Sunday, 23 February 2014

'God Is Dead'? Contemplating the Death of God and Bad Christian Cinema

The other day, a friend on Facebook posted the trailer for a new Christian film ‘God’s Not Dead’, due to be released 21 March of this year. 

The film tells the story of college student Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) who, on the first day of his Philosophy 150 class, is informed by the course instructor Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) that he and his fellow students will be required, in writing, to disavow the existence of God. If they don’t, they face failing the class. Wheaton refuses, which sets the stage for an epic showdown between him and Radisson. You can watch the trailer here:

As the film hasn’t been released yet- and, if I’m honest, I doubt I’ll be seeing it when it is- my thoughts and comments here will deal exclusively with the trailer and the social and religious milieu that I believe it inhabits.

After seeing the trailer, my first thought was that while it certainly doesn’t give away the ending, neither does it set us up for any great cliffhanger. I really don’t think it’s possible to view the trailer and think, ‘Gosh I’ve got to see this and find out how this plays out!’ I also doubt anyone will walk out at the end saying, ‘Wow, I sure didn’t see that ending coming!’

Secondly, from the look of it, the character of Radisson is an unbelievably ridiculous character and a comically atrocious educator. A university-level philosophy professor- on the first day of class- announcing to his introductory philosophy students that their final grade is dependent on a written declaration that God does not exist? And then singling out a devoutly religious person for public castigation and ridicule, threatening and bullying that student inside and outside of class? I wouldn’t debate this person; I’d lodge a formal complaint with the Dean of Faculty and hire an attorney…

But then, I’ve seen this type of film countless times over the years and I don’t think the makers are going for gritty realism or well thought-out character development. I think the film- like most Christian art of this type- is designed primarily to encourage and instruct, not to tell a story; it is a polemic before it is art. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way, but the message is what is crucial here, rather than the medium or the method.

This is the world as the filmmakers and their demographic perceive it to be. It is a social reality where certain Evangelical Christians feel more and more isolated and marginalized. They see their public influence and privileges that were simply taken for granted being diligently chipped away by hostile enemies. Their world is full of ‘Radissons’- didactic, unreasonable and vindictive voices who loathe God and believers and who want nothing less than to destroy them and their faith; a world where all critique or critical reflection is an unsubtle test and a threat to a pure, solid faith; a world where higher learning is a dangerous, anti-theistic battleground and all rules are stacked against them. Most crucially, it is a world where every threat is a dire one; all of Christendom hangs in the balance; there is victory or there is oblivion.

What they don’t see- or don’t recognize- is a world where the House of Representatives and the Senate is 83% professing Christians (if you factor in Mormons, it rises to 87%), the Supreme Court is 67% professing Christian (6 out of 9; the three remaining are Jewish, so the ‘Judeo-Christian’ corner is fairly well-defended), every single US President since the foundation of the nation has been a professing Christian, and 73% of the country overall are professing Christians. Those kinds of numbers don’t point to Christianity in America being- or becoming any time soon- a marginalized minority…

Nevertheless, the film’s demographic see their faith as endangered and in decline, in need of constant care to keep from disappearing altogether. Many of them would reject the notion that most professing Christians in America are ‘real’ Christians and would reject out of hand the faith of perhaps half of the elected officials and judges.

At bottom, I’d argue that most of the discontent that these types of Christians are feeling comes from confusing a diminishing of social influence and cultural privilege with oppression or persecution. For much of the nation’s history, American Christians- and more specifically, certain denominations of predominantly white, Evangelical Protestant Christians- enjoyed an abundance of the former; other voices-  Christian or otherwise- were easily overlooked or ignored, too few or too marginalized to make a dent.

That reality, for the last five decades or so, through shifts in cultural norms, the rise in profile and influence of not only other forms of Christianity, and also of the specifically non-religious viewpoint, has seen a slow but significant rebalancing of the public discourse. This rebalancing is often seen as a gradual erosion of ‘rights’ by some of the formally privileged, even if their understanding of that ‘privilege’ is largely unconscious.

But the film intrigues me for the simple reason of its title and its central premise: Can you empirically prove that God is ‘alive’? Again, not having seen this particular film, I don’t want to judge it but, from seeing the trailer, it doesn’t seem like reasoned argument is at the heart of the film’s narrative- even if it perhaps wants to think it is. Radisson’s rejection of God comes as a result of the death of a loved one. My guess is that the ultimate resolution to this in the film is emotional rather than philosophical or empirical.

In a sense, it couldn’t be otherwise. But the weakness of this from the point of view of Christian apologetics is that the existence of God is here made dependent on human feeling: ‘I know God exists because I feel his existence; I see God’s effect on my life’. Here, God’s existence is determined by finite human acknowledgement. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever for accepting God’s existence based on that premise, but it doesn’t prove anything. But more troubling, God is no longer transcendent but utterly dependent; God is no longer ‘God’.

Likewise, if God’s existence or otherwise depends on personal positive outcomes (as it does for Radisson), God is quickly reduced to a magical talisman, a good luck charm, or an idol. Likewise, if God exists to serve as a prime cause, a creator, or an explanation for truth, beauty, or existence itself (as God does for many), God is again relegated to the place of a necessity, a ‘thing’, albeit the most important ‘thing’. God is made an idol once again.

Each of these examples is, at the very least, the idolatry of reduction of God. But ultimately, if one accepts the premise of God as eternal and immutable, then that God, for all practical purposes, is dead. In the trailer, Radisson quotes Macbeth’s nihilistic despair, but his subtext is obviously Nietzche’s madman crying in the street:

‘Where has God gone?’ he cried. ‘I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving now? Where are we moving now? Away from all suns? Aren't we perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Aren't we straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Hasn't it become colder? Isn't more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s putrefaction? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ 
Nietzche, in the voice of the madman, does not celebrate the death of God; he laments the thoughtless murder of God by humanity’s neglect and abuse. Nietzche laments the institutionalization of the words and actions of Jesus into ‘Christianity’ and the focus given to remembering the words of Jesus instead of doing what Jesus did. Moreover, there is the critique of those who needed God for no other purpose than to explain material mysteries now conclusively explained by science and technology. Again, it is the death of a 'small' god, a 'god' made by humanity for its own needs.

Then, as now, the truth of the madman is too close to the bone and the crowd ignores him. He realizes this and deduces:

‘I come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time hasn't come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still traveling — it has not yet reached human ears. Lightning and thunder need time, deeds need time after they have been done before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars — and yet we have done it ourselves.’
The madman observes that, in Nietzche’s lifetime, humanity still hypocritically went through the religious motions, embracing a practical atheism in the midst of life while preserving the pageantry of church life to no apparent purpose. It would be 60 years after his death that the alienation of modern life would bring the stark realization of the divine murder- the lack of any necessity for God, brought about by humanity’s idolatrous carelessness- to a critical juncture.

Into that existential and philosophical breach stepped a new theological grappling with this crisis. In regards to the film, I believe it might continue to offer a more constructive way forward regarding the feelings of anxiety felt by both its makers and its supporters- a changing reality and an inadequate understanding of God.

They see a world that is hostile to them and to God, and this in turn leads them to declare ‘God’s Not Dead’; I suggest that they simply agree that God is indeed dead… and then focus on the life and death of Jesus.

This line of thinking was suggested in the 1960s by radical Christian theologians such as Gabriel Vahanian, William Hamilton, Paul Van Buren, and especially Thomas J. J. Altizer, but also existed in the work of the Jewish Holocaust Theologians like rabbi Richard Rubenstein. I’m being a bit facetious, of course; I’m absolutely sure that the makers of ‘God’s Not Dead’ wouldn’t touch this kind of theology with a barge pole.  But please bear with my flight of fancy…

This theology- particularly Altizer’s- suggested that the full meaning and significance of the coming of Christ in the person of Jesus cannot be understood or indeed accepted without understanding that it spelled the end- the death- of God. The incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus, culminating in the death of Jesus, is the ultimate expression of divine love and grace, the fulfillment of all divine action. Creation itself is made new, not from anything that preceded it but completely in the ‘new Adam’.

In the birth of Jesus, God dies. ‘Old things are passed away; all things become new’. A new commandment has been given to us: ‘Love one another.’ This is not an addition to the law; it is the death of the law, its annihilation, fulfillment and new life.

It is in this understanding that all struggles and rationalizations with God come to an end; a God who declares the death penalty for working on the Sabbath; a God who demands the death of Isaac; a God who takes land from one people and gives it to another, then demands the genocide of the original inhabitants; a God who hates shellfish, hates gays, loves war, loves ‘us’ and not ‘them’…

We can confidently say, ‘Don’t worry; God is dead.’

God dies so that Christ may live, and Christ in the person of Jesus gives us life in the form of the law of love.

This theology liberates us from the endless New Testament squaring of an Old Testament circle. However, it also robs the legalist of the comfortable divine endorsements of personal and cultural prejudices. In God, we legislate; In Jesus, we love.

The question is: do we have the courage, the strength of faith to declare our atheism and love as Jesus loved? This is our narrow road, our small gate, our new creation.

I don’t know what the film ‘God’s Not Dead’ would look like if Josh had just calmly written that God was dead and simply continued to live the life of a follower of Jesus. Perhaps this kind of theological musing will never find a place in bad Christian cinema. No matter. 

God is dead. Jesus lives. Pass the Popcorn. 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Sexual Orientation: Moving Beyond ‘Regardless...’

On 29 January 2014, The Church of England issued a statement on behalf of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu. The statement reported that the two men had officially written to all primates of the Anglican Communion, as well as the Presidents of Nigeria and Uganda, reiterating their commitment- and the commitment of the Anglican Communion- to ‘the pastoral support and care of everyone worldwide, regardless of sexual orientation.’  The full statement can be read here:,-regardless-of-sexual-orientation.aspx

This statement was in response to recent legislation in Nigeria and Uganda. In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan this month signed into law a bill which bans same-sex marriages, LGBT groups and public displays of same-sex affection. On top of this, Sharia courts in the predominantly Muslim north of the country have had gay men publicly lashed. Mainstream Anglicanism and fundamentalist Islam working in concert to deny gay people not only life and liberty but also freedom from physical abuse is a somewhat cruel irony.

In Uganda’s legislation, LGBT people face the threat of life imprisonment for living openly and honestly. The death penalty was removed from the final legislation, but that’s cold comfort to  people whose real lives are being really destroyed.

The statement of the archbishops highlights the plight of millions of people around the world who now face legal, state-sanctioned prejudice for their sexual orientation. This is, of course, in addition to the cultural stigma, family abandonment, loss of employment and education opportunities, verbal abuse, and physical violence that many daily face.

My thoughts on the statement are these: Firstly, I think it should be welcomed insofar as it at least proactively responds to the egregious abuse of human rights in two countries in which the Anglican Church is a major presence.

That said, I feel it displays a huge weakness in that it perpetuates a bad habit that many official church documents often do: it talks ‘about’ LGBT people rather than ‘to’ them. In doing so, it perpetuates LGBT people as objects of sympathy and care rather than subjects of justice and liberation. Gay people in the statement are still inherently ‘other’, naggingly ‘outside’. It’s an unconscious reinforcing of the notion that the Church needs to love gay people so they’ll want to ‘come in’ without the understanding that the Church needs to love gay people because they’re already ‘here’.

I once had a lay leader of an evangelical church ask me how his church might be more welcoming to gay people, passionately using imagery of ‘throwing open the doors’ of  the church. When I suggested that they first needed to be thinking about taking care of the gay people that were already inside his church, he seemed a bit shocked at the thought. But the fact is that, in the 300 or so people that regular attend his church at a Sunday service, statistical data tells us that there’s probably between 15 and 30 who don’t feel comfortable enough- ‘welcomed’ enough- to share who they are with their brothers and sisters sitting around them. ‘Welcoming’ them means responding to their real-life needs- exactly the same as those of straight singles and couples- and many of them probably have little or nothing to do with sex. 

Yes, believe or not, gay people have lives other than sex lives.  For instance, Marie is trying to stick to a budget in hopes of finally getting a new car, but her partner Brenda spends money like water. Paul lost his job and he and Richard are now getting by solely on Richard’s income.  John and Mark would love to feel comfortable enough to sign up for the couples retreat; Sarah has had a crush on Ciara for months and would love to chat with the youth pastor about the difference between ‘liking’ and  ‘loving’; Robert would love to be part of the singles group; Karen and Jen are thinking about adopting; David tenses up every time the pastor talks about ‘reaching out to those trapped in homosexuality’...

There’s a good chance that’s what your church looks like… and I firmly believe that’s not a bad thing. Which brings me to my second point:

When I first read the two archbishops’ statement, one phrase immediately stood out to me:

‘...the commitment made by the Primates of the Anglican Communion to the pastoral support and care of everyone worldwide, regardless of sexual orientation.’

Actually, it was the last bit, ‘... regardless of sexual orientation.’

Well, to be honest, I think it’s simply the word ‘regardless’. I realise that it was written in good faith and with the best of intentions. But I want to poke at it a bit…

The dictionary defines ‘regardless’ as ‘having or showing no regard; heedless; unmindful of’. A thesaurus equates it with words such as ‘disregarding’, ‘blind’, ‘careless’, ‘insensitive’, ‘uninterested’, ‘unobservant’.

The question is- what about us does God disregard? What about us does God choose to ignore? What does God love about us ‘regardless’?  

The answer is, obviously, sin. ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
While we were still sinners (that’s the ‘regardless’ bit…) Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).

Thus, In this case of the statement of the two archbishops, the word ‘regardless’ is only applicable if the sexual orientation of a minority is indeed considered a sin. Theologically, forgiven sin is the only thing that God disregards, the one thing he purposes to ignore. It is one thing to say that God (and his Church) embraces us ‘regardless’ of what we do; it is another to say that God (and his Church) embrace us ‘regardless’ of who we are.

And there’s the rub. The statement refers to gay people as ‘human beings whose  affections happen to be ordered to people of the same sex’ yet also refers to the  church’s ‘discussion and assessment of moral appropriateness of specific human behaviours’. The former is natural; it is part of God’s creation and should therefore, one assumes, be actively celebrated, as we do in the case of anything we believe God created good. The latter is open to moral debate, as anything God created good can be distorted, dangerous and difficult.

However, just because a behaviour
can be sinful should not preclude out of hand its being done ever. A sexual orientation naturally leads to desire and activity. All three are, in my opinion, natural. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love knows what I’m talking about: noticing leads to, well, really noticing; hesitancy turns to courage; casual chat turns into serious chat; brushing the skin turns to hand-holding and embrace; ‘like’ turns to ‘love’; desire turns to commitment, and I think you see where this is going… If something is natural, it grows, flowers, matures, becomes deeper.

Yet it is on that point that I find many of the statements of the Anglican Communion on this matter- and those of other churches, including my own- remarkably obtuse. The Anglican Church in their statement declares sexual orientation natural. In doing so, they believe they are being eminently progressive. But declaring something ‘natural’ is far short of declaring something celebratory. ‘Natural’ is merely a factual statement, not a positive affirmation. In my mind, it denotes uneasy acknowledgement and nothing more. The optimum phrase there is ‘nothing more’; ‘You’re homosexual? Well, that’s natural; anything beyond that is problematic. Sex is out altogether; all sexual relations outside of marriage are sin...
and we won’t marry you. Basically, you can have friends, even deep friendships, but nothing more...’

Lord Byron described friendship as ‘love without his wings’. And that is precisely the kind of love that the majority of the Christian Church permits gay people- flightless, wingless, grounded, never soaring. By declaring God’s love- and the Church’s acceptance- ‘regardless’, LGBT people fall through a massive theological crack and are condemned to ‘nothing more’. They may love only up to a point- and that point is a million miles shorter than the point that I as a heterosexual man may go. The Christian Church expects and encourages me, as a straight man, to… how do I say this modestly?... ‘fully embrace’ my orientation. They’d start asking serious questions of me if I didn’t, suggesting all kinds of books, courses, retreats and counselling to get things, well, ‘going in the right direction’.

My sexual orientation- and its full expression- are deemed natural and celebratory. If I broke my marriage vows and started giving myself emotionally or sexually to another woman, only then would they deem it necessary to remind me that God loves me ‘regardless’- and then, only for what was deemed a sinful action, not for who I fundamentally was.

I don’t believe God loves me regardless of my heterosexual orientation; I believe that God loves me because of my heterosexual orientation. I believe that the love and the sexual attraction I feel for my wife is a source of divine joy. That’s certainly what the Church has always led me to believe. The Church begins from a standpoint of celebration of my sexual orientation and all aspects of my sexual being.

That is certainly not what the vast majority of LGBT people have ever been led to believe. LGBT sexuality has, of course, been demonized for centuries, and even in today’s climate of more openness and understanding, it is still assumed by many Christians and their leadership structures to be inherently and deeply problematic- a problem to be solved, a crisis to be averted, a difficulty with which to be grappled, at best a mistake to be carefully managed.

From what I can see, LGBT people’s sexual orientation is not celebrated. It is not believed to have been created by God, much less created ‘good’.

But I don’t I don’t believe God loves LGBT people regardless of their sexual orientation; I believe God loves them because of their sexual orientation. I believe that LGBT people were created ‘good’- just like me. But As long as we and our churches hold onto and verbalise the idea that God loves gay people ‘regardless’, we- and they- will unconsciously believe that there is something inherently wrong with them. 

So, while I welcome the intentions of the statement of Welby and Sentamu, I’d humbly suggest that we need to move beyond ‘regardless’. If LGBT people are indeed, created in the image of God- as Welby and Sentamu have on many occasions insisted- then they are created ‘good’.

And that should be enough.