Friday, December 5, 2014

Glimpses of Jesus in a song

This is the title track for The Newsboys new album, Hallelujah for the Cross. It's my new favorite! At the bottom there are links to both the Newsboys' version and the composer's version. Praise God for Jesus!

Hallelujah for the Cross by Ross King

Up to the hill of Calvary
My Savior went courageously
And there he bled and died for me
Hallelujah for the cross

 And on that day the world was changed
 The final perfect lamb was slain
 Let earth and heaven now proclaim
 Hallelujah for the cross

Hallelujah for the war he fought
Love has won, Death has lost
Hallelujah for the souls he bought
Hallelujah for the cross

What good I've done could never save
My debt too great, for deeds to pay
But God my savior made a way
Hallelujah for the cross

A slave to sin my life was bound
But all my chains fell to the ground
When Jesus' blood came flowing down
Hallelujah for the cross

 Hallelujah for the war he fought
Love has won, Death has lost
Hallelujah for the souls he bought
Hallelujah for the cross

 And when I breathe my final breath
I'll have no need to fear that rest
This hope will guide me into death
Hallelujah for the cross

Hallelujah for the war he fought
Love has won, Death has lost
Hallelujah for the souls he bought
Hallelujah for the cross (Newsboys) (Ross King)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Anna Karenina: Conclusion

This post wraps up my thoughts on Anna Karenina. It could be a major spoiler for the book so if you want to find out what happens for yourself stop right here!

The contrast between Anna and Levin is clear throughout the book. While a sense of dirtiness and disgust cover Anna and Vronsky as their desires are fulfilled, the sense of joy and happiness at the ultimate success of Levin's pursuit of Kitty stands in marked contrast. Both Levin and Anna end up with the person whom they desire, Anna in an illegitimate relationship, Levin in a legitimate one. Both Anna and Levin entertain the desire to end their own lives at various points throughout the book. But there the similarities end. Anna is destroyed by what she thought would make her happy and bring her fulfillment. Levin grows as a man and ultimately finds faith in God. This is the story and point of Anna Karenina; the stark contrast between the two ways of living. 

Perhaps Jesus said it best, "For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to
destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14). Anna and Vronsky entered (and were summarily destroyed) through the broad road of pursuing their desires while Levin through the narrow gate of faith in Christ. Tolstoy's great novel stands as a sentinel to us today urging us to choose the narrow, though often more difficult, way of following Jesus.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Anna Karenina: Levin

This is a continuation from last time focusing in on the character of Levin in Anna Karenina. This post could be a spoiler for the book. So if you want to find out what happens for yourself stop right here.

Whereas the character of Anna degrades and is eventually destroyed as the book unfolds, the character of Levin grows and is enhanced. Levin seems to live out the words of Jesus in John 10:10, "I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly." Levin because of his pursuit of God grows and experiences blessing. One of the things I appreciate so much about Tolstoy is that this doesn't seem to be a "triumphant", "every-thing-is-rosy" life for Levin, but a realistic one filled with struggle, uncertainty and hardship alongside of the better things. 

I believe that the point of Anna Karenina is in the contrast between Anna and Levin. Levin is a landowner with high ambitions, morals, and dreams. However, he is a convinced agnostic/atheist. When the reader initially meets Levin he is unsuccessfully pursuing the woman of his dreams. Crushed and defeated he goes back to his country estate and immerses himself in working and trying to improve his agricultural position. Where Anna and Vronsky are successful, Levin is a failure, being rejected by Kitty (because ironically she thinks she loves Vronsky). The year it takes Vronsky to fully seduce Anna is a year of pain and suffering for Levin as he nurses a crushed self-concept and devastated dream after Kitty's refusal.

Throughout the book the character and compassion of Levin endear him more and more to the reader. Levin is a good man who wants the best for others. (Many have seen in him a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.) He is always thinking about ways to improve the lives and work of the peasants who help him work his land. At one point he resigns himself to his ideals and almost determines to take up the life of a peasant worker because of the satisfaction which he believes he will find in that life. This is not to say that Levin is a Christian by any means until the very end of the book, (when I believe he experiences a conversion experience); rather he is fairly strong in his unbelief thinking religion to be ridiculous and silly. Levin's unbelief is seen when conversing with a priest...

"Do you believe in all the doctrines of the Holy Apostolic Church?" the priest went on, turning his eyes away from Levin's face and folding his hands under his stole. "I have doubted, I doubt everything," said Levin in a voice that jarred on himself, and he ceased speaking. The priest waited a few seconds to see if he would not say more, and closing his eyes he said quickly, with a broad, Vladimirsky accent: "Doubt is natural to the weakness of mankind, but we must pray that God in His mercy will strengthen us. What are your special sins?" he added, without the slightest interval, as though anxious not to waste time. "My chief sin is doubt. I have doubts of everything, and for the most part I am in doubt." "Doubt is natural to the weakness of mankind," the priest repeated the same words. "What do you doubt about principally?" "I doubt of everything. I sometimes even have doubts of the existence of God," Levin could not help saying, and he was horrified at the impropriety of what he was saying. But Levin's words did not, it seemed, make much impression on the priest.

At the end of the book Levin finds that he has largely been living the life of faith in God without trusting in God. He seems to experience what many would call a "conversion experience." 

"I know not by reason, but it (knowledge of right and wrong) has been given to me, revealed to me, and I know it with my heart, by faith in the chief thing taught by the church."

Levin has progressed from a moral agnostic to a true believer by virtue of trusting in what he calls the "chief thing taught by the church." Tolstoy doesn't define this and from his point of view this could be merely loving one's neighbor. However, I find a deeper meaning to be that this refers to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice for sins. It is in this understanding and belief that the character of Levin finally comes to rest at the end of the book. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Anna Karenina: Anna

This is a continuation from last time focusing in on the character of Anna in Anna Karenina. This post could be a spoiler for the book. So if you want to find out what happens for yourself stop right here.

When the novel begins Anna is a bright shining star. When the reader is first introduced to her she has come to help save the marriage of her brother, the faithless Stiva, from the results of his own marital infidelity. She is vivacious and full of life, confident and concerned for others, resplendently beautiful, and sophisticatedly charming. Tolstoy's portrayal of her is nearly superhuman in all aspects. 

Anna begins to slip after the fateful night with Vronsky consummating their love. Where she was confident and selfless she begins to become more and more selfish. This is natural as she finds herself in a more and more untenable social position. Instead of confident she becomes more and more jealous and needy. Instead of distributing life and health wherever she goes, she begins to literally suck the life out of Vronsky and her other friends. By the end of the book she is thinking, saying, and doing crazy things. She is dependent on chemicals to cope with the realities of her life. She is unfeeling towards her own daughter. At one point she attempts to seduce Levin (a married man) into falling in love with her. Almost in the next moment she has forgotten him and is desperately clutching at Vronsky in an attempt to control him. Her parting words to him are cruel and vindictive. Finally she flings herself in front of a train in an attempt to escape, get revenge on Vronsky, and probably regain control of her life.

In Anna the reader sees most vividly the truth that sin leads to death. She, like Frou-Frou, literally lost her life because of her desire to follow her passionate attraction to Vronsky wherever it led. In the end she is left with nothing. Mocked in society, separated from her son, an increasing horror to her lover, Tolstoy's portrayal is realistic and cutting. At least two Biblical passages stand out in special regard to Anna...

"There is a way which seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." Proverbs 14:12.
"Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." James 1:14-15.

If one accepts the novel as a true portrayal of how life works it seems that one cannot help but affirm the truth of Scripture in these two texts. Sin brings death. It often at the outset looks good and pleasurable but always reaps the same result. That is why the cross of Jesus is absolutely imperative, not only for eternal salvation, but also for deliverance from the force (sin)that will surely destroy everything and everyone that it touches. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Anna Karenina: Vronsky

This is a continuation from last time focusing in on the character of Vronsky in Anna Karenina. This post could be a spoiler for the book. So if you want to find out what happens for yourself stop before the last paragraph.

Vronsky is an interesting and important character in the novel. He is the unabashed hedonist, living life for all the enjoyment and pleasure that he can get out of it. Tolstoy's portrayal of Vronsky is certainly a critique of this way of living. At one point Tolstoy puts these thoughts in Vronsky's mind...
In his Petersburg world all people were divided into utterly opposed classes. One, the lower class, vulgar, stupid, and, above all, ridiculous people, who believe that one husband ought to live with the one wife whom he has lawfully married; that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, and a man manly, self-controlled, and strong; that one ought to bring up one's children, earn one's bread, and pay one's debts; and various similar absurdities. This was the class of old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another class of people, the real people. To this class they all belonged, and in it the great thing was to be elegant, generous, plucky, gay, to abandon oneself without a blush to every passion, and to laugh at everything else.
This telling passage demonstrates the world-view out of which Vronsky lives as it clearly lays out the two different paths followed by Anna (and himself) versus Levin. Vronsky thinks it laughable to marry, have children, and remain faithful to one woman, but good to pursue one's own prestige, power, and pleasure without recourse to morality or accountability. One of the strengths of Tolstoy's writing is that nowhere does he pass judgment on Vronsky's character in an overt way for his immoral view and lifestyle. Instead, it seems that he attempts to portray Vronsky as a man enslaved to his own passions and desires, a thoroughly Biblical understanding of a person without a relationship with Christ.

In one of the most important thrusts of the book, both Anna and Vronsky begin the book with the greatest promise, the most social standing, and probably the most fun out of all the other characters. However, by the end of the book one of them is in a coffin and the other is a shell of their former self. The message from Tolstoy is as emphatic as it is clear, the road down which Vronsky and Anna embarked led them to destruction. From the beginning it looked exciting and full of life, but it was a classic bait and switch in which death and ruin were substituted for life. 

Tolstoy masterfully weaves in allusions and commentary which evoke strong emotions in the reader.One of my favorite was in the horse-race. Vronsky, as well as being a playboy, is a horseman of the first rate who spends large amounts of money on buying and racing horses. In one important scene, Vronsky is astride his favorite mare Frou-Frou. He is in the lead of the race, coming up to the end where he would claim the victory prize. With the finish in sight however, there is a tragic accident in which his lapse in judgment maims the mare. Tolstoy records the scene...
At that moment he (Vronsky) knew only that Mahotin (another race horse) had flown swiftly by, while he stood staggering alone on the muddy, motionless ground, and Frou-Frou lay gasping before him, bending her head back and gazing at him with her exquisite eyes. Still unable to realize what had happened, Vronsky tugged at his mare's reins. Again she struggled all over like a fish, and her shoulders setting the saddle heaving, she rose on her front legs but unable to lift her back, she quivered all over and again fell on her side. With a face hideous with passion, his lower jaw trembling, and his cheeks white, Vronsky kicked her with his heel in the stomach and again fell to tugging at the rein.
In this scene the reader experiences the consequences of Vronsky's pursuit of his pleasure (in winning the race) at the cost of the life of his favorite mare. Vronsky's callous response is a clear allusion to his behavior towards Anna as the novel progresses. Frou-Frou and Anna share much in common. Both are Vronsky's favorites. Both have beautiful eyes. Both are used by Vronsky to bring himself pleasure. And both end up dead because of it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Anna Karenina: Intro

Not everyone knows this about me, but I love to read. In the past couple years I've started reading some of the "greats" of literature. Most recently I finished Anna Karenina. In the next several posts I share my thoughts on the book and the overall point Tolstoy is trying to make. I'm sure much of this has been written on before, and much better, but these were my impressions.

In Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy vividly and thoroughly asserts that living for oneself instead of for God leads down the path of destruction. The novel touches on many topics, jealousy, infidelity, rejection, death, faith, and politics as it realistically portrays the intertwined lives of two contemporaries, Anna and Levin. At the beginning Anna Karenina is a well-married fairly young socialite whose marriage is less than satisfying. At the same time, Levin is a well-to-do, if somewhat backwards, bachelor with romantic intentions towards the woman of his dreams. The novel traces the story of their lives as Anna unwittingly does Levin a favor by attracting his love's leading suitor, the playboy Vronsky.

Vronsky upon meeting Anna is infatuated with her at a feverish level. He pursues her even though she is married, and finally succeeds in seducing her. For a brief moment Anna tries to resist Vronsky's advances, but ends up falling into a passionate love affair with him despite her original intentions. One of the most arresting scenes is immediately following the consummation of their affair. Tolstoy's description conveys the guilt and shame Anna feels because of her betrayal of her wedding vows. (Also it should be noted that this novel steers clear of portraying this scene in a graphic way.)
"She felt so sinful, so guilty, that nothing was left her but to humiliate herself and beg forgiveness; and as now there was no one in her life but him, to him she addressed her prayer for forgiveness. Looking at him, she had a physical sense of her humiliation, and she could say nothing more...Shame at their spiritual nakedness crushed her and infected him."
This chapter delves into the guilt and shame felt by Anna, and to a point Vronsky, because of their affair. Though they had satisfied a deep down longing, they did not find satisfaction. In spite of this, Anna and Vronsky continue down the passionate path of their love affair mostly unconcerned for the consequences to themselves or to others. By the end of the book Tolstoy has made a strong argument about the danger inherent in such an unfettered pursuit of passion fulfillment and the lack of fulfillment which it brings.

In the next four posts I will explore how Tolstoy uses the characters of Vronsky, Anna, and Levin to make his point of where the two ways of living: living for oneself versus living for God ultimately lead. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Glimpses in the Noah Movie

I have looked forward to seeing the new Noah movie starring Russell Crowe for some time. Though apparently not that much, because I wasn't willing to part with $10 to see it in the theater. I'd wanted to see it because it is a mainstream movie depicting a Biblical story. I wanted to see how it depicted the story, and what possibility it could bring up for talking about Jesus with people who've seen the movie.

Overall I liked the movie Noah. I liked it not because it was necessarily an accurate depiction of the Biblical story found in Genesis 6 and 9, let's be real, it wasn't.

No, I liked the movie Noah because it really caused me to think. As a person who believes that the Bible, including the chapters of Genesis which describe the Noah story, is the inspired word of God it was a helpful tool to better understand the God who I trust and worship. My aim here is not to be comprehensive, or to pick out small things, but to talk about big areas the movie got right and big areas the movie got wrong.

Here's some things I think the Noah movie got right...

1. Man was created in the image of God. The character Tubal-Cain throughout the movie provides a counterpoint to Noah's perspective of humanity being completely worthless and worthy of total destruction. Tubal-Cain is a self-serving tyrant king whose main purpose in the movie seemed to be to create tension, AND to allude to the fact that humanity had intrinsic value and worth because it had been created in God's image. Tubal-Cain took this to mean that he could basically do whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted, instead of safe-guarding and respecting other people, but hey no ones perfect! :) Genesis 1:27 records the words which are found throughout the movie on the lips of Tubal Cain, "So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them." 

Being created in the image of God means that mankind has great value. It also means that there are amazing qualities given to people, something we see throughout the movie as various characters interact. Ham and Ila love one another and care about their family. Shem risks his life to find himself a wife, a very human desire for companionship. And Noah in a climactic scene allows his love to overrule his sense of duty and spares innocent life. Man was created in the image of God, and each character in Noah's family exhibits glimpses of what it means to be created in God's image. 

2. Sin was a tragedy on the largest scale. It brought about destruction to humanity and to the world. While the movie seemed to want to dwell on the ecological side of the problem introduced by sin, I thought it did a pretty good job of speaking to the fact that people are bent towards serving and obeying themselves rather than their Creator (sin). 

There was one scene between Noah and his wife that was especially poignant. She talked about the goodness of their sons. Noah countered with the self-centeredness which he had seen in his sons, and concluded by saying how he and she were the same as the those doomed for watery destruction. The New Testament tells us that the state of fallen humanity apart from God is one of spiritual deadness (Ephesians 2:1-3) and that people in their natural state live and care only for themselves and not for their Creator (Romans 3:9-18). 

Though we see much goodness in the characters of Noah and his family we also see much that is negative and destructive. Sin twisted the original goodness of humanity into something that was very terrible to see. In one scene Noah sees starving people trade two girls across a fence in exchange for an animal to eat. This scene ends with something very reminiscent of a traditional picture of Hell with fiery imagery and the disgustingness of fallen humanity at its very worst. This vision is so powerful and terrible to Noah that he concludes it must be the will of the Creator to extinguish humanity entirely.

3. The God of the Bible is a God who punishes sin. Noah clearly portrays the fact that God punishes sin. There are several scenes where the Fall is described in words or by the camera. The fact that Adam and Eve were forced to leave the paradise of Eden is portrayed. Of course the biggest instance of God punishing sin is in the great deluge itself. In a harrowing scene Noah and his family can hear the cries of those who are outside the ark as the floodwaters overtake them. One of the deep points of the Noah story is found at the outset in Genesis 6:6-7,

"The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them.”

God's seriousness in punishing the sinfulness of humanity is one of the main points of the Noah story. This comes through well in the movie, although the movie does twist sin into primarily something which is done against other creatures. In the movie, in a small way, one can see both sides, judgment mixed with grace. God preserves the life of Noah and his family because of His grace. This mixture of judgment and grace foreshadows the most tremendous display of God's love, the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

Now here's some things I think the Noah movie got wrong...

1. The God of the Bible is a God who speaks in order to reveal Himself and His will to humanity. In the Noah movie, the Creator never speaks. Instead people are left to fill in his thoughts based on their interpretation of dreams, visions, and natural events. Some of these interpretations are good, others...not so much. 

The Genesis account says that God spoke to Noah throughout the Noah story. Nine times in Genesis 6:5-9:28 the Bible records that God "said" something, often to Noah. God's words included: His original declaration of his intention to destroy mankind in Genesis 6:7 (in the movie this was shown in a dream sequence without any words), careful instructions for the building of the ark in Genesis 6:13-21 (in the movie there is no mention of where the physical plan for the ark came from), instructions about when to enter the ark, what to take, and how long it would be before the rain started falling in Genesis 7:1-4 (in the movie things just sort of happened without Noah or anyone else knowing when they would happen). 

I could keep going, but hopefully you're getting the picture. The Bible portrays a God reveals Himself and His will to people by speaking to them. The Noah movie portrays God as something else entirely. The God of the Noah movie assumes an awful lot about the ability of one man to properly interpret dreams and visions in order to recognize and carry out His will. In contrast the God of the Bible reveals His thoughts and will to people in a way which they can understand and obey. He doesn't leave it to chance. 

2. Mankind cannot be it's own Savior. Perhaps the most troubling thing about the Noah movie, as with many movies, is the portrayal of the ability of people to "save" themselves. One is left at the end of the movie with the sense that Noah and his family are going to try harder and somehow do better than all the people who died in the Flood. This seems suspect and naive because of all the depraved things and people that one is introduced to throughout the movie, but it just sort of ends on a happy, hopeful note. 

In the Biblical Noah story, Noah and his family are only saved by the intervention of the God who speaks . In the movie, though it could be communicating the same message, the message gets muddied by the "we'll do better" stuff at the end and the non-communicative God stuff throughout. Overall, in the movie, mankind is on it's own to save itself, with the exception of some pretty cool rock giants.

The Bible teaches  that humanity apart from God is lost and needs saving. This is why the God-man, Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, came to earth. One of the more familiar verses in the New Testament, John 3:16, says, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only son, that whoever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life." In other words, the world and humanity in particular was in such bad shape that it took the intervention of God in order to bring about the opportunity for salvation. This was something which mankind could never do on its own. No amount of human effort can or every will bring the type of world and society for which so many long. 

3. Noah's relationship with God was much deeper than the movie depicted. Leading up to the Noah story in the Bible there is one instance where a person walked with God. It is in Genesis 5:22-24 where Enoch is said to have "walked" with God. The interesting thing is that Enoch's relationship with God resulted in such a life that God took him instead of having him die. The text is not explicit about what Enoch's walking with God entailed, but it seems very reasonable that Enoch lived in such a way as to obey, reverence, and trust God. 

The next person in Genesis who is said to "walk with God" is Noah in Genesis 6:9. The use of the phrase in both cases draws a parallel between Enoch's life and Noah's life. It is reasonable to think, based on this description, that what was true of Enoch, was also true of Noah. However, in the Noah movie Noah's relationship with God is best described as devoid of knowledge and based on a few visions and dreams. Because of God's reticence to speak in the movie, Noah cannot have a true relationship with Him. The Biblical Noah was a man who trusted God deeply and walked with Him closely. The Noah character in the movie can hardly be described in those same terms.

So those are my thoughts on Noah. I feel it's definitely worth seeing if you can get past non-Biblical stuff and allow it to reinforce Biblical truths on one hand and provide a stark contrast to what the Bible teaches about God on the other. I'd recommend it with the proviso that you allow it to serve as a contrast for the real story and the real God of the Biblical Noah story.