Seeing Worldviews behind the Art – Should Fiction Be Safe? Conclusion


So today I learn that in a recent sermon Pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s Mars Hills Church called Avatar “satanic”. Well, actually, he called it “the most demonic, satanic film I’ve seen.”

I don’t know what Pastor Driscoll’s point was in his sermon, and I’m not bringing this up to discuss whether or not he was wise to voice his opinion in such a strident way. Rather, I want to return to the discussion about safe fiction.

First, one more news item related to the “safe fiction” topic. It seems Barnes & Noble has added reviews from Common Sense Media Web site, and this has upset some writers: “The way the book reviews seemed to suddenly appear on BN.com and the fact that they seemed to emphasize negative subjects like sex, violence, drinking, and drugs over subject matter, raised a red flag for some readers” (excerpt from “Common Sense Raises Issues at B&N” by Judith Rosen — Publishers Weekly, 2/23/2010).

I think these two articles illustrate in real-life settings the problem with seeking after “safe fiction.” For one thing stories are layered. On the surface are the behaviors we can readily see such as sex and violence and bad language—things the Common Sense reviews would flag.

Below that, however, lie attitudes characters might espouse. As one commenter noted over at Novel Journey in a discussion about Avatar, a movie like Twilight shows all kinds of unhealthy attitudes toward love. Yet it’s gotten a pass from many Christian parents because the characters don’t have sex.

But there’s another layer—that of the worldview espoused through the story. As Brian Godawa says in his book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment (IVP Books), we need to look behind the art to the worldview.

Given all the ways in which a movie or book can go astray, can we ever really confidently say a story is “safe”? Here’s a part of Godawa’s conclusion:

The fact is, there is nothing perfect in this life. We live in a fallen world. Everything and everyone is tainted by sin, even those with whom we agree. Even Christian media are not exempt from imperfection. No Christian sermon, book or movie is completely unstained by our fallen-ness.

In other words, there really is no such thing as “safe fiction.” And by declaring a work of art “safe,” we are basically telling the audience they can turn off their discernment radar. No need to think about this book or movie or TV show because Someone Important has pre-approved it as safe.

From where I sit, picking up any book or viewing any movie with my brain in neutral because what I’m about to consume is “safe” puts me at the greatest risk of undo influence.

An author maybe withheld all the cuss words in a story, and there’s no sex or violence, but is there greed? Snobbery? Bullying? If so, then those books aren’t safe. Teens who long to fit in can get all the wrong messages about what it takes to be a part of the In Crowd from such a “safe” piece of fiction.

We Christians need to be thinking about the stories we consume. We need to compare the values and worldviews with those of the Bible. And we need to teach the next generation to go and do likewise.

Advertisements

Seeing Worldviews behind the Art – Should Fiction Be Safe?


After his introduction in Hollywood Worldviews (IVP), Brian Godawa moves at once to “Sex, Violence & Profanity” in chapter one, explaining that this topic is the first raised whenever he speaks on this subject.

In addressing these issues, his views dovetail with mine. First he acknowledges that many movies seem preoccupied with integrating evil into the stories. He also verifies that many studies show a connection between the vile acts of violence, sexual perversion, and profanity and an increase in degenerative social behavior.

However, Godawa also points out that those studies do not differentiate between movies that put such behavior in contrasting contexts. For example, Schindler’s List, a movie about the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust, is filled with man’s inhumanity to man. And so is Friday the 13th. The point and purpose of depicting violence in the two, however, couldn’t be more different.

But the question remains. Should Christians be a party to either kind of film? Godawa makes it clear that a decision about this issue should not be one we arrive at based on our own wisdom:

The ultimate sourcebook for most media watchdogs is the Bible. And it ought to be—without its definition of a universal objective morality, we have no absolute reference point for right or wrong … The Bible alone provides a justifiable objective standard for making moral judgments that transcend the whims of personal opinion.

He then explodes the myth that some people might entertain that the Bible does not contain any sex, violence, or profanity. While I think the “profanity” section is a little weak, he adds a section of blasphemy that I think is helpful.

But the strength of his argument, in my view, isn’t that the Bible contains activities such as incest, rape, murder, adultery, and so on. I suspect most Christians know this is true, at least on a limited basis, if not as extensively as Godawa demonstrates.

Instead, the key for me is his handling of a verse often used to support “sanitized stories,” Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

From Hollywood Worldviews:

Readers of Bible passages like this one often misunderstand the language to be expressing a “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” approach to spirituality. But ignoring the dark side is not at all what the verses are indicating.

It is not only true, honorable and right to proclaim that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, but it is also true, honorable and right to proclaim that Satan is the father of lies (Jn 8:44) and that false prophets are his minions (2 Cor 11:14-15). It is not only pure, lovely and of good repute that Noah was depicted in the Bible as a righteous man, but it is also pure, lovely and of good repute that all the rest of the earth around him were depicted as entirely wicked (Gen 6:5). It is not only excellent and worthy of praise that Lot was revealed as a righteous man, but it is also excellent and worthy of praise that the inhabitants of Sodom were revealed as unprincipled men “who indulge[d] the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise[d] authority (2 Pet 2:10).

Godawa next addresses the scriptural admonition (Ephesians 5) to expose the deeds of darkness and to bring them to the light.

I think this exhortation applies not only for wicked deeds but also for false belief systems—the very reason why I feel so strongly that Christians need to look behind our culture’s art to the worldviews each piece espouses.

But I see I haven’t answered the question, Should fiction be safe? I’ll try to wrap up my summation of this chapter of Hollywood Worldviews and give an answer tomorrow.

Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 11:07 am  Comments (4)  
Tags: , , ,

Seeing Worldviews behind the Art – Should We Be Separate?


I want to continue thinking about the importance of examining the worldviews of the stories abounding in our culture. These thoughts arise from questions and comments to my first post about Hollywood Worldviews, a book by screenwriter Brian Godawa (IVP).

One question had to do with the validity of working to understand the way others think or speak in light of God’s command for us to be separate, and I’ll add, to be pure and holy.

Like so much in the Christian life, I believe this command exists in tension with another, namely that we are to make disciples. In Jesus’s prayer in John 17, He said

“I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.

I think there are a couple points we can learn from this passage. First, Jesus asked God to keep His disciples from the evil one. He didn’t give that job to them, as if they themselves could keep from the evil one.

And yet, we are to resist the devil and he will flee from us. The reality is, we are in a spiritual battle against spiritual forces, not fleshly enemies. That fact makes it all the more incumbent upon us to pray that God will keep us from the evil one and to rely on His power, not our own machinations. (“With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view [that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness], be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” Eph. 6:18).

Nevertheless, Paul’s lead into the spiritual-armor passage in Ephesians is this:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil (emphasis mine).

In 2 Corinthians, Paul says we are not ignorant of Satan’s schemes. And Peter says in his first letter that we are to

be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

But back to Jesus’s prayer. The second point which I think relates to the topic of looking at worldviews behind the art of our culture is this: Jesus sent His disciples into the very world He said they were not of. There’s that tension again.

Elsewhere He said we were to be salt and light. He didn’t spell out how we were to be salty or shine brightly, but from the context and His other instruction, I believe, in a nutshell, we are to be obedient, loving, pure, and unashamed of the gospel—all out in the open for others to see.

So we are to be in the world, shining brightly, but we are also to be on the alert to Satan’s schemes. Why? Because the enemy wants to tarnish our brightness, as individuals and as a Church.

Finally, I’ll mention Paul’s knowledge of Greek culture when he preached to the Athenians (Acts 17). He went out of his way to know what their religious beliefs were:

while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ (emphasis mine).

I believe this was Paul being alert to the schemes of the devil as he went about making disciples. In the same way, I think we today should examine the objects of worship disclosed in the stories our culture tells, all so that we can be alert to Satan’s tactics, even as we seek to make disciples.

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 12:37 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

Seeing Worldviews behind the Art – Is There a Cost?


A couple excellent questions came up as a result of yesterday’s article discussing Brian Godawa‘s book Hollywood Worldviews. The first concerns whether or not there is a cost for the Christian in looking at worldviews behind the art.

Let me say up front, I don’t think a believer should violate his own standard of morality. And hopefully each understands the need to have such a standard in place.

There are black and whites in Scripture, but there are a lot of grays, too. We often think of the Ten Commandments as black and white, but what do we do about the command not to bear false witness, when Rahab lied to save the spies and Abraham lied to protect himself and Jacob lied to get Isaac’s blessing? In each instance were these people sinning? Is it ever “right to do wrong”? Or how about Jesus holding up David as an example for breaking Jewish law, to illustrate that His disciples were allowed on the Sabbath to pluck grain when they were hungry?

These questions, I think, are important for each believer to address in his own life. I’m not convinced there is a one-size-fits-all answer.

Then there are issues that are not directly addressed in Scripture, overtly or implicitly … such as what our standards should be for entertainment.

Does this silence mean we should have no standards or that we should shoe-horn clear principles into these areas in question and come up with a law for today’s Christian? No and No.

Paul addresses a matter that troubled the church in Corinth that seems similar to the issues we often refer to as gray areas. In so doing, he identifies some believers as weaker brothers and some as stronger.

I think the tendency today is to assume that I am in the stronger camp, and whoever sees things differently is in the weaker camp! 🙄 The truth is, in some areas, I know I am in the weaker camp and probably always will be.

Hence, there are some things I know personally I can not participate in without putting myself in the path of temptation. That’s my personal moral standard. I don’t expect others to abide by it because I don’t know if they have the same weaknesses I do.

All that to say, if I have my moral standard in place, I should not violate it for the sake of seeing what the rest of the world is thinking. However, there are plenty of stories I read or view because they don’t violate my personal morality. It is with these stories that I need to look beyond the art and entertainment value.

However, I think a lot of us Christians stop at this standard-of-morality level. We don’t look beyond. Perhaps we never have been taught to compare the ideas in a piece of fiction with what the Bible has to say about life and Godliness. Perhaps we don’t know what the Bible says about the nature of God or life or whatever the movie addresses.

Whatever the reason, I believe we Christians open ourselves to the influence of potentially false worldviews if we don’t examine the ones espoused in the fiction we engage.

No, we may not deny Christ or start to worship a tree because we saw Avatar. But without realizing it, we may take a step away from the uniqueness of Humanity—the image of God, breathed into us when He created Adam—because we don’t examine what it means to say, We are one with our Mother the Earth, as Avatar espouses.

In answer, then, to the question, Is there a cost in looking behind the art to see the worldview, I’d say there is a cost in NOT looking behind the art. I’d also add there may be a cost if we alter our standard of morality and justify doing so with the idea that we’re just trying to get to know what our culture thinks.

That’s like saying I’ll buy a big bag of candy so I can be aware of what people not on a diet are eating, put it in a candy jar, and stare at it without taking any because I’m limiting my sugar intake. Why would I put myself through such an ordeal?

On the other hand, if I already buy bread for sandwiches, why wouldn’t I take a close look at the labels and compare grams of sugar in one loaf with that in another?

My call for discernment isn’t one that requires a change in selecting entertainment. It’s a call to think about the stories we are already choosing to read or view, and to do so with our Bibles in hand.

Seeing Worldviews behind the Art


I’m reading a wonderful book by screenwriter Brian Godawa entitled Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment (IVP Books). The thing I appreciate most, at least in the first half of the book, is the balanced position Godawa takes.

He identifies those he calls cultural anorexics—individuals who “withdraw from culture because of its imperfection.” He postulates that these folks no longer understand the way others think or speak; in essence they have raised a barrier that makes it impossible for them to “interact redemptively” with the guy living across the street or the mom sitting beside them at the youth soccer game.

In his posts or comments, Mike Duran over at Decompose raises the issue of the “Christian ghetto” from time to time in regard to the world of fiction, and I think he may be speaking of “cultural anorexics” who want to withdraw into the safety of sanitized stories.

But there’s another extreme that Godawa identifies—the cultural glutton. These are the people who say things like this:

“I just want to be entertained.”
“You shouldn’t take it so seriously.”
“It’s only a movie.”
“The sex and violence don’t bother me.”

Hollywood Worldviews, p. 20

Individuals with this view, Godawa says, agree with Samuel Goldwin’s famous saying: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” (I realize that soon this statement will need some explanation to those coming after the demise of the telegraph. 🙄 ) Goldwin’s point is that movies are about story, nothing else, especially not an idea!

Well, even expressing that view in the way I did in that last sentence exposes the fallacy. Interestingly, when I wrote about the movie Avatar back in January, some of the articles I quoted (written by Christians professionally reviewing the movie) and some of the comments to my various posts espoused this same opinion.

Godawa takes a radically different—and balanced—view of movies. They are stories, but not devoid of meaning. That is, they actually are about something—chiefly, redemption.

One of the simplest ways of understanding worldview is as a belief system or web of beliefs, that contains a creation-fall-redemption motif … Every worldview has some understanding of the original state of reality (creation), what went wrong with that original state (fall) and how to recover or return to that original state (redemption).

Hollywood Worldviews, p. 22

In addition, Godawa believes that thinking about a movie’s worldview doesn’t have to consume a viewer so that he can no longer enjoy the cinematography, acting, plot line, humor, or special effects. The fact that movies communicate worldviews and values

need not spoil the joy in entertainment or justify total withdrawal from culture. Rather, it can deepen one’s appreciation and sharpen one’s discernment, helping the reader strike a balance between two extremes: cultural anorexia and cultural gluttony.

Hollywood Worldviews, p. 27

I’m in favor of balance striking! 😀

Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 1:42 pm  Comments (7)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Faith in Fiction


When I first became active on the internet, a friend introduced me to Bethany editor Dave Long’s blog and the associated discussion board known as Faith in Fiction. While Dave is no longer an active blogger, there is a lot of interesting material in the archives at his site.

Lots of intense discussion on the FIF board too. So much of the interaction that took place there helped shape my thoughts about fiction and how it intersected with my faith—that is, how faith comes into a story.

I think FIF was the first place I encountered writers who claimed Christians should stop making theme the point of their writing. They didn’t say this in those exact words, but the idea was clear: Good writing might have an accidental theme, but anything else would be too preachy.

I’ve long countered this view and have been pleased to see authors such as Andrew Peterson and Athol Dickson discuss theme in a positive light.

Still, I have to admit, as much as I believe theme is an integral part of stories and should be crafted as carefully as any other element, I was surprised to see a writing book that takes this same view.

The book is The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Here are a few pertinent quotes:

We might say that theme, or what I call moral argument, is the brain of the story. Character is the heart and circulation system. Revelations are the nervous system. Story structure is the skeleton. Scenes are the skin.

KEY POINT: Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements.

No individual element in your story, including the hero, will work unless you first create it and define it in relation to all the other elements.

Wow! The theme is the brain and must be created and defined in relation to the other elements. Then this:

The theme is your moral vision, your view of how people should act in the world. But instead of making the characters a mouthpiece for a message [!], we will express the theme that is inherent in the story idea. And we’ll express the theme through the story structure so that it both surprises and moves the audience.

Well, I can tell you, I can hardly wait to get to the Moral Argument chapter (Chapter 5) and see what Truby has to say.

Already I’m learning more about theme. What Christian writers call preachy or propaganda is characters acting as mouthpieces for a message. There is a better way. The choices are not a preachy message versus no theme at all. I’m so excited that a writing instructor has tackled this subject.

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 1:29 pm  Comments (5)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Draw Near to God … for What End? Part 3


As a reminder, I’m responding to a September 2009 article in Christianity Today, “Reveling in the Mystery” by D. H. Williams. Relying on a little-known book by Gregory of Nyssa, Professor Williams paints a speculative view of growth in the Christian life while embracing the distance between creature and Creator as something that does not need to be “overcome or removed as if it were an obstacle.”

Using Moses’s journey to the top of Mount Sinai as a model, Professor Williams identifies three stages of growth, the last being entrance into darkness. What follows next is … disturbing on many levels. Perhaps the best way to expose the error is to begin by quoting a paragraph from the article that explains the heart of the matter:

Here is where Gregory of Nyssa makes his most noteworthy contribution to Christian theology: that the Christian life must first be defined by seeking God without end, and “that true satisfaction of the soul’s desire consists in constantly going on with this quest and never ceasing in the ascent to God.” This is a joyful conclusion, since it ensures that one can always progress in holiness because spiritual progress is one of infinite growth. For the Platonist, all change is regarded as a defect or loss; in Gregory’s system, the process of changing may be redeemed by perpetual growth in the good. It is this sort of movement that describes our transformation “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18, ESV). However much the Christian is transformed into the likeness of God, God remains ever beyond, so that the soul must always push forward in anticipation in this life and in the one to come.

I’ll take the problems one point at a time.

1. Seeking God without end is contradictory to Scripture, starting with Matthew 7:7 – “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (emphasis mine). Here’s the crucial point, I believe: We can know God because He has revealed Himself.

that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:8b-11, emphasis mine).

2. The idea that “ascent to God” is something I accomplish belittles Christ’s work. It is Christ’s righteousness that reconciles me to God. My sanctification is a growth process, but not all up to me. Here’s the key point: We can be like Him only because He conforms us to His son.

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:28)

3. Professor Williams assumes something about “traditional” understanding of Scripture that is not true. He implies that a view other than what he is presenting is based on Platonist thinking in which “all change is regarded as a defect or loss.” Certainly this view does not square with Scripture, nor does it square with the Protestant evangelical doctrine with which I’m familiar.

However, “growth in the good” implies something within the individual as opposed to the conformity to the image of the Son which God brings about as He works all things in a person’s life to that end.

4. The never-ending push up after an unattainable God seems to me to be a quest for that which God has put off limits. He is transcendent. He is beyond. Yet He has chosen through Jesus to show us Himself. Should I then be dissatisfied with looking at Jesus to pursue further understanding, deeper knowledge? This seems to me akin to Satan’s thirst to be like God.

5. All this striving after God supposedly happens in darkness. From Professor Williams’s article: “In fact, the closer that God comes to the soul, the more intense the darkness becomes.” His idea is that the darkness blocks out things that distract us from God. But how contrary this is to Scripture in which Jesus says He is the Light of the world.

God reveals Himself as a Consuming Fire in the Old Testament, and in Revelations He says there will be no need for the sun and moon because He will be the light.

John says in his first epistle, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:6-7).

God is not in the darkness. Earlier in his gospel, John says men love darkness because their deeds are evil. Darkness is the place where God is not. Whoever someone finds in the darkness, I suggest he is not God but a pretender, one who wishes to be like God.

God is found in the Light—that of His Son and that of His Word (“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” – Psalm 119:105.) Reaching some kind of spiritual ascension in darkness is speculation at best and diabolical at worst.

Draw Near to God … for What End? Part 2


Yesterday I started a response to a Christianity Today article by D. H. Williams entitled “Reveling in the Mystery.” My first concern was that Professor Williams declares God a mystery though He makes it clear in Scripture He wants to be known.

I didn’t elaborate on this point as much as I should have perhaps. From the beginning, God talked and walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. In their sinless state, they seemed to have no trouble communicating with their Creator. Even after their sin, they are the ones who hid while God is the One who sought them out.

That latter is a metaphor for the rest of history. Yet Professor Williams and others of like thinking conclude God is the mystery, rather than that our sin obscures Him from our understanding.

The second point I discussed was Professor William’s idea that the distance between us and God should not be seen as a problem to our spiritual growth. Again, in pointing out what Scripture says about God’s people drawing near to Him, I neglected an important part of the equation.

Right after James gives the command for believers to draw near to God, he wrote that we are to cleanse our hands and purify our hearts. In essence, he is providing us with the means by which we draw near to God. By dealing with sin in action and intent we are approaching God because the barrier to our fellowship with Him has been removed.

This brings me to the point where I left off yesterday. Professor Williams spends most of the rest of the article walking through a book by Gregory of Nyssa entitled The Life of Moses. The idea espoused here is that we grow by emulating “great holy men in the Old Testament and in the Christian past.”

Certainly the history of Old Testament figures is to be part of the doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction Scripture gives. But what Gregory, and Williams in his summation, is saying is built on speculation and imagination, not fact.

The two writers take Moses’s life and claim he grew spiritually (“from an Egyptian secular ruler to God’s exemplar of virtue”) in three phases—in the light, in clouds, and in darkness. Gregory claims that Moses was “mystically transformed into the likeness of God” atop Mount Sinai. (Never mind that he later sinned and receive censure from the Promised Land as a result).

Supposedly Moses’s “ascent to God” came first in light. This is a purification stage which Professor Williams links with the beatitude in Matthew “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

I have no problem with this idea, especially because it aligns with what James says. I do question the idea that Moses achieved some kind of purification on his way up the mountain. After all, he’d already had his burning bush experience, and God had used him to bring about the miraculous salvation of His people from slavery, all the while communicating with him closely.

But on to Professor Williams/Gregory’s next stage. Here Moses supposedly moved into the cloud, blocking out all else so that he could “look withing” where he found “the image of God and thereby a knowledge of God. But we must not confuse this knowledge of God with knowledge of God as he is. There is only an awareness of God’s presence.”

Did I mention speculation and imagination earlier? What Scripture would lead someone to think this was Moses’s experience? I see none.

Stage three seems worse, however. Now, according to Professor Williams/Gregory Moses entered darkness and saw God in it. “When Moses climbed higher and became more perfected, he saw God in the darkness.” And later, “This darkness expresses that the divine nature remains inaccessible because God is infinite.”

Setting aside the unfounded assumption that Moses “was becoming more perfected,” I can agree that, yes, God is infinite. However, Moses’s encounter with God was not with some inaccessible being. At this time God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel. I’m not sure Moses was even at the top of the mountain at this point since the people were begging him to intercede for them and speak for God because what they were experiencing was too terrible. Check out Exodus 19 and 20 for yourself.

In light of this context, how can we conclude that God is beyond knowing? Yet this is precisely what Professor Williams says: “It should be obvious, then, that no finite mind can plumb the depths of God.”

Well, true enough, but cannot a finite mind grasp what the infinite has deigned to tell of Himself?

There’s more. I’ll aim to wrap this up tomorrow.

Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 12:39 pm  Comments Off on Draw Near to God … for What End? Part 2  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Draw Near to God … for What End?


I thought I was done with my posts about emerging thinkers and false teachers, at least for a while, but then a friend of mine passed along an old edition of Christianity Today. In that September 2009 issue was an article entitled “Reveling in the Mystery,” by D. H. Williams.

“Mystery” happens to be one of the things the people who engage in the “emerging conversation” believe (though they also refute the idea that they hold to any set of prescribed tenets.) Interestingly, last October I wrote an article entitled “Transcendence vs. Mystery” to examine some of the emerging ideas about the mystery of God. As I look at it now, I realize I missed some of the main points.

It’s clear to me after reading the CT article that emergent thinkers would have no trouble embracing the transcendence of God. However, in examining Scripture Professor Williams takes the word “mystery” in a verse like I Timothy 3:16 along with the ideas of “ancient writers” like Ambrose of Milan and Gregory of Nyssa, and reaches the conclusion that “God himself is mystery.”

It’s ironic that he uses the scripture he does (especially considering what follows about deceitful spirits):

By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron …

– I Tim. 3:16-4:2 (emphasis mine)

Rather than expounding on the mystery of God, verse 16 seems to be declaring the revelation of God. (This is not uncommon throughout the New Testament. See for example Eph. 3:8-9: “To me [Paul], the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things” [emphasis mine]).

Nevertheless, having reached the conclusion that God is mystery, Professor Williams gives the heart of his premise:

The distance between creature and Creator is not something to be overcome or removed as if it were an obstacle to growth in the Christian life.

I had to do a double-take and read that line over. As I understand Scripture, the “distance between creature and Creator” is most definitely something to overcome or remove. Except we can’t, try as we will.

The point and purpose of the Incarnation was to remove the distance sin had created. (A passage like Psalm 66:18 shows the effect sin has on our relationship with God: “If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear”).

Of equal importance, Scripture is filled from beginning to end with references about God’s people drawing near to Him: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8a).

Like so much false teaching, this concept of the mystery of God is not undiluted error. There is a measure of truth.

While God isn’t unknown because Jesus showed us the Father, we have the mind of Christ, and the Holy Spirit lives within each believer, we still look through a darkened glass.

In addition, God is greater than we can grasp. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts, not our thoughts. He is higher than we, without need of our counsel or, for that matter, anything we can give to Him. In other words, He is transcendent.

Rather than making God more inaccessible, however, His transcendence coupled with His incarnation and work of redemption, demonstrate His great love and grace: “Although [Christ Jesus] existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, {and} being made in the likeness of men … He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Phil. 2:6-8.

The God of the universe, Highest of the high, stooped to save me! While He has no need of it, He most definitely wants relationship with those He created in His likeness.

Which leads to the next troubling aspect of Professor Williams’s article. But I’ll have to save that for next time.

– – –

Other passages of Scripture about drawing near to God include the following: Deut. 4:7; II Chron. 15:2; Psalm 34:18, 119:151, 145:18; Lam. 3:57; Zech. 1:3; Mal. 3:7; Heb. 4:16, 7:19, 7:25, 10:1, 10:25.

Prolific Blogger Award


I’ve received this thoughtful recognition from Jackie Castle who blogs at In Still Places. If you haven’t stopped by her site before, now is a good time to visit.

First, here’s what the award stands for: “A prolific blogger is one who is intellectually productive… keeping up an active blog that is filled with enjoyable content.”

Now it’s time to share the love and pass this award on. Here are the rules:

1. Every winner of the prolific blogger award please (if you have time) pass on this award to at least seven other deserving prolific bloggers.

2. Every prolific blogger please link back to the blog from which he/she has received the award.

3. Each prolific blogger link this back to this post, which explains the origins and motivations for the award.

4. Every prolific blogger please visit this post and add your name in the Master Link so we can all get to know the other winners.

It’s an honor to be included as a prolific blogger, but it’s also an honor to pass the award on to other deserving bloggers. Please check out their sites:

Nissa Annakindt
Sally Apokedak
Jason Joyner
John Otte
Nicole Petrino-Salter
Kay Marshall Strom
Rachel Starr Thomson

Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 6:00 am  Comments (9)  
Tags: ,
%d bloggers like this: