Sunday, December 30, 2007

'Mankind is more than the janitor of planet earth' (Brendan O'Neill)

Now here is something interesting: Brendan O’Neill, an avowed atheist, writes that, given some of the sermons he has heard from Christian bishops around this Christmas season, Christians need to ’Bring back God!’ In other words, Christians should become more Christian rather than reducing their message to an indistinguishable cloning of contemporary New Age ecopolitics. You can read the whole article here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Book Review: It's All About Jesus

It’s All About Jesus: Observations of a Former Seventh-Day AdventistThe latest book to critique Seventh-day Adventism comes from Edith Fairman Cooper entitled It’s All About Jesus: Observations of a Former Seventh-day Adventist. There are a number of things about this book that make it particularly interesting and important. Firstly, there is Cooper’s personal history. It would appear that she has no "axe to grind". One of the criticisms frequently made by those within the SDA denomination is that ex-Adventists must be so critical because they have been mistreated and are expressing their anger against the church. This may or may not be the case for some, but it doesn’t appear to be the case for Cooper. From what she says, she seems to have had a very positive experience of Adventism and left it with sadness and considerable grieving. She claims that the only reason she left is because of the evidence she examined. In the preface of her book, she explicitly states that her aim is not to present her findings ’in a critical, unkind spirit that does not reflect Christ.’ Instead, she wanted to write ’with a concern and a hope that what [she] present[s] will serve as a witness to the risen Savior and will help someone understand clearly the saving grace of Christ.’ This, in fact, becomes her "compass" as she writes. Her essential thesis is that the problematic doctrines of SDAism obscure the gospel about Jesus. Secondly, Cooper has some highly relevant skills that she has brought to the task. For approximately 35 years she worked as a social science analyst for the ’...[US] Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service, authoring numerous reports for Congress.’ Her journey out of her 27 years of Adventism began when a friend of hers remarked to her, ’You know what they say about Adventists.’ She didn’t know what her friend was referring to so decided to go on the internet and do some research. She came across a heading Seventh-day Adventism Reexamined. She found what to her was ’astonishing information’ but wondered whether it was the product of ’disgruntled former SDAs criticizing the church, or whether the concerns were valid.’ She decided to bring her research skills to bear on the issue and so she eventually came to her decision to leave Adventism. The third thing that is significant is that she writes with considerable balance. Not only does she critique what she understands to be non-biblical doctrines, but she surveys important denominational or individual responses to the criticisms made of the church. For example, F D Nichol’s book E G White and Her Critics is discussed. She also makes the point that much of the denomination’s official doctrines are quite orthodox, e.g., on the Trinity (despite the early history of anti-Trinitarian theology) and creationism (a literalist interpretation of Genesis consistent with fundamentalist evangelicalism). Cooper and her family continue to believe these orthodox doctrines and, to some extent, practice the lifestyle of Adventism. Fourthly, Cooper is a woman and black. This provides her with two important perspectives leading her to discuss the relationship of Adventism to race and gender over the course of its history - two areas a lot of critics overlook with their focus on doctrines. Fifthly, It’s All About Jesus contains most of the important criticisms of Adventist doctrine and lifestyle concerns in one book. Cooper has clearly used her research skills to draw together a wide range of sources and summarised the major problems with Adventism. It would be difficult to find a better general introduction to the criticisms of Adventism so clearly presented and in one place. The book also has the benefit of being heavily referenced with all sources clearly identified - a great help for those who wish to do further investigation. There are also a number of extended footnotes with extra information or discussion on various issues. Before turning to some criticisms of the book, let me indicate the overall structure. There are four main parts to the book covering the major areas of criticism. The first deals with Ellen G White, the church’s prophetess and one of the founders of the movement. In this section, Cooper argues, on the basis of Hebrews 1:1-2, that Jesus is the prophet for the last days. In contrast, SDAism teaches that Ellen White and her writings, often referred to by Adventists as the ’Spirit of Prophecy’, constitute a mark of the true church of the last days on the basis of the denomination’s interpretation of certain passages in Revelation. Cooper believes that this has resulted in a displacement of Jesus Christ as the ultimate authority for Christians. In this section, she also considers Ellen White’s plagiarism, the nature of her claimed visions, and the influence she had over almost every aspect of life - many teachings of which, it is claimed, Ellen White herself did not manage to live up to. Part 2 surveys the ’questionable’ doctrines and teachings of SDAism. These include the Cleansing of the Heavenly Sanctuary-Investigative Judgment doctrine; the Sabbath as it relates to the covenants of Scripture; the Adventist understanding of the Law; and Remnant Church theology. In Part 3, Cooper turns to some other concerns including the way that Ellen White allegedly abused her power and influence in relation to people; the way the denomination has treated individuals; and the issue of tithing. Cooper concludes with an epilogue in Part 4 where she summarises her experience and her findings, concluding that SDAism obscures Christ, the center of the gospel. At the back of the book, an Appendix contains a brief description of the ’various theological factions within Adventism’ as described by Dale Ratzlaff - another ex-Adventist critic; a discussion of the nature of man [sic] arguing for the conscious existence of the soul in the intermediate state between death and resurrection; information on Ellen White’s literary assistants; and a brief critique of the Clear Word Bible - a paraphrased version of the Bible heavily promoted by Adventist Book Centres. Now I turn to my evaluation of the book. Cooper must be complimented on her rigorous research. For anyone who has kept in touch with the controversies within SDAism, there will be few surprises. Cooper describes/summarises these well and presents them persuasively in a mostly balanced approach. The book is easy to read and the extensive footnotes are invaluable for doing further research. There is some very useful historical material included. Not only does Cooper critique the doctrines and teachings of the denomination; she also includes social history related to those who disagreed with the doctrines, e.g. Dudley M Canright, Albion Fox Ballenger, Desmond Ford, Dale Ratzlaff, and Raymond Cotrell. The book is very up-to-date. There are some "problems" with the book. Firstly, Cooper is clearly not a theologian. A good deal of her writing repeats the arguments of others. For example, in the discussion of the biblical covenants, she draws on Dale Ratzlaff’s writings. Cooper’s summaries are useful, but do not always do justice to the detail and rigour of Ratzlaff’s arguments. The reader of Cooper’s book may well wish to read further in the original sources - something the footnotes make easier to do. The fact that Cooper is not a theologian shows up most obviously, in my view, when she discusses the ’nature of man’ in the Appendix. Actually, ’discusses’ is not the right term. Cooper reproduces a lengthy excerpt from Dudley M Canright’s book Seventh-day Adventism Renounced. This is a very old publication (although it has recently returned to print) so there has been a great deal of theological discussion in the intervening years within the general Christian community on this topic. Scholars such as Clark Pinnock, and others, have increasingly come to see the SDA doctrine of annihilationism and unconsciousness of the person in the intermediate state as more consistent with the holistic view of Hebrew thought about the person. Because Cooper is not a theologian and most of her theology is, therefore, "second-hand", I would encourage readers of her book to investigate the theology in much more depth, reading arguments both for and against any particular position. The investigation of any position should include this, anyway. Overall, It’s All About Jesus: Observations of a Former Seventh-day Adventist is an engaging, informative introduction to the problems with Seventh-day Adventist doctrine and culture which should be read with the same caution one exercises with any controversial piece of literature. The overarching thesis of the book, that ’it’s all about Jesus’ is an excellent criterion for all Christians to use when evaluating doctrine. Anything which obscures the gospel about Jesus Christ should be seen as highly suspect. Click on this link to purchase It’s All About Jesus: Observations of a Former Seventh-Day Adventist or click on the image of the book at the start of this post. Related Links

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Movie Review: 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

yumaAll Westerns are about the war between good and evil. And in the "good old days" it was pretty clear who were the good and who were the bad. But the best Westerns are when the black-and-white divisions are blurred and characters are portrayed as more realistic - people who sometimes do good and sometimes do bad - to varying degrees, of course.

3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 film of the same name. I haven’t seen the original so can’t comment on the relative quality (although others have said it improves on the original); but the contemporary version is a great movie with some very significant themes.

Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a rancher living on drought-stricken land outside the town of Bisbee with his wife and two boys. In the eyes of his eldest son, Dan is a weak man. Dan has a prosthetic leg after losing his own during the Civil War; he is in debt; his barn has been burnt down by the henchmen of a powerful neighbouring landowner who wants to force Dan of his land. His son can’t understand why he doesn’t go after those who have harmed him and use violence for violence. His father refuses.

The movie actually opens with a stagecoach robbery by the notorious Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his gang of murderers and thieves. Ben is caught and Dan, a witness to the robbery, ends up volunteering to escort Wade to the town of Contention where the 3:10 train (which has a prison cell on board) will transport Wade to Yuma for trial. The journey is fraught with dangers from Indians and Ben Wade’s highly devoted gang who want to rescue him before he arrives in Yuma.

But the greatest struggles are internal ones for Dan and his eldest son. What makes the story so interesting are these internal struggles going on in even the "evil" characters in the film. Russell Crowe is excellent as Ben Wade and portrays the nuances of character that make Wade a complex protaganist. I’m not really a Christian Bale fan, but he does a great job of Dan Evans - a man torn between his past, his values, and what his wife and children think of him.

3:10 to Yuma is often a very violent film - as one would expect from a modern Western. But the violence is a necessary counterpoint to the human conflicts that are going on within each person in the story.

Catch the 3:10 to Yuma - it will take you places that will have you thinking deeply about what is really important in relationships; what it means to be strong; the nature of respect; and subvert your stereotypes of good and evil.

My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)

Positive Review
’James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma restores the wounded heart of the Western and rescues it from the morass of pointless violence.’ - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times

Negative Review
’The remake adds 24 minutes and subtracts most of the suspense.’ - Stephen Hunter/Washington Post

Content Advice
Violence and some language


21st Century Celebration of an Old Story

The Christmas story is an old one. But check out this very contemporary expression of it by a householder in Perth (Australia) using Christmas lights and sound. It's awesome!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The problem of women's ordination - solved!

Last weekend I heard a 17-year-old girl deliver the sermon at church. It was excellent! In fact, it was one of the best sermons I had heard in the last 12 months. Her sermon was about the fact that God can use anyone for good - even a young person. I have heard that this young person is interested in studying theology and I can imagine she would make a very good pastor. But, of course, the organisation she most probably would end up working for wouldn’t ordain her - after all, she is a woman.

During a conversation about this girl’s future, I made the comment that, by the time she gets to the age where she might complete her study and want to be employed as a pastor, we are going to have to do something about the discriminatory practice of not permitting women to be ordained, even though they may be functioning in exactly the same capacity and with the same gifts (given by God!) as men.

In response, the person I was discussing this with said something like, ’I don’t think she would worry about being ordained. She will just get on and do what she wants to do, working around the issue of ordination. Not being ordained won’t stop her.’

This conversation reminded me of one of the most irritating things I hear said about women’s ordination. It usually comes from those who disagree with it. I’m particularly irritated when I hear it from ordained men. They say: ’It is not necessary to be ordained for a woman to still engage in ministry. They can still serve God with their gifts - so why worry about ordination? Just get on with their ministry. Why make trouble fighting for women to be ordained? It only distracts from the real task that needs to be done.’

If this is true that women can minister without ordination (and, of course, I agree that it is), then I think there is a way of solving the whole "problem" of women’s ordination. I suggest that we stop ordaining men as well! After all, if women can serve God just as well without being ordained, surely men can, too. It would give those who perpetuate the discrimination against women an opportunity to prove that, indeed, they can minister just as well without the recognition that comes from ordination. And we could stop the debate over women’s ordination overnight. Everyone would be treated the same and we could move on with ministry without the issue of ordination distracting us from the main task.

Now - I wonder how that would be accepted. Maybe we’d discover all of a sudden that ordination is "essential" for a whole host of reasons -- but only for men, of course!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Movie Review: Hunting & Gathering

huntingandgatheringHunting and Gathering (Ensemble, c’est tout) is a gentle, amusing, put-your-feet-up-and-relax French romantic comedy from Claude Berri.

Camille Fauque (Audrey Tautou) is a cleaning woman living alone in a shoe-box of an apartment. She befriends an eccentric young man with a stutter, Philibert Marquet de la Tubelière (Laurent Stocker) who she invites to a meal on the spur of the moment. As their friendship develops, a love relationship forms unexpectedly between Camille and Philibert’s housemate, Franck (Guillame Canet). A subplot explores the relationship between Franck and his aging mother.

The French title, Ensemble, c’est tout literally means, Together, It Is All and more accurately represents the themes of the story. The three main characters are, indeed, going about their lives "hunting and gathering" in ordinary ways. But they are all living lives that are mundane and lonely in varying degrees. But as the relationships form and challenges test them, they discover that friendship and love are what really matters in life - togetherness means strength.

I enjoyed Hunting and Gathering. It is charming, the characters are likeable, and the story is simple but engaging. Hunting and Gathering opens in Australia on 13 December 2007.

My Rating: ***1/2


Official Site

Friday, December 07, 2007

Willow Creek Confesses: 'We got it wrong'

Willow Creek Church has influenced thousands of churches around the globe to change its approach to church and worship. Now, the leaders of Willow Creek, after carrying out research of their own congregation over a number of years, are admitting they got it wrong. Read more about this here at Christianity Today. At least they have the integrity to examine what they are doing and be open about their mistakes. There will probably be a lot to learn from their experience.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Movie Review: Atonement

AtonementAtonement. It means to be reconciled with someone after a rift in a relationship. But when the fracture is large, how can it be healed? Joe Wright’s new movie, Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same name, is all about the wide relational chasm that forms between two sisters, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) and Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightly). Briony, the younger of the two, accuses Cecilia’s lover, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), of a crime he didn’t commit. Their lives are changed forever as a result.

Atonement is a powerful story of love, guilt, self-deception, and the desperate need for reconciliation that seems impossible. The film is superbly structured as we see certain events from multiple perspectives and times. The narrative moves forward and backward, revealing different nuances as it approaches significant moments, retreats, and re-engages.

The cinematography is beautiful. One notable scene is the 4.5 minute long shot on the Dunkirk Beach. The soundtrack uses wisely selected classical music and is frequently overlaid with the sound of an old typewriter clacking - symbolic of power of words to affect us deeply.

The performances are excellent and Keira Knightley shows she really can act. James McEvoy is also excellent as Robbie, the falsely accused lover. And Saoirse Ronan, who plays the 13-year-old Briony is superb. These three characters are the backbone of the film, but even the supporting roles are well executed.

It is wonderful to see a movie with deep themes, great direction, good acting, and an intriguing and profound narrative. This one is most definitely an Oscar contender in my book! It opens here in Australia on Boxing Day (26 December). Don’t miss it!

My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)

Positive Review

’Rarely has a book sprung so vividly to life, but also worked so enthrallingly in pure movie terms, as with Atonement, Brit helmer Joe Wright’s smart, dazzlingly upholstered adaptation of Ian McEwan’s celebrated 2001 novel.’ - Derek Elley/Variety

Negative Review
’You have to admire it, when so much of the competition seems inane and slack, but you can’t help wondering, with some impatience, what happened to its heart.’ - Anthony Lane/The New Yorker

Content Advice
Disturbing war images, language and some sexuality


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Book Review: Amazing Journey, Amazing Grace

Amazing Journey, Amazing GraceKen and Nancy Eirich, in their book Amazing Journey, Amazing Grace: The Incredible Story of How God Led Two Pentecostal Pastors Into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, tell the story of their lives from childhood, to their marriage, up until their becoming members of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Their is no doubt that they have both been on an amazing journey. Both come from dysfunctional families with all the psychological trauma that brings. Nancy was constantly abused as a child in almost every way imaginable. Her story is heartrending. Ken’s story is also deeply affecting as he describes his childhood rejection and consequent self-destructive behaviour as he moved into adulthood. It is wonderful to see that both of these people have escaped from the prisons of their past and found love and security in God. My comments below are not intended to detract from that in any way. However, there are some disturbing aspects of their story. An over-reliance on "miracles" The Eirichs constantly claim miraculous intervention in their lives to such an extent that, by the end of the book, the miraculous becomes trivialised. Almost everything good that happens to them is attributed to miraculous intervention by God and anything bad the work of Satan trying to frustrate God’s detailed plan for them. This overemphasis on the miraculous leads to a number of concerns:
  1. Dependence on miracles - throughout the Eirichs’s story, their faith in God rises and falls depending on what happens to them. At times, they question God’s love for them because they can’t see God working miracles for them. On a number of occasions, they describe how they ’needed’ a miracle from God to cope with events in their lives. When people rely on "miracles" to cope, faith will inevitably be fragile. The Bible warns about seeking miracles and, despite the fact that God can work miracles, makes the point that they can be counterfeited. In addition, there are times when the miraculous is used as evidence of truth. Although the Eirichs describe how they studied the Bible when considering SDA doctrine, they make the point that 15 miracles they believe they can list makes them certain that God had led them to the SDA denomination. Most Christians will want to affirm that God is capable of working miracles. But making miracles a central feature of everyday life is bound to end in disappointment eventually. The authors of this book experience disappointment frequently, but they seem very capable of rationalising all events to be either miraculous signs or satanic interference.
  2. Trivialisation of the miraculous - the authors claim they can ’identify 15 indisputable miracles from the Lord that surrounded [them] becoming Seventh-day Adventists’ (p. 207) One was God impressing one of the elders of the Lethbridge Church to put a sandwich sign on the sidewalk advertising the Net ’99 meeting. They write that, unless this person had been obedient to the Lord’s impressing him to do this, it wouldn’t have been there for them to see when they drove down the street. Another alleged miracle is said to be the timing of the Net ’99 program which was delayed at the Lethbridge Church and had to be recorded from the satellite and shown later. They write, ’after a two week delay, things settled down and they decided to go ahead with the series. Interestingly enough, we had not even moved to Lethbridge when the series had been originally scheduled to begin. That two week delay gave the Lord the time necessary to get us moved and lead us to see the sign. Had the church been able to start the series on time, we would have missed the seminar completely!’ (p. 207) One has to wonder why God couldn’t have miraculously got them there on time for the original starting time rather than putting the organisers through so much frustration trying to plan the program! According to the authors, Ken remembering that the Net ’99 program was on was a miracle. And God knew exactly which session they needed to go to because Ken was particularly interested in the topic for that session. And on and on it goes. For a sensitive reader, the question inevitably arises: Why is it that God spends so much time working these trivial miracles (which, admittedly, are important to the authors) when miracles don’t seem to occur in situations where they would seem to be more urgent - war torn areas; people dying from HIV/AIDS; children being abducted from their homes and raped; kids being killed by trees in church yards falling on them (these last two were real events in my local city); women being sold as sex slaves; wives victimised by violent husbands; etc etc etc. That God should spend so much time getting two people to a Net ’99 meeting to persuade them that the SDA Church is the right church seems to be completely unfair when miracles are desperately needed in life and death situations. This leads to the next point.
  3. Egocentric supernaturalism - the way these writers speak, God constantly works miracles for them. But they give no consideration to how all of this intervention works when there are other people in the world. On one occasion, when they were feeling particularly down, they discussed how they would love to have a Thanksgiving dinner which they had missed out on because of them moving from one location to another. Lo and behold, some neighbours knock at the door and invite them to a late Thanksgiving dinner. Why were they having Thanksgiving so late? The people they had originally invited had been ill and couldn’t make it until now. Did God make these people ill so that the Eirichs could have their Thanksgiving dinner when he knew they would want it so badly? If God is manipulating events and providing signs for this couple as frequently as they claim, then God must be manipulating events and people long before the miraculous events occur just for them. What the authors describe as miracle raises a host of theological questions about how God interacts with the world and with people.
A naive view of doctrinal truth The Eirich’s are totally convinced on the absolute, 100% truth of SDA doctrine. They write, ’We believe with all our hearts that we have found a pearl of great price here with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and are convinced that if there is any church on this planet that has correctly interpreted the Bible, it is the Seventh-day Adventist Church.’ (p. 221) There are, undoubtedly, many SDAs who would agree with them. But even within the denomination, there have been theological controversies over such important issues as their doctrine of the investigative judgment; the interpretation of biblical prophecy; the gospel; and others. Many scholars who are also SDAs have repeatedly shown major problems with some of the doctrinal positions the church holds. No denomination can possibly have a perfect understanding of the Bible - not while the membership is made up of imperfect humans! It is clear that the Eirichs subscribe to a highly conservative version of Seventh-day Adventism. I have read widely across a whole range of denominational literature. My conclusion is that some truth can be found in many denominations and some error in all of them. Although the Eirichs claim to have studied the Bible, a large degree of their certainty seems to be based on experience and alleged miracles. If this is the case, and they are convinced that God has miraculously brought them to the beliefs they hold, how will they be open to the possibility of error in their belief system? Evaluating truth claims on the basis of anything other than an examination of the evidence is a very dangerous thing to do. At one point, Nancy Eirich decided to go onto the internet to see what she could find out about the SDA Church. She turned up a number of sites that were critical of Adventism and its doctrines. She is quite disturbed by what she is reading and decides to call Ken to have a look. As she goes to do this, ’... the Lord spoke audibly to me and told me to stop! The voice of the Lord told me not to be afraid, but to trust Him. He then asked, "What is the fruit these teachings are producing in Ken’s and your life?" To this I confessed, "We are closer to you now than we have ever been. We have a peace I never thought possible, and we ’know that we know’ what we are learning is the Truth, and You have performed many miracles to bring us into the Seventh-day Adventist Church." To this the Lord said, "Follow; don’t lead!" And that is exactly what I decided to do--I would trust the Lord and His leading without doubt or questioning.’ (p. 202) Ironically, she goes on to study what the sites said about Seventh-day Adventists in order to ’satisfy [her] own insatiable curiosity...’. But, of course, if you have made a decision to proceed with no doubts and no questions, it could hardly be a careful evaluation. Obscurity of the gospel Although the title of the book contains the phrase ’Amazing Grace’, the grace in the story is primarily about the way the the Eirichs see God has having worked so many miracles on their behalf, rescuing them from their previous lives, and blessing them by bringing them into the SDA Church. As I have previously said, the liberation from the situations they were in during the early parts of their lives are worthy of celebration. And one most certainly would want to thank God for that. But the amazing grace of the gospel is mostly neglected. There is no clear declaration of the freely provided salvation provided by God’s grace through no more than accepting it by faith. Not only is this amazing grace neglected, but is actually obscured by the emphasis on them joining a denomination which, in their eyes, is the ultimate church on earth. Remnant Church theology The Eirichs clearly believe that the SDA denomination is the one true church. In the epilogue to the book they write, ’At this present time, God has many people in many denominations who truly love Him, but unfortunately the vast majority are being deceived by various systems of false religion. That is why--in these end days--God is calling those who truly love Him out of that system of apostate religion into His true church. And that is exactly what happened to us: God called us out of Babylon (false religion) into His Remnant Church.’ (p. 221) For the authors, the SDA Church is that church. They later go on to say that they ’came out of the Pentecostal Church, not the Catholic Church, but I believe that our zeal for the message of Adventism far surpasses that of many of those who were brought up in the rank and file.’ (p. 221) How’s that?! Not only have they come into the one true church, but they are more zealous than those who were brought up in the movement. This is a very elitist posture to take and highly judgmental. They have found the truth, the one true church, and everyone else lacks zeal and knowledge. How can this lead to anything but arrogance and elitism? Old Covenant orientation There is a distinct Old Covenant orientation to the authors’ beliefs. One of the issues they discuss is their being persuaded that the Mosaic food laws are still in force. In one of the seminars they attended, they ’learned the truth about the importance of God’s dietary laws and the health of our bodies.’ (p.203) Ken was particularly impressed with Isaiah 66:15-17 ’...when he realized how God felt about eating pork!’ (p. 204) After they ’...poured over the evening’s lesson with little excitement...’ and with Ken ’... looking for a loop-hole...’ they came to the conclusion that ’ was all true--meats were still clean and unclean...’ (p. 204) Unfortunately, they overlooked passages in Scripture which make it clear that the Old Covenant Mosaic laws are no longer in force (eg, Hebrews; Galatians). They overlooked Acts 15 where the Mosaic laws are specifically said not to apply to Gentile Christians. They overlooked Mark 7:19 where Jesus declares all foods clean. And so on. In coming to their conclusion in regard to the issue of clean and unclean foods they seem to have taken a proof-text approach with no consideration of historical and cultural context and passages of scripture that explicitly state that the food laws of the Old Testament are no longer binding on Christians. Interventionist God At the beginning of the book, Doug Batchelor, the SDA evangelist from whom they first heard the Adventist message, writes a foreword in which he states that, ’[f]or the true believer nothing is a coincidence. But every apparent coincidence is further evidence of our heavenly father’s intervention in our lives.’ This belief is impossible to sustain in real life. If God were to constantly intervene in everyone’s life the world would be in total chaos (at least from our point of view!). The Bible doesn’t teach a constantly intervening God. Believing that every event is determined by God (whether actively or by allowing it) will ultimately lead to despair, frustration, and often loss of faith because of disappointment. And making decisions by trying to read the "signs" of events on the assumption that God is behind every one of them is also unbiblical. This is dangerous theology and the reader would do well to read some of the excellent Christian literature written on this subject by authors such as Phillip Yancey (Disappointment with God) and Gary Friesen (Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View). In summary, we can celebrate the freedom that the authors of this book have experienced as they have journeyed out of very painful, traumatic circumstances in their lives. This cannot be underestimated. And it may be that God has, in fact, worked some miracles on their behalf. But the book ultimately becomes focused on persuading the reader that the one true church is the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They conclude their story with a quotation from Ellen G White (the prophetess of the Adventist denomination) who wrote that, ’"It is as certain that we have the truth, as that God lives." We wholeheartedly agree!’ (p. 222) We live in an age where absolute certainty has produced great evil. We are experiencing the results of absolute certainty in the fundamentalist extremism of terrorism, racism, and other forms of hatred in the world today. Arrogant claims that we have the whole truth - that we know we are right - need to be abandoned for respectful dialogue where genuine listening occurs and mutual exchange of wisdom takes place. This can only happen if we are intellectually humble about what we think know. There is nothing wrong with feeling confident in what we believe - that is natural and good. But to arrogantly set oneself up as the possessors of truth to the exclusion of others can only lead to isolation and elitist judgmentalism. So let’s thank God for the fact that the Eirichs now live without the oppression and evil of their early lives. But let’s be careful that we use our God-given minds to think wisely, to test all things, and to hold on to what is good. Most of all, let’s celebrate the amazing grace that God demonstrated in Jesus Christ and his provision of salvation for all. Being led to a denomination is not what Christianity is about. Being led to Jesus is everything it is about.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

'The Backlash Against Tithing' - Wall Street Journal

Some denominations require their members to pay a tithe of their income to the church. This practice is often justified using texts from the Old Testament and presented as if it is a requirement that God has imposed on all believers, including Christians. The Wall Street Journal has just published an interesting article by Suzanne Sataline entitled The Backlash Against Tithing. You can read the article here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The truth in religion - Times Online

John Polkinghorne, who is a professional theologian and a mathematical physicist, reviews two recent books written by atheists once again questioning religious belief, specifically, Christianity. I can’t make any comments about the two books, but Polkinghorne’s review is worth reading for the perspective he offers on the approach of atheist writers like Dawkins and Hutchins (both of whom I have read). The commentary following the review is also very interesting. You can check out the article in Times Online here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Book Review: People in Glass Houses

10972_fTanya Levin’s People in Glass Houses is a penetrating, often witty, account of the author’s spiritual journey inside Hillsong as a child, and outside of Hillsong as an adult. Levin draws on personal experience and research that she has undertaken in recent times to present a compelling analysis of what is going on, not only in Hillsong, but in Pentecostal and Christian fundamentalism more generally.

Levin grew up in the Assemblies of God church now known as Hillsong. Hillsong is probably the most visible Pentecostal church in Australia with its music being listened to and sung in churches across the nation. But, according to Levin, all is not what it seems on the surface. The book is a series of anecdotes from her own experience, observations she has made, research she has done, and material from interviews with those in and outside the church.

It is difficult, of course, for people outside of Hillsong to evaluate how accurate Levin’s portrayal is. But an enormous amount of what she describes resonates with other sources on pentecostalism and Christian fundamentalism. She names names and recognises her own "warts" as she shares her story.

People in Glass Houses was controversial even before it got published. In February 2007, The Bulletin reported on the dropping of this book by Allen & Unwin whose lawyers suddenly reversed their previous approval of the book. According to the report, Levin’s publisher had decided that there was too high a possibility that Hillsong would sue for defamation. And Hillsong have told Levin she is not welcome on the premises of Hillsong anymore. There are also those who defend Hillsong and its activities.

Clearly, People in Glass Houses is one person’s view. Some people insist that Levin has an axe to grind. Others who have had experience with Hillsong support what she says. But it is a view that should be heard. Judgments about Levin’s motives should at least be reserved until after reading her book. In my view, a good deal of what she says is not surprising given what I know about Pentecostal theology and the people I know who subscribe to it. Levin also names and documents sources where they are needed.

People in Glass Houses is an engaging, thought-provoking, fascinating expose of the darker side of Hillsong and ’Word of Faith’ Pentecostal fundamentalism.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Bible, Christianity, & Homosexuality

I’m sure you will already know that the issue of homosexuality is highly contentious within Christianity with a variety of views held by a diverse range of people. A lot of the arguments are highly emotive - on both sides of the debate. I recently came across a very interesting article by Justin R Canon entitled The Bible, Christianity, & Homosexuality. Canon examines all of the main passages of the Bible which are commonly used to argue against homosexuality and provides an alternate reading of them based on his understanding of the cultural and literary context of each passage. The essential conclusion is that the Bible does not address the issue of homosexual orientation nor ongoing committed relationships (marriage) between same-sex partners. It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking article written in plain language. You can download a copy here. I would be interested in comments anyone might have in response to it - particularly critique of the exegesis of the biblical texts. Related Links

Thursday, October 25, 2007

'God's honest truth' (Guardian)

Check out this story from Andrew Brown in the Guardian about Sweden’s plans to, according to Brown, make the teaching of religious beliefs and doctrines illegal even in private religious schools.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Movie Review: Deliver Us From Evil

Deliver Us from EvilI’ve just finished watching the award-winning controversial documentary Deliver Us From Evil. It follows the story of a Catholic priest, Father Oliver O’Grady, a convicted pedophile who raped and abused children as young as 9 months old in California in the 70s. He is, at present, roaming free in Ireland after serving seven years in prison. When you first meet O’Grady on the screen, he comes across as someone who is remorseful and wants to put things right by telling his story. But the more you listen to what he has to say as the film progresses, the more you get the feeling that he is not much more than a very clever manipulator. The way O’Grady talks about his crimes, the more you get the feeling that he doesn’t really understand the depths of evil that he has perpetrated on his victims. O’Grady describes how he wants to write letters to each of his victims inviting them to come and meet with him so he can tell them it should never have happened so that he and they can move on with their lives. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he seems to be looking forward to the reunion with his victims. When his softly spoken descriptions of his crimes is contrasted with the deep pain of the interviews with his victims, O’Grady’s remorse seems even more superficial. The horror of this man roaming free is intensified when we see him casually lean against the fence of a children’s playground. O’Grady is not the only criminal in this story. The Catholic hierarchy protected him by moving him around knowing what he was doing. The documentary also describes the coverup extending to the highest levels of the Catholic Church all the way to the current Pope. (According to the documentary, the current Pope was actually charged with allegations of conspiracy to cover up child abuse in the Catholic Church, but on the request of the Vatican, President Bush made him immune from prosecution.) The documentary consists of interviews with victims of O’Grady and their families, video footage of depositions, and interviews with a number of people within the Catholic Church who are fighting for justice for these victims and the thousands of others who have suffered sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. The abuse of power by leaders of churches is destroying people’s lives and their faith. One of the interviewees in the documentary reminds viewers that the only time in the gospels when Jesus gets angry is ’when he goes to church’. The Lord’s Prayer includes asking God to ’deliver us from evil.’ What a travesty it is that, so often, we have to pray to be delivered from the evil of the church - an evil that frequently sides with the abuser rather than the victims of abuse. Father O’Grady got away with evil because people who were supposed to be committed to protecting the vulnerable allowed it to happen and actively covered it up. This documentary is harrowing and confronting as it reveals the ripping apart of people’s souls. It will leave you haunted and angry. But it should be compulsory viewing for anyone who cares about our children or those who are now adults still suffering from evil perpetrated in their childhood. My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Reviews ’Brilliant and psychologically transfixing documentary.’ - Owen Gleiberman/Entertainment Weekly ’Works best when it concentrates on O’Grady and the ever-rippling effect of his transgressions. Viewers may not remember the victims whose stories practically pierce the heart, but they’re unlikely to forget O’Grady’s deceptively innocent face. - Desson Thomson/Washington Post Negative Reviews None available Content Advice Strong themes AUS: MA USA: Not rated Related Links

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Book Review: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions

Meaning of Jesus: Two VisionsThe Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus J Borg and N T Wright has to be one of the most enlightening books I have read in a long time. Marcus Borg is one of the world’s leading liberal Jesus scholars and N T Wright one of the world’s leading conservative Jesus scholars. They have joined together to produce this brilliant exploration of the meaning of Jesus. Dealing with such questions as Was Jesus born of a virgin? Did he know he was the Messiah? Was he bodily resurrected from the dead? Did he intentionally die to redeem humankind? Was Jesus God? Borg and Wright each provide their answers in separate chapters. Borg and Wright clearly have a deep respect for each other and it shows in their writing even though they disagree on fundamental points. It is a model for how all Christians should be able to dialogue with each other despite their differences. Borg is a member of the (in)famous Jesus Seminar and Wright is an outspoken critic. And yet they are able to find areas of agreement and demonstrate keen understanding of each others’ points of view. I learned an enormous amount about Jesus from both of these authors along with the occasional paradigm shift. No matter what position these two men come from, it is obvious that they are deeply committed to following Christ according to their own understanding. They shed new light on age-old questions. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions is deeply satisfying and provides an enormous amount for reflection. It won the Best General Interest Book of 1999 award from the Association of Theological Booksellers. If you want a refreshing, thoughtful, and meaningful discussion on the debate about Jesus that has become so popular in recent times, I highly recommend this excellent book. Related Links

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Movie Review: The War on Democracy

The War on Democracy is an incisive documentary on the US’s involvement in the politics of Latin America over the last 50 years. Despite Washington’s rhetoric about fighting to preserve democracy in the world, its actions in its own ’backyard’ show that it is often only interested in true democracy when it serves its own interests. John Pilger, an award-winning journalist, tells the story of a number of Central and South American countries who tried to bring democracy to their people but failed because of the atrocities committed by dictators backed by America.

The largest part of the documentary tells the story of the rise of Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected president of Venezuela. Chavez has revolutionised Venezuela bringing a form of democracy to the people that we have pretty much forgotten about in the West. But Chavez has not been popular with the middle and upper classes of Venezuela who ride on the back of capitalism that marginalises the poor of the country. Chavez has begun to fill the gap between rich and poor with his policies and Pilger tells the dramatic story of an attempted but failed coup during which US media were manipulated into showing footage that perpetuated a distorted view of actual events.

The second part of the documentary surveys various nasty tricks the US has perpetrated in various countries with some stunning interview footage of ex-CIA operatives who proudly boast about their countries right to do anything it wants, anytime it wants, wherever it wants, if it serves its own interests.

The War on Democracy is not, however, without its faults. It is clearly biased in and the strength of the film is undermined by the few times Pilger appears on screen "preaching" to his audience. Additionally, despite the fact that Chavez explains his passion to bring true democracy to Venezuela, many despots in the past have started out preaching freedom for the oppressed. Only time will tell whether Chavez continues to run a government by the people for the people. In a telling moment when Pilger asks about the high number of people still living in poverty, he sidesteps the question saying that the real issue is to live with dignity. It doesn’t quite ring true. Apparently, too, Chavez is gaining significant control of the country’s institutions (see Negative Review below).

The War on Democracy, however, is a must see documentary, particularly in the current political context of the "war on terror" and the "modern Vietnam" of Iraq. Our politicians who speak so eloquently about democracy may have a democracy in mind that the rest of us don’t recognise.

My Rating: **** (out of 5)

Positive Review
’A brilliantly-researched and sometimes shocking insight into the democratic position of those countries whose dealings with America are more along the lines of slave than political poodle.’ - Kat Brown/Empire

Negative Review
’Pilger, typically, is not content to let the film do its own talking. He appears regularly, in cream lightweight suit and complementary tan, to deliver schoolmasterly dissertations on the sins perpetrated by self-serving Washington and its craven acolytes.’ - Sandra Hall/Sydney Morning Herald


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The need to read

I have recently been reflecting on a few things that people have said to me at various times about reading. I remember, as a teenager, attending a presentation made by an evangelist who was critiquing a controversial book for the youth group I belonged to at the time. I hadn’t heard of the book before that presentation but it sounded like an important book to read. I approached the evangelist at the end of the program and asked where I could obtain the book. He wouldn’t tell me, saying that you had to be a strong person who knew the church’s doctrines well before reading the book. I was very annoyed that someone else believed that his job was to censure what I read and make judgments about my ability to deal with the contents of the book. It wasn’t until some years later I was able to locate the book. I read it and gained an enormous benefit from it.

On another occasion, I had a Christian friend tell me that he never read anything about the Bible - no commentaries or books. He believed that he only needed to read the Bible and accept what it said and that reading anything else was merely contaminating Scripture by other people’s opinions.

Finally, I have had a number of people warn me that reading so widely, particularly material that contradicted what the denomination of which I was a member taught, would inevitably lead to the loss of faith or the adoption of error.

Many people seem to fear reading widely as if, somehow, they will be unwillingly entrapped. The problem, however, is not so much what is read, but how one reads. I would suggest that, in fact, it is essential to read widely if one is to avoid erroneous thinking and that those who, out of fear, confine themselves to reading only what they agree with are the very ones who are in danger. Reading widely brings with it a number of benefits.

It provides an opportunity to test our thinking. By reading widely and exposing ourselves to other ideas and critiques of our own ideas, we have the opportunity to reflect on issues and questions that may lead to a refinement of our own beliefs and values. The reality is that our own thinking may be wrong. It is inevitable that, at some point, it will be wrong. By only reading what is agreeable to us we merely reinforce our own beliefs and values. For some people, that is what they want. They fear being exposed to ideas or thinking that may challenge their own and only want confirmed what they already believe to be true. But those who wish to pursue truth must be willing to take the risk of examining alternative views to their own. So reading widely provides us with the opportunity to test our thinking.

It avoids cultic manipulation of one’s beliefs. One of the favourite techniques of cults, in controlling their members, is to control the information that is fed to them - what they hear and what they read or see. By refusing to read anything that challenges our beliefs or gives us information not consistent with what we already think, we are essentially choosing to apply cultic mind control to ourselves. Many Christians only read what they find in their Christian bookstore or published by their denominational press. By making this choice, they do not need to ever deal with genuine challenges to their thinking or what they believe. And although this may be a voluntary restriction the effect is the same as if it was imposed. Organisations and denominations may also subtly "encourage" their membership to limit their reading by producing their own material in such quantities that, if a person has so much available, they may not ever have the "need" to read outside that particular world view. So reading widely prevents any form of cultic manipulation, however subtle that might be.

It enriches understanding and experience. The practice of reading widely is to enter into dialogue with other people. By sharing others’ perspectives and ideas we enrich our own view of the world and, as we think about these varying perspectives, our experience is also enriched. The way we think affects our emotions, the decisions we make, and our behaviour. By exposing ourselves to the thinking of others, we open ourselves to the potential to live differently and experience life more fully. Increasing our knowledge and information also increases the resources that are available to us in making decisions. Reading widely has the capacity to significantly enrich our understanding and experience.

There is nothing to fear from reading widely. It allows us to test our thinking; avoid manipulation of our beliefs, however subtle; and enriches our understanding and experience. Reading widely without thinking critically may be dangerous because we would tend to adopt the position of whatever author we happened to be reading at the time. But approaching our reading whilst thinking critically about what we are reading, evaluating ideas as we proceed, is an absolutely essential part of our spiritual journey if we are to mature and grow in faith.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Movie Review: Ratatouille

RatatouilleThinking about rats and food together does not usually bring pleasant associations (to say the least). But Pixar have created a heartwarming animated movie about just those two things and the outcome is the delightful family film Ratatouille. Remy is a rat whose food taste is different from the rest of his clan - he likes gourmet food and has a natural gift for being able to put food together into new, exciting combinations. He dreams of being a chef. One day, his dream comes true. Escaping from his home in the Paris countryside when a little old lady discovers him raiding her kitchen, Remy ends up in Paris in a famous restaurant which, because of the death of its owner and the self-interested commercialism of the new one, is declining in popularity. Remy teams up with a young boy desperate for a job at the restaurant and, together, they produce stunning dishes that bring renown back to the restaurant. And, of course, there is lots of fun, action, thrills and spills as the unlikely rat-plus-food story unfolds. And there is the inevitable bad guy - a nasty food reviewer - who is out to close the restaurant down. Ratatouille feels too long but is mostly enjoyable fare that, for once, is suitable for the whole family with its subtle themes of the importance of family and pursuing excellence in whatever one does. It’s a simple, straightforward narrative that doesn’t try to be clever for the sake of being clever. The animation is absolutely brilliant. A lot of work has gone into making the look and feel realistic and authentic. For example, the animation team worked alongside an actual French chef (Thomas Keller) to learn the art of cooking. A rat expert brought several of her personal pets to help the animation department learn about rats. The compost pile in the movie was researched by allowing various types of food to rot and photographing it. Overall, a tasty movie the kids and their adults will enjoy. My Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review ’Ratatouille is delicious. In this satisfying, souffle-light tale of a plucky French rodent with a passion for cooking, the master chefs at Pixar have blended all the right ingredients -- abundant verbal and visual wit, genius slapstick timing, a soupcon of Gallic sophistication -- to produce a warm and irresistible concoction that’s sure to appeal to everyone’s inner Julia Child.’ - Justin Chang/Variety Another Positive Review (because I can’t find a negative one!) ’For parents looking to spend time in a theater with their kids or adults who want something lighter and less testosterone-oriented than the usual summer fare, Ratatouille offers a savory main course.’ James Berardinelli/ReelViews Content Advice Mild animated violence AUS: PG USA: G

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Movie Review: Super-Bad

I went along to see Super-Bad because everyone seems to be raving about how good it is. It consistently gets 4 star ratings from reviewers and is described as hilarious. So I thought I’d check it out. My reaction: it is super bad - in the literal sense of the words. The plot is quite straightforward. Two high school seniors, Seth and Evan (Jonah Hill and Michael Cera) are facing the prospect of graduating and attending different colleges. They’ve been good buddies and the idea of separation fills them with anxiety. They decide to organise a party with lots of booze to cope. Unfortunately, their plans go adrift and they find themselves in all sorts of trouble. The problem with Super-Bad is that it is obsessed with sex, alcohol, drugs, and male anatomy to the point that these overwhelm the plot which is thin anyway. Now, it may be true that some teenagers (read male) think about nothing else than sex, alcohol, drugs, and their anatomy. But do we want to sit and watch two hours of this stuff? Throughout the entire movie, there is graphic sexual dialogue. We are subjected to a whole series of full screne penis drawings produced by one of the characters when he was an infant because of an obsession he has had for his entire lifetime. There is a considerable amount of blood and gore (mostly comic) and a scene where a woman’s menstrual blood appears on a man’s trousers after dancing. The F-word occurs nearly 190 times along with other coarse language. There is LOTS of alcohol drinking plus marijuana and cocaine use with a police officer giving a cigarette to a teen. I could go on and on. All this material is pervasive throughout the entire movie and there is an underlying misogynism. Super-Bad contains an implicit message (read "hard to see") that relationships formed during inebriated sex are not likely to be successful. One of the characters (a girl who doesn’t drink) actually refuses sex because she doesn’t want to have it while the boy is drunk. But I’m not sure how many teens watching the movie would actually remember this given the other overwhelming material. Now, I’m not a prude. I have no problem with sex, drugs, alcohol, and male anatomy in the appropriate narrative context. It just seems to me that contemporary American comedy writers seem to have arrived at a place where they think that if they put more and more of these in a movie that it makes a great comedy. The disturbing thing is that there seemed to be people in my cinema who loved it! Now that’s a worry! Super-Bad is crude, ugly, unfunny, and a waste of two hours. Go see something else! My Rating: ** (out of 5) Positive Review ’For pure laughs, for the experience of just sitting in a chair and breaking up every minute or so, Superbad is 2007’s most successful comedy.’ - Mick LaSalle/San Francisco Chronicle Negative Review ’Superbad simply isn’t. It isn’t super, as it intersperses crudely funny gags with an equal number of dry spots. It isn’t ever truly bad, because even the lame segments pass quickly.’ - Lawrence Toppman/Charlotte Observer Content Advice pervasive crude and sexual content, strong language, drinking, some drug use and a fantasy/comic violent image - all involving teens AUS: MA USA: R

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Book Review: Our Little Secret

Our Little SecretIt is difficult to imagine a more evil crime than an adult sexually abusing a child. On a daily basis, children have their childhoods completely destroyed, often by people they love. Duncan Fairhurst was one of those children. His father began to sexually abuse him when Duncan was four years old and it continued for more than a decade. Duncan Fairhurst tells his story in the book Our Little Secret. It is a harrowing read. Duncan goes into explicit detail about the sexual molestation perpetrated by his father - how it started, what he did, it’s escalation over time, and the psychological manipulation that led to Duncan carrying this secret into adulthood. (Please note the Content Advice below.) After Duncan’s life hit rock bottom - alcoholism, drug use and abuse, imprisonment - he finally managed to turn his life around and took his father to court and successfully had him imprisoned. Duncan has written his story to raise our awareness of this devastating social evil and to give hope and courage to those who have experienced sexual abuse as children. It is a deeply disturbing story and takes some courage to read it. But we have to know what happens to these innocent children who have their lives destroyed. More than that, we need to act if we have any suspicions about children we know who may be being abused. Our children are vulnerable - it is up to us to do all we can to protect them from those who package their self-interested abuse as love and steal from them the deepest experience that any human can have - deep, nurturing, loving relationships with people they can trust. Content Advice highly explicit descriptions of pedophile sexual activity

Postmodernism, truth, and religious belief

I attended my reading group yesterday where we discussed two very interesting articles - well worth reading. Here are links to each of them:

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Movie Review: The Jammed

As Australians, when we hear about the sex slavery trade, we don’t usually think of it happening in Australia. But Dee McLachlan’s movie, The Jammed, forces us to acknowledge that it goes on here too. The Jammed is set in Melbourne and is based on court transcripts and actual events, making it even more compelling than it would perhaps be otherwise. Ashley (Veronica Sywak) works for an insurance agent in Melbourne. Her recent relationship with Tom (Todd MacDonald) has broken down and her sister, Gabi (Kate Atkinson) has taken on the role of matchmaker. A friend of Gabi’s, Steve (Cameron Nugent) is flying in to Sydney and she asks Ashley to pick him up from the airport hoping she will develop a romantic interest. When she arrives, Steve asks her to give a Chinese woman he has met on the flight, Sunee (Amanda Ma), a ride to her accommodation. After dropping Steve off, Sunee reveals to Ashley that she is looking for her daughter and pleads with Ashley to help her find her. Against her initial instincts, Ashley agrees and is pulled into a web of crime surrounding the sex slavery trade in Melbourne as she tries to track down Rubi (Sun Park). There are certainly some flaws in the film, in particular, the somewhat unconvincing performance of Emma Lung as Crystal - one of the friends of Rubi - who is also a victim of human trafficking. And the director seems divided in focusing on the stories of Rubi and Crystal. But despite its flaws, this is a must-see movie for a number of reasons. There have been a number of dramas on television recently dealing with the sex slave trade overseas. The Jammed is, however, the first to take a serious look at this issue in our own backyard. Dee MacLachlan, who wrote and directed The Jammed after being told by a friend about the human trafficking that goes on in Australia, has chosen the thriller genre to convey the reality of this social evil. This will hopefully increase the potential audience. And The Jammed works well as a thriller. Veronica Sywak shines as Ashley and portrays the inner turmoil of being caught up in the life of a stranger and experiences both wanting to help and wanting to run in the opposite direction. And the three women played by Emma Lung, Saski Burmeister, and Sun Park are all compellingly portrayed. But more than all this it confronts us with a reality that we need to face and deal with as a society. Sex slavery is a real problem involving real people who can sometimes die. The Jammed also briefly portrays issues related to detention and government bureaucracy, both of which have the potential to completely ruin people’s lives by not taking personal circumstances into account. The Jammed is not always easy to watch - particularly the shocking sex scenes that show the way that the women are sexually assaulted and abused by their "owners" and the customers of the illegal brothels they work in. The Jammed is confronting and disturbing but an important movie on an important theme. My Rating: ***** (out of 5) Content Advice disturbing violence and sex scenes AUS: MA Related Links

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Set free to be free

The apostle Paul, in Galatians 5:1, declares that it is ’For freedom Christ has set us free.’ In the context of this letter, Paul was trying to persuade the Galatians not to return to the yoke of slavery to the Old Covenant laws symbolised by circumcision. For Christians in the 21st century, there are other potential sources of enslavement which we must resist if Christ has set us free in order to be free. Someone recently expressed concern about me saying that, from his point of view, I was on a path that would lead me to be unable to be certain of anything. This person was in a position of religious authority who decided to ban me from an activity within the organisation. This individual had come to this conclusion without any direct dialogue with me. Clearly, he had made a judgment about my spiritual path leading him to the decision he made. What is interesting, though, is this person’s notion that a spiritual path should lead to certainty. For many people, religion is about security and certainty rather than the pursuit of truth which might, in fact, lead to discomfort and uncertainty. Making one’s spiritual path about becoming more certain leads inevitably to fundamentalist attitudes and oppressive judgmentalism. Unless a person conform to one’s own set of beliefs they are judged to be on a false path and frequently result in manipulative actions that are designed to make a person conform to one’s own set of beliefs. Christ did not set us free in order to be enslaved by someone else’s belief system or criteria for what constitutes an authentic spiritual path. And a commitment to certainty and security will inevitably lead to a stagnant paralysis where it is impossible to learn and to grow in understanding. The freedom to doubt and to question is an absolute essential for growth in understanding and the development of a mature faith. Without doubt and questioning, we merely reiterate our current understanding and confirm what we already believe. This is not freedom nor is it authentic faith. A commitment to certainty and security rather than truth is the very antithesis of faith! Ignazio Silone, in The God That Failed, has made it clear what true religious liberty (freedom) is about:
Liberty is the possibility of doubting, the possibility of making a mistake, the possibility of searching and experimenting, the possibility of saying No to any authority -- literary, artistic, philosophic, religious, social and even political.
If any person or organisation tries to tell you that authentic faith means:
  • It is wrong to doubt
  • It is wrong to make mistakes
  • It is wrong to search and experiment
  • It is wrong to say No to any authority
Then run for your life! Christ set you free to be free, not to be enslaved by the yoke of someone else’s prison.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Movie Review: The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne UltimatumIf you have seen the first two Jason Bourne films (The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy) then you know what to expect from The Bourne Ultimatum. The story begins with a scene where Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) sits in a room with blood on his hands trying to work out what has happened to him. He decides to find out, once and for all, who he really is by tracking back to the place where it all started. The CIA chief in New York City decides that the only response is to get rid of Jason Bourne and the Agency spirals down into very grey moral territory giving the narrative substance. And so begins an incredible game of cat-and-mouse as Bourne tries to avoid death whilst trying to discover his true identity. The Bourne Ultimatum is an absolutely brilliant suspense thriller. It is frenetically paced but is actually quite easy to follow. The action is superbly choreographed - so well, in fact, it seems very real. The cinematography uses a handheld camera style which intensifies the sense of realism experienced by the viewer. Matt Damon is superb, once again, as Jason Bourne and Julia Stiles plays a more important role in this episode as Nicky Parsons. The narrative never lets up and we find ourselves carried along unrelentingly to the final resolution. The tension is beautifully conveyed even when the action on screen is simple. The scenes filmed in Waterloo Station are absolutely brilliant and there is some stunning stunt work. The Bourne Ultimatum is the best yet - if you are a fan, you won’t be disappointed. My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review ’A great action movie, exhilarating and neatly crafted, the kind of picture that will still look good 20 or 30 years from now.’ - Stephanie Zacharek/ Negative Review ’The movie is so surreal it’s just not very involving. As an action extravaganza, it’s busy but dull.’ - William Arnold/Seattle Post-Intelligencer Content Advice violence and intense sequences of action AUS: M USA: PG-13

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Spong Visits Adelaide

Bishop John Shelby Spong visited Adelaide recently to deliver a series of three public lectures promoting his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. Spong is a controversial figure evoking enormous amounts of criticism from the evangelical end of the theological spectrum, in particular. I went along to hear all three of his public lectures to try to find out what his essential message is for myself. Spong has a very negative message about traditional Christianity and a positive* message about what he sees as the true meaning of the Christian message. A "negative" message about traditional Christianity Spong makes the obvious point that we are now living in a different time to those when the biblical books were penned. Whereas the first century believers accepted a three tiered universe that stopped just above the roof of the sky, we now know so much more about the universe and how it works. Science has increased our understanding of the natural world to such an extent that, according to Spong, the language used to express the first century believers’ experience of God is outdated, irrelevant, and unbelievable. For Spong, we can no longer talk, for example, of a virgin birth, a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus, or miraculous healings. According to Spong, none of these beliefs make sense to a modern person living with the knowledge we have of the world and the universe. He also rejects the substitutionary model of the atonement (that Christ died for humanity’s sins instead of humanity dying). Spong also believes that fundamentalist Christianity, in particular, represents a narrow-minded belief system that is unwilling to move forward in its understanding of the original meaning of Christianity. He believes that Christian fundamentalism is exclusivist and promotes racism, sexism, and homophobia. Much of Spong’s life has been spent focusing on social justice issues around these themes. He is a vocal defender of the equality of humanity, the right of women and gay and lesbian people to serve as equals in the Christian Church, and the acceptance of homosexual people within the church community as living a legitimate lifestyle, consistent with their unchosen orientation, in the context of loving relationships similar to monogamous heterosexual relationships. He is highly respected by many for his work in this area. It is easy to see why Bishop Spong has evoked such emotional outrage from fundamentalist Christians and significant criticism from others. His teachings strike at the heart of much that is held, by many Christians, to be essential in defining Christianity. This is the "negative" side of Spong’s message. Spong also has a "positive" message about what Christianity has to offer. A "positive" message about the Christian message A constantly recurring theme in all of Spong’s lectures is that Christianity, rightly understood, has an incredibly positive message for society. Spong reassures his audiences that he is a committed Christian, believes in God, and prays daily. Clearly, this language has a specific meaning for Spong. For Spong, God is a presence which suffuses the world. The God presence found its highest expression in the life of Jesus Christ. For Spong, the life of Jesus provides the clearest expression of God’s intentions for humanity:
  • to live life fully
  • to love wastefully
  • to be all that one can be
This is a "mantra" for Spong that expresses the essence of the gospel. Every one of his lectures finishes with the reiteration of these three themes. And excellent themes they are! Very few Christians, I imagine, would disagree with these emphases. Unfortunately, for many Christians, they are overshadowed by Spong’s "negative" message to such an extent that they are not heard. And for those on the other end of the theological spectrum, the "negative" message is so powerful for them that the they wonder why bother with Christianity at all. They would argue that you don’t need Christianity to assert the value of living life fully, loving wastefully, and being all one can be. (Following one of Spong’s lectures, I had a conversation with an ex-Christian who made precisely that point.) For traditional Christians, the literal, historically embedded beliefs about Jesus Christ (eg, the virgin birth, miracles, the resurrection) are indispensable in defining Christianity as distinct from other religions. Thoughtful and honest Christians can surely agree that new forms of expressing the gospel of Jesus Christ need to be found for the 21st century. And they can surely agree that Jesus’ life shows humanity what it means to live in the presence of God and be empowered, by the Holy Spirit, to live fully, love wastefully, and become fully human. But many Christians will also want to argue that this can only be done by a God who is able to work supernaturally - any lesser God is not enough and, without such a God, Spong’s vision of living fully, loving wastefully, and being all one can be will be an unfulfilled yearning - a God-shaped hole in the human heart that only God can fill. There is a challenge here for traditional Christianity: the Church, which is often the worst advertisement for Christianity, needs to live out its good news in everyday living so that God is, indeed, understood to be a loving God of infinite mercy who accepts all and empowers them to live fully, love wastefully, and be all that God intended them to be. --------------------- * I am using the terms "negative" and "positive" to indicate that Spong is critical of Christianity and yet wishes to affirm that Christianity has a significant message for the modern world. Related Links

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Did Adam and Eve Keep the Sabbath? Part 2


This post should be read in conjunction with the following:

  1. Adam and Eve and Sabbath Keeping - an explanation

Individuals who argue that Sabbath keeping is not required of Christians often argue that Genesis 1-3 doesn’t include any reference to Adam and Eve keeping the Sabbath. In addition, there is no command to keep a weekly Sabbath. It is concluded that God, therefore, did not institute the Sabbath in Eden.

This brief essay presents some observations that respond to this position and argues that God did, in fact, institute Sabbath keeping at the time of creation and that Adam and Eve would have kept it.

The argument that Adam and Eve did not keep the Sabbath is an argument from silence. In that case, it is incorrect to conclude that they didn’t. Just because Genesis doesn’t mention Adam and Eve keeping the Sabbath doesn’t mean they didn’t. After all, the creation account is primarily about God, not what Adam and Eve did. This focus on God may mean that, in this narrative, what Adam and Eve did is not as important and, therefore, their Sabbath keeping or a command from God to keep a sabbath is not mentioned.

It is incorrect to conclude from an absence of a command that a command didn’t exist. Surely Adam and Eve didn’t require a command about everything that was right/wrong. And even if they did, all of these commands didn’t need to be recorded in the Genesis accounts. The Genesis narratives are not intended to be a list of all the commands God gave to Adam and Eve. The stories are written with a very specific purpose in mind and that purpose constrains what is included and what is left out.

It is true that there is no command in Genesis 1-2 about Sabbath keeping. What we do have is an example. This example provides evidence that the Sabbath should be kept. There is no command in Genesis 1 - 3 proscribing murder. But we don’t conclude from this that murder is ok. When we get to the story of Cain killing Abel, we know it is wrong because it doesn’t fit with God’s example. We have God’s example as the life-giver in Genesis 1 - 2, therefore we should follow that norm and promote life. In the same way, we have God’s example as the Sabbath-creator and observer. God was never physically tired so he had no actual need to rest. Therefore, he must have rested as an example. In the same way we follow God’s example in not murdering, Christians should follow God’s example in Sabbath-keeping.

In addition to all this, sin had not entered the world as a result of human choice at the close of the creation week. A God of love is hardly going to lay down a ’law’ for how His new creatures should follow Him. Rather, he’d teach Adam and Eve about the Sabbath in person - rather than in law - by spending quality time with them.

The creation narrative states that God sanctified something. In that case, we must ask what God sanctified. We have a number of things to choose from. Firstly, it could have been just that one day at the end of creation. Secondly, it could have been an open-ended long period of time. Or thirdly, it may have been a weekly repitition of the original day that was sanctified. The question is which of these makes the most Biblical and logically consistent sense?

A good deal of the argument revolves around the meaning of the omission of the phrase ‘there was evening and morning, the x day’. There is no doubt this was a deliberate literary omission for theological purposes. But what does this omission mean?

It is clear from the text that a period of time was blessed, made holy, and sanctified. To be sanctified means to be set apart. It doesn’t make much sense to say that an unending period of time was set apart. Something with no boundaries can’t be set apart! The most obvious thing set apart is a discrete period of time. If, subsequent to creation, the seventh day was ‘unending’, then every actual day would be considered the same as every other day, in a spiritual sense. Surely, if something is made holy and ’set it apart’ it must be different to all other days. Otherwise there is actually nothing special about it.

If God had wanted the whole week of all time to be special, surely he could have ’set apart’ (sanctified) the whole creation week, but he didn’t. This all points to each discrete seventh day being holy and sanctified from that time on.

So we return to the question: Why might the author of Genesis intentionally leave outthe final ‘evening and morning’ statement? God wanted us not to falsely limit the Sabbath day that was blessed to one day in history at the end of the creation account and thereby conclude that there is no Sabbath blessing today or special time set aside today. The Sabbath was for all time and the absence of an end of the day in the creation narrative points to that fact. The Sabbath continues - not as a general period of ongoing time or a spiritual experience - but as a 24 hour period, which makes most sense of it being ’set aside’.

Another important question to ask is why God created the Sabbath in the first place. It is for humanity to remember their Creator and keep us from becoming self-centred and self-serving and pursuing our own interests (work, pursuits) all the time. It is a celebration of God - a being outside of ourselves - the being Who created us. Therefore to rest signifies our acceptance of God’s creatorship and his Lordship of our lives, including how we spend out time.

It is true that Scripture - and Jesus - speak of our spiritual rest in terms that have links with the creation Sabbath. This stems from the Sabbath being grounded in creation. The metaphors of peace and rest are foretastes of Sabbath when we approach the now-and-not-yet of our salvation and the re-creation of all things. In this sense, although Israel stopped labour on the seventh day, they - for the most part - missed the essence of the Sabbath and what a relationship with God is all about. We too can continue to miss that rest.

Psalm 95 and Hebrews 4 remind us that there remains a promise of blessing and there continues to be a Sabbath rest for the people of God. Therefore, in a sense, the Sabbath points forward to our future salvation and rest in Christ from sin. But this level of typology is secondary to the primary meaning of the Sabbath as a celebration of the Creator, and the conclusions we draw from the secondary level of typology shouldn’t contradict the primary meaning, but rather add to it.

All of this leads to the conclusion that Adam and Eve did keep the Sabbath to begin with. Surely they wouldn’t have missed out on this good thing that God specifically took a further day to create. He could have insituted a six day week, and how much fun would that be today!

Finally, beyond Adam and Eve, we have the example of how Jesus observed the Sabbath as a day of restoration and celebration of such restoration (and celebration of the Restorer). The Sabbath is a gift - for us to delight in - ‘made for man(kind)’ (Mark 2). It goes without saying that God created ongoing time. We don’t need Genesis to tell us that. But within the abstract construct of ongoing time, God has also planted - set apart, blessed and called ’holy’ (special) - regular intervals of time as reminders of and celebrations of Him.

God did something in time as a gift to us - that may enhance our experience of finding peace and rest in Him. How good is that! We only get to call this day a delight and experience this blessing if we actually turn our foot (effort) away from pursuing our regular daily work (KJV pursuing our own ’pleasure’), eg Isaiah 58. God won’t - of course - force this blessing upon us.

Did Adam and Eve keep the Sabbath? We can speculate about what the silence of the creation narratives on Adam and Eve’s Sabbath keeping means. But Adam and Eve are not our example anyway - God is, and so is the example of Christ. So the bigger question really is not, did Adam and Eve keep the Sabbath? The real question is Did God keep the Sabbath? Clearly, he did, even though He didn’t have to. That’s the example that is worth following!


I would like to acknowledge the major help of a friend who provided the essential argument for this post - saving me an enormous amount of time!

Coming up... Adam, Eve, and Sabbath keeping: Part 2

Anyone who truly thinks about their faith needs to deliberately consider alternative points of view about contentious issues within their belief system. To avoid doing so is to have an inauthentic faith based on a narrow view that is the product of biased exposure to what we believe. One of the traits of a critical thinker is intellectual empathy - the ability to enter into the world view of another person and see things from that perspective. It is only then that we can make a fair assessment of alternative points of view and come to our own. In my classes on critical thinking, I often suggest to students that, unless we can argue for an opposing view as well as a person who holds to that view, we have not earned the right to critique it. I thought an exercise such as this would be good to encourage readers of this blog to think "into" two different views. In order to do this, I have chosen a contentious topic from the religious tradition that I grew up in. The aim is not so much to push a particular point of view in this exercise, but to enter into two points of view as if I actually believe them and articulate them both to the best of my ability. The issue I have chosen is whether or not Adam and Eve kept the Sabbath. The first of the positions has been posted at the Thinking Christian blog which argues that they did not. If you haven’t read it yet, you can do so here. I am currently working on the second essay where it will be argued that Adam and Eve did keep the Sabbath. Both of these arguments will be written as if I fully believe them both. This is to illustrate what it means to practice intellectual empathy with alternate points of view. The purpose of the Thinking Christian blog is not to tell people what to believe. Instead, it is to encourage people to think for themselves. To that end, I will not be informing readers, on this occasion, what I actually think. A person, whom I admire greatly, once stated at one of his presentations, that half of what he says is right and half of what he says is wrong. His audience had to work out for themselves which is which. I often say the same thing to my students in my critical thinking classes. To decide any issue by merely following the thinking of someone else rather than our own is to expose oneself to all sorts of dangers. Religious organisations are very keen for people to conform to the party line. Throughout history, great evil has been done by those in power as they manipulate others to conform to their creeds. Many have been slaughtered - physically and emotionally - in the name of God. Psychological terrorism is as evil as physical terrorism. So, in order to encourage Thinking Christian readers to think for themselves, Part 2 of Did Adam and Eve keep the Sabbath? will be coming soon. You will be able to consider both points of view for yourself. There will then be a mini anonymous survey on the blog where you can vote for the view you think is best. So... look out for Part 2 and the vote. Remember: