A Stunning “Paul, Apostle of Christ”

The apostle Paul has come alive to me now in a way he never did before. Yesterday, I saw the new film Paul, Apostle of Christ, and left the theater stunned at the power of cinema when used for God’s glory.

How do I begin to describe what I witnessed? I’ve seen many powerful films with messages from the heart of God, but none I’ve ever seen made me consider so deeply what it was really like for Christians facing intense persecution and the testing of their faith unto death.

Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, takes on the role of Luke, companion of Paul, who risks his own life to visit him in prison as he awaits execution. The Emperor Nero, to cover his own sin of setting fire to Rome, has accused the Christians of the act, and fingered Paul as the chief instigator.

James Faulkner, an actor I thought I’d never seen before, but have since discovered appeared in such dramas as Downton Abbey, is absolutely gripping as Paul. From now on, whenever I’m reading one of Paul’s letters, I will have the image of the Paul offered in this movie.

At the end, as Paul was beheaded and then awoke in eternal life to see all those he had persecuted before his salvation come to greet him, I couldn’t hold back tears. There are no over-the-top performances throughout this film; all are real and genuine.

Combined with an excellent supporting cast, superb cinematography, the truth of key Biblical passages, and a clear explanation of the Gospel, this film is of the highest quality.

Paul, Apostle of Christ, in an earlier time in American history, would be a candidate for many awards. Sadly, I believe the era of Ben Hur and Chariots of Fire may now be ended. Hollywood won’t want to reward, or even acknowledge, this positive portrayal of genuine Christianity.

But that’s okay. I’m convinced that Paul, Apostle of Christ, will be used by God for the ultimate reward—that of leading many people into relationship with Him. Helping sinners recognize their sin, showing them the meaning of repentance, and how the love of God has overcome the breach between God and man is a far greater accomplishment.

While a Best Film Oscar would be nice, faithfully proclaiming God’s truth is the ultimate reward.

A Holy Week Meditation

We’re about to enter into what the Christian church throughout the centuries has called Holy Week. Now, of course, if we really understand the faith, we realize every week is Holy Week, every day Holy Day, and every minute Holy Minute.

Yet we use this designation for the upcoming week because it makes us pay attention to the events approximately two thousand years ago that have made possible the Great Restoration, the Great Redemption of our souls.

As wonderful and inspirational as the Nativity is, this week announces the essence of Christian faith: the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God that we might become children of God ourselves.

This week is awash in the supernatural, culminating in the Resurrection, without which we would have no hope.

We believe in the God who is above nature—super-natural—and in the miracle of the New Birth.

As C. S. Lewis reminds us in his essay “Christian Apologetics,”

Do not attempt to water Christianity down. There must be no pretence that you can have it with the Supernatural left out. So far as I can see Christianity is precisely the one religion from which the miraculous cannot be separated. You must frankly argue for supernaturalism from the very outset.

So many over the years have stripped the faith of its faith. Follow the moral guidelines, we are told, but reject those silly stories about miracles; some early Christians surely added those in later to augment/falsify the story of Jesus.

We even have a group of scholars—I use the term loosely—called the Jesus Seminar who periodically meet and decide whether certain passages of Scripture are genuine or if they are spurious. Then they make their grand public proclamation about which parts they now consider phony.

Well, that which is phony is found within themselves, not in God’s Revelation.

“The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle,” Lewis writes in another essay with that exact name: “The Grand Miracle.” He continues,

The Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.

It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.

The reality of God becoming man—growing up in a human family, working at a human occupation, walking the dusty roads with humans, suffering for them, dying for them—is the story of the entire reason of Creation.

Then there was Resurrection on the third day.

One of Lewis’s most-often quoted lines—indeed the one emblazoned on his commemorative stone in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey—is a fitting conclusion to this Holy Week meditation:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

The Horror of the Same Old Thing

Every Wednesday evening since early January, I’ve had the joy of teaching a class on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. A local Episcopal church invited me to do so, and I accepted the offer with relish. A group of eager learners comprises this class (approximately fifty each week), which has made it one of the highlights of this new year for me.

I’d read Screwtape a number of times over the years. Lewis himself famously commented that a really good book should never be read only once. Yet I’ve never had to dissect Screwtape in this manner before. If I’m going to explain anything to a class, I need to go beyond an outline and provide depth of understanding.

Along with a deeper understanding of a book such as this one comes the conviction of the Holy Spirit, as He shows me areas in my life that need to be solidified in righteousness.

One caution for all Christians occurs in Letter 25, which I will be teaching about in a couple of weeks. It deals with the concepts of “Christianity And . . .” and “The Same Old Thing.”

Screwtape—the senior devil—instructs junior tempter Wormwood to lead his “patient” away from mere Christianity (where he will flourish) into something else:

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.

If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

How often do we take our natural interest in something else, link it with our Christian faith, and then allow that other thing to become more important than the faith itself?

In American history, one example I can use is the very worthy cause, prior to the Civil War, of abolishing slavery. The cause was good. Many prosecuted it in the name of Christian faith, as they should have. Yet I am aware of some abolitionists for which the cause of abolition became primary and the faith merely a vehicle for attaining it.

Anytime we subordinate the faith to the cause it inspired, we miss the mark.

Lewis, through Screwtape, is asserting that we are drawn to this error through our desire to spice up, shall we say, the basic Christian faith, as if it is not enough inherently. Hell loves this attitude, as Screwtape explains:

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.

Man’s quest for novelty, which is not a bad thing, can become a very bad thing indeed when novelty takes on an exalted status: it must be “new” and “fresh” or it will be boring. And boredom must be a sin, right?

Change is not synonymous with progress. It depends what that change actually is.

Screwtape again:

Once they [the humans] knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent. We have largely removed this knowledge. For the descriptive adjective “unchanged” we have substituted the emotional adjective “stagnant.”

There are some things that never should change—eternal right and wrong, for instance—and Someone who never will. Change is not always good. Yet if those who seek change that isn’t for the better can win the semantic war—“let’s call it stagnant instead”—the perceptions of an entire society can be altered.

I’ll leave it for you to make application to the culture in which we live today.

Parkland Solutions–Real & Imagined

For out of the heart come evil thoughts–murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. Matthew 15:19

After watching many news reports and reading many commentaries about the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that resulted in seventeen deaths, nothing I’ve seen or read has changed my mind about the basic issue that leads to such atrocities: the sinfulness of man.

We hear many loud voices calling for new legislation against gun ownership, as if that’s some kind of final solution for the problem of sin. Yet we have had gun ownership in this country since its founding. Many lives have been spared by the proper use of guns as a means of self-defense against sinful men.

Guns are not the problem. People are. And our culture, which drifts steadily away from the fear of God and from His truth, only makes that problem worse.

Then we get a CNN Townhall that allows grieving young people to display their angst and try to set public policy via emotion rather than principle and sound reflection. Some may think they are the source of wisdom, but I don’t, especially if they are merely spouting a distorted worldview they have received through our perverted culture.

The Biblical admonition about how a little child shall lead them is part of a prophecy of Isaiah in reference to when God will set up His kingdom on earth in the last days. It’s when the lion will lie down with the lamb.

We’re not there yet. We shouldn’t let the immature be our policymakers.

Those who think that legislation is the answer are seeking a utopia—a word that basically translates as “no such place.”

Yes, laws can help, if they are the right kind, based on a realistic view of man’s sinfulness. But any law that takes away the means for law-abiding citizens to defend themselves is a law that will lead to even greater atrocities.

We are told by some that if we turn in all the guns, we can be confident that our law enforcement agencies will be able to defend us. Trust them, we are told.

How did that work out in this case?

The FBI received numerous calls about the potential for Nikolas Cruz to go off the deep end. It did nothing. The Broward County police responded to numerous incidents with Cruz over the past years. They did nothing.

The Broward County deputy who was assigned to protect the school hid outside, never even attempting to confront the shooter. The county’s sheriff is making a fool of himself in interviews after the fact. He is arrogant, defending himself, and blaming everyone else.

Let me also say something here about the organization that is getting pilloried over this, as it always does after a shooting. The NRA (for the record, I’m not a member) is a respectable organization devoted to gun safety. The one time I went to an NRA firing range, I was tested first, then instructed carefully on how to use the weapons.

The NRA is not the enemy of the people.

Politicians like to get their names in the headlines after these terrible incidents. The one who stands out to me this time is California Senator Kamala Harris, who responded to Parkland with this:

This cannot be a political issue. We have to have smart gun safety laws – our babies are being slaughtered.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Yet Kamala Harris promotes the slaughter of babies all the time, as she is a vocal supporter of Planned Parenthood and abortion on demand.

She is not a serious voice, and should be ignored, as should all politicians who wrap themselves in the cloak of protecting our children while simultaneously applauding the killing of the most innocent.

So are we a “sick” society? Wrong word. We are a sinful, depraved society. Scripture also informs us that the problem goes much deeper even than human sinfulness.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12

The solution, also found in the larger context of that chapter, is to put on God’s full armor: truth, righteousness, the spreading of the Gospel message to “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”

There is an evil one out there, even though our society doesn’t want to believe that. Neither does the society want to believe that there is One who has overcome the evil one, and that we need to place our full confidence in Him:

Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded and alert. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in your faith and in the knowledge that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. I Peter 5:7-9

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. James 4:7-8

These Scriptures need to be our guide.

Shall We Retire the Term “Evangelical”?

I call myself an evangelical. What does that mean? “Evangel” means good news; an evangelist is someone who spreads good news; evangelicals, therefore, are those who believe in spreading the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So I like the term.

Yet it has come under scrutiny lately within the church because it seems to be losing its original meaning. Some are questioning whether it ought to be dropped as a description of those who follow Christ.

Most of that questioning stems from political developments. Evangelicals are now considered one of the “interest” groups in elections. Commentators examine their political clout and try to figure out how they will vote.

The problem, however, is the number and type of people who are lumped together under the name “evangelical.” They include those were who raised in the church but aren’t really faithful Christians. Many simply relate to the word evangelical because it’s part of their family tradition.

The word, then, has lost its real definition.

Let’s look at history for some guidance.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the US experienced what historians describe as the Second Great Awakening. This revival of Christian faith spawned groups of believers who were tired of the division of Christians into denominations. They sought to get back to how they perceived the first-century church operated.

One group decided simply to call themselves Christians, as distinct from Congregationalist, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. Another took the name Disciples of Christ in an attempt to identify as Christians only, without any denominational tag.

They even said they would not become official denominations; they were merely movements of like-minded Christians. Well, no matter the original intent, they coalesced into identifiable denominations regardless; it was a natural development.

So the attempt to be just “Christian” without any further label wasn’t wholly successful.

Toward the end of that century, with the new higher criticism of Biblical authority threatening to undermine basic Biblical doctrines, those who rejected that criticism called themselves “fundamentalists” because they were declaring their allegiance to the fundamentals of the faith.

As theological liberals who denied Biblical teachings such as the virgin birth of Christ began taking over the seminaries, the fundamentalists set up their own Bible colleges and seminaries to counter that denigration of the true faith.

Unfortunately, too many of the fundamentalists became rather rigid in their practices while simultaneously withdrawing from meaningful interaction with the world, avoiding politics, education, etc., and thereby losing influence in the culture.

Those who agreed with the concept of maintaining the fundamentals but who didn’t wish to be viewed in the same light as those who claimed that label, migrated to a new term: evangelicals.

The shock of the cultural changes of the 1960s-1970s, spurred by events such as Supreme Court rulings relegating the Bible and prayer to the periphery of social life and opening the floodgates of abortion led these evangelicals to get involved in the political arena to hold back—and hopefully reverse—that cultural tide.

In my opinion, evangelicals have tried their best to carry out that endeavor without rancor and in the hope of drawing people to the Truth, not only about personal salvation, but also about how the Christian faith ought to impact all aspects of our society’s culture.

Evangelicals, in the last election, eventually attached themselves to Donald Trump. Some did so reluctantly, knowing his many flaws, but unable to countenance the alternative. Others did so with genuine fervor, seeing Trump as God’s anointed/political savior, not only minimizing his history of poor character but actually applauding his in-your-face persona.

I have to admit that’s when I started wondering whether the word evangelical had lost so much of its flavor that it needed to be retired.

Yet, despite the watering-down of the term, the original definition remains. An evangelical is someone who knows the truth of the Gospel message and is determined to see that truth disseminated so that the chasm between God and man, created by our own sins, can be bridged through repentance and faith in what Christ has done for us.

Therefore, I’m not retiring the word. I’ll continue to use it to describe who I am. The evangel of God is the good news; I’m to be an evangelist of that good news; I am an evangelical.

That Writing Urge

I am a teacher and a writer, and have been now for three decades. Earlier in life, I never envisioned myself as a teacher; in fact, I minored in history as an undergraduate, avoiding making it my major out of fear that I would end up having to teach.

Well, God had a different path for me, and I can now see that He developed that desire to teach even when I was trying to ignore the calling.

I think I’ve always wanted to write but had very little training in the art prior to my experience as a graduate student. The master’s thesis and the doctoral dissertation created a greater urge within me to express thoughts in writing.

C. S. Lewis was a great teacher and a great writer, so I naturally am attracted to his insights on both. With respect to writing, he made some thoughtful comments. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, early in his writing career, he noted,

I am sure that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves: for these, writing is a necessary mode of their own development.

If the impulse to write survives the hope of success, then one is among these. If not, then the impulse was at best only pardonable vanity, and it will certainly disappear when the hope is withdrawn.

That caused me to reflect: is my desire to write more a desire to be noticed and appreciated [i.e., be considered successful] than a natural desire to say what I think needs to be said regardless of the reception of the public?

I’ve written five books thus far. While I have had modest success in sales over the years, I can say that if my primary goal had been to enrich myself monetarily through publishing, I would now pack my bags, metaphorically speaking, and move on to something more rewarding.

If my primary goal had been to be noticed and applauded for what I’ve written, I again would be moving on to another endeavor.

Yet I continue to have the writing bug—witness this very blog. So perhaps I am one of those that Lewis was speaking of—born to write simply because God has placed that within me.

Then there’s this mild warning from Lewis about the art of writing:

To the present day one meets men, great readers, who write admirably until the fatal moment when they remember that they are writing.

In other words, the writing goes along quite well until one becomes too self-conscious of the fact that one is indeed writing. One can then fall into the trap of paying more attention to the mechanics of the craft than the message. At least, that’s how I understand this warning.

I do want to craft my words carefully, but the message itself remains the most important reason for writing. I don’t want to become too stilted in my “style” and thereby hurt the message.

Further instruction from Lewis is common sense, but not always common to us as we write:

The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.

The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.

I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainly go into it.

All of Lewis’s insights that I’ve mentioned could be applied to anyone who writes, but he also gives advice specifically to Christians with respect to how they can use their writing to draw their audience to truth:

Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us.

It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books.

In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him [the anti-Christian]. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.

That’s the challenge, but also the opportunity. Our Christian faith must be so much a part of us—not merely an appendage to who we are—that it permeates everything we touch. Christian writers, in particular, have both the responsibility and the pleasure to transmit God’s message in all they write, even when it is not blatant apologetics.

May we live up to that challenge.

A New Year of Observations & Analysis

I’m settled into my comfy recliner in my study, surrounded by books and enjoying a unique kind of coffee (I won’t go into that). So I’m relaxed and ready to begin another year of observations about God, man, society, and life in general.

Most people probably have this particular view of the new year:

Am I concerned about all those things? Absolutely.

Am I living in daily fear of nuclear holocaust, the undermining of the Republic, or the societal trends? No, because fear is too strong a term. I’m deeply disturbed by societal developments, but that’s not the same thing as living in fear.

I have a promise from a Higher Authority that when all is said and done, He will still be the Sovereign whom we all must eventually acknowledge, either willingly or with great regret:

At the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:10)

I also lean on this promise as well as I face whatever may come this year:

For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. (2 Tim. 1:7)

I won’t be timid this year. I will speak clearly about the truth of Christian faith, the necessity of discipleship, and the faith’s application to our world’s woes.

I will also speak clearly about what I see happening in our government. There are those who say we should never involve ourselves with matters of this world since it is passing away. Yet I read that we are supposed to be salt and light.

The responsibility for being salt and light is to be honest about what we see. So not everything I write will be praise for the actions of those who wield the levers of temporal power. Yet I will strive to be fair.

Regular readers of this blog know full well my concerns about Donald Trump. I am gratified by many of the decisions being made by his administration, but I also know he can’t take credit for everything. Others work hard behind the scenes, thankfully, to do their best to correct his natural bent.

How I feel about the Trump presidency at this point is precisely what commentator David French explained yesterday. It’s a fair and balanced assessment. I offer it here for those interested.

I do want the best for Trump and for the nation. But there are the issues of character, ignorance of facts, and temperament to consider.

I pledge to pray for him and all those who work with him. That’s a commandment I take seriously.

My year of observations and analysis, though, will not be dominated by politics. If you have been following this blog, you may have noticed that the number of posts devoted to politics has lessened. I believe the Lord is directing me more toward other reflections. We’ll see how that plays out.

So as we enter into the tempest of 2018—for that is undoubtedly what it will be—may we do so with full confidence that if we have submitted our lives to Him, we can be sure He will direct our path.

I leave you today with this bit of encouragement:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:4-7)