Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Golden Compass

In theaters this December 7th, there will be a new film titled The Golden Compass, marketed as a children’s fantasy story. The movie is the first of a planned trilogy of films based on the trilogy of books titled His Dark Materials by English author Philip Pullman. Previews of the movie are reminiscent of the Christian allegory The Chronicles of Narnia—recently converted to film. The storyline involves a young boy and girl, Lyra and Will, who come from parallel universes, and engage in a series of adventures involving a “battle to decide who rules heaven.” Some have raised concerns about the movie(s) and the potential interest they might drive in the book trilogy His Dark Materials.

Why the concern? According to an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Pullman is a self-described atheist or agnostic, and he does not deny that his beliefs are integral to the storyline of his trilogy. Concerning the early lack of reaction by Christians against his book, he remarked that,
I’ve been surprised how little criticism I’ve got. Harry Potter’s been taking
all the flak. I’m a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people—mainly from
America’s Bible Belt— who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or
witchcraft obviously haven’t got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I’ve been
flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything
poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God
. (emphasis mine)
Pullman’s own comments show that the religious themes are not just incidental to the plot. However, he has publicly denied that his books are about promoting atheism.

The director of the film, Chris Weitz, acknowledges that the anti-religious elements of the first book have been softened or altered in the first film, to allow for appeal to a larger audience (see his interview on the MTV moviesblog). Weitz defends his actions against the fans of the book trilogy, saying that,

Some people will only be satisfied if the film I’ve made is an outright attack
on religion, which to me shows that they have misapprehended the meaning of
Pullman’s books as much as the “other side.”
and continues:
The whole point, to me, of ensuring that “The Golden Compass” is a financial
success is so that we have a solid foundation on which to deliver a faithful,
more literal adaptation of the second and third books. This is important:
whereas “The Golden Compass” had to be introduced to the public carefully, the
religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimized without
destroying the spirit of these books. There is simply no way to adapt them
without dealing with Lyra’s destined role, her secret name, and the war in the
heavens. I will not be involved with any “watering down” of books two and three,
since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be
able to deliver on the second and third films.

According to reviews of the books, the 2nd and 3rd volumes of the trilogy are said to contain the more overt references to religion, ending in the death of God.

Christian response to the film and movie has ranged widely. Bill Donohue’s Catholic League has called for a boycott of the film, and has denounced the books as “sell[ing] atheism for kids.” On a fan website for the trilogy, another response from Christian apologist Anthony Horvath, was quoted:

“We need to learn how to keep our guard up whenever we are being 'entertained' and teach our children to do the same. … “Boycotting the series gives the impression that we need to be afraid of the ideas it contains. … “Pullman's 'God' is nothing like God as Christians perceive Him,” said Horvath. “For this reason, one might think that the series poses no threat because any reasonably informed Christian would see the inaccuracies and the agenda behind the series in an instant. However, the apologist asserted, “Young Christians will not be able to do that, which exposes the real issue: we need more reasonably informed young Christians.”
Horvath’s website (http://www.sntjohnny.com/) contains a “Christian Parent’s Guide”/Bulletin insert that you may find useful. In that guide he adds that in the book, “God is an evil tyrant whom many of the characters set out to kill…sound like an innocent children’s book to you?”

Certainly parents will have to individually exercise their own parental discretion about whether or not to take their children to see this film. Either way that you decide, we should at a minimum be informed about the films/books, and be aware of the messages that might be contained therein. If you do take your children to see the film, it might be wise to discuss the themes and ideas portrayed afterward, and be prepared to identify some of the mischaracterizations of God or religion that are presented. As Christians we are called to be “in the world, but not of the world.” In that vein of thought, we should be ready to face and address challenges to our faith with “speech that is seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6), and know fully what we believe, so that we may “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope we have” (1 Peter 3:15). The hope that we have is Christ, our redeeming Savior, the God who is no tyrant, but a self-sacrificing King who is boundless in love, even for those who are His enemies. (Romans 5:8)

For further information on the web (from both sides):

Sermon on Jeremiah 8:4-7, 2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year, "Rise Up and Be Judged!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. If you have noticed the days of the church year that are printed on your bulletin inserts, you will notice that today is the 2nd to Last Sunday in the Church year. That’s correct, the Church year doesn’t end on New Year’s Eve, but rather the church calendar ends just before the season of Advent in December. And as we draw to the close of another church year, the readings for these last few Sunday’s focus particularly on the End Times and the coming of the Final Judgment. They are at the same time joyful in expectation, and filled with sober warnings to be ready. Themes of judgment and repentance may sometimes seem to be “downers” for us—yet I hope you will see today that this is not necessarily the case. And I also hope that you will see why the Holy Spirit saw fit to make judgment and repentance such common and widespread themes throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testament, and how God calls us to repentance, so that we can rightly face His judgment. The sermon text is Jeremiah 8:4-7. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

A couple of weeks ago in chapel, the children helped me answer a few questions about this same reading. Have any of you ever tripped or fallen down? What did you do afterward? Stand up again, obviously. Now what would you say if one day, people just started falling down, but never got back up again? They just decided to stay on the ground. Maybe they just said, “It’s no use, I’m just going to fall again sooner or later…might as well stay here.” Or maybe they said, “I kind of like it down here on the ground…I’d rather not get up.” The kids all agreed that this was nonsense! Of course you’ve got to get up again!

Or take a second scenario. Imagine that one day people started going to school and work, but never returned home at the end of the day. Maybe they’d say what’s the point in going home? I’m just going to have to be back here the next day anyway. Or that someone would get in their car to drive somewhere, and on their way they took a wrong turn. Although they couldn’t reach their destination by continuing down that wrong path—they stubbornly decided to keep driving that way anyhow. What kind of sense would that make? To turn off the right path, but not return to it when you realized your error?

Both of these two scenarios seem so illogical to us, that they go almost to the point of absurdity. Yet as obvious as these things are: that a person who falls would get up, or that a person who turns away would return home, or return to the right path…God tells us in today’s Scripture reading that it should be just as obvious to repent of our sins. To repent means to “turn away” from our sins, not to continue willfully in them. To God, it doesn’t make any more sense for us to fall down, and not get back up, than it does for us to sin and then not turn away from those sins and turn back to God. God says that He’s waiting and watching for His people to stop doing wrong and to say what is right. He says, “No one repents of his wickedness, saying ‘What have I done?’”

As God observes His people, He sees that we cling to deceit and refuse to return. He compares the attitudes of our heart to a war horse that goes charging into battle, throwing all caution to the wind. God is saying that to turn aside from His path and pursue our own course is a reckless endeavor. When it comes to stubbornly pursuing our sins, we are liable to get injured by the consequences. In our reading God even calls on the birds of the air to be our teachers, as they at least have the common sense to follow their patterns of migration. Migration is an inborn instinct in birds, and they naturally follow this impulse each season at the proper time, following the need for food or fair weather, etc. Similarly, the basic knowledge of God’s law is written on our heart, and part of the imprint of God’s image on humanity. Yet we do not follow His law and walk in righteous paths, but prefer to cling to our sin and deceit. God is telling us to have the common sense to rise up when we fall, and to turn back when we go astray!

We sometimes wonder why God is so angry about disobedience to His laws. Part of the problem is that we forget whose law it is. We are accustomed to treating laws rather loosely. Not all laws of course, but think about how kids bend their parents rules, about bedtime, or curfew, or how long they can watch TV. Or how workers bend and stretch the rules to take advantage of the “system” or reward themselves secretly because they don’t feel like they are getting paid enough. Sure, we all probably expect to be in trouble if we get caught…but we don’t expect to die for it. And of course parents and employers don’t give us ultimate consequences.

Having built up the idea that as long as our infractions aren’t too serious then there won’t really be any harsh punishment, we then carry this idea over into God’s law, entirely forgetting the cosmic difference between God’s law and man’s laws; failing to understand His requirements. Forgetting that it is the infinite creator and Holy God who has set these things into order, and that they are entirely just and true. God’s Ten Commandments aren’t arbitrary, vague, or unfair. They govern our worship and faith in God, and they govern our life with our family, spouse, and neighbor. As equally as they protect the rights, safety and well-being of our neighbor, so equally do they protect our rights, safety and well-being. There is no bending, stretching, or out-right breaking of God’s Ten Commandments. In fact breaking just one part of the law is like triggering a chain reaction of dominoes, that makes us guilty of the whole law.

Yet which of the commandments do we usually consider to be the most heinous to break? Murder…adultery? Right? We generally consider those the worst offenses against God’s law. But which commandment does God Himself consider the greatest? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matt. 22:37) This was Jesus’ own perfect summary of the first three commandments: You shall have no other gods before me; you shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; and remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. The offence that was greatest in God’s eyes throughout all the Scriptures is the breaking of the first commandment. Idolatry—worshipping another God, or forsaking the one true God, in any number of ways. Since this doesn’t seem like a moral issue, we sometimes are astonished at how seriously God takes this sin. Yet again we forget that this is God’s law. The fear of His judgment must strip away all self-security from us. We cannot cling to deceit and wickedness, ignoring God’s commandments, live unrepentently, and expect to be forgiven. By the very act of clinging to sin and refusing to repent and return to the Lord, we reject the forgiveness offered to us in Jesus Christ.

Instead we must be astonished at our sin, and say what is right. What is that, you ask? To repent of our wickedness, saying “What have I done?” If you have a hard time finding yourself to be sinful enough to make such a confession, sit down quietly at home, and read through the Ten Commandments carefully, and as the catechism says, “consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?”

Once we have come to an examination of our own heart, by the light of God’s law, we can rightly see that we deserve nothing but God’s wrath and punishment. At this point, we should not dwell a moment too long on introspection, which can only lead us to despair, but rather turn away, get up and repent. The aim of God’s law in causing you to examine yourself inwardly is to see that you are not sufficient in yourself to gain your salvation. We see that we have fallen down or turned away. Only when you have realized this, and looked outside yourself, will you see the solution, which is Jesus Christ. Christ Jesus comes to the sinner who has fallen, and He gently lifts us up. The Good Shepherd goes after those sinners who have turned away and refused to return. He comes to bring us back home to Him.

In the last verse of the text, God says, “my people do not know the requirements of the Lord.” Actually a more literal translation of this verse would be, “my people do not know the judgments (or justice) of the Lord.” So God’s people fail to understand His judgments or His justice. Now if you think back to how I began the sermon, you remember that I mentioned that people often think of repentance and judgment as “downers.” But as truly as there is a negative side to judgment, which we must face—there is also a positive side of judgment, if we understand and know the judgments of the Lord. If the law has done its work as I described—and we have repented of our sins and spoken what is right about our sin: “What have I done?” Then we are prepared to know the judgments of the Lord. A few chapters earlier in Jeremiah, God declares what He will do if His faithless sons do return to Him: He declares, “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness” (Jer. 3:22). Even a glimmer of light can bring the greatest hope in the pitch darkness of sin. The positive side of judgment, then, is that for those who have been brought to repentance, God’s judgment against them is no longer a judgment of guilt, but one of innocence! Not because we have any righteousness or innocence of our own, but because Jesus Christ has been made our righteousness by faith! He has taken our guilty verdict on Himself at the cross. So judgment in itself is not simply negative, rather the question is, “Which side of the judgment do you stand on?” or “What is God’s verdict going to be for you? Guilt? Or Innocence?” In Christ Jesus, it is innocence!

Truly, as the epistle reading says, all people, all—must one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ. But for the believer, who has spoken what is right, and turned away from sin—we do not approach God’s judgment with fear, but rather with great joy! How can this be? As Romans 8:1 tells us, “therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” Yes we will be judged, but we already know the verdict. Innocence! because Jesus’ blood shed on the cross covers us! So knowing God’s judgment or justice does show us two sides to the matter. For those who fall down and don’t get up; for those who turn away but do not return, because they have clung to their wickedness, there is indeed the fear and threat of God’s judgment. But for those whom Christ has lifted up from their fallenness, and who have turned to Jesus in repentance from their sins, God’s judgment is something we anticipate with confidence, knowing that in faith, Christ’s innocence is attributed to us. It is His verdict of innocence that becomes ours. We know that God has healed our unfaithfulness through the wounds of Jesus Christ. So when you fall down, get up again! When you sin, repent and turn back to God for forgiveness! Jesus will lift you up again, and He will strengthen you to walk after Him in love.

Just yesterday I was reminded that the Christian life is a marathon. It’s not a sprint or even a mile run. It is a lengthy race, and we are in it for the long haul, even when the going seems rough. There will be many times that we stumble and fall. But Christ lifts us up when we stumble. When we turn down wrong paths, Christ turns us back to the right way. For at the end, we will attain the prize that He has won for us: life eternal. So Rise Up! Be Judged by the Lord, knowing that we do not face God’s condemnation, but His forgiveness! Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.