The New Luther Movie

By Pastor Marshall

 

"Luther," the new $30 million German-American co-produced movie, opened in 400 American theaters nationwide the first week of October. It stars Joseph Fiennes as Luther and Sir Peter Ustinov as Prince Frederick the Wise, Luther's protector and friend. It covers Luther's career from his decision to enter the monastery on July 2, 1505 until the Augsburg Confession of 1530. Luther lived from 1483 to 1546 so this movie covers less than a third of his rich, faithful life.

Susan King of the Los Angeles Times writes that this movie "filters" the religious commitments of Luther "through political ramifications" (The Seattle Times, October 9, 2003). As such Luther comes off in the movie as a social reformer who changes the western world by standing up against the giant organizational power of the Roman Catholic Church.

While this is a beautiful and well-made movie, it's political filter distorts Luther. He was above all a teacher of the Bible who loved his church. But that doesn't come through well. This movie instead trades political sensation for religious detail. It has Luther nailing his 95 Theses against church corruptions on the church doors, October 31, 1517 – something which his famous biographer Martin Brecht explained long ago he never did. But it makes for good film footage. So too his sympathy for the peasants' rebellion is overblown – which it must be if Luther is construed as a social reformer. His sorrow over little Greta is a case in point in this movie. While Luther thought mercy should be shown to peasants who surrendered, the rest he said should be killed outright. No Marxist revolutionary here!

The movie also inflates Luther's defense of the gospel. It doesn't combine it with his love of the law and his healthy fear of God's wrath. When Luther struggles over God's will for him he writhes on the floor, twitching as if insane. The producers of the movie appear to have taken to heart, the potboiler, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958, 1962) by Erik H. Erickson. Luther's reports of anxiety were more cerebral than incapacitating. In spite of it all, he was still able to cope with his difficulties and many responsibilities in life. He wasn't a nut-case as this movie suggests.

There are also other mistakes. When translating the New Testament at the Wartburg the movie has Luther say that the words of the Bible don't matter as much as the meaning we give them. But he didn't believe that. He was a man of the actual text of the Holy Scriptures. All reliable Biblical meaning comes from those words so he cherished them.

Prior to the Augsburg Confession Luther visited the new Lutheran parishes in Saxony. He was disgusted with the moral and theological corruption he found. To combat this mess, he returned to Wittenburg and wrote his catechisms. They were designed to correct the errors he saw in the churches he visited. This problem made him less optimistic than the movie portrays him in 1530. Nothing about the visitation and catechisms appears in this movie – something dear to all Lutherans. Apparently the catechisms don't make for good movies.

The movie also levels an inordinate attack on the Roman Catholic Church. At one point it has Luther joking about St. Cyprian's (200-258) famous dictum that outside the church there's no salvation. It has Luther say you can have the Savior without the church. But he didn't believe that. He knew you could only find Christ in the church where faithful preaching and the sacraments are received. All he said was that the Roman Catholic Church didn't have a corner on the church. The church is wherever true believers hear the word of God and celebrate the sacraments faithfully. All in all, Luther thought most of the Roman Catholic Church good. What was needed was fine tuning on a handful of issues including celibacy, indulgences and the sacrifice of the Mass.

The movie also errs in making Luther’s marriage to Katherine more romantic than it was. Its fascination with sex is out of place.

Along with its excellent visuals and superb editing, there is one scene in the movie that is very good. This is when Luther gives his German translation of the New Testament to his prince, Frederick the Wise. Even though this didn’t actually happen, since it was George Spalatin who delivered it, the scene is still moving. It shows how hungry people were to have the Holy Scriptures in their own tongue so they could study them again and again.

Adding up the pluses and minuses I can’t recommend this new movie on Luther.

(Reprinted from The Messenger, November 2003.) 

 

 

 

Suffering for the Sins of the Whole World

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The Gospel According to Mel Gibson

By Pastor Marshall

How would you show Jesus Christ saving us from the sins of the whole world by his suffering and death (1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2)? Clearly the ordinary suffering of one person could not show this. It would not be extreme and excruciating enough. Mel Gibson tries to solve that problem in his new movie released Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004, entitled The Passion of the Christ. In it he tries to make the suffering of Christ more than what one man could bear so that the saving of the whole world can be seen in what this single man had to go through.

So when Jesus is nailed to the cross in this movie, it is over the top. The soldiers tug on his arm with a rope to pull it out enough to get it nailed just right. You hear bones pop under the strain. And to make sure the nails pounded in stay put, the soldiers flip the cross over, slamming Jesus down, in order to bend the nails over on the back side. And when he is whipped, the spikes on the end of the leather thongs get struck in his back and the soldiers have to yank extra hard to free them -- tearing apart his back which leaves him in a puddle of his own blood.

Scenes like these could gross you out. They, I suppose, are not for everybody to see. But again, if you want to see the weight of all the sins of the world resting on one man, this movie does that in epic proportions. And if you want to be true to the prophecy in Isaiah 53:2-3 regarding Christ's repulsiveness, then not even Matthias Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (1516) with its suffering, syphilitic Christ on the Cross, does a better job than Mel Gibson does. For surely in this movie Christ, in the words of Isaiah, has "no comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him." He is seen as one from whom we would rightly "hide our faces." In fact, it nearly makes you vomit to watch the way Christ suffers in this movie.

What I liked most about this movies was its framework from Isaiah 53:5, that Christ suffered at the hands of his Father in heaven albeit through the evils deeds of men, and that this horror or curse (Galatians 3:13) actually saves us from our sins and God's wrath (Romans 5:9).

Most of the churches in America today have thrown out this message for a tamer, more intellectually acceptable one -- forged in what has been called "the messy midrash of American culture" [Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) p. 9].

But not Gibson's The Passion of the Christ! He shows utter contempt for that tamer view when he has Jesus quote John 19:11 that neither Pilate nor anyone else ultimately killed him -- for it was God himself who did it, granting his permission "from above"! Shocking as it is to our mild, modern ears, Jesus was actually crucified "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23)! All the debate over whether or not this movie fuels the fires of anti-Semitism could have been avoided if this point had been duly noted.

But why would God do such a thing to his only begotten Son? Jesus answers this when he tell his mother Mary on the road up to Golgotha -- quoting from Isaiah 43:19 -- "Behold, I am doing a new thing." His suffering has a purpose. He is no victim. Indeed Jesus quotes John 15:13 that there is nothing better than dying for others and John 10:17 that he has the power to do just that. In his death he makes the forgiveness of sins possible by paying the price for our sins. This death "cancels" the legal bond held against us (Colossians 2:13-14). This is the new thing he is doing. And so when Jesus dies, Gibson uses the best translation of John 19:30 and has Jesus say, "It is accomplished" -- not "it is finished." The penalty has been paid. God's wrath has been stilled. Peace between God and sinners is now possible (Romans 5:1 reversing Isaiah 59:2). This suffering death has accomplished that.

Another great scene in this movie was when the devil returned to torment Jesus in Gethsemane (Luke 4:13; Matthew 26:39), saying to him that bearing all the sins of the world would even be too much for him to carry! The devil is portrayed as a spooky woman with a man's voice hovering throughout the movie only to be thrown down in hell at the end when Jesus dies. This scene reinforces the Isaian context of the entire movie.

Other notable scenes were when the Temple quakes and its curtain is torn (Matthew 27:51); the tormenting of Judas which causes him to kill himself (Luke 22:3; Matthew 27:5); Simon of Cyrene's helping of Jesus on the road to Golgotha (Matthew 27:32); the raven pecking out the eye of the cynical criminal dying next to Jesus (Luke 23:39); and Jesus saving the woman caught in adultery and his dramatic writing in the dust with his hand (John 8:2-9).

My only criticism of this movie is having Jesus' mother Mary say to him while he carries his cross to Golgotha that she would like to die with him. That brings her too close to being a co-redeemer which she clearly is not (see 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:26). The movie closes with the resurrection -- from within the tomb itself -- something not even the New Testament affords us. In the darkened tomb we begin by hearing the huge stone, slowly rolling away. As the light gradually comes in, we see the shroud that covered the dead Jesus deflating as he invisibly, mysteriously comes to life. Then in a determined, purposeful profile pose, we see the resurrected Christ in his visible body, leave the tomb slowly, showing us only his wounded hand swinging at his side. What a glorious ending! He is off to begin his mighty forty days of work on earth prior to his dazzling ascent into heaven.

I agree with those who have said that no greater movie on Jesus has ever been made.

(Reprinted from The Messenger, March 2004.)         

  

 

Debunking the Jesus Video Project

Ronald F. Marshall

 

A WORLDWIDE EVANGELICAL EFFORT to witness to Christ has been made through the movie Jesus (Inspirational Films, 1979)—distributed by the Jesus Video Project of San Bernardino, California. Promoters say, "no other film has been seen by more than one billion people, translated into more than 425 languages and shown in more than 225 countries." At the end of 1999 it is being given another big push in the United States. Organizers are asking churches everywhere to help get it into every home.

         But I for one will not cooperate. Even though I am for witnessing to Christ in my homeland, I do not believe this video is the way to go. This is because the video intentionally misrepresents Jesus by chopping off Bible verses, inserting untrue material, and by dropping entire key Bible verses. Because of that deceit all Christians should join me in debunking it. If you must witness to Christ by means of a video, find another one. In his posthumously published book, Opening the Bible, the esteemed Thomas Merton (1915-1968) recommended the 1965 movie by Pasolini, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. It has its problems but it is better than what the Jesus Video Project offers.

         The movie from the Jesus Video Project manipulates viewers into thinking Jesus is nicer than he was and is. It assiduously works to eliminate what may succinctly be called "the wrath of the Lamb" (Rev. 6:16). This will surprise many who have seen and praised the movie. They will point to the crucifixion scene where Jesus screams as the nails are being graphically pounded into his body. But this segment is pure sentimentality! It wants to bring us to tears over the brutalizing of a nice guy. The crucifixion, however, was about other matters. In addition to the abandonment of Jesus by God the Father it wanted to shock us by the human violence Jesus' offensiveness provoked.

         The reason for this cinematic soft-pedaling of Jesus is fairly obvious. The movie so desperately wants to convert the world to Christ that it willingly misrepresents him so he no longer is "a stone that will make men stumble" (1 Pet. 2:8). Because this movie wants to win the entire world for Jesus it feels justified in revising the offensive picture painted of Jesus in the Bible. But conversions based on these changes are wicked because they deceive. They draw people to a phony Jesus. Consequently the makers of this movie are like the scribes and Pharisees of old who "traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte" and when they do have only made him or her "twice as much a child of hell" (Matt. 23:15) as they themselves have become!

         The movie follows fairly closely the Gospel according to St. Luke. Early on the deceit begins. When Jesus' mother praises God for choosing her, the excerpts picked from those famous verses skip the need to "fear" God and his startling "put down" of the powerful (Luke 1:50, 52). Also, when John the Baptist says that Jesus will "gather the wheat," the end of that verse about burning up the chaff with "unquenchable fire" is cut off (Luke 3:17). On either side of this last verse important words are also dropped. That Jesus is "set for the fall of many" (Luke 2:34) and that his first sermon provoked "wrath" (Luke 4:28-29) are skipped. Consequently when Jesus shortly thereafter says that we should "rejoice" when people "hate" us on his account, it dangles meaninglessly. By intentionally removing Jesus' provocation, the hatred seems flighty and less horrifying than it should be.

         So when Jesus' words about blessing those who refuse to be "offended" at him (Luke 7:23) are changed into blessing those who do not "doubt" him, we see what this movie has been about. "Doubt" is much softer than "offense." This movie has been trying to make Jesus easier to believe in than the Gospel does. For doubt is easier to overcome than being offended. Puzzlement can be set aside in ways that hurt feelings cannot. Grudges last far longer than quandaries. This movie knows that and wants us erroneously to think the same.

         Continuing in this vein, when Jesus exorcises the Gerasene demoniac by transferring his demons into a large herd of pigs, the fact Jesus then "drowned" this herd in a nearby lake is cut out (Luke 8:33). But without this seemingly unjustified destruction of property the people's "great fear" (Luke 8:37) comes off as frivolous. We also miss out on learning about the cost in having Jesus among us!

         We also miss out on that cost when the movie turns "denying" ourselves for the sake of Jesus (Luke 9:23) into just forgetting ourselves. This revision breaks the link to Jesus' even harder yet similar word that we should "hate" our "own life" as well (Luke 14:26). This is an especially clear instance of the way that this movie falsifies Luke's Gospel. No wonder it also ignores Jesus' warning that belief in him will pit family members "against" each other and split up households (Luke 12:51-53)! Such a message will not attract young families. It is too offensive. But in the name of evangelism this movie says: “To hell with the truth!”

         So too regarding the devil's attack on Jesus' disciples. The movie rightly reports that Satan "entered into Judas" (Luke 22:3) but refuses to say the same of Peter who was also "sifted" by the devil (Luke 22:31). The movie begins its reporting two verses later. This revision illegitimately limits the haunt of the devil to the crackpot Judas. This change inchoately promises false security to new converts. This lie is reinforced by dropping the verses about an exorcised man being quickly invaded by seven new demons "more evil" than the first who make his life "worse" than before he was first exorcised (Luke 11:26). Think how offensive this vulnerability makes the healing hand of Jesus! The cure comes off worse than the disease. But this movie will have nothing of this truth about Satan and his demons. Why? It will scare off potential converts to Jesus! So much for the truth! This movie would rather have the disciples look like heroes so that potential converts would want to join. Accordingly, after Jesus "drives out" the merchants from the temple (Luke 19:45), it inserts shots of his disciple holding back guards set to restrain him. But the New Testament itself never lists any such heroic deeds! Again the truth goes begging in order to make Jesus look more attractive than he was so people will believe in him.

         Perhaps the most egregious deception in this movie is the blatant bastardization of the weeping women at Jesus' crucifixion. On the way to Golgotha and finally at the cross itself they weep for him. The movie shows this. But the message is rank sentimentality again. It encourages us to feel sorry for him and so believe in him too. Be like those weeping women! But in the Gospel of Luke these women are condemned rather than idolized. "Weep for yourselves and for your children," Jesus cruelly shoots back at them (Luke 23:28). He goes on to say that they soon will wish they never were mothers and never even had lived. Their lives will become worse than his. Crying out for his crucifixion has done this to them. These verses, however, are cut out! Not surprising, given the tenor of this movie. The truth is just too depressing. In order to avoid this psychological tangle, Jesus' cruel words are eliminated. So he comes off more attractive than he really was.

         Finally, at the end, the negative response of the apostles to the women's report that Jesus was raised from the dead is also cut out. They did not believe because the words "seemed to them an idle tale" (Luke 24:11). An idle tale? These burning, cynical words are too dangerous to report. Others may think the same, after all. They provide too easy a way out. They must be silenced. This movie thinks it's a bad idea to get its viewers wondering why those closest to Jesus thought the triumph of his life was just an idle tale. They want it to come off more victorious so people will want to come along. This movie wants to rush to the "great joy" at the end (Luke 24:52) without first passing through cynicism and “disbelief” (Luke 24:41).

         In the Gospel according to Luke Jesus presses potential believers to "count the cost" of believing in him (Luke 14:28). Because this movie intentionally and faithlessly reduces this cost by making Jesus nicer than he was and Christian discipleship easier than it is, it should not be used for evangelism. Holding as it does that Jesus is the Son of God, who died for our sins and was raised bodily from the tomb, is not enough to commend it. For in the process of developing this message cinematically the light of this faithful word is turned into "darkness" (Luke 11:35).

 

(Reprinted from Lutheran Forum, Winter 1999.)

 

 

 

 

Against The DaVinci Code

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Why Jesus Couldn't Possibly Have Ever Been Married

By Pastor Marshall

The shortest answer to the question, "Was Jesus Ever Married?" is no, because the Bible says he never was. Period. End of discussion.

But because of best-selling books like Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code: A Novel (Doubleday, 2003), more has to be said. This is because people who buy into Brown's ideas doubt the veracity of the Bible itself. So quoting it gets you nowhere fast.

Brown's not the first to say Jesus was really married. William A. Phipps made a similar point in his book Was Jesus Married? (1970). And Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln said in their best seller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), that Jesus was actually the one married at the wedding at Cana in Galilee (p. 303)! Brown however says more boldly that Jesus as a married man "makes infinitely more sense than our standard biblical view" of Jesus as a bachelor (p. 245). All of this has now become more prominent because of Ron Howard's 2006 blockbuster movie on Brown's book (DVD 5J0C9).

Against this wacky supposition stands the venerable Maximus the Confessor (580-662). In his famous Ambigua he writes in section 41: "Being in himself the universal union of all, Christ Jesus... started with our division and became the perfect human being, having... everything that we are and lacking nothing, [therefore he had] no need of the natural intercourse of marriage" [§1309A, Maximus the Confessor, trans. Andrew Louth (Routledge, 1996) p. 159]. So Jesus didn't get married because he didn't have any need for marriage. Marriage for him would have been superfluous.

This argument fits with what we know about marriage and its purpose in the Bible. In Genesis 2:18 it says that it's bad for man to be alone and so he needs a fit partner to waylay his loneliness. Marriage, then, solves the problem of loneliness. But Jesus doesn't have this problem. Jesus liked retreating to pray by himself (Matthew 14:23; Luke 5:15-16). People would search for him when he was in seclusion, but he never searched them out as well (Mark 1:35). In fact he refused to entrust himself to the care and companionship of others (John 2:24). So Jesus was something of a loner – even to the point of spending 40 days by himself in the desert (Mark 1:13). And note that when Jesus' disciples failed to pray alone, by themselves, apart from him for one hour, he doesn't complain about being forsaken by them, but only that they couldn't stay alert by themselves in prayer, without his prompting, something which they needed to know how to do (Matthew 26:40-41). So Jesus' solution for his own solitariness, is quite different. It's not solved by companionship. This is because his solitariness is different from sheer loneliness. So his solution is quite unexpected. It is to die, if you can believe that – for "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). And the fruit that he bears in his crucifixion is not community, but salvation from the wrath of God for all who believe in him (John 3:36).

And in Genesis 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 7:28 we learn that marriage is contentious. It's not a perfect arrangement. But Jesus' relationships are holy (Matthew 5:48; Hebrews 4:15) – and so he reserves them for his church (Ephesians 5:25) – which is his very own body (Ephesians 1:23). A conjugal relationship, then, is too imperfect for him. Even his familial relationships are replaced by those in the church (Mark 3:32-35). For Jesus' great personal relatedness is not with us, but with his Father who is in heaven (John 17:20-24) – the "beloved disciple" notwithstanding (John 21:20-24).

And in 1 Corinthians 7:9 we learn that marriage is for those who cannot control their sexual urges. But Jesus had no need for such restraints, since he was in full control of himself – being able to be obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8; Matthew 27:39-44).

 And in Genesis 1:28 we learn that marriage is for procreation, but Jesus has no need for that either. For physical birth was not his calling – he rather cared about the second birth, the spiritual birth, the birth from above, being born anew (John 3:3-7). So in Luke 20:34-35 he even says this: "The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage..."

And in 1 Corinthians 7:4 we learn that husbands and wives rule over each other's bodies – in some sort of a marriage symbiosis. But for Jesus, life is "in himself" (John 5:26). This divine trait makes him unsuitable for the symbiosis of marriage as well.

So while the Bible simply says that Jesus was never married, by giving no indication that he ever was, this is not done without good reason. And that rationale can be discerned by simply scanning what the Bible has to say about marriage – something which The DaVinci Code has no interest in – which is an unmistakable clue about the axe it's grinding.

 

(revised from the version in The Messenger June 2005)

 

 

I Visit Prisoners

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A Movie on Matthew 25:39-40 and Christian Charity

 By Pastor Marshall

April 2008

 

This is an offensive movie – but one still worthy of high praise. It tells the shocking story of forgiving a ghastly murderer – but it does so in such a way that the best of Christianity shines forth.

Jim Broadbent (b. 1949) stars in this movie entitled Longford [HBO 93322 – 2006], and gives a Golden Globe winning performance under the direction of Tom Hooper. This is a movie about the notorious mass murderer, Myra Hindley (1942-2002) and the efforts of Frank Pakenham (1905-2001), the 7th Earl of Longford, to get her paroled. Broadbent is best known for his Oscar winning performance as John Bayley in Iris (2001). His performances in Superman IV (1987), The Crying Game (1992), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Moulin Rouge (2001) and Gangs of New York (2002) as Boss Tweed, are also well liked.

Longford is a movie about Christian charity and the admonition of Jesus in Matthew 25:39-40 to visit prisoners. Lord Longford is a devout Roman Catholic. In this movie he says that the greatest achievement in his long and distinguished life was that he visited prisoners and tried to help them rehabilitate. In the movie he says of himself quite flatfootedly: “I visit prisoners.” This project is at the core of his Christian identity.

This theme makes for a wonderful movie about the Christian life – something quite unusual to find in the movies these days. I even think it might be one of the best ever made on the Christian life. Longford, we learn, is an opponent of the death penalty and also of lifelong incarceration without the possibility of parole. Throughout the movie he is criticized – even by his own wife – for trying to help Myra Hindley, who was popularly regarded as the most heinous of criminals – having brutally killed five innocent children (1963-1965) with her sleazy boyfriend Ian Brady. But Langford insists that no one is beyond rehabilitation. He also insists that anyone can be forgiven. In the movie we learn that Longford (as well as his wife and daughter) is an author. In a book of his on the saints, he says that his favorite saint is St. Dismas – the thief crucified with Jesus who repented and was saved (Luke 23:39-43). This good or wise thief goes unnamed in the New Testament, but in the 12th century tract, The Gospel of Nicodemus, is given the name of Dismas. Today churches are named after him – even though he has never been officially canonized by the Church. In the USA there’s also a city named after him, San Dimas , California , in Los Angeles County . (Dimas is an alternate spelling for Dismas.)

More than once in the movie Longford quotes from memory the judge’s ruling in Myra ’s trial that she was duped by her accomplice, Ian Brady. This leads Longford to work for her early parole – feeling that in some sense she had been harshly sentenced. Once he finds out she was a lapsed Catholic, he also works to rehabilitate her lost faith. He encourages her to prepare with a priest for the sacrament of confession and absolution – which she eventually does do.

But the big turn in the movie comes when Myra finally gets a chance for parole. Upon hearing of this possibility, her scorned ex-boyfriend and accomplice Brady, calls in the media to expose her butchery more fully in order to block her parole. Myra then counters by confessing to the last two of the five murders. The next time she meets with Longford she denounces him as a fool and says she doesn’t want his help any more and for him to quite seeing her. Longford is crushed.

On the heals of this personal defeat, Longford goes to confession and says:

 

Forgive me father for I have sinned…. My actions have hurt my family, my friends, and, not to mention, the families of the victims. Now I ask God for his guidance, his strength and above all his compassion. For in his perfection, he forgives all his creatures. So I beseech you, Lord, forgive me. And give me strength to follow your immaculate example. May I put aside my personal hurt and forgive this woman.

 

Some years later Longford is on a radio show and is asked if he regrets ever meeting and trying to help Myra Hindley. After a long pause he says he doesn’t regret it at all. He says his visits with her were a great blessing. But he does agree that she betrayed him and that forgiving her was very difficult to do. But he goes on to say that forgiveness is the very cornerstone of his faith. And the degree to which his faith is a journey, “she has enriched my faith,” he says, “and so I’m indebted to her. If that makes me weak, I am committed to that, for I assume the best in people.”

As it turns out, Myra inadvertently hears the radio show and is moved by Longford’s remarks and asks to see him again and apologize, which she does. At that meeting she tells Longford that she only feigned belief in Christ. “I tried to know the God that you know,” she says, but just couldn’t. Then she says that when she killed her innocent victims she saw that “evil can be a spiritual experience too.” Because of that terrible realization about herself she says it probably would have been better if she had been hanged. That at least, she says, would have given the families of her victims some comfort. Protesting against her despair, Longford says that if she had been executed he would never have had the pleasure of knowing her. He also says we don’t know the full purpose of our lives and so it is not for us to say when they should end. The movie ends with Myra saying to Longford: “It must be a nice place to be – inside your head.” In all humility, Longford minimizes her praise of him.

At the end of this movie there’s no doubt that Longford is a better person because of what he endures. But one does wonder whether Myra ever truly repented and was saved. As I pondered her fate I rememberd: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9); and “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). I also recalled the line from Martin Luther (1483-1546) that “he who doesn’t think he believes, but is in despair, has the greatest faith” (Luther’s Works 40:241).

There are unfortunately some fairly risqué nudity scenes in this movie – shown when Longford takes on the pornography industry. But those aside, I highly recommend this movie for all who struggle to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). This is because in the example of Longford there is much needed encouragement to lead a godly life – a life that necessary attracts the hatred of the world (John 15:18-19).

 

 

Changeling Wallpaper

 

The Good Preacher

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A Surprising Movie by Clint Eastwood

By Pastor Marshall

March 2009

 

This is one of those inspiring movies – about an innocent person who is abused, does not give up in her efforts to vindicate herself, and in the end triumphs.

Angelina Jolie stars in this movie called Changeling (2008) and gives a wonderful performance under the direction of the legendary actor, Clint Eastwood. This movie is based on the true story of a Christine Collins, whose son, Walter, was kidnapped and killed by the notorious mass-murderer, Gordon Stewart Northcutt – who was hanged for his crimes in Los Angeles on October 2, 1930.

But the real story lies with the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department. Collins reports her son missing – and in an effort to solve the case quickly, the LAPD tells her that another boy they found was actually her son. When Christine refuses to accept their fabricated story, they accuse her of mental collapse and forcibly hospitalize her. The struggle throughout the movie is for Christine to find someone to believe in her story and free her from her brutal incarceration. She is a lonely, frail, single mom, with no one to help – standing up against a powerful and corrupt LAPD.

Then the movie takes a surprising and remarkable turn. It highlights a firebrand Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Gustav Briegleb, magnificently played by the great John Malkovich, who has a large LA congregation that broadcasts his sermons on the radio. He for a long time has been using his pulpit to fight against the corrupt LAPD – which is involved in extortion, drugs and murder. When he learns of Christine’s case, Briegleb immediately jumps to her defense, befriends her and champions her cause. At times he is a bit gruff with her – but always with the best of intentions. This is just what Christine needs – which no one else provides for her. Briegleb’s entry into the story is its turning point. His shining moment comes when he storms the mental hospital – which is like a Soviet gulag and reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s Oscar winning performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – and rescues her in one fell swoop. The scene is fired with energy and righteous indignation. It proves Martin Luther’s point from 1525, that Christianity ceases to be without “assertions” forcefully and boldly put forth (Luther’s Works 33:21). Hallelujah for “righteous indignation” (Psalm 7:11).

Later when Christine learns that her son is most likely included among the many boys hacked to death by Northcutt, Pastor Briegleb tries to assure her that even so she will be with Walter again in heaven. But Christine won’t settle for that assurance, hoping instead that he’s still alive, and will eventually come home to her one day. In this disagreement between them. Briegleb remains respectful of her hopes and steadfast in his beliefs.

All of this is remarkable – given all the movies that portray corrupt, disgusting Christian ministers. From the great many in this genre, think only of Robert Mitchum’s two roles in Night of the Hunter (1955) and 5 Card Stud (1968); Burt Lancaster’s Oscar winning performance in Elmer Gantry (1960); Igmar Bergman’s classic, Winter Light (1962); Steve Martin’s Leap of Faith (1992); Father Meehan and Rev. Rose in Needful Things (1993); Robert Duvall’s The Apostle (1997); Paul Dano’s performance in There Will Be Blood (2007) and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn in Doubt (2008) – to say nothing of the screwball Invasion of the Space Preachers (1990) to get my point.

Therefore we have Clint Eastwood to thank for his magnificent movie. What he has given us is a model of pastoral righteousness – which should be viewed and studied wherever ministers are trained – as well as by those actually serving in the ministry.

 

 

 

 

 

Doubt Gone Awry

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Bill Maher’s Religulous

By Pastor Marshall

March 2009

 

The popular and controversial comedian, Bill Maher, sets out in his movie, Religulous (2008), to cast doubts on the claims made by the religions of the world. He does this because he believes that religion is dangerous – ridiculous, if you will, given his movie's hybrid name – and must therefore be wiped from the face of the earth if humanity and the planet are to have a chance at surviving. So his movie ends with this admonition: “Grow up or die!”

Surprisingly this movie has been trashed in the liberal media – which is usually grateful for such cynical, comedic irony, parody and cultural criticism. Writing for the Village Voice (September 30, 2008), J. Hoberman describes Maher’s “big spiel” to be that “faith makes a virtue out of stupidity, identifies religion as dangerous because it encourages people to believe they have all the answers, and warns the world to grow up or die.” This, Hoberman argues, is “ultimately a celebration of the old-time religion we call entertainment.” So he sees Maher falling on his own sword and making the same mistakes he criticizes the religions of the world to be commiting. The reason Maher doesn't see this is because he has been blinded by his own ribald humor.

Hoberman and others may be right about this movie. It may well be a cheap shot of little or no value in the larger scheme of things. But I think Maher’s movie raises important issues that are worthy of our attention. Here are eight of them:

Adequate Sample. How much of one’s chosen field must be addressed in order to make one’s critique of it worthwhile? Maher skips over Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as Reformed Judaism, with no explanation. This weakens his case. Of course he can’t cover everything in his movie, but he seems to spend more time on Christianity than he needs to in making his points against it. Surely he could have cut a few minutes from his coverage of Christianity to look over what he needlessly leaves out. But on the other hand, maybe he thinks what he skips over isn't so bad. Now if that is the case, then he should point this out since that would be an important qualification to his otherwise blanket condemnation of all religion. For a critique with a broader sample, Maher could have learned from Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004).

Legitimate Representation. And who speaks best for a religion? Would it be a highly acclaimed, widely respected representative, or an off-the-wall, screwball devotee? Some would take the latter, supposing that a religion is most accurately revealed through its abusive, lunatic fringe groups – for if this can happen in a religion, then it must be rotten at the core. Others, however, disagree. Just like quack doctors don’t speak for all, law-abiding, hardworking, knowledgeable, respectful physicians, so too a man who thinks he is Jesus redivivus doesn't represent Christianity accurately. (On this case, see the Newsweek, February 5, 2007, story of Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda.) But Maher disregards that analogy and plunges headlong in his carnival-like, freak show movie, featuring off-the-wall Christians as legitimate representatives of Christianity. He does briefly interview the famous Dr. Francis S. Collins, author of the acclaimed book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006) – but there he even distorts matters, supposing that Collins is the only well-known scientist who holds religious beliefs. Is Maher unaware of the prestigous American Scientific Affiliation: A Fellowship of Christians in Science, which has been around since 1941? Furthermore, Maher doesn't interview in his movie any of the most significant living apologists for, or defenders of, Christianity today – such as Peter van Inwagen (God, Knowledge and Mystery, 1995, The Possibility of Resurrection and Other Essays on Christian Apologetics, 1998); Alvin Plantinga (The Analytic Theist, 1998); Charles Taliaferro (Evidence and Faith, 2005) and Michael Novak (No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, 2008). Also missing from his movie is Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, the famous psychiatrist from Harvard Medical School, who has been working on Maher's very concerns for over 25 years (The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, 2003).

Extremism. Now just how bad does something have to be worthy of a critique? Maher seems to think that religion isn’t any good at all. He has the one little exception of a prisoner finding religion while in jail. But for prosperous, free folks, religion has no value. This is an extreme point of view which seems unnecessary in order to give traction to his critique. (Note the Thornhill & Palmer study that notoriously finds even something good in rape, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, 2000.) Maher should have considered the durability of the critique of religion by Williams James in the Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) (see also Charles Taylor’s Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited, 2002). James knew, unlike Maher, that religion wasn’t totally bad – distinguishing as he did between healthy-minded and sick-minded religion. So when one is criticizing age old traditions practiced by billions of people, it strains credulity to say they’re completely useless, worthless and bad. To insist on such an extreme condemnation of all religion would appear to be myopic – and itself even a bit daft. This extremism makes Maher's critique look like a vendetta, more than like an open minded inquiry into the truth. A critique that can be sustained while still noting some goodness in its subject matter is stronger, more balanced and fairer. But this isn’t the way Maher’s movie comes off. For a recent catalogue of Christian virtues to off-set his extremism, Maher could have consulted Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity (2007). If he had, his critique would have been better, more nuanced, and also more difficult to produced since he would have had to sort through more material and in a dialectical fashion.

Assuming the Goodness of Atheism. Maher seems to assume in his movie that a world without religion would be a better one. But when one thinks of the massive horrors perpetrated by the atheists Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and Mao Zedong (1893-1976) – to say nothing of the big-time humanist bankers who trashed the mortgage market for hundreds of billions of dollars in 2008 – his claim seems to need some bolstering. But he doesn’t provide any in his movie. He could have taken a few moments to show how atheism is morally purer than the religions of the world. If he had, it would have made his movie more serious by showing he understood possible problems with it. It was Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), after all, who famously said that if God is dead than everything is permissible, which means immorality would then go unchecked – and wildly so (see Louis M. Antony, ed., Philosopher’s Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, 2007). Maher does not seem justified in assuming that a world free of religion would be a better one. He needs to make a case for that claim – which he doesn’t do in his movie. He should have presented some compelling, admissible evidence for his belief in the moral superiority of atheism – but he didn't do that. In that way he was acting like the religions he criticizes – claiming for himself unsubstantiated truths.

Believing Without Adequate Evidence. Maher also assumes in his movie that beliefs without non-controvertible evidence are irrational and unjustifiable. This he seems to suppose is the core defect of religion. But many of our most cherished common sense beliefs cannot be justified in this way. Now if that's the case, then to hold religion to a higher standard than our less exalted yet common beliefs is unfair. Maher seems to be unaware of these unjustifiable, rational beliefs. On this topic he could have learned from Jonathan E. Alder’s Belief’s Own Ethics (2002) and O. K. Bouwsma’s Without Proof or Evidence (1984). An example of such a belief would be feeling safe walking in downtown Los Angeles. It’s reasonable to feel that way but it’s not justified by the facts – or so the newspapers would seem to report. A more arcane example of such beliefs would be our belief in the laws of induction – which is often noted.

Distrusting Reason. Most of the great religions of the world do not believe that human reason fully captures what they're about. That’s part of the mystery which marks the religious. Rudolf Otto made this point in his classic book, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (1917). Maher, however, seems to think religion should be completely transparent to our rational analyses of it. But this is to impose on religion something foreign to it. By so doing his critique falls flat and the religious aren't fazed by it – which you would think he wouldn't want to have happen. And religion is also misrepresented in the process. But Maher doesn’t seem to care about misfiring in this way. He sails along apparently oblivious to the nature of the very thing he’s supposedly investigating. This disregard for his subject matter weakens his case. It makes one think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It also makes one think that he doesn’t really care about the truth of the matter but only about scoring points in a debate. Think, for instance, where Maher is baffled in his movie by – and then later responds to – the proposal that the Holy Trinity might be better understood in terms of the analogy with water coming in liquid, solid and gaseous forms. In this exchange Mayer doesn't seem to care about the proper understanding of the Holy Trinity, but only in not conceding a single point. Was he really hoping to come off in this sort of bullheaded way?

Old is Bad. Maher says that since the Biblical Ten Commandments come from the Bronze Age, they're not suitable for today. That’s because that olden time was so backward morally that nothing good could possibly come from it for us today. But that claim needs greater justification since we know that other old artifacts and customs carry over into our day. Consider ancient artworks and literature like Homer and Plato, and customs like working for a living and burying the dead. Maher doesn't seem to have thought through very carefully his disregard for the old and venerable. On the relevance of the Ten Commandments for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Maher could have learned something from Walter Harrelson, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights (1980).

Doubt Gone Awry. Maher accuses religion of being too certain. He claims all he wants to do in his movie is cast doubts on these extravagant religious claims. By so doing he says he wants to steer clear of any certainty himself. But as it turns out, he doesn’t follow his own preachments. Again and again he makes hard, certain claims – against his own game plan. One example of this is when he says it’s clear that Jesus was against judging others – and so when Christians judge others they are being hypocrites. But this isn’t as clear as Maher would have us think. All one has to do is look at the harangues of Jesus against the Pharisees – which are judgments against their hypocritical ways (Matthew 23:13-39). Another example would be at the end of the movie when Maher says, “Grow up or die.” Now where's the uncertainty in that flat-footed condemnation and warning? Or take the comparison of the New Testament with "Santa Claus" or "Jack and the Beanstalk." Just because these writings lack hard physical evidence for their claims doesn't mean they're all on the same footing. That's because beyond this superficial similarity, they differ in regard to intent, content and use. But these nuances are lost on the cocksure. So, for instance, when "Jack and the Beanstalk" was first published in Joseph Jacob's English Fairy Tales (1890), it wasn't put forth as anything but a fantasy. But when St. Luke wrote his Gospel of Jesus, he meant it as history (Luke 1:1-4). And when St. Paul wrote his letters, he lauded eye-witness accounts of actual events (1 Corinthians 15:3-9). And the content of the New Testament also differs from fairy tales. Unlike fairy tales, it stands against magic (Acts 13:6-12, 16:-18), whereas Jack doesn't seem to care that his beans are magical, but rather delights in that. Furthermore, those who have honored the New Testament over the last many hundreds of years, and have even sacrificed their lives for its claims, have not regarded it as fantasy. On the other hand, readers of "Jack and the Beanstalk" haven't worried that their beloved fairy tale is nothing but a fantasy. Therefore concluding that the New Testament is only a fantasy is a far more momentous claim than the young adult who says the same about her favorite childhood reading pleasures.

Finally I would like to add to these eight rather weighty considerations that this movie also has some very entertaining video footage of all kinds of tidbits of Americana. Best of all, in my judgment, is the interview with Jesus redivivus.

 

 

Only the Blind Can See

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Lifting Up the Bible in The Book of Eli

 

By Pastor Marshall

June 2010

 

Oscar award winning actor, Denzel Washington (b. 1954), stars in, and produces, the intriguing, apocalyptic, end-of-the-world movie, The Book of Eli (2010) [BOO-2ZG-997C]. This film is a must-see for Christians because it appears to be a study of John 9:39, where Jesus says, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” This Biblical point – about seeing though being blind – will be missed if this movie is thought of as just another trendy apocalyptic flick like John Cusack’s 2012 (2009) or Viggo Mortensen’s The Road (2009). But I think differently of it. To me it's more than a funky western or a celebration of the joys of reading or “the power of the word in a world where words have started to disappear” (John Petrakis in The Christian Century, April 20, 2010). No, I think it's a fairly sophisticated exaltation of the Bible – which is a "bold stance" indeed for a major Hollywood movie to take these days (Richard Roeper & the Movies, January 15, 2010)! The only explanation I have for

this is the fairly well publicized Christian faith of Denzel Washington himself (Reader's Digest, December 2007) – to say nothing of the grace of God!

 

Now I know my opinion of this movie isn't mainstream. Brandon Judell, for one, doesn't go down this path. As far as he’s concerned, The Book of Eli is just a poorly edited, “humorless, repugnant” film that suffers from “dismemberment, misogyny, and commercialized spirituality” (“The Book of Eli: ‘The Road’ for Dummies,” Culture Catch). Nick Pinkerton agrees with him – calling it a “plastic parable” (“The Book of Eli: Kicking Ass for Jesus,” The Village Voice). But I think they're wrong. I think this movie is indeed "spiritually interesting" (R. Roeper) – and very much so at that!

 

Denzel Washington plays Eli, who is the main character, and one of the last survivors of a devastating nuclear holocaust – caused by a religious war over the Bible, supposedly waged between Christians and Muslims. The movie takes place in 2043 – some thirty years after the blast. The setting is one of utter destruction – with everything being dark and dirty!

 

At the beginning of the movie we join Eli in his march to the west coast – which he has been on for some 30 years. (So in its Japanese version, it's simply called “The Walker.”) Eli, as it turns out, is headed for San Francisco to deliver the last surviving copy of the Bible – which he feverishly guards – to the city planners hiding there in a fortress on Alcatraz Island. Apparently all the other Bibles were destroyed because they were considered the reason for the holocaust in the first place.

 

So why is Eli on this mission? Why does he think the Bible is a good book – contrary to the majority who think they all should be destroyed? He says it’s because God told him in a personal revelation to do so – telling him where to find the last surviving Bible and where to take it. This might be the reason why he's called Eli in the movie, since in the Bible Eli lived in a time when “the word of the Lord was rare” (1 Samuel 3:1). But be that as it may, Eli’s told by God that the world can only be saved and rebuilt, if Biblical precepts are followed. God also tells him that he will protect him on his journey. And that's crucial because most of the surviving humans on earth are cannibals – for no other reason than to have something to eat. (The way you can tell if someone's a cannibal in this movie is if their hands shake – caused by tremors from the neurological disease of kuru, which comes from eating human brains.) Eli also finds out right away, that a petty warlord, Carnegie – played by Gary Oldman of Dracula (1992) fame – is also after a copy of the Bible, but for quite different reasons. He wants to use its forgotten, powerful rhetoric to enslave the world in a tyranny of his own sinister making. No wonder we first come upon him reading a book on Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) – that famous Italian killer of WWII.

 

This movie is about Carnegie finally stealing the Bible from Eli, and then learning that he can't read it because it's in Braille! This is the first big plot turn in the movie. At this time we also discover that Eli is blind – which explains in part why his other senses are so acute. But this terrible turn of events doesn't spell the end of Eli's mission! That's because even though the Bible is now in Carnegie's evil hands, he still can't read it! And Eli is still able to get the Bible to its safe haven on the west coast, because he has memorized it – as we find out – through his daily readings of it! That is the other big revelation in this movie. So Eli is still carrying it to the west coast, but now only in his very own memory bank! At the end of the movie we see him dictating the Bible, from memory, to a scribe who then runs off a mass printing of it on a old Gutenberg type printing press (circa 1450) in a campaign to fill the world with Bibles again, after the fashion of Gideons International back in 1908.

 

This movie, it seems, is pursuing at least three major theological themes. The first is that the Bible is our only hope for salvation or survival. Martin Luther – one of the first great champions of the Bible through his translation of it into the vernacular – makes a similar point. In his commentary on Psalm 82 from 1530, he says that if the Bible is “protected and supported so that it can be taught and learned,” then a whole “new world” can come into being, much better than the world without it (Luther’s Works 13:52). This is the glaring, controversial point at the center of this movie! For everything revolves around keeping the Bible away from Carnegie and getting it into the hands of the west coast city planners. It’s noteworthy that Eli hides the Bible from Carnegie in the back of an old television set – a place no one would expect to find it, given that the Bible is anything but celebrated on TV! And it's also noteworthy that the Bible Eli carries is the old, King James Version from 1611 – which has come to be a symbol in modern times for conservative Christianity (see James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 1995, 2009). Furthermore it's the Christian version of the Bible that's espoused – given that Eli’s book has a big silver cross embossed on its cover – a fact alluded to more than once in the movie. Even so, not much is made of the Christian content of the Bible. In Eli’s only major comment on what's in the Bible, he says that the best part in it is something like the Golden Rule – “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). What he actually says is that it teaches us to think more of others than we do of ourselves (see Philippians 2:3). And that makes good sense given that it's cannibalism that's ravaging the earth at the time – even though this moral instruction isn't a distinctly Christian one, as critics of this film have pointed out.

 

The second point is that the Bible can be used for both good and evil. It’s not a magical book (Acts 8:9-24; 16:16-24) that pulls its readers in one direction only – regardless of what one thinks of it. For Christ, as the Bible explains, can come across either as being wise or foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18); life-giving or death-dealing (2 Corinthians 2:16) – depending on how one sizes him up. So in this movie we have two men who both want the Bible – the good guy, Eli; and the villain, Carnegie. That means it matters what you think about the Bible! By raising this issue, the movie presses us to walk in the light, that is, in the way of Eli, rather than in the way of darkness (John 8:12)! By so doing, The Book of Eli picks up the evangelical, missionary strain, running through the New Testament, which says: “Turn from vain things,” and follow “the living God” (Acts 14:15)!

 

Luther also says this – in his own distinctive way. The Bible, he writes, in his sermons on John’s Gospel, is “a pure and unadulterated malmsey wine, yes, a very salutary medicine and cordial; but when filthy and evil worms, infested with the poisonous thoughts that are poured in by the devil, come upon it, draw from it, and drink, they spew out sheer poison instead of malmsey wine” (LW 24:205)! In this movie, it is Carnegie who spews this poison in his frantic, evil search to seize the Bible for demonic purposes!

 

And the final point is that only the blind can see the goodness and truth of the Bible. That's because it can't be proved rationally for all to see regardless of one's perspective – since "Christianity cannot be understood by autonomous reason" [C. Stephen Evans, Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Approach (1998) p. 104]. For our normal vision is so trapped in what is material and lusty (1 John 2:16), that we can’t see the forest for the trees. So we need to close our eyes, and listen quietly and intently to the truth of the Bible – and not follow our own lights and standards and reasons, symbolized by our physical eyes. So if we, on the contrary, pick at the Bible in a critical, disdainful way, we’ll never get it! But if we take it as it is (Luke 11:28) – like our mother's milk, as Luther said (LW 16:93) – then we’ll be blessed, and lifted up on eagles’ wings (Isaiah 40:31), as it were. So Luther goes on to sing the praises of blindness. “We must close our eyes,” he writes, “and believe solely what Christ says.” Therefore the Christian has to “close his eyes to... his own thoughts” (LW 23:350, 352). That's because God won't put up with “our wanting to see" matters according to our own assessments, but we must instead become “blind” (LW 51:43)! For “Christ... appears to reign among the blind. He hangs in the midst of the darkness and makes us attentive” – as strange as that may sound (LW 17:78)! That’s because only “the night is spiritual.” And so we must neither “consider nor... see anything visible” (LW 11:23)! That's surely what Eli does in this movie – and also, in a lesser way, Claudia, his defender, who is Carnegie’s blind and sorely abused wife. Therefore when Eli finally consents to explain himself, he simply says, "I walk by faith not by sight" (see 2 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11:1).

 

Beyond these three major points, the violent scenes in this movie also deserve mention. That's because they're more than fodder for teenage thrills! Note that when fighting off his assailants, Eli whips out his machete from his back-pack with lightning speed and supernaturally kills them with the blink of an eye. So even though these scenes are very violent, they’re still entrancing – just as you would expect a supernatural event to be! So one can’t help seeing Eli as a modern day Samson – who killed a thousand Philistines with the “jawbone of an ass,” having the Spirit of the Lord come “mightily” upon him (Judges 15:15, 14:19). It's just that in this case the jawbone is a machete!

 

My only misgiving about this movie is that redemption through faith in Christ Jesus is never mentioned. The movie comes close to saying that with the cross affixed on the Bible, but it never gets there. But maybe that’s the way it should be if Matthew 7:6 is in play. In that famous verse Jesus says: “Don’t throw your pearls before swine.” By being mum on redemption, as Eli surely is, he's certainly not cheapening Jesus, that pearl of great price (Matthew 13:46)! That may be why Pinkerton writes that Eli appears only to be an Old Testament “smiter of the wicked.”

 

But I would think that Eli is more like King Josiah, who brings back the long lost Book of the Law to God’s wayward and weary people:

 
And Josiah slew all the priests of the high places who were there in Bethel.... Moreover he put away the mediums and the wizards and... the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might establish the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord. Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him (2 Kings 23:20, 24-25).

 

Finally this film’s apocalyptic nature is also central to its overall theme of praising the Bible. That’s because we’re only drawn to the Bible in times of trouble or utter devastation – as in the setting of this movie. The sick, frightened and forlorn know this all too well. Just think of that desperate Canaanite woman praised in Matthew 15:22-27! We need desperation because we'll never develop a thirst for what the Bible has to offer without first being dragged through the knot holes of life. And without that thirst, as Luther pointed out, the Bible will be “more despised than accepted” (LW 23:267)! For as long as we are prosperous, secure and satisfied (LW 35:39), we'll have no interest in the Bible – even though we are actually “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). That's because we'll refuse to see our basic existential predicament. But when calamity strikes, then we're forced to see the gloomy truth about ourselves, as well as the brightly shinning hope the Bible has for all who will listen (Psalm 81:8). No wonder then that we have to “wander in the desert” (LW 4:49, 52; 18:98; 25:204) before we’ll renounce ourselves (John 12:25) and come to obey, follow, and walk with God (Acts 14:22). So at the end of the movie, while we're looking at Eli's headstone on his grave, we hear his voice quoting 2 Timothy 4:7 - "I've fought the good fight, I've finished the race, I've kept the faith."

 

So it's only in the desert, only in the battle, that we'll come to see our need for the Bible. That’s because only then will we acquire “a despondent and frightened heart [that] feels its sin;... is conscious of a weakness of spirit, soul, and flesh;... is aware of a menacing God;... fears [Him] and sees His Law, wrath, judgment, death, and other penalties” (LW 23:267). So according to the famed 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, “the Christian religion is only for the one who needs infinite help, that is only for the one who suffers infinite distress” [Culture and Value, Revised Second Edition (1998) p. 52]. And it's just because The Book of Eli celebrates this point of Wittgenstein's that I think it so richly deserves our praise.

 


Stressing Noah’s Drunkenness:

The New Aronofsky Movie

By Pastor Marshall

March 2014

 

I agree with Richard Roeper that this new movie on Noah, starring Russell Crowe, may well be one of the most dazzling and unforgettable Biblical epics “ever put on film.” And I also agree with Daren Ruecker, that next to the recent Coen brothers film, “A Serious Man” (2009) on the Book of Job, this Noah movie is one of the best Biblical films ever. And so I highly recommend it. (I was there on opening night at the Southcenter Mall to see it.)

 

Filling in the Gaps. At the center of this spectacular cinematic retelling of the catastrophic flood in Genesis 6-9, are the stunning elaborations of Genesis 9:21 and Genesis 6:4. Both of these verses are underdeveloped in the Bible. The first has to do with Noah falling down drunk and naked. The other has to do with the Nephilim. By going after these two verses, Aronofsky reveals his principle of Biblical interpretation: Don’t change what’s on the pages of the Bible, simply add to what’s missing from them. Aronofsky follows this principle fairly well except in three cases.

 

First in Genesis 7:13-16, he changes the text to allow only one daughter-in-law on to the ark as well as an arch-evil stowaway, Tubal-cain (Genesis 4:22). Secondly he excises Genesis 8:20 on the post-flood animal burnt offerings – which would have linked Noah to his forefather Abel and his animal sacrifice (Genesis 4:4). And third, he changes the reason for the rainbow in Genesis 9:15 from God promising never again to destroy the world by the waters of a flood, to his affirming of Noah’s love for humanity and the renewed propagation of the species (Genesis 9:7).

 

Noah’s Drunkenness & Uncertainty. Aronofsky elaborates Genesis 9:21 on Noah’s drunkenness to explain why it happened. He links it to a huge confrontation on the ark between Noah and his family over whether or not God wants humanity to have a second chance after the flood to live better lives. After some time of uncertainty, Noah decides that God doesn’t want people to have a second go at it. Everyone else in his family disagrees with him.

 

This ambiguity or uncertainty that Noah confronts is not in the Genesis account. But it is found elsewhere in the Bible. Remember how confused little Samuel was when God was talking to him (1 Samuel 3:1-10)? Remember how mixed-up Jeremiah was over what God meant by promising to protect him from his enemies (Jeremiah 1:18, 20:7-8). And remember Saint Paul’s words about seeing everything only dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12)?

 

Once Noah is set clearly against his family (Matthew 10:36), a life and death struggle ensues in the ark over this disagreement – and Noah loses. As a result he is alienated from his family which depresses him, and he also figures that he had disobeyed God which throws him further into despair. So he gets drunk the first chance he has – he who at the beginning of the story was nothing but righteous (Genesis 6:8; Luther’s Works 2:54). This is the main plot of the movie. And in it the themes of human wickedness and divine wrath and mercy are explored – ideas which are well worth our attention. Luther also knew of some such contest:

 

[The disobedient] charged Noah with blasphemy and lies. “Stating that God is about to destroy the whole world by the Flood,” they maintained, “is the same as saying that God is not compassionate and not a father, but a cruel tyrant. Noah, you are preaching the wrath of God! Has not God promised deliverance from sin and death through the Seed of the woman [Genesis 1:26]? God’s wrath will not swallow up the entire earth. We are God’s people, and we have outstanding gifts of God. God would never have granted us these gifts if He had decided to proceed against us in such a hostile manner.” In this manner the ungodly are wont to apply the promises to themselves, and because of their reliance on them they disregard and laugh at all threats (LW 2:53).

 

This is what the fierce Tubal-cain character does in this movie. But for Christians these themes are not resolved until Christ dies for us (Romans 5:8-9) – but for Aronofsky, as a lapsed Jew (Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, “Noah: A Midrash by Darren Aronofsky,” and Christopher Orr, “God’s Will vs. Man’s Will in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah,” The Atlantic, March 2014), he limits himself to what the Jewish tradition has to say.

 

Those Nephilim Giants. In Aronofsky’s hands, the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 serve two purposes. First these otherworldly giants build the huge ark – which in the Bible is left unexplained (Genesis 6:14, 22). And secondly they fight off the evil masses from forcing their way on to the ark when the floods come – something which the Bible doesn’t report on (Genesis 7:21-23). One of the most grizzly scenes in the movie is of people fighting to make it to the last mountain top as the waters of the flood relentlessly and ferociously rise faster and faster. (The only other place I’ve ever seen this depiction is in my family’s 1880 Norwegian Bible.)

 

Vegetarianism. Noah is part of the dwindling good clan, descended from Seth (Genesis 4:25-26, 5:3, 29) – who were vegetarians. For not until after the flood did God allow his people to eat animals (Genesis 9:3). But those evil clans descended from Cain (Genesis 4:11, 15) were meat-eaters, in defiance of God’s law (Genesis 1:30), according to Aronofsky. And so, again according to Aronofsky, the reason the animals were preserved on the ark was because they, unlike people, still acted righteously, as they did in the Garden of Eden. Why God wants to save the animals (Genesis 6:19, 7:3) isn’t explained in the Bible. Aronofsky also has Noah sedate the animals into hibernation so they don’t kill each other on the trip in the ark. And Luther would seem to agree at least in part: “[These] wild animals [all enter] the ark miraculously [having] had a premonition of the wrath of God and of the awful catastrophe that was about to take place” (LW 2:75).

 

Geysers & Cloud Bursts. When the flood waters break loose in the movie, water not only pours down from the skies, but geysers shoot up from the ground, left and right. Water is gushing forth from everywhere. I thought this was made-up by Aronofsky until I reread in Genesis 7:11 and 8:2 about the “fountains of the great deep bursting forth.” So I’m indebted to Aronofsky for pointing out what I had missed over and over again after many readings of Genesis over the last fifty some years!

 

Realistic. While conservatives will complain about the divergences from the Biblical account in this movie, liberals will not take kindly to all of the realism and literalism in it: Noah is a real historical person and not some fictional character. The ark is a real boat in this movie. All the animals fit in the ark. And the flood covers the entire world – and we get to see of picture of it from outer space! I agree with Luther on this that the Biblical account isn’t mythical or metaphorical but realistic and literal. I also agree with him that from a strictly rationalistic perspective, the entire story of Noah and the flood seems “exceedingly stupid” (LW 2:71)! But from a faith perspective, that, of course, is not the case.