Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

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Left Behind: Why We Can't Ignore This Film (even if you want to)

As many in the Evangelical world know, the official trailer for the 'Left Behind' movie, starring Nic Cage, premiered on YouTube recently. As of the time of this writing, the official clip has more than 1.5 million views. I'm sure Kirk Cameron is green with envy.

As much as I'd like to pretend all of this isn't happening, I've reached the conclusion that willful ignorance simply isn't an option at this point. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to explain two things: 1) why do I keep hoping the existence of 'Left Behind' is just an extended, bad daydream and 2) how I've reached the conclusion that it is, in fact, really happening, and that I need to stop whining and address it directly.

Transient

A Bad Dream

"Left Behind" is bad theology. When you break those terms down, "bad theology" simply means speaking/thinking/learning about God "badly." As a convinced Christian, I believe that knowing the God revealed in Jesus is the most important vocation of humanity, and to do so "badly," whether through art or academic study, is harmful to the world.

The story of "Left Behind" is based on a specific form of Dispensational rhetoric that emerged and was clarified by John Darby in the late 1800s. The implications of this alone are important: no one before the 19th century believed in the "rapture." Martin Luther, Aquinas & Paul did not believe history was headed towards a magical, instant disappearance of millions of Christians, which would then leave behind chaos and disaster in a world occupied solely by unbelievers.

This may seem like a bold claim. There are entire books on this subject alone, but here I will briefly look at two misreadings of relevant texts, which I hope will be enough to make my point. If you are not convinced, please look into it more. Reading those books would be a good start.

First is 1 Thessalonians 4:17. This is Paul's earliest letter, and he explains that "those of us who are still alive will be caught up together in the air...and we will be with the Lord forever." This certainly sounds like we will be raptured "up into the sky," but this is decidedly not what Paul was referring to. The Greek word used here is parousia, which was a specific concept that referred to the custom of greeting a royal, noble person when he visited your estate. In this process of greeting, those who lived in the estate would go to the boundary, to greet the King, or Lord, and accompany the visiting party into the estate for the visit. It would be dishonorable to the guest not to go through a parousia. 

Paul goes to great lengths to explain to the early Christian church that God is the true King, the true Lord, of our world, not the current King, Emperor, or Caesar who exerts power over you. In the resurrection of Jesus, God inaugurated this Kingship, this process of bringing about new creation, which will only be fulfilled when God returns to claim back the creation that was wrested away by sin and evil. When God does return, we who are alive will greet God, in a grand parousia, which will end back on Earth. I cannot claim to know exactly what this might look like, but the mystical language Paul used in his letter to the Thessalonian church certainly does not describe a literal "vaporization" of Christians to some disembodied, heavenly realm. Paul would be grieved to know his words would be used this way.

Second is the discourse found in Matthew 24:36-44. In this section, Jesus explains that "two will be in the field, and one will be taken," or that "two women will be grinding meal, and one will be taken." This image, combined with the one above, have largely been the source of our modern notions of "rapture." A  careful reading of Matthew 24 does not allow this interpretation.

In this section of text, Jesus draws a clear comparison to the "days of Noah," in which men were eating, drinking, and having a grand time when the flood struck. Those men, he explains, knew nothing about what was about to happen, and the flood came and "swept them away." "So too," Jesus says, "will be the coming of the Son of Man." 

Per Jesus' explanation, the ones who were "swept away" by the flood were those who were judged, not those who were found to be righteous! It is a grand irony that we have missed this fundamental point and so concluded that only the true Christians will be "swept away" by the rapture.

When I read Matthew 24, I pray that I will be left behind.

Why I Can't Ignore This

What we believe about our future directly impacts how we act in the present. If I know my house is going to be demolished in a few weeks, I am not going to waste time cleaning the bathroom, mowing the lawn, or fixing any creaky doors. So too, if we believe we are going to be "teleported" away from impending earthly disaster to a spiritual, disembodied state. Why waste time and effort on ecological care? Why take care of our own bodies? 

Additionally, and more importantly, the "good news" of Jesus' gospel is warped into fear-mongering and scare tactics. I have spent countless conversations with children at summer camps & students on college campuses, assuring them that the end of history is not something Christians should fear. The idea of God coming to set everything right should be a joyful, hopeful prospect, if one believes God is the true, rightful King of our world, and one truly wants God's will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven. 

Within the decline in popularity of the "Left Behind" novels, and what I perceived as the abysmal failure of the first few movies, I hoped this phase was over. However, as the success of this new trailer apparently exhibits, our culture still maintains a strange fascination with this theology.

Notably, I have already had non-Christian friends point it out the trailer to me, and ask what I think about it. I can only imagine this is going to increase, as the film nears its wide release. As has happened in the past (with movies like "The Passion of the Christ" and "God's Not Dead), I'm sure Evangelical churches will see this film as an "opportunity to witness." There will probably be discussion guides, as well as full-blown Sunday school curriculum, printed and sold. Large churches will buy out theaters and encourage all their patrons to attend, in an effort to make this a successful movie.

This is why I (we) can't ignore it.

In a strange way, I actually agree that the release of "Left Behind" will be an "opportunity to witness." It is an opportunity to confidently say to our friends who view it, "I do not agree with this depiction of the God I worship. Can I explain to you why that is?"

The God of the Bible, the God revealed in Jesus, is not going to "beam up" His followers so that havoc can be unleashed on the creation He once called "good" and so desired to inhabit (see Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22). This God, the one who humbly walked into an unjust death at the hands of an earthly empire, does not require the violence depicted in the "Left Behind" novels to take place before his return.

With the widespread cultural visibility this film has already gained, those of us who are firmly anti-rapture-rhetoric do not have the option of wishing it would just go away. And I encourage those who subscribe to Pre-Millenial, Dispensational Theology to examine the implications of it, at the risk of supporting a distorted presentation of Our Lord and our future.

God, may your will be done on this Earth, on the ground I walk on, as it is currently done in Heaven.

Frozen: How Disney Inadvertently Produced the Most "Christian" Movie In a Year Full of "Christian" Films

I have to admit that I"m quite intrigued by this....

I have to admit that I"m quite intrigued by this....

2014 could go down as the year of Christ-themed, Bible-centric movies. That is, it could if the films were more memorable. We have already seen Aronofsky's "Noah", the Newsboy's brand-building "God's Not Dead," and the re-edited History Channel's "Son of God." Upcoming titles include "Believe Me" starring Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation, yet another low-budget "persecution fantasy" titled "A Matter of Faith," another white Moses in "Exodus: Gods and Kings" (played by Christian Bale and directed by Ridley Scott) and of course that already-infamous "Left Behind" remake starring Nic Cage, the film that still seems like a giant practical joke.

That's a lot of "Christian" movies in one year. 

Full disclosure: I actually quite enjoyed "Noah," though I understand some of the Christian community's discomfort with it, not to mention Aronofsky's own comments that it was the "least biblical biblical movie ever made." And though I am wildly tired of caucasian Moses-figures leading a bunch of white people out of slavery, I will likely go see "Exodus" because I am intrigued by the combination of Ridley Scott and Christian Bale.

So, in a year that is incredibly full of references to God and the Bible in movie theaters, how is it that Disney's latest princess-in-distress tale has pointed me to Jesus more effectively than any of the others?

‘I don’t even know what love is.’
’That’s ok. I do. Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.’
— Anna & Olaf

While there is much to like about "Frozen," and a lot of conversation and feminist rhetoric has surrounded its reception, I have been remarkably struck and encouraged by its relatively simple core message. If you haven't seen it, the movie revisits and subverts most of the Disney tropes: a strapping Prince Charming, the unstoppable power of "true love's kiss," and the very definition of love itself. While some are singing Disney's praises for courageously doing something new and refreshing, others remain critical, making the point that this movie wouldn't be considered "different" if Disney hadn't repeatedly glorified the tale of a-helpless-princess-needing-a-muscular-male-hero for the past six decades. Regardless of this back-and-forth, the movie is a vessel of one core truth: Love is the action of placing the needs of others above yourself.

I suppose a SPOILER ALERT is in order here. The rest of this piece WILL spoil the end of the movie. But if you haven't seen it yet, you really need to. So stop reading and find your closest Redbox. Seriously.

Without rehashing the story in too much detail, the central tension in "Frozen" is built on the strained relationship of two sisters (Elsa & Anna). Elsa goes into self-imposed exile, while Anna relentlessly pursues a close friendship with her older sister over the course of their lives. The exiled sister leads a tortured existence, while the younger sibling does not understand what is keeping them apart. Upon reaching adulthood, Anna falls quickly for a handsome, charming prince from a neighboring kingdom. They sing a rousing song, "Love is an Open Door," before he proposes hours after they meet, and she agrees to marry him.

Pretty standard Disney fare, so far.

The characters of "Frozen."

The characters of "Frozen."

However, the script turns wildly at this point, and both Elsa and Anna's decisions come under close scrutiny. Elsa flees the kingdom she is intended to rule, and while searching for her Anna meets a goofy, bumbling (though admittedly still handsome) man who begrudgingly helps her on her quest. The conflict between the sisters escalates, Anna's life is endangered, she realizes that only an act of true love can save her, and her fiance is revealed to be an evil man who manipulated her into agreeing to engagement so he could take over the kingdom.

The film builds wonderfully to its climax, and I was genuinely surprised by some of the twists. In two instances, not just one, it seems as though Anna will finally receive "true love's first kiss." And it doesn't happen.

Let me say that again. In two instances, Anna seems about to receive true love's kiss, but it doesn't happen. 

As the tension rises, Anna sees her bumbling male companion struggling towards her. The audience knows he can alone save her with a kiss, and we yearn along with Anna for him to swoop in, but Elsa is similarly in danger nearby. Anna, literally on the brink of death, exerts her last burst of energy to move away from the man who can save her, placing herself in harm's way, saving her sister and sacrificing her very life.

It was at this point that my jaw hit the ground. I just watched one individual literally lay down her own safety in favor of the very person who repeatedly refused her offers of friendship and intimacy. Combine this with the fact that she could have allowed the handsome man to save her with a kiss, but she instead chose death. Her reason for this choice: she loves her sister, even more than herself, it seems.

And this is a Disney movie??

Now, to be fair, Frozen is not without a typical, overly saccharine, happy resolution. Though my melancholic, artsy critic side would have loved the movie to end there, Anna's act of true love ultimately saves her, she does share a kiss with the man she loves, and the kingdom is restored.

But I'll take what I can.

I love a lot about "Frozen." I love that it passes the Bechdel Test. I love the music. I love that Olaf and Sven are genuinely funny, goofy sidekicks. I love that the women don't need men to validate their existence, nor save them. I love that young boys seem as smitten with the movie as most young girls. And most importantly, I love that its definition of love subverts our culture's outlook and creates a space in the viewer's heart in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes sense.

In theological terms, Anna experiences Kenosis. Anything resembling selfish will is emptied out of her, and her selfless act thaws her sister's hardened heart, ultimately redeeming and restoring their relationship and family.

Paul articulates a similar process in his letter to Philippi. Christ, having every reason to hold on to his equality with God, instead "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (Phil 2:7). And this, being possible because of God's unconditional love for the world (John 3:16) despite humans repeated refusal of God's love, our stubborn willingness to exile ourselves from God (Ezekiel 16). Knowing my own tendency, just like Elsa, to prefer isolation over accepting someone's love that I don't feel I deserve, made Anna's climactic decision emotional for me to watch.

This Gospel may not be explicitly proclaimed in Disney's latest, but if you're interested in a film with a Christian message, you can't do much better this year. Plus, that "Let it Go" song is just so darn catchy.

Ethnicity & "The Bible"

Why it matters in ways you may not have considered.

The Bible is a compilation of ancient literary texts, including stories, letters, prophecies, prayers and poems written in Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient Greek, and has inspired untold millions of people, over thousands of years, to place saving faith in the work of Jesus, the son of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It's also now a ten-hour TV miniseries produced by the History channel.

Created by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (of "Touched by an Angel" fame, and full disclosure: also an early crush of mine), the premier of this series was viewed by over 13 million people, and has already sparked potentially two theatrical releases. Much could be said about this production, particularly the theological perspective it espouses, and before ripping into a critique, I would like to praise the effort of the creators to capture the entire narrative arc of the Bible. This is noteworthy, and I'm truly thankful that there has been a resurgence of interest in telling this story, for I believe it's the singularly most important story one could ever hear.

Now, on to the critique...

'The Bible' leaves much to be desired in many areas (just to be clear, I'm now referring to the History Channel series, not the previously-mentioned compilation of ancient literature, which I happen to believe in the essential historicity of), and I believe one such area of importance is the way it handles language and ethnicity.

In my immediate circle of friends, this discussion has primarily centered around its portrayal of one character: Samson.

Nonso Anozie as Samson.

Nonso Anozie as Samson.

It seems as though if you want to see American Evangelical Christians with their hackles up, all you need to do is suggest the possibility that one of the subjects of their beloved childhood Sunday School stories may have had dark skin.

In response, several questions immediately come to mind: Why exactly does this bother you? Did it NOT bother you that Moses had a British accent, or that Noah was apparently Scottish? (Both Noah and Moses were, of course, whiter than me in February - which is to say, exceedingly pasty)

Will Houston as Moses.

Will Houston as Moses.

I know tackling the subject of ethnicity, particularly when it intersects with faith, is a good way to make lots of enemies, but I think it's important for two reasons: historical accuracy and cultural assumptions.

First, let's briefly discuss the history, which is actually pretty straightforward. The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) takes place exclusively in the Middle East, primarily in areas that we know today as Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The period of the Judges (where Samson's story is told) takes place after the Hebrew tribe has left Egypt and settled in the "Promised Land" of Israel, but before the monarchy was established (where we eventually learn about famous figures like David and Solomon).

So, for the purposes of our discussion the question becomes, "What ethnicity were the Hebrews (the Jews)?" Well, if you could hop in a Tardis and ask Moses what ethnicity he was, he would probably look at you strangely, smack you on the head with his staff, ask you where you got your funny clothes, and tell you to get back to your family. You see, people at that time identified with their tribe, or family, rather than ethnically. Over time and generations, this close tribal association is how ethnic identities would form. These people were Jews, of the tribe of Abraham. Since we know they settled in the Middle East, our best evidence of how they looked is to observe people in that region of the world today. The unavoidable conclusion of this: Moses was absolutely, certifiably not Caucasian. Not convinced? Well, I can tell you even more resolutely that he certainly did not have a British accent, though the producers of 'The Bible' would have you think otherwise.

Why does this even matter? Well, the creators of this series are depicting actual, historical figures. Now, I am 100% in favor of taking creative license when telling historical stories. In fact, it was the creative parts of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ that stick with me to this day. But blatantly monkeying with the language and ethnicity of historical characters eats at the very fabric of the story you are telling, (if, in fact, that story you are attempting to tell is historical). You can see examples of this throughout film, and it's why I can't take some lazy depictions (Tom Cruise in Valkyrie or Kevin Costner in the Prince of Thieves) seriously. Let's go back to Gibson's Passion. Notice that his creative choices played out in some of the actions of Jesus, while he went to great pains to preserve his ethnic look and his language (the actors spoke all their lines in Aramaic, the language Jesus would actually have spoken during his life). The Old Testament is the story of God working through a specific tribe of people in the ancient world, and changing their language and tribal identities effectively changes that story. At best, it's dishonest storytelling. At worst, and this is what I fear is happening, it perpetuates harmful assumptions about people, race, and identity in our culture.

Which, finally, brings me to Samson. Does it bother me that the creators of this series depicted Samson as a black man? Actually, it does. But, and I cannot emphasize this point enough, not because I think he should have been whiteYou see, every aspect of film deserves to be scrutinized, for every aspect is the result of a choice. The decision could have been from the casting director, the editor, the makeup artist, the set designer, the actor, the producer, or one of hundreds of other people, but every single thing you see in the final product was the result of a choice someone made. Therefore, someone intentionally decided to cast Nonso Anozie as the judge who saved Israel from Philistine oppression. Perhaps there was something about his personality that captured how they wanted depict Samson (and, for the record, I think he is a fine actor). Perhaps this choice honestly had nothing to do with his color, but his acting talent. But, in any case, in the final product we have a black man as Samson.

Now, our media has an extremely checkered past regarding its portrayal of black people, particularly in America. I know white people don't like to admit it, but examples are aplenty. From the use of "blackface" in the theater, to those racist crows in Dumbo, to a more recent cover of Vogue magazine:

Transient

To be responsible purveyors and consumers of media, we must admit this reality. Like it or not, black people have all-too-frequently been depicted as either primitive, violent, or both. To say that this same media has not played a role in perpetuating our culture's attitude towards blacks would be naive. One need not look further than the recent Trayvon Martin tragedy, and the various twitter streams surrounding it, to see current evidence of this. For myself, as a convinced Christian, to think that this creative attempt to tell the story of my faith's holy scripture, which has achieved surprising levels of popularity and even multiple Emmy nominations, is contributing to these racist, cultural attitudes is a profoundly disturbing tragedy.

In the second episode of 'The Bible', we see a noble, humble, and reluctant hero in Moses, who valiantly leads his people out of slavery and into the land that God has set aside and promised to them. Juxtapose this with Samson, who is characterized by excessive violence and his ability to be seduced by Delilah and tricked into giving away the secret of his strength. The role-model-hero is remarkably Anglo (complete with British accent), while the bumbling, violent one, who serves as an example of what not to do, is black. The superiority of the white man is protected.

Now, if we were discussing just any old story, this would still be enough to level a serious critique. But we are discussing the story of the Creator God and His intervention in human history to redeem our world. We Christians get so excited when something "biblical" gets mainstream attention that we are willing to forgive too many transgressions. As if God Himself gains some credibility with a few Emmy nominations.

God promised Abraham that his family would be a blessing to the nations, which presumably includes all ethnic groups (Genesis 12). When depictions of this very same story are used to maintain harmful ethnic distinctions, something has gone horribly, tragically wrong, and we need to stop being OK with it. We are keepers of what I truly believe is the greatest story in human history, and this story should be good news to the oppressed, not a tool to further their subjugation. For truly, Jesus came "to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free." (Luke 4)

Not the other way around.