This seems to be an unusually thick season of movies of interest for Christians–both positive and negative–at the box office. Son of God has been out for some time now, and there is God s not dead. Noah came out this past week and Heaven is for real is coming. Of these movies, I’ve only seen Noah, although I read the book Heaven is for real.
Popular Christian reactions to these sorts of movies seem fairly predictable. We’ve known for some time that Heaven is for real and God is not dead would be popular with a certain Christian demographic. And we knew that many would not like Noah because it deviates in some ways from the biblical narrative.
Today I thought I would brainstorm some warnings in this season.
1. Avoid “three wise men” syndrome
There is a tendency to assume that we just see the Bible as it is. The more isolated we are in a specific faith tradition, the easier it is to assume that the meaning and implication of the Bible is self-evident. This is especially a danger for American evangelicalism.
Over the last 50 years, American evangelicalism has developed into a distinct Christian tradition about how to interpret the Bible. We do not remember how the details of that tradition worked itself out because it has become firmly established as a paradigm. Your typical non-denominational or mega-church usually is simply part of this tradition. It reads the Bible a certain way without realizing the glasses it is wearing and increasingly unchristianizes those who disagree as being unbiblical (see, for example, the recent rhetoric of the president of Cedarville College where he considers anyone but complementarians to be unbiblical).
But if we truly love the Bible and want to listen to it, then we must force ourselves to listen to it. We must be open to revision in our understanding. I did not personally enjoy the movie Noah, but I will say this. It has caused Christians to read the story more carefully than they ever had. For example, how many Christians recently have thought about Canaan’s cursing at the end of the story or thought about the descendants of Cain? How many Christians have noticed that, if you take the ages of Genesis straightforwardly, Methuselah dies the same year as the Flood? How many Christians have even heard of Methuselah?
Three wise men syndrome is when we mistake traditions about how to read the Bible with what the Bible actually says. Who are the “Nephilim” of Genesis 6:4? Who are the “sons of God” in 6:2? Many early Christians thought that the sons of God here were fallen angels who had sex with human women, who then gave birth to giants. Is it possible that we have sanitized this story without realizing it, so that it fits with a modern scientific worldview?
2. Value Truth more than tradition
To keep from mistaking our traditions about the Bible with the real Bible, it is important to value Truth with a capital T above our traditions about the truth. This is difficult. Fallen humanity is driven to make idols of God that we can see and that give us certainty. Could it be that some Christians almost make an idol of the Bible, trying to capture God and pin him down? They want the Bible to give them certainty and specificity about a God whose ways are higher than our ways. But since they mistake traditions about the Bible for what God actually wants to say through Scripture, they make their understanding of the Bible into an idol, a poor representation of a reality beyond our literal comprehension.
Still worse is when we let experience or emotion drive our theology. How easy it would be to sanctify the experience of one family in Heaven is for real and soon excommunicate anyone who disagreed with its assumed theology. It would be so easy. Here is a moving story that is more vivid to us than any picture of heaven in the Bible! What often happens is that experience then overlays the way we read the Bible. We come to ignore what the Bible might say on a topic for much more vivid and immediate experiences. We should celebrate what God did for this family while remembering that their experiences do not have the authority of Scripture.
The same phenomenon also goes the other way. No respectable secular philosophy professor would ever behave the way the professor behaves in God is not dead. The philosophy professor in this movie is what we call a “straw man,” an easy target that feeds our desire for an enemy we can easily vanquish. The very movie itself seems to be built off an urban legend I have heard over and over. It gets our emotions stirred up in a negative way. If we value Truth over emotion, we will always be suspicious when our “enemy” turns out to be amazingly stupid.
3. Remember the mission
In the end, the atheist professor needs saved. If we are oriented around who is the bad guy and who is the good guy, who is already predestined to be saved and who is chosen to be damned, we are not thinking like Jesus. For Jesus, everyone is someone who needs to be saved. The villain is not the producer of Noah but hell. The atheist professor is not the predestined villain but someone who needs the Lord and can be saved.
Christianity is not primarily about sorting out who agrees with me (and thus believes the “right” things) and who disagrees with me. Christianity is more about motion toward those who need to be saved. And being saved is not primarily about believing the right things but about Jesus being Lord of your life (Rom. 10:9-13). Faith for Paul is not a checklist of the right beliefs but a trust in the Christ who died for us and is our Lord. Belonging to Christ is about a transformed mind which for Paul is a mind that presents one’s life to God as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1-2).
So enjoy Heaven is for real and don’t mistake Noah for Scripture. Rejoice that God is not dead and that we have a living hope. But don’t confuse traditions about God and the Bible for the real thing either. And remember most of all that God wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), even the infidel and atheist.