Saturday, January 24, 2015

Frankly, my dear . . .

In some ways, American life in 1939 was much simpler than it is today. Perhaps there was more homogeneity across our nation with respect to our national identity. One might argue that Americans knew what America stood for -- so to speak. As Archie and Edith Bunker used to opine at the opening of All in the Family, "Those were the days!"

However, history offers perspective. We know now that Adolf Hitler was marching across Europe. Emperor Hirohito was contemplating an attempt at world domination. Institutional racism was just a way of life. So, in some ways, life was simpler in 1939--but layers of complexity would soon be discovered that would emerge from the shadows and be revealed to the national consciousness soon enough.

But, when Gone With the Wind premiered in 1939 there was much buzz about Clark Gable's line at the end of the movie when he countered Vivian Leigh's portrayal of Scarlett O'hara's despair with, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a d___."

It is not as if movie goers at the time had never heard an actor swear on film. However, they had never heard one of Gable's stature do it. And, certainly not in a film of the caliber of this epic drama. Needless to say, it caused quite a controversy. Certainly America was not so prudish that grown men did not swear in public in those days. Well, actually, gentlemen tended to choose their language a bit more carefully. Americans were familiar with the habit of cursing, but it was not showcased on film until Gable's Rhett Butler dismissed Scarlett's dilemma with an expletive.

All of this to say--America historically has had an interesting relationship with its film-making industry. It would be hard to exaggerate the role of cinema in the development of and celebration of both pop culture and real life. On the one hand, Americans have tended to go to the movie theater to escape the challenges and demands of real life. "Just entertain me!" has been the sentiment of many Americans. On the other hand, Americans also go to the movies to seek a better understanding of their own lives. There has always been this tension.

As one might imagine, this opens the door for a good bit of controversy. For example, the very first full-length feature film, The Birth of A Nation was released in 1915. It was a cinematic triumph. It was the first film to be officially previewed in the White House by the President of the United States (Woodrow Wilson). It represented the best technology Hollywood had to offer. But, the film depicted the South during the era of Reconstruction and beyond through the lens of White Supremacy. Blacks were portrayed as sexually aggressive and dangerous. The Ku Klux Klan was celebrated in the film as a heroic response to the threat posed by black men. It is a move that would offend all sensibilities today!

Hollywood has been both comfortable and uncomfortable in its role in its contribution to the American psyche. On the one hand, many in the movie industry claim absolute innocence in response to any hint of an attempt to influence the culture. "We are entertainers and artists" -- is what many in the film industry maintain. "Our movies are merely artistic expressions with the desire to entertain" -- is the answer given often. (I'm paraphrasing, not quoting anyone in particular.)

But--we all know better. We all know that there are several motivating factors behind the making of films. Financial profit is certainly at the center of all motivation! However, there certainly has to be the desire to shape, cast light, shape opinions, etc. I think the latest controversy over the new film, American Sniper is a great case in point. Many on the left in the entertainment business (Bill Maher, Michael Moore, Seth Rogen to name a few) have been critical of the film. Some have labeled it "war propaganda" and condemned it as an attempt to support decisions made about Iraq.

I have not seen the film. But I have followed the controversy. Namely because I am keenly interested in the whole concept of influence. I am convinced the film industry (and entertainment in general) is incredibly influential. In 2015, we can't imagine a time when a curse word could have caused controversy in a motion picture. Our screens--large and small--are laced with profanity, immorality, violence, explicit sexuality and all manner of gruesomeness. It would be hard to shock us with anything we might see today. So--we have not just been entertained. We have been numbed. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Archaeology and Faith

On January 4, the Washington Post reported another archaeological discovery in Jerusalem that connects to a story found in the Bible. According to author Ruth Eglash, this most recent finding may be the discovery of the site of Jesus's trial in the Holy City. 

I read a few articles about this discovery and its potential connection to the story of Jesus. Mostly, the news was met with a "ho-hum" response. I find that to be interesting. Often, archaeological discoveries are greeted with incredible intensity and fanfare. For example, there was quite a stir about the recent announcement of the discovery of the time capsule under the Massachusetts' State House--left by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. There was great excitement when curators actually opened the capsule to reveal the contents from some 220 years ago.

Biblical archaeologists however often are greeted with skepticism when they make announcements. Some of the skepticism is warranted because there have been a few suspect "discoveries" across the years. You may be familiar with the research published by Nina Burleigh in her book, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land (Collins, 2008). The primary impetus for her book was the controversy surrounding the discovery of the "James Ossuary." An ossuary is a box that was used to store the bones of the departed in burial tombs in the ancient world. This particular one gained notoriety because its inscription mentioned Jesus.

In any event, many people now believe this box to be a fraud. A trial ensued and it was a pretty sordid tale. Burleigh was intrigued by all of this and traveled to Jerusalem to study the industry connected to the approximately 30,000 archaeological sites in the Holy Land. Her book records her findings where she is part journalist, part archaeologist and part detective. The sub-title of her book offers a glimpse into her take on her findings. She is certainly a reputable writer of note and is quite accomplished.

So, there have certainly been many suspicious "announcements" of significant finds in the field of archaeology in the Holy Land through the years. Both thorough-going secularists and people of faith are often interested in the archaeology of the Middle East. The skeptical, non-religious crowd enjoys any story of potential fraud or intrigue surrounding any finding. On the other hand, many among the faithful hope the next discovery "proves" the Biblical account of ancient history. More often than not, both of these perspectives are left wanting and the respective adherents are disappointed on some level. 

What I mean is this--there has not ever been an archaeological finding that completely and absolutely proves the Biblical account of Israel and Jesus to be demonstrable untrue. Conversely, there hasn't been some great discovery that absolutely proves every detail of the Bible to be demonstrably true. With that said, there have been some amazing archaeological discoveries that corroborate the Biblical account. That is without question. In fact, the list of those is tool long for this little ol' blog.

For example, the discovery of the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, Peter's house in Capernaum and the first-century synagogue in Capernaum all corroborate the accounts provided in the Gospels. The discovery of the Tel Dan Stela that bears the most ancient inscription to mention King David put to rest the previously repeated mantra that David was not mentioned outside the Bible. There have been hundreds of inscriptions (Pontius Pilate in Caesarea), coins, potsherds, buildings and ancient cities that have offered corroborating testimonies to material we find in both the Old and New Testament.

But --- here's the thing. We still have to be people of faith. Archaeological discoveries are incredible and encouraging. They certainly offer affirmations for us. But, God will always require faith from us. We have to be willing to believe He is God. Without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). We will always take steps of faith toward Him. We will not have "proof" of everything. Regardless of how much archaeologists unearth in the Holy Land, the Christian life is a life of faith.

I praise God there is so much corroborating evidence that has already been discovered. I am grateful for the scholarship and integrity of legitimate archaeologists who have opened doors to the ancient world for us. The light of these discoveries has shed light on our path, for sure. But the path remains a path of faith!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Cowboys, Referees and What ifs

I remember the 1967 Ice Bowl in Green Bay. I was a little boy in Birmingham, Alabama. Our community league football teams were the "Packers." We wore the same uniform as the Green Bay Packers. I played through those leagues as a kid. I was number 15 - just like my favorite player, Bart Starr, quarterback of the Packers. We were huge Green Bay fans in those days. So, understandably, I was pulling for the Packers on that cold December day in 1967.

Fast forward to 2015. I have spent most of my adult life in Texas. I served my first tour of duty in the 80's and 90's while I was completing seminary and pastoring. I returned in 2001 to serve as Pastor of First Baptist Church of Arlington, Texas. That's right, Arlington -- home of the Dallas Cowboys. And, I have been converted! I'm a Cowboys' fan now. I love this team. I love Romo and Witten. So, yesterday I was cheering wildly for the Cowboys to beat those Packers.

I was watching it live when "it" happened. The "catch" or the "non-catch" as it were. Are you kidding me? It was a catch, for sure. Three steps, an elbow, a stretch for the end zone. No doubt, a catch. Dez Bryant made a circus leap for a perfectly thrown pass and hauled it in on the one yard line. No doubt the Cowboys would score and we would be set up for a classic final drive for the Packers. Could Aaron Rogers lead them down the field and maybe repeat Bart Starr's final drive against the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl? Or, would the Cowboys defense make a stop and help Dallas land in the NFC Championship game?

But, wait a minute. The miraculous catch was reviewed. By whom? Three blind mice? Three stooges? The management of the Packers? Packer fans? Actually a referee reviewed it. According to referee Gene Steratore, Dez Bryant "did not maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process of the catch. In our judgment, he maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game." 

I'm sorry. What???? Catching, stepping and reaching -- aren't those football acts?

Now, last week I was in complete agreement when the referees picked up the flag on a late interference call on the Cowboys. That "non-call" was certainly the right call and it led to a Detroit Lions punt that allowed the Cowboys to go ahead and seal the win. So, I know these referees are capable of getting it right!

Anyway - it's over for the Cowboys. Great season. Great players. It was fun.

As I reflected last night on the events of the day, I came to several conclusions.

1. Perspective is so important. My perspective has changed since the last time the Cowboys and Packers played in a playoff game. I really am a Cowboys' fan now. Were I still a fan of the Packers, I would probably be hailing the courage of the referee to change such a pivotal call. Many people are saying today that this was a judgment call based on a challenging rule. There is a difference of opinion about what constitutes a true "catch" when a receiver seems to be falling to the ground. The ground cannot cause a fumble, but it can cause an incompletion. The referee has to make the judgment based on the "football acts" of the receiver. So -- it could have gone either way. I wanted it to go my way.
2. Somebody has to be in charge. The players can't make the rule calls in a game. There has to be somebody who is charged with keeping the rules. That is the referee's job. He, along with his team of officials, must insure the rules are kept. Sometimes, these folks make judgment calls based on the evidence before them. In the actual game, they are the final authority.
3. "What ifs" are fun, but in the end, meaningless. We don't known what would have happened if the "catch" was actually ruled a catch. We can only deal with reality.

OK - so these are actually life lessons as well. In life, perspective matters. How we view things makes all the difference in the world. It is true. My perspective shapes my feelings and judgments. And, authority matters. In life, somebody has to be in charge! From my perspective as a Christian, God is in charge. His Word is authoritative. Finally, reality matters. I can't afford to live my life in denial of reality. I don't want to be like Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite. "What ifs" are fun, interesting -- but I can't live everyday in a sea of what ifs. I have to live in reality.

So - today, life goes on. Even for us Cowboy fans.

Read more here:

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


Have you read Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012) by Ross Douthat? Ross is a columnist for the New York Times. He is a Harvard graduate and Phi Beta Kappa member. Brilliant thinker. Seminal writer. I follow his columns and enjoy his insights.

The premise of his book is outlined in the opening pages. He begins by crafting a portrait of America after the economic disaster of 2008. Debt, deficits, reckless financial decisions and the like are traced to the selfish appetite of a society that "can't get no satisfaction." He points out the fact that some have tried to blame the "decline of America" on religion. In fact, he explains two contradictory reasons offered for the downturn of our nation: one is the idea that America is too dependent on religion, the other is that America has turned its back on its religious roots.

Douthat concludes the real reason for the seeming decline of the American way is something deeper than either of these opinions. Here is his take:

". . . America's problem isn't too much religion, or too little of it. It's bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place." (p. 3)

Douthat portrays Christianity as forming the "center" of American life for most of this country's history. He laments the misuse of the Christian faith for political, economic or geopolitical gain. His critique of many modern expressions of "Christianity" are strong and (I think) on-target. He ends his book by calling for a return to vibrant, orthodox Christianity that takes the Bible seriously and following Jesus to be a mandate.

It is a good read.

I thought about it today when I was driving to an early breakfast meeting and heard the news from Paris about the shootings at the headquarters of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hedbo. I had never heard of this magazine until today. Apparently, the cartoonists had offended the sensibilities of some Islamic terrorists.

When I heard the report--I thought about Douthat's book. Wow. How much damage has been caused by bad religion? It may be the terrorism associated with radical Islam or the insecurities exhibited by Hindu extremists in India or many other forms of atrocities committed in the name of religion. It is sad.

I can't imagine how much it must grieve God. He created this world and it was good (Genesis 1). In fact, it was very good (Genesis 1:31).

Douthat's book is not about terrorism or acts of atrocity committed in the name of God. But, the insights in his book about many forms of bad religion are on my mind today as I pray for God's people to reflect His goodness in His world.

Friday, January 02, 2015


So, here we go. 2015.

The Sacramental Journey continues.

Back in the late 1990's, I was serving as a pastor in Alabama. I was searching for an image to capture my understanding of the Christian life. After much reflection and prayer, I landed on this one--a journey. Certainly not an earth-shattering discovery! It is a common way of expressing one's life experience. However, I decided to add one other concept to this common image--sacramental. After all, every one is on a journey of one sort or another. Christians are on a holy, sacred and spiritual journey.

The journey motif is poignant for me for a number of reasons. I was raised in Alabama by parents who were from neighboring Georgia. We traveled often back and forth to visit grandparents and other family members. Plus, my brothers and I were baseball players. Our family often could be found traipsing across the country to let us play in all kinds of tournaments and All-Star games.

We had a 1964 AMC Rambler Station Wagon with no air conditioning. Think about that. Driving across the south in the summer with two older brothers in a hot car does not create positive vibes associated with "journeys." We had to roll the windows down (that's right, we "rolled" them down by hand--a lost art today) just to keep the air circulating. However, sometimes the draft was so strong, it threatened to suck the skinny people clear out of the vehicle!

But, we didn't dare complain about the wind tunnel effect in the back of the car. Back then, our Dad smoked cigars--Roitans, King Edwards and Muriels. If we complained about the wind draft, he would make us roll up the windows. He would open those little "vent" windows in the front of the vehicle (you can Google that). Then there was enough second-hand smoke in the vehicle to justify three future lawsuits from his sons.

Then, of course, we brothers had imaginary lines drawn across the back of the Station Wagon that you couldn't cross. When one of us did so, we retaliated with whatever means necessary to protect our territory. If it got out of hand, Daddy would look back and utter those immortal words, "Don't make me pull this car over.

So, the idea of a journey hasn't always evoked the most positive of images for me personally. However, I would like to think I have dealt with my issues and progressed to a more mature understanding of the value of this motif.

Certainly the Bible uses this idea to illustrate human life on earth. The word "walk" appears over 200 times in the Bible. Often, this word refers to how we actually live our lives. For example, refer to Psalm 1, Genesis 5:24, 17:1 or Jeremiah 6:16. And, Jesus claimed He is The Way. In fact, often in Acts, Christians are referred to as "followers of The Way." You get the idea.

But, for Christians, we are not just on any journey; we are on a holy, sacred and spiritual journey. Hence, I have chosen the word sacramental to describe our journey. We are followers of The Jesus Way. This is a path of holiness and sanctity. The English word "sacrament" is derived from the Latin term sacramentum. This is a word rich in theological meaning. Prior to its usage in Roman Catholic theology, this word was used to translate the Greek term musterion (mystery). This Greek word is associated with the idea that God reveals Himself and His truth to His people. What was hidden has been made known by God.

This term also is connected to the root sacra - which means "holy" -- we get our word "sacred" from this root. For me, this is an excellent descriptive term for our distinctive journey as believers. We are called to a holy life that depends upon God's revelation of Himself.

So -- the Christian life is truly a Sacramental Journey. 

To be continued . . .