Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of New Georgia Baptist Church.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Gospel According to Southern Evangelicalism: Jesus will help you win football games

Okay, so with the admittedly somewhat-cynical title of this post everyone reading this is now expecting me to rake the new movie Facing the Giants [hereafter FtG] over the coals. But actually I'm hoping to give as 'fair-and-balanced' a response to this movie as possible. So let me begin by giving several positive thoughts I have concerning FtG. (In the following comments I'm not going to summarize the movie, so if you'ven't seen it, please check the movie website linked above to understand the overall story.)

Positive cultural elements

As a baptist from the Empire State of the South there's a lot to like about FtG. I didn't realize how much I missed my home state until I saw this movie. It was great to hear real Southern accents (rather than the typically grating aberrations produced by Hollywood actors when they are in films set in the South) coming from the characters on the screen. I enjoyed seeing scenes from Georgia in which there were actually pine trees and pecan trees in the landscape- in contrast to typical Hollywood movies and shows, which are apparently filmed by people who think Georgia looks exactly like west Texas (I recall one show of Matlock in which a character drove out to "rural Georgia" and was surrounded by mesquite trees and mesas). I'd wager that FtG offers a more accurate portrayal of middle-class Southern life than any movie you can find. Though the acting and dialogue of FtG are somewhat shallow or stilted at times, the overall story had a strong emotional pull for my wife and me as we have known individuals who have gone through the very same difficulties as the characters in this movie.

Positive spiritual elements

And there are certainly some positive spiritual aspects to this movie as well, 3 of which are:

1. The Lordship of Jesus is central to the Gospel: In contradiction to the all-too-common heresy that teaches "you can accept Jesus as Savior now and make Him Lord of Your life later"- the idea that becoming a Christian does not necessarily produce submission to Christ- FtG presents a view of Christianity that just assumes (as it should) that people who accept the message of the Bible will be radically changed by Jesus. This is seen in a number of ways- one of the most memorable being when one student in the movie is expressing his skepticism toward religion and the coach assures him that if he becomes a Christian then Jesus will change his life and- conversely- it is implied that if he remains unwilling to submit to the fifth commandment then he cannot be a Christian.

2. The Bible is the source of authority: When the main character is at the end of his rope, where does he turn to? The Bible. He does not enroll in a counseling program, he does not turn to self-help books, and he does not need any religious hierarchy to tell him what the Word of God is- instead he spends all night in prayerful reading of the Scripture. And this is a good and much needed example for the Church to see today.

3. Scripture is to be applied to all areas of life: An interesting thing about FtG is that the action of the entire movie seems to take place on school-days. As a result, the characters of this movie are never seen going to Church. Though the absence of the Church is somewhat troubling (as the Church is so central to Christian life and as Church congregations should certainly provide support for members going through hardships like those portrayed in the movie), the creators of this movie seem to have had a specific purpose in leaving it out. In particular, the idea of Christianity as only determining the activities for its followers for a few hours on Sunday is completely destroyed, and instead worship of God is seen as vital to every day (and, indeed, every sub-portion of every day) of life. The characters of the movie are depicted as seeking to apply Scriptural principles to family life, to their work at school, and to how they play football on the field. The demands of Scripture are seen to impact attitudes of the heart as well as actions. Again, this is a good and much needed example for the Church to see today.

Besides those listed above, I am sure I could think of more positive spiritual elements as well if I had the time. Though it's (of course) impossible to know the heart of the individuals who made this movie, it seems- from what's depicted on screen- that FtG was made by a group of people who have a sincere love and respect for Jesus Christ and who want others to love Him as well.

Negative spiritual elements

There are, however, some serious concerns I have about this movie. The 2 most important defects of this movie are:

1. The way in which Scripture is used:
(a) In a crucial turning point of the film, a man approaches the main character, a high school football coach, and quotes Revelation 3:8- I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name (NIV). In its Scriptural context this verse is about the perseverance of the faithful Philadephian church over the heretical factions due to the aid of Christ. By direct application, this verse gives hope and encouragement to any church congregation to stand firm against false teaching and persecution. In the movie this verse is taken to mean that the coach does not need to quit his job.
(b) When coaching the kicker on how to get a field goal, an assistant coach refers to Matthew 7:13-14- Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (NIV). In its Scriptural context this verse records the call Jesus gave of how those who heard His teaching were to respond. By direct application, this verse indicates the exclusivity of the teaching of Christ as providing the only way to enter into eternal life. In the movie this verse is taken to mean that the kicker needs to get the ball in between the uprights. (This interpretation of the verse may be seen as humorous even in the movie, but no corrective interpretation is given on-screen.)
(c) The theme verse in this movie is Matthew 19:26b- With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (NIV). In its Scriptural context, this verse is a response by Jesus given to his apostles after they are shocked by his teaching on how hard it is for rich people to enter into the kingdom of heaven. By direct application this verse speaks of the power of God to bring even the most hardened sinner to repentance and eternal life. In the movie this verse is taken to mean that God helps Christians win football games and have chlidren.
- Now I hope that in examining the points above the reader is struck by the radical disjuncture between the meaning of the verses and the way they are used in the movie. It is especially alarming that in their proper context, these verses each point to the Gospel- the Good News of eternal life in Christ- in specific ways, and yet the way they are used in the movie strips them of Gospel meaning. The Gospel should definitely impact our family life, our job choices, and even the way we play games, but the significance of all these areas of life must spring from a specific reference to the person and work of Jesus Christ and must return to meditation upon Him. It is my concern that this movie reflects the trend of many Christians who approach the Bible with an idea of what they want to say, and then they search the Scripture until they find an inspiring quote that is along the lines of their own ideas. Inevitably this abuse of Bible study downplays the centrality of the Gospel message.

2. The Gospel presentation:
(a) The objective facts of the Gospel are absent from this movie. The Gospel is first of all the account of who Jesus is and what He has done. The Gospel account of the work of Jesus is summarized by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15:2-4- "By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures," (NIV). This biblical history of Jesus is never mentioned.
(b) The central importance of the facts of the Gospel is absent from this move. Why should we care about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, mentioned above? The Apostle Paul informs us in Romans 4:25- "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (NIV). Each one of us have sinned against God, who is supremely holy and just, breaking His Law, as stated in Romans 3:23- "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (HCSB). Because of this, we have earned His just condemnation, the sentence of death, as declared in Romans 6:23a- "For the wages of sin is death," (HCSB). Romans 4:25, quoted above, is the Good News that Jesus died as a payment of our death sentence before God, and He was raised from the dead that we might be justified- made completely righteous in God's sight.
-The Gospel in FtG is summarized in the quote, "Jesus died for us so that we could live for God." While there is some truth in this quote, a crucial feature of the Gospel- the whole point really- is missed. Sinners are facing the wrath of God- it's not a question of us needing a better life, as much as the fact that we need forgiveness and a new heart so that we might stop offending the Creator and Judge of the universe.

Conclusion

It is my hope that this review is helpful to anyone thinking not only of the movie Facing the Giants, but of the way the Christian life is presented in our own churches as well. It is truly tragic when we focus on the blessings of the Christian life, but lose focus on the main message of the Christian life- the Good News of reconciliation to God through the person and work of Jesus Christ our Lord.

10 Comments:

Blogger Alex F said...

The title of your post cracks me up. If they're really quoting Matthew on the "narrow gate" in order to apply it to the kicking game, I'm immediately convinced the movie is cheesy and silly.

5:43 PM  
Blogger R. Mansfield said...

One way to really make a room go quiet is to announce that God may just not care who wins the Super Bowl (or substitute any other match).

When I taught Bible at Whitefield Academy, I usually took prayer requests at the beginning of each class. My students (at least at the beginning of the year) would ask that we pray that our team would win in that afternoon's match. I would tell them that God did not care who won (to their shock, dismay, and belief that I just might be pagan), but that He did care if we played to the best of our ability and He cared whether or not anyone got hurt. I told them we could pray for those things, but it was vanity to pray to win.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Melissa said...

1) Some really good thoughts. I disagree more with your problems with the Scriptures used. The preacher is obviously using the Revelation passage out of context, but God speaks through His Word like that at times. When a verse "jumps out" at me, God may be showing me something unique that can't be found in the context. You have to be careful with that and weigh it against Scripture, certainly. The narrow gate part was obviously played for fun.

2) Alex and R. Mansfield should see the movie first. Just my opinion.

3) Mansfield is dead on right about Southern obsession with football, but one of the pivotal lines in the movie is, "We surrender to God and give Him everything we have. If we win, we praise Him. If we lose, we praise Him." That doesn't sound like asking God to "pick sides" in a football game.

3:28 AM  
Blogger Charles Sebold said...

Funny, I saw this back in March, and my problems were more with the view of sanctification and what Christianity "gets you" than with the gospel presentation. I had the filmmaker chime in on the comments, too.

11:09 AM  
Blogger GeneMBridges said...

When a verse "jumps out" at me, God may be showing me something unique that can't be found in the context.
_____________

So, what you're saying is that when you have a subjective experience while reading Scripture then the Scripture's meaning is unique to you at that time? That's neo-orthodoxy.

I think what you mean to say is that the interpretation of a passage and its application are different things, and that the application should flow from the correct interpretation. While it's true that the passage from Revelation is about the perseverance of the Philippian Church in the face of false teaching, for the individual in a time of trial, whether "sacred" or "secular" there is reason to persevere through Christ, because He perseveres with us. Therefore, he should make a wise decision before giving up or standing to fight, whichever he chooses to do.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Gordan said...

I'll admit as I say this that I am an avid, bordering on rabid, football fan...just acknowledging my bias.

My comment: Of course God "cares" who wins the football game, the Super Bowl, or any pee-wee league for the little tikes. If God cares about every squirrel of the field, and every sparrow that falls from the sky, how could He not "care," and even determine the winners and losers, in an event like a football game? He has lessons to teach those who win (temporarily) and to those who lose. Winning and losing football games present players, coaches, and fans with challenges and opportunities that have real spiritual impact. We used to call this "character building."

The alternative is to believe that there are certain human activities that God is unconcerned with and not only doesn't ordain, but doesn't really give a rip one way or the other.

6:59 PM  
Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Gordon, I think your last paragraph sums up my view entirely.

Where, oh where, in Scripture does it say that God cares for every "squirrel in the field." My gut feeling is that he probably does, but you won't find any verse stating that. Moreover, Matt 10:29 merely says that a sparrow cannot fall from the sky without God's notice.

My point in what I said was that there are certain things in this world that are simply trivial. Football games are among them, and I am not going to pray that "our team wins." I don't think it's a low view of God's sovereignty to recognize that he probably doesn't care who wins. That's not to say he doesn't care about what lessons we learn or how our character is built, but the outcome of the game itself is superfluous.

12:57 AM  
Blogger ajlin said...

r.mansfield and gordon:

I think there is more agreement than disagreement between your views. You both seem to be operating w/ a high view of God's sovereignty and both seem to be making good points in your own way. (I just point this out b/c these minor disagreements sometimes tend to escalate on the blogosphere.)
I tend to express my own view more in line w/ gordan's statements, based upon Matt. 10:29 (already cited) as well verses such as Matt. 6:26, "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?"

But I also understand the point r. mansfield is making and would likewise be uncomfortable praying for a specific football team to win.

5:48 AM  
Blogger Gordan said...

RMansfield,

Sorry. In my pitiful attempt at whimsy I assumed that squirrels were included in "every beast of the field" in places like Psalms 104:11.

I may not understand what you are advocating. It sounds like you're suggesting that there are some human events that God considers "superfluous" (to use your term.)

This seems to beg the question, When do the things we do become important enough for God to care about the outcome? Do you see a scriptural standard for drawing that line between stuff that God cares about and stuff that He doesn't?

Would it be permissible, in your view, for a Christian employee to pray that he is awarded Employee of the Month? Salesman of the Year?

Does God care what happens at wedding rehearsals and baby showers? My kid's eighth birthday party? Your family's next vacation?

If it's true, as the Bible teaches, that God will bring every idle word and every deed into account, mustn't it follow that He "cares" about all of those things? Or does God not work all things for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28), but only the really important things?

Thank you for your patience. I am not trying to be argumentative, but only to understand.

5:32 PM  
Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Gordon,

Maybe it is my word care when I say that "God does not care who wins the Superbowl" that is most troubling to you. I'm just taking a guess here because we would all probably agree that God cares what goes on in the world.

Does God care about the lessons we learn about winning and losing? I'm certain he does. Does God notice in his omniscience when every living thing dies? I'm certain he does.

But you ask if it's permissible for an employee to pray that he (or she) get nominated for "employee of the month" or "saleman of the year." Well, certainly, it's permissible, but to merely pray for that as a title received by itself seems to smack of vanity and sound like the kind of thing that the teacher would dismiss in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Does God care if we get another title to hang on the wall? Not in and of itself, I don't think. But he does care that we do our work to the best of our abilities and care for the needs of our families and those around us. If working hard achieves us such distinction as "employee of the month," well, it's a recognition of that hard work, isn't it?

I suppose in the end it's a free will issue to a certain degree. When I was in college, I worked with a young woman who I thought was the most spiritual person I ever met because she prayed every morning about what clothes to wear. However, the first time I did that, I felt a bit foolish. Does it really matter that much whether I wear the green shirt or the blue shirt? I don't think God has become my mother laying out my clothes for me. Surely he gives us some freedom in the insconsequential things of life.

Does God influence the outcome of sports events? Probably so sometimes, but not because he has a favorite team. Not because the members of one team prayed harder than the other. But perhaps there's something in his bigger plan that we have no idea about and may not ever know about this side of eternity.

You asked, "When do the things we do become important enough for God to care about the outcome? Do you see a scriptural standard for drawing that line between stuff that God cares about and stuff that He doesn't?"

I can't give you a systematic theology for such things, but I believe the answers lie in what I've described above. I believe it falls under the umbrella of free will. In the end, I believe God--in his sovereignty--gives us freedom in some areas. The outcome of a sports event falls in the area of that freedom--most of the time, I would think. I imagine it's usually based on the fact that one team has an overall sum of greater abilities combined with the number of errors made. That's the essence of sports, isn't it?

But if you're one of those who believes that everything that occurs is predestined by God, down to the very words that I'm typing here using my MacBook at 10:36 in the morning, well then we would just disagree and have to leave it at that. But I hope that's not your view.

10:47 AM  

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