Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dicing with Death

At 4:20 PM on Saturday, November 8 I was wrapping up a day of raking and dragging leaves from my front yard into the woods behind the house. As the sun was slowly dipping toward the western horizon late on a peaceful autumn afternoon, the many long hours of labor were ending. I was tired but satisfied because my work, though menial, had purpose and meaning.

At that very moment, exactly five miles to the ENE, the few short years of a young man’s life were ending. But the sun did not set slowly and gently on Jonathan Gregorie. His end was not peaceful. Death took him in the bright morning of his life: suddenly, harshly, violently. Jonathan and some friends had ventured out onto the Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle that crosses the James River near Riverside Park. It was the second time in less than a week that this 21-year-old Liberty University senior had risked his life on that busy railroad bridge. He ignored the danger signs. He flaunted the no trespassing signs. Like so many others before him, he consciously chose to gamble with Death. He embraced the risks associated with walking across this high, open, treacherous, windswept span for the view, for the photo ops, for the thrill, for the adrenalin rush, for… well, we can only speculate. Jonathan carried his motivations with him to the grave. Because whether he realized it or not, when you are foolish enough to venture out to the middle of that trestle your life is in pawn. You are utterly vulnerable. Trains approaching the trestle come around a bend that obscures them from view until they are almost upon you. By the time the engineer saw Jonathan it was too late to stop. By the time Jonathan saw the train, it was too late to run.

I never met Jonathan Gregorie. Based on the postings and comments of his friends, he was a fine young man; a man with a zest for life; a man with a bright and promising future ahead of him. I can only hope that his few years on this earth were rich and full and endued with great meaning and purpose. Because his death was utterly meaningless. My day spent raking leaves had more meaning and worth than Jonathan’s bloody death beneath the wheels of that freight train. All of his dreams and aspirations; all of his hopes and goals; all of his potential; all that he ever was or ever would be—snuffed out like a candle. A few moments of high excitement followed by a few seconds of sheer terror. Then Jonathan Gregorie became the third young person in as many years to meet Death on the Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle—another tragic, meaningless, utterly pointless death.

A Facebook flame war has arisen surrounded Jonathan’s death. Some posts have lamented the pointlessness of a death directly attributable to behavior that was objectively reckless in nature. Others, mostly friends of the victim, have angrily defended Jonathan, likening criticism about the circumstances of his death with a condemnation of his life and values. At the very least, they argue, lectures about recklessness should be put on hold until the dead are buried and a period of mourning has been observed.

I respectfully disagree. We honor Jonathan Gregorie by our criticisms of his foolish behavior. For if we can dissuade just one person from repeating this young man’s foolish and tragic choice, then in some small measure we can give meaning to an otherwise meaningless tragedy. If by the example of his death, other lives are saved, then he will not have died in vain.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Cathedral in Film

It's been ten years since the release of The Passion of the Christ, which in my opinion remains the most powerful depiction of the crucifixion ever filmed. This was my review at the time of the movie's release.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Passion of the Christ

Director – Mel Gibson
Production Company – Icon Productions and Marquis Film
Producers – Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey
Screenwriters – Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald (Wise Blood, In Cold Blood, Heart of Darkness)
Cinematographer – Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural, The Patriot)
Credited Cast:
  • James Caviezel (Count of Monte Cristo, The Thin Red Line) – Jesus Christ
  • Maia Morgenstern – Mary

  • Monica Bellucci (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Matrix Reloaded) – Mary Magdalene
  • Francesco Cabras – Gesmas
  • Rosalinda Celentano – Satan
  • Claudia Gerini – Pilate’s Wife
  • Ivano Marescotti – Pontius Pilate
  • Sergio Rubini – Dismas
Release Date – February 25, 2004
Distributed by Newmarket Films
RATED “R” for extreme violence 

After first viewing a rough cut of The Passion of the Christ in January at Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago, an event that included a personal appearance by Mel Gibson, I saw the film in its final form on February 26.  This is an update of my earlier review.  My chance to preview the movie ahead of the professional critics was the result of Icon Production’s unconventional promotional strategy of taking news about the film directly to church leadership to solicit their support of the project.  This was apparently in response to the generally hostile attitude of the film industry toward Mr. Gibson’s project from its very inception.  Unable to find investors to share the cost of production (religious films are generally viewed as bad financial risks in the industry), Gibson put up the entire 25-30 million dollar budget himself.  Accusations that the film was anti-Semitic further complicated the enterprise, forcing Icon Productions to ultimately sign on with a small independent distribution company, Newmarket Films.  There was a real fear that, having finally made the film, nobody would see it.  That fear has proven to be misplaced.  The Ash Wednesday opening was the fifth largest in Hollywood history with receipts of over $26 million.  The Thursday evening showing that I attended, like most across the country, was sold out.  It now appears certain that Mr. Gibson will recoup his investment by the end of opening weekend.

The movie begins with a black screen that has the words of Isaiah 53:5 superimposed: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities…”  It then jumps to Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The beginning seems abrupt, like you have just arrived at the start of Act Three—almost like starting the last installment of The Lord of the Rings without having read the book or seen the first two movies.  Viewers with no background understanding of the gospels may be a little confused at first.  Consequently the viewer enters into the chaos of the garden arrest that the disciples experienced.  Like them, you are trying to figure out what’s going on.  As the film continues, occasional flashbacks to earlier episodes in the life of Christ help to add a larger context to events described in the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life.  They also add much needed moments of emotional release from the incredible tension that envelops the viewer over the two-hour duration of the movie.

            The garden scenes were filmed in a foggy mist and with the use of a blue gel, lending a feel of isolation, mystery and imminent danger.  It is in the garden that we are introduced to one of the recurring figures in the film: a creepy and strangely sexless personification of Satan effectively played by Italian actress, Rosalinda Celentano.  There in the garden Satan whispers to Christ, as he agonizes about the trail before him, “No man can bear this.”  This proffered seed of doubt is accompanied by a snake slithering up to the figure of Jesus, who is on his knees in prayer.  Jesus’ response is to stand and crush the head of the serpent with his heel, a clear reference to the prophecy of Genesis 3:15.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel sought to create a strong contrast of light and dark in the film reminiscent of the Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio.  In an earlier interview Gibson said of the painter’s work, “…I think his work is beautiful.  It's violent, it's dark, it's spiritual and it also has an odd whimsy or strangeness to it.  And it's so real-looking.  I told Caleb I wanted my movie to look like that and he said, ‘Yeah, OK.’  Just like that.”  And like an old Renaissance painting, many of the scenes had something of a golden sheen to them that I found quite compelling.

This was certainly not the only direct allusion to classical art in the film.  The most explicit was the scene at the foot of the cross as the body of Jesus was being removed for burial.  Here Mary, played by Maia Morgenstern, a little-known Jewish Romanian actress, cradled the lifeless body of her son in exactly the same posture used by Michelangelo in his famous Pietà, one hand cradling his body and the other open toward the viewer.  But as Elizabeth Lev, Professor of Christian Art and Architecture at Duquesne University in Rome, points out, the depiction in The Passion is slightly altered: “The variation comes in that while Michelangelo's Mary gazes solemnly down at her Son, Gibson's Mary looks straight out at us. The movie draws to a close provoking a full and conscious acknowledgment of whom this suffering has been for.”

            The preponderance of the film’s two hours is a straightforward account of the events marking the last twelve hours of the life of Christ as recorded in the four gospels.  As a seminary-trained student of the New Testament, I give Mr. Gibson high marks for accuracy.  The few and slight artistic liberties that he takes are easily justifiable as he seeks to take the written word and translate it to film.  Gibson is a faithful adherent to a small sect of Catholicism that continues the use of the old Latin mass and rejects the liberalizations in church practice and dogma that came with Vatican II.  This is one of the sources of the claim that The Passion is anti-Semitic, since Vatican II specifically condemns anti-Semitism.  I could see nothing to support that claim.  It is true that the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin are portrayed in a most unsympathetic light.  But neither do they fare well in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  The legionaries of the Roman army of occupation are the most sadistic and brutal figures in the movie.  The Pharisees and Sadducees come across as opportunistic and cynical politicians in league with the Romans.  To interpret The Passion of the Christ as anti-Semitic would require one to start with the outlandish premise that the gospel accounts and Christianity itself are themselves inherently anti-Semitic.  And there are a few fringe groups that hold to just such a radical position.  As far as this reviewer is concerned, The Italian Anti-defamation League has as much to complain about as its Jewish counterpart.  Any complaints of anti-Semitism should be lodged with the Evangelists, not with Mel Gibson.

            For any Protestant Christians that might be concerned about an overtly Catholic bias to the film, they too may rest easy.  Had a Protestant produced and directed the film, the only likely difference would have been a little less screen time for the character of Mary.  But once again, the portrayal of Mary is entirely consistent with the New Testament.  Gibson weaves her character throughout the film as something of a counterbalance to the recurring appearances of Satan.  Where one challenges the sufficiency of his humanity to rise to the challenge of dying for the human race, Mary embraces his humanity with the broken-hearted love of a mother.  One of the most poignant and moving scenes in the film involves a flashback by Mary of Jesus as a little boy, stumbling and falling—a memory triggered by the sight of the fully-grown Jesus stumbling and falling under the weight of the cross.

            Much attention has been given to Gibson’s decision to use only the languages of the First Century in making the film.  Most of the dialogue is in Aramaic, the language spoken by most Palestinian Jews of that day, and in the common or vulgar form of Latin that a soldier from the Italian peninsula would have used in daily speech.  Hebrew is used in scripture quotations.  Gibson’s original intention was to release the film without subtitles.  While this sounded like an absurd idea when I first encountered it, having seen the film I now realize that it could actually work.  (The film did ultimately have English subtitles added.)  As one who despises watching movies with subtitles, I am happy to report that these were not at all distracting.  In part this was simply because there is not that much dialogue in the movie.  The story is mostly told with images.  In fact, the use of the languages of that day adds a real sense of authenticity to the experience.  You feel like you have been transported back in time and are an actual eyewitness to history in the making.

            The casting could not have been better.  Pontius Pilate is marvelously portrayed by Italian actor Ivano Marescotti as a cynical and conflicted soldier-bureaucrat with a sense of duty that is at war with hard political realities.  He comes across as a somewhat sympathetic character that faced the opportunity to do something heroic in the name of justice but failed to rise to the occasion.  He ought to be considered for a best supporting actor Oscar.   Likewise, as already mentioned, Morgenstern is a tremendously effective Mary. 

            But the undisputed star of the film is James Caviezel.  His portrayal of Jesus is nothing short of sheer genius.  Like George C. Scott as Patton or Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain, you must constantly remind yourself that the person on the screen is, after all, just an actor and not the actual figure from history.  In a role that cost him considerable physical pain (He suffered a dislocated shoulder during the filming of the scourging, was inadvertently actually lashed twice during that same sequence, nearly succumbed to hypothermia while being filmed on the cross during cold November weather in Italy and was literally struck by lightning – without any apparent lasting injury – during the filming of the crucifixion!) he vividly portrayed the lingering death of one who died for the sins of the world.  For most of the filming he spent seven hours a day in makeup prior to shooting.  In fact he actually slept in makeup at times.  His is not only the most authentic portrayal of Christ in cinematic history, but it may well be the most effective portrayal by any actor or actress of a historical character on film.

            The most disturbing aspect of this movie is its graphic violence.  I cannot overstate just how violent it is.  The violence is shocking.  It is brutal.  It is horrific.  The agonizing and painfully accurate portrayal of Jesus’ scourging at the hands of two Roman legionaries (it was not unusual for a condemned prisoner to die during scourging) was undoubtedly what earned the film an “R” rating, and rightly so.  It was so awful to watch that you are almost relieved when they get around to crucifying him.[i]  At least then the end of his suffering was in sight.  This is not a movie for children under the age of 12 or 13 under any circumstances.  Gibson was asked about the violence during the interview after last month’s preview.  He was quite matter-of-fact about it.  Yes, it is violent.  Yes, the violence is at times “over the top”.  This was deliberate.  He referenced the Old Testament insistence that blood be shed as the atonement for sin.  Too often, he suggested, we sanitize the gospel accounts until we forget what that really means.  It was his intent to remind us.  He succeeded.  One Christian leader, after viewing the film was quoted as saying, “I forgot.  I’m sorry.”

            At one point in the interview Gibson made reference to the art in great cathedrals of Europe.  Those cathedrals were built as teaching models for an illiterate oral culture.  In a day when even many priests were unable to read the word of God, the cathedrals, through their statuary, their stained glass, their symbolism and their Stations of the Cross attempted to teach the message of the gospel to the unlettered.  Today, in the midst of an increasingly visual society and culture, Mel Gibson has created a 21st Century cathedral in film.

            If I were to sum up in one word the experience of watching The Passion, that word would be “shattering”.  The film runs just over two hours.  The January preview screening was in a room filled to capacity with 4,500 people where not once did I hear so much as a man clear his throat during the entire showing.  Absolute silence and rapt attention for 120 minutes—in a room full of preachers!  And when the movie finally ended the stunned silence continued on for at least another minute.  The audience with whom I saw the movie on the 26th responded in exactly the same way.  Most of those present sat quietly throughout the credits, reluctant to leave.  The Passion of the Christ was the most intense emotional experience that I have ever known while watching a movie.  From beginning to end it maintained the intensity of the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan—squared.  That night, when at a late hour I finally got to bed, sleep did not easily come.  The images of the film continued to haunt my memory.  And days later, as I write these words, the images are with me still.  But these are not nightmare images, even with all the blood and brutality.  They rather serve as a reminder that thanks to the love of that One so wonderfully brought to the screen by Jim Caviezel, I am bought with a price.  And I think of those wounds He bore, not in horror, but with gratitude. 

[i] The source material for the film’s depiction of scourging was the cover story from the March 21, 1986 issue of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” by Dr. William D. Edwards, MD; Rev. Wesley J. Gabel, M.Div.; and Mr. Floyd E. Hosmer, MS, AMI. The article provides a coldly clinical examination of both the historical and medical realities of death from scourging followed by crucifixion.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Thin Places—Insights from Celtic Christianity about the Sale of Golden Gate Seminary’s Mill Valley Campus

Alice stumbled upon an exceptionally deep rabbit hole. Lucy Pevensie got a surprise when she hid in Professor Kirk’s magic wardrobe. Dorothy clicked the heels of those dazzling ruby slippers as she chanted, “There’s no place like home.” Marty McFly revved up Professor Brown’s souped-up DeLorean time machine with its “flux capacitor”. Today astrophysicists dream of moving quickly to distant corners of the universe through some theoretical wormhole in the fabric of space-time. The idea of discovering a secret portal to another world is an idea that has long fascinated people. Back in the 40s Lerner and Loewe even created a musical along those lines: Brigadoon. 

That mythical Scottish village makes for a great segue to an idea that we encounter in Celtic Christianity: the notion that on the earth there are “thin places”—spots where heaven and earth are unusually close, suggesting the possibility of free movement from one to the other or at least the idea that in such sacred places one might get closer to the divine. 

First, a disclaimer. There is no direct and only disputable indirect biblical support for such a notion. The metaphor of thin place does not appear in Scripture. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the concept is unhelpful or theologically suspect, but as a people who base their understanding of God on biblical revelation, it should give us pause to carefully consider the implications of such a belief. 

Experience teaches us the emotional power of place. In 1954 Perry Como first recorded There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays, a sentimental reflection on how memory and emotions are tied to the place we grew up—especially at Christmas. Likewise, some places have historical connections that stir the emotions. The Gettysburg and Custer Battlefields were such places for me. So was the Vietnam Wall. Sometimes the emotions stirred by place are negative. I once stood outside a Macumba temple deep in the Amazon. Macumba is a religion that mixes African and South American spiritism and includes practices associated with black magic. I felt like the very building exuded evil. Those who have visited the remains of Nazi concentration camps report similar feelings. 

And I think we have all visited spots where the sense God’s presence was unusually strong. Naturally enough a church building can have that effect. So can a Christian camp or retreat center, particularly if it is a place that you have visited repeatedly over the years and have come to associate with powerful teaching, and spiritual refreshment and renewal. 

Wild places of spectacular natural beauty can also have that effect. Such places are usually what the Celtic Christians had in mind when they spoke of thin places. Mountains have always tended to affect me in this way, a response common to many. 

And if we can find support for thin places anywhere in the Bible, a couple mountains immediately come to mind. The first is Mt. Sinai. If there is a biblical thin place surely this is it. It was a place where Moses went to meet God not once but repeatedly. Mt Zion—the site of the temple—was another. Clearly these mountains had special significance as places where Israel encountered God. 

But in other important respects they differ significantly from the typical Celtic thin place. For one thing these mountains were not, at least in biblical times, places of pilgrimage. After the exodus there is only one account of an Israelite journeying back to Sinai; that of Elijah’s trip to “Horeb, the mount of God” in 1 Kings 19:8. And the most sacred quarter of the temple mount was forbidden to all but the high priest and he was able to enter it only one day in the year—the Day of Atonement. 

Nor is there evidence that the earliest Christians showed any special deference to those physical spaces closely associated with the life and ministry of Christ. The stable in Bethlehem, his boyhood home in Nazareth, the Upper Room in Jerusalem—none of these spots were made into shrines or their locations even noted. Only centuries later did Christians attempt to find these sites and make them places of pilgrimage. There exists no equivalent to Mt. Vernon or Monticello in Nazareth. 

So what are we to do with the metaphor of thin place? What lessons can we Baptists learn from Celtic Christianity? 

First, there is no question in my mind that places of natural beauty, particular places that are physically removed from the rush of modern life, can often help us to spiritually reconnect. They help us pause and quiet our hearts and minds. The windswept grassy slopes of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is one such place for me. Even Jesus would draw aside, either with his closest followers or by himself, seeking some lonely place for a time of prayer. These are not places with special spiritual properties. We’re not talking magic here. Whatever power they have is power we give them. 

Second, we must remember that God desires constant intimacy with his people. We ought not require physical retreat to connect with the Divine. Rather we ought to work to make all of life on earth a thin place—a place where mortal flesh can reach out and touch God. If we draw near to God He draws near to us. 

Third, and finally, we would do well to reflect upon the importance of recognizing and protecting sacred spaces. Roman Catholics and other Christians who come from the more liturgical traditions have often been scandalized by the lack of reverence that they see in Baptist churches. We seem more willing to ascribe to purely secular monuments the kind of reverence that other believers have historically reserved for places of worship. We would object, and rightly so, to some plan to run hogs on the Custer Battlefield or to build condominiums along Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. We wouldn’t tolerate a hotdog stand operating under the dome of the Jefferson Memorial. Such things would border on sacrilege. There are some corners of this planet that we deem worthy of protecting. We set them aside—just as we set aside Muir Woods and Yosemite—as shrines if you would, to the beauty and wonder of nature. 

I contend that the Celtic Christians were right, that there are places that ought to be regarded as sacred ground, places set aside for loftier purposes. Places that we ought not to profane because we have met God in those places—our own personal burning bush. While Baptists would not genuflect before a crucifix or an altar, we would do well to bow our heads and lower our voices when entering a sanctuary. And it ought to go without saying that we would do everything in our power to preserve and protect such places. And that is why I am so opposed to the decision to sell Golden Gate’s Mill Valley campus to a real estate developer. 

For half a century generations of young ministers met God at Golden Gate. In the late 70s and early 80s I was one of them. Kenneth Eakins, Robert Cate, William Hendricks, Clayton Harrop…the list goes on and on. These were men who opened God’s Word to me and demanded that I deal with it, not like some child in a VBS class but as a man who would spend his life entrusted with the sacred task of teaching that Holy Word to hundreds of others. They made me chew on the tough passages. They made me face my own questions and doubts. They made me grow. They made me spiritually “man-up”. So many afternoons I would make that long walk from class back to our apartment on Rice Lane, my head reeling from the profound insights that had been revealed to me. So many late nights I would be typing away on some paper or pouring over some text, trying to pull those new insights together in a coherent form that I might prove to my teachers that I had been worthy of the time they invest in me. 

And because of the unique setting of that magnificent campus I could delight in the happy convergence of the beauty of God’s Word with the beauty of God’s world—the same concept captured in the image of the Celtic cross, where the Cross of Christ is superimposed on the orb that represents His Creation. When after hours of study when my soul needed a moment’s refreshing, I need only look up from my desk and watch, mesmerized by the slow dance each afternoon of long fingers of fog sliding over the top of the coastal hills, trying but never quite succeeding in their quest to reach the valley floor below. Or I might step outside at night to stretch my legs, sometimes walking across the campus to that hilltop where one can stand and on a clear night see the lights of the city across the bay. Sometimes I would pray that the Light we learned about in class would shine back in return upon that beautiful but sin-sick city. 

The history of California tells us that at the time when John Muir was trying to preserve the giant sequoia groves north of Yosemite, there was a plan to cut the trees down and split them up into grape stakes. As I think about seeing the sacred ground of my beloved seminary campus turned into homes for multimillionaire hedge fund managers, or movie stars, or oil moguls, I think I understand how old John must have felt. 

Glen Land
GGBTS Class of ‘81

Thursday, March 06, 2014

In Sight of the Promised Land

Very much alone, an incredibly old man made the slow, labored climb to the top of the mountain. Moses was 120 years old—way too old to be climbing mountains. While the summit of Mt. Nebo was only 2,631 feet above sea level, making it more a big hill than a mountain, Moses’ starting point on the Plain of Moab was 1,200 feet below sea level, which meant the hike to the top involved a climb of nearly 4,000 feet over rugged, rocky terrain through hot desert air. Exhausted, Moses rested a few minutes to catch his breath in the shade of a big rock (there were no trees here). Wiping his brow, he downed the remaining contents of his water skin. He needn’t save any for later. There would not be a return trip. God was granting him only a distant look into the land of promise. It would fall to Joshua to lead Israel on the next stage of a journey that began over forty years earlier in the court of Pharaoh. Moses’ work was over. He would die on this mountain, alone with God. 

He gathered his remaining strength, stood, and looked to the southwest, back toward Israel’s encampment. In spite of his many years his eyes were still clear, his vision sharp. But the rising heat from the valley floor rippled and distorted the view. He thought he could just make out dust rising as the people and their herds began to stir. They’d soon be on the move. Beyond the Plain of Moab, sunlight glistened off the waters of the Dead Sea. And though he could see no further in that direction Moses knew that far beyond those lifeless waters lay the blistering Sinai—Israel’s prison for a bitter forty-year sentence and Moses’ home for even longer, thanks to his years of sojourn among the Midianites. Somewhere out there Zipporah was buried in the desert sand, as was her father, Jethro. And Aaron… And Miriam…  And so many others… so much death. Not everything about a long life was a blessing. 

Below him to the west lay the great rift valley of the Jordan. He could just make out a thin, twisting, green, line snaking its way along the desert floor. That would be the Jordan River. Like the Nile of his youth, the Jordan’s muddy waters offered vegetation along its banks a place to flourish in a land with precious little rainfall. Moses briefly wondered how Israel would manage the crossing. It was early spring; the river was in full flood from the winter rains. Suddenly very tired, he set the question aside. It was no longer his concern. Joshua would have to deal with that one. 

Leveling his gaze he looked to the western horizon where he saw another thin green line rising above the barren slopes of what would come to be known as the Wilderness of Judah. That would be the central hill country of Canaan, in full flower from the rains. Due west of Nebo and just out of sight beyond the horizon was another summit: Moriah, the place where Father Abraham was once ready to offer up Isaac. And though Moses couldn’t have known it, almost 500 years later another leader of Israel would build the temple on that very same spot. 

His eyes followed that line of green hills north until they disappeared in the hazy distance. Finally, he looked due north. There, barely discernable on the very edge of sight over 100 miles away, the land rose to a lofty 9,232’ above sea level. This was a real mountain. In time it would be known as Mt. Hermon. Over fourteen centuries after Moses climbed Mt. Nebo he would stand on that other mountain. This time, appearing in his heavenly glory and accompanied by the prophet Elijah, he would wait in attendance on the Son of God at the occasion of Jesus’ transfiguration. 

But that was far in the future. For now, as his time on earth drew swiftly to a close, he caught a glint of white on that distant peak. Moses was a man who had spent his entire life in subtropical deserts. On the very day of his death, just maybe, he got his first and only glimpse of snow.

Friday, February 28, 2014


A few weeks ago I was one of the Lynchburg area church leaders who attended a private pre-release screening of the new movie Son of God which officially opened today. Son of God was produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the husband and wife team who were the executive producers for The Bible, the 10-hour TV miniseries that premiered on the History Channel in March of 2013. Footage from The Bible was edited to create this new feature-length motion picture about the life of Christ, the first major motion picture about the life of Jesus since Passion of the Christ was released ten years ago. 

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have impressive resumes both individually and together. Five time Emmy Award winner Burnett is one of the pioneers of the “reality TV” genre with such shows as Survivor and The Celebrity Apprentice to his credit. Downey has been nominated for an Emmy of her own. She is best known for her recurring role as a tender-hearted angel in the series Touched by an Angel. In addition to co-producing Son of God, she also appears in the film in the role of Mary. 

I only saw the first installment of The Bible when it came out last year so this was my first look at their portrayal of Jesus. The excessive artistic license in that first episode of The Bible turned me off. (I think they lost me when Moses was shown engaged in a sword fight with young Prince Ramesses.) So I went to today’s screen with very low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised. This is a compelling film. 

The issue of artistic license is still in play. As a serious student of scriptures I found myself regularly annoyed by the writer’s ignorance or at least indifference to the chronology of events as recorded in the Gospels. For instance, in the gospel account of Jesus reading from the book of Isaiah in a synagogue, the event took place in Galilee at the beginning of his public ministry. In the movie it happened near the time of his arrest at an unspecified location but apparently somewhere in the vicinity of Jerusalem. But since gospel chronology is a matter that even the scholars debate, I’m willing to cut the production team some slack. What they did capture admirably was the spirit and thrust of the gospel story. The viewer is offered a compelling and reasonably accurate account of the life of Christ and the meaning of that life for you and me. And I must say that Diogo Morgado, the young Portuguese actor who portrayed Jesus, did a marvelous job in presenting a winsome Savior. 

Son of God is certainly no substitute for reading the Gospels for yourself. But it does offer a moving and visually satisfying artistic portrayal of the greatest story ever told, one that people who would never open a Bible would watch with interest. As a pastor I will encourage my members to use this film as a non-threatening evangelist tool, something that you could invite an unchurched friend to watch with you and that will offer you easy and natural opportunities for further sharing of the Good News.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


I had somehow forgotten about the cold. 

For the first time in nearly four years I’m experiencing an Upper Midwest cold wave. I knew back in Virginia during the wee hours of December 29 when Joyce and I piled into the van, pointed it northwest, and drove off into the rainy early morning darkness, that I was headed back to the once familiar world of winter in Wisconsin. What a way to mark my 60th birthday. Drive 938 miles. Long hours of cold rain across Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio (it was a miserable trip), was followed by a brief bout of freezing drizzle in northwest Indiana—thankfully no more than a minor nuisance. For some miles I watched the car thermometer mark time to falling outside temperatures. It went from the low 40s around Dayton to the upper 20s as we entered Chicago. But it was when we stopped off at the Forest Oasis of the Tri-State Tollway north of O’Hare that the first real blast of arctic air hit us. 

It is amazing how quickly one can move across a frigid expanse of wind-blown asphalt from warm car to warm rest stop. You just need to be appropriately motivated. The cold was already threatening cardiac arrest and it had not jet cracked 20°F. But the wind! Ugh. Yet as bad as this was, I knew that just beyond the northern horizon loomed conditions far worse. By the time we arrived at our daughter’s apartment in Kaukauna, Wisconsin—just 22 miles southwest of Green Bay—the temperature was down to zero and the windchill was too bad to discuss in polite company. 

That night it got down to -15°F. The windchill hit -31°F. The following day the high was 0°F. 

I’ve experienced worse. Back in the early ‘90s shortly after we first moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, we had eight straight days when the temperature never made it up to 0°F. Two successive nights it dropped to -30°. That’s what the mercury actually recorded, not windchill. The windchill was down around -65°F. One day the HIGH was -20°F. We actually had a window crack due to the house’s contractions. But that was a long time ago. I was 39, not 60. Maybe I was tougher then. Or maybe today I’m just missing that insulating layer of 25+ pounds of fat that I starved off last spring. In any event, there are things about life in the deep freeze that I had allowed myself to forget, such as… 

·         The sensation almost akin to physical assault that you experience when you step out into wind-driven cold inadequately clad. I gave away my faithful old down parka years ago. I could have used it this week.

·         The way cold burns, especially unprotected ears. This is followed by that weird hot redness that those ears experience hours later in a warm room.

·         Icicles on my mustache.

·         Frosted mucus in my nostrils (yes, that is every bit as disgusting as it sounds).

·         The dry skin. Cold air is unable to retain much moisture. Heat up that already dry air, and the relative humidity drops drastically. With an indoor/outdoor temperature differentiation of 70 to 80 degrees, without some kind of humidifier the indoor air on a cold day has the moisture content of the Gobi Desert. Static electricity creates painful shocks. Your nostrils dry out worse than on a transoceanic flight. You find yourself constantly reaching for the hand lotion. Your throat gets dry. You become more susceptible to colds. For the last 24 hours I have had a dry, scratchy throat and an annoying cough.

·         The way cold penetrates. Physicists will tell you that this is an illusion. The problem is not cold coming in but heat escaping. But any Upper Midwesterner will tell you that those physicists have never spent a winter in Green Bay. The cold up here has a malevolent will. It is reaching out for you. It will find any crack, any gap, any opening that would defeat a determined cockroach in order to enter your place of refuge. So determined is the cold that denied that crack it will just force its way through wood, rock, concrete, or steel. It comes through solid walls. It comes through triple-paned glass. Sit near an exterior wall in an otherwise warm room and you will feel the chill of its icy fingers tickling the back of your neck, your wrists, your ankles. And like an army laying siege to a city of old, the longer the cold encamps outside your door, the more effective it becomes in finding a weakness in you defenses.

·         I had forgotten the glossy sheen of snow banks that have thawed, refrozen, and become petrified—little embryonic glaciers.

·         I had forgotten that thin narrow band of iron-hard ice that forms along the edge of city streets, the result of snowmelt that has refrozen in temperatures so low that road salt is rendered useless.

·         I had forgotten the stony-faced stoicism of people forced out of warm homes and cars on some unavoidable errand. They move with all possible dispatch from Point A to Point B, finding the straightest, fastest route through the cold, like some hapless trapper being forced to run a gauntlet of tomahawk-waving Sioux warriors. They move with the efficiency of water finding its way downhill. Eyes are narrowed to slits. Focus is dead ahead. Misguided Southerners think Yankees are unfriendly. Southerners just don’t know what it is to be really cold. 

The ancient Greeks had a name for the cold. Boreas was the Greek god of the cold north wind and the bringer of winter. His name meant “North Wind” or “Devouring One”. Boreas was very strong and possessed a violent temper. Boreas is in a particular foul mood as 2013 gives way to 2014. The last week of the dying year brought record cold to much of Wisconsin. We are warned that even colder air will arrive before the first week of the new year is behind us. The forecast HIGH for Monday is -10°F. By then I should be back in the gentle latitudes of the Virginia Piedmont. But my wife, my children, my grandsons, and millions of other unfortunates will have to face the rage of Boreas. 

Climate scientists inform us that the tipping point for the formation of those massive glaciers of the last ice age passed quickly. It was only a matter of a few years, not centuries, that transpired before those continental ice sheets began their inexorable push south. Thousands of years later the scars of that glaciation are visible across the Upper Midwest. Only a blink of geologic time has passed since ice stood a mile deep over the very spot where I type these words. Just a few bad winters in succession…

Thank God for global warming.