The Reason Why A Lot of Christian Art Is So Bad

I saw a good many Christian movies while I was growing up. With very few exceptions, the following was true of each movie.

1. They were about the end of the world.

2. They were filmed in a church basement in 1972.

3. They were terrible.

Absolutely terrible. The Fast and the Furious terrible.

Well, that’s not fair. Imagine if someone tried to make The Fast and the Furious with a quarter of the initial budget, took out all of the cars and had Paul Walker play every character. That’s more like it. Terrible.

But why? Why does Christian art have to be bad? Wasn’t there a time when Christians actually shaped the culture with their art? What happened? Why did we start to settle for carbon copies of what the mainstream culture was doing two years before? And why am I asking so many questions?

A few days ago I saw a trailer for a soon to be released movie on the life of Rich Mullins. Rich was a solid Christian who also happened to be a solid musician. He was ahead of his time and he died when he was still making some of his best music. His life is a good story and hopefully it will play well on film.

But what really caught my eye was what other Christians were saying about the preview.

“Wow! Bad theology in that last line.”

“Oooh. I can’t believe they put that in there.”

“Straight from hell.”

And that’s why a lot of Christian art is so bad. There is the tendency to think that every song and film that is produced and every book that is published should be a systematic theology, saying everything there is to say about the gospel. This also explains why 75% of the Christian books coming out today follow the same template.

1. Put the word gospel somewhere in the title of the book.

2. Refer to Tim Keller and/or John Piper 15 to 20 times over the first seven pages of the book.

3. Take an idea that was originally developed by Tim Keller and/or John Piper and pass it off as your own.

But I digress.

For the most part, the best way to destroy a piece of art is to use it to prove a point or preach a sermon. Sure, you’ll have your supporters but the art will usually be bad.

“I just love that picture you painted of Jesus flying with an eagle with the complete text of Romans written out beneath it.”

“That sure was a powerful movie. Now, I’ve seen better acting on early episodes of Saved By The Bell and I think the editing was done on equipment from Soviet Russia circa 1957. But what a great message!”

Wouldn’t our art be better if, instead of trying to lay out the gospel message in every single production, we just allowed the gospel message to shape what we produce? That does not involve compromising the message of the gospel. It just means that we do a better job of applying the gospel to what we create.

My son recently drew me a picture of a couple of superheroes. This is not how I responded when he gave it to me.

“Crap! This is heretical crap! What does this have to do with creation, fall and redemption?! Now go and make me another cross and don’t come back until you’re done, pagan.”

Instead, the picture is hanging above my desk. And when I look at it I’m reminded of a boy who was created in the image of God with a story to tell. And, with pencils and crayons, he told it well.

Christians will always have stories to tell. But to do those stories justice, we must tell them with excellence.

The Cross and the Wheelchair

Joni Eareckson Tada has been in a wheelchair for 46 years and she wouldn’t change her life for anything.

Joni was 17 years old and fresh out of high school in 1967 when she dove into the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay and broke her neck. During her extensive rehab, Joni would lie in bed at night and violently move the only part of her body that she could control, her head, in hopes of breaking her neck again and killing herself. Finally, a prayer changed everything.

“God, if I can’t die, please show me how to live.”

For over four decades God has been answering that prayer for Joni. That’s how she can say that she wouldn’t change her life for anything.

Joni’s wheelchair is an object of great personal heartache and discomfort. But it is also an instrument God used to make her a new person. This is the same way that every Christian should view the cross.

It is impossible for me to understand the cross without first understanding that it was all my fault. Jesus came to save me from my sins (Matthew 1:21) and the cross was the only way to do it (Mark 14:36). In his love, the Father made it happen, “for my sake” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The image of a cross is more than just a fashion statement that artists like Ke$ha and Madonna wear. The very sight of it should remind me that I murdered Jesus. An innocent man, the only innocent man who ever lived (Hebrews 4:15), was murdered because of my sins.

But there’s more to the story. The cross is also an image of unparalleled grace. It is the place where my sins were exchanged for the righteousness of Christ. Because of what Christ did on the cross and through faith and repentance in him, I am no longer an enemy of God (Ephesians 2:1-3). Through no effort of my own, I am now the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The cross exists because of my sin.

It also exists for my righteousness.

Every morning, Joni Eareckson Tada starts her day off with a woman helping her to do the things that you and I never give much thought to. She gives Joni a bath, rinses out her mouth and helps her to get back into that wheelchair. As she lies in bed awake and hears the door opening, Joni thinks about the day ahead and the difficulties it will bring. And then she says another prayer that seems to change everything.

“I have no smile for this woman who’s going to walk into my bedroom in a moment. She could be having coffee with another friend, but she’s chosen to come here to help me get up. O God, please may I borrow your smile?”

The cross reminds us that we have no righteousness for God.

But it also reminds us that he has given us his.

For more information on Joni and her recent battle with cancer, click here.

Our Problem With Patriotism

American Christians do not do well with patriotism.

On one extreme there are those who act as though Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan helped David to bring down Goliath. The American flag is hung prominently in their sanctuaries. They would have a hard time finding the book of Genesis in a Bible but they know the flag code by heart and if Old Glory is on the wrong side of the baptistry, heads will roll. Every Old Testament promise is a promise for America and every New Testament prophetic symbol is somehow a reminder that America is God’s favorite nation with Israel coming in at a close second.

Most Christians around my age grew up hearing this kind of skewed theology. And that explains how we got to where we are today.

For some Christians today, the sight of an American flag in a sanctuary is on par with a severed pig’s head on the temple altar. And any form of gratitude or thankfulness for living in America is all lumped in with Lee Greenwood and tacky American flag shirts.

The first extreme is dangerously wrong because it turns our country into an idol. The end towards which all other means gravitate. But the second extreme is equally dangerous and equally wrong because it completely disregards a gift from God, all the while enjoying its benefits.

“Man, I’m so sick of how narcissistic and consumeristic this country is. Someone get me my iPad so I can vent to all of my Facebook followers about it.”

James tells us that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). If American Christians really do hold to the authority of Scripture, they will show gratitude to the Giver while prayerfully fighting against the tendency to worship the gift. This certainly is a battle but it is one well worth the fight.

Over the Memorial Day weekend my wife and I had lunch with a friend from another country. During the meal he told us about the turmoil in his nation. The current president is aging and wants his son to take his place. Most of the people want someone else. There are talks of a military coup. Our friend’s brother serves in the military and is caught in the middle. The entire country is on the brink of collapse.

My wife and I were shocked as we heard the details. We were worried for our friend and several others who we know that live over there. We asked how he was dealing with all of this news. Was he scared? How was he holding up?

His answer still disturbs us.

“I’m okay. It happens all of the time.”

Our country certainly is not immune to a military coup, some other form of turbulence or even collapse. But those things don’t happen here all of the time. And it’s not because America is “a Christian nation.” Christian nations don’t murder millions of babies every year. For some reason, for the better part of two centuries, God has chosen to be gracious to our country.

So patriotism can be more spiritual than you might think. When properly understood, it doesn’t involve elevating the flag above the cross, asking God to bless our national sin or constantly trying to twist the Scriptures into saying something about America that isn’t really there.

It just means thanking God for what he has given us.

It means thanking God for not giving us what we deserve.

Trampoline Grace

We bought a trampoline. And now, every moment outdoors has been spent on it. Once we save up enough money, my wife and I might get one for the kids.

I’m not the type of parent that buys a lot of things for my kids. My favorite word is no. My second favorite word is not now. That’s two words but you get the picture. But it does make me happy to give things to my kids. Things that they enjoy. They spend hours every day enjoying that trampoline. And they enjoy it so much that they feel like they have to do their part to earn what was given to them.

Last Sunday afternoon, my son came up to me with his hands behind his back. He had a grin on his face and he said that he had something for me. He pulled his hands out from behind his back. They were both together, making one fist. When his tiny fingers opened up there was money laying on the palms of his hand. One dollar and fifty cents.

“Dad, thank you for buying us that trampoline. Here’s something to help pay for it.”

A smile came to my face as I lovingly explained to him that this was nowhere near enough money to pay for that trampoline. But we set up a payment plan and, with the 30% interest that I added, he should be in the clear by his 35th birthday.

There’s something inside of all of us that wants to make things even. It’s the reason why you say, “No, I got it!” when your friend offers to pay for lunch even though you really want him to pay. And it’s the reason why Peter wanted to go back to keeping Jewish dietary laws (Galatians 2:11-16) even after God had told him not to (Acts 10:9-16). We just have to feel like we’ve done something to earn God’s favor. We have to have some form of effort on which to hang our spiritual hats.

But grace doesn’t work that way.

In his grace, God gives life to dead men (Ephesians 2:1,4). In his grace, God makes his natural enemies his children (Ephesians 2:2-7). In his grace, God saves us through faith. And even that faith is not our own doing. It too is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8).

You would think that there’s no problem with that. As if we could just say thank you and go on with obeying our new Master. But our natural desires are at odds with grace. We prefer a paycheck from God instead of grace from God because we want something to boast about. But grace takes away any reason for boasting. Grace gives us something better instead (Ephesians 2:9).

I told my son thank you for his money. And then I told him to keep it. After that I explained that sometimes you do things for people without expecting something in return. You even do things for people that you know could never pay you back. And you do it because you love them.

The next day, my sons spent the morning bouncing on their trampoline. A trampoline that they didn’t earn. And with each bounce there was a bigger smile on their faces.

A smile because they were enjoying a gift.

A gift from someone who loves them.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (ESV)

Aborting the Bird

What disturbs you can also be what teaches you the most memorable lessons.

A few days ago, I was working in my garden when I noticed a tiny bird on the ground just a few feet away from me. The bird was obviously too young to fly. It tried to walk, as if it was hoping to build up enough momentum to fly. But that momentum never came. The bird moved clumsily. Just a few inches at a time. No one to help. No skills to survive.

I showed him to my sons. They wanted to pet him. Four-year-olds don’t pet small birds. They squish them. I told my boys to stay away, hoping that the bird’s mom would somehow find him and take him back to their nest.

An hour later I was cutting the grass. I hadn’t given any other thoughts to that bird. Until I saw him again. This time he was not stranded in some woodpile. He was stranded in the grass. Right in front of my lawn mower.

I called my six-year-old over and spoke loudly in his ear so that he could hear me over the lawn mower’s engine.

“Go get your little plastic shovel and gently pick up that bird. Take him back to the woodpile so that maybe his mom will find him. Just be gentle.”

Minutes had passed and I finally saw my son emerge with his plastic, blue shovel. He had a determined look in his eye, like he was ready to do the right thing. He gently picked up the tiny bird. Just like I said. But when I said woodpile, he must have interpreted it as tree. He was just about to use his shovel to sling the baby bird high into a tree. Gently, of course. I stopped him just in time. Instead of throwing the bird, he sat the bird down where I told him. Gently.

With the exception of a few pointers, like don’t throw the baby bird in the tree hoping that he’ll stick, my son already knew what to do. I’ve never given either boy a lesson on what to do with abandoned baby birds. It just came natural. I like to think that it would for most people. Any person, I presume, would do the exact same thing if they were in our position. It’s one of those things that sets us apart from the animals. Another animal would have killed that bird. Not us. We saved it. It’s the human thing to do. The compassionate thing.

But what if that wasn’t a baby bird, helpless and abandoned by its mother in my backyard? What if it was a human baby that was abandoned? A baby that was born a little early. Maybe seven weeks early. Would the general consensus be to protect that child or would we be more concerned with the mother and her rights? Would there be a unanimous appeal to do whatever it takes to save that baby’s life? Suddenly, when the baby bird is replaced with a baby boy, the human race doesn’t seem so compassionate.

In our culture, saving an unwanted baby bird is the natural thing to do for most people. But killing an unwanted baby boy or girl is a booming industry. A government funded booming industry.

And that disturbs me.

But it also teaches me a lesson.

Maybe our culture, in spite of all of our technological advances and human rights initiatives, is really more barbaric than we would like to think.

Maybe we are more like the animals.

These Are The Moments You’re Going To Miss

There are moments in life when you wish you could hit the pause button. But those moments go by quickly and sometimes we don’t learn to appreciate them until they are already gone. Sadly, life doesn’t come with a rewind button.

Some of my best memories were not necessarily significant life events. Sure, there was my wedding day and the day my sons were born. But there’s also the day that I picked my mom up from work and took her to lunch at the Barbecue Kitchen in College Park, Georgia. I’d like to do that again.

A few weeks ago I was planning on getting to work early. As I was heading out, my son caught me.

“Dad, I’m going to play trains.”

“Great, buddy. Have fun.”

“But I want you to play with me.”

I looked at him. I looked at the door. I looked at my watch. And I hit the pause button.

Ten years from now neither one of us will remember what time I got to work that morning. But I think that we’ll both remember the morning we spent playing with trains in the living room floor. Ten years from now he’s not going to want to play trains with me. And there will be no rewind button.

There’s a temptation to think that real happiness happens in the future, like when the kids leave the house or you get to quit working. This is a lie. After your kids leave, you’ll be harassing them for not visiting enough and if you retire you’re just going to end up finding another job. And you’ll know that you’ve missed it. You missed the joy of those small moments because you were chasing the mirage of something bigger in the future or some distant memory. But life has no rewind button.

Earlier this week I was having dinner with my family. It wasn’t a special occasion. Just another weeknight meal at our kitchen table. My sons were bombing me with questions about heaven. Finally, one son turned into Barbara Walters and asked me a probing question.

“Dad, what about here on earth? What’s the closest thing to heaven for you here on earth?”

His question reminds me of another childhood memory. This one, a quote from a movie.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

I paused and looked at my son, thinking about his question.

“Right now. This moment, with the four of us sharing a meal at our table.”

It’s only when I hit the pause button that I really appreciate each moment of life for what it really is – a gift from God. But, like most gifts from God, you have to learn to be content. Content with what everyone else thinks is insignificant. Because if you miss those insignificant moments now, you’re really going to miss them later on.

And life doesn’t have a rewind button.

Confessions of a Pharisee

I could hear her before I could see her. I had just cranked up my car and was about to back out of my garage. I thought the unusual sound was something from my radio. But I kept hearing it, even after I turned my car radio off. And that’s when I saw her.

I was standing in my garage, face to face with a drug addict.

Well, I can’t really prove that she was on drugs. But she looked like it. And that’s good enough, right? Besides, you’re not being judgmental if you’re right, right? Isn’t that somewhere in the Bible?

The lady wanted to borrow something. Something that I had. Something that was in plain sight, right there in my garage. I felt forced to hand it over, not because of any goodness on my part. I just couldn’t come up with a decent excuse.

“Sorry, I’m going to need that in a few minutes to clean out a clogged hyper valve on an ’72 Oldsmobile.”

So I gave it to her, knowing that I would never see it again. Drug addicts are terrible at returning things. But she promised that she would. She could see that I was heading out so she said that she would just leave it by the front door. I kindly agreed, all the while knowing that I would never see this thing again.

I came back home later that morning and went straight to the front door. Nothing. I told my family. I told them that this was no surprise. Drug addicts never return things. I concluded that she was probably scoping out our house so that she could rob us later on.

And then the doorbell rang.

It was her. Returning what she borrowed. She said that she didn’t want to leave it laying outside because she was afraid that someone would take it. So she waited until I got home to hand it to me in person.

But that wasn’t good enough for me. Sure, I was glad that she brought back what belonged to me but now I had other concerns. What did she need this for? I haven’t seen her family in a while. Where are they? Did she use my stuff to kill her family? Probably so. You know how drug addicts are.

A few mornings later I was outside with my sons when the same woman came back. She needed to borrow something again. Immediately upon her arrival, my sons ran inside screaming to my wife. You would have thought that one of the ladies that helped Charles Manson had come by for a visit.

“She’s back! She’s back! Mom, that woman is back!”

This time she did what she needed to do and returned what she borrowed almost instantly. By the time my sons came back outside she had already politely said thank you and gone on her way.

That night at dinner, one of my sons said something about our visitor. Something that almost knocked me out of my chair.

“That lady needs to get it together and quit relying on us to help her.”

I wondered where my son got this kind of rude, self-righteous attitude from. It only took me a few seconds before I realized that he learned it from me. Without knowing it, I had been teaching this to my son for the past few days.

“Jay, standing by himself, prayed thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this drug addict that wants to borrow my stuff all the time and is probably either going to pawn it for more drug money, use it to kill her family or come back and rob us.'”

It was then that I realized how big of a Pharisee I am. It broke my heart to realize that Jesus, if he were conducting his earthly ministry today, would probably be at that lady’s house, eating and drinking with her and her friends (Matthew 9:9-13) only stopping by mine to pronounce woes upon me (Matthew 23).

My self-righteousness had obstructed my view, just like Jesus said it would (Matthew 7:1-6). All I could see was what this woman might be. I was too busy to see what I really am. I looked down on her because she was strange and because she was in need. Conveniently, I forgot how much of a stranger I am to the holiness of God and how desperately I still need his grace and mercy.

Pharisees, tax collectors, Southern Baptist pastors and presumed drug addicts have more in common than one might think. We’re all sinners in need of a Savior.

Some of us are just more skilled at making ourselves look better than we really are.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:14

Preach It Yourself

Funerals are never easy. But the really hard ones have a way of sticking with you. They haunt you, forcing you to remember them with every other funeral that you attend.

One of the first funerals that I preached was for my mother. My friends and family seemed really worried about me. They had replacements lined up in case I fell apart at the last minute. But that never happened. I had a good mom who loved Jesus and was with him. That’s a pretty easy story to tell.

But the hard ones aren’t like that. The hard ones start out with a call from the funeral home. The funeral director will usually say a person’s name and ask if I knew him. I don’t but for one reason or another, I’ve been requested to perform the ceremony. The night before the funeral I meet the family for the first time. While I talk to them, I can see the body of their loved one, lying behind them. I wonder why I’m preaching this funeral. Where is the person’s pastor? Did they even have a pastor? Did they belong to a church? Did they belong to Jesus?

This really scares me. I know that church membership and even church commitment is not what saves us. But I also know that people who really love Jesus also love his church. They typically don’t have a stranger preaching their funeral.

On the day of the funeral I stand before the family. I can’t say anything about the person being in a better place or being free from suffering because I don’t know and I certainly don’t want to give any false assurances. Maybe they were saved at the last minute, like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. But maybe they weren’t.

Death has a way of making the vilest of people look like saints, especially in the south. We like to convince ourselves that the one we have lost is really in a better place. We don’t like to consider the fact that maybe they aren’t. In his new state, because of his failure to repent and believe in the gospel, the person I’m talking about is much worse than he ever was here on earth.

And so I can’t really talk about the person I was asked to talk about. I can’t lead a celebration of life. It’s more like a ceremony of doubt. All I can say for certain is that Jesus is Lord. The only comfort I can give the family is the promise of eternal life for them if they repent and believe in the gospel before it’s too late. But I just can’t be sure about the person whose funeral I’m performing. And that haunts me.

Shortly after I became a pastor I preached a funeral for a church member. This person loved Jesus, loved others and it showed. Aside from the pain of seeing the tears of loved ones, this was an easy funeral to preach. I could say with certainty that this person was in a better place, resting in the arms of Jesus. I could lead a celebration of life. The words of my sermon rolled off my tongue like classic literature.

When I was done someone I didn’t know too well came up to me with a request.

“Whenever I die, I want you to preach my funeral. And I want you to do just as good at my funeral as you did at this one.”

The more funerals I preach, the more I realize that that’s not up to me.

What made it easier to preach a funeral for my mother and people at my church? I think it’s because the hard work was already done. They spent their entire lives preaching their own funeral. And when their life ended, I was just there to add the Bible verses to an already beautiful sermon.

The Man Behind the Plate

Things just kept getting better for nine-year-old Alayna Adams last Thursday. It all started as she prepared to throw out the first pitch at the Tampa Bay Rays game. Just before taking the mound, Alayna got a surprise message on the video screen from her father, Lt. Col. William Adams who was nearing the end of a one year stay in Afghanistan.

“I wish I was there.”

And then, after her best effort at throwing a strike, Alayna got to meet the man behind the plate.

Saying Goodbye to The Office

A lot can change in eight years. And there’s nothing like a television show about a paper company to show you just how much.

Thursday night was the final episode of The Office. I started watching the show with my wife shortly after it premiered in 2005. We didn’t stick with it for the entire run. For us, the show lost its punch after Steve Carell left. But we had to watch last night. We couldn’t let our favorite paper company go away without saying goodbye.

Eight years ago it was just the two of us in our rental house in a small Georgia town. As far as we knew, almost everyone else we knew didn’t get the humor of The Office. Just the two of us. But that didn’t stop us. Every Friday morning, we would break down the previous night’s show. Just the two of us. Laughing.

Eventually, we left our rental home in that small Georgia town and moved to the big city of Louisville, Kentucky. The Office came with us. My wife and I still had those Friday morning conversations about last night’s episode. But our viewing parties grew.

I took a job at a campus bookstore, perhaps not too much unlike Dunder Mifflin, the fictional paper company that was at the center of The Office. It was there, in between stocking shelves and answering questions about books that customers would eventually buy over the Internet, that I talked with new friends about The Office and how similar it was to our reality. Some of those co-workers would come by our house on Thursday nights to watch The Office with us. As I write this in my kitchen, I can look up at my refrigerator and see a Dunder Mifflin magnet that was given to me and my wife by one of those friends. We’re never getting rid of that magnet.

It wasn’t too long before we left Louisville for another small town in Georgia. Most of those friends left Louisville too. We still try to keep up through social media and the occasional phone call. In last night’s episode there was a profound line from Ed Helms, the actor who plays Andy Bernard. Andy never could seem to find his place in life. He was always looking back at how good life used to be, like he was chasing some initial high.

“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good ol’ days before you actually left them.”

Those days in Louisville were the good ol’ days.

But so are these.

It’s been eight years since I started watching The Office with my wife. I love her more today than I ever have. Eight years ago she used to fall asleep after The Office while doing some crossword puzzle. Now she falls asleep reading her Kindle. A paperless book, ironically.

In the room next door to me I have two sons sharing the bottom bunk of a bunk bed because they’re virtually inseparable. They have soccer practice on Thursday nights so that pushed The Office to the side.

But tonight there was no soccer practice.

Tonight it was just me and my wife watching the final episode of an old favorite. I know that it’s just a television show but I still hate goodbyes, even the fake ones. But seated across the room from me, there was that same beautiful girl that I married a decade ago. And she still has that same laugh that I heard so much on Thursday nights back in the mid 2000s. I love that laugh. When I hear it, there’s no IRS scandal or terrorist bombings. Just that laugh. It has a way of making everything okay, at least for a little while.

A lot has changed in eight years.

But thankfully, not everything has.