18 April 2014

I Saw NOAH... and I Liked It


"The end of things." - Ila (Noah's adopted daughter)
"The beginning." "The beginning of things." - Noah

This brief conversation happens just before the flood waters begin pouring out upon the earth in the Noah movie, which I saw today. I had intentionally waited to see the movie until I literally had two hours of free time with nothing to else to do-- and this morning was a very quiet Good Friday morning. The movie has had mostly mixed reactions from Christians-- mixed in the sense of "not good enough" to "not biblical enough." Jon Stewart on The Daily Show recently poked fun at us, saying we want Hollywood to produce more biblical movies, but when we do our reactions are often hostile.

He's right. It's a fair criticism. There is a Moses movie  coming out near the end of the year, and I can guess our reaction will be mostly the same. The thing is: it's not Hollywood's business to share biblical stories word-for-word as they are presented in the Bible. It's Hollywood's job to entertain us. Leave the theological training to the Church. We should be more concerned when the Church fails to communicate its stories to the public.

As for the movie itself, it has its strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths: Performances are good, although the great Jennifer Connelly is reduced to weeping and yelling. The movie looks great. And I was neither bored nor offended. Those aren't exactly ringing endorsements; but Noah isn't exactly an Oscar contender either. It scored a 77% on the critics' side of the Tomatometer (only 46% by audiences), and 65% overall on Imdb
Weaknesses: Too many liberties with the text (Genesis Chapters 6-9).
  • What's the deal with The Watchers, again? Are they meant to be the Nephilim (usually translated "sons of God;" Genesis 6:2,4)? These are rock giants that help Noah build the Ark and protect it when the rest of humanity attacks.
  • Do we need Tubal-cain, the evil king guy? Funny note: the Imdb page says, "the character biography is empty." No kidding. To think Noah's son Ham would ally with this guy against his father is laughable. I guess we need a reason for a Noah/Ham conflict found in Genesis 9:22-24, but in the movie Ham is the one brother who does not see Noah naked, and Noah does not banish him-- he leaves on his own. 
  • Noah's grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) is some kind of magician guy? Why is this necessary? Methuselah is mentioned in the text (5:25-27), but he dies before the Flood, not in it, and Noah's father Lamech isn't murdered (by the evil king guy) in the text.
But my biggest concerns with the movie are theological. Again, theology is not Hollywood's problem-- it's the Church's-- and as a pastor, well, this is sort of my area. The biggest complaint I have heard from persons of faith about Noah is that God is referred to as "the Creator" or "He/Him" all the time, never "God" or "the Lord." On first glance I can see that-- except when I got home I read through all four chapters of the Flood story, and the only character in the entire story to refer to God by God's name is Noah-- and at the very end: Genesis 9:26-27, where Noah invokes God's name to bless Shem and Japheth. Every other reference to God's name is spoken by the narrator. There is no narrator in the movie-- it's not a documentary. So it doesn't concern me that the characters only refer to God as Creator or a pronoun. In the biblical account they do not speak of God at all. 

Here's my theological concern. Well, there are a couple:
  • When Noah speaks to God (Tubal-cain does this too, interestingly), it's all looking into the clouds stuff. Both men lament that God does not speak back to them in their anguish and frustration. The question of divine silence is an important one, and I couldn't help but link it to the Cross-- as I saw Noah on Good Friday. Jesus prays in the garden on the night of Holy Thursday: "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you; take away this cup from me, yet not what I will, but your will" (Mark 14:36). God does not respond. As Jesus suffers upon the cross, he cries out to God, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). God does not respond. Even Jesus, when questioned by Pilate, is silent (Mark 15:5). Sometimes in our weakest moments we cry out to God and hear nothing in return. In the biblical account, God speaks often to Noah, explaining what will happen and why. Hey, it's not a fun story, and I have complained about it just about everywhere I have served. But you can't argue that Noah is unclear about the mission.
  • But in the movie he is. He totally misunderstands why God is sending the Flood. He is correct that humanity is fallen (never uses the word "sin," by the way-- sin is a theological issue). But following the exchange with Ila I quoted above, Noah's understanding of the Flood changes. As he and his family spend their first night on the Ark, Noah tells them that humanity is not meant to survive the Flood. After he and his wife die, Shem and Ila will die. Then Ham. Then Japeth. And that'll be it for humanity. The Bible says all three of Noah's sons had wives with them on the Ark, but not so in the movie. In the scripture, God is clear: "Be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth" (Genesis 9:1). In the movie, Noah proclaims this-- at the very end. Only after he nearly destroys his family on the Ark-- he is so convinced God wants to destroy every human life.
  • God's absence from the movie. Again, not God's name-- that's OK-- but God is the main actor in the story, not Noah, and leaving God's voice out of the movie robs it of any purpose and redemption. God's covenant with humanity (Genesis 9:8-17) is missing-- and this is the theological climax of the story. There is a rainbow at the end, but no divine pronouncement about what it symbolizes (Genesis 9:13), so it too is robbed of its meaning. 

I did like that Noah's family interceded on behalf of the crying people outside of the Ark-- this is not in the biblical story either, (it should be; see Genesis 18:22-33, Exodus 32:11-14). And it was Ila, who isn't named in the biblical story, who helped Noah understand the divine purpose after the Flood. This conversation puts the movie back on track to the "be fruitful and multiply" deal-- it follows an extra-biblical allusion to Genesis 22, another least-favorite story of mine.

So in the end, Noah is a good movie. Whether the director meant it or not, it's a good theological conversation starter. Most of the time that's the best we can hope for from Hollywood. 

11 April 2014

Why I Am Sad Stephen Colbert is Leaving

News broke yesterday that the great Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman when the legend retires next year. CBS was quick to reach out to Colbert to fill this huge vacancy, and you know executives are thrilled with the possibility of Colbert's large under 30s demographic following him. I have not watched "late night TV" (Johnny Carson/David Letterman/Jay Leno/Arsenio/Conan/etc.) regularly since I was in high school, and yes, I've been out of the under 30s demographic for a handful of years. That being said, I am a devoted follower of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. You'll know by now that Colbert spun off the Daily Show in '05.

Enough history.

Stephen Colbert is a unique talent, and CBS is right to be thrilled at the hire. He will do well, and I will almost certainly follow Stephen. But I am concerned for the move. The switch from cable to mainstream will certainly impact the content on the show. What I love about The Colbert Report is not its frequent language, but the attitude. Stephen's "character" is a conservative political pundit a la Fox News, but the real Stephen Colbert is always near the surface. Colbert is a devout Catholic, and his unique understanding of Catholic theology informs his commentary. Here's a recent example, Stephen commenting on Tennessee's shortage of death penalty drugs (the Catholic church, as well as the United Methodist Social Principles, oppose capital punishment). Throughout his series, Stephen has offered commentary that has been thoughtful, though sometimes sharp-edged. I tried to find a link to my favorite all-time Colbert "sermon," where Stephen commented on the lack of challenging leadership during the recent Iraq war. Recalling how civilian Americans made numerous sacrifices during WWII (rationing, etc.), he mentioned there had been no calls for sacrifice this time around-- not even in taxes to pay for the war effort. I'll never forget this line: "We are sacrificing the idea of sacrifice."

Wow. If only we had heard more of that from pulpits in the '90s and early '00s.

One of the most important roles of the preacher is to be prophet-- being willing to speak a difficult word to the people as one feels called by God. Often these "stepping on toes" sermons are not popular-- so preachers are reluctant to preach them. Sometimes the reluctance even goes to the point of the preacher tuning out-- no longer hearing such messages from God. Our churches have, for the most part, lost the art of prophetic preaching (not talking about this kind of junk, by the way)-- in the sense of offering God's perspective on current events.

So good luck, Stephen, and congratulations.

Whatever Colbert's Late Show will look like, I hope he brings some of his commentary with him. Stupid Human Tricks and Top 10 Lists were great for David Letterman, but Stephen needs to bring his own style. And we need to hear his messages. Even when we don't want to.

10 April 2014

Resurrection Changes Everything-- Including You!

Easter is only 10 days away-- April 20! Our theme at Custer Road UMC this year is, "The Resurrection Changes Everything." I am very excited to celebrate Easter for the first time at Custer Road: 6:30, 8:30, 9:45, 11:00. I know Miles (9) will be excited for Easter-- he voluntarily gave up chocolate during Lent. Maybe you gave up something for Lent too, and are anxious to indulge again. I am not one for giving up things during Lent-- I am more interested in how Lent and Easter change people in their faith journey going forward.

So let me invite you to explore a new path after Easter.

We're offering a new study on Sunday nights beginning April 27, 5:00-7:00 p.m. (six weeks). It's a spiritual gifts study, but takes you much deeper than simply finding out your gifts. The study we'll use has been one of my favorites for many years: Equipped for Every Good Work, by Dan and Barbara Miller. Here's some background on spiritual gifts:

  1. When we are baptized we receive gifts from the Holy Spirit. These gifts are specifically to be used within, and for, the church. Spiritual Gifts are not necessarily the same as vocation gifts.
  2. There are twenty gifts listed in the New Testament: everything from Faith to Service to Apostleship to Leadership. The study goes into great detail profiling each gift so you fully understand who you are.
  3. Many studies bring in talents or interests-- this one does not. This is strictly New Testament stuff.
  4. The best cure for burnout in the church is Spiritual Gifts. Folk who serve in areas where they are gifted never burn out, because they experience joy in their service. One of my gifted areas is teaching, so when I am doing a Bible study or preaching I am at my best. Behind the scenes stuff, like setting up tables (Service) always rates on the lower side for me. So while I am happy to help out now and then this service is not fulfilling to me.
  5. Your gifts will change over time based on your circumstances. This is why it is important to test your gifts regularly. So don't check out on this new course if you've taken an inventory recently.
This last point really hit home recently. I led a staff training event on Spiritual Gifts recently, sort of a warm up to the new class, but also so the staff could better appreciate our purpose in offering the course. So I took the Spiritual Gifts Assessment. And I was surprised at the results. For years my gifts were: 
  • Leadership
  • Teaching
  • Discernment
  • Administration
  • Faith
This time Leadership disappeared-- what used to be my strongest area is now sort of middle of the pack. The reason: my change of role. After a dozen or so years as a Lead Pastor I'm in a different role, and Leadership is not as needed. So my secondary gifts of Discernment and Teaching have become stronger, as well as newer gifts like Wisdom and Knowledge. So here is Frank 2.0:
  • Discernment
  • Teaching
  • Faith
  • Knowledge
  • Wisdom
The point of Spiritual Gifts learning is to point folk to their best opportunity to serve. Based on my gifts I can list several areas of service which will be beneficial to me and the church-- and several I should avoid. Our goal here is to eliminate the word "Volunteer." This is going to sound strange to lots of church folk but there is a good reason. When we ask for volunteers to serve "We need 100 volunteers for whatever," it's a very passive thing-- we hope you will show up and give your time. When folk know their gifts, they will serve in specific ministries that are fulfilling to them, making stronger disciples. So by taking this study you, and the church, will become more aware of who God is shaping you to be-- and we'll be able to point you toward the places where you will be most fulfilled. Now when a new opportunity is offered the staff/leaders can be very thoughtful about which Spiritual Gifts will best help accomplish the mission-- and specific people can be targeted to serve. You know folk who are asked to serve will say yes at a 90% or better rate, as opposed to getting info at your booth. Everyone will experience joy and blessing in their service when they are plugged in to the right opportunity.

Gene Oldham will lead the class. You can register here. I strongly encourage you to be a part of this new, exciting avenue for ministry at Custer Road. In addition to learning your Spiritual Gifts, you'll learn about your Leadership/Interaction style, your Spirituality Type, and your Task Type Preferences. Hey, this was a required church staff training course and they really enjoyed it-- how much more will it benefit you when you choose to bring your interest and passion to the study? And instead of an abbreviated workshop you get the full benefit of six weeks. You will learn a tremendous amount about yourself, learn to serve in areas that best meet who God is shaping you to be, and make a significant impact on the ministry of a dynamic church.

So...

Are you ready to see how the Resurrection Changes Everything in your life?