Hollywood Worldviews

Dear Church Family,

I remember returning to the theatre to see the movie, The Matrix, for a second time, accompanied by another person. As we left the theatre, my friend said, “Wow! That movie strengthened my faith – I believe in Jesus more because of that movie!”

I’m sure that some who read this can resonate with that sentiment. Others are surely thinking, “Are you crazy?” I suppose your reaction is determined by where you fall on the continuum between cultural glutton and cultural anorexic. These are two distinctions that Brian Godawa makes in the introduction to his book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment.

Cultural Glutton or Anorexic

According to Godawa, a cultural glutton is a person who consumes popular art too passively, without discrimination. A cultural glutton will be heard saying things like: “I just want to be entertained,” “You shouldn’t take it so seriously,” or “It’s only a movie.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, a cultural anorexic is a person who abstains from popular art to the point where he becomes irrelevant or alienated from the culture in which he lives. A cultural anorexic will be heard saying things like: “Movies corrupt the values of society,” “Too much sex and violence,” or “They’re worldly and a waste of time.”

Where do you fall on this continuum? Most of us have a tendency to swing from one extreme to the other. However, as Christians, because we have been called out of the world, while still living in the world (John 15:19), we have a responsibility to use biblically informed wisdom to evaluate, critique, appreciate, agree with, or oppose the messages which are communicated through popular art forms. Movies are one of the most popular, and whether we like it or not, one of the most influential art forms in our culture.

The Nature of Stories

Why is that, do you suppose? Why do human beings gravitate toward a well-told story in movie form? Well, I think there are actually two general reasons: we are sinners and we are created in the image of God. On the one hand, because we are sinners, we desire to watch the bawdy and titillating moving pictures which speak to our flesh. We want to be entertained in a way that will distract us from the real pain in our lives. Here, I want to be careful to add that just because something is entertaining or distracting, does not mean that it is sinful; however, we must be careful in where that entertainment and distraction leads us. On the other hand, because we are created in the image of God, we are drawn to stories – stories that stretch and teach us in ways that purely didactic instruction cannot. There is a reason for which the Bible is comprised of a lot of stories and for which Jesus told parables: our God who made us knows what speaks to us.

Godawa writes, “The nature of storytelling as narrative with a purpose and a view toward redemption is a presupposition of the Christian worldview. God, the author of history, tells fictional and nonfictional stories to show the meaning behind life and the possibility of redemption. Humankind, made in God’s image, has told stories in this way since creation.”

Movies as Short Stories

But, what I want to propose is that contemporary movies are not an entirely new genre. Certainly, the development of specific technologies in photography and cinematography are new in the grand scheme of history. Yet, the movie genre is rooted in the ancient art of story-telling. And (here’s my proposal), movies are cinematic forms of the literary genre known as the “short story.”

While short stories have been around for a long time, Edgar Allan Poe gave what has become the classic definition of the “short story” in his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/nhpoe1.html). Poe uses the nomenclature or “brief tale” and there are at least two aspects of his definition that I would like to highlight – particularly as they relate to the genre of movies.

First, Poe argues that one of the critical components of the “brief tale” is that “during the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences – resulting from weariness or interruption.” In other words, a short story or “brief tale” must be able to be read in one sitting. Novels, by their very nature, cannot usually be read in one sitting.

Second, Poe argues that “in the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” The “brief tale” must have one driving point or one theme. And, the good short story writer will remove all other elements that do not carry or support that one point or theme. Again, the difference from the novel is clear: a novel is made better by adding various twists and turns, many plots and subplots, but the short story is made better by removing all distractions. Novels (like painting) are an additive art: they are made better by addition. Short stories (like photography) are made better by subtraction.

In both of these ways (brevity and unity of theme), contemporary movies are more like the literary genre of the short story then they are like that of the novel. [As an aside, it is also my contention that the genre of the sermon is – in these ways – more like the short story than the novel, but that’s a topic for another day.]

Examining the Story

So, the movie is like the literary genre of the short story, but I have another question: What are the criteria which we ought to use in determining whether or not a movie has a Christian worldview? Some may say that the movie must have an overtly Christian message. My personal view is that one of the primary criteria is that the protagonist must be saved, rescued, or redeemed by a source which is outside of himself. Of course, not every movie is about the redemption of the protagonist. For instance, in the classic hero story (retold in comics and movies) the protagonist is not the one being redeemed, but is, in fact, the redeemer (think Superman or Spiderman, for example). In this sense, some movies or stories point to the one true Act of redemption (Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection), or they point to the one true Redeemer (Jesus the Christ).

My point is that, as Christians, we ought to be asking thoughtful, probing questions about the popular art forms which we view (in this case, movies). Of course, there are some practical concerns which we must address first such as, how much gratuitous violence, sex, or obscene / blasphemous language does it contain? There are many Christian media critics that provide the service of reviewing movies with these criteria specifically in mind. These are very helpful.

But, just as importantly, we should be asking questions like, “What is the authorial intent?” “Is what this movie is saying true, or is it a lie?” “Does the story illustrate or help me to understand a particular aspect of God’s truth or is it simply a testimony to the depravity of man?” In Hollywood Worldviews, Godawa argues that “there is no such thing as a neutral story in which events and characters are presented objectively apart from interpretation…in a sense, movies are the new myths of American culture.”

Men’s Movie Night!

Next Wednesday, June 12th at 7:00 pm we will have a Men’s Movie Night at the church in the parlor. Thus far, we have planned for this to be a monthly event for the three months of the summer. We will see where it goes from there. The goal of each night will be to get together and watch a movie, and then discuss these and other questions. Through our interactions and discussions, I hope that we will learn and grow wisdom and discernment concerning our viewing of this popular and influential art form.

All men, of the church (and visitors: invite your friends) ages 13-113 are invited. For young men on the cusp of the lower end, we will leave it to the parents to apply discretion. For our family, my 13 and 12 year old sons will attend, but my 6 year old son will not. For the older men on the cusp of the other end, more power to you! I hope to see you all there. The June movie will be “Signs” (http://www.imdb.com/rg/em_share/title_web/title/tt0286106).

The Lord be with you!

- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

The Gospel

Dear Church Family,

I’m writing to you today from the Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference held at the campus of Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, PA (http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/events/usconfexhib.php). It is a wonderful conference with great preaching, joyful singing, wonderful fellowship, and a special privilege for me to attend with my father (who would have thought that he and I would ever share a college dorm room!).

Since we have been examining the gospel in our sermon series through Galatians on Sunday mornings, and since I am presently at a ministers’ conference entitled, “The Gospel: What It Is and Why It Matters,” I thought that would share two excellent articles which deal to this important topic. Both articles are from the Banner of Truth website, and both speak to the importance of a proper understanding of the simple truths of the gospel for the church and her witness.

(1) The first article is by one of the speakers here at the conference, Ian Hamilton. It’s called, “Bearing Witness to the Gospel.” It’s an encouragement for believers to not be intimidated in their evangelistic efforts with their friends and neighbors. You may read it here: http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/articles/article_detail.php?2115.

(2) The second article is by Al Baker called “The Clear and Present Danger of a Truncated Gospel.” Though it seems to be primarily addressed to preachers, it is an exhortation for all believers to better understand the full-orbed nature of the biblical gospel. You may read it here: http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/articles/article_detail.php?2030.

I look forward to seeing you all on Sunday, and together worshiping our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:13b-14).

The Lord be with you!

- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Motivations in Sanctification

Dear Church Family,

In our sermon series through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we have entered the final chapters in which Paul’s emphasis has shifted somewhat. Having made his case for the doctrine of justification by faith alone (“man is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus,” 2:16), in chapters 5 & 6, Paul turns his attention to the doctrine of sanctification. Christians are to serve one another through love (5:13), walk by the Spirit (5:16, 25), seek the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23), bear one another’s burdens (6:1-5), sow to the Spirit (6:8), and walk by the rule of a new creation (6:15-16).

Righteousness does not come through the law (2:21), but the redeemed Christian is a new creation who now bears the fruit of the Spirit which is actually a fulfillment of the law (5:23; 6:2). The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes this well: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.” (WCF 11:2)

Christians have been debating the doctrine of sanctification for a long time. Amongst Christians, there is a wide variety of views with respect to the change in man’s nature at conversion, the definition of sin, the roles of the Law and the Holy Spirit, the degree of holiness which believers may expect to obtain (sinless perfection or continual growth), is the believer passive or active in his sanctification, and the list goes on.

Reformed pastors and theologians agree in many of the areas listed above: there is usually agreement concerning the definition, necessity, and nature of sanctification. However, amongst Reformed Christians, there have been many recent debates about sanctification which revolve around the motivation of sanctification.

Different Views

What follows may be a bit of an oversimplification, but there are basically two schools of thought (there are many other facets and nuances in this debate, but for now we will limit ourselves to addressing what seems to be the primary difference). On one side, there are those who believe that the Bible teaches that there are various motivations which God uses to make His people more holy. On the other side, there are those who believe that the Bible teaches that there is only one motivation which God uses to make His people more holy. [Full disclosure: I’m of the former view and believe that the Bible (along with our confessional standards) teaches that God uses various means to motivate His people in the process of sanctification.]

Truth be told, I have some pastoral concerns with regard to the teaching that there is only one legitimate motivation for Christians in their pursuit of holiness. But first, it’s probably helpful to define this view so that we can better understand it. Some teach that the only motivation for sanctification and the pursuit of holiness is grace. The premise which is put forth is that believers ought not to be told what they ought to do, only what God has made them to be. In this way, they will naturally and inevitably grow in holiness and Christ-likeness.

Sometimes this view is expressed in different ways. Some people speak of how the believer ought to be only motivated by joy or satisfaction in Christ. This is sometimes referred to as “Christian Hedonism” – seeking personal joy and satisfaction in God as the only proper motivation for obedience. Others speak in terms of gratitude. The only proper motivation is thankfulness for what Christ has done on my behalf in justifying me.

Dangers

Here’s why I think this “grace only” motivation in sanctification is deceptively dangerous. Responding to God’s grace in gratitude and thankfulness or pursuing joy and satisfaction in Christ is a biblical motivation for sanctification. We might even say that the redeeming grace of God, which was manifested in Christ’s becoming a curse for us (Galatians 3:13), is the primary motivation in our seeking to obey God and become more like Christ – but it most certainly is not the only biblical motivation in sanctification.

What is taught is true, but much is left out. And, those biblical motivations which are excluded are often derided as wrong and inappropriate. Yet, even as Christians are called to embrace the promises of the gospel in faith and seek to love and serve God with a heart that is motivated by gratitude and personal joy, the Scriptures also present other motivations for our obedience and pursuit of holiness.

At this point, I’d like to point you to an excellent article by PCA minister Terry Johnson in which he explains the modern debate among Reformed preachers. He then provides biblical evidence for a whole host of various motivations in sanctification. His article is called, “The Grace Boys” and you may read it online here:http://theaquilareport.com/the-grace-boys/. I highly recommend it; please go and read it.

Johnson’s article doesn’t name those whom he deems ‘the grace boys,’ and I have sought to try and do the same. At this point, it isn’t necessary and might not be that helpful. My main concern as a pastor is that people learn to be discerning when they hear the rhetoric of the “grace only” teaching in sanctification. There are, indeed, other problematic aspects with this kind of teaching, but it is helpful to know what to look for (or better: to be able to recognize what is missing) when people talk about motivations for sanctification. You see, it may sound correct and biblical (for much of it is), but it disregards and disparages other biblical truths. Therefore, it is deceptively dangerous.

Feeding upon all of God’s Word

Some people may think that these differences are of little consequence; however, our growth in grace as believers in Christ depends on feeding upon all of God’s Word, not just certain parts. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Because this is so, we must be careful to let the Word of God do its work, as the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth (John 16:13). As Johnson writes in the article:

”Human beings, even redeemed human beings, are complex. God uses a variety of means to motivate us. He uses carrots. He uses sticks. The richness is lost and the whole counsel of God is buried when the grace formula is imposed on every text of Scripture. In fact, distressing volumes of preaching in our day, even in our ecclesiastical circles, has become predictable, cliché, and boring. All of the Bible’s sharp edges have been blunted, ignored, or explained away in the name of grace preaching.”

May God save us from our man-made shibboleths, as we seek to know Him and do His will.

The Lord be with you!

- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Church Offices

Dear Church Family,

In the adult Sunday school class, we have been learning how to interpret the prophets of the Old Testament. One of the things that has been helpful is to define the office and role of a prophet. Of course, this has led to further discussions concerning the role of apostles in the New Testament, and the continuance of certain offices in the church today.

Among Christians, there are several views concerning the offices of the church. Even within Presbyterianism, with regard to the offices of the church, there is debate between those who hold to a two office view (elders, deacons) and a three office view (pastors, elders, deacons). Painting with a broad brush, however, most Christians agree that the Scriptures describe various offices with various roles which God has given as gifts to the New Testament church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, elders, deacons (Ephesians 4:11-13; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). Some may add or take away from this list, but in general, these are agreed upon among most all Christians.

Foundational Offices in the Church

The disagreement comes when one asks the question: Are any of these offices extraordinary and foundational, and therefore no longer applicable in the church today? Here, there is a continuum of opinion. Again, painting with a broad brush, on one end of the continuum are those who believe that all of these offices continue into the present day. Typically, these are the charismatic and Pentecostal churches, along with those churches which have been influenced by their theology and doctrine. On the other end of the continuum are those who believe that the Scriptures teach that some of these offices were temporary and foundational, and therefore do not continue into the present day. The Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, along with those churches influenced by their theology and doctrine fall in this latter category.

About a year ago, I was teaching a lesson in which I referenced and read Ephesians 4:11-12 where the Apostle Paul says that Christ “gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” After the class, a visitor came up and told me of how he had just read a book on something called “the five-fold ministry” which taught that all of these offices were not actually offices, but gifts spread across the church to various individuals, including apostle and prophet.

Then he asked, “What do you think?” I said, “It really doesn’t matter what I think. If you look at the book of Ephesians, you will see that at the end of chapter 2, the Word of God tells us that the offices of apostle and prophet are foundational offices of the church (Ephesians 2:19-22). Then, in the beginning of the next chapter, the Word of God tells us that one of the distinguishing characteristics of apostles and prophets is that they received special revelation concerning the mystery of Christ and the gospel which was not revealed to others (Ephesians 3:1-7). In the Pastoral Epistles (Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus), there is no mention of raising up apostles and prophets anymore. These pastors were to establish only the offices of elder and deacon in the church.”

Continuing Offices in the Church

There is another way of thinking on this issue that does not fall on this continuum at all. The Quakers and Darbyites reject all church government. They reject the idea of divinely appointed offices in the church, but replace them with offices instituted by man. Interestingly, a form of this ‘third way’ has become the way of thinking of some congregational or non-denominational churches. In my experience, this view seems to be on the ascendance in certain parts of evangelicalism.

This way of thinking, however, does not square with the teaching of Scripture. Clearly, from Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council to Paul’s admonition to appoint elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (and his addressing them specifically in his letter to the Philippians), God has established certain continuing offices in the church: elder and deacon.

The Doctrine of Ordination

One of the things that sets confessional churches apart from other churches in evangelicalism is our understanding of the importance of these offices and the doctrine of ordination. Negatively, we deny the view of those who believe that the offices of prophet and apostle are continuing offices in the church; and, we deny the view of those who reject church government altogether. But our doctrine of ordination (or any doctrine to which we hold) cannot, and is not, based simply on a set of denials. Positively, we believe that the Scriptures teach that God has gifted certain men in His church to be stewards of the mysteries of God (elders) and stewards of the giftings of the church (deacons).

Surely there are a myriad of responsibilities which God gives to the elders of the church (shepherding, comforting, exhorting, and caring for God’s people), but guarding and teaching the doctrines of the faith are at the center. Though there be no more apostles and prophets to whom God gives new revelation, pastors and elders are to guard the gospel and doctrines of the Christian faith which have been entrusted to them (1 Timothy 6:20-21; Titus 1:9).

In a world marked by egalitarianism and the democratization of opinion and authority through political processes and technology, the idea that not everyone has the same authority and responsibility is anathema, but it is a clear teaching of Scripture (1 Corinthians 12:28-31).

Conclusion

This is just a cursory overview of the various views of the offices of the church and the importance which the Bible ascribes to the doctrine of ordination and the responsibilities and authority of those offices. We have really only scratched the surface. But, I wanted to close in sharing with you a passage of Scripture which causes me, as a minister of the gospel, to tremble.

In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul writes to his young protégé, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” The phrase “you will ensure salvation” is the rendering of one word in the original language: soseis. It is simply the future tense of the verb “to save” (sozo). Literally, Paul says, “Guard yourself and your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

Of course, God in Christ is the only author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2); faith and salvation are the gift of God’s grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet, God uses human agents – men called by God and the Church – to be stewards of the mysteries of God – to guard and distribute gifts from the very storehouse of heaven, the gospel promises of God (Matthew 13:52).

Commenting on 1 Timothy 4:16, John Calvin writes,

“It is by the preaching of the gospel that we are gathered to Christ. And as the unfaithfulness or carelessness of the pastor is ruinous to the Church, so the cause of salvation is justly ascribed to his faithfulness and diligence. True, it is God alone that saves; and not even the smallest portion of his glory can lawfully be bestowed on men. But God parts with no portion of his glory when he employs the agency of men for bestowing salvation. Our salvation is, therefore, the gift of God alone, because from him alone it proceeds, and by his power alone it is performed; and therefore, to him alone, as the author, it must be ascribed. But the ministry of men is not on that account excluded.”

Please pray for your pastor and elders that they may persevere in guarding themselves and their teaching, as God uses faulty, human instruments to accomplish His saving work.

The Lord be with you!

- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch