Monday, September 12, 2016

These Words Shall Be On Your Heart

On Friday, my kids and I visited a local museum. It was the last weekend for their dinosaur exhibit. One section of the display had a timeline showing the different periods in which different dinosaurs lived -- like the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods, etc. And of course, the timelines were labeled in tens of millions of years.

My eight-year-old, as she read it, unashamedly said aloud, "149 million years? Why are scientists so ridiculous? Don't they know that God can create everything just like that?" I noticed a couple of men standing nearby who began to snicker and whisper to one another. I couldn't hear what they said. Nevertheless, I was a proud dad.

I took out my phone, down to its last 1% of power, pulled up my ESV Bible app (shameless plug), and showed Annie 2 Peter 3:1-7. There Peter says, "For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly."

I told her, "See, Peter says that they deliberately overlook the facts, that the earth was created by the word of God. In Peter's first letter, he said that Jesus is, 'A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense,' and that people stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do" (1 Peter 2:8). I also made a point to tell her that there are good scientists who see God in all that He has created, and they look at science through the Bible rather than looking at the Bible through a bias of naturalism, though most are blinded by their desires. Then my phone died.

God created all things, that much my daughter knew (and as I've written about and spoken about before, it didn't happen over billions of years). I wanted to show her that the Bible also tells us why there are people who don't believe God created all things. They deliberately overlook the facts, and they stumble on the rock of Christ Jesus, as they were destined to do.

This is how I teach my children, infusing the word of God in all that we do. Where'd I get that idea from? The Bible: "And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).

Wherever you go, the word of God goes with you. In all that you do, teach your children the word of God: How does God's word apply to this? How does it apply to that? Well, let me show you. What we as a family read about in the devotions we do every morning, we then apply to what we encounter throughout the day, being thankful for all things and giving God the glory.

Sermons With No Bible

So according to this passage in Deuteronomy, if we are to --
  • write God's word on our hearts
  • teach it to our children
  • talk about it in and out of our homes
  • consider it in our work or leisure
  • apply it when we walk out the door
  • through it filter every thing we do and look at 
then how on earth could we ever find any reason not to use the word of God?

Yet in the recent controversy surrounding Andy Stanley's apologetic preaching method for reaching unbelievers, that's exactly what's being done. Arguments and excuses are being made for times when it is okay to exclude the word of God -- deliberately, intentionally, and strategically leaving it out.

Stanley thinks we need a more grown-up faith, and that grown-up faith is not based on a biblical foundation. When we were kids, songs like Jesus Loves Me were great songs: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." But as adults, that's silliness.

For Stanley, this is not about style or a pastor's personal conviction in how he reaches a certain audience. This is being presented like: "Here's why people leave the church: because of the Bible. Here's why you walked away from the faith: because of the Bible. Here's why you need to come to Jesus: and it's NOT because of the Bible. The Bible is not the foundation of the Christian faith."

"This is where our trouble began." Andy Stanley, referencing the song Jesus Loves Me.

Andy Stanley is the pastor of North Point Community Church based out of Atlanta, GA. North Point has their main campus, plus five other campuses, plus several satellite churches, all reaching nearly 40,000 people each Sunday. That's not including the number of people watching online and receiving Andy's teaching through other means: books, seminars, video conferences, Bible study apps, etc.

In other words, a lot of people hear this message emphatically reducing the importance of the Bible. I see it affect people and churches in my area. Though I'm pastoring a small church in Kansas, I hear Andy Stanley's name come up all the time. Stanley is more passionate about making sure people know the Bible is not needed for you to be a Christian than he is about telling people what it says.

Two weeks ago, at the ERLC national conference in Nashville, TN, Dr. Russell Moore had a sit-down interview with Stanley in which Stanley said that sometimes he preaches sermons without ever quoting the Bible. He was rather proud of the fact. This came as a shock to some. I wasn't surprised. I've listened to enough of Stanley's sermons to hear an entire message go by without any Scripture.

In some sense, I'm grateful he said it. I've tried to warn others about Stanley's preaching and they don't believe me when I say he actively wants to reduce Bible use and uses it very little himself. Stanley has been saying for some time that he wishes pastors would stop saying, "The Bible says." At the ERLC conference, he said that if he were an evangelical pope, he would make pastors take the spotlight off the Bible and put it on the resurrection. The following Sunday, in a sermon entitled The Bible Told Me So, he doubled-down on his hermeneutic by saying Christianity is about an event, not a book.

The absurdity and the confusion of that statement is that you don't even know about the event without the book. The Old Testament predicted it, the New Testament recalls it and expounds on its significance. The eyewitnesses to the resurrection did not believe the resurrection without the Scriptures. They were there, they saw it, and they didn't believe their own eyes. 

I talked about this on the podcast Friday and mentioned the story of the two disciples who were walking to Emmaus. Jesus, having just stepped out of the grave that morning, started walking with them, but they didn't recognize him. When Jesus asked them what they were talking about, Cleopas said, "Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn't know what's been going on?" And they told him about Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and buried and some women went to the tomb and found it empty and saw angels who said he was alive.

Jesus response to them was this: "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:13-27). Before he showed them he was Jesus who was alive, he showed them the Scriptures!

When the Apostle Paul made his apologetic case for the resurrection, he did so "in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). The Scriptures said it would happen, then it happened, the disciples were shown how the Scriptures said it was going to happen, then they were shown that it did happen, then the Scriptures written by those who saw what the Scriptures said would happen continued to say that it happened, according to the Scriptures! You cannot separate the event from the book. Even the disciples neither knew about nor understood the event without the book.

Yet Stanley is purposefully trying to reach unbelievers without the book that speaks of the glory, power, and majesty of God (and presenting a very misleading version of church history in the process). There's a saying that goes, "What you reach them with is what you reach them to." If you reach unbelievers with a form of Christianity that contains no Bible, they will accept a form of Christianity that contains no Bible, which is no Christianity at all.

Impotent Apologetics

Dr. David Prince of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote about Stanley's sermon and pointed out that his arguments are just repackaged liberalism. Driving the point home, Dr. Prince mentioned Luke 16:31 where Jesus said, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."

A minister from Indiana contended with Dr. Prince saying, "The Scripture he uses to proof-text his point has been ripped out of its context and misapplied. It is taken from Jesus' parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The audience Jesus was addressing in that parable is Jews, for whom the Hebrew Scriptures (Moses and the Prophets) were already considered authoritative."

That doesn't matter. Guess what? Unbelievers have Moses and the Prophets too, regardless of whether or not they've heard them and accept them as authoritative. This isn't the local phone book we're talking about here. This is the word of God. It applies to absolutely everyone. The law of the land still has authority over you whether or not you know what it is. Likewise, the law of God has authority over you whether or not you know what it is.

The Bible says it's the responsibility of the church to be a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15); presenting the word of God to the world (pillar) and defending against those who try to malign it (buttress). Paul said, "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'" (Romans 10:14-15)

Yet Stanley wants to reduce the importance of the Bible in the calling to go preach the Bible. His defenders say that isn't so. As that Indiana minister said, "I'm convinced that [Stanley's] critics are either not listening to him very closely, or they are intentionally misrepresenting him." He concluded his article by stating, "The point of all of this is that Stanley is making an apologetic case." Oh, I'm aware that's what Stanley is trying to do. It's just that his apologetics are really, really bad.

One of the main illustrations that came out of Stanley's sermon was this: "Christianity does not exist because of the Bible anymore than you exist because of your birth certificate. Your birth certificate documents something that happened. And if you lost your birth certificate, the good news is: you do not go out of existence."

Dr. Prince points out, "This logic minimizes the uniqueness of the Word of God and is right out of the classic theological liberal playbook. Liberals have historically asserted, 'The Bible is not the Word of God, it is merely a witness to the Word of God.'" (Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think Stanley referred to the Bible as the Word of God a single time in the same sermon in which he was diminishing its importance.)

The Bible is not mere history. This is the powerful word of God. How did all things come into existence? By the word of God, right? God said "Let there be" and there was. Get this: the same word that brought all things into existence is the same word that brings about saving faith. Someone shared the word of God with you, and you believed it, and you have faith.

James 1:18 says, "Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth." Romans 10:17 says, "Faith comes by hearing and hearing through the word of Christ." No one is brought to faith but by the word of God. The Bible says so.

Stanley doesn't get that, which is why he's trying to bring people to the faith without the Bible. His defenders are always quick to fill in the blanks that Stanley leaves blank: "What Stanley really means is this! What Stanley is really trying to do is this!" I'm convinced his praisers are either not listening to him very closely, or they are intentionally misrepresenting him. (Zoinks!)

The defense of the Christian faith without the Bible is powerless apologetics. Stanley openly and proudly admits he is out to "take the spotlight off of the Bible." If Stanley's church sees anyone won to the faith, it is a very, very weak faith, if it's the Christian faith at all.

Faith Like a Child

The disciples asked Jesus, "Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?" Jesus called a child to him and put the boy before the disciples. He said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:2-4).

In his sermon The Bible Told Me So, Stanley says that Jesus Loves Me is a precious song, and we should teach children, "Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so." But that kind of theology is not for adults. You need a grown-up faith in which, according to Stanley, the Bible is not foundational. It's great for kids, but bad for adults. That's a great big load of manure.

"I hate manure."

People, I must tell you, because I love you and I care for you: Have nothing to do with Stanley's garbage. It is dangerous. It will keep a person from the Kingdom of heaven. No one is above the word of God. We must humble ourselves and be like children. Or as Peter put it, "Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation -- if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good" (1 Peter 2:2-3).

Woe to the person who wants less of the word of God. Without it, they cannot be sanctified, and therefore they have never been justified. They will "accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions" (2 Timothy 4:3); teachers like Andy Stanley, who is all about less Bible. Woe more-so to the teacher who will withhold the word of God that rescues from death and gives life.

Andy Stanley, if by some weird chance you happen to read my blog, repent of your nonsense. Apologize to your congregation. Tell them you were wrong. If there is any kind of humility about yourself, resign from your position as pastor until you can understand that the Bible is the word of God, and it is only through that word that anyone is saved -- washed clean from their iniquity and clothed in the righteousness of Christ, in whom we have the forgiveness of sins.

In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, it says, "If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth."

Just as I teach my children the word of God, I also teach it to my congregation. They are children, too. They are the children of God (1 John 3:1-3). How can I expect children to have the word of God written on their hearts if I won't tell it to them? When the devil comes whispering, "Did God really say," as he did to Eve, I want my children -- in my home and in my congregation -- to know what God really said. Likewise, I also listen to men who preach the word of God because I am a child who needs to be fed this pure spiritual milk, too.

The Bible is our response to everything. In it are the words to eternal life. The word of God should be withheld from no one -- no believer, and especially no unbeliever. Don't dumb it down, don't leave it out. It is only by the word of God that men are saved, brought from death to life in Christ. Romans 1:16 says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe."

The Bible tells us why people leave the church, and it isn't because of a Sunday school song. It's because it might become plain to all of us that they were never of us to begin with (1 John 2:19). Examine yourselves to see that you are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).

You know, there's something Andy Stanley said I happen to agree with. There are people who have left the church because they were told, "The Bible says so." The Bible says they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

"How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you." Psalm 119:9-11

Friday, September 2, 2016

Gambling With Donald Trump: Why He Is Not Some Higher Moral Choice

The election is about two months away. It is an election of the Liberals: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein. Pick your poison. "But wait! Don't forget about Darrell Castle of the Constitution party!" Right, the conspiracy theorist who backs the birther movement and believes 9/11 was an inside job.

I haven't said much about Donald Trump in a while. The conservatives have chosen, and they've chosen a non-conservative. How a casino mogul, strip-club owner, porn mag pusher, thrice married, adulterous, racist, arrogant, obscene, godless bully qualifies as conservative just goes to show that liberals aren't the only ones running gleefully toward the abyss.

Since I last wrote anything about Trump, there was a 5,300 word article by Systematic Theology author Wayne Grudem about how voting for Trump is a morally good choice. Grudem acknowledged that Trump was not a man of good character, but that shouldn't matter. We need to defend the unborn and protect religious freedom. (A pastor by the name of Justin Bullington provided my favorite response to the article.)

Several other theologians and pastors have stumped for Trump. This morning, Eric Metaxas, author of perhaps the most extensive biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (which I have and enjoyed, edit: but has its problems), offered a string of arguments on Twitter about why a Christian should vote for Trump. The following is Metaxas' plea. Each bullet-point is its own tweet:

  • I'm not voting for Trump because he's a paragon of virtue, but because electing HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] will forever end true Religious Liberty in America.
  • Let's put it another way: A Vote for Trump is not a Thumbs up for "Trump". It's a vote against what HRC will do that is forever UNDOABLE.
  • We've had so much Religious Liberty in America for so long most of us hardly even know what it is or when it's being gravely threatened.
  • You cannot undo Supreme Court Justices who think biblical values are divisive, bigoted, and un-American. They're lifetime appointments.
  • Defending the unborn doesn't mean electing someone perfect on that issue, but electing the better candidate on that issue. And that's easy.
  • If you care less about the unborn than about your "witness" or "conscience" in voting for someone you think boorish, I beg you to reconsider.
  • Wilberforce often worked w/people on the other side of the aisle -- sometimes despicable people -- if it could help the suffering Africans.
  • Bonhoeffer did not like getting involved in the plot to kill Hitler, but for the sake of the suffering Jews, he did what he thought he must.
  • Bonhoeffer even thought what he was doing might be sinful, but he knew doing nothing was the greater sin. And he cast himself on God's mercy.
  • Many friends sat out voting for McCain and Romney, giving us eight years of unconstitutional over-reach, secularist legislation, and more.
  • This is not a time for being so "heavenly-minded" we are no "earthly good." Not to act is to act. Not to vote is to vote. Please reconsider.

As with Grudem's appeal, there are three main issues being argued for here: a vote for life, a vote for religious liberty, and a vote for conservative Supreme Court justices. Metaxas was able to say it in much fewer words.

Also like Grudem, Metaxas took some shots at those who are not voting for Trump. The very title of Grudem's article implies that not voting for Trump is morally wrong. So in Grudem's eyes, I am doing something immoral because I am not going to vote for Donald Trump. Likewise, Metaxas believes I selfishly care less about the unborn than I do my own "witness" or my "conscience."

What's worse though -- I shuddered at reading it -- is he's actually asking people to sin and vote for Trump; though it "might be sinful." The ethics of Bonhoeffer aside, the Bible says not to "do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating does not come from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Romans 14:21-23). His whole appeal disregards the principles given in Romans 14.

This idea that voting for Trump will save the unborn, preserve religious liberty, and result in conservative Supreme Court justices is nothing more than wishful-thinking. There is zero evidence to believe any of these things will ever happen. Really, how long have politics been around? Have we forgotten how all of this works? Ronald Reagan once joked, "It's been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first." (In case you don't get the joke, the first oldest profession is said to be prostitution.)

You judge a candidate more by their record than by the words they're spewing to appease constituents at a rally. Though Trump has never held public office, he still has a history. And when you look into that history, there's more reason to believe he's a Trojan Horse than a preservative in the life of America.

The Big Gamble

In the March 5, 2016 edition of World, there was an article written by Jamie Dean entitled The Big Gamble that took a look at Trump's history with Atlantic City. He made lots of fantastic promises. He promised he would "make Atlantic City great." On April 2, 1990, he walked out on the iconic Boardwalk to Survivor's Eye of the Tiger, like he's done at rallies now. People flocked to see him, all hyped up on the big promises he brought to the Vegas of the East.

By 2009, he had declared bankruptcy on his casino enterprise for a fourth time. He once owned several casinos, and one building still bears his namesake with TRUMP written in big, red letters. But all he owns now is a small portion of the Taj Mahal. The Taj and all its debt was bought out by a billionaire friend after the company went into bankruptcy in 2014.

Once the largest casino complex in the world -- with "gold doorknobs, marble countertops, $14 million worth of chandeliers, and bell hops wearing $1,500 turbans" -- all the money spent on the Taj Mahal has been unsustainable, and efforts to revive the business have failed. At one of last year's presidential debates, Trump thumped, "I had the good sense to leave Atlantic City. I left Atlantic City before it totally cratered. And I made a lot of money in Atlantic City, and I'm very proud of it."

According to Dean, "Those left behind weren't as proud. Indeed, Trump's company left local contractors, vendors, and low-level investors with pennies on the dollar when his enterprises declared bankruptcy. 'He had stiffed hundreds of local businesses and left them with financial claims that they would never recover,' Steven Perskie, a former state lawmaker, told NJ Advance Media last fall."

About 30 percent of Atlantic City residents now live below the poverty line, more than double the national average. "The town is $400 million in debt," Dean reported. "New Jersey legislators are considering a state takeover of the famed city. The casinos aren't immune. Along Pacific Avenue, four of the former gambling giants sit shuttered and empty, like monuments to a bet lost on high stakes."

Ladies and gentlemen, Donald Trump's America.

Well that went well...

In addition to his Atlantic City record, Trump is a long-time friend of the Clinton's. He and his son, Donald Trump Jr., gave money to then-Senator Hillary Clinton in 2002, 05, 06, and 07. It's been shown many times how Trump has given at least $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation. Hillary attended Trump's wedding to Melania in 2005. Overall, he's given many more dollars to baby-killing democrats than he ever gave to republicans.

For most of his life, Trump has been pro-abortion and a supporter of partial-birth abortion. In April, the Washington Post did a break-down of Trump's record on abortion, and noted that he took five different positions over the course of three days. That's very, very significant. It shows us that Trump does not know what it means to be pro-life.

When Trump is pressed on his presumably pro-life ethic, he has no idea how to answer because his ethics aren't what he says they are. Have those on the side of life ever asked him hard questions on his moral position? In that confab with evangelical leaders back in July, did they ever actually press him to clearly state his values asking tough questions, or did they merely hear him say "I'm pro-life," and accept it as though lip-service is the tell-tale sign of the heart?

"But Pastor, the Bible says out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks!" Sure, with evil. In Matthew 12:34, Jesus said, "You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." Elsewhere the Bible says, "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips" (Romans 3:13). Trump's character is evident and testable. He is not an honest man.

If the value of life is so important to Grudem and Metaxas the way they say it isn't as important to me, then why are they merely taking Trump at his word and insisting that other Christians do the same, rather than demanding hard evidence that he values life the way he claims he does? Why is the burden of proof on me, the voter, and not on Donald Trump, the candidate? "But Pastor, he gave a list of nominees he would appoint to the Supreme Court, and it's a pro-lifer's dream panel!" Yes, that's called appeasing his constituency. That's not hard evidence.

Trump has done nothing to show he's pro-life except say that he is. When you listen to all the words around that claim, he has no idea what it means to be pro-life; therefore, he can make no significant strides to protect life. Think about it: Ronald Regan, George Bush Sr., and George W. Bush all had a history of being pro-life, and yet Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. Bush Jr.'s Chief Justice appointment, John Roberts, is the reason why Obamacare is the law of the land. What makes you think Trump is going to do more and make better decisions than they did?

Trump is so bad at understanding anything about being pro-life, he still thinks Planned Parenthood does good work -- and said this in the summer that Planned Parenthood was being exposed by David Daleiden as harvesting human organs for profit.

Absent from the Republican National Convention in July was any mention of fighting for the unborn. Donald Trump said more about fighting for LGBTQ issues than he did about the sanctity of human life, which was nothing. We have no reason to believe Trump's appointment as president will make any kind of dent in the slaughter of the unborn. We have every reason to believe he would be just another liberal president. Or worse.

How About Not Gambling At All?

Since based on Trump's record and his character there's no good reason to vote for him, that then leaves the debate up to this: "Well, at least Trump is not Hillary Clinton, and Hillary's America would be worse!" Really? I'm not convinced. Like I said, pick your poison: will it be strychnine or cyanide? Both of them are deadly choices for America in their own ways.

"So we should just vote for no one then?" Why not? To borrow from Bullington: What if the best thing for this nation is for Christians to stand with integrity and show the world that they won't vote for any 'ol lawless demagogue simply because they have an "R" by their name? Contrary to Metaxas' appeal, there is no such thing as being "so 'heavenly minded' we are no 'earthly good.'" That is a lie from the pit of hell.

Paul said to the Colossians, "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the thing that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ" (Colossians 3:1-3, 23-24).

He said to the Philippians, "Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself" (Philippians 3:17-21).

There are more ways to change this country than voting for President of the United States. Continue to stand forth with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the gospel that has the power to transform and save lives. Be hated by the world not because you're a Trumpkin but because you're a Christian. "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived" (2 Timothy 3:12-13).

If you're shilling for Donald Trump, you are being deceived. You've got to understand he is using you, just like he used Atlantic City. When it's no longer profitable for him, he'll drop you in a gutter. His record confirms it. You don't have to do a lot of digging to realize he already thinks very little of you.

Remember though, there will be other matters on the November 8 ballot than who will be President. Know what's on your state's ballot, who the candidates are, and where they stand on the issues. I don't vote for anyone who's not pro-life. I believe all persons are made in the image of God and that I am to judge righteously, speaking up for the mute and defending the rights of the destitute (Proverbs 31:8-9). Life is the first unalienable right in the Declaration of Independence. If a candidate won't defend life, they won't be principled on any other issue.

I'll be making check-marks on November 8 (or filling in circles or pressing a touch-screen or whatever my district will be doing). But I won't make any mark for President of the United States. Maybe I'll write-in a name. That's a fair protest, too.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Ben-Hur 1959 v Ben-Hur 2016: A Pastor's Review

One title. Two movies. Okay, actually it's three movies. Hang on, let me double-check that... There were four Ben-Hur movies? I guess one of them is listed as a short-film. The three-and-a-half movies called Ben-Hur are based on an 1880 novel entitled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. I haven't read the book. But I've now seen at least two of the several movies it spawned.

The Ben-Hur most people are familiar with is the 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler. For almost 40 years, it was the only movie to win 11 Oscars at the Academy Awards (until Titanic matched it and later Return of the King). It's a theatrical epic in two acts separated by an intermission given its almost four-hour run-time.

The new adaptation of Ben-Hur is produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett (I've written on their Bible-bending before), starring Jack Huston in the title role, and is directed by Timur Bekmambetov whose most notable credit is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The movie cuts a lot of material from its predecessor and writes in some of its own (I'm talking about Ben-Hur now, not Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).

I watched both movies this week. It'd been quite a while since I'd seen the 1959 original... er, first remake... second remake? Anyway, despite borrowing from the same source material, they're two very different films and deserve their own reviews. They both have their own strengths and their own weaknesses. Yes, despite being an Oscar decorated epic, the Ben-Hur of 59 has its flaws.

For the sake of avoiding confusion, I'll be referring to the two films as Ben-Hur59 and Ben-Hur16 from here on out. First, a review of the most classic film...

Ben-Hur (1959)

The movie begins with the birth of Christ. Three wise men follow a star to a stable in Bethlehem where they find the baby Jesus and present him with their gifts. Balthasar, one of the magi, is also the narrator of the story. He comes back up later on looking for the child who has since become a man, and encourages Judah to search with him.

Fast-forward to about 26 A.D. when Judah Ben-Hur's childhood friend, Messala, returns to Jerusalem as a Roman Tribune. Messala is played by Stephen Boyd, and boy does he have the googly eyes for Charlton Heston's Judah. The bromance on Messala's part seems a little more than friendly. He even throws in a line about their "unrequited love."

Rumors have swirled about a homosexual subtext. In 1995, one of the film's contributing writers, Gore Vidal, revealed that they had envisioned a homosexual backstory in the relationship of Judah and Messala to explain why it was so easy for Messala to turn on Judah. Heston, a staunch conservative, was never in on it, but Boyd was.

Great googly moogly!

Many have dismissed Vidal's story as being made-up, just stirring up controversy in the 90s. Perhaps he was playing off Boyd's overacting (Boyd died in 1977, so we didn't get to hear his side). But even if Vidal was telling the truth, I don't really have a problem with seeing Messala as having some kind of desire for Judah beyond friendship. He was a Roman. Depravity was kind of their thing. Maybe Messala wanted more out of his relationship with Judah. At one point, he talks to Judah about coming back to Rome with him.

Judah is not as taken by Messala's offers. He's downright insulted by the suggestion that the Roman occupation is a good thing. Refusing to help Messala tame the Jews, Judah's frustration is sold well by Charlton Heston. A clear rift occurs in Messala and Judah's friendship and neither one can trust the other (this split isn't as obvious in Ben-Hur16).

Later, Judah is wrongly accused of an assassination attempt on a Roman official and he and his mother and sister are arrested. Judah is banished to the Roman galleys for life, where he'll row the oars for Roman battle ships. During his slave trek across the desert, they come to a town where the prisoners are allowed to get a drink. The water passes Judah who falls to the ground and prays to God for relief. A man walks up and gives Judah a drink. That man is Jesus. But his face is never seen and his voice is never heard in any of his appearances throughout the film (I like that touch).

Judah spends years rowing Roman ships, earning a spot on the flagship of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius. During a battle on the sea, the ship is rammed and destroyed. Judah saves Quintus from drowning, who then also tries to kill himself, but Judah prevents his suicide, too. Quintus would not only set Judah free, he would adopt Judah as his heir and give him the name Arrius.

Now a Roman citizen, Judah has a successful career racing chariots. But despite his fame and fortune, he longs to go back to Jerusalem and find out what happened to his mother and sister. Upon his return, Esther (his romantic interest) tells Judah that his mother and sister are dead. This enrages Judah all the more to seek revenge on Messala. He comes into the company of an Arab Sheik named Ilderim who breeds race horses and bets on them. Judah decides to race the Sheik's horses in the Roman Circus, and it's there he'll get vengeance against Messala.

The chariot racing scene is gorgeous, the part of the film the movie is most famous for. To cut to the quick, Judah beats Messala who's trampled by horses at the end of the race. With his dying breath, Messala tells Judah that his mother and sister aren't dead but are lepers living in a leper colony. As he dies, Messala says, "The race goes on," still trying to agonize the heart of Judah.

Judah sees people flocking to hear Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He refuses to go with them, but Esther does and desires to hear the words of this great teacher. Tensions arise in Judah and Esther's romance because Judah still can't let go of his hate.

When he finally retrieves his mother and his sister, he decides this Jesus of Nazareth can help them. But by the time he brings them to him, he's being led down the road with a cross to Golgotha. Jesus stumbles and Judah goes to take him water just as Jesus did for him years before, but the guards prevent Jesus from drinking any. Judah follows all the way to Golgotha where he watches Jesus being crucified.

Meanwhile, Judah's mother and sister are with Esther. Upon the death of Jesus, the sky darkens and during a storm the rain cures them of their leprosy. Judah returns home to tell Esther what he'd witnessed. He sees his mother and sister are cured, and they all lived happily ever after.

Maybe this is where Michael W. Smith got the idea for "Healing Rain."

Ben-Hur is an epic and every shot is beautifully filmed, but very slow-moving contributing to its nearly four-hour run-time (there's a musical prelude and a built-in intermission). This was at a time though when you couldn't rent a movie and take it home. Going to the movies was like going to a play. Its slow pace is part of what gives the movie its grandeur. But as much praise as the movie receives even among Christians, it's not without its problems.

All the Jews in this movie are quite white and very westernized. Then there's the Arab character Sheik Ilderim played by English actor Hugh Griffith in brown-face (he won an Academy Award for the role). Speaking of faces, though the face of Jesus is never seen in the movie, he's still clearly a light-haired white dude. Everyone who looks at him is also quite taken with him when the Bible says he was nothing to look at (Isaiah 53:2).

That huge, iconic chariot race? It takes place in Jerusalem. Come on, that's just lazy storytelling. There was no massive colosseum nor chariot racing in Jerusalem. How hard would it have been to write that Judah went back to Rome for the chance to race Messala and get revenge? That's way less far-fetched than Roman chariot racing in Jerusalem.

Edit: Well, I sit corrected! Though ruins of a hippodrome were never found near Jerusalem, there was a one in Caesarea, northwest of Jerusalem along the Mediterranean. It looks to have been a gorgeous sight, watching chariot races against an ocean-view backdrop. Caesarea is mentioned in Acts 8-12, and was also where Paul was brought to trial before Felix and Agrippa.

The film ends with the crucifixion of Christ, not his resurrection. I hadn't seen the movie since I was in college, and I could have sworn the film ended on resurrection Sunday morning. Nope. Judah sees Jesus die, his mother and sister are cured of their leprosy, and then the closing shot is of shepherds herding sheep past an empty cross. There's a reference in the dialogue to Jesus dying for the whole world, but no mention of his conquering death.

At one point, Balthasar tells Judah, "There are many paths to God. I hope that yours will not be too difficult." It's hard to tell if Balthasar meant that in the theological sense or in a more personal sense. If it was theological, then it's the same nonsense as Oprah's theology: "There are millions of ways to God." There's only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6).

But Balthasar could also have meant that some people come to know the Lord soon and others go through more difficult trials before God delivers them up and shows them the error of their ways. Considering how much movie was left and that Judah would still go through an act of revenge and find himself unsatisfied, that's a plausible interpretation. I don't want to give the film too much credit though because the writers were biblically ignorant on a number of fronts.

When Judah finally returns to Esther after seeing Jesus crucified, he tells her he heard him say, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Judah says of the experience, "I could feel the sword being taken from my hand," suggesting that he no longer feels the rage and the hate for what happened to him and his family. But next, Judah sees his cured mother and sister, and that's the end of the thought.

That was a great opportunity to conclude the film with repentance! The filmmakers really could have fleshed that out more. Christ had delivered Judah from his sins. But the "sword being taken from my hand" line was really as far as the movie took it. To find any gospel in Ben-Hur, you'd have to fill in the blanks yourself. It's not a gospel story.

Brace yourselves!

Ben-Hur (2016)

Let me first say that I will be really happy when this shakey-cam generation of making movies comes to an end. While Ben-Hur59 is bold and beautiful, Ben-Hur16 tries to cover up its short-comings by jostling the camera like a drunk with Parkinson's riding on a galloping horse.

Unlike Ben-Hur59 which began with the birth of Christ, Ben-Hur16 begins with a portion of the chariot race. The action then shifts to Judah and Messala racing one another as friends. Judah topples from his horse and is injured and Messala saves his life. The Judah and Messala of this story are brothers as Messala was adopted and grew up in the house of Hur.

Messala is trying to escape a dark mark on his past, one that involves his grandfather who was a traitor to the Romans. In order to make something of himself, he feels like he needs to leave and head for Rome, where through military accomplishment he becomes a Tribune. Judah, meanwhile, marries a servant girl named Esther.

When the Romans occupy Jerusalem, Messala comes back into Judah's company and the two brothers rekindle an old friendship. But Messala, now a Roman Tribune, wants Judah to assist him in outing the zealots that seek to stir up trouble, and Judah refuses to name names. This is the only meaningful and witty conversation between two characters in the entire film.

Toby Kebbell's Messala is significantly more compelling than Jack Huston's Judah, who's kind of a blank-slate of a man. But neither actor gives anywhere near the performance that Boyd and Heston did before them. Boyd gave Messala's character that truly sinister touch, and you can feel Heston's rage -- even when he's not talking, it's there in his eyes. But Kebbell and Huston give wooden performances that surely aren't helped by a shallow script.

According to Gore Vidal, Ben-Hur59 needed a reason for Messala to betray Judah so easily, so they presumably wrote in the whole homosexual undertone thing. Well, in this movie, it's a combination of Messala's dead grandfather and a nagging officer named Marcus that's always trying to get Judah to do the Roman thing lest he become a traitor like his grandfather. But there are enough elements happening in the movie that the story doesn't need Messala's dead grandfather and the annoying officer.

After Judah is wrongly accused of an assassination attempt, he confesses to the crime so the guards would let his sister and mother go. At that point, the case is closed. There's no need for Messala to have a backstory for his anger. Judah's given him a reason. It would actually be merciful for Messala to not kill him on the spot and instead banish him to the galleys. That would be totally fitting for the character as he was created for this film. But whatever. Lazy writing.

As Judah is being taken away to the galleys, he stumbles on the road and that's when Jesus shows up to give him a drink. Jesus made an appearance earlier when Judah and Esther were in the market. While the Jesus in Ben-Hur59 is faceless, that's not the case in Ben-Hur16. Handsome Rodrigo Santoro's Jesus is the low point of the film. Everything he says is forced and senseless, and the other characters' reaction to him doesn't make any sense either.

There's a scene where a man is being stoned, and Jesus runs in and covers up the man to protect him. He tells the people to stop throwing stones because this man is "your neighbor" and you're supposed to love your neighbor. He says, "Hate and fear are lies that turn us against each other." Then he says, "Love is our true nature."

Uh, no. Jesus never said such a thing. He straight-up called men evil (Matthew 7:11, 12:34, 15:19, 16:4). That is our true nature. Jesus came to die for our sins, satisfying the wrath of God burning against our unrighteousness. For those who are in Christ, we who are evil are received by God as righteous because of what Christ has done. He covers our evil nature with his own good nature. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift (Romans 3:23-24).

The most beautiful part of the movie is when Judah is in the boat rowing and there's the war at sea. We see almost everything from Judah's perspective. It's so well done, I was going, "Man, this movie's turning out to be pretty good!" But that's the high-point. It's all down-hill from there. Judah never saves Quintus like he did in Ben-Hur59 which was odd because Quintus is played by James Cosmo of Braveheart fame. Cosmo is in the movie for like a blink, and then he's gone. What a waste of a good actor.

Judah washes up on a shore and is found by Morgan Freeman who mails in his part as Sheik Ilderim. Really, he's not even trying. He's just there to be Morgan Freeman. He had a better character voice for Azeem in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and that was a movie full of terrible accents.

And what's with the dreadlocks in Downey and Burnett's Bible stories?

Incredibly, Judah knows how to race chariot horses. In Ben-Hur59, it was established that he was an experienced and winning chariot racer. In Ben-Hur16, he's never raced a chariot one time, and suddenly he's going to take on the best in the world including the undefeated Messala. Like in Ben-Hur59, that race takes place in Jerusalem. But in Ben-Hur16, the chariot race takes place during the week between Palm Sunday and Jesus's crucifixion!

The race is pretty action-packed and climactic, but it's not as beautiful or as awesome as the chariot race in Ben-Hur59. The two don't even compare. Captain Shakey-Cam tries to cover up all the bad CGI and lack of grand scale. I won't say it's all bad. There were some good shots. The conclusion to the race was pretty awesome, too, with some foreshadowing leading up to it. Of course Judah wins, and what he thinks is Messala's corpse is paraded around as the loser.

The rest of the movie is rather rushed. Judah encounters Jesus on the road to Golgotha and tries to give him water. He weeps at the cross after hearing Jesus say, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Esther weeps with him and they have an I'm-sorry-let's-be-romantic-again moment (the chemistry is never there -- they're just two good-looking actors). In muffled dialogue, Judah says, "My brother is dead," and Esther replies, "Just have faith."

Sure enough, Messala is still alive. He's laying on a bed with an amputated leg he lost in the chariot crash. Judah approaches him and Messala curses him, promising revenge and is ready to run him through with a knife he's holding. But instead the two embrace and hug and cry and forgive each other. Like, in about 5 seconds. Judah doesn't even break stride when approaching him. Just like that, Messala went from ready to kill Judah to hugging and crying.

The movie doesn't end there. There's an even cheesier moment where Judah and his mother and sister (who were cured of their leprosy in a random cut-scene, just to get that part in there) are riding on horses. Messala is there and Esther and Morgan Freeman. At one point Judah looks back, I guess to see if Morgan Freeman is still part of his company. Freeman says, "Don't look back, Judah. Look forward. You have your whole life ahead of you." Oh, boy. Like the other Ben-Hur movie, if you want to find any gospel in this movie, you need to fill in the blanks yourself.

In Conclusion

It would seem likely for me to end this review by saying that you need to watch the 1959 Ben-Hur instead of the 2016 Ben-Hur. But as I said, save for certain plot points, the movies are so vastly different they're almost incomparable. Just don't watch either movie expecting to see a Bible story. Jesus exists in both films as a gimmick. Don't be naive; this is to make money, not preach some kind of message and definitely not to preach anything biblically sound.

The Ben-Hur of 1959 is an iconic piece of movie history. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it an 8. The Ben-Hur of 2016 is even more of a cash-grab and a mediocre serving of the shakey-cam action films of our generation. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it a 5. The action saves the movie from being any less than that. The acting and the story keep it from being any more than that. The parts of the Bible that are butchered and wedged in there make it worth nothing.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: Putting the Next 10 Popular Church Songs to the Test

According to Mark Dever's ministry 9 Marks, there is a distinct difference between a song that is written for the purpose of congregational worship, and a song that is written as a performance piece. "Performance music can focus our attention on the performers, or even the music, rather than God" and it can "wrongly encourage a culture of passivity and entertainment."

I've watched countless "worship" videos starring a young, stylish band illuminated by incredible lighting and set-design while the audience is shrouded in black with silhouetted hands in the air. If you were to mute the video, you would not be able to tell the difference between that and any secular band singing love ballads. Strictly by appearances, the attention is directed entirely on the performer. A certain atmosphere is being manufactured. And it's not perceived as an atmosphere for worshiping God as the people of God.

If those artists want to put on concerts that people pay money to go and attend, and they want to use their God-given talents to sing praises to our King, great! Buy their CDs and sing along if that's the music you like. Let it flow from a heart with a desire to praise God and you've got a great worship soundtrack. But that doesn't mean those songs belong in corporate worship. They were crafted with performance in mind or to fit the mold of what radio singles are supposed to sound like.

Some bands like Bethel Church and Jesus Culture should be avoided altogether -- whether we're talking about private or corporate worship or just being entertained. But there are sound musicians (no pun intended) who are going to write some genuinely meaningful worship songs. We must be as discerning with the music we sing in church and who's writing it as we should be with who's preaching the sermon, a point I've desired to direct hearts in understanding over the course of the last two blogs.

As 9 Marks goes on to say, "While it seems that some performed music is within the bounds of addressing one another in song (Ephesians 5:19), churches in the West today may do well to minimize performance and maximize congregational singing."

In the first blog, I reviewed CCLI's Top 10 most popular praise and worship songs sung in churches, then I responded to some comments received from that blog. This week, we're looking at the next ten songs on that list. The title of the song is a link to a video of the song if you'd like to hear it. As with that first article, we start this list with a song that has "Amazing Grace" in the title...

11) "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)" by Chris Tomlin, John Newton, and Louie Giglio.
From his 2006 album See the Morning, Tomlin took John Newton's 1779 classic and added a chorus and closing verse. The song was used to promote the film Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, a student of Newton's, who successfully led the charge to abolish slavery in England.

Good Lyrics
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see." Tomlin and Giglio's chorus is just an added compliment: "My chains are gone, I've been set free. My God, my Savior, has ransomed me. And like a flood, His mercy reigns. Amazing love, amazing grace."

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
Why should it not? So long as a church is not replacing the Newton classic. As great as Tomlin and Giglio's version is, there are two verses of the classic hymn that are not in My Chains Are Gone. Let them not be forgotten. There's a reason why Amazing Grace is considered by many to be the greatest hymn of all time. It was the doctrines of grace that overwhelmed a former slave ship captain, in view of God's mercy, to write his famous song. By the way, if you haven't seen it yet, you should watch the film Amazing Grace.

12) "One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails)" by Brian Johnson, Christa Black Gifford, and Jeremy Riddle.
Another from the Bethel Church catalog, the song was recorded in 2010 by Jesus Culture. It was also recorded by Passion, Louie Giglio's group, on a 2012 album entitled White Flag. It's a simple and very repetitive tune. And on and on and on and on it goes...

Good Lyrics
As with the tune Holy Spirit that I reviewed two weeks ago, there are lines that sound good, but given their context and realizing that the song is devoid of any sound theological substance, it's difficult to appreciate anything about the song.

Questionable Lyrics
Maybe not questionable, but that chorus is really obnoxious. It's 13 words repeated over and over and over again. The irony is that the song actually incorporates the line, "And on and on and on and on it goes" (hence my joke in the description of the song). There's no good reason for this song to go on for longer than 3 minutes. But there's a version that lasts for twelve.

Should the song be sung in your church?
Heavens, no. I've already said why Bethel Church and Jesus Culture songs should never be done in your church. It doesn't matter if you hear something godly in their songs -- what they're singing about isn't God. The Holy Spirit is to Jesus Culture what Jesus Christ is to Mormonism. Mormons worship a different Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible, and Bethel Church sings about a different Holy Spirit. Shin-slapping worship pastor Jenn Johnson thinks he's like the Genie from Aladdin. Maybe he's voiced by Robin Williams, too.

13) "Revelation Song" by Jennie Lee Riddle.
The song made its debut in 2008 on a Gateway Worship recording, Wake Up the World, sung by Kari Jobe (I became familiar with both Jobe and Revelation Song at the same time). It received widespread acclaim when it was recorded by Phillips, Craig, and Dean in 2009, and became a hit radio single.

Good Lyrics
The first couple lines of the chorus are taken right from Revelation 4:8, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty, who was and is and is to come." I also like the verse, "Filled with wonder, awestruck wonder, at the mention of Your name. Jesus Your name is power, breath, and living water, such a marvelous mystery." It's the same four-chord sequence repeated throughout and the lyrics never rhyme, but the song still manages to be powerful and catchy.

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
It's a good song. I've met Mrs. Riddle. She was a nice lady. I don't know much about her theology or what church she attends. It seems she writes songs for whoever will sing them. A song's worth can't always be measured by who's sung it. Though it was made famous by Phillips, Craig, and Dean, a trio of heretical pastors who deny the Trinity, they didn't write it. No Christian radio station should be playing PC&D. There are plenty of other versions of Revelation Song out there.

14) "Forever Reign" by Jason Ingram and Reuben Morgan.
The song made its debut in 2010 on three different albums by two different bands. Though it's most well-known as a Hillsong tune (Morgan is one of their worship pastors), it was first recorded and performed by Ingram's band, One Sonic Society.

Good Lyrics
The song opens, "You are good, You are good, and there's nothing good in me." Yeah, I love it. That's me. (Interesting to note that One Sonic Society's version is "and there's nothing good in me," while Hillsong's is, "when there's nothing good in me.") There are other good lines in the verses like, "You are truth, even in my wandering" and "You are life, in You death has lost its sting." The end of the second verse drives it home: "You are God, of all else I'm letting go." The bridge is one of the catchiest parts: "My heart will sing, no other name, Jesus, Jesus."

Questionable Lyrics
That chorus gets into romantic-Jesus-song territory: "I'm running to your arms, I'm running to your arms, the riches of your love will always be enough. Nothing compares to your embrace." But I suppose it's resolved with the last part: "Light of the world, forever reign." Apart from the very opening line, the song doesn't have a lot of theological richness to it.

Should the song be sung in your church?
My honest opinion: No. I think the song falls more in the realm of performance piece rather than congregational worship. It's fine and it's worshipful. I've sung it in church before, though it's been a few years. I like the song. But it's a radio single. Stick to singing it in your car. Your church service will not be missing anything because you're not singing "I'm running to your arms, I'm running to your arms" on Sunday morning.

15) "Blessed Be Your Name" by Matt and Beth Redman.
The song was first recorded in 2002 on Redman's album Where Angels Fear to Tread, but it was made famous by South African band Tree63 released on their 2003 album The Answer to the Question. It was from that album Blessed Be Your Name was made a radio single.

Good Lyrics
The first verse begins "Blessed be your name, in the land that is plentiful, where your streams of abundance flow, blessed be your name." That's contrasted with the next part: "Blessed be your name, when I'm found in the desert place, though I walk through the wilderness, blessed be your name." The song does a masterful job of presenting times of blessing and times of struggle, and yet still being able to praise the name of the Lord. This is fully summarized in the bridge: "You give and take away, you give and take away. My heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name."

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
We do. It's an easy go-to for me when I need an opening song to get everyone in the sanctuary and into their seats. When I consider our modern worship era, if more songs were like Blessed Be Your Name, it would be a lot more difficult to argue that such songs aren't meaningful enough to fit in a church service. In a time when modern praise songs are thrown together more often than you're aware (consider the number of writers on the next song), this is a well-thought-out song. Whether you are in the greatest of moods or the deepest of dumps, Blessed Be Your Name is a heartfelt expression of worshiping God in all circumstances.

16) "Forever (We Sing Hallelujah)" by Brian Johnson, Christa Black Gifford, Gabriel Wilson, Jenn Johnson, Joel Taylor, Kari Jobe.
A fairly recent tune, the song made its first appearance in 2014 on Jobe's live album Majestic. Because it's a Kari Jobe song, you can find versions of it that exceed twelve minutes. There are also versions of it recorded by Bethel Church and Hillsong.

Good Lyrics
In the first verse, I like the line, "His body on the cross, his blood poured out for us. The weight of every curse upon him." I think of Galatians 3:13, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us -- for it is writen, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.'" The song builds through the pre-chorus and breaks out in the chorus: "Forever He is glorified. Forever He is lifted high. Forever He is risen. He is alive, He is alive!" It's a triumphant song.

Questionable Lyrics
Edit: I previously said, "none," but someone brought this interview to my attention. Jobe says that for her, the focus of the song was Jesus's time in hell. So when the song goes, "A battle in the grave, the war on death was waged, the power of hell forever broken," it's not being merely poetic. The song is about Jesus going to hell. That never happened. When he said, "It is finished," he meant it (John 19:30). When he told the thief next to him, "Today you will be with me in paradise," that's what happened (Luke 23:43). He did not go to hell. It's a false teaching.

Should the song be sung in your church?
As I wrote about in the last blog, whom we worship with matters. Because I know something about the writers and their theology, I would not be able in good conscience to lead my congregation in this song. Kari Jobe is more a performance artist than a worship leader, though that's her title at Gateway Church. She has a beautiful voice and a great stage presence, but she's a performer. Jobe keeps associations with Bethel Church and Jesus Culture, and has also led worship at Joyce Meyer and Beth Moore conferences. She's not theologically sound. Following Jobe and whom she fellowships with would lead a person away from the word of Christ and into speculations and false teaching.

17) "Everlasting God" by Brenton Brown and Ken Riley.
The song is the title cut of the debut album by Brenton Brown, released in 2006. The song is more widely known as Lincoln Brewster's from his album Let the Praises Ring released that same year. It's also a well-known song in the libraries of Chris Tomlin and Jeremy Camp.

Good Lyrics
"You are the everlasting God," which is repeated multiple times. I also like, "Our God, you reign forever. Our hope, our strong deliverer." Not a deep song, but its words are true.

Questionable Lyrics
The end of the chorus seems somewhat self-serving: "You're the defender of the weak, you comfort those in need, you lift us up on wings like eagles."

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure, if you can tolerate it being such a repetitive song. There's only one verse sung twice, and it contains 18 words repeated over and over again. Our God is a great God who is everlasting, doesn't faint or grow weary, and gives comfort and strength to those who wait on him. There's the whole song in one sentence. I think there are better songs you can pick from, but it's alright.

18) "Great Are You Lord" by Jason Ingram, David Leonard, and Leslie Jordan.
Wait, not Deb and Michael W. Smith? Oh, that would be Great Is the Lord. My bad. This song was written and recorded in 2013 by All Sons and Daughters (Lenoard, Jordan). There's also a version recorded by One Sonic Society (Ingram) which I prefer to the All Sons and Daughters version.

Good Lyrics
The very breath of God has been given to us who are created in his image. So I like the chorus, "It's your breath in our lungs so we pour out our praise." All Sons and Daughters like to sing those two-phrase repetitive choruses, so you get to sing "It's your breath in our lungs so we pour out our praise" a lot. I'm not sure why the title of the song isn't, "It's your breath in our lungs so we pour out our praise."

Questionable Lyrics

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure. I don't have anything else to add, so let me throw in a random story. There's a band on this list I got to sit in on a writing session with in 2012 at a church in Franklin, TN. They didn't know me; I was just at a certain place at the right time. We started out by reading Psalm 13, and I even threw out a suggestion for a line, but I don't remember what song they were writing to know if they used it and if I need to demand residuals (joke).

19) "This I Believe (The Creed)" by Ben Fielding and Matt Crocker.
This is one of the newer songs in CCLI's Top 20, debuting in July 2014 on Hillsong's album No Other Name. The song was never released as a radio single, so it was only last year that it began to take off. It's since received airplay and therefore has been a hit with many churches.

Good Lyrics
Solid chorus: "I believe in God our Father, I believe in Christ the Son, I believe in the Holy Spirit, our God is three in one. I believe in the resurrection, that we will rise again, for I believe in the name of Jesus." The song continues with affirmations of basic doctrinal truths.

Questionable Lyrics

Should this song be sung in your church?
Nope. As I said the first time around, nothing from Hillsong or Bethel should be sung in your church. We might share some basic doctrinal beliefs, but everything else that Hillsong teaches is far from a biblical foundation. Furthermore, when their events include a sleazy version of Silent Night, an appearance by Austin Powers, and a youth pastor imitating the Naked Cowboy, they are very poor witnesses of whatever biblical beliefs they might hold.

20) "Here I Am to Worship" by Tim Hughes.
You know this song. This is one of the pioneer songs of the praise and worship movement that exploded at the turn of the millennium. It debuted in 2001 on Hughes's album of the same name. When he wrote the song, he was inspired by the hymn of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11.

Good Lyrics
It's a solid song exalting of our Lord God, and humbly submits in the chorus, "Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you're my God. You're altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me."

Questionable Lyrics
In the second verse, we sing, "Humbly you came to the earth you created, all for love's sake became poor." Knowing that Hughes was inspired by Philippians 2, "all for love's sake" is rather vague. Philippians 2:11 specifically says Christ did all he did to the glory of God the Father. I'm being nit-picky because I know where the inspiration for the song came from.

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure. Hughes's theology is probably not great, as is the case of many of the modern praise and worship artists. But the song is alright. The lyrics direct the singer to the Lord, backed by a very simple melody that's easy to sing along with. Like How Great Is Our God, this is a song we'll probably be singing for a while.

Thank you for joining me for these reviews, and I hope they were beneficial to you. Later this week, I'll be reviewing Ben-Hur, the epic film from 1959 starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler. I'll then follow that up with a review of the new Ben-Hur remake, produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett of The Bible mini-series fame, hitting theaters this weekend.

Monday, August 8, 2016

In Response to Putting Popular Church Music to the Test

Last week I did a blog reviewing CCLI's Top 10 most popular praise songs sung in churches. I received some wonderful comments saying that the blog was very helpful. Most of the comments I read were in disagreement, though for the most part respectful (except for the guy who started "With all due respect" and then proceeded to bash his Southern Baptist stereotype).

The disagreement was largely due to my statements regarding Bethel Church and Hillsong, sacred cows in American evangelical music. In pursuit of holiness, this is an important topic that must be understood not according to personal tastes or styles, but according to Scripture. The following are some of the comments given in bold, and my response follows...

"Sounds like a church curmudgeon to me. I am not for dismissing church history and hymns, but I also don't want to dismiss everything that's not a hymn either. And I'm certainly not comfortable dismissing artists who have associations with Bethel or judging a song based on its number of writers, just like I follow Jesus even though he spent time with sinners and I read the Bible even though it was penned by a multitude of people."

Andrew, Tuscon, AZ

Giving the thumbs-up on four songs, thumbs-down on five, and leaving one kind of open-ended is being a church curmudgeon? Man, I wish I had that ratio of success with the curmudgeons I was dealing with when I first started leading worship!

First of all, I think it's clear the blog was not an endorsement of exclusively hymns. There are bad hymns, too, and feel-good hymns with no theological substance. Secondly, no songs were dismissed based on the number of writers. Such comments on my part were tongue-in-cheek. Cornerstone by Hillsong is Edward Mote's The Solid Rock with a different melody and added chorus made up of less than 20 words that took three more writers. Three writers are cashing royalty checks on the work done mostly by a dead guy. I think they can handle being made fun of a little bit.

I'm sorry you're not comfortable dismissing Bethel and those associated with them. Do you need a shoulder rub? A plush seat, Jen Hatmaker's blog, and a grande quad nonfat one-pump no-whip mocha? Do your ears itch? Do you need someone to scratch them for you? Because Bethel and their New Apostolic Reformation network of churches have a plethora of teachers willing to suit your passions (2 Timothy 4:3). Examine yourself to see if you're really in the faith -- unless you fail to meet the test (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Jesus loved sinners. Thank God, because I'm one of them. He hates false teaching (Revelation 2:6, 15). His most stern rebukes were reserved for the false teachers. He called them sons of hell who produced more sons of hell. "Beware the false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves," he said in the Sermon On the Mount.

Bethel Church and Jesus Culture are con-artists. Don't sing their songs. You are repeating the words of liars whose hearts are far from God, no matter how great you think their music sounds. I referenced only one example of their false teaching -- the whole manipulative gag with the glory clouds (emphasis on "gag"). Would a person indwelt with the Holy Spirit of God conjure up such lies? That one example is enough, but here's another in this next comment...

"My son was being exposed to Jesus Culture and although there are some okay lyrics (he played the guitar in the youth band), some/most are questionable. That being said, after a few CDs and some research, I was confronted with some biblical questions like, 'Dad, what is soaking or grave sucking?' Upon some Google searches we found out what it is and who does it. Bethel and Jesus Culture come from there. We spent the next few hours in Scripture and getting rid of some CDs. How many teens are led down this road because there is no discernment? Thank you for your article."

Robert, Houston, TX

Thank you, Robert. For those who don't know, "grave sucking" (also known as grave soaking or mantle grabbing) is the hyper-charismatic practice of pulling Holy Spirit powers from the bones of someone's grave. Supposedly when the body of a Spirit-empowered person dies, they leave behind their "mantle," the calling that God had for them in life and the anointing of the Holy Spirit they were given. By laying on that person's grave or placing your hands on their tombstone and praying, you are able to absorb that leftover spiritual power.

Said Bethel Church pastor Bill Johnson, "I believe it's possible for us to recover realms of anointing, realms of insight, realms of God that have been untended for decades simply by choosing to reclaim them and perpetuate them for future generations." Ah, yes. The triumph of the sovereign human will. The power of the Spirit apparently just lies around going to waste until some faithful Christian comes along and chooses to revive it. Behold, the power of God.

This is pagan necromancy hiding behind a Christian veneer. The Bible calls these things an abomination to the Lord (Deuteronomy 11:12). It's not a fun game or cute little spiritual fad. It will keep a person from the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21). Bill Johnson has preached on it in his sermons, Bethel encourages the practice on their website and shares testimonials about it, and church members post pictures of themselves soaking up graves.

Bill Johnson's wife, Beni, soaking the spirit-powers of Charles Finney.

Bethel's ministry Jesus Culture specifically targets youth, and it's mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings who get into this sucking graves thing. You don't think that singing their songs -- which theologically are either lite fare or downright abusive -- will open a person up to some of their demonic teachings? It sounds like Robert and his son have a good relationship that they could talk about these things. I've heard stories that begin like Robert's but end much worse.

"I so appreciate the intention of this article. Though I believe our worship needs to line up with the Scripture, I find that this is a bit cynical. I know there are lots of preachers/teachers/worship leaders who have some less than doctrinally sound ideas, but I think God still can and still does use people in spite of their spiritually incorrect ideas. Just because a person's doctrine may be off-base does not mean that we should avoid a song they wrote -- if the song lines up with the Word of God. This article is good food for thought."

Melanie, Alberta, Canada

When a person misuses the name of God or they use it to benefit themselves, what is that called? That's called blasphemy, and it's a very serious sin (Exodus 20:7). God has placed his name above all things (Psalm 138:2), and the name of Jesus above every other name (Philippians 2:9). His name is to be revered as holy (Psalm 103:1). If we know that a person's doctrine is clearly wrong and they misuse the name of God, do you think that we should be making their words ours in the context of worship?

I'm not talking about speculating or questioning their motives, nor am I talking about secondary doctrinal issues like their views on the end-times or covenant or baptism. We're talking about music-producing churches and songwriters that have very public platforms. We know what they openly teach and believe, we can test them according to the Scriptures, and we know what they believe is contrary to the word of God. Should their words be repeated as genuine worship if their beliefs are demonic?

If a doctrinally sound minister -- John Piper, let's say -- were to favorably quote Rob Bell, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Joseph Prince, or T.D. Jakes in his sermon just because one of those false teachers can manage a theologically salvageable thought every once in a while, Piper would not go unchallenged. But for whatever reason we don't hold worship leaders to the same standard. If Bill Johnson is a grave-sucking false teacher, why is Jeremy Riddle not?

Let me ask another question: Is holiness important? I hope your answer is yes. Then pursue holiness. Desire what is pure. David said that the one who ascends the hill of the Lord is "He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully" (Psalm 24:4). Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8).

The Apostle Paul said, "Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22). Let me repeat that again: "along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart." Doesn't that include our worship leaders?

When I became the worship leader at my church, I had to be ordained as a pastor. I went through the ordination process and the testing for that ordination just like any pastor would. I'm grateful to the senior pastor at that time who cared enough about solid teaching that he wanted even his worship leader to be as sound and as tested as the teachers. I'm not arguing that all worship leaders should be ordained. But they should certainly be tested with greater scrutiny than just, "Ooh, they're talented and they sing songs I like!"

You call me cynical. As God is my witness, this is the desire of my heart: "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5). If the Spirit of God uses a false teacher to lead a person to Christ, it is in spite of that teacher, not because of them.

"The problem with analysis like this is that these songs were not written as sermons; they express a songwriter's spiritual connection to God, and the resulting emotions. If you take them for what they are intended to be, there is nothing wrong with them. If you're using them as a resource for a theology class, then no... it's not going to work. That said, there are contemporary Christian songs with lyrics that are flat-out stupid, and I avoid those when selecting songs for our band to play. Even stuff that's borderline I will avoid. I'm glad the author of this article isn't throwing the baby out with the bath water because there are some very good biblically-sound contemporary worship songs."

Michael, Winchester, VA

That comment was like making a sandwich with sourdough bread on top and coffee cake on the bottom. "Well that doesn't make sense." Yeah, exactly. If you're opening your mouth and talking about God, you are being theological. If what you are saying is not rooted in historical biblical orthodoxy, then you're probably being a heretic. The sermon is theology. The music is theology. Both are required to be good theology. Required.

Paul emphatically instructed Timothy not to let anyone teach any different doctrine, or to teach myths or speculations, but only that which flows from the gospel and produces godliness (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 6:3). He told Titus to hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught so that he may give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Not just correct false teaching -- rebuke those whose doctrine contradicts the true word of the Lord Christ.

The Apostle expressly said to the Ephesians and Colossians that we are to teach each other even in the songs we sing. Colossians 3:16 says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." It is from a heart indwelt with the word of Christ that we sing acceptable praises to our God.

The Apostle Peter said it's the ignorant and unstable who twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). That can be done in a song just as easily as it can be done in a sermon. The purpose of the music is not to stir the emotions. It can do that, but it's not the point. We sing to glorify God. Let the Spirit do His work. He doesn't need help. You be faithful to the Scriptures.

"Thank you so much for these reviews. I've often wondered about singing good songs which come out of bad or questionable churches or writers (eg: Bethel) and you cleared this up for me quite nicely. I'll be a bit more selective from now on. Any chance you could add a list of a few more good or sound modern songs? Any comments on Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)?"

Graham, Capetown, South Africa

Hey, Graham! You got it. Next week I'm planning on covering the next ten songs on CCLI's list. At number eleven is Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone). So not to keep you in suspense, I think it's a great song. Other praise choruses in that next set include Revelation Song, Forever Reign, and Blessed Be Your Name. I should have it up on Monday.