Eyes Wide Open: Thinking about Worldview in Movies, Part 2

Group of people at the cinema watching a movie

Christian families are constantly interacting with all sorts of entertainment: books, music, video games, television, and movies. In part 1 of this series, we discussed worldview analysis as a foundational principle of evaluating the media we consume. Now we will examine some additional considerations.

Production Value

When I was a child in the 1970s, Christian filmmaking—films made outside the Hollywood system, financed by Christians, for Christians—was in its infancy. No child of that era can forget being scared sleepless after watching the doomsday horror film A Thief in the Night at Sunday night church.

Films from this era were frequently noted for their good intentions, poor screenwriting, no-name talent, and underfunded production budgets. Many Christians believed that the noble intent of the filmmakers to preach the Gospel was enough to overcome substandard production values. But by the mid- to late-80s (when I was in film school), Christians who worked as professionals in Hollywood began to rethink that strategy. They looked around and started asking why Christian films were so bad? Didn’t Jesus deserve better than this?

The recent efforts of producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey to make The Bible mini-series brought independent Christian production values into near alignment with Hollywood standards. Yet, other Christian filmmakers seem content to settle for mediocre production standards while appealing to the niche evangelical audience by making “preachy” films.

Production value plays a vital role in deciding whether a film ought to be considered “good” in the minds of most consumers, even among Christians. Sure, there are loyal followers who will consume almost any piece of entertainment that’s released with certain branding or headlining performer. But if a film lacks exemplary writing or skillful performances it misses out on potential greatness; and box office numbers generally reflect that.

In my view, there is inherent value in an artful film because our creativity reflects the image of our Creator (Genesis 1:26–27). And, sometimes, it’s perfectly appropriate for Christians to appreciate good art, even if we don’t agree with the worldview it portrays. We can offer comments about a thoughtful script, amazing storytelling, compelling acting, or beautiful cinematography. When we do so, we’re often praising the efforts of the many hard-working believers who labor anonymously within the entertainment business. Quite frankly, I’ve often found that a well-acted, thoughtfully written, small-budget film (such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) or a well-made, sincere, “family friendly” movie (like Babe) can elicit more enjoyment than a poorly scripted summer blockbuster (Armageddon comes to mind) or a moderately okay Christian film (such as Fireproof).

Moral Content

Many Christians have a tendency to make immediate judgments about what constitutes “good” entertainment based solely on moral content, specifically, language, sexual content (both on-screen and implied), violence, and substance abuse. These are important considerations, especially for parents; however other factors need consideration, too.

It’s important to understand that films and books are often multilayered. So it’s valuable for Christians to learn a little about how to discern the layers. It helps to begin by looking at a film or book’s themes from a “big picture” perspective and avoid quick judgments based on the moral content alone, such as foul language, sexual acts, violence, or drug abuse.

Let me explain what I mean. Consider Schindler’s List. This Oscar-winner contains many difficult, even horrific, scenes. In isolation and without context, it seems the morally objectionable content (e.g., genocide, child abuse) would preclude Christians from viewing or appreciating the film. However, the film presents a powerful message of individual repentance and redemption. I think this is why Schindler’s List resonates with so many believers. This deeper thematic purpose provides a larger context from which to interpret the inclusion of more objectionable elements.

In another example, Cobb (which perhaps only 10 other people on the planet actually saw) includes many scenes showing baseball legend Ty Cobb engaging in drug abuse and other unflattering behavior. It was a very hard film for me to watch. In the end, however, I was struck by the film’s very accurate picture of the futility of life without God. Money and fame failed to bring peace and satisfaction.

Now, would I recommend Cobb to my mother or teenage daughters? No way—but if I was engaged in some water-cooler conversation, it might come in handy as a bit of a morality play. In this way, individual Christians ought to weigh out these issues in coordination with their interpretation of Scripture, their conscience, and their personal sensitivity.

One final thought: remember to pray for all of those Christian brothers and sisters who work within the entertainment business. They often face difficult and discouraging environments and situations as they attempt to be salt and light in a dark place.

Resource: In 2012, Kenneth Samples and I recorded two podcast episodes featuring tips for watching movies from a Christian point of view: “How to Watch a Movie, Part 1” and “How to Watch a Movie, Part 2.”

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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.

Eyes Wide Open: Thinking about Worldview in Movies, Part 1

Group of people at the cinema watching a movie

When I was in seminary, I had a side job as a movie reviewer for a major Christian periodical. For two years I spent nearly every Friday night sitting in arthouse theaters watching a lot of really bad films. Then, I’d quickly cobble together a review for which I was paid an astounding $25, plus the cost of a theater ticket and mileage. I reviewed such “blockbusters” as Romeo Is Bleeding and Cobb. Some films were laced with over 80 f-words. How do I know this? I had to count them!

It wasn’t a very glamorous life, but it did teach me how to write quickly and how to express a focused opinion on virtually any topic. (I also learned how to take notes in the dark, which hasn’t proven to be a very useful skill.)

This process did, however, get me to reflect deeply on what makes a movie “good.” By what criteria would I recommend that others go see a particular film? Why do some movies with lousy scripts make hundreds of millions of dollars? Why do some movies strike us as having redemptive qualities in spite of a dark storyline (e.g., Schindler’s List)? Questions like these can apply to other entertainment media as well, such as music and books.

At times, Christians can come across as rather unreflective about their entertainment choices. On one end of the spectrum, some believers give little, if any, thought to what they consume; on the other end are those who avoid entertainment altogether because they view it as opposed to Christian values. What I’d like to propose, however, is that Christians can actually use entertainment trends as a bridge for engaging others, especially unbelievers, in deeper conversations. Over the years, I’ve found some foundational issues useful to consider.

Worldview Analysis

Just like every person has a worldview, so does every piece of entertainment. Why? Because books, movies, and music are written by people! So, whenever I am consuming media, the first thing I do is watch for clues about the worldview it’s promoting. I look for dialogue or situations that connect to issues such as:

  • the existence and nature of God (Does God exist? What is He like?);
  • the nature of humans (What is man?);
  • the origin and nature of evil; and
  • the source and nature of morality (What is good?).

In my experience, nearly every film, book, and song addresses one or more of these worldview questions. As we consider them, we can also begin to compare and contrast the answers with our own Christian worldview. This provides a critical foundation for any conversation with other people. (My colleague Kenneth Samples has done a lot of very fine work on this issue of worldviews. I highly recommend checking out some of his web articles, including this great introduction to the topic: “What in the World Is a Worldview?”)

During my time as a movie reviewer, I noticed that most American films operate from within what I call the worldview of practical naturalism. In these stories, no supernatural reality is presented. All solutions to humanity’s problems are explored within the context of the natural world. Occasionally, a film will present spiritual themes or characters. Christians are rarely portrayed in a positive fashion. We’re often depicted as abusers, hypocrites, and criminals, but even this observation can offer Christians insight into how nonbelievers see us.

Discussions about worldview issues can act as a practical bridge with nonbelievers. I’ve found that even in casual relationships a worldview issue from a recent book or film can be a good way to strike up a conversation. My husband and I frequently find that the most enjoyable part of our movie-going experience is when we engage in a vigorous conversation once the film is over.

It is also important that parents and youth leaders teach the emerging generation how to be wise consumers. Many teens give little, if any, thought to the worldview messages contained in the media they consume; so, parents might need to be a little creative and persistent in their engagement. Yet even if without a family conversation about how to thoughtfully engage entertainment choices, children will learn by watching the choices their parents make.

Next week, we’ll continue this conversation and explore additional ways to evaluate entertainment.

Resource: In 2012, Kenneth Samples and I recorded two podcast episodes featuring tips for watching movies from a Christian point of view: “How to Watch a Movie, Part 1” and “How to Watch a Movie, Part 2.”

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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.

Getting to Know Our Emotions from the Inside Out

Pixar Post - Inside Out characters closeupDisney-Pixar’s Inside Out opens this week. The film’s fanciful premise invites moviegoers to “meet the little voices in your head”—specifically, our emotions, personified as Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. RTB editor Maureen Moser and I sat down to talk about emotions, their importance, and the role they play in our minds and hearts. (This article might contain spoilers.)

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Maureen: On Reflections you talk a lot about critical thinking. How should critical thinking balance out with emotion?

Ken: God gave us the capacity to think and analyze. These are critical tools in discovering truth. John Calvin said that because God made us in his image, we are able to hunt and gather the truth. At the same time, God also made us with robust emotions. We are capable of feeling things very deeply.

It’s the combination of both things that make us who we are, so to speak. If you go too far in one direction, you can crash and burn. For example, overly analytical people are sometimes perceived as lacking empathy and concern for others. And, of course, people who let their emotions run away with them run a greater risk of making very unwise choices.

People often play with our emotions. Television, movies, and maybe especially commercials stir up emotional reactions. Logic and critical thinking, on the other hand, help us to reflect on the way we feel. When it comes to keeping it together and thinking about a situation in a Christian way, our initial response can be feeling driven, but then critical thinking needs to help us step back and analyze. Why did we react that way? Was it the best way to react?

That being said, I don’t think logicians—and I’m certainly a logician myself—should refuse to accept the fact that we’re emotional people. We just want to reign it in every once in a while when we think it goes too far in the emotional direction. We need to recognize that we have the capacity to feel deeply and to think critically.

Culturally speaking, it seems emotions tend to run high these days, especially with social media allowing instant reactions to a constant news stream.

Yes, I think what adds to the problem, especially when it comes to social media, is that whatever we post on online is going to be out there for a long time. So, if you do post an instant reaction to something and later wish you hadn’t, it’s too late.

Emotions are very good; they reflect who we are. However, they need to be guided and directed by proper parameters. Is there too much emotion in society? I tend to think that we do allow our emotions to lead us in ways that need more analysis. There are hot points in all of us. It’s good to identify those points.

On the other hand, looking at both sides of this issue, I think there are also a lot of people who think that if you show no response to something, then you must be unfeeling and uncaring, when really you’re just trying to think it through.

Coming back to Inside Out, two of the emotions, Joy and Sadness, get stuck together for a little while. Joy has never understood why Riley (the girl they inhabit) needs Sadness. She tries to contain Sadness or make sure most of Riley’s memories are happy ones. Eventually, she’ll realize that people need to feel sorrow. So, let’s talk about sadness; why is it important?

Inside-Out-10mech_IO_Sadness_5x8Our worldview tells us that God’s good creation has gone terribly wrong because of the fall. Our relationships—with God, other people, nature, even ourselves—have been negatively impacted by the fall. There is a time to take stock of one’s life and to reflect on pain and suffering.

I was thinking just recently that people who really struggle with mental health and emotion issues, such as depression, often have a profound awareness of circumstances that lead to sadness. I’m trying to make a positive statement here. I think the people I’ve known who have hurt a lot in life emotionally have a unique story to tell because of this awareness. (Obviously, brain chemistry challenges and other mental health issues do need to be addressed properly.)

Perhaps some of us who don’t struggle in those ways are oblivious to the sorrow that goes around. We might run through life and insulate ourselves and not allow sadness in—but it’s good to take it in. There is a time to grieve, to feel sorrow.

Suffering and challenges are sometimes the greatest teachers in life. Yet it does seem that we live at a time when we’d rather speed past all the difficulties. We tell ourselves to “think positive.” Certainly optimism and positive thinking are good things, but I wonder if avoiding reflection on sorrow, pain, and hurt doesn’t hold us back from personal growth. And, of course, neglecting grief or failing to reflect on difficult things doesn’t mean those things go away. They stay in your mind and your soul—and they may make a come back when you least expect it. It’s healthier to address issues of very relevant sadness. C. S. Lewis said it well:

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

So, I would hope that in everyone’s life there would be time and reflection given to challenges and sorrows. God made us with this wide range of ability to feel different things. In a Christian sense, you can have joy even when you’re not terribly happy. For example, I’m joyful about the Trinity even when I’m struggling with something of great severity.

How about the emotion of anger? We are told to not sin in our anger. How can Christians handle this volatile feeling?

“INSIDE OUT” (Pictured) ANGER. ©2014 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Well, Jesus certainly experienced anger. We have the scene where he goes into the temple and overturns the tables. Anger can be a good thing. There are times when anger is appropriate. But as you point out, Paul tells us, “In your anger do not sin.” That’s hard! I know within myself when I reach a certain level of anger, it’s very difficult to stay in control and act in subtle ways. It just goes!

Some people feel a lot of guilt over their anger or think they can never be angry about anything. Repressing it is no better than letting it explode; it’s best to learn how to use anger in a productive way.

I wish I had more insight to offer you about how to be angry. As we talked about earlier, when we’re feeling deep emotion, it’s hard to stay balanced. Perhaps we sometimes have to experience the emotion and then step back to evaluate. When I get negative comments from people online, I try not to act on my first impulse. I think about how I can respond in a courteous way—but it’s not always easy.

Reading recommendations: Mental Health: A Christian Approach by Mark P. Cosgrove and James D. Mallory Jr. and Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? Insights into Personal Growth By John Powell.

Thinking Again about Logic

If you want your thoughts on any given subject to be clear and careful, it usually requires engaging the topic more than once. To think again about something means that you want to get it right.

brain-smart-on-blackboardBefore I came on staff at Reasons to Believe (RTB), I spent almost ten years teaching courses in logic, philosophy, and world religions at public colleges in Southern California. The logic courses were definitely some of my favorites to teach. Students often felt wary of taking such an abstract course, but by the end of the semester most of them felt empowered by learning to think carefully and critically about life’s most important issues. Logic is a course that can actually change lives.

I’ve also had many Christian students who have taken logic and have found it to be extremely helpful to them in their life and in their faith journey. RTB’s dean of online education, Krista Bontrager, took a logic course with me, and it had a big influence in her educational and vocational pursuits. Harry Edwards, founder, chairman, and CEO of Apologetics.com, was a student in one of my logic classes at Biola University several years ago. He also has told me that the class motivated him to grow in his thinking skills.

Logic doesn’t teach you to think. You think naturally and intuitively as a human being who is already capable of careful thinking. What logic can do is bring order, consistency, and carefulness to your thinking. My college students had bright minds and were eager to think carefully, but their thinking was often scattered, disordered, and somewhat careless. The study of logic builds ordered minds that are capable of clear, careful, and cogent thinking.

Logic also teaches people how to construct a reasonable argument—a claim (conclusion) that is genuinely supported by facts, reasons, or evidence (premises)—and how to recognize when the reasoning process breaks down (often in form of specific fallacies). Knowing how to reason properly and being aware of common mistakes is invaluable in life and in the pursuit of truth.

Because people continue to return to my previous “Logic 101” article series, I have decided to follow up with further discussion of this important topic. In a profound sense, as I like to say, we are what we think. I hope you will consider challenging yourself to study a subject that can truly empower you. Stay tuned for more articles on logic as we attempt to think again!

Resources

  • My former podcast, Straight Thinking, contains many episodes given to the topic of logic and critical thinking. It is archived at reasons.org.
  • Two chapters in my book A World of Difference are devoted to the subject of logic. Most formal logic texts (even used ones) are very expensive, but RTB sells my book at a very reasonable price. Moreover, the logic chapters are conjoined with a detailed discussion of worldview thinking from the perspective of historic Christianity.

In the Works: Upcoming Book Compares Jesus and Other Religious Leaders

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve reposted several archived articles that compare Jesus Christ to other major religious leaders, specifically Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), Krishna, Confucius, and Muhammad. My recently completed book manuscript fleshes out and expands on what these articles started. The book (working title Jesus Alongside the Spiritual Sages) still has a long way to go—through peer review, rigorous editing, and design—before hitting shelves in 2017. In the meantime, here’s a sample from the manuscript.

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jesus-hands-piercedI have a critical question for you, the reader. If God were to make an appearance on Earth, what would you expect him to be like? Moreover, would the Buddha, Krishna, Confucius, or Muhammad have the qualities and characteristics you would expect of God? I suspect your answer, like mine, is no. These amazing men were all quite aware of their own weaknesses and brokenness in life. So, even the greatest leaders of the world’s religions, while extraordinary in many respects, seem far from divine.

But how would you go about evaluating Jesus? When you look at his life of unique moral purity, is that what you would expect from God? Jesus seems unlike all other people in his moral perfection.

Jesus taught people in a masterful style about the big questions of life. Could you see God instructing people in this manner? Most of the content of Jesus’ teaching was not original to him (except his extraordinary statements in which he called Yahweh “Abba”), but his presentation in parabolic form was deeply engaging.

Christ also engaged in an extensive series of miraculous healings from day one of his ministry. The number of people healed by Jesus is amazing. If God were to come in the flesh and live among human beings, would you expect him to engage in compassionate healing?

Jesus was crucified on the cross at Calvary. What do you think of his death? Has any man’s death been that dramatic and moving? If God were to become a man, could you imagine him dying the same way? Christ’s atoning death sets him apart from all other religious leaders.

Death stalks humanity. Dying is a matter of when, not if. The resurrection of Jesus is the great evidence for the truth of historic Christianity. If God visited the planet, would he address man’s greatest fear? If Jesus rose from the dead, then it is the most important truth for all people to hear and consider. Would God raise the dead?

So, did Jesus do the sort of things you would expect God incarnate to do? Did he say the things you would expect to hear from God? We’re putting Jesus’ résumé to the test and attempting to discover whether he has the qualities and characteristics of the divine. Does his resume stand?

The answer to these incredible questions is a resounding yes. Jesus Christ seems to be exactly what a reasonable person would expect God to be like if he were to appear among us. One of the reasons for believing that Jesus Christ was a real historical person is that no one could invent or make up such an incredible, one-of-a-kind person.

Interviews with Apologetics Difference Makers

104254961Over the lifetime of my former podcast, Straight Thinking, I had the opportunity to interview a plethora of scholars and scientists. Topics of discussion included science-faith issues, Christian apologetics and theology, and Islam. Below is a partial list of the interviews housed in the Straight Thinking archives. I hope you find them helpful as evangelistic resources.

RTB has recently launched a new family of equipping podcasts, including my new one, Imago Dei, under the banner Apologia. You can check them out here.

 

Review of “A.D. The Bible Continues”

Photo from the episode

Photo from the episode “The Spirit Arrives” (Adam Levy as Peter and Babou Alieu Ceesay as John)

Sunday nights have become much more exciting in my home as my family has been following the adventures of the apostles and the early church. Based on the resurrection account of the Gospel of John and the book of Acts, A.D. The Bible Continues is in the middle of an 11-episode run on NBC. The series premiered on Easter Sunday and now that we’re about halfway through, I’d like to offer some thoughts.

I am a true fangirl of NBC’s original 1985 television mini-series A.D. In my view, that was the best cinematic adaptation of the Bible ever done. (Here is a link to the original with Italian subtitles.) So when I heard that a remake was in the works, I screamed with excitement like a schoolgirl.

My expectation soared even higher when I found out that the minds and money behind this latest version is the husband-wife team of Mark Burnett (executive producer behind The Voice, Survivor, The Apprentice, and Shark Tank) and Roma Downey (actress, Touched by an Angel). Both claim to be Christians and have done an impressive job of enrolling the support of Christian leaders ranging from Rick Warren to the pope. Downey self-identifies as a Roman Catholic and Burnett hasn’t disclosed a particular denominational affiliation.

One of the persistent gripes I have about Bible epics is that they don’t do enough to set the proper historical context. Viewers are typically shown snippets of dialogue and events stitched together in film adaptations. Filmmakers usually try to cover too much ground in too little time. This was part of my concern in the previous Burnett-Downey production, The Bible (see my reviews here and here). However, A.D. The Bible Continues, perhaps by focusing on only a small portion of the Bible narrative, greatly corrects this problem. The filmmakers actually have time to develop the characters, motivations, and cultural background behind the story of early Christianity. Viewers are drawn into the Jewish and Roman leaders’ attempts to suppress the spread of the news of Jesus’ resurrection and the burgeoning church.

Some viewers will be troubled by the writers’ decision to make the political conflict between Jewish leaders and the Romans the primary focus of the plot, rather than the biblical characters. I would respond to this concern by saying that biblical epics should not be confused with documentaries, nor are they visual depictions of the written word of Scripture.

A.D. The Bible Continues toggles between history, historical fiction, and imagination. This, of course, is part of any normal Hollywood film that is “based on a true story.” Some films aspire to be an extremely accurate portrayal of real life, while others aim to be compelling cinema. It’s rare for films to achieve both. For these reasons, the A.D. writers have transformed certain characters such as Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, minor from a biblical perspective, into major ones. The writers incorporate historical sources and some informed speculation to provide the historical landscape to develop the story. The trade-off for all this is that the acts of the apostles and the expansion of the Gospel often get relegated to the B story.

Book-to-film adaptations offer their own set of challenges. Just ask any Tolkien fan about the faithfulness of Peter Jackson’s cinematic versions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and you’ll get a quick lesson on some of those challenges. Film is a fundamentally different genre than the written word. The translation between the two genres requires certain adjustments—and concessions.1

Like The Bible, A.D. The Bible Continues contains a fair amount of violence. People are stabbed, beheaded (often through throats being slit), and crucified. I even shut my eyes several times. Even so, the film does a decent job of accurately portraying the brutal nature of the ancient world, without getting excessive. This series would likely receive at least a PG-13 rating if released in theatres.

Overall, Burnett and Downey’s efforts in A.D. The Bible Continues have pushed Christian filmmaking to a new level. This is a noteworthy attempt to make a biblical story for mainstream network television. Christians historically have had only minimal influence in Hollywood. Consequently, Christian cinematic endeavors have been fairly uneven and often underfunded. It takes Hollywood insiders who really understand the business to produce filmic projects at this level. And the power couple of Burnett and Downey are definitely making new inroads.

For more discussion of A.D. The Bible Continues, listen to this recent podcast episode.

Endnotes

  1. For more about the impact of these differences when it comes to transferring Scripture to screen, see Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death or Jacques Ellul’s The Humiliation of the Word.

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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.

Reflections on Prayer (Part 2)

Today RTB editor Maureen Moser and I conclude a discussion on prayer. (See part 1 here.)

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C. S. Lewis is credited with saying, “I don’t pray to change God’s mind; I pray to change my mind.” What would you say is the purpose of prayer in Christian life?

Family Saying Grace before Meal

Family Saying Grace before Meal

That’s a great comment by Lewis. The purpose of prayer is carrying on our relationship with the God who loves us. I can’t imagine not spending a good amount of time talking with my wife, both privately and publicly.

I think Lewis even said prayer is like breathing. It’s a natural thing. Sometimes it’s crying out to God. Other times it’s joyful thankfulness. There’s even a place for going through a grocery list of requests.

Prayer also has a role in the confession of our sins. This is a time of reflecting on the depth of our sin and embracing God’s grace. It’s easy to believe God loves you when you’re having a good week—but let’s say you have a very bad week. I know a lot of Christians who think God’s ticked off with them most of the time. Incorporating good principles of theology into our own view of ourselves is beneficial to prayer. It guides our confessions and helps us to believe that God is faithful and just to forgive us.

Do you think regularity in prayer or the time of day you pray matters at all?

Historically there’s been a time in the morning that Christians would pray. In the medieval period, the church would ring the bell at times of prayer and all the people of the community would gather together. I know many people, mainly in the Reformed tradition, who have a Sunday lunch followed by a time of prayer. That’s their routine.

Is there a right time and a wrong time? I don’t think so. Anytime is a good time for prayer, but I do think that patterns and regularity are helpful because when we develop habits we tend to stick with them. Whether we have regular prayer in the morning, noon, or evening, we should be consistent. To cite Lewis again, faith is acting on what you know to be true regardless of the mood you’re in. If we only prayed when we were in the mood, it probably wouldn’t happen very often.

In a quiet time, how would prayer balance out with Bible study?

Somebody once asked the great Presbyterian theological Benjamin Warfield, what’s more important prayer or Bible study and he replied, “Prayerful Bible study.” Bible study can be academic and it can be devotional. The latter might be a time of reading and praying.

There’s a long, strong tradition within Christianity that the reading of the Scripture is to be accompanied by prayer. Of course, the more we know and understand about the text (author, context, etc.) I think the greater the opportunity for us to pray in a more thoughtful and intelligent way. So prayer and reading the Bible definitely go together.

We’ve talked about all kinds of prayer—silent, private, public. Would journaling or writing down prayers have any place in that list?

Yes, I think that could be a helpful practice. Sometimes we are not cognizant of God answering our prayers. Writing down our requests and concerns could help us recognize when He has answered them. There are also times in prayer when we simply talk to God as we would to a caring friend. Writing can be helpful in this process, too.

I often see prayer mentioned in connection with meditation. What does Christian meditation look like and how does it differ from the New Age/Eastern mysticism image that we commonly see?

That is a concern for many people. When we bring up meditation, the image is often of devotees of Krishna Consciousness or transcendental meditation. But Eastern meditation and Christian meditation are very different from one another.

Eastern meditation can be blanking out the mind or it can be repeating a mantra over and over. The Krishna Consciousness, for example, encourages people to repeat Krishna’s name 1,000 times a day. It’s believed the repetition will engender more love on the part of the devotee.

Biblical revelation and historic doctrine inform Christian meditation. The Bible talks about meditating on God’s Word and His goodness. This includes reflecting on God’s glory, power, and provision. We can also ponder the life of Christ. Christian meditation involves thinking carefully, in a quiet and constructive way. But I think it also involves silence. Prayers can become very busy things, but meditation can still the busyness and help us listen.

What advice would you give to a Christian wanting to cultivate a richer prayer life?

Study prayer. Look at what the Bible says about it (Psalms is a good place to start) or pick a really good book that lays out a theological foundation of prayer.

Reading a collection of the great formal prayers is helpful, too. I often find that reading the liturgy helps me to realize how big God is. The Anglican Church’s The Book of Common Prayer is an excellent resource. I often read it because I want the best Christian theology and thought on prayer to shape my mind.

Of course, none of this should take away from your own spontaneity. God doesn’t care whether you read The Book of Common Prayer or not. He’ll be attentive to what you say no matter what.

What about when God doesn’t answer a prayer the way we had hoped, for example, healing of a loved one? What does that say about the power of prayer?

That’s a challenging question. I don’t mind telling God what I think or what I hope will happen, but I definitely frame my prayers by recognizing God’s sovereignty. My approach is to say, “Lord, I don’t know what your sovereign will is in all these circumstances, but I know what the need is and I know the feeling and the hurt. If it be in accordance with your will, please bring healing or provision.”

When people pray for something specific like healing and it doesn’t happen, it can be a time of struggle and difficulty. But it can also be a time of great spiritual growth. In 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 Paul says we are to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful. You can be joyful when you’re not terribly happy. You can be prayerful at any time no matter what the circumstance may be. And then there’s gratitude. I think there are many people today writing about happiness being tied directly to gratitude (see here and here).

Perhaps, then, we should pray for God to reveal what purpose He has for us in our suffering. We can also pray to remind ourselves that we are confident that God can heal and provide even as we acknowledge that, if His will is otherwise, He still has something good for us along the way.

 

Reflections on Prayer (Part 1)

Prayer is an essential part of both the private Christian life and the church’s corporate worship. In this interview series, RTB editor Maureen Moser and I discuss the ins and outs of prayer.

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How does Scripture define prayer?

ThinkstockPhotos-154184807I think the general answer to your broad question is that prayer is a line of communication between our Lord and us. Typically, communication should involve both listening and talking. He is the Shepherd and we are the sheep. He is the great King and we are the people who are dependent upon Him.

Yet there is a great variation in prayer style and substance. Sometimes prayer is a time of meditation or reflection. A lot of people enjoy reading Scripture and then pondering it. Many times, prayer involves being thankful and grateful. Then, of course, another part of the communication is supplication where we ask the Lord for our needs and for others’ needs.

What’s interesting is that Paul talks about praying without ceasing. That doesn’t mean spending 24/7 on our knees. It means that we live with an attitude of prayer. We live with a regular time of communicating with the Lord.

I sometimes wonder if it’s easy for people to develop a fixed idea of what prayer is supposed to “look like.” How important are things like fervency, tone of voice, vocabulary, and so on?

Scripture is very clear that the condition of a person’s heart is an important factor. You can have all the right words and a particular demeanor, but the Lord is looking for contrite hearts. He’s looking for hearts that are grateful, thankful, and joyful.

Now, having said all of that, I think Christian history has produced many formal prayers that believers have memorized, recited, and passed along from generation to generation. The Lord’s Prayer comes to mind. I would imagine most Christian churches have a place for the Lord’s Prayer either in service or incorporated into private time.

Some people have other regular prayers. I remember growing up reciting a particular prayer before meals that we had learned in the Catholic Church. And so, some groups give a greater place to formal prayer and the theological language that goes into it. Other groups, usually those that are more contemporary, are more spontaneous, conversational, and casual in prayer.

And certainly there are differences between public and private prayer. Personally, I like to read formal prayers. It helps me in my private life when I see how these prayers are structured and what they emphasize. It helps me when I’m alone to organize my own prayers. It helps me consider what to be thankful for and how to structure the concerns I have. But, then, I’m a bit formal; I like liturgy, I like formality. However, there is certainly a very powerful place for spontaneity.

At the end of the day, the condition of a person’s heart is the primary concern.

I grew up largely with casual prayers, but my husband and I recite the Lord’s Prayer with our daughter at nap and bedtimes. She can recite most of it herself and seems to like particular parts of the prayer. And yet because of my own childhood experience with prayer, I’ve struggled to adjust to recitation. As you said, you value the formal approach. What would you say are the pros and cons of both casual and formal prayer?

The pro of being casual is that people feel at home with God. They can talk with Him. He’s not only their Lord and Creator and Sovereign King, but also someone they can have a relationship of friendliness with, one that reflects personal connection. I think that’s very positive. There is the potential for some people to always have formal prayers to God, but to never talk to God from their heart.

The con might be that too casual a prayer style does not necessarily recognize the appropriate form of prayer. As I said, I like to read formal prayers. It helps me to think about what goes into a good prayer. Believers need to consider what kinds of things should be part of our prayer life, beyond just our own personal issues and needs. We need to also be praying in a broader way about things that are important to the church and to the Triune God.

I think formal prayer’s positive is that it often has a theological sophistication to it. There’s recognition of biblical categories. It can involve a doxology and various other structures. Of course, these shouldn’t be just other people’s words. They should be words that we embrace.

I think you can have all of it, the best of both worlds. There are times when I have very candid, private, casual discussions with God. There are other times I try to model prayer. For example, I like to encourage people to prayer to the Trinity: to the Father, in the name of the Son, and through the Holy Spirit. I hope that when I model that it encourages others to try doing the same in their own prayer time.

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Come back to Reflections next week for more thoughts and comments on prayer.

How Christianity Shaped Western Civilization

Today’s guest article was written by Dr. Andrew Stebbins.

ThinkstockPhotos-92834729If someone asked you to name the single most important influence in the formation of Western civilization, would Christianity come to mind? In the current cultural climate, Christianity’s positive contribution toward history is grossly underestimated or even ignored.1 The result is a populace disturbingly, and maybe even dangerously, ignorant of its own cultural heritage.

With this article and others to follow, my goal is to help correct this view by demonstrating Christianity’s incalculable value to the history of the West. This topic is enormously complex and can only be covered in limited fashion here. Nevertheless, over a short series of articles I hope to spark encourage you to delve deeper into this important field of research.

Ideas Matter

We begin with the initial premise that ideas matter; people act upon their beliefs, which are an outgrowth of the key assumptions forming the intellectual foundation for their worldview. According to W. Andrew Hoffecker, “One’s worldview gives coherence to how one thinks and lives, provides moral parameters, and directly motivates behavior.”2 People from different cultures see and respond to the world around them in different ways. For example, Americans view cheating on a test as categorically wrong (even if often done), but for the Chinese, refusing to do so for a friend might be viewed as immoral. The following section on monotheism highlights perhaps the most important of those key assumptions contributing to any given worldview: a culture’s understanding of the nature of divinity.

Monotheism

The idea that there is only one God “may well have been the single most important innovation in history.”3 For our purposes monotheism’s importance lies primarily in the fact that it is the only viable source of absolute truth. Only a single creator God can establish such truths. Monotheism also allowed for the formation of the rule of law, whereby God stands over and above His creation, and establishes immutable laws that are equally applicable to all people without exception.4 With no such conception of God and His law, individual people or cultures occupy God’s throne, dispensing justice as they see fit. Man-made laws are as changeable as the human mind and may not be applicable to the ruling power.

For example, God commanded people to not murder one another. This command may seem “self-evident” to most yet in many non-Western cultures female infanticide has long been a common and accepted practice. Only absolute truths based on an objective foundation (a single creator God) can help us determine if it is right or wrong to kill female infants.

As we’ll see moving forward, absolutes are fundamental to Western civilization. In this regard Judaism’s monotheistic worldview was the invaluable first step.

Equality, the Sanctity of Human Life, and Individualism

Closely related to rule of law are the notions of equality and the associated sanctity of individual human life. If all people are created in the image of God but fall short of His glory, and if Christ came to offer an incomprehensible sacrifice in order to bring the gift of salvation to all human beings, then all people are spiritually equal in the eyes of God.5 When this doctrine emerged, it represented a profound and critical realignment of cultural priorities. The same biblical reasoning applies to the dignity and value of individual human life.6 Modern Western culture perhaps takes it for granted that life is sacred and people are equal, but it did not have to be, nor has it normally been this way. In purely cultural terms, absent the monotheistic Christian worldview, such notions are counterintuitive (people obviously aren’t equal, and life is cheap).

Global penetration of these ideas fostered a historically unprecedented individualism that flouted traditional culture virtually everywhere and ultimately had profound cultural implications. Every human being mattered.

Interpersonal relations

Having established the significance of individual persons, Christianity also influenced civilization’s view of the individual in relation to other persons. Within the discipline of sociology lies a concept usually referred to as “chains of interdependence.”7 Generally this refers to interpersonal connections in society in which each person is in some sense dependent on all others. The concept includes the effects of changes in those interdependencies on the surrounding culture. Christianity, and especially Reformation Christianity, has had a deep and lasting impact in this area.

The notions of Christ as both God and personal Savior, with whom one can have a personal relationship, fostered a dramatic shift in cultural focus from interpersonal social ties to the relationship between a person and their God. The ramifications of this idea would prove significant.8

Conclusion

Any serious and unbiased observer of social development will acknowledge that “religion has played a leading role in directing the course of history.”9 Christianity was sociologically pivotal in the development of the West in the sense that it provided the forms of thought without which those institutions defining the West would likely never have come to fruition. Those institutions include rule of law, democracy, capitalism, science, education, and the family. The ensuing articles in this series will describe Christianity’s role in the emergence of each. While certainly not exhaustive, it is hoped that the ideas and institutions discussed will support the thesis that Christianity was the single greatest driving force in the development of Western civilization.

Endnotes

  1. Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956), 151; Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 2.
  2. Andrew Hoffecker, ed., Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P and R Publishing Company, 2007), x.
  3. Stark, For the Glory of God, 1.
  4. Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 248–51.
  5. , 263, 289.
  6. Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 59–60.
  7. John J. Mulloy, ed., The Dynamics of World History (New York: Sheed and Ward, Inc. 1956), 115.
  8. Hoffecker, ed., Revolutions in Worldview, x.
  9. Stark, For the Glory of God, 1–2.

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By Andrew Stebbins

Dr. Andrew Stebbins received his PhD in sociology from Murdoch University in Perth, Australia in 2009 and currently teaches at the Central Ohio Technical College in Newark, Ohio.