Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

My wife and I saw the latest Batman movie tonight. It was quite a ride! All the buzz about Heath Ledger as the Joker was accurate - he gave a chilling, creepy performance, making his tragic death earlier this year all the more ironic.

Besides all the theatrics, pyrotechnics, fight scenes, chase scenes, and other scary moments, there were a few strong hints of the gospel scattered throughout the movie. In one particular scene, two ferryboats full of people get to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on each other in order to save themselves. I'll let you see the movie to find out what happens, but the scene poses the age-old dilemma whether, given the opportunity, we would choose to let an innocent person (or in this case, many people) die to save our own skin. Just the fact that they consider doing it reveals what the human heart is like. According to Jeremiah, the heart is sinful and beyond cure. We have to have a heart change to love others unselfishly.

There are other pieces of redemption in the film but since many of you probably have yet to see it, I'm not going to spoil it for you.

One thing I do wonder, though, is why there is such a plethora of superhero movies out there these days. They are big-budget action thrillers that get us all excited and earn a ton of money. But we know the bad guys are going to lose out in the end. The movies pretty much all tell the same story. So why do we like them so much? Are we so devoid of real-life heroes that we need a constant stream of computer-assisted super-humans to satisfy our need for deliverance? Or is it just the special effects, music, and costumes that we enjoy?

Personally, I prefer the quieter independent films that have a creative story and real human beings doing the acting, without a lot of help from special effects departments.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My approach to Ecclesiastes

I'm preaching through the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes right now. It's a very challenging book to understand and apply. It's full of what scholars call "polar tensions." For example, in 7:3 the author says, "Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart." But in 11:9 he says, "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth." Here's another example: In 7:11 the author says, "Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun." But in 2:15 he says, "What then do I gain by being wise? I said in my heart, 'This too is meaningless.'"

So I've struggled to come to terms with these tensions, to figure out who is the man (known in Hebrew as Koheleth, which means Preacher, Teacher, or Professor) who wrote Ecclesiastes, and to decide how to apply the book to contemporary Christians. I've been most helped by the commentary on Ecclesiastes by Tremper Longman III. While his interpretation is not bullet-proof, I think he offers the most sound argument for understanding the book as a whole.

What Longman and others say is that Ecclesiastes is the product of a godly narrator (1:1-11 and 12:8-14) and a skeptical sage (1:12-12:7). You can tell there are two speakers by the change in voice from third-person in the prologue to first-person in the long middle section, and back again to third-person in the epilogue. The narrator opens with a summary of the teaching of the Preacher, including the famous theme verse: "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" Then, beginning in 1:12, the Preacher shares his observations and reflections on life. In the concluding section, the narrator comes back to critique the views of the Preacher and tell us the better way to view life under the sun.

For me, the breakthrough in understanding Ecclesiastes came when I discovered that Koheleth really and truly believed everything is meaningless. He wrote as a skeptic and a pessimist, not as a person in covenant with God. His thinking reflects a sub-Christian or secular worldview. He reached the point of resignation and believed that efforts to find purpose and lasting joy in work, relationships, and even wisdom are pointless. In that sense he is correct. Life "under the sun" (i.e., apart from faith in a personal God) really is ultimately frustrating. Koheleth said the same thing numerous artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, philosophers, and thinkers have said who view life through a secular grid and come up empty. For example, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote:

"It was true, I had always realized it - I hadn't any 'right' to exist at all. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant, a microbe. I could feel nothing to myself but an inconsequential buzzing. I was thinking...that here we are eating and drinking, to preserve our precious existence, and that there's nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing" (Nausea, 1938).

Sartre sounds exactly like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes who said, "Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both...man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless" (3:19).

One problem with the view I am espousing is that Koheleth makes frequent references to fearing God (3:14, 5:7, 7:18, etc.) and receiving life as a gift from God (2:24, 3:13, 5:18, etc.). Also, the epilogue seems to commend the Preacher as a wise man who "wrote [what] was upright and true" (12:10).

But, in context, the fear the Preacher advocates appears to be an impersonal, slavish fear rather than the reverent, trusting fear of a man who knows God to be not only sovereign but also good, kind, and loving. (Contrast Ecclesiastes with the Psalms, for example.) And the verses that mention enjoying life strike me more as a resignation than an affirmation. It's like the Preacher is saying, "Oh well, since there's no meaning to life you might as well live for the moment and enjoy the ephemeral blessings that come your way. Carpe diem." Finally, Tremper Longman offers an interpretation of the epilogue that differs quite a bit from the NIV translation, and shows how rather than commending the Preacher, the narrator criticizes him and warns the reader not to be persuaded by his argument.

Koheleth is not an atheist; he acknowledges the existence of God. But he never refers to God using the covenant name Yahweh; it's always Elohim. There's no mention of atonement, or forgiveness, or trust. So God exists, he's just not personal or loving. He seems to be rather like the God of deism.

Furthermore, many of the statements made by Koheleth are in conflict with the clear teaching of the rest of the Bible. Life, while frustrating at times, is not meaningless - not for the Christian anyway. Work is not pointless. Sorrow is not better than laughter. It is not true that "the dead know nothing" (9:5) or that time and chance happen to everyone (9:11) or that human beings and animals all wind up in the same place (3:20) or that "a man cannot discover anything about his future" (7:14). There are many other instances of statements that come not from the heart of faith (or even doubt) but of unbelief. So Koheleth is someone with a secular worldview. He speaks for many skeptics and unbelievers today who see the problems of the world but do not look in faith to a God who has intervened in time and space through Jesus Christ, has identified with us in our sin and misery, and lived under the sun with us as our Substitute and loving Lord. It's the narrator who, in the end, speaks of living in covenant with God.

Whatever is the best way to view Ecclesiastes, one thing's for sure: It screams for the gospel. It reminds us that life cannot be found apart from relationship with God, and shows us the vanity of all pursuits when divorced from faith.

Perhaps it's by deliberately NOT offering answers, that the book of Ecclesiastes drives us into the New Testament to seek the ultimate Answer in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Monday, July 14, 2008

North Georgia Vacation

My wife and I just got back from spending a week in the North Georgia mountains with our son Michael, daughter Jennifer, her husband Tim, and their dog Li'l Bit. We stayed at a house my in-laws own in a "town" called Sky Valley. It's about halfway between Highlands, NC, and Dillard, GA. I'll post some pictures soon, but here are the highlights of the week:
  • Relaxing on the back porch with a couple of books. (Love the no humidity!) I started re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia.
  • Eating dinner at the Dillard House - fried chicken, pork loin, BBQ chicken, country ham, pole beans, sweet white corn on the cob, okra, lima beans, sweet potato casserole, 2 kinds of bread, strawberry cobbler AND coconut creme pie! If you've never been to the Dillard House, you've missed out.
  • Whitewater rafting down the Chattooga River (that's me on the left of this picture, in the middle). We had the best guide, and we were all in the same raft together. I went overboard once (but it was not my fault!). (BTW, if you are comparing, I recommend our outfitters, Southeastern Expeditions. The guides were all really good and made the trip a lot of fun for everybody.)
  • Eating hamburgers at the Mountain Man Restaurant in Dillard... a real taste of mountain culture. Friday nights they have free bluegrass music for your dinner-time enjoyment!
  • Buying fruit and vegetables from a roadside produce stand. The peaches, watermelon, and corn were wonderful. (Why don't they have good produce in Orlando?!)
  • Hanging out in Highlands. The five of us spent several hours walking through the shops, sampling food, browsing the bookstore, etc. Suzy & I bought some old books for our collection. We like old books with interesting covers and subject matter. We bought a biography of Martin Luther and a collection of Shakespeare's sonnets.
  • Hiking down to Glen Falls near Highlands. Suzy and I took our shoes off and hiked down the river a ways (North Georgia lingo). We also climbed up the rocks and walked behind the falls. There were some beautiful views. We came across a section of smooth rock that reminded me of Sliding Rock, NC, so against my better judgment I slid down it into a pool below, jeans and all. It was tons of fun though I stubbed my toe and hit my elbow on a rock... which leads to the only bad news of the week...
  • I lost my BlackBerry. Before I went sliding down that rock, I took my phone, wallet, and keys out of my pockets and set them on a rock. Afterwards, my clothes were so wet I asked Suzy to carry my phone. Somehow it fell out of my wife's pocket and went who-knows-where. We never found it. We walked up and down the 1.5 mile trail several times, and by the end of the day we were exhausted. We figure it went down the river. I had to buy a new phone when we got back to Orlando. Boo!
Except for that last item, the week was fantastic. It was great fun being with two of our four kids for an extended period - although we wish the whole family could have been there.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Once

My son Michael turned me on to a movie I'd never heard of called Once. We watched it today. It's a modest little independent film about an Irish street musician. He's heartbroken over a lost love and wants to break into the recording industry. Along the way he meets a young, equally heartbroken and talented Czech woman, and together they succeed in making some demo records. It's very touching, and romantic, and thought-provoking. A good date movie.

Earlier this year, the movie won an Oscar for Best Original Song ("Falling Slowly"). It was either nominated for or won a surprising number of other awards. The music is quite moving, and if like me you're a guitar player, or you like acoustic music with good close harmonies, you'll really enjoy the many songs in the film. They're all sad, but well done. The thing I liked most was that most of the music, as far as I could tell, is performed live in the movie. You don't see that very often, if ever.

The movie illustrates that every one of us is broken and empty. We are looking for the Eden we've lost, but can't find it. Through music, writing, art, work, and other things, we express our longing. We look for new lovers, new jobs, interesting places to visit, and so forth. Friends come along, and that helps. Perhaps we find that one soul mate we've always desired - that helps even more. But like Koheleth in Ecclesiastes, we find the longing persists. Not until Christ returns to restore the brokenness and re-open the gates to Eden will we find the one true thing our hearts desire.

I won't spoil the ending for you, but there is a note of redemption, which made me think of what Jesus did for us by giving up that which was most precious to him so that we could be put back together again.