What the Gospel Co-Allies Could Learn from Non-Christian Movies

Jared Wilson (not at TGC website) makes some good points about the poor quality of Christian movies:

Christian movies are not made by artists but propagandists.

I don’t mean that these projects aren’t carried about by people who know what they’re doing with cameras, lighting, etc. The visual quality of Christian movies has definitely increased over the last decade. The caliber of talent on both sides of the camera has increased, as well. So when I say Christian movies aren’t made by artists, I don’t mean they aren’t made by people who are good at their jobs. What I mean is that they are made by people who don’t really know what the job ought to be.

I tracked this shift most notably in Christian writing (fiction) about 20 years ago. We always wondered why there weren’t any more C.S. Lewises or G.K. Chestertons around. The truth is, there were — they just weren’t writing for the Christian market, because that market does not want art that communciates truth but art that is being used by a message. And there’s a difference. It is the difference between art and propaganda.

Christian movies are more akin to propaganda than art, because they begin with wanting to communicate some Christian theme — the power of prayer, the power of believing, the power of something — and then the story is crafted around that message. This is true even when the story is something based on a real-life incident. Delving into the depths of human character and motivation is subservient to getting the message across. This is why so much of the dialogue in Christian movies violates the classic writing proverb, “Show, don’t tell.”

Wilson makes several other good points about Christian movies’ lameness.

The thing is, someone could make similar points about the content at TGC, whether current events, movie reviews, or even discussions of Christianity. The problem with the Christian intellectual bright web is that the Christianity or w-w on view is mainly about uplift and rooting for the good guys, that is, the celebrity pastors who sometimes leave their own parachurch platforms to perform occasional services for TGC.

A basic problem is an inability to regard non-Christians as confronting real life situations that believers also face, or portraying Christians as people with similar problems to non-Christians — juggling multiple loyalties, avoiding temptation, maintaining integrity, or even looking up to people without faith for insights into the human condition. Is it possible, for instance, for a Christian to render a non-Christian as a charming, likable, even wise person? I understand the challenges that non-believers have in portraying Christians as anything other than two-dimensional figures. That’s because Christians have such trouble admitting that they are both human and spiritual, justified and unsanctified. But is it so hard to portray human existence apart from Christ as a compelling story from which Christians can learn how to participate in all those parts of experience that are not obviously religious? If it is hard — and it is — it is because the victorious Christian living, teaching, and defending that TGC advocates is one where Christians are sanctified across all parts of ordinary life. Christians do Christian music, holy child-rearing, sanctified plumbing, and spiritual goat breeding. If everything has to have Christian significance, you are going to miss a lot of life.

That is why The Big Kahuna is such a great movie. Of course, we may no longer watch it because it stars Kevin Spacey among others. Plus, it has at least 20 f-bombs. But it also portrays the haplessness of an evangelical engineer who works with worldly salesmen and turns out not to be a reliable colleague because he (Bob, played by Peter Facinelli) is so eager to evangelize on the job. The movie, to its credit, treats this evangelical as a real life human being. When he says that it’s more important to follow Jesus than sell an industrial lubricant (at a business convention), you actually see Bob’s dilemma. It is not a ridiculous riddle. But the evangelical also lacks character, as Danny DeVito’s character points out, because Bob doesn’t see how his desire to serve the Lord has blinded him to poor performance on the job, or a distance from co-workers. Bob sees himself in two dimensions because his piety tells him to view himself that way.

It is a smart movie from which Christians and non-Christians can see the way life doesn’t proceed in straight lines.

If TGC wants Christians to make better movies, they should produce better content.

Remember When Being Nice Would Win the Day?

How a little reminder of 1929 clears the cobwebs.

Once upon a time, the Gospel Allies scored points against Reformed confessionalists by claiming the high ground of nice. Remember when Jared Wilson wrote this?

Cold-hearted rigidity is not limited to those of the Reformed persuasion, of course. You can find it in Christian churches and traditions and cultures of all kinds. In fact, to be fair, I have found that those most enthralled with the idea of gospel-wakefulness, those who seem most prone to champion the centrality of the gospel for life and ministry, happen to be of the Reformed persuasion. So there’s that. But gracelessness is never as big a disappointment, to me anyway, as when it’s found among those who call themselves Calvinists, because it’s such a big waste of Calvinism.

Or how about when Justin Taylor chimed in?

Angry Calvinists are not like unicorns, dreamed up in some fantasy. They really do exist. And the stereotype exists for a reason. I remember (with shame) answering a question during college from a girl who was crying about the doctrine of election and what it might mean for a relative and my response was to ask everyone in the room turn to Romans 9. Right text, but it was the wrong time.

This raises an important qualifier. The “angry” adjective might apply to some folks, but it can also obscure the problem. In the example above, I wasn’t angry with that girl. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. But I failed to recognize what is “fitting” or necessary (cf. Eph. 4:29) in the moment. This is the sort of thing that tends to be “caught” rather than “taught” and can be difficult to explain. But there’s a way to be uncompromising with truth and to be winsome, humble, meek, wise, sensitive, gracious. There’s a way of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) such that our doctrines are “adorned” (Titus 2:10) and our words are “seasoned” with salt and grace (Col. 4:6). To repeat, the category of “anger” is often too broad and can miss the mark. As Kevin DeYoung pointed out to me, “Some Calvinists are angry, proud, belligerent people who find Calvinism to be a very good way to be angry, proud, and belligerent. Other Calvinists are immature—they don’t understand other people’s struggles, they haven’t been mellowed by life in a good way, they can only see arguments and not people. The two groups can be the same, but not always.”

So when Tim Keller advocated women’s subordination, he did so in precisely the categories that elicit New Calvinist religious affections (thanks to our southern correspondent):

We feel that there is a deep inconsistency in the phrase “evangelical feminism”. The feminists who are consistent recognize the Bible as a sexist book throughout. They reject it. The feminists who try to hold to complete Biblical authority have, really, an impossible balancing act to conduct. . . .

We know from experience that our position on women-in-ministry dissatisfies many people. Many friends from the traditional evangelical church find it far too “liberal” and “permissive”, while many other friends on the other side still feel it is oppressive. Our position is not totally unique. See J. Hurley’s book, Man and Women in Biblical Perspective or Susan Foh’s book, Women and the Word of God. They come close to where we are.

The fact remains that nearly everyone we meet is more “conservative” or else more “liberal” than we are. Thus we appeal to our friends to work with us on this. We do not to make this issue a cause of division, as we said above. We see no reason why friends with the same view of the Bible cannot work together, all the while influencing each other and refining one another’s viewpoint in order to become truly Biblical. Please be partners with us.

Balance, moderation, partnership — these were the calling cards of the New Calvinists. And for them, it was the Old Schoolers and Truly Reformed who were poorly positioned to represent Calvinism to the contemporary urban and global world. Some of us tried to explain that disagreement was not anger, and that standing in a specific tradition might cut down on “partnership.” We even thought that the medium of the World Wide Interweb thrived better on provocation than moderation. But for almost fifteen years the New Calvinists thought they had squared the circle, and Keller was proof positive at ground zero of global urban life in the United States.

What went wrong? One problem may have been living in a Gospel Coalition bubble and not engaging the concerns of “angry Calvinists.” But even more harmful was forgetting the antithesis and misreading the culture. Keller’s “success” in New York suggested (and sometimes actually asserted) that a new day had dawned for conservative evangelicalism. Modern Americans were truly willing to hear a kinder, gentler Protestantism. How could you deny that if the most secular and most urban place in the United States had received Keller the way New York City did? You certainly had to think that modern America was much more hospitable to faith if Keller was a best-selling author and the darling of religion journalists? Keller himself told lots of Presbyterians how the direction of the modern world was heading in a faith-friendly direction. I still remember the Power Point presentations I witnessed while on the faculty at WTS about the church in the city’s future.

What if while considering those trends predicted by economists and futurologists, New Calvinists had pondered the Bible more?

3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (2 Peter 3)

That may tilt more Rod Dreher than Jamie Smith. But if you’re going to minister the word and teach in a seminary, doesn’t the apostle Peter count more than Peter Drucker?

What’s Wrong with the Southern Baptist Convention?

Jared Wilson observes for the Gospel Allies the 10th anniversary of the religious reporting that put the New Calvinists on the map, Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed. My first take is that it seems odd to celebrate the anniversary of a magazine article. Why not the 20th anniversary of John Piper’s Desiring God, or the 270th anniversary of Jonathan Edwards’s dismissal from First Congregational Church, Northampton?

But stranger is Mr. Wilson’s by-line. He works for Midwestern Seminary, which has been in the orbit of the Southern Baptist Convention since its founding in 1957 and not a subsidiary of The Gospel Coalition.

As an institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, Midwestern Seminary is guided by a board of trustees elected by the Convention in its annual sessions. The trustees in turn elect faculty members and administrative officers. Upon election to the faculty, each professor subscribes to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 statement adopted by the SBC in 2000.

Each of our faculty members participates in a local Southern Baptist church, teaching classes, serving as a deacon or leading a congregation as an interim pastor. On campus, our faculty is dedicated to equipping men and women in a variety of Christian ministries and is committed to the furtherance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students come from a wide variety of cultural, economic and geographical backgrounds. Like our faculty and staff, our students are committed to theological education in preparation for the practice of ministry. Midwestern Seminary has awarded more than 3,500 theological degrees.

Midwestern Seminary derives the majority of its financial support from the SBC Cooperative Program. In addition to Cooperative Program funds and student fees, alumni gifts and endowments from special friends enable the school to further its far-reaching ministry.

Here’s the question: is New Calvinism synonymous with the Southern Baptist Convention or is the former a subset of the latter? Related to this, why does someone associated with New Calvinism not have a higher loyalty to the communion to which he belongs? New Calvinism (and Gospel Coalition) is parachurch, movement oriented. The SBC is a communion. So shouldn’t someone who wants to see churches planted and grow rather put his energies into a real communion than into a movement?

This is the problem with New Calvinism. It seems to be a cover for ecclesiology and churches that have no fellowship with Old Calvinist communions. There’s nothing wrong with being Southern Baptist. At least it’s a church ethos, to modify Walter Sobchak’s phrase. New Calvinism seems mainly sneaky and self-promotional.

If Wrapping Yourself in the U.S. Flag is in Bad Taste, What About Wrapping Yourself in the Gospel?

Matthew Lee Anderson has a series of posts in which he responds to Jared Wilson’s new book, Gospel Wakefulness. Since I haven’t read the book but have only seen a few posts about its argument, I can’t take Anderson or Wilson’s side (not as if they are all that antagonistic).

But one thing caught my (all about me) eye in Anderson’s second post. It concerns the way in which attaching ourselves to the “gospel” can be as exclusive and self-righteous as it appears to be warm, fuzzy, and edifying.

. . . my concern is that when not properly constrained, the conceptual use of “Gospel wakefulness” becomes a back-pocket trump card that can be deployed to end an argument before it begins.

Jared runs the same sort of argument when describing the marks of those who haven’t yet attained Gospel wakefulness. Last on the list? “The idea of gospel centrality makes no sense to you.” This allows him to suggest that, “The critic of the one-note Johnnyism of gospel-centrality just doesn’t get it.”

This is, from what I can tell, leads to full-on epistemic closure, with the walls about as high as you can build them. The quality of people’s arguments about gospel centrality would have no bearing on their epistemic standing–they’re wrong from the outset because they’re still in their slumber.

In other words, the criticism of gospel-centrality as it gets thrown about is itself a sign that Gospel wakefulness has not yet occurred. Wilson has functionally removed the possibility of plausibly suggesting that the gospel can be reduced to an idol, and to even raise the question is to demonstrate one’s own lack of spiritual awakening.

This is a reminder about the care Protestants and the organizations they create should take in applying the “Gospel” to themselves. It is an immediate galvanizer, like so much of pietistic piety. If you don’t join or support an organization committed to the gospel, then you must not be for the gospel yourself. That is usually not the intention. But the cloying link of such identifiably good things as the gospel with any one institution divides as much as it unites. Think of the Mom Coalition, or the Hot Dog Coalition, or the Apple Pie Coalition. Who would ever not rally to support these worthy organizations? Well, lots of people, including some reasonable folks, such as those who believe in the import of fathers, those who keep a kosher kitchen, and those allergic to gluten.

Which is why instead of using “Gospel” to describe an organization, a book, or a movement, I prefer “Presbyterian.” Being Presbyterian is all about believing and proclaiming the gospel, as well as discipling those who believe the gospel. But “Presbyterian” is not as self-congratulatory or as self-assured as “Gospel.” Presbyterians understand that Christianity is contested.

If You Can't Stand the Polemic, Get Out of the Calvinist Kitchen

An arresting little wrinkle in the current popularity of Calvinism among those who don’t baptize their infants and sometimes speak in tongues (and don’t belong to a Reformed church — redundant, I know), is the notion that Calvinists are mean. Justin Taylor is apparently on vacation and has bloggers filling in for him. Jared Wilson’s number came up on Wednesday and he tried to explain the stereotype of the “graceless Calvinist” (would Mr. Wilson actually refer to Americans of Polish descent in such a stereotypical manner?). Such exhibitions of pride are exceedingly disappointing to Wilson:

. . .gracelessness is never as big a disappointment, to me anyway, as when it’s found among those who call themselves Calvinists, because it’s such a big waste of Calvinism. Why? Because it’s a depressing irony and a disgrace that many who hold to the so-called “doctrines of grace” are some of the most graceless people around. The extent to which your soteriology is monergistic—most Calvinistic nerds know what I’m talking about here—is the extent to which you ought to know that your pride is a vomitous affront to God.

What is odd about this comment is that Wilson seems to show a similar gracelessness in calling out Calvinists. (Hasn’t every husband figured out a euphemism for observing a weight gain in his wife?) Wilson knows that gracelessness is wrong and so apparently doesn’t need to be gracious in pointing it out. He does not seem to consider that some Calvinist polemics may stem from a sense of error as deeply felt as Wilson’s. If Wilson knows that gracelessness is obviously wrong, maybe Calvinists also know that Arminianism is profoundly wrong. In which case, Wilson attributes Calvinist gracelessness almost entirely to character, not the most flattering or gracious interpretations of Reformed orneriness.

Also odd is Wilson’s perseverance in identifying with Calvinism, since the man to whom that moniker points was no slouch when it came to invective. For instance, here’s an excerpt from Calvin on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments:

. . . although the passages which we have collected from the Law and the Prophets for the purpose of proof, make it plain that there never was any other rule of piety and religion among the people of God; yet as many things are written on the subject of the difference between the Old and New Testaments in a manner which may perplex ordinary readers, it will be proper here to devote a special place to the better and more exact discussion of this subject. This discussion, which would have been most useful at any rate, has been rendered necessary by that monstrous miscreant, Servetus, and some madmen of the sect of the Anabaptists, who think of the people of Israel just as they would do of some herd of swine, absurdly imagining that the Lord gorged them with temporal blessings here, and gave them no hope of a blessed immortality. Let us guard pious minds against this pestilential error, while we at the same time remove all the difficulties which are wont to start up when mention is made of the difference between the Old and the New Testaments. By the way also, let us consider what resemblance and what difference there is between the covenant which the Lord made with the Israelites before the advent of Christ, and that which he has made with us now that Christ is manifested. (Institutes II.10.1)

Hide the Anabaptists and their unbaptized children.

Of course, we could chalk this type of polemic up to the parlance of Calvin’s time, when such vituperation was common in the academy and the church. But if that’s the case, why does Wilson not give modern-day Calvinists a similar benefit of the doubt? He concedes that other groups of believers exhibit gracelessness. And if he watches CNN or Fox News, he may also become familiar with invective in the culture at large, all of which might suggest that Calvinists don’t have a corner on meanness.

Or maybe if the young Calvinists actually read Calvin, they would come to understand that some doctrines and practices really are worthy of polemics, and some faulty ideas and forms of devotion really are harmful.

Either way, it is clearly odd to identify with Calvin who was capable of getting agitated and then object to Calvinists when they become animated. Calvinism would appear to be the wrong label. Again, why not Particular Baptist?

I could take some comfort from Wilson’s explanation of Calvinistic gracelessness:

. . . the problem is not the Reformed theology, as many of my Arminian friends will charge; it’s not the Calvinism. No, the problem is gospel wakefulness (which crosses theological systems and traditions), or the lack thereof. A joyless Calvinist knows the mechanics of salvation (probably). But he is like a guy who knows the ins and outs of a car engine and how the car runs. He can take it apart and put it back together. He knows what each part does and how it does it. A graceless Calvinist is like a guy who knows how a car works but has never driven through the countryside in the warm spring air with the top down and the wind blowing through his hair.

This is a curious analogy since it suggests that nice Calvinists conceive of the Christian life as a joy ride. This is not exactly the way that Calvin thought of our life in this world, which he likened to being on look out at a sentry post. But jarring analogies aside, what happens to the guy with the wind-blown hair when the universal joint goes on his Thunderbird? Or a little less dramatic, does the fellow who likes to take the car out for rides through the country need to worry about filling up the tank (or even about the environmental consequences of fossil fuel)? Maybe Wilson’s analogy is entirely apt. The young and restless ones don’t want to be bothered with fixing cars or refilling the tank, and as stereotypical youngsters they regard parents who say that teens should attend to these things are mean. That difference might go along way to explaining the difference between a gospel coalition and a Reformed communion.