Tag Archives: Culture

Our Fearful Apologetic

“Andrew, I understand what you are trying to do. But you’ve gotta understand that it’s like a house of cards. One gust and the whole thing might come down.”

These words came in a moment of real vulnerability from a good friend. We were on a mission trip together and, the day before, we had been discussing a contentious point of theology. I thought that if I could just intellectually convince her of my side, all would be well. However, where I saw a chance for communication, my friend saw a missile.

This same thinking is displayed on a grand scale with a couple of recent film releases, Noah and God’s Not Dead, albeit in different ways. God’s Not Dead is a successful film about an atheist professor’s confrontation with a Christian freshman. The trailer shows what we’ve come to expect from such stories: a secular authority attempts to force his class into blasphemy, and one student publicly confronts him with dramatic results. Running throughout is a crushing view of non­-Christians. “Everyone who’s a true believer is depicted as kind, even-tempered, and wise,” Claudia Puig writes at USA Today. ”Non­-Christians are portrayed as obnoxious, self­-centered, and even cruel.”


If our faith is driven by fear, we need a world like the one in God’s Not DeadAs a recent article by Alan Noble points out, we long to know that atheist professors are really dumb, and freshmen Christians can overcome them; that all Christians are righteous heroes, and all non­-Christians are self­-obsessed villains. I’m not saying that God’s Not Dead came from anywhere other than honest zeal. But we need to see how stories like these defend a crumbling foundation.

I have been in a real situation like the one in God’s Not Dead. A good friend and myself, when we were in college, attended a course wherein the professor tried to convince us that all major religious texts offer valid roads to God. We fought pretty hard to protect the exclusivity of Christianity. So, basically, it was just like the movie—except there was no dramatic music, no one got converted, the professor was smarter than us, we alienated much of the class, and we left confused as to whether or not we were faithful in our actions.

Noah and Fearful Faith

Even more public has been the warfare over Noah. We’ve accused it of environmentalism on the front end and Gnosticism on the back end. In one of those rare moments where the outside culture shows any interest in our story and our opinions, we have mostly responded with a hermeneutic of suspicion.

Ken Ham, a recent participant in the creationism vs. evolution debate with Bill Nye, wrote a review of Noah on Time.com. Many of you may appreciate Ham’s ministry through Answers in Genesis; certainly God has used him in meaningful ways. And yet, in this article written to a diverse and primarily non­-Christian audience, Ham’s tone is stark and punishing, describing Noah as “an unbiblical, pagan film from the start” and “an insult to the God of the Bible.” Given a chance to have a winsome conversation over an important story in our tradition, Ham chose to lower the hammer instead. Many (though not as many as I expected, thankfully) followed suit.

I couldn’t help but think that, after years of study and earnest engagement with the story of Noah, director Darren Aronofsky had shown up with a genuine attempt at communication only to have it torn up in his face.

Blessing to the Nations

It’s easy to get lost in our Christian subculture. With each new step away from the world and into this subculture we say, “Your stuff is not good enough; we leave you to your own devices.” Judging the world we echo God’s judgment in C. S. Lewis’s description of hell: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”

Here’s the problem: it’s not yet judgment day. And you and I aren’t the Judge. Following in the example of Christ, we’re supposed to offer an antidote to the world’s problems. It’s not easy. We may get fired from our work for holding upopular, biblical convictions. But we must resist the fear-based reaction of circling the wagons and firing away. We have a greater calling, one driven by the love and sacrifice of our Father in heaven: “Be a blessing to the nations”.

This was the charge originally given to Abraham in Genesis 12. According to Christopher Wright, this charge implies a “relational element of blessing . . . [that] reaches out to those around. Genesis has several instances of people being blessed through contact with those whom God has blessed.” If, when in contact with the world we are called to bless, we lash out in anger and judgment, we have to wonder if we have lost the plot.

I’m not asking Christians to give up our convictions. There is much to be admired about evangelicals’ pro­-life sacrifices and desire for doctrinal purity, for example. But if our convictions don’t lead us to faithfully love God and man, what do they accomplish? We may feel threatened by our neighbors, but the world will never overcome God and his gospel. We stand on a sure foundation of a true event: the inbreaking of God through the person of Jesus.

Holding Fast to Truth in a Doubting Age

Assaults on truth are nothing new. In the dock before Pilate, Jesus said he came into the world “to bear witness to the truth.” To which Pilate mocked: “What is truth?”

The irony is thick in John 18:38. The Roman prefect missed the truth, even as Truth incarnate stood before him. Then again, Pilate may not have missed anything. He may have known too well what Jesus offered him and, unwilling to follow the king of the Jews, hastily dismissed him from his presence.

Not much has fundamentally changed since that fateful day. The question of truth continues to color theological, ethical, and political debates—and to plague human hearts. Christians need to have a good answer to Pilate’s question.

Inspired Truth

In contrast to the spirit of the age, truth isn’t a feeling experienced but a fact decreed in eternity, demonstrated in history, and progressively revealed and recorded in Scripture. Put simply, truth is what God says it is.

According to Isaiah 65:16, God is the “God of truth.” All history proves this reality. What Yahweh promised, he fulfilled; what he foretold, he accomplished. His actions validated his words, and his words perfectly revealed his holiness, goodness, trustworthiness, and truth.

Moreover, when God revealed himself, he inspired a true book. Letting Scripture speak for itself (something theologians call “self-attestation”), Psalm 119 says God’s law and commandments are true (vv. 142, 151). And again: “The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endure forever” (v. 160). The truth of God’s Word is evidenced in its moral character and enduring nature. That which is false corrodes and fails, but God’s Word is both pure (Ps. 12:6) and eternal (Ps. 119:89): “Every word of God proves true.”

Therefore, on the basis of God’s character, his faithfulness in history, and Scripture’s own testimony, we have confidence that true truth exists and has been given to us by the God of truth.

Incarnate Truth

God’s written Word isn’t the only source of truth; it’s also manifested in a person. John opens his gospel this way: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). These verses speak of the incarnation and how the Son of God who spoke the world into existence took on human form to embody grace and truth.

On earth Jesus called himself “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). As he ministered, people marveled at his power, wisdom, and authority. Yet he wasn’t simply a man speaking about the truth; he was and is the truth of which all Scripture speaks (John 5:39).

In his life Jesus manifested truth and by his death saved sinners enslaved to deception. Even to Pilate he proclaimed a way of truth that would have given the Roman ruler life. Amazingly, by the predestined plan of God (Acts 4:27-28), Pilate’s rejection of truth advanced the cause of truth—for through dying and rising Christ received the right to send the Spirit of truth to his sheep. 

Eschatological Truth

Finally, truth isn’t restricted to the events of history; it’s also an eschatological reality God is bringing into the present. Even as the Devil continues deceiving the world, Jesus sends his Spirit to lead his people into the truth.

By regenerating the ones purchased on Calvary, transferring them into his kingdom, and illuminating their minds to grasp God’s truth, the Spirit causes believers to walk in the truth. In a world of death and deceit, God unites his sheep to their Shepherd by means of his Spirit and his Word. The Spirit empowers believers to proclaim the gospel such that the “word of truth” (Eph. 1:13) both liberates (John 8:32) and sanctifies (John 17:17).

Like in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit now hovers over the murky waters of this world. Christ’s future kingdom is growing in our present age. The first place we look for truth, then, isn’t the heady halls of academia or the power structures of Washington, D.C. We find truth in the urban mission, the rural church, and the college Bible study outlawed for its biblical views on sex. In these places forgotten by the world and deemed “false” by questioners of truth, God’s truth advances. Where his Spirit and Word are at work, there his truth is found.

Hold Fast to the Truth

Without coincidence, true truth is triune truth: it’s decreed by God (the Father), personified in God (the Son), and effected by God (the Spirit). Contrary to popular belief, truth isn’t based on personal feeling, self-understanding, or a contemporary situation. It’s based on God’s revelation, centered in the gospel, and revealed by the transforming work of the Spirit.

Unlike the mood of our age, truth isn’t something we can create, discover, or deny. Like the innocent man Pilate sentenced to death, truth has a way of coming back to life.

May we, like Jesus, make the good confession and hold fast to the truth.

Taking Tech for Granted

“Ugh. It’s only noon, and my iPhone’s battery is already at 30 percent.”

“Oh great, a delay. I’ll never make my connecting flight now.”

“Sigh. There’s never anything good on Netflix anymore.”

“Gahhhh, Twitter is driving me crazy this week.”

shutterstock_failureWe tend to react in one of two ways to modern technology: boredom or loathing. Either technology becomes a mundane fixture in our lives to the point that we take it for granted, or it becomes a perceived poison, a reason for cursing mankind’s ingenuity.

Consider the catalog of modern inventions that Christians have reacted against in think-pieces and sermon illustrations: iPhones, email, Twitter, Facebook, automobiles, televisions, and video games. All of them have incurred the wrath of those fed up with trying to adapt to the constant changing of modern life.

No medium or technology is neutral, and each has a way of encouraging and discouraging specific good and bad habits in us. But human nature itself often discourages us from seeing a blessing when it’s right in front of our face, literally.

Seeing the Good

Smart phones, for instance, claim a constant presence in our lives, available right in front of our faces whenever we need them, providing amusement and information during times that used to be occupied by deep thought and self-reflection. Sure, this pervasive presence seems bad at first glance.

But we must move beyond a surface-level observation, beyond a seemingly dystopian vision of an entire society craning their necks downward, studying their phones and ignoring the presence of those in their physical space. Then we might consider the ways smart phones and the apps we often use have arisen to answer a modern need for connection. It’s easy to write off the connection a smartphone, Facebook, and Twitter provides with a roll of the eyes, but these networks spur us on to think more deeply than we might on our own. They confront us with those who think differently than we do. And they enable us to build connections with those who share our values and purpose.

These new technologies weren’t created in a vacuum. They came in response to previous technical advances that put individual needs above community needs. Automobiles, television sets, and interstates all came out of a desire to set one’s own course.

These technological responses to felt needs are double-edged swords for sure. But they are also amazing. God uses them in spreading his gospel and sharing his glory with the world—whether by circulating a resource people otherwise not see or getting a missionary to a remote location that has no access to the gospel. They’re the church’s way of sharing God’s truth and clarifying its identity. They’re our way of sharing with the world and living with fellow believers.

How Technology Becomes a Difficult Taskmaster

Both boredom and loathing come from a lack of moderation in our use of technology. If we allow our technologies to use us rather than the other way around, it’s no wonder we begin to view them as a difficult taskmaster rather than a useful tool and a blessing from God. It’s no wonder we begin to take them for granted. But if we take an active and dogged approach to moderation, we’ll finally have the perspective we need to allow ourselves to be thankful for these blessings.

Louis C. K. most infamously brought attention to this problem in an interview with Conan O’Brien that went viral shortly after it was aired. In it, he talks about our tendency to become entitled and frustrated almost instantly in response to new technology. “Everything’s amazing right now,” he said, “and nobody’s happy.”

In his video, Louis C. K. suggests that perhaps we could benefit from a time of economic collapse, when we’re forced to do without the technology we so easily despise and take for granted. A more realistic (and significantly more pleasant) solution might be a commitment to consider the human needs that our technologies meet, even (especially!) when they get on our nerves.

Check out Christ and Pop Culture Magazine
Check out Christ and Pop Culture Magazine

When your phone battery is dying, consider the miracle that allows you to talk to your wife, your children, or your trusted friend when you or they most need it. When your flight is delayed, consider the fact that the trip would have been totally impossible without the help of a plane in the first place. When there’s nothing to watch on Netflix, consider the myriad artistic experience and life-brightening entertainment you’ve already partaken in for the price of one movie ticket per month. When Twitter is driving you nuts with seemingly petty arguments, just remind yourself that this is what happens when people who would never otherwise converse take the opportunity to sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron.

Complaining about technology has become a regular human pastime, a go-to topic for conversation. But God calls us to a higher standard of appreciation: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Appreciation and thankfulness isn’t just a key to happiness. It’s a commandment, a Christian discipline that conveys God’s goodness to the world and one another.

Cultural Engagement that Avoids Triumphalism and Accommodation

Greg Forster’s important and practical new book helps Christians think out how to engage culture. Many would say this is not a proper goal for believers, but that is a mistake.

51mjgUdKvBLActs 17 records Paul’s famous visit to Athens, the academic center of the Roman Empire of the day. One commenter likened the intellectual power of Athens at the time to all the Ivy League schools as well as Oxford and Cambridge universities all rolled into one. Though Paul was repulsed by the idolatry he saw there, he did not turn away from the city in disgust. Instead, he plunged into the marketplace, the agora, where we are told he daily “reasoned” with those he found there about the gospel. Now when you or I think of a “marketplace,” we think of shopping and retail. Of course the agoras of ancient cities contained that, but they were much more. The agora was the media center—the only place to learn the news at a time before newspapers and other technological media. It was also the financial center where investors connected with businesses. It was the art center as well, the place where so much art was performed. It was the place where new political and philosophical ideas were debated. In short, the agora was the cultural center of any city. And since this was Athens—which along with Rome had the most influence of all cities—it could be said to be part of the cultural center of the Greco-Roman world. The ideas forged and accepted here flowed out and shaped the way the rest of society thought and lived.

It is instructive, then, to see that Paul takes the gospel literally into the public square. It means that he did not see the Christian faith as only able to change individual hearts. He believed that the gospel had what it took to engage the thinking public, the cultural elites, and to challenge the dominant cultural ideas of the day. He was after converts of course—he was first and foremost a church planter, not a theologian or Christian philosopher. But he wouldn’t have been able to engage the hearts of cultural leaders unless he also engaged the ideas of the culture itself. He did not shrink from that challenge. He did not merely try to find individual philosophers to evangelize in a corner. He addressed them as a culture, a public community.

It is often missed that, although later Paul was invited to give an address, he did not start by preaching in the agora. He did not get up on a soapbox and merely declare what the Bible said. It says Paul “reasoned” (Acts 17:17) in the marketplace, using a word—dialegomai—that sounds like “dialogue.” However, as John Stott says in his commentary on Acts, this term probably denoted something more specific than we would think of today when we hear it. Stott says it was something closer to what we might call the Socratic method. This was not a “debate” as we see debates today, where two parties read off talking points at one another. It required lots of careful listening, and in particular it meant asking questions that showed that your opponents were self-contradictory, that is, they were wrong on the basis of their own premises. And indeed, when we actually hear Paul’s address to the philosophers in Acts 17:22-31, we can’t help but notice that he does the Socratic method even here. He does not expound or even quote Scripture, but rather quotes their own thinkers (v. 28) and then shows them that, on the basis of their own intuitions and statements about God, idolatry is absolutely wrong (v. 29). Many have pointed out how Paul’s address lays the foundation for a doctrine of God, contrasting the contemporary culture’s beliefs in multiple, fallible, powerful beings who must be appeased with the idea of one supreme Creator, sovereign God who is worthy of awe-filled adoration and worship. Every part of what Paul says is deeply biblical, but he never quotes the Bible; instead he shows them the weakness and inadequacies of their own views of the divine and lifts up the true God for their admiration. He appeals as much to their rationality and their imaginations as to their will and hearts.

What It Is and It Not

The term “cultural engagement” is so often used by Christians today without a great deal of definition. This account of Paul and Athens gets us a bit closer to understanding what it is by showing us what it is not. Christians are to enter the various public spheres—working in finance, the media, the arts. But there we are neither to simply preach at people nor are we to hide our faith, keeping it private and safe from contradiction. Rather, we are as believers to both listen to and also challenge dominant cultural ideas, respectfully yet pointedly, in both our speech and our example.

When Paul addresses the Areopagus, a body of the elite philosophers and aristocrats of Athens, he was, quite literally, speaking to the cultural elites. Their response to him was cool to say the least. They “mocked” him (Acts 17:32) and called him a “babbler” (v. 18), and only one member of that august body converted (v. 34). The elites laughed at him, wondering how Paul expected anyone to believe such rubbish. The irony of the situation is evident as we look back at this incident from the vantage point of the present day. We know that a couple of centuries later the older pagan consensus was falling apart and Christianity was growing rapidly. All the ideas that the philosophers thought so incredible were adopted by growing masses of people. Finally those sneering cultural elites were gone, and many Christian truths became dominant cultural ideas.

Why? Historians look back and perceive that the seemingly impregnable ancient pagan consensus had a soft underbelly. For example, the approach to suffering taken by the Stoics—its call to detach your heart from things here and thereby control your emotions—was harsh and did not work for much of the populace. The Epicureans’ call to live life for pleasure and happiness left people empty and lonely. The Stoics’ insistence that the Logos—the order of meaning behind the universe—could be perceived through philosophic contemplation was elitist, only for the highly educated. The revolutionary Christian teaching was, however, that there was indeed a meaning and moral order behind the universe that must be discovered, but this Logos was not a set of abstract principles. Rather it was a person, the Creator and Savior Jesus Christ, who could be known personally. This salvation and consolation was available to all, and it was available in a way that did not just engage the reason but also the heart and the whole person. The crazy Christian gospel, so sneered at by the cultural elites that day, eventually showed forth its spiritual power to change lives and its cultural power to shape societies. Christianity met the populace’s needs and answered their questions. The dominant culture could not. And so the gospel multiplied.

Do we have Paul’s courage, wisdom, skill, balance, and love to do the same thing today in the face of many sneering cultural leaders? It won’t be the same journey, because we live in a post-Christian Western society that has smuggled in many values gotten from the Bible but now unacknowledged as such. Late modern culture is not nearly as brutal as pagan culture. So the challenges are different, but we must still, I think, plunge into the agora as Paul did.

Greg Forster’s new book does a marvelous job of showing us a way forward that fits in with Paul’s basic stance—not just preaching at people, but not hiding or withdrawing either. Within these pages, believers will get lots of ideas about how to “reason” with people in the public square about the faith and how to engage culture in a way that avoids triumphalism, accommodation, or withdrawal. Paul felt real revulsion at the idolatry of Athens—yet that didn’t prevent him from responding to the pagan philosophers with love and respect, plus a steely insistence on being heard. This book will help you respond to our cultural moment in the same way.


This article was adapted from the foreword to Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (Crossway, 2014), by Greg Forster. This book is the second installment of the Cultural Renewal series edited by Tim Keller and Collin Hansen.


Carter vs. Starke on Jesus in the Movies

With the appearance of several new movies based on biblical narratives, Christians are debating whether or not movies should be deemed “appropriate,” especially as writers and directors take artistic liberties. There’s been significant uproar about the license filmmaker Darren Aronofsky took with Noah, which hits theaters today. And the recent Son of God has raised questions about the second commandment and complaints of sloppiness, while garnering just as many defenders for the film. 


Recently this debate unfolded over email between me and Joe Carter, a colleague and fellow editor at The Gospel Coalition, as we discussed articles about Son of God. After TGC linked to an article critical of the film, a reader told us, “Here is a good effort to put Jesus in the public square and we pick away at it with a response like this. Sad to see.” To which Carter replied to TGC staff, “If the standard is now that we should defend any movie that ‘as a whole presents Jesus in a most positive light’ then we all owe Martin Scorsese an apology.”

Carter is referring to Scorsese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, which radically departs from the traditional Gospel narratives and portrays a Jesus as a weak, fearful, and reluctant Savior who is tempted to get down from the cross and abandon his saving mission. (Spoiler: he does come down.) At the time many Christians denounced the film.

I responded to Carter’s email saying, “I loved Last Temptation, and I think every Christian should too. It supports the foundation of the gospel more than you think!”

Radio silence.

Then the discussion picked back up.

JOE CARTER: I really hope you’re kidding, but I can’t tell. If for no other reason, Last Temptation qualifies as heretical simply for having Willem Dafoe play the part of Jesus.

JOHN STARKE: Nope. Not kidding.

Last Temptation actually gives us the world that would have come about if Jesus had given into the temptation to not die on the cross for our sins: hopeless and embattled against itself, finally leading to destruction and ultimate despair. In other words, if Jesus didn’t come to pay for sins, there would be no hope.

People think it’s heretical because it gave the story of the Son of God abandoning the cross and marrying a woman instead of giving up himself. But it shows the misery of Jesus and the hopelessness of the world because of it.

CARTER: I could have excused that last section of the film (though I thought it was terribly boring). But I think even before the “temptation” part the film presented an inaccurate representation of Christ. I thought the movie incorporated the monophysitic views from Nikos Kazantzakis’s book (on which the movie was based). For example, Kazantzakis says, “Every man partakes of the divine nature in both his spirit and his flesh. That is why the mystery of Christ is not simply a mystery for a particular creed; it is universal.” Kazantzakis’s view is that Jesus became divine by his obedience and refusal to give in to temptation.

I also thought the film presented a completely external view of temptation. For example, when Jesus was watching the “prostitute” Mary Magdalene have sex with her johns, it seems that he has a lustful interest in her (he later admits as much). Yet because he doesn’t physically act on the temptation, the movie implies that he hasn’t sinned. It’s that view that I think is most problematic. In fact, I think this one scene (see below) alone is enough to damn the movie as unsuitably heretical.

STARKE: Two things:

First, the narrative itself is meant to be “unreliable.” Of course the story swerves away from the truthfulness about the nature of Jesus when he ends up abandoning the cross in the end. The whole point of the movie is to question the narrative of the movie itself as being true. The film isn’t interested in giving us truth about Jesus; it’s interested in giving us what we want in Jesus and then show us how dissatisfied we are with it in the end.

Second, this is a larger discussion, but I think movies like Last Temptation don’t aim to communicate didactically—which is what you’re concerned about. No one coming from the movie is going to be learning or changing their view of how human nature relates to divine nature. But they will go away feeling the emotional message and wondering, Where is hope if we do not have atonement for sins? That’s what viewers feel from the movie by the end, whether they have an accurate depiction of the hypostatic union or not.

CARTER: I sort of see what you’re saying, but that sort of interpretation relies on the movie watcher being somewhat theologically sophisticated. The problem with these types of movies that take artistic license with a Bible story is that many people can’t distinguish between the presentation of biblical fact and Hollywood fiction. For far too many Americans, these types of movies are their primary source of knowledge about Jesus—which is why so many think Jesus is a non-judgmental hippie who loves everyone the way they are (i.e., unrepentant and unapologetic sinner) and was crucified because mean-spirited religious folks didn’t appreciate his “be yourself” message.

last-temptation-of-christ_judasWhat would a viewer who is unfamiliar with Jesus take away from the movie? How are we supposed to distinguish between the actual biographical details about Jesus, the parts that are intended to be an unreliable narrative (e.g., the temptation part on the cross), and the sections that reveal what the author/director really thinks about Jesus (e.g., he becomes divine through his actions)?

Also, what does it mean for Jesus to atone for our sins when, as in the movie, he is a self-professed sinner who only becomes one-with-the-divine through his obedience to God? It may seem rather nit-picky to point out the film’s confusion about the hypostatic union, but the film is presenting a particular—and particularly heretical—view about the divine-human natures.

STARKE: I’m not saying I would’ve written Last Temptation, nor do I think it’s fully sanctified and ready to be played in Sunday schools everywhere in order to teach the necessity of the atonement.

At the same time, such movies depend on a certain level of engagement in order to be meaningful. Shocking art is trying to catch our attention, and the viewer can either just walk away from the shock with distaste in his mouth or ask what the artist is trying to say. Whenever an artist uses biblical themes to say something, he’s always trying to say something about ultimate reality (God, self, or the world). I think, for Christians, it’s worth sticking with a film long enough to understand his purpose. It will either give us a surprising perspective about God that we don’t ever consider or gives us insight into how our society views God (or what we want him to be like). I think Last Temptation gives us both.

What Christians would change about the movie is obvious. But what the film is trying to say about what happens to a world where its last hope gives into temptation himself is pretty profound and worth noting.

CARTER: I think a lot of my criticisms of Last Temptation could have been abated if it had started with a title card that read, “Based on a True Story.” Many people thought it was a movie about Jesus when it was really just about a Christ-figure who happened to be called Jesus.

I agree with you that in this movie Scorsese was trying to say something about ultimate reality. I even think he could have even been successful had he taken the elements from a standard Jesus bio-pic (like Son of God) and then, near the end of the film, thrown in the temptation on the cross. That would have been shocking and controversial and still led to outraged denunciations of the film. But it also could have (possibly) succeeded in giving us a fresh perspective on Jesus.

I don’t think the film succeeded in doing that, though, because it didn’t give us a unique perspective on Jesus; it gave us a unique perspective on a Christ-figure. The Jesus in the film was the Jesus of Kazantzakis’s imagination, not the Jesus of the Gospels. It was a New Age Jesus, a human who became a god by submitting to his divine nature.

The problem is many under-informed viewers of the film assumed that Scorsese, a semi-devout Catholic, was presenting a fairly accurate rendering of Jesus. And many people probably left the film thinking they wanted nothing to do with Jesus since they assumed he must really be a grotesque, conflicted New Age hippie. It’s one thing for people reject the Jesus of the Gospels. They are rejecting the Truth based on a true description. But it disturbs me when people reject the true Savior because they confuse him with the Jesus of pop culture.

STARKE: Okay, but isn’t the Christ portrayed in the Last Temptation the Jesus everyone wants? A hippie, sensitive Jesus in tune with the divine, though not divine himself?

And then doesn’t the film show a world hopeless because that Jesus is inadequate?

It seems to me, the film is giving us the Jesus we want, then showing us that that Jesus isn’t sufficient.

[I just heard someone from the balcony yell, “Preach!”]


I’m not sure who wins this debate. And, in the end, the debate really isn’t about any one particular movie, but how comfortable we should be with writers taking liberties with biblical narratives—especially narratives about Jesus. Carter is concerned about the worldview implications of a movie like Last Temptation and even Son of God. I want to say that what is communicated is less didactic and propositional and more aimed at our longings and hopes. One will want to preserve the biblical narrative as it’s used in films, the other will be more generous with artistic allowances.

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Can Christian Theology Save the Family?

My wife and I recently returned to the restaurant where we spent our final Saturday evening before our wedding. As we settled in, our eyes focused across the room to the table where we sat 16 months ago, sharing plans of travel, butchering the pronunciations of French dishes, and preparing to create a family.

We recollected how a middle-aged couple at the bar overheard our conversation that night and turned to offer their experienced input. “Just wonderful, you two look so in love,” chimed the tipsy husband. “Go large with the wedding,” the wife interjected, “everything goes downhill from there.” Her cynical tone and disillusioned eyes undermined her husband’s every word.

images (1)Evil Hits Close to Home

It didn’t take long after our wedding for us to discover that the opportunities to wreck a family are legion. “An entire army of evils besieges the life of the family,” wrote the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) in his timeless work, The Christian Family. Bavinck listed just a handful of evils that threaten the well-being of the home:

the infidelity of the husband, the stubbornness of the wife, the disobedience of the child; both the worship and the denigration of the woman, tyranny as well as slavery, the seduction and the hatred of men, both idolizing and killing children; sexual immorality, human trafficking, concubinage, bigamy, polygamy, polyandry, adultery, divorce, incest; unnatural sins whereby men commit scandalous acts with men, women with women . . . the stimulation of lust by impure thoughts, words, images . . . glorifying nudity and elevating even the passions of the flesh in the service of deity.

When “marriage loses its delight,” Bavinck observed, “it turns into unbearable drudgery.” The couple at the bar knew this grim reality all too intimately. The truth is that no family evades the consequences of evil.

Is the Family a Failed Project?

“There has never been a time when the family faced so severe a crisis as the time in which we are now living,” Bavinck declared. During his age, scientists attempted to reduce the origin and nature of the family to naturalistic explanations. Monogamy, fidelity, and nurture had no legitimate moral or sacred foundation. Science determined the utility of the family, rendering it too flawed for modern people. Intellectuals suggested replacing marriage with free love, familial bonds with social compacts, and parenting with scientific nurturing methods.

Bavinck found that shifts in artistic expression subverted the family as well:

Today, now that realism has taken over in art . . . people take pleasure in describing life after the wedding and in marriage, presenting it as one huge disappointment, as an intolerable cohabitation, as a desperate situation of misery and duress. Poetry is then introduced into this situation by means of sinful passion, forbidden affection, unnatural lust; these are glorified and smothered with glitter at the cost of love and fidelity in marriage.

There never has been an ideal age for the family—and we certainly aren’t in one today. From music award ceremonies to Woody Allen films, popular culture has not smiled kindly on the family. Even more, the hunger for financial success has brought injury to many existing families and diminished the appeal to create new ones.

According to Time magazine’s Top 10 Things We Learned About Marriage in 2013, “our in-laws have an evolutionary reason to hate us,” “low drama divorce is possible,” and “same-sex marriage keeps winning.” Number one on the list concludes: “a person could get dizzy trying to pin down the definition of a family.” Dizzying indeed.

Does the problem lie in the institution of the family itself? Would the world be better off if we abandoned the family altogether?

Call for a Theology of the Family

Bavinck believed that Christian theology alone could offer hope for the family in his day and ours. He wrote, “Christians may not permit their conduct to be determined by the spirit of the age, but must focus on the requirement of God’s commandment,” showing “in word and deed what an inestimable blessing God has granted to humanity” with the gift of family. The following points—deduced from Bavinck’s work—provide a helpful foundation toward developing a theology of the family.

God created the family beautiful and good. God is the most committed advocate for the family. “The history of the human race begins with a wedding,” and God himself officiated it. He created a compatible partner for Adam as a gift, blessed the couple, and commanded them to bear his image, multiply families, and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). As Bavinck said, “God’s artistic work comes into existence bearing the name of home and family.” God created humans to reflect the relational love within the Trinity, and he appointed the family as the supreme instrument toward this end.

Sin has ravaged the family. When Adam and Eve first disobeyed God, they “sinned not only as individuals” but “also as husband and wife, as father and mother.” Sin delivered a devastating blow to the home. It introduced “disunity between Adam and Eve,” filled “Cain with hatred against Abel and incited him to fratricide,” and it “led Lamech into polygamy.” Sin poisons the health of our relationships—first with God and consequently with spouse, parent, child, sibling, and neighbor.

Christ offers the family hope. God did not leave the family in defeat. In fact, he still had big plans for it. After the fall, God promised Eve that her offspring would conquer evil (Genesis 3:15). As Bavinck writes, “In the Son born from her, the woman and the man once again attain to their calling.” Jesus Christ is the only human being to never sin against his Father in heaven and his family on earth. His death for our sins offers hope for forgiveness and reconciliation not only with our earthly families but also with God our Father. Although earthly marriages remain imperfect, they represent the love between Christ and his people more than anything else in creation. Bavinck concludes his book with these hope-filled words: “The history of the human race” also “ends with a wedding, the wedding of Christ and his church, of the heavenly Lord with his earthly Bride.” In Christ, the family finds significance, purpose, and hope.


The Subtle Danger of Mission Drift

“Without careful attention, faith-based organizations will inevitably drift from their founding mission. It’s that simple. It will happen.”

So warn Peter Greer and Christ Horst in their new book, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches (Bethany House). But why is “mission drift” so common among Christian ministries? How does it happen, and how can it be prevented? And by what metric do we determine whether an organization has remained resolutely—and likely counterculturally—”mission true”?

I corresponded with Greer and Horst, executive leaders of HOPE International, about sad stories, the role of $$$, InterVarsity’s trajectory, Albert Mohler’s leadership, and more.


Why is “mission drift” such a problem for well-intentioned Christian ministries and charitable trusts?

In a survey of hundreds of Christian leaders at the 2013 Q conference in Los Angeles, 95 percent said mission drift was a challenging issue to faith-based nonprofit organizations. The reality of mission drift isn’t a surprise, but it’s surprising that organizations aren’t more proactively safeguarding the center of their mission.

Through our research we confirmed that mission drift is a pressing challenge for every faith-based organization. The zeal and beliefs of the founders are insufficient safeguards. There is no immunity, no matter how concrete your mission statement is. Or how passionate your leaders are. Or how much you believe it could never happen to you.

Relatively minor decisions, when compounded by time, lead organizations to an entirely different purpose and identity.

Many today might be surprised to learn Pew Charitable Trusts started with evangelical intent. What happened?

Alongside his siblings, J. Howard Pew launched the Pew Charitable Trusts with the wealth generated from their family oil business (Sun Oil, known today as Sunoco). Pew held strong Christian convictions and had a vocal wariness about the secularization of many American institutions—like Princeton and Harvard. He was a good friend of Billy Graham, and together they launched several new evangelical institutions, including Christianity Today and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Today, more than 40 years after Pew’s death, the Pew Charitable Trusts funds many organizations Pew himself eschewed, including Planned Parenthood and several Ivy League schools. What happened? In short, Pew’s convictions and values were hijacked by the agenda and values of the current board and staff. Don’t get us wrong, they still fund many worthy causes. But they aren’t embodying the mission and values of Howard Pew. They say so themselves. When asked why the Pew Trusts no longer supports Gordon-Conwell, an organization Pew founded, current Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca Rimel simply replied: “[Howard] was a man of strong convictions, and his successors on our board are following in his tradition by having strong convictions.”

The substance of those convictions, however, is why the Pew Charitable Trusts has received such broad criticism. Convictions don’t exist in a vacuum—they have to be about something. It’s akin to assigning a diehard Yankees fan to lead a Red Sox fan club simply because he’s passionate about professional baseball.

How does money tend to factor into the mission drift equation?

Through hundreds of hours of interviews with Christian leaders of organizations of all varieties, donor influence was identified time and again as a leading cause of drift. With almost any donation there are “strings attached.” In some instances donors—often corporate donors or government funders—will place prohibitions about how overtly Christian an organization’s work can be. Historically this restriction was perhaps most evidenced in Andrew Carnegie’s university funding, which disallowed “sectarian institutions” from receiving funding. Many colleges—including Brown and Dartmouth—cut ties with their founding Christian denominations to be eligible to receive Carnegie’s millions.

We’ve experienced this challenge at HOPE International, where we work, and it’s a daily reality for nonprofit leaders. At some point organizations must decide if their mission is for sale. Is financial growth the most important indicator of success?

You claim that InterVarsity “carries the same DNA it had in the beginning,” yet many believe the ministry has drifted leftward theologically over the years. How do we determine whether an organization has stayed true to its gospel mission?

No organization is immune from mission drift. In the book we outline challenges within our own institution. In defense of InterVarsity, they’ve been expelled from a number of college campuses because of the depth of their Christian conviction. In response to the difficulties they’ve faced, president Alec Hill said in an interview: “There are a lot of universities trying to derecognize us, but we have a Lord we have to obey.”

When you return to InterVarsity’s founding in England in the 1870s, you’ll learn about a group of Cambridge students who started Bible studies and prayer meetings on their campus. These students received harsh criticism from university officials because of their evangelistic orientation. More than 130 years later, why does InterVarsity exist? “To establish and advance at colleges and universities witnessing communities of students and faculty who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord,” their purpose statement reads today. Just like at their founding, they’ve received tremendous opposition to their mission from many university officials. This track record doesn’t mean “mission true” organizations like InterVarsity won’t ever change. But a good way of determining whether an organization has stayed true to its gospel mission is by comparing the modern-day institution with the story of its founding.

You point to Albert Mohler at Southern Seminary as an example of the “challenges leaders are up against when they return their organizations to their founding identities.” What can other institutions learn from Mohler’s leadership in this regard?

What Mohler demonstrated most clearly was that the best time to make hard decisions is now. It’s easy to ignore drift or push divisive decisions to tomorrow. Mohler wasn’t interested in a 50-year turnaround plan, however. Recognizing the school fading away from its founding, he made the painful decisions necessary to reclaim the founding mission of the institution. It wasn’t without a lot of controversy, however. At his inaugural convocation address, students hung a crude dummy—an effigy—in a tree outside the chapel in protest of his leadership. Mission-true leaders hold the values and mission of their institutions above the pushback they’ll receive for doing so.

When do the moments of greatest temptation to drift typically arise?

We chose the word drift intentionally. It has the image of slowly, silently, and with little fanfare carrying you away to a new destination. It’s not dramatic, and yet anyone who’s spent time on a boat of any size knows it happens.

It’s clichéd, but the moments of greatest temptation occur when you least expect it. We’ve felt the tug of secularization most when we’ve been enjoying seasons of growth. It’s so easy for success to cloud drift. But it’s always there. As Christian leaders, we must daily commit ourselves to protecting and celebrating what matters most in the institutions God has entrusted to us.


Global Theology in English: Promising or Problematic?

When it comes to fighting theological famine around the world many consider English resources to be only temporary tools. To be sure, there is no substitute for hearing the great things of God in one’s own heart language. So we often defend English resources by way of their availability and efficiency while waiting for translation projects to faze them out.

English-dictionariesHowever, the availability of English resources presents opportunity not often acknowledged. English resources enable two-way exchange in which Christians across the globe study common sources and offer their unique insights to the worldwide theological dialogue. English dominance complicates issues, of course. So we must proceed with sensitivity as we explore the precedents, problems, and possibilities of English as a common theological language.

Need for Global Dialogue

A global church demands dialogue that spans all cultures. However, in addressing this need, we must begin by setting a course that navigates between two extremes. On one end some deny the ways culture shapes their theology. On the other end some react harshly to anything that appears Western in its theological character. We might call the first problem didacticism and the second one diatribe. Neither is dialogue. However, theologian Kevin Vanhoozer provides us a helpful and hopeful middle path between these two poles. He writes:

Theology must not hearken to Western voices only. Nor should theologians attend to voices that come only from their century or social class. All cultural scenes are equally valid (and equally limited) in the drama of redemption. By contrast, theology should not be anti-Western either. The West has had a considerable head start when thinking about how to apply and contextualize the gospel. . . . Ideally, theologians in one culture will dialogue and learn from theologians in others. [1] 

Common language fosters such global dialogue. And theology is not the only discipline that benefits from widespread English usage. Understandably, many do not welcome this trend. For instance, a recent study investigated the perceptions of Spanish scientists toward the prevalence of English in scientific discourse. [2] Participants responded with resignation. As the researchers explain, “A surprisingly high proportion of subjects (83 percent) believe there is a need for one international language of science.” At the same time, 96 percent of participants said the current system privileges native English speakers.

Historically speaking, English is not the first language to function in this role as a common language that transcends borders and cultures. For instance, Persian, Sanskrit, and Arabic have also done so in certain times and places. Likewise, much of the church developed and communicated its theology through Greek and Latin. And today’s theology students must study still more languages in their work, such as Hebrew, German, and French. In every case the language shaped the discourse in ways we cannot always comprehend.

English and Local Languages

Contrastive rhetoric has examined some effects of this interaction between language and culture, especially as it relates to reading and writing. In particular, Robert Kaplan’s pioneering research in this field, although initially overstated, demonstrated that different cultures operate with different “cultural thought patterns.”  For instance, English writing tends to favor linear organization, while other languages often take a less direct form. For example, Arabic favors a parallel structure, and many East Asian languages prefer spiral organization that gradually brings the reader from the general to the specific.

In practice, these patterns can significantly affect cross-cultural reading. Common English patterns may even offend certain readers. This perspective may sound like an exaggeration, but many around the world blush at the directness of English communication. They regard it as rude. Likewise, we in the English-speaking world tend to consider the writings of other cultures as “not to the point” and much too “flowery.”

These differences need not battle it out with each other for a kind of cultural supremacy. Kaplan stresses that contrastive rhetoric has always aimed at “contributing to the resources available for discourse-building among bilingual populations.” [3] Different patterns can be learned by different cultures without obliterating local norms. In fact, this process of adding patterns, as Kaplan indicates, supplies us with more resources for global dialogue. However, if English forms replace other cultural thought patterns, we confront a twofold danger. First, we limit the effectiveness of non-native English speakers in communicating theological truths in their local settings, and perhaps even in their own local languages. Second, we deprive the rest of the world of learning from their unique cultural perspectives.

What Is English?

If a common language frames worldwide dialogue, the culture of origin for that language will enjoy a privileged status. Maybe English isn’t such a bad fit, with its varied origin and habit of sampling vocabulary from languages the world over. But what exactly is English anyway? Does it refer to British English or American English? And if so, which regional dialect? And what about Australian, Indian, or Singaporean English? International English curriculums often look to Received Pronunciation, the prescribed British dialect, as the proper form. But if we judge media prevalence to be the deciding factor, American English tends to be the standard. Ultimately, English has no “pure” form.

As a result we now see many World Englishes. As different cultural groups use English to express their unique social settings, they infuse English with aspects of their local languages. For example, if two theologians from different East Asian countries interact, they will most likely communicate in English, even if their cultures have more in common with each other than either does with British or American culture. Yet they will use English in an “East Asian” way.

This trend challenges the assumption that English aims only to connect other cultures to us. And World Englishes grant non-native English speakers a voice in the continued development of English as a truly international language. This voice helps preserve the diversity of cultural thought patterns even as it adds lushness to English expression that only a choir of culturally varied voices could provide. As one Southeast Asian student writes of her English graduate school experience in Australia:

I have now realised more consciously how useful and valuable writing in two tongues is to my creation and choice making. If the English norms give me the privilege to assert myself with the use of constant “I” and spell out my intentions in “maps,” then [my local language] norms legitimise my employment of poetic language and create a subtle flow in writing. As the English norms require me to explain everything explicitly, why do I have to hide my emotional feelings as well as show my engagement with the topic? [4]

Though not originating in a theological context, this quotation speaks volumes about the possibilities of English in global theological dialogue. Theology articulates the deepest truths of our being, the most foundational truths of our entire worldview. This reality demands a church that reaches across all cultures in effort to understand and thereby worship God more fully.

As the ancient Augustine amazes us with his elated eloquence and penchant for sudden doxologies, so might the Western church need its rhetorical standards stirred by brothers and sisters of more exuberant, and maybe even exultant, expression. There are certainly dangers in English as a common theological language, but the dialogue it enables will ensure that theological famine relief is a two-way exchange. [5]

[1] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Westminster John Knox Press: 2005), 323.

[2] G. Ferguson, C. Pérez-Llantada, C., and Plo, R. “English as an International Language of Scientific Publication: A Study of Attitudes.” World Englishes 30, no. 1 (2011), 41-59.

[3] “Foreword: What in the World is Contrastive Rhetoric?” In Contrastive Rhetoric Revisited and RedefinedEdited by Clayann Gilliam Panetta, vii-xx. (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001), xv.

[4] R. Viete and P.  Ha, “The Growth of Voice: Expanding Possibilities for Representing Self in Research Writing.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique 6, no. 2 (2007), 50-51.

[5] For further exploration of this topic see Cheri Pierson and Will Bankston, “English for Bible and Theology: Understanding and Communicating Theology Across Cultural and Linguistic Barriers.” Teaching Theology and Religion 16, no. 1 (2013), 33-49.


Reasonable Hope for Our Secular Age

For Christians in the secularizing West, the days of privilege have ended. And that’s not entirely a bad thing. We’re exiles and always have been, even if it hasn’t always felt like it. This world is not our hope, and this world is not our home. Moreover, today’s mounting hostility toward historic Christianity confronts each of us with a fork-in-the-road, 1 Kings 18:21 kind of choice. If it results in what Tim Keller has called “the death of the mushy middle,” then praise God.

Still, the new cultural climate is fraught with serious challenges. What about religious liberty? What happens when views Christians have openly espoused for two millennia are suddenly deemed intolerant? We’re no longer just backward; we’re bigoted. We’re no longer just wrong; we’re evil. In Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It, Greg Forster carefully explores both how we got here and how God’s redeemed people ought to respond. The book is published in Crossway’s Cultural Renewal series edited by Keller and Collin Hansen.

I talked with Forster, program director at the Kern Family Foundation and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, about cultural change, religious freedom, why he’s optimistic, and more


How would you situate Joy for the World among Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture and conversation-shaping contemporary works like Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World


Crouch’s Culture Making is conversational, talking about everyday life. It reads like the kind of discussion you might overhear between thoughtful believers over coffee. You could give that book to anyone. To Change the World is a densely packed academic tome with a complex social theory. Hunter has a carefully thought out and fiercely held opinion about everything you’ve ever heard of, and a hundred things you haven’t. For the layman, it’s intimidating; even for scholars, there’s a lot more going on in To Change the World than most people see at first.

Joy for the World falls between these two. Like Crouch, I wrote a book for the ordinary people who come to my weekly class at church, where I teach salesmen and insurance adjusters and mechanics and prison guards and stay-at-home moms. But Joy for the World isn’t casual conversation; it’s for those who want to take the next steps beyond that stage. I’m indebted to people like Crouch who have generated a real hunger for substance on this issue. Now I want to challenge those salesmen and mechanics to move from milk to meat, to think through “culture” a little more systematically. We need to study a little more history, learn from different kinds of models, work up specific plans for action. What can we be doing in areas like sexuality and family, or work and economics?

Niebuhr stands apart from this conversation. It’s a magnificent book in spite of its flaws, well deserving its reputation, but Niebuhr is almost totally detached from the contemporary world. Crouch, Hunter, and I write about what we see going on in the world around us, asking what we ought to be doing about it; Niebuhr just doesn’t connect to those questions.

How does the joy of God uniquely speak to the cultural moment in America today, and how should it shape our approach to the world around us?

A hundred years ago, tons of people thought they were Christians because they went to church and lived the same way everyone else did. That’s spiritually empty, but at least it kept people out of the worst kinds of depravity. It was an efficient sin management program. Almost all that is gone now. On the whole this is a good thing, but one downside of the new situation is that those who don’t really know Jesus are moving into worse and worse sins. Their lives are falling apart as a result, both individually and as a culture.

The time is ripe for Christians to shine like stars in this cultural darkness, because we have the joy of God.

You devote quite a bit of attention to the embattled issue of religious freedom. Why is it significant that freedom of religion is a “totally new approach to social organization, one that is unprecedented in all human history before the wars of religion”?

Religious liberty is an astonishingly rare gift, and most Americans (Christians and non-Christians alike) have lost their appreciation for how precious it is. America is the supreme religious freedom society; for us religious freedom is not just one concern among many, but the basic organizing principle of our civilization. We’re blessed beyond reckoning to be the inheritors of this unique experiment. When you read the American founders, you can see they had a palpable sense of themselves as pioneers. And they were absolutely right—they were inventing a whole new mode of culture. They were building on inherited wisdom, of course, but they were entrepreneurs. We have a responsibility to carry that vision forward, and it’s no small task in light of the cultural challenges religious freedom creates.

You distinguish between two ways Christianity relates to civilization: organizationally and organically. What’s valuable about each approach? 

You need organizational Christianity—most fundamentally the local church, but also all the other kinds of institutions committed, as institutions, to advancing Christ. These are the only places where the special work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers can fully reach expression in shared life—where we can have koinonia that permeates the rhythms of the organizational culture and shapes our rules and policies. We need these places to ground us and to equip us, and also to carry out certain special functions the mission of Christ requires.

But that’s not where people live most of life. Most of life takes place in a culture we share with unbelievers, and if we’re not building people up to practice discipleship and spread the joy of God in those places, we’re mostly wasting our time. By definition, organizational Christianity can’t carry the joy of God into those structures of culture outside the church; we need a mode of Christian cooperation that’s more organic, something that subsists in our relationships and personal interactions rather than formal institutions.

You contend that Christians need to change the way we aim to influence American culture. What exactly does an average lay believer need to change?

The answer will differ from person to person, but the broadest answer is we need to apply our Christianity to the way we live, and then work together to spread those applications in our spheres of influence. Narrower things like political activism and evangelism are important, and we need to keep doing them. I do all those things myself. But cultural influence comes from Christians living, and being seen to live, and working together to implement throughout their spheres of influence a holistic and distinct way of life that differs from the way everyone else lives because it’s transformed by the joy of God as a work of the Holy Spirit.

How many people have thought in those terms? Does the Holy Spirit transform the way you do your job or get involved in the life of your own community? Can you connect with others to discover and spread those unique ways of participating in the culture?

Despite the serious challenges we face, why is it actually rational for Christians to be “moderately optimistic” as we look ahead?

God is in control, and the Holy Spirit has supernatural power that transcends our natural limitations. This fact implies that cultural success is always—always—a possibility for the church, if we obey God and God decides to grant it. He doesn’t owe us cultural success, but he can always give it if he wills, and he often does. It isn’t an excuse for acting rashly or irresponsibly, or developing false expectations. As someone said, it’s good to believe in miracles but presumptuous to expect them. But we should be attentive to the positive signs of the times as well as the negative ones.

American evangelicals are well equipped to face the challenges of the coming century, and even to take the lead in doing so. We believe in the freedom-of-religion society. We’re highly adaptive. Our theology emphasizes getting out of the church building to make our faith active in the world. We have a robust appreciation of the fall, so we know better than to think we can change the world just by having the best arguments. Oh, and one more thing—we know our Bibles. When operating a complex system, it never hurts to study the instruction manual.

Like I said, God doesn’t owe us success. But we owe God our best effort at achieving success, and hope will not put us to shame.


FlappyBird’s Windfall and Downfall

When Dong Nguyen released Flappy Bird on the Apple app store back in May 2013, he didn’t bother to promote it. Flappy Bird was the latest in a series of small, unassuming games released under the radar by Nguyen. He was making games, it seems, for the sake of it. Unlike so many other app developers, Nguyen had little desire to make a fortune out of his work. As he told The Wall Street Journal, “I just wanted to create a game that people could enjoy for a few minutes.”

flappy-birdIn January, the game’s popularity snowballed. A seemingly arbitrary and unseen series of factors caused the game to rest solidly at the top of the app store. When I played it, I found it hard to believe that anyone could enjoy the game any way other than ironically. After all, the game’s art was unimaginatively ripped from Mario Brothers, and the game’s core mechanic—tapping to flap the bird’s wings and guide him through a series of pipes—felt like juggling heavy sandbags in a small tunnel: unnatural, constricting, and punishing. But Flappy Bird‘s simplicity and popularity conspired to create a phenomenon. Then came the obsession.

Suddenly, it felt like everyone was trying the game and comparing scores. Few seemed to play for reasons other than beating their previous scores. The focus for many became scarily pragmatic. Rather than enjoying the experience of playing the game, people suffered through the game in order to achieve an arbitrary goal.

From Diversion to Obsession

Video game obsession is not a new phenomenon. People have been talking warily about video game addiction ever since Atari introduced Pong into households. But that obsession has been, until recently, relegated to those who call themselves “gamers.” It was an inherent danger that those of us who love playing video games could actively acknowledge and consciously avoid. With the advent of mobile app stores, now anyone with a few spare moments can cross that line from momentary diversion to obsession before he or she even realizes it.

Nguyen, who lives in Vietnam, may not have been familiar with this developing phenomenon. If anything, he didn’t seek to take advantage of it like other mobile games have. Games like Candy Crush Saga, Farmville, and others aim to encourage and exploit video game obsession, rather than discourage it.

We would do well to remember this inherent danger when deciding what games we spend time playing. Like any other medium, games can appeal to both our sinful tendencies and at the same time our appreciation for goodness, truth, and beauty. It’s up to us to think deeply about the how we spend time. Far too often, we can get caught up in playing a game merely because we feel compelled to do so. Too often, we interpret that compulsion as a sign that a game is “good.”

Whether one plays games casually or more seriously the “addictive” nature of a game should be seen as a drawback, not a selling point.

Nguyen showed incredible restraint in this regard even in the design stage, before he realized the true psychological power of his game. The game lacks any ability to pay for extra costumes for the titular flappy bird, or to buy credits for extra lives, or to purchase any extra content of any kind. He merely embedded extremely small ads that display unobtrusively before and after a game to help support his game development hobby.

Of course, that support became a windfall as his game saw mainstream success. At its peak, Flappy Bird earned him $50,000 a day in ad revenue. A smart businessman would have looked for ways to maximize those profits, updating the game with in-app purchases and extra opportunities to show ads. But Nguyen continued to show restraint, not just in the game’s design, but in his relationship with his consumer. Rather than seek ways to exploit this obsession, he withdrew from it.

Telling The Wall Street Journal, ”It was just too addictive,” Nguyen took the game down.

Consumers are dying to know what Nguyen was trying to accomplish when he created the game. Did he not desire a financial windfall? Didn’t he want success? Didn’t he want to live off this game for the rest of his life?

But a creator pulling his own wildly successful game from the store raises a whole series of different questions. Why are so many people obsessed with something so small and seemingly inconsequential? And is a game’s greatness measured by the amount of obsession it inspires?

Whether We Eat or Drink or Play

Christians who spend their time playing games, even casually, have a responsibility to do so to the glory of God. This pursuit doesn’t mean that every spare moment spent relaxing or unwinding should be justified or baptized, but it does mean that we should be wary of using games as mere “time wasters.” Games, books, films, and television shows resonate with us for various reasons. They can be deep, transformative, educational, empathy-inspiring, or even simple and joyful diversions. But they can also be fundamentally violent, destructive, isolating, addictive experiences.

The creator and the consumer assume their own respective responsibilities: the creator must choose not to exploit their audience, and the audience should be sober-minded in their approach to media, remaining vigilant against the many ways sin shows itself in our cultural consumption.

Nguyen had low expectations when he made his creation available for the public. He didn’t anticipate the audience he would receive. But his experience serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who creates for a seemingly small but nonetheless public audience. Every game, film, song, article, Facebook post, and tweet has the potential to affect a limitless range and depth of people. Everything we create and put out into the world has an opportunity to go viral. That’s the good news. The bad news? We can’t always control the reasons why.