Category Archives: Movies

“The Martian”: The Ultimate Rescue Mission

MV5BMTcwMjI2NzM2MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDkyNTI5NTE@._V1_SX214_AL_This Friday, the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s highly successful debut novel The Martian hits theaters. In anticipation of the film’s release, I met with editor Sandra Dimas to discuss how The Martian might help remind others of a different kind of rescue mission.

Sandra: In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars by his crewmates after he is believed to be dead. It soon becomes clear that simply trying to survive on Mars is a constant struggle—yet life can thrive on Earth. As a Christian, what do you think that says about our home and our Creator?

Ken: I saw this interesting series on the Apollo astronauts. Almost all the astronauts looked back at Earth and compared it to our desolate, lifeless Moon. Numerous astronauts said that they had to come to the Moon to realize the gift of Earth. Atheists might wonder why there are so many places in the universe where life can’t survive. But I would ask, in light of all this inhospitality, why is Earth so hospitable to life? We kind of walk around Earth taking for granted that God has created this wonderful planet that has an adjacent Sun and Moon and stars. We take all of the benefits for granted, until we think about what life would be like on a planet that’s not friendly.

Yet we hear news stories about humans eventually colonizing Mars.

That’s right. In fact Stephen Hawking has said there’s going to be too many people on Earth and that we’ll have to travel to another planet. He is a brilliant scientist, but how could he say that humans could survive elsewhere knowing the incredible challenges that would pose? Earth is the goldilocks planet. Mars isn’t all that different from Earth in terms of size, but as The Martian shows us, it’s incredibly difficult for one person to try to survive on Mars, let alone a whole civilization.

Speaking of trying to survive on Mars, Mark must solve a slew of mechanical, mathematical, and engineering problems. Christians might say humanity’s ability to solve complex problems is a reflection of being made in God’s image. How might a naturalist explain such abilities?

In some way, Adam had to become the mechanic, the gardener, the zoologist, and so on. He had to tackle all of these challenges as they came. I think the Christian would say that God equipped him, and all of humanity, to face those challenges. When it comes to naturalism, evolution is the mechanism, but it’s unguided. Evolutionists will say the guiding mechanism is survivability, and that a person has to muster all of his reasoning, rationality, and intuition to survive in an environment that’s not hospitable to him.

Right. And that is very much the case for Mark. His survival is completely in his own hands.

In that sense, maybe there is an attraction toward atheism because of autonomy—“I get all of the responsibility of trying to survive but I also get all of the benefit.” Some people find that heroic. Philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that if God doesn’t exist, life is meaningless, but through your own strength of will you create meaning for yourself. I can understand how certain people would like that. I’m not one of them. If life had no meaning, I’d need some heavy doses of antidepressant medication. But some people think, “Well, if there’s no God then I take that role.”

One of the most powerful moments in The Martian is when Mark realizes the sacrifices that people made to try to save him—million-dollar missions abandoned, countless overtime hours worked, months spent traveling in space. Mark comes to the conclusion that every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. What are your thoughts on such a statement and how might it lead us to think about the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross?

That’s a very provocative way of framing it. Here you have people who are sacrificing their time, their money, and their effort to rescue this one individual. Jesus rescues us from a sinful state. When people are uneasy about eternal conscious punishment, which I think everyone is at some point, typically my response is, what did it cost God to save us? God gave his only begotten son to redeem lost humanity. That’s where we have a lot of good questions to ask our naturalist friends. In a world of “survival of the fittest,” why would other people be so sacrificial? Aren’t they going against the evolutionary grain to use all those resources for one guy? But Christians don’t think that way. They think that every human being is made in the image of God and is therefore valuable and worth rescuing. God set the example when he came to rescue us.

This line here really hit home: “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of billions of dollars, all to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?” When we reflect on ourselves, we might say, oh I’m just one dorky editor, or I’m just one dorky writer. Yet Christ saw us as worthy of rescuing, and the cost of our rescue was Christ’s life.

That’s absolutely right. As I think about it theologically, it would be one thing to rescue somebody who’s great, somebody who’s valuable, somebody who has all of these wonderful qualities, but God rescued a bunch of people who are rebellious, who give him the finger, who want their own way, and yet, he comes to die for the ungodly.

How does altruism look from a naturalistic perspective?

Altruism I think is a very difficult thing to define in an atheistic view. They have to weigh how many resources to use on this one individual. I think an atheist has every right to say this guy’s on another planet, he got himself there; to heck with him, it’s not my problem.

Mark Watney reflects on sacrifice, particularly for someone who, if you count the cost, doesn’t deserve to be saved. Yet the author of The Martian is agnostic. I think it’s interesting that it wasn’t his motivation to convey the gospel and Christ’s sacrifice, but he so beautifully conveyed that. I hope he sees your interview and I hope that he sees how his words impacted people.

I wonder if the author is not aware that he may still be dealing with the effects of being made in the image of God and God has put those beliefs in him. From a Christian point of view, with my Christian anthropology, I might look at that and say, he’s actually conveying something deep within his heart and he may not fully be aware that he’s conveying it. Sometimes non-Christians can present the gospel in better ways than Christians.

Absolutely. There’s value in such works. I certainly found value in this one. Do you plan on seeing the film?

Yeah, you’ve intrigued me by it…


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.”


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.”


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.)


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.

Five Movies to Make You Think in the New Year

Why do you go to the movies? For many, it’s about entertainment. Movies certainly possess a powerful ability to make us laugh and cry. Others go to the movies to escape from the pressures and challenges of daily life.

78466801I may be an oddball but I enjoy movies that make me think—especially about the deep questions of life. Some of my most stimulating theater-going experiences have resulted from films that inspired discussion with my wife and children. Earlier this year my son Michael and I saw Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary America. We ended up discussing the movie’s content for more than two hours. As a father, I have always enjoyed the opportunity to talk with my children about ideas that really matter and movies sometimes provide an ideal context for doing just that. Typically, I recommend a reading list for your New Year’s resolutions, but this year it’s movies that are guaranteed to make you think.

Some of these films contain language, violence, and sexual content that some may find objectionable. So, for the most part, these are films for adult viewers. Please use your own discretion in selecting which thinking movies you view in 2015.

5. 12 Angry Men (1957; not rated)

Twelve men serving on a jury are given the task of determining the guilt of a young man charged with murder. Henry Fonda plays the lead role of this black-and-white classic.

What I like about the movie is that it illustrates the various ways that people approach questions of truth and justice. Some jurors find their time wasted as jury members and want to avoid their civic responsibility. Other jurors make up their mind immediately apart from careful consideration of all the evidence. While still other jurors are inordinately influenced by strong peer pressure.

The most powerful scenes depict Fonda’s character asking Socratic questions to get the group to think more objectively about the evidence. In juries, as well as in all areas of life, asking the right kinds of questions about issues of truth can lead to great illumination.

4. Dead Poets Society (1989; PG)

Robin Williams stars as Mr. Keating, an unconventional teacher at a 1950s prep school for young men aspiring to reach the Ivy League. Keating challenges his students to “seize the day” (carpe diem) instead of following conventional ideas of success. I have enjoyed Williams’ dramatic movie roles and this is one of his best.

The film does a good job of raising questions about whether the purpose of education is to challenge young minds to think critically about life’s questions or about providing career-economic success. The underlying philosophical-religious question of man’s need to find genuine meaning in life, especially given life’s brevity, is a central theme in the movie.

3. Restless Heart: The Confessions of Augustine (2010)

Catholic publisher Ignatius Press produced this powerful TV-movie about Augustine of Hippo’s (AD 354–430) restless pursuit of enduring truth and eventual dramatic conversion to Christianity during the decline of the Roman Empire. The movie illustrates the central truth of Augustine’s autobiography Confessions—namely that human beings were made for God and that nothing else will truly satisfy human longing for the divine. The film, made in Italy, covers many of the major events in Augustine’s life. A 2-disc edition is available that offers extra exploration of the historical and theological issues involved in Augustine’s life and times.

Since Augustine is as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics, this is an important film for evangelicals to see in learning more about one of Christianity’s finest theologians and apologists.

2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994; R)

What would it be like to be sentenced to life in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? The Shawshank Redemption follows a falsely imprisoned man (Tim Robbins) from the 1940s through the 1970s and does a great job of raising critical questions about the issues of justice and meaning to life. The two central figures of the story (Robbins and Morgan Freeman) discover that art, education, and genuine, loving friendship can help to alleviate the pain and isolation of prison life. But what I like most about this extraordinary film is its illustration of the importance of hope in every human being’s life.

1. To End All Wars (2001; R)

Imagine the plight of World War II servicemen imprisoned by the brutal, fascist Japanese army. Daily life in this prisoner-of-war camp involves heavy labor, physical beatings, and a starvation diet. Yet in spite of it all some of the allied soldiers begin asking the big questions of life, especially questions about suffering.

To aid his men one of the Scottish officers begins a jungle university where the prisoners discuss philosophy, theology, and the arts. Through education, spiritual discipline, and a committed brotherhood these men are able to discover meaning and purpose even in the midst of evil and suffering. This amazing film illustrates such critical themes as hope, self-sacrifice, and redemption. This movie is one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.

You can also listen to our discussion of these thinking movies on episode 308 of my podcast, Straight Thinking.

What thinker’s movies would you add to this New Year’s resolution list?




Biblical Themes in “The Hobbit”

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, the third and final film in the series, releases in theaters December 17. RTB editor and fan of the book and film series Sandra Dimas stopped by my office to discuss some of the themes in The Hobbit.


The-Hobbit-Battle-of-the-Five-Armies-poster-9-691x1024The story begins with Bilbo Baggins leaving his cozy hobbit hole to join Gandalf and a band of dwarfs on their quest to reclaim vast treasures. Along the way, Bilbo experiences deep personal growth. Do you think this could relate to our faith and stepping out of our comfort zones?

It strikes me that both Lewis and Tolkien (I tend to think of them together) were very good at telling stories and then integrating them with theological, spiritual, and moral lessons along the way. So I can definitely see Tolkien picking that up. He was a great storyteller. In terms of Christian spirituality, I think there are a lot of things in life that compete for our attention—work, even our families, as important as they are. But when we come to know the Lord we begin a spiritual path. Like Bilbo’s path, the spiritual path has great benefits, but it also has challenges and difficulties. That’s how I see it connected to spirituality.

One of the main characters, Thorin Oakenshield, is consumed with greed and claiming what is his, even when faced with an impending war. What does this say of the corrosive power of greed, and how do we keep this in mind as we make our mental Christmas lists?

We live in a capitalist world in which people are weighted and measured by the kind of cars they drive and clothes they wear and home they own. And I think as a father and husband, there’s a side to me that wants to get my family something really nice to communicate that I care for them deeply and that I’ve listened to them and taken the hints. I’m aware of what they’re telling me. But on the other hand I think it’s very easy to be caught up in a merchandise culture and forget that the thing we truly care deeply about is our family. It’s not the things that they can give us; it’s them. We want their love and to enjoy that relationship. Greed is a big problem and I’m not surprised that Thorin’s greed would have application in ours lives.

After realizing his error, Thorin states, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” What can we learn from these poignant words?

That’s a wonderful sentiment. Ultimately we look for the joy of being with those we love. A lot of that can happen without a big price tag. It’s certainly easy to be caught up in the gift giving of the season. Though there’s nothing wrong with purchasing gifts for our loved ones, it’s true that the best things in life—love, humor, and the joy of being together—are free.

Speaking of the joy of being together, in The Battle of Fives Armies dwarfs, wood-elves, men, and the great eagles come together, not for joy, but to fight against their mutual enemy, but it takes some effort to band together. There’s a lot of peace and even sacrifice that need to take place. It brings up the question, how can we Christians avoid infighting and band together to fight for good?

The New Testament speaks of brothers and sisters in the Lord living together in peace, alluding to what’s going to happen in the new creation. The more I read about Lewis and Tolkien, the more I see how they were so deeply shaped by their WWI experience. That was a gruesome war—young men being in the trenches fighting and dying and being replaced by more young men. It seems like Lewis and Tolkien in their own way were trying to come to grips with the brutality and sorrow of the war, to rise above it all and move ahead, to overcome all of that pain and live in peace. Those are very strong themes.

Overall, The Hobbit reminds us that even someone small and lowly like Bilbo can change the world. This theme reminds me of the shepherds at the nativity. They were lowly and insignificant, yet they were called to worship the Christ child and then, beyond that, change the world by proclaiming that the Messiah is born.

That’s a great point. I like it! During the nativity and the advent season, we of course celebrate the coming of the Lord. Yet when you think about the shepherds who probably had very little in terms of what they could give, it’s a powerful statement that they got to witness this extraordinary event. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus, was this lowly handmaid and yet she’s involved in this incredible truth. I think in some ways that’s kind of what God does in our lives. He finds us, and most of us are pretty ordinary folk, we don’t have any claim to fame, but God works in our lives and develops our character and allows us to see what awaits us in the new creation. The 12 apostles were also pretty ordinary folk. We’re reminded to see what God does in the lives of people who are ordinary and not terribly famous but willing to leaving their hobbit holes, so to speak.

Tolkien was great at developing characters like Bilbo and Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Simple, lowly characters who left their lives of comfort and changed the world. That’s pretty powerful.

You’ve read more fiction than I have, but I have to say Tolkien sells so many books because he tells stories that hook people and they relate to these individuals in the story and probably they see themselves or others. That’s a powerful thing to do, to get the reader to relate to the story and maybe see yourself or see God in that.

Absolutely. Tolkien was phenomenal at communicating deeper spiritual truths in works of fiction. Would you like to offer any final thoughts on The Hobbit, and, more importantly, do you plan to see it?

Yeah, I’d like to see it. With Tolkien, he was able to draw on a lot of difficult situations to write some really beautiful stories—stories of hope, of purpose. His work informs us that God brings good things out of really bad situations. Christmastime is a great time to grow spiritually in anticipating the coming of the Lord and reflect on the common individuals who are part of the nativity story. We can think about peace, humility, the danger of the sins that just grab hold of us, and how the Lord comes to free us. Those are wonderful elements that people like Tolkien can use in their writings to change people’s lives, giving us hope, a sense of purpose, and challenging us to grow as their characters have grown.


For more on The Hobbit, see “Big Truths from The Hobbit.”


Ethics in “The Hunger Games”

How do the choices we make in pursuit of an end goal impact the outcome of our endeavors? If our cause is worthy enough, are we excused from ethical considerations in our efforts to achieve it? In other words, do the ends justify the means?

These were the questions on RTB editor Maureen Moser’s mind after reading Mockingjay, the third book in author Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. She knocked on my office door recently to discuss ethics and consequences. Whether you plan to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 or not, I hope this post will provide some food for thought. (Possible spoilers included.)


ac09894e-3903-11e4-93ff-bc764e11a888In the Hunger Games, it’s obvious the Capitol is untrustworthy and cruel, but then the leaders of the rebellion also pull some very dirty, even brutal, tricks to win the war in Panem. If you are fighting for the “good guys,” are you ever justified in using unethical tactics to achieve victory?

I think many people, perhaps Christians especially, would say that the means should never violate the ends. That is, a sound approach to ethics means you must have a moral end and moral means to getting there.

One big challenge in war is that the nature of warfare often changes strategies. Philosophers, theologians, and ethicists can come up with a sound ethical code—but applying anything to the battlefield is difficult. During World War II, the Allies occasionally cut corners despite the American policy of not targeting noncombatants. The bombing of Dresden, for example, killed many civilians. So did the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I have sympathy for people who have to make those choices. Ethics requires a lot of thought and reflection, but in combat, you have to make instant decisions. You have a second or less to decide if you’re going to shoot or be shot. It’s not easy to know if your means is ethically compatible with your ends. I have a lot of admiration for noble soldiers because they act justly when they could be abusive. It’s easy for me, sitting at my safe desk, to criticize people on the battlefield. My tendency is to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever I can.

War is often evil, always regrettable, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary to fight—because if you don’t, the greater evil will prevail. Of course, it’s never comfortable to reason out what the least of the evils is.

The scenario in Mockingjay, of replacing the corrupt Capitol with a new government, brings up an interesting question. When you accept an ends-justify-the-means-mentality, are you building your new beginning on a history of doing things that are ethically unsound?

That’s a great point. I think it’s true that most new wars begin because of the way the old war ended. The ending of World War I caused real problems that historians suggest contributed to the onset of World War II. Also, the way the Second World War ended raised complications for the Cold War. Winners of wars, even though justly fought, must be very careful in how they treat conquered enemies.

In American history, I look at the aftermath of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s policy was to let the South off easy and extend forgiveness. But Andrew Johnson’s administration, which followed Lincoln’s assassination, was about as bad as Lincoln’s was good. The country has paid a heavy price for it in the form of bitterness and racial tensions. Perhaps showing mercy would have been the better policy.

What about the question, would it be wrong to lie to Nazis in order to protect Jews? In this scenario would the ends (saving a life) justify violating one of the Ten Commandments?

If you were hiding Jews and the Gestapo came to your door, most people would agree that you should lie to the soldiers about the refugees’ whereabouts. These questions have been debated for a long time. In general, there are two schools of thought among Christians regarding such scenarios.

Some people would say that lying to the Gestapo agents is something you have to repent of, but it is the lesser of two evils. So, it’s a bad thing to break the Ten Commandments and to lie intentionally—but in this case, it would be the lesser moral offense.

The other school of thought would argue that the greater good of saving a life would mean that that intentional deception was no evil at all. People in this camp would take the view, and I agree with them on this point, that the greater good principle would mean that you haven’t done anything wrong at all.

This brings to my mind the story in Exodus about the Israelite midwives who lied to Pharaoh in order to save the Hebrew male babies. And God rewarded them for it by giving them families of their own!

Yes, in such a case, I would argue that the value of life outweighs your obligation to your political leaders. Personally, I would agree that it would not be wrong to intentionally deceive an evil power that is out to crush innocent human life.

This doesn’t mean I think intentional deception is an easy thing to do; hopefully our conscience tells us that telling the truth is right. I’m thankful that I haven’t had to make that kind of choice, which also puts you and your family at risk. The Corrie ten Booms and Sophie Scholls of history have shown extraordinary moral strength.

We’ve been discussing big topics and intense scenarios. For those of us who will not likely face such choices, how might the ethics we’re talking about apply to everyday life?

I do think many of us face temptation to cut corners. There’s a moral flaw in any theory that allows you to hold an ideal, but then allows you to cheat, lie, and destroy in order to achieve that thing. We have the opportunity to live out the greater good everyday of our lives. If we’re morally strong with the small things, then the more likely we’ll be morally strong when the big things come along.

We need a morality that’s deeply grounded in some form of revelation. I think any kind of secular grounding doesn’t work; we need a broader principle to guide us—love God and love your neighbor. This means we don’t lie to our neighbors and we don’t cheat our neighbors. It isn’t always easy. The Christian life can be very challenging, but I think it’s a deeply rewarding one.

Definitely. Any thoughts you’d like to close with?

Yes, for the New Year’s resolution episode on my podcast Straight Thinking this year, I’ll be sharing a list of thought-provoking movies. I think movies are great, especially the ones that have you walking away from the theatre wondering, how would I respond to that? I hope people will choose to go see movies like that and it sounds like the Hunger Games series raises some issues that need careful thought.


Additional resources


A Review of Dinesh D’Souza’s “America”

AMERICA-OneSheetPoster-July2-webOver the Fourth of July holiday my family and I saw America, a new documentary from Dinesh D’Souza. The film, which sparked a lot of discussion among the members of my family, suggests that there are two basic views of the United States:

1. America the Oppressive Nation

2. America the Exceptional Nation

D’Souza begins the film with interviews of select and high profile people who hold the first view and connects it with some popular historical authors. He then interviews other people who critique the first view and, thus like him, affirm the second. D’Souza served in the Reagan administration and is, of course, a conservative Republican who is greatly critical of both President Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton.

Regardless of political perspectives, the real benefit of this movie is that it gives the viewer the opportunity to think “worldviewishly” and to engage in serious critical thinking about important historical, cultural, and political issues. The categories of race, gender, and class are constantly in the news and this movie allows these topics to be viewed from very different points of view (though clearly D’Souza’s film has a strong perspective, if not an agenda). One possible response to the film is to conclude that maybe the truth is found somewhere in the middle.

In my opinion, every high schooler and college-aged student in the United States should see America. It affords a great opportunity to ponder two very different prisms of America. Whatever your political persuasion, the movie is guaranteed to cause some irritation but also to make you think.

And it is always a good idea to ask yourself: “What is the best argument on the other side?” Truth is far too important for us to allow it to go untested!

For more worldview thinking on movies, check out these other reviews and articles.

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.


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.