Monday, January 28, 2013

The Problem of Love: A Beautiful Mystery - Movie Review of The Impossible

I don’t do movie reviews. That is, until I saw The Impossible, an intense realistic film based on a true story about a European family vacationing in Thailand. On the day after Christmas 2004, they are ripped apart by the Indian Ocean Tsunami that struck Southeast Asia. Don’t consider this your average catastrophe movie. It is so much more. A gargantuan wall of water the likes of Niagara wreaking havoc on unsuspecting tourists? Yes. Physical, emotional, and mental survival in the face of frightening events? Yes. Incredibly acted by a less-than-star-studded cast? Yes (As brilliant as Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts are, they are equally matched by three children, particularly young Tom Holland’s debut as the oldest son). But what really makes this movie is the underlying message: despite an epic natural disaster the likes of which most of us, thankfully, will never experience (a non-man-made “act of God” and the epitome of the problem of evil in the world), the “problem of love” still rules.

As the aftermath of the disaster unfolds, Maria (Watts) and her oldest son Lucas (Holland) struggle through a torrent of water and deadly debris to get to safety only to find her injuries are more serious than she thought—the skin on the back lower part of her right leg has been stripped away and she suffers a puncture wound to her chest. Separated from her husband Henry (McGregor) and the other two children, they assume the worst. Meanwhile, Henry has the younger ones holed up in the destroyed resort, as he frantically searches for his missing wife and other son. They are surrounded by utter devastation, dead bodies, and other desperate survivors. The problem of evil reigns.

As the waters subside, Maria, despite severe pain, is compelled to save a toddler crying in the wreckage over the objection of Lucas. Meanwhile, Henry meets a group of survivors who sympathetically share their stories of trauma. One of the men gives Henry his cell phone to call his father back home despite the low battery and his own painful wait for a return call from his family. To help in the search, he joins Henry, who is forced to send the two younger ones to a shelter on their own under the protection of a complete stranger. Native villagers rescue Maria, Lucas, and the newly adopted Daniel. The suspense builds as Lucas must care for his mother fighting for her life in a local, chaotic hospital bursting at the seams with bloody victims as dedicated medical staff perform heroic feats. Lucas’ heart turns from self-preservation to empathy as he finds joy in helping and seeing others find their loved ones, including Daniel. Meanwhile, Lucas’ younger brother—now separated from the woman entrusted to him—must fight back fears to parent and protect his own younger brother.

In the end, life-threatening tragedy and harrowing suspense is overcome by empathy, kindness, love, and the dogged determination of the human spirit. Atheists may point to the problem of evil in the world as to why they disbelieve in a loving God, but journeys like The Impossible point to a far greater challenge. One more difficult to explain in the face of senseless destruction: the problem of human love and compassion for others in the wake of inexplicable suffering and death. That kind of sacrificial love may be a problem for the materialist who believes life is ultimately meaningless, but for the spiritual, it’s evidence of a beautiful Mystery. This one’s a must see.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Update on Conservative Evangelical’s Dirty Little Secret: Spiritual Abuse

Last year I blogged about two major denominations’ recent exposure of spiritual abuse in the media and blogosphere, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) and Seattle Mars Hill Church. With new developments, I offer this update. SGM (which I attended in the 1980s and early 90s and tell the story in my book) is now the target of a lawsuit that names several pastor defendants claiming they covered up both sexual and physical abuse done by members and possibly one pastor.

First of all, this sounds eerily familiar. My friend Darla Melancon wrote a book a couple of years ago (Things I Learned After Being Kicked Out of Church) exposing a similar cover up and manipulation in her SGM church (the church I used to attend years ago). Second, after reading an amendment to the lawsuit, I discovered my old friend from that same SGM church, Pastor Mark Mullery, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit! One good thing is the church he pastors now, SGM Fairfax, VA, just voted last week to leave the denomination. I’ve reached out to him, but he hasn’t revealed anything about their specific situation (it’s been 18 years since I’ve seen him). Bottom line is, SGM is going through a huge shaking due to persistent, documented accusations of spiritual and now sexual abuse. (As catalogued by the good folks over at SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge).

Now Seattle. With SGM’s lawsuit ringing in my ears, years of following stories by SGM and now Mars Hill ex-members (see Mars Hill Refuge and Joyful Exiles), a wonderful phone conversation with a new blogger friend Julie Anne over at Spiritual Sounding Board (she’s a tigress when it comes to exposing abuse), and a new development at Mars Hill Church (they moved one of their branches closer to where I live), I decided I needed some first-hand experience getting to know Mars Hill. I visited the downtown branch last Sunday. Kind of twilight zonish, it was, going back to a conservative evangelical church after 7 or 8 years. Mostly smiling, friendly twenty-thirty-somethings, terrific upbeat music, polished and professional leaders, and state-of-the-art technology streaming video of Mark Driscoll preaching on a massive screen.

The problem of pinpointing spiritual abuse and warning people is these churches often look so good on the surface. Everyone is smiling, there’s a spiritually-satisfying atmosphere, the sermon is full of jokes and encouraging teaching. It takes a discerning eye to spot it. I was reminded of Jonna Petry’s story from Mars Hill that reveals this problem of an appealing veneer over destructive abuse behind the scenes. I also remembered the long Membership Covenant members are required to sign before they join, which lays out strict rules for adhering to church doctrine and understanding church discipline. That document was red flag number one.

Seeing Driscoll on the screen was red flag number two. All the churches in the city stream Mark for sermons. There is no local teaching at MH church plants! No need to clone. Every church gets the same guy and sermon. This fits one of the major characteristics of spiritually abusive churches—they have an ambitious, charismatic, and controlling leader with little or no accountability. Streamed sermons to all church campuses is a great control mechanism.

As sermons go, Driscoll’s was upbeat, funny, encouraging, and extremely simplistic. I had heard he had toned down his more bombastic side, so no expletives. There were the typical Calvinist fundamentalist beliefs, almost hidden behind the charismatic delivery. “We all deserve to go to hell,” he slipped in. “God chose you, predestined you to be in Christ…” [with the corollary, God predestined non-believers for eternal wrath, left unsaid]. “Don’t build your children’s identity by telling them what they are good at… but that they are in Christ.” This was the put-down-worldy-social-sciences-for-the-true-biblical approach. Why not do both, Mark, and tell them they’re good at some things because God made them that way? Red flag number three. Beware of manipulation through fear of hell and black-and-white thinking.

In a fascinating twist, one of the first people I saw when I approached the church was… my across-the-street neighbor! Despite the fact that last year I warned him about Mars Hill, he and his wife joined the church. He told me he’s now a home group leader and has meetings every Tuesday, right across from my house! It’s a small world. (As I write this, they are meeting). He revealed red flag number four. He told me they discuss the previous week’s sermon every meeting. No need to address local concerns, just reinforce Mark’s teaching. This is a tactic my SGM church used to make sure everyone swallowed the red pill and ensured the “anointed leaders” are in charge—even of what to discuss at home groups.

After the service, which included a long appeal for giving and the church’s financial situation (not pretty and which was red flag number five; members are pestered to give more and more to the church to meet pressing needs), I went up to talk to pastor Tim Gaydos, a handsome man with a friendly smile. I’m not sure what he thought when I told him I don’t believe in biblical inerrancy and am a Christian Universalist. “Is there a place for me here?” I asked, after explaining some of my background (25 years in evangelicalism before jumping ship). The conversation continued something like this:

"Sure, we welcome everyone who attends,” he said. “Not everyone is a member.”

”But I read your membership covenant,” I said. “I found it very narrow. Does that mean, someone with my beliefs could never be a member?”

I detected a switch in tone. “Well, yeah, there are doctrinal conditions for members.”


He used his hands as an illustration. “We hold on tight to the non-negotiables and are open handed to negotiables. Most large evangelical churches today don’t have membership. But we think it’s important. It tells us who our real sheep are to care for.”

Sounds like attendees are second-class citizens, I thought. “But what if I couldn’t agree with the covenant… your non-negotiables?”

“If you decided you couldn’t agree with them, why would you want to become a member?” he asked.

Good question. Why indeed? I thought. “I get that. You’re right,” I answered. Later I realized I should have said, Because I believe that loving people in community is more important than believing all the same doctrines. “But my question is,” I continued, “why are they so narrow? Why does the church see the need to have doctrinally rigid conditions for members, like believing in inerrancy? Many sincere believers don’t believe in that and consider it a negotiable.”

He didn’t answer directly. He seemed a bit flustered. Said something about not apologizing for believing the Bible is inerrant. Nice guy, Tim. But I detected red flag number six. Abusive churches don’t welcome questions—especially tough questions. And I hadn’t even gotten started! They also hate ambiguity and have a paranoid need to have everyone agree.

Bear in mind before the streamed sermon, they played an interview with an Ethiopian pastor who apparently is one of Mars Hill’s overseas church plants. I asked Tim about how that works. They pay the pastor’s salary, he told me. “What about the future of that church?” I asked, implying there is an unhealthy dependency potential.

“Well, the goal is that the church would eventually support their own pastor to make it sustainable.”

Having been a church planter/missionary myself in Africa for seven years, I am all too familiar with this model. It’s probably the worst strategy one could undertake if you wanted to plant healthy long-term churches, but the best strategy if you wanted to do something quick and easy and look really good. Typically, such a model produces a dangerous dependency (sustainability becomes a pipe dream), local residents don’t trust the pastor—they know he’s milking the white foreigners and suspect he’s only in it for the money—and oftentimes he is. I warned Tim about this problem, but he didn’t seem to take it seriously. Red flag number seven. Were appearances more important than strategic thinking? Then again, why should he trust some fallen-away Universalist?

Finally, after our conversation, I strolled over to the bookstore. Not very big, that’s for sure. Why? Well you can only fit so many Mark Driscoll books on shelves. They made up more than half the books along with a few others like fellow Reformed pastor John Piper. Red flag number eight. Control members’ library. I had also heard Driscoll on YouTube tell members not to read The Shack.

Julie Anne has spurred me to think about doing something more concrete about exposing abuse and helping to prevent it. This visit was a start. Next, I’ll talk with my neighbor. Stay tuned. Comments welcome.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Shooter, not God, caused Newtown tragedy

Someone wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper, The North Kitsap Herald, and implied God used the Newtown tragedy to punish the country for legislating God out of the public sphere. Here's my response (and below) that was published on January 4th, as well as another good response from James Behrend:

I don’t doubt Don Wiens is well meaning (“Reaction to school shootings in Newtown,” page A4, Dec. 28 Herald). But when he implied that God didn’t prevent the Newtown shooting because we’ve legislated God out of public life, he parroted the standard conservative “Christian” line from the likes of James Dobson, Franklin Graham, and the American Family Association.

They’ve been touting a vindictive God for decades, stating mirrored threats at every national tragedy to scare and manipulate the populace to buy into their warped theology: the nation has fallen away from God (pushing prayer out of schools and permitting gay marriage) and divine judgment has prevailed. I know. For 25 years, I was a part of that movement and trace my spiritual evolution out of it in my book, “Confessions of a Bible Thumper.”

Wiens and his national counterparts overlook the heart of the very God they claim to serve. Jesus condemned public displays of religion, told his followers to pray in secret, and taught the reign of God is not about Old Testament-style retribution, but rather cultivating a kind heart, loving your enemies and fighting for social justice.

Wien’s citing a C.S. Lewis book as proof of divine judgment is also misguided. A loving God may not always be “safe” because His justice is restorative — He has a knack for winning over renegades — not because He’s vindictive.

The truth is, the Newtown shooter was a home-schooled, mentally ill loner whose mother had an arsenal of guns. His deranged act wasn’t God’s instrument of justice for our rejection of fundamentalist religion. There may be underlying reasons for violence in our society, but God’s revenge isn’t one of them.

Michael Camp
Poulsbo, WA

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

6 New Paradigms Essential for Convergence Christianity - Part I, the Bible

For years now, Christian writers and thinkers like Brian McLaren, Eric Elnes, and Phylis Tickle have been talking about a New Convergence (NC) in Christianity--a coalition (some know it as the emergent church and expressed in such movements as The Wild Goose Festival) of liberal mainliners, restless evangelicals, and progressive Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, all converging over a progressive, social-justice-focused theology, closer to the original message and movement of Jesus. My contention is, in order for this modern recapturing of Jesus' love-ethic-over-religious-dogma to stick, there needs to be a clear demarkation between the old world view that all these streams held at one point to a large degree and new spiritual, well-defined paradigms based on solid scriptural and historical evidence. Othewise, the conservative roots and branch of each stream will continue to hold it back and deem it suspect. So, here's my take on 6 essential paradigm shifts the NC needs to embrace and express.

1 - An Historical Approach to the Bible - By historical, I don't mean one must accept everything in the Bible as exactly historically accurate, but that the "biblical" way (true to what the Bible actually teaches and how it was compiled) of viewing the Bible is as an historian reading a human document (parts of which, each individual 'historian reader' deems inspired by God). Without an historical approach, the Bible is abused and used to oppress others, e.g. the anti-gay error (both of these I expound in my book). This historical view is opposed to the traditional, literalist view, which claims the the Bible is wholly God's Word and inerrant, self-sufficient, self-evident, internally consistent, and universally applicable. Christian Smith, Garry Wills, and many others have shown the fallacy of this literalistic view, while maintaining respect for the Bible as containing a message from God. The NC must be able to articulate this historical approach. For example, perhaps, stating the following, not as a litmus-test creed, but as an alternate paradigm:
  • The Bible is not the Word of God but contains the Word of God.
  • The Word of God is the Logos, the rational wisdom of God, as best expressed in Christ.
  • We discern God's Logos and how to apply it by reading the Bible with an understanding of its historical, cultural, and literary context, how it was compiled and translated (biblical/historical scholarship), with the help of the Spirit, and a dose of common sense.
  • We learn to apply the Logos of God in the Bible to our lives by focusing on its grand conclusive themes--trust (faith), grace over law, hope, and love--not specific admonitions that don't claim to be universally applicable.
There are five other new paradigms I'm suggesting, which I'll describe in future posts. They have to do with recapturing the meaning of "church" (hint, it's not an institution), rediscovering the Good News, embracing hope not fear of the future, understanding the inclusive, universal message of Christ, and embarking on a spiritually-fueled social-justice mission. Stay tuned for these other five and let me know your thoughts on New Paradigm #1.