Category Archives: Religion

Have you met Hollywood Jesus?


I have a confession to make…

Although I am a bible believing, openly professing Christian, I have not watched Mel Gibson’s, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004).

There, I said it! Right now I can see Christian mothers covering their baby’s ears, Amish communities turning their backs, and stalwart fundamentalists writing my excommunication letter. Of course I write all this in jest. But I do remember at the time of Gibson’s movie rendition of Christ’s life, death and resurrection being released how driven Christians were to see it. I have a vivid memory of one pastor presenting communion after he had seen the movie. He openly stated that people who had witnessed Gibson’s rendering of Christ’s crucifixion would now have a deeper understanding of how Jesus suffered for us. Apparently, the rest of us simply had to work with a watered down comprehension of the atonement. Perhaps it was this experience that caused me to ‘dig my heels in’ and choose not to watch the film. Please hear me correctly…I don’t think the film is bad or unwarranted (I can’t pass judgement on something I haven’t seen)…I just think the manner in which the Christian community consumes pop culture has much to be desired. Which brings me to my most recent observation of Christians meeting Hollywood Jesus…

In Australia we have a new miniseries showing on TV. “The Bible” is a ten part presentation of select bible stories and while it’s directors and writers openly state that it is not a complete transcription of the bible text (how could it be in ten shows) they readily state that they are doing their best to present the ‘spirit’ of the text. I have no problem with this. Indeed, I welcome it (and not only because some of the cool special CGI effects are really well done). My problem lies with our response to such programs. Simply, how is it that we can find ourselves, as a Christian community, consuming these programs in a non-reflective manner? Just because something is titled ‘The Bible’ or has the name of Christ as its moniker does not automatically quarantine it from assessment or debate. We must grow as a Christian community beyond our modernist ideals which are founded on ‘black and white’ judgements (i.e. “If you’re not for us, you’re against us!”) and engage in the postmodern world which exists in the variability of grey-scale. The Christian faith should not shy away from discussion and debate! Might I be so bold as to suggest that it’s only Christ that can add colour, shade and texture to an otherwise two-dimensional grey-scale world?

Furthermore, Jesus challenged his disciples (specifically Peter) to personally comprehend who he was; aside from that which others presented him as. In Matthew 16: 13b–17 Jesus asks,

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

Again, I’m keen to ensure you understand I am not decrying Hollywood depictions of Christ outright – though there have been some truly appalling attempts! Moreover, I am seeking to remind us that any representation of Jesus will always fall short of a personal encounter with the living Christ. It is only when we allow the real Jesus to directly ask us, “but who do you say I that I am?” that we can truly make a declaration of faith. Meeting Hollywood Jesus simply doesn’t (and never will) cut it!

So does Hollywood (by this I mean pop culture at large) have a place in presenting Christ. Yes! But let’s be mature in how we consume and disseminate our rough and crude likeness of his image and nature. Let’s remember that now, in the 21st century, as it has been for two millennia that our best presentation of the gospel is in how we live our lives surrounded by a culture that does not know Him. “The Bible” (the miniseries) has a place…and who knows…I might even watch Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” one day. Regardless, I hope that the manner in which I live my life does not introduce friends and family to the Hollywood Jesus; but the Christ, the Son of the living God.

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Dispensing with the cork…and the Champagne!


Truth be told… “I love a good red!” For that matter, I enjoy a quality white, but I’ve never really been into bubbles. That is, I’ve never really enjoyed Champagne. Until recently, my experience of sparkling whites always left me thinking I had been drinking sweet lolly water – yuck! That was until a good friend, Tyson Stelzer, introduced me to quality champagne. It seems that I had been drinking cheap (in price and taste) imitations; imitations that bore no resemblance to the ‘real deal’. I should reveal that Tyson is an internationally awarded wine critic who specialises in reviewing Champagne and regularly travels to Champagne (the French village) to source and review the best sparkling wines available. Simply, I needed an expert to change my view. I needed someone who knew exactly how to compliment the wine with the meal. Tyson’s expertise flushed my ignorance away with the first quality glass. Admittedly, I have not become a regular Champagne drinker (quality Champagne can hurt the back pocket somewhat), but I am no longer unfamiliar with excellent bubbles.

My developing palate for quality wine seems to also resonate with my interaction with modern worship repertoire. Now there’s a segue! Stay with me…it gets better…

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me to review an article by T. David Gordon, “The Problem with Praise Teams: We should hear congregational praise when it is sung”. Dr Gordon is an exceptionally learned man and is professor of religion at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. I note Dr Gordon’s credentials because in this short précises of his work I do not wish to be disrespectful to his stance; all the while being critical of his conclusions. Interestingly, when I received the email from my friend requesting my thoughts on the afore mentioned article I had only just (within a week) finished reading Dr Gordon’s (2010) book, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal”. Gordon makes many excellent points throughout his writings. For example, I wholeheartedly agree with his notion of Contemporaneity as a Value (Gordon, 2010, pp. 103–128). I agree with Gordon when he writes, “The effect of contemporaneity is this: anything not contemporary seems odd, quaint, antiquated, outdated, or foreign. Its effect is to regard the past with a kind of benign contempt–benign because we don’t seriously think that we could bring the values, traditions, or practices of the past into our moment” (p. 119). The level to which I resonate with Gordon’s stance does however have a limit. The limit is observed in how far I am willing to enforce these observations on my (our) current experience.

Gordon, it would seem from my reading, is prepared to expel any notion of contemporary presentation of congregational song in order to preserve what he calls, “the thing that is commanded” (Gordon, 2013, p. 1); that is, audibly discernible congregational praise. I agree that we should be able to hear our congregations sing. But I stop short of suggesting that the only way to achieve this end is to silence (remove) any accompaniment; whether modern praise band, organ or choir). To recommend such a position seems to be untenable. One should not dispense with the Champagne when ejecting the cork! Furthermore, I am left wondering whether Dr Gordon has ever tasted quality Champagne. Some of my most memorable worship moments were experienced with a full throttle rhythm section (drums, bass, guitar & keys) leading tumultuous congregational voice. The band didn’t dominate the moment; moreover they gave rise to a congregation that was eager to lift their voices in one accord to the glory of God.

Perhaps it is a generational thing. Many of my readers know that I am keen to allow for many grades of grey between the extremes of black and white. Perhaps this permits me (some would say, ‘in a postmodern way’) to accept that it doesn’t have to be a right/wrong positioning. Dr Gordon, and I say this with all due respect to my acknowledged senior, is approaching this as a ‘take no prisoners’ battle. I am unable to join him in this quest. I must allow for the myriad of expressions that God’s people engage in. Expressions that I believe God receives as a pleasing aroma. Is all our worship acceptable? Of course not. But any worship offered through Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest is presentable. God’s word does not place a stipulation on that which should or should not accompany the voice when it is lifted in praise.

In conclusion, I believe that Dr Gordon’s writings continue to fuel the fires of debate that rage around ‘contemporary worship versus traditional worship’. Debate is good. Debate is healthy, and I admire Gordon for the robust defence of his argument. Jeremy Begbie (2008) notes however, “One group will use music to assert itself over against another – there is ‘our’ music and ‘theirs’, choir music and worship-band music, and, of course, each group claims God’s approval of its preferences” (p. 45). The point to be made here is, while Gordon can support his stance from scripture, so can many others with opposing views; with equal scholarship. One of the reasons these debates exist is because of the distinct lack of unequivocal instruction on the rites of Christian worship. If one is ready to acknowledge this fact, one must then be prepared to allow for a multitude of worship expressions. Again, I believe Dr Gordon has many excellent points and I unreservedly draw the interested reader’s attention to his book, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns”, but I do so with the caveat that it should be read with an open mind (and heart) that is keen to dispense with the cork, but still drink the Champagne.

References:

Begbie, J. (2008). Resounding truth: Christian wisdom in the world of music. London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Gordon, T. D. (2010). Why Johnny can’t sing hymns: How pop culture rewrote the hymnal. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

Gordon, T. D. (2013). The problem with praise teams: We shoulld hear congregational praise when it is sung. The Aquila Report. Retrieved 20th June 2013 from http://theaquilareport.com/the-problem-with-praise-teams/

Make us a King!


Tabloid MediaTabloid media have succeeded again.

Their success is observed in the ability to stir up controversy; making commentary about niche groups in a manner that is designed to be inflammatory.

This week an Australian current affairs TV show aired a story targeted at one of Australia’s mega churches; Hillsong. This is not the first time Hillsong has received scrutiny from Australia’s tabloid media…and mark my words, it won’t be the last. It seems Hillsong is grouped in with the revolving stories of fuel prices, the duopoly of the Australian grocery market and the latest miracle skin creams (to name but a few!). Why does Hillsong register such interest? Simple. Any good story needs two sides to the debate; two sides that are eager to passionately defend their view of the stated argument. The ‘Hillsong Story’ ticks all the boxes.

Often in the wake of this kind of story we, the Christian collective, respond to the seemingly unfair representation of our brothers and sisters in Christ with aggressive remark. Understandably, we cry foul; objecting to the incorrect and loaded information that these stories contain. For example the recent ‘A Current Affair’ (ACA, Channel Nine) story in review noted that approximately 30 Billion dollars are consumed by ‘Not for Profit’ organisations each year. The claim is made that these dollars are not taxed, thus rendering the Australian public at large ‘robbed’ of revenue (an argument not dissimilar to the ‘mining tax’). What is not considered in these tabloid reports is what these same organisations ‘save’ the Australian tax payer each year. There are few in government (either side of the political divide) that would argue a case for raising the tax status of groups such as Salvation Army, Wesley Mission and World Vision. Why? The reality is that these organisations SAVE the Australian tax payer billions each year. It’s an easy sum game. The government simply wouldn’t reap the tax benefit equivalent to the social benefit provided by these groups. Yes, groups such as Hillsong are clustered under the same tax system rules; but it must be recognised that these church groups are conducting themselves legally. I don’t know many individuals that don’t take advantage of government handouts when they are on offer – even if they are not in dire need of financial assistance.

I hope at this point you have gathered that I am not eager to continue the rants of ‘hate the Hillsongers’. This being said, I cannot finish my reflection without asking us, the Christian collective, to actively and critically reflect on our position. Why is it that Hillsong seems to constantly receive denigration from mass media? Now before you answer that question with the all-too-easy, “the world hates Christians”, ask yourself why don’t the Salvation Army, Wesley Mission and World Vision meet with the same level of disapproval? Could it be that the public perception of each organisation’s ‘core business’ is what invites social trial. In today’s ‘trial by social media’ environment perception is often mistaken for ‘fact’ and ‘truth’. ACA did note Hillsong’s charitable arms; but commentary seemed to suggest that they (the journalist and production team) were not convinced by the ratio of revenue when compared with charitable spend. And here is where I would like to offer our opportunity for active reflection…

There came a point in the Israelite’s history when the people were no longer content with God’s representative being a judge; namely Samuel. The people wanted to be like other nations. They wanted a king. Samuel warned them,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. (1 Samuel 8:11–18)

But the Israelites did not listen. They insisted that God given them a king. So, “the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Obey their voice and make them a king.’” (1 Samuel 8:22). History goes on to record that the Israelites suffered greatly under the tyranny of their much desired kings (not all, but most); all in the name of ‘being like the other nations’.

I recall during the 1980’s and 90’s that a persuasive argument for relevance seeped into the church’s teaching. Like frogs in slowly heated water (first content and comfortable, but ultimately boiled to death) we gratified ourselves with increased numbers. People were responding to our change in music and overall presentation of the gospel story (we even thought that air-conditioned buildings were cool; excuse the pun). Good things in and of themselves; but had we unwittingly made ourselves a new king. Not one individual who could be held accountable for our slow social demise. No, this was far more insidious. Our king, our man-made king, was a machine. The machine might go by many different names. Whether you label it ‘relevance’, ‘seeker friendly’, or some other non-offensive descript, we had allowed the organism (known as the body of Christ) to become an organisation (a mechanism). Senior pastors became CEO’s and our target became numbers; and in some extreme examples, dollars. Our much desired king, now rules it over us like a tyrant.

I hear Samuel’s words as a clear warning to us. This modern king takes our young men and women; soliciting their youthful exuberance for the machine’s causes. It has been my observation that many (not all) young people are swept into the vortex of the machine’s sub-cultural acceptance; dedicating countless volunteer hours (not paid) to the machine’s forward movement. Secondly, this king calls for more than the tithe. Samuel’s prophetic warning to God’s people that the “best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards” (1 Samuel 8:14) would be required notes that the king would call for more than what was necessary (at that current time). This man-made machine is time-consuming and money-hungry.

Is our greatest war found on the battle-front of mass media? Do the constant snipes from tabloid media require a response? Perhaps. I would argue, however, that we should invest more time into considering how it is that we got into this predicament in the first place. Is this level of social scrutiny actually a result of our own doing? Is it actually our own misdirected need to be like the non-Christian community; relevant and non-offensive in every conceivable way? Is it because we have made ourselves a king; a king who rules over us like a disconnected dictator concerned only for his/her own well-being?

I’m certainly not suggesting we do away with modern church as we know it. I note that one of God’s greatest stories, a man declared to be ‘after God’s own heart’, was a king of Israel. King David, though far from perfect, served the people of Israel with a concern that went far beyond his own welfare. God can take an apparent mistake (in this case, demanding a king) and turn it into a strength. Currently, our chosen king (the machine) is far from perfect, but I do believe that with some keen prayer, self-reflection, and repentance, we can recognise the gross error of our ways; once again acknowledging the King of Kings as our sovereign ruler (not some machine). Collectively, we might also be able to redirect the machines purposes (not all bad) to align themselves more succinctly with the gospel directives to feed the poor, clothe the naked and house the homeless.

What are your thoughts on this matter…I’m keen to hear your views and reflections…

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