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The Truth of Scorsese’s Faithless Characters
In an interview with CT, ‘Silence’ director reveals why he is drawn to ‘wretches.’
I’ve heard a lot of sermons. And thus I’ve heard a lot of illustrations drawn from movies. Most of them have pointed to “Christ-figures”: the William Wallaces, the Eric Liddells, the patriotic battlefield heroes, the martyrs, and the rebels against our cultural “Matrix.”
But I wasn’t prepared, one Sunday morning, 15 years ago, when the pastor of my Presbyterian church referred to The Lord of the Rings in an unexpected way. “I see myself in Gollum!” he exclaimed.
Gollum! Not Frodo, the suffering hero. Not Samwise, his faithful friend. But Gollum—the jealous, scheming, miserable wretch!
It takes a humble heart to identify not with the hero of a story, but with the villain, a figure of moral weakness. I remain impressed by my pastor’s confession of sympathy for a power-hungry devil.
I remembered it again a few years later, when I first read Silence, that excruciatingly suspenseful novel about missionaries in Japan.
In Shūsaku Endō’s story, two Jesuit priests—Rodrigues and Garupe—travel into territory hostile toward Christianity. Fellow Jesuits have been persecuted and killed there, so they’re eager to see if their teacher, Father Ferreira, is still alive. Troubling rumors surround Father Ferreira’s disappearance. Some say he may have apostatized, meaning he might have collapsed under pressure and publicly abandoned Christian faith.
You may already sense this story’s resemblance to Heart of Darkness. (Call it Apocalypse Now II: The Jesuits.) Will these agents go undercover and find a genius who has turned traitor? Has he become the very monster he was sent to evangelize?
You will also hear echoes of The Lord of the Rings: Like a suffering ...
Where Obama's Final Push for a Two-State Solution Leaves Trump
Three Christians explain the intensifying world debate over Israel's West Bank settlements.
Though the Obama administration has just one week left in office, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to a Paris peace conference this weekend in a last-ditch effort to advocate for the two-state solution he strongly endorsed last month.
In an unusually blunt December 28 address, Kerry said that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are obstacles to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. “No one thinking seriously about peace can ignore the reality of what the settlements pose to that peace,” he said, calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end the settlements and allow for Palestinian development.
Israeli officials and defenders of the Jewish state are concerned by Kerry’s remarks, as well as the recent unanimous passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which declared the settlements illegal. The United States historically abstained from the vote, allowing the resolution to pass.
Kerry will attend the January 15 event in Paris alongside representatives from 70 nations.
Donald Trump and his ambassador to Israel nominee, David Friedman, support the settlements. Trump criticized the UN Security Council resolution, tweeting last month, “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect,” and “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
More than half of white evangelicals say that the United States isn’t supportive enough of Israel, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey. As CT reported last year, Pew found that Israel’s Christian minority tends to believe the opposite: 86 percent say the United States is too supportive.
Three Christians with expertise in the Israeli-Palestinian ...Continue reading...
Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ Asks What It Really Costs to Follow Jesus
Martin Scorsese adapts Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed novel about faith, mission, and suffering.
It’s been 28 years since Martin Scorsese ruffled the feathers of many Christians with the controversial Last Temptation of Christ, a film condemned by the Roman Catholic Church (of which Scorsese is a member) and a key moment in the history of the culture wars. A sincere if uneven exploration of the “fully man” side of Jesus, Last Temptation angered many believers because of its suggestion that Jesus experienced sexual desire for Mary Magdalene.
For filmmakers exploring the humanity of Jesus, a safer bet than pondering his sexuality is depicting his suffering (see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). That’s the approach Scorsese takes in his new film, Silence, appropriately released during the season in which we ponder Christ’s incarnation.
A passion project in the works for nearly three decades (since around the time of Last Temptation), Silence is the work of a director whose faith—and artistry—has matured with age.
“Last Temptation was where I was at the time in my own search,” said Scorsese recently in an interview. “It went on one track; Silence went on another. It went deeper.”
Scorsese described the process of making Silence as a “pilgrimage,” a working-out of his Catholicism through the medium he knows best: cinema.
“My way into spirituality happens to be Roman Catholicism,” he said at the screening of Silence I attended in LA. “Over the years I have been concerned about just distilling it to the essence of how one should live one’s life in imitation of Christ, so to speak. This film enabled me to not only think about this but to work it. For me the film isn’t finished.” ...Continue reading...
News: Churches Challenge Nigeria Forcing Pastors to Retire
New law requiring resignation after age 70 or 20 years in pulpit would affect 90 percent of evangelical pastors.
The surprise resignation of Nigeria’s highest-profile pastor has exacerbated a debate among West African Christians on the merits—and limits—of pastor tenure.
Last weekend, Enoch Adeboye resigned his role as general overseer of the 5-million-member Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in Nigeria (though not as overseer of its international presence in 192 nations). He cited the nation’s Financial Reporting Council (FRC) and its newly-introduced Governance Code for his action.
Section 9:3 of the code stipulates that leaders or founders of nonprofit organizations—including churches and ministries—must hand over leadership to a non-family member after 70 years of age or 20 years of being in charge. Adeboye is 74, and has been leading his megachurch since 1981.
The law, which is designed to guarantee financial accountability, went into effect in October 2016. If fully implemented, 90 percent of the populous West African nation’s evangelical church founders and leaders would be required to step aside.
Affected prominent pastors would include David Oyedepo of Living Faith Ministries Worldwide (1 million members); Mike Okonkwo of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (500,000 members); Chris Oyakhilome of Christ Embassy (400,000 members); and Sam Adeyemi of Daystar Christian Centre (300,000 members). Countless other pastors with smaller congregations would also join the massive wave of forced resignations across the oil-rich nation.
Nigeria’s evangelical community responded with outrage over both Adeboye’s resignation and the FRC’s financial rule, setting off heated debates over pastoral succession.
Many condemned the regulations, alleging they were designed to meddle in church ...Continue reading...
Cover Story: Inside the Popular, Controversial Bethel Church
Some visitors claim to be healed. Others claim to receive direct words from God. Is it 'real'--or dangerous?
I have seen a man dance holding a translucent scarf, the fabric billowing around his spinning form like a garment made of stars. I have prayed for strangers’ healing from high-blood pressure and unspecified neurological disorders. I have wept with salt-faced abandon as four women prayed over me; I have walked through a “fire tunnel”; I have seen a woman bob in Hasidic fashion over the Bible app on her smartphone.
I experienced all this at the increasingly famous (and, to some, infamous) Bethel Church, and I did so as an evangelical Christian of Reformed persuasion. My parents named me for the Welsh pastor-theologian Martyn Lloyd-Jones. My father is a pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Jonathan Edwards is one of my guiding lights, Wheaton College is my alma mater, and I attend a Presbyterian church in Toronto where I have never heard anyone speak or pray in tongues.
Yet Bethel has been on my mind since a friend prayed for my healing at a campground in Wisconsin in 2010. She introduced me to the teachings of Bethel’s senior pastor, Bill Johnson, and gave me a few of his books. As Bethel grows, you might very well hear from a few people in your congregation who have traveled to Redding to find out if Bethel is “real”—and who come back proclaiming that revival is under way.
When I set out for Bethel Church—a hub of a global revival movement—I half-expected to discover a rogue organization of hucksters intent on subverting the faith. And I half-expected to discover a community of believers more earnest and devoted to God than anyone I’d ever met. In the end, what I discovered in Redding, California, didn’t fit either narrative neatly.
Bethel Church sits ...Continue reading...
News: Biblical Archaeology’s Top 10 Discoveries of 2016
A glimpse at the important excavation work revealed this year.
Archaeological discoveries announced in 2016 help us better understand the Bible and the biblical world, and affirm the Bible’s details about events and people.
Below are the top findings from the important excavations taking place in the lands of the Bible or that have a biblical connection. (This list is subjective, and based on news reports rather than peer-reviewed articles in scientific publications.)
10. Ancient papyrus mentions Jerusalem
What appears to be the oldest non-biblical Hebrew-language reference to Jerusalem was found on a small piece of papyrus recovered from antiquities robbers who said they had found it in a cave in the Judean desert. The inscription reads, “From the king’s maidservant, from Na’arat, jars of wine, to Jerusalem.” Dated to the seventh century B.C., the inscription was found four years ago but announced this past October. Only one other papyrus document from Israel’s First Temple Period has ever been found. However, some archaeologists and textual scholars have raised questions about the provenance of the text, and have suggested that since it was not found in a supervised excavation, it may be a forgery.
9. Ancient glass factory
Judea was known as one of the centers of glass manufacturing in the Roman world. Archaeologists excavated the remains of a glass production facility at the foot of Mt. Carmel, near Haifa, when it was discovered by workers of the Jezreel Valley Railroad Project.
8. Sunken junk from Caesarea Maritima
Old metal objects were typically melted and recycled, so a ship that sank on the way to the recycler offered a treasure trove of ancient metal objects when its cargo was discovered by scuba divers last summer. Protected by the sand on the ...Continue reading...
How Lifting My Hands in Worship Became My Protest to God
I have to let go of how inappropriate it feels to approach Christ with such boldness.
“Come on and lift your hands to honor God right now,” my church’s worship leader exhorted the congregation. We sang the chorus for “I Will Exalt You.” Across the room, arms began rising in a physical amen. I hesitantly lifted my hands straight in the air.
It was not comfortable. I grew up in predominantly Korean American congregations where hands rarely rose above elbow level. Any movement was self-contained—clapping, maybe a slight side-to-side sway. That Sunday, I raised my hands because frankly, other people were doing it. I was attending a new church, predominantly African American, which unlike the services in which I grew up, embraced exuberance and movement during worship.
Lost in the music, I remembered recently watching two more videos of police killing black men. Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson had sparked the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and coined a catchphrase protesting police brutality: “Hands up, don’t shoot.
As the band played in the background, I thought of the tired arms of distressed black men, women, and children facing police officers. I considered the weariness of people protesting police brutality, reclaiming their hands up in nonviolent dissent as they marched in the streets, highlighting the absurdity of violent death while in such a yielding posture.
A Single Body
That Sunday forced me to reconsider my experience of worship and how it was formed by my culture. In the Presbyterian Korean American churches of my childhood, I was taught to approach God from a posture of dependence and deference. Open hands symbolized my congregation’s desperate need for a material and spiritual provider. Elbow-level arms suggested our humility and ...Continue reading...
The Angry Martin Luther King
Why we must resist the 'Santaclausification' of the great leader.
In the 2012 superhero film The Avengers, a serpent-like, mechanical behemoth is closing in on our ragtag team of heroes.
Tired and overmatched, their only hope lies hidden within the mild-mannered frame of scientist Dr. Bruce Banner, who morphs into the big, green and powerful creature known as the Hulk when rattled by conditions of great stress or anger. Seconds before Banner gives himself over to the rage that transforms him into his alter ego, a no-nonsense Captain America volunteers, “Dr. Banner, I think now might be a good time for you to get angry.” Banner responds with a roguish smile, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.”
I’m always angry.
I identified with that line and repeated it many times in the weeks after I saw the movie, much to my wife’s chagrin. What resonated with me was that sense of living with a concealed, low-temperature rage; of wanting to avoid difficult people or awkward situations but being dragged into them wholesale nonetheless; of knowing certain conversations with certain folks would invariably lead to unpleasant debates about politics, religion or—heaven forbid—race, but being sucked in anyway; of being looked upon as the harmless black guy my white friends could talk to about virtually anything related to race and know they wouldn’t be unfairly judged.
Of course, these are all good things in their own way—sometimes it’s beneficial to be dragged into uncomfortable situations or forced into interacting with people with whom we wouldn’t ordinarily connect; sometimes a fierce debate on a taboo subject such as politics or religion can help both parties see a different side to an issue; sometimes being ...Continue reading...
Is Addiction a Disease? Yes, and Much More
Four core aspects of recovery that are essential for addressing addiction.
Many people see addiction . . . as a character flaw or a bad choice. They don’t recognize that addiction is in fact a chronic disease of the brain.” That statement by Vivek Murthy, surgeon general of the United States, reflects the current medical and scientific consensus about addiction. Murthy and others believe the language of moral choices only increases shame and decreases funding for more scientifically rigorous treatments. To make progress in saving lives, they argue, we need to change the way we think about addiction.
In fact, we need to recognize at least four dimensions in addiction: moral, social, biological, and spiritual. Addicts are moral agents, in community, with biology working against their spiritual goals. Biological science gives us insight into the particular ways an addict’s body makes a normal life that much harder to live. Public health can describe how a community and its institutions make recovery more accessible to people trapped in addiction. A moral framework helps us understand how addiction harms ourselves and the people we love, while also providing the basic routines of living free. Most importantly, spirituality helps us to understand God’s love for everyone (no matter how lost they are) and gives us the power to live healthy, whole lives.
Biology and the Brain
Our brains were created with neurotransmitters to help us enjoy the physical pleasures of life, adapt to stressful situations, and direct us to do what is necessary to maintain our bodies’ physical and mental health. Addictive substances (and, to a lesser degree, other addictions like pornography or gambling) pervert all of these basic brain functions, breaking the biological systems we depend on to think ...Continue reading...
Who’s Who of Trump’s ‘Tremendous’ Faith Advisers
The Republican candidate finally names his campaign’s evangelical connections.
Following his much-anticipated confab with nearly 1,000 evangelical pastors and leaders, Republican candidate Donald Trump has released a long list of his born-again advisory board.
Not everyone on the board endorses Trump—but they’ve agreed to consult with him as he continues to reach out to an evangelical movement solidly split between the already on-board, the hesitant, and the decidedly #NeverTrump.
Some of the 25 figureheads on Trump’s board have relationships with him that go back several years. Some first connected at earlier campaign events targeting clergy. The breadth of his list serves as a reminder of the wide reach of American evangelicalism, from the institutional leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention to the prosperity gospel preachers made famous through Christian TV programming.
Below are brief explainers on each of the evangelicals who have signed on to influence the theology of Trump:
The Big Names
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family
Who he is: Dobson led national Christian ministry Focus on the Family from its founding in 1977 through 2003. He now hosts a radio program called My Family Talk. He also founded the Family Research Council, a Christian lobbying group currently led by Tony Perkins. Dobson, a pioneer Christian psychologist, has penned dozens of books about family life. His wife, Shirley, was the head of the National Day of Prayer Task Force until this year, when she handed over the reins to Anne Graham Lotz.
His evangelical ties: Dobson’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all pastors in the Church of the Nazarene. Dobson and the organizations he launched are household names among American evangelicals, synonymous with “family values” stances. ...Continue reading...
Christianity Today’s 2017 Book Awards
Our picks for the books most likely to shape evangelical life, thought, and culture.
Make a list of all the blessings the Protestant Reformation has brought, and eventually—long after jotting down iconic phrases like “salvation by grace alone through faith alone”—you’ll get around to the CT Book Awards.
Books, of course, had existed long before Luther posted his 95 Theses. But there’s no denying that reading and the Reformation, with a vital assist from Gutenberg’s printing press, soared together.
“The Reformation could not have occurred as it did without print,” writes historian Andrew Pettegree in his book, Brand Luther. “Print propelled Martin Luther, a man who had published nothing in the first 30 years of his life, to instant celebrity. It was his genius to grasp an opportunity that had scarcely existed before he invented a new way to converse through books. In the process he changed Western religion and European society forever.”
Reading helped fuel the Reformation, and in turn, the Reformation helped fuel the spread of reading.
Pettegree again: “Wittenberg, a town that had no printing at all before 1500, would become a powerhouse of the new industry, trading exclusively on the fame of its celebrity professor. And Wittenberg was not an isolated case. In many medium-sized and small German towns, the Reformation galvanized an industry that had withered after the first flush of over-exuberant experimentation.”
As we mark the anniversary of the 95 Theses next year (make sure to see CT’s Reformation-themed January/February issue), our spiritual and theological debts to Luther are obvious. But it’s worth remembering, too, how Luther’s prolific pen and publishing genius helped mold evangelicals into a “people ...Continue reading...
500 Years After Luther, We Still Feel the Pressure to Be Justified
Luther's law/gospel insight is as brilliant as ever—especially in 21st century America.
Playmobil, the German toy company, made unexpected headlines in 2015 when it released a limited edition Martin Luther figurine. Outside of how smiley it cast the cantankerous theologian, the toy itself wasn’t especially newsworthy. What got everyone’s attention was how quickly it flew off the shelves. Overnight little Luther became the fastest-selling item in the company’s 40-year history. While factories scrambled to catch up with demand, consumers descended on eBay in search of what they knew was the perfect gift for the pastor in their lives. At least, the ones with a sense of humor.
In retrospect, irony might have been the better word. It was not the first time Luther had been at the center of a collision between demand, expectation, and gift. Thankfully, the stakes were quite a bit lower this time around. The same cannot be said for those raised by his theology.
A few years ago, in response to a spate of suicides on its campus, the University of Pennsylvania put together a task force to explore the mental health of its students. What they found was tragic, but sadly unsurprising. “The pressures engendered by the perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor can lead to stress and in some cases distress,” the task force’s report said. “[I]n turn, [distress] can manifest as demoralization, alienation, or conditions like anxiety or depression. For some students, mental illness can lead to suicide.”
The mercilessness described here hints at a tragic escalation of a phenomenon experienced not just by college students, but by everyone today—the pressure to perform, to make something of oneself, to become acceptable, to make a ...Continue reading...
Is It Robbing God to Tithe on Your After-Tax (Not Gross) Income?
The Israelites were never subject to withholding upward of 15 percent.
No, It’s Robbing Yourself
My husband and I were newly Christian and in seminary when a friend told us about tithing. She stressed the importance of giving a full 10 percent before taxes, before anything else, so that we would be giving God the first fruits of our labor.
We recoiled at the thought, but she said this practice had given God room to work miracles in her life. She and her husband had once put their last dollar in the offering plate, only to have the pastor turn around and give them the whole collection. My husband and I began this plan right away and never even considered making our tithe after taxes. It seemed petty to make such calculations when giving to a God who gave us everything, including his Son.
Soon, we had settled into a pattern of giving 5 percent to our local church and 5 percent to charity. But one year, when it was time to renew our annual pledge to the church, I was convicted that a radical increase was necessary. God says, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse” (Mal. 3:10, ESV). For our family, that means the local church. So the full 10 percent should go to our church, while charitable gifts (alms) were to be an additional offering.
When I began sharing this with my husband, we were in for a surprise. He had separately come to the same conviction. The problem was that we had just promised 5 percent of our income to a missionary. Overnight, we went from giving 10 percent of our income to giving 15 percent.
Yet we never suffered. We saw God meet our needs in ways that bordered on the miraculous. People were always giving us things we needed but couldn’t afford: a sewing machine, a lawn mower, a new refrigerator. More than once, ...Continue reading...
Secular Pro-Lifer Nat Hentoff Showed Me the Holistic Power of Truth
I learned from the late Village Voice columnist that Christians need not fear free speech.
Nat Hentoff—author, jazz critic, and Village Voice columnist for 50 years—died this weekend at the age of 91. Hentoff was a liberal, progressive atheist—yet he profoundly shaped my Christian belief and practice.
In 1986, when he was already a wizened old civil libertarian and secularist pundit, Hentoff researched a number of high-profile cases of disabled infants who had been denied simple, life-saving procedures and instead allowed to die of starvation and dehydration. The resulting story, “The Awful Privacy of Baby Doe,” was published in The Atlantic and marked the awakening of Hentoff’s conscience on abortion.
He had to admit, he later explained in a lecture given to Americans United for Life, that the slope from abortion to infanticide to euthanasia is “not slippery at all, but rather a logical throughway once you got on to it”:
Now, I had not been thinking about abortion at all. I had not thought about it for years. I had what W. H. Auden called in another context a “rehearsed response.” You mentioned abortion and I would say, “Oh yeah, that’s a fundamental part of women’s liberation,” and that was the end of it.But then I started hearing about “late abortion.” The simple “fact” that the infant had been born, proponents suggest, should not get in the way of mercifully saving him or her from a life hardly worth living. At the same time, the parents are saved from the financial and emotional burden of caring for an imperfect child.And then I heard the head of the Reproductive Freedom Rights unit of the ACLU saying—this was at the same time as the Baby Jane Doe story was developing on Long Island—at a forum, ...Continue reading...
Directions: You're Divorced—Can You Remarry?
Q: The New Testament seems to support divorce for a narrow range of reasons, but does it support remarriage?—K.A.Miller, Wheaton, Illinois
A: There are three New Testament passages that bear most directly on the subject of divorce and remarriage. I suggest that when they are carefully considered, they prove to be both more demanding and less restrictive on the question of divorce and remarriage than evangelicals have often acknowledged.
Luke 16:18 is a very bold, straightforward saying that seems to settle the issue quickly: "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery" (all quotations from the NRSV). Both divorce and remarriage are just plain wrong—right?
Almost all New Testament scholars agree that this saying is an abbreviation of a saying of Jesus that appears in its fuller form in Matthew 5:3132 in the Sermon on the Mount. After discussing his views contrasted with those in Judaism, Jesus remarks, "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."
It is noteworthy that Jesus clearly sees some circumstances that legitimize divorce. A marriage continues to be valid until one party dissolves the marriage through unfaithfulness. This so-called exception clause appears here in Matthew 5 and again in Matthew 19 but does not occur in either Mark or Luke.
In a similar passage in Mark 10:1112, Jesus widens the scope of the teaching to show that such dissolution may apply to the behavior ...Continue reading...