God miraculously stops cars from working, a young man faces off with Hercules dressed as a philosophy professor, and one of the two african american characters in the film calls himself “G-Dog”. These are some of the things “God’s Not Dead” had going against it. A lot of my friends on the internet are panning it because it isn’t well made. I went to see it on Friday night and I agree with them- it’s all plot with little character development, the characters as they exist are mostly stereotypes, the plot is 100% transparent, and yet it worked for me.
Granted I am a fan boy, but not of the christian pop subculture that took center stage in this film- I was spared from much immersion in that by being a part of Circle of Hope since I was 12- I’m a fan boy of Jesus and he shows up in the movie. People find faith through crazy channels, like a philosophy lecture given by an 18 year old, a Franklin Graham podcast, and a Newsboys concert. And despite the cynicism we are all programmed with now days I was moved by the conversions stories on screen. I actually shed a couple of tears.
I’m concerned about what one blogger described how the film “fetishizes persecution.” For the record, Usonian Christians are not persecuted, and trying to legislate your way out of being aliens and pilgrims is against the teachings of the New Testament. I’m concerned about the poor standards that are associated with Christian film. One of my friends said he was offended as an artist after seeing the trailer because it looked like it was an after school special on ABC Family. I’m also concerned that the most important debate for many Christians seems to be whether or not God exists, as if God’s existence were the Gospel. Jesus did get professed in “God’s Not Dead” but He is rivaled by the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism– the true American Religion that masquerades as Christianity.
Despite all these concerns I was able to rejoice in the last scene with the Newsboys and all the people in the theater who were excited by people coming to know Jesus. It seemed that everyone there was already converted (there was shouting and applause) but a group of kids that looked like they were in a youth group was in the lobby taking their picture together afterwards and I know that these sort of experiences are shaping their nascent faith as they are becoming adults. They may have professed faith in Jesus but they are still becoming Christians- they are still deciding who they will be. This movie got them excited about people coming to know Jesus too. That’s good.
I was invited by some friends who are pretty into the pop Christian sub culture and I invited a friend of mine who is not always sure he believes. He has doubts about the plausibility of the Bible and is searching for a way to be faithful and be a scientist. We made jokes together about the impossibility of the script but in the end we were both impacted by the film. I think this is a credit to what God is doing in us. Our hearts are so easily hardened by cynicism, preference and preconceptions. My Christian friends who were in really “churchy” churches as kids are so bristled by something like God’s not dead. To them I say the capacity to go with the good in something especially when the good is explicitly God and sometimes even Jesus is a gift we should develop.
So when you go see “God’s Not Dead” or “Noah” or “Son of God”, the chain reactions in this little movie Bible explosion we’re experiencing, soften your heart, take a friend, have fun and see what good may come.
“I always tell them ‘when you hear shots don’t look around to see where it’s coming from- just get down… I never thought I’d be coming out here for my child.” These are Chris “Quest” Rainey’s words from a short film by Jonathan Olshefski that was screened on Saturday night at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington.
About 20 people gathered to watch the premier/rough draft screening of “Quest: PJ’s Story” PJ is Quest’s daughter who was shot in the eye by a stray bullet in June, 2013. The story itself is enough to make you cry, but especially so because Jonathan told it in a quiet, unadorned way that brought each person’s humanity and dignity to the forefront and held it there gently with honor. Tiny details in focus as the bigger story unfolded. His filmmaking freed the audience to connect with the characters on a deeper level than the sensational surface- a beautiful girl caught in the cross fire in “mean North Philly.”
Those gathered learned afterward in a Q&A session with the Rainey family that this intimacy on screen has its source in the intimacy off screen. Quest was telling stories of Jon and his friendship over the past 8 years. Quest welcomed Jon into his world, an underground hip-hop recording studio, and Jon invited Quest into his world, including a wild time at warped tour a few years back when Jon left Quest stranded in New Jersey because Jon left the show in an ambulance to go and get some stitches for his mosh pit injuries. I was moved by their friendship and hopeful about what God will do in our future.
I put together this film screening with Jon because I had to do something personally to respond to gun violence in our city. I am torn up about the prevalence of our gun culture and the casual violence it precipitates. It was a good timing too because Mennonite Central Committee, our international advocacy and development organization, was getting us involved with the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend– a time to focus communities of faith across the country on our increasing culture of violence.
The forming Circle of Hope Gun Violence Prevention Compassion Team hosted the event and I am hopeful that as this group takes shape we will find more ways to share the human stories that stem from easily accessible guns and our country’s idolatrous fascination with firearms. In the process Circle of Hope will be known for the people of compassion who follow the source of Compassion, Jesus the Christ. And that is what I am all about.
Dr. Seuss was a prophet. The Lorax is a creation care manifesto, The Butter Battle Book is a telling allegory of the cold war, The Sneetches is about racism, Horton Hatches an Egg tells the story of a nonviolent sit in. I love Dr. Seuss. So I jumped at the chance to participate in a Dr. Seuss Day this week.
G.W. Childs Elementary celebrated Dr. Seuss day with school wide readings of Horton Hears a Who. The Neighborhood Association started by my friend Megan, Neighbors Investing in Childs Elementary (NICE), donated copies of the book to the school for the occasion. Horton Hears a Who is prophetic too. I wasn’t as familiar with it but after reading it three times to three different classes I am. Horton hears the people of Who-ville that live on a tiny dust speck and goes through great lengths to protect them from a band of monkeys and sour kangaroo who don’t believe Who-ville exists. The town of Who-ville is at the brink of destruction at the hands of its naysayers and they all have to make as much noise as possible in order to be heard by the weak eared kangaroos and monkeys. They cannot be heard until the mayor discovers the smallest Who in Who-ville, a little boy named Jo-jo, shirking his noisemaking responsibility. The mayor gets him to join his voice with the noise of the town and together they are finally heard.
What a great message to be sharing with children! I was tasked with sharing this story with two eighth grade classes. (I also had to wear this ridiculous hat. The children’s book, the hat… it was a tall order. Eighth graders are notorious. But the kids really responded. I got them to think about the people and the systems in their lives that refuse to acknowledge their existence. We talked about city government, giant corporations, the prison industrial complex and more. Horton’s refrain is “A person’s a person no matter how small.” I convinced them that smallness wasn’t just about size but about power. They had power together but they needed to be united to be heard by those trying to destroy them.
The sad truth of the matter is that the powers that be do not doubt these young people’s existence the way the monkeys and kangaroos of the Jungle of Nool do. The powers know these people exist. They market to them and they use them in their power consolidation. The allegory breaks down a bit because the monkeys and kangaroos repent of their destructive direction as soon as they hear Jo-jo and the rest raise their voices together. Our powers aren’t repenting. Maybe because they know we don’t have enough power and maybe because they aren’t bothered very much by the relatively quiet ruckus some of us are causing.
Horton Hears a Who could be reduced to looking out for the little guy, but I think it’s more about the little guy finding a voice and using it for self preservation. I’m praying some of those kids do, cause I’m going to shout with them.
Isaiah 58: 1 Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
In battle, retreat is not defeat. It is a recognition that the enemy has an advantage in that moment that is too costly to overcome. In our mission it is important to recognize that the enemy often has an advantage in our battle, in our own weakness and little faith. So a tactical retreat needs to be a rhythmic part of our “battle plan” so to speak.
Bike Shadow Selfie
Last weekend I charged up the hill at Neumann University on my bike to get the keys to my peace hermitage. (I like these dichotomous metaphors I’ve got going here) I was feeling a great need to retreat from the front lines and be encouraged by some concentrated time alone with God. I needed more stuff from God to do the big things that I am feeling called to do. I didn’t have much of an agenda but a fall back to quiet, nature and bible reading. I didn’t have any great revelations but I did rest greatly and I did sense God’s presence and love.
I read the book of Romans and God rescued it from the corner of my mind consumed in debate and rebellion against popular modernist doctrines prevalent in much of the mainline protestantism in which I was schooled. So many points of doctrine have been pulled from this letter! I didn’t want to dwell on the points (though they are good to think through). I found the relentless love of God setting us free from the law of sin and death, including the laws that the Christian point makers have been making since the era of modern biblical scholarship. I memorized some verses and put them on repeat in my mind.
The view from my peace hermitage at the Franciscan Spirituality Center
Romans 8:38-39 “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor any other thing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I needed a retreat because the things we face seem capable at times of separating me from that love. Be it in my own psychology–my fear of rejection and my need to be liked, or in my relationships with others–conflicts that are hard to navigate and partners who are, like me, recovering from the sin addiction, or in the overwhelming power of our cultural gods–consumerism, scientific rationalism, egocentrism and racism to name a few. None of these things, nor any other thing that I am not mentioning or have even encountered yet will separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Retreat is a tactic in being the indefatigable missionary I need to be to break through to a resistant culture. There are many things that stand against us. The enemy is indeed strong but our base of operations, our stronghold is a person whose promise is true. I was really grateful to my wife especially that she let me make this time so that I could be deployed anew with fresh legs and stronger heart.