Monday, December 31, 2007

The Golden Compass - pt. 2

I have finished the three books of Philip Pullman. The Golden Compass is the first book in the series. I thought I would chime in with my final thoughts on the book.

First, let me say that I decided that I would not go see the movie. After reading the novels, I didn't feel that the I could agree with where the story was going to go. I am sure that the movie is a wonderful cinematic piece. But I chose not to see it.

The second and third books develop the story of the main character, Lyra, as she continues on the adventure that was begun in The Golden Compass. The story continues to show the opposition of Free Thinkers versus the Church. Lyra, and her new companion Will, seem to be caught between the two sides. Lyra was raised by the church (although she never fit in) but doesn't want to give over completely to her father's anti-church opinion. Along the journey to find Lyra's father, Will acquires a remarkable knife that enables the wielder to travel between worlds. In their journeys, they discover that the knife has more, and even more incredible, power than they first thought.

Pullman makes no effort to hide his opinion of authoritative structures, of which the church is the most prominent. I still am of the opinion that Mr. Pullman's experiences with the church are tainted by the failures of humans within the church. The way he speaks about the church is not the vision that Christ intended and is displayed over and over throughout history and the world. His vision is, instead, the picture of the church when it has failed because of human interest coming before the will of God.

And I suppose that is my overarching observation of this book. Mr. Pullman has created a world within his novels where human interest is the ultimate factor of what is right and good, as long as that interest is subjectively positive. This is secular moral philosophy. There is no ultimate good or evil. Good and evil is what each of us makes it out to be. And as long as we are not hurting another, then what we call good can be good. There is no ultimate source of evil (such as the Devil). Evil is only defined in the acts that people do that cause harm to others.

In Pullman's books, the church is evil because it forces people to live according to rules and takes away choices. It is evil because it limits people freedom to decide what is best for their own lives. It is evil because it prohibits discovery, curiosity, wisdom and knowledge.

There were some minor points brought out in the book that really set me on edge. One is the portrayal of God as an angel who glorified himself above other angels and received the worship of humans.

Another was the portrayal of homosexual angels. Two angels who help Will (Lyra's companion) are written in such a way to show deep abiding affection for each other beyond companionship.

Third is the somewhat obscured idea of a 12-13 year old girl becoming the lover of a 12-13 year old boy. While there is no blatant sex scene, the description of their relationship leaves little other category.

By the end of the book, I didn't feel good about it. As I read the last chapters, I wanted to see how it would end. It is well written. It is also an engaging story. But as a follower of Jesus Christ, an ordained minister of the gospel, and a pastor of some experience, I cannot recommend this book to believers. I would always recommend that you read it yourself to make your own opinion. I can see this book becoming for secular humanists and the Free Thinking Movement what the Chronicles of Narnia has become for the evangelical church.

I will tell you that the promotion of the movie and the related material is deceptive. Everything that I have seen promotes this as a hero story about a girl and her animal friends. This is not what the book or the movie is ultimately about.

I hope that the church will not take a position like that portrayed in the book. We do not need to come out fighting against this story. If it wants to be made, then let it be made. But if followers of Jesus Christ are going to see it, then be prepared to say, "This is not my church. This is not my God. This is not how I live." And if you can't, then be willing to allow change to happen so that you can become the follower Christ wants you to be, the church God intended, and the witness that can share Christ openly.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

In Jesus' name, pt. 1 - Prayer and Jesus' name

There is quite the little controversy bubbling up in Tulsa. In Saturday's Tulsa World there was an article about the prayer that opens the regular city council meeting. Tulsa has a tradition (like many other cities) of asking religious leaders to come in an lead the gathering in prayer before the business of the meeting is dealt with.

According to the article, persons representing the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance approached the chaplain who coordinates the religious leaders who volunteer to pray. They approached him in the interest of inclusiveness. Karl Sniderman said that he and another TIA board member attended a council meeting that was opened by a person who prayed in Jesus' name. Sniderman goes on to say, "I'm Jewish and she's Muslim, and it kind of irked us."

This conversation led to the decision by the coordinating chaplain to not allow prayers that were prayed in Jesus' name. Anyone who could not in good conscience abide by this condition is being asked to decline to offer the prayer.

This was brought to my attention by a parishioner. I have also been following along with one of the local talk radio stations. According to conversations and interviews with city council members, the city council was not aware of this decision.

The issue at hand is that praying in the name of Jesus is exclusive. It excludes people of other faiths. A prayer can be offered with other names for God being used. But the use of Jesus' name is not to be used. The article states that religious leaders who did not comply with this condition have been removed from the rotation.

This article has a companion piece. The following information was taken from the Tulsa World and, as one reader has pointed out, is not correct in its details. Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt was court martialed by the U.S. Navy for offering a prayer in Jesus' name, in violation of a U.S. Navy policy. Klingenschmitt challenged that policy, and Congress agreed with him, forcing the Navy to change the policy.Klingenschmitt has gone on to become an advocate for public prayer and the inclusion of the name of Jesus.

This has led me to a study of the subject of using the name of the Lord. I have prayed many years with the familiar, " the name of Jesus, amen." It was something that I had been given through my faith heritage. I had never heard teachings or opinions on this until recently. But it was something that I did.

So my study has begun on this subject. Of course, I wanted to begin with the subject of prayer. This is the pressing issue. So I began to study all of the passages of the New Testament that refer to the name of Jesus. And not once in the entire New Testament are Christians commanded, urged, exhorted, or asked to pray in the name of Jesus.

Before you go ripping into me, get a concordance and look up every passage that uses the word "name". You will find over 900 uses of the word name in the entire Bible. You will find 190 uses in the New Testament alone. In none of these passages, from Jesus' words in the Gospels to Paul's words in the letters to John's words in the Revelation, does it say that believers are to pray "in Jesus' name" explicitly.

There are a host of other things that we ARE to do and MAY do in Jesus' name. We ARE to:
believe in Jesus' name (John 1:12; 3:18; 20:31; 1 John 3:23)
baptize in the name of Jesus {and the Father and the Spirit} (Matthew 28:19; Acts 8:16; 10:48; 19:5)
give thanks always in Jesus' name(Ephesians 5:20)
glorify God in Jesus' name when we suffer for his sake(1 Peter 4:16)
avoid those who live an unruly life not in keeping with the faith passed down (1 Thessalonian 3:6)

Some of the things we MAY do in the name of Jesus include:
receive a child (Matthew 18:5)
gather with others (Matthew 18:20)
perform miracles (Mark 9:39; 16:17; Acts 3:6; 16:18; Luke 10:17)
speak boldly (Acts 4-5; 9:27-28)
proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins for all nations (Luke 24:47)

I believe that the idea of praying in Jesus' name is grounded in these few passages of scripture:
In John's Gospel during the final instructions to the disciples Jesus tells the disciples that they will be able to ask for anything and that Jesus would do it and the Father will give them whatever they ask in Jesus' name. (John 14: 13, 14; John 15:16; John 16:23-24)
Paul instructs the believing Gentiles in Colossians to do everything, by word or deed, in Jesus' name (Colossians 3:17)

These passages would seem to be the source of the tradition of praying in Jesus' name. We also have the example of the disciples using the name of Jesus to produce miracles. But I would remind you that at no point is there a command to pray in Jesus' name.

In fact, Jesus tells us, explicitly, whose name we are to pray in. Matthew 6:9 and Luke 11:2 record the prayer which Jesus offered to the disciples as a model for their prayer. In that prayer, which we call The Lord's Prayer, Jesus explicitly prays in the name of God the Father. "Our Father...hallowed be YOUR name." The model prayer that Jesus gave to the disciples that they could pray themselves was prayed in the name of God.

Toward the end of Jesus' ministry, he again models a prayer in which the name of God (Father) is used. In addition, you see that Jesus' prayer is intensely relational. He speaks of the oneness that Father and Son share. He prays of the sharing of glory, name, lives, and love between God and himself. This is, in it's being recorded by John, another model for prayer. We learn to pray by hearing what and how Jesus prayed. And his prayers were prayed in the name of the Father.

Now, about the exhortation of Jesus to pray in his name and receive it, there is a wide range of teaching. Some believe that this means if we pray for anything then Jesus or the Father will provide. I don't feel confidant enough to argue this point, yet. I will approach it in an upcoming blog, though. But I am confidant enough to say that prayer is NOT just asking God for whatever we want (whether good or bad).

Prayer is a relational link that we have with God the Father through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we pray we are coming into fellowship with all three persons of the Trinity. The Spirit, who dwells with us, has connected us to Jesus Christ who intercedes on our behalf with God the Father. In turn, God the Father speaks to us through the word and life of Jesus Christ that is communicated by the Holy Spirit into our hearts, minds, and spirits.

Prayer is that ongoing relational link. When we pray, we are already coming in Jesus' name. We are coming in that name because we have believed in his name (John 20:31). We are coming in that name because we have been justified in his name (1 Corinthians 6:11). The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ has already brought us into his life and his authority.

To go out in someone's name or to do something in someone's name is not to go around saying that name in order to cause something to happen. It means to bear the authority of the one in whose name you are going. When Peter heals the lame man, it is not the name of Jesus that heals him. It is the authority that Jesus has given to Peter. When Paul casts the spirit out of the girl who is a fortune teller, it is not the name of Jesus that causes the spirit to leave her. It is the authority of who Jesus is.

To pray in Jesus' name has become, in the most innocuous form, a matter of rote ritual or habit or, in its most dangerous form, magical incantation. If we pray in Jesus' name then we should be mindful that our prayers are carrying the full weight and authority of the identity of the King of Kings, the name to which every knee will bow. But the use of the words "in Jesus' name" are not a requirement in order to live out the relational link we have with God the Father, Son, and Spirit through prayer.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Winter madness

Oklahoma has been under a nasty bit of weather this week. I am happy to report that our home and church have electricity. We only went about 38 hours without any electricity. Our family didn't suffer any the time we were without. The church is open to anyone who wants to get warm, but we cannot shelter anyone overnight.

But there are plenty of Oklahomans who are suffering. I wouldn't even pretend to think that my family experienced what many are now going through. We were comfortable and hardly put out. There are some who have nothing. No source of heat or light. No way to get a warm meal or water.

Many of the electricity companies are saying that next week will be the earliest before power is restored to all locations. And we are expecting another winter weather system through here tomorrow night.

May God continue to bless those who are without and prepare those who do have to share.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A trip to a Wonder filled place

This Advent our family is making a conscious effort to spend a little time together each day. It may be a reading a story together, or making Christmas cookies, or coloring our own Christmas cards. Last Friday our activity was going to a movie. This year's holiday offerings are a little slim. I didn't feel comfortable taking our boys to see Fred Clause. And The Golden Compass was a no go for Lisa. So we settled on Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium.

No one is giving this movie a good review. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 38% (out of 100% I assume). Most were complaining about that it was too sweet. One of the reviewers even said that people wouldn't stay to the end. I am going to disagree.

This is perhaps one of the best movies that I have seen in a long time.

No, the acting is not stellar. Dustin Hoffman was a lovable, sort of off-beat character. Natalie Portman is a composer caught between the world of magic and reality. Jason Bateman is firmly entrenched in the real world of accounting. None of them gave Oscar quality performances. But I was drawn into their personalities.

Neither was the plot all that inspiring. It is the story of a magic toy store, the people whose lives are connected to the toy store and each other, and about believing in one self. You knew where the movie was going almost as if you had the script.

What was truly remarkable about this movie was the subtle messages that were being shown in how the characters were living out their lives together. I'm going to ruin the movie's story for you. But you still need to watch it.

Mr. Magorium is at least 275 years old. He has made toys for world leaders. He has lived a long and filled life. At one point he says in the movie, "I found a pair of shoes that I really liked. So I bought a life time supply... I have on my last pair of shoes." And the shoes are worn leather with holes in the sole. We find out that Mr. Magorium is leaving. Not the toy store or even the city. He is, in effect, dying.

This movie deals with death and dying in a wonderful, if not completely believable, way. He is in control of his life. He chooses to face the life he has led with joy and fondness. There are no regrets or ill-will about failures that cannot be changed. He admits to making mistakes, but you still live life.

Those who are around him accept the news of his leaving without much dismay, except for Mahoney (Natalie Portman), the manager of the toy store. She is very close to Mr. Magorium. She cannot accept his leaving/dying. She does everything in her power to change the events, to put off facing the hard truth. But she cannot change his decision. He has to leave/die. But he leaves by his choosing.

Another very powerful subtext to this movie is love. Oddly enough, there was no real romance in this movie. Portman's and Jason Bateman's characters show a little attraction to each other. But there is no deep romantic bond seeking. No, of the 4 principle roles in this movie, there is no blood or romantic connection. But you here characters telling one another that they love them and displaying love in unconditional ways. It was refreshing to see people express love in "authentic" situations and not forcing love into cliched plots such as dying parent/child or ritual mating sequences.

I described this movie to someone as Willy Wonka/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory without all the weird, creepy stuff. This was a great movie. No foul language. No violence. No awkward romantic moments. Great character interactions. An amazing portrayal of accepting death.

People, please see this movie.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Book 1 - The Golden Compass

I know most people are focused on the movie than the book. But some movies are based on a story. If you want to get to the heart of where the author originally wanted to go, then read first, watch later. This goes for adults as well as shortcutting high school English students.

The Golden Compass, as I stated in the last post, is an alternate Earth. Please keep that in mind. The world that Pullman has created is his own. It is not this world. But his worldview, how he believes and understands the universe, is the underpinnings of his created Earth in the book series.

The book begins with the hero of the series, Lyra. She is 11. She is rambunctious and feisty. She gets involved in the play wars of the boys from around her. In fact, she is often the leader. She has been abandoned into the care of one of the colleges of Oxford. She is cared for by Scholars, priests, administrators, and servants of the college. Her parents, she is told, were killed early in her life. Her only relative is an uncle who pays her infrequent visits.

The one companion she has is actually a creature of unknown origin. Perhaps it is her conscience or her soul, as one reviewer wrote. But she isn't the only one with one of the companions, these daemon. Everyone in this world has a daemon. Daemons are almost magical. They can change form. They share an empathic link with their human. And they cannot move very far from their human. If they do it causes great discomfort to both.

Lyra is brought into an adventure when she hides herself in a wardrobe (a nod to Lewis?, whom Pullman does not like)and hears her uncle describe an expedition into the frozen North. Through a series of harrowing twists and turns, Lyra finally makes her journey northward, gathering companions along the way. I won't reveal any of the plot more than it is a journey adventure.

The subtext of the book, though, comes out loud and clear: people should be free to think and choose what they want. That's right. It is not about destroying the church. Pullman does make the church to be the "villain" in this story. And he does not use religion in general in this book. He uses the imagery, language, and architecture of Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church in particular. They work behind the scenes of policy and commissions to control freedom of thought and limiting the choices of people. The church exists to control and dominate, to limit and remove freedom. The adventure is the effort to save our freedom to think for ourselves.

Here is where I believe that Pullman has a limited view of the church. Somehow he has come to understand that people are limited in their choices when they choose a religious life. He makes it sound as if religious beliefs are filled with boundaries and limitations. But my experience, growing in knowledge and understanding, is that we are not limited. Instead, we have a greater sense of freedom.

Book 1 does not set out to destroy the church. But it does entice people to think that free thought and free will choice and religion are mutually exclusive. The truth, as I see it, is that we were given the powerful gift to use our minds and apply them to everything that comes before us.

We can use logic and memory to evaluate and judge for ourselves whatever course we want. Because some of us choose to believe that there is a God who has the power to create reality, bend reality, break into reality, and communicate with what has been created (us), then that is within our freedom to choose. We are not limited in that choice. Instead, most who choose to believe AND pursue God find freedom and life.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Golden Compass

Tomorrow marks the release of New Line Cinema's The Golden Compass. I have gotten a little bit of the pre-release anti-publicity about this movie. I received an email and a fax spam from the opposition groups. Since there was some controversy over this movie, I decided to pick up the book and read the story before seeing the movie. At first, I wasn't going to see the movie. Now I may go and see it, if only to compare the book and movie. It really depends on my feelings toward the book.

If you are not familiar with the controversy, I will sum it up as briefly and fully as I can. The Golden Compass is based on the first in a trilogy of novels written by Philip Pullman. I am not familiar with Mr. Pullman's work, so I cannot offer any opinion on his writings. The substance of the controversy is that Mr. Pullman is an atheist and this series of books has been accused of attacking God, the church, and religion.

I am not going to tell you not to see this movie. The beauty of living in the United States is that we are all free to choose what we will and won't do. So I won't cry for a boycott. What I will do is provide the best information that I can so you can make an informed choice. On that note, let get to what I think you may need to know.

Philip Pullman is a British author. He writes fiction and fantasy works. But what gains the most attention is his view of religion. This is from Mr. Pullman's website.

His Dark Materials seems to be against organised religion. Do you believe in God?

I don't know whether there's a God or not. Nobody does, no matter what they say. I think it's perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it, but I don't know everything, and there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away.

Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it's because he's ashamed of his followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they're r
esponsible for promoting in his name. If I were him, I'd want nothing to do with them.

This comes from a general statement about the articles he has written about religion.

But organised religion is quite another thing. The trouble is that all too often in human history, churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people's lives in the name of some invisible god (and they're all invisible, because they don't exist) – and done terrible damage. In the name of their god, they have burned, hanged, tortured, maimed, robbed, violated, and enslaved millions of their fellow-creatures, and done so with the happy conviction that they were doing the will of God, and they would go to Heaven for it.

That is the religion I hate, and I'm happy to be known as its enemy.

Mr. Pullman doesn't believe in God as the Christian faith has traditionally defined God. That much is clear. But it would appear that Mr. Pullman's greater issue is with religion and it's role in human history.

Mr. Pullman seems to be gathering up the wrongs of all of religious history and holding the current generation of religions responsible. This is nothing new. Those who have stood in opposition to the church lay the blame for countless atrocities and misdeeds at the feet of individuals who had no role and also believe that those acts were horrible. But it is guilt by association.

But as you discover more about Mr. Pullman, you find that religion as most people understand it is not what he means. He is pointing to any group or structure that enforces a set of boundaries upon individuals through a hierarchy of "priests" and established in a set of laws written down. His icon of this is the Catholic Church. But he is just as quick to lump Shi'ite Muslims and the Soviet Union into that definition.

I don't know that Mr. Pullman is actively trying to destroy Christianity. I do get the impression from what I have found that the world would be better off without organized religion.

This is from an article in the New Yorker:

His fundamental objection is to ideological tyranny and the rejection of this world in favor of an idealized afterlife, regardless of creed. As one of the novel’s pagan characters puts it, “Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.

As to the book itself, I have only read a portion of the first book. I plan to read all three. But I will comment on each book as I work through it. The thing that is helpful to note right now is the world setting of this book. It is a fantasy novel. It is not set in the world of Earth. It is an alternate Earth. It is set in a period much like the turn between the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a time of exploration and scientific discovery. The world is mysterious and far off lands hold strange people.

I would remind people about one fundamental issue. Where Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even Harry Potter are set in fantasy worlds, they all had the grounding of a Christian idea of morality and good vs. evil. This book does not come at morality and good vs. evil from that direction. This is about philosophical morality. Good and evil are not cast in terms of God and Satan images. It will be human good and human evil that will battle.

This movie is not going to destroy the church. It will not pull God down out of heaven. It will not corrupt our children. (Oddly the evil in the books is exactly what opposition groups are accusing the movie of doing. This movie is not a threat to our existence. No more than The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe nor The Passion of the Christ caused people by the thousands to come to church.

So if you enjoy fantasy movies or novels, check it out. I would say that if you wanted to make a position against this movie, don't do it in ignorance. And don't take my word for the foundation of your position. I'm just stating what I have found. I will likely see this movie at some point. And you will read about it here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Passing of an Icon

I found out over the weekend that one of icons on my childhood years had died. On November 30, Evel Knievel lost his battle with a terminal lung disease. He was 69.

The '70's were Evel Knievel's decade. He was a celebrity daredevil who seemed unstoppable. He was clearly not indestructible. His crashes are famous. His broken bones are just as well known.

I remember the days on the playgrounds pretending to drive motorcycles up and over imaginary ramps. He was a superhero and sport star wrapped up in one.

In recent years, Evel Knievel accepted Christian faith after decades of maintaining a distance from organized religion. His testimony in front of Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral is available on YouTube. He was obviously struggling in health. He was not the flamboyant, iconic, superheroic figure I remembered from my youth. But he was passionate in his proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.