Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sinner and a movie

The arts have a powerful way of helping us know each other. They wrestle with the human condition frankly, often leaving us very uneasy. In fact, the arts may do a better job of defining sin than the church these days, what with our tendency to think that everything should have a happy ending in this world.

The Academy Awards presented five films for best picture this year. The show’s host, Jon Stewart, noted that the nominees—save one comedy about a teenage mother—were rather psychotic in nature. “Tonight we look beyond the dark days to focus on this year’s plate of psychopathic killer movies,” Stewart quipped. “What happened? Does this town need a hug? All I can say is, thank God for teenage pregnancy!”
Hollywood sees the world darkly. But how is the church responding to this sarcastic cry for mercy? The church goes to two extremes: It misrepresents sin, on the one hand, and shrouds the power of redemption for a culture needing a hug, on the other.

The first—with its overemphasis on the inherent goodness of humanity—too flippantly dismisses the depths of our depravity. Sin is downplayed and explained away as outdated or too brutal for our fragile self-esteem. The cross of Christ is merely the symbolic act of a “super-dude in sandals” who inspires us to good things, only to leave us completely distraught because, alas, we simply don’t, won’t or can’t do it.

The second extreme, with its overemphasis on our darkness and sinful acts—especially sexual misdeeds, foul language and tattoos—too flippantly degrades, dismisses and judges people by mere appearances. The cross of Christ becomes a formula or weapon over against the lives of those who aren’t like us.
Both extremes tend to be knee-jerk reactions to the other—not a good foundation for sound biblical reflection.

Sadly, both miss the same mark. They leave redemption in our failing hands, thinking a good pep talk or talking down to can raise us from the dead. Both keep us shackled to ourselves and ultimately without hope, as we carry a weight even our ancestors were unable to bear. Both extremes deal in externals and offer the same thing—a diagnosis of our problem that simply requires we read the right literature and abide by a new regimen until the symptoms of our pathology pass. This is a bogus gospel. This is not good news.

This age in need of a hug requires we speak clearly about sin as our individual and collective condition. Sin is the human disease and we are without natural immunity. It is our inevitable bent to choose our way and justify it at all costs, even with religion. It shows up in sins we can’t outgrow¬—like pimples on an adolescent—in hidden and visible actions, attitudes and asinine self-centred, idolatrous choices.

We ache to be free from sins that hound the race, but we need to be redeemed from sin first. That this is possible in Christ’s cross has always been the hope-filled message of the gospel that has embraced sinners in every age. And this age, like every one before it, requires a people speaking with honest courage: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:6-7).

So, while the movies keep crying out, may our communities be living pictures of redeemed art.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Separation of Church and Plate

In December 2007 a retired United Church of Canada pastor named Joanne Sorrill made the subversive and treacherous decision to renew her Ontario vanity license plate. Suffice to say this was no Wittenberg door moment. No, poor Pastor Joanne just wanted to do what any law-abiding citizen is chomping at the bit to do – pay for the permission to slap a cheap piece of aluminum on her bumper and drive Ontario’s fun winter roads. Goodness, with the huge amounts of snow we’ve had thanks to global warming so far this winter (sigh), you can barely tell if a vehicle has plates at all! But, I digress.

Here’s where the whole clash of worldview ignorance, the new-old idol of the State, postmodern paranoia, and sheer politically correct stupidity roar into the intersection, each completely ignoring their stop signs. Turns out that though Pastor Joanne has for years used the cute moniker, “Rev Jo,” on her license plate, this time – in these very tolerant days of the early twenty-first century – it was a threat to the public good and perhaps western democracy as a whole.
The makers of such monumental decisions – who knew even this needed to be over-managed – concluded that “Rev Jo” was no longer appropriate on three fronts.

First, it apparently encouraged road racing. All she needs now is to pimp her ride, garner a sponsorship from the Gideons and Welch’s and she’d be set for NASCAR or F1.
What young man in a hip-hop Honda hasn’t been goaded into a street race with a silver-topped retired woman by her vanity, uh, plate? Perhaps in Florida or Arizona, I suppose.

Second, it promoted Christianity. As a pastor myself, burdened with the institutional title “Reverend” I can tell you that putting “Rev” on a license plate is about as likely to evoke some mass neo-Christendom overthrow of liberal-consumerist-humanist Canadian culture as advertising Chia pets has caused people to stop buying puppies and kittens at Christmas. In fact, it may just speed up the mass religious exodus if the first objection has any merit. If the State believes that Christians are now resorting to vanity license plates as a form of cultural influence and evangelization than they know something we don’t and we’re in bigger trouble than I thought. I can only imagine the angel chorus that will result when we all have PTL plates.

Third, it was felt that “Rev” referenced an alcoholic beverage and may encourage drinking and driving. Perhaps they missed our willingness to be sponsored by Welch’s. Who, on God’s green earth, has really been influenced to do anything because a license plate told them to do it? If the government is concerned that their stuff (a license plate after all is government property) will be used for corrupt purposes perhaps they ought to stop handing out income tax forms too, heck, we might as well ban money while we’re at it. The whole thing is so absurd that I can’t believe you’ve taken the time to read this.

Thankfully, and as a sign of the total ludicrousness of the current climate, the Premier of the province himself had to step in and instruct the committee – who must have been early and deep into the chicken milk (that’s what my four year old calls eggnog) – to let this ride slide.

Is there anything to learn from this little anecdotal evidence that there is a cultural earthquake afoot? Well, let us at least realize this as those who would follow Jesus before any other Lord: the subtle hostility and outright ignorance of the State toward the Church is nothing new and, perhaps, ought to be welcomed.

First, it may drive us back (pardon the puns here) to what really matters and to what sign posts ought really define us – repentance, a humble walk with God, justice, righteousness, a prophetic voice, Christlikeness, and a mission to make disciples of all nations who will radically love one another and their enemies. The end of happy cultural co-habitation draws nigh, and our vocation may only now be coming into focus – we may finally have to live it with our lives rather than slap it on our bumpers.

Second, we ought to exit onto the straight and narrow. There is a broad way that leads to destruction and a narrow road that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14) and we, you and I, must be among the few who find it; actually, who find and cling to Him. Christians simply must be on the way of grace. The new legalism of western liberal postmodern secularism is as enamored with minutiae as the many religious Pharisees they mock. Legalism is legalism whether liberal-humanist or conservative-fanatical. There is nothing new under the sun except the Son himself – His narrow way is grace and freedom, let us be on the King’s highway.

Finally, let us be reminded that stupidity requires no license and the church can be as prone to that as anyone else. The greatest thing we have to offer is Jesus, in fact, He’s all we have to offer. So when they see us, and even our vanity, may they stumble only over him and his undeniably peculiar stamp on our lives and our communities of grace.