Life & Culture

 

Mar

31

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

How Christians Are Responding to the Noah Movie

Noah_Russell_CroweI didn’t get the chance to see Noah this weekend, but it appears the movie has done respectably at the box office, enough to fuel future biblically themed epics.

The intriguing thing about Noah is not the movie itself but the Christian response, particularly the evangelical response. I don’t ever recall seeing evangelicals so divided about a film. By and large, we stick together.

Evangelicals en masse rejected Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. I was just a kid then, but I remember hearing about this “blasphemous” movie. On the other hand, we flocked to Prince of Egypt, an animated though reverent portrayal of Moses’ story. And, of course, The Passion of the Christ stands out as the biggest biblically-themed blockbuster of all time. In the decade since Mel Gibson’s Jesus hit the screen, we shrugged at Evan Almighty, ignored the TV movie of Noah, and rallied around Sherwood Baptist Church’s films.

But then came Noah.

It’s a movie that’s made waves among evangelicals (pun intended), but let’s be honest: we’re not all in the same boat here. In fact, I struggle to remember any film that has drawn so much praise and criticism from churchgoing Christians.

Here’s the rundown of options as I see them, scrolling daily (hourly) across my FaceBook and Twitter feeds:

1. Cheers

I haven’t seen any evangelical leader claim that Noah gets the Bible right, but many have lauded the cultural opportunity this movie affords. Focus on the Family President Jim Daly and pastor Erwin McManus appeared in a video encouraging Christians to attend. Popular film reviewer, Phil Boatwright, pointed out the extra-biblical elements, but recommended it as a discussion-starter:

“Noah is an epic movie experience that engages not only the cerebral but the emotional. On the way to the car, people discuss it… That’s when you know you’ve experienced true art. It’s not just a time-filler before going to some other time-filler. It’s a film that demands debate.”

Christianity Today featured an extensive, seven-page review of the film. It begins with an encouragement for evangelicals to engage this film and then offers five reasons why:

  1. Noah is a good movie made by good filmmakers who pursue important questions and think of movies as art.
  2. Noah is a solid adaptation.
  3. Noah is visually and imaginatively compelling.
  4. Noah re-enchants the ancient world in powerful ways that counteract some of the worst excesses of modernity.
  5. You should actually see it for yourself.

Greg Thornbury, president of The King’s College in New York City, points out two major theological objections but believes the film is path-breaking and will help re-enchant a new generation with the biblical narrative:”

Aronofksy’s Noah is a way of putting ourselves before the Bible’s “dangerous question” as Barth put it. The grim, gritty, and supernatural antediluvian biblical world takes us back into ancient history, of origins. Who are we? What has gone wrong with the world? Where is justice? Is God there? What does he have to say? That ancient world sets us back on our heels and forces us to take stock in this strange new world inside the Bible.

Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, offered 5 positives and 5 negatives, and then encouraged Christians to engage rather than boycott:

The main events from the Noah story are depicted in a powerful way on the big screen by name brand actors and quality production. Christians should be ready to engage moviegoers in conversation about biblical and cultural themes that are portrayed in this movie.

2. Jeers

Those who are critical of the movie fall into one of two camps. First, you have the Christians who think the movie fails at the level of storytelling. Brian Godawa (a Christian who’s no stranger to Hollywood productions) thinks the movie fails at fundamental levels:

“On the nose” dialogue. Flat characters that you just don’t care about. A sick twisted hero that you just don’t care about. Look, I know your hero has to have a character flaw, but this is so extreme that you can’t stand Noah, and you just want to leave the theater.

The second category of critics are those who believe it fails because of its unfaithfulness to the biblical story. Ken Ham didn’t mince words:

Friends, last night I watched the Hollywood (Paramount) movie Noah. It is much, much worse than I thought it would be—much worse. The director of the movie, Darren Aronofsky, has been quoted in the media as saying that Noah is “the least biblical biblical film ever made,” and I agree wholeheartedly with him.

Sophia Lee of World sees the film as missing the mark, primarily for being an epic that shows God’s judgment without His mercy:

Expressed only through dreams and nature, Noah‘s God is mythical, impersonal, and devastatingly involved. Any references to God are seen through Noah’s perspective. That’s a good sum-up for the film itself—a wholly human approach to figure out deep yet simple theology with great intellect, emotion, and creativity, yet somehow missing the crux of it. That’s the true tragedy of Noah.

Al Mohler’s response is similar:

The odd elements are not the problem, the movie’s message is. Furthermore, the way that message distorts the Genesis account is a far larger problem when it becomes clear that the misrepresentation extends to the master narrative of the Bible – including the character of God.

3. Mixed

While some are jumping out of their theater seats to applaud Noah and others are taking to social media to express their disdain for this film, a smaller number are greeting this movie with mixed feelings. They are neither ecstatic in support or categoric in their rejection. For example, Joe Carter sees his take as falling somewhere in between the cheers and jeers:

Noah is an art movie masquerading as a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, an incongruous hybrid that is unlikely to satisfy most movie goers. Yet despite all its flaws, Noah is a worthy addition to the deluge apocalypse genre. It’s not a great film—it’s barely a good one—and it certainly isn’t the biblical masterpiece many of us were hoping for.

And my friend Aaron Earls views the film from the perspective of the director, Aranofsky, who is a secular Jew. He concludes his review with an insightful analysis of a backwards-facing Noah, and why Christians are bound to see the film’s theological component as lacking:

Aronofsky can give us a Noah who longs for creation, but he cannot show us a Noah who looks forward to the cross. There is no covenant from the Creator to promise a future redemption. This time, the serpent’s head goes uncrushed.

The ark in this film can only remind us of what was lost and try to salvage as much as possible, it cannot point beyond itself to the place we can run into and find ultimate salvation and the eventual redemption of all of creation – humanity included.

The film raises tremendous and worthy questions about sin and grace, justice and mercy. I’m thankful any time we have a chance to discuss those in culture. We can enjoy it as a film and an opportunity for significant discussions.

But it cannot give us the right answers because this Noah is faced the wrong way. With only creation in view, Noah has its back to the cross, leaving viewers adrift in an ocean of opinions and wishes without any solid ground to provide true hope for what comes next.

Noah found salvation in the ark, but without turning our gaze to the cross, there is no room for us.

What about you? Who saw Noah this weekend? And would you recommend I go or wait until it’s out on DVD?

 
 

Mar

20

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Why Pro-Lifers Are Losing Legal Battles, But Winning the Larger War

slider_RayDinkha2

This week at the left-leaning ThinkProgress, Tara Culp-Ressler contributes an article called “Abortion Rights Are Winning Legal Battles, But Losing the Larger War,” in which she celebrates the recent legal victories for supporters of abortion rights. Two cases stand out:

  1. A federal judge struck down Arkansas’ 12-week abortion ban.
  2. The settlement of a lawsuit has allowed North Dakota’s one abortion clinic to remain open for the time being.

These are just two of the many judicial decisions that have undercut legislation geared toward regulating and restricting abortion access.

Uneasiness in the Pro-Choice Camp

But all is not well for supporters of abortion rights, as Culp-Ressler points out.

Bits and pieces of these laws remain in place, such as the requirement in Arkansas for women to undergo an ultrasound to determine if a fetal heartbeat is present. In similar legislation across the country, lawmakers are erecting barriers to abortion through mandatory ultrasounds, waiting periods, parental notification, and clinic regulation. She concludes:

Although the complex restrictions that target clinics and providers are often most insidious, they tend to get the least attention. That’s why, even though reproductive rights supporters are winning most of their legal battles, they’re losing the larger war.

The Battle for the American Conscience

I agree with Culp-Ressler that the pro-choice lobby is winning in federal courts while losing the larger war. But I don’t think the battleground is primarily in legislatures. Instead, we’re locked in a battle for the consciences of the American people.

The hope of the pro-life community is a day when abortion is not simply “illegal,” but unthinkable. The goal is human rights for all human beings, to live in a country where human life is so esteemed that the very idea of abortion is as repulsive as the ancient Roman practice of infanticide or last century’s eugenics movement.

Here are some additional reasons abortion rights supporters are winning legal victories but losing the larger war.

1. These unsuccessful laws still succeed in bringing attention to the humanity of the unborn.

When the politicians are publicly debating abortion bans after a heartbeat is detected or once pain can be sensed, the conversation has shifted from the mother to the child. We’re talking about what abortion is: a procedure that terminates a pregnancy by ending a human life.

In nearly every abortion, a human heartbeat is stopped. Let that sink in for a moment.

The reason Americans are conflicted about abortion is that compassion for women in difficult circumstances is bumping up against a profound realization that the life in the womb is human.

2. Many of these laws seem reasonable to Americans.

Polls are all over the place, indicating that Americans aren’t fully on the pro-life or pro-choice side of the ledger. We don’t like the idea of abortion being legal for any reason; neither do we like the idea of it being banned for every reason. But polls do show that support for abortion rights drops precipitously as the pregnancy progresses.

The pro-life strategy is to seize the widespread support for late-term abortion restrictions in order to chip away at Roe v. Wade. The pro-choice strategy is to counter these attempts by convincing the public that these restrictions are unreasonable and infringe upon women’s rights.

On this issue, the pro-choice side has a more difficult task in the court of public opinion. It’s hard to say that 20-week abortion bans are “extreme,” for example, when most of the world bans abortion after the first trimester. (In fact, many Europeans see U.S. advocacy for abortion in the second and third trimesters as barbaric.) Our lax abortion laws place the U.S. in the company of just three other countries that permit abortion after viability: China, North Korea, and Canada.

3. A mother’s womb is no longer invisible.

12 weeks is the end of the first trimester. Here’s how Pregnancy.com describes the child’s development at this stage:

Your baby’s fingers will soon begin to open and close, his toes will curl, his eye muscles will clench, and his mouth will make sucking movements. In fact, if you prod your abdomen, your baby will squirm in response, although you won’t be able to feel it. His intestines, which have grown so fast that they protrude into the umbilical cord, will start to move into his abdominal cavity about now, and his kidneys will begin excreting urine into his bladder.

Meanwhile, nerve cells are multiplying rapidly, and in your baby’s brain, synapses are forming furiously. His face looks unquestionably human…

Keep in mind, this is 12 weeks, only halfway to viability, the point where abortion restrictions kick in. But abortion supporters not only want abortion access at 12 weeks, but also from 20-24 weeks (cue the cheering of Wendy Davis’ pink sneakers).

With ultrasounds giving us a glimpse into the womb, the fetus is no longer a faceless victim. We can see the human in the womb. The millennial generation’s first baby scrapbook pictures are in the womb, not after birth.

Scientific and technological advances have shown us the miracle of life like never before. It may be true that seeing an ultrasound doesn’t affect the woman who is determined to get an abortion, but the reason for this may be frighteningly tragic: frightening if it means they go into the abortion clinic fully aware that their decision will end a human life, tragic if it means they think they have no other option.

Conclusion

The pro-life movement has a long way to go before abortion is abolished in the United States. We may be winning the larger war, but there are plenty of legal battles ahead, as well as the funded fury of abortion advocacy groups. 

But now that the Kermit Gosnell trial has opened the door for increasing clinic regulations and medical technology has opened the window into the womb, it’s more likely that the roof of Roe v. Wade will eventually crumble under the weight of its own inconsistencies. On that day, states will be free to protect life at all stages, and human rights may finally triumph over the euphemism of “reproductive health.”

 
 

Mar

04

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

9 Magazines Worth Subscribing To

magazines-in-a-bunchOne of the best ways to keep a finger on the pulse of evangelical culture and the wider world is to subscribe to a variety of magazines. Yes, I recognize that magazines seem to be on their way out. Newsweek went online only. US News and World Report fell away. Time is holding on, but who knows for how long?

You might be thinking, “Why should I subscribe to any magazines?” My answer to that is two-fold. Most magazines are relatively cheap (their revenue comes from ad sales, not subscriptions). Also, magazines provide a quick and easy way of seeing what’s going on in different segments of our culture.

Here are a few magazines I subscribe to, and some reasons why you might consider taking out a subscription as well.

TimeTIME

This is perhaps the best place to get a quick overview of American news and culture viewed through the lens of a left-of-center editorial staff.

The cover stories are usually well-written. The columnists are a mixed bag, sometimes insightful, other times not so much. Despite the shortcomings, if I had one secular magazine I would subscribe to, it would be Time.

Entertainment Weekly

EWI don’t pay for this one. It’s one of the selections I get as a perk for collecting Sky Miles. I doubt I would pay for it if it came otherwise. Still, you can flip through this in about 10 minutes and be aware of upcoming films, TV shows, music, etc. You see what the Hollywood glitterati are talking about.

Don’t expect any in-depth treatment here. The feel of Entertainment Weekly is that of a giddy fan base that can’t wait for the next big thing from the entertainment industry.

FastCompanyFortune & Fast Company

These are two different magazines, but they blend together for me. They are magazines about business practices, innovation, and changes in economics and industry. If I had to pick just one, I’d go with Fast Company

Flipping through these, I usually find two or three items of particular interest and at least one stellar article that I read from start to finish.

ChristianityTodayChristianity Today

When I lived in Romania, I was subscribed to only two magazines: Christianity Today and World. They arrived weeks later than their release date, but it didn’t matter. I gobbled them up when they arrived, reading them cover to cover, generally the same day they came in the mail.

Christianity Today is the magazine begun by Billy Graham, now under the leadership of Mark Galli and Andy Crouch. It’s the flagship publication for big-tent evangelicalism. I’ve contributed occasionally to CT both online and in print for the past few years now, and I always consider it an honor to write for such a respected journal of evangelicalism. In the past few months, they’ve overhauled their design and they’ve also added N. D. Wilson as a contributor, so now you’ve got additional reasons to subscribe.

WorldWorld

As I mentioned above, World was my other lifeline in Romania. It’s more conservative than Christianity Today and tends to be more politically focused. The contributors analyze current events and trends in light of a conservative, Christian worldview.

World magazine comes out bimonthly instead of weekly, which gives TIME an edge on being “current.” But I find that I don’t read World to discover the big news, but to see the magazine’s analysis of the news. Also, they introduce stories that I may have missed elsewhere. Their annual Roe v. Wade edition in January and their annual recap in December are “cover-to-cover” reads for me. Then there are Marvin Olasky’s “treadmill books,” the Daniel of the Year, and the always refreshing Andree Seu Peterson.

FTWin2014-coverFacts & Trends

A 60-year-old quarterly magazine for evangelical leaders, Facts & Trends covers the intersection of church and culture with relevant stories and practical information. Recently redesigned, it features award-winning journalism from writers that include one of the nation’s top religion reporters (Bob Smietana), the latest church-related research from LifeWay Research, and columns from Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer. Even with all that, the magazine is free. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain from subscribing.

ModernReformationModern Reformation

With Modern Reformation, we are moving on to some magazines that cost a little more to subscribe to because their circulation numbers are lower. Still, they’ve been helpful to me. Modern Reformation takes a current event, theological issue, evangelical trend, or biblical doctrine and examines it from a conservative, Reformed perspective.

The analysis is always insightful, with helpful book reviews. The most recent edition dealt with God’s judgment on the Canaanites and was a thoughtful presentation of various issues related to God’s judgment and mercy. Michael Horton is the brains behind this outfit, and he has assembled a number of good contributors to make this a must-read.

TouchstoneTouchstone

I’m a new subscriber to Touchstone, a journal of “mere Christianity.” With contributions from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders, this is the most ecumenical magazine in my reading stack.

What I like about Touchstone is that the “mere Christianity” on display here doesn’t water down the distinctives between these confessional commitments. The Catholics don’t pretend to be Protestants, and the Protestants don’t pretend to be Catholics. But in issues related to religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and the distaste for watering down doctrine, the contributors all share a similar tone. Russ Moore’s involvement with Touchstone was one of the reasons I subscribed.

ChristianHistoryChristian History

I have a box full of Christian History and Biography magazines. It’s one of the most helpful resources out there. I don’t know how many times when I’ve needed to know something about either a movement or a figure from Christian history that instead of going to my books, I’ve gone to this box.

The quarterly magazine shut down a few years ago and then relaunched through donations. This is an underrated gem.

Your Recommendations?

What magazines do you subscribe to? What magazines should I add to this list? I’m all ears.

 
 

Feb

17

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Are We Missing the Point of Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’?

8-27 (1)The bright spot in this insufferably cold winter has been the success of the movie, Frozen, considered one of the best Disney films in decades.

We took the family to see the film on Thanksgiving weekend, fully expecting the common, tired storyline of a princess being true to herself and finding salvation through romantic love. It is the Disney dogma, after all.

Suprisingly, the movie’s storyline takes us in the opposite direction. The princess who is “true to herself” wreaks havoc on the world and leaves shattered relationships in her wake. Her devoted sister pursues her, even at great personal cost. And when all seems to be lost and you hope a prince will save the day with romantic love, there is instead a stunning portrait of self-sacrifice, described as the only kind of love that can melt a frozen heart.

It’s not hard to see the redemptive sketches in this movie. If you believe that love is more than just a feeling, that true love is expressed in self-sacrifice (which flows ultimately from Christ’s willingness to give His life for the world), and that true change can only take place through redemption not self-discovery, then you will find this movie delightful. More importantly, you will find ways to connect this movie’s theme to the gospel. We loved it.

The Success of “Let It Go”

Four months later, we’re still talking about Frozen. It has earned close to a billion dollars at the box office, surpassing the studio’s all-time best moneymaker, The Lion King (in inflated dollars). For months, it has been in the top five, and the soundtrack has spent considerable time at the top of the Billboard charts.

“Let it Go” is the stand-out song on the soundtrack due to its beautiful melody and memorable lyric. The music video has been viewed more than 88 million times. But the success of this particular song leaves me scratching my head, especially when you consider its place in Frozen’s storyline.

If there ever was a song that summed up the Disney doctrine of “being true to yourself” and “following your feelings” no matter the consequences, it’s “Let it Go.” Take a look at some of the lyrics:

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside.
Couldn’t keep it in, Heaven knows I tried.
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see.
Be the good girl you always have to be.
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.
Well, now they know!

Let it go, let it go!
Can’t hold it back any more.
Let it go, let it go!
Turn away and slam the door.
I don’t care what they’re going to say.
Let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway.

It’s funny how some distance,
makes everything seem small.
And the fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do,
to test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me.
I’m free!

Thousands of little girls across the country are singing this song – a manifesto of sorts, a call to cast off restraint, rebel against unrealistic expectations and instead be true to whatever you feel most deeply inside. What’s ironic is that the movie’s storyline goes against the message of this song. When the princess decides to “let it go,” she brings terrible evil into the world. The fallout from her actions is devastating. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me” is the sin that isolates the princess and freezes her kingdom.

It’s only after sacrificial love saves her from the effects of the curse that the princess is free to redirect her passion and power – not in “turning away” and “slamming the door” and expressing herself – but in channeling her powers for the good of her people.

If there is a moral to Frozen, it’s that “letting it go” is self-centered and damaging. What’s needed is for our distinctive gifts to be stewarded and shaped by redemptive love.

Perhaps that’s why I’m flummoxed by the popularity of “Let It Go” (the song). Not from an artistic standpoint; it’s a gem. But I’m afraid its popularity drowns out the bigger and more beautiful point of the film.

Rebellion vs. Rule-keeping

A popular idea in our culture is that there are only two ways to live:

  1. Through authenticity, expressed in rebellion against cultural constraints
  2. Through an ordered life, expressed in rule-keeping

Many people see these as the only options. And sometimes, Christians are assumed to be lumped in with the second group – the rule-keepers of religion. To the stodgy, religious types, “Let It Go” is an anthem to the beauty of spontaneity and freedom.

But Christianity doesn’t see morality in either of these ways.

We don’t believe we are most true to ourselves when we embrace our deepest desires. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. We need deliverance from our deepest instincts, not celebration of them.

Neither does Christianity say we are most true to ourselves when we conceal our sin – as if by willpower, we can control our terrible tendencies. Some religious people may put forward the image of a rule-keeping, behavioral checklist. But that’s not true Christianity. The gospel frees us from the curse of the law.

The Glory of Self-Sacrifice

Christianity teaches explicitly what Frozen only hints at: salvation comes not through self-discovery or self-restraint, but through self-sacrifice.

All across the country, little girls are singing about self-discovery. Let’s make sure that after they see this wonderful film, they are given songs about self-sacrifice.

 
 

Feb

14

2014

Trevin Wax|6:33 am CT

What Do Downton Abbey, Wendy Davis, TED, and Obama Have in Common?

What do Downton Abbey, Wendy Davis, TED Talks, and President Obama have in common? They are uncomfortable talking about abortion.

It’s been an interesting week in the ongoing discussion on abortion rights in the United States.

Edith-confides-in-Aunt-RosamundDownton Abbey

(Spoilers in this section!)

It started with Downton Abbey giving one of its main characters an unplanned pregnancy. The script featured stark language about what a woman’s “choice” entails – the “killing of a child.” It also painted “doctors” who perform the procedure in a bad light, questioning their medical ethics.

Pro-life viewers praised the show for its honesty. But in Time, Lily Rothman pointed out that the show was true to its setting and shouldn’t be considered a pro-life position. After all, abortion was illegal in England in the 1920′s, and dangerous. Rothman’s article implies that had abortion been safe and legal, then the character may have chosen a difficult outcome.

Perhaps.

But pro-life viewers lauded the show’s refreshing honesty in admitting there are two people’s destinies at stake in this discussion: the human in distress, and the human in the womb.

Should a human in distress take the life of the other human in question? This is at the center of the abortion debate. For the pro-life side, it is a question of human rights, and human rights trump reproductive freedom.

Interestingly enough, Rothman’s article points out that Downton’s decision for the character to keep the baby adds more drama and opens up new windows for the storyline. Just like Juno. Just like a number of television shows.

It’s commonplace now to see fictional women face the abortion choice and almost always choose life. You kill the baby, and you kill the story. Which, in some ways, is a further reinforcement of the pro-life position.

Rothman even describes the Downton character’s choice as “less of a realization about the beauty of motherhood, and more a recalculation of her own strength.” Wow. According to Time, it seems the woman who chooses life is stronger than the woman who asks a doctor to stop her baby’s heartbeat.

wendy_davis_APWendy Davis

In the middle of the week, Wendy Davis, candidate for governor of Texas whose claim to fame was filibustering a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks, moved back to the center. She claimed that she would have supported a 20-week ban had there been more exceptions provided. This is a political way of saying, I don’t like late-term abortions either; I just want to make sure women still have the right to choose. It’s not a position-change, but Davis is clearly pivoting to the center.

Even if this flip flop doesn’t have much substance, pro-life advocates should take heart. Her pivot implies that late-term abortion is a losing issue. Aaron Earls writes:

Every time a pro-choice politicians tries to frame further restrictions as draconian or extreme, we can now say, “Even Wendy Davis supports a ban on abortions after 20-weeks.”

We have changed the shape of the discussion to the point that strident supporters of unfettered abortion have to – at the very least – pay lip service to wanting abortion to be “safe, legal and rare” or, in Davis’ words, something we prefer not to happen.

It is at this point that the entire argument for abortion crumbles. If the life inside the womb is of no real importance, if it is not a person worthy of our protection, why would it matter that abortion be kept even rare? Why would we prefer it not happen in any circumstances?

If the decision is only about the woman and her rights, then none of these other facts should be considered at all. Davis should be refusing to support any kind of ban on abortion no matter at what point in the pregnancy it is.

But that’s not what she’s doing, because that’s not the case. Texans (and most Americans) recognize that there is more to the discussion than merely “a woman’s right to choose.”

2903dbe09eafe9200099d4423c0864ed61f8bea0_389x292TED Talks

By the end of the week, the abortion conversation had shifted to TED Talks. Organizers of the TEDWomen conference claim that their decision to never address abortion is because it doesn’t fit into “wider issues of justice, inequality, and human rights.”

Pro-choice feminists went to blogs to protest. It has everything to do with human rights, they say. Pro-life advocates, surprisingly, agree. It’s just that human rights extend to the child too.

The TED controversy brings up the relationship between feminism and abortion. Jessica Valenti made it clear:

“Being pro-choice is not the sole qualification for feminists—but you can’t be a feminist without supporting abortion rights.”

Really? Cue Susan B. Anthony’s grave-roll.

How terribly demeaning to imply that the only way for women to be equal with men is to have access to an invasive, life-taking procedure! Since when is the highest and most sacred aspect of women’s rights the choice of a mother to take the life of her child? As I’ve written before, an accurate assessment of the abortion debate is that this is a war between women, not a war on women.

In response to TED’s decision, Dawn Laugens of Planned Parenthood writes:

Abortion isn’t just about abortion. It’s about a woman’s power to determine her own destiny, to plan her own life.

Good grief! If women’s autonomy is at stake in abortion, then why stop at birth? The newborn who needs feeding every three hours is getting in the way of my wife’s power to determine her own destiny right now. Having three kids makes it hard to plan our Valentine’s Day evening. Can we call a doctor and have these little distractions done away with? Of course, not. That would be infringing on the rights of children.

Exactly.

TED doesn’t want to talk about abortion because no one wants to talk about the third party in this decision. There is the “doctor,” the woman, and another human being. 

obama01_16773717President Obama

Maybe this is why President Obama’s statement on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade never mentions abortion. The ugly procedure is hidden behind clever euphemisms. Here is Obama’s statement, with my commentary added:

Today, as we reflect on the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, we recommit ourselves to the decision’s guiding principle: that every woman should be able to make her own choices about her body and her health. (Agreed. What does this have to do with abortion?)

We reaffirm our steadfast commitment to protecting a woman’s access to safe, affordable health care and her constitutional right to privacy, including the right to reproductive freedom. (Including the right to have her unborn child dismembered and extracted from the womb?)

And we resolve to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, support maternal and child health, and continue to build safe and healthy communities for all our children. (All children, except for the ones we don’t want.)

Because this is a country where everyone deserves the same freedom and opportunities to fulfill their dreams. (Not everyone, unfortunately. The right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness only applies to those who have the right to life.)

Conclusion

In response to recent restrictions on abortion, the abortion evangelists are out in full force, making their case in public and pressuring TED to include abortion as one of their ideas worth spreading. I say, “Go for it!” Let’s have an honest conversation about what takes place in abortion clinics. Because when we do, the majority of Americans will see that abortion is an idea worth stopping, not spreading.

 
 

Jan

29

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Christians and Movies: Are We Contextualizing or Compromising?

the_best_reasons_for_going_to_the_movies_by_yourself_126417541Earlier this month, I wondered out loud about the kinds of films evangelicals are watching and reviewing. The responses to “Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck” ran the gamut: some agreed (“Finally!”) while others resisted any attempt to question film-watching as a key aspect of cultural engagement.

I mentioned movie reviews and linked to Christianity Today’s review of The Wolf of Wall Street as an example. Though the post wasn’t primarily about movie reviews but instead the bigger question of how evangelicals develop and maintain standards when it comes to movie-watching, Alissa Wilkinson (the reviewer) interacted with my initial post in her lengthy article “Why We Review R-Rated Films.” Alissa seeks to frame the discussion within the broader context of movies, art and criticism.

So, although I’m not speaking only about movie reviews, and although Alissa’s article is about more than my post, I want to interact with her article’s rationale for reviewing all kinds of films.

Different Responses to Different Films

First off, if you’re looking for a quick history of how the Motion Picture Association of America developed the rating system, you’ll find Alissa’s article to be a good resource. She sums up what brought about the rating system in the first place and how it has developed over time.

Secondly, the article explains that different people have different responses to different kinds of films. This is a self-evident but helpful reminder. She says The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the type of film that she simply cannot tolerate in any form. Other people may find that movies about eating disorders or traumatic experiences trigger painful memories. So far, I’ve been unable to see Lone Survivor. My brother served in Iraq, and though I’ve been invited to watch the movie with friends and family, I cannot bear the thought of seeing a film depict, in brutal honesty, the kind of carnage that today’s warfare leaves behind. My brother’s deployment was nerve-wracking enough the first time. If he gets deployed again, I don’t know how I would handle the tension if scenes from that movie are bouncing around in my mind. All this to say, I recognize that no one is the same. What may be beneficial to one person is a stumbling block or intolerable to another.

The Art of a Good Movie Review

Next, Alissa explains the art of writing a good movie review and why evangelicals should make educated choices about what films to watch. She doesn’t believe it’s a movie reviewer’s place to tell a Christian whether or not they should watch a movie. Movies are something that “helps us understand the world we live in new ways; it teaches us about and records our cultural history; and it helps us keep a pulse on ourselves and our culture.” As such, a good movie review has this goal: “to try to help readers think about movies in new ways, informed by the Christian understanding of the world that undergirds everything we write.”

On the surface, this kind of review is commendable. I am not advocating a simplistic method for reviewing books and movies, where the story is embraced or rejected on the basis of the main characters’ actions (Are they good role models? Did they do bad things?). For example, you may be disgusted by some of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, but the story is meant to turn your revulsion toward the bigger questions of suffering’s role in redemption. A Christian who critically consumes a cultural artifact will look for the bigger picture, not try to ban Tom Sawyer.

The Way We Tell a Story

So now we come to the example of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alissa writes that the film (despite its filth) still has a “clear moral sense of the universe.” Scorsese is condemning the excess of the characters, not celebrating them. For this reason (along with its artistic merits), the film gets a high rating, even with the lengthy section of caveats where viewers are warned of all the objectionable content.

Alissa would argue that the aesthetics and milieu of the film help reinforce that message. But I wonder if the same kind of self-deception is going on in this film that Alissa points out so perceptively in her review of The Hunger Games – Catching Fire. 

I’m not just frustrated, I’m appalled: all this tie-in merchandise declaws the story of The Hunger Games, in much the same way that the actual affluent Capitol in the books declaws the seriousness of the “real” Hunger Games—a forced gladiatorial battle between teenagers—by staging flashy weeks-long television specials around it in order to distract from the horror of juvenile carnage by making it entertaining.

The Hunger Games is a dystopian story that challenges our culture’s thirst for violence as entertainment, and yet, in its marketing, it has become the very thing it critiques. Alissa is perceptive in pointing this out: “They give us what we ask for. Bread and circuses. Chocolate and theme parks. Remember who the real enemy is.”

I think something similar is going on with The Wolf of Wall Street. How many filmgoers got the subtle “condemnation” of sexual excess that Scorsese was communicating? Like The Hunger Games, I suspect most people walked out of the film remembering the way the story was told, not the underlying critique.

Neighbor Love and Our Viewing Habits

According to Alissa’s article, good movie reviews are a way of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

“Loving someone means being able to live life alongside her. It means being able to talk about what matters to her.”

The rationale for watching The Wolf of Wall Street is this: “We knew everyone would be talking about it, and will be for quite a while.” In other words, it’s a cultural artifact that is creating conversations, and Christians need to be part of those conversations.

Loving our neighbor means entering their world and letting them know that we’re interested in what they’re interested in. A good movie review can clue us in on what others are talking about. But this doesn’t mean, when it comes to viewing a film, evangelicals should start defining “neighbor love” as sitting in a dark theater surmising how to use The Wolf of Wall Street as a connection point in our next “spiritual conversation.”

Do We Draw Lines Anywhere?

At this point, I feel like we are heading down a rocky terrain without any brake system working on our vehicle. Without any brake system in place, there is, in principle, no film we could not or would not see.

I’ve seen Hollywood elitists raving about the lesbian love story, Blue is the Warmest Color, which contains lengthy, explicit sex scenes with graphic nudity. Should we watch this film in order to speak knowledgeably about it if it comes up in a discussion with our neighbor?

Likewise, women can’t get enough of 50 Shades of Gray - both the book and the upcoming movie. Will we watch and review 50 Shades? If you’re a woman in a book club that decides to read and discuss this book, are you failing to be a witness by opting out of that discussion? Or are you being a faithful witness precisely because you withdrew?

After all, some would argue that the book is implicitly critiquing Christian Grey’s perversion and the damage it inflicts on others. Is it worth viewing two hours of sexual bondage in order to digest that critique? Most would say no. Why? Because no matter what the ultimate message of the film may be, the aesthetics and milieu (the way the story is told) overwhelm the point.

If we say, “No, that’s too far” to a film like 50 Shades or to watching an NC-17 movie, my question is Why? And why wouldn’t the “too far” rationale apply farther up the hill, before we’re off the cliff and heading toward the abyss?

My goal is not to create an artificial line, a legalistic rule that we cling to as a mark of purity. Instead, it’s a question of discernment, and that’s why I am left wondering: Is there anything to which we would simply say, “No matter how much artistry may be involved in this film, it uses copious amounts of sewage to get across its point. Stay away, for your own health.”

I’m not the only one drawing lines; I just wonder why the lines get drawn where they do. That’s why I believe Christians need a “theology of no” when it comes to certain forms of media. A recent NPR article shows how what was once considered R material is now becoming PG-13 or PG. What was once NC-17 is becoming R. The culture is sliding into decadence, and far too many Christians are sliding right along with the rest of America.

Contextualized or Compromised

Is our bigger problem a lack of contextualization? Or is it that we’ve compromised ourselves without knowing it?

That’s the issue here. And I suppose I worry more that we are failing our neighbor because of our compromise than because we’ve failed to contextualize.

Alissa is right that film watching is a matter of wisdom, not fear. But my great fear is that we are being unwise.

 
 

Jan

21

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

If A Day Could Speak (January 22)

Evening-Supreme-CourtWhat if every day of the year could speak? What would the message of each day bring?

I wonder.

Do the days soak up the joy of weddings, births, and victories that take place during their hours?

Do they bend and bow under the weight of heaviness, weeping over deaths, losses, and tragedies?

Does September shudder every time the 11th rolls by, as it recalls the horror of human carnage and the blood that now stains the beginning of fall?

Will December 14th forever strain under the weight of sadness, remembering the Newtown children gunned down in the innocence of youth?

~~~~~

There are days that remain with us, carving out a space in the calendar, forcing us to rethink life in terms of before and after.

And then there are days whose sadness spreads. Quiet events that bring monumental changes. Effects felt not on the first day, but on the second, the third, the hundredth, the thousandth.

~~~~~

More than fourteen thousand days have passed since a quiet winter day in January, when the rights of an entire class of human beings were denied with a stroke of a pen, when the most powerful nation in the world determined to withhold protection from its most defenseless.

If January 22 could speak, what would it say?

Unlike other tragic days, this one comes and goes each year with little fanfare. If January 22 could speak, it would tell us of the ignobility of being ignored.

The tears of those affected are unseen, because they never had the chance to cry. Their suffering is silent, captured only in ultrasound images that show them scurrying away from the intruding instruments that take apart their fragile bodies.

The cries of January 22 are drowned out by partisan powers of politics, the clanging of coins and cash, the frightful sight of moms and dads marching for the right to end the lives of their children, as if a baby were only a burden and not a blessing.

~~~~~~

But one day, January 22 will not be shrouded in sadness.

A new generation is rising. We refuse to make unborn children invisible. We are unafraid to stand up to the entrenched interests of those who would deny a class of humans their right to live.

We envision a more beautiful world – a world where all are welcomed into existence, where our love for life overcomes our desire for convenience, where we rely on each other as we choose life rather than revel in our freedom to choose death.

~~~~~~

Forty years have passed, and so have 50 million little ones.

But the message of a day can change.

January 22 might break under the unbearable weight of its tragic significance if not for another day on the calendar. If that day could speak, it would tell us of the darkness of death and the coldness of a tomb whose stillness was shattered when the stopped, silent heart of a crucified man suddenly began beating again.

Days can change. That day gives January 22 hope.

 
 

Jan

20

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Don’t Hate, Pray for Pro-Choice Champions

091111_abortion_ap_223In the never-ending battle over abortion, it’s easy to lose yourself in the heat of the moment and to feel a sense of disdain toward those who defend the “right” to take the life of an unborn child. But as Christians, we must not give in to the cultural tendency to denigrate and demonize people on the other side of the political aisle.

How can we make a stand for the unborn and yet also love our political opponents?

By praying for them by name.

It is hard to hate someone you pray for.

So, instead of raging against people you disagree with, people made in God’s image, pray:

  • Pray for the day Wendy Davis’ pink sneakers will be what she wears at the annual March for Life.
  • Pray for the day our president, who comes from a people long acquainted with the indignity of being treated as something less than human, will throw his support behind human rights for all.
  • Pray for reporters like Sarah Kliff, that her passion for human life will one day outstrip her devotion to “reproductive health.”
  • Pray for leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who out of political convenience have left behind their pro-life convictions. Pray that they will join with Alveda King and other African-American leaders to end the massacre of their people.
  • Pray for Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, that her eyes would be opened to the miracle unfolding in the womb. Pray for the day she leads her organization to never again earn a penny through stopping the heartbeat of a human child.
  • Pray for the day Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, joins forces with those who want to stop the war on women in the womb.
  • Pray for Hillary Clinton, that she will come to realize the main reason why she refers to abortion as a “tragic choice.”
  • Pray for the abortion-rights activists who berate and belittle those who speak up for the voiceless.
  • Pray for the countless men and women in our country who are uncomfortable with the reality of abortion, but are unable to fully articulate why.
  • Pray for pro-life Christians who remain silent, who unwittingly stand by as little humans beings are discarded in clinics within driving distance of their homes.
  • Pray for Supreme Court justices like Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to see the instability of the Roe decision and return the decision to the states.
  • Pray for abortion providers, that God would prick the conscience of those who piece together the remains of unborn children every day.
  • Pray that the abortion culture would unravel from the inside, as more and more “doctors” are rightly uncomfortable with stilling the heartbeats of other human beings.
  • Most of all, pray that God would have mercy on us for treating the gift of life as an inconvenience.

Don’t hate. Pray.

 
 

Jan

18

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Do Pro-Life Laws Establish Religion?

PUB_2158_BOOK_HARDCOVER_abortion_Aug20b.inddR. C. Sproul says no, and here’s why:

When the church calls on the state to prohibit abortion, the state is not being asked to establish a religion. Nor is the state being asked to be the church. The church is simply asking the state to be the state.

If it is the role of the state to protect, sustain, and maintain human life, and if it is the conviction of the church that abortion involves the destruction of human life, then it follows that the church has the right to call the state to outlaw abortion.

The church is not asking the state to baptize human beings, but to protect the lives of unborn humans.

from Abortion: A Rational Look at An Emotional Issue

 
 

Jan

06

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck

wolf-of-wall-street-poster2-610x903-1I grew up in a fundamentalist environment. The church I was baptized in believed it was inappropriate for Christians to go to a movie theater. To this day, my grandparents maintain this standard as a bulwark against worldliness.

The library at my Christian school had a variety of books for children, sanitized for Christian consumption. Encyclopedia Brown made the cut, but all the “goshes” and “gee whizzes” were marked out with a heavy black pen. No second-hand cursing allowed.

Films without anything objectionable were allowed at school, but looking back, I see how this analysis was applied simplistically. I still remember watching an old version of The Secret Garden - a movie with no cursing, thank goodness, but with a pseudo-pantheistic worldview that healing power is pulsating through all living things.

As a teenager, I discovered the work of Chuck Colson, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis. These men had a different perspective on art and its merits. I began to see artistic analysis differently. I realized Disney movies weren’t safe just because they were “clean,” and PG-13 movies weren’t bad just because they had language or violence. It was possible to watch a movie with a critical eye for the underlying worldview.

I never subscribed to the fundamentalist vision that saw holiness in terms of cultural retreat or worldliness as anything that smacked of cultural engagement. I don’t subscribe to that position today.

But sometimes I wonder if evangelicals have swung the pendulum too far to the other side, to the point where all sorts of entertainment choices are validated in the name of cultural engagement.

Generally speaking, I enjoy the movie reviews I read in Christianity Today and World magazine. They go beyond counting cuss words or flagging objectionable content and offer substantive analysis of a movie’s overall message. But in recent years, I’ve begun to wonder if we’re more open than we should be to whatever Hollywood puts out.

Take, for example, Christianity Today’s recent review of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alyssa Wilkinson devotes nearly half of her review to the graphic depictions of immorality, yet still gives the film 3.5 stars out of 4. Another review counts 22 sex scenes, but can’t be sure since it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins.

My question is this: at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?

I understand there are complexities to this issue. Some Christians disagreed with the praise showered on the recent Les Miserables film. I am among the number who thought Les Mis showcased the glory of redemption. It was a movie in which the sordid elements only served to accentuate the beauty of grace and the dehumanizing nature of sin.

Les Miserables is not unlike the accounts we read in our Bibles. Sexual immorality, rape, and violence are part and parcel of the Scriptural narrative. If a movie version of the book of Genesis were made, it wouldn’t be for minors. It seems silly to cross out cuss words from Encyclopedia Brown when first-graders can discover some pretty adult-themed events in their Adventure Bibles.

So, please don’t hear me advocating for a simplistic denunciation of Hollywood films. I am not. But I am concerned that many evangelicals may be expending more energy in avoiding the appearance of being “holier-than-thou” than we do in avoiding evil itself.

Yes, Paul used a popular poet of his day in order to make a point in his gospel presentation. Cultural engagement is important and necessary. But church history shows us that for every culture-engager there’s also a Gregory of Nyssa type who saw the entertainment mindset as decadent and deserving of judgment.

Is there justification for viewing gratuitous violence or sexual content?

At what point does our cultural engagement become just a sophisticated way of being worldly?

I find it hard to imagine the ancient Israelites admiring the artwork on the Asherah poles they were called to tear down. I find it hard to picture the early church fathers attending the games at the Roman coliseum, praising the artistic merits of the arena even as they provide caveats against violence.

Yet now in the 21st century, we are expected to find redeemable qualities in what would only be described by people throughout church history as “filth.”

What’s the point in decrying the exploitation of women in strip clubs and mourning the enslavement of men to pornography when we unashamedly watch films that exploit and enslave?

I do not claim to have this all figured out. But one thing I know: our pursuit of holiness must be the mark against which our pursuit of cultural engagement is measured.

If, like me, you’re conflicted about this issue, maybe it’s because we should be.