Category Archives: Movies

How to Think about Near-Death Experiences

MV5BNjc3MzYzMTUzNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTYzNzI2MDE@._V1_SX214_Stories of heavenly visions, like the one at the center of the upcoming film Heaven Is for Real (based on the near-death experience of a four-year-old Nebraska boy), can have a powerful effect on people. They can inspire our imaginations, tug on our emotions, and stir our spirits because they address one of the most haunting questions humans face (or try to ignore): what will happen to me after I die?

A near-death experience (NDE) occurs when someone, usually on an operating table, undergoes clinical death, is resuscitated, and later reports events or circumstances that took place while they were clinically dead. These reports can include the perception of floating above the body, the ability to relate information (such as doctors’ names and descriptions of medical equipment) that would be impossible for the person to know otherwise, and visions of dead loved ones or religious figures.

Evidence for life after death?

Since the 1970s, when NDEs came to the forefront thanks to investigative books by medical professionals such as Raymond Moody and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, researchers have amassed a large amount of data on this phenomenon, some legitimate, some not. Credible NDEs do happen and some of them defy naturalistic explanations. In this way, they can provide some corroboration for the Christian claim that humans are more than a mere body and that there is life beyond biological death.

However, extreme caution must be used in citing NDEs as support for Christianity. This is not smoking gun evidence. Some NDEs don’t fall in line with a Christian worldview, such as those where people see Krishna. Additionally, some people have reported hellish visions, rather than heavenly ones. Others, including Moody and Kubler-Ross, interpret NDEs in light of Eastern mysticism. In other words, NDEs can be used as evidence for everyone’s worldviews.

Thus, it behooves Christians to develop a healthy measure of skepticism with regard to NDE stories. It is precisely because of the strong emotional appeal of such accounts that we must exercise caution and careful thinking when dealing with these and other religious visions. (I join RTB colleague Hugh Ross and national security expert Mark Clark in addressing issues similar to those surrounding NDEs in our book Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men.)

For those planning to see Heaven Is for Real, I’d offer the following tips for thinking through the film. First, after enjoying the initial viewing, move into a mindset of critique and reflection by differentiating between your feelings toward the film and the facts behind the story. Second, ask the following questions: (1) what is the scientific and/or medical basis for NDEs? and (2) what worldview does the film reflect?

Talking about death—and the Resurrection

I do believe that Heaven Is for Real can be beneficial in encouraging people to think about death. This is a taboo topic in our society. Though we know death is inevitable, many of us avoid the subject. Yet if Christianity is true, then it is imperative that we consider what will happen to us when we die.

The central miracle of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I would argue that if Jesus rose from the dead, then there isn’t a more important thing for any person to possibly hear than that message. To draw from my book 7 Truths That Changed the World, if Jesus rose from the dead, then that is the most dangerous idea because it turns the paradigm upside down. It means that death isn’t the end.

A movie like Heaven Is for Real, released this Easter, can provide an impetus for talking about death and what Christ did to break its power over humanity.

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For more information about the medical evidence for NDEs, I’d recommend the works of Michael Sabom, a Christian, distinguished cardiologist, and careful researcher who has become an expert on NDEs. You can also hear more about this topic in these episodes of my podcast, Straight Thinking:

For more about death in light of the Christian worldview, see these previous Reflections articles:

For more about Heaven and salvation, see these resources:

Coauthored with RTB editor Maureen Moser

Quote of the Week: Captain America

The price of freedom is high and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

– Captain America, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

From childhood, my favorite superhero has always been Captain America. In light of the Winter Soldier sequel released today, I’d like to offer two previous articles exploring the worldview questions raised by superhero comics and movies.

Considering “Blackfish” and the Question of Mammals in Captivity

Blackfish_quad2Whatever your opinion about the controversial documentary Blackfish, its impact can’t be ignored. CNN has been airing Blackfish periodically since October 2013. The documentary has won several awards and inspired numerous boycotts. Personally, I have three friends who vowed to cease taking their children to SeaWorld after watching Blackfish; one of them even had an annual pass! Hollywood’s elite is also jumping into the debate, with some artists pulling out of performances at SeaWorld. And now the film is inspiring new legislation.

A California state lawmaker (Richard Bloom–D) recently introduced a bill that would prohibit theme park entertainment shows featuring orcas, such as the popular whale shows at SeaWorld San Diego. Bloom says that Blackfish inspired his bill. According to Bloom’s press release,

There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes. These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete pens for their entire lives. It is time to end the practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement.

Bloom’s bill not only prohibits the use of orcas for entertainment in California, but also provides certain protections for those orcas currently in captivity. The goal of the proposed law would be to rehabilitate captive orcas and return as many as possible to the wild. In those cases where release isn’t possible, whales must be transferred to ocean-based pens where there is adequate room for them to swim according to their natural instincts. Furthermore, they would not be used for public display or entertainment.

The Message of “Blackfish”

Made in response to the orca-caused death of a veteran SeaWorld trainer, Blackfish features former SeaWorld trainers, whale harvesters, and marine experts to marshal the filmmaker’s case that keeping large-bodied mammals in captivity is unhealthy for the animals and potentially dangerous for their keepers (view the trailer here). The film’s premise is simple: long-term existence in a small, chlorinated tank separated from their natural pod is physically detrimental and psychologically traumatic to orcas, to the point that it drives some killer whales to act out against their trainers in psychotic behavior. After months of silence, SeaWorld finally responded to Blackfish in December 2013, asserting the film is propaganda, not a documentary.

The reasoning of the anti-SeaWorld crowd generally runs along these lines:

  1. Whales were designed to live in the open ocean and reside in pods.
  2. Whales are a highly intelligent species, capable of communicating and of reaching certain levels of reasoning.
  3. Whales are a highly social species, capable of bonding with their young, their pod, and even humans.
  4. Whales are a highly emotional species, capable of feeling such emotions as anger, trauma, and loss resulting from mistreatment or separation from their young or their pod.
  5. Because of their high-level of intelligence, sociability, and emotions, whales deserve protection in their natural habitat and should not be on display for human entertainment.

The Dignity of Soulish Creatures

Blackfish is part of a larger discussion in our culture about the use of higher-level mammals, including those in circuses and zoos, for human entertainment. After watching Blackfish several times, I’ve been struck by the relevance of this discussion to the Christian worldview.

In his book Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job, RTB founder and president Hugh Ross outlines his case for three categories of life: (1) purely physical life; (2) life that is both physical and “soulish” (Hebrew: nepesh); and (3) life that is physical, soulish, and spiritual (humans only). Ross builds a biblical and scientific case for the special creation of soulish creatures.1 These advanced mammals and birds exhibit certain high-level mental and emotional characteristics, including a drive to protect offspring, the ability to foresee the future to some degree, and the capability of engaging in symbolic thought.

If Ross’s theory is correct, then it raises provocative questions about its application to our treatment of these advanced animals. How should an animal’s soulish nature influence political policy regarding captive animals? How should it impact what we view as appropriate for entertainment purposes?

In the case of orcas, is it cruel to keep large-bodied, highly intelligent nepesh creatures in constricting, chlorinated tanks? Since God created whales to roam freely in pods in the ocean, what role should we play in preserving orcas in their natural habitat? Should these animals’ natural desire to serve and please others2 be exploited for mere entertainment?

In addition, I think that the topics raised by Blackfish provide potential for thoughtful dialogue between Christians and the broader culture. It is true that some people believe whales and other animals should have rights equal with humans’. However, that’s not an adequate reason for Christians to remain disengaged from the public dialogue about this issue or to ignore the plight of higher mammals in captivity. Rather, I believe it’s cause for Christians to engage more deeply in the discussion and explore how the Christian worldview comes to bear on this issue.

Although God conferred His image on humans alone (Genesis 1:26–28), perhaps there is a way to recognize the God-endowed soulish properties of high-level mammals without demeaning the special status of humanity. Simply because soulish animals aren’t created in the image of God doesn’t mean that their soulish qualities should be disregarded. Politics aside, our biblical responsibility as stewards of Earth’s resources ought to encourage us to provide some level of protection for higher mammals from exploitation or cruelty.

This is a sensitive issue for many people, but it’s my hope that my reflections here can start a conversation to consider critical questions about how humans ought to be proper stewards over nepesh creatures.

References

  1. Hugh Ross, Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job (Grand Rapid, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 119­–29.
  2. Ibid., 132–33.

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By Krista Bontrager

Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.

“Son of God:” Representing the Bible on Screen

With the release of the Jesus biopic Son of God in theatres last week, this is a great time to engage in a conversation with others about the historical basis of Jesus. For those of you considering whether to see the film, my friend and RTB colleague Krista Bontrager offers a balanced review of HISTORY’s The Bible, the TV miniseries from which Son of God is adapted (originally posted on the RTB blog Take Two), in addition to an update on Son of God in particular.

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1471969_362683653878214_1179608122_n_largeIn recent years, HISTORY has treated the Bible as a source for sensationalistic material, airing a steady stream of shows based usually on liberal scholarship. So it was with a fair bit of skepticism that I sat down to watch producer Mark Burnett’s miniseries The Bible. Yet the evangelical leaders supporting this project (not to mention the celebrity endorsements) made me hope for a pleasant surprise. Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice, Shark Tank) and his wife, actress Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel), are the brains behind this project. Now after watching the series, I’d like to offer some brief comments.

Production Values

Despite the absence of big-name Hollywood stars, the casting is solid. One of the film’s more memorable performances is the slovenly and downright gross King Herod.

The project’s production value (costumes, sets, scriptwriting, etc.) reflects an insider’s knowledge of how to make a quality independent film. Even so, the film doesn’t quite reach “epic” Cecil B. DeMille proportions. Many of the “large crowd” scenes look as if they hired only about 200 extras. The director then tried to “cheat the shot” by using close-ups to make the scope look larger than it actually was.

The film does a decent job of accurately portraying the brutal nature of the ancient world. Even between battle scenes and kings killing people at-will, there is a fair amount of sword fighting, stabbing, and gouging. Thankfully, most of the violence happens offscreen. Still, this series would likely receive at least a PG-13 rating if released in theatres. I even shut my eyes several times and am still undecided about whether to let my teenager watch it.

Accuracy and Artistic License

Some Christians have pointed out departures from the biblical narrative. For example, in the scene where David prepares to slay Goliath, David doesn’t visit a stream to collect five smooth stones; he simply picks them up off the ground. Though this is a tiny departure from Scripture, I don’t see this as being a huge issue of concern.

Each episode is preceded by an explicit disclaimer stating that this is intended to be an artistic rendering of the Scriptures—and as anyone familiar with Hollywood adaptations of books knows, there is a certain tension between staying true to the original story and translating that story to the big (or small) screen. Overall, however, I think the filmmakers have done a remarkable job of remaining faithful to the key historical facts.

If I had to name the series’ weakest link, I’d have to say the overall storytelling. Obviously, a significant amount of pruning is inevitable in the attempt to fit the Bible into a TV miniseries. Viewers see a steady stream of historical events, stitched together by periodic and brief voice-overs. The unfortunate result is a story arc that often feels disjointed and characters that often seem one-dimensional, as we watch them sweep across the screen one after the other.

Also, given HISTORY’s target audience, it’s no wonder the series never explains the “why” behind all the stories of the Bible. Although that would certainly have increased the program’s appeal to me, I realize that the HISTORY audience isn’t necessarily interested in those kinds of theological questions.

Overall, Burnett and Downey are to be commended for their efforts to bring the story of the Bible to primetime television. In an age when Christianity is being pushed further and further to the margins of society, watching The Bible is a refreshing change.

Son of God Update

The theatrical release of Son of God is likely to appeal to a similar audience as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Son of God’s producers have provided special screening access and free tickets for prominent evangelical churches and colleges and the film is garnering widespread Christian support. Time will tell how Burnett’s version of Christ’s story fares financially and whether it can best Gibson’s $370 million domestic box office gross. Although Son of God earned solid ratings on television, as part of The Bible miniseries, and will likely pull in decent box office returns, it’s hard to gauge what the interest in Son of God will be among the broader culture outside Christian circles.

Like other movies in the biblical genre, Son of God is not intended to provide a detailed account of the scriptural text. Rather, it provides an overview of key stories and themes to give the viewer a summary of the story of Jesus’s life and ministry. These kinds of movies can, at best, only introduce people to biblical concepts and culture—but they can’t stand as a substitute for Scripture itself. To be fair, even the most accurate film portrayal of Christ couldn’t do this. After all, God revealed Himself as the Word, not as a film (John 1:1).

One of the most disturbing aspects of films in this genre involves the grotesque whipping and crucifixion scenes. As happened with Gibson’s R-rated film, the director and editor of the PG-13 Son of God designed the prolonged beatings and hanging sequences to invoke strong emotional repulsion in the viewer. And in this regard, they’re successful. The practice of Roman crucifixion was a true cruel and unusual punishment. One could argue, then, that graphic on-screen depictions of Christ’s death are too extreme for both adults and younger viewers.

According to Downey, the only changes made between the television version and film adaptation was the deletion of scenes with Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. After The Bible first aired, the filmmakers were disappointed that so many people exaggerated a resemblance between President Obama and the actor who played Satan. Downey said they didn’t want a distraction from Son of God’s main message:

But for our movie, Son of God, I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus. I want his name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out. It gives me great pleasure to tell you that the devil is on the cutting room floor. This is now a movie about Jesus, the Son of God, and the devil gets no more screen time, no more distractions.

If you’ve seen The Bible or if you catch Son of God in theatres, let us know what you think in the comments. Do you think graphic depictions of the crucifixion have a place in biblical movies? Will films of this nature have an impact beyond faith-based audiences?

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By Krista Bontrager

Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.

Additional resources:

  • “How to Watch a Movie,” Part 1 and Part 2 (Straight Thinking podcast)
  • As part of her church’s read-through-the-Bible campaign for 2013, Krista produced a podcast series that goes through the entire Bible and explains how all the stories in the Bible tell the overall story of the Bible. The podcast, Points of Interest, is available on iTunes and on YouTube.

Reflections on a War Movie: Lone Survivor

340217xcitefun-lone-survivor-posterI’ve seen most of the war movies made over the last seventy years (see “Ken’s Top 50 World War II Films”). I rank Band of Brothers, the 10-part miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks about the real-life heroism of Easy Company as the very best. The recent film Lone Survivor has elements that remind me of the things I appreciated about Band of Brothers. Without giving away the storyline of Lone Survivor, let me simply list some of the things I appreciated about the film.

  1. While the actors do a fine job of playing Navy SEALs, the movie displays photographs of the real men and information about their lives.
  2. The film captures well that unique relationship that combat soldiers (in this case Navy SEALs) share when fighting for their country and sacrificing for each other.
  3. The cinematography of the film cultivates an appreciation for the challenges of fighting a determined enemy in a very difficult region of the world.
  4. Part of the storyline helps to humanize some of the Afghan tribesmen, showing that there are noble people all over the globe who care deeply for others.

I give the movie a 10-out-of-10 and highly recommend people go see it. Though keep in mind, this is an intense film filled with realistic combat violence and blue language common among elite fighting men.

In closing, when I think of America’s noble warriors I’m reminded of Jesus’s words in John 15:13 (ESV), “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Is “Evolution vs. God” a Genuine Science-Faith Apologetics Engagement?

Christians are divided as to how to view the broad theory of evolution. Some believers view evolution as the biological means by which God created the diverse life found on planet Earth (often called theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism). Other Christians reject the idea that human beings are the product of evolution, affirming instead some form of direct divine creation (accepting either young-earth or old-earth creationism theories). Continue reading

Top Five Abraham Lincoln Movies

Movies impact and shape our culture. They make us think. They communicate iStock_000014812449Smallmessages and worldviews, sometimes unintentionally. In light of the significance of film (and television), I along with RTB colleagues Krista Bontrager and Dave Rogstad spent time discussing how to approach movies “worldviewishly”—specifically from a Christian worldview—in a two-part podcast series entitled “How to Watch a Movie.” Continue reading

Profound Problems with Religious Pluralism

Novelist Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi (now a major motion picture) embodies the popular notion that all religions are simultaneously true. The story’s young protagonist embraces aspects of multiple faiths (Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity), viewing these beliefs as equally valid but different paths to God. Unfortunately religious pluralism fails to appreciate the profound problems associated with it. Continue reading

Spielberg’s Fresh Portrait of Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln (1809­–1865) is one of my favorite Americans. His unique leadership in abolishing slavery and holding the Union together during the Civil War mark him, in my view, as the greatest American. Visiting such historical sites as the Lincoln Memorial and Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. have been deeply moving experiences for both my family and me. Continue reading

Money, Fame, and Influence: HBO’s Documentary on Former Beatle George Harrison (Part 3)

What’s the true measure of success and influence in life? What criteria should be used to determine this judgment?

I think it’s safe to say that by most standards The Beatles were definitely successful as a popular music band. According to Wikipedia, The Beatles’ record sales stand at an incredible 2.3 billion units worldwide. This statistic clearly makes the Fab Four the most commercially successful group in popular music history. Continue reading