Sunday, February 28, 2016

Risen, a unique take on the resurrection

What if somebody, a skeptic, tried to find out what really happened to Jesus’ body in the days and weeks following the discovery of the empty tomb? That’s the premise of the new movie Risen.

[Spoiler alert!]

Pontius Pilate tasks Clavius, a Roman tribune (upper class military officer), with tracking down the body of Jesus after two guards claim his disciples overpowered them and stole it in the night. Clavius should be able to identify the body since he was present at the crucifixion. However, something doesn’t add up in the guards’ stories, and he suspects the Jewish religious leaders are trying to cover up the truth. After tracking down Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, and others, Clavius ultimately finds himself facing the undeniable truth that Jesus truly did rise from the dead.

The film has a lot going for it. Many Christians were disappointed with how Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings changed the Bible stories they were based on, going so far as to promote agendas wholly opposed to the Bible’s teachings. Because Risen focuses on a non-biblical character, the movie was free to be more creative and keep the audience guessing without altering the Bible story nearly as much (though alter it they did—more on that in a minute). This take on the Easter story felt fresh. To see Clavius turning things over in his mind while scouring the empty tomb was exciting because I knew he wasn’t looking at it as the scene of the resurrection, but the scene of a crime. The filmmakers show Pontius Pilate washing his hands while essentially saying the truth about what happened to Jesus’ body was irrelevant, a visual allusion to his actions prior to the crucifixion—brilliant. The best part for me was when Clavius bursts into the room where the disciples are hiding, expecting to catch those responsible for removing Jesus’ body. As he scans the room, his eyes fix on the figure in the middle, and it’s the same man he saw dead, hanging on a cross. Clavius is so overwhelmed by shock that he has to back out of the room. In virtually every other film where Jesus appears after the resurrection shock gives way to joy. Seeing the shock and confusion linger was the most visually satisfying moment of the film.

Despite the praise, I had a few issues with movie. Although I was disappointed to see the burial cloth shown to be the Shroud of Turin in a clear nod to Roman Catholic superstition, the big problem came in the third act. The film could have ended right after Clavius discovers that Jesus is alive, leaving him and the audience to think about what it means that he rose from the dead. It would have been powerful and left filmgoers with something to talk about. Unfortunately, the film continues as Clavius accompanies the remaining disciples as they travel to Galilee to wait for Jesus. There’s a strange “Hobbits escaping from the Nazg├╝l” moment, and the disciples accept Clavius into their group in a way that, given the conflict in Acts 15, seems terribly out of place.

I’ve yet to see a “Christian film” that could rival The Passion of the Christ in terms of production and story quality, and Risen is no exception. You’re not going to see any Oscar nominations for this film, and it’s not because Hollywood is prejudiced against Christianity. Sitting in the theater, I felt like I was watching a well-made, made-for-TV movie. It’s certainly one of the better Christian films out there, but it’s not something that begs for the full-blown theater experience. I expect this movie will be on Netflix or Amazon Prime within a year, and in a few years we should expect to see it on television at Easter time.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Bumps on the road to Buffalo

My life has been wholly turned upside down. Almost a month ago I watched as almost all my belongings were carefully packed in boxes and loaded onto a semi trailer to be shipped to a storage facility in New York. My family and I have been living out of the few boxes that fit in our two vehicles since then. Derrick and Betsy Flowers hosted us for a week in Indianapolis, and Michael and Beverly Flannery hosted us for a week in Buffalo. We’ve also spent time in a hotel room.

During this time we closed on our house in Indianapolis, but the house in Buffalo has been dragging on, largely due to a lack of communication from the sellers. As of right now we’re waiting for them to finish some repairs (which they agreed to do and our lender requires be done before we can close). Despite having accepted our offer back in January, the sellers have yet to schedule the work to be done on the repairs, nor have they allowed us to take early occupancy of the property. Hannah took the kids back to Michigan to stay with family while we wait for this matter to be concluded.

I’ve also started working at my new job, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it takes my mind off these other matters for a good portion of my waking hours, but on the other hand, my workplace was quite unprepared for my arrival despite my having accepted the job offer back in December. I’ve been sent on various wild goose chases trying to get a computer and phone, access to systems, and information on policies since no actual orientation is being provided. A wall was put up to give me private office space, but it was not completed, and I’ve had to bear with a lot of dust while a worker finishes mudding and will soon being painting the wall.

In short, much of my present situation has been discouraging.

I long for a sense of stability, continuity, and normalcy. I miss my wife, I miss my kids, and I miss having a place to call home. Certainly there is much to be thankful for, and I’ve been trying to focus on the blessings like the sacrifices other have made by inviting us into their homes, the cost of the move having been covered by my employer, and even the extra reading time I’ve gotten to enjoy in the hotel room.

The challenges and disappointments have shaken me in some ways, but I still believe that God is orchestrating my life’s circumstances to grow me spiritually and glorify himself. When it feels like the presence of God is shadowed in darkness, I have no other recourse than to trust that his grace remains unchanged. Such an anchor, though unseen in the depths of the sea, will not relinquish it’s hold in stormy waters. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A helpful resource for pastors

It seems like quite a few books have come out recently aimed at equipping pastors for the job of being a pastor. One of which, The Pastor’s Book, written by veteran pastor Kent Hughes and Douglas Sean O’Donnell, comes in at almost 600 pages. It’s a mammoth book aimed at being the pastor’s go-to resource. It has large sections on Christian gatherings (Sundays, yearly events, weddings, funerals), the service itself, and the pastor’s duties. The bulk of the book comes from the author’s extended thoughts on each of the topics, as well as numerous examples of orders of service, prayers, vows, et cetera. The author’s extended treatments are well-reasoned, but are too long for most who’ve given much thought to matters like baptism or music.

I think the most valuable part of the book were the samples, many of which include links to PDF files online to download. Buying the ebook directly from Crossway’s website would allow you to copy and paste the layouts into word if you wanted to make some alterations that better fit your preferences for various services, such as the wedding service.

I was surprised to find that amongst all the articles and samples there was nothing on ordination services. Granted, these services aren’t as common as weddings or funerals, but they are nevertheless important to include.

Overall, I'd recommend it if for nothing else than the samples.

I received a copy of this book from Crossway in order to provide this review.

Friday, February 12, 2016

One of the most encouraging reads I've had in a while!

I like having technical commentaries on the books of the Bible, but the volumes that have been most helpful to me personally were short and pastoral. Some of the Focus on the Bible commentaries come to mind, as do the volumes in the God’s Word for You series. Added to that list is the newest addition to my library, From the Pen of Pastor Paul, which is an exposition of 1-2 Thessalonians by Daniel R. Hyde.
Hyde pastors a church out in California, and this book began as a series of sermons he preached after turning down a job offer from another church. He found that in 1-2 Thessalonians “Paul opens his pastoral heart more than to any other congregation to which he wrote” (p. 14). Hyde confesses that these sermons were more personal, earnest, and applicatory than any he had ever preached, and those emphases stand out in the book.
I found myself highlighting and sharing notes from this book more than I’ve done in a while. Hyde brings out quotes and insights from the whole span of Christian history, and his handling of the text serves as an examples to preachers and teachers everywhere how to take a passage and communicate its meaning to others.
1-2 Thessalonians deals with the end times, and Hyde is somewhat critical of the picture that the Left Behind series gave of how things will play out. However, Hyde spends most of his time on the impact these passages should have on us. Even though I agreed with most of what he said, his emphasis on the confidence and hope we should have in light of Christ’s return should be equally encouraging to those who would disagree on the finer details as it is to those who agree.
I highly recommend the book, and I’ll be looking for more titles from Pastor Hyde to grace my shelves in the future.
Thanks to EP Books for the review copy!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A solid commentary on Chronicles

I’ve heaped up praises on the Kregel Exegetical Library commentary series. The volumes on the Exodus, Judges & Ruth, and the Psalms are phenomenal. The latest volume on 1 & 2 Chronicles is a solid example of evangelical scholarship, but falls short of the high expectations I’ve developed after reading these earlier entries in the series.
The author is a Bible-believing scholar who accepts his subject, the books of Chronicles, as God’s word. That’s something I value in commentators. Eugene H. Merrill recently retired from Dallas Theological Seminary, a solidly evangelical institution, and he has written many books and commentaries on Old Testament books.
Like other volumes in the series, Merrill provides a thorough analysis of the Biblical text. Each passage is first given in English (NIV translation) along with a few notes on textual variants. Authors of other volumes provided their own translations, so I was a little disappointed that Merrill didn’t do that. He then dedicates the vast majority of his words to commenting on the text itself. Even at over 600 pages, I was sometimes disappointed that Merrill didn’t say more about certain passages. He says practically nothing about the involvement of Satan in David’s sinful census (1 Chronicles 20:1). Passages are grouped together into sections, which are capped off with a theological summary and application. These summaries bring out the contemporary relevance of the passages and help readers connect what they are reading to their life in Christ. Scattered throughout the commentary are 13 charts/tables and 12 excurses on such topics as the Angel of the LORD, Holy War, and the identity of the scroll in Josiah’s reformation.
The table of contents at the beginning of the book is divided into three sections, one on the passages, one for the charts, and one for the excurses. This makes finding what you’re looking for much easier than if they were all together. Unfortunately there are no indexes at the back of the book, so pastors and teachers who make use of multiple resources to prepare sermons or lessons may be frustrated by that.
The lack of a translation by the author, the lack of indexes, and the occasional lack of discussion of significant matters (like Satan in 1 Chronicles 20:1), means I’m giving this one 4 out of 5 stars. Not every volume can be a home run.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of providing this review.