As regular readers of this blog are aware, a huge debate surrounding the topic of hell was spawned recently due to the release of a new a book called Love Wins by Rob Bell – a Michigan megachurch pastor and alum of Fuller (my school).
In his book Rob says hell doesn’t exist – at least not as Christians have traditionally understood it (read the Time Magazine article on the book here). Bell’s reason for thinking this? He can’t wrap his mind around how God can send those who reject Him to hell for an eternity and still be called ‘loving’ (a view driven by anthropomorphism – “God isn’t doing what I would do or what I agree with, therefore this God can’t be referred to as ‘loving’ or even really God …”).
I’m happy to announce Francis Chan is coming out with a new book called Erasing Hell – a humble response to the current hell debate, and a reasoned critique of theological views defined by anthropomorphic tendencies.
A key scripture Chan points to is this one in which God speaks:
Isaiah 55:8-9 8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Could it be, when we are tempted to write God off when He does something we wouldn’t have done or in a way we wouldn’t have done it, or says something we wouldn’t say, or thinks in a way we wouldn’t think, that HE is not the one with a problem? Could it be that HE is perfect and we are not, therefore we will always view his actions through imperfect, flawed lenses? Could it be that He really is loving regardless of what He chooses to do, because what He chooses to do will ALWAYS be right, holy, pure, and just – simply because that’s His inherent, perfect nature?
See, this debate isn’t simply about hell. This debate is really about trusting in God as holy and righteous and loving and perfect, even when we don’t understand everything. At its core, this debate is about our belief in the goodness of God regardless of our incomplete understanding or comprehension of Him.
A question we must ask: Is God really good “all the time,” or only when imperfect, flawed, so and so says? I choose to believe the former – not the latter.
You can pick up Francis’ new book after July 1 of this year. Here’s a promo video:
[NOTE: This review was later published on Youth Worker Journal’s website]
by Wes Woodell – westcoastwitness.com
“Why is the gospel of love dividing America?” This poignant question posed by Dan Merchant sets the framework for his latest film, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.
Merchant, a long time producer and writer whose resume includes stints working for television’s VH1 and CBS, makes his directorial debut with Lord, Save Us, and his is a film you’ll likely remember. After all, who can forget a 6’3 man walking around in a white jump suit covered with Christian merchandise (i.e. “Jesus schwag”) containing sometimes offensive messages? Bumper stickers that say things like, “Get the he** out of my way, I’m late for church” or “Abortion: Big People Killing Little People.” Oh, and did I mention it’s ladled with atheist and agnostic propaganda as well? That’s right, The Jesus Fish is chillin’ right next to The Darwin Fish and The Flying Spaghetti Monster … how’s that for diversity? Merchant believes the two extremes represented by the conflicting messages found on his suit illustrate a great point: both sides have something to say, but neither are having a conversation – they’re simply yelling at one another without listening to the other point of view.
Merchant believes the yelling needs to stop and dialogue needs to start, and starting a conversation between the two extremes is exactly what Lord, Save Us aims to do. The tagline on the official movie poster, “The Conversation Starts Now,” articulates this. With that in mind, it’s safe to say this film accomplishes its purpose – you will feel the urge to converse.
Indeed, the film itself is a collection of conversations. Merchant travels the continent speaking with people from all walks of life. In addition to people on the street taken aback by his odd jumpsuit, Merchant also speaks with celebrities like Al Franken, evangelical leaders like Tony Campolo, plus many other famous talking heads and politicians. Merchant’s adventures take him to places like San Francisco, where he encounters Ron Luce’s brainchild BattleCry – a rally organized by Luce that involves teenage Christians protesting the immorality that permeates contemporary culture. He travels to Portland where, taking a cue from Donald Miller’s popular book Blue Like Jazz, he sets up a confession booth for people to listen to his apology for Christianity’s sins, only he’s not apologizing to reveling college students – he’s apologizing to attendees of Pride Northwest – Portland’s gay pride festival. In addition, Merchant participates in Night Strike – another event in Portland where Christians serve the city’s homeless population in an all night service project. He also makes a trek to an adult film convention to hang out with the guys from xxxchurch.com – a Christian ministry aiming to reach porn stars with the love of Christ – to hurricane ravaged Mississippi to speak with Christian relief workers in the aftermath of Katrina, plus much more.
If that weren’t enough, Merchant organizes a gameshow styled after Family Feud called “Culture War” that pits teams made up of “heathens” that is, non-Christian media personnel labeled “secular progressives” or “agnostic scholars” against teams made up of conservative evangelical Christians labeled “religious conservatives” and “young believers.” In perhaps the most telling portion of the film, cultural questions are posed to both sides with the “heathen” teams winning out overwhelmingly each time. A very insightful moment came when it was noted that non-Christians could easily predict the cultural answers of the Christians, but not vice-versa. Indeed, it appeared the Christians in this game were very much out of touch with contemporary culture, and this led to their having trouble relating to the other side. Also interesting is that, after the gameshow ended, each team retreated to the green room where they hung out conversing with one another for over an hour. Both groups came to realize that, even though they strongly disagreed with the other, they could still have a civil conversation and even enjoy it. One of the Christian participants commented with surprise: “I actually liked talking to them!”
Lord, Save Us is a direct assault against the “us verses them” mentality that’s become characteristic of American Evangelical Christianity. Quotes like “outrage and being more right than them doesn’t remind me of Jesus,” and “fight fire with fire and you get a bigger fire” are prevalent in the film. Merchant’s call to “get out from behind the microphones and megaphones and have civil conversations” with people will no doubt resonate with many church leaders tired of evangelicalism’s bullhorn tactics and mass protests being touted as viable forms of cultural transformation.
Lord, Save Us does, however, have a glaring weakness in this critic’s opinion: for all of Merchant’s talk about “The Gospel of Love,” he never gets around to actually sharing what that gospel is. In fact, if one ignorant of the core doctrines of Christianity were to watch this movie, they would likely walk away thinking the gospel is equivalent to doing nice things for people like donating to charity (since Merchant spends much time highlighting the good works of Rick Warren, U2’s Bono, and several other philanthropists). The wrath of God against sin, justification by faith, substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell – none are touched on or hinted at in this film.
Also, the final line of the movie could leave some believing Merchant is a universalist. Merchant says at the close of the film, “Sometimes I feel like a river trying to make its way back to the sea. And though the journey is long, I know the sea refuses no river because I belong to the sea, and I believe you do too.” It almost sounds like he’s saying, “You’re okay no matter what, you’ll find God no matter what, all religions lead to heaven, blah blah blah truth is relative.” I’m fairly sure Merchant doesn’t believe this, so why he would choose to end his movie with this vague quote is baffling.
Christian theology does teach all people belong to God, and all will eventually make their way back to Him, but Merchant’s final line leaves out a key biblical truth: we’ll initially make our way back to God to be judged by Him. According to Scripture, polluted “rivers” uncleansed by Jesus will be in trouble of eternal proportions.
The strengths of this film do, however, outweigh the weaknesses, and, as mentioned earlier in this review, Merchant’s aim for this movie is to spur on discussion – not to provide an in-depth theological education to viewers (perhaps this is what the ensuing conversations could lead to). This movie will be enjoyed by anyone interested in religious discussion, Christian or not, but will especially be healthy for evangelicals who value argumentation over dialogue.
Lord, Save Us From Your Followers is slated for theatrical release starting February 28, 2010*, and for DVD release on April 20, 2010 (retail $24.99). If you simply can’t stand to wait, church groups willing to pony up $199 can immediately buy a package including the official DVD, site license, small group discussion guide, 250 tickets and bulletin inserts, and four movie posters. For more information, visit the official website at lordsaveusthemovie.com.
My thanks to Seth Simmons for loaning me his screener of this film.
* A limited theatrical release took place in September ’09. The latest will land this film in more theaters than before.
I arrived to my office this morning around 9:30am only to be greeted by loads of policemen, security guards, barricades, and people from the school next door mulling around waiting. As I told you in this post, the Westboro Baptist Church (a fringe, extremist hate group and cult in no way affiliated with the Christian denomination also known as ‘Baptist’) was scheduled to make a 10am appearance at the Jewish Day School my church shares a parking lot with.
I’d come prepared. Armed with my digital camera, I made my way across the lot and was greeted with a smile by one of the security guards working for the school – a very nice man. I told him how sorry I was they were having to deal with this today, and that’s when I heard the news: the Westboro group probably wasn’t going to make it to our location. They’d run into a problem.
Apparently, someone had slashed the tires on their rental car at the earlier stop they’d made. They couldn’t leave until Enterprise (the rental car company that promises “We’ll get you there … even if you’re a hate group!”) brought them another vehicle. That delay had pushed Westboro’s schedule back meaning the Brandeis Hillel Day School wasn’t going to have to deal with them. Trust me – the nice folks at Brandeis didn’t mind and I was relieved for them, but I still wanted to get some footage of the circus.
The next stop on Westboro’s schedule was downtown at 225 Bush Street – the headquarters of Jewish News Weekly of Northern California – so I, along with my friends Genny and Nathaniel who’d also come to watch the show, hopped in my car and made the trek downtown to Bush Street to observe the protest.
We arrived and after waiting for a few minutes the protestors showed up. Here’s part of what we witnessed:
That’s a video from my little digicam. Genny also shot some footage with a professional quality camera she was operating. Regular readers know we have a little film project we’re working on in our college group – if the footage turns out ok, we’ll probably use it for that.
We actually interviewed one of the young ladies from Westboro using Genny’s camera. The girl was quite polite to us since we were being polite to her, but would fire back with vitrol to the others on the sidewalk if mocked. I’m hoping the audio of our interview with her turns out ok as her comments gave me quite a bit of insight into their theology, but I’m a little worried it may have been too loud around us. We haven’t been able to check yet … we’ll see.
Here are a few pictures I snapped:
This guy arrived early around the same time we did. He’s planning to follow the Westboro group to each location they go to today. Before they arrived, I asked him to pose for a picture with my favorite sign and he obliged.
And then they showed up. There were only a total of five protestors from the WBC along for the ride on this trip. An older lady, a middle-aged couple, and a couple of girls in their twenties.
This is the youngest Westboro protestor we saw today. She looks like she’s barely in her twenties.
I felt sorry for the police officers having to deal with this all day. I spoke briefly with one of them. He informed me that somewhere in the area a member of the WBC was secretly filming the entire protest just in case someone assaulted one of the hate group members. He told me if a WBC member were assaulted, the police would be forced to take action immediately so that the group could press charges and file a lawsuit against the attacker. If the police were slow to act, the entire ordeal would be caught on tape and the videotape used as evidence to sue, not only the attacker, but also the city. The WBC is well-known for filing frivolous lawsuits.
Police had to move in with metal barricades as the exchange between the protestors and the citizens on the sidewalk became heated.
One member of the WBC wore an Israeli flag covered in blood around their feet making sure to step on it regularly.
Notice one of her signs says “God Sent the Quake” – if you’re wondering what this group’s take on the Hatian earthquake is, click here. Pat Robertson would be proud.
This man was by far the loudest of the bunch.
To say the least, today has been a very interesting day.