Friday, January 20, 2006

The End of the Spear Controversy: Cleaning up Other People's Messes

From the moment I heard last week that criticism of The End of the Spear was about to break out, I had an internal sense that something was off-target. My problem was that I could not find the ideas, let alone the words, to articulate this sense. I must say clearly that I do not disagree with anything I have read from the critics of the casting choice and the sparcity of the gospel (Janz, Bauder, Mohler, Challies, and Bixby).

Let there be no mistake, I believe that these decisions of Every Tribe Entertainment (ETE), the production company, were at best incomprehensibly foolish and at worst reprehensible. And I lean toward the latter. Therefore, my complaint here is not with the message of these authors or the stand they have taken. In substance, I'm convinced they are dead right.

What crystallized my thinking on this issue was an e-mail from a friend today discussing an article on the controversy that was sent to us by a mutual friend. (By the way, Josh Scheiderer has been a long-time source of wisdom in my life, and he really ought to be blogging.) Here's the first sentence of his e-mail to me today:
I'm sorry, but if this is the where the "Christian worldview" has taken us (movies about the power of the gospel without overtly declaring the gospel, not in sermonic form but in theatric fashion) then Christians have been duped again.
Bingo. It clicked.

The source of my sense of unease is that Christians are shooting at the wrong target. The root problem is not Steve Saint or ETE. It is in Christians themselves who have unrealistically optimistic expectations for the redemption of culture. You've heard it all before when evangelical leaders have talked about the newest, biggest victory in the battle to inject Christianity into the culture. I don't need to go through a recital of recent blockbuster movies and religious-themed pop music and sports stars who point at the sky or bow for two seconds to pray when they score a touchdown.

What really seems to be ticking Christians off is that the grand evangelical strategy is blowing up in our faces. We've fought so hard to get a seat at the table, and now we find out that the food stinks. Haven't we gone through this song and dance before? Why are all our eyes bugging out and our chins dragging on the floor as if this were some big surprise?

I realize putting this in bold italics will not make a believer out of anyone, but I'm going to do it anyway: WE ARE NOT GOING TO REDEEM CULTURE. The problem is not that we don't like the movie; it's that we care. The problem is not that the production company blew it; it's that we're surprised. The root problem is not even the production company's choices; it's with those who are foisting this cultural mandate on evangelicalism as if it were the grand pinnacle of the Church's mission.

To my fellow dispensationalists (of whatever stripe ye may be—likely even more of one than I): Your arguments are right, and you're not wrong to take it public. I just don't quite get why it's such a big deal. This is somebody else's mess, and it's a big one. Don't spend too much of your valuable time trying to clean it up. They're just going to start another foodfight sooner or later.


joy mccarnan | said...

hm. i wonder where i've heard that before.... =}

"perhaps i was not extremely disappointed in beyond the gates because i do not hold film to real high expectations in the first place, nor regard this medium as an adequate standalone vehicle for the Gospel."

"i admire adherence to truth, and i think that the Gospel should be evident and glorified in all we do, but film is not the written or preached Word and needn’t be judged according to all the standards by which we judge the value of preaching and teaching in the context of the Church. we discussed the drawbacks of genre-switches and certain media when the passion movie came out, and the debate has raged amongst evangelicals lately (sadly) over the narnia movie, as well."

"the written and preached Word is God’s primary ordained medium for the Gospel."

"i can benefit spiritually from something without expecting it to benefit me spiritually to the degree that God’s inspired Word would, or with an equal amount of authority over my faith and practice."

"it’s so with all man-made contrivances. i regard books by Christian authors (living or dead) with relative admiration in light of how they measure up to clear Scriptural doctrine, but i don’t swear by them or expect them to attain unto that kind of perfection ultimately."

at least i can say "minds think alike," even if i can't aspire to great minds like those scheids'.

Keith said...

I'm highly doubtful that films like this one will do anything significant to redeem culture.

However, I just can't buy that apathy is a Christian virtue like you dispensationalists insist.

By all means ignore this film (everyone probably would have were it not for fundy protests), but don't stop working with your children and communities to patiently (over generations) develop good culture.

Of course WE won't redeem culture, but GOD will, using his people.

If we'd quit looking for quick fixes and start patiently working to develop our own artists we wouldn't have to worry about protesting homosexual actors.


joy mccarnan | said...

my "roger that" refers to the unreasonable expectations we place upon the arts to deliver the Gospel in terms of specific/special/salvific revelation instead of general/magnifying/all-to-the-glory-of-God revelation.

i would like to think on and write on your BOLD CAPITALIZED ITALICIZED statement there a bit longer. as a writer, i've actually been mulling that over for several years, wondering why and for whom i am supposed to be writing if there is no hope to, in some general way, magnify God in that endeavor.

[[i'm not sure, Ben, that you were equating apathy with Christian virtue, or that your views represent those of dispensationalists, or that those who share your views to an extent are dispensationalists, but...another time.]]

i don't think we can redeem culture in a salvific, standalone sense--again, the Christian imagination is not God's primary ordained means for evangelism and specific revelation.

but we are all called upon to magnify God, in whatever we do, so i have no problem holding filmmakers to THAT that standard if they are self-proclaimed Christians.

maybe "redeeming" back elements of culture could stand to be defined. there is a clear distinction in my mind of what God can contrive (salvific/specific/standalone revelation) and what God's Creation and creatures can contrive in God's name (glory/declaration of handiwork/magnification). do we not have a responsibility to "redeem" in that more general sense?

Ryan Martin said...
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sally apokedak said...

I saw the movie today and loved it. The best film I've seen in a long time. A really great way to spend two hours and ten bucks. Wow.

I was so moved by the sacrificial love displayed. And the changed lives of the characters.

This movie had what every good story should have. Conflict, action, character growth. It was wonderful.

Ben said...


I have no desire, interest, or responsibility to work with children or communities to develop good culture. I do have desire, interest, and responsibility to work to raise up godly disciples and to nurture missiological churches. Well, at least one church: my own.

I think you know better than to slander what I'm arguing for as apathy.

In case I haven't been clear enough when I've written before, I will say it again: The dispensationalist/fundamentalist tendency to withdraw from culture so that Christian kids and Christian pastors don't even know any unbelievers, let alone witness to them, is a really really really bad thing. It is no better than the emphasis of non-dispensationalists and non-fundamentalists on redeeming culture (which is also a really really really bad thing since it tends to substitute for or distract from genuine gospel evangelism).

Keith said...

I should have used an adjective -- cultural apathy. Pointing out that your position calls for cultural apathy is not slander. I'm sorry I didn't qualify the word apathy originally -- I meant cultural apathy but I did not say so clearly.

It still remains that, once you've been misiological and done your gospel evangelism, the converts must become a community and the community will have children and they all will participate in and/or create culture. You can encourage your church (a community) to participate in and create good culture or you can be culturally apathetic. The second choice will produce bad culture.

Furthermore, working to produce good culture need not substitute or distract from gospel evangelism. If it is done right, it reflects the fruit of evangelism and it enhances and compliments evangelism.

Watching football, having potlucks, going to summer camp and throwing sticks on fires, etc., etc., etc. are all cultural activities that fundies regularly engage in with gusto. But, bring up the arts and all of a sudden we are supposed to focus on evangelism alone.


Keith said...


I'm off to church (my covenant community) to hear the gospel, worship God, and participate in some good culture.


Ben said...


You make some valid points. I think we share a great deal of agreement in that neither one of us would withdraw our presence from secular culture. In that sense I really am not culturally apathetic. We disagree primarily on the cultural mandate of the church and secondarily on the likelihood that our efforts will produce good culture.

Out of curiosity, let's assume that every church in America was genuinely fulfilling it's great commission responsibilities. Would that accomplish the cultural objectives you desire?

keith said...

I think that the locus of our disagreement is found in your question.

You seem to think that the great commission can be fulfilled seperate from culture. I think that it is not really possible to completely seperate these things.
We can distinguish between them for study and analysis but we can't pull them apart in the real world.

So, yes if a church (or all churches) genuinely fulfills its great comission obligations there will be good cultural consequences. However, I also think the good cultural consequences will lead to even more fulfillment of the great comission.


Robert said...

Does anyone remember the film "The Gospel Blimp"? The plot was that Christians in a town decide that the best way to "reach their neighbors" is to buy a blimp to carry Bible verses and "Christian" messages and play Christian music over loudspeakers. I believe it ends up annoying most people. The message of the film was that the best way to reach people with the gospel is TO GO AND TELL THEM. Instead, every few years we have a new fad or movie that is announced with great fanfare as a way to "reach the world for Christ".

Ben said...


So it comes down to a chicken vs. egg=gospel vs. culture question, right? I don't know whether the gospel is the chicken or the egg, but I'm convinced that it MUST come first. Cultural benefits are secondary and derivative, at least in my view. I've enjoyed the conversation and narrowing down the point of contention. Interacting with you has clarified my thinking.


Must have missed that one. Sounds like it hits the nail. Could be too subtle though. People might think that the problem was that blimps and tracts were "old school." Now we've got really cool, hip ways to connect with culture. ;-)

keith said...

Robert and Paleo,

Interesting that you use a film (a b grade "Christian" film no less) to make your point that we should bypass culture when it comes to the gospel.

Hmm, could it be that culture helps communicate things? Or, maybe that culture is essential for communicating things? Nah, couldn't be that.

By the way, the guys using "culture" to mean hipness and coolness are as ridiculous as someone who would drop gospel tracts from a blimp.

Some of us who think we ought to redeem culture mean that we ought to bring culture to maturity under Christ's lordship -- just like we should do with everything.

I also thank you for the interaction.