01 April 2015

Open Letter to Bryan Storkel

by Frank Turk

Greetings all -- I got an e-mail about 2 weeks ago from some folks promoting a movie and the PBS series Independent Lens.  I watched the final product on Vimeo as part of the advance PR for this movie, and I liked it.  Because one of the producers of the movie has taken a beating from me in the past here at TeamPyro, I thought I would take a hiatus from hiatus to post this open letter/review.

Dear Bryan --

I hope this Open Letter finds you well -- long time no see.  The last time you and I crossed paths was when you released your documentary Fight Church, and you were rather put out that I refused to review it.  I was surprised by that because after I reviewed Holy Rollers, I figured that you would not want someone like me talking about your hard work.  However, you have produced a new movie which will debut on PBS next week called Little Hope was Arson, and I wanted to say a few words about it and your trajectory as a producer of indie films.

If we have to choose between the movie about the misguided scammers who thought that Jesus would endorse scamming casinos, the movie about misguided fundamentalists who think fighting is a way to teach men about the Gospel, and Little Hope is Arson, we should invest our 90 minutes of free time in this movie.  This movie is not hardly flawless, but it is at least an honest treatment of the simple faith of common Christians.

So what constitutes an "honest" treatment of a subject in a documentary?  I think some people would say that "honesty" would be when the documentarian lets the subject speak for himself -- so for example, an "honest" documentary about the kid who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary would be a movie which paints the events as that troubled kid saw them.  The problem with that approach I think is obvious: nobody really thinks they are the bad guy in their own story.  Whatever a documentarian might find out about what Adam Lanza and his motives in his crimes, his view of it would somehow paint what he did as justifiable, and that point of view would be so idiosyncratic that it could not be honest.  It would be entirely subjective.

Another approach might be to tell us only what "experts" think about the subject.  So for example, having FBI profilers and mental health professionals talk about whatever the documentarian has uncovered about Lanza might be seen as a way to get an "honest" treatment of what happened.  Some people might actually say that this would be a way to get at truth in this case because those talking about it are in fact kinds of scientists.  Because Science is seen by some as the final arbiter of what is true, they would equate this with honesty.

When I call your movie "an honest treatment," I don't mean either of these things.  What I mean is that (as I see it) this is your best effort to date as you seek to demonstrate your own integrity through the telling of a real-life drama.  Your treatment of those involved in this movie is, without a doubt, an attempt to really tell us who these people are whether or not they are admirable.  That's a big improvement over Holy Rollers, for example, where the story  is so one-sided that (as I wrote back then) it finally looks like a marketing piece for the card-counting school established by the principle people in the story at the end of the movie.  Here there is more than one perspective, more than one approach to the events, which brings the viewer to draw his own conclusions about all of the players rather than to wind up being either played by the documentarian to a staged conclusion or left without enough information to care about any conclusion.

Since this review is coming out before the film will get its national showing, I'm going to be a little coy about the details.  I also despise reviews which are effectively book reports about the thing being reviewed.  But there is one category which I think you handled quite well here: theology.  That may seem a little odd given that I think you would admit that you really didn't approach this film with theology in mind.  But here's what you did do: you presented the individuals in this movie as people who are all engaged in a relationship with God, and you portrayed their relationship in progress in the context of an objectively-evil act.  That, in case no one else will say it about this film, is where the rubber meets the road.

What I would love to do is to walk that off with you now through the parents, the pastors, the siblings, and (as we say in the part of christendom) the magistrates who make sense out of God and evil as the story in this movie unwinds -- but that would spoil the entire movie for those reading this review.  For me it is entirely sufficient to say that this time, because of the fundamentally christian questions you asked in this movie, and because you encountered fundamentally Christian people in the journey to make this movie, your film actually arrives at some fundamentally-Christian conclusions.  And for that, I want to thank you.  The very least that this movie should have done was to somehow unpack the statement made all over in it: "the church is not a building."  This movie does that, and it does so elegantly, seriously, and without the mushy romanticism which is the plague of most "Christian" entertainment in the marketplace.

The only solid complaint I want to register here is in the final caption of the movie before the credits:

Now, if I clever up a bit and offer you a huge portion of grace, I think the point of this quote is to say that the churches which were burned in these real events shed a light on some real people who, for the most part, have a real faith in spite of hardship.  But Durutti was a Spanish Anarchist, and when he said this what he meant was that everything about religion has to be destroyed in order for all its oppressive burdens to be cast off.  His meaning and yours in this movie, I think, are not the same.  By no means do I think that you have endorsed the crimes recorded in the film, but Durutti would.  The dissonance there is jarring and was confusing to me as I think it would be for any viewer who knows anything about Durutti and anarchist thought.  Your movie is not about anarchy but about the ways in which real people make sense out of suffering, and it is better than the philosophy of those associated with the burning of churches in pre-Franco Spain.

All that said, thanks for your offer to view and review this film.  It's good to see people working hard to develop a voice and a body of work which is actually saying something worth saying in a way that is worth listening to.

If this is where you are headed in the future, please keep up the good work.  I look forward to seeing more documentaries like this from you about real Christians in real life.

31 March 2015

Repost: The most offensive verse in the Bible

by Dan Phillips
If life is funny, blogging is a laff riot. The oddest thing I've learned about it is that predicting the impact of my posts is — at least for me — completely impossible. More times than I can say, I've posted something that by rights should have created a tsunami response... and then, biff! Nothing. 

Then on the other hand, there are posts like this one. The thought occurred to me as I described, I sat down and dashed it off, and it became our most popular post, ever. It has been reprinted, cited by AIG's Dr. Georgia Purdom, used by Doug Wilson in debating Andrew Sullivan about "gay mirage," and so forth. As I write, it's received 38,716 views. The next runner-up received 29,173.

I'm deeply grateful that folks have found it helpful, but I never would have predicted it.

Today at 2:00pm, Texas time, Janet Mefferd and I will have a chat about the post and its implications. I thought it might help to make this easily available.
In the Sunday School class at CBC we're doing a series called Marriage, the Bible and You. In the second lesson of the series, I brought up the subject of secular talk shows and how they like to try to beat up on Christians of any size, shape, and significance about whatever topic they think is most embarrassing and controversial. Of course, at the moment it's "gay" "marriage," or the topic of homosexuality at all.

In the course of the lesson, I remarked that I think — from the comfortable quiet safety of my study — that I'd take a different approach.

When Piers or Larry or Tavis or Rosie or Ellen or The View or whoever tried probing me about homosexuality, or wifely submission, or any other area where God has spoken (to the world's consternation), I think I'd decline the worm altogether. I think instead, I'd say something like,

"You know, TaPierRosEllRy, when you ask me about X, you're obviously picking a topic that is deeply offensive to non-Christians — but it's far from the most offensive thing I believe. You're just nibbling at the edge of one of the relatively minor leaves on the Tree of Offense. Let me do you a favor, and just take you right down to the root. Let me take you to the most offensive thing I believe.

"The most offensive thing I believe is Genesis 1:1, and everything it implies.

"That is, I believe in a sovereign Creator who is Lord and Definer of all. Everything in the universe — the planet, the laws of physics, the laws of morality, you, me — everything was created by Another, was designed by Another, was given value and definition by Another. God is Creator and Lord, and so He is ultimate. That means we are created and subjects, and therefore derivative and dependent.

"Therefore, we are not free to create meaning or value. We have only two options. We can discover the true value assigned by the Creator and revealed in His Word, the Bible; or we can rebel against that meaning.

"Any time you bring up questions about any of these issues, you do so from one of two stances. You either do it as someone advocating and enabling rebellion against the Creator's design, or as someone seeking submissive understanding of that design. You do it as servant or rebel. There is no third option.

"So yeah, insofar as I'm consistent with my core beliefs, everything I think about sexuality, relationships, morals, the whole nine yards, all of it is derived from what the Creator says. If I deviate from that, I'm wrong.

"To anyone involved in the doomed, damned you-shall-be-as-God project, that is the most offensive truth in the world, and it is the most offensive belief I hold.

"But if I can say one more thing, the first noun in that verse — beginning — immediately points us forward. It points to the end. And the end is all about Jesus Christ. That takes us to the topic of God's world-tilting Gospel, and that's what we really need to talk about."

I mean, why quibble about minor offenses, when we know how to take them right to the mother lode of all offense — that God is God, and we are not?

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29 March 2015

The bloodied Church

Your weekly Dose of Spurgeon
The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, volume 54, sermon number 3,093, "The Church of God and the Truth of God."
"Remember how your fathers, in times gone by, defended God’s truth, and blush, ye cowards, who are afraid to maintain it!" 

Remember that our Bible is a blood-stained book; the blood of martyrs is on the Bible, the blood of translators and confessors. The pool of holy baptism, in which many of you have been baptized, is a blood-stained pool: full many have had to die for the vindication of that baptism which is “the answer of a good conscience toward God.”

The doctrines which we preach to you are doctrines that have been baptized in blood,—swords have been drawn to slay the confessors of them; and there is not a truth which has not been sealed by them at the stake, or the block, or far away on the lofty mountains, where they have been slain by the hundreds.

It is but a little duty we have to discharge compared with theirs. They were called to maintain the truth when they had to die for it; you only have to maintain the truth when taunt and jeer, ignominious names and contemptuous epithets are all you have to endure for it. What! Do you expect easy lives? While some have sailed through seas of blood and have fought to win the prize, are you wearied with a slight skirmish on dry land?

What would you do if God should suffer persecuting days to overtake you? O craven spirits, ye would flee away, and disown your profession! Be ye the pillar and ground of the truth. Let the blood of martyrs, let the voices of confessors speak to you. Remember how they held fast the truth, how they preserved it and handed it down to us from generation to generation; and by their noble example, I beseech you, be steadfast and faithful, tread valiantly and firmly in their steps, acquit yourselves like men,—like men of God, I implore you!

Shall we not have some champions, in these times, who will deal sternly with heresies for the love of the truth,—men who will stand like rocks in the centre of the sea, so that, when all others shake, they stand invulnerable and invincible?

Thou who art tossed about by every wind of doctrine, farewell; I own thee not till God shall give you grace to stand firm for his truth and not to be ashamed of him nor of his words in this evil generation.

27 March 2015

Some Here, Some There — March 27, 2015

by Dan Phillips

Once again, start small, grows until noon TX time.
  • If you (like me) never wander to First Things, you probably missed Carl Trueman on the 20th anniversary mourning Evangelicals and Catholics Together. It's informative and thought-provoking and a bit snarky (hel-lo! Trueman!), and has wonderful quotables. Such as:
  • "...stadium platform ecumenism is personality heavy and doctrine light. It has placed some very theologically inept people in positions of significant public influence based solely on their ability to pull a crowd. Not all of its senior leaders ultimately seemed particularly clear even on the nature and importance of the doctrine of the Trinity."
  • "...can one really claim to agree on the Gospel of God without first agreeing on the God of the Gospel?"
  • "Before we start thanking the Lord that we are not like other men, we should ask ourselves whether our own alternative ecumenism, so often controlled by a few unaccountable powerbrokers and by big money, really possesses more integrity."
  • Bam.
  • And this, from the What Could Go Wrong? department:
  • The Jolly Scott, Prof. David Murray, has a very helpful note on 1 Timothy 4:10. That's one of those verses, like 1 John 2:2, that folks with a deficient view of God's saving work plop down on the table, as if the mere citing of the verse is contraindicative to affirming God's sovereign grace — blissfully unaware that the verses are at least as problematic for their own view.
  • Here's a review of Logos 6 from Jason Helopoulos. My own is forthcoming.
  • This just gives me a chuckle. I'd shared that a poor pastor, given TWTG as a gift, found it "terribly disappointing." I guess my readers have found his review "terribly disappointing," as currently 167 have found it unhelpful, to 9 who found it helpful. And I'm not certain what those nine mean, because I know at least two whom the review "helped" decide to buy the book.

  • Here, BTW, is Olson's article, subtitled Them Calvinists SO 'TUPID! Olson is helped to his conclusion by failing to allude to, let alone deal with, as much as one verse of Scripture.
  • And here, BTW and more helpfully, is Doug Wilson's first takedown thereof. (To be evenhanded, it is also without Scripture references; it is more of a very effective exercise in Proverbs 26:5.)
  • To me, Roger Olson is kind of the Bob Dylan of theology. In that every time I take a sample of actual product, I am baffled at the reputation.
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26 March 2015

"A church full of pretty people"

by Frank Turk

From 2006 to 2012, PyroManiacs turned out almost-daily updates from the Post-Evangelical wasteland -- usually to the fear and loathing of more-polite and more-irenic bloggers and readers. The results lurk in the archives of this blog in spite of the hope of many that Google will "accidentally" swallow these words and pictures whole.

This feature enters the murky depths of the archives to fish out the classic hits from the golden age of internet drubbings.

The following excerpt was written by Frank back in March 2010. "A church full of pretty people with no problems" can be a source of discouragement to those in broken circumstances.

As usual, the comments are closed.
There's this guy I used to work with.

He and I had a few conversations about the Christian faith because he says he's a Christian, but he doesn't go to church anymore -- and here's the irony: it's not because church is too judgmental. It's because, as he says, church is too full of pretty people.

That's his phrase: "pretty people." Now, if you ask him what that means, he'll tell you that he's a pretty messed-up guy with a lot of spiritual problems, and a church full of pretty people with no problems doesn't do anything for him but frustrate him. Their lives don't encourage him or make him a better person or turn him toward God: their lives actually discourage him because he knows, frankly, that he'll never get there.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. The first one is this -- we really have to answer the questions people have, and not the questions we wish they had. In one sense, those of us with the Gospel are driving along on the highway of life and we see a lot of cars on the side of the road -- all kinds of breakdowns -- and we are in the only bus that is going to get people to someplace other than the junkyard. And we're supposed to be stopping and picking people up, not just driving past and worrying about these people.

But if we stop the bus and get out wearing a tuxedo (or, for the ladies reading, a wedding dress) and tell these people we've come to help, they're probably not going to take our offer at face value -- because they don't really need a pretty person in nice clothes to help them with a busted jalopy: at the very least, they think they need a mechanic, or a cell phone to call a mechanic, or maybe a guy with a toolbox. They're not looking for someone in clothes so nice that they'd be afraid to mess them up.

The other reason to bring this up is that while they may recognize some part of the problem, the other half of the truth is that they don't really know what they need. They have "felt needs," right? They might be worried that they can't get to work because their car is busted, or they might be worried that they can't afford a new car so this old one has to keep running. But the real solution for anyone is that they have to get on the bus. They don't have to pay a fare, they don't have to sit in any particular seat: they just have to get on the bus and leave the old car behind.

We probably should be dressed in a way that they'll believe us when we tell them to get on the bus, but they have to get on the bus -- and the reason is not because the bus will take them where they think they want to go: it's because the jalopy is going someplace they definitely don't want to go, whether they believe it or not.

24 March 2015

Was the Serpent right?

by Dan Phillips

God told Adam, "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). In response to the Serpent, Eve more or less quoted God: "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die'" (Gen. 3:2-3).

Satan flatly denied this threat: "You will not surely die" (Gen. 3:4).

Well, what happened? Eve ate, Adam ate. Did they die? We read, "she took of its fruit and ate" (v. 6) — are the next words, "and she died"? No; they are "and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate." Oh. Okay; so are the next words, "and he died," or "and they died"? No again; they are "Then the eyes of both were opened," and so forth.

So... what happened? Did that bomb fizzle? Was the threat empty, or forestalled?

Or was the Serpent right?

It's interesting to read in the aftermath that God does not say to the man or the woman, "you will die." He does say Adam will return to the ground (v. 19); but He doesn't say he will die. Why not? Is death just implied or assumed or reworded? Or possibly something else?

In answer, this excerpt from The World-Tilting Gospel, pages 47 and following:


We watch expectantly, like the Maltans in Acts 28 watched Paul after the serpent bit him. They expect Paul to swell up and fall down, or something. Not to keep eating his barbecued chicken.

In the same way, we watch Adam and Eve after they eat the fruit. Cue the “death scene.” Any minute now they’re going to gasp, maybe clutch at their throats, reel around a bit, cry out, then collapse in a heap, dead. Any minute now. Yes, sir. Soon. Really soon. Should be big. So we watch, and we watch, and . . .

Nothing! They just go on. They make some itchy lame clothes. But them? They seem fine. Apparently air’s still going in and out, heart’s still pumping, blood’s still flowing. Not so dead as all that.

What gives?

Not dead? Are you sure? You don’t think they died right away? I think they did. Just like that. It simply took their bodies a few centuries to catch up to the fact.

It’s all in what you mean by death and life.

What is life, anyway? In the Bible, life can denote physical existence (Eccl. 9:4), but it connotes far more than mere existence.

People in hell exist forever, but I can’t think of any passages that refer to their existence as “life.” Life, in its fullness, connotes the enjoyment of God’s presence, and the blessings that this enjoyment entails. To die is to be cut off—not from the bare reality of God’s presence, which is impossible (Ps. 139:7–12), but from the enjoyment of His presence, from experiencing Him as other than terrifying (2 Thess. 1:8–9; Rev. 14:10).

Life isn’t merely the length of the line on a chronology chart; it is the quality of that line. Moses elsewhere paints it so; when he preaches that man does not enjoy life merely by eating bread, but by feasting on what comes from Yahweh’s6 mouth (Deut. 8:3). When Moses lays before Israel the options of life and good, and of death and evil (Deut. 30:15), and urges them to choose life (v. 19), he means more than mere existence. Moses parallels “life” with “blessing” (v. 19), and says plainly that the Lord “is your life” (v. 20). Solomon will later describe life as the opposite, not only of death, but of sin (Prov. 10:16).

...Looking millennia ahead, we see a validation of this when the Lord Jesus prays, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The essence of life is knowing God, relating to the triune God.

Real life, then, is a gift of God, and bears His presence and blessing. Likewise, if life is the enjoyment of God’s intimate presence, then death will be the loss of the joy of that presence, and of all of the blessings that fellowship with God brings.

And so I say that Adam and Eve did die, right away. When the horrible reality of physical death eventually overtook them, it was the culmination of a ghastly process that began the moment sin touched them.

Disease produces symptoms. When she was a young girl, my dear and only daughter Rachael caught Chicken Pox. In those pre-vaccination days, we wanted her brother Matthew to catch it as well, to get over it while he was still young and the symptoms would be mild. When he became a bit ill and broke out in red spots, we knew he’d caught it. (And so did I, by the way, with a whole lot more misery!)

So we see Adam and Eve breaking out in death right away. The symptoms begin to appear immediately. What are they?

We see one “red spot” of death instantly in their self-consciousness and awareness of guilt (Gen. 3:7). Before, being naked had not been a problem. They were naked, and not ashamed (Gen. 2:25). Suddenly, now, being naked is a bad thing. They feel guilty because they are guilty; they are ashamed, because they are shameful. So they patch together some leaves.

But a worse and more extensive complex of “spots” is seen the moment Yahweh arrives for fellowship with the man. The presence of God really brings out the symptoms. Our bold, brave, pioneering godling-wannabes actually hide (3:8).

Isn’t that just the most pathetic scene in the entire Bible? Adam hiding in the bushes from Him who made the bushes. As if God couldn’t see him!

So, you see, this one wretched act is in truth an ugly constellation of “spots,” and reveals the spread of death in their mental/spiritual makeup:
  • God’s presence is no longer beloved and welcome and sought-out, but excruciating and terrifying and repellant.
  • Offending God, indeed insulting Him (by running and hiding from Him who fills heaven and earth) is an acceptable option; so
  • God is no longer God in their universe; so
  • God’s glory is no longer their central heartbeat; it has been supplanted by their own self-preservation according to their own pitiful notions.
  • Their very notion of God has become warped and inadequate. (“Hide here, honey! He’ll never see us!”)
  • They are evasive about their sin, blame-shifting (“Maybe I can throw Him off!”), rather than openly confessing it, throwing themselves on His mercy, and pleading for a way back into His favor.
  • Adam, in fact, has the dead/blind audacity to blame his sin not only on Eve, but also on God (“The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree” [v. 12]; as if to say, “It’s not my fault! You gave me a defective woman! You messed up!”). 
Adam and Eve, then, have died both in vertical relationship and in horizontal relationship. They’ve lost sight of God, and they’ve lost hold of each other. All that remains is their dead, blind, sinravaged selves. Thus, even after He redeems Adam and Eve, God will send ultimate physical death almost as a blessing to relieve them of an interminable existence in sin.

But what is infinitely more gracious and glorious, one day God will send a second Man, a last Adam, to win out where they so miserably failed (Gen. 3:15; more on this in chapter 3).

As the scene closes, God pronounces His judgments on the couple (Gen. 3:16–19), and they begin to ponder the repercussions of their act. Their responsibilities and structures—work and marriage—remain. But all will be more difficult, and physical death waits at the end. Childbirth will be an agony, and the relationship between husband and wife will become a difficult competition


Subsequent chapters then deal with the transmission and the total effect of sin, with our hopelessness, and with God's grand plan of salvation, first announced in Genesis 3:15.

So was the Serpent right? Of course not. He is the "father of lies."

Adam and Eve died; and, in Adam's death, we died. Only in Christ can we be made alive.

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22 March 2015

No discharge in this war

Your weekly Dose of Spurgeon
The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, volume 30, sermon number 1,773, "What is your life?"
"The old must die, the young may die."

If, therefore, death be so impartial that he smites down the captains, let not the rank and file hope to escape. Death, which forces entrance to a prince’s bedchamber, will not respect our cottage door. To us also in due time shall be brought the message, “The Master is come and calleth for thee.” My ear hears a voice crying aloud, “Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live.”

Will not you hear it? Will any one of you refuse the voice which speaketh from Heaven? Death evidently pays no respect to character, age, or hopefulness. A man may addict himself to the service of his country, but his patriotism will not protect him. He may be surrounded with a wall of affection, but this will not screen him. He may have at his command all the comforts of life, and yet life may ooze out before the physician is aware. He may be tenderly loved by an affectionate mother and his name may be engraved on the heart of the fondest of wives, but death hath no regard to the love of women.

“It is appointed unto men once to die.” There is no discharge in this war: we shall all march into this fight, and unless the Lord himself shall speedily come and end the present dispensation, we shall each one fall upon this battle-field, for the shafts of death fly everywhere, and there is no armour for either back or breast by which his cruel darts may be turned aside. I would to God that all of us retained this truth in our memories.

“Lord, make me to know mine end and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.” We have a very clear conviction that others will die, but as to ourselves, we put far from us the evil day, and care not to dwell upon a subject which smells so unpleasantly of the charnel-house.

Yes, we admit that we shall die, but not so soon as to make it a pressing matter; we imagine that we are not within measurable distance of the tomb. Even the oldest man gives himself a little longer lease, and when he has passed his four-score years, we have seen him hugging life with as much tenacity as if he had just commenced it. Brethren, in this we are not wise; but death will not spare us because we avoid him.

What is there about any one of us that we should fare better than the rest of our fellow-men? We are in the same army, marching upon the same field; how shall we escape where all others fall? Only two of our race have gone into the better land without crossing the dark river of death—Enoch and Elijah; but no one among us will make a third.