Archive for December, 2006

The Passion of the Christ vs. The Nativity Story

When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, it was met with glee by Christians of all stripes. This, many thought, is the movie that will draw the masses to Jesus and fill up American churches once again. Churches, Christian schools, and well-to-do individuals bought up entire theaters’-worth of tickets to The Passion, giving virtually no one — believer or not — an excuse for not seeing the blockbuster film about Christ’s torture and death. “Results”were certainly not impressive, if existent at all. Churches continue to decline, and at the end of the day, the film caused more controversy than it did conversion.

This Christmas, New Line Cinema gave us The Nativity Story, a small-budget film about the events leading up to and immediately following the birth of Jesus. Few churches bought up blocks of tickets to this film, possibly because of the minimal “success” of the practice two years ago. Even still, The Nativity Story has made such a little splash among Christians, its distribution has been limited to one screen at most theaters and no screens at others.

But last night, I was moved much more by The Nativity Story than I was when I saw The Passion. Here’s why:

  • There’s no way to separate the birth of Jesus from the Jewish landscape in which it occurred. The Nativity Story is pregnant with expectation … for a Deliverer … for God to “set the world to rights” (as N.T. Wright puts it). This was the world into which Christ came — a world crying out for deliverance from itself. This is very much the world in which we live (though in and through Christ, we have hope), so I found myself caught up in the faithful expectation alongside Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and so on.
  • The Nativity Story was more properly set into the story of God than The Passion of the Christ. God was active in the lives of the Jewish people, through whom He was working to change the world. Israel, though faithful at times, was not the “light to the nations” God had envisioned, and humanity’s groaning alongside God’s great love and compassion demanded a new way to communion with the Creator. The Nativity Story is the story of the arrival of “God made into flesh,”as one of the Magi poignantly states upon seeing the baby Christ. This incarnation, climaxing with the obedience of the Suffering Servant on a Roman cross, is the central event of the Christian story, which is the continuing story of God. The Passion of the Christ attempts to let Christ’s suffering on the cross stand on its own, which it fails to do without the context of the previous mission of God. The Passion was a perfect example of Western Christianity’s obsession with substitutionary penal atonement — the legal trade of Christ’s life for ours by a wrathful God. A broader context to the cross is necessary.
  • The Nativity Story calls the Christian to obedience and action, while enticing the non-Christian to the greatest story imaginable. The Passion of the Christ, in its focus on the bloodbath that was crucifixion, leaves the Christian shell-shocked and guilty (and, to be fair, thankful for Christ’s sacrifice and obedience on the cross). The Passion holds little importance to the non-Christian person, and most likely comes off more like a grandiose case of divine child abuse than an act of love. After seeing The Nativity Story, I was compelled to pray for the obedience of Mary and Joseph, the hopeful expectation of the Jewish people, and the worshipful devotion of the Magi and shepherds.

Both movies are masterfully shot, accurate representations of the historicity of each event, and worthy of cinematographic honor. I am also in no way pitting the actual crucifixion against the birth of Jesus here, simply critiquing the respective representations on film. The Passion of the Christ conjures images of violence and needs further explanation. The Nativity Story conjures images of a coming kingdom and God’s restoration of the cosmos — truly “good news.”

Go see it. And bring a friend.


wrong, but funny.

just funny (because of how much we spoil our poodle…):

the scientist became an ant


An illustration from Tony Campolo:

Imagine for a moment that you are a scientist and you study ants. This may be a little hard to imagine, but give it a try. You are the world’s foremost authority on ants. And you have come to love ants very, very much. In fact, you’ve created a beautiful ant farm for many of them to live. It’s a wonderful world with everything they need. But one day you look down at the world you’ve created and you notice that your ants are not living up to their potential. They’re fighting. They’re not working together. They need help! So you send them little messages with suggestions & guidelines for them. You even inspire certain ants to be prophets, teachers, & role models for the others. But still they need help.

Now consider this, if you had supernatural powers what would be the best way to get your message across to the ants? That’s right! You could become an ant! You could take on the body of ant, and yet you would still have all your human knowledge and intelligence to help them. You would be the Ant Man! Fully Human-Fully Ant. Then you could teach them and show them personally face-to-face how to really live.

Merry Christmas!

Barna on The Future of American Faith

The Future of American Faith

When asked what he saw on the horizon regarding Americans’ faith, [Christian researcher George] Barna described findings from some research currently in process related to the future of faith. He listed three general patterns he expects to gain prominence in the coming years.

Diversity. There will be new forms of spiritual leadership, different expressions of faith, and greater variety in when and where people meet together to be communities of faith. Ecumenism will expand, as the emerging generations pay less attention to doctrine and more attention to relationships and experiences. Barna predicted that there will be a broader network of micro-faith communities built around lifestyle affinities, such as gay communities of faith, marketplace professionals who gather for faith experiences, and so forth.

Bifurcation. Barna expects to see a widening gap between the intensely committed and those who are casually involved in faith matters. The difference will become strikingly evident between those who make faith the core of their life and those who simply attach a religious component on to an already mature lifestyle.

Media. Spiritual content and experiences will be increasingly related to the use of media. New technologies that will gain market share over the coming decade will significantly reshape how people experience and express their faith, and the ways in which they form communities of faith.

Source: The Barna Group, 2006

Lives of Justice

There exists in Boston a group of [for the most part] young Christians who meet regularly to pray about, strategize about, and organize a “Christian movement in Greater Boston more deeply aware of injustices and capable of responding through service, learning, and advocacy.” I’ve blogged about this group before — about how blessed we have been to have found a network of like-minded believers, and about how God seems to be leading us to make changes in us first.

Of course, the rationale for followers of Jesus to live lives of righteousness and justice (often synonyms in the Bible) is extensive, and (in my opinion), off the table in terms of discussion. We are to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, those without a voice. Period. And we have come to the conclusion that “charity” is simply not enough — we must lead lives that seek to minimize hurt in our world and allow our hearts to be broken by what break’s God’s heart (as Tony Campolo says).

This is especially hard in America, whose capitalistic economy is driven by low prices, competition, mass production, and “the American Dream.” In this system, the poor of the world are used to produce, grow, build, or distribute for the very wealthy, while nine times out of ten remaining poor. We should know this when we shop at a big-box retailer for our groceries, pump $3/gallon gas at Exxon, assemble a baby’s crib, or eat at a fast food restaurant. Our most mundane decisions affect people all over the world, because we’re at the top of the “food chain” (so to speak) and many of those below us … well … work for us.

At our last meeting, the BFJN Global Poverty Action Team presented 7 commitments they were proposing for our network to live lives that leave a “smaller footprint” on the poor and on our natural resources. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Purchase fair trade coffee and gifts
2. Purchase and use sustainably harvested wood products [and we were delighted to find out that both IKEA and Home Depot are socially conscious in this way]
3. Don’t buy bottled water
4. Donate to locally based (meaning in the affected nations) development organizations
5. Shop at thrift stores for clothing
6. Fast from meat
7. Fast and donate the money you saved to a development organization, and use that mealtime for spiritual reflection and service

Oh, and instead of buying the “person who has everything” another piece of junk they don’t need this Christmas, how about planting a tree in Uganda in their name … which is cared for by a poor village … which receives money from The Kibo Group … that sends more Ugandan kids to school …

Obviously these are just a few of the many ways we can begin to live more just lives. We can lobby our government if we want to, but ultimately, change begins with each one of us.

a reel good week

Last week I discovered that in Boston, people can queue up library materials online, and they’ll be delivered to the branch of your choice within a few days. In a city like Boston, the public library system contains just about any DVD one could want, creating a veritable “poor man’s Netflix.” Well, I put in quite a queue at the end of last week, and this past week I got my first batch of first-rate DVDs. All for the price of a free library card! That said, I may reflect here more frequently on modern-day parables, films.

Earlier this week I threw in “The Squid and the Whale”, starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, and a fewsquid-and-the-whale-poster-0.jpg bright young actors. The storyline is the autobiographical account of writer/director Noah Baumbach’s childhood in New York City, which was a mess. The destruction of the family begins long before a marital split was on the horizon, with father Bernard’s (Daniels) choosing his career as a writer and professor over his boys. Throw in an affair by mother Joan (Linney), the coming-of-age of adolescent and teenage boys, and some abrasive personalities, and you have a recipe for a pretty ugly home life.

This was rough movie to watch because it was so real. So honest. So believable. We were watching a family unravel before our eyes, calling to mind the millions of children who have been affected by absent parents, selfishness, workaholism, separation, adultery, and divorce. I think the most striking thing about this movie was the reality that self-centeredness is what caused nearly every struggle in the plot. Such a commentary on the human condition. “Squid” was a masterfully written and portrayed story, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who can handle some (real-to-life) language and sexual situations (definitely fast-forwardable). This film will make you hug your wife or children extra hard tonight, but it will also deepen your compassion for children of divorce.


Tonight, we watched on the small screen a movie we originally saw on the big screen: saved-poster01.jpg“Saved!” It tells the story of a handful of teens at a Christian high school (American Eagle Christian School), and everythng about this film is over-the-top and exaggerated. This film made quite a splash when it was released in 2004, angering some Christians whom it was targeting and delighting many skeptics who are sickened by the nationalistic, intolerant, seemingly dumb face of Christianity in America today. And it was all done through “Christian” teens.

You owe it to yourself to see this movie, not necessarily because it will edify or inspire, but because you might learn something about how “outsiders” see Christians. It’s a cheap-shot &emdash; a low blow &emdash; to Christianity at times, but one that the American church just might need. You might say this movie magnifies the very worst of American Christianity to … well … biblical proportions. (plus it’s really funny!)

survival mode


I believe that “survival mode” for humans is a part of the Fall, and counter to God’s intentions for His people.

What I mean is this: Humans sort of default to a lifestyle that simply “tries to survive.” We believe our productivity each day is a direct contributor to our survival as people. Intentionally engaging in relationships stymies this productivity, so we often do not seek meaningful relationships with others. Humans often live “just to get by.”

God’s plan is quite different. He made us to be in relationship. He made us with value as His children, not to be determined by our productivity or pace. Life in Him holds security beyond anything we could ever fabricate ourselves. God didn’t make us to “just get by” &emdash; he created us to experience “life to the full.”

I’ve been thinking about this because I feel as if I’m slipping into “survival mode.” Relationships are harder and harder to come by. Pace of life is more frantic than ever. I frequently place my security in things other than my Creator, the Source of all things.