Saturday, February 09, 2008

To Glorify God and Comfort the Saints

To Glorify God and to Comfort the Saints

*A review of Anthony J. Carter, “On Being Black and Reformed: A New Perspective on the African American Christian Experience”

With one succinct sentence, Anthony Carter integrates historical Reformation theology and historical African American experience. “Our primary goal as theologians is to glorify God and to comfort the saints.”

Some may wonder what’s so novel about that declaration. A careful reading of most modern presentations of Reformed theology exposes the truth that God’s glory is always emphasized (rightly so), while the saints’ comfort is often minimized (sadly so).

Reformation theology has historically offered great treatises on anthropology (human creation and God’s design), hamartiology (human sin and depravity), and on soteriology (Christ’s salvation and human deliverance). Historically, what has been lacking is a biblical sufferology—a theology of suffering that brings comfort to human misery, that brings hope to the hurting.

Throughout “On Being Black and Reformed” Carter’s subtext reverberates. Reformed theology has much to offer African American Christians. And, African American Christians have much to offer Reformed theology. When separated from Reformed theology, African American Christians, according to Carter, are tempted toward a lower view of God, truth, and theology. When separated from African American Christianity, Reformed theology, according to Carter, is tempted toward a lower view of comfort, love, and contextual experience. Reformed theology and African American Christianity need each other equally.

Nowhere is this juxtaposition more clearly revealed than in the Reformed African American theological interpretation of American enslavement. How could a good and sovereign God allow an entire people group to be enslaved for centuries? African American pastors like Lemuel Haynes, Richard Allen, and Absalom Jones, and writers like Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, and Quobna Cugoano all offer the “Joseph Answer.” “You meant evil against me, but God intended it for good.” In God’s affectionate sovereignty, He shepherds good from evil, He creates beauty from ashes.

Anthony Carter’s retelling of this historical merging of African American Christian experience and Reformed theology is a gift to all people of all races.

Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of “Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction,” “Soul Physicians,” and “Spiritual Friends.”

Monday, February 04, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood

Nominated for eight academy awards, “There Will Be Blood” plays like a modern-day version of Genesis 4. Though many Christians may resist seeing it, and many who do may wish they hadn’t, “Blood” is replete with themes of biblical proportions. It is certainly not a “Christian movie,” but Christianity thoroughly addresses the issues it raises: greed, envy, hypocrisy, rage, lying, manipulation, selfishness, self-sufficiency, and a plethora of other sins of the flesh and idols of the heart.

The movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview whose sin is in plain view for all to see, despise, and be haunted by. Not a single word is spoken in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Yet the scene speaks volumes. Daniel falls down a mind shaft severely hurting his leg. Rather than crying out to God or to anyone else for help, Daniel wordlessly and arrogantly works his way out of the pit rug by rug, dragging his lifeless limb behind him. The metaphor has been written: “I am my own Savior.” Daniel in the lion’s den refuses to pray to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

In the next scene, this sinner who thinks he can save himself learns from a mysterious stranger that there’s oil in those hills of New Boston. Traveling to the California oil fields at the turn of the 20th Century, Plainview brings his young son, H. W. (played by Dillon Freasier), who serves as a prop to provide the image of a congenial family man. Upon arrival in New Boston, CA, Daniel meets the Sunday family, headed by patriarch Abel (remember Genesis 4). Abel’s son Eli (played by Paul Dano) is a young faith-healing evangelist-pastor who turns out to be as consummately evil as Plainview, and a tad bit slimier.

Neither man displays a single redeeming quality. Both men play games with the Redeemer. Eli uses God to amass a following. Daniel uses God to manipulate God’s followers into signing land over to him, even to the point of feigning acceptance of Christ. In “There Will Be Blood,” blood is shed, but the shed blood of Christ is never received with a sincere heart.

The darkness of Daniel’s life is suffocating. As he ages (the movie spans nearly forty years in its nearly three-hour run), Daniel’s evil ripens. Where he once at least feigned love for H. W., by the end of the movie Daniel disowns him. In perhaps the only sign of grace in the entire movie, H. W., mute due to an earlier drilling accident, signs to his father “I love you” right after his prodigal father disowns him. Off H. W. goes with his wife Mary (yet another biblical allusion) to make a different life for himself in Mexico.

Christian theology sees life as a three-act play of creation, fall, and redemption. God designs humanity with dignity (creation), sin mars humanity with depravity (fall), and Christ restores and rescues humanity with salvation (redemption). There will be blood is an accurate portrayal of what our world would be like if there were no creation and no redemption--only fall. There is nothing redeemable in humanity because there is nothing human to redeem. We are, in the eyes of “Blood,” devolved animals seeking to devour one another.

You leave “Blood” feeling bloody, dirty, filthy. But “Blood" doesn’t leave you. It preoccupies your mind, disturbs your soul, and troubles your spirit. You ask yourself, “Is that all there is?”

And the answer is, “Without Christ, that is indeed all that there is.” Self. Self-sufficiency. Evil. Hatred. Rage. Hopelessness. Helplessness.

This decidedly un-Christian movie about the first decades of the 20th century has perhaps the strongest evangelistic message of any film of the first decade of the 21st century. Certainly unintended, “Blood” depicts exactly why every human being needs the blood of Christ. It is an amazing picture of the amazing sin that requires amazing grace.

Our worst sin is not our greed, evil, rage, hatred, drinking, womanizing, etc. Our worst sin, and the only unforgivable sin, is our refusal to acknowledge our sinfulness, the refusal to ask for forgiveness. We are sick undo death and in denial about our deadness, thinking that we can raise ourselves.

What can wash away our sin of self-sufficiency? Nothing but the blood.