Sunday, March 30, 2014

Noah: A Movie Review

Noah is a dark, dank, dreary, dismal, drizzly downer of a film.  Granted, one doesn't expect a tale of global judgment and genocide to be a laugh-riot (where is Mel Brooks when we need him?).  Many of my fellow Christians are wigged out because Darren Aronofsky's film changes the Biblical story (gasp!), incorporates evolution (double gasp!), has fallen angels ("Watchers"--from the apocryphal Book of Enoch) as good guys (triple gasp!) and carries a heavy environmentalist message (quadruple gasp!).  None of that really bothers me.  Every Biblical film adds and subtracts and exercises creative license.  Aronofsky's liberties with the flood myth are taken in the venerable spirit of Jewish Midrash and dive into deep theological waters.  He isn't trying to retell the story of Noah so much as use the story as a basis for theological and philosophical exploration.

I thought that the bleak post-apocalyptic, Road Warrior-ish setting was intriguing.  I wondered, is this story taking place in the future after our present civilization has fallen?  And would that mean the survivors of the flood are post-post-apocalyptic?  Does it take place on another planet, similar to earth?  And why is everyone in the film is so Anglo-Saxon?  Clearly, Aronofsky was not going for any semblance of historical versimilitude.

The central theological dialectic that the film wrestles with is that of unflinching faith in God's power (characterized by Noah) vs. humanistic faith in mankind's own power (characterized by wicked king Tubal-Cain).  Tubal-Cain is ruthless and cynical and without hope and yet still cries out to God.  Noah obeys a ruthless God and becomes himself ruthless and cynical and without hope.  The despair is palpable, engulfing everyone like the waters of the flood.

Are humans inherently evil, but also capable of good?  Or are humans inherently good, but also capable of evil?  Is being faithful to God a matter of unquestioningly obeying divine directives (as best one can interpret them), or does faith allow the freedom to make moral choices based on one's own conscience.  Can a choice of love and mercy be disobedience to God?  Can a choice of cold-blooded mercilessness be obedience to God?  These are the questions at the heart of the film and they make interesting fodder for theological rumination. 

But what I found most tragic and unsettling about Noah is its depiction of God.  The God of this film is a cold, distant, dispassionate, inscrutable and merciless being beyond the sky who only communicates through ambiguous signs and natural events.  This is not a God of hope or compassion or relationship.  This God is inaccessible and silent.  At points in the story both Tubal-Cain and Noah cry out in anguish to God, "Why won't you speak to me?"  One is reminded of a verse from Stephen Crane's The Black Riders

If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the night sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast,
Echoless, ignorant--
What then?

The God that moviegoers will encounter in Noah is nothing like the concerned God of redemption that the Hebrew prophets spoke of or the passionate God of lovingkindness that the Psalmists sung about or the compassionate God of love that Jesus embodied.  The God in this film is nothing like the God that I know inwardly and have intimate relationship with.  This film does not know that God, and that is its greatest tragedy.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Of Charities and Pharisees

On Monday, World Vision, a Washington-state-based Christian charity that serves 100 million people (particularly children) in 100 countries announced that they were changing the internal policies in their U.S. organization to permit hiring and extending employee benefits to gay Christians in same-sex marriages (same-sex marriage is legal in Washington state).

Large numbers of Evangelical Christians were apoplectic at the news.  They began threatening en masse to withdraw financial support from World Vision.  According to Christianity Today, "The day after the announcement was made, the Assemblies of God denomination urged its members to consider dropping their support."

Let that sink in. The Assemblies of God urged its 3 million members to stop supporting World Vision's ministry of feeding the poor and educating children and caring for "the least of these" because World Vision had implemented a policy of fair treatment of its gay Christian employees.  Thousands of other Evangelical Christians threatened to follow suit.

Today, World Vision reversed their position, calling their Monday decision "a mistake."

Two tragic things have resulted from this bruhaha: First, the world saw a grand public demonstration of Evangelical Christians behaving like Pharisees. Second, LGBT people once more had the rug pulled out from under them in the name of Christ. 

World Vision does tremendous work all over the globe and that won't change.  But it is a real shame that their step forward in grace was coerced into an awkward step backwards by sanctimonious bullies.

Addendum:  Although World Vision has "repented" and reversed their decision, many Evangelical Christians are claiming that the initial decision showed such a lapse (and exposed World Vision's "true intentions") that the organization should neither be forgiven nor trusted nor supported.  Expect a purge in the leadership at World Vision and a loss of donations from the self-righteous.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Sadly, the mind trapped inside of polarity thinking is not open to change. How else can we explain the obvious avoidance of so many of Jesus’ major teachings within the Christian churches? Jesus’ direct and clear teachings on issues such as nonviolence; a simple lifestyle; love of the poor and our enemies; forgiveness, inclusivity, and mercy; and not seeking status, power, perks, or possessions have all been overwhelmingly ignored throughout history by mainline Christian churches, even those who so proudly call themselves orthodox or biblical.

This avoidance defies explanation until we understand how dualistic thinking protects and pads the ego and its fear of change. Notice that the things we Christians have largely ignored require actual change to ourselves. The things we emphasized instead were usually intellectual beliefs or moral superiority stances that asked almost nothing of us—but compliance from others: the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the atonement theory, and beliefs about reproduction and sex. After a while, you start to recognize the underlying bias that is at work. The ego diverts your attention from anything that would ask you to change, to righteous causes that invariably ask others to change. Such issues give you a sense of moral high ground without costing you anything. Sounds like an ego game to me."

- Fr. Richard Rohr

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Patrick and the Druids

“Patrick used his training period [as an enslaved young man in Ireland] to learn from the people he lived with: he knew from immersion the ways of the Druids. He used intelligence, not might, to conquer the Irish. Since he was not trained in Rome for a classical liberal education, he was simply sharing the essentials of the faith from his consciousness of Christ in Trinity. He shared his own faith, his own spirit-filled energies, his own immersion into the light of mysticism.

What did he learn while being a slave? he did not return [to Ireland] as a warrior or a political arm of the Roman Church but as a bishop who offered the Christian way of life: the Good News (kerygma), community (koinonia), liturgy (leitourgia), and service (diakonia). Missing was power and control of a new system from afar. The Druids taught him mysticism. He taught the Druids a personal Christ who would give each distinct soul a life after this one on earth.

Not unlike the new physics of today, the Druids viewed the world in a way that we might call miasmic, like the turf in Ireland. The illusion we have of things being discrete, of objects and people having a material (call it ‘existential metaphysics’) integrity—that things and people stand alone and unconnected—is just that: an illusion. The fact is that everything in the world weaves into everything else and melds into existence, like the roots of a tree digging into and becoming enmeshed in the earth. This could not have been more different from the way that people in other parts of the world, like the coast of Turkey or France, approached the relationships among people, creation, and material objects. While the Greeks were impressed with the crystalline separateness of everything and how clearly objects stood out in the Aegean or Mediterranean sunlight, the Druids saw a vaporous mist of everything, permeating everything else; even thoughts wove in and out of people, as well as nature, like wispy tendrils of a rolling fog.

The wisdom developed by the Druids maintained the reality of what we know to be true: everything is connected to its surroundings. Things flow into things, thoughts into thoughts, people into the earth and back again. The system that would derive from this approach would be open and pluralistic, receptive of wisdom or insight from wherever it came. Celtic wisdom would see the person as not quite a separate entity but inured into an earthly ground of existence.

The Druids developed this approach into a complete system of rituals. Patrick recognized truth wherever he found it. Then, he used his personal influence: he befriended a chief, a woman in need, a sick child, and people here and there. He attracted a crowd but was attentive to the person before him. The particularity of the human Jesus being the Christ of the Cosmos was a perfect fit for the Irish intellect. The wisdom of the Druids—to name the undifferentiated matter that we call mystery—was appropriated by Patrick since he had his own experience of the presence of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Again, the exchange was sweet: Patrick learned the ways of mystery and consciousness through the Celtic spirituality. Then he proclaimed the Good News that all were saved and would have life in Christ during this lifetime and the next.”

--Mary Margaret Funk, OSB - Discernment Matters: Listening with the Ear of the Heart

Friday, March 07, 2014

A Crisis of Integrity

A few weeks ago the news story was of how the mega Elevation Church uses shills planted in audiences to manipulate people to come forward for "spontaneous" baptisms. (

Then there was a news story that David Yonggi Cho, founder of the massive Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, had been found guilty of embezzling $12 million in church funds and was sentenced to three years in prison.

This week there is a news story that Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill Church paid a consulting firm to purchase thousands of copies of Driscoll's latest book, for the purpose of "gaming the system" and causing Driscoll's book to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list:

"The details of the agreement between Mars Hill and [consultant] Result Source are complicated. Result Source received a fee of $25,000 to coordinate a nationwide network of book buyers who would purchase [Driscoll's book] Real Marriage at locations likely to generate reportable sales for various best-seller lists, including the New York Times list. Mars Hill also paid for the purchase of at least 11,000 books ranging in price from $18.62 to $20.70, depending on whether the books were purchased individually or in bulk. The contract called for 6,000 of the books to be bought by individuals, whose names were supplied by the church. Another 5,000 books were bought in bulk. Mars Hill would not say whether the funds for the purchase of these books, which would total approximately $123,600 for the individual sales and $93,100 for the bulk sales, came from church funds." (

This comes on the heels of revelations that Driscoll (or the ghost writers who produce books in Driscoll's name) have had an ongoing habit of plagiarizing the work of others.

These publicized lapses in integrity by Evangelical Christian leaders make the news because they are well known figures, but I suggest they are the tip of the iceberg of a crisis of integrity within the Christian church. Perhaps these embarrassing public failures serve as bellwethers to point out a serious flaw in the way we have been *doing* Christianity. The late Christian philosopher, professor and author Dallas Willard wrote a few years ago, “Much of the current distress on the part of Western Christianity over how to conduct our calling as the people of Christ derives from the fact that the goal and measure of Christian spiritual formation…is not accepted and implemented. ... The current situation in which faith professed has little impact on the whole of life, is not unique to our times, nor is it a recent development. But it is currently at an acute stage. History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally. That is where we find ourselves today." Paradoxically, the focus on sin seems to result in the opposite of its intended effect. Sin isn't eliminated so much as hidden from view, because the root causes aren't dealt with. I've come to believe that sin, in and of itself, is not the problem. Sin is only a symptom.

The Protestant Reformation placed its emphasis on teaching and preaching. John Calvin (whom Driscoll named one of his sons after) stated “God does not wish to be heard, but by the voice of His ministers.” I believe that this Reformation emphasis on preaching and scripture led Protestantism down the path of de-emphasizing the mystical, inward experience of God’s presence which, in turn, brought us to the point of paucity that Willard speaks of. As Paul wrote to the Colossians "They have lost connection with the head [the Living Christ], from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow." (2:19)

But there has been a gradual resurgence of interest in the contemplative/mystical approach to Christianity. This approach, found in the teachings of the ancient Desert Monastics and Medieval Catholic Contemplatives and some segments of Eastern Orthodoxy and the perpetual minority Protestant outliers such as Quakers, emphasizes quiet inner spiritual formation and union with God. This inner transformation results in outer holiness. In his book The Great Omission (2006), Dallas Willard wrote "The reason for the recent abrupt emergence of the terminology [of spiritual formation] into religious life is, I believe, a growing suspicion or realization that we have not done well with the reality and the need. We have counted on preaching, teaching, and knowledge or information to form faith in the hearer, and have counted on faith to form the inner life and outward behavior of the Christian. But, for whatever reason, this strategy has not turned out well."

Guilford college professor (and epic beard dude) Max Carter gives a lively explanation of how Quakerism began.

Thursday, March 06, 2014


I know that no matter how far we travel,
how much we accomplish,
how deeply we suffer,
or how joyfully we dance,
God is always with us in all of those things
for the whole of our life's journey.

That dark, silent, and mysterious place stays with us,
housing the holy.

Like the Lenten experience,
there are no extra props.
There is just the darkness and the emptiness and,
at the very heart of all that the divine presence,
the Holy One whom we seek,
breathing, hidden within us, eternally loving and waiting.

--Edwina Gateley