Archive for August 15th, 2010

I watched a movie today that was thought-provoking. Reading about it afterward, though, was even moreso.

The Other Side of Heaven is the story of John Groberg (Christopher Gorham), a Mormon missionary in the 1950s. There’s really not much that’s overtly Mormon in the movie — the vast majority of what’s shown and said fits into traditional Christian beliefs.

On a side note, this DVD is a product of Walt Disney Home Entertainment. One has to wonder how many tens of thousands of RPMs Uncle Walt is hitting in his grave that his name is associated with a film that gives any kind of credit to God.

Shortly before graduating from BYU, Groberg declares his love for Jean Sabin (Anne Hathaway) and asks for her to wait for him while he is on his missionary assignment. The movie is peppered with letters between the two of them; the letters don’t drive the plot much, but examine the thought processes that each of them is having during Groberg’s time away.

Groberg is sent to the Tongan islands where he ministers for approximately three years. During a large part of his assignment, he is paired up with a native (Joseph Folau) who acts not only as his interpreter (until Groberg learns the language), but also as a fellow worker in ministry.

Anyone with exposure to missionary work (even if it’s just hearing the guy who showed up at your church with a slideshow) will not find much of what Groberg faces to be surprising. Rather, much of the story lies in the relationships that he builds with the people of the island on which he works. There are events throughout the movie that drive the story forward — it’s not all character-driven, but there’s not much that’s earth-shattering here. Still, the movie (and the trials that Groberg faced) is challenging to any Christian who’s up for an iota of self-examination.

What was surprising was the virulence of the reaction to the film. As is my wont, especially with movies that are based on true stories, I went to teh interwebs and read reviews after viewing the movie. I expected that there would be criticism from many reviewers, some of which might be deserved, but some of which would simply be in adverse over-reaction to a film about faith. But the majority of the criticism that I saw wasn’t so much about the occasional hokeyness or seeming over-simplicity of the movie, but a near-anger about the ideals behind it — a reaction for which a word like “knee-jerk” just doesn’t suffice.

Now granted, some of it was just downright stupid. A couple of writers complained about how Groberg was imposing American/Western values onto the Tongan culture. If you actually pay any attention to the movie, you will recognize what a laughable accusation this is. The only scene in which Groberg confronts (in a negative manner) the culture to which he is ministering is when he tells a couple of men that theft, bribery, and fornication are not the “privilege of the higher class”, despite the fact that their culture dictates otherwise. Further, Groberg’s appeal is to faith, not to some idealism that he brought with him from Idaho.

But some of the other criticism was more thoughtful — though ultimately wrong. One writer that stood out in particular noted that the movie flies in the face of today’s “moral relativism” (his words), clearly implying that the latter was a good thing. His thoughts around that were admittedly well-constructed, but all based on that sad misconception.

The whole thing got me to thinking — from where did these violent reactions come?

Granted, moral relativism is rampant in American culture these days. On my more carnal days, I want to punch someone in the throat if they say “all paths lead to God”, not so much because of the error of the concept as the fact that I’m sick of constantly hearing it. Or we could go with a tired conservative/Christian phrase and note that the “Hollywood elite” (and even its critics) are probably at the vanguard of such a belief system. One could even refer to how the enemy blinds the eyes of the unbeliever and attribute even the stupid reactions to this phenomenon. But all of that just defines the problem.

And, to be sure, there are those who name Christ who have Americanized/Westernized their faith. On top of that, many of them have romanticized earlier times in our country, as though no sin (or anything else bad, for that matter) occurred in America before 1963. And so when other Christians try to shake off this baggage and attempt to not preach “another gospel” (which is what adding to the gospel message is really all about), they are soundly criticized — often to the point of the outright denial of their salvation — by the Hugh Beaumont faction of Christianity. Sadly, such screeching is often very loud and that’s what a lot of unbelievers see Christianity as being. But I think even this is an over-simplistic analysis of the situation.

I can’t shake the feeling that, as Christians, we’re missing something even broader. What that is, though, is beyond me.

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“What they* taught they expected the church to believe and preserve.”

–John RW Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 107

*’They’=the apostles

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Let me begin this post by first showing you a couple of passages of Scripture that I believe fit very well together. First, from the Gospels; second, from Paul; third, from the book of Hebrews. Notice how all three passages speak to the the same ideas, peace, reconciliation, oneness.

“The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”–Mark 15:38

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace…”–Ephesians 2:14-15

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”–Hebrews 10:19-22

All three of these passages, in their context, speak of something that happened when and because Jesus died. He ripped and destroyed and opened. I like these verbs…they are action words par excellence. They speak of the violent nature of the problem he encountered. There were real, significant barriers in the way of peace, reconciliation, and oneness. They also speak to the way he saw them: these were not chicanes that stood in the way that could be spoken to nicely or dealt with in counseling or massaged out of existence. Rather, these were real chicanes that needed ripped, destroyed, and opened. They required a death in order to be destroyed.

They were real strongholds we erected. They separated us from one another, from God, and from God’s kingdom. But because he died, because he did something, the way was opened up, hostility was destroyed, peace has been made, and one new people have been created. This is the action of God. Peterson rightly notes, “When we are pulled into the action, it is God who pulls us in. We acquire our identity not by what we do but by what is done to us” (Practice Resurrection, 117). This destroying, ripping, and opening is God’s action, not ours. We just get to be a part of it and enjoy it. Still, we do play a part in their perpetuation even if the action rests solely in God’s hands.

I’d like to leave it at that. I’d like to leave it with a very simple: God made a way where there seemed to be no way. God opened up what we had closed. God ripped apart that which we sewed together. God destroyed that which divides us and enabled us to be one again. I find this refreshing and encouraging and it gives me hope. There are a million ways we humans try to ‘come together’ and ‘make peace’ and ‘live as one.’ And not one of them ever works. In Jesus, however, and because of his death, all those things which previously kept us apart have been destroyed.

There is only one way we will be one, at peace, and reconciled: In Jesus.

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