Friday, May 27, 2005

Jedi Versus Sith

While on vacation in Southern California with my family, we were able to attend a first-day showing of Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith. It was entertaining in the usual George Lucas, explosive-special-effects way, and this episode's plot answered most of the lingering questions fans of the Star Wars double-trilogy had. In the film, Lucas depicts the decline and fall of young Anakin Skywalker, who becomes Darth Vader, the dreaded villain of the original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes IV through VI). His downfall takes him from being perhaps the most powerful Jedi, using the Force for good, to being the still very powerful junior member of a Sith duo, practitioners of the Dark Side.

At one point in the film, Skywalker himself explains the difference between a Jedi and a Sith. The Jedi use their powers for the good of others, while the Sith employ theirs to bring about their selfish ends. While the Jedi and Sith are not in any way Christian figures, they represent the classic difference between good and evil. Those who are good put their own desires aside to work for the betterment of others or for society, while the evil undertake schemes and stratagems to amass for themselves. As Herbert Armstrong put it so simply, this is the way of give versus the way of get—the way of God as opposed to the way of Satan the Devil—the way of outgoing concern against the way of selfishness. It is choosing the Tree of Life in opposition to choosing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Having strayed from the narrow, difficult, selfless path of the Jedi, Anakin takes the broad way that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13). His hubris in thinking he could find a way to forestall death—to save his wife's life—causes him to see events through a narrow prism of selfishness, and forces him to make terrible, escalating, life-altering decisions that place him squarely on the side of evil. By the film's end, he is no longer a man but a monster—and his wife dies anyway.

Literature is full of falls from grace, men making Faustian bargains in exchange for power, wealth, victory, or some other desire of their hearts. Lately, the trend of these stories has been to redeem the fallen hero with a deathbed repentance, much like the ultimate destiny of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, whom his son Luke "saves" in Episode VI. On the other hand, J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings far more realistically sends a similar character, Saruman, to his doom unrepentant. Tolkien, a devout Catholic and Oxford don who was well-read in Christian and Classical literature, had a better perspective on man's heart of darkness (Jeremiah 17:9) than does George Lucas, who leans more toward the mystical Eastern philosophies, which see the human heart as ultimately good.

Nevertheless, we can learn a few true, spiritual truths from Lucas' treatment of Anakin Skywalker, particularly about probably the most dangerous attitude of all: selfish pride or selfish ambition (see Philippians 2:3; James 3:14-16). This is the attitude Satan and Vader share and which blinds them both to their folly. Both start from positions of tremendous power and awesome potential but are not satisfied with what they have—both want more for themselves. Their discontent with their positions drives them to rash acts, though both probably have what they feel are valid justifications for their actions. Satan probably believed he could govern the universe just as well as God—if not better (Isaiah 14:13-14), while Vader's seemingly more complex motives boil down to the same thing: He wants to control everything around him.

Both villains meet with similar fates. The Covering Cherub is thrown down in ignominious defeat (Ezekiel 28:16) and restrained in power (Jude 6), becoming the terrible Satan, enemy of God and man. The Chosen One, prophesied to bring balance to the Force, is also cut down, hideously burned, three of his limbs severed, able to survive only through artificial means. What is more, from that time forward both wage unrelenting war on anything "good."

What lessons can we learn from this film?

  1. The end does not justify the means. Just as good fruit cannot be produced from a bad tree (Matthew 7:18), good outcomes cannot result from evil deeds (see Romans 6:1-2, 12-14, 21, 23).
  2. "Evil company corrupts good habits" (I Corinthians 15:33). Those with whom a person frequently fellowships have great influence on his thoughts, words, and deeds. Running with a bad crowd eventually makes one bad too (Proverbs 1:10-19).
  3. Power corrupts if it is not constrained by even more powerful morals and ethics (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). God is all-powerful, but in His hands it is wielded with justice, mercy, and equity because He lives by the law of love (I John 4:8, 16), which is given to us in the principles of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5; see Matthew 22:36-40).
  4. A person can fall from grace (Matthew 3:12; John 15:6; Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26-31). There is no such thing as eternal security; one's salvation is conditional—if he continues to live God's way of life (see Colossians 1:21-23). No matter what one's potential, he must be constantly vigilant to reject evil and do good, or he will stumble and perhaps fall.
  5. There are no shortcuts to eternal life. There is only one way to immortality, and that is through Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; Romans 5:21; 6:23; I John 5:20). All other ways end in death.

There are doubtless many more lessons that we can learn from this iconic movie. Though we may joke about going over to the Dark Side, for Christians the struggle against it is a reality. As Paul writes in Romans 13:12: "The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast of the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light."

Friday, May 13, 2005

The West's Religion Problem

Church of the Great God is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, and as such, it is considered to be located in America's Bible Belt. Polls like those conducted by George Barna show repeatedly that the most religious Americans live in the South, and we have the churches on just about every corner to prove it. Many of our roads are named something like "Salem Church Road" and "Ebenezer Church Road." Some of our towns boast names like "St. Matthews," "Smyrna," "Chapel Hill," "Corinth," and "Trinity." South Carolina still has blue laws that restrict buying and selling on Sundays to certain items and times. And don't even think about buying an "adult beverage" on Sundays in certain locales!

On a broader level, the United States is considered by the rest of the world to be a religious nation. Church attendance across America dwarfs that in other Western, industrialized nations. Most of our citizens consider the U.S. to be a "Christian nation," and point out as evidence our founding documents, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Congressional chaplains, the Ten Commandments on the doors of the Supreme Court, and many other biblical or religious inscriptions, ceremonies, and traditions. Even the current administration's foreign policy is thought by many to be Fundamentalist Christian!

Even more broadly, religion played a key role in the development of Western civilization. Along with Classical Greek and Roman ideas, Judeo-Christian values and the unifying presence of the Catholic Church (and later the Protestant churches) molded the West's cultures, philosophies, sciences, governments, and traditions into the dominant force on earth. Like a religion itself, Western thought and culture has been exported worldwide by colonizing and trading nations, absorbing or at least changing its rivals in many perhaps irreversible ways.

Nevertheless, the West presently has a deep problem with religion. Some might describe it as a love-hate relationship, in that the powers that be—as well as the sheep that follow them—admire religion for its ability to unite, inspire, and motivate, but despise it for its perennial tendency to demand morality, equity, and accountability. In other words, as secular as the West has become, it sees religion as useful, but on its own terms. Because of this, in the present climate, religion as a force for encouraging moral conduct is practically powerless.

In his May 11, 2005, editorial titled "America's Basic Problem Is a Pastor Problem," Dr. Chuck Baldwin, pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida, makes a similar point. Holding up biblical heroes of faith as well as intrepid churchmen of history as examples, he complains that most church pastors in the U.S. are more interested in position and pay than in boldly proclaiming the truth of God. He is convinced that, if America is to turn from its present humanistic hedonism, godly leadership will have to return to its pulpits. Such a proposition is hard to disagree with.

There are many signs that churches in America and Western Europe are in a sad state of repair. The Catholic Church in America has the reputation of being a bastion of rebellion and liberal theology. For instance, American Catholic women are more likely to get an abortion than the national average, despite the fact that the Catholic Church itself is staunchly pro-life. American Catholics' visible angst over the election of conservative Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI only underlines its wayward inclination.

Mainline Protestant churches are little better, if not worse. For example, the Anglican/Episcopal churches in both Britain and America are in steep decline in terms of attendance and new converts. They are leading proponents of many liberal issues, acceptance of homosexuality being the most noteworthy. Their most outspoken theologians say and write the most controversial things, questioning the deity of Christ, the resurrection, Jesus' miracles, and the general authority of Scripture at just about every turn. In fact, what is truly Christian about them is disintegrating at an astounding rate!

Astoundingly, many Fundamentalist churches are little better. While they generally acknowledge the veracity and authority of the Bible—and for the most part preach traditional Christian doctrines—a growing majority of them are more interested in becoming mega-churches rather than forces for positive societal change. A quick look at a list of "pastoral helps" and "church growth" literature provides dozens of reasons for understanding that today's churches are businesses that must grow or die. Too many pastors study business models for ideas about church growth rather than biblical models for ideas about Christian growth.

The problem, then, is not that religion is absent from modern life but that it is feeble, emasculated, and distracted. There are plenty of churches, but they have little impact on their congregants. By compromising with God's Word, they have abdicated their position as the moral conscience of society. Even if they desired to "Cry aloud, [and] spare not" (Isaiah 58:1), who would listen? How much credibility do they have left after allowing decades of self-indulgence to transpire with hardly a challenge? The Bible tells us, "A righteous man who falters before the wicked is like a murky spring and a polluted well" (Proverbs 25:26).

A primary but long-term solution to the West's religion problem is righteousness in its ministers, who stand up to ungodliness and who preach righteousness to their congregations. As Paul urges Timothy: "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. . . . But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (II Timothy 4:2, 5). It does not need to be a mass-movement, backed by millions of dollars or accompanied by a slick marketing campaign. All it takes is a growing number of ministers who quietly and consistently uphold God's standards of righteousness within their congregations. God will supply the rest.

"Then [Jesus] said to His disciples, 'The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest'" (Matthew 9:37-38).

Friday, May 6, 2005

Eradicating Humanity

When I am not editing someone else's writing or writing something of my own, I am often found reading. It is something I have been doing with regularity since I plowed through a children's version of The Ugly Duckling when I was five years old. Seeing that I took to reading like, well, a duck—make that a swan—to water, my parents encouraged it with access to lots of books, and I am still in the habit.

My current fare is C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, a skinny volume whose main theme is, according to the back cover, "how to best teach our children—and ourselves—not merely reading and writing, but also a sense of morality." The late Mr. Lewis was certainly qualified to discuss such a subject, since as a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at both Oxford and Cambridge universities, he was involved in education all his life. The book is actually a transcript of a series of lectures he gave—obviously to a highly educated audience, as his prose is liberally salted with references to Classical literature and phrases in foreign tongues (Latin predominating). In a similar vein, his arguments are quite intellectual and logical in that Oxford don sort of way. Because of this, I have had to re-read many sections, many paragraphs, and many sentences two and three times to catch his drift. This is not a book for the faint of heart. Though it runs only 109 pages, it is not a quick read.

Beyond the main theme of education, however, lies a concept with which most Christians should be familiar, which is found in the title, The Abolition of Man. Lewis restricts his comments to the methods by which modern educators, whom he calls "Conditioners," are attempting to wean the younger generation away from adherence to natural law. In other words, modern education's premise, he posits, is to remove from humanity what makes it essentially human—its universal values. He argues that the products of today's educational system are "Men Without Chests," the title of his first chapter; the education-elite are ripping the heart out of mankind by mass-producing essentially valueless graduates. Their philosophy has come to be known as relativism or postmodernism, which is commonly understood to mean "there are no absolute truths."

Because he is speaking to a secular audience, Lewis does not take his argument the further step that a thinking Christian would. Lewis was a deeply religious man, and he probably contemplated the spiritual ramifications of his thesis in his private thoughts. Nevertheless, he does not mention the malevolent influence behind this valueless philosophy, Satan the Devil. Such an excursion into the realm of "the ruler of this world" (John 14:30) would not have been well-received by his audience. We, however, must take his presence, his power, and his participation in the affairs of humankind seriously.

What is the primary aim of "the prince of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2)? The abolition of man! Ever since God created the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden, Satan has been interested in nothing else but the eradication of humanity from his "proper domain" (Jude 6). He sees mankind, made after the God-kind (Genesis 1:26-27) with the potential of being born again into the God Family (John 3:3-8; Revelation 14:1-5; 20:4-6; etc.), as interlopers, squatters, and vagrants in his realm. He is painfully aware that God intends humanity to replace him and his demons as rulers of this planet, and he is fighting like a cornered rat to retain his place and power. Though he has already been personally defeated by Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:14), he still believes he can win or at least frustrate and perhaps ruin God's plan by deceiving, attacking, destroying, and killing as many human beings as he can (I Peter 5:8). He especially desires to derail and exterminate as many of God's begotten children as he can (Revelation 12:17).

Most people would probably laugh at such a notion, for it is not popular to believe in a being of ultimate evil like Satan the Devil. This is a very skeptical world. If people cannot see it, they do not believe it—and Satan has done a good job of deceiving the whole world into believing that he does not exist (Revelation 12:9). Now he can hide in plain sight and go virtually unnoticed. Mankind blithely ascribes his malicious works to "natural causes," "unfortunate accidents," "coincidences," "delusions," "mental illnesses," "misunderstandings," even "progress." Thus, the valueless educational methods Mr. Lewis decries are considered by the intelligentsia to be an evolutionary step forward for mankind—while the truth is that Satan has merely handed Western civilization a time bomb calibrated to render millions of people spiritually deaf to God's call.

The serpent is more subtle than any beast of the field (Genesis 3:1), and Adam and Eve's descendants are proving to be just as gullible and sinful as their first parents—perhaps more so in our degenerate age. It is interesting that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes were opened (verse 7), but in reality, now they had their eyes wide shut. Paul writes, ". . . whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them" (II Corinthians 4:4).

It is only when we are called by God and our eyes opened by His Holy Spirit that we can see what is really going on in the world (II Corinthians 3:16). We are in a life-and-death struggle "against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). We have to "put on the whole armor of God, that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil" (verse 11). In this battle, we have to recognize the real enemy and his stratagems and to "resist him, steadfast in the faith" (I Peter 5:9).

No worries. It is just the fate of humanity on the line.