In case you missed them, here are the top five blog posts that I wrote in 2017, in order of how many reads they received. Click on each link to read the post:
- The HCSB is now the CSB: What’s the difference?
- When you’re not getting “fed” by the pastor’s sermons.
- Bishop Jackson’s inauguration prayer for President Trump.
- 7 signs of a healthy church.
- Movie review: The Shack.
My wife and I saw the sneak preview of the new motion picture, The Shack. I posted a review earlier of the bestselling book (click here to read it) of the same title by William Paul Young, so I wanted to follow up with this review of the movie.
The Shack is a deeply emotional film about a man named Mack Phillips, played by Sam Worthington, who is angry at God because of the abusive and tragic circumstances he experienced as a child and as an adult. The film tells the story of a deeply personal tragedy that occurs at a shack in the woods, and how Mack gets a letter from God, inviting him to return to the shack and deal with his pain. Mack returns, and there meets God in three persons, who engage him in experiences and conversations that allow him to rediscover the goodness of God. After he resolves these issues and learns to accept forgiveness and give forgiveness, Mack returns to his family a changed man. The plot uses flashbacks to tell about the tragedies in his life. Much of the story is framed as a visionary dream, which is a major departure from the plot of the original book. The plot moves well at the beginning and the end, although it may seem a bit long in the middle, if you are not engaged in the conversations.
Octavia Spencer plays “Papa,” a character representing God the Father, who appears to Mack as an affectionate African-American woman. She explains that since Mack could not relate to God as a father, due to his childhood experiences with an abusive father, Papa has chosen to appear as a mother figure. In fact, all three persons of the Trinity are there. The Son, representing Jesus, is a Middle Eastern man, played by Abraham Aviv Alush, and Sarayu (the Spirit), played by Sumire Matsubara, is represented by a young Asian woman who glows and shines and sometimes just disappears. Although God is represented as three different persons, they act in unison, as one person continues a conversation with Mack that he had earlier with the other person.
The movie deals powerfully with the question of why God allows suffering. Papa, The Son, and Sarayu do not offer easy answers, but they help Mack to get a bigger picture of how God loves, forgives and redeems. For example, when Mack angrily tells Papa that Papa could not be good and allow the Son to suffer on the cross, Papa shows nail scars in her own wrist, and says with tears, “Don’t think that I wasn’t also there when my Son died.” In another scene, Jesus sends Mack on a path to a cave where he meets a female called Wisdom, who lets Mack sit in the judgment seat of God and see what it is like to be a judge, an experience that overwhelms him, reminding him that no human should try to play God, and also hinting at the reason Jesus had to die for our sins. Unfortunately, the emphasis on God’s love is so strong, that a balanced statement about God’s holiness is lacking. God reminds Mack that sin has consequences, but when Mack bluntly asks Papa about God’s wrath, Papa could have said that God is holy and offended by sin, but instead only emphasized God’s goodness and love.
The film quality
This is a quality film production. There are breathtaking nature scenes, scenes filled with color and light, darkness and drama. The music is engaging, but not distracting. The main actors and supporting cast are all convincing in their roles. Octavia Spencer exudes love and kindness as Papa, and Sam Worthington explodes with emotion and pain as Mack. Country singer Tim McGraw does a good job as a supporting actor, playing Mack’s friend, who becomes a narrator of the story.
Comparisons with the book
Fans of the book will probably also like the movie, and some critics of the book may like the movie better than the book. I don’t remember hearing any profanity in the movie, although the book has some profanity. The portrayal of God the Father as a woman is explained sooner and more clearly in the movie than in the book. There were several passages in the book that critics accused of teaching universal salvation (that all people will go to heaven), particularly some conversations Mack had with the persons of the Trinity. Most of those controversial conversations do not occur in the movie, although the movie does repeat the words of Jesus that He is not a “Christian” (which came across as humorous to me both in the book and film.) The movie puts more emphasis on God’s love than on God’s judgment, although it it reminds the viewer that God does make judgments of heaven and hell and that sin does have consequences. After the movie was over, I asked my wife, who has not read the book, if she thought the movie taught universal salvation, and she said, “Not at all.”
Spoiler alert: If you have read the book, you will notice that the movie ends a little differently. It makes the whole encounter at the shack into a visionary dream, and while the book has Mack actually finding his daughter’s body and giving it a proper burial, the movie shows that happening as part of his dream. Then the movie focuses at the end on Mack going to church with his family and having a new faith in God. The movie added the friend as a narrator of the story at the beginning and end, which I thought was a good framing device for the story.
I liked the original book, despite its flaws, but I liked the movie even more. What I like the most is that it deals with the important issues of pain, suffering, the redemption God offers through Jesus Christ. I wept several times as I thought about my own sin and need for forgiveness, and it moved me to want to be more forgiving towards others. My wife commented that the story touches nearly every person at some level in their lives. This film offers a vivid story that can open up discussions with our friends and neighbors about how our hope is found, not in an old rustic shack, but on an old rugged cross.
The Shack is a motion picture being released on March 3, 2017. It has a Christian message, yet some Christians are calling the movie heresy. What’s going on?
The movie is based on the bestseller of the same name by William Paul Young. (This is a review of the book. You can read my review of the movie by clicking here.) It is a deeply emotional story about why God allows suffering. The main character, Mack, gets a note from God, asking him to return to the shack where his young daughter had been murdered. Mack goes, and finds answers to his questions and doubts about God’s goodness. Sounds inspiring, doesn’t it? Then why the controversy?
Negative elements in the book
Many people are bothered by the portrayal of the Trinity in the book. God the Father appears as a black woman who goes by the name “Papa,” Jesus appears as a Middle Eastern man, and the Holy Spirit appears as an Asian woman named Sarayu (Sanskrit for “wind”) whom you can see through. Although they appear as three persons, they are shown as completely one, as they answer Mack in unison from time to time, and whenever he has a conversation with one of them, they always continue the conversations he had with the others. “Papa” reminds Mack that God is spirit, and since Mack had a poor relationship with his own father, he chose to reveal himself to Mack as a woman to get around his resistance. In fact, (spoiler warning: don’t read this next statement if you don’t want to know too much about the novel’s plot…) at the end of the book, after Mack is reconciled to his own father, “Papa” appears to Mack as a man.
Some people will be put off by a few uses of profanity in the book in the dialogue. There is one use of S.O.B., and a few other milder profanities spoken mostly in passages where the speaker is angry.
The most troubling part of the book occurs on page 182. Jesus is talking to Mack, and he says, “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions…” At this point, Jesus appears to be teaching universalism, that everybody will be saved. It appears that Jesus is saying that He has taken people from any background and transformed them. Notice the next words that William Young has “Jesus” speak:
“…I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some were bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”
“‘Does that mean,’ asked Mack, ‘that all roads will lead to you?’
‘Not at all,’ smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. ‘Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.'”
Perhaps this is universalism, or perhaps it means that Jesus is the only way, but He will do what it takes to reach us. The only thing that is clear is that it is left unclear.
Positive elements in the book
The book does a beautiful job of showing that following Jesus is more a matter of relationship than religion. It illustrates how suffering cannot be understood because we cannot understand all of God’s purposes, thus we simply must trust God.
(Spoiler warning: skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know too much of the plot…) Perhaps the most powerful part of the book is when Mack is asked to “play God” and decide which three of his children will go to hell and which two will go to heaven. Mack’s reaction to this awful choice helps him see how God works through suffering.
There are several good quotations in the book:
“Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.” (p. 185)
God says, “I am a verb. I am that I am. I will be who I will be. I am a verb! I am alive, dynamic, ever active, and moving. I am a being verb.” (p. 204)
God says, “Forgiveness is about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.” (p. 224)
This is a review of The Shack, the book. The movie has several differences, so see my follow-up review of the actual film by clicking here. The movie has no profanity, and has fewer implications of universal salvation, as some of the above conversations that imply universalism are not in the film. Also, the depiction of God the Father as a woman is explained earlier and more clearly in the film.
Whatever your opinion about the depiction of the Trinity and other controversial elements in the book, it is an inspiring message of how God works through suffering that reminds us how we ultimately find hope not in the shack, but in the cross.
I loved Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, Unbroken, about the amazing life of Louie Zamperini, so I was excited to hear that a movie version was being made. However, I was concerned when I heard reports that director Angelina Jolie had cut out the story of Zamperini’s Christian conversion.
The life of Louie Zamperini was made up of three inspiring stories of redemption: athlete, war hero, and Christian servant. Any one of these stories would make an great book or movie. The first story is how he was changed from a troubled boy into an Olympic runner through the inspiration of his big brother. The second story is how he survived air battles with the Japanese, a crash and 45 days afloat in the Pacific Ocean, and horrible torture in a Japanese P.O.W. camp through his personal determination. The third story is how he was saved from alcoholism, post-war trauma, a broken marriage, and bitterness toward the Japanese when he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior at the Los Angeles evangelistic crusade in 1949 that made Billy Graham a world-famous preacher. The book tells all three of these stories; the movie tells the first two.
When I went to see the movie, I knew the conversion story would not be told, so I went with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the movie did include the same foreshadowing of his spiritual conversion that is found in the book: the Christian message he heard growing up in an Italian Catholic home with a praying mother, and the promise he made to God when adrift in the ocean that if God would save him, he would serve Him the rest of his life. The movie ends with his homecoming after the war, but the text on the screen briefly tells the viewer that Zamperini “made good” on his promise to serve God, and that he returned to Japan to forgive his captors.
So the story of Zamperini’s faith is not omitted from the movie, but it is greatly abbreviated. The movie itself is very well done. The acting, filming, musical score and drama is top-notch and faithful to the story found in the first two parts of the book. If you have read the book, you will still enjoy the movie. If you have not read the book, I encourage you to see the movie and then read Laura Hillenbrand’s book to get “the rest of the story.”
A lot of Christian films have poor acting and predictable scripts, so I was quite surprised at how good this movie was. Of course, it was predictable in defending the belief in God, but it presented that message in a way that was creative and hip. The film introduced a variety of characters but did not show how they all connect until later in the film, giving the subplots an unpredictability, even as the main plot was fairly much what the viewer expected. It targeted a young audience, as the protagonist and most of the primary actors were young adults who constantly used smart phones, computers, and visual media to communicate, and it all came to a conclusion during a Christian rock concert.
The acting was outstanding, both by the lead characters and the supporting roles. It was some of the best acting that I’ve seen in a Christian film. The dramatic tension made a very intellectual argument interesting, bringing it to a climax that was so strong that the theater audience where I was broke out into loud applause. Atheists will hate this film, but they cannot dismiss it as simple-minded or shallow. But what might infuriate atheists the most was that the movie showed that it is not only reasonable to be a believer, but it can even be cool to be a believer.
(If you see a video ad below this post, please understand that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product.)
The Dark Knight Rises is the name of the much-anticipated third Batman movie in the wildly popular films produced by Christopher Nolan. But it was a dark night in a different sense in a theater in Aurora, Colorado, where gunman James Holmes took to the stage himself and shot 70 people, killing at least 12.
When such horrific tragedies happen, we gasp, we hug our children, we lower our flags, we pray, and we ask, “Why?”
Soon a number of scapegoats will be brought forth to be sacrificed at the altar of our need to blame someone or something.
Some will blame a lack of gun control. They will say that if we had stricter gun control, this man could not have obtained so many weapons. However, mass shootings have occurred in other nations that have strict gun control.
Some will blame a lack of security, since the gunman carried so much artillery into the theater. Perhaps improvements in security can be made but the police and security guards cannot be everywhere.
Some will blame violence in the movies, saying that it desensitizes the viewer and can lead to copy-cat actions. Some news reports today say that the shooter was dressed as the Joker, lending some credence to this theory. However, millions of other people have seen the Batman films without having an urge to hurt anybody.
Others will blame the man’s upbringing, environment, how he may have been treated at the school where he dropped out, and so on.
But in playing the “blame game,” we often fail to look at the greatest reason for the actions of James Holmes and for each of us: the human heart.
Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV) says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jesus said that evil comes from within, out of the heart (Mark 7:21).
When the Gospel of John describes how Judas Iscariot got up from the Last Supper, left Jesus and the other disciples, and stepped outside to betray Christ, John adds this short sentence: “And it was night.” (John 13:30). John was speaking of the spiritual darkness of that moment. But after that dark night, a light arose, because this Jesus who died on the cross also arose from the dead to defeat evil and give us hope.
The greatest need that mankind has is not gun control, more police, controls over movies, or psychologists. Our greatest need is for a Savior who can change the heart. He alone can change our dark nights into bright mornings.
Copyright by Bob Rogers.
Is your worldview more in line with Hollywood or the Bible?
Let’s take four popular Hollywood movies as an example. Titanic, The Avengers, The Hunger Games, Inception. Do you have any idea if these movies have a Christian worldview? If you live by the view of life in these movies, will you build on a rock or just blow in the wind?
So how can we avoid being blown by the wind of popular opinion? How can we build a solid foundation for our lives?
Jesus said to build on the rock in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:24-27). He was referring to Himself and His teachings. Notice how this can give you a solid foundation for life.
There are four main components to a coherent worldview: what you believe about God, mankind, ethics and reality.
1) God. In the movie The Avengers, Black Widow tells Captain America that Thor and Loki are “basically gods.” Even so, Cap adds something else. “There’s only one God,” he tells her, “and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.”
The Bible teaches God is the Creator. Genesis 1:1 says that in the beginning, God created. It also teaches that there is one God, but He is revealed in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So when characters on Star Wars say “may the force be with you,” Christians know the true “force” is God.
But there are many religions that believe in God. The Christian belief about God provides the answer for the other three major components of a coherent worldview, and they all fit together, like pieces of a puzzle.
2) Mankind. In the movie The Hunger Games, Katniss understands that life has great value, and she is willing to sacrifice her own life to save others. The Bible says something good and something bad and something that is potentially great about mankind. The good thing is that we are made in the image of God. The bad thing is that we are all sinners. The great thing is that through faith in Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven of sin, and have eternal life. Why? Because Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us by paying for our sin through His death on the cross.
3) Ethics. In the movie Titanic, Jack is having a sexual romp with Rose and says, “This is crazy; it doesn’t make any sense,” She responds, “I know, that’s why I trust it.” That kind of thinking will sink you about as fast as the iceberg. It’s sinking thinking! A coherent worldview needs to have a foundation for ethics. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle said to do the right thing and do the reasonable thing, but how can we know what that is? That is why we need a standard to live by, and because we believe in God, we have that standard. The Bible says gives us the Ten Commandments and many other moral teachings, but it also gives us the power to live a godly life. Somebody might say that other religions like Islam also believe in God and have a holy book with a standard of living. That is true. But other religions do not have the same motivation for ethics that Christianity has. Other religions seek to motivate good ethics by guilt, but Christianity motivates by grace. Titus 2:11-12 says, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It (grace) teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions…” We have the motivation of grace, and we also have the power of the Holy Spirit, as every believer is indwelled by the Spirit, so as we live by the Spirit, we are able to live ethical lives (Romans 8:4), producing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
4) Reality. In the movie Inception, characters living in a dream within a dream within a dream. They are not even sure what reality is, whether this world is real, and whether this life is worth living. The Bible teaches that this life is very real, and that the ultimate reality is found in eternal life in heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. The purpose of life is to know Christ and share Him with others, that we may please God and experience the reward of eternal life in heaven.
Do you see how all of this fits together? If we believe in the God of the Bible, then all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. God is the source of all truth. All of this truth is found in the Bible. A Christian who does not know his or her Bible is like a cowboy with no bullets in his gun. He may look good, but in battle, he’s useless.
If an entertainer on Dancing with the Stars says that God is in her shoes, will you know your Bible well enough to know that God is separate from us and beyond us? If you go to see a movie like Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and see the hero killing the heroine so that she won’t have to live the rest of her life as an invalid, will you know your Bible well enough to know that all life is sacred and valued by God, and that it is wrong for us to take a human life just because that life is sick or handicapped?
First Peter 3:15 (HCSB) says, “Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you.” The word translated “defense” is the Greek word apologia, from which we get apologetics, defending the faith.
So know what you believe, and be ready to defend it. Don’t let Hollywood do your thinking for you.