Category: Gospel and Culture

Gravity: A Brief Review


Gravity is so superbly shot you will walk away needing a massage. At times I felt like I was floating, then spinning, but for most of the time just tense. And I do mean just. Tendons strain and muscles tighten under moments of intensity only to release a feeble message. The actors handle the script like pros. Clooney and Bullock were believable, and unbelievable when need be. It’s a classic case of a mile wide and inch deep messaging. So for the wide-ranging exploration of our raison d’ etre, Alfonso Cuaron gets a nod. He covers a lot of space in the human exploration for meaning in life.

Curaon gives us a stunning view of the earth. The sunrise, the silence, and burning urban towers that dot our geography, paint a gorgeous backdrop for the film. In a film about space, the earth takes up an awful amount of space, and I am grateful. These shots endeared me to our remarkable planet, to its beauty and diversity and uniqueness. All this comes to a screeching halt, when Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) collides with a series of obstacles. She runs gamut of coping solutions as she encounters trial after trial. Humor, human connectedness, anger, sorrow, resolve, and spirituality. While searching her soul in a moment of clarity, she remarks “I’ve never prayed. Nobody every taught me to pray.” If that’s not a call for evangelism, I don’t know what is. We get a darting glance at a couple deities–Buddha and Jesus–but Ryan moves quickly past God to her deceased daughter.

Interestingly, she recognizes the need for a mediator to talk to her daughter, presumably because she is with God or in heaven of some sort. Her choice isn’t someone who can bridge the chasm between God and man–the Christ–but her late friend and astronaut, Matt Kowalksi. She asks him to tell her daughter that she loves her, and that she found the red shoe she was looking for under the couch. It is touching, and anyone who has lost a child will be able to identify with the longing to have one last word. Isn’t is curious that her Matt-mediated prayer she mixes the mundane and the profound–a shoe and love? What a great reminder to cherish the mundane moments with our children, to love them in the ordinariness of legos and lost shoes.

Moving on from the past and into the present, Bullock forces her way through each obstacle with tremendous will power. She battles each demon with fierceness of spirit and determination to “have one hell of a ride.” Matt’s voice seems to prod her on to survive, and survive she does. One of the closing shots says it all, a forceful foot in the mud, bearing the weight of her tense and wobbly, gravity-ridden body, she sticks her landing to put two square feet on the ground. I made it. You  can do it. We will survive. However you want to say it, the film is a cinematic beauty, tense thriller, and an ode to the human will to survive. Unfortunately, it is vaporous on why we should will ourselves through this life. There is no fixed truth, no depth of contact with the divine, no summit of human purpose. But to its credit, many of these issues are raised, and in an age of comfort, distraction, and hype, that’s much more than we are used to.

Evangelical: Cultural Friend, Foe, Intimate, or Radical?

The current evangelical seems obsessed with social justice. The older evangelical, intent on doctrinal tidiness. What is the appropriate posture toward culture? Should we be friends, foes, intimates, or radicals?

20th Century Evangelicals: From Enemies to Friends

In an article entitled “Where We Are and How We Got Here?” noted historian Mark Noll demonstrates the absence of significant evangelical thought and action in the first half of the 20th century.[1] White American evangelicals abandoned serious engagement with academia, popular culture, and politics. The in-house fundamentalist-modernist controversy left fundamentalist Christians disconnected and quarantined from the ideas of the universities, the burgeoning impact of television, and civil rights legislature. We were enemies of culture.

The second half of the 20th century presented a new evangelical—concerned, engaged, and actively influencing the world. A friend to culture. Noll notes two key developments that contributed to a shift in evangelical posture towards culture. First, immigration reform led to an influx of de-Europeanized Christians, bolstering evangelical numbers. Second, the civil rights movement was launched from the southern African American evangelical church. As a result, American evangelicalism grew in number and influence. Subsequently, three culturally reforming movements followed—volunteer organizations (Young Life, Campus Crusade, Fuller Seminary), charismatic movements, and the Jesus People (Calvary Chapel).

The Jesus People rode the church and culture pendulum from enemy to friend. Without quarantining themselves from hippy fads and music all together, the Jesus People found a way to live out a contextualized 70’s gospel. They didn’t demonize culture. Noll comments: “From the 1920s to the 1950s, American evangelicals had tended to view popular culture as an enemy—to keep the gospel it was necessary to flee the world. In the late 1960s, the Jesus People treated popular culture as a potential friend—to spread the gospel it was necessary to use what the world offered.”

New Evangelicals: Intimates to Radicals

However, the latter thirty years of the 20th century did not chart a delicate course between cultural extremes. Leaping quickly from “enemy” and over “friend,” Evangelicals soon found themselves in bed with cultural compromise. I am shocked by what is considered normative media consumption for this Christian generation. They seem to check their morality at the door of the theatre. I am impressed with the new evangelical deeply concerned for the poor and the marginalized. Sexual ethics seem to be up for grabs, while sex-trafficking is anathema. Freedom to engage the culture goes hand in hand with devotion to inconsistent church participation.

The new evangelical appears to be obsessed with social justice, dismissive of doctrine, technologically baked, and so culturally integrated that the Christians look like loosely organized non-profits. Where is the witness of the church? Syncretism has crippled the church’s witness with Christians and secularists alike. What do we stand for again? Many of the new evangelicals are so un-informed that they confuse the term “evangelical” for “evangelistic, and they want little to with that.

In the latter 20th century, and into the first two decades of the 21st century, ecclesiology was uncritically integrated with business models, discipleship radically individualized, the pulpit turned into a therapeutic platform, and the mission of the church reduced to relevance or social justice. The result is a de-churched generation whose faith has been characterized as moralistic therapeutic Deism at best. This vacuous Christianity lacks appeal to thoughtful onlookers. The emerging evangelicalism seems to take on various dispositions to culture, depending on the issue at hand–friend, foe, radical activist, and unnoticeable intimate. If this cultural savvy or spineless indecision?

Future Evangelicals: To Change the World?

Will the early 21st century continue on in confusion or will we chart a different course? The “gospel-centered” movement seems to be re-centering church around a holistic gospel that addresses personal, communal and cultural life in recognition of Jesus as Christ and Lord. Church planters get a whiff of this theology and off they go to plant a church, meanwhile, they make Sunday attendance, numbers of groups, missional theology, philosophy of ministry, and podcast downloads the measure of success. I’m afraid we’re birthing a bunch of church planters who weren’t first elders with hearts beating for the flock of God. Pastors are more concerned with “platform” than piety. I’m concerned we’ve launched Christian radicals, independent of the church, as the poster-kids of the new generation of evangelicals–who love Jesus’ mission more than his Body and maybe even Christ himself. Should we be out changing the whole world?

That’s the question posed by James Davidson Hunter, “Can or should Christians change the world?” In 1947 Carl F. Henry castigated the fundamentalist gospel: “Whereas once the redemptive gospel was a world-changing message, now it was narrowed to a world-resisting message…”[2] Is a gospel shaped church meant to be world-changing or world-resisting? Perhaps our perspective is too broad, taking the need of the global forest while neglecting the local trees. Hunter suggests the way forward should be patterned after Jesus, who provides an example of “faithful presence” in his time and culture. It is remarkable that Jesus did not travel the world to spread his message; he did not awaken his disciple’s attention to global justice issues, though his gospel message certainly holds the whole globe in view. Is faithful presence, locally engaged mission, the way forward? If so, what postures should we accept? Leslie Newbigin once said that the church should be both for and against the world. Do we accept this, and are we willing to embrace both the cost and theo opportunity? These are important questions that will affect our children and their experience of church. For now, our country watches as we steward our historical and cultural moment. We have a rare opportunity to reshape, or perhaps, recover evangelicalism.

[1] Mark Noll, “Where We Are and How We Got Here?” Sept 29, 2006, Christianity Today. See also George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

[2] Cited in David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991, rep. 2003).

Resuming the Blog & Bits

painting-prometheusAfter a long break from blogging, I will be resuming soon. I’ve got lots to share about what I’m learning as a leader, father, husband, pastor, and writer. I’m excited to share failures, successes, and news about new book projects. Plus, I’m planning on getting this blog a good facelift that will promote maximal reading space.

For now, I’ll share a couple new bits I’ve written:

  • Interview on Discipleship with Eric Geiger (where I contrast knowledge disciple vs. multiplying disciple and suggest a middle way forward).

5 Things New Preachers Should Know

We recently started a new Preaching Group to train future preachers at Austin City Life. Before beginning, I shared these  five things to take into account as they explore the call to preach God’s Word.
  1. Your Privilege: I’m excited about this group because we’re talking about communicating God’s Word more effectively to God’s World. We’re strategizing to spread the gospel of grace further and better. Preaching isn’t a right; its a privilege.
  2. Your Responsibility: It’s an honor to preach. Treat it like that. Come prepared, humble, Christ-centered, and eager to learn and contribute. There’s nothing worse than a proud preacher; it’s an oxymoron.
  3. Your Qualification: Go ahead and accept the fact that you will never be Tim Keller, John Piper, Haddon Robinson or Charles Spurgeon. These men are unique and uniquely anointed. The best thing you can do is be yourself in Christ and preach from deep security and sanctification in Christ.
    • See page 22 of 360 Degree Preaching for further qualities of a preacher that you need to cultivate.
    • Moltmann said something like, “The best thing we can give the church is well-prepared preacher not just a well-prepared sermon.” The medium affects the receptivity of the message.
    • You don’t qualify yourself to preach; the Spirit qualifies you through Christ. Then, the church recognizes the Spirit’s qualifying work in you (2 Cor 3:5-6). Who is adequate for preaching? Only the Spirit through Christ can make us adequate as minister of the new covenant!
    • If you’re not currently pastoring/discipling people, then you really don’t need to consider preaching. Preaching is not an event to communicate ideas; it is the shepherding of a people with God’s Word.
  4. Your Voice: Keller says you don’t know how to really preach until you’ve given 200 sermons. I’ve preached around 300 sermons. Im comfortable with my voice; that took some time to develop. I don’t love my voice; I don’t preaching; I love Jesus Christ and his gospel. That is why I preach.
  5. His Word: Tremble at it. Study it. Weep over it. Pray over it. Love it. Bleed it. Counsel it. It is the one reliable truth that will remain when everything else in your life fades away or is shaken to the core. People need His Word more than anything else in this world.