Saturday, October 24, 2015

What is the "greatest" threat to the church?

Many are asking these days, “What is the greatest threat to the Church?”  Typical responses to this question may focus on recent cultural advances within the homosexual community, the breakdown in the family, modern-day Christian persecutions -- both physical and prejudicial, the residual results from the removal of prayer/Bible reading from our public schools, the misunderstandings around the actual purpose of “The Separation of Church & State,” and the perceived influences of Darwinism or secular science.  

If I were to single out our most dangerous threat, I think there’s an even more prevalent threat to the health of the church than any of the possibilities I just mentioned.  And, the actual threat I have in mind is growing daily in its influence over all of us.

It’s truly an exciting time we live in, having such easy access to information; advances in research and education and much personal growth have been made possible in recent years.  Make no mistake about it, humanity needs access to information & advances in knowledge.  Yet, we live in an unprecedented era of information overload and instantaneous communication.  One of the negative results of this constant bombardment of data is we are too easily distracted now.   

Basically, the biggest threat to the church we currently face is that we have lost our ability to pay attention for any period of time.  I think the theological term I’m searching for is “Space Cadets.”  

For example, if you watch Cable News you’ll notice how a talkinghead throws out questions to their guests, expecting an immediate answer from people who haven't had time to think through the issue or meditate over a good answer.  While their “expert” is cobbling together an incomplete answer based on the freshest news of the hour, across the bottom of the TV screen scrolls an endless stream of Stock Reports, weather updates, and miscellaneous news reports from the four corners of the world.  And for us, the audience, we get bored and distracted if the topic doesn’t change every 15 seconds.  Worse yet, a poor example has been set and now we too think we should have an instant opinion on every subject without taking the time to think about it.

In light of our shrinking attention span and our increasing appetite for the latest soundbite, the ancient Hebrew wisdom of Solomon is worth considering,  “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.  What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there a thing of which it is said,  “See, this is new”?  It has been already in the ages before us.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8-10 ESV)

How have our weakened attention spans affected the church?  Who reads their Bibles anymore?  Who takes the time to think through the deeper questions of meaning, purpose, life, or eternity?  Sermons lasting much more than 15 minutes, risk losing an entire audience.  Beyond this, believers have a hard time concentrating on spiritual realities.  We also have a hard time having a conversation with each other without checking our phones for Facebook updates or responding to text messages.  I know, because I struggle with this too!

Why does this lack of attention even matter?  It takes time to listen to God.  Many Biblical characters traveled far and wide and spent many years seeking God’s direction.  Spiritual maturity isn’t a microwaveable discipline, it’s more like crockpot cooking.  With our shortened attention spans, our tendencies to be bored, and our desire for instant information, it will become harder to hear and to obey the voice of God.

What can we do to face this threat to our spiritual maturity? Recognize our distractions will only increase; there’s no escaping the impact of information overload on us.  We also need to become comfortable saying, “I don’t know” and we need to allow ourselves space to say, “I need more time to think about this.”  

Also, we need to realize that old information isn’t worthless just because it isn’t modern.  I’m not saying doctors should go back to using leeches or we pretend to believe the earth is flat.  But, just because a book is five years, fifty years, or fifteen hundred years old, it doesn’t mean it’s out of touch.  Read and re-read the classics in Christian literature like the writings of C.S. Lewis, or going further back, Augustine.

Do yourself a huge favor, unplug periodically, take long walks with a loved one, set aside time to be contemplative, and read books written by people who are long gone -- books that are timeless and that can challenge you to live a life of substance.  And in all of this, strive to listen to God’s still, quiet voice, which is stronger & wiser than the thunderous waves we are used to surfing.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The "Intern" sells Success at what cost?

This past week I went to see the Intern with two of our sons.  It was a good movie, even though the underlying message which came through wasn't so great.  There were many worthwhile leadership/mentoring lessons in the movie, along with highlighting the need for intergenerational relationships, and the plot was well written.

De Niro's character is a retired widower who experienced a long career, goes to a lot of funerals, who after he has traveled the world in his retirement, he is so bored and unfulfilled he longs to be back (at age 70) in the office once more.  Hathaway's character is a Thirty-something career-driven mom, with a stay at home dad.  She neglects sleeping and eating, and her family.  

In the end, the Intern glosses over the sacrifices people make to achieve success, even though the damage to Hathaway's life isn't marginalized in the plot.  De Niro who "fathers" Hathaway and encourages her to eat well and sleep more, still tells her in the end she should pursue her path and not feel guilty about it or take the blame for the fallout in her marriage.  And there's the catch.

Had the screenplay been written with the roles reversed, or even if it portrayed an all male cast, people wouldn't have blinked an eye.  But, they placed Hathaway's role as a wife & mom who seeks to run a successful startup online company.  This was all done to disguise the movie's moral code.  In other words, the audience risks feeling sexist if we deny Hathaway her shot at glory.  But the point isn't about gender.

In reality, the trade off De Niro admires which Hathaway embraces -- where you sacrifice personal and more so family health for work, comes up short.  I believe in hard work, and having a strong work ethic.  On the surface, this movie seems to promote this too, claiming the seductive lure of hard work always leads to success.  

Really though, afterwards, I questioned the lack of valuing "balance" in the plot, that balance between work and life which helps us enjoy the fruit of our labors... and the need for our culture to redefine success.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Review of The Martian: Cast Away meets Apollo 13

This afternoon we went to see "The Martian" staring Matt Damon, it's based on the book (which I've not read) by Andy Weir.  Let's get the big problem out of the way, most people watching the movie will think the planet Mars has such a thin atmosphere, the huge dust storm that's key to the plot wouldn't be possible.  Here's an image from the Hubble showing a dust storm on Mars:

So, Mars does have huge dust storms...

The plot to The Martian is surrounded by a lot of science but it's not dependent on science to be as good as it is.  The real depth of the plot is the human condition called community.  The story reemphasizes the intrinsic value of friendship and the fact that life as fragile as it is, is priceless.

After the huge dust storm separates Mark Watney (Matt Damon's character) from his crew, survival isn't the only crisis Watney faces.  Watney has to endure many months of separation from all human contact, he's not just alone, he can't even communicate for a long period of time.  When you think about it, separation is the harshest form of punishment we know of, from time-out for toddlers to solitary confinement for hardened prisoners.

As the plot develops, it doesn't take long for the movie to feel like two of Tom Hank's best movies, Cast Away and Apollo 13.  The solitude and the urgency of sustaining oneself physically, as the main character, along with some interesting ingenuity are both center stage.

What really helps the plot though isn't just Watney's condition, it's the entire team that tries to rescue him.  I won't spoil the plot and give away whether he's rescued or if he starves to death.  It's a slow moving plot, and appropriately so.  Watching The Martian, there are many times you empathize for Watney, feeling deep frustration or even anger over the bureaucracy of NASA and the political posturing of people who try to cover up the facts and save face.

The big take away though is the fact that life is too precious and valuable to just let someone die, even if you have to travel halfway across the solar system to try to save them.  There was only one reference to God in the movie.  Jeff Daniels's character asks another NASA administrator during an attempt to launch supplies to Mars if he believes in God.  The response is the other character's one parent was a Baptist, the other parent Hindu, so he guesses he has no choice but to believe.  Daniels's character then says, "We'll take all the help we can get."

But, as I watched that scene and the entire movie, I felt if human life is just a product of blind chance, survival of the fittest, and unguided nature, then one human life isn't worth one gallon of rocket fuel.  Therefore, The Martian shows once again the emptiness of nihilism, or of any philosophy that dehumanizes us, removes the divine from our meta-narrative, and loses sight of the holiness of life.