its thousands of scrolls are lovingly re-created. The palace in Babylon and the street scenes are equally spectacular. But alas, these moments are few and far between and not enough is made of them. Especially sad is the fact that the narrator of the film, Ptolemy of Alexandria, played wonderfully by Anthony Hopkins, gets short shrift. The movie opens with him in Alexandria, promising great things. The movie however fails to deliver thereafter. It would have been far better if Hopkins had played Aristotle to the hilt, and we had learned where Alexander really got his Greek vision from. Though I am a pacificist, I must admit that amidst the gory there are some impressive battle scenes at Gaugamela and then in India as well. But what was it about Alexander that inspired his men to go so far, when they wanted to stop in Babylon and even go home? How did these series of battles get turned into a viable Empire? The movie does not really help us to puzzle these things out. Blood and guts wins out over head and heart.
For me this was a great disappointment. Over thirty years ago I took Greek history with a master teacher Jim McCoy at Carolina. We read great books like “The Harvest of Hellenism” and Peter Green’s “Alexander the Great”. I had hoped for so much more from this movie. Some long time ago I began a poem about Alexander written for a term paper for Jim McCoy, which I have finally finished. Perhaps it will give a better glimpse of the man than this trying and uninspiring movie did.


Fire on ice
Ice on fire,
Unbridled ambition
Unending desire,
Golden hair
Midas Touch
I am Alexander.

Ice on fire
Fire on ice,
Gory glory
Beyond advice
One world vision
Flickering flame
I am Alexander.

Macedonian monarch
Aristotle’s ward,
The great commander
Without reward,
Without peers
Without an heir,
I am Alexander.

All the world’s glory
All the acclaim
The Greek colossus
The mythical name
Builder of Empire
Finder of fame,
I am Alexander.

Child of the gods
Destined from birth
Harvest of Hellas
Spread through the earth
Conquered conqueror
Who knows my worth?
I am Alexander.


Monday, August 01, 2005

Inspired, but not Truthful

As I am working through 1 John, a variety of pertinent issues continue to come up, and certainly several come up from careful scrutiny in 1 Jn. 4.1-6. Our author is talking about testing the spirits, which is another way of talking about testing the source of one's own or another person's inspiration. One of the interesting features of the discussion in this text is that the author does not deny that the false teachers/prophets are inspired or guided by some spiritual source, he simply says that what they are saying isn't true and therefore they are inspired by nefarious spiritual influences. In short, inspiration is no guarantee of truth, any more than a profound religious experience is a guarantee that it comes from a good source. Apparently, it is a good rule in spiritual matters to 'consider the source'.

Our author views the spiritual world as follows: 1) there is both a Holy Spirit and a Satan both of them capable of inspiring certain thoughts and actions. It is possible our author is also thinking of demons indwelling and inspiring people, but demons are nowhere mentioned in this sermon. What is referred to is the Holy Spirit indwelling believers; 2) the human spirit picks up the signal, so to speak from its spiritual source--- whether God or the Devil; then 3) the spiritual person speaks some inspired and apparently also inspiring words.

As it turns out inspiration is not a guarantee of the content of the inspired statements being true. Thus criteria have to be applied to discern who is a true prophet and who a false one. Our author applies two interesting criteria, and here he is drawing on Deut. 13: 1) the person who makes a true confession about Jesus being the Christ or the Son of God or the Savior come in the flesh is obviously inspired by the Holy Spirit because as 1 Cor. 12.3 says, no one can make such a true confession except by the Holy Spirit; 2) the person who loves the brothers and sisters and lives a righteous and holy life is obviously someone who has the Spirit of God dwelling in him or her. In other words, there is both a test of orthodoxy and a test of orthopraxy to determine whether one is inspired by a true and godly source or not.

Of what relevance is this to us? I am tempted to say with another Biblical writer 'much in every way'. Our culture has a major problem discerning the difference between earnestness and truth, or even honesty and truth, and also between enthusiasm and truth, or 'being inspired or spiritual' and truth.

Our author warns us that inspiration, enthusiasm, earnestness, even honesty about what one believes is no guarantee of truth. You can honestly confess you believe something and be dead wrong. This is precisely why our author relies on more objective criteria-- what does this prophetic voice actually say or teach, and how does this person live. The latter is something on the order of "you shall know the tree by the fruit it bears" but also a 'true Christological confession' is crucial. There is a lot of teaching that goes on in the church today that could not pass the Beloved Disciple's Christological test, much less his sanctification test. In our author's view true love, love of God and of others, has a particular Christological shape-- it looks like the life and teachings of Jesus, and one might add the life and teachings of his eyewitnesses and apostles. It does not look much like the 'true confessions' or lifestyle of many preachers and scholars who have gained wide fame and appeal in America in the last century. We should be asking, what is wrong with this picture?

It is not of course easy to sort out the difference between spiritual truth and error, Christological truth and error, ethical truth and error, and this is one of the reasons our author urges that such issues be sifted, critically sifted using reasonably objective criteria.

1 John 4.1-6 is a clarion call to critical thinking about spiritual matters. Open-mindedness can be a good thing, but if you have no criteria by which to sift what you hear and learn, you are in trouble. As my grandmother used to say--- "Don't be so open-minded that your brains fall out." This is especially true when it comes to discerning the truth about Jesus, about the Christian life and how it ought to be lived.