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What Does It Mean to “Remain” In Jesus?

Deily asked me to participate in their “Ask an Expert” column. They asked me to reply to a reader who wondered exactly how to “remain” in Jesus, as Jesus expected us to in John 15. Here’s my answer.

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Reflecting on Jesus’ call for his followers to “remain” in him in John 15, a reader asked how one successfully does that.

It is no small concept in John 15. The word “remain,” or “abide,” shows up 11 times in the first 11 verses. A grape branch exists and accomplishes its purpose only as it stays attached to the vine. Likewise, Jesus insisted that remaining in him would result in the fulfilling life we truly want.

If we understand what that looks like we’ll better understand how to accomplish it. To abide in Jesus is to be satisfied in Jesus. Many hope to find self-worth and personal security in our careers or our possessions or our families or in the good things people will say of us at our funeral. For many, even religious involvement is in hopes that we can get and keep the things we really want. It’s an implicit deal with God: We’ll do what God expects of us and in return he’ll do what we expect of him.

Jesus did not intend to be a means to an end. As worthy as it is to have, say, a family or a good job or financial security, none of that is a sufficient basis for our self-worth and happiness. Jesus called us to find our value and purpose in him. Jesus said we are grape branches that must continually draw life-giving nourishment from himself, the “true vine,” or we will wither and die.

If this is the best way to understand what “abiding” means, how is it accomplished? The earliest Christians remained in Jesus as they “continued steadfastly” in 4 practical things: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). It’s still a good agenda. First, regularly reflect on the apostles’ teaching, which of course is collected in what we call the New Testament. Second, fellowship with other believers for encouragement and accountability. Third, engage in corporate worship. (The phrase, “the breaking of bread,” is likely a reference to the Lord’s Supper, a central element of corporate worship.) Fourth, pray in all its forms: praise and lament and confession and gratitude and petition.

By “continuing steadfastly” in these practices, we’ll be more likely to continue steadfastly in Jesus.




Good Question! Is There Universal Truth?

I have an occasional (very occasional!) segment called “Good Question!” where I take a stab at questions people send me. One of our church’s 15-year-olds, Kira, is doing a school project on C.S. Lewis’ classic,  Mere Christianity. The project prompted 5 questions, mostly about the existence of universal truth. She gave me permission to post the questions and my answers in this post. Good thinking, Kira!

Do you believe there is an absolute/universal truth?  If so, how do you know truth?  If not, how did you arrive at that conclusion?  Yes, I believe there is absolute/universal truth. C.S. Lewis wrote a book on this called “The Abolition of Man.” We find this Christian teaching in Romans 1-3. See especially Romans 1:18-20 and 2:12-15. Theologians refer to “natural revelation” and “special revelation.” Natural revelation is what comes through our conscience and our interaction with the world around us: From that we get some information about God (at least his existence and our sense of accountability to him), and we get some information about what’s right and wrong (at least a sense of guilt over things like treachery, theft, murder, and the like). Special revelation is what God reveals to those who belong to him, through the Word and through the guidance of his Spirit in our lives.

How would you define right and wrong? The Greek word we translate “sin” in the New Testament is harmatia, which is an archery term that means “to miss the mark.” So “right” is hitting the mark and “wrong” is missing it. Of course, the “mark” is that which is pleasing to God, that which is in line with how he made us. We don’t use a hammer as a paint brush: That’s not the purpose for which it was designed. That would be “wrong.” Likewise, “wrong” is using our minds, our bodies, and our power of communication in ways that God did not intend them to be used.

How would you explain what motivates people to behave in a certain way—good or bad? According to the First Commandment of the 10 Commandments, our fundamental problem is idolatry. In other words, instead of looking to God for our happiness, self-worth, and security, we look elsewhere to some thing, some person, some cause, some substance, or some behavior. That, at the foundation, is why we act the way we do: Either because we find our joy in God or we’re trying to find our joy in something other than God.

Do you believe there is more to the world than your five senses perceive? Why or why not? Even those who insist that there is nothing more to perceive than what our five senses can bring us know there is something inadequate about their view. They feel love, loyalty, duty, just to name three things that can’t easily be explained (and explained away) by reference to biochemical processes. That’s why Paul prayed not just for physical sight but spiritual sight when he said, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18). By the way, that’s the verse that inspired the song, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, open the eyes of my heart. I want to see you.”

What do you think are the primary reasons that people tend to dismiss/overlook Christianity today? I list five “barriers to believing” in the second chapter of my book, The Anchor Course. If your parents don’t have a copy, you can check out one for free from the church library this Sunday. The five barriers are: (1) Honest unanswered questions (“I can’t understand how a 2000-year-old book is relevant for us today”), (2) unrealistic expectations (“God has to arrange my life the way I want it or I won’t give him the time of day”), (3) misunderstandings (“My neighbor tells me I have to give up dancing to become a Christian”), (4) fears (“I see how Christians are sometimes ridiculed and I don’t want to be subjected to that”), and (5) bad experiences with Christians or with churches (“My parents went to church but they were hypocrites, so I don’t want to have anything to do with their faith”).

 




Good Question! What Is a “Christian” Movie?

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I’m posting this so you can help me think through what a “Christian” film is.

I have an occasional (very occasional!) segment called “Good Question!” where I take a stab at questions people send me. Click here for previous “Good Question!” posts. (The link will take you to another blog of mine.) In the last few weeks 3 students in Eileen Flynn’s journalism class have contacted me about various topics they’ve chosen for writing projects. I think the topics would make 3 worthwhile “Good Question!” posts. Names aren’t necessary, so I’ve removed them.

I’ve already posted the first one and the second one. In this third one, the student was doing a paper on the latest “Left Behind” flick. He wanted to know whether I was planning to preach on it and, more broadly, what I thought of “Christian films” in general. I’m afraid I muddied the water more than I cleared it: My objection to “Left Behind” was for theological reasons rather than stylistic ones. And I have a problem with a film being labeled a “Christian” film, as you will see below.

Feel free to ignore the End Times questions: I’m posting this so you can help me think through what a “Christian” film is. I’ll put the student’s questions in italics and my answers in standard font:

1. Could you tell me again how the movie “Left Behind” differs from what you teach? And why you won’t be doing any preaching about it?

I hold to what’s called the “historic premillennial” position, and the Left Behind books and films are based on a position called “Dispensationalism.” You might want to scan Wikipedia for the differences. In short, Jesus taught a time of trouble prior to his return. Dispensationalists teach that there is a “secret” disappearance of Christians prior to this time. I don’t believe Jesus or his Apostles taught this secret disappearance.

2. Could you tell me again your opinion in Christian films becoming mainstream?

Please define what you understand as “Christian” films and give some examples.

Are “Christian” films defined as films about Christians? In this category would be Ben Hur, On the Waterfront, Chariots of Fire, Tender Mercies, Lars and the Real Girl, The Blind Side, Amazing Grace, 12 Years a Slave, etc., etc.

Are “Christian” films defined as films that happen to be produced by Christians? In this category would be the charming independent film Chalk done by Someday Soon productions here in Austin. It’s not a “message” film: It’s a comedy about public school teaching. Maybe Mom’s Night Out should fit here, since again it’s not a “message” film but a comedy about motherhood. Even The Passion of the Christ is widely regarded more as an “art house” film than Christian propaganda. The Austin-American Statesman reviewed it in this way.

People tend to categorize Facing the Giants and Fireproof as “Christian” films: But even with these films produced by Christians, about Christians, these films are still designed as stories. They are no more “message” films than, say, the Tom Hanks film Philadelphia. Most films ‘advocate’ that some belief/behavior should be embraced/condemned/ridiculed. Is it defined as ‘advocacy’ only by those who aren’t persuaded? Philomena was so full of low-hanging liberal tropes I quit counting, but none of my more progressive friends saw any of them.

Not trying to be difficult here, but just trying to grasp a proper definition. Is Noah a Christian film since it has “some connection to the Bible?” Why isn’t it a “Jewish” film since it specifically has some connection to the Hebrew Scriptures? It was certainly an awful film. The Coen brothers did a film called A Serious Man with a lot of inside jokes mostly appreciated by those with Jewish upbringing. So…a Jewish film? Is The Kite Runner a Muslim film. Even better, let’s call Slumdog Millionaire a Muslim film because the Muslim protagonist suffered persecution at the hands of Hindus. We’re on a roll, so how is Life of Pi not a “Hindu” film when clearly it can only be understood from within a Hindu perspective?

But somehow Fireproof is a Christian film because, well, why? Because it’s view of marriage is best appreciated from within a Christian perspective? I’m not defending it from an artistic angle. Films can be good or bad, but why do they have to be “Christian” when other films are not “Hindu” or “Jewish”?

So, what is a “Christian” film and how does the “Left Behind” remake fit in the definition. Christianity Today says it is not in any way a “Christian” film (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/october-web-only/left-behind.html)

3. Could you tell me again your opinion of thinking that it would be good if more deeply rooted Christians were in director’s roles?

Christians should be (and are) encouraged to enter into all arts, so that includes film. But non-believers can handle “Christian” material sensitively. Chariots of Fire was not produced by Christians; neither was A River Runs Through It, but the Christian characters were presented with sensitivity. Noah: Um, not even close. We anticipate the Coen’s and Jolie will sensitively handle the true story of Zamperini’s conversion in Unbroken this Winter, but we’ll see.

4. What’s your opinion on why there has been growth in the Christian film industry?

Again, I need some examples of what you’re seeing as a “Christian film industry.” The folks at Sherwood? Anyone else? From what I see, Christians are very much the subjects of mainstream and indie films and the creators of such films. I really don’t see an aspiration from anyone to create a niche industry. Do you?

5. What does it say to you when more big-time actors choose to play roles in films that are influenced by Christianity? 

I imagine some actors are attracted to the story, some actors are inspired by the characters they’re enlisted to play, and some just need the work.




Good Question: Muslim-Christian Relationships

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I have an occasional (very occasional!) segment called “Good Question!” where I take a stab at questions people send me. Click here for previous “Good Question!” posts. (The link will take you to another blog of mine.) In the last few weeks 3 students in Eileen Flynn’s journalism class have contacted me about various topics they’ve chosen for writing projects. I think the topics would make 3 worthwhile “Good Question!” posts. Names aren’t necessary, so I’ve removed them.

I posted the first one yesterday. In this second one, I’ll put the students questions in italics and my answers in standard font:

1. There are several similarities between Christianity and Islam, namely the belief that there is one God, one holy text, and the belief in Judgment Day. What are your thoughts on the similarities between the two religions?

The two traditions are very similar and significantly different. For example, Christianity and Islam both believe that there is one personal God, but differ on the nature of God. Muslims are Unitarian in their view of God while Christians are Trinitarian. Muslims and Christians (and Jews) are “people of the book,” but Muslims believe that the Old and New Testaments as we have them have been significantly corrupted over the years and that, they believe, is the basis of Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the sacrificial death of Jesus. And adherents to both religions teach a Judgment Day—in fact, they both teach that Jesus will preside over that Judgment Day. But Muslims teach that on that day, among other things, Jesus will come to demolish crosses. Christians teach that such crosses symbolize the agonizing work of Jesus who willingly and intentionally substituted himself for his people so that his people “would not perish but have eternal life” (as one of the most famous Bible passages puts it, John 3:16). A brief, respectful and excellent resource for studying these similarities and differences is Timothy George’s book, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? The Kindle edition is only $6, or you can borrow my copy.

2. For the most part, how would you describe the media’s portrayal of Christianity? Fair? Unfair? Both?

It depends on the media outlet. Probably the best critique of the way the news media handles (and mishandles) faith issues is the blog Get Religion. Contributors are journalists. Most of the perspectives on the blog are from how the media handles Christianity—and particularly conservative Christianity. But scan through the posts and you’ll get a good idea as to why Christians often express frustration over media coverage.

3. And lastly, do you think the similarities between Christianity and Islam could allow for better coexistence in the future?

Christians and Muslims will always differ on some really fundamental issues of who God is and what role Jesus plays in our relationship to God. But when it comes to shaping the general culture and building healthy communities, I do believe that Muslims and Christians—particularly conservative Christians—have many things in common when it comes to the kind of culture we’d like to raise our kids in. I’d hope common cause could be made in that area.




Good Question! How to Relate to Someone Doubting Their Faith

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I have an occasional (very occasional!) segment called “Good Question!” where I take a stab at questions people send me. Click here for previous “Good Question!” posts. (The link will take you to another blog of mine.) In the last few weeks 3 students in Eileen Flynn’s journalism class have contacted me about various topics they’ve chosen for writing projects. I think the topics would make 3 worthwhile “Good Question!” posts. Names aren’t necessary, so I’ve removed them. Here’s one:

Hello Pastor Goodman,

I was directed to you by Eileen Flynn, the former religion reporter from the Statesman, I am a student in her Journalism and Religion class at UT. 

I am writing a story for her class on the new “Openly Secular” campaign and I was wondering if you could briefly explain what you would do if/when you had a member of your congregation come to you and tell you they were doubting or questioning their faith? What do you tell them and what is your normal process for helping them?

My answer:

Thanks for writing, C*. In answer to your question, I would visit with them and ask about their story. In other words, I’d want to hear what they feel is the source of their faith struggles. I might suggest some resources for them to look at on their own—likely Tim Keller’s The Reason for God or C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, or I’d give them a copy of my book, The Anchor Course: Exploring Christianity Together. I’d probably follow up with them in a few weeks after they had worked through some of this material.

The process I use when talking with people who are considering entering the faith is pretty much the same process I use when talking with people who are considering exiting it: Listen to their life accounts, treat their questions with respect, let them know there are solid resources to address their doubts. Friendships/relationships do not change based upon what they do with the faith, though naturally I’m convinced that there’s substantial worth in coming to Jesus and staying with him.

Hope that helps. Let me know if you need to follow up by phone or email.




About Tom

ANCHOR COURSE LOGO Tom Goodman is a graduate of Baylor University and Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, and he holds a doctorate from New Orleans Seminary. He has served as pastor in Louisiana, north Texas, and overseas in Grand Cayman before becoming the pastor of Hillcrest Church in Austin, Texas. Diane and Tom have been married since their days at Baylor University, and they have two sons, Michael and Stephen. Tom enjoys scuba diving, watching the latest Netflix DVD with Diane, and chasing mis-hit golf balls.
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