Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dealing with hard questions

There is a deep tension in Christianity garbed in modernity. We struggle to find the balance between clear proclamation of truth and a heartfelt expression of love to lost people who surround us. We wrestle with the necessities of the church's engagement with culture and politics and the church's need to present the gospel in a winsome way. At the most fundamental level, we struggle with letting the good news of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection be the stumbling block that it is, while ourselves not being a stumbling block. And it is good for us to struggle with this tension.

An example (and not a pretty one, but hear me through to the end): the clear teaching of Scripture is that remarriage under nearly any circumstance is sinful. Jesus said, "It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'" (Matthew 5.31-32) He followed it up some time later thus:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19.1-9)

Jesus Himself - the one we most often think of as the great voice of compassion of the Scriptures, the one who indeed is mercy and love incarnate, clearly says that remarriage under any circumstances except sexual immorality and remarries is committing adultery. Adultery is soundly condemned throughout the Scriptures - from Genesis to Revelation, and in a considerable majority of the texts. It is indeed one of the metaphors God used most frequently in the Old Testament to speak of Israel's unfaithfulness to Him. So the teaching of Scripture is that divorce is allowed because of the hardness of men's hearts and a few other circumstances - sexual immorality and abandonment being the main examples. Only in the case of divorce for sexual immorality is remarriage allowed Biblically.

With that as context, we now must face the question of how to handle that topic as the church - Christ's representatives in this age. We are left with a tension that at first seems difficult to resolve: there are people in our churches who have divorced and remarried and built new families. What do we tell them? How do we show the love of Christ to them? There is no question that we are called to pour forth love and to encourage single parents and members of blended families. At the same time, church leaders, especially teaching pastors, are responsible to clearly proclaim God's teaching on the matter and to enforce it. (I do not believe, for example, that a pastor should perform a second marriage unless the divorce was for adultery: the pastor is responsible for his sheep, and as outlined above, Scripture is clear on this issue.) At the same time, believers are commanded to love one another. We validate our discipleship to the world by the way we love one another - or invalidate it by the way we don't. We are left with a question that, in worldly terms, has no answer. Somehow we must simultaneously love with open arms those who have remarried and proclaim the sinfulness of remarriage. And there are many such questions - the most current being homosexuality or abortion and the church's response to them. It is hopeless.

But we do not operate in the wisdom of this world. We are gifted with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us all things - and the answer has already been given, if we but by His grace remember it.

Christ Jesus is the answer to this question, not only in His way of life but in His suffering and His victory. We may forthrightly proclaim the most difficult of Biblical doctrines because we are assured of the truth of the gospel. We may tell the broken prostitute who took up her trade because she saw no other alternative: Yes, this was sin. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to the man who is regularly behaving unethically in his business: this is sin. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to the homosexual: this is sin. And Christ has paid the price. We may say to every man alive: every lustful look was adultery. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to every person living: you have sinned, you have desecrated the image of God in you, you have rejected God Himself. And with tears in our eyes as we remember all that He has delivered us from, we may say:

Christ has paid the price!

For every sin, for every transgression, for every failure, the price has already been paid. We bring no condemnation, because in Christ there is none. In due time, Christ died for the ungodly.

Me. You. Every person living.

Therein lies the answer to the tension, to the question - to every difficult question that confronts us today. Our answer is in Jesus Christ Himself. We speak the truth clearly. All of it. We clearly declare what sin is - and then we clearly proclaim the reality of salvation in Jesus Christ. Where grace is proclaimed without the declaration of the evil of sin, people see no need for repentance. Where sin's horror is proclaimed without the saving power of Jesus Christ, condemnation reigns. Where both the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of the grace of God are proclaimed, there is life.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Addendum to Taken review

A conversation with a friend has suggested to me that I need to add the following addendum to my review of Taken:

My problem was not the violence, per se, or the fact that it dealt with the sexuality, per se. It was the fact that it, in my view, didn't bother to deal seriously with what is one of the absolute most serious issues that exists in the world today. Regarding the violence, it wasn't the fact that it was violent, it was the way the violence was treated - as something purely cool, instead of something necessary, and (in my opinion) as a point of vengeance, instead of as a point of justice. I think one can reasonably hold the (good) alternative view that his killing was necessary - but the movie didn't seem to do that, at least from my perspective.

Overall, my great frustration with the movie is that people don't take sexual slavery seriously. The problem I had with the sexuality here was not that it was overly gratuitous - there has certainly been far worse in Hollywood and even in movies that I've seen - but that instead of dealing with it to show the horror, it was just there. It read exploitatively to me. I wanted the subject to be treated with the horror and the revulsion and the anger - no, rage - that it deserves. I wanted Brian Mills to care - at all - about all the other girls there, and there wasn't even a hint of that in the movie. Even had he decided it wasn't something he could handle all by himself, even had he decided that he simply had to save his daughter and go, it would have played far better. But we weren't even told that he felt this way - much less shown it. The movie itself quietly highlights this in that we never find out the fate of the girl he rescues along the way. She's left in a hotel room by Brian Mills - and the movie leaves here there, too. I think my reaction would have been much less strong had that not been so, had it been clear that he cared about her as a person rather than as a means to an end.

I think my problem can be ultimately summed up by saying that while I don't have a problem with the movie as a father-saves-his-daughter-from-a-terrible-fate movie, I have huge problem with it as a dealing-with-the-issue-of-sexual-slavery movie, because no one's eyes are going to be opened by this.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Taken review

Jaimie and I saw Taken last night, as part of our celebration of our one-year dating anniversary. We both rather wished we hadn't. It wasn't what we were hoping for, and it certainly didn't meet the expectations we had based on the feedback of others who had seen it. In fact, I'm hard pressed to think of much about the movie that I ultimately like.

A brief summary (in which I will thoroughly spoil the plot): Brian Mills is a retired CIA officer - a "preventer," as he tells it - who has moved to California to be close to his turning-17-at-the-beginning-of-the-movie daughter and make up for lost time with her. He shows at her birthday party, feels overshadowed, and is finally browbeaten into letting his daughter go to Paris by his pushy and bitter ex-wife. Kim arrives in Paris, talks to an apparently friendly French guy, who gets their location and then promptly sends the rest of his kidnapping gang their way. Kim calls her dad just in time to see her travel buddy get kidnapped, and is on the phone with him when they take her. Thus, Brian has enough information to track down her kidnappers - a group of sexual slavers - to their location in Paris, where he goes in short order, hunting for Kim. The next hour of the hour-and-a-half long movie consisted almost entirely of briefly interludes of information gathering or quiet thought, punctuating long sequences of killing violence. Because Brian Mills kills everyone he can that's been involved with his daughter's kidnapping. He finds her at the end, after working his way through the boat she's being held on, and kills her purchaser even as the man holds a knife to her throat. Cue crying in dad's arms and a joyful return to America.

I can say this for the movie: it is a picture of the depth of emotion in a parent's heart, and the extremes to which a parent would go, if they could, for their children. The positives end there. For the negatives, I'll start at the least problematic and work upward.

The movie had been compared to the Bourne trilogy by various people we know. If the comparison is meant to indicate a certain similarity in the style in which the film is shot and a comparison of the levels of violence, it's an almost accurate assessment. Almost, because the violence here is at a significantly higher quotient and, where Jason Bourne kills only at the very last resort, Brian Mills has no compunctions about shooting and killing anyone involved with the crime syndicate he is hunting. While I can appreciate the desire for retribution, there is no sense in this that he is an agent of justice. This is hatred and revenge, and nothing more.

This is clear because Mills does nothing for any of the other sex slaves in the movie except one that he can get information from - who he promptly drops (as does the movie) when she's no longer relevant to getting information about Kim. He clearly has the skill set to be able to completely destroy this organization and liberate dozens, if not hundreds, of women subject to sexual slavery and drug abuse, whose lives are being destroyed by men callously taking advantage of them. And he doesn't. The movie ends on an allegedly happy note, with Kim's safe return to the United States and a slight reconciliation between Mills and his ex-wife. Kim has a part of her dream come true in meeting a famous singer and getting voice lessons. And we're supposed to cheer.

Meanwhile, hundreds of women still suffer exactly what Brian Mills killed dozens of people to keep Kim from - and he shows not a bit of concern.

It's at this point that things really start to get ugly. Sexual slavery is one of the greatest ongoing evils of our day. It's on par with genocide, and I don't say that lightly. Genocide may be larger in scale in the world as an ongoing evil - it's difficult to say, given the secrecy with which sexual slavery is practiced and the openness in which genocides must occur. But it is certain that slavery, especially sexual slavery, is at least as horrible an evil as genocide - for in a genocide, there is an end that comes in death. Sexual slavery is a living death that goes on and on, a continuing degradation, devaluation, depersonation. It doesn't get any worse.

And this movie takes it lightly. It takes it as an excuse for another shoot-em-up. It takes it as an excuse to feel good about revenge. And, worst of all, it takes it as an excuse to be sexy. The whole point of the movie is (allegedly) just how evil this sort of thing is. And yet, multiple times, women are shown on screen in very little - up to and including Kim. Admittedly, this isn't played for out and out titillation. But I have to ask: in a film supposedly addressing the issue of sexual slavery, isn't it a bit sick to show the girl kidnapped to be a sexual slave in a negligee, for any reason? And the movie does it twice, and again with other girls.

There is something horrifying in this. The movie had an opportunity to deal seriously with one of the great evils of our day. Instead, it played with it.

The problems with the movie can perhaps be summed up by the contradictions in the music. The movie alternates between quiet contemplations on piano, with occasional strings mixed in, and screaming rock music - with nothing in between and no continuity in between the two. The movie ends with a tender moment on piano between Kim and Brian... and switches immediately to a screaming rock band. And Taken can't make up its mind whether it wants to be just another movie for utter adolescents, with overwhelming violence, glorification of revenge, and overwhelming insensitivity to the actual issues raised, or a thoughtful examination of the trials of a parent's heart and the evils of sexual slavery. Had it gone with the latter, we might have had one of the most worthwhile movies of the year. Instead, we got one of the least - and I can say that confidently in a year that will no doubt be filled with dreck, because most of that dreck never had the potential to do what this could have.

A final point of irony: I find it somewhat horrifyingly ironic that the final preview before the movie began was for Miss March, another in the stream of movies glorifying Playboy. Has Hollywood no sense of decency at all? [I'm certain the answer is no.]