Monday, March 13, 2017

Lies We Believe About God (a review of the new book by The Shack author William Paul Young)


Hot on the release of the mediocre film The Shack (18% approval rating by critics on Rotten Tomatoes, 6.8 viewer rating on IMDb), the book's author William Paul Young has released Lies We Believe About God. It came out March 7, less than a week after The Shack hit theaters.

If there was any question about Young's theology, this book leaves no doubt. Personally, I had no questions about what Young believes about God -- it's all in The Shack. But this hasn't stopped scores of people from defending the book/movie as "just a story." For example, rapper Lecrae, featured on the film's soundtrack, defended it as just fiction and not theology, as though fiction gets a pass when it comes to the scrutiny God commands we are to give everything (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Aside from the fact that any talk about God is theology, Young has outright said The Shack is theology. In the forward to C. Baxter Kruger's book The Shack Revisited, Young wrote, "Please don't misunderstand me; The Shack is theology. But it is theology wrapped in story, the word becoming flesh and living inside the blood and bones of common human experience." (This is the quote given in the WWUTT video on The Shack vs The Bible.)

Kruger returned the favor by writing the forward to Young's book Lies We Believe About God. And it's a really weird forward. It's almost as if Kruger is saying, "I know the stuff you're going to read in this book is kind of wonky, but I can verify that William Paul Young is still a Christian!" In actuality, Young in his own words exposes himself as a heretic. Again, we shouldn't be surprised. He already did this in The Shack.

All of Young's chapters in the book are "lies we believe about God." There are 28 of them, chock full of man-centered doctrine. It's not kind-of man-centered. It's all man-centered. Here are ten of the titles of these chapters and the theology they contain. Again, the titles are all "lies" Young says most people believe about God.

"God is good, I am not." 
And again, I must emphasize Young believes this is a lie. He goes as far as saying that there are pastors who are allowed to stand in their pulpits and preach this lie that people are not good. Young has a tenuous relationship with the Bible. Sometimes entire chapters of his don't contain a single verse. So we don't know how Young deals with passages like Romans 3:12 which says, "No one does good," or verse 23 which says, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Young repeats the liberal theological trope that everything God makes is good, and since I'm made in the image of God, I am good. But he misses the reality of original sin: since Adam, we have taken that image and desecrated it with our sin, exalting ourselves in the place of God, and for that we deserve His holy and divine wrath. Jesus, the only good man there ever was, satisfied the wrath of God with His sacrifice on the cross. All who believe in Jesus will live. That gospel message does not exist in Young's theology.

"God is in control." 
Yes, Young actually believes that God is not in control. He says, "God has the creative audacity to build purpose out of the evil we generate, but that will never justify what is wrong. Nothing, not even the salvation of the entire cosmos, could ever justify a horrific torture device called a 'cross.'" Does Young just not know that the Bible addresses this very thing? Peter preached at Pentecost, "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23). God foreordains, but this in no way absolves men from the guilt of his evil acts. What we mean for evil, God always means for good (Genesis 50:20). We are responsible to turn from sin and to Christ for forgiveness.

"God does not submit."
Young comes back over and over to the fact that we are created in the image of God and proceeds to draw false conclusions: Since I'm made in God's image, whatever I'm like, God must be like that. Since I have to submit, then God also has to submit. Young also believes the Father submits to the Son. He does not. Young goes as far as saying God even has to abide by the golden rule: He treats us the way He wants us to treat Him. But Jesus serving us (Matthew 20:28) is not the same thing as submission. To submit means to yield to authority. We have no authority over God. Absolutely zero. The only person Jesus submitted to was His Father in heaven. He submitted to God and served us as the ultimate example of what it means to love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. This fulfills the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17, 7:12).

"God is more he than she."
Young tells a very remarkable story about how his mother saved an infant child who then grew up to become an Anglican priest who tells Young's mother that Young was right to make God in The Shack into a large black woman named Papa. Ugh. He took a true, very heart-felt and inspirational story, and turned it into something self-centered and pretentious. Young says God possesses feminine qualities (nurse, mother, etc.); therefore, He can be a woman, too. Again, it's all man-centered and feelings-based, not biblical. God created man to be the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. The husband is to be a picture of Christ laying His life down for the church, the wife is a picture of the church submitting to Christ, and the head of Christ is God our Father (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:22-33). For all Young's talk about "submission," the one thing he doesn't seem to want to submit to is the Bible.

"You need to get saved."
Young says, "God does not wait for my choice and then 'save me.' God has acted decisively and universally for all humankind. Now our daily choice is to either grow and participate in that reality or continue to live in the blindness of our own independence. Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation? That is exactly what I am saying!" He goes on: "Every person who has ever been conceived was included in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. When Jesus was lifted up, God 'dragged' all human beings to Himself." He references John 12:32 which says, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself." It's the favorite verse of all universalists, and it's totally out of context. Previously in John 3:36, we read, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him."

"Hell is separation from God."
Since Young has already revealed himself as a universalist, surely you know he doesn't believe anyone goes to hell. In fact, he quotes Romans 8:38-39 which says nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God. Therefore, hell cannot be a place where we are separated from God. Rather, Young says, hell is God. It is "the continuous and confrontational presence of fiery Love and Goodness and Freedom that intends to destroy every vestige of evil and darkness that prevents us from being fully free and fully alive." But Jesus said those who do not believe in Him and do the will of His Father in heaven will go away into eternal punishment at the final judgment (Matthew 25:46, Revelation 21:8). Hell is a real place that real people will be cast into unless they in this life repent of sin and follow Jesus Christ. The Bible could not be more clear.

"The Cross was God's idea."
Young says God didn't come up with the cross -- we did. Again, the Bible addresses this point. See above. The Bible foretold that Christ would be crucified centuries before crucifixion was even invented (Psalm 22:16). This is not because God looked down the tunnel of time and learned something about the future, as though God needed to learn anything. That is a pagan myth rooted in fortune-telling and soothsaying. God knows the future because He foreordained it.

"Not everyone is a child of God."
This again is something presented in The Shack, that everyone is God's child. Logically, if everyone is made in the image of God, and everyone is good, and everyone is going to go to heaven, then of course according to Young, everyone is a child of God. He takes out of context a passage from Ephesians 4 to back up his point. But he missed the one in Ephesians 2 that says before we come to Christ, we are children of the devil subject to the wrath of God (see also John 8:44). God adopts us into His family through Jesus Christ, and we become the adopted sons and daughters of God (Ephesians 1:4-5, Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:4-7, 1 John 3:1). Indeed, not everyone is a child of God. Only those who are followers of Jesus are children of God.

"Sin separates us from God."
Again, we're created in the image of God, and God doesn't create anything bad. Sin, according to Young, "is anything that negates or diminishes or misrepresents the truth of who you are, no matter how pretty or ugly that is." He then goes into a bunch of Osteenian affirmations of who the Bible says you are: "You are trustworthy! You have integrity! You are loving!" No, you're not. The Bible says very specifically what sin is: "Sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4). It is willful, open rebellion against the High King of the universe. Everyone has done it (Romans 3:23) and everyone deserves death for it (Romans 6:23). But the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord for all who believe. Those who are in Christ will turn from a life of sin and pursue the righteousness of God.

EDIT: Someone asked me if in the book Young said Jesus was guilty of sin. Not exactly. Young postulates that Jesus made mistakes, like He misspelled a word or hammered a nail in the wrong place. His definition of sin is actually too soft for him to say that Jesus sinned. He basically says you are capable of living the human experience perfectly like Jesus did. Sin is when we think less of ourselves than we really are. It's still heresy because it's works-righteousness and if we say we don't sin His word is not in us (1 John 1:10). But Young doesn't commit the added error of accusing Jesus of sinning against God.

"God is One alone."
Young says that the God who "needs to be appeased, and failure is met by wrath and judgment" is a false one. Unfortunately for Young, that's the God of the Bible, only it's not the whole picture. He is indeed a God of wrath and judgment, but He is also a God of love and mercy. Young says those two things cannot co-exist. God says that they do (Exodus 34:6-7). He displays the full spectrum of His glory by saving for Himself the objects of His mercy, and pouring out judgment on vessels of wrath prepared for destruction (Romans 9:22-23). God is eternally gracious toward those whom He has saved and adopted as His children. He is eternally wrathful toward those who have rebelled against Him and rejected His Son. Repent of your sin and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, and be saved from the coming judgment.

Conclusion
Young closes his book by presenting a quote from the god of The Shack, and says that's the god he believes in. Quite literally, he says the god he believes in is the god he invented in his own story. The Shack is a story, and it is a lie from the heart of a liar. With this new book, Young set out to "expose" lies we believe about God. Instead, he presented a lot of lies he believes about God.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

An Uber Confusing Evangelism Experience


I'm presently in California for the Shepherd's Conference held at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley. The theme this year is in honor of the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation. Speakers include John MacArthur, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Steve Lawson, and many others. It's going to be a great week of teaching and fellowship with other pastors.

I wasn't in California for very long before I was exposed as "not from around here." Yes, the "You're not in Kansas anymore" jokes abound. I've been all over the U.S., having set foot in about 40 different states, but I guess there's just something different about California.

When I got to my hotel, a gentleman recommended to me that Uber was the best way to get a ride, much cheaper than a cab. I'd never used Uber before, so I downloaded the app and scheduled my first trip. The Uber map put me in a weird place to rendezvous with my driver, but we managed to find each other. I apologized and told him this was my first Uber experience, and he explained to me how it all worked.

My destination was Grace Community Church. How I ended up there is a story in itself. The short version is that Nate and I need to work on our communication skills. But since I was on the GCC campus, I figured I would look around. Everyone was getting ready for the conference. There's tables and tents and more tables and somewhere there's surely chairs.

I found my way to the Master's Seminary library. There in a display case under glass are Dr. John MacArthur's first sermon notes -- on the book of Philippians! That's also the first book I preached through. I had no idea it was Dr. MacArthur's first as well. When was that, 1878? Did he ever meet Charles Spurgeon?

Anyway, once it was dark, I figured it was time to head back to my hotel. For some reason, my Uber app didn't want to work. I became concerned I wasn't going to be able to get back to Burbank. I was just about to start fasting and praying when suddenly a car pulled up in front of me. The driver rolled down the window and said, "Gabriel Hughes?"

"Yes?" I replied.

He said he was my Uber driver. We were both kind of stunned because my app wasn't working and he said his was acting up, too. But he did get a notice that a Gabriel Hughes needed a ride from my current location. Because I'm a trusting person, I hopped in and off we went back to Burbank.

He asked me if I went to church there at Grace Community since that's where I was coming from. I said I was in town for a pastor's conference. I asked him if he was a Christian and he said he was an Armenian Christian. Well, I thought he said he was Arminian.

Now, I've never had anyone just outright say to me that they're an Arminian. But this was in a certain context. I was just coming from John MacArthur's church, after all, a famous Calvinist preacher. In my brain, I thought this driver knew of the church and its Calvinist teaching, and he found it necessary to clarify that he was Arminian.

So I started explaining to him the doctrines of grace. I explained that mankind is inherently sinful. In fact, he's so depraved that he can do nothing righteous before God. Romans 3 explains that no one is righteous, no one understands, and no one seeks for God. We cannot will ourselves to believe in Him. But we also can't resist His will when He calls us to Himself.

In God's infinite grace and mercy, which He predestined for His children, He regenerates our hearts to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. We turn from our sin and believe on His name. His sheep know the voice of the Good Shepherd and they follow Him and no one is able to snatch them out of His hand. In the Spirit we are sealed for the day of redemption. That's the short version, anyway.

The driver was rather confused. Somewhere in his attempt to clarify, he said that Armenians were the first Christians. I thought he said that he was First Christian; as in, the First Christian Church denomination. So I asked him, "Is your church like a non-denominational First Christian church, or are you Stone-Campbell and teach baptismal regeneration?" Now he was really confused. (You can look up what he meant by "first Christians" on your own.)

I was eventually able to figure out that he was saying that he was an Armenian Christian, not an Arminian Christian. He explained he had never heard these terms before: Arminianism and Calvinism. So I explained to him that Arminianism was named after Jacobus Arminius from whom the doctrines were derived, and Calvinism was a response to Arminianism named for the teachings of protestant reformer John Calvin.

So this unassuming Uber driver got a theology lesson in the short distance from Grace Community Church to Burbank,. We also managed to get the difference between Baptists and Presbyterians in there. I told him that while there are different perspectives of covenant, we're still brothers and sisters in Christ and Him crucified. That was probably another confusing reference.

It wasn't until the end of our trip that I figured out he considered himself a Christian because he was Armenian, but didn't actually know the gospel. Sometimes he went to church and lit candles, he said. Though I'm sure I gave him a very confusing gospel message, I pray that the Spirit will make sense of it for him. Maybe he knows he can always go to Grace Community Church.

I'm a stranger here in more ways than one. It's all Nate's fault.

Monday, February 13, 2017

What the Whole World is Doing


This morning I shared a quote from J.C. Ryle, former Anglican Bishop of Liverpool. He was big on evangelism and critical of ritualism. From his book Practical Religion, he wrote, "Give me a candle and a Bible, and shut me up in a dark dungeon, and I will tell you all that the whole world is doing."

One of the most common criticisms I face as a preacher, and perhaps any Christian faces today, is that I don't have the right to judge anyone (the accuser always misses the irony that they are, in fact, judging me). I'm reminded constantly that judging a person's behavior is contrary to the Bible which commands Christians not to judge (news flash: it doesn't).

But I don't have to judge anyone. The Bible has already judged everyone. All I need to do is repeat what the Bible says.

Recently, I was invited over to someone's home to share the gospel with a young man. His parents were of a false religion, but he said he didn't believe any of their religion or mine. I knew nothing else about him but his first name and that he needed to hear about his sin and the One who died for sin. So I simply went to the Scriptures.

I told him the Ten Commandments and he said he was familiar with them. I said that this is the Law of the God who created the whole universe. Everyone is guilty of breaking God's law. None of us can keep it. None of us have. I asked him if he'd ever told a lie before. He said he had, sure. Everyone has. Who hasn't? I asked him what you call a person who tells lies. He said, "You call them a liar."

I asked him if he's ever stolen anything before. And he hesitated. There was clear guilt in his face. I wondered later if he had stolen merchandise on him at that moment. But he answered, "No." I replied, "Are you sure? Because you just told me you're a liar." He sat back and said, "Okay, sure. I've stolen something before." I asked him what you call a person who steals and he said a thief.

I asked him if he's ever taken the Lord's name in vain before, like saying "Oh my God" or "Jesus Christ" as a swear. He said he had. I said, "Have you ever thought about what you're saying when you cuss like that? Who's name you're using?" He said he hadn't given it much thought. I said, "This is a sin called blasphemy. It's very serious. The Bible says God has exalted above all things His name and His word, and you exalt yourself above that name whenever you misuse it."

I asked him if he's ever looked at a woman with lust in his heart. He admitted he had. I said, "In Matthew 5, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that if anyone has ever looked at someone with lust, he's committed adultery with that person in his heart."

I asked him if he's ever murdered anyone before. To that he kind of chuckled and said he hadn't. I said, "Same sermon, Jesus said if you've ever called anyone a person names or had hate toward them, then you've murdered them in their heart and you are worthy of the fires of hell. Have you ever hated anyone or called them derogatory names?" He said he had.

I said, "Okay, then by your own admission, you are a lying, thieving" -- he squirmed -- "blaspheming, adulterous, murderer. That's just five of the Ten Commandments. So if you were to stand before God today, and He were to judge you just based on these commandments, would you go to heaven or to hell?" He said he would probably go to hell.

Now that he had heard the truth about his sin, and now that he was clearly uncomfortable about it, I could tell him the gospel. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the Bible says, and the wages of sin is death. But the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 3:23-24, 6:23).


God so loved the world that He sent His Son, Jesus. The Son of God became a man and perfectly kept the law when we could not. He is the only good man who ever lived. But the people hated Him and committed Him to be crucified. The wrath of God that we deserve because of our sin was poured out on Christ instead, and by His death on the cross we can be saved.

For all who turn from their sin and believe in Jesus, their sins are atoned for. You are no longer guilty. The debt has been paid. God looks at you as innocent. But if you do not believe in Jesus, there's still blood-guilt on your hands. And on the day of judgment, you will stand before the throne of the Creator of the universe. He will judge you for your wickedness, for thinking you're better than He is and you are above the Creator's law, doing what you want to do instead of worshiping the King.

For those who are followers of Jesus Christ and do the things that Christ did, they have been made fellow heirs of His kingdom, and they will live forever with Him. But those who are against Christ will be sent to a place of eternal torment. They will be judged to hell. You have this life only to repent and believe. After this comes judgment.

I asked him if he understood what I was saying, and he said that he did. I asked him what his thoughts were, and I believe he said something to the effect of, "Well, it's a nice story." I assured him that it was all true and talked to him about the trustworthiness of the Bible. I said that in the cross of Christ, we see the wrath of God and the love of God. Our sin is so serious, it required the sacrifice of God's own Son for us in order to pay for it.

It was a friendly chat. After a little more talking, our host was treating us to lunch which was waiting in the kitchen. The young man said that he needed to make a phone call. As we were standing in the kitchen preparing our plates, he suddenly and strangely got choked up and escaped rather hastily through the back door.

I would find out later that he went immediately to a friend of his (who came and talked to me) and said, "That was total [expletive], man. All they did was sit there and judge me. Told me about how I was a liar and a thief and how I was going to hell." I told his friend all we talked about was what the Bible says.

Jesus said, "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him." I hear that verse repeated a lot as another reason I don't have the right to judge anyone. But have you ever asked why Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, didn't come to condemn the world? It's because they're already condemned. Every person condemns themselves.

The next verse says, "Whoever believes in Him," meaning Jesus, "is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light," again, referring to Jesus, "has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God" (John 3:17-21).

The Bible tells us the condition of every person in the world: that without Christ they stand condemned before a holy God. The Bible tells us the direction the world is heading: into more and more depravity, further and further away from God (Romans 1:18-32).

It's a good idea to read the news and keep up on current events. But in doing so, what we will observe in the condition of whatever culture we live in, wherever we live on the globe, whatever time period this is happening in, an affirmation of what the Bible has already told us a long time ago. And that the only remedy is Jesus.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Examining the Worship Song "Above All"

Above All is a popular praise and worship song made most famous by Michael W. Smith, released on his album Worship (which came out on September 11, 2001). Smith first came across the song, written by Lenny LeBlanc and Paul Baloche, when he was going through material to sing at George W. Bush's inaugural prayer service.

Smith said President Bush was so receptive of the song, he asked Smith to play it every time he saw him. Said Baloche, "I'm humbled and blown away that a simple prayer of worship, started at my little piano, found its way to the President of the United States. The possibility that this song could be an encouragement to him is such an honor."

CCM Magazine later included Above All in their list of the 100 Greatest Songs in Christian Music. Lenny LeBlanc talked with CCM about why he thought the song had been so meaningful to many Christians: "I think because it's such a beautiful picture of how a God that is above everything would become like a rose trampled on the ground, take the fall and think of us... above all."

While that sounds lovely, it's not true. Biblically, the song is false.

I remember being taken with the song and falling in love with it. But it was sometime around 2006 or 07, when I was coming out of a spell of listening to false teachers, that I began to realize just how off the song really was. It starts out wonderful but meets its demise at the end of the chorus. The first verse goes:
Above all powers
Above all kings
Above all nature and all created things
Above all wisdom and all the ways of man
You were here before the world began
 
Above all kingdoms
Above all thrones
Above all wonders the world has ever known
Above all wealth and treasures of the earth
There's no way to measure what you're worth
So far, so good. The Bible says that Jesus is preeminent (Colossians 1:18), meaning that He is truly above all. Above Him there is nothing to gain. Nothing is higher. Surely you've been taught that His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).

Who knows the mind of God? Who can be His counselor? Who can give Him anything that He must repay? "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:34-36). And if the song ended there, we'd be pretty good. But then we get to the chorus:
Crucified
Laid behind the stone
You lived to die
Rejected and alone 
Like a rose trampled on the ground
You took the fall
And thought of me
Above all
And suddenly the song has just contradicted itself. If Christ is above all things, and yet He thinks of us above all things, then He cannot be above all things. He has elevated something higher than Himself, and that's us. You might say, "But wasn't that His ultimate motivation when He died for us? Because He loved us?" Actually, no.

Now, don't get me wrong. God does indeed love us. Ephesians 3:18-19 says that it is a limitless love that surpasses knowledge. Romans 5:8 says, "But God shows His love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us." His love for His children is demonstrated in the cross of Christ. But don't confuse His love for us with being His ultimate purpose.

Philippians 2:9-11 says that "God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Christ's ultimate purpose in His incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension was the glory of God.

Jesus is the ultimate example of what it means to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, which you might remember as being the summation of all the law and the prophets. Jesus saves us from our sin, death, and the wrath of God not because He thinks of us as being more important than His own glory, but rather for His glory.


Psalm 23, that hugely popular Psalm that says such pleasing and comforting things like "The Lord is my shepherd," and "He makes me lie down in green pastures," and "He leads me beside still waters," and "He restores my soul," says in verse 3, "He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake." This is a constant theme throughout the Psalms:
  • Psalm 25:11, "For your name's sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great."
  • Psalm 31:3, "For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name's sake you lead me and guide me."
  • Psalm 79:9, "Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name's sake!"
  • Psalm 106:8, "Yet He saved them for His name's sake, that He might make known His mighty power."
  • Psalm 109:21, "But you, O God my Lord, deal on my behalf for your name's sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me!"
  • Psalm 115:1, "Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!"
  • Psalm 138:2, "I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word."
  • Psalm 143:11, "For your name's sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!"
Notice that God has exalted above all things His name and His word, not us. The skeptic will say, "What an egotistical, self-centered God!" But exactly whose glory should God be for? If He is for ours, He would cease to be God. The reason why we, as sinful human beings, have a problem with God being for God is because we want to take God off His throne and seat ourselves there.

But even while we were enemies of God, we have been reconciled to God by the death of His Son (Romans 5:10). Jesus gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and purify for Himself a people for His own possession (Titus 2:14). Our salvation in Jesus Christ is to the praise of His glorious grace (Ephesians 1:6). We read in 1 John 2:12, "I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for His name's sake."

There are two reasons I believe Above All has been so popular: 1) Because there are some people who like the idea of God exalting us above Himself; or 2) Because those who love the song think it sounds pretty and are not actually considering what they're singing, or maybe even what the Bible says.

Let us be mindful that in our worship we are giving praise and honor and glory to the right person. God alone is worthy of our worship... above all.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone: A Review

From Walden Media, Vertical Films, and ... the WWE? comes the Christian-themed movie The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, hitting theaters January 20. Because wrestler Shawn Michaels plays a minor role in the movie, apparently that makes it the property of WWE Studios. Which means you'll find it in the library of WWE greats like See No Evil, Leprechaun: Origins, and Queens of the Ring.

Please understand I'm being wildly sarcastic.

The story is set in the present-day fictional town of Masonville, a suburb of Chicago. It involves a washed-up actor and former child-star Gavin Stone (played by Brett Walton of Agents of SHIELD fame), who gets arrested for disorderly conduct and is forced to do community service at, of all places, a church. After not having much success with a mop, he figures out he can join their production of a Jesus play entitled Crown of Thorns and work out his community hours doing what he loves to do the most.

Since Masonville is conveniently Gavin's former hometown, his dad lives nearby, so Gavin has a place to stay and a loose subplot of having to work on his estranged relationship with his father (Neil Flynn of Scrubs fame). The director of the play, Kelly (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes), happens to be the pastor's daughter, and brings a bit of romantic tension into the story (it's just a crush, nothing serious).

The lighthearted moments...

One of the issues with the storytelling is that it's a small-church plot squeezed into a mega-church setting (yes, I'm being ironical). The church is huge. There are literally thousands of people at their disposal and a budget that is in the millions of dollars annually. But they act like they're limited on people and resources, including good actors for their big-budget play.

When we first meet the pastor, he is dressed in work-clothes laboring on a water heater. This is right after we've watched Gavin enter a nice building, walk long hallways, witness staff prayer meetings, stroll past a cafeteria full of children, and peer through big picture windows. It makes no sense when seconds later the pastor is crawling out from under an appliance saying, "At $30 an hour, it's always better to just fix it yourself" and then sits down in his leather chair in his immaculate office. Pastor Alan (played by D.B. Sweeney from The Cutting Edge for those 90s movie buffs) is a complete dud of a minister, but we'll get to that.

Though the first half of the movie has its share of problems, it can still be rather witty. When Gavin was a child-star, he was known for a sitcom character named Cliffy whose catch-phrase was, "Don't look at me!" They work that into the movie where Gavin says, in some manner of words, "Don't look at me, look at Jesus" (but bear with me, that's not as genuine as it sounds).

The movie also makes fun of American Christianity. When Gavin stands up at his audition and gives his testimony, it's Christianese cliches and lyrics from secular songs:
"Hi, everybody! As you probably already know, my name is Gavin Stone. But, what you probably didn't know is that I'm a Christian. I wasn't until a few years ago, when I hit rock-bottom. I just felt something missing. I guess you could call it a God-shaped hole. So I came to a place where I decided to climb that stairway to heaven and let Jesus take the wheel. And ultimately, hey, let go and let God. I'm still a bit new to it, too. So forgive me if I don't always get the details perfect."
And everyone totally buys it with nodding heads and moist eyes. That was hilarious. He had pulled out his smartphone and looked up what a "Christian testimony" was, that's what he came up with, and everyone is totally fooled. There's a massive irony regarding that scene, and you probably already know what it is. But I'll wait until the end of the review to pull back the curtain on it.

Gavin's treatment of Jesus is also rather amusing. The way he delivers Jesus' lines is very, "Look at me, I'm Jesus! Even the wind and the waves obey me!" In the background the disciples are all talking over each other because they can't get their pacing right. I laughed a time or two in those scenes. Kelly has to tell Gavin that Jesus was humble, not an attention-getter.

There's a touching moment I enjoyed where Gavin talks to a young girl who is hearing-impaired using sign-language. He tells Kelly that he played a role in a Hallmark movie where he had to learn how to sign. Kelly tells him that if he can learn sign-language for television, then he can spend at least half that time learning about the role he's playing as Jesus. That was a well-done scene. Unfortunately, that very scene sets up a huge theological problem.

And then it all falls apart...

Gavin's research about Jesus never involves reading the Bible. He Googles some Christian catch-phrases, but never opens up the Scriptures. There's not one sermon. Not even a Bible lesson. He goes to church, but we only hear a popular worship song, never any of the pastor's message. He goes to a small group, but Gavin prays a Braveheart prayer over pizza. We never actually witness them studying the Bible.

Gavin offers to help his dad with his carpentry work because Jesus was a carpenter. He helps out in an auto-garage fixing up cars for single moms because, you know, it's what Jesus would do. Gavin learns about being humble because Jesus was humble. But he never once hears a single passage on who the Bible says Jesus is. In fact, the movie mocks having to know anything about the Scriptures.

There's a scene in the movie where they're working on a part of their play, the story from John 8 where the woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus. When Gavin, in the role of Jesus, is attempting to say, "Neither do I condemn you," he breaks character and says, "I'm sorry, why does he stick up for her like that? Does he know this person?"

At that point, one of the disciples stands up and says, "Hey, I can answer that question." And his explanation, word-for-word, sounds like this: "It's called the doctrine of atonement. What it means is the totality of human iniquity can only be removed by the one who establishes those moral parameters. However..." Then the director interrupts him and says, "Not right now."

Not only is that not the doctrine of atonement, the movie is making fun of learning about theology. The plot literally hands control of understanding Jesus to a character who is an unbeliever. The pastor, who couldn't distinguish between a genuine Christian and a tree stump (Matthew 7:19), says to his daughter, the director of the play, "We need Gavin." Then obviously the church doesn't need you as their pastor!

All a person needs to do is be humble, do nice things for people, learn wood-working with your dad, go to a Jesus play, and hey, you've got Jesus figured out. I'm not crazy about Jesus plays in the first place. I don't think churches should be doing them. But setting my own convictions about that aside, this movie never delivers on what it promises. The "resurrection of Gavin Stone" never happens.

Even the slogan gets it wrong. Church doesn't change anyone. Jesus does.

And then it gets even worse...

Gavin bails on the play to take a role in a show filming in LA. In the midst of dumping everyone who was depending on him, he confesses, "I am not a Christian" (no duh). Then he goes to take his part in a Hollywood production, which he discovers he doesn't like, so he decides to go back to Chicago and fulfill his obligation to the Jesus play -- simply because he didn't like the TV role he was being offered. Oh, and because there's a girl he likes.

The cast, the director, and the pastor let Gavin back in the play to play Jesus -- despite the fact that Gavin has fully and openly confessed to not being a Christian. When welcoming him back to the production, the pastor's daughter says, "Dad reminded me of all that Christian stuff, you know, what our church is about, and how this could really impact you, and what grace looks like, and blah blah blah." Yes, blah blah blah indeed.

Understand me clearly: that is not what grace is. Grace is not letting an unbeliever play Jesus in a church play. When a person is lost, when they are dead in their sins, when they have broken the perfect law of God, when they are under His wrath, when they are headed for hell, grace is showing them their sin and telling them the gospel. It is not a gracious thing to lead them to believe lost sinners can still be part of the body of Christ anyway. That's a lie, which you might recognize as being very ungracious and unloving.

The Bible says it is through the law of God that we come to a knowledge of our sin (Romans 3:20, 7:7). When we preach the gospel, it is imperative to first tell a person that they have broken God's perfect law and what they deserve for that is death. Once they realize they stand condemned before God and under His wrath, they have ears to hear the good news of the gospel, that through His Son Jesus Christ our sins will be forgiven.

There's a place in the movie that would have been perfect for that message. After flying back from LA, Gavin says to Kelly, "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make this right." Kelly could have said, "There's nothing that you can do to make this right, just like there is nothing you can do to make yourself right with God."

She could have showed him his rap-sheet; all of the things he has done as Gavin Stone (which by Hollywood standards is actually rather tame -- I don't think they ever go into him being a sexual deviant, just a heavy drinker and public nuisance). She could have then pointed to the Bible and showed him how fornicators, drunkards, and liars will not enter the kingdom of God. They will be cast into hell (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Revelation 21:8).

Being in a Jesus play doesn't make him right before God. Neither does doing nice things for people or making handicapped little girls laugh. Only the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ can make him right. Jesus is the one that makes you humble before God. He's the one that brings you from death to life. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, and whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life! But no genuine love exists in this movie, and no such message of grace is ever told to Gavin Stone.

Furthermore, it's ungracious and unloving -- downright destructive, actually -- to tell the audience that this guy, Gavin Stone, is fit to tell you who Jesus is. I guess I'm referring to two audiences here: there's the audience that is watching this movie, and there's also the fictional audience who paid for tickets to see a production where the lead is being played by a professing unbeliever.

"Look at this poster and receive eternal life!"

It doesn't matter that the church had a sold-out crowd -- shut the production down and refund their money. The guy playing Jesus has a mind that is set on the flesh and is hostile toward God (Romans 8:7). The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh (Galatians 5:17). But the movie sends the message that Jesus plays make people Christians, and if they hadn't let Gavin play Jesus, then he wouldn't have become a Christian and neither would anyone else. (Again, the pastor has virtually zero function in this movie.)

While "hanging on the cross," Gavin's silent prayer of confession to God is this: "Alright, I give in. I surrender. My way didn't work. I missed out on all this. I missed out on you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all of it. So here goes." Then in the character of Jesus, he rolls out the line, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Next, Gavin is walking out of the tomb to audience applause. The resurrection of Gavin Stone. Get it?

But there's been no understanding of sin, and therefore no repentance, and therefore no resurrection of his dead soul. There's no understanding of who God is or who His Son is, therefore Gavin does not know God and cannot worship Him. What Jesus' death on the cross means and what His resurrection means is mocked in the script.

All that Gavin decided was that church is a better deal than Hollywood. The people treat me better here, the girls are still pretty, and hey, I can still be an actor, even playing the biggest roles on the biggest stages. When his girlfriend asks him, "What happened out there?" He tells her, "I believe." But believe what? Nothing has been presented to believe in!

In conclusion...

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone is a light-hearted film that pretends to be a Christian movie but is actually everything wrong with American Christianity. What makes the scene where Gavin shares his mock-testimony ironic is this: That's everything this movie is. It makes you think you're hearing and seeing something genuinely Christian. But it's every bit as fake as fake Christianity can be.