Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A three-way battle for the United Methodist Church

The following is an opinion piece. It is based on observation of the current events of United Methodists. It is not intended as a position piece, arguing a course of action. In other words: my blog, my space to vent. If you care nothing for my opinion, the state of United Methodist affairs, or personal venting, feel free to Google something more to your liking.

Monday, a press release was issued. It was released by Good News, an evangelical United Methodist movement. The press release can be found here. It essentially states the opinion of the Good News staff and board regarding the current state of affairs of the United Methodist Church. It uses the word "untenable" to describe what our current UM reality is. According to Merriam-Webster, untenable means, " not capable of being defended against attack or criticism : not tenable"  The situation they are referring to is the "united" portion of United Methodist. 

Response to this statement is clearly divided. Some saying this is honest and inevitable. Others are saying it is arrogance and bigotry. Still others are saying it is contrary to Christian spirit and does not reflect God's purpose for the Church. 

The issue is not homosexuality, by the way. That is a catalyst issue, though. What Good News offers as the problem is: 

  1. Failure to uphold the covenant laid out in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
  2. Failure to hold accountable those who violate the law set down in the Book of Discipline.
  3. Conflicting worldviews among the United Methodist people which include the issues of authority of Scripture and the nature of our covenant. 
Because of these issues, Good News claims that the United Methodist Church is open to attack and criticism. Now, who or what would attack the United Methodist Church, I would not care to explore. But criticism is another issue. We are under the ecclesiastical microscope. 

The unchurched world doesn't really care what we do. The regard of those outside of our church walls falls between disinterest, ignorance, and vindication. But we are now in the spotlight of church politics. The Protestant church world is watching to see what we are going to do. The United Methodist Church is one of the largest denominations in the United States. We hold a very prominent place among church structures. And how we proceed will leave a mark on the ecclesial landscape. 

I think it is time to be critical. I feel that we have put on a good face long enough. It is time to uncover the skeletons hiding in the closet, bring out the dirty laundry, and have a good house cleaning. We have been dishonest for too long. We have tried to preserve the peace but peace is sorely lacking.

We are a church divided. I'm sorry that is the state of affairs. We cannot call the divisions that are currently simmering a state of unity. There are some fundamental differences that are being polarized the longer we go like this. The interesting aspect of this polarizing effect is that it is not a two-sided division. 

As I view the issues being presented, I see a three-way fight shaping up. Yes, I said a fight. We have three positions within the UMC that are getting increasingly louder. My experience is, the louder you get, the more obvious it's a fight. But the three sides of this fight are beginning to put stress on the "united" part of the UMC.

Here is what I see:
1. You have those who agree with Good News to some degree. They see that the covenant is no longer being used as a standard for identity. They see that Scripture is no longer viewed as traditionally authoritative by some within the body. They argue that the only way for the UMC to go forward into the future together is submission to the authority of Scripture and Discipline

2. You have those who would support the views of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a movement within the UMC that strives for acceptance, justice, and equality of all persons. They believe that the church is called to welcome all people into full fellowship. Scripture and the Discipline allow this approach to ministry. But in reflection upon exclusionary items, they agree that we can adapt to the changing world. What is more important is declaring the love of God. They argue that the only way for the UMC to go forward is to put aside laws and boundaries that limit persons experiencing the full love of God in the church.

3. You have those who believe that the UMC is to be a church united. Unity is God's will for Christians. Division goes against the common commandment "love one another". Dissolution of the UMC would be the admission that the church has failed. They argue that the only way for the UMC to go forward is to find the points of common spirit among the sides, compromise on issues that divide, and reconcile the fellowship in some way to preserve unity.

On one side we see an argument from Scripture. On the second side we see the argument from personal experience. On the third side we see the argument from tradition. So where is reason in all of this?

My opinion is that division is, within the current climate, inevitable. That isn't a reflection on theology or ecclesiology. That is a reflection on human nature and systems. The institution of the UMC cannot stand up to the three sided pulling stress. The structure of the UMC can only withstand the strain being placed upon it so long. The use of church trials has already been called into question for holding clergy accountable when violating the rule of Discipline out of conscience. The last General Conference was unable to move any meaningful legislation forward. We can no longer depend on Christian conferencing to discuss honestly what is at stake in the age of blog rhetoric.

I am not calling for the church to divide. I do not want the church to divide. Schism is not my answer to the circumstances. But given the climate we are currently experiencing, that is the direction we are headed. And I wish I had the divine wisdom to provide a different outcome. But I am not a prophet in this case. There are plenty of prophets on all three sides of the situation. All of them crying, "Thus says the Lord." All of them able to point out the sins we need to corporately repent. 

I feel that we are being dishonest to one another, the UMC as an institution, the Church universal, and the world we have been called to transform. We continue to lift our mission up for everyone to see - we are here to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But we don't agree on fundamental issues of who we are, what we stand for, and how to achieve that mission. 

When I told my wife about the press release, she asked me a very difficult question, "What are you going to do?" She wasn't asking if I was going to write a blog piece. She wasn't asking what my plans for the day were. She was concerned over my future, my calling, and my heart for the UMC. She knows I love this church. She knows that I am committed to the ideal of being a United Methodist. She also knows I'm torn, broken on the inside. 

As I said in the opening, this isn't a positional piece. I'm not asking for people to jump on my bandwagon. I'm not looking to gather a flock and build my own piece of security. I'm also not telling people they should stay with something they may fundamentally disagree with. I am hoping that we could secure our future together as the United Methodist Church. I hope that we can find reconciliation in our fellowship. I pray that God's peace and grace could work a miracle within the broken fellowship we are currently experiencing that we may come to the unity of Christ. 

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Noah - a biblical movie?

Day three on the ark. All is dark. It sounds like rain. These critters stink.

Spoiler Alert

I've been wandering around the internet and found many complaints by Christians leveled against the movie Noah. The chief complaint is that it is not biblical. I can't understand this complaint. Why isn't it biblical? Is it because it includes elements that aren't written into the story? Is ti because it is too fantastic (as in loaded with fantasy images)? Is it because the characters don't do what is wanted or expected?

I have already touched on some of these issues in the previous posts. But I want to focus on the biblical nature of this movie in detail. I felt that it is perhaps more biblical than most movies based on biblical narratives. And that is saying a lot considering the number of Bible themed movies that have come out recently.

I feel that this movie is more biblical because it not only takes the Noah story seriously, but it also puts the Noah story into the larger context of the Bible. There are many places where imagery, tone, and story tie into the larger picture of the Bible.

  • The creation story is alluded to in the opening scene and then retold beautifully by Noah.
  • The story of the Fall through Adam's sin is a predominant theme throughout the entire movie.
  • There are repeated reminders of Cain's sin and his lineage down to Tubal-Cain sets up the antagonist/villain for the movie.
  • Methuselah is a prominent character in the movie. And the lineage parts of Genesis do not have to exclude this possibility.
  • The entire plot of Noah and the ark is taken directly from the Genesis account. There are no embellishments on the major points of the story.
    • God warns Noah of judgment against humanity for its corrupt nature
    • God gives Noah the inspiration to build a vessel to save Noah's family and animal-kind.
    • The rains and the "waters of the deep" are both depicted as flooding the earth.
    • ALL of humanity outside of the ark was destroyed.
    • The boat comes to rest (if somewhat violently) on the mountain.
    • Noah gets drunk and naked.
    • God re-establishes a covenant with humanity, through ALL of Noah's lineage. And God marks this covenant with a rainbow.
  • The controversial scene where Noah is committed to killing the infant granddaughters was almost a direct translation of the passage of Abraham offering Isaac.
  • The image of Methuselah "blessing" Ila could have been a picture of Jesus healing a woman during his ministry.
  • Ila is one of many stories of women who felt they were cursed due to barrenness who become blessed and bringing a child into the world. (Sarai, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth just to name a few.)
  • The Watchers (one of the subjects that receives the most ridicule and criticism) live out John 15:13 picture perfectly.
I will concede the argument that there are scenes that were inserted. I will agree that some things were in direct contradiction to the Genesis narrative (ie.: the "wives" of Ham and Japeth were not on the ark; Tubal-Cain escaped the deluge by being on the boat). But those things are not examples of being non-biblical. They are questionable decisions in telling the story. But sometimes the details become muddy to further the story. And if you are going to engage and audience for over 2 hours, you need to make the story watchable. Honestly, how long would it take to actually portray the "facts" of the Noah story? 20 minutes? An hour at best with LOTS of long, silent shots of Noah building a big box?

I would also argue that Noah is more biblical than other Christian-based, biblical movie. Compare Noah to The Bible that was shown on The History Channel. I heard many Christians saying, "Praise God we got the Bible on television show in a serious manner." But what about the failures of that series in dealing seriously with the subject matter?
  • Abraham is shown as a warrior, much as Noah. He tends to come across as obsessed or even crazy in his devotion to God. Abraham is shown has having to prove his faithfulness over and over again through a series of tests. In the rescue of Lot, Melchizedek is completely excluded. Jesus is inserted into the scene of the three strangers who visit Abraham before Sodom and Gomorrah. The angels are ninjas. Sarah instinctively knows that Abraham is going to kill Isaac.
  • Moses and Pharaoh seem to have no connection, just animosity. The Hebrew who is saved by Moses is not afraid of Moses turning on him. Moses shows extreme confidence in the face of the holy God he meets on the mountain. God uses Dementors. The Ark of the Covenant is in an open air tent that anyone can approach.
  • Samson is a humble man with a mission. The Philistines appear to be more racist than the Israelites. 
  • Samuel's sons are shown as corrupt but not immoral. Saul wears an earring (look that up).
  • Uriah is David's armor bearer, an important position within a warrior culture. David is shown as arrogant and self-promoting in stead of humble or a "man after God's heart." When confronted with his sin against Uriah and with Bathsheba, David is not repentant. 
  • Nothing happened between David and Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before the Exile is completed.
  • The biggest offense of the entire series is this: the Bible is made up of 2/3 Old Testament and 1/3 New Testament. Of the 1/3 of the New Testament, only 4 books (1/8th) deal with Jesus. If this series was about The Bible, then why was half of the series about less than 10% of the story?
I would argue that The Bible series was an even greater failure at being biblical when compared to Noah. Especially if we take into account one the primary issues I have heard leveled against Darren Aronofsky. There are a lot of reviews/criticism being pointed at the issue of Aronofsky being an atheist. That may be so. I'm not qualified to address his theological worldview. But I am capable of comparing the two films and I would argue the atheist got more details right than wrong, told the story in a complete fashion without "cherry picking" the best parts, and told the story in such a way that it fits with the entire story of the Bible. The creators of The Bible are Christian, yet they played loosely with details, chose only the elements of the biblical narrative that were right for their point, and put their own theological bias into the mouths of the characters. 

Atheist wins in my book.